Merritt with Mom, December 2000

One of many feathery trip reports available on

All contents © 2000 Steve Semanchuk and Alice Semanchuk.


A photo of strange concrete reef building materials
Either reef building materials or alien space pods on St. Augustine

Bones already cold and snow in the forecast, my Mom cancels her flight to Orlando and takes the Titusville Shuttle with Liz and I in the trusty Honda Civic hatchback. The Honda is packed window to window and a pair of sea kayaks on top as we leave at noon on the 2nd of December in flurries and drive in a light rain until Jacksonville, Florida. Just beyond, in St. Augustine, we stop for the night and wake up to 52 degrees, almost swimming weather in our North Carolina mountains. Mom goes to church to pray for the people still enduring the cold we left behind while Liz and I visit the lighthouse on St. Augustine beach. With the approval of no less than 7 cats, we snap a few shots and climb the 4 zillion steps and pretend to be hardly winded at all at the top. Picked up Mom and drove back to the lighthouse for some more history lessons.

A photo of the St. Augustine lighthouse

Finding a place to park near the downtown area (lots of room near the fort), we take a slow walk, foccacia lunch included, down St. George Alley where tourists check out the shops and eateries and street musicians check out the tourists. By afternoon, we're southbound on A1A, the beach highway. At Matanza's inlet, we find a nature trail to stretch our legs again. The path took us through pawpaws and magnolias, then ended at the bay where Mom saw her first wood storks. Completing the peaceful picture, we saw dolphins breaking the sparkling water and groups of white ibis as well.

Further south, we pass through Daytona then to the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive at Merrit Island NWR. It was almost dusk but we managed to see a number of species of wading birds and ducks. Since it was getting cooler and the wind was increasing, we didn't stick around for the last ray of sunset but drove on into Titusville, 20 minutes away to our motel, the Indian River B&B. Our dinner was eaten at Dixie Crossroads, where we all tasted rock shrimp for the first time and gawked at the murals inside and out.


Up for breakfast, our mouths didn't exactly begin watering as we surveyed the packaged breakfast laid out by our red-haired, Cuban hostess. Certainly, the bed half of the B&B was the better part of the deal. The morning was spent birding at the refuge. As we left for town to get some lunch, we passed a lagoon where a bald eagle, gliding low overhead, startled a flock of avocets. Adjacent to Dixie Crossroads on RT. 406 (Garden Street) is Bagel World, sounding like some discount mega-franchise but instead, serving fresh, delicious bagels, sandwiches and local orange juice. Stomachs fortified, we returned to Merrit Island and its Visitor's Center. Mom got her first look at armadillos, running unusually quickly through the palmetto scrub and under the boardwalk that formed the Center's nature walk. We then checked out our first tip on finding Florida Scrub Jays on the Oak Hammock Trail but saw almost no birds stirring there. From there, going further east, we drove north on Bio Lab Road, which skirts the west shoreline of south Mosquito Lagoon (it's true!). This was a slightly washboarded, hard sand road that passed through brushy areas that harbored many species of smaller birds, especially warblers.

We finished that drive just in time to watch the sun set from Blackpoint Drive. Still cool and breezy, we have seen very few bugs. After cleaning up at our motel, we ate some Italian food and played gin rummy with the heat on. While I got lessons on cards, we made plans to be eating bagels at 7am.


We call 7:30 close enough and eat more bagels on the way to the refuge. A few hours of birding (white pelicans by the dozen) and then a few mosquitoes on a trail we saw suddenly no point in following further. Liz and I had plans to do some paddling today and Mom was ready for a break in the walking. We dropped her off at the motel and headed for the Banana River at a put-in close to the Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, 45 minutes south of Titusville. Unfortunately, the breezy conditions were in full sail here and made the river look too much like all work and no fun. Though it meant more driving, we headed back north to Indian River near the NWR and put in on the south side of the Haulover Canal. This canal separates Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River and it used heavily by boat traffic. It is a manatee zone, meaning boats are supposed to go at a no-wake speed. Most of the power boaters we saw were obviously illiterate or just jerks.

