Editors note: Here’s a post from our visiting correspondent MaryKate – this time from right here in Central Florida. Enjoy!
I recently met a friend at Blue Spring State Park, the “Winter Home of Manatees,” for a nature walk and manatee viewing. With many offshoots and observation decks, the wide wooden boardwalk makes for a safe place to enjoy nature and view wildlife during COVID – – – IF you get there early.
The manatee viewing was amazing, even with “just” ~150 manatees on the day that we went. The weather was cooler the week before, and manatee counts were ~ 400! Regardless, we saw plenty of manatees, fish, birds, beautiful scenery, and even this upsidedown-atee!
The park opens at 8 am, and I arrived around 7:55 am, but I was stuck in a line of cars waiting to get in. I’d suggest arriving by 7:40 or 7:45 am to skip the traffic. You can purchase a park vehicle admission pass in advance here, but you can only purchase same day. I recommend buying in the morning right before you head over.
It was relatively empty at the beginning of our morning, and all park visitors were wearing masks and keeping socially distanced. However, by about 9:30 am, it started to get crowded, and many of the late arrivers weren’t as well behaved.
Florida Manatees are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. While this status was officially downgraded in 2017 from endangered, the population is still at risk: in 2020, over 600 Florida Manatees died, with 114 of those deaths being caused by humans (i.e. boat strikes). Want to help? Consider donating to Save The Manatee Club, a nonprofit founded by Jimmy Buffet and Bob Graham, and the world’s leading manatee conservation organization.
No, not slow shutter speeds. Photography itself is slow.
It usually is this time of year. Our heat, humidity, and bugs have all become bothersome. And at least for me, wildlife seems harder to spot. This year we also have a pandemic to deal with – especially here in Florida. So my photo motivation has been sluggish. I did end up taking my camera out three times last week and came home with a couple images that may be worth sharing.
I saw a mention (On Flickr? Can’t remember. ) of a place called Lemon Bluff. It’s a small Volusia County park / boat ramp on the St. Johns river. I’m not sure how many photos you could find there, but it would be a great place to launch a kayak.
St. Johns River from the Lemon Bluff boat ramp
I also brought my camera on two short trips into Orlando. I wanted to see how the swans are doing. Our first visit was cancelled by a rain storm, however the second one went a little better.
Almost grown – These Lake Davis cygnets are just about as big as Mom and Dad.
Both families are doing well. There are still two cygnets at Lake Davis. Lake Cherokee has three – they’re a little smaller. I’m not posting photos of them because they were napping in the grass right in front of an ugly irrigation pump. I should file a complaint with the swan modeling agency!
I headed out toward Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge with KM and KK last Friday.
We stopped by the boat ramp at the St. Johns River on US 50 for sunrise. There weren’t many clouds, so my hopes for color weren’t too high. But there was a nice pop as the sun came over the horizon and I zoomed in to capture this moment:
St. Johns Sunrise – a peaceful pasture
I had my infrared modified camera in the car. When I saw these fishermen leaving, I pulled it out and hurried over to make an image. Despite rushing, I like the way it turned out. The clarity that IR brings to this image is nice, and the wake and boat reflection are pretty too. I’m glad I had the camera all setup to go before I grabbed it!
Early departure – Monochrome, infrared
KM is an ace at spotting birds and he called out this Merganser. When I got home, I thought at first it might be a Common Merganser – which I’ve never seen before. But it turns out their range doesn’t include Florida. So this was a Red-breasted – which I have seen, although infrequently.
There are a large number of Northern Shovelers around Black Point Wildlife drive. Of course they were mostly far away and when they were close, they seemed to always face in the wrong direction. But patience paid off when this male eventually swam slowly in front of us in good light and dragged his very handsome reflection with him.
Male Northern Shoveler
Thistle plants are also all over on Black Point – this one came with a Bee on it. I made a four image panorama to record the whole subject with higher magnification and resolution. Sometimes I run into issues stitching these together. But this one turned out well:
Thistle and Bee
KK called out this Snipe in the mangroves along the canal and we of course stopped to photograph it. The light was poor, with the sun behind it. When I first looked at my photo on the computer, it was very washed out. I added some dehaze in Lightroom and was pleased with the result.
