For much of the past week, I’ve been making my way around and throughout a part of the Florida Panhandle that is mostly unfamiliar territory for me and definitely “off the beaten path”. Completely rural, shockingly beautiful, loaded with wildlife – and oddly coastal – it is an area that is not on your average “Florida destination” brochure. Have no idea where I’m talking about? How can this be?It’s most often called The Forgotten Coast. It is a hundred-mile stretch of coastline that reaches from the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the east to Mexico Beach in the west. Why is it called “Forgotten?” There is a funny anecdote. A Florida tourism group in the 1990’s forgot to include information for this area on their map – so the locals created a new name and the name stuck.
For this post, I decided I wanted to add a little more than photos and captions, so at the end you will see a map including the locations (nearly exact coordinates to my very footsteps) where these photographs were taken. I will be using more place names, as they can be seen on the map, and will create a better “sense of place.” These images were all taken during one of my days prowling the Forgotten Coast, along with my own trials and tribulations as a nature photographer – all in a day’s work!
~ click on images to enlarge ~
First detail of this particular day – January 3, 2010 – it was a very cold predawn in North Florida. The temperature at around 5 am was about 25°F (-4°C) and I was headed to the beach….great! My goal was to get to Apalachicola by the time the sky began to get light enough to set up my gear for a sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico. By the time I passed through the town on Panacea, the sky was beginning to get very pink, and crossing the bridge over the Ochlockonee Bay, my mouth just dropped open! I jumped out of the car on the other side of the bridge and started shooting. This was my very first photograph taken this day, and it was gorgeous! As I was shooting, a bald eagle flew overhead, and I knew it was a good omen for a great day of shooting!
When I go out on a nature photography trip, I have a very strict schedule and timetable – with multiple variants in case some areas are hot or cold (great shooting possibilities, or zero photo ops) and my target on this trip was landscapes and birds. Landscapes because I love doing them and have a passion for making portraits of Florida in its natural state, and birds because of the overwhelming response I got to my last blog (see – your comments really do guide my travels). I decided I’d better work on my birds and see how well I could deliver.
The pine trees above were photographed as the sun rose above the horizon on the shore of the Ochlockonee Bay – in the same spot as the sunrise photo above. Hurricanes in recent years have changed the layout of the landscape permanently – on a coastline that is already in constant flux. These doomed pines will soon be killed by the salty bay which is now creeping into the forest and eroding the very ground where these trees stand.
To make up for lost time – I had to go through Apalachicola without stopping, and make a note to add this location for a future photography trip. I was behind schedule and had a lot of places to stop before I had my final sunset shoot that evening. Passing through the nearly deserted streets (it was about 8:30 am on a Sunday morning) I drove through a huge flock of European starlings. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them! I pulled over to get a shot of this little critter from behind the wheel. What is a European bird doing in Florida? In 1890, someone decided to release a hundred of these beautiful and highly adaptive birds in New York City, from where they have spread across the whole continent – and are now increasingly more common in Florida. I saw my first one a couple of years ago, and now they are seen commonly all over the state.
My major stop of the day was the St. Joseph Peninsula – a nine mile bent finger of land that reaches out into the the Gulf of Mexico, and creates the St. Joseph Bay. I was excited! I’d never been here before, and I wanted to see the magnificent dunes that make this stretch of coast so unlike anywhere else in the United States. I planned to stay here for about five hours and shoot all the birds I could find, and get those dunes, of course! With my first few steps out of the car, I was rewarded with this cardinal perched on some smilax, or greenbriar, vines.
I was slightly disappointed to see almost no birds along the
shore on the Gulf side of the peninsula, but as I came over the dunes (using the boardwalk of course – it is illegal to walk on the dunes themselves for several ecological and environmental reasons) I started to see little moving specks at the water’s edge. These turned out to be the skittish little sanderlings in their lovely winter plumage. This sanderling was kind enough to pause its foraging to pose for me.
Scouting the best place to photograph the dunes, I decided to shoot from another boardwalk, and from the highest position. I do not like anything man-made or unnatural in my landscapes, so I was limited. I managed to get this clean image and was able to shoot wide with no obstructions. This dune was about 25 feet high, and it was a magical view! I also have to say that it was the first time I’ve ever worn gloves in Florida…. it was ridiculously cold and windy! Why was I carrying gloves with me in Florida when I never have worn or needed them before? I’m always prepared….. or so I think I am….
Crossing back over to the St. Joseph Bay side of the peninsula to Eagle Harbor – which was about a two-minute walk. It was a birder’s wonderland! All kinds of birds I’ve never seen! This shockingly red-eyed horned grebe kept popping up a couple dozen feet from me, just to disappear underwater when I raised my camera to my face. I was very excited about this find, being the first time I’ve ever seen one, and the fact that it seemed to be checking me out as much as I was checking it out, I was determined to get this shot. Pow! Once again I hit myself simultaneously on the cheek, nose and forehead with my camera as it suddenly pops up really close, and I manage to get a quick focus and fire within a split second. All those years of photographing butterflies have really honed my aim and control!
