Friday, January 22, 2010

Florida Birding: St. Marks / Panacea Florida.

Good morning.

It is Friday (Jan. 22) morning and I drove down to Florida on Monday. On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, I stayed in Panacea, Florida. Unfortunately I was unable to get online during my visit there and this is my first chance to add to my blog. This morning I am in St. Cloud, FL. My hope this morning was to go to various birding places along Canoe Creek Road south of town; however, it is now pouring down rain and lightning flashes are everywhere (this area is called the "lightning capitol of the world"). I hope to get out to photograph later in the day. Back to the first leg of my trip in Panacea.

Panacea is home to the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. This is small company owned by a local couple. Their primary work is to collect marine specimens to sell to Educational Institutions (primarily colleges) and medical labs. They also maintain an aquarium display open to the public. There are no huge glass aquaria holding thousands of gallons of water. Instead these are smaller tanks; in some of the tanks visitors are encouraged to reach in and touch or feel the specimens. As a former high school biology teacher, I used to teach ABOUT such exotic life forms as sponges, starfish, sea urchins, etc. We saw picture of these organisms and had a few preserved specimens for students to examine, but we never saw the living colorful specimens. At this aquarium you can see the REAL things. In addition the owners have authored a number of books about their adventures while capturing their specimens. I have enjoyed reading a number of these. The flounder pictured below was taken in one of those tanks. This was the first place I visited.
Surrounding Panacea and running miles along the Gulf Coast is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I visited many sites along the Gulf looking for specimens to photograph. Most of my photos were captured along the road to the St. Marks Lighthouse. You can reach the drive from State Route 98 in Newport, Florida. It is a seven mile drive from Route 98 to the St. Marks Lighthouse. You should stop at the Visitor Center on your way in to pay the $5.00 daily fee, to pick up maps and directions; the Visitor Center also offers some displays on local wildlife, a small gift shop, and a half-mile nature walk near the facility (and, oh yes, nice rest rooms). As you make the drive down to the lighthouse you pass by many open water areas on both sides of the paved road with turnouts for parking; there are also trailheads for many hiking trails at the site. While traveling the road I often photograph directly from my car.

When you near the lighthouse area, there is a boat launch area to your right. You can park in the parking area here and get some wonderful overview shots of the lighthouse from afar. Leaving the boat ramp area and turning right, you reach the end of the road where the lighthouse is found. This lighthouse is open to the public only on certain occasions, but makes a great photographic subject. There is also a 1/4 mile Levee Trail where you can hike while looking down into a water basin on the right and Appalachicola Bay on your left.

Exactly what you will see depends on time of the year, time of the day, weather, etc. In October Monarch Butterflies arrive by the thousands on their migration into Mexico (they do not fly directly across the bay, but make their way along the shoreline of the bay and through St. Marks). In January, migrating Whooping Cranes arrive from Wisconsin (being lead there by an ultralight airplane). While their exact location is kept secret while they acclimate to the area during the springs they begin to migrate around the refuge on their own.
Panacea has some excellent seafood restaurants often serving seafood actually caught by local fisherman. Two of my favorites are the Coastal Restaurant and Posey's Oyster Bar.
On Wednesday, I drove 300 miles from Panacea, Florida to St. Cloud, Florida to visit and photograph along Canoe Creek Road. More on that later. Attached below are some photos taken at St. Marks. Pictured below are the following: A St. Marks alligator, a great white egret, the St. Mark's Lighthouse, a male red-headed duck, two brown pelicans, a flounder from the aquarium, and a ring-necked duck. St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge...a lesser-known, but great place to visit.

Monday, January 18, 2010

First Wildlife Photo Trip to Florida in 2010

Today I began my first 2010 wildlife photography trip to Florida.
After visiting my granddaughter I drove from Collinsville, Illinois to Dothan, Alabama where I will spend tonight.

Tomorrow morning I will drive to south of Tallahassee, Florida to St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge and visit that area. I will drive through the refuge and also visit a salt water aquarium
in Panacea, Florida where I love to visit. If I am successful tomorrow, I will likely stay an extra day in the area before moving on to central Florida.

My next site will be Canoe Creek Road south of Kissimmee. A couple of years ago, I purchased a Bird Photo Guide for that region and until now haven't take the time to investigate the thirty-mile road. I hope to observe and photograph the Caracaras which frequent the area.

On Friday or Saturday I will move to Sanford, Florida where I will visit family and also visit
bird sites on Lake Monroe, Lake Woodruff NWR, and New Smyrna Beach Park.

On Tuesday of next week I will move to Titusville, Florida and participate in the 13th Annual Space Coast Birding Festival until Jan. 31. I was here last year and found it to be very educational and a source for many fine bird photographs.

