Sunday was to be my last shooting day in Florida before heading back to the miserable winter of the northeast. Even though the polar express had tainted my two week stay, I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. I wanted this day to be the exclamation point on the entire trip so selecting the right location was paramount. Recalling a conversation with Jim Gray while photographing a Great Horned Owl in Fort De Soto Park, I remembered he had raved about Myakka River State Park. I had read about it in researching for the trip but could not fit the park into my schedule while in the Venice area, an apparent error in judgement. In order to rectify this lapse, I decided getting up very early and retracing my route was the only way to ensure the anguish of not knowing what I missed didn’t ruin my day.
After our pleasant experience at Lettuce Lake Park, my sister was a more than willing participant in this early morning jaunt so you might imagine how disgusted we were to awake to the sound of rain. After a bit of hand-ringing, we decided to make the long drive in the hope that the weather would change by the time we arrived. Fortunately, we guessed correctly and were rewarded with tolerable conditions. Myakka stood up to its advanced billings with 58 square miles of wetlands, lakes, rivers, high grasslands, forests and abundant wildlife in every direction
We had barely entered the park when we encountered a White-tailed deer just off the road. This foreshadowed an entire day of marvelous photo opportunities.
All the usual suspects were there.
The extremely prolific Common Grackle.
At the lake, we encountered an Alligator’s convention. We saw them coming and going.
I was thrilled to see more of the colorful Roseate Spoonbills.
As you have probably realized, I love the graceful beauty of the Great Blue Heron. I was looking for a different approach to communicate that appreciation. I wanted to move away from the sharp luster prints I had been primarily producing. In my mind, this particular heavily overcast day created a hazy impressionistic image the second I raised the camera. It was as if a watercolor painting was hanging on the wall in front of me. I have printed the 3 images below in that muted soft watercolor fashion and couldn’t be happier with the results. By the way, the Roseate Spoonbill just above is my next candidate for this printing approach.
High-tension power lines bisected the park creating a cleared pathway through an otherwise rather inaccessible terrain. It went on for miles traversing many different types of landscapes. I asked my sister if she was up for a little hike. Before I could hardly finish the question, we were on the move. Along the way, I spotted a nest on the top crossbar of a wire tower. Knowing it was too far away to be a good photo, I only intended to use my lens as a magnifying glass to identify the bird. While watching the female Red-shouldered Hawk high in the nest, the male landed on a tree to my immediate left. Unbelievable, the ornithology gods must have staged this. Not only did the male pose for portraits but proceeded to dive-bomb a kill in the grass and drag it into the clearing almost at my feet. My day just couldn’t get any better!
Or could it??? We continued deeper into the park before realizing it was time to go. On our return to the vehicle and in need of a brief rest, I stopped to observe the same hawk’s nest we had seen on the way in. I had set up my tripod to take a peek but found no one home. Inexplicably lighting struck twice as the pair flew in right beside us and proceeded to mate. It may have only lasted 5 seconds but everyone seemed to have contented expressions.
Quite a climactic conclusion to a grand adventure. Sorry, just couldn’t help myself.
The mid-afternoon departure from Fort De Soto Park turned out to be a good move as I was able to avoid the majority of the Friday rush hour mess on the way to my sister’s place in north Tampa. As it turned out, she had gone to a lot of trouble finding a restaurant featuring stone crabs, my favorite Florida delicacy. Seems that stone crabs are in very short supply this season and Kristi had to search all over Tampa to locate even one restaurant offering them. Good thing I wasn’t late.
Embarrassingly, I had never visited my sister’s quaint bungalow home in the twenty years she has lived there. Just as I anticipated, it was a jewel. Well cared for and fashionably decorated, it certainly reflected Kristi’s personality. Knowing her energy level, I wasn’t surprised when she announced she would be getting up early and joining me on my morning shoot. Astonishingly, this outdoorsy-type gal was unaware of the park I had scheduled. Not to worry, we would learn together.