Smaller birds were flitting around near the rest stop on Black Point. I usually find these hard to photograph. The light is bad way back in the reeds and they move quickly. It’s tough to focus on them through all the obstructions. I was shooting toward the sun for this image too and it didn’t look good at first on my computer. Thankfully it’s in focus and there’s a lot of latitude for processing with a RAW format file. I used local adjustments with the radial filter in Lightroom to boost the exposure and visible detail on the bird.
When we left on this trip, I had no idea what we’d see and photograph. There are no guarantees. I’ve learned though, that Mother Nature usually rewards us when we pay attention to her – in this case with a nice sunrise and several birds that I rarely see. And a little post processing rewarded me with improved photos.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!
I decided to wander over towards Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge early last Friday. My shutter finger was itching and I had to get a camera out and scratch it. I was running a little late and wouldn’t have made it to the coast for sunrise, so I stopped at C S Lee Park on the St. Johns River on my way. Nature provided quite a show.
Another Central Florida Morning
I don’t know what this effect is called – when the sun just kisses the cloud bottoms and leaves higher clouds darker and less colorful. I don’t see it often enough. Maybe that’s because it only lasts for such a short time. According to my EXIF data, I made this image in the middle of a 2-3 minute window and the colorful streaks were much less prominent just before and after. Whenever I do see this, I’m happy to make a photo!
The Jolly Gator Fish Camp Bar & Grill is next to the park, right across a shallow water filled area from where I made the sunrise photo. I liked the reflection and symmetry and made this image before I moved on. I’ve never actually been inside this place. Maybe I’ll talk Lynn into going there for lunch with me.
Jolly Gator Fish Camp & Grill
MINWR has a web page you can check for road closures. Currently, it won’t do you much good – info on Gator Creek, Biolab, and Black Point is all out of date. Last Friday, Gator Creek and Biolab Roads were open. They’ve been re-surfaced and are in good shape. And Black Point Wildlife Drive was closed due to the amount of rain we’ve had recently. I hope they keep the road closures page more current. I sent them a note.
I didn’t have much luck with birds or wildlife on this trip. So I’ll leave you with two more scenic photos.
Lone Pine and Clouds at Dawn (color version)
This tree is along the left side of the road leading into the Bairs Cove boat ramp. The combination of early morning light, a lone pine tree, and the clouds in the background stopped me in my tracks. I made this image and the last one out my car window. Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of traffic. With these two photos, you can see how the infra-red sensor renders light compared to an unmodified camera.
Some mornings, sunrise isn’t very special. Maybe nature’s tired and saves up energy for one of those truly spectacular dawns we get occasionally. What do I do when that happens? Just go ahead and make photos anyway – rehearsing is a good thing too.
Sunrise at the old bridge
This park is on the river side of 17-92, just past I-4, heading toward Debary. They’ve left part of the old bridge there and I thought there might be interesting compositions to work with at sunrise. I was hoping for clouds and color too, but it wasn’t meant to be. This is one frame I like, but I don’t love the sky.
Oh well – next time. Photography Philosophy: Practice and persistence will prevail!
Early morning calm – Along the St. Johns River where it crosses HW 50
On the way, we stopped at a favorite sunrise spot and even though it’s been well photographed, managed to get images we liked.
At Viera, we drove around the main cells a couple of times and saw some interesting things. This Tricolored Heron had speared a large fish and was trying to swallow it. It couldn’t hold on and dropped it just after I made this photo.
Tri-Colored Heron, this one with breakfast.
We saw a few of the regular birds there, but the ducks and other winter migrants don’t seem to have arrived yet. On the way out, Kevin M. talked us into taking a quick spin around the Click Ponds and I’m glad he did. The water’s been low there for a while and the birds are having a feast. The shallow water concentrates the fish and makes them easy prey. Birds lined up and grabbed fish out of this small stream that flowed toward the low point in the pond.
Chow line – The water level in the Click Ponds at Viera Wetlands was very low yesterday.
Over in the corner was a very large mixed flock also enjoying the banquet. I spotted Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Glossy and White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Black Vultures, and a White Pelican in this one photo.
A large flock of feeding birds
So, it wasn’t a good day for fish, but the birds enjoyed it.
I have many posts about Viera Wetlands here on the blog that you can scroll through at this link, and many photos you can look through in this album on Flick.
