I was getting a little exercise on a morning walk last Wednesday when I noticed some birds in the distance soaring on a thermal. As I got closer I could tell they were Swallow-tailed Kites.
I always enjoy seeing these birds. They’re very distinctive and watching them use their tails as a rudder to swoop, glide, roll, and zoom through the sky is fascinating. They migrate about 5000 miles from South America and arrive in Florida in the spring, spending several months here to breed and then returning south in the late summer.
It’s not uncommon to see them in my neighborhood, and even over my house. But they always appear when I’m not ready to photograph them. This time was no different. The only camera I had with me was my phone and I was sure they’d be gone by the time I could get home and get my big lens out. As I got closer, the birds circled lower in the sky and I decided to try making some photos anyway.
Swallow-tailed Kites circling overhead in our neighborhood (click on the photo to see a larger version on Flickr)
I used the built in camera app with the 3x lens (50mm equivalent) and the output set to RAW mode. I made about 30 frames, hoping some would turn out.
I went through them when I got home and picked the best ones to process. Most of the rejects were due to framing, exposure, or chromatic aberrations / fringing. Their colors make them hard to expose correctly and the white feathers were blown out in many of the frames. There was very distracting blue / purple fringing along wing edges in the ones that were made at f/1.8. The f/2.8 ones didn’t have that issue. This left me with just a handful of images to process.
I ran them through Adobe’s “Enhance / Super Resolution” and used masks and subject and sky selections to make local adjustments. I also set the sharpening to zero in Lightroom and used Topaz Sharpen AI as a last step.
A couple turned out OK, but I really wish I’d had my big lens with me!
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Stay positive, be kind, take care of yourselves and each other. And if you can – make some photos, even if all you have is your phone camera!
Country Road – Near the Lust Road entrance to the drive
There’s been lots of activity there this summer. Robert and others described feeding frenzies in the ponds by the pump house. Alligators and birds have gorged on fish, creating some great photo opportunities.
And people have seen many interesting birds too including Swallowtail and Mississippi kites, Brown Thrashers, Fulvous Whistling Ducks, an Ash-throated Flycatcher, Purple Martins, and others.
Red Shouldered Hawk with Field Mouse (in right claw). It had just caught the mouse on the road and carried it to this tree.
On our trip, we also saw several kinds of dragon flies:
Halloween Pennant Dragonfly
And many water lilies blooming, some of them in very pretty light:
MINWR can be quiet through the hot part of the year and the times I checked on it this summer, I saw few birds / wildlife. Conditions were poor with little rainfall for long periods followed by some huge fires along Black Point Wildlife Drive.
On the other hand, Lake Apopka’s been a wonderful place to visit this summer. It’s a shame I didn’t go over there more often. Not too long ago, the lake was polluted with farm runoff. Restoration efforts and the opening of the wildlife drive about two years ago have made it a premier nature and wildlife destination in Central Florida.
It’s about the same distance from me as MINWR. I’m going to make a point of visiting more often. If you haven’t been recently – go.
Irked Eagle – This is Frederick, one of the permanent residents. A staff member brought him out for us. In this photo, he’s yelling at a different staff member that walked by. Maybe he was expecting a handout?
Birds of Prey is a wonderful place but leaves me with mixed emotions. On the good side, there are many more Raptors now than there used to be. The estimated population of Bald Eagles in Florida has grown from 88 active nests in 1973 to 1,457 nests now. But on the sad side, there are also many more people and automobiles. This leads to increased encounters between people, their cars, and birds – and sadly, means that many more birds are getting injured today.
Wonderful places like Birds of Prey take in injured raptors, treat them, and (if they’re well enough) release them back into the wild. They’re able to release just over 40% of their raptor patients. But it’s sad that some birds are too injured to be released.
This Great Horned Owl looks a bit sleepy. It must be a night owl.
The injured birds are well cared for. Some are placed in zoos or other facilities that are knowledgable and able to provide for them. Others stay at Birds of Prey. They make exceptional ambassadors and help teach people about these awesome creatures. All three raptors pictured in this post are permanent residents at the center. It’s great that they’re such good photo subjects. But it’s sad that they’ll never make it back into the wild.
There’s another place like this in Apopka, Florida – The Avian Reconditioning Center. I haven’t been there yet, but I’m sure they’re just as dedicated to helping injured birds. And I’m sure there are places like this all over. You’ll be sad if you never visit one. In addition to the photo-op, your entrance fees help pay for care for the injured birds.
If you’ve meant to go to Gatorland in Orlando, Florida to see the wild birds that nest in the rookery there, you’ve just about missed your chance for this year.
I went by last Saturday with Mahesh S. and Greg N. to see what was going on (and to renew my annual photographer’s pass). There were still one or two Great Egret nests with chicks, but the other young birds have hatched, grown, fledged, and moved out. Nesting activity will start-up again in mid to late February next year. After this weekend, you’ll also have to visit during regular hours since the early entry program ends on June 15th. In the mean time, Gatorland’s still a great place to get close access to a number of Florida bird species.
Great Egret ABOAS*
And of course, it’s always a great place to see Alligators.
Like an iceberg – There’s more under the surface than you can normally see from above.
And there are occasionally some nice avian visitors too.
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.