Lettuce Lake Park turned out to be a little gem. Boardwalks wove through swamps along the edges of a small lake. We enjoyed a great day together and I had a sherpa carrying half my equipment!
The overgrown vegetation of the swamp was eerily beautiful in its own right. Add a reflective Great White Egret and you have a painting.
The boardwalk was a runway for this diminutive red squirrel.
Directly overhead, this little guy was eyeballing me as he ate the growth buds off a small branch.
The Wood Stork’s head and neck really did resemble the bark of a tree.
As they scoured the swamp bottom for food, Wood Storks would reach to the side and scratch the mud with its claw hoping to scare prey into their waiting open beaks.
We watched as this Anhinga tried unsuccessfully to devour its catch whole. Not five minutes before, a Great Blue Heron on the opposite side of the boardwalk had caught an equally large fish and consumed it easily. The growth was too dense to get a good photo but how incredible it was to witness such an event twice in such a short time frame.
We had many opportunities for great poses.
There were many Painted Turtles and, although they didn’t create any action shots, we did watch his guy slip into the water.
This little guy seemed to be doing a full extension yoga stretch. Thanks for a total anatomical view.
Log sitting in the sun seemed to be the answer to the cold water.
Reflections of this Great White Egret and the large cedar stump created my most favorite memories of the day at Lettuce Lake Park with my sister.
The time had come to leave the Sarasota area. I had promised my little sister I would spend my last Florida weekend with her in Tampa. My new Bayonne buddies suggested that Fort De Soto Park, just a few miles off the highway, was a worthy stop as I headed north. They knew another Bald Eagle pair nested there and had heard rumors a Great Horned Owl was sitting on eggs. Even though I left fairly early, I was well aware a sunrise at the new site was not in my future. I had been pushing hard for a week and a half and was starting to drag a bit. Wanting to make sure to be on top of my game for my high-energy sister, I decided this day would be a cruise control type of pace.
Located just outside St. Petersburg, this park was a key that jutted into the Gulf of Mexico providing ample strolling of the beaches. Sea birds abounded but I was much more interested in finding the Great Horned Owl. After stumbling around for an hour, I ran into a maintenance crew who were nice enough to point me in the right direction. There were already two guys with tripods set up when I arrived. Once again I had the good fortune to encounter local photographers willing to share their knowledge with me. According to Jim Gray who had a zoology background, the incubation period should be concluding with the chicks making their first appearance any moment. As we talked, Jim’s friend proudly announced that one of Jim’s bird images graced the new Audubon national calendar. I made a mental note to be sure to check out Jim’s website at my first opportunity. Wow!! If you take the time to browse http://jimgrayimages.com , I promise you will not be wasting your time.
Reddish Egret chasing lunch.
Sometimes it takes many appetizers to make a meal.
Meanwhile, a sharp-eyed Pelican circled overhead.
Buried in the crotch of this tree, the Great Horned Owl was nearing the end of the 33 day incubation marathon on the leaf and feather nest made for her eggs. She gave new meaning to the term ” eyes in the back of your head” by pivoting 180 degrees to look at us.
Although dappled sunlight is usually a photographer’s nightmare, you have to deal with whatever circumstances exist especially on a predominately dreary day.
You can’t always get lucky. If I didn’t pack up, the massive gridlocked highway rush hour traffic would have precluded the scheduled dinner plans my sister had made. No problem, Jim Gray wasn’t going to miss the arrival of the new chicks and I was fortunate enough to have his website!!
Upon leaving the Venice Audubon Rookery, an Audubon volunteer had offered me a sheet listing other locations of interest in the surrounding area. Back at my hotel room, I was reviewing website descriptions of these spots when I discovered an obscure small park ( only 11 acres ) that caught my attention. Supposedly there was a Bald Eagle’s nest on this site. It was only 5 miles from my room and just a few more miles to Celery Fields, my next recommended stop. It was a no brainer. I would stop at Bayonne and if it were a bust just continue on to the more renowned Celery Fields. Very little shooting time should be at stake.
