“Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints!” — Si’ahl (Seattle), leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes
Beginning with my very first adventures out in nature, I’ve always been taught to leave no trace. And so I was startled and then a little sad when I saw these along Gator Creek Road in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge about a week ago.
I’ve seen rock stacks (or rock cairns) before, just not in MINWR. I guess I also noticed that stacking rocks (and posting photos of them on social media) has become a thing. People shouldn’t do this anywhere, and when they start doing it in one of my favorite places, it’s time to speak up.
I looked through my image archives for another photo from near the same spot and found this one from back in 2013 that I never processed or posted before. It’s looking in a different direction, and it shows rocks where they should be. It’s worth a click to view a larger version.
Gator Creek pano
There are of course, legitimate reasons for building rock cairns and different National Parks have different rules. See this NPS page: https://www.nps.gov/articles/rockcairns.htm. However, it’s always wrong to tamper, add to, or build unauthorized cairns in national parks.
I couldn’t find anywhere on-line that specifically says rock stacking is prohibited at MINWR. Even if it’s not against the rules – it’s still ethically, morally, and environmentally wrong. And it’s rude and selfish. Don’t do it.
Big Cypress National Preserve is a 729,000 acre swamp in South Florida adjacent to Everglades National Park. It was originally going to be part of that, but instead was established as a national preserve in 1974.
I’ve wanted to visit for years and finally went down a couple of weeks ago. I stayed at the bungalow Clyde Butcher rents behind his Big Cypress Gallery along Tamiami Trail. This is a “first impressions” blog post, not a guide. I don’t know the area well enough to give you a comprehensive review.
Butcher’s Pond. Next to Clyde Butcher’s gallery on Tamiami Trail
The bungalow was very nice and provided a good base for exploration. I do wish there was cell service or that they provided an internet connection – although I guess you could argue that being cut off is part of the swamp experience!
Big Cypress is huge and there are a lot of places to check out. And even more places if you include Everglades National Park. For me, the southern portion of the Everglades was just too far away from where I stayed so I concentrated on nearby spots including Kirby Storter Park, Fakahatchee Strand, Loop Road, Shark Valley, and a few others. There was a lot I didn’t get to – I need to go back!
Pre-dawn stars and clouds, Kirby Storter Roadside Park
Kirby Storter was only a few minutes away and I hoped to take advantage of dark skies and catch site of the Milky Way from there. I did manage to glimpse it but clouds rolled in towards dawn and I had to make do with a starry pre-dawn photo instead. I can tell you that I felt very alone out there in the middle of the swamp at 5am. It was dark (no moon) and hard to see very far – kinda spooky. But I also felt pretty safe because every time I moved a bit, the crickets went silent. I figured they’d warn me if anything large got close!
Cypress swamp, Kirby Storter Roadside Park
There’s a lovely, short hike along a boardwalk that leads back into the swamp next to some flowing water and ends at a large gator hole.
Red-shouldered Hawk Pair. Fakahatchee Strand State Park
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park was close too. It’s the largest state park in Florida and Janes Memorial Scenic Drive is an eleven mile dirt road leading from the visitor center back into the swamp. There’s only about six miles open right now due to damage from Hurricane Irma. You can drive this yourself like I did, or take a guided tram ride.
I was busy trying to make landscape photos when a lady hawk (the one on the left) started calling in the tree next to me. I thought she was yelling at me for being too close, but it turned out she was calling for her mate. He flew in and they had a “conjugal visit” while I rushed back to the car to get my longer lens. I missed the action, but did get a nice family photo of the pair afterward.
Fakahatchee Strand 4, color
There are a great many views of this lovely swamp along the scenic drive. It took me a long time to go out six miles and back because I stopped so often to photograph.
Loop Road Cypress and Sawgrass
Loop Road is another scenic area. Both ends connect to Tamiami Trail and I explored those, but didn’t travel the whole twenty six mile route. Next time!
On my visit, I mainly focused on landscape images although I did see and photograph some wildlife – mainly in Shark Valley. There were alligators, turtles, and a lot of birds – most were the same ones we see up here in Central Florida although I did sight a yellow crowned night Heron which isn’t very common in my usual spots. There were also a lot of small birds / warblers that I should have spent some time photographing / identifying.
This was a good time of year to visit. It’s considered the “dry season” and in additon to the comfortable temperatures, I got zero bug bites even though I didn’t use any bug spray the whole time.
You could spend a lifetime exploring there. I stayed for three nights and was very tired when I got home but only touched the surface. Things I wanted to do but didn’t have time for: Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, Corkscrew Swamp, a swamp buggy tour, a swamp walk, an airboat ride, the Indian reservations and many others. Things to look forward to!
