As any wildlife photographer knows timing is everything and sometimes Mother Nature’s timing does not sometimes coincide with us photographers. One can have high hopes of timing a visit just right in order to see baby Burrowing Owls as they just emerge from the nest. When I was down last year, they emerged around the last week of April. This May however, it seemed to happen much sooner as the ones that I saw mostly had lost all their fluff but was still cool to see none the less.
|Baby Burrowing Owl|
Much of the trip this time around was to catch all the shorebirds in their glorious breeding plumage along the west coast of Florida. My wife and I stayed in Sanibel Island at our favorite cottage, the Blue Dolphin Inn. Little did I know I would find some of the shorebirds that I sought out on the beach in front of the Inn and residential area.
|Yellow-crowned Night Heron|
We arrived early in the morning to Estero Lagoon which was my first visit to this location. I timed our visit to coincide with low tide to maximize my shooting opportunity for shorebirds. I find it is best to time these visits, when possible with low tides as many of the shooting areas along the coast are very tide dependent. Also, some areas have been really impacted by tropical storms that have reshaped the beach. So at normal/high tide there isn’t that much beach left exposed. We arriving to Estero Lagoon and found the area to most void of wildlife activity which was surprising. A couple Ospreys’ were spotted as well as a Black Bellied Plover and a couple other little shorebirds but that was about it. I was later told that I did not go far enough south (10 minute walk from where we parked), though I did not see any other photographers on the beach that morning.
Switching gears, my wife suggested we head over to my reliable spot that was north of Estero Lagoon, Bunche Beach State Preserve. My previous visit to this location was last year in December and I really liked it. One thing that I noticed about Estero Lagoon is it was more populated with beach goers then Bunche Beach is, even though both are public beaches. I believe the big difference is that at Estero the beach is lined with hotels as well as vacation condos. Bunche Beach on the other hand is set up off to the side of the main population and each time I visit there I find that I am largely by myself in a vast open area that is exposed during low tide. At often times, it can be found to be overwhelming having such a large area to explore and seek out birds. I found it is best to arrive an hour or so before low tide so you can push out towards the ocean as the tide retreats from the beach. In any case, I made three visits to Bunche Beach all during the morning and enjoyed the peace and solitude of the area, only being joined by a couple other birders/photographers and my wife on two of the mornings. I enjoyed great views of Wilson Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Skimmers, Caspian Terns, Ruddy Turnstones as well as others. Most of the shorebirds were in breeding plumage which made me very happy to see. I know one thing that was happy to see me, the no-seums, sandflies, and whatever else enjoyed dinning on my legs. Remember playing connect the dots when you were younger? Yeah, you could probably play multiple games out of the hundreds of red dots I have all over my legs from those guys. Such the life of a nature photographer I suppose.
Bunche Beach Preserve
Bunche Beach Preserve
Another place that was visited a couple times was “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, a place that I have had great luck in past visits. This time not so much though. I have often heard from various people that they have visited this location and not had any luck. Up until this visit I never believed them. I haven’t seen the place so empty in all my visits. Another location that is closely connected to the refuge is Bailey’s Tract. This place consists of a walking trail (not really sure of the length). During this visit we discovered multiple Black-necked Stilt nests. Now of course when we were there for some reason I left my big glass back at the cottage we were staying at and only had my 70-200mm. So after we saw all the Stilts I was kicking myself for not throwing my backpack in the car. Luckily the cottage was a short drive from where we were so I high tailed it back there and picked up my long glass and raced back hoping they would still be in the same area, and they were. I was able to get some shots of these guys and even a couple portrait shots as well which is something I have always been a big fan of. In any event, this location is worth revisiting next time.
One of the photographers that I met up with this trip, Bob Blanchard showed me a great spot for Scrub Jays in Cape Coral. This was the first time I have seen a Scrub Jay in all my visits to Florida amazingly. One would think that with all my visits down here I would have run into them by now. These birds were so tame that they landed on my head as well as my wife’s head. It really was a sight to see. I was amazed at the size of them, being roughly the size of a Blue Jay. I really hope we can do a better job at protecting these guys habitat so this does not become another endangered species. According to what I read, they currently have a “threatened” status. Bob was recommended to me from Troy Lim whom I had talked to. I had hoped to meet both that day but was only able to hook up with Bob, had a great time though.
|Florida Scrub Jay|
Having only a short time in Sanibel I did not have time to explore and find the Scrub Jays as well as the Burrowing Owl babies (which I saw later). Typically, I pride myself on doing my own research and exploring new areas on my own. To me, it makes the final capture that much more rewarding. The second place Bob and I shot at was in southern Cape Coral, the baby Burrowing Owls. The nest that we worked had some of the younger owls. Though, these ones were still fairly old as they had lost all their baby fluff much to my demise. Still, I felt very fortunate to see and photograph these little guys as my last trip I had missed seeing them by one week. What is ironic is that I ended up getting more photos of the adults then the babies, simply being because they were spending a lot of time in the burrows.
