Florida's West Coast
Several years ago, a friend offered us the use of a mobile home in the Ft. Myers area of Florida for our Christmas vacation. Little did any of us know that that would be the beginning of a love affair that is still going on! The west coast of Florida is a wonderland of beautiful birds, flowers, and experiences, from swimming with manatees, to listening to alligator bulls calling to their prospective mates, to watching sandhill cranes dance in cow pastures alongside the road. Great photographs can be found just about anywhere, but there are some places that are our favorites. We were also helped in our search for good photo sites by a document known as "Frank's Nifty Fifties", a photocopied collection of good picture-taking spots compiled by a retired physician named Frank whom we met at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. We have since investigated almost all of Frank's places, and owe him a debt of gratitude for many of our pictures! A lot of those hot spots are described here, for your photographing pleasure, as well.
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
Every spot we visited in Florida became my favorite spot, but because this was our first photography site there, I still love it best. Located on Sanibel Island, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was established by Harry S. Truman in 1945, with the strong encouragement of J. N. "Ding" Darling, an environmentalist and a cartoonist. The refuge protects 220 species of birds, along with alligators, an American Crocodile that sometimes strays into the area, tree crabs, raccoons, turtles, and lots of other unlikely denizens. The best times to visit the refuge are during low tide and in the early morning and evening. We have watched raccoons feast on berries in a tree right over our heads, and roseate spoonbills going to roost on tiny mangrove islands just off-shore. We have photographed all of the big wading birds on the refuge--great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, black- and yellow-crowned night herons, little blue herons, and reddish herons--at one time or another. We have also seen the white pelicans that spend the winter there (true snow-birds), as well as brown pelicans. We have watched osprey devour their fishy meals and collect huge beak-fuls of moss to line their nests. At one time, we could see the mangrove tree crabs creep their way up and down the mangrove branches, but they disappeared during a recent hurricane, and have never returned. As you may have guessed, this is a photo hot-spot, indeed! Just a word about Sanibel Island. It is rather costly to get to the Island, as you have to cross a toll bridge. Once there, the traffic can be horrendous, as there is really only one main road that runs the length of the island. It is worth it to visit, though, both for the wildlife refuge and for the beaches, which offer great shelling opportunities. A good place to eat is "Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar and Grille", inspired by author Randy Wayne White's fictional character who lives on Sanibel. The food is excellent, as are the service and ambience.
Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
Located in Ft. Myers, Florida, this preserve is a long, narrow gem of a place to get good photos. We have seen everything from river otters to pileated woodpeckers in this peaceful place. To view the slough, visitors follow a boardwalk trail through the cypress swamp. During the wet season, water flows through the swamp, making it seem like a very shallow stream. During the dry season, deeper pools still hold water, but much of the ground is dry. In the big pools, wading birds and wood storks fish or bask. A belted kingfisher swoops above the water, and turtles lie out on logs in the sunshine. An alligator or two are also usually visible. One pool, lined with mangrove trees, is a rookery for yellow-crowned night herons. Apple snails lay their eggs on weed stems just above the high water level. Indigo snakes and cotton mouths hunt in the dry grasses. Along the boardwalk are signs with quotations about the importance of the environment and the beauty of wild things. It was here at the Slough that we saw our first cotton-mouth in the wild, and also the first bald cypress trees close up. The delicate green of their needles as they begin to get their leaves back in the spring is just beautiful. This is also a place to catch glimpses of river otters if you are very lucky. They travel under and around the board walks at will as they hunt for meals. While there is no Visitor Center per se, there are good restrooms and often docents wait at various spots along the boardwalk to answer questions and point out interesting sights. There is a small fee that you pay in a box as you enter the preserve, but it is very modest and the trip is well worth the cost.
This small colony is notable mainly for two bird species: the monk parakeets that nest in trees near two of the sports complexes, and the burrowing owls that nest in holes in many of the vacant lots in town. The burrowing owls, tiny but feisty birds that were featured in the film "Hoots", are charming photographic subjects. They are pretty used to people's admiring stares and will let a photographer get fairly near. Be careful not to try to get too close, though, because it isn't wise to scare them too far from their burrows. The best bet is to decide what angle you want to shoot at, get settled in, and just wait. The bird will begin to behave naturally, and if you are very lucky, a second owl will pop out of the burrow to see what's up. To find out more about Cape Coral's owls, go to the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife page.
