Florida Birds 2020 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Apr 15, 2020

Originally, this entire trip report was going to be only five words—”Just Look at The Pictures!” But I didn’t think Joe would let me get away with that. Sooo…
If your idea of a fun trip to Florida includes sleeping late every morning, leisurely walks in the gentle surf, running your toes through the warm beach sand, gourmet dining every night, and late nights spent clubbing, then the Joseph Van Os Florida Birds Photo Tours is NOT the tour for you.
But if you don’t mind rising early, occasional late dinners and sometimes eating on the go in order to capture stunning images of some of Florida’s most iconic birds in the best light, then this IS the tour for you!
We ran three back to back tours this year. This report will incorporate all three tours. We start in the Orlando area where we all meet at the hotel and go to a local restaurant for our welcome dinner. The next morning, we leave the hotel early to arrive at our first location, a wildlife drive, just after sunrise. It is an 11-mile, one-way drive through marshland where various egrets, herons, ibis, anhingas, cormorants, ospreys and many other birds feed. We stop frequently to photograph the birds in early morning light while they hunt for fish, frogs and snakes. Later in the morning, large alligators haul themselves out to bask in the sunshine. We shoot here until late morning, then have a leisurely lunch at a nice restaurant on the way to our afternoon location, a bird rookery with nesting great egrets in full breeding plumage very close to the trail. Large alligators patrol the rookery and the egrets sometimes use the gators as mobile fishing platforms. By about 5PM, we return to our hotel and head out to dinner.
Perched ospreyThe next morning, we load the van early and head south to a lakeshore that is home to 3 eagle families, ospreys, black skimmers, snail kites, limpkins, cattle egrets and many other birds. Among the subjects we captured in our cameras were a great egret eating a greater siren, snail kites carrying apple snails, black skimmers repeatedly circling, limpkins with snails and hundreds of tree swallows flocking overhead. We saw several eagles head out to hunt. A few came close enough to photograph. One morning, a pair of sandhill cranes landed right in front of us and literally walked within a few feet of us as they fed. From here we traveled about 30 minutes to our lunch restaurant on the shore of another lake. Great food with a great view! Our usual lunch is a leisurely affair as the midday sun is not the best for photography. Around 2 PM, we drove to a nearby eagle nest that is easily photographed. The nest is very open. And even better, there is a popular perching tree even closer to our location where the eagles tend to land. There is also one nearly grown chick in the nest that regularly hops up onto a branch above the nest to stretch its wings. We shoot here until sunset as the light just keeps getting better as the afternoon goes on. From here we continue south arriving at our hotel and nearby restaurant at around 8pm. A bit of a late dinner, but well worth it.
Cormorant with fishWe head out the next morning about 1 hour before sunrise. We spend this morning on a pontoon boat on a lake that has the highest concentration of nesting ospreys anywhere in the world. We arrive well before sunrise, so we are out on the water amongst the Spanish moss-covered cypress trees as the sun breaks the horizon. For the next 3 hours, we work our way slowly through the cypress trees holding more than 300 active nests. We photograph ospreys flying, carrying nesting materials, carrying fish, mating, landing and taking off. One group was fortunate enough to photograph an adult peregrine falcon at eye level barely 20 feet away surrounded by Spanish moss. We leave the lake around 11AM or noon and head into town for lunch. Then back to the hotel for a couple of hours to download images, charge batteries and rest. We’re back at the boat in the afternoon for more ospreys. This time we head in the other direction as the sun is now on the opposite side of the lake. We shoot more osprey activity, visit the one active bald eagle nest on the lake and end up at a perfect spot for great sunset images on the lake. Depending on what time sunset is, this can be another dinner at 8pm. Luckily, there are two restaurants very close to our hotel.
The next morning is again spent on a pontoon boat on a different lake. We don’t start as early because it isn’t necessary to be on the lake before sunrise. This morning we spend shooting one of the favorite Florida birds of nearly all photographers, the roseate spoonbill, at a nesting colony. From the stability of our pontoon boat, we spend 3 hours photographing roseate spoonbills doing virtually everything. They fly in individually and in groups, sometimes carrying sticks for their nests in their spatula-shaped bills. On the north side of the rookery island, there is a shallow area where the spoonbills feed, bathe and bicker. The perfectly calm water is perfect for reflections of this magnificent pink bird. Along with spoonbills, great egrets, snowy egrets, anhingas and cormorants are also nesting. Limpkins, “the crying baby of the everglades,” are also abundant here and easily photographed. It is three hours of non-stop shooting. Nearly all the birds we photograph are in spectacular breeding plumage.
Sandhill crane chickWe finish with the spoonbills by late morning and continue our journey southward, stopping for lunch along the way. We arrive at our next hotel around 3 PM. We finally have a much-needed afternoon off to catch up on downloading the tons of images we shot this morning. We have a leisurely dinner at a nice restaurant and call it an early night.
A short drive from the hotel is our next shooting location. We arrive at sunrise to a boardwalk surrounded by islands full of nesting wood storks, great egrets, anhingas, cormorants, great blue herons, tricolored herons and others. There are nests at all stages. Some are just being built with adult birds bringing in large sticks for construction. Other