It seems like every time I am out with these owls I have an encounter with those lovely Florida fire ants. Much like last time, I did this time as well, looking down on the ground seeing that I had just disturbed an angry fire ant mound. Mental note for next time to pick up those ant pant guards that go around your ankles to keep those critters from crawling up my legs.
Another location that Bob and I visited is a great location for Black-necked Stilts, nicknamed by him as “Bobs’ Mudhole” and rightfully so, the area consists of a large marsh type pond that one can wade through if so desired. Of course I was up to getting a little dirty as always! The water level was a bit to high still for the Stilts to nest and I was told that if the water level remains high or increases that the Stilts would not nest there this year. The water, at most, was around knee deep and occasionally I got stuck in the thickest mud I have ever been in. The mud, at those times seemed to resemble quick sand as it suctioned you to the marsh below and quite a bit of effort was required to remove ones footing from the bottom. In an event, I did come away with some decent opportunities there with the Stilts, Spoonbills, and some juvenile American Pelicans
|American White Pelican|
I found that the Pelicans seemed to mimic the Black Skimmers I encountered at Bunche Beach in that they seemed to always want to stay huddled closely together and a lot of effort was required to get a shot of one broken off of the group. Safety in numbers I suppose. Unfortunately my visit to this location had less than stellar light most of the time as we had some heavy cloud cover to the west.
After heading back to Ocala I paid one of two visits to Flagler Beach where I met up with Michael Libbe whom I have conversed with several times and follow his work on several photo sharing sites. He offered to show me around the area and provided me with some great entertainment, he was a great shooting companion as was Bob. When I awoke early Sunday morning and was packing my car up there was a large cumulous cloud looming not too far away with very frequent lighting coming from it. Taking a look at the radar on my smartphone before I left I saw that there were storms to the north, east, and south of where I was going. Dang! Should I go, or shouldn’t I go. It was a two hour drive out to the east coast from central Florida so certainly I did not want to make that drive only to sit in my car due to thunderstorms. I called my friend Michael and he said the weather changes every 30 minutes down here and that he was still going. So after a few moments of torturing myself on what to do I decided to head for the coast. I got there shortly after sunrise, no thanks to a detour on Hwy 206 that added 10 minutes to my driver, grrrr… When I arrived, meeting Michael at Marineland we had a cloud layer on the east coast so as it turns out the detour I ran into didn’t affect my morning shooting too much. We arrived to Flagler Beach and what a beautiful beach it is. Having only been to Daytona Beach many moons ago I was turned off by the eastern beaches from that. I predetermined that this outing I was going to try out my Skimmer Pod that I had purchased about a year ago.
I knew I wouldn’t be submerged in water here so this was the perfect opportunity to try this out. It really worked well, making me even more mobile scooting across the sand compared to pushing my tripod. As we were walking along the Least Tern colony we saw that some were nesting while others were still courting. We noticed an extremely small roped off area up ahead and when we approached Michael spotted a Wilson’s Plover running out of the area. We both said, “there has got to be a nest in there” and sure enough there was. It took a few minutes to spot it but there is was a nest cradled in the sand with 2-3 eggs. We spend some time with this Plover capturing different poses from this male or female.
That alone, made the trip worthwhile in my opinion having never seen or photographed a Wilson’s Plover nest that was a mere 10 feet away. We back tracked down the beach back towards the Least Tern colony when I spotted a large gather of Terns down my the ocean. What we had was a large gathering of Royal Terns, Least Terns, and Sandwhich Terns, my Skimmer Pod came into great use here allowing me to belly crawl across the sand with much easy which allowed me to approach these birds very close without startling them. Photographing the Royal and Sandwhich Terns I found to be an exercise in frustration as they tend to gather in groups much like the Skimmers do. It was all worth the effort though as we spent a great deal of time working this gathering of fairly tame Terns.
Was even able to capture and witness some Least Tern courtship behavior as well.
|Least Tern courtship|
Went back to this spot at the end of the week hoping some of the babies would have hatched but no luck. When I parked in the “parking lot” another photographer approached me and asked what my name was, ended up being Jim Urbach who resides in Florida and is a moderator on Naturescapes, a nature photography forum that I frequent. Was great to meet him that day and shoot with him. We went over to the Wilson’s Plover nest first and had some stellar golden morning light on it. The Royal Terns that were on the beach on Sunday were absent this visit, had better luck with the Least Terns though. I found that it was much easier to get shots of them on the beach front rather than behind the roped off area, just a matter of timing and patience I found. They allowed you approach fairly close when belly crawling to them across the beach. Just keep in mind to watch out for the waves breaking behind you and catching you, which one of them did. Luckily, it broke a little ways out and just washed up beneath me, but the water felt nice. J
Finished out the photography part of my trip shooting the two dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that frequent a DRA (Drainage Retention Area) where my in-laws live.
|Black-bellied Whistling Duck|
I like to try and get out there with these guys whenever we are in Ocala visiting my wife’s parents. Each time I have visited this spot for these Whistling Ducks it seems I come away with some images I am really happy with that are a little different, given that that they are walking around on grass I try not to make them look to boring. So difficult to time a trip up with hatchings as it various from year to year, guess we will just have to move down to Florida so I will have better luck then. All in time, all in time. J