10/10/2009
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Florida photo-fest

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September would normally see me heading off to some bird-rich spot such as Cley or the Northern Isles in search of rare bird photographs or just rare birds. However, this year I opted for a trip to Florida to photograph the hordes of birds that grace this part of North America.

Although my trip was going to be partly a family holiday, even with this handicap I still managed to satisfy my need, sorry greed, for decent bird photographs. Good bird photographs are always difficult to obtain here in Blighty without spending endless hours cramped in a hide or travelling to one of our quality reserves such as Minsmere or Cley Marshes along the coast, and even here it's never easy.


Fort Desoto (Photo: Kevin Durose)

Because my trip was constrained by family holiday events I made only limited plans for birding and photography. A couple of hours on the web gave me names of a couple of places that looked worth a visit. These were Fort Desoto and Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, both on the Gulf coast of Florida. A little more research revealed both areas had nearby beaches and resorts; in fact Fort Desoto was rated number one beach in the USA! It couldn't be better, so I went ahead and booked a week at Fort Desoto and a second week at Fort Myers beach for £620 pp not including car hire. Going with family members also has the advantage of getting more equipment onto the plane; this allowed me to take multiple lenses and a backup camera body, just in case.


Snowy Egret (Photo: Kevin Durose)

Compared to the what I'm used to in the UK, Florida beaches are heaving with birds, especially fish-eating birds, because the sea is teeming with billions of fish. In places this attracts dozens of Snowy and Great White Egrets as well as thousands of Sandwich Terns. These are accompanied by smaller numbers of Forster's, Royal and Caspian Terns, Black Skimmers and other goodies such as Reddish Egret and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons. Waders or, as the Yanks like to call them, shorebirds are also numerous, with ever-present territorial Willets spaced out every hundred or so metres along the beaches, and familiar Sanderling and Turnstone scattered widely. Also dotted along the beaches are Wilson's, Piping and Semipalmated Plovers. Other ever-present species are Western and Least Sandpipers, and Ospreys are literally everywhere, with lampposts on the road bridges being their favourite perches. We counted more than 10 individuals at a time perched on several bridges.


Short-billed Dowitcher (Photo: Kevin Durose)

The sheer numbers and variety of birds is not the best part of Florida for photography: it's the remarkable tameness of virtually every species. Most waders (shorebirds) are approachable to around 12 metres, but if you want to get closer all you need to do is lie on the sand and they will regularly often approach so close that you won't be able to close focus with most long telephoto lenses.


Roseate Spoonbill (Photo: Kevin Durose)

I took a variety of lenses, but rarely removed my Canon 400mm f5.6 prime from my full-frame Canon 1Ds Mk2 camera body. With a cropped body, a 400mm lens should be plenty for most birds. The only exception might be for some birds of prey such as perched Ospreys, for which I used a 500mm lens with a 1.4x converter several times.

The timing of my trip was not exactly ideal. Many species were in fairly heavy moult; many wader species, especially the plovers, were in full wing moult with two generations of feathers present, which does not make for the most aesthetic shots. Next time I plan a visit in the spring when waders are coming into summer plumage and egrets are at their best. The biggest schoolboy error of the trip was forgetting to bring a bird book! Which meant that I didn't actually know all of the names of all of the birds; in fact I did have a bit of a Gilbert White moment when, a couple of days into the trip, I noticed a new species of wader, which I had almost certainly been overlooking for a couple of days. This was Snowy Plover, which I managed to name once I got home and looked it up in an American field guide. If you're not familiar with it, it's quite similar to all the other plovers on the beach.


Osprey (Photo: Kevin Durose)


Brown Pelican (Photo: Kevin Durose)

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One of my favourite birds is the Black Skimmer; several hundred were present at both of the beach resorts I visited. The obvious target is to try and get a decent picture of one actually skimming. With all of the other distractions in the shape of Ospreys and Brown Pelicans fishing along the tide-line almost constantly, it was actually hard to find the time.


Black Skimmer (Photo: Kevin Durose)

About a week into my stay it became apparent that Skimmers spend about 99% of their time sitting around on the beach. In fact I don't think I ever saw one feeding with any purpose. I'm guessing that with such a strange adaptation this species is such a super-efficient feeder that it hardly ever needs to fish, especially in Florida were there are so many fish. Well, as you can see, I did get a few flight shots of this species. I found the only way to get them was to wait for a flock to be flushed by the holiday-makers; one or two out of the flock would usually have a quick "play skim", sometimes picking up a mangrove pod seemingly just for fun. The essential for a Skimmer shot is completely calm water; this also really makes a difference with most other species too - great for reflections of Laughing Gull and egrets, etc. I had a couple fairly still mornings, which I took full advantage of to secure the shots I was after.


Black Skimmer (Photo: Kevin Durose)


Laughing Gulls (Photo: Kevin Durose)

I never managed to get the classic pelican shot on a post against the setting sun: I never came across any sitting around late in the evening as the majority of our pelicans headed off to roost elsewhere well before sunset. If you know of anywhere, please let me know and I might pay the spot a visit next time I go to Florida.


Royal Tern (Photo: Kevin Durose)

While I was in Florida, photography was largely restricted to early-morning and late-evening sessions. I made a point of getting started at first light, around 7:30am in mid-September. This allows for around three hours of photography before the light gets too harsh and the heat haze sets in. By this time the temperature was around 32°C: then the order of the day is a shower, some breakfast, and possibly a kip prior to any fully enforced shopping excursion with the family.

During my visit (the rainy season) most afternoons gradually clouded over, culminating in violent thunderstorms with torrential rain. I lost a couple of evenings of photography completely due to storms. However, on a couple of evenings black clouds gave excellent backgrounds to sunlit birds and on one occasion I managed to get some particularly pleasant shots.


Great White Egret (Photo: Kevin Durose)

By the way: I never managed to get to Sanibel Island, as a couple of local photographers told me it was hit-and-miss and there was no need anyway. Directly outside my hotel at Fort Myers Beach was fantastic with just as many birds, if not more than at Fort Desoto.

If you do plan a trip, I see no problem with combining a family holiday with a Florida bird photofest. One important thing I would advise is to take plenty of memory cards. I got through 75 gigabytes of compact flash memory, even though I was deleting maybe a hundred or so sub-standard pictures each evening. My conclusion is: a great place for bird photography and I can assure you that you won't be disappointed with your photographs. I'm not!


Brown Pelican (Photo: Kevin Durose)

Written by: Kevin Du Rose