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When and where to get great bird shots in the sunshine state
Birds are beautiful subjects for photography, but getting close enough for good pictures is often frustrating. One of the best places for getting close is south Florida.
The main subjects in south Florida are water birds, and there are several wildlife sanctuaries where the birds are used to people. I decided to check out the possibilities this spring (a good time of year because it is nesting season) and was delighted with what I found.
Due to limited time I concentrated on the area around Fort Myers. It is central to the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Fort Myers Beach, Venice Rookery, Placida, Cape Coral, Corkscrew Swamp, and Marco Island. Then after several days there we headed southeast to the Everglades.
The most centrally located area I found for motels in Fort Myers is south of the downtown area, on South Cleveland. Looking at a map, this area is just west of the general aviation airport, Page Field, and about 4 miles northwest of the airline airport. From this area it is 30 to 45 minutes south to Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge and two and a half hours north to Venice Rookery. There are some vacation accommodations on Sanibel Island, but they are not cheap, and there are some motels in Meyer Beach on Estero Island, southeast of Sanibel. Spring in Florida is still tourist season and even the relatively inexpensive motels are not bargains. And there is a lot of suburban sprawl, much of it old. Driving to the photo locations every day, I saw more of it than I wanted to.
Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel Island, was the place I was most excited to see, and it did not disappoint. There are a couple of breakfast places near the motel but no others until you get on the island, so fuel up before you leave. Ding Darling is a one way driving tour of eight miles and it proved good both early and late in the day. Unlike some wildlife areas, you are permitted to get out of your car and set up tripods. When we were there, in March, the tour road was only open from 7:30 till 5:30, but I don’t see hours listed on their web site. The tour road is closed on Fridays. In addition, tour boats can be booked in Tarpon Bay, on the way to the tour road entrance.
I’m not a bird expert, but as best as I can identify them, at Ding Darling I found herons (great blue, little blue and tricolored), pelicans (brown and white), cormorants, egrets (great white and reddish), white ibis, anhingas, dowitchers and roseate spoonbills. At other locations I also found wood storks, bald eagles, burrowing owls, osprey, black-crowned night herons, purple gallinules, moorhens and black vultures.
The beautiful houses on the island are a lovely scenic drive, and there are some very good places to eat there. (Good food is a necessary condition for my husband to serve as driver and pack animal.)
You often read that so many wildlife locations are not as good as they once were, and I had heard this about Ding Darling (the story of my life, it seems). But I didn’t find it disappointing. The weather was cool enough that biting insects were not yet a problem, the water was generally calm, and there were enough birds at close range to keep me occupied.
I should define close range, though. I have not (yet, anyway) gone for the weight and expense of a 600mm (or longer) lens, choosing instead the lighter weight and more affordable Canon 300mm f/2.8. (See my review of this lens.) It is outstanding, and most of the time it has a 2x tele-extender on it, making it a “2/3 scale” 600mm. Used with proper technique, and with the high-quality matching Canon tele-extenders, it is tack sharp, even with the 2x. (You couldn’t say that about putting a 2x on a zoom lens.)
Virtually the whole trip was shot with this lens with the 2x attached. I shoot with the Canon 5D Mark II, which is a full-frame sensor, so I don’t have as much magnification as I would with an APS-C sensor such as the 7D or the 60D and below, but with 21 MP I have a lot of leeway to crop.
I didn’t have much luck at the other recommended places on the island, such as the public beaches, the bridge leading to Captiva Island, or the lighthouse on the south end. Sanibel is famous for seashells, but the timing didn’t work for me; the best ones are found in an early morning low tide after a storm. Next trip.
One afternoon, after a morning on Sanibel Island, we headed for Cape Coral, just northwest of Fort Myers and home to a bald eagle nest and some very accessible burrowing owls. (Detailed directions to both areas are in the Arthur Morris guide.) The eagle nest is just northeast of a small bicycle and motocross park and is best in late afternoon light.
The owls are in several vacant lots immediately surrounding the public library, a mile or two south of the eagles. They come out of their burrows in the evening and pose until nightfall when they go hunting. The burrows are unattractive, resembling prairie dog mounds. When we were there the owls were only halfway out, so I got only head and shoulders shots, but I was able to approach them to the 7 ft. minimum focus distance of my lens and some locals said I could go even closer. They are really cute; they were mostly napping and seemed quite bored by yet another photographer. A small plane flew over fairly low on approach to a nearby airport and one of them was most interested in it, following it closely with its ability to rotate its head what appears to be 360 degrees.
After spending the late afternoon with the owls, we went in search of a Cuban restaurant, and found a very good one, El Mambo. It’s a family place, inexpensive and doesn’t look promising from the street. Not much English was spoken, but we had a truly delicious and authentic meal, one of the best of the trip, with very friendly service.
We got up very early the next morning and headed northwest for Venice Rookery, a 2½ hour drive, following advice to arrive before sunrise. It is right in the middle of the town of Venice, and both the final turn in from the street and the actual spot are tricky to find, especially in the dark. The rookery is on the right maybe ¼ mile into a park. You will see a gravel parking area on the left and a picnic shelter on the right. Troop past the shelter and you will find yourself on the edge of a small pond with a small island close to the shore, filled with nesting egrets, herons and anhingas.
