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The Detailed Saga:
My four-day Florida Adventure was successful beyond my wildest hopes and dreams. It was chilly a few days (actually down-right cold a couple of mornings,) but it remained sunny and clear the whole time. Every critter I promised would be there was there and in full photographic view.
Then there were those unexpected fabulous surprises every tour leader prays for and every wildlife photographer dreams about. While photographing a pair of Sandhill Cranes rolling their eggs (a scene I had never seen before in all my years on that river), in flies a Swallow-tailed Kite that lands on a beautifully clean branch with a gorgeous clear blue sky background and proceeds to perch for at least fifteen minutes. I believe there was a shot or two fired off!!! At the same time, a handsome Osprey swoops and soars above and around us as it fishes with its sharp eyes and then eventually sees its prey, takes a dive and snatches up his catch. The sound of shutters clicking was most audible!! All in all, we found five Sandhill Crane nests and some with the eggs already hatched and the babies wobbling around!
Our luck was so bountiful, that even before leaving the dock one beautiful morning, a deer came down to the river’s edge to drink….it’s another one of those photographic delights….the perfect early morning light with the perfect reflection on a perfect subject. Even though I did all the navigating of our pontoon boat, I had my 500 mm lens mounted on the tripod right next to me and was able to fire off a shot or two here and there. One of my guests, Lou, was enthralled with all the Little Blue Herons---most all of them were in their breeding colors or the young ones in their mottled blue/grey & white attire. I think he took a picture of each and everyone of them that live on that river!! He and Kris, my assistant, had a contest going regarding my nemesis, the Belted Kingfisher, as they attempted to capture it in flight, which was very amusing to me as I have tried for years and years, only to have failed for years and years. I have kingfishers from various other parts of the world, and some pretty good shots of them even if I do say so myself. I have zip…none...zero...nada…nothing of our local kingfishers, or any from the USA for that matter. I’ll see one on a perch, looking calm and content, I’ll take aim, get ready to hit the shutter button, and “poof” they vanish into thin air with their shrill “rat-ta-tat” clattering cackle-like call that makes my blood pressure soar to a boil!!! However, the luck of this Florida Adventure prevailed, and I was able to shoot one shot that will go in my image library of about 70,000 slides, and probably equally the same amount in my digital-image library. It will have the dubious fame of being the only USA kingfisher in any of the two Joanne Williams Photography libraries under Belted Kingfisher—it will be a lonely existence! I couldn’t bear not to share it with you!!! However, I anxiously await the outcome of my two guest-photographers who persisted for many miles along the river --- more on the kingfisher saga to come later……….
Along the river are dark, overgrown tributaries and equally spooky old ‘logging runs’ that send my imagination into full gear with visions of all kinds creatures lurking about. I’m told I have “ears like a hawk”. (Ask my children---they claim I could be four doors down at a neighbor’s house and hear them try to sneak into the cookie jar before dinner hour.) I diverse, sorry……Off and on I’ve seen owls in this area, but mostly I have been taunted by the whispering-twitter-like cry of the baby Barred owls calling their parents. I’ve driven myself nuts spending hours sneaking up and down dark waterways looking for them, (especially in the Fotoboat that can maneuver in very shallow waters but this pontoon boat was working out perfectly for the group.)
This trip was no exception. Even at mid-day I could hear them calling. I was hesitant to say anything to the group as didn’t want to raise hopes, but finally I had to share it as extra eyes and ears may bring us success, or perhaps, disappointment. Also, guest Walter, had become a fantastic “spotter” who I was coming to rely on. I pulled the boat over and tried to keep it steady as I wanted to shoot the Black Vulture in a ‘surfing like’ stance atop a dead alligator. It was then that Kris tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. Yup, there he/she was. Standing on a branch looking right at us…just as smug as he could be AND equally handsome! Although it had been a few years since I’d done this jaunt, my memory of past owl-adventures had served me well, and I think some of us were successful getting a few shots.
Later, I decided to head over toward the well-known Blue Springs area in search of the Manatees that hang out there in the warmer waters. I thought taking a short cut through a logging run would be fun. I expected to run into a Limpkin or two, which we did, but it wasn’t in a good photographic setting. We weren’t forty feet down the logging run when a Barred Owl adult started calling. Putting the boat in neutral we coasted silently a short distance, and soon we had glided right up to almost underneath the branch he was perched on. It was darkish in this tunnel-like area of over-grown vegetation and the owl was back-lit, but it was still fun to see him and hear him calling. Some of us were able to flash and fire off some shots we could be proud of. The experience is worth it even if the images are sub-standard….who cares as part of the fun is ‘in the hunt’. I was thrilled my group was even seeing and hearing them, much less able to photograph them.
