The Protector

Does nature and spirituality have a common bond – are they interconnected? Warren Anderson Jr. a local beaches attorney and environmental advocate addressed this in a recent TEDx talk (Technology Entertainment Design) conference in Jacksonville.

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Anderson, who serves as a board member with the Public Trust Law and Environmental Legal Institute and the Timucuan Trail Parks Foundation, joined me for a nature hike last weekend to discuss what it was like to participate in this symposium and about his personal and spiritual connection with nature.
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As hawks soared overhead in the expansiveness of a grassy savannah, Anderson reflected about what he called his peak experience with nature as a young child when his uncle introduced him to the wilderness. While chasing fireflies, catching tadpoles and skipping stones he gazed into the heavens at the stars one evening. With the sounds of crickets and frogs that he affectionately refers to as a “critter choir” clamoring in the background, Anderson suddenly had an epiphany that he calls his first communion, his conscience connection to that sacred ground – his Holy Land.

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As we continued our hike, we came across few small clusters of Green Fly orchids nestled between dried resurrection fern on the canopy of the giant oaks, the discussion turned to activism. He told me that his activism is not motivated by negativism, but of the love of what he’s trying to preserve and enhance. That enlightenment years ago, set Anderson on his personal and professional path to be a guardian of the wild. In his words, “I will summon all my energy to protect those special places, even if it means having to file lawsuits, or to wrangle with well-healed developers and unsympathetic politicians.

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So, next time you walk the trails of Castaway Island or kayak around Dutton Island – Anderson’s favorites, it’s nice to know that we have a protector of this sacred ground – our Holy Land.

You can see Warren Anderson’s TEDx talk video on my website at http://www.craigonealphotography.com

In Focus – Historically Nature

One of my favorite trails to wander in the GTM Research Reserve is the yellow trail. This trail has many old oak trees covered with moss that twinkles in the morning sun before winding through several other eco systems along the way, ending along the banks of the intra-coastal water way.

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At the end of the trail and at the water’s edge near Shell Bluff Landing, lays a coquina block well that marks the location of Juan Andreu’s plantation during the Second Spanish Period, according to the Friends of the GTM Reserve website and is easily approachable.

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Another favorite part of this trail is a stand of Eastern Red Cedar trees, some of which were blown over during the tropical storms that came through the area several years ago. As I walked through this area the smell of cedar hangs in the air, especially if the forest is wet after a rain.

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During the spring and early summer, alligators start to move around looking for mates and on one of my hikes I heard the crunch of a small creature moving through the forest floor. As I looked around further, I noticed this smaller gator just off of this trail. An unusual site for sure.

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Nature Photography – A Year In Review

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect back on my favorite stories and photographs from the year.  For me, this was quite a daunting process, given the weekly stories that are produced, each with an average of three photos per column – well you get the idea.

This year my favorite pictorial stories came from near and far from the First Coast and while I could probably take up quite a few pages in the paper through my indecision, I’ve narrowed list down to these five stories.

#5.  Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an amazing place to visit, but for a photographer, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the autumn glory of the golden aspens glittering in the mountains.

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#4. Stumbling across two alligators in unusual places with two weeks was pretty amazing. I found one under a sign that read “beware of alligators” who appeared to be smiling at me, and another one stuck in the Winston YMCA pool.

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#3. Witnessing a troop of wild monkeys in Florida was a very exciting experience for me and I was happy to add their photos to my list of unusual species found in Florida.

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#2. Storm Chasing, had been a lifelong dream of mine. A week of hunting storms and funnel clouds ended with a five hour adrenaline rush as we chased a super cell from San Antonio, Texas to near the Mexican border, only to have one of our chase vehicle windows blown out in the process.

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#1. Arctic Snow Owl. Social media is an incredible tool and a great example of that was when early reports from fellow photographers filtered in mentioning that there had been an Artic Snowy Owl sighting on the First Coast. Historically, there had only been two previous sightings in Florida, but what made this so different is that it was documented through photography. While she only gave us a few days, the imprint of this arctic bird sitting next to a palm tree is something that many of us won’t see again.

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While ending this year and looking forward to 2015, I leave with a quote from a famous nature photographer, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”  ― John Muir

And with that, I look forward to bringing you, through the lens, many more stories and photographs in the next year. Happy New Year!

Washington Oaks State Park

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Just down A1A near Palm Coast, lays Washington Oaks State Park, encompassing over 400 acres of forest hammocks with great views of the Matanzas River and marsh, located on its western border.

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According to the Friends of Washington Oaks website, there are 20 acres of formal gardens and during my visit, I was amazed with the serenity are this area which includes large moss covered oak trees, stream and beautiful flowers.

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One of the most unusual characteristics of this park is the many coquina boulders or rocks that are strewn throughout this strand of beach. The history of coquina rocks as building material goes back over 400 years and can be found in many buildings in St. Augustine, including the Castillo de San Marcos fort.

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The geology of these unusual rock formations goes back to the Pleistocene Ice Age some 11,000 years ago when, according to coquinarock.com, the last continental glacier retreated for the shores of Florida.

