Florida is Burning

May 8-13, 2007
[Photos]

I went to Florida in early May, a month later than last year. The week fit my schedule, and I also wanted to go later in the spring to give the osprey and egret chicks a chance to grow a bit.

Venice Blue Heron
Venice Blue Heron

About 20 miles north of my first destination, Venice, I ran into a major traffic jam on I-75. With all the firetrucks racing down the shoulder I thought it was a fiery crash, but it turned out to be a wildfire that had burned right up the road and even jumped into the median. That was my first hint that Florida was being afflicted by fires. Maybe I should check the local news before I go somewhere. Eventually I made it to the Venice Rookery. It seemed less active than last year, but I still got a few good blue heron images.

The next stop was Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, just north of Tampa. This year there didn't seem to be as many osprey in nests (two chicks in one nest, one in another) but there were plenty of birds. Honeymoon Island is outstanding for osprey because of the large number of birds and the fact that the nests are in real (dead) pine trees, not on platforms. I haven't found a great spot yet to see the osprey fishing, but for nests, flying and roosting it is by far the best I've seen.

Cattle Egret
Alligator Farm
Cattle Egret

The first day as I started down the Osprey Trail, I saw was a raccoon trotting southward down the trail toward me. As I snapped away with my 500mm lens, he got so close that the lens couldn't focus. He gave me nary a glance as he strolled past. The next day I was sitting on a bench in the same vicinity when I saw what I assume was the same raccoon down the trail heading back north. Once again he gave me no notice.

Besides the osprey and the raccoon, I also saw the back end of an armadillo, a little heron that reminded me of one I saw five years ago at Sanibel, and a great horned owl. Last year I saw a couple of little owls in an osprey nest and an adult sitting in a nearby tree. I was told by one of the park employees there was a nest again this year, but I didn't see it. Another photographer pointed out the adult owl roosted in a tree a considerable distance from the nest site. I used my 2x converter to get a few 1000mm shots, but the results were not impressive. I couldn't see the owl's head clearly and I think his eyes were closed.

Osprey
Honeymoon Island Osprey

When I got up on May 11, the smoke from the wildfires was so thick that ash had accumulated on my rental car. It took about 30 miles to drive out of the brown cloud. The next day I made my third visit to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Photographers can get into the rookery at fhe farm at 8:00 if they purchase an annual pass, but I was only there for the day so I got in at 9:00. There were a few dozen folks with tripods and big lenses snapping away at the egrets, herons and storks. (Anyone who doesn't believe birds are related to dinosaurs should take a look at an egret chick.) I was happy to have the big 500mm lens most of the time, but also missed having my smaller 300mm for flight shooting.

The next day, my final stop was the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which adjoins Cape Canaveral. May is the wrong month to visit and there wasn't much there except a few shorebirds. I was going to hike the trail behind the visitor center because I had seen a screech owl there last year, but couldn't do it. OK, I understand that they don't want to staff the place on Sunday out of season, but do they have to put up a big gate that keeps everyone out of the parking lot and away from the trail?

Hauling the tripod and 500mm lens around was a chore on Honeymoon Island, but I made plenty of rest stops along the way. Even at the Alligator Farm where I didn't have so far to hike it was a bother. Because I flew to Florida, my camera equipment was limited to what I could carry in my backpack, so the 500mm, the DSLR camera and my smaller G6 camera was about it. (The tripod went into checked luggage.) My next trip to Florida probably will be by car so I won't be so limited. Of course if I go out flight shooting with my 300mm that implies that the 500mm is going to be sitting in my unattended car. Anyone know how to weld a safe into the trunk of a Toyota? Having a monster lens is like having a child, I suppose. It tries your patience, requires a lot of care and you don't want to leave it unattended, but it can give you joy. I haven't decided yet whether the necessary lifestyle change has been completely worth adopting the little monster.

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All photos 1998- by Thomas O'Neil