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I went to Florida one February and you should too.

Florida In February

Beach Scene, Sanibel Island by Graham Saxby


Who wouldn’t like a drop of sunshine in February? My nautical background and love of water sports has given me a special regard for Ospreys. Florida has them in spades. A two-week trip to Florida can probably give you access to as many Ospreys as there are in the whole of the UK in the summer. February is a special time of year to visit as early in the month, the chicks are in the nest and being fed. Later in the month the chicks are beginning to fledge. Combine it correctly with the half-term UK school break and you can keep all the family happy.


Ospreys at the nest, Everglades by Graham Saxby

Direct flights went from London to Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Key West. Fly and drive is the way to get round. I went as part of an organised photographic trip. Based in the south of Florida we flew into Miami from London Heathrow and returned almost two weeks later from Tampa to London Gatwick.  

American Alligator, Everglades by Graham Saxby

The first few days based in Homestead southwest of Miami gave us a visit to the Everglades National Park to get our eye in, a visit to the Keys for Key Deer (a subspecies of White Tailed Deer), the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and a return to the Everglades. 


Locahatchee Refuge Sign, Florida by Graham Saxby

Motels vary in quality and checking out what facilities are available is important. Beware the advertised wifi; it was often very slow and could be unusable at times even for email.

 The walk at Miami airport was the amongst the longest I have done at any airport and I was glad I had a good rucksack for my gear. The tripod was in the hold with my clothes, charger etc but cameras, lenses, cards were in the cabin with me. Some airlines allow a small hand bag or laptop case etc as well as a substantial bag or rucksack. My camera rucksack weighed in at 17.5 kg (overweight but within size), the same as my suitcase in the hold. I also had a few personal items (wash gear, change of underwear, in case of luggage loss) in a second, small shoulder camera bag.

Into our hired minibus and it was off to our motel at Homestead for the first five nights accommodation.  Homestead is a suburb about thirty miles southwest of Miami and provides good access to the Everglades National Park.

Apartments on the Water, Florida by Graham Saxby

Into our hired minibus and it was off to our motel at Homestead for the first five nights accommodation.  Homestead is a suburb about thirty miles southwest of Miami and provides good access to the Everglades National Park.

The days were full with breakfast typically around 6.30 or 7.00 and on the road 8.00 to 8.30 and returning early evening to shower and then go out to eat. Finding time to get pictures onto my laptop, backup, recharge batteries and ensure I had empty memory cards for the next day was a challenge but once I had my routine it worked well. With over 7000 pictures taken I was pleased with my system. Others took about 10,000. When I return I intend to be more discriminating and intend to shoot well under 5,000. This will be more difficult than it sounds as shooting at over ten frames per second and a wish to get some great birds in flight shots and bird behaviour shots, the images soon mount up. Not only that but next time I intend to shoot some video and that brings its own storage requirements

 

Florida Sunset by Graham Saxby

The first day was an acclimatisation day. The Everglades National Park has a number of visitor centres and a range of open areas and coastline. The Park is just under two and a half thousand square miles and is a great venue for nature photography. We stayed within the board-walked Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm visitors centre area but were able to photograph many large birds and alligators here. The alligators are allowed free access to the footpaths in parts, but as they can run at up to thirty m.p.h. it is a good job they are not aggressive.   

 

American Alligator by Graham Saxby

Elsewhere in the park we found Black Winged Stilt, Reddish Egret, Ospreys at the nest and a Red Shouldered Hawk. At the coastal Flamingo Compound there were more Ospreys,  and Crocodiles (Florida is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators can both be found). Interesting to see the metal nesting platforms put up for the Ospreys and how they have also nested elsewhere, often close to, and even in the public areas. 

Key Deer, Florida Keys by Graham Saxby

The Florida Keys gave a chance to see Terns, in particular Royal Tern. I took the opportunity here to walk with my binoculars but without my camera. Too often we concentrate so hard on ‘getting the photo’ that we can miss the pleasure of watching wildlife. Not all bird activity makes good photography but it can be a real joy to watch. Small birds in the trees can be difficult but I was delighted to see the beautiful Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and was also rewarded with a wonderful view of a Royal Tern. Neither of these birds showed again when I had my camera handy but I had really enjoyed just watching.