Damn, not only another cold pre-dawn Florida morning but the wind was blowing hard. As I pulled off the highway into a church parking lot, it did not seem this could possibly be the location. Fortunately, two other vehicles pulled in just behind me. I watched as these two individuals pulled on insulated vests, camouflaged hunting coats, neck warmers, hats with earflaps, and gloves. I put on my nylon wind breaker, gathered my camera equipment and silently followed these apparent acquaintances into the woods assuming the pair knew where they were going. After a short 250 yard walk, we popped out into an opening. They stopped and set up their equipment. I followed suit. I listened as they chit-chatted as to whether Bob would show up today. Eventually Clint, a big old southern boy ( 6’4″ 280+), introduced himself shaking my hand with a mitt the size of Rhode Island. Yes indeed, there were a pair of nesting Bald Eagles with month old chicks Clint informed me as he pointing out the nest. “Can’t approach any closer, State of Florida is afraid they won’t return next year if disturbed. Pay attention to the shag ( big old standing dead tree). They will roost there looking for prey.” Confident guy that Clint, lived around the corner and came to this site every morning to photograph these raptors. I stood there shivering as Clint began to spin his entertaining yarns. Suddenly, a raccoon emerged from the brush and brazenly approached Clint. I stepped away from my tripod assuming we were about to have an encounter with a rabid animal and watched as the raccoon pulled up a couple steps shy of Clint. Clint simply reached into a large canvas grocery shopping bag and handed the coon a piece of cheese bread. “Steve,” Clint bellowed, “I want you to meet Bob, wasn’t sure if he was going to show up today. Bob here has been a good friend of mine for a few years now. Helps me pass the time while I am waiting for those Eagles.” Thus began a four course meal. There were walnuts that Clint had to crack because Bob couldn’t quite figure out how to open them and peanut butter spread on a tree branch (Bob’s favorite) and finally the entrée, a broasted chicken carcass. I assume Bob figured these were simply his modeling fees.
Well the Eagles did start showing up and, just as Clint suggested, lit on the shag directly in front of us. What an incredibly powerful image of strength and grace as this giant wingspan gently descended to the barren limbs of the tree. There is little wonder why this particular bird was selected as a national emblem. Only one problem, that damn wind was not only cold but was blowing in the opposite direction of its prevailing nature. Because the Eagles fly into the wind using their wings as parachutes for soft descents, we were going to see butts rather than faces this particular morning. With the sun from the southeast and the breeze form the south or southwest, perfectly illuminated head shots were the norm for Clint and his friends. Even though it wasn’t ideal wind conditions and the sun would come and go, I understood I had but one morning to be there and I was truly thrilled.
One last little story. While breaking down my camera equipment in the church parking lot before departing, I heard a commotion at the church dumpster on the edge of the woods. I wandered over to find Clint in the mist of a big belly-laugh while lowering a long 2×4 board into the dumpster. He placed a similar board at the top edge of the dumpster to the ground. Just as I stuck my head into the dumpster, a small raccoon came scampering up the board and down the other side to freedom. Seems that the coons routinely get themselves trapped while raiding the dumpster and the benevolent pastor of the church left the boards for angels like Clint when he was not around.
Watch out, incoming.
Don’t you see me here!
Hey buddy, this is getting reported to the FAA for a full investigation.
I told you there was no problem. I am a good driver.
Clint’s friend, Bob, performed between between Eagle landings.
Bob was not the only peanut butter fan. This Northern Cardinal male didn’t mind a few tastes.
Nor did the Cardinal’s female counterpart.
Even the Grey Catbird, renowned for its mewing cat-like call, was a fan.
All too soon, it was time to bid farewell to my new acquaintance, Bob, and amble down the path onto new adventures.
