Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge is a top birding destination in Florida with over 340 species of birds that visit or reside on its over 140,000 acres. In fact, Merritt Island’s diverse habitat ranges from marshes, to coastal dunes to hardwood hammocks creating a great habitat for wintering birds. In fact, discovering the best places for bird photography at Merritt Island is the key to getting great bird images.
To help photographers capture beautiful bird photos at Merritt Island, I have written this “Best Places for Bird Photography at Merritt Island” post. As a Florida native, I have been to Merritt Island more times than I can remember and have become familiar with the best places to photograph birds there.
Of course, as with all wildlife, everything is subject to change. So think of this post as a guide to bird photography at Merritt Island but always look out for birds in unexpected places.
Where is Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge?
The Refuge is located on Florida’s Central East Coast about 30 minutes south of Daytona Beach at exit 220 on I 95 at State Road 406 . The Refuge is adjacent to Canaveral National Seashore and Kennedy Space Center. It is roughly a 15 minute drive from the Interstate.
Tips for Visiting Merritt Island
Black Point Drive– Sunrise to Sunset
Biolab Road– Sunrise to Sunset – Be sure to check this as hours and conditions on this road change often.
Visitor Center – Tuesday through Saturday 8-4.
Closures: Merritt Island will temporarily close for rocket launches of Artemis and possibly other rockets so be sure to check the Rocket Launch Schedule as well as Merritt Island’s Facebook page for any closures. Also, portions of the Refuge may be closed at times for repairs. These closures should be posted on both the Refuge’s Facebook page and possibly the Refuge’s Website. At times they do not post the closures until early the day of a closure so be sure to also check the morning of any visit.
Day Pass for Black Point Drive and Biolab Road: $10 ( Free for Interagency Park Pass Holders)
One restroom located at the Cruickshank Trail Head on Black Point Drive and a restroom at the Visitor Center and one portalet at Biolab Road.
Biking is no longer permitted on Black Point Drive. For those interested in biking, consider Biolab and L Pond Roads.
Merritt Island Bird Photography Hotspots
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a large refuge and home to a large number of bird species. The following areas are the top birdings locations for bird photographers:
To learn more about each area click on the following map and filter views by interest such as boat launch site: Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge Map. To view recent sightings of birds at the Refuge, please check out: Merritt Island Birding List and eBirds Birding Hotspots.
Best Times to Photograph Birds at Merritt Island
Bird Photography as a rule is always better in the early morning and late afternoon hours. During these times, the light is soft and more birds are in ponds, busy feeding, and flying in or out of an area. However, I have also been there on partly cloudy days when bird photography was great all day.
Best Time of Year – The peak birding season begins in October and lasts through March. However, don’t overlook visiting the refuge during other months. One of my best photography days at Merritt Island was on a hot overcast day in June when I continually photographed Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets.
So now let’s look at the most likely locations in Merritt Island to find a variety of bird species by exploring each of the above 4 birding hotspots, one at a time.
About Black Point Wildlife Drive
Black Point Wildlife Drive is a 7.7 mile one way scenic drive through a variety of ponds on a hard packed gravel road suitable for all vehicles. As of the writing of this post, I believe biking is prohibited on this drive but please check with the Visitor Center to confirm this as I have had conflicting answers.
Black Point Drive is the most popular scenic drive at Merritt Island so expect a lot of company on this drive except in the early morning hours.
For those who only have a few hours to spend at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, I recommend driving Black Point Drive early in the morning hours. Just be aware that some birding spots are better for photography in the afternoon light.
Visitors who have a day to spend at Merritt Island, should drive Black Point Drive both in the morning and again in the later afternoon hours. By the way, later in this post, I offer another popular wildlife photography location that should keep you busy during that awful midday light.
Black Point Drive Best Bird Spots
Black Point Drive has 12 numbered stops along with many other areas to pull off and photograph. Just please use a pull over when you stop so that you do not block the flow of traffic.
As you read this post, it may be helpful if you pull up Black Point Drive on Google Earth.
Now let’s find out where the birds hang out since this point in titled “Best Places for Bird Photography at Merritt Island.”