Cypress and air plants, IR B&W
Location scouting is a huge part of good landscape photography. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of scouting in advance. You know that an area is special when you can come back from your first visit with photos you really like. Big Cypress is extra special – a Central Florida Photo Ops Must Do!
We should all be grateful that we’ve preserved places like Big Cypress and the Everglades and that we’re working to restore them to their natural state.
I’ve just about finished going through the photos from my trip to South Florida. I ended up with many images I like – way too many for a single post. Today, I’d like to complete what I started in the Wild Baby Gators! blog with a few more photos from the Shark Valley area of the Everglades. Next week I’ll finish my trip report with images from other parts of Big Cypress.
In a couple of spots along the north side of Tamiami Trail a few miles east of the entrance to Shark Valley visitor center, you can cross over the canal and drive along the dirt road on top of the berm. From there you can get a good look at the “River of grass”, stretching farther than you can see.
River of grass – looking north
I tried to stop by Shark Valley on my first afternoon in the area. But the parking lot was full and there was a line of cars waiting to get in, so I turned around and explored elsewhere. At 8:30 the next morning I was first in line waiting for the park to open. I bought a ticket for one of their two hour tram rides and was on the first one to leave. If you go, arrive early to make sure you can get in. I think taking the first tram ride of the day is a good idea too. Wildlife should be more active / visible and the light is better for photography.
Crowded airspace – Glossy Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill in flight. This was close to a small pond where a bird feeding frenzy was in progress.
There was a lot to see on the ride and the tour guide was excellent. He knew where to spot things and passed along a great deal of info to everyone. The tram stops for about 20 minutes at the 65 foot observation tower. There’s a wonderful view there too. If you zoom into this next photo, you can see two large alligators floating in the pond.
River of grass 2 – The view looking ~ SE from the observation Tower in Shark Valley
There are lots of turtles and alligators along the way.
Happy together – A pair of yellow-bellied sliders soaking in some sunshine
And you’ll probably see some “circle of life” scenes too.
Lunch time – Great Blue Heron with a Florida Gar
We also spotted Cormorants, Anhingas, Great and Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored and Little Blue Herons, White Ibis, Wood Storks, Red-shouldered hawks, a Purple Gallinule, and other birds. We didn’t see any pythons, but you can tell they’re out there because many of the smaller mammals have disappeared – eaten by these large snakes.
To summarize: Shark Valley is definitely a Central Florida Photo Ops “Must do” location and I’m going to visit again.
I returned Friday afternoon from several days in South Florida, scouting and photographing in Big Cypress National Preserve and the northern Everglades. I have a huge backlog of images to go through so I’m not yet ready to blog about it. Today I’ll just post this teaser because I know some of you are alligator fans (hi Calvin!).
I see alligators all the time here in Florida and often spot younger ones. But I only remember seeing babies together with their mother once before, up in Paynes Prairie. Last Wednesday morning in the Shark Valley portion of the Everglades I saw several different momma gators with their 1 – 2 year old babies close by.
A momma gator with five babies.
These are wild animals in their natural environment in the Everglades.
A different mom with six (eight?) babies.
I made them from the tram ride in Shark Valley. Highly recommended! The guide was very knowledgable and let us know where to spot all sorts of things. He also knew a lot about these animals:
Alligators are one of the few reptile species that care for their young.
Only the females take care of the babies – the males aren’t involved (well, except at the beginning!).
The female defends the nest from predators and helps the babies hatch and make it into the water.
She’ll continue to provide protection for a year or two.
The hatchlings are 6 – 8 inches long and grow 9 – 10 inches a year at first, so the ones in these photos are less than two years old.
After a couple of years, the juveniles will move away (or get chased away by mom) and it’s time for her to mate again and start over.
Alligators normally ignore humans. But you should always keep your distance and respect the animals. Our guide said to stay at least 15 feet away (some say 30 – 60 feet is better). However, alligator moms can be especially aggressive defending their nests and young. If you see one in the wild, be very cautious. Always back off if the animal hisses, starts paying attention to you, or moves toward you at all. They are faster than you are, especially over short distances.
The two photos in this post are fairly high resolution and worth looking at a little closer. But one of my readers (thanks Lynn!) pointed out that not everyone knows how to zoom into them on Flickr. So if you want to zoom in:
Click on the photo in the blog, which will open the same image inside Flickr.
It’ll probably already be higher res, but Flickr scales it to the size of your display and window. To see it best, maximize your browser window.
Then you should see a cursor with a little + sign inside a circle. This means you can zoom in a little further. Click once to zoom and use your mouse to move around inside the photo.
