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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Don't fly Continental...

...or United. I have suffered some bad airlines before. Canada air used to be atrotious, they picked up their game though, Iberia I will not tollerate and I thought I had seen the worst. Until we flew from New York back to Munich with Continental/United. Now, we Europeans are used to having a beer or a glass of wine with our meal, usually complimentary as we are not flying Ryan Air. Entertainment  is usually a nice touch screen with on-demand films and programming. Food is usually on the edible side of bad. Children recieve a small toy to keep them busy for a few minutes, they enjoy getting a present, then they watch a film on the screen. Check-in desks are usually staffed, especially when travelling with a child with friendly folk.

I will start with the check-in, maybe it is just Newark but we arrived late, our fault, only to be greeted by a row of machines. Machines which should scan our passports, but didn't quite manage, would be fine if more than one person was there to help people using the eight screens. Eight people who all needed their bags tagged, their passports entering and their bottoms wiping. I imagine when it works it is great but when six people are checking in at one screen, three of us at another and all the rest then things become confused. We were late but said member of staff did not help us before she had sorted out the noisy women checking in all at once. I have heard of economising but this was ridiculous, one person and some dumb machines.

On the three hour flight from Miami to Orlando we are asked to pay for our entertainment, $5, I think not. Three hours and not even a sandwich, I remember vaguely getting a drink, of water.

Once aboard our Munich flight we tried to switch on our screens. Black. Nothing. Zero. The in-flight magazine touted plenty of films I had not seen, should be good, if only the screen worked. Eventually they reset the system, bingo, a picture. But we were informed that the entertainment system is "tape based" and is prone to bugs. Tape? I think I owned one of those in the 80's. So the films on the tape were complete crap, nothing I could show my daughter. Then the screens went blank, for the two of us. Time for the laptop and some Bambi time.

Then the drinks arrived, juice and soft stuff unless you wanted to pay for it, on principle I would not.
Then the "food" arrived. "Chicken" with "rice" was rice, I am sure of it, but it had a funny texture and absolutely no taste. My daughter loves rice, she did not eat this stuff. The "chicken" was definately protein based but thank goodness, for my daughters sake, I had brough beef jurkey and nuts. We had a feast while those around us suffered.

Now in the USA we never ate at a restaurant which did not cater for children. My daughter always recieved crayons, paper and a cool plastic drinking straw cup. So it came as a suprise that on a flight costing quite a bit, and she being nearly three paid her seat, we recieved nothing. Zero. Nada. Which was hard to explain to her as she thought the lady would let her chose a small something, which she gets on every flight in Europe, even the short ones. It is something to look forward to, a sweetener for the nine hours of misery to come. Looking after children is, afterall, in their best interests because one day they get big and travel.

So Continental is on my black list, I would rather fly Cousin Cletus Air and pay for the outside toilets and live banjo show than give any money to that company again. That our luggage remained in Miami was just the nail in the coffin.

Rant over. Here is a nice photo from the trip ;)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As you may have garnered from my previous post this years family holiday was in Florida, a place I have been wanting to visit for a few years, maybe even before that when I was a fisherman. Anyway, we had twelve days to follow the west coast and the Everglades, finally ending up in the Keys. After spending four days of sunshine, cold, rain, wind and snow in New York I was pretty happy to be leaving (it may be noted I HATE cities). Of course Florida is far from my much loved 0°C or under, but hell, makes a change.

Driving from Orlando to Clearwater I could have had multiple chances to shoot cranes, egrets, herons, ibis and raptors but the interstate is not the place for that.

Clearwater beach.
As described in my previous post I met up with a good friend, Bill Lockhart, in Clearwater. Bill showed me a thing or two about Floridian wildlife, namely that it does not scare so easily. We had a great morning and I came home with way too many pictures and great memories.

Clearwater beach is a busy resort but despite this you can still shoot pelicans, terns, shore birds and ospreys along the beach... some of them with a 24-105 lens! Like I say, they do not scare easily and are quite used to humans. Just driving around the area there are multiple parks and roads where you will find umpteen possibilities to shoot, ospreys nest by the road or among the houses and shore birds are everywhere.

Honeymoon Island is also worth a drive, the beach is great and we watched dolphins from here. There are also trails which are worth walking, if you do not have a pushchair and do have insect repellant. We lasted ten minutes but were eaten alive and got stuck in the sand. We did see a bald eagle however, one of the few we did see and quite close and a gopher tortoise.

