It’s hard to deny the importance of Florida’s landscape on a global scale. Thirty percent of all bird species found in North America have been sighted passing through the greater Sanibel Island area. The same conditions that attract all those birds also attracts another species- humans. Typically, when nature and humans compete for the same land, humans typically win. Sanibel Island, however, bucks that trend and did so long before conservation came to mainstream America. If you’re not familiar with the development history of Sanibel / Captiva Islands, it is well summarized in the nature guidebook Living Sanibel. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, located in nearby Collier County, is about 29 miles to the southeast of Sanibel Island and is HUGE- nearly 13,000 acres in size. Nearly half of that acreage had been already preserved by 1955, and the rest followed in the subsequent years.
Unlike the Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is privately owned and managed by the National Audubon Society. From the visitor’s center, just over 2 miles of elevated boardwalk trail traverse through five different “ecosystems”: pine flatwoods, wet prairie, Pond cypress, Bald cypress, and the central marsh. Our visit in July was outside of any “peak” visitation by migrating birds but don’t let something like that from deterring you from visiting. We were not able to visit the sanctuary first thing in the morning so we saw less wildlife than we might have otherwise. The afternoon thunderstorms were beginning to establish and the combination of the sounds of distant thunder and insects in the wet prairie were very peaceful and mesmerizing.
The swampy landscape and “tropical” nature of the plants were very foreign to my familiar surroundings back in the Pacific Northwest. The land is very intricate & complex and that makes it quite difficult to pre-visualize compositions. Now add 85% humidity, 90° F temperatures, and mosquitoes and you have a struggle on your hands. I gambled on just using a monopod and, in a situation like the swamp where I wanted to also incorporate some landscape photography, I didn’t do so well. A traditional tripod support would have improved the quality of some of my opportunities. The beauty of the surroundings was obvious and I appreciated it; I just had trouble capturing it. I think the key to recognize it, admit it, and move on. I can always make a return visit so it’s not worth ruining one’s enjoyment in the moment.
The “noise” which made it hard for me to make sense of everything also enabled me to walk right past a Barred Owl just mere feet away from the boardwalk! Thankfully, the people I was with made sure I was aware of it on the return trip back to the visitors center. The owl seemed fine with the attention and didn’t show any signs of uncomfort at my presence. I still gave it space and used the length of my 500mm lens to bridge the gap. I was able to photograph the owl for several minutes before I needed to catch up with my group. During our brief stay, we barely scratched the surface of what Corkscrew has to offer; I hoped to make a second visit during our stay (the entrance fees are good for 2 consecutive days) but that did not work out. I will have to make another visit in the future.
Back on Sanibel Island, the heart of the island’s natural world is the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. While it’s not as big as Corkscrew, it’s still over 6,400 acres in size (2,800 of which are federally designated wilderness). The majority of this land is on Sanibel’s bay side and it’s focal point is the 4 mile long one-way road which traverses through some of those lands. The road makes its way through the mangrove forest which is broken up by several large expanses shallow water that the road bisects. I made two visits to the refuge on the same day- once at late morning and then later in the day around 4pm.
The noon visit was very quiet, except for the noseeums (or sand fleas) which attacked me voraciously. A local photographer whom I had met earlier at sunrise warned me about them but they focused their attack on whatever skin that was left exposed. This was not fun! I would echo the photographer’s recommendation of long sleeves & long pants but would add some DEET or other bug spray to help ward off these relentless foes. I was advised to either visit the refuge before 10am or after 4pm and that seemed to ring true. At midday, the refuge was pretty quiet and most wildlife is off somewhere else. Despite this fact, I still managed to quickly see an alligator, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a little later, a Snowy Egret up close.
A bit dejected, I returned to where we were staying for the week to relax and wait for the late afternoon. Sure enough, my return visit in the late afternoon was a different story. Maybe it was the DEET but the noseeums weren’t eating me alive which allowed me to relax a bit more and focus on photography. The water levels were lower and the birds were more active and closer in than before. I was able to enjoy the hunting ritual of the Reddish Egret as well as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron & Little Blue Heron. I eventually developed a shadow- another wildlife photographer with a 3 foot long prime lens of undetermined length. I’d stop- he’d stop. I’d pass him, he’d pass me and so on and so on.
If I saw him stopped, it was a pretty good sign that something was nearby. Towards the end of the wildlife drive, I came upon his parked car and the photographer was behind the opened hatch of his SUV and he was pointing his mighty lens up the road. I creeped a little forward in my car and finally saw what he was photographing- a river otter. The otter was on the road, drinking from a rain puddle. I immediately parked and tried to get out & access my camera from the trunk from my rental car as quickly (and silently) as possible. About the moment I turned the lens towards the otter ahead of us, another car pulled up behind me. It paused for a few seconds, and then proceeded to drive past us towards the otter. As you can guess, this spooked the otter which ran off into the brush. A huge missed opportunity!
I only got a brief glimpse at what this area has to offer. I can only imagine what the area is like during the height of spring migrations. A trip earlier in the year would yield far great opportunities and that’s something I would like pursue in the future.