Photographing Southwest Florida
A week photographing in Southwest Florida- the top of the Everglades:
My mom lives in Atlanta. I live in Vermont. Several years ago I decided that on my trips down to visit my mom I would take some side photography trips and visit places that we did not visit when I was a child living in the South. On this trip I wanted to spend some time photographing southwest Florida, make a trip to see the world renowned Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, the Venice Rookery and other areas around Fort Myers. My trip was at the beginning of December, which is at the beginning of the optimal winter migration. To prepare for my trip I downloaded to my Ipad a copy of Arthur Morris’s Guide to the Florida Southwest. It was worth the $50.00 as it helped me to learn more about locations and the birds that I might see at each spot. His driving directions were helpful as well. I will note some of my additions to the guide as I talk about each location.
Florida is a strange place to me. It is known for its extensive shorebird life, which it does have, but this wildlife seems to be forever squeezed and sandwiched between six lane roads, hotels, and congestion. It was hard for me to reconcile the beauty with the congestion. However, it is easy to understand people’s attraction to 80 degree sunny weather in December.
Ding Darling and Sanibel Island (Day #1):
Ding Darling is considered one of the premier wildlife refuges in the United States. Ding Darling is a 4 mile one-way road that is nestled on the east shore of a section of Sanibel Island. Sanibel Island is a tastefully upscale island, but it was a bit of a surprise to me to see how developed the island was that housed this famous wildlife refuge. To get to Sanibel from Fort Myers you must pay a $6.00 fee to cross the long bridge/ causeway that connects the island to the mainland. To enter Ding Darling, you pay a one day fee of $5.00. So once you are on the island it seems that you want to make a day of it. That way you can enter Ding Darling at their 7:00 A.M. opening (lots of complaining about this late opening), make a few loops through in the morning and then revisit for the evening sunset. As Arthur says in his guide, the main attractions are within the first two miles of the refuge with the best photo opportunities ending at the observation tower. I made two trips through the refuge on my morning there and saw White Pelicans, a Reddish Egret, Little Blue Herons, Yellow Crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons and a few Roseate Spoonbills. This was fun for me, but the photographic opportunities were limited as the wildlife was pretty far off shore. My understanding from talking to locals is that the refuge controls its own water flow and therefore tides, which effects the predictability of seeing wildlife in low tide. and, therefore, up close. According to Arthur Morris, Ding Darling has lost some of its luster in recent years, but he doesn’t say why. I asked many local birders and photographers about this assessment and they also believe it to be true. One experienced birder felt that the refuge declined years ago during Hurricane Charlie (2004). The hurricane uprooted the mangroves that the birds roosted in and the mangroves have been slow to regrow (2012).
After the morning loop through the refuge, I took a visit to Blind Beach, but found nothing that intriguing. I also spent an afternoon on the beach behind the Sanibel Arms Condominium (both Morris suggestions). Once again, a few birds at a great distance, but nothing really photographic. It was nice, however, to while away the day on the beach while waiting for a sunset tour of Ding Darling.
So, in sum, I spent one very long day on Sanibel Island and I am glad I made the effort, but I did not deem it worthy to spend another day there in my week long stay.
Venice Rookery (Day#2):
I was staying at the Laquinta hotel on John Morris road in Fort Myers, near the Sanibel causeway. This meant that I would have a 1 3/4 hour drive to reach the Venice Rookery. To this end, I left my hotel at 4:45 A.M. so that I arrived at the refuge around 6:30 A.M. Venice Rookery is a prime example of the oddity of viewing wildlife in Florida. To reach the rookery, you pass Walmart and several box stores on a four lane highway, you make a left hand turn after the Highway Patrol station. A short distance on this road is the Rookery, which is just a small park, with a small pond- maybe an acre in size, with a clump of mangrove trees in the middle. It is an odd site in the predawn hours to be 50 or so feet from 60 or more squawking Great Blue Heron and Snowy Egrets. The beauty is that you can get so close and watch a wide array of nesting and mating behavior. The oddity is that this wonderful display of wildlife is surrounded by a trailer park on one side and an industrial park on the other and the noise of the highway always present in the background. A 600mm lens is still recommended, but even getting this close requires some substantial editing of your photo backgrounds to blot out the surrounding distractions. As was told to me by two locals photographing there, the Audubon society cut down the trees that obscured the trail park because they were an invasive species and it is going to take some time for the native plants to regenerate. So to sum all this up, if you can ignore the absurdity of the surroundings- the birds seem to be able to- then you can witness nest building, courtship display, mating and fledglings all in the span of a mornings photo session. Pretty cool!
