Good Morning, Everglades

Beth, of Wandering Dawgs, is hosting this week’s Lens-Artist Challenge and her theme is A Change of Scenery. I didn’t go out to find new scenery, instead I saw old scenery in a new way. Maybe I changed the way I interacted with familiar scenery.

We were out the door at 7:00 this morning with coffee in travel mugs, me with my camera equipment and Jim with the morning newspaper. We were headed down US-41 (Tamiami Trail) to the southeast into the Everglades. It was dawn and I wanted to catch the sun’s first rays as they shown over the Everglades grassland and most of all I wanted to take some photographs of wading birds at the shallow ponds along the south side of the road. We had seen a lot of them there the last time we made this drive, but didn’t stop because I was eager to photograph the birds at the waterholes along the Loop Road.

Usually Jim likes to drive and I like to look for potential photo opportunities. This arrangement doesn’t seem to work because by the time I say “Pull over here,” and he checks out if there is a safe place to pull over and checks traffic while saying “Where?” I have to say “Back there.” This time I drove so I could quickly pull over when I saw birds. It also gave me an opportunity to pull into some parking areas that I haven’t visited before – for a different view of the familiar Everglade scenery and maybe new opportunities for photos.

What a perfect morning for photography. There was a cloud bank to the east giving me nice, even light and a little more time before the harsh sun hit the grasslands. And there was a light fog. My first stop was onto the grass shoulder of US-41, hoping to photograph the patchy morning fog and the first light from the sun-rise. There weren’t any birds on the ground looking for breakfast but I saw a few small flocks flying around high overhead. I didn’t need to hurry so I just enjoyed the quiet, peaceful time spent exploring what the Everglades offered on this spring morning. It’s like I have become friends with this environment through my many visits over the years, so now the landscape is familiar but I am eager to experience the changes in the scenery due to season and weather. There seems to be a freedom within this kind of familiarity, like being with old friends when I feel comfortable enough to just let life happen.

This was a trip without a destination – each roadside park, trailhead parking, unpaved road became a potential place to pull into and explore with all my senses and my camera. My favorite spot turned out to be the parking lot across the street from an air boat ride establishment. There is evidence that this was once the place to buy a ticket and board an air boat. On this day the only worker present was this fellow who appears to be directing traffic or telling me to remove myself from the premises.

I probably shouldn’t project human intentions on these Black Vultures, but they seem to be having a discussion about what to do with this elderly lady trespasser with a bright pink hat. I showed them my camera and they seemed to understand my intentions and didn’t make any threatening moves. I went about my pleasures and they sat a while before flying off. I think there were alligators in the pond because I heard some splashing and some strange grunting (it is alligator mating season) but when I glanced in that direction I only saw ripples on the surface.

I pulled into this parking lot because it didn’t look used much and I liked the rope fencing. I wasn’t sure there would be much to photograph, but I’ve learned to just be still and pay attention to what is around me. The air was cool on my skin, there were birds calling to each other, and the dampness of humid, Florida air smelled fresh. What fun I had finding all kinds of surprises. Notice the dew-drops on the grasshopper.

Another place I pulled off was the H. P. Williams Roadside Park because there is a short boardwalk along the canal that runs the length of US-41 between Miami and Naples. The canal was trenched of blown up hard rock that was used to build the Tamiami Trail (US-41) through the Everglades between 1915 and 1928. More about that in a future post.

Across the canal is what appears to be a hardwood hammock, one of five habitats that make up the Big Cypress National Preserve. The other habitats are pinelands, prairies of saw grass, cypress swamps, and estuaries with mangrove strands. Don’t you think the Spanish moss hanging from the trees is a nice decorative touch? There is a lot of it growing north of Orlando but I don’t see it much on the coast in SW Florida.

Still no wading birds, although by this time I was happy with what the Everglades scenery had given me. I walked back to the car, and when I neared the end of the boardwalk I saw, through a thin hole in the brush growing between the boardwalk and the canal, a Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret. There wasn’t a spot big enough to photograph them, but at least I got a record of seeing them.

You know, sometimes we take what we can get and if we cop the right attitude we may get more than we expected. Sometimes we can change our scenery and sometimes we need to change how we see the scenery we are familiar with.

Exploring Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park


We had visitors from Michigan over the week-end and they enjoy seeing critters of all sorts so we took them into the Florida Everglades. On a previous visit we went on a dirt road in the Big Cypress National Preserve called the Loop Road. This time I wanted to explore some of the dirt roads in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, a large area to the west of Big Cypress. It was just my kind of day.

