The Florida Trail & Big Cypress

At the Southern Terminus of the Florida Trail.  Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

At the Southern Terminus of the Florida Trail. Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

In mid January I decided that I would take the first few months of 2011 and hike the Florida Trail.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this particular trail (that is probably most of you), it is a National Scenic Trail that runs from the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve to the beaches of Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida.  It is a pretty incredible trail and one that is only thru-hiked about a dozen or so people each year.

Bromeliad and Orange Blaze of the Florida Trail - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Bromeliad and Orange Blaze of the Florida Trail - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

My interest in the trail started a couple years ago when I was in the Everglades and realized that the southern terminus of the trail was located on Loop Road, one of my favorite locations in the entire region.  I had planned to do the Big Cypress section in 2010 but things didn’t work out.  So, this past fall, when I was grasping at straws and quickly realizing I needed a significant change in life, I decided I’d do the trail.

The idea was  to spend three months rediscovering the state I grew up in, and to have some good time to sort my thoughts out for the future.  The plan was to get back into photography and return to basics a bit.  So, on a Saturday in late January I hit the trail.

For the next four days, I crossed Big Cypress National Preserve on foot, starting on Loop Road and ending on Interstate 75.  During those four days I got to experience an incredible place slowly and at my own pace.  Unfortunately, about half of the 40 or so miles required wading in either shin deep mud or knee deep water.  The water wasn’t a big deal, but the mud was brutal.   Each step required sinking deep into the mud and then prying my foot back out to take another step.  As a result of this motion, both of my heels turned into giant blisters.

The Florida Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The Florida Trail in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

When I reached I-75, I was met by family and returned to my parents home in Orlando for a break while my blisters healed (insert bad pun here).  During the next two weeks, I rethought my plan.  While I absolutely loved my four days on the trail, despite the mud and the blisters, I reconsidered my goal.  After all, during those four days, I was typically too tired to take photos.  The act of carrying my camera gear meant an incredibly heavy pack. On a practical note, I love food too much to want to eat oatmeal and noodles for three months.  Those reasons, combined with a couple job opportunities and a chance to go back to school, meant that I decided to head back to New York, a decision my wife was very pleased with.

My three month long trip ended up being four days.  Did I fail?  Heck no.  I completed one of the most difficult sections of the trail and the section that I have been wanting to do for several years now.  I got my head wrapped around some of the things I wanted to think about.  I had a great time.  I’d call it a success.  Sure, I only covered 40 miles, barely 3% of the entire trail, but I loved every minute of it and I know I’ll be back someday.  Hopefully that day will be sooner rather than later but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Have you ever wanted to do a trip like the Florida Trail?  Maybe the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail?  I’d love to hear about your dream or maybe even your experience!

Everglades: Songbirds of Anhinga Trail – Warblers

Northern Parula (Parula americana) - Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida

Yesterday I looked at the flycatchers that can be seen and photographed on a regular basis at Anhinga Trail, so today we’ll look at the Wood Warblers.  These small, typically colorful birds can be extremely difficult to photograph.  Most prefer the canopy of tall trees and rarely come down to eye level.  Well, at Anhinga Trail there are no tall trees so you can get lucky and get a canopy loving species like a Northern Parula at eye level.

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Everglades: Anhinga Trail Songbirds – Flycatchers

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) - Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) - Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida

Anhinga Trail is known as one of the premiere locations to photograph Anhingas, herons, egrets, Wood Storks, and more.  The place is so well known that on Saturday evening I witnessed well above $100,000 worth of lenses and camera equipment pointed at a single Great Blue Heron.  It’s a popular place and I have been there so many times, I am much pickier where I point my lens these days.  On Friday morning, I decided to focus on the often ignored songbirds of Anhinga Trail.

The marsh and reeds that line the edges of the canals can be extremely productive for a number of songbirds.  On most visits, I see at least several species of warblers, a couple flycatchers, a couple blackbirds, and typically a handful of other species.  Most photographers simply ignore these birds as they look for the charismatic herons and egrets.

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Everglades: Unusual Birds

Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida) - Eco Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida

It’s always fun when you find an unusual or out of place bird when birding.  I had the pleasure to do just that twice over last weekend.  Now when I am talking about unusual birds, I’m not talking about the birds themselves being weird or strange, I’m saying that their mere presence is unusual.  So this past weekend I had two pretty cool and unusual species show up in Everglades National Park.

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Big Cypress: Burned out Cypress Dome

Cypress Dome after Wildfire - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

At the end of last April, lightning ignited a wildfire in Big Cypress National Preserve, just south of Interstate 75 as it crosses the state.  The fire burned for about two weeks and fire crews from the preserve worked hard to contain the fire.  Now about 10 months later, I have been wading through the burned out dome photographing the charred trunks contrasted with the brilliant greens of new sawgrass growth.

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Big Cypress: Dingy-flowered Star Orchid

Dingy-flowered Star Orchid (Epidendrum amphistomum) - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

This weekend I will be searching through Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in an attempt to find blooming orchids of any variety.  I have no idea what I will find or if I will find any at all.  This isn’t the ideal time of year for some of the most spectacular species but there should be some in bloom and I’m here now so I’m going to give it a try.

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Big Cypress: White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) feeding in swamp - Kirby Storter, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

White-tailed Deer live in the Everglades and Big Cypress but they are seen only occasionally.  I probably can describe each and every encounter I had with them during my time down here in 2005.  They are very secretive and aren’t out in the open much.  I think that the tall grasses also help to hide them from visitors.

Prior to this trip, I had only photographed them in the Everglades once and the image is far from special.  The image I have been using in my book and whenver I talk about deer on my website is from farther north in Florida, though still in what would have been the historical Everglades.  Now I have new images!

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Big Cypress: Fog, Prairie, and Palms

Fog, Palms, and Prairie - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

Fog, Palms, and Prairie - Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

As I am always attempting to make interesting images out of difficult situations, I had to try this the other night when a heavy fog rolled over the prairie just after sunset.  Before I explain what my goal for the image was, take a minute to study it.

Now, click to read on and see if my idea actually worked.

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Great Birding and Even a Whale!

Female Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) - Eco Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida

Last Saturday, I spent the day visiting Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park with a close friend of mine.  Sean and I have known each other practically our entire lives and Sean is my only other friend who was interested in birds as a kid and will still go birding with me today.  My dad joked that he should drive us on Saturday so that we could stand on the center console of his car with our heads sticking out the sunroof looking for birds.  There was a time when we were kids that we both could do that at the same time.  I don’t think we’d fit today.

In any case, we headed off to visit some of our old haunts and track down a couple specific birds.  Our goals included a White-faced Ibis at Orlando Wetlands, a Painted Bunting at the same location, and then just a swing through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to see what else we could find.  We got all that and more…

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The Florida Dry Prairie

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) - Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, Florida

The Florida Dry Prairie is a rather nondescript habitat.  It’s a big prairie of bluestem grasses and wiregrasses and palmettos.  In fact, it’s not even really all that dry.  At times it can be very wet, but its called a dry prairie simply because it is much drier than the wet prairies elsewhere in Florida.  So what is special about these prairies?  Well, they are home to sparrows, lots and lots of sparrows, but one of them is particularly unique.

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