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If you love to take photos, this a great place to go and experiment with your equipment. Many of my wedding photographer friends use this part of the beach for engagement and family portrait shoots. So grab the family, get out and enjoy a little Mother Nature at Washington Oaks State Park.

 

Cooper’s Hawk

The Cooper’s hawk is a wonderful bird to observe and for the last several weeks this one has been hunting in the saltwater side of the Guana dam.

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This member of the goshawk genus accipiter family was named after William Cooper, one of the founders of what’s now called the New York Academy of Sciences. Also known as chicken hawks or a name I fancy, a Striker hawk; for their speed and agility as they quietly hunt both bird and mammal prey often in dense forest.

At one time this bird was extensively hunted for preying on poultry and I remember my farming neighbors in rural Minnesota would always keep a wary eye out for this hawk and would raid their chicken coops.

I first notice this hawk sitting on a branch at ground level tucked in some tall grass along the road that leads from the dam to the Guana trailhead, which allowed for close up photos. After a truck approached, it flew to higher elevation in a dead tree where it fought to hold its position during several gust from the winds of a Nor’easter.

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Not far from this location, I was hoping to capture a photo of a warily Kingfisher that was spending the morning, darting back and forth between its resting place and the edge of the water, when a couple of deer come darting out into the open tall grass and after a glimpse at me, they disappeared just as quickly into the palmetto bush.

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Close Encounters

As a youthful Infantry Sergeant stationed in Central America, I often encountered animals in the wild and I still rely on those experiences when photographing wildlife.

Several months ago, during a local speaking engagement, I was asked about close encounters and what lessons I had learned from them – fortunately, they’re few and far between.

There are two types of threats – perceived and real.  A few years ago, outfitted with a new macro lens, I came across a pigmy rattlesnake. Eager to get some close photos, I got on the ground and slowly crawled towards the snake. Knowing the exact distance of the strike zone, I was feeling pretty darn confident. All of a sudden the cell phone in my front pants pocket started to vibrate. The buzz of that vibration mimics their rattle and convinced me that I had just rolled on top of another snake, the little boy in me screamed as I jumped straight up, ushering some choice words in the process.

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Lessons learned? Snakes are cool, vibrating cell phones – not so much.

A few years ago I received a call from a Debra asking me if I’d take her boyfriend out for some wildlife photography. His birthday was coming up and he had an interest in photography and she thought this might be fun for him.

Eloy Castroverde and I headed out on the trails and after a bit, I decided that we could bushwhack through some tall grass as a short cut. Part way through the tall grassy area, we noticed a very large wild pig walking straight at us. My first instinct was to get down low in the grass and get a couple of shots off, which we both did, then as the pig was within a few yards and too close for comfort, we quickly stood up and started yelling. Completely startled, it looked directly at us then thundered off into the woods.

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Lessons learned? Look big and make a lot of noise – also, make new friends. Ever since that experience, Eloy has become a good friend and an accomplished wildlife photographer, who just returned from the photographing polar bears and artic fox in the tundra.

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Finally, I love to take photos of baby alligators but it’s wise to find the mother’s location first. Breaking my Golden Rule and shortly after taking this photo, I heard the sound of this parent gator rushing towards me.

Lessons learned? Get the shot then get out of the way!

Ready for some Florida Adventure?

If you’re looking for fun, adventure and some plain old Florida history, pack the kids up and head down to the Silver River and enjoy Captain Tom’s custom charter cruise, located about 2 hours south of Jacksonville, on highway 40, just east of Ocala.

Captain Tom has been giving pontoon boat tours since 1983 and is one of the oldest operators in Central Florida.

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A nature lover to his core, this environmentalist was a spokesman for The Silver River Society and the Defenders of the Ocklawaha; he has also been published in The Travel Channel and USA Today among other local and national publications.

Last week, I set out with Captain Tom and after a brief introduction from this “child of the 60’s” who proudly talks about attending the infamous Woodstock Festival of Music, Art and Peace gets down to business discussing this beautiful spring fed river and the threats that are changing this treasure.

Meandering up the river to its source at Silver Springs Park, we slowly pass gators and turtles resting in the morning sun, as cormorants, herons and egrets flying up and down the river’s corridor, through moss covered cypress trees.

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After a short while we pull over along the banks of the river, where Captain Tom showed me how he catches fish with his bare hands using just a few bread crumbs. Explaining that the fish are not afraid if one hand is in the water but when he places both hands in the water the fish realize it’s a trap and won’t approach the bait.

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The Silver River was home to many movies and TV series during the 50’s and 60’s, like The Revenge of the Creature of the Black Lagoon, Sea Hunt and to name a few. As we get closer to the head waters we spotted a large submerged sailboat that was used as a prop, eerily resting on the sandy bottom.

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The highlight of any trip along this river is the chance encounter with wild rhesus monkeys that gathers along the river. Cruising up the river, we could hear them barking and howling in the distance, but it wasn’t until our return trip that we saw a dozen or so adults and pint size babies running up and down the river’s bank. Mother’s attending to their young while other’s played with each other were images I soon won’t forget.

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Captain Tom can be reached at 352-236-0872 or through his website at www.captaintomscustomcharters.net