Out on the flats, the bird situation is rocking! Cold or not – I’m prepared for anything. I go into the bay, sloshing out to get closer to the birds, which are far out on the oyster beds and sandbars. It’s low tide at this point, and the ground is very sticky, unless I try to walk on the turtle grass. There are sea urchins everywhere, and I’m being careful not to step on them, while keeping an eye on my quarry. There are buffleheads, mergansers, cormorants, willets, egrets, herons, gulls and pelicans everywhere. This willet was close to me, and I snapped this shot off on my way out into the bay.
Then it happened….. my foot got stuck in the mud. No problem – I’m used to it, and it happens all the time. What never happens is the sole of the boot sticking to the mud so strongly that it separates from the boot! I’d had a bit of a flapper and my wife had been telling me to get new boots, but I had a backup pair – in my closet at home. So much for being prepared for anything! “Pseudo-Tourette’s” kicks in and I’m unloading blasphemy like a seasoned pirate, and I don’t even notice how cold the muddy water is on one previously cozy and dry foot. I can’t do any more shooting until I replace my boots, and I’ve scared off all the birds anyway. Once this sinks in, I really get mad. A good pair of boots is just as important for a nature photographer as his camera – you can’t have one without the other.
Almost two hours later, I’m in a Walmart in Panama City wearing one boot and looking for a new pair of temporary replacement boots.
Now that I’m in Panama City – where I planned to finish my day, I decide to rearrange my timeline and fast-forward my plans and check out St. Andrews State Park – and more importantly, make up for lost time. Not far into the park, I nearly stumbled into two six-point bucks. This guy was photographed from about 20 feet from where I stood.
Not far from where the deer were photographed, I began a chase through the trees after this female downey woodpecker. The smallest American woodpecker, it is just as quick and unpredictable as its larger cousins, and as I was about to give up the chase and go after something else, she landed close to me and I squeezed off this shot!
After checking out the beach on the Gulf side of the park and seeing much the same thing as I did on the St. Joseph Peninsula, I decide to skip it for another day and head to the north side of the park to look for birds and other sights on the Grand Lagoon. Bodies of water connected to the Gulf and sheltered by land are usually the best places to look for wildlife, and this was the case here. Lots of mergansers, shorebirds, and this beautiful, huge great blue heron were the first thing I saw as I came out of the trees and approached the water’s edge. Approaching very slowly, this heron tolerated my presence up to about ten feet away. I got this photograph while sitting cross-legged in front of this magnificent heron.
Not far from the heron, a group of little ruddy turnstones were taking advantage of the low tide and devouring the easily accessible clams with relish. Incredibly, these little birds live and breed in the Arctic, and travel an incredible distance for the winter. Sitting on the ground, I waited until this little group got close enough to me to get this shot.
After checking out some of the local terrain, and making mental notes of places to revisit, I decided to drive back to the St. Joseph Peninsula. It was such a hot spot that I felt it would be foolish not to return and try to round out my trip there, and risk not getting the perfect location for my sunset shot. By about 4:30 pm I arrived at the shore of Eagle Harbor where I lost (and recovered) my boot sole. I immediately went back into the water. Unfortunately the tide was coming in, and the birds were mostly gone. I did get this pelican in flight, and the horned grebe was still there, but not so curious about me as it was that morning.
I decided to do a bit of exploring for future trip locations, and make notes and mark waypoints on my GPS for another day. The golden hour of late afternoon photography was past, and I still had no idea where to shoot my sunset. The sun was setting in the wrong direction, and I needed to get the sun on the same side as the beach.
I started heading back to the mainland, with a nagging worry that I was going to miss the setting sun. There was just nowhere that looked good enough, and it was getting late. I found a patch of pine trees on Cape San Blas next to some U.S. Air Force property and parked the car in the edge of the treeline. It was now or never. Five minutes to go until sundown, and the sky was starting to look spectacular! As previously seen that morning, the beach was eroding, and the stumps from the dead pine trees were sticking out of the water – the perfect foreground element for my final images of the day! In minutes I was set up and shooting with glee – I couldn’t have planned that better!
Use the map I’ve created below to supplement this blog to see exactly where I’ve been. The blue tabs are locations I’ve pointed out and include notes to explain a bit better what I was doing at each spot. I’m a big fan of Google maps, and only recently learned I could add them to enhance my work as a photographer, writer, and naturalist. Your comments are not only very welcome, but very important to me as they keep me focused on what I could be doing, and what I should be doing.
Florida’s Forgotten Coast is truly an amazing and unique part of Florida – and will hopefully remain wild and free. As most of this coastline is protected as national wildlife refuge land, various state parks, and state and national forests, much of the remaining parts are off-limits to the public as military property – most notably, Tyndall Air Force Base. Maybe this jewel of a coast will always remain protected from the vandalism and disfigurement so often unleashed with little or no restraint from our elected officials, the developers with their lobbyist hired guns, and those collectively known as “Big Money”.
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without express permission by either Richard or Galina Leighton.
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