What fun it was gliding effortlessly with the wind and current out into the broad expanse of the river! We understood the flip side of that coin however and after 90 minutes of enjoying the dolphins and birds, we turned our boats into the waves and paddled slowly but steadily back to the canal where we paddled frantically yet moved almost imperceptibly. It was only a matter of a hundred years or so and we were back in the quiet pool at the ramp. Still cool but bright.

Back at the B&B, Mom gets a call from a friend she was to meet later in the week. Jane is sick and has to cancel their plans. We discuss this new information at the Peking Wok, with the super-efficient waitresses and oysters on the half-shell. While pouring my tea, a fortune cookie slip mysteriously appears in my cup and on fishing it out, Mom reads the inscription - "You have made a change for the better". In the evening, we uncork a bottle of Dark Valley wine (blackberry) to celebrate this change.

A local TV news flash alerts us to a Saturn 2 rocket launch scheduled for that evening from nearby Cape Canaveral but it gets delayed so much, Mom gives up and goes to bed. Finally, from the motel parking lot, Liz and I see the 9:47 launch from about 15 miles away. It appeared mostly as a very bright and large light slowly moving up and diminishing until, near the end, it was indistinguishable from a star. Not the Space Shuttle but it'd have to do.


Up at 6:30 and off in short time to the Sunshine Bakery, also on Garden Street. Loaded up with energy muffins, cinnamon buns, coffee and tea, we're off to the NWR to an area adjacent to Rt. 3, specifically, a power line right-of-way in known scrub jay territory. Our first walk of the day does not produce the elusive jay but we do see a group (herd?) of wild pigs including 4 piglets. They are said to be protective of those young ones and we avoided going near them. Lots of catbirds and Australian pines, which, along with Brazilian pepper trees, are making a mess of the local natural landscape.

Trying something different, we drive to Cape Canaveral National Seashore, a few miles east and walk onto Playalinda Beach. Tilted at a 10 or 15 degree slope, it is a short beach with heavy surf, nothing we'd like to put a kayak into without preparation and first aid standing by. Ruddy turnstones and black-bellied plovers hold our interest and Liz feeds the gulls (laughing, ring-billed and herring) some three day old corn bread and shrimp. Illegal, we found out later, but we think they survived.

Cool at first, by 9:30 it is warming fast. One more stop near the entrance kiosk for a quick scrub jay hunt and there are hundreds swallows and warblers but no jays. At one of our favorite lagoons on Rt. 406, we stop to identify some of the ducks and come up with northern pintails, hooded mergansers, avocets and blue-winged teals. There are kingfishers and ospreys in just about every square yard of Merrit Island.

We gather some phone numbers at the motel and Liz spends 45 minutes with airline agents rescheduling, canceling and punching buttons. That done, we load up the yaks again and find a quieter spot, again on the Indian River. We paddle north along the shoreline of Merrit Island, watching ospreys pull mullet out of the shallow waters and, two fun hours later, are back at the takeout. With Mom, we spend the evening on Blackpoint Drive, watching the spoonbills glow in the evening sun. Dinner was a vegetarian meal at a local steak house, unsurprisingly unmemorable. We packed our bags afterwards for the next day's departure.

A photo of Mom on Blackpoint Wildlife Drive
Mom on Blackpoint Wildlife Drive


Indulging ourselves, we bought breakfast at both the bakery and Bagel World then found one last area to walk in the morning chill and hope for a scrub jay. Lots of warblers, kinglets, widgeons and coots, one lone hog and even a blue jay but no scrub jays. Stopped and got a good look at a scruffy great horned owl on the roadside wires as we headed for a stop at the visitor's center. Mom exchanged a T-shirt while Liz and I watched a flock of black vultures playing tug-of-war with a flattened armadillo.

A stop at the manatee observation deck just north of the Haulover Canal on Rt. 3 produced no manatees so we left slowly, trying one last time to spy a scrub jay in the nearby orange trees. We pass a deer or two in the next few miles before we get to the New Smyrna Beach turnoff for Cape Canaveral Visitor's Center and soon we have a map showing a canoe trail around Shipyard Island, opposite Ramp #1. Mom agrees to guard the Honda while Liz and I paddle in a light breeze across Mosquito Lagoon to the trailhead. Within ten minutes, on the lee side of the island, we've seen 6 raccoons at close range. Despite the warmish temperatures (60?) and the proximity to the island, we were not bothered by bugs at all. We were seeing Florida at its best. The water was very shallow and clear as were the numbers of the marked trail until about two-thirds of the way through, we were not able to find the correct path and ended up poling through or wading over a few sandbars.

