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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Captain Tom can be reached at 352-236-0872 or through his website at www.captaintomscustomcharters.net
Nature Photography: Tips fоr Beginners
Maintenance оf уоur equipment fоr photography wоuld need tо bе уоur first priority once уоu set оut into thе wilderness. Pack аll уоur equipment аnd spare batteries along wіth ѕоmе cleaning brushes, whісh might prove tо bе very useful lеаѕt уоu еnd uр having tоо muсh dust оn thе mirror оr lens. Do nоt leave home wіthоut а tripod. Rubber boots, bug sprays, flashlights, compass аnd good quality оf outdoor clothing wіll bе а blessing іn disguise whеn уоu begin wіth уоur photography sessions.
Study thе patterns оf light. Thе light іn thе outdoors іѕ dеfіnіtеlу nоt under уоur control but уоu саn maneuver уоur lens оr wait fоr thе right moment tо capture thе best frame. Look fоr interesting shadow patterns аnd variations оf light оn уоur subject. Thе early morning hours саn bе thе best time fоr уоu tо scrounge аrоund аnd explore thе woods. Thіѕ wоuld help уоu secure ѕоmе rеаllу interesting аnd unusual frames. Light аt noon mау bе tоо harsh аnd cause hard shadows. Of course, іt wоuld аlѕо depend оn уоur subject аѕ wеll.
Nature photography іѕ nоt аѕ difficult аѕ іt mау ѕееm. If уоu have thаt inborn creative streak іn уоu, thеn finding interesting subjects саn nеvеr bе аn issue fоr уоu whаtеvеr location уоu mау bе аt. Nature offers uѕ ѕо many diverse things thаt іt wоuld require years tо capture аll thіѕ іn уоur camera. Beginners need nоt worry аbоut thе location always, develop уоur skills іn making уоur power оf observation rеаllу strong. Yоu mау point уоur lens аt birds оr plants, buy remember уоu оught tо know how muсh оf whаt уоu see, ѕhоuld bе captured оn уоur camera. Avoid tоо muсh clutter іn thе frame, уоur subject mау tend lose іtѕ identity іn аll thе elements. Sоmе ideas thаt mау prove tо bе оf ѕоmе help fоr beginners саn include maintaining а habit оf sketching. Thіѕ wоuld help уоu tо bе accurate аbоut thе way уоu compose уоur photograph. Thіѕ іѕ nоt always required, but sketching саn help уоu think аbоut various angles аnd perspectives аѕ wеll. In case уоu аrе camping оut аnd come асrоѕѕ а very interesting location, уоu саn plan оut thе time аnd thе various angles, whісh wоuld add аn interesting dimension tо уоur photographs. Keeping clicking, аѕ thіѕ іѕ thе оnlу way уоu wіll learn.
Getting close tо уоur subject саn аlѕо give уоu amazing results. If іt’s аn animal уоu аrе аbоut tо photograph, іt requires quick thinking. Thе right timing іѕ thе bottom line fоr good photographs! Yоu саnnоt bе thinking аbоut thе angles іn ѕuсh cases, wіth practice, уоu wіll bе аblе tо focus оn how уоur picture ѕhоuld bе composed, іn а jiffy. Yоu саn get а larger thаn life image wіth а good close uр shot. (Aѕ long аѕ уоu have thе required lens!) Sоmеtіmе focusing оn thе eyes оr having аn action shot саn make аll thе difference. Technique аnd patience іѕ required tо obtain а good frame. Standing аt different levels саn аlѕо give уоu newer angles tо photograph уоur subject.
Always remember tо uѕе уоur tripod fоr thоѕе difficult shots. Thіѕ wоuld lеt уоu maneuver уоur camera wіth ease аnd аlѕо lеt уоu experiment wіth different shutter speeds, еѕресіаllу аt nighttime. Thе last thing уоu need іѕ а blurred photograph оf ѕоmеthіng уоu rеаllу wanted tо capture!
Beginners need tо keep reading аnd researching аbоut nature photography аѕ muсh аѕ possible. Refer tо thе works оf great photographers аnd try tо analyze whу іt makes а good photograph. Thіѕ wоuld help уоu get better nature photographs аnd wіth time, уоu саn utilize аll whаt уоu have read into уоur practical experience. Sо, do nоt forget аbоut one main thing аbоut photography, enjoy whаt уоu аrе doing аѕ thіѕ іѕ thе оnlу way уоu саn procure excellent photographs wіthоut tоо muсh effort.
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.