Friday, September 12, 2008

Adventures with John

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My friend and mentor, John Moran, was in my neck of the Florida woods recently and we had some great shooting days.

First stop was to be a stretch of the Florida trail off Wakulla Beach Road, but I ended up driving past the trail to the coast to see the 'big sky' and marsh in the nice morning light. The beach was crawling with fiddler crabs... way more than usual. So we spent a few hours photographing them. One particularly patient fellow was conscripted to be our model for some creative lighting shots. He clung to an oyster-covered rock, while we flashed flashes and zoomed in. John is determined to make me a better flash-user (I'm quite the novice)... this session really fired me up to learn more.

We got to the trail head in time for a quick late lunch, where we also fed the myriad mosquitoes with our blood. Tropical storm Fay left flood waters and the worst mosquito outbreak in years as her legacy. A little DEET helped. We biked the first mile. Then hiked the rest of the way to Shepard Spring. The trail was muddy and often had standing water. A finger of marsh across the trail stopped us for another couple hours while we photographed the swamp mallow flowers, and sundry bugs and frogs of the wetland. By the time we were passing through the Cathedral of Palms, we were exhausted and thirsty, so upon arrival at the spring, all we could do was peel off the sweat and DEET-soaked clothes and take a rejuvenating dip.

Sunset was approaching as we arrived back at the car, so what else could we do but zip down to the big-sky-beach again. We witnessed the beautiful light over the Gulf and marsh, made a few more images, and headed for home and a late dinner.

Very early the next morning, I took John to my old home on Lake Bradford (Leon County). For over 20 years I explored by canoe and kayak the chain of lakes that drains into the big lake, watching it cycle through fall and spring... floods and droughts. I had my favorite secret ponds in the middle of the cypress swamps and hold dear many memories of adventures with my children growing up there.

As we paddled back into the Apalachicola National Forest lands, I was initially disappointed to find an overgrowth of dog fennel choking the formerly beautiful cypress passages. But soon we passed into the clear swamps and ponds of tannic water and majestic cypress trees. Fay had refilled this system to perfect levels for access by canoe and kayak. The trees stood as sentries, reflecting their buttressed trunks across the dark waters. We found a patch of lilypads and one water lily in one little clearing. Nearby, John found a garden spider - a plain name for a jewel of an insect- strung between two not-so-close cypress. We marvelled at the making of such a web and John gave me more lessons on off-camera flash and composition. Another magnificent day.

As we parted ways that afternoon, my head buzzed with excitement from our adventures (or was it the drone of mosquitoes?). Hope you can get a feel for these wilds of North Florida from my photos. And thanks for coming along via my blog! dm

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Confluence

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Irwin came up with the idea: paddle down the Wacissa River from a popular launch site at Goose Pasture... but this is the put-in for the Slave Canal paddling trail?!

After the Slave Canal branches off to the right, the Wacissa-River-proper divides multiple times and fades into 'the braided swamp'. Stories of paddlers who MISSED the turn into the Slave Canal -- getting stuck, finding their way back to Goose Pasture after dark, losing their way, needing rescue -- swirled vaguely in my memory, as I said "yes, I'd love to go."

As we paddled down the open Wacissa, marveling at the giant cypress, wild rice, and wildflowers, Sue asked why this wasn't a regular paddling trail.

Swallow-tailed kites circled over us at our lunch stop as the clear cool water beckoned us to swim. We saw a nest of freshly hatched alligators (where's mom?).

There WAS a stretch of 'braided swamp' where the walls closed in. I put my camera away as we felt our way along, tried several dead ends, and crossed a few downed trees, but it was not so challenging or mysterious as I'd imagined.

What I hadn't imagined was the reward at the end of the swamp: the confluence of the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers. The clear waters of the Wacissa poured down over huge boulders into the dark tannic waters of the Aucilla. Tall palms stood on the banks over pools and mini-waterfalls.

We hung out there for a long time and soaked it up. Then we paddled upstream along the half mile stretch of the Aucilla to the landing where Irwin's truck awaited.

Rain was lightly falling by then and the limerock bank glistened against the tea-colored water. I made one last river photo and promised I'd be back.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Wildlife 2060

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"Florida's population to DOUBLE over the next 50 years!" That was the conclusion of a research project called Florida 2060 released by 1000 Friends of Florida two years ago. Maps delineating urban sprawl were shocking, showing the loss of 7 million acres (equal to the state of Vermont) of rural and natural lands.

