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.
Winter moved in early this year making me feel trapped and longing for a high sun warming my bones. While traveling in Africa, I had heard about the wintering habits of migrating birds on Merritt Island adjacent to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Having recently purchased some new photo equipment (Wimberly gimbal), I was anxious to master the panning technique with bird flight that would enable me to capture the sharp stop action photos I like. The gimbal is a device that sits on my tripod and swivels left and right as well as up and down allowing me to rotate my camera to track moving objects. It takes awhile to become proficient, better to practice where it is warm and the subjects are numerous. Book the flight!
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore are contiguous parks on the barrier island that is also home to the Kennedy Space Center. It is about an hour east of the Orlando airport. Both areas have pervasive wetlands with palmetto jungles and scattered pine and oak forest. The best viewing was along a deterioriated six mile road that ran through the Canaveral site. A creek flowed along the roadside adjacent to the vast wetland area providing an environment perfect for nesting birds as well as many different mammals.
This was a totally difference experience from my Africa travels. Here, I was the organizer, the guide, and the driver in addition to being the photographer. I crept along the creek in my rented four-wheel drive with window down and my huge 500 mm lens with 1.4 extender across my lap trying to sneek up on the skittish wildlife. I quickly discovered I needed to position the vehicle to gain my shooting angle before placing my camera out the window while balancing the lens on the driver’s door. My first shots were pretty soft until I remembered that the vibration of the engine was enough to shake my lens necessitating shutting off the Jeep each time I stopped.
Coincidently, I have friends who winter across the bay looking directly on Merritt Island and the Cape Canaveral launch site. Nice having a place to stay with all the comforts of home as well as a refuge in the middle of the day when lighting is less than ideal for photographing. Time well spent downloading and backing up images. Thanks Dick and Darlene.
After three and a half days exploring Merritt Island, I began to understand the fasination bird watchers have with the Great Blue Heron. The subtle elegant colors of its breeding plumage was matched by the grace of its movement including the lumbering ascent to flight. Maneuvering that huge wing span through the tight confines of the wetland vegetation was quite an amazing sight.
Getting a Great Blue Heron to take flight on command when you are set to shoot just doesn’t happen. So when I spotted a likely subject in a tree on the bank of the creek, I quietly inched my vehicle into position to have a view down the waterway. I set up my camera and waited. Knowing that another vehicle would eventually come along and flush the bird, all I needed was patience.
A travel mate to Africa was somewhat an expert on Kingfishers and photographed every one we came across. As I made my way through the island, I constantly saw small Belted Kingfishers taking flight well out of camera range. I wanted a good shot to send off to Bob but they were so skittish and quick it did not appear this would happen. Patience, a key theme for entire the trip, eventually paid off when I stopped chasing and finally waited for the Kingfisher to fly into me.
Another spectacular bird was the Roseate Spoonbill. Even more vibrantly colored than the Flamingos I had seen in Kenya, this Spoonbill is trying to make a come back in localized regions of Florida. Like the Flamingo, its pink color is the result of diet. Spoonbills feed in shallow coastal waters by vigerously moving their head back and forth disturbing the bottom and filtering water through its slightly open large beak trapping small fish, crustaceans, insects, or even frogs.
Even though birds dominated the viewing opportunities on Merritt Island, there was other wildlife. A very healthy Alligator population liberally dotted the creek banks trying to warm themselves in the very cold Florida mornings (temperatures were actually warmer in Massachusetts during this period) and wild boar brazenly fed along the road in defiance of my presence.
Other birds of interest:
Tricolored Heron posing
Tricolored Heron feeding.
Reddish Egret in the beautifully warm light of the sunrise.
Adult White Ibis
Juvenile White Ibis
Great White Egret in full breeding plumage preening.
And finally a small diving duck that was very prevalent but I can’t identify. Just looked busy motoring across the creek.