Having spent far more time at Bayonne than I had anticipated, I was quite aware Celery Hills would have to be an abbreviated stop but still wanted to check it out even if only for future reference. Being tired and cold when I arrived, I questioned whether to drag my gear over the long boardwalk to the observation deck in the middle of the wetland. Stop being a wimp and move your butt. And gratefully I did because no one ever got to capture a good image without putting themselves in a position to snap the shutter.
Little Blue Heron searching for food.
As they vigorously stabbed the swamp with their beaks, interesting things happened with the water even when the target was missed.
It was frequently almost impossible to determine the strike’s successful with the naked eye.
I haven’t enough knowledge of all the wetland’s aquatic prey to identify this catch but the photo does demonstrate the eyesight and coordinated speed of the Little Blue Heron.
This last series is why you drag yourself at every opportunity. As you can tell from the camouflaged colors and patterns, this bird was made for the reeds and weeds. You weremore likely to hear it thrashing about after a kill than getting a clear glimpse of an American Bittern. A good photograph is a rare event, one unattainable from the seat of your car!
Some small reptile’s tail was the only remaining evidence of the dinner menu this day.
Adios to the brief but fruitful stop at the Celery Hill Wetlands.
After the late afternoon rain wiped out my sunset photo session in the Viera Wetlands, it seemed to make sense to use the extra time to drive across the state. Photographers I met in Merritt Island had raved about all the wonderful bird shots they had taken at the Venice Audubon Rookery. I had read about this very famous iconic location when researching for this trip and knew it was just south of Sarasota right off the major north south RT.75. How hard could that be? Just drive west and sooner or later you have to run into Rt. 75. Except the signs keep announcing Tampa was getting closer and I wanted to be an hour and a half south of that location. No problem, I would pull into the next Stop and Go and finally purchase a road map. Unbelievably, not only were there no road maps, but the kid behind the counter had never even heard of Venice. Not to worry, if Ponce de Leon could figure it out I assumed I would. I pulled into a Venice hotel parking lot around 9:00pm … good thing this wasn’t a race.
Morning came quickly after staying up late downloading the day’s shoot and cleaning all my equipment. But as I drove through the dark to this famous Audubon location, I was genuinely excited at the day’s possibilities. Upon entering the Rookery’s parking lot, I was completely deflated by just how tiny this site looked in the early dawn light. It was a small pond with an even smaller mangrove-type island in the center. Maybe I should check to make sure I was in the right location before dragging out all my equipment. The island couldn’t have been more than 75 feet long with a 50 foot moat surrounding it. On my approach to the pond’s edge, my reservations about the location quickly evaporated. There were literally thousands of roosting and nesting birds covering every square inch of every bush and shrub on the island. As the sun rose and it warmed a bit, a series of “blast offs” occurred with massive numbers of birds departing at the same time to leave the safety of the roost for their feeding grounds. Truly an awesome sight! As the sun set, these birds would return in droves once again noisily claiming the security of a night’s space at the inn.
The island was was abuzz with activities as the permanent residents constantly gathered materials for nest repairs. Great White Egrets were breeding while some of the Great Blue Herons were already feeding young.
Great White Egrets
Breeding plumage was displayed indicating availability.
Nesting pairs stay close.
This particular day was very windy and cold. I was definitely underdressed. With the brighting sunlight starting to washout colors and my hands freezing after 4 hours of photographing, I had just broken down my camera to leave when this pair started to breed. You can’t get them all!!!!
While gathering material on short flights around the pond, the Great White Egret, which is actually a variety of Heron, flies with its neck outstretched. When flying any distance, it will recoil its neck back against its chest as all Herons do. On the other hand, Cranes fly with an outstretched neck.
The Anhinga were also in the mood for love as we can see from the color of their eyes.
The color of this Common Cormorant’s eyes was not related to breeding but was still very distinctive.