In response, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prepared a follow-up report to show the impact that 18,000,000 more humans will have on Florida's wildlife. It is called Wildlife 2060: What's at Stake for Florida? And it has just been released. You can view and download a pdf of the report at And that's worth doing!

I feel honored to have a number of my photographs included in this impressive, if dire, report. I have included some of the images here to entice you to have a look at Wildlife 2060. The report is short but powerfully written by Susan Cerulean (, and the creative graphics designed by Faye Gibson, illustrate some of the points -- for example how many other animals and what types might be lost from the development of one black bear's home range of 25,000 acres.

There are stories about the plight of the sea turtles, the fragile state of our freshwater rivers and aquifers, and various Floridians' efforts to set aside land for conservation and restore lost habitat.

Check it out, become more informed and inspired to join the voices calling for careful balanced growth. dm

Monday, August 18, 2008

Coolness on a Hot Day

Can you believe this place is in central Florida?! I made this photo on Friday at a little-heard-of place called Devil's Den about 10 miles from Gainesville. Essentially the Den is a dome-shaped cavern with a spring water floor and a smallish hole in its roof ringed by the drapery of vines. Through this ceiling window bursts a shaft of light which illuminates the depths. Upon entering through a small side cave, I was stunned by this view. To add to the surreal effect, there are enormous catfish, some 3 feet long, gliding slowly about in the pool.

This is a scuba diver's destination. (There are twenty or so steps down to a floating platform - I was near the top of the steps.) The cavern is said to be so enormous underwater that it requires 2 to 3 tankfuls of air to see the whole submerged room. No divers here Friday.

For this photo, I had to make several exposures and combine them to get the wide range of light in the darkness. Click on the image above to see a larger version.

What a cool place!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Redbay Going Extinct?

How can it be? Walking from my house to the Wakulla River, about a half mile, I count no fewer than 50 redbays in the understory along the road and path. In fact, it's the MAIN tree in the understory. Our favorite stretch of the river is lined with hundreds of these beautiful bright green leafy trees, hanging shadily overhead as we paddle downstream.
So my response is numb disbelief - the denial stage of my grief - to the recent discovery that this ubiquitous fragrant beauty of our woods is dying.
A small ambrosia beetle has made its way from Asia to SE United States, stowed away in the wood of crates on a big ship. This insect bores into the heart of the redbay, infecting it with laurel wilt, and the tree dies. The disease is rapidly spreading west from the Atlantic coast, leaving browned and wilted trees, by the thousands, in it's wake. The redbay and sassafras are cousins of the avocado, and both are doomed... the avocado too? No word on that yet.
These are a few first images I've made of still-healthy trees in my yard. The last one is sassafras. Here's a great story in with all the details. Clicking on the last image - sassafras - will take you to a better version of the image on my website.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Florida Pelicans

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The paradoxical pelican - clutzy and graceful at the same time - can provide hours of entertainment along Florida's coast. Pelicans make a great study for photographers, especially for flight shot practice. And for portraits, action shots, and seascapes, no other bird offers such versatility, cooperation, and accessibility.

On my recent workshop with Artie Morris in southwest Florida, I again encountered both Brown and White Pelicans. Many of the birds in this highly human-populated area are comfortable around people, and plenty have learned that fishermen (and tourists and photographers) can supply an easy meal. We found such a flock at the fishing docks in Placida. Artie was happy to reinforce the begging birds, sending them into a frenzy with a tossed bait fish. Pelicans were coming and going, making take-offs and landings easy to capture. For awhile I practiced some long-exposure-blurs, trying to keep the center point on the face of the bird (for a sharp eye). This proved to be quite difficult but I did get a few interesting effects. Here's one I liked.

At Estero lagoon, we came across some tourists with a bucket of fish, trying to attract the egrets and herons fishing there, but the pelicans kept rushing their offerings. The happy pelican at the top of this blog is about to make a mid-air catch.

