On first impression, the swamp is chaotic. With its high canopy, most of the scene is dark with shadow. The day’s bright sunlight barely filtering through. Large tree trunks, felled by past storms lie at random angles and decay. Walking the boardwalk, I look down into the murky water for alligators, frogs and snakes. I hear a variety of bird calls, but looking around and above me, I cannot spot the birds.
I walk and observe my surroundings for more than an hour. My vision is drawn to the ferns, which spring from the decaying tree trunks and at times fill in a section of the swamp. I see the color, the pattern and the contrast of a narrow trunk, speckled with lichen. I have found a composition. As I work with the image later, I developed a painting. What do you think?
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Today I wondered how to make my nature photography in the tropics relevant to people other regions — where alligators and palm trees don’t exist. Then I remembered the photographs I shot yesterday of the ferns in the Cypress Forest. Ferns are an ancient and diverse plant that spring to life next to decaying wood all over the globe. I grew especially interested and appreciative of ferns while hiking the New Zealand woods.
The South Island of New Zealand was the location where I learned that the growth tip of a fern that takes the shape on an unfurling spiral is a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and eternity. It’s called the Koru. Thanks to this experience and inspiration in New Zealand, I revere the Koru as well.
Looking for alligators and a wide variety of birds in the Florida wilderness, many nature enthusiasts will pass by the ferns without a pause to admire them. I love to find a great composition that features the Koru — the spiral shaped tip of the fern, showing us for centuries the ability of life to regenerate. A positive symbol during our trying times. I believe that this local photograph can truly attain international relevance and appeal.
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“Alligator Nursery” are two words you don’t normally see together! This mother American Alligator owns this territory — has been lounging on this ledge for years, so it is no surprise that she has made this private corner the nursery for her babies. How many baby alligators can you spot in this photograph?
Mother gator tries to protect her young from predators, which include adult male alligators. Dad gator doesn’t hesitate to snack on the children.
This close-up of Mom Gator and four baby gators reminds me of the advice given to human mothers of newborns, “When baby sleeps, you should sleep.”
When visiting Florida, keep your distance from any alligator you see and don’t walk close to the edge of any lake or pond, for alligators are dangerous to humans and their pets. If the alligator is hungry, it will strike very fast without warning.
While I was leaving Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary at 5pm, I witnessed a dramatic ambush. A Red-Shouldered Hawk swooped into the woods and nearly took out a quick moving Red-Bellied woodpecker. As the hawk flew in and just as quickly flew away, the woodpecker, traumatized by its near-death experience, shrieked and jumped around frantically for several minutes. I recognized the behavior as a way of communicating, “HOLY —-. That hawk almost KILLED me!!!”
I set up my tripod as quickly as I could and made some images of the woodpecker as he momentarily rested on the trunk of this tree. When I got home to examine my photos, I was able to identify the type of bird he was. While the hawk’s behavior is part of Nature’s food chain, I could relate to the anxiety of the little woodpecker. That was one scary experience!
The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish. (Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)
Well hidden in the dark shadows of the Cypress Swamp, undisturbed by onlookers on a distant boardwalk, the Barred Owl seemed to sleep. Bird watchers gathered, whispered and pointed toward the quiet owl. It would take a long lens (600mm), steady hands, perfect focus and the right camera settings (ISO 2000, 1/1000th) to capture a good photograph. Since our owl stayed in place and turned in our direction eventually, I got the shot.
It was love at first sight when I spotted a Red-Shouldered Hawk for the first time. He perched on a high tree branch and kept his eyes trained on the water below, watching for prey. I waited and waited for him to take flight until my arms needed a rest. I wanted to capture him in flight, but his watch outlasted mine.
My luck had not run out. About 5 minutes later along my hike in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, another couple had stopped to watch something low in the swamp. It must be the mate! Another red-shouldered hawk was foraging in the forested area, and I got some closer shots of its beautiful plumage. Sure enough, you can observe the red shoulder from this angle.
These raptors are fierce hunters, feeding on mammals as large as rabbits and tree squirrels, small reptiles and even birds of all sizes including the Eastern Screech Owl. Their length is typically 23-24″. Of these two hawks, I’m not sure which one is male and which is female.
It was a quiet morning at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida until the Anhingas started to squawk. They are usually quiet birds, but I discovered that when they cry out, they can be loud. (Click here to hear one.)
Sometimes called the “snake bird” because its slender neck often curved in an S shape looks like a snake when it sticks out of the water when they swim underwater, and pop its head out to breathe. Since females have brown necks, this one appears to be a male. They are also quite large (wingspan 42″) and are commonly seen in Southwest Florida and the Everglades. Black and white feathers on the mature Anhinga resemble piano keys.
This one had a lot to say. He seemed panicked as though he was putting out a danger call. Perhaps there was a bobcat or a vulture in the area.
“Okay, perfect. Now, stand up straight with one foot in front of the other, step into the sunlight, look at me, and hold it right there.” Snap!
If only a wild bird would follow directions like that! If only a beautiful roseate spoonbill would show up when you go out with your camera hoping to capture something interesting. In the wild, the photographer shows up often and prepared with know how and good equipment hoping that the birds and the events will happen someday.
When it is time to process a digital image, some experience with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom comes in handy. I was grateful to be prepared when this Roseate Spoonbill and I met at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
This mostly white bird seen in the southwest Florida swamp stumped some experienced bird watchers who were guessing its identity. What do you think? Yes, it looks like a heron with that long beak, but it’s not blue…at least not yet.
My first guess was the Wurdemann’s Heron, a mostly white mutation of the Great Blue Heron, that I had recently learned about and sighted in Rookery Bay. Don’t we love to put our newly found knowledge to work? But the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary naturalist gently corrected me: this is a juvenile Great Blue Heron.
If you have some birding knowledge to share, please leave a comment to this blog. I’m happy to start a conversation.