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Monday, May 30, 2016

Fort Desoto, Florida Birding

FORT DESOTO, FLORIDA - Along the west coast of Florida, just below St. Petersburg, is a small island called Fort Desoto Park.  The park itself contains an old fort used by US troops up into the 1920s, but the fort is only a small part of what makes this island so magical.  The fact is, Fort Desoto is a bird photographers paradise.  The island is shaped like an "L" and is reached by bridge from a nearby barrier island, and can also be quite busy on a summer Saturday when beach goers flock to the sands.  On this day, however, it was only me and a few other photographers.

I arrived at the island before dawn, and had to wait for the gate to open to get into the park.  Honestly, I don't understand this as other states do not block off the parks during the night.  It makes it very hard on we photographers, but such is life.  You learn to live with it and move forward.

After I entered the gate, I proceeded to drive to a "T" in the road.  Here you want to turn right to see the North Beach or left to see the East Beach.  On this day, I headed up to the North Beach, where the sun was shining directly over my shoulder and illuminating the western coast of North Beach.  It is important to have the sun directly from behind when photographing birds as this gives direct lighting against their feathers.  

I parked my car in the ample parking lot, and walked toward an area I figured would hold the most birds.  What do you know I was not disappoined.  In front of  me was a flock of maybe 30 black skimmers.  This was exciting to me as photographing skimmers is not something I get to do often.  Now,  I am going to tell you a secret, and is the most important part of being a good shorebird photographer.  What I am about to tell you will make the difference between average and mediocre images, and that is what I call "the approach."

When approaching a flock of shorebirds or waterbirds, it is important to first approach on foot, very carefully and methodically, until you get withing about 20 feet.  Once they let you get that close, drop down slowly to your belly, with the sun behind you.  Let the birds get comfortable with you. You can tell if they are comfortable because they will go back to preening or sleeping.  As soon as they are comfortable, crawl on your belly about 4 feet, then stop.  Repeat this process very slowly until you are in range of the birds.  Usually, they will tolerate you at about 10 to 15 feet, but no closer.  Below is the first shot of the day using this technique.

I took several more images at this location using this technique and then moved on to the top of the north beach to photograph specific shorebirds like the willet and plover.  Shorebirds like the willet will make for difficult subjects at times as they quickly dodge the waves coming in and look for food in the surf.  Here I captured this shot of a willet running from an incoming wave.

When out photographing wildlife, I never know quite what I am going to find.  In the case of this image below, I found myself with what to me was an odd situation.  I often see great blue herons in North Carolina wading in ponds, rivers, lakes and wetlands, but seeing one hunt the beach was a new experience for me..  I guess if I lived in this area it might seem commonplace.

I continued to shoot for the next several hours and I was able to shoot many images of shorebirds and even osprey flying overhead.  I met another photographer at this location from Nova Scotia, and he mentioned that it is usually much better action.  I kind of chuckled and thought, "I am pretty pleased with what I am seeing now; I can't imagine what it would be like during peak action."  It's strange how activity or lack of activity is all from the perspective of the photographer.  To me this was great photography, but to him it was mediocre.

So the next time you are down near St. Petersburg, take a little side trip to Fort Desoto Park and see what you think.  At the very least you have been somewhere you have never been and you might just enjoy yourself.


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