Late Summer Birding in Florida
With a bit of a gap in my travel schedule and the need to capture some images of the south Florida burrowing owls for an upcoming (now published) article, I decided to take a couple week trip to south and central Florida in late summer this year. Late summer is not an ideal time to visit this area but sometimes we, as photographers, are limited to traveling during less than ideal times. Its just how it goes. So, in this article, I want to give you a glimpse at how I approached overcoming these underwhelming conditions in order to return home with a collection of images I am happy with.
The two weeks I went were the last week of July and first week of August. The height of summer in Florida. Days are long, hot, and humid with thunderstorms, mosquitoes, and many other biting insects that both fly and crawl. It is outside the typical avian breeding season and late enough in the year that many of the spring chicks have fully fledged. Florida is also the overwintering area for many birds so the avian population in the state grows exponentially during the winter and into spring before the migrants turn around and head north again. But this doesn't mean there aren't a great many opportunities in the summer months.
Let's start with the species that had me traveling to the state in the first place: the Florida burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia floridana). A geographically separated subspecies of the western burrowing owl (found across parts of the American west from Canada down into Mexico), the Florida burrowing owl has both behavioral and physical differences. They do not migrate like many of the western populations do. Physically they are about the same size but are often darker in coloration. Typically, burrowing owls have bright yellow irises, yet there is a small but growing population in Florida that are developing very dark, almost black irises, some flecked (beautifully I might add) with golden highlights. The reason behind these pigmentation changes, especially within the eyes, is not known yet.
In 2017, the Florida burrowing owl was finally placed on the state's Endangered Species List as threatened after having been considered a species of special concern since 1979. This distinction, combined with the fact that burrowing owl populations here in the U.S. are all under some form of protective listing (be it species of special concern, threatened, endangered, or under the Migratory Bird Species Act), gave me a special interest in them as I wanted make sure I included the Florida populations in the article I was writing for the Journal of Wildlife Photography.* My starting point was Cape Coral on the southern gulf coast, home to the highest concentration of burrowing owls in the state and one of the largest concentrations of burrowing owls anywhere in the world.
Due to the widespread development in this urbanized area, the owl burrows are pretty easy to spot. Unlike the ones out west where you have to hunt for them, in Cape Coral you can visit the city library and they will give you a map to the areas that have the best viewing options. Or just drive around town looking for the white PVC pipes sticking out of the ground in a box shape with a wooden cross set nearby. This are installed by the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife volunteers to help protect burrows from unknowingly being trampled or developed over.
If you visit, please be respectful of not only the owls but the private property around them. Do not trespass, to include parking, in order to observe or photograph the owls.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is an hour south of Cape Coral and is one of the best places to view roseate spoonbills year round. Located on Sanibel Island, this refuge is a surprising gem surrounded by upscale mansions and south Florida beach tourism. A four mile wildlife drive winds through the mangrove forests and past many shallow coves where wading birds hunt. I drove the route several times during each of my two visits (it's a one-way so you have to go out and come back in to refuge to retrace your path).
Mornings were the productive while I was there, but like in many coastal settings, the tides influence wildlife behavior more so then the time of day. The spoonbills had been flocking to this one particular sandbar to roost during high tide. High tide peaked just after sunrise during my visits, so I was able to be there as soon as the wildlife drive opened (at 7am).
Sitting low on the bank near the water, I was able to get close to eye level with the roosting birds. With no wind, the no-see-ems were out in force and I made sure to have a long sleeve shirt, pants, and hiking boots, all sprayed down with Off Deep Woods to help me keep my sanity. But it was worth it as the spoonbills woke to bath and then take off for other foraging locations as the tide receded.
Had I been positioned further up the bank, at the road level, rather than at water level, I could have taken more flight shots where the eyes are seen above the bill as they fly towards me. Since this was not the case in my positioning, my better flight shots are of those birds that flew to my left or right as this allows the viewer to connect with the bird's eye.
However, spoonbills are larger birds and often take a bit of momentum to gain height upon takeoff. So by watching for their body signaling that take off was immanent, I was able to get a few shots of them just after departure while they were still low enough to the water for an eye contact shot.
But spoonbills were not the only activity around. Once the spoonbills departed and the water levels dropped for low tide, a variety of other wading birds came to hunt in the shadows of the mangrove coves. Snowy egrets, some still with their beautiful lacy breeding plumage, would hunt and preen.
Others like this juvenile little blue heron had the tenacity to just hunt and hunt. He was bringing up more and more prey as time passed.
Tricolored herons and reddish egrets also joined the mix at various times.