Black Point Drive Entrance
My first recommended stop for bird photography at Merritt Island is actually not on the drive itself but just as you enter the drive. Upon turning into Black Point Drive there is a creek to your left which can be a great place to photograph snowy egrets, great egrets and other birds. However, as of this writing, the number of birds in this area are smaller due to low water levels.
Early morning hours are the best time to photograph birds in this location.
After photographing birds here, continue into the refuge paying attention to the areas on the right side of the drive. It is not until you approach the sign for Stop 2 that bird sighting increase on the left side of the road. Now you may see more snowy egrets, great egrets, tricolored herons, along with possibly a reddish egret, green heron or great blue heron.
Also be sure to look for kingfishers perched in the shrubs here as they are drawn to the shallower waters of this area. Although roseate spoonbills may frequent these first canals, I typically find them between Stop 4 and the restrooms and again around Stop 10.
First Big Pond on Left
After driving along the small canals (creeks) there will be a couple large ponds to the left. These ponds can be a great place to photograph a variety of birds including reddish egrets in the morning hours. In fact, this national award winning image was taken in the first of these two ponds.
Black Point Drive Stop 3
Stop 3 on Black Point Wildlife Drive is the beginning of larger ponds on both sides of the road. It is very common in winter to see a large quantities of waterfowl in these ponds, especially the pond to the right which is best photographed in the afternoon light.
The wintering ducks here tend to be very skittish and difficult to photograph. Wading birds, however, can keep you entertained while you wait for the wary ducks to come closer.
Tip: To capture the skittish ducks at Stop 3 and other locations off Black Point Drive, I have found it helpful to sit still in a chair with the camera ready for action. Usually the ducks will come in closer after a short period of time. Using your car as a blind may or may not work depending on where you can park so always bring a chair.
Wild Bird Trail
Wild Bird Trail located 2 miles from the refuge entrance at Stop 4 is next on my list although I struggled with including this location. The Wild Bird Trail includes an easy walking path with a canal on one side and a pond on the other side along with 2 observation decks.
For bird photography I have found the last observation deck, at times, to be a good location for photographing waterfowl.
After leaving the Wild Bird Trail, the likelihood of finding Roseate Spoonbills on the drive increases especially once you arrive at Black Point Drive Stop 8 on the tour map.
Black Point Drive Stops 6-8
Here the ponds on the left are good for morning photography while the ponds on the right are best photographed in the afternoon light. Stop 8 on Black Point Drive is one of my favorite spots to photograph both waterfowl and wading birds, especially roseate spoonbills.
Here are just a few of the many images of spoonbills I have captures over the years from this location.
Now it is time to move to the restrooms parking lot and go for a walk
Restrooms & Cruickshank Trail
A short distance from Stop 8 at I think Stop 9, are the restrooms and the beginning of the 5 mile Cruickshank Loop Trail.
If you are not up to a 5 mile hike, don’t worry. Just walking across the road from the restroom parking lot and look into the mangroves and you will likely spot green herons, great blue herons, anhingas and sometime spoonbills.
I do recommend spending some time here and at least walking the Cruickshank Trail that heads straight ahead for a short distance.
After you leave the restroom area turn left and continue the drive.
Drive slowly and look at the first bodies of water to your left. Regardless of the bird presence in the rest of the refuge, I have always found birds worth photographing in this location including green herons.
As you continue on the drive, there will be large bodies of water to the right with a variety of waterfowl and wading birds. This is one of the first locations on the drive where I usually encounter Black Neck Stilts close enough to photograph. However lighting is tricky in this area as the road continuously curves. With that in mind, I do find afternoons better but still challenging.
Bonus tip– Use a trip planning app such as Photopills to check the light on this area and try to time a photography stop for this location to coincide with the best possible light. However if that is not possible, keep driving as Black Neck Stilts also hang out to your left a little further down the road by Stop 11. By the way, if you are interested in learning about the apps I use, please read: Photography Planning Apps.
