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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. 


  1. Not bad at all for a family holiday...great pics and good write up. Might just to add it to the list of possible destinations for the future!

  2. Loved reading your blog Neil. Lovely photos.

  3. Fantastic shots, it looks like a paradise for nature photography........