Cradle Creek Preserve

The morning sun had just turned the saltwater marsh to a golden hue, as I strolled through the Cradle Creek Preserve in Jacksonville Beach. As joggers passed me along the trails, I ventured out to the canoe and kayak landing just as some visitors from Canada were launching their Kayak on their way to Dutton Island.
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I found the preserve a birding paradise, as palliated woodpeckers darted back and forth thought the oak canopy of the maritime forest; the sounds of other migrant and resident birds filled the air. Off into the distance from another wildlife observation area, an osprey called out to its mate from a large tree that supports their nest. Several anhinga were perched on logs air-drying their wings, offering a picturesque foreground to an amazing vista.

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Located on the corner of South 15th street and Fairway Lane, this 43 acre park is a true gem offering a wonderful way to explore Florida’s native plants and animals from the comfort of well groomed trails and boardwalks. More information can be found on the Jacksonville Beach website at http://www.jacksonvillebeach.org.

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Cast-Off to Castaway Island

One Yelp reviewer called Castaway Island Preserve “Just a nice beautiful setting at sunset. I just naturally relax while walking around with so much natural beauty”

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Located on the Intracoastal Waterway on San Pablo road, Castaway Island has several trails that wind through the pine Flatwoods and along the saltwater marshes of this preserve. One of the first things I notice was the imprints of animal tracks on the paved trails and thought; this would be a great educational guessing game to play with a child.

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Further down the paved trail, I came across a long boardwalk that overlooked a grassy marsh, where the sounds of a darting kingfisher broke the morning’s silence. At the end of the boardwalk there’s a large interpretive sign that describes with photos, the animals of the salt marsh and how they adapt to a saline environment.

Another attraction is the pier and dock that offers easy access and launching for the canoeing and kayaking enthusiast.

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If you’re looking for some nice quiet and pet friendly wilderness to stroll through and perhaps pack a picnic lunch, make sure to bring your camera or binoculars and you should be able to see a variety of birds and animals in this environmental oasis.

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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!

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!

Discovering B&W Nature Photography

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This award winning black & white photo was converted from color.

Changing a photo from color to black and white can offer a different perspective, which in some cases makes your subject more dynamic, like this award winning egret photo I took, entitled “The Dancing Egret.”

This photo was captured with my Canon 7d on a cool morning on the edge of Guana Lake in Ponte Vedra Florida. I knew that the filtered light created by the clouds would result a flat photo, so in post processing I simply changed the photo to black and white through Lightroom, and then applied a bit more contrast to bring out the soft details.

Since this photo screamed look at me, I decided to brake two of my cardinal rules, first by centering the subject in the middle of the frame, then adding vignette in an effort to draw the viewers eyes to the center of the picture. In this case I think it worked out well.

The finishing touch was to include just enough of the reflection in the water to add some action to an already stationary subject.