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Bird Photography Tips — Florida’s Amazing Bird Photography Sites (full story)

©Ethan Meleg
American Oystercatcher, Estero Island, FL, USA
Gear/Settings: Canon 1D Mark IV, 800mm f/5.6 IS, ƒ5.6@1/1000 sec., ISO 800

Story and photography by Ethan Meleg

We’re planning a family trip to Florida this winter so the kids can go to Disney World, but my secret motive is all about bird photography. Florida is one of the best places in North America for bird photography in winter. It’s downright easy there, which is a nice change from the usual challenge! Waterbirds (herons, egrets, shorebirds, waterfowl, etc.) are the stars of the show and you can fill your memory cards every day. There are tons of bird photography hotspots in Florida and I’ve been to most of them, but here’s a top 10 list of my personal favourites!

1. Estero Beach and Lagoon

This stretch of shoreline on the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers Beach is my all-time favourite place on earth to photograph birds. About halfway down the beach is a famous lagoon, which fills with wading birds that pose with mirror reflections in the water. Walk the south end of the beach to find plenty of shorebirds feeding on the water’s edge or resting in the small dunes. One of the best things about this location is soft, low light when the sun sets over the Gulf.

2. Everglades National Park

The Everglades is an enormous subtropical wetland occupying the southern portion of mainland Florida.  Focus your efforts on three key locations: Shark Valley, Anhinga Trail and around the Flamingo headquarters (be sure to check out Eco Pond first thing in the morning). You’ll be amazed at how close you get to hundreds of wading birds at Shark Valley and Anhinga Trail, so pack extra memory cards.

©Ethan Meleg
Roseate spoonbill, Eco Pond, Everglades National Park, FL, USA
Gear/Settings: Canon 1D Mark IV, 800mm f/5.6 IS, ƒ5.6@1/1000 sec., ISO 800

3. Circle B Bar Reserve

A lesser-known spot in central Florida near the town of Lakeland, Circle B is a former cattle ranch that has been restored back to wetlands. Walking around the dykes, you’ll find the number and variety of birds here to be staggering. It’s particularly good for ducks and large wading birds, including roseate spoonbill and limpkin. Keep your eyes out for wildlife, including the elusive bobcat.

4. J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

This legendary bird photography refuge on Sanibel Island features a driving loop through Mangrove lagoons. Get there as soon as the gate opens and be prepared for roseate spoonbill, white pelicans, osprey, bald eagle, ibis and more herons and egrets than you can count. The refuge loop is closed on Fridays and can be busy on weekends, so it’s best to go on a weekday if you can.

5. Fort Desoto

This county park on the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg and Tampa is one of the most popular bird photography destinations in the United States. The park is made up of small connected islands “keys” with mangroves, wetlands, hardwood hammocks, tidal mudflats and miles of beach. It’s a remarkable site for photographing egrets, herons, shorebirds, gulls and terns.

©Ethan Meleg
Great Egret, Fort Desoto, FL, USA
Gear/Settings: Canon 1Ds Mark II, 600mm f14 IS, ƒ8@1/250 sec., ISO 400

6. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

In the shadow of Cape Canaveral on the central Atlantic Coast near Titusville, Merritt is a large refuge with its famous Black Point Wildlife Drive. You’ll find all the usual waterbirds here, including lots of ducks and shorebirds. In the Saw Palmetto habitats on the refuge, keep your eyes out for the endemic Florida scrub jay.

7. Venice Rookery

This tiny rookery literally around the corner from shopping centres and fast food restaurants is one of the premier spots to photograph nesting great blue herons and great egrets. Get there first thing in the morning and always be ready to capture dramatic interactions between birds.

8. Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Centre

Stroll the boardwalk though this small suburban wetland near Boynton and Delray Beach on the Atlantic Coast to find Florida wetland specialties including bitterns, night herons, whistling ducks, purple gallinules and limpkins close and cooperative. Arrive first thing in the morning and be respectful not to block the boardwalk with your tripod.

9. Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Around the corner from Green Cay in Delray Beach, this site is another suburban boardwalk through a constructed wastewater wetland. The elevated boardwalk provides a great angle on wetland birds. Spend at least a morning or two here and pack extra memory cards!

10. Viera Wetlands (aka “Ritch Grisson Memorial Wetlands”)

Located near Cocoa Beach on the Atlantic side of Florida, this large water treatment facility features a loop drive with excellent bird photography in the wetland impoundments. In addition to ducks, bitterns, rails, spoonbills and shorebirds, watch for raptors including bald eagles, crested caracaras and the occasional snail kite.

To read more of this not-to-miss issue please pick up the Winter 2018 issue today online or at your local newsstand. To never miss an issue you can subscribe here

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