Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Viera Wetlands are two of my favorite places to photograph and I had time to visit both last week. They’re each wonderful and seem similar, yet they can be very different. When I was at MINWR, it was very quiet with few birds or other wildlife around. July isn’t the best time for birds in Central Florida, so I wasn’t expecting much.
On the other hand, Viera Wetlands was full of activity. Right away, we saw a couple of Osprey fishing:
Osprey with catch at Viera – always fun to see and a thrill to get a good, in focus photo
And as we walked around we saw Sand Hill Cranes, a Caracara, Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Swamp Chickens (Common Gallinules), a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Least Bitterns, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, and Green Herons.
Green Heron at Viera – posing nicely in very good light
My friend Kevin M. was with me, and he saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. We also spotted a family of four otters crossing the road, and multiple Alligators.
Why did we see so much more at Viera than Merritt Island? Was it the weather (don’t think it was much different)? Time of day (we were there a bit later)? Water type (fresh vs. brackish)? Vegetation? Kevin’s luck?
I really don’t know. I’m just grateful I went to both places and got to see so much. The moral of the story: If one of your local photo spots is quiet, try a different one. You never know what you’ll see.
We’re finally getting cooler weather here in Central Florida. In addition to making it even more pleasant outside, the fall and winter months bring some changes to our area photo opportunities.
Orlando Wetlands Park is one of my favorite places. But if you haven’t been there this year, you’ve missed your chance. It closes on November 15 and doesn’t re-open until January 31st.
Downy Woodpecker at Orlando Wetlands – not a great photo, but it’s my first one of this bird. ISO 800, 1/800 sec, f/8, 600 mm
And Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) is also a favorite. When I went over last week, Black Point Wildlife Drive was closed. The web page says “until mid November”, so it should hopefully be back open soon. Fortunately there are many places to photograph in MINWR – even with BPWD closed, it’s still worth a visit.
Black and White Osprey on Gator Creek Road in MINWR. ISO 400, 1/1600 sec, f/8, 500 mm
Brown Pelican in Flight along Haulover Canal in MINWR. ISO 800, 1/2500 sec, f/8, 600 mm
I saw an interesting article in the New Your Times this week confirming what I feel: Spending time out in nature can improve your mind. It’s called “Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park” and references a study published this month in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. (I hope you can read the NYT article – I’m not sure how their pay wall works.) The study measured volunteer’s brain waves as they walked along a path through three parts of a city. Then they looked at the recorded patterns for signs of frustration, agitation, attention / engagement, and calmness. The portion of the path through a park engaged the people’s attention while at the same time increasing their calmness. The urban portions of the walk increased their frustration. The moral of the story (at least for me): Spend more time with nature, and wildlife.
I increased my engagement with nature and my calmness this week by visiting the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
I stopped first at Kars Park. I hadn’t been there before and wanted to scout it as a sunrise spot. I also hoped I could see / photograph the cruise ships at Port Canaveral from there. They should make a good subject when they’re lit up in the dark. I arrived before dawn and found a pier, but didn’t really like the results and moved on. I’ll have to try again some time.
On the way to MINWR I noticed clouds developing on the horizon. They were pretty enough to make me pull over for this photo:
Pretty clouds – My sunrise photos didn’t come out so well, but the light was interesting a little later in the morning.
Turning in to Gator Creek Road, I spotted an Osprey in a dead tree. I crept up slowly, stayed in my car, and tried not to disturb it. It gave me a few hard looks but kept eating and was still there when I left.
No sushi for you – An Osprey with breakfast along Gator creek Road. It watched me as I drove slowly by and didn’t seem to want to share.
A little further on, I ran into this pair, also enjoying breakfast:
No sushi for you! (2) – A pair of eagles. They didn’t look like they wanted to share their meal either. I enjoyed watching them for a while and when they finished eating they flew away together – so I’m pretty sure they’re a couple. I’d like to go back to the area to see if I can get a better photo.
After Gator Creek, I took a turn around Black Point Wildlife Drive. It was pretty quiet but I did see a few of the regular birds (Great Blue and Tri-colored Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Black Skimmers, Gulls, Mottled Ducks, Terns, Scaups, etc.).
My last stop was the Bairs Cove boat ramp. I wanted to check out a new kayak launch area just across Haulover Canal from there. On the way in to Bairs Cove I noticed an isolated tree on the left and made a quick photo. As I drove around the boat ramp parking area I kept thinking about the scene. Something was very appealing and I didn’t want to get home without a good image of it, so on the way out I stopped again and made this more careful photo. It’s two IR, HDR images arranged so I could stitch a vertical panorama to get this square format result.
I’d seen a few mentions online of Blue Cypress Lake near Vero Beach, Florida. It’s a long drive from Winter Springs – which is why I hadn’t made it down there. But that’s also why I was up at “0 dark thirty” last Saturday. Fortunately, I packed the night before so I was able to sleep in just a bit. I also didn’t want to arrive in the dark on my first time there. So Kevin M. and I met at 5:30 near his house and were off. There was a lot of fog and drizzle on our drive down, although it eventually cleared up and the clouds added some drama to the skies. We turned in to Blue Cypress Lake Road just after 7am, but were delayed by stops for photos of Wild Turkeys in the fields on the west side and three Otters playing in the road up near the lake.