Between times of activity, I would observe the smaller happenings in Nature around me. This is something I often do when in the field and my main subject is either not doing anything interesting at the moment or has yet to show itself. On this day, I found a male brown anole flaunting his dewlap in advertisement to those within view. To females, this is for courtship while rival males see this as a territorial display. Either way, I found it a great addition to my experience in the refuge as the anole didn't hesitate in his display when I focused my lens on him.
Finishing my morning at "Ding" Darling, I decided to head north a ways to make a brief visit to Myakka River State Park. This place had been on my list for a long time and since I was somewhat near I decided to make the drive. Being summer, it was quite a quiet place without much going on but there is lots of potential there for sure. I did get a brief glimpse of a few white ibis as they foraged in the muddy areas under the oak hammock.
The other critter I came across while in the park was a relatively "friendly" alligator. For those who don't know, it is federally prohibited to feed gators. Yet, every year alligators are killed because humans have given them handouts of various sorts. In this one's case, I believe he was used to getting handouts from fishermen in the area. However, on the day of my visit, shortly after the gator "introduced" himself to me, an older couple from Kentucky pulled up to picnic before leaving the park. I warned them of the gator so they would be aware of the danger. As I was finishing up some portrait shots of the gator a slice of bologna came flying past to land next to the gator's head. Of course it happily devoured it in a split second.
Turning to look a the guy, he sheepishly smiles and does one of those little laughs before for saying "You're not going to tell on me are you?" His partner laughed a bit too and continued filming as the gator repositioned itself closer to her, hedging its bets that they might give it more food. I just shook my head and walked away, not wanting to be in the vicinity with people like that. Exiting the park, I stopped at the ranger station to let them know what had happened. The ranger sighed and called it in to see if the ranger on patrol could make contact with the couple. She said they would most likely just get a verbal warning and the park would call out a trapper to dispose of the nuisance gator. I am of the opinion the people were the nuisance, not the wild animal doing what its meant to do, but I digress...
My route had me heading across the state to Broward county situated on the Atlantic coast. Between Cape Coral and Broward county there is a lot of long, straight, flat roads as travelers cross through sand pine stands, sawgrass prairies, and swamps of the greater Everglades ecosystem. To break up the drive I booked myself an entrance ticket to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. A 2.25 mile boardwalk trail leads visitors through the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.
For me, having grown up in Florida and learning to love swamps from a young age, this immersion had such a nostalgic feel to me. The smells, the sounds, and even the stillness that can linger in parts of these forests all seemed so familiar and yet, I had never actually visited this particular walk before. While there wasn't much in the way of wildlife when I visited, I did take my time and enjoyed capturing a few swamp detail images.
Upon arriving in Broward county, I continued my search for burrowing owls. Broward is the second most populated area and a popular spot to see burrowing owls in the state. As I pulled up to park at the first location, I saw an owl take off from a tree (abnormal for most burrowing owls) and pounce on something. Immediately, I was out of the car as fast as I could to get into position. Unfortunately, the owl was faster and already dove back into the burrow with its meal. So I waited. Not for as long as I thought I would have to wait as within a minute an owl popped back up out of the burrow with a baby iguana in its mouth!
This was the meal the owl had just secured and a new behavior for me. Usually when talking about green iguanas (a long time invasive species in southern Florida) and burrowing owls, it is the lizards that are the aggressors, taking over nests, eating eggs and chicks, etc. But I guess in this case, the baby iguana was small enough that the owl decided it would do for lunch. Based on the size of the lizard, it would have been no more than a month or so old as they hatch at about 5-7 inches in length. A burrowing owl adult stands about 10 inches when fully grown.
Over the next few days I spent my mornings at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge where eastern lubbers were out in force. White tailed deer are also a common resident of this area too.
Afternoons were spent with the burrowing owls in the region. I kept hoping to be able to document the takedown of another iguana but, alas, it wasn't to be.
I did have the opportunity to observe a family of limpkins. Limpkins are one of my favorite birds but not one I had been actively searching for in south Florida. But, given the chance, I did spend a few minutes with them. It was a family unit with the parents and two fledged juveniles. It was interesting to see one of the adults still providing food to the young even though it was old enough to feed itself.
Making my turn northward, I spent a bit of time in the St. Cloud and Lakeland area. Here I covered miles of back roads and scanned fields for various birdlife like sandhill cranes and eastern meadowlarks. The afternoon we had thunderstorms rolling through for most of the day, I found both. Taking a moment between downpours I was able to capture a few images of wet birds surviving in the elements. Rain is such an intrinsic element to Florida, I was thankful for the chance to capture images that incorporated that element.
Beyond that, I had the privilege of being able to meetup and shoot with my friend Karen Schuenemann. We had a wonderful time exploring her new local area as she recently made the move from California to Florida. While photographing central Florida wildlife, I was able to pass on some of my Florida naturalist knowledge. It was fun revisiting topics and finding ways to verbalize information that was second nature to me since I grew up in that habitat.
