Friday, April 18, 2008

Florida Bird Photography and Alligators

Florida, the land of sunshine, fresh fruit and a cornucopia of colorful birds waiting to be enjoyed. Home to over 257 species of birds the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is a birders dream or in some cases, nightmare. This Southern Florida refuge covers over 200 square miles of wetlands and serves a vital role to the environment. Keys to a successful visit include a birders guide, camera, sunscreen, bug repellent knowing what else lives there.

When I traveled to Florida for a photography course, I had my camera set for birds, not the American Alligator. I read about the park and decided this would be a perfect location for an early morning photo shoot before class. Normally when photographing in a new area I visit the location to check out the lighting, best places to set up my tripod, and talk with the park rangers about the wildlife. Since I was only in Florida for a few days, and in class most of each day, I was not able to make a reconnaissance trip before my morning shoot. My lack of planning would come back to haunt me later that morning.
I arrived before sunrise and was the only one around. I parked across the lot from the visitor center facing several large ponds with levees surrounding them. The refuge has ten numbered water impoundments that look like large ponds that are used to control water levels for the vegetation and soils that provide feeding and nesting habitat for the wildlife. One of the ponds is surrounded by an 1/8th mile levee that forms the Marsh Trail. At the far end of the pond is the observation tower, which was my destination for the morning.
The levees surrounding the large ponds were about fifteen to twenty feet wide. While waiting for the light to be just right, I saw a few ducks and geese floating nearby. I thought to myself how dangerous could this be if they have observation towers and interpretive signage along the trail.
When I entered the observation tower, I began to hear in the distance what sounded like someone trying to start a small engine. It was a deep sputtering growling type of sound. I could envision someone pulling a cord on a generator or kick starting the engine only to have it crank a few times and sputter out. Trying to put out of my mind what was becoming an annoying sound, I tried a few other locations along the bank of the levee to photograph snake birds drying their wings. After taking a few photos of the local Limpkin population, I still heard someone trying to start their engine. He must have an arm or leg of steel to keep trying.

After a few more photographs, I decided it was time to head back to class. When walking back on the dirt path to my car, I noticed some strange lines crossing over the levee from one pond to the next, as if someone had dragged a stick across the dirt leaving a serpentine line leading down into the water. I hadn’t noticed these before but now saw several. Just then, I heard a loud roar from the bushes just ahead, it was the man trying to start the engine! How did he get from behind me in the distance to right here in the bushes? I looked down at the line crossing the path, looked at the bushes where I heard the cranking low growling sound, then the light came on in my head – alligators! I replayed a scene from one of the popular nature shows about how fast an alligator could run on land, about 30 miles an hour in short bursts in a straight line. I stopped in my tracks and contemplated making a run for my car, which I could see in the distance. I decided I couldn’t make it past the bushes with my tripod, backpack and camera fast enough. The next roar from the bushes convinced me I should make my own tracks in the opposite direction around the pond. I would be late for class but that was the least of my worries.
With the warm rays of the morning sun the marsh was coming alive all at once. I could see dozens of alligators floating on the surface making their bellowing chorus. Their heads and tails were out of the water, with their bodies submerged, mouths open, making the deep rumbling growling sound that vibrated the air. It was mating season and I was on their turf.

Before I made a dash for safety, my journalistic instinct kicked in and I took a few pictures, of these prehistoric looking creatures, in case the worst happened and I became breakfast. This wasn’t exactly the early morning with the birds I envisioned when I started out. Ever since this experience I have made it a point to be more prepared when entering a wilderness area by doing my research beforehand.

Through this experience, I have learned that there is a lot more to do then watch birds and dodge alligators if you visit the refuge. In addition to the wildlife around the freshwater storage areas are walking trails through a cypress swamp, biking trails, fishing, butterfly gardens and a 5.5 mile canoe trail.
I have also located a recording of the guttural call that the alligators make that I mistook for an engine trying to start. Whenever I get too confident on where I’m traveling I log on to the Crocodilians Natural History and Conservation website to listen to the sound. It stills gives me chills when I hear it today.

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