There are other good subjects that sometimes present themselves at Cape Coral, as well. One day as we were looking for the monk parakeets, an osprey flew up to land on a light and devoured a fish as we shot pictures. We also got some good pictures of cattle egrets in breeding plumage hunting for bugs in a field on a cool rainy morning. There are active eagles' nests on Cape Coral, but we have not investigated them yet.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
The National Audubon Society operates this sanctuary near Naples, Florida. It is one of my favorite places to photograph because of the variety of plant and animal life that is showcased there. The sanctuary actually exists to protect the nesting rookeries of the wood storks. These birds are endangered, in large part because of water level and food availablility issues. However, it isn't the wood storks that people visit the sanctuary for. It's the chance to see unspoiled cypress swamps from the vantage point of the board walks that meander through the ecosystem. We have seen and photographed everything from the painted bunting pair that visits the bird feeders near the visitor center to a pygmy rattlesnake. We have also photographed red-shouldered hawks, a barred owl, almost every species of herons (especially the little blue herons), tree frogs, swamp lilies, pileated woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and of course alligators. One of Bill's favorite photos features a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and one of mine is of a little blue heron hunting for food in a water lettuce filled pool.
The sanctuary also features a very nice Visitor's Center with a gift shop. This should be a must-see spot on your visit to Florida.
Myakka State Park
It is my considered opinion that Florida provides the best state parks in the country. (Admittedly I haven't had the privilege of visiting state parks in all 50 states, so I don't have too much basis for comparison!) However it is true that Florida's state parks can't be beat for variety and facilities, and Myakka State Park is one of the better examples. This park encompasses the Myakka River and includes several of Florida's fresh-water ecosystems. It was here in Myakka that we first saw the elusive and secretive limpkins, birds that prefer to eat apple snails. Once I actually saw a limpkin with chicks, but was unable to photograph them.
The river itself is home to some very large alligators. A trip on the Wildlife Airboat can offer an opportunity to see these animals close up and give an idea of their numbers. Sandhill cranes, wood storks, most varieties of wading birds, Florida soft-shell turtles, wild pigs, and shore birds abound in this park. If you are into plants and flowers, the park is a haven. Bromeliads line branches in the forest along the Canopy Walkway trail. Orchids are visible among the tree branches, especially from the top of the Walkway. Add to that all of the palms, oaks, and Spanish moss, and you have some very good plant photography possibilities.
Myakka can be a challenge at times. For example, during the dry season, the airboat can't run at all, and your only option for seeing the park is a tram ride. This is a good choice, since it gives you an overview of the history of the area and some tidbits of information on the ecology of the land. During the wet season, it can be a real challenge to reach the Canopy Walkway because the trail floods. Sometimes you have to wade through giant puddles and other times you must slog through mudholes.
The amenities at Myakka include a gift shop that serves snack foods (including alligator bites) and ice cream along with a small but interesting collection of souvenirs. There is a nice picnic area and a dam where you may see wading birds feeding right next to giant alligators. There are also cabins and camping sites, but we have not yet explored them.
Located near Sarasota County, the Laurel Landfill offers great shots of a wide variety of birds. We visited twice and got some great shots each time. One of the best birds to photograph here is the vulture. The landfill has both turkey vultures and black vultures in great numbers. The first time we visited, the vultures filled every tree along the access road. The second time, we watched an eagle tussle with a wood stork for a big bone from the landfill. (The wood stork won.) My first photos of sandhill cranes--and probably the best, also--were taken along the perimeter road as the birds fed in a flooded ditch. We also found meadow larks, wading birds of all kinds, glossy and white ibises, white-tailed deer, and many bald eagles. We got some good shots of both adult and immature eagles as they scavenged on the landfill and perched in trees nearby. My only good shots of glossy ibises came as we watched them hunt in the ditches at the base of the mountain of trash.
