Monthly Archives: April 2013

Dry Tortugas National Park – April 21, 2013

Intro / Description

One of the Photography Interest Group members (Kevin M.) wanted to visit the Dry Tortugas during bird migration.  I’d always wanted to see it too and I’d never been to the Everglades so I suggested we combine a trip.  He organized an extended expedition and we set off last Saturday with Kevin K. in a packed Prius headed for Key Largo – our base of operations.  Since there’s so much to cover, I’ll tell you about the Dry Tortugas in this post, and fill you in next time on the Everglades and a few other places we went.
The Dry Tortugas are a remote group of seven small islands / keys (named Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) located about 70 miles west of Key West.  These islands and the surrounding waters make up the 100 square mile Dry Tortugas National Park.  It’s known for its isolation, clear waters, unique and migratory bird populations, shipwrecks, and Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson Parade Grounds pano
Fort Jefferson Parade Grounds – Dry Tortugas National Park, Garden Key – I’m not sure which bird is in the center top. It looks like either the Perigrine Falcon or Cooper’s Hawk we saw earlier in the day. This is a 7 image, stitched pano (~50 megapixels). I uploaded a larger than normal version. If you want to see more detail, click on this image and then on Flickr select actions/view all sizes.

Fort Jefferson construction took place from 1846 to 1875.  It’s the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere but was never completed.  Like many other forts, it became obsolete when rifled cannons were put into use.  Photo ops lurk throughout  – so be alert and explore!

Fort Jefferson Interior
Inside the Fort Jefferson walls – I’m happy that two people strolled into my composition. They couldn’t have positioned themselves any better. The fort housed prisoners in the Civil War era and these two and their appearance in this IR, B&W photo add to the ghostly feel of the fort.

There’s a lot of interesting background and history about this place.  Dr. Samuel Mudd (convicted of conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination and later pardoned) was imprisoned here.  There’s also an interesting novel I enjoyed reading in Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series that takes place here (Flashback).  It covers a lot of historical background too.

Info for Photographers

The easiest way to get to the park is via the Yankee Freedom that departs Key West daily.  They provide everything you’ll need for a day trip.  If you’re more adventurous, you can charter a sea plane or an extended cruise on a smaller boat, or even take your own boat.  If you don’t take the Yankee Freedom, just make sure you do your research and go prepared.  The park is primitive and there are no supplies / food / water for visitors – so bring everything you might need.  As of April 2013, the Yankee Freedom is only 6 months old and in great shape.   A buffet breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and water / soft drinks / hot coffee all day are included in the fare.  And you can return to the boat during the day to use the rest rooms or cool off in the air-conditioning.  All three of us thought the ship and crew were excellent.

Brown Noddy in flight
Brown Noddy in flight

The day we went, about  30 – 40% of the passengers were birders – some of them very experienced.  Several bird species are found in the Dry Tortugas and nowhere else in North America.  It’s also on the main  fly way for birds migrating between Central America / Cuba and the rest of North America.  In late April / early May, it’s a vital resting place for the birds.  John James Audubon visited in May of 1832 and spent several days cataloging species.  I’m certain we didn’t see as many as he did, but we did pretty well.  Kevin M. and I each got several life birds.  Here’s our list from the few hours we were there:

Masked Booby (nesting), Brown Booby, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, Sooty Tern, Roseate Tern, Common Tern, Least Tern, Audubon Shearwater, Magnificent Frigate Bird, Northern Gannet,

Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Blue Wing Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Northern Parula,

American Redstart,  Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Chuck-Will’s Widow, Indigo Bunting,  Ruby Crowned Kinglet,  Black Whiskered Vireo,

Grey Catbird, Peregrine Falcon, Coopers Hawk, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Cave Swallow, White Winged Pigeon, Ruddy Turnstones, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Brown Pelican, Cattle Egret, and Snowy Egret.

Whew!

Singing Scarlet Tanager
Singing Scarlet Tanager – Fort Jefferson parade grounds

Here’s a couple of links to info maintained by one of the Yankee Freedom crew (Chelsea):  Dry Tortugas Birding Blog and Dry Tortugas Birding info.  Check them before you go for current information.