Estero Lagoon (Day #3):
Another Arthur Morris recommendation is the Estero Lagoon. This is another odd example of nature and humans trying to co-exist. You drive down Sans Carlos Boulevard about 7 miles (Arthur says 5 miles but it really is 7 miles) until you reach an six story Holiday Inn. San Carlos is typical Florida, high rise hotels one right after the other, touristy shops and strip malls follow you the whole way down the boulevard. I parked in the Holiday Inn parking lot as it was fairly empty. I loaded my garden cart (see blog about this great photo gear hauling device) and headed out to find the lagoon. The lagoon is a mile long stretch of scrubby mangroves and small lagoons that abut the ocean. The lack of beach access keeps sunbathers away and allows birds to get some much needed sanctuary from civilization. Arthur Morris wades deep into the water to get his photos, but this is not really necessary. The ocean tides do come right up to the mangroves and you do need to wade through mid-ankle deep water, but beachcombers have created some sandy paths through the mangroves so that you can avoid the deepest areas of tide water. Here you will find sandy patches of beach from which to photograph. This gave me piece of mind as I was not really that comfortable carrying my tripod mounted 600mm lens through high water. In the small lagoons, I was able to photograph Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets, and there were White Pelicans and several species of gulls, but the bird species that I encountered here that I did not see elsewhere on my trip were American Oystercatchers. Oystercatchers are another wonderful example of Mother Nature’s color palette at work. I was at the Estero Lagoons in the morning so I photographed heading east. As I neared the end of the lagoon I exited through a hotel beach and pulled my gear in my trusty cart back the mile or so to my car. I was left with mixed feeling about this location. I loved photographing the different bird species, but was left a little saddened by the small nature and size of the lagoon. I began to wonder if in Florida there was no other way than this to experience wildlife.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Day #4):
I agree with Arthur Morris, photographing at Corkscrew is difficult due to the contrasty light, but photography aside, I loved Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. There is a 2 1/4 mile board walk that winds it way through the swamp, marshes and wet prairies of the sanctuary. Corkscrew is home to the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America. These trees, which are related to the redwood, can grow 130 feet and have a girth of 25 feet. Before I was a photographer I was a birder, so for me getting to add different bird species to my life list was as equally thrilling as taking photographs would have been. Also, I finally felt that I was getting to experience the true wildness of Florida- albeit by boardwalk- what Florida must have been like in the earlier centuries before it became overdeveloped.
I arrived at the boardwalk just before 7:00 A.M. and was there for 4 hours. Starting out on the boardwalk there was fresh bobcat scat. The cat was using the boardwalk as a quick route through the swamp. Bird species included Prairie and Palm Warblers, Blue Gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Red shouldered Hawk, Wood Storks flying overhead, Yellow Crowned Night Herons, and Black Crowned Night Herons just to name a few. Mammals included a Swamp Rabbit, a very tame raccoon on the boardwalk, and crocodiles. Though I was there four hours I attempted very few photographs, but I was not disappointed in the least. It is funny what your experience and expectations hold, for as I was leaving the boardwalk I overheard several couples that were also leaving exclaim that, “That was boring, there was nothing there to see.”
A point of interest, the cost to get into Corkscrew is $12.00 but it is good for two consecutive days, if you deem it worthy of a return trip.