Some images are detailed enough to support a second level of zoom. If so, you’ll see another + and you can click again to zoom in even further.
Take a look!
I need to finish going through my photos from the trip and I’m looking forward to writing about other things I saw. More to come!
Over the holidays, Mike asked if I wanted to ride with him (and Avon) on his drive from Wisconsin to Florida and back. Of course I said yes! It was a good opportunity to spend some time together and I haven’t been on a road trip like this in a long while.
This post includes some photos from along the way and a few comments about the trip. It’s a little off topic from Central Florida Photo Ops’s stated purpose. I hope you don’t mind.
It’s quite a drive! It took us three days, although you can make it in two if you push hard enough.
Three Amigos. Here we are mid drive on the way back up – it was chilly at times! Avon is a good traveler. The only times he got even a little bothered was when Mike left him with me for a few minutes and was out of sight, or if the hotel we were in had other dogs that night.
Food on the trip was varied and tasty. This Vietnamese place was across from our hotel in Indianapolis. Good food, quick!
We were usually on the road early and some of the sunrises were pretty. This one is leaving Indianapolis, south bound.
This semi up ahead of us was moving around 70 mph – backwards!
When you get near Chattanooga, there are many “See Rock City” signs. No, we didn’t go by and see it.
Heading south out of Atlanta, the clouds were pretty thick
The last time I drove I-75 through South Georgia, I remember seeing a giant peanut on the side of the road. We couldn’t find it this time – even though the map said it was still there!
There are a lot of “World Famous Ruby Falls” signs too. This one may need a little maintenance.
We went north on a slightly different route and it was a little more scenic, especially through the mountains.
Another Mountain View
Passing wind: According to Wikipedia, the Meadow Lakes wind farm along I-65 in Indiana has 414 turbines and produces 801 megawatts of power.
We lucked out on the weather. There were clouds and some rain on the way down, but it wasn’t too cold. On our way north there was a snow storm coming, but it didn’t hit until we were almost to Mike’s house. The next morning, the park near his place was a very un-Florida looking landscape!
A path through the snowy woods
After I got back home, I was struck by the contrast between winter in Wisconsin and Florida. Our weather is very different!
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Osceola County
Family time during the holidays is wonderful. Our home seems so very quiet and empty after everyone leaves. But it’s also wonderful to look forward to the next visit!
Thanks for the invite, Mike – I really enjoyed the ride!
And thanks to everyone for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos – on a road trip!
The last time I visited Viera Wetlands was in March of 2019, so I’ve been wanting to go back. Each time I checked the road conditions hotline, it said they’re closed to vehicles. But the message hasn’t been updated since mid-November and I suspected (hoped?) it wasn’t accurate. This week I decided to go down anyway.
I started the morning with a pretty sunrise at the River Lakes Conservation Area Boat Ramp where the St. Johns crosses SR 520.
A very calm morning
Then I headed down to Viera. The hotline is correct – the wetlands roads are closed to vehicles and there’s some repair work going on. I haven’t found any info posted about when they expect to allow cars again. Anyway, I took off on foot with my camera and had a nice walk around the east half of the park closest to the parking area. Here are some of the things I saw.
“Who are you lookin’ at?” (3). These early morning deer were very alert and very suspicious of me and my long lens. I saw about a dozen of them and there were probably more. I liked the light on this group and how they were all staring right at me.
Redwing Blackbird launch. I managed to catch it just as it as it took off.
Cormorant in flight – There were a great many there that morning.
Sunning Anhinga. There were a large number of anhingas too, and this lady was enjoying the early morning light.
I heard lots of Sandhill Cranes but only saw them in the distance and there was one Spoonbill that was too far away for a photo, I didn’t see anything rare or exotic on my walk, but there were plenty of smaller birds, water birds, vultures and alligators. And I enjoyed my time out in nature and got some steps too!
Florida cow country: Joe Overstreet Road goes right through several cattle pastures. I imagine they look the same as they did a hundred years ago.
Snail Kite launch. We usually see one at the landing and it may be the same bird each time.
Killdeer in flight. I normally find these on the ground. This is the first time I’ve managed a flight photo of one.
Bird on a wire 4 – American Kestrel. I rarely catch sight of these and was excited to spot several on this trip.
Sandhill Cranes on final approach. There were more Sandhill Cranes (~50+) in the pastures along Joe Overstreet that morning than I’ve ever seen in one place before. I’m guessing the extras were winter migrants in from Wisconsin. Several of the cranes were banded.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Not a great photo, but this is a life bird (first sighting) for me – so I’ll include it. There were two and they stayed quite far away from us.