I think that the one morning we started out to go down river and check on one of our crane nests was the “banner moment” in LUCK for me. (The Pantanal tours I lead are always fruitful beyond belief, but I must consider that is two weeks. This trip is only four days and we counted 42 different species!!) Anyway, we had barely left the dock and rounded the first bend, (which is still in a residential area) when we spotted a drop-dead-gorgeous Osceola “Tom” Turkey strutting his stuff with his four hens in someone’s backyard!!! I nearly ‘had the vapors’!!! (I once read that phrase in some book years ago, and swore I’d use it someday), but it’s true---I was struck dumb!! Wild turkeys, for me, are in the same bad-luck category as kingfishers of the USA. I’ve seen them from a distance on ranches, but never in someone’s back yard and never readily accessible or photographable. As much as I wanted pictures of that bird, I still felt compelled to assess the situation as they were on private property. (Proper ethics in the field and common sense consideration for others is very important to me). It was soon evident that the house was shuttered up and no one was living there, which is probably why the birds were there in the first place. I maneuvered the boat as best I could alongside the cement seawall, and we shot what we could. One or two images of mine were acceptable (like the kingfisher) and I was overjoyed to be so close to such a beautiful specimen of this male turkey. I’m hoping to see some of the other people’s images, and will share them in another newsletter coming soon.
As I stated before, guest Walter became the group’s official spotter, and soon mastered my standard “direction finding code” while on my boats, which is the bow of the boat (or the front, or to some of you, the “pointy-part”) is 12:00 while the stern of the boat (or back or blunt end, or where the engine usually is) is 6:00. This is a great method as instead of saying “Oh look what I see over there”, and no one knows where “over there” is!! One says “American Bitterns at 3:00”!!! We all look to the right, I turn the boat toward 3:00, and “bam” we’ve shot some great American Bitterns. By the way, I’ve never, ever in all my 26 years of running on that river seen an American Bittern … another first…..I’m excited just writing about it!! I believe we found four different ones in four different spots.
Originally I had planned that we would spend a few hours out in the morning, come in for lunch, a siesta, and a little image review etc., but things were going so well I was afraid to come in as we’d miss something, and the group seemed to agree. I had box lunches prepared and we set out early in the mornings just like a bunch of Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns poling down the river waiting for their next adventure. We stayed out until about 6:30 at night soaking up as much of nature and its wildlife as time would allow. I was exhilarated and exhausted by the end of the day, so I didn’t get to see too many of that day’s “kill”, but everyone promised they’d send their best and I’ll share them in the next newsletter.
Photo by Kris Mortensen
Photo by Lou Newman
As an excuse to get back there, I’m going on another “recon mission” to see how things are the end of April/early May. I already know it’s great, but I didn’t get to sneak into a few secret spots I know about and am saving for the next Florida Foto Adventure. By the way, I’ve already booked the accommodations for this time next year and will be conducting two ‘back to back’ tours….one is already ½ filled. Details later, but it wouldn’t hurt to let me know if you are interested.
By the way, I feel compelled to offer a word of caution regarding this area of the St. Johns river should you try to “go it alone”. Local knowledge is essential---there are many twists and turns and one can easily get lost—maybe forever. There are shallows and logs to be careful of and ‘gators and snakes deserve your utmost respect, but more importantly, you best be extremely respectful to the local people that live, work & fish along their river. I’ve spent years and years learning & memorizing how to get around in just that small area, and still have to note how the river changes and can often fool me. On occasion I’ve had to seek the help of some of these locals who have been wonderful. There are private lands that are owned by ‘old Florida families’ who look unkindly upon trespassers and who believe in the old fashioned way of dealing with those who do not respect their property. Unfortunately, I’ve recently been confronted with the fact that there are a few overzealous photographers, birders & tour leaders who don’t show the same respect for other people’s property and feelings as they want for themselves. As a member of NANPA, I wholeheartedly endorse our strict code of In-the-Field ethics, and believe that we must ‘police’ each other whenever necessary so that those few bad apples don’t spoil it for the rest of us. "Forewarned Is Forearmed"!!
Photo Researchers, Editors, and Publishers:
As stated in previous newsletters, at no obligation to you, send me a “want list” of images you are looking for that may coincide with a trip I’m about to take, or have recently taken, and I’ll do my very best to seek out that subject and shoot it with your request in mind. This may save you some expense, give me a specific mission and possibly a sale of that image. It’s a ‘win, win situation’!
A quick reminder that my library of 35mm original slides houses approximately 75,000 images, and my digital library presently holds over 41,000 (and growing-hourly)!