Photo hints:

You’ll be doing a lot of walking and climbing and there aren’t any lockers where you can leave excess gear (although the crew says they’ve never had a problem with lost / stolen equipment).  Pack only what you can carry around all day.

Tripod/Monopod:

Allowed and a good idea if you need it for your birding lens.  Otherwise, just to lighten your load I wouldn’t recommend it.  I was able to hand hold / brace my cameras and didn’t miss my tripod.  You’ll want to plan differently if you’ll be there for sunrise, sunset or at night.

Lenses:

Unfortunately, if you’re going for both scenic landscapes and birds (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll need a variety of lenses.  Long / bright for the birds and wide for the landscapes.  There are also photo ops from the boat that will be quite challenging unless your camera body or lens has stabilization.  You’ll pass about 100 yards from a colony of Masked Boobies on Hospital Key as you enter the park.  Be ready for a unique and challenging chance to capture these birds on the nest with chicks.  And if you miss the Brown Boobies while you’re at the fort, be sure to watch for them as you leave.  They often hang out on Marker 3.

Best time to visit:

Late April / early May is the best time of year for birds, although it’s already getting hot by then.  If you’re even a bit of a birder, it’s worth putting up with the heat.

Other:

Our trip over was on a fairly calm day.  Even so, there was quite a bit of pitching and tossing.  If you’re at all susceptible to seasickness, you should take something in advance.  Also, be ready for weather at the park.  A poncho and camera cover for rain, and sun block or long sleeves and a hat for the tropical sunshine.  You won’t have problems with insects since there’s no standing fresh water on the islands.

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet – Floating near the dock in the Dry Tortugas

Summary

Wow – what a fantastic trip!  We had a wonderful time in this remote and fascinating place and it’s now a new favorite of mine.  It takes some time and effort to get to, but there is so much to see and photograph – don’t miss it!

My Gallery /  Flickr photo set: My Dry Tortugas set on Flickr

Kevin M’s Dry Tortugas set on Flickr

Kevin K’s set on Flickr

Website:  http://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm
Address / Phone: Location in Google Maps

There’s no phone, but you can email the park from this website:  http://www.nps.gov/drto/contacts.htm

Central Florida Photo Ops Rating:  Don’t miss it!!!

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Reflecting on headwaters

re·flec·ting (verb):  1) to be reflected or mirrored; 2) to think, ponder, or meditate

head-wa-ters (noun): the upper tributaries of a river.

Shingle Creek
Clouds and Cypress Reflect from Shingle Creek – It’s hard to believe this urban creek just south of Orlando is the northernmost headwaters of the Everglades

If you look out the window as you fly over Florida, you’ll see much of the land is undeveloped.  As you near Orlando though, you’ll see a great deal of housing, roads, city buildings, and theme parks.  Central Florida can be a very urban place – it’s encouraging that even in the midst of all the development, there are a great many areas where you can experience nature, wildlife, and beautiful landscapes.  Many places I visit are fairly well-known.  But I had never heard of Shingle Creek before reading Wild Florida Waters, by Doug Alderson – a book about exploring Florida via kayak and canoe.

Driving through Kissimmee, Florida in the middle of airports, fast food, shopping malls, housing developments, and theme parks, you might not even notice  this waterway – but you really should look for it.  The first pioneer settlement in the Central Florida area was along this creek.  Settlers cut down old growth cypress to use for shingles, hence the name.  Shingle Creek is also generally considered to be the northernmost headwaters of the Everglades.  The creek begins in a swamp very close to I-Drive where thousands of tourists visit the convention center and theme parks and go shopping every day.  It flows into Lake Toho in Kissimmee, then into the Kissimmee River system and on through south Florida to the Everglades.

I see different numbers for the size of Shingle Creek Regional Park.  One source says that it’s about 456 acres, another says that over 1000 acres have been purchased.  Either way, it’s large and the landscapes are beautiful.  There are trails to hike and bike and if you have a canoe or kayak you can venture into some very thick cypress swamps south of the Steffee Landing park entrance.  You can see alligators, otters, water moccasins, ospreys, hawks, woodpeckers, limpkins, herons, egrets, and even bald eagles.  It’s truly a wonderful oasis in the middle of urban Central Florida.  I’m grateful we’re preserving it and I’m going back soon to explore more of it.