Another day in the eastern part of the Everglades Park and then to the Loxahatchee State Park, North of Miami. Not our greatest day; it rained not long after we spread out to our chosen areas and when we returned to the minibus we found it had been broken into. Fortunately they only took what was easy to reach; there were lenses and laptops in the rear.  A park ranger came to our aid. Very different from the Wildlife trust Rangers in the UK. He drove a typical 4 x 4 pickup but with a hunting rifle, a pump action shotgun and a couple of pistols as well as a taser on the rack behind the driver’s seat.    

Brown Pelican, Fort Myers Beech by Graham Saxby

The long drive to Fort Myers, our next destination, we made a couple of stop offs. Travelling along the Tamiami Trail, a main road passing through the Everglades Park, we visited the Big Cyprus Oasis Visitor Centre. With a raised boardwalk area and restroom facilities it made an interesting and worthwhile break in the journey. At the centre and driving along the trail from East to West, we saw plenty of birds and other (alligator) wildlife. Anhinga, Heron and Egret were the most obvious but Vultures, Ospreys and smaller birds were frequently seen.

Osprey, Everglades by Graham Saxby

Friday arrived and with it Cape Coral, Sanibel Lighthouse and Fishing Pier and our first sighting of Burrowing Owls. With all the development in Florida their habitats are constantly under threat and they aren’t always found in the sandy beach areas of the past. We had some of our most successful encounters with these engaging birds in housing estates where building had been stopped because of their burrows. Local people take the wildlife to their hearts and watch over them. 

 

Burrowing Owls, Florida by Graham Saxby

Fort Myers Beach and Estero Lagoon gave us Yellow Crested Night Heron, Reddish Egret, Great Blue Heron, Wimbrel, Pelicans and Plovers and then back to the motel for an early finish and some relaxation.

 

White Ibis, Florida by Graham Saxby

A return to Sanibel Island to visit the fabulous J N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. A great place for finding waders and other water birds, and of course, Ospreys. The next day Venice Rookery showed what a wildlife oasis can be like within an urban area. It gave us our first sightings of Scrub Jay and Sandhill Crane.

Plover on the Beach, by Graham Saxby

Longboat Key on Tuesday was another residential area with plenty of wildlife. Sadly no Manatee to be seen although quite a few Ospreys and Pelicans as usual. One Osprey pair had made their nest only a a few feet above sea level, on the deck of a small yacht in the sheltered bay. As well as the Osprey on the nest there was also a male Belted Kingfisher only a metre away from it, on the boat’s handrail.

 

Cattle Egret, Myakka State Park by Graham Saxby

Myakka State Park gave us more Osprey shots and also the ‘mugging’ of an Osprey by a Bald Eagle which decided it liked the look of the Osprey’s catch.

Bald Eagle, Florida by Graham Saxby

Thursday was our last day and we just had time for a brief visit to Fort de Soto State Park. Enough time to see a Great Horned Owl with its wonderfully camouflaged chicks and then an overnight flight from Tampa to London Gatwick.

 

Myakka Sunset, Lake Myakka by Graham Saxby

Would I do a group photography trip again? Absolutely, either to Florida or another location. Was it worth the money? To me, certainly. I have invested a lot of time and money in my photography but this was an intensive bit of bird (nature) photography which raised my game. This happened through concentrating on the bird life, my photography and through discussions with the rest of the group. George McCarthy FRPS was the leader and was always happy to offer advice.
This was not a course but an opportunity to use George’s experience of organising over twenty photography trips to Florida. George was a facilitator who not only provided the opportunity to see the wildlife but also had the skills to advise us on our photography. 

There are still birds I wish to see and photograph and birds I wish to photograph better. In visiting over twenty sites I was able to see and photograph over fifty species of bird. A number of my Florida photographs are now available as prints on this site.

But Florida has much more to offer than bird spotting and photography; its climate, beautiful sands, accessibility, accommodation and even Disney.


I look forward to my next trip immensely. Perhaps I will see you there.

 

Graham



 

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