Sometimes, we can get really caught up in a subject that we forget to keep an eye out for other subjects as they present themselves. As it so happened, this little momma raccoon came trudging down the trail, minding her own business. Not in a rush but not stopping either, she just cruised within about a foot of us as we were focused on a heron on the opposite side of the trail. What caught my attention to even let me know she was scooting past us was I heard a slight rustle in the grass behind me. Being in Florida on a trail bracketed by waters teaming with gators, I wasn't going to ignore that sound without a glance. Fully prepared for a large reptile or just the wind, I was happily surprised by the presence of the raccoon. Unfortunately, I didn't turn fast enough to capture her cute little face, but they have pretty cute backsides as well and I love how her foot is up in this picture giving us a view of her toe pads.
Photo tip: Always be listening around you for potential dangers and as well potential photography opportunities.
Time running short before I had to get home to Texas, I made one last stop in my old hometown of Gainesville. This is where I was born and raised and cut my teeth in photography. Yet, the environments that I grew up with have changed over the years and I'm not just talking about development-wise. I wrote about this after my visit in late 2019 (here is the article on that trip). With a warming climate, more species are able to move northward from areas we traditionally think of as their home ranges. In Florida, the increase in temperatures for longer periods of time, fewer hard freezes, has allowed species like apple snails (both native and invasive) to flourish and push from south Florida up into the flooded prairies of northcentral Florida and beyond. With food sources available in these new areas, other species such as snail kites and limpkins have also expanded their habitat ranges as well.
The snail kites I had hoped would be in the area, seem to have been resting out of sight while I was in the area. Piles of snail shells told where they had been but I didn't spot any within photography distance this trip. Late July and August is after their nesting season and before water levels drop in winter, meaning that they are able to roam far and wide while hunting at this time of year.
The limpkins, on the other hand, were everywhere. Their haunting cries echoed across the swamps and rang with a primordial tone as the days dawned. These birds, cousins to cranes, were seen very infrequently in this part of the state when I was growing up. Florida in general was the northern most part of this bird's traditional range. Yet in just the past five or so years, the populations have exploded across northern parts of the state and limpkins have been found as far north as southern Georgia and parts of Louisiana. (Maybe they will come to Texas while I'm here! Fingers crossed.)
During my time on the prairie, I was able to work my way to the edge of an area that had been flooded out by recent rains. Scanning for any visible gator movement, I made the choice to lay down and photograph one of the limpkins as it waded in the shallow water. Soon after another limpkin comes striding out of the reeds, clucking and croaking. The bird I had been watching responded in kind and turned towards the newcomer. Before I could piece two and two together (honestly I thought it was going to be a fight) they started copulating not but ten feet in front of me! Considering I try to stay a respectful distance from my subjects, I had too much lens for the majority of this interaction. I also refrained from moving back further as, except in emergency situations, I am not wanting to startle my subjects or impact their lives with what they would perceive as a potential threat.
Warning: If deciding to lay down near waters known or potentially known to have populations of alligators, it is best to bring a partner in order to have them keep an eye out for you as gators hunt by ambush skills. If going alone, learn to shoot with both eyes open and continuously scan your surroundings for ANY movement. Have an exit strategy. The day after I shot these images an eight foot gator was lying less than two feet from where I had been the day before. They don't call laying down a "prone" position for nothing.
Beyond the pair, there were other limpkins that really didn't care if humans were close by. Several were using the boardwalk rails as hunting and resting platforms; preening and vocalizing while visitors walked past. This gave me unfettered access to study them at close range with my lens and capture beautiful portraits of them.
The boardwalk was also a great place to observe other wildlife at a greater distance. Using this elevated vantage point, I created this small series of abstract images focusing on the intricate details and textures found on an alligators hide. This old gator was about twelve to thirteen feet in length and was content to just lay in the shallow water next to the boardwalk and soak up the sun.
Overall, it was a productive trip. I was able to get some burrowing owl images to use in the article. The one of the owl with the green iguana in its beak even placed in the top 250 images of the 2022 North American Nature Photography Association's Showcase. I look forward to getting back to Florida at sometime in the future for more birding photography. Maybe next spring?
* Be sure to check out the Journal of Wildlife Photography, a quarterly e-publication chock full of information specifically geared at wildlife photographers of all calibers. Articles like the ones I author are on species of special concern, giving in-depth looks on a specific species, their habitats, the conservation issues surrounding them, and how your photography can help them. Other topics include how to photograph in certain environments like underwater; comprehensive articles on light, composition and mastering mirrored/mirrorless auto focus systems; and guest author contributions on a variety of subjects.