St. Johns Sunrise – silver lining and sun rays: This is a long exposure (10 second) image I made at the boat ramp on the St. Johns where it meets HW 50. The water is higher than I’ve seen it there before
Pollen covered Bumble Bee on Purple Thistle: These thistles are blooming all over Black Point Wildlife Drive. The pollen on this bee may be an indication of why we’re having such severe allergy problems here in Central Florida.
Spoonbill in the reeds: There were many other birds around too.
Life and death in the Florida wild: The bird (a female Red-breasted Merganser) was looking for fish along a small grass island in the distance. I glanced over when I heard some splashing but couldn’t see anything at first. Then I noticed this alligator with the bird. The struggle was hard to watch, but mercifully brief.
On a related subject, you may have seen news about the recent fish kills we’ve had in the Indian River Lagoon. These are occurring just south of MINWR, nearer Melbourne, Florida. As we were driving around the refuge, I was struck by how natural it looked and by the absence of any dead fish. I’m very thankful that the Refuge has preserved this natural area for us to enjoy.
I worry about the areas where fertilizer runoff and septic tank leakage can lead to pollution, brown tide, lack of oxygen and dead fish and animals. I hope that we can figure out solutions so that people living near our natural resources don’t damage them.
OK, sorry for the commentary. Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!
Let’s go fishing! Two fishermen head out before dawn.
I’ve made this kind of photo before – you can see some examples in this set on Flickr. I think this one turned out better than my earlier tries. I used a different approach and because it’s been a while since I’ve written a “behind the scenes / how-to post”, I thought I’d fill you in on how I made this.
The boat ramp at this little park where SR 520 crosses the St. Johns River is pretty busy around dawn. It seems to be a popular place for fishermen to put in. I waited several times while they cleared my frame and the water calmed down before I could make my next exposure. So I decided to make an image that included a boat.
It’s a challenging shot. I wanted to capture the intense sunrise colors so I had to be careful not to over expose and blow out the sky. I also wanted some detail in the boat, so I needed to over expose there a bit, but still minimize motion blur. At sunrise, I normally use a low ISO for the best quality image, and a small aperture for good depth of field. This results in a long shutter speed, which is bad for photographing moving boats. And if I want to bracket and use multiple frame HDR to capture the huge contrast range in the scene – that’s even worse for moving boat photography. So how did I make this image? Glad you asked!
The secret is to carefully capture two frames and blend them together by hand. The first frame is exposed for the boat: I used a high ISO and a wide open aperture to get my shutter speed as fast as possible, and I overexposed slightly to capture a little shadow detail in the boat and in the vegetation on the shore. With my camera set and on a tripod, I composed and waited for the next boat to get to the right point in the frame. Here’s that RAW file:
The second frame was my main exposure and I wanted it to be the best quality possible. I also wanted to slightly under expose to capture color and detail in the sky. I waited until the boat was gone and the water was calm again and then made this exposure:
When I got home, I preprocessed the two raw files using identical color balance and paying careful attention to noise reduction (especially on the higher ISO frame with the boat). I’ve used DxO Optics Pro lately when I want the best RAW conversion. It does a wonderful job on both lens corrections and noise reduction for supported equipment. After a few tweaks to exposure in each file, I brought them into Photoshop on separate layers.
The next thing to deal with was the boat. Even though I’d pushed my shutter speed as high as I thought I could, 1/20 second still left a little motion blur visible. The “Filters / Sharpen / Smart Sharpen” command in Photoshop has a “Remove Motion Blur” option and I’ve found that it works well in situations like this where the direction of motion is known. I used it selectively on a duplicate layer to enhance detail in the boat. Here are before and after crops at 200%. I think it’s a nice improvement:
Next I used layer masks to blend the multiple frames together. I worked carefully around the boat and painted it into the main / second frame. I like a little detail in my shadows instead of a straight silhouette. Since I’d slightly overexposed the first frame (and was careful with noise reduction) I painted some of that into the vegetation. Here’s the first merged result:
The only filter I used on this was Topaz Clarity – I like the way it increases mid-tone contrast without adding halos.
After selective sharpening on a separate layer, I returned to Lightroom for final adjustments (black and white points, vignette, etc) to get the first image in this post.