Black Point Drive Stop 10
The terrain now changes a bit on the right with more of a creek or stream with mangrove bushes that runs beside the road instead of the larger ponds.. In this area, you may likely find both alligators, great blue herons, great ergets and green herons. Get out with the camera and take a short walk for the best chances to find these find these hidden birds
Black Point Drive Stops 11
The next designated stop at Merritt Island is Stop 11 and is almost always good on the left hand side of the road for bird photography. Here, Willets, Black Neck Stilts, Snowy Egrets and White Egrets are usually close in making them easy to photograph.
Be sure to also check the canal on the other side of the road as you never know what you may find.
Between Stop 11 and 12, looking to your right, you may see bald eagles on a nest. When you see people with binoculars looking up, you are in the right spot. For us nature photographers, however, the nest is too far away for any decent photos.
As you come close to the end of the drive there will be a road to your left called L Pond Road. Take it as there is little left to see on Black Point Drive.
L Pond Road
L Pond Road is a 5 mile road that comes off Black Point Drive and follows the Indian River before finally ending at Courtenay Parkway. As you enter off Black Point Drive you will drive a very short distance before coming to the end of the drivable portion of the road where there will be a few places to park a car. From here, you can bike or hike the remainder of the road or put a kayak in and explore the refuge from the water.
Here is a link to a map of L Pond Road. Regretfully all my images from the road were lost due to a dumb mistake on my part.
For those who travel with your bikes, I encourage you to take the time to bike at least a couple miles of this road as the scenery is very nice. Now it’s time to head to one of my favorite drives at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, Biolab Road.
About Biolab Road
Biolab Road runs primarily north and south with two entrances. The main entrance is the northern entrance off Courtenay Parkway which happens to be the beginning of the one way 6 mile dirt road drive. The second entrance, off Highway 202, is south of the Visitor Center on Beach Avenue. This entrance is only a very short two lane road before you must turn around and head back to the Biolab Road entrance.
To reach Biolab Road from Black Point Drive, turn left onto Max Brewer Parkway then turn left on Courtenay Parkway. Biolab Road will be on your right. However just before the turn is Scrub Ridge Trail which is a mile loop trail through prime habitat for Florida Scrub Jays. Here I found that if you stand still in certain spots on the trail, the jays will come close to you. After photographing the Florida Scrub Jays if they show up, continue on to Biolab Road.
Biolab Road is usually drivable by any vehicle but does have areas that may contain major ruts. Due to its proximity to the river, it tends to experience significant storm damage at times. It’s a good idea to always check the road conditions at the Visitor Center before entering the drive.
Below is a google map of the northern entrance to Biolab Road.
Biolab Road Bird Photography Tips
Biolab Road is definitely one of the better places for bird photography at Merritt Island with the exception of Black Point Drive. In fact, it can be better at times and it certainly has less traffic.
The drive is especially interesting since it runs adjacent to the Indian River which is a 125 mile brackish lagoon. By the way the Indian River is one of three lagoons that make up the Indian River Lagoon system in Florida which you can learn more about at: Indian River Lagoon.
On Biolab Drive, I have seen almost every bird I have seen on Black Point Drive but also hawks, ospreys, bittern, brown pelicans and while pelicans.
Unlike Black Point Drive, it has no marking for major stops. Therefore the best I can do in this post is give you general locations of places to spot birds.
Boat Launch and First 1/4 Mile of Biolab Road
The shores around the boat launch at the main Biolab Road entrance can be a great place to see spoonbills.
After entering the one way portion of the drive, look to your right and in the first creeks and ponds, it is common to see snowy egrets along with other wading birds. On the left, will be the Indian River where spoonbills, pelicans and reddish egret tend to fish.
Don’t forget to look up as osprey love to perch on the tree tops here.
As you drive, there will be a number of small pull off areas by the water. These are worth stopping at as not all birds by the shore can be seen from road. Plus if you are in need of a landscape shot, these areas can be very photogenic in the right light.
The drive all the way to the exit is filled with a variety of bird and other wildlife such as alligators that will keep your camera busy for hours. You never know what may be hiding in the mangrove bushes either.
As you reach the end of Biolab Road, the ponds on the west side of the road are my favorite place to photograph birds, especially snowy and great egrets.
