Category Archives: Florida

Florida Highlights – Gators and Vultures

alligator resting at picnic pullout spot, Florida
Alligator resting at the picnic pullout spot. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/4, 1/400 sec, ISO 200, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

This blog continues from last week about our Florida vacation and the highlights of our trip. After spending a week in the Fort Myers area, we headed east to find alligators. Our first stop was the Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, known for alligators, waterfowl and other swampy stuff. If this location sounds familiar, I mentioned this location in my “Buttonbush” blog too. The loop trail is a series of boardwalks through the swamp. A great location to see the swamp safely. Since we visited at the end of the dry season, water levels were low and we did not come across any gators. But we found an amazing number of fun things to photograph. For instance, a spider wrapping up its recent catch to a red shouldered hawk and even a common squirrel. I carried my tripod and two cameras (12-100mm and 300mm telephoto lenses) so I wouldn’t miss a thing.

The loop drive was a 24-mile gravel road through mostly cypress swamp areas. Frequently, the road crossed culverts and almost every culvert had alligators basking in the sun. We saw so many “gators” we decided we didn’t need to visit the Everglades; so we planned visiting the Florida Keys the next day.

Big Cypress National Preserve

After the swamp, we drove south to catch the Tamiami Road for our drive to Homestead, FL. We stopped at the Big Cypress National Preserve visitor center to discuss their scenic drives and pullouts. I often stop at visitor and tourist centers; the employees always have an opinion of the best places and sometimes they are not on the published maps. The Ranger recommended the Loop Road Scenic Drive and since it was on our way to Homestead, we took it. But, before we got to the loop road, we encountered a picnic pullout spot with a canal and many alligators. Watching these magnificent prehistoric looking creatures was mesmerizing. They glided easily through the water and stalked prey silently. We watched an alligator catch a turtle.

Homestead

Florida Keys
Curry Hammock State Park

We rented a room at an Airbnb in Homestead, FL from a lovely couple very attentive to our needs. It felt like home. With limited time in Homestead, we spent one day driving down to the Middle Keys just because we wanted to experience it. We ended up at Curry Hammock State Park and sat on the beach watching the kite surfers and played in the warm water. It was a long drive for just a few hours at the beach, but we were both glad we did it. After returning to Homestead, we ate dinner at Black Point Ocean Grill, a waterfront restaurant with live music and enjoyed our grouper and fish and chips. The next morning we took a detour to Everglades National Park before driving back to Fort Myers. After all, we were so close, how could we not stop?

Turkey Vultures

Turkey vultures in Florida
Turkey vultures picking at rubber in Anhinga Trail parking lot, Everglades National Park.

We entered the Everglades National Park through the main Homestead entrance and drove to the Anhinga Trail. This trail was recommended by my friend, Beth Ruggiero-York from her book, Everglades National Park: A Photographic Destination and it was easy to access. We tried to visit the Nike Missile Site too, but it was only open on weekends. As soon as we drove into the parking lot of the trail, we noticed a large number of turkey vultures and a few vehicles. Some vehicles had blue tarps on them, some vehicles had large numbers of vultures on them. We spoke to the park staff and they recommended putting a tarp (supplied by them) on our car. Apparently, the vultures love picking at the rubber on cars. We witnessed that love… some cars had as many as ten vultures picking at the rubber. We were happy to find our car untouched by the pesky vultures when we returned from our hike.

anhinga bird
Anhinga. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/4, 1/6400 sec, ISO 800, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

The Anhinga Trail is a short boardwalk trail through swampy areas with many alligators. At one point, I photographed a great egret next to the path and an alligator cruised past in the canal beside the egret. The egret was so close to me I had to use my short lens (12-100mm) to get the shot. Notice the photo below with the alligator slithering through the water. Otherwise, I used my 300mm lens to photograph anhingas, gators, and egrets.

Great egret and alligator in Florida
Do you see the alligator in the canal? Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 12-100mm, F/4.5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 320, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

Heading Home

We felt accomplished. We fulfilled our mission to see alligators and to visit the Everglades, so we headed out to drive back to Fort Myers. We stopped one last time at our favorite alligator picnic spot and then drove to our airport hotel. We ate an early dinner at the hotel to prepare for a 6am flight heading west the next morning. Our Florida vacation was over and we returned to Flagstaff rested and relaxed (except for the normal airport nonsense). We are ready for summer in Flagstaff.