I struggled some with the cropping. I tried a 16×9 aspect ratio, but because I wanted to keep all the sky, I thought the horizon ended up too close to the center. I decided to keep the original composition since the dark water at the bottom holds my eye in the frame. I might play with it some more.
I like how it turned out and I hope you do too. I also hope the info helps with your photography. If you have any questions on details or other photography related things, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now, go make some photos!
I went over to Viera Wetlands last Saturday. It’s best not to expect too much in the middle of summer in Florida, so my expectations were a little low.
First on the agenda was a stop where SR 520 crosses the St. Johns River, near Cocoa, Florida. There’s a park on the north side of the road with a busy boat ramp and a boardwalk reaching a short distance out into the river. The sunrise was pretty – here’s one of the images I made:
Ultra-wide daybreak – Five frame panorama – The resulting horizontal field of view is about 130 degrees.
With the heavy rains we’ve had lately they closed the berms to cars, so we took off on a stroll around the cells closest to the entrance. There were more birds out and about than anticipated.
A very colorful Red bellied Woodpecker
In addition to woodpeckers, we saw and heard a lot of whistling ducks.
Perched Black Bellied Whistling Duck
We also saw many of the regular Florida avians (Tri-colored Herons, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Ibis, Anhingas, Moorhens, Coots, Black Vultures, etc.). Dragonflies and Alligators were also abundant.
I started with low photographic expectations and ended up coming home with several images I really like. I also got to spend a little time with friends. Once again I was pleasantly surprised by another wonderful Central Florida Photo Op!
There’s been a lot of news here recently about all the Manatees at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida – so I decided to go over and look for myself.
Around 20 Manatees in this one photo – There were more than 200 there on the day I went and the count’s been over 330 on some recent days.
Louis Thursby bought Blue Spring in 1856 and ran a steamboat landing. The steamboats shipped people and goods up and down the St. Johns River and stopped at the landing until the 1880s. The area became pretty run down until the state purchased the land in the 1960s and established the park.
There’s lots to do: Plenty of picnic areas; Hiking and nature trails; Cabins and a campground for overnight stays; Canoes and kayaks to rent; And you can even take a River Boat tour right from the park.We’ve been several times in the past but I hadn’t visited in years. It brought back very fond memories of tubing down the run from the spring and of our kids shivering in the 72 degree water, but enjoying it so much they refused to get out. When I used to scuba dive (a very long time ago), I dove to the bottom of the spring. In retrospect, that was at least a little reckless – people have died in there.
Info for Photographers
You can’t go in the water when the Manatees are there. But a lengthy boardwalk running from the St. Johns up to the spring provides many vantage points for photos. The Manatees are all along the run, but many congregate in the swimming area where you can get very close.
You must bring your Polarizer to cut the reflections so you can better see the manatees under the surface. Remember this will block a couple stops of light. And since the water is in shade in many places you may be a little starved for light. A camera / lens with vibration reduction / optical stabilization and good output at higher ISOs (~640) will come in handy.
Take a breath – A manatee surfaces at Blue Springs State Park
Tripod/Monopod: They’re allowed, but crowds could make tripods a problem. I left mine at home.
I used a 24 – 120 f/4 lens and was happy with it. I really didn’t want to switch lenses (and polarizers) so the focal length range on this came in handy. At times I wished for a little more reach but I could usually find another Manatee closer to me. I also wished for a wider aperture (f/2.8?), but the stabilization made this lens my best choice.
Best time to visit: Visit during a wintertime cold snap for the best chance of seeing Manatees. They can draw a crowd and the park is closed early to new arrivals if it fills up. Go on a weekday or get there very early on a weekend to make sure you get in. For other activities, you’ll have to work around their schedule – all water activities are prohibited when there’s a Manatee in the water. For swimming, tubing, snorkeling / diving, and kayaking in the spring run go when they aren’t there (March 15th – November 15th).Other: Manatees are the main attraction in the winter, but there are other animals there too. I’ve seen Alligators, wild pigs, and common Florida birds (e.g. Herons, Egrets, Anhingas, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Red Shouldered Hawks, and Vultures). Other folks have reported some not so common Florida Birds like Florida Scrub Jays and Barred Owls, – so keep your eyes open! And there’s a three-story home built built by the original owners that’s worth a visit.
The Louis P. Thursby House was built in 1872 at Blue Springs State Park