Bunch Beach off John Morris Road (Day #5 and #6):
Half way through my boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, I met a couple who were from Great Britain. He was a birder and photographer and has been visiting different parts of Florida every year since the late 1990s. I told him I was thinking of heading down to Jane’s Scenic Drive from Corkscrew, but he cautioned me that that was another 150 mile drive. I had thought it was much closer. So I asked him what places he would suggest I visit on my trip. He said there is a great place called Bunch Beach off John Morris Road. I exclaimed that that was where my hotel was located. He said, “Well go a half mile further and there is a beach where when the tide is out you get these extensive mud flats which shorebirds love. Also,” he added, “low tide tomorrow is around 9:00 A.M.” So imagine my joy, after putting several hundred miles on my car and getting up in the predawn hours to arrive at my destinations, I would be able to sleep in and arrive at the beach at a very civil hour.
So after an evening trip to check out the beach, I got up and headed to the beach around 8:00 A.M. You are supposed to pay a $1.00 an hour to park. I paid, but received no receipt after putting the fair in the ticket kiosk. What to do. I decided that if I got a ticket ($50.00) I would explain my dilemma. Later when talking to locals, I was told to reach in and try to free the ticket as it is on a spool and sometimes gets stuck. Who knew. So with a little trepidation, I loaded up my cart and headed down to the beach. The tide was just receding and would continue to recede until well past 11:00 A.M.( Hopefully your visit will co-inside with a low-tide period). As the tide receded it exposed an extensive array of mudflats that were full of a wide variety of wading shorebirds. The beach was a mile or more long, the mudflats a 1/4 mile or so deep. There were no hotels, no houses, just the Sanibel causeway, visible far away. I was immediately enchanted and felt that I had finally found some hidden gem of Florida’s past. To top this, off the bird variety was impressive. Right of the bat, there was a Long-Billed Curlew foraging in a shallow pool of water. I ended up photographing here the next two mornings of my trip and felt that I got the best images and most diverse wildlife of my trip. The list was fairly extensive: along with the Long-Billed Curlew there were Marbled Godwits, Short-Billed Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones, Wilson’s and Piping Plovers, Black Skimmers, Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Reddish Egrets, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, White Pelicans, Royal Terns, White Ibises, Willets, and Sanderlings. Along with the display of wildlife, I felt it was also easier to get more artistic images. Because the small pools of water were calm and separated from the ocean currents, it was much easier to get down low and get photographs of the birds hunting, which included their reflections in the water, against creamy solid color backgrounds. As I said I was enchanted by this beach and would recommend it to all that would listen.
Cape Coral and the Burrowing Owls (Day #4 and #6 P.M.):
Another suggestion from my British friends was to visit Cape Coral and the insanely tame Burrowing Owls there. I had emailed Norman Bateman as per Arthur Morris’ suggestion in his Southwest Florida guide. Norman is a man who lives in Cape Coral and can give you up to date information on the owls. Norman’s reply suggested that if I could postpone my trip until March or April I would have a better chance of seeing more nesting owls. I couldn’t postpone my trip, so I had written the owls off my photography to-do list. But much to my surprise the owls live there year round, though I am sure March and April would bring more interesting courtship behavior. Nevertheless, I wanted to see these little owls.
So after visiting Corkscrew Swamp in the A.M., I headed up to Cape Coral in the P.M.. I drove around the library and spent some time and the BMX Park. I saw where they had marked off the owl’s nesting sites but did not see any owls. Disappointed I headed back to my hotel.
On my second day at Bunch Beach, I ran into my British friends again and he asked me if I had received his email about the Burrowing Owl from Cape Coral. He had been there the same evening as me. Now, my resolve renewed, I headed back up to Cape Coral on the last night of my trip. It is only a 30 minute drive from Fort Myers Beach, so it was a manageable excursion. This time I did see several of the little fellows around the library and did see a pair at the nest, though she ducked away quickly, before I could get my camera set up, and did not return. They are indeed tame and very cute, but once again it is an odd juxtaposition of nature and wildlife as these little critters exist in and around fully developed suburbs, only protected by the small wands that surround their nesting sites.
So despite the interest and novelty of other sites that I visited during my week trip to Southwest Florida, Bunch Beach was far and away my most favorite site of the whole trip. I felt that it included wildlife in their native habitat in a much more pristine setting. I felt like I could finally take a deep breath there.