Our first stop was the Big Cypress Bend 3,200 foot boardwalk that I read about in O’Keefe’s excellent book The Photographer’s Guide to the Everglades. Even though we went right where he told us to go we didn’t find it. Instead we found an abandoned portion of road that was originally the Tamiami Trail (US 41 from Tampa to Miami). The alligator above resides in the canal along this walk. The next three photos were also taken from that walk.

I would still like to find the boardwalk and there is a number to call in the guidebook.

What we did find was the Janes Scenic Drive off Florida 29 going north. It is an eleven mile dirt road that goes to nowhere and back through the different ecosystems of the Everglades.

_DSC0049Travel was slow so we only went about half way before we turned around. Returning was even slower because I was driving and I know the spots where I had wanted to stop but couldn’t tell they were good until Jim had passed. A section of this scenic drive runs east/west and the raised parts are culverts that allows for this very slow flow of the very wide 6 inch deep river from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of this water flow is through saw grass plains that are seen in the photos above. Driving down the Tamiami Trail through these plains, we seen large wading birds congregating at small ponds and nesting in far off stands of pines and bald cypress.

My favorite experiences are traveling through the cypress swamps to find birds fishing in the shallow water and seeing alligators sunning themselves. You should know that I enjoy being somewhat close to the alligators in the winter months when they are in semi-hibernation; not that hungry nor eager to attack. In any case, I understand that Alligators have the power to cause damage to my body.


We saw several birds but this one was one I wasn’t familiar with and was in the process of communicating sweet nothings with a potential mate a ways away. When I processed the photos I realized that we saw two different birds. I think it is a Least Bitten heron, and maybe the one on the left is an adolescent.

Here is the one on the right with the mating plumage down.


We also saw the green heron on the left and many black vultures (right).

As we were nearing the end of the Janes Scenic Drive, we could see storm clouds building on the horizon and it started to sprinkle a little.




A Walk in the Swamp


No, we didn’t go for a walk through our nation’s capital. We visited the Bird Rookery Swamp Trails, a part of the land held by the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) trust. This reserve is off Immokalee Road south of the better known Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary run by the Audubon Society.


What a wonderful walk, although we did just a small portion of the 11 mile loop. There is a quarter mile gravel/shell path to the beginning of the boardwalk, and then the boardwalk is about a mile long. After that there is a dirt path that has scattered roots and protruding rocks so some caution while walking is needed. From reading reviews the path also is in places a narrow walkway through tall grass and a trolley lane used when logging was done in the area (people complained in the reviews that alligators lie across the paths or sun themselves very close to where people pass). The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a shorter walk of 2 1/4 miles (with a 1 mile shorter option), all of which is boardwalk, making it barrier free. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary charges adults $10 and this sanctuary trail is free (with a donation box by the parking lot).

Cypress Knees

I was looking for a quiet walk and the opportunity to take some photos. Almost all of my photos this winter have been from the Naples Botanical Garden and I was looking for a different kind of landscape.

I have been thinking that I’m getting used to the southern Florida landscape – after spending 10 winters here. It has been a big adjustment to having just two seasons – rainy/hot and dry/cool. Being from Michigan I kept looking for the drastic seasonal change in plants and landscape. The southern portion of Florida is dominated by the Everglades and whenever we went into the Everglades, or those areas like the Corkscrew preserves that have been dedicated to water and wildlife preservation, my brain sees the exotic, not the vegetation that I recognize and find nourishing to my soul.

It’s not that I don’t know swamps, the area of Michigan where I live was described by settlers as a mosquito infested swamp that was uninhabitable. But Michigan swamps have deciduous trees, oaks and maples. These swamps that I’m visiting in Florida are mainly cypress – and I’m growing to love them.

Fall in the Everglades


Egret fishing from a sunbeam.

Daughter, Sharon, was visiting from Texas last week and one of the things she wanted to do was visit the Everglades. I have traveled the Southern Loop Road, a 26 mile loop of narrow dirt road through the Big Cyprus Preserve, many times in the peak winter months when it is cooler and water levels are low.

I didn’t have any photos on file from October or November so I was a little concerned about whether there would be birds and alligators in the water close to the road for Sharon to enjoy.


When we stopped at the first (last) stop with facilities, several vultures were in the trees welcoming us. Or did they detect the smell of old age?

As we drove deeper into the everglades, the first thing I noticed was higher water. If the road hadn’t been well built we would have had to have kayaks. The higher water levels provided beautiful water-scapes of foliage



In an environment where I don’t detect any dramatic change of seasons, the plants in the high water provided color.


.And there were a few birds but not as many as I normally see. The high water provides good fishing throughout most of the everglades. We heard lots of splashing and thrashing about in the brush – just out of view. It was kind of eerie in the daylight, what would my imagination do at night?




Ibis high in a tree. It surprises me to see big birds up so high.

We didn’t see any alligators sunning themselves along the road but this was to be expected because it has been hot, with very warm nights. The alligators were keeping cool in the water. At several places Sharon would say she saw an alligator, but then question whether it was a floating log. Some were real because they sank underwater when she opened the car door.

That happened in one spot and we were all sure because we could see the ring of bubbles where the alligator had dove deep. We were feeling a bit pleased with the sight when she noticed babies in the water – about 20 of them. We didn’t get too close because we knew Mama was somewhere very close keeping an eye on us – and we knew she would strike if we reached down to pick one up (also not a good idea because I understand alligators are hatched biting and fighting.

20151111-DSC_0056Sharon was very pleased with her excursion deep into the Everglades and we ended the day by sharing a gaterburger and gater nuggets in Everglades City. And for me, going into this untamed piece of the Glades never grows old because it isn’t staged. I get to see how nature unfolds it’s story for the first time, all over again.

Skittish in the Everglades

Sunrise in the Everglades

Sunrise in the Everglades

We got up early to drive into the Everglades of southern Florida before sunrise. Julie and I wanted to see the sun rise over a little piece of the saw tooth prairies that cover much of the 1.5 million acres of this shallow river making its way to the ocean.

As dawn lit the sky we realized there were clouds hugging the horizon and as the sun rose we saw only a short glimpse of the blazing orb. We didn’t feel a lot of excitement as we took our photos – at least not the type of excitement and awe we felt last year when we watched the sun cast its spell over a misty landscape. This year the sun was coming up in the wrong place on the horizon and the hardwood hammocks that dot this prairie were in the wrong places. I guess we take what we can get when it isn’t possible to spend a couple of days identifying the best place to get the shots we see in our mind.

20150326-Everglades 048When I turned my back to the sun, I was excited to see blue sky with light clouds. The sun is very harsh in this subtropical region and this is perfect light for photographing during the day. It is fun to wait as wispy clouds move in front of the sun, and my subject becomes bathed in soft light.

Our destination was the 25 mile Loop Road that loops off U.S. 41, taking us into the wilds of the Everglades. The first few miles of dusty road after turning at the old Monroe Station go through thick brush that doesn’t allow many glimpses into the grass lands and bald cypress stands beyond. The first time I drove it I wondered if we were wasting our time.

20150326-Everglades 127As the road turns more to the east, culverts were built under the road to allow for the southerly flow of water. There are a lot of them, and we stopped at most of them because this is where the water is deeper, and there are schools of small fish that attract wading birds who like to eat the fish. At least at the right time of year, in late February when the water level is low. This is where we can see and photograph wading birds and alligators up close in their natural environment.

20150326-Everglades 167The water seems really low this year – places that had water now have green ground cover. At the first few openings it appeared that we wouldn’t see many wading birds on this trip. As we were looking for wading birds, it became hard to ignore a woodpecker making a mighty big racket  – sounding like it was at least five feet tall. We finally found her and she was big, but not that big.

20150326-Everglades 101

Female Pileated Woodpecker

Joanne spotted the pink bird up on a branch, scarcely visible within the leafing bald cypress. Whenever I have seen them, they were too far away to photograph, and this one wasn’t much easier.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

I’ve been here at different times in the fall, winter and spring so I’m beginning to notice seasonal differences. We saw a wide variety of birds but this time they seem skittish, preferring to stay a little further away. Some of them I recognized as juveniles and others I identified after I returned home. We could hear activity in the distant brush so I bet there were lots of nests to be protected and babies to be fed.

The only birds that weren’t skittish were the black vultures, who were plentiful and weren’t afraid to challenge my car for rights to the road.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Even the alligators stayed further away, instead of laying claim to the road’s edge for sunning.

Every trip helps me to better understand the personality of the everglades and brings different sightings. Each time I hope to get a better shot of something I had seen before and instead come home with unique photographs. I’m already thinking about when I’ll make my next trip into the wilds of the Florida Everglades.