Twelve hours after we first convened, we watched bird after bird spill into a slim slice of wetlands that stretches from east to west. Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, the birds became increasingly active. The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge was once again alive.
The refuge, established in 1950, was named after the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist and conservationist and is one of the premier birding destinations in the United States. It’s not hard to see why. In the brief time we’ve been here, we have seen teal, anhinga, white pelicans, green heron, and osprey and we’ve only seen a small bit of the place. And we haven’t been on this trip all that long.
The night before, a new group convened for the second Backcountry Journeys’ Birds & Wildlife of the Everglades photo workshop. Orientation night is always valuable. As the group gets to know one another, we delve into educational topics about birds in flight and other items of photographic interest and I lay out the week’s itinerary.
Cooperative learning is valuable, and on each trip people always benefit from the experiences of each other. From the talk around the room, this is a group of experienced photographers.
Back at the Ding Darling, everyone’s getting their proverbial feet wet on bird photography. Some concentrate on the blue-winged teal that dabbles about the shallow water while others try to shoot pictures of a low flying osprey overhead. It’s a good start to a moment’s week.
Soon we are on the porch of the Lighthouse Waterfront Restaurant enjoying lunch and making small talk while a waiter brings out fresh seafood and other items ordered by the group.
As we talk, I lay out the rest of the week’s itinerary and answer questions about the wildlife we’ll likely see. Soon we are on the road to Marco Island where we’ll lodge for the next couple of days. Marco Island is what you think of when you think of sea-side Florida. It is filled with condos, beautiful homes, and a laid-back vibe for which Florida is known. It’s also smattered with places left wild. So although the island is developed, it is also home to a surprising amount of wildlife.
After checking into our hotel, we head over to Chokoloskee for the evening shoot. We’ve got a boat ride scheduled for the evening so we get to the island early to explore. First, we stop in at the marina.
Here we find brown pelicans with little or no fear of people. It’s a great place to practice concepts of backgrounds and birds in flight – lessons we covered in the first night’s orientation. From there we head over to our boat and prepare for an evening excursion.
When we park near the boat on which we’ll ride, I look up in the palm tree and the same great horned owl that we saw two weeks prior is still perched. The group takes delight in its appearance and while Captain Charles prepares the boat for launch, we shoot pictures of the bird.
Soon we are skimming across the skinny water, zig-zagging between the mangrove islands in search of the endemic wildlife that calls these estuaries home. As predicted, we see a myriad of subjects like ibis, little blue heron, and osprey. One bonus bird that appears is the swallow-tailed kite. A harbinger of spring, the kite is a migratory bird who travels to central and south America during the winter but comes back to Florida to breed. Overhead, two individuals float effortlessly across an indigo sky.
Tuesday morning is active already and the sun’s just recently made an appearance. At the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge, the marshlands are alive with birds. In one tree a great white heron perches and watches the water for an unsuspecting fish while in another tree an anhinga dries its outstretched wings in an attempt to dry them after a fishing excursion. Crowded in one wetland is perhaps thousand of birds that range from white pelicans to spoonbills.
It is a veritable catalog of Florida’s wading birds. We spend a bit of time in the refuge and then break for lunch. Just before we head out we get a tip from a local: on Marco Island, several endangered gopher tortoises and locally threatened burrowing owls colonize. So after lunch, we find a couple of owls but no luck on the tortoise. Burrowing owls are misnamed. They do not burrow but this ground-dwelling owl is an opportunist who colonizes burrows left behind by the tortoise or other animals. Therefore, if you find a burrow, chances are good that you’ll find an owl.
In the evening we head back out to the estuaries for another boat ride. We stop once again at the brown pelican hotspot near Chokoloskee and then back on the boat. The tide is different from what it was yesterday so we head out to a different part of the islands. One of the first birds we spot is a band of oystercatchers. These unusual birds sport a bright orange beak they use for cracking oysters they find. Predictably, this group of birds is perched on an exposed oyster reef. They patiently loaf on the reef while we make our approach.