Time permitting (and internet access permitting), I hope to update my blog as often as I am able. I hope you'll check back often.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Photographing Birds in Florida: Lake Woodruff NWR

One of the best kept secrets in bird photography in central Florida is Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. This site is accessible from DeLeon Springs, Florida just a few miles north of Deland, Florida on U.S. Route 17.

If you like to photograph from your car as I do, this site will at first seem disappointing. After following the signs for the refuge in DeLeon Springs, you will access a single road into the refuge you will reach a parking lot. As you walk from the parking lot into an open area you will find a display with a map of the facility. There are three waer impoundments at the site; each has elevated berms which allow you walk and look down into the water to the left and to the right. A walk around Impoundment 1 is a one-mile walk (the one I have used the most); a walk around Impoundment is about 2 miles long (I have walked this a couple of times) and around Impoundment 3 over three miles (I have never completed this path).

The wildlife encountered depends on the season and water levels. Almost always you will see
Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Black Vultures, Alligators, Common Moorhens, White Ibises and Snowy Egrets. I often see American Bitterns, Soras, Tricolor herons, Glossy Ibises and Little Blue Herons. I occasionally see Sand Hill Cranes, Limpkins, and Black-Necked Stilts. There used to be a pair of Whooping Cranes which migrated down for the winter from Wisconsin. I was told that one of the pair was killed in Wisconsin and the mate has not returned. I have also photographed butterflies and other insects while hiking the refuge.

Often while I am hiking along on the berms of Lake Woodruff that I enjoy that "lucky to be alive today" feeling and am thankful that I have the time and opportunity to photograph the wonders of nature. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Photographing Birds in Florida: St. Mark's National WIldlife Refuge

Located about 20 miles south of Tallahassee along the Gulf of Mexico is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge contains amlost 65,000 acres of land and water stretching from St. Marks, FL to south of Panacea, FL.

The main route people use for viewing wildlife is the Lighthouse Road (C.R. 59). This is a seven mile paved road which winds through the refuge from the Visitor Center to the Lighthouse at the end. Along the road a pull-offs and trailheads for hiking throughout the facility. At the end of the road is a parking area for the St. Marks Lighthouse which was built in 1866. Though entry to lighthouse is usually closed to the public, each night the light continues to shine across Apalachicola Bay.

You should begin your visit by stopping at the Visitor Center to check on wildlife spottings, obtain maps of the facility, visit their museum displays and visit their gift shop. There is also a 1/3 mile Plum Orchard Pond Trail around a pond behind the center. As you begin driving the road to the lighthouse, be sure to check the ponds and reservoirs beside the road. About five miles from the Visitor Center you will note a turn out with rest rooms. Near the parking area is the trial head for the Mounds Intrepretive Trail, a one-mile hike through the hammock.

At the end of the road near the Lighthouse is the trail head for the Levee Trail a 1/4 miles trail along the edge of the bay. There are also other trailheads for longer primitive walking trails along the pathway. While at the Lighthouse note the long dock skeleton jutting out into the bay. Often pelicans, terns, and other birds can be seen occupying each site along the top of the dock support posts.

During October, Monarch butterflies pass through St. Marks by the thousands on their migration into Mexico. In January a small group of whooping cranes are led by ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to nearby St. Marks, Florida. While their final location is a highly guarded secret the refuge sponsors a flyover event when they arrive in the area. St. Marks is usually where I begin any bird photography journey I make to Florida.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Photographing Birds in the Everglades: Shark Valley

Along route 41 (also called Tamiami Trail) is the north entrance into the Everglades and the Shark Valley Visitor Center. As you pull into the drive to the Visitor Center you will see a canal to you right and maybe see birds or alligators there. Leaving from the parking area is a fifteen miles (round trip) one-way paved road out into the Everglades. Seven and one-half miles out there is a tall observation tower which gives an excellent view of the structure of this wonderful marsh. You can hike the trail, bicycle the trail (bring your own or rent at the visitor center), or take a guided tram ride. The tram ride is excellent; one the ride they discuss the origins and maintenance of the Everglades and stop and point out wildlife as they encounter it. It is well worth the cost. I have been
here a number of times and still take the tram ride each time. You can also stay around the Visitor Center a photograph along the tram road or along short trails in the area.

After your visit, if time permits when you leave drive west for a few miles. You will soon enter Big Cypress National Preserve. This area is a true swamp with deep water and large cypress trees as the main vegetation. A visit to the Visitor Center will help you to understand that the Everglades is a marsh while the preserve is a swamp. There is also loop road which will take you through Big Cypress for more photographic opportunities.