So many alligators! Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/5, 1/640 sec, ISO 400, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

Florida Highlights – Gulf Coast

Englewood, Florida
Florida’s Gulf Coast, iPhone photo.

My first time in Florida was 35 years ago and that trip was centered around visiting family and going to the newly opened Epcot Center. This year, I returned to the area with my husband and the trip was full of beaches, wildlife and seafood. Our 10-day trip was relaxing and I thought I would share some of the highlights here.

Matlacha

Kayaking near mangrove trees
iPhone photo of Rod kayaking along the mangrove trees.

When we planned our trip, our goals were to see Sanibel Island and the Everglades. We didn’t want too much planned and chose to make up the itinerary as we went. As a result, we booked flights into Fort Myers and found a small Airbnb in Matlacha with kayaks. Matlacha is a small island between Cape Coral and Big Pine Island and an inexpensive alternative to Sanibel Island. During our first day, we recovered from jet lag by taking out the kayaks. It was as easy as walking out the back door. With the protection of Big Pine Island, paddling was a cinch and we investigated the mangrove trees up close. In addition, dinner was a short walk from the house where we ate fresh gulf shrimp on the waterfront and enjoyed local brews.

Sanibel Island

Shells on Sanibel Island, Florida.
Shells on Sanibel Island

Our interest in Sanibel Island came from Rod’s research before our trip. He read about great shelling on the island and his research was right. We spent hours at several beaches on Sanibel Island in search of the best seashells and I grabbed a few photos of waterfowl too. We spent another morning at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge capturing photos of egrets, osprey, herons, pelicans, ibis, and cardinals. I spent so much time photographing birds, Rod got a little bored and took a nap in the car.

Englewood

Rod and I at the Cowboy Chord Club ready to jam on our Ukes.

We visited Englewood, FL to participate in the Cowboy Chord Club, an acoustic jam group. I’m sure it seems kinda funny that we went on a vacation with our ukuleles and crashed a Meetup group, but we had fun! The group took song suggestions so Rod and I were able to rqeuest a few of our favorites to play. Afterward, we talked to the locals and were encouraged to check out their beach; so, we did. We found a waterfront restaurant with fresh fish and live music before we headed to the sun filled beach. As a result of low tide, many shells were visible and we shelled for a few hours before driving back to Matlacha. On our drive back, we found an alligator in a pond in front of a church. We made a quick U-turn to capture photos.

Marco Island and 10,000 Islands Boat Tour

Great Egrets captured from a moving boat in Florida.
Great Egrets captured from a moving boat. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/5, 1/5000 sec, ISO 400.

The tour on Marco Island named “10,000 Islands Boat Tour” was the only thing we scheduled before our trip besides the Airbnb, flight, and rental car. As It turns out, we were the only passengers on the boat, so I guess we didn’t need to schedule it so early. The tour was okay, we opted for a longer tour and later realized we didn’t get all that we were promised, however, we did see a lot of wildlife and get to visit one of the 10,000 islands that receives very few visitors. For example, we saw egrets, dolphin, osprey, heron, pelicans, a tern and spent more time shelling (our favorite past time). Capturing the birds from a moving boat was a new challenge and much harder the photographing birds in flight. (See “For the Photogs” below for details on photographing birds.)

Cape Coral

burrowing owl image captured with a tripod in Florida
Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm with 1.4x teleconverter, F/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 250, FotoPro x-go plus tripod.

Before leaving Matlacha for the Everglades, we were told about burrowing owls in the Cape Coral area and went out to find them. It turns out we had driven past them for days! Since they are protected, stakes are places around their perch to protect the area. The more we drove, the more we saw them in empty fields, front yards, along busy roads…everywhere. I photographed them in many of these areas but preferred the empty fields. The front yards with groomed grass didn’t give the photo a natural feel. Read about how I used my tripod capturing these images, in my blog titled: Benefit of Using a Tripod. Stay tuned for the next post – Florida: Gators and Vultures.

