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Wildife Photography

Photographers at Ding Darling National Wildlife refuge

                                                                              Photo Fiona Sunquist ©

WildFlorida’s favorite places to photograph wildlife in Florida

Florida has some amazing opportunities for photography. From the frigate birds, palm trees and blue-green ocean of the Keys, to turtles basking around the glass-clear water of a North Florida spring, great photographs are everywhere.

There are many places in Florida to see birds and other wildlife but not all are great for photography. To be successful, wildlife photographers require some very different conditions from bird watchers – it is difficult to carry tripods and camera gear for miles, so photographers usually need to be able to drive, or roll their gear along a boardwalk.

We have chosen the places below because we have found them to be great places to take photographs of wildlife. Obviously, success depends on being there at the right time. For instance, the birds are shoulder to shoulder at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge during the winter, but the refuge is all but deserted during the summer months. The rookery in St Augustine is bursting with nesting birds in April, but unoccupied in September. Just remember - Go at the right time of year and you are all but assured of an amazing experience and with some luck – great photographs!

The Rookery at  St Augustine Alligator Farm

Photographers at the St Augustine alligator farm

The Alligator Farm is home to one of the largest natural bird rookeries in the state of Florida, and you will not believe the kind of photographs you can get here during the march to may nesting season! The rookery consists of two acres of swamp with a long boardwalk that enables you to walk to within a few feet of the nesting birds. Alligators patrol the waters below the boardwalk keeping nest predators like raccoons at bay. When the nesting season is in full swing there are hundreds of birds nesting and feeding young including Great egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Cattle Egrets. In good years dozens of pairs of Wood Storks nest in the top of the large oaks at the end of the Rookery.

It is worth buying one of the special photo passes that allow photographers into the rookery early in the morning. If you have one of these special passes, zoo staff will let you in at the red door at 8.00 am, an hour before the park opens to the public. You can buy a pass online, by mail. Click on the ‘Explore the Zoo’ link and then choose ‘Rookery’ from the menu. Subscribe to the bird rookery updates for week-by-week updates of what is happening at the rookery.

A good site in spring.


Paynes Prairie

The area is best known as one of the major wintering grounds for migratory Sandhill cranes - between late October and March thousands of Sandhill cranes gather here. They are not always feeding in a location where you can photograph them. Early morning and late afternoons are the best times to see and hear the birds. In 2006 the wintering Sandhills were sometimes joined by 6 or 7 Whooping cranes. Ask park staff where the cranes are feeding.

On the north of the Prairie leading off from the Parking area at the Bouleware Springs trailhead is the La Chua Trail (see PDF of the map at the park web site above). This is a great birding spot, especially in winter when cranes, eagles, hawks and wading birds are common. On warm days in spring, and throughout the summer dozens of alligators bask on the canal banks. This is a very good place to get photographs of wild alligators – so good in fact that the park staff sometimes has to close the trail because there are too many alligators!


Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

This is not exactly a wild site, but if you want a chance to see and photograph some of Florida’s native animals and birds close up, this is the place. The Park is a rehabilitation center and a refuge for manatees that have been orphaned or injured in the wild. A large underwater observatory centered on a natural spring allows visitors to get a close up look at manatees and many different species of fish.

You can walk the boardwalk through modern, attractively built, photo- friendly enclosures that house black bears, bobcats, Florida panthers, otter and alligators. White pelicans, brown pelicans, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, and flamingos are also on display and easy to photograph. Highly recommended, but be there when the park opens as it gets very crowded, and bring insect repellant.

A good site year-round.


Corkscrew Swamp Boardwalk

This is where film crews go to film the interior of a cypress swamp or get good photographs of epiphytes and other hard to see swamp life. (In July 2007 two visitors scanning for owls spotted a rare Ghost Orchid blooming about 45 feet off the ground.)

The 2.25-mile boardwalk takes you through a pine upland, a wet prairie, a cypress forest, and a marsh. You can roll heavy camera equipment along the boardwalk, or sit and watch in one of the seating areas. Cloudy days are a good time for photography at this site because clear days can produce too much contrast with sun and shade.

A good site year-round.


Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is a justly famous spot to photograph Florida birds. Birds that are difficult to photograph in other places are so accustomed to people here that you can fill the frame with a 300mm lens. It is also common to see families of raccoons panhandling from the cars parked along the wildlife drive. In recent years a large female American crocodile has taken up residence in the refuge and can sometimes be seen basking by the side of the main road through the refuge. This is probably the only place in Florida where you can see and photograph an endangered American Crocodile from your car!

Almost every kind of North American wading bird can be seen at Ding Darling, however luck and the state of the tide can make a huge difference in the type of photographs you get. Photo opportunities are best one hour before and after low tide low tide and early morning light, so check the tide tables before you plan your trip! Remember - the refuge is closed every Friday.

A good site in winter/spring.

The nearby Sanibel Fishing Pier and Lighthouse on the eastern tip of Sanibel Island is another good site for photography. Brown Pelican, Osprey and Egrets hang out here waiting for handouts from fishermen. The birds are used to people and will let you get very close.

A good site year-round.


The Venice Rookery

This is a small island in a rather nondescript lake in urban Venice, but during peak nesting times (Spring) the photographic opportunities are anything but ordinary. This spot attracts photographers from all over the world. Great Blue Herons, both Black and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Anhingas and Cormorants nest here. You will need a long lens – and maybe a doubler to get full frame shots of the birds on their nests.

To get there, take I-75 to Jacaranda Boulevard, Go north on US Highway 41 until you get to the State Highway Patrol Office at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail. Turn down the road between the Highway Patrol building and the Sarasota County Courthouse and follow the road all the way back. (Map)
Be there early in the morning because much of the rookery is in shade in the afternoon.


Fakahatchee Strand

Janes Scenic Drive

(For a map, download and print the PDF of the map from the web site above)

At some point, as you are looking for this ‘scenic drive”, you will ask yourself if you are in the right place. Trust me, it is well worth taking the trouble to find and drive ‘Janes Scenic Drive’ - an 11-mile trip along an unpaved but passable dirt road.

From US 41 turn north on SR 29. Take the first road on the left, go to the stop sign and turn right. You will be on a rather bumpy dirt road, and in a mile or so you will see the Preserve Office and a Fire Tower. The road becomes ‘Janes Scenic Drive,’ and though it might not seem like it, it is possible to drive it in a regular car. You will get a unique close up look at the swamp forest with its epiphytes and orchids. This is the setting for Susan Orlean’s novel “The Orchid Thief.” Look for owls and hawks in the trees, alligators, otters and raccoons near the water.

When you get to the other edge of the Preserve turn around and retrace your route as the road disintegrates into a maze of often impassible tracks in the area known as the Golden Gate Estates. Bring mosquito repellant. If you decide to get out and walk, watch for snakes.

A good site year-round.


Anhinga Trail - Everglades

The Anhinga Trail is in the Royal Palm Hammock Area, and almost all the wildlife is so accustomed to people that you can get quite close for photos. If you are there early, you can get close up photos of American crows, Turkey vultures and Black vultures in the parking lot. As the name of the trail suggests, Anhingas and Double Crested Cormorants are common. Purple Gallinule, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue and Tricolored herons as well as great and snowy egrets are common. You should also see alligators, turtles and a variety of epiphytes.

A good site in Winter/Spring.

Wild Bird Center

The Wild Bird Center is a rehabilitation operation, run on a shoestring budget. There is no entrance fee, but when you see how many birds they look after and what kinds of close-up photos you can get of the free-flying ‘freeloaders’ who come in a feeding time, you will feel it is well worth leaving a donation in the box.

There are cages of pelicans, herons, spoonbills and other recovering birds, but also many free-flying wading birds that gather at feeding time. A short walk leads you to a mangrove lagoon with great views of Black-necked stilts, Reddish egrets, Brown Pelican, White Ibis, and Great White Heron.

The sign for the Wild Bird Center is quite difficult to see. It is on the right side of the road as you are driving south, at Mile Marker 93.8, about nine miles south of the entrance to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

A good site year-round.


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Wildlife of Florida 2011
Wildlife of Florida 2011
Fiona Sunquist
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Wildlife of Florida: Lizards
Fiona Sunquist
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