In the following series, a Cormorant speared a huge catfish. While fending off a competitor, the Cormorant turned the fish so he can swallow it head-first. Notice the expanded neck size of the Cormorant. Apparently he was never taught to chew before swallowing.
The Great Blue Heron is a magnificent creature. Its grace and beauty have dream-like and other-worldly ethereal qualities offering unique photographic opportunities for image-making. Much of my wildlife photography tends to be documentary realism, but by looking differently at color, texture, camera angle, background blur, and clarity of focus on the subject (just to mention a few) I can create images that are more artist than scientific. I just love the entire thought process as it stretches me in new directions. Hopefully this next series demonstrates better than my words. After all, a picture is supposedly worth a 1000 words. Let’s see.
Curious chicks peered from the nest awaiting the next round of feeding.
A loudly protesting juvenile pestered its parent for more regurgitated food. The crop on top of its head resembled a teenager with a crewcut. It will grow into an adult cap quickly as the infant will be full size in a total of just 6 weeks.
A dust-up between aggressive siblings was a common occurrence. It is not unusual to have chicks knocked out of the nest. More food for the winner.
” I said shut up stupid.”
” There. Take that.”
Not all Herons are large. The small Green Heron was quite shy.
This tiny oasis was home to a vast number of species. Even Brown Pelicans arrived at the pond.
Life is all about perspective and frequently so is photography.
As the sun began to set on this small island, throngs of birds continued to stream in until every square inch was covered. I guess big things really can come from small packages.
As I departed from my second trip of the day to the Rookery, a kindly Audubon volunteer offered directions to additional sites in the area. Fortunately, I had the good sense to follow his suggestions.
Ever notice how you can drive along the highway thinking you are paying attention when miles down the road you have little recollection of what you have passed. While retracing my steps back to the north looking for the Viera Wetlands I had noticed on my way to Vero Beach, I was absolutely positive it should be a 30 minute trip. Being a stereotypical male traveling with no road map, I decided a scenic route along the coast would be more interesting than the highway. I totally believe in my homing instincts and good sense of direction but, after an hour, that confidence was finally shaken necessitating another gas station stop and, what the hell, maybe the purchase of a state roadmap. What, gas stations don’t sell roadmaps anymore! Oh well, I was only 10 miles off course and I had verbal directions.
The Viera Wetlands were a large series of recharging ponds and connecting swamp intended to handle the gray water from an adjacent sewer treatment plant. Although not a huge area, it supported an extremely large and diverse wildlife population.
All the normal suspects were there. The Great White Egret
The Great Blue Heron.
The strong breeze rearranged the heron’s breeding plumage.
Dead palms made perfect bases for the construction of nests for the Blue Herons.
The previously unseen Sandhill Crane made a spectacular appearance. Standing nearly 4 feet tall, it moved with grace and a sense of style.
The iridescent Glossy Ibis showed off.
Although not a great photo, the elusive male Hooded Merganser was quite a sight with its distinctive patterns.
But the highlight of Viera for me was spotting a small curled up brown ball of fur over a steep bank on the edge of a swamp. I could not identify what it was but I knew it did not belong. Not wanting to startle whatever it was, I drove well past the location. Quickly grabbing my camera, I quietly moved down the bank and hustled along to gain a vantage point. Realizing I had caught something sleeping, I settled in to see what would happen. After about 15 minutes, a very sleepy Otter woke up from warming himself in the sun. He did not realize I was there and proceeded to put on quite a show for my benefit before disappearing back into the swamp. What a fortunate experience!
Within a half hour, clouds moved in and it began to rain. I had intended to stay until sunset before returning south so I could visit my cousin. I wanted to stay on the east coast so I could make my way back to Dick and Darlene’s place in order to photograph a rocket launch scheduled for the following day. Their back deck looked right onto the Cape Canaveral launch site, what an opportunity! What a dilemma, pass up a day and a half of wildlife shooting or take the chance the launch would go off according to plan. Having been advised by fellow photographers of don’t miss sites on the west coast and knowing I wanted to see my sister in Tampa, I packed up my gear and headed across the state. I wasn’t looking forward to the long drive in the rain but life is all about difficult choices.
