Friday, 12 August 2011

Florida Bird Photography

Whether it's an osprey flying through the air carrying a fish in it's talons or a gull on a beach trying to figure out how to swallow a sea horse, the images are all in Florida just begging to be captured.

Florida has come a long way since the day of the commercial plume hunters, it's landmark 1901 legislation banning the killing of wading birds, and the death in 1905 of game warden Guy Bradley in the line of duty while he tried to enforce that law. Those were turbulent times in the field of conservation. Today when we photographers visit Florida in winter we take for granted the presence of the multitudes of fabulous birds. But a century ago their survival was very much at risk.

When I first started photographing birds in Florida in the early 80's the hotspot for wetland birds was Everglades National Park, and more specifically the Anhinga Trail and Eco Pond, both near the road into Flamingo.  Today that is no longer the case. While those locations remain OK for photography, the new hotspots are Wakodahatchee and Green Cay Wetlands a couple of hour's drive north.

Both of these wetlands are artificial creations of the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department. Wakodahatchee covers fifty acres and has a 3/4 mile raised boardwalk, while Green Cay is about twice that size. Wakodahatchee means "created waters" in the Seminole language and that description is apropos. The Water Utilities Department decided to create the wetlands as a tertiary filtration system for irrigation purposes and the fringe benefit is that all sorts of birds and other wildlife have moved in.  And due to the presence of the boardwalks, which provide easy access, there are many daily visitors and the birds have consequently become habituated to humans and extremely tolerant. There is no easier place to do bird photography.

Wakodahatchee was opened to the public in 2000 and Green Cay four years later. On any early morning in winter one is likely to come across a photographic workshop in progress, with a half dozen photographers or more grouped together, their huge lenses all focused on some engaging scene.  140 species of birds have been recorded in these refuges, not to mention the other critters that frequent these created waters such as raccoons, turtles, bobcats, river otters and, of course, the iconic alligators.  Nesting birds--mainly anhingas and great blue herons--can be photographed from distances as close as thirty feet.

My main bird photography lens is an 80-400 VR Nikon mounted on a D300 camera body. This gives a maximum effective magnification of 600mm, or twelve power.  Years ago I used a tripod but found that I was missing too many good photo opportunities, especially of birds in flight. Since giving up the encumbrance of  a tripod my images have become much more dynamic.

While these two wetlands are the most easy and productive for photography there are, of course, many other worthwhile locations to capture bird imagery. The Gulf Coast of  Florida near Venice and Naples is my next most favorite locale, where birds like the snowy egret can be seen fishing in the surf and great blue herons fly along the the shoreline with their huge wingspans conjuring up the notion of prehistoric times. 

There is no doubt about it-- Florida is where to go for birds in winter. There is really no other place that hands you on a silver platter such a variety of easily photographable avian species.

Mark Newman

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