Once you exit Biolab Road, make a left turn on Beach Road and you will come to a series of numbered ponds called Vistas that are also good places to find a variety of birds. If my memory is correct, Vista’s 4 though 8 are the best stops. After you pass the last Vista, consider driving the short distance to the Canaveral National Seashore beach accesses for views of the Atlantic Ocean and shorebirds.
Now you can around and head back toward the Visitor Center for more birding photography.
Best Times to Drive Biolab Road
From Biolab Road – Since this road is now one way, I recommend driving in the the later afternoon hours. If you drive the road in the morning, you will be driving into the sun making it a bit more difficult to spot wildlife without constantly stopping and looking backward.
From Beach Road Entrance – Entering Biolab Road from this entrance, you will be limited to driving only a short distance, however, the two lane portion does end at a stop that is great for birdings in the morning hours. So I do recommend making this short drive in the mornings and also walking a very short distance on the one way road to some of the roads best birding spots.
Visitor Center at Merritt Island
The Visitor Center at Merritt Island is located off Playalinda Beach Road and is a great place to find out about the latest bird sightings as well as stretch your legs. There is a short 1/4 walk on a boardwalk over ponds with a couple observation decks. On this walk I have seen a number of birds including nesting bald eagles while at other times, I have not seen a bird at all. It is still worth the stop just for tips on recent bird sightings and so you can determine the current best places for bird photography at Merritt Island.
Other Wildlife Photography at Merritt Island
Okay, it is now midday and the birds are gone and I have recommended you spend the entire day at the Refuge. So to keep you entertained while you are waiting for the golden afternoon light, head north on Courtenay Parkway to the Haulover Canal and spend time with the Manatees. In fact there is even a Manatee Observation Deck there.
Haulover Canal Manatees
This is a cool area so be sure to explore the boat ramps as well as the Manatee Observation Deck for manatees and other birds. Interesting fact- about 1/3 of all manatees will pass through this area at some time during their travels.
If you finish visiting all the above areas and still have time to kill, consider driving Beach Avenue all the way to Playalinda Beach for a little coastal beauty. The beach is beautiful, there are many parking areas, some with restrooms, and shorebirds waiting to be photographed.
Merritt Island Places to Eat Close By
In restaurant dining: The tourist favorite place to experience Florida seafood, in particular rock shrimp, along with sugar coated hushpuppies is Dixie Crossroads Seafood . The food is good, not great, but worth a try.
Grab to Go: On Highway 406 before you cross the bridge to the refuge, there are a number of fast food restaurants including a McDonalds and Papa John’s Pizza and also a Publix Grocery store.
What to Bring to Merritt Island
Camera- Bring the best camera you own
Memory Cards- Bring plenty of memory cards, more than you think you need.
Extra Battery for Camera
Binoculars – Don’t leave home without a great pair of binoculars as they will get put to use. One of my favorite binoculars are Vortex Optics Diamondback Binoculars.
Hat- Be sure you bring a good hat that will protect your face from Florida’s harsh sun. The Columbia Unisex Fishing Hat is a great option.
Cooler and Water- There is only water and snacks at the Visitor Center at Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. I highly recommend bringing a small cooler for water and food to save you miles of travel. A great small cooler is the Titan Deep Freeze.
Final Thoughts on Best Places for Bird Photography at Merritt Island
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an amazing place to see mass quantities of waterfowl in the winter months along with a large number of wading birds and other wildlife. In addition to the wildlife, Merritt Island is also home to beautiful landscapes. This is a place where photographers can easily spend a number of days photographing the refuge.
I should note that viewing birds and creating great bird images are very different. Birds are easy to see at Merritt Island but not always easy to photograph which is why it is so important to know where to be at the right time. I hope this post will help you accomplish that and you have a successful birding trip to Merritt Island.
Note:This post will help get you to the best birdings hotspots in Merritt Island but creating great birds photos requires the right gear and technical abilities, a topic beyond the scope of this post.
To read about more Florida Birding Hotspots, be sure to read: “A Heron Love Story” and don’t forget to check out my bird portfolio. As always, thanks for joining me on another Photo Road Trip Adventure.