Apple snail eggs

Apple snail eggs – These snails deposit their eggs just above the water line. Seeing them is a good sign of healthy water. The snails feed on an algae that grows on eel grass which helps filter and clean the water. Eel grass doesn’t grow well in cloudy polluted waters, so you won’t find Apple snails there. You won’t find Limpkins or Snail Kites there either because Apple Snails are a main part of their diet.

Reflecting on headwaters

More reflections –  Shingle Creek south of Steffee Landing

You can enter the park from two locations.  Use these addresses to search for it in Google Maps (just searching for “Shingle Creek Park” didn’t work too well for me):  4266 W. Vine Street, Kissimmee, FL 34741 -or- 2491 Babb Road, Kissimmee, FL 34746

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog.  Now, step away from the pavement and go make some photos

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Fort De Soto Bird Migration

It’s April and birds are heading north again through our area.  Fort De Soto south of St. Petersburg, Florida is a “migrant trap” because they stop there on the way.  If you’re a photographer or birder and you’d like to see many types of birds – now is the time to visit this wonderful place.

I went over last Saturday with Kevin M. and Lutfi E.  There were a lot of other birders there as well as a few photographers.  It was fun talking with the birders.  They’re all helpful and I learned a lot from them.  If you’re just starting out in birding, go with a knowledgeable friend (thanks, Kevin!), or check with your local Audubon group.  They often organize field trips with an experienced leader.  The Orange County Audubon Society has a trip planned for next weekend.

Migration at Fort DeSoto
Migration at Fort De Soto – As a beginning birder, I was excited to photograph these 11 life birds on Saturday: Chimney Swift, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Merlin, Black-throated Green Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and Orchard Oriole.

In addition to the 11 life birds I managed to photograph, we saw many others including:  Worm Eating Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow Throated Vireo, Northern Parula, European Starling, Black and White Warbler, Common Ground Dove, American Crow, Magnificent Frigate bird, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Laughing Gull, Sandwich Tern, Caspian Tern, Brown Pelicans, Eastern Kingbird, Ospreys, Cormorants, Anhingas, Vultures, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets.

If you go, plan to get there early and stay all day.  Fort De Soto is a big place and we couldn’t get to all of it on Saturday, so I’m sure there were many other species we missed.

You must be patient and quick to photograph these smaller birds.  They move fast and flit in and out of trees and bushes so catching them out in the open is tough.  A  long, fast lens helps too!

This is also a beautiful place for landscape photography because there are both sunrise and sunset views. Here’s a photo I made last year:

The end of the day at Fort De Soto
The end of the day at Fort De Soto – Looking southwest toward Egmont Key from the base of the bay pier. The ferry to the Key is on the left.

You can see larger versions of these images on Flickr by clicking on them. And I have a few more photos from Fort De Soto in this set.  You can also see Kevin’s Fort De Soto photos in this set.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Merritt Island – April 10, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I met photographer Larry Jordan at Gatorland and he mentioned wanting to visit Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. He hadn’t been in long while, so I offered to go with him. It was a great excuse to get out and show off one of my favorite places and it didn’t disappoint. We met before dawn at Space View park for what turned into a pretty sunrise.

Dock at dawn

Dock at dawn

After sunup, we entered MINWR in search of wildlife, first to Gator Creek Road where we saw a few birds including black necked stilts. These unusual looking, pink legged birds are only in Florida for the summer breeding season and I’m glad they’re back already. Next we went to Blackpoint Wildlife Drive to see what was going on there. The initial portion was very quiet, but then the action ramped way up!

Four more black necked stilts were flying all around the first pond on the right. They were very active and noisy in what I think was courtship inspired chasing and calling to each other. We enjoyed watching and photographing them, but decided we’d better move on – we didn’t want to miss out on whatever else was going on. It turns out that was a very good idea.

At the next pond, the first thing I noticed was a flock of White Pelicans. They were pretty, but a bit far off for photos – and just swimming around out there feeding. Then we noticed the Black Skimmers.