Before sunrise, as advertized, dozens of birds exploded in flight from the island, mostly from the back side, in two or three bursts. I was ready to shoot motion blurs but I wasn’t ready for the explosions without warning. The flight path was very low, with some un-picturesque white mobile homes in the background. The birds were moving fast and quickly disappeared behind trees before I could even get them framed. Some birds remained guarding nests and babies, but it was quite a long time before there was enough light to make them worth shooting. We finally went off in search of breakfast (a long search, with underwhelming results). Fortunately we went north, and heading back south toward Placida we stopped again and got better pictures, but 600mm was not enough here, even at this close range, for framing individual birds without quite a bit of cropping.
Next we went down the coast about 20 miles to Placida, a quaint little fishing harbor, with a very nice restaurant, Fisheries. I found some good pelicans and an osprey sitting in a palm tree guarding a nest.
The next morning we headed south and east to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It is about halfway between Fort Myers and Naples and then inland on Highway 846. Although there was fauna here, I was more fascinated by the flora (and the aura) in this forest primeval. The cypress trees were just beginning to leaf out. There were some birds but not as many as some of the other locations. Bring a flash; it’s dark in here under the trees and on a sunny day the contrast will be harsh.
The next morning we checked out of the motel in Fort Myers and headed for the Everglades. Not far southeast of Naples on US 41, Marco Island is a short detour south, on Highway 951. Along the road is the Briggs Nature Center with a half-mile boardwalk with an observation platform from which you can see wading birds. Sunrise is the best time. On the island, Tigertail Beach can be good hunting at low tide; be prepared to wade out for the best shots.
A little further southeast on 41, the western Everglades is accessible at Everglades City, a short distance off the highway. You can book boat tours into the Everglades here.
Continuing east along Highway 41, which runs along the north edge of the Everglades, is the Clyde Butcher Gallery. His large-format black and white scenic photography of Florida is incredible.
A little further east is Shark Valley, which is a target-rich environment. There is a paved trail, accessible by foot or tram tour, leading south into the Everglades, and we saw an alligator every fifty feet. They ranged from huge to babies (which are not cute). They were in a creek (or whatever the swamp equivalent is) very close alongside the trail, and I was hoping they were well fed and trained to stay there. But looking around at the throng of tourists, I figured there was probably at least one I could outrun. Don’t take chances with these things. They are very dangerous.
Then we went on east and south to Homestead, and on to the south road that goes back west through the Everglades. The Royal Palm Visitor Center isn’t far into the park and the very accessible Anhinga Trail there is a great place to shoot birds. The neighboring Gumbo Limbo Trail is more about flora.
The great thing about the Anhinga and Shark Valley trails is that they run alongside the water, and the problem with the trails is that they run alongside the water. The accessible birds are sitting on the near bank focused on the water, where their next meal is coming from, and their backs are generally to you. Be patient and wait for a head turn.
Further west in the Everglades are some longer trails that are not wildlife-intensive. Spring is the dry season here, which limits accessibility to wildlife. Animals and birds are generally found near water, which is scarce and off the beaten path in spring. The road goes southwest back to the coast, to the Flamingo Visitor Center. Allow a full day to explore it.
We stayed in a motel in Homestead, a very small town in an agricultural area and a pleasant change from suburban sprawl. There aren’t many motels there, so make reservations ahead.
I shot hundreds on pictures each day, and brought my laptop and an external travel drive for storage and backup. I also wanted to keyword images while I remembered what I had shot. (I’m new to birds and have learned to inquire of other photographers what it is I’m shooting.) When traveling I find Lightroom 3 perfect for organizing things each evening. (See my tutorial “Bringing Your Workflow on the Road with Lightroom.”)
This quick trip only scratched the surface. I need to go back for all the places I have read about but missed, among them: Little Estero Lagoon at Fort Myers Beach, Alafia Banks in Tampa Bay (Roseate Spoonbills), Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg, Lake Blue Cypress near Vero Beach, Myakka River State Park Nature Preserve (60 miles south of Tampa and southeast of Sarasota) and, on the northeast coast, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and the Jacksonville Zoo.
To plan the trip I read as much as I could on the area. There is a wealth of material on the Internet, but the most useful and comprehensive information came from Arthur Morris’ “SW Florida Site Guide” available from the online store at www.birdsasart.com. There is also a “Central Florida Site Guide” a “Fort DeSoto Site Guide” and a “Merritt Island / Brevard County Site Guide.” Each one is $50 as a downloadable PDF document, and they are worth every penny. Several of Robert Hitchman’s Photograph America newsletters were also very useful: Into the Everglades, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Wildlife of South Florida, and Florida Wildlife Refuges. These are available as PDF downloads for $8 each from www.photographamerica.com.
Many of these locations get mixed reviews, and a common thread seems to be that there are fewer and fewer birds every year. And in many of the rookeries, such as Alafia Banks, you can’t get very close to the birds. Do as much research as you can. Some places you will want to wade out thigh-deep at low tide, and some places you will want very long lenses. And success at the coastal locations depends on the tides. Preparation will make all the difference between a great trip and a disappointing one.