Joining forces with some passing canoeists, we get over one last oyster bed and are soon paddling past the campsite at the north end. Rounding the tip of the island, we pass a small flock of white scooters and then the wind is with us and we make quick time back to the boat ramp for a 2 hour and 15 minute trip.

In the car again, we drive a few miles south to Castle Windy Trail, a short walk through scrub oak woods to the lagoon. We see another pair of armadillos, native sour orange trees, an ovenbird and get our legs stretched before our upcoming ride to Jacksonville. Liz and I take a peek at the ocean before we leave Apollo Beach and by 3:30, Liz is wheeling us along I-95. Two hours later, we run into rush hour on I-295 around Jacksonville, wade through it and find a Day's Inn just after we rejoin I-95. Luck is with us and we get the manager's special. Our first try for the evening meal at the local Denny's gets nowhere and we shift gears after waiting 15 minutes for water. The only other option close at hand is Waffle House where we are given the red carpet treatment. The evening rummy game lasts until ten and Steve graciously allows the ladies to dominate.


Photo of Steve and Mom walking on Cumberland Island

In no big rush, it's coffee and donuts at the motel before driving 40 minutes to St. Mary's, Georgia, for a real breakfast across from the Park Service office on the waterfront. We register for a ferry ride to Cumberland Island, collect lunch in various forms and leave for the island at 11:45. A nice warm day, we enjoy a leisurely pace walking to the ruins, not bothered by bugs, as is often the case here. A few wild horses and armadillos but not the best birding we've had on Cumberland. We all got startled by a pileated woodpecker rapping sharply over our heads before we knew he (she) was there. Liz and I make a quick walk to the beach and get to see some oyster catchers just before we walk back and catch the return boat ride at 4:45. Dinner was at Seagle's, also across from the park office, a tasty way to depart a picturesque town. On the road for 90 minutes to a Day's Inn southwest of Savannah. Lots of road construction, adding more lanes, and clouds covered up a gibbous moon.

Our arrival was too late for Steve's Revenge, a card game only I know the rules to. Our hasty choice for a motel came to light when we heard the first train go by the room. Then, the ice machine went on just outside just as we discovered the light over the sink didn't work and we had no pressure in the cold water tap. It was the beds that mattered and they were just fine.

A photo of a park ranger office on Cumberland Island
The ranger office on the south end of Cumberland Island


In the morning, we brave the traffic and head into the depths of Savannah, mostly in a circular motion, until the sought-after bagel shop presents itself. Properly equipped with coffee, tea and bagels, we drive on Rt. 17 into South Carolina and the Savannah NWR at Rt. 17 and 170. There is a wildlife drive here also, just as in Merrit Island NWR, and many miles of trails. We did our best to remember our trip back to the mountains that afternoon but it was still many birds and more hours than we thought later before we emerged back on Rt. 17. It was cool and cloudy but the forecasted rain didn't appear until mid-state and then, only lightly. By 5 pm we dropped Mom off in Hendersonville and at 6, we were home again.


Some of the birds that were unusual for us to see:

Marsh Hawk Pied Bill Grebe
Savannah Sparrow Common Gallinule
Hooded Merganser Eastern Meadowlark
Glossy Ibis American Avocet
Yellow Throat Warbler Bald Eagle
Loggerhead Shrike Black and White Warbler
Woodstork Palm Warbler
Roseate Spoonbill White pelicans
Northern Pintail Blue Winged Teal
American Widgeon Killdeer
Purple Gallinule Common Snipe
Northern Shoveler Tree Swallows
Whimbrel Lesser Yellowlegs
White Scooters Ovenbird

This list is by no means all inclusive. We saw many water and wading birds we have seen often before as well as many other songbirds that drove us crazy in the identification (or failure of) process.