For the Photogs:

To photograph flying birds, a minimum of 1/2000 shutter speed is used to stop the movement of the bird wings. However, when photographing stationary birds, the shutter speed can be slower. In addition, when I was on the boat, I shot at 1/5000 sec. shutter speed and the captain slowed down the boat too. It was still a tough shooting situation. Even though the captain slowed down the boat, the waves were unpredictable and always hit the boat when I was ready to press the shutter. For maximum success, used continuous focus, continuous shooting mode (burst), and image stabilization when photographing birds. As you would expect, it takes lots of practice and timing to capture strong images of wildlife. Good luck!

Reddish Egret in Florida
Reddish Egret. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/4, 1/1250 sec, ISO 200, FotoPro X-Go Plus tripod.

The Benefit of Using a Tripod

Barred owl captured with a tripod
Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/5.6, 1/80 sec, ISO 1600, tripod

Do you dislike using a tripod? After teaching photo workshops for several years, I recognize it is not a popular piece of gear for new photographers. Tripods can be clunky, unstable, awkward, and temperamental. The “unstable” can be solved by purchasing a quality tripod from the start. Many photographers start with an inexpensive tripod and then realize why it was inexpensive…it doesn’t support their camera or is not built well. Save yourself some time and money and buy a good tripod from the start. The clunky, awkward, and temperamental can be overcome by using it.

I often hear participants state they only need a tripod when photographing landscapes, low light, or macro subjects, well, that is not true. A tripod in any shooting situation will improve the quality of your photos. Here is an example when I used a tripod in full sun to improve my photos.

Ibis image taken with a tripod
Ibis with a crab. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm, F/6.3, 1/4000 sec, ISO 400.

While in Florida on vacation, I photographed birds, from egrets to owls and they entertained me for hours. But holding a long lens for hours was not a solution for sharp photos, so I used my tripod. I started with my Olympus 40-150mm lens (80-300mm FF equivalent) and handheld many images, but since I use live view at 3-5x to verify sharp focus on the eyes of my subject, holding the camera still at this magnification was impossible. Even more so when I switched to my Olympus 300mm lens (600mm FF equivalent). As a result, I grabbed my tripod. Not only were my images sharper, but at the end of the day, my arm wasn’t sore from carrying the weight of the long lens.

Burrowing Owls

Photo of burrowing owl, by Amy Horn taken with a tripod
Burrowing Owl. Olympus OMD1 Mark II, 300mm with 1.4x teleconverter, F/5.6, 1/1250 sec, ISO 250.

One afternoon in Cape Coral, Florida, I spent hours photographing burrowing owls. These small owls are only 7-10 inches tall and like all wildlife, a photographer should keep a good distance to not disturb them. Therefore, I chose to use my Olympus 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter giving me a focal length of 820mm (full frame equivalency). With such long focal lengths, a tripod was a must. We drove to several neighborhoods in Cape Coral to photograph these owls with different backgrounds.

I recently purchased a Fotopro X-Go Plus carbon fiber tripod for airplane travel since it is smaller, lighter and fits in my suitcase. If you purchase a tripod for travel, be sure to check the weight of your gear with your heaviest lens and make sure that is below the max load of the tripod you are considering. With my lightweight Olympus system, my max load is less than most DSLR’s.

Using a tripod to capture images of owls
iPhone image of cpaturing burrowing owls
Buttonbush by Amy Horn

Buttonbush

When we saw the “Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary” on our Google search, we knew it was a must visit location. The name is almost as good as the Great Dismal Swamp (we’ve been there too!) It is located in Southwestern Florida and is known for alligators, waterfowl and other swampy visitors. We arrived shortly after they opened to capture wildlife in soft light. What we didn’t expect to see was a buttonbush shrub (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Resembling a Dr. Seuss tree, this unique bush caught our attention quickly. I used my 300mm lens (it was attached) and focused on the button closest to me. Although I had my macro lens, I really like how the buttons fill the frame from using the 300mm lens. Buttonbush plants are found from Mexico to the Artic and mostly in wetland areas.

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary didn’t disappoint. In addition to the buttonbush, we saw a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, woodpeckers, and a green anole. Next time you are in Southwestern Florida stop in to the swamp!