I often see these birds along the north shore of the Bennet Causeway leading into MINWR. There, they usually huddle with the gulls and this makes for static looking photos. We didn’t see any there yesterday morning and we found out why at this place. It seems they were all over there and very active. I’ve never seen so much skimming. Long graceful glides over flat water with an uncluttered background, sometimes fairly close to shore. They use their longer, lower bills to slice through the surface searching for fish and write a sharp wake behind them. Wonderful to watch and with such good light, a near perfect opportunity for photographs.

Black Skimmer skimming
Black Skimmer skimming

There were other birds in the pond feeding and flying around close to shore – great conditions for BIF (Birds-in-Flight) photography practice! Several Roseate Spoonbills flew in (toward the camera for a change!) and posed beautifully at nearly perfect angles. We also enjoyed watching a Redish Egret, a very pretty Tri-colored Heron in breeding colors, and many other birds feeding.

Roseate Spoonbill, landing
Roseate Spoonbill, landing

After the excitement at BPWD, I didn’t think it could get any better, but I was hoping to show Larry a Florida Scrub Jay since he hadn’t photographed one before. We drove to Scrub Ridge Trail, parked and walked north along the path where I’ve seen them, but they weren’t there. Feeling a little let down, we walked back to the parking area and a very pretty Scrub Jay was waiting there to welcome us. We each got several photos in different poses / locations.

Our last stop was the Visitor Center. I was hoping that the Painted Buntings would still be around, but they seem to have moved on.

By the way, the 50th anniversary of MINWR is coming up on August 28th. If someone ever asks you about benefits from the US space program, you can mention the establishment of this extraordinary refuge. See this article in Florida Today for more details.

I’ve rambled on for too long so here’s one more landscape from the morning to close this out:

Dock and pier at dawn
Dock and pier at dawn, IR B&W

I had a great time showing Larry around the area and he brought a lot of photo-luck with him! You can click on any of the photos above to see larger versions. You can also see more photos from MINWR in this set on Flickr, Black Point in this set, Birds in this set, and Florida Landscapes in this set. And I have many older posts on the site about MINWR – you can browse through them from this link. Larry posts to Smugmug and you can see his bird photos (including ones from this trip) at this link.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos! And take a friend!

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

Return to Big Tree Park

You may remember my posts about “The Senator”, a 3500 year old Cypress tree in Big Tree Park in Longwood, Florida (Big Tree Park – Home of the Senator, and “The Senator” is destroyed by fire).  The destruction of the tree in January of last year was an awful event.  The park closed after the fire but it’s open again now and the story has taken a fascinating twist – so I went by to check it out.

The Senator
The Senator in September of 2011 – just a few months before the fire

The Senator remains

The Senator in March of 2013 – the charred base of the original tree is all that’s left.

The Seminole Voice newspaper website has a good article with details on this very unlikely story, but here’s a summary:

  • In 1997 a branch fell from the Senator after a storm.
  • A Miami science teacher happened to be there and happened to know about a North Florida tree farmer who was creating a cypress grove cloned from trees from all over the country.
  • The science teacher gave the branch to the farmer who used it to create ten cloned trees.
  • Seven of them survived (an unusually high percentage).
  • Fifteen years later, in January of 2012, the Senator burned.
  • A forestry specialist at the University of Florida heard about the fire and recalled the cloning project.
  • Seminole County officials then worked to move one of the clones to Big Tree Park.
  • The identical clone (appropriately named “The Phoenix”) was transplanted to Big Tree Park and dedicated on March 2nd, 2013.  It’s doing well and is already more than 50 feet tall!

The Phoenix rises
The Phoenix rises:  An identical clone of the 3500 year old “Senator” cypress tree was started in 1997.  Already 50+ feet tall, it was transplanted into Big Tree Park in 2012

There are some other changes, including a refurbished boardwalk, new signs with information about the park and trees, and new fencing (to keep drug addled arsonists out).

It’s horrible that this ancient tree burned, but it’s amazing that a clone existed.  I wonder if people will visit “The Phoenix” far in the future and think about the 21st century, just like I sometimes think about the time 3500 years ago when The Senator first grew.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos.
©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved