Wednesday, January 6, 2010

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.

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