As the official photographer for the National Audubon Society, Allan Cruickshank knew a great deal about birds. He taught bird lore, researched and wrote books and articles about birds with his wife Helen, and served on the staff of Audubon for more than 35 years.
Helen and Allan first came to Florida in 1937 for their honeymoon, and were astounded by the beauty of the flora and the birds found here. After they moved to Cocoa in 1952, they led the Christmas bird count for more than two decades.
Being in the right place at the right time, Allan worked with officials at the rapidly growing rocket complexes at Cape Canaveral to ensure they would set aside prime bird habitat.
That led to the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which had a very high population of Florida scrub-jays at the time.
This sliver of scrub is along the Atlantic Coast Ridge, a landform that makes its presence known in some coastal counties and dives into the sea along others.
It is a place that looked very different in the 1950s, as did much of Brevard County before the advent of Kennedy Space Center.
Bounded by commercial and residential establishments, this 140-acre sanctuary is a last stand for the Florida scrub-jay in Rockledge, in a habitat perfect for these birds only found in Florida: a scrub forest with tiny trees.
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Length: 1.1 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.2941, -80.7073
Address: 360 Barnes Blvd, Rockledge FL 32955
Land manager: Brevard County
Open daily sunrise to sunset. No pets, bicycles, or smoking.
From the intersection of US 1 and SR 520 in Cocoa, drive south 4.7 miles, entering Rockledge. Make a right on Barnes Blvd. From the intersection of Viera Blvd and US 1, drive north for 2.4 miles. Turn left on Barnes Blvd. The trailhead is on the right after a half mile.
Leaving the kiosk at the trailhead, the trail comes to an intersection with a beaten path. Turn left to cross a bridge over a narrow ditch dotted with water lilies.
On the other side, you walk right into the scrub of the Atlantic Coast Ridge. Patches of sandspike moss bristle from otherwise empty patches of bright white sand. A swale of wetland is cradled by the scrub on the left.
A sign explains scrub habitat restoration. It’s a delicate process, as scrub is a habitat that requires fire to regenerate, but now homes are right up against the preserve boundaries.
Alternate methods like rotochopping are used to keep the scrub forest short, which is what Florida scrub-jays prefer. But the aftermath of that method looks awful until the forest comes back.
In a tiny forest like this, beauty is in the small things. Elegant pink blossoms poke out of the pennyroyal. Shiny blueberries get plump. The tracks of a gopher tortoise sweep the sand into a thicket of scrub.
Keep alert for a flash of blue. The Florida scrub-jay has a distinct flutter when it flies, and your eye can’t help but focus on it, however briefly it appears.
Scan the high places for where the bird has settled. Florida scrub-jays live in family units, with one serving as the sentinel. That bird will alert the others to your approach.
We saw our first in this preserve about a quarter mile in, as the trail makes a turn and faces a tall snag. The scrub-jay was perched atop it, watching.
From that perspective, the sentinel can survey the entire diminutive forest that the trail winds through.
Passing under a cabbage palm, where bracken fern and shiny blueberry line the footpath, the trail curves to the left, tacking towards tall pine trees.
At a four-way intersection, a sign points to the left into an area that was cleared six years ago and is now a healthy young scrub.
The trail makes a right off the fire break, and tunnels through dense scrub to a stand of longleaf pine, as evidenced by young grass stage and candle stage pines.
The pines and the scrub struggle for dominance in this part of the preserve. Patches of prairie grasses fill the open spaces between the pines. Diminutive cabbage palms and silver-tinged saw palmetto color the scrub.
As the trail curves to the right past an Eagle Scout project sign, you see houses lining the northern edge of the sanctuary.
The sounds of ospreys fill the air above. Despite the desert-like nature of this ridge, it’s not far as the osprey flies to the Indian River Lagoon.
After half a mile, you walk through a stretch of sumac past a natural bowl in the sand filled with Florida rosemary.
Mounds of pennyroyal and sensitive briar grow along the footpath, which now faces you towards the line of houses to the north.
The trail makes a sharp right to head down a corridor tightly flanked by scrub. At 0.7 mile, it reaches the firebreak again.
When it turns right, the corridor is flanked by a tunnel of scrub. You close the loop after 0.9 mile, crossing a firebreak to return to where we saw the first scrub-jay on the snag.
Turn left and walk past the wetland swale again, pausing to peek at the many wildflowers poking out of the grassy bottom of this pocket wetland.
A sky blue lupine was ablaze next to the ditch. As we looked down at the blooming lilies, a small musk turtle climbed between them.
The trail turns right and parallels the ditch, returning to the parking area after 1.1 miles.
See our photos of Cruickshank Sanctuary
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A prime Space Coast destination for birding and wildlife photography, Viera Wetlands is a man-made habitat perched on the edge of the St. Johns River floodplain
The longest hiking trail at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the 4.8-mile Allan Cruickshank Memorial Trail makes a large loop off Black Point Wildlife Drive
An engaging connector trail to Viera, the Brevard Zoo Linear Park educates while providing a long boardwalk for exercise and birding