Back up in the islands, we see an Everglades raccoon – a suspected subspecies that is smaller than the inland raccoon and feeds primarily on shellfish. Captain Charles takes us to an island that is formed by an enormous midden of shells. The shells were brought in bit by bit by the native Calusa Indians for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Archeologists believe that the Calusa built this island for agriculture and ceremonial purposes. Because of the higher elevation of the other islands that naturally formed around it, the plant community of the Calusa island is starkly different.
From there we pick our way from island to island and see rookeries filled with brown pelicans and cormorants. The islands are filled with nesting osprey and we even see the occasional dolphin and peregrine falcon. Life thrives here.
Wednesday morning comes and we are on the boat for our third excursion. While three boat trips may seem redundant, the bays and estuaries are so dynamic, the conditions and the animals therein, are in a constant state of flux.
As the sun rises, we see a species that we haven’t seen yet: a yellow-crowned night heron. One hunts for food along the bank while another perches on a dead limb. If we were afoot, we couldn’t get this close but slipping up in a boat makes the bird comfortable with our presence.
Also comfortable with our presence is another raccoon that’s feeding along the beach. When we get close I realize that it’s the same raccoon we saw on the last trip. It’s a young individual with a skinned nose who is extremely curious. The young raccoon is animated and engaging and makes for a perfect photo subject.
Moving on from the raccoon, we continue to see tons of birds including the unusual frigate bird. This prehistoric-looking bird looks like a pterodactyl in flight. It’s got the widest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird as it spends most of its life in flight. On this excursion, we get lucky enough to catch one in flight as well as another bird perched low in a tree.
Soon our boat tour is over and we head out across the swamps to our base for the next couple of days – Homestead, Florida. It is from here we’ll explore the interior of Everglades National Park. Along the way, we photograph alligators (from babies to adults) as they get some sun.
We check into the hotel and head immediately out to the Anhinga Trail. On our way, rain falls but soon clears and a broad rainbow hangs over the freshwater marsh we’ll explore. It is a beautiful site.
On one corner of the marsh a cormorant sits on a nest while just around the corner, a grebe lazily floats near an alligator. All are close enough to easily photograph. As we make our way on the Anhinga Trail, birds abound. We see songbirds like grey catbirds, mockingbirds, and great blue herons. The group is delighted when we find our first iridescent purple gallinule. As a heron hunts for fish and a gallinule curiously walks across the lily pads in the wetlands, below the water’s surface, largemouth bass build nesting beds in preparation for spawning while Florida gar lie motionless in their search for food. While I watch the fish, a turtle surfaces and begins to feed on a lotus flower.
As the evening wears on, a backlit dragonfly catches our attention and we all pause to photograph the ancient-looking insect.
By Thursday, the number of species in which we’ve photographed continues to grow. Back on the Anhinga Trail croaking from the marshland reveals itself to be a green heron calling to another. In the trees, a pine warbler hunts for food while an anole feeds along the ground – hunting for baby crickets who’ve just hatched. From here we make our way around the park in search of more wildlife but soon, we’re eating lunch and learning about Adobe Lightroom in an in-class session I conducted.
Departing, this evening we plan to head deep into the Everglades National Park to the road’s end. Along the way, we photograph red-shoulder hawks, alligators, and look (in vain) for barred owls. Soon our patience is rewarded
At the Flamingo marina, we stop to photograph some nesting osprey when the rain begins to fall. Scrambling for cover we wait out the deluge. When the rain stopped, freshwater dripped from the docks and attracted a trio of manatees to drink from the bounty. For thirty minutes they surfaced to drink water. While the manatees drank, an American crocodile swam about. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sight to behold.
On the last day of the trip, we made the drive back towards the airport but stopped at a few places to photograph more birds. We find more owls and as a last-ditch effort, we look for turtles. Fifteen minutes before the end of the shoot we find one. It’s a great bookend to an even greater trip.
In all, we see more than 70 species of birds and several reptile and mammal species on this trip. It’s mind-boggling to think about how productive a trip its been but it’s been just that.
What a satisfying week.
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)