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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“Soar like an …”

Our area is quite abundant with wildlife and there’s nothing more powerful than the king of the bird world, the Bald Eagle.
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Over the weekend, I spotted a mating pair and was mesmerized as they soured back and forth like fighter jets, while calling out to each other in the early morning sun.
The eagle is a magnificent bird of prey – their image represents many powerful symbols and national pride; from old American gold coins to the Presidential seal – they are the American mascot, our national bird.

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So what does the eagle symbolize in our culture? According to the website Universe of Symbolism (universeofsymbolism.com) the Native American’s regarded the eagle as the Great Spirit and its feathers are used in different ceremonies and dress. Spiritually, it may remind us to be victorious, proud and strong and historically their symbol represents freedom, truth and justice.
A myth of the ancient Aztecs society told a story of a battle between the eagle and a jaguar about who would become the sun. The eagle won after throwing itself in to the fire and the jaguar followed, thus becoming the moon. Afterwards, the Aztecs built two elite armies called the eagles and the jaguars.

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Locally in N.E. Florida there is a webcam for viewing eagles and their chicks at http://www.eagles.org/Cams/FloridaNest.html offering 3 different camera views and chatting capabilities, however to protect these birds its nest is not revealed.

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!

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A male red-winged blackbird defends its nesting area.

A male red-winged blackbird defends its nesting area.

There’s no mistaking this cranky Red-winged Blackbird as he bounces from twig to twig squawking a loud “ooPREEEEEo”.

Last week, this male was demonstrating that he’s the territorial big bird by lifting his shoulders and displaying the unique patches or “epaulets” in a threatening manner as a clear signal to other males to stay out of his way.

One of the more familiar North American birds, the red-winged blackbird spends time near marshes and ponds of Lake Guana where dry grass is plentiful and is used to build their breeding nest.

The males are polygynous, meaning they can have more than one female in their nesting area, which may be another reason they’re a bit cranky trying to protect several females at once.

While the less colorful female tends to the nest located lower in the reeds, these males will guard their territory from higher vantage points.

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Equipment used:

Canon 7d

Feisol tripod

Wimberly Gimble head

Better Beamer flash extender