Also along Tamiami Trail are various vendors offering air-boat rides, gift shops, and food.
The Everglades Visitor Centers offer only vending machines.

Photographing Birds in the Everglades: Flamingo Road

When photographing birds in Florida, the Everglades National Park is not to be missed. When visiting, I usually stay in Homestead or Florida CIty just a few miles from the Eastern entrance to the park. As you enter the park be sure to stop at the Ernest Cole Visitor Center. Check out their schedule for ranger-led programs offered each day; I've attended a number and found them very educational and interesting. Also in the Visitor Center you may inquire about interesting bird / wildlife sightings. One year I was told of a Vermillion Flycatcher located near the entrance (see below). I backtracked to the site and was able to get some shots. Another time there was news of a "battle" between an alligator and a python (one of the many non-native species now thriving in the park) along Anhinga Trail; while they were gone when I drove there I would not have learned about it otherwise. The Visitor Center often has a great photographic display in one of their rooms.
Flamingo Road is a 37-mile paved drive which twists through the park and ends up in a small village on the Florida Bay. At one time, Flamingo had a motel, a nice restaurant, a gift shop, camping areas, and a service station/convenience store near the marina. As a result of a recent hurricane only the camp sites, marina, and convenience store remain.

As you drive the 37 miles to Flamingo there are a number of turn-offs along the road where you
can stop and explore a number of different ecological habitats which make up the Everglades. A few miles from the entrance to the park you will find the road to the Royal Palm VIsitor Center. Turn right here and drive toward the Visitor Center. Near the parking area are the trailheads to two trails: Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail. Anhinga Trail is my favorite place to photograph birds in the Everglades. The trail winds for a half mile (about half paved walkway and half boardwalk) into the marsh. As you walk along you will often see birds and alligators along the canal to your left. On the boardwalk section you will see even more alligators. Many of the birds are well-acclimated to people and will remain very close as you walk by. This can result in some great bird close ups without having the super-telephoto lenses required in other areas of the park. Gumbo Limbo (one of the tree types in the Everglades) Trail is a walk through a hardwood hammock (wooded area). While I have not take a lot of bird photos along the trail, it gives you insight about the ecology of those special areas. I have seen snails on the trees while take this walk.
As you drive toward Flamingo, there will be other places to stop and enjoy the special ecology of
the Everglades. At Long Pine Key and Pinelands the elevation of the land allows pine trees to survive and there are trails here for walking through the pine woodlands.
At Pa-hay-okee Overlook you can walk a short distance along a boardwalk and get a view of the typical scene of the Everglades. It is NOT a deep swamp with large cypress trees, rather it is a shallow marsh of sawgrass with small "tree islands" scattererd throughout. Each tree island is classified by the type of tree which dominates and that domination is determined by the "elevation" of that area.
Further turnouts can be found at Mahogany Hammock, West Lake, Nine Mile Lake, Paurotis Pond, Mrazek Pond and you will finally reach Flamingo. At Flamingo there used to be an excellent bird photo site called EcoPond; each night near sunset white ibises from all around would fly toward Ecopond to roost in the trees for the night. Those while ibises would be painted pink or orange as the setting sun cast its evening light. Unfortunately the hurricane a few years ago, uprooted most the roosting trees and destroyed the elevated observation tower for photography. So that attraction has been lost (though there are still birds in the area). While walking around Flamingo along Florida Bay White and Brown Pelicans still come the area and can be photographed from the elevated walkway that takes you the Visitor Center (and used to take you to the restaurant). When walking around the marina near the convenience center keep a sharp eye along the shoreline across the water. An American CROCODILE is often seen sunning itself on the shore. There are excellent walking trails at Flamingo. Take plenty of drinking water and insect repellent with you as you hike them.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Photographing Birds in Florida: Viera Wetlands

Like the Blue Heron facility in TItusville, the Viera Wetlands (recently renamed the Ritch Grissom Memorial Weltands) is a facility designed to store and recycle water used in the area. It is a 200 acre facility divided into four ponds or cells. There are roads around each of the cells and they
offer opportunity to view Florida's native wildlife and vegetation. Viera Wetlands can be
reached by driving south on Interstate toward the Melbourne area. Exit at the Wickham Road
exit and follow the signs to the wetland. A map of the facility is available on the website for the facility and as you enter the facility.

I have visited this site numerous times as part of the Space Coast Birding Festival conducted in January. I have some great shots of feeding snowy egrets, mating Great Blue Herons, ibises,
Sand Hill Cranes, and others. On one trip I saw an eagle and I understand that there is a pair of nesting caracaras in the area (though I've only seen them in the distance). Enjoy this facility.

If interested, the Brevard County Zoo is only a short drive away.