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Birding Brevard: The "Pull" of Hunters Over Birders
By Dave Freeland
Every year around this time, I'm painfully reminded that enjoying life as a birder has its ups and its downs. If you like Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge -- and I certainly do -- spending a day touring my usual route provides me with roughly one-third of what I think are the day's total bird opportunities. That's because several main roads on a bird tourist's route are closed to all except hunters.
Even the hunters have their problems because these good roads – good for hunting waterfowl as well as seeing them – are closed except on those special days when the refuge is open to hunting. This practice begins in mid-autumn and lasts until late in
the winter. You simply cannot go birding on Peacock's Pocket, L Pond or Shiloh Marsh Roads because you need to have a special permit and a shotgun to enter. Closing Peacock's Pocket, L Pond and Shiloh Marsh – those portions of them where the barrier gates are across the roads – means you're shut off from approximately 15 miles of prime birding habitat.
We've heard the rationale for this folly. It goes something like this: Birders have eight months to work these roads, the hunters just four. This begs the question of why there's hunting at MINWR in the first place. If this is a wildlife REFUGE, it's a bit of a sucker punch to the waterfowl who pack the ponds and marshes over the winter only to be shot at by the gun-toters. Nice refuge! Should the ducks be taught how to go somewhere else?
The hunters pay fees that support the wildlife refuge system. So this apparently gives them special rights that the rest of us don't have. Should our taxes be higher? Some refuges have fee stations for visitors; should MINWR have them also? The hunters need a few days of no shooting to let the waterfowl quiet down. This is the primary alleged reason for the road closures. Let's have a show of hands – how many of you think that birders raise such a ruckus on these roads that the waterfowl are scared silly? It can't be the shotguns blasting away at them, can it?
It's too dangerous to open the roads to hunters and birders at the same time. That could well be true, and I for one wouldn't want to be ducking under my Swarovski every time a flock of American Wigeons took off. But maybe this dichotomy is why so many hunters have turned in their guns for binoculars. The enjoyment is greater when you're not blasting away at the birds.
The bottom line is that birders, for several months of prime time each winter, have to be satisfied with Blackpoint Drive, Biolab Road, a few walking trails and the man roads to enjoy the birdlife of MINWR. Unfortunately, this leaves the refuge personnel and volunteers to clean up the spent shotgun shells and trash that litters the hunters' roads each day they enjoy the restricted areas. I won't get into the issue of how lead shot from the shotgun shells has affected millions of birds for a century or more. But you can bet the ducks haven't liked the taste of lead in their bellies.
Maybe it's the old curmudgeon in me, but is anybody else annoyed by having refuge roads turned into the private domain of one party of users? At least the refuge could open them all up to birders a few days a week when the hunters aren't out there.
Where to Go: Well, it's not the wildlife refuge right now! Do some Christmas Counts. Even MINWR is open to counters on December 15, nervous ducks or not.
Bird of the Month: Lark Sparrow. Based on early reports from observers, this winter is going to be a good one for sparrows in general. If you aren't thwarted by identifying these LBJs (Little Brown Jobs), you might have as many as 17 species of sparrows on your list by the time winter has waned, including the most beautifully marked one of all, the Lark Sparrow. Several have already been seen here and there in Brevard County since October.