Monday, March 28, 2011

The Braided Swamp

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"Lost in the swamp."  We've heard tales over years about canoeists spending fearful nights and/or needing rescue after accidentally straying into the swamps of the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area where rivers and creeks intertwine and often disappear into blind alleys of sheet flow in the giant floodplains.  A wild rarely-visited swamp?  What could be more enticing?  So, for years Crystal and I have been exploring these waters with our good friends, Sue and Jeff.  We have had our share of mis-adventures, but that goes with the territory.

Saturday we launched our kayaks and followed one of Jeff's old "breadcrumb trails" of subtle green flags into the swamp once more.  (I admit, we gave Jeff grief for 'littering' the pristine swamp with his markers way back when ... now we were secretly grateful.)

The day was cool and sunny, the water unusually clear.  Limerock and rubble dotted the sandy bottom and occasional banks.  A red-legged White Ibis followed us for a piece.  We even passed two ancient Indian mounds rising up out of the floodplain.  This was as good as it gets.

The flowing waters forked repeatedly like extensively branching limbs... "Do we go left or right? ... hey, there's one of Jeff's markers"... until eventually we came to a huge new logjam of freshly fallen trees that was impenetrable.  We paddled back upstream to the last fork and took a new blind path into the swamp... and that's where we found the scene pictured at the top of this story.  Swamps are typically so full of verdant growth, that a photo shows only chaotic busyness. Here was a scene that depicted the story and beauty --  "braiding" waters, lush growth, diverse species -- AND was readable enough for a decent composition.  Crystal, Sue, and Jeff patiently pulled over to wait as I stepped out into the shallow waters and sank shin-deep into the soft sandy mud.  Let's see... tripod, camera, filters, settings, placement ... can I move my feet?... save my buried Crocs?... 

Awhile later, we were again weaving down unmarked waterways. Nature watched as our little parade floated by.  Songbirds serenaded us. Mullet leapt into the air.  A brown water snake posed lazily on a nearby log.  Further downstream, a freshly shed molt swaying in the creek flow -- the ghost of its former snake-self.  A Prothonotary Warbler landed on a snag not 20 feet away, ignoring me in its search for insects.

Part of our journey included a short paddle on the 'Aucilla River proper', if you could call it that.  In these parts, the Aucilla dips underground frequently -- no more visible than a chain of beautiful sinkholes in the woods.  Holey limerock, towering cypress, and gnarly roots sculpt and decorate the banks of this amazing river.

Never really lost, we found our way to the truck we left in the woods at our presumed destination... another day well spent in one of Florida's remaining Gardens of Eden.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Super Moon

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 The moon is closer to Earth than it has been in 19 years!  The full moon was Saturday and the weather gorgeous - clear and cool.  Crystal and I headed toward Shell Point in search of a western viewpoint from which we might look due east to see the moon rise over the St. Marks lighthouse.  We found nearly such a spot on a remote stretch of salt marsh.  I hiked along the shore to a point where my hand-held compass put me due west of the distant lighthouse.  Crystal set up a chair to write and watch the evening unfold on the marsh.

The light did it's usual magic on the marsh as the sun sank toward the horizon.

I set up two cameras, one tucked back in the cedars with a wide angle lens to try to capture the setting with the moon rising.  That one I put on an intervalometer which would automatically shoot a photo every 15 seconds starting shortly before the scheduled event.

For the lighthouse set up, I used a combination of camera and lenses to give me the greatest telephoto power I could get... the equivalent of about a 1000 mm lens.  Tightened the tripod, locked up the camera's mirror, and attached a cable shutter release to minimize vibration. I tested manual settings until I was in the right ballpark.  Then the countdown began.

8:04 pm came and went on my watch... No moon.  But by 8:08 the top of the huge ghostly red "jellyfish" began lifting out of the invisible haze a few degrees above the Gulf horizon.  The effect was really dramatic through my telescopic lens.  There was one little problem - one that I had half expected:  the moon was rising about 10 degrees to the right (south) of the lighthouse.  No way to move far enough or fast enough to re-frame it, so I photographed the lighthouse, then shifted my camera slightly and started shooting the moon.

When I "photoshop" a photo, like I did with the Mooned Lighthouse at the top, I like to describe the process.  My published "altered photos" go into the Altered section of my website.   Mooned Lighthouse is a composite of two photos shot sequentially with the same camera and lens.  The scale has not been changed and the horizon lines are matched to make it as accurate as possible had I been able to predict the exact spot the moon would rise and been a few hundred yards down the shore. Here are the two full images superimposed but otherwise unaltered.  Next chance I get, I'll try to be in the spot that lines up the full moon and lighthouse so I can make the photo in one shot.

Moments later, the massive shimmering celestial body -- distorted and fuzzy from the heat and haze thickest near Earth's horizon -- was fully visible over the Gulf of Mexico.

As it lifted away from the thick atmosphere, the moon grew yellower and brighter and was soon casting a reflection across the choppy water.  The bright globe glided into the night sky and cast sweet moonlight on the marsh as we packed up to head home.

Blind With a View

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Two hours sounds like a long time to be cooped up in a small portable photo blind.  That's what we were thinking as Tara zipped Crystal and I into the dark dome tent blind and said to phone her when we were ready to come out.  We were wearing black and had most of the zippered view-ports closed to keep out light.  Our hope was to see the wary wood ducks from close range.

Tara and Jim live on an incredible cypress swamp and pond in NW Tallahassee... in fact, they own and manage this sweet little sanctuary with wildlife being the number one consideration.   Tara is an award-winning "digiscoper" - meaning she shoots her photos through a spotting scope rather than using the (much heavier) telephoto lenses and DSLRs like I do. She showed me her sleek customized set-up.  Very cool. Jim had recently done a controlled burn around part of the swamp's perimeter... the wildflowers wiill be coming up soon.  Meanwhile, from the blind in their yard, there was a clear view of a small spit of land reaching into the swamp.

Actually, the blind was quite comfortable - two chairs, iced tea, and enough room for my tripod with camera perched at the one opening in front of us.  Crystal was watching through her binoculars.  There was no time to get bored or antsy.  Tara had scattered some corn out near the shore so there was a parade of wildlife from almost the first moment.  Here are a few:  the male and female Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Swamp Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds (particularly the stripy females), Mourning Doves, and even a squirrel... but an unusual Gray Squirrel in that it was a white morph.  There were egrets and storks and other wading birds building nests further out in the swamp.


We saw our first-ever Rusty Blackbirds!  What a special treat.  What's left of these uncommon (and declining) birds will migrate north very soon.
We'd seen a few pairs of ducks from afar.  An hour and a half in, a pair of wood ducks cautiously approached from a distance swimming across the duckweed.  They kept their eyes glued to the blind.  We froze.  Very slowly they worked their way toward us. Every click of my camera alerted the male, but finally he decided it was safe.  I wondered how many times he'd been shot at or lost flock-mates after hearing gunshot. These beauties are prized by duck hunters.
The pair finally made it to shore and began to forage. After several minutes, a few other pairs of wood ducks arrived.  We had a great show for nearly a half hour, then suddenly they all took off in a flash of color.  Wow.