Florida is cool. You don't need to rush anywhere and nowhere was it more obvious than in Sanibel, a laid back island of big houses and bigger boats. Driving the causeway from the mainland give great views and plenty of ospreys, if I knew then what I know now I would have spent a morning along the causeway.

My first visit to the beach was when I found this fellow having a wash in the shallow waters of a sand bar, right in front of the hotel. I rushed back, daughter in my arms and grabbed my lens (I have to say my daughter stayed in the room with my ever suffering). This was the only chance I got to shoot an osprey at eye level and I am glad I took the chance.

Sanibel island is also home to the Ding Darling reserve, which I first visited on a Friday, only to find it closed :| So I was up early on Saturday shooting anhingas, cormorants, spoon bills, ibis and many heron and egret types. White pelicans also turned up.

 Now I have seen crocodiles before, in Australia and Africa, but I had never been given the chance to get close. I love crocodiles, they have stood the test of time and have cool features (such as disease resistance and super healing wounds, they rarely die from infection even after losing a limb).  I know American alligators are less agressive than their big brothers but i was still very careful when approaching this guy. It was early and he was still cold, my chance to get close was now or never. He knew he was not big enough to eat me, not whole anyway, and I knew he knew that - but he could still take an arm if he tried. Either way I patiently crawled my way as close as I dare, until his head lifted a touch, got my shots and left him in peace. He was there again that evening when I returned with the family, but after a day of him being snapped by tourists I figured I would just use the 500 and be done with it.

We dined one day at Grandma Dotts, a cay side restaurant, and here I found a few willing ospreys. One was perched on a small airplane eating his dinner. Another in the nest kept screaming at the other, presumably this was the female ;)

Leaving Sanibel we did stop for a walk along the causeway.

Homestead and the 'Glades.
Homestead was our base for the Everglades, it is not near the coast and a bit too busy to be anything but a base. Still, you may see one or two raptors flying around, especially vultures.We made the mistake of going for Mexican food here, real Mexican, which is why it was bland and mushy, and somewhat greasy. Gimme Taco Bel!

Getting to Homestead we took the Tamiami trail which cuts right through Everglade country. You will see some 'gators by the road and plenty of birds along the channels running parallel to the road. A stop in Everglade City was also worthwhile as the fish at a market, I cannot remember the name of, was cheap, fresh and perfect. Of course it came with fries, deep fried, in a sandwich or deep fried in a sandwich!

We took the road through the Everglades stopping at various trails and picnic spots, eventually arriving in Flamingo. We would have done an airboat ride if we had realized it was not actually possible inside the park. Damn. The boardwalks are well worth a visit, although they can get busy, but do not expect too much. There were some very, interested in us, black vultures but they were no match for my daughter and soon scarpered when she went for a cuddle. But they were close, so close I had to take 4 shots and stitch them using the 5D and 500.
But I saw more in a few minutes around Clearwater than the few hours we spent walking here in the Everglades. There is a huge amount of space and the wildlife is widespread.

I guess I was also expecting something different, this being my first trip to the real USofA. The Everglades is a national park but the whole thing is dotted with boat ramps, fishermen and poeple doing stuff you don't expect in a NP. Everything is easy and easy to access, roads are tar and picnic spots have toilets. It is not quite the swampy wild nature I was expecting. So I came away disappointed, despite seeing manitees in Flamingo.

 One great opportunity came at a picnic spot by a lake, a lone 'gator sat in the shallows, perhaps waiting for tourist titbits (totally unallowed). I tried to get as low as possible without getting too close, despite the sun I also wanted to try and blur the waves, I did get down to 1/4 of a second, at the cost of f/32 image quality.

Airboats. We stopped at Coopertown, population 8, for a forty minute ride on an overpackd boat for $22. Private charters start at $200 an hour, I was tempted believe me! If I ever come again I would prefer to spend more time looking for stuff I want to shoot, not what the guide thinks I want.....namely alligators. We saw a few small ones but forty minutes is not enough to discover this landscape, besides there we bigger crocs along the road! Maybe next time.

The Keys.
The end of our holiday was spent in the warm and relaxed Keys, we stayed on Conch Key a tiny island owned by the hotel. This is good, means it is exclusive. Also it is bad as the smaller the island the closer you are to the road! But an impressive road it is, 127 miles long, quite alot of it is causeway or bridges.

