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!!
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.