My friend Tom M. wanted to go out photographing last week. And I was ready – I hadn’t clicked the shutter since last year! When he mentioned that he wasn’t very familiar with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I jumped at the chance to show him around.
Our first stop was along the causeway to watch the gulls and Black Skimmers that often gather there.
Black Skimmer – Along the causeway headed into the Refuge
Then we drove through Gator Creek Road and Blackpoint Wildlife Drive.
Roseate Spoonbill (BPWD)- This bird was foraging near the shore and ignored me as I crouched down and framed my shot. When it heard the shutter clicking, it stopped and stared right at me for a few seconds and then continued feeding.
River Otter (BPWD) – I stopped the car when I spotted two Otters in the water next to the road. They swam by and kept going as we got out to try to make a photo. We followed for a bit – but they were going quicker than our fast walk. One of them surprised me when it crossed the road and of course I was too slow to get a good photo of that. This is the best image I managed.
We also stopped by the Bairs Cove Boat ramp at Haulover Canal to visit the manatees there and then drove by the Great Horned Owl nest (near 402 and SR 3). Our last stop was the visitor center to see if the painted buntings were around ( no, but they had been).
Whether you’re familiar with the area or not, this would be a very good half day route to see the highlights at MINWR. And this is a wonderful time to go – there’s a lot of birds and other wildlife around, and the weather’s great. Maybe I’ll see you over there!
Photography is challenging and wildlife especially may be difficult to photograph well. Poor light, bad weather, a distant animal far away or facing away from you, or in front of a busy or too bright background: These all make capturing beautiful wildlife images tough. Overcoming challenges like these makes photography a rewarding pursuit.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s not as challenging. It’s almost like the universe sets up a photo-op to make things easy for you. Like it wants you to show how pretty the animal is. And the wildlife cooperates too! We came across one of these gifts yesterday at Viera Wetlands.
We were driving south along one of the berms and saw a small group of Black Skimmers land on the road in the distance. These aren’t rare birds in Florida, but I hadn’t seen them at Viera before (they’re more common at MINWR). They’re unusual enough to make me take notice and they’re a bit difficult to expose well because of their coloring (white and black with very dark eyes) so I’m always looking for better photos.
We got out of the car and slowly walked towards them and I noticed several things. The birds were up on the road, so we could approach from low on the side of the berm and get them at eye level with the sun behind us. The wind was coming from the same direction as the sun, so the birds were facing into it and toward us (they like to face into the wind so they can more easily take off). The water behind the birds provided a nice clean background. And as we crept closer, the birds stayed calm and didn’t seem to mind us at all.
Black Skimmer (Settings: 1/1000, ƒ/9, ISO 400, 500 mm)
We got close, enjoyed watching them, and photographed for a while. We had time to make sure all our settings were correct. I carefully braced my camera and lowered the ISO to get the best quality image. I checked my exposure / histogram to make sure the bird’s eyes were visible (difficult on this species) and the white feathers weren’t blown out. This went on for a bit until another car came down the road. It stopped for a minute so I had time to adjust my settings to get ready for the birds to fly. Then it drove on, and they flew up, circled around and landed back on the road in front of us and over some wild flowers. A perfect flight shot opportunity!
Black Skimmer in flight (Settings: 1/2500, ƒ/7.1, ISO 800, 290 mm)
Be on the lookout for situations like this. They’re truly a gift and not as common as we’d like. Be ready. Know your camera’s capabilities and limitations. Think through your settings and double-check your results. Make sure you take advantage of these opportunities – when the universe sets you up and the animals cooperate.
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!
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
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
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
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: