It didn’t take long for anticipation to set in as I boarded a plane from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport en route to Fort Meyers, Florida. Just a few weeks earlier, I was holed up in an airport lounge in Denver, helping present with Russ Nordstrand and Matt Meisenheimer an on-line preview of this Special Departure.
On paper, the trip is solid: a great itinerary, plentiful subjects, and a group of people looking to escape the heaviness caused by a pandemic and exacerbated by what seems like an even longer winter. I’ll speak for myself and admit that I was looking for an escape (if only for a few days), to a location that provided plentiful sun and wildlife and not necessarily in that order. While the old saying is trite (be careful what you wish for…), I am certainly glad my wish, in this instance, came true.
Back home in Texas, the weather began to erode. Cold weather was coming and along with it, the typical dreary, rainy days that winter brings to my slice of northeast Texas. After the first brush of cold weather settled in, meteorologists predicted that an even more massive and stubborn wedge of arctic air would settle over the Lone Star State and in the process, usher in temperatures over the entire state the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation or longer.
I was glad to be in Southern Florida.
Day one was glorious. I’d spent the past several days scouting prime locations in which the guests would visit and was excited to share pictures with them. Like a kid on Christmas, the anticipation of the moment where we’d all meet was heavy. Soon, five o’clock arrived and we spread out in a large hotel conference room. I am ready with educational presentations regarding the coming week’s activities and the guests are eager to learn.
We popcorned our way around the room as introductions ensued and like most Backcountry Journeys trips, the guest’s experiences are as varied as the location in which they lived. A good mix of experiences and backgrounds is always welcome on these trips as guests get to learn from one another. It’s a grand sort of symbiosis that typically brings out the best in everyone.
The two hours we’d allotted for the evening educational session flew past and soon, we are making plans for the next day’s departure.
Five A.M. came early. It always does. However, fueled by excitement for the day and perhaps a cup of coffee or two, we headed out in the dark to rendezvous with Captain Charles and his Carolina skiff in Chokoloskee, Florida.
Chokoloskee is a gulf-side community that has all the laid-back flair you’d expect for a town in this area. The tiny burgh sits at the edge of Everglades National Park and is surrounded by an immense complex of mangrove islands. The biomes thrive in the brackish water where the freshwater flows of the Everglades meet the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of Florida and create a habitat for a myriad of birds, fish, and a few mammals.
By sunrise, we were slinking through the skinny water in the skiff. Fog hung in moderation over the brackish bays but even with visibility thwarted, we began to see birds take wing in their daily attempt to forage in the age-old game of survival.
We first glide to a cormorant rookery where the birds slumbered atop the mangroves for the night. Many have taken to wing already but a few stragglers linger in the trees and provide a good opportunity to shoot silhouettes. For a few hours, we explore the bay’s upper reaches and photograph terns, pelicans, dolphins, and other various shorebirds. The weather is nice and the vibe is perfect. A great start to a trip that gets even better.
After lunch in nearby Crossroads, we head back to the hotel in Fort Meyer for a brief break and then on to the legendary Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Our hike was short before we discovered a pocket of birds that patiently accepted our presence as we moved about and photographed their behavior.
The hole in the mangroves which we photographed was spot-on. Here we find a roseate spoonbill, green heron, little blue heron, blue-winged teal, a drift of ibis, osprey, and common gallinule. The place is so busy, three hours pass in no time and the sun sinks to the horizon.
Time for dinner.
At the Waterfront Lighthouse Restaurant, the seafood is fresh and the ambiance is rich with the sounds and smells of Southern Florida. A live band plays on the veranda and our conversation is lively as the meal and the company perfectly punctuates a day afield.
When we headed afield this morning, the fog was still thick. As a first option, we head over to the Tigertail MarshLagoon on Marco Island to look for shorebirds. Well after sunrise the sun’s still obscured by a thick mass of soupy fog. We managed pictures of a few shorebirds but the light was less than optimum. Therefore, we head a few miles down the road to Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge’s Marsh Trail. By the time we set foot on the trail, the fog’s beginning to lift and the birds are getting active.
For the rest of the morning, we photograph an abundance of activity from a variety of species including the enormous white pelican, cormorants, anhingas, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, green herons, and alligators. The action was impeccable.
For lunch, we head over to Marco Island to enjoy some local fare. With our hunger satiated, we head over to Chokoloskee once again for an evening boat ride. Before the boat launches, however, we find a hotspot full of brown pelicans. It’s a perfect spot to practice birds in flight technique and an even better spot to watch and learn about the birds. While it’s hard to leave this spot, a boat awaits us.
One mile down the road and a short jaunt through a marina and we’re back at the boat. Unloading from the van, I point out a sedentary great-horned owl perched on top of a coconut in a palm tree. Turns out, that’s a favorite roost of hers and she’s there every day. We spend as much time as we can photographing the bird before Captain Charles tells us it’s time to launch.
This evening the tide is higher than it was yesterday morning. The birds, however, are still doing what birds do and while they feed in different locations, they feed nonetheless and Charles guides us deftly into the right locations.