I cannot recommend this as a wildlife destination. I saw less here than anywhere else, it is a far more touristy destination with beaches and hotels. There were shore birds, cormorants and ospreys but nothing in any number or as close as in other places. We did drive down for a look at Key West, but only do this for the novelty, it is a loud and busy place.

A family holiday is no place to capture great images of wildlife, there just is not time. A whole day would be needed at Ding Darling for example, to catch the different tides would have been nice. More time too would be needed to try and get that elusive fishing osprey, a shot i really wanted was the osprey emerging from the water with a fish. Dolphins can also be captured from some of the boat charters, rushing through the wake as the boats speed up. So much to do. I would also like to get to Augustine Alligator farm for the breeding season, lake Kisimee and Cape Coral. But these were not immediately obvious family holiday destinations. So next time. Means I get to go back and hire my trusty guide once again, hope he still has that 1DIV and 70-300 L if I do. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A morning with the Maestro

For a long time now I have wanted to travel to Florida to sample the avian delights it has to offer and when a good friend of mine, Bill Lockhart, offered to be my guide for a day I jumped at the chance. Of course this was a family holiday, not a photo safari, so my time was limited and I needed a good guide.

Unfortunately my guide had no idea how to approach wildlife photography, in fact he took me to an industrial area looking for sandhill cranes. I was starting to think his nickname "Crazy 'ole Bill" was not just given in jest.

Upon finding a willing threesome I was ready to don my RealtreeHD outfit, hike through a swamp, setup a blind (hide), use some decoy calls and sit for a few hours in the hope they would approach me and I could get a single shot using my 500mm L and tele-converter. But the darned guide got so excited, wanted to test his new camera and wildlife lens, he was off before I could so much as say "Mossy oak leaf suit"!

 So off I ran to to get a good position, a position which the terrified birds were sure to pass. Sure enough, my guide had scared the living wits out of the cranes and they were on their way.

One of the poor creatures was so scared it tried to disguise itself as a squirrel and started to eat a pine cone.

Another as a woodpecker.

In the end they reported us to a security guard and we had to leave.

My guide took me to various spots in the Clearwater and Dunedin area, each time we stalked the birds and wildlife "Florida" style, here is a quick check list for those uninitiated.

1. Park your vehicle, don't worry if you are driving fast, skidding to a halt is acceptable.
2. Open your door, jump out and slam the door shut.
3. Open the rear door to retrieve your gear, take time to swap lenses or bodies, then slam the door shut.
4. Now walk right up to the intended victim and shoot away, do not get too close it will probably walk towards you anyway.
5. Curse loudly at only having brought a tele prime with you, not being able to zoom back to 24mm is a real problem in Florida.
6. Once home check all your shots of the birds head, eye or beak. Many will be out of focus as the critters wandered within minimum focusing distance.

No really, my guide opened my eyes. You see Bill Lockhart has for many a year posted wonderful images of birds and wildlife (and the occasional landscape), I figured he had an air-boat and used it to navigate swamps. Once in his blind I was sure Bill sat for hours on end, swatting mosquitoes and fighting alligators in order to take that one shot which danced on my screen.

I now know different. I now know the wildlife is everywhere and not (yet?) persecuted in Florida. Ospreys nest along the roads and in the housing estates. Terns and waders go happily about their business on busy beaches and causeways. Sandhill cranes hunt in the grass around industrial units. Deer wander in public parks oblivious to the human activity. It is truly amazing.

So I leave you for now with a few more images taken that morning with my good friend Bill, with who I have, for many years, communicated with over the wires. It was a pleasure to finally meet in person, a like minded soul searching for that special something in his photos, as in life. Adventure, light and balance. You can find Bill, a Floridian all his life, here. His images speak for themselves, go find them.

I even had the privilege to shoot some of  LPU 409 (Local Pelican Union) despite my lack of license they agreed to charge Bill more fish on his next time around. Here we see Lady Hildegard Von Wurstwasser preening, she is a large lady and I had to stitch three shots together to fit her all in.

The herons are less fussy, they will work for crabs.

The skimmers just sit and watch.

The deer hide until a photographer happens along, then they jump out and pose. I had to walk backwards just to focus.

The ospreys just look on, in awe of our professionalism.

Many thanks Bill for a memorable morning.