At Middleton’s Fish camp, we first parked near the camp sites, but couldn’t really see much from the shore – although with the right lens a sunrise shot from the bridge over the canal might be very pretty. We decided to rent a small boat to explore out in the water and wow, I’m glad we did! We went north and scouted the trees, shoreline, and birds for about two hours.
The calm water and weathered cypress trees make for some outstanding scenery. We also saw literally hundreds of Ospreys and a good portion of them were carrying or eating fish. There were also plenty of alligators, a few quite large. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were also numerous and they serenaded us the whole morning. We heard an eagle but didn’t see it and although there are supposed to be hawks and barred owls, we didn’t see any of them.
Osprey Family – One of the many nests on Blue Cypress Lake. Many are just a few feet from the water. (Photo courtesy of Kevin McKinney)
Info for Photographers
According to the locals, the best cypress trees are on the west side of the lake (where Middleton’s is) both north and south of the canal. For sunrise shots, you’d probably want to get between the shore and some of the farther out trees. This might be tough, especially in the dark if you don’t know the lake. Be careful of hidden snags / submerged fallen trees that could hang you up! If you’re on the lake later in the day, a safer photo might be an evening sunset from a little farther out with a telephoto lens.
Many cypress trees: The north-west shore of Blue Cypress Lake, Black & White, Infrared
If you have an IR camera or filter, YOU MUST BRING IT to Blue Cypress Lake! I just love the way Cypress trees show up in infrared.
Depending on how much time you have available, there are a couple of other places you could check out in the area. On the way home, we went by Joe Overstreet Road. On the way we saw (and I finally got a photo of) a Swallow-tailed Kite. When we arrived, we saw Eastern Meadowlarks, Sandhill Cranes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Bobwhite, egrets, herons, and other birds. We hoped to see a Whooping Crane, but no such luck.
Swallow-tailed Kite with snake
I brought mine, but didn’t use it out on the lake. It’s not much use inside the boat. Although many people get out into the water to use theirs, I was a bit leery of doing this. If you do, just be very careful of the depth and your footing and be sure to watch for alligators!
I had a 16 – 35mm on one camera and a 28 – 82 equivalent on the other. I felt the 16 – 35 was a bit too wide for the conditions. Next time I go, I think a 24 – 70 would be ideal for Cypress trees / landscapes. For birds of course, you’ll want a stabilized telephoto lens that you can handhold in a moving boat. Kevin used his 70 – 300VR on his DX crop body for some great shots.
Best time to visit:
If you go in February – April, you’ll be able to see Osprey’s nesting, breeding and raising their young. Some of the nests are quite close to the water so you can get an excellent look. Just be sure you don’t stress the birds.
There will still be many Ospreys around to photograph the rest of the year. Many of them are fishing and carrying their catch back to a convenient tree, so opportunities for flight shots of these magnificent birds with their prey abound.
Of course, the cypress trees are here year round.
Middleton’s Fish Camp offers tours and rents boats, and cabins. If you also fish, they rent fishing tackle and sell bait. If you do want to rent or take a tour, call ahead for availability.
The woman I’m with is wonderful! I thought I used up all my husband points yesterday when she went to see Harry Potter with me. But this morning, she nudged me and asked if we were still going birding. So we did.
I’ve been to Viera Wetlands many times since first discovering it in January of 2010. It’s one of the most consistent places for birding in Central Florida. Today was no exception. We went by the Click Ponds first. The interesting thing was that the water level was very low. We saw a huge number of fish concentrated in small areas in the ponds. The birds gathered around the fish feasting on them. Many of the birds seemed sated and were too full to be interested in more.
We saw Black-necked Stilts, Roseate Spoonbills, Ospreys, Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Limpkins, Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Little Egrets, Moorhens, Whistling Ducks, Anhingas, Cormorants, Coots, and other species. You can see a lot of them in this photo:
Click Pond Pano: The water level is low in the Click ponds at Viera Wetlands. This has concentrated the fish and the birds are feasting.
Osprey in flight
Lesson learned: Don’t ignore the Click ponds at Viera Wetlands. Especially at this time of year.
Lynn and I went to a function in Bartow, Florida this weekend and didn’t have much time for nature or wildlife photography. But we were cruising around her old neighborhood on Saturday morning and happened to notice an Osprey and nest near the Bartow Civic Center, so we stopped for a bit to investigate.
Osprey in flight
We pulled into the parking lot and got out to the sound of many calling Ospreys. They were all around the ball field at the Civic Center with many nests on the light poles and one or two Ospreys in each nest (most likely juveniles). Between the ones on the nest and the ones flying around, there must have been 20 to 30 visible. We saw this one both carrying a fish and perched with it.
Osprey in flight with breakfast
Osprey on perch with Perch(?) – This bird wasn’t too happy with me getting near its breakfast