At sunrise, we visit a rookery where a frigate bird perches. It’s rare to see one in a tree as the birds spend most of their lives in flight. They typically soar for weeks on end in the search for food. Therefore, we are lucky to find one in a static position.
While the frigate bird perches stoically, pelicans and anhingas frantically jockey for a position on which they’ll perch in the trees. It’s a constant game of musical chairs the landing birds play that’s punctuated by angry squawks. Soon all the birds find their place and settle in for a night’s slumber. Mother Nature’s clock continues to turn and despite the tide and the particular weather at the time, the sun will once again rise and the business of living will commence once again.
Day four comes and we’re scheduled for yet another boat ride. However, the fog’s too thick so we postpone our trip. Instead, we head back to the Marsh Trail in search of more birds. This morning the birds are especially active and we’re allowed the opportunity to photograph a number of the endemic species in flight as they bustle about searching for food. Here, many of the guests get their bucket-list photos. Roseate spoonbills, alligators, brown pelicans, and many other species are in full view of us: undisturbed by our presence.
While it’s hard to leave, we hustle back over to Chokoloskee for our third boat ride. Although our start time is later than we’d hoped, clouds still hang low and made the light nice and even. The tide is low and we skim across the water in search of more wildlife. Soon we found a raccoon feeding on clams and shellfish along the beach of a mangrove cay.
These raccoons (thought to be a separate subspecies of the common raccoon) are smaller and more ruddy colored than their terrestrial cousins. They live in these mangrove islands and come out of the trees when the tide recedes enough to expose new food on the sand bars. Strangely enough, while there is water all around, there is not a drop to drink for these cunning foragers. Instead, they only drink fresh water when the rains come. While this is the dry season in Southern Florida, the raccoons seem to be holding their own.
One of the raccoons we found wasn’t affected by our presence and fed along the beach as we photographed him from mere feet away. When he did turn his attention our way, he wanted to get in the boat as he swam towards us with a curious look upon his masked face.
After lunch at the Havana Cafe, we make the one drive through cypress and sawgrass swamps on our way to Homestead, Florida.
The evening finds us in Everglades National Park and on the boardwalk that leads us to the famous Anhinga Trail. This renowned wildlife trail is short but it’s chock full of the species that frequent the freshwater springs and marshes of the sawgrass country. Cormorants and their mystical green eyes watch us from their low perches. Bass and gar swim about in the transparent water and purple gallinule walk deftly across lily pads by distributing their weight across their unusually large feet. Soon the sun sinks but not our enthusiasm. It is still in high-gear as one day ending only ensures the promises of a new day to come.
What a great day to be alive.
Morning finds us at the anhinga trail once again. This time we find more great bird activity as the sun creeps over the marsh. Great blue herons feed in the shallows while songbirds flit about in the trees. Way up in the palms, a low droning sound is heard. It’s honey bees feeding in the flowering parts of the trees. Nature isn’t just seeing things. The sounds and smells of all that’s around are also the parts whose sum is a complete and immersive outdoor experience.
Back at the parking lot, black vultures perch in live oak trees that are draped in ethereal Spanish Moss. While the birds can be classically considered “ugly”, the whole seven is beautiful. So much so, even the most jaded of wildlife photographers can’t mistake the simple beauty and allure of one of God’s creatures in such a magnificent setting.
On the road, we spend the rest of the morning on a driving safari. Red-shouldered hawks, alligator snapping turtles, and crayfish were on the docket for the day and we succeeded in finding – and photographing – all of them.
At the noon break, we had a lunch and learn session where I went over Lightroom tips and tricks and talked photography. Soon thereafter, we are back on the road in the Everglades but not before we stop at the locally iconic Robert is Here smoothie shack.
Back in the national park, we explore a Magnolia Hammock in search of owls and other birds and soon make our way to the end of the road at Flamingo. There, osprey are common and in numerous places so we stop to photograph them. We even saw the rare American Crocodile sunning in a ditch.
That night over dinner we all reflect on how each day seems to be better than the day before. The wildlife has not been a disappointment and in a way, we are all a bit melancholy that the trip’s coming to an end.
The last day started like the first- an early morning departure. We plan to drive in the dark and arrive at the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. Just as planned we pulled into the parking lot of the Marsh Trail just minutes before the sun peaked over the horizon.
Like the days we’ve visited before, the marsh is full of birds. As I watch the guests scatter out and photograph the scene and subjects that interest them the most, I feel good about our first-ever trip to the Everglades. In a way, the last day of these tours is a lot like the last day of summer camp when I was a kid: there’s a mixture of emotions that range from a tinge of sadness that the trip is over that’s buffered by the gratitude that comes with meeting new friends and sharing a love of photography and the great outdoors.
As a spoonbill floated in and landed a few yards away, I picked my head up from the camera, looked at the images, and turned off my camera. I’d captured a series of great images that bookended an even better trip. For the rest of my remaining time here, I live vicariously through the guest’s experiences.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Innovations in Wildlife Photography: Thinking of the Craft Beyond a Telephoto Lens
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)