If you visit the landfill, please stop at the Visitor's Center to pick up a map and to find out the rules for driving the perimeter road. The people manning the center are very helpful and can give you a run-down on what is being sighted on any given day. There are also rest rooms available as well.
For watching and photographing the big wading birds mating and raising their chicks, Venice Rookery is unparalleled. Located in an unlikely spot--behind the State Highway Patrol building in the city of Venice--this site nonetheless is outstanding, especially during the main breeding months of January through March. Great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, night herons, ibises, and anhingas all nest on the small island in the center of a pond. The nests are in full view of the opposite bank, making for excellent photo opportunities. First thing in the morning you can see birds coming and going with food and sticks for nests. In late evening, the ibises storm in to roost for the night, making for spectacular flight pictures. We have been at the Rookery both in late December and in March. In December, the shrubs that cover the island have bright red berries that add some striking color to contrast the birds' plumages. In March we were able to get some good shots of the chicks being tended to by their parents. On our first visit, I was charmed by a wood stork dancing in the grass across the road from the pool. I also got some nice pictures of a cuban anole displaying his bright dew lap among the weeds along the water and a classic head shot of a great blue fishing for frogs.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is an amazing resource for photographers. It encompasses a huge variety of ecosystems with all sorts of interesting subjects. At the Shark Valley Visitor's Center, you can pick up a tram and ride through the "River of Grass" and get a good perspective on the factors that make this area so special. On the tram you may expect to see lots of alligators and wading birds. You may catch a glimpse of a swallow-tail kite or a snail kite as they soar above the earth. It is possible that you might see a family of sand hill cranes searching for frogs or snakes in the tall grasses. The real thrill, though, is getting very close to very big alligators as you walk along the canal beside the tram road. Thes guys will let you come fairly close, but beware! They can turn in an instant, and might mistake you for a 'gator hors d'oevres if you aren't very careful. In short, don't try to pull their tails or let your child sit on their backs for a quick picture. Once we were treated to the sound and sight of a bull alligator calling to prospective mates.
Along with the alligators, you may spy a Florida gar or a soft-shelled turtle swimming in the brownish water (no, not dirty, just colored with tannic acid) of the canal. The purple gallinule, a gorgeous bird with blue and purple plumage and the longest toes you can imagine, may stroll out of the foliage to tiptoe across the spatterdock lily pads in search of lunch, or a little green heron may startle you with its raucous cry as it fishes in the shallows and shadows of the canal edge. Shark Valley offers a nature photographer all the comforts of home--photographically, that is. It is a can't miss experience.
The Visitors' Center has a small gift shop with lots of good resource books. There are very clean bathrooms and lots of parking. There is also a small gift and snack shop run by the concessionaire that handles the tram ride. However, you will need to go out of the park to get to any food spots.
Turner River Road
While not actually a part of Everglades National Park, Turner River Road is a great place to continue your views of alligators and wading birds. To get there, head west on Tamiami Trail (US route 41) from Shark Valley. Watch for the H. P. Williams Roadside Park on your right. This facility features rest rooms and a boardwalk and viewing platform. Some of the biggest alligators hang out around this platform. Turner River Road is a crushed rock roadway that heads straight into Big Cypress National Preserve. The road is hot, dry and very dusty, especially when inconsiderate drivers speed by. Watch your lenses when the dust storms erupt! The photo opportunities are worth the dust, though. All species of wading birds abound along the canal, as of course do alligators. We have photographed a bittern pretending to be a tree branch and followed a kingfisher trying to get a good shot. One spring day, we found a flock of purple martins playing follow-the-leader in amazing formations up the canal. The birds and alligators are a little more shy here than at shark valley, but you can still get some fantastic shots. Bill has a panorama fo alligators basking along the canal that is pretty terrific.
If you visit Turner River Road, you will need a hat, sunscreen, and a lot of patience for all the dust, but it is well worth it.
As you can see, the possiblities of photography on Florida's west coast are endless. We photographed manatee in Kings Bay, magnificent frigate birds and dolphins on Marco Island, and a crested caracal in a tree high above the roadside. I haven't even begun to hit all of the great spots, but I will leave the rest to you to discover.