Osceola County / Joe Overstreet Road is a wonderful place! In addition to the eagles and these birds, we also spotted Purple Gallinules, Ospreys, Eastern Meadowlarks, Loggerhead Shrikes, Palm Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, Savanah Sparrows, our normal wading birds and others. We looked for Bobwhites and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area), but didn’t find any.
I returned late last Thursday from a quick trip to Wisconsin (more about that another time). So when Kevin M. asked me if I wanted to go down to Osceola County with him on Saturday morning I almost said no. I was a little tired and the weather forecast wasn’t good.
Saturday morning weather forecast
But I enjoy photography (you do know that, don’t you?) and hadn’t seen Kevin for a bit or Joe Overstreet Road for even longer, so I decided to go. When I got ready to leave, the sky was completely overcast. But this is the “Sunshine State” – there’s always a chance the sun will break through for a little bit, isn’t there?
Kevin called while I was on the way and asked if we should cancel. I voted to press on – we could always come home early if it was too bad. It was still a little dark when we got there, but we could see some promising thin spots in the clouds. We’d driven most of the way to the lake when a Bald Eagle swooped by at the same time the clouds were parting.
Eagle in flight with nesting material 3
It was gathering and carrying nesting material. As it flew back to its mate, the sun lit it just perfectly. I’m pretty sure this is the same pair of birds that our friend JT posted on Flickr last week.
Eagle pair and nest
My photo problems quickly changed from no sun to shooting into the sun when it landed next to its mate. You can’t believe I’m complaining about that, can you?
Lynn and I had a busy (and wonderful!) holiday season. I hope that all of you enjoyed spending time with your friends and family as much as we did. And I hope that you have a wonderful new year and new decade!
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos -even when the weather forecast is dreary!
Twas the morning after Christmas, as I left the house – I tried to be quiet and not wake my spouse.
I drove to the refuge through the long winter’s night. To get there and catch the first morning light.
On the pier by the causeway, it was all blue and gold. Lovely start to the day with colors so bold.
Dawn by the causeway and the pier
To Black Point next – a wonderful place. Drive slow or you’ll miss things with too fast a pace.
Dawn on Black Point Wildlife Drive
Kingfishers dodged my camera with ease, not stopping for long even when I said please!
Male Belted Kingfisher
A lady Merganser was flapping her wings. Shaking off water and other things.
Female Hooded Merganser wing flap
An unblinking gator watched me draw nigh. I almost saw myself in his eye.
Eye of the gator
And what to my wondering eyes should appear? A pretty pink spoonbill wading quite near.
Other birds to the refuge, they also came. It’s wonderful to see them and call them by name.
Now Ospreys, Shovelers, Pelicans and all,
White Pelican Pod
Now egrets and herons, with all of your calls.
Great Egret in flight
Great Blue Heron portrait
Now Terns, teals, willets, eagles and more, so many birds along the shore.
Large birds, small birds, short birds and tall – stay for a while, don’t fly away all!
As I left the refuge and it left my sight, I thought “HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD-NIGHT!”
Merritt Island morning
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. I hope each and every one of you are having a wonderful holiday season. Cherish your time with friends and family and don’t forget to make some photos with them!
I hope you had a chance to attend the annual Cracker Christmas at Fort Christmas Historical Park a couple weeks ago. It’s a fun activity with a lot to see and a lot of vendors selling unique items. If you couldn’t make it this year, keep it in mind for 2020. And don’t forget that you can visit Fort Christmas throughout the year.
Christmas Post Office
This park in east Orange County includes a reproduction of the 1837 Fort built near this spot. It also has 7 restored historical homes that preserve the ‘Cracker’ architecture of the area. The park gives us a glimpse into Florida pioneer life. It’s a little like traveling back in time and photo ops abound.
NO Chickens Allowed
Volunteers often dress up in period costumes and demonstrate what life was like back then.
During the festival, there are even more folks showing us aspects of other times.
Civil War Re-enactors
Here’s a photo hint that helped me when I was there: Scan your frame to check the composition for distracting or out of place items that might spoil your image. In this photo of the two soldiers, I noticed Airstream trailers behind their tent so I shifted my viewpoint so they weren’t visible in the final image.
In the kitchen
And in this photo of the kitchen, there was initially a modern Yeti cup on the stove. I was glad I was able to re-make my photo when it was removed. Much easier than removing it in Photoshop!
Many of the homes are decorated for the season and you can photograph things in December that don’t exist the rest of the year. A fabulous time to go!
Merry Christmas to all!
Anyway, a fun short photowalk. You can read more of my Fort Christmas posts here. And you can see more photos from there in this album on Flickr.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Merry Christmas to everyone and enjoy spending time with family and friends. And don’t forget to make some photos with them!