It was time to depart the Merritt Island area and move on south to stay with other friends in Vero Beach, didn’t want to wear out my welcome. Bob and Machiko had arranged an airboat tour of the Blue Cyprus Conservation Area located about and hour inland of Vero. Having only seen airboats whiz through the swamps on TV, I must say I was looking forward to the experience but why the hell did it have to be so cold in Florida. Within minutes of our launch, I was so transfixed on all the wildlife action that it could have been zero and I probably would not have noticed. Nesting Osprey, Osprey with their catch, Alligators everywhere, Peregrine Falcon circling overhead, wading birds taking flight, it was a photographer’s paradise, well, almost.
The airboat turned out to be a very challenging platform from which to photograph. Between the peaks and troughs of the wakes and the vigorous vibration of the air propeller, it took tremendous effort to control the bobbing and weaving of my long lens even with the aid of the monopod I had attached. With a 1.4 extender added to my long 500mm lens, the viewing angle was greatly reduced making it very difficult to find a moving object in the viewfinder. Of course, this is what gives you the magnification necessary for closeup photos. This is why I think photography is a lot like golf. When you pick your head up to peek, you miss the shot!
Well, the captain of the airboat was more concerned about putting on a good show than worrying about my photographic headaches. Knowing the circling Peregrine Falcon was searching for lunch, he purposely maneuvered the boat to flush a Coot into the air. For a brief moment, I tried to focus my lens on the descending Falcon before admitting that I didn’t stand a chance of completing the shot. After all , that bird was traveling well in excess of 100 miles per hour. I lowered my camera and watched in amazement as the midair collision resulted in the Falcon flying off with its talons sunk deep into its much larger dead prey. Had the Coot fallen to the water, the Peregrine Falcon would not have had the capacity to retrieve it. And what did I photograph? The final pose of course.
Osprey usually take a mate for life returning to the same nest year after year.
Osprey with hound fish. Eating only when hungry, they will not put their catch down staying at the perch for whatever time it takes to finish .
The Anhinga is another superb fishing bird that dives for its food. This male’s eyes have turned from brown to turquoise indicating he is ready to mate. Once the female’s eye have changed he will get his chance.
This Anhinga’s eyes have yet to change. Its neck reflects why it is sometimes referred to as the Snakebird.
The captain of the airboat spotted this alligator as we breezed through the reeds at probably 30 miles per hour. Even after we doubled back, I could only see this eye. I don’t know how the captain ever saw it.
Alligators simply were everywhere so the mystery eye was the exception not the rule.
Floating grass and reed masses looked like solid land until the airboat just blew through them spooking wading birds like this Great Blue Heron.
So after a very action packed hour and a half, it was time to leave the wildlife, the vegetation, and our extremely cool ride behind as we headed east to return to the coast.
After a great meal and a good night’s sleep, Bob and I set out to find the very obscure Indian River County Wetland Treatment Facility. Lots of Florida sewerage treatment plants have large recharging ponds and wetlands that attract tons of wildlife. After an hour of stumbling around, I was forced to stop for directions. It was painfully obvious that Bob was not completely informed on the “workings” of his community. I am glad we made the effort as we were able to photograph a few previously unseen birds.
Sora (small Rail)
Strong winds ruffle the feathers of this perched juvenile Bald Eagle.
Sticking with the theme of not wearing out my welcome, I thanked Bob and Machiko and backtracked north along the coast. I had read about wetlands in Viera but did not have time to check them out as I passed by on the way to Vero Beach. Not wanting to miss anything, I decided the effort would be worth while. I was not to be disappointed as you will see in installment 3 to follow.