Not all pelicans are so human-friendly. (Luckily, I suppose.) I photographed these three white pelicans swimming near shore, but this is the first time I have been able to get close to these elegant birds. Once at Lake Okeechobee, I paddled into the lake from Fisheating Creek, climbed out on a bar (camera-in-hand) and before I knew they were there, a flock of white pelicans took off from a small inlet on the other side of the sawgrass. Most often, I see whites from a distance, often in large flocks.

Whether human-acclimated or in wilder places, it's always fun to sit and watch these birds as they glide on the updrafts in formation, dive for fish, paddle deftly like little boats, maneuver a fish around in their pouches for a face-first swallow, roost on shrimp boats or pilings, or fight for the spoils at the fishing docks.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Venice Rookery at the Crack of Dawn

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Dawn was still well off when we arrived this March morning. I was with a small group of photographers led by Artie Morris. Tripods, flashes, and humans lined up along the shore of their pond in the darkish pre-dawn... which could have been an eerie spectacle for the birds on the island - except that it undoubtedly happened every few days during the nesting season. They were unperturbed.
Not sure what to do with so little light, I was winging it, so to speak, when I made my first keeper that morning... a nice flash blur of a great blue taking off. The birds had become increasingly active as the light crept in. Several pairs of Great Blue Herons shared this small island in the small lake in the county park in Venice. We watched as the males fetched sticks for the females who constructed the nests. There were awkward moments of handing off sticks, bill to bill, and funny ones, when an incoming bird annoyed a neighbor. Sometimes the builder would find a given stick unacceptable, but most of the time she accepted it with grace and intention.
Back and forth the birds went, offering ideal photo ops for the gawking humans... hey, how about a little privacy?! These regal birds would soon be laying eggs, and with some luck, raise a small brood of not-so-regal-looking young'uns. Here are some of the more-like-dinosaur-babies from a previous season.
This was our first outing as a group... and Artie meant to keep us going from 5 am until 9+ pm every day of the workshop, mostly teaching on the fly, so to speak. It was a pretty amazing trip to SW Florida!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Florida Yokels in Yellowstone Winter

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We had the good fortune to visit Yellowstone National Park over New Years... quite a treat for a couple of snow-naive adventurous Floridians. The flights were problematic, but we finally got to Gardiner, MT about 3 am... only a few hours before our scheduled 4 hour snow coach ride into the heart of the park.

The snowcoach is a van with tracks instead of wheels. With our daughter, her boyfriend, and his Wyoming family (who had invited us along), we piled into the coach in pre-dawn darkness and sub-zero temperatures. I was honored with 'shotgun'. A gentle mist and occasional snow flurries shrouded the land, but within half an hour, we spotted 5 wolves close to a bison carcass maybe 50 yards from the road. Our knowledgeable guide, Big Dave, graciously stopped and allowed us to get out for a better view. While the visibility wasn't great, the wolves, in their misty blue landscape, thrilled us all. It was an auspicious beginning.

The rest of the ride was remarkable in many ways, but I'll share just one more story, well, maybe two. While stopped to view some of the first bison we saw (later, they surrounded our coach as we slowly followed a herd along the road), we saw an eagle fly in and land on the ground nearby. On closer look, there was a pair of eagles who were contentedly tearing into a recently killed trumpeter swan. Exciting enough! However, a minute later, one of the bison broke from the herd and ambled toward the eagles. As he drew near, his tail lifted. Uh oh! We had learned that this meant one of two things - he was about to take a dump OR he was pissed and ready to charge. As he picked up speed, the eagles scattered... but only to land a few yards away. The bison stopped when he arrived at the dead swan, sniffed it, licked it, and then stood there, as if to guard it. The eagles were distraught. This image shows them pacing and flapping their wings about, as if to say, "Hey, how dare you?! Get away from our breakfast". But the bison was steadfast and soon joined by the rest of the herd, surrounding the dead swan as though it was a recently deceased calf. We had to leave while this standoff continued. Bison appear to stay the course.

At another stop at Gibbon Falls, our daughter and Flo (a high school exchange student from Belgium) traded dares and both slid down a steep snowy hillside. While fun in theory, a good bit of the flying snow found its way inside their jackets and other layers . In my passion to get a good image at the bottom of the hill, I too caught a full spray of wetter-than-expected snow in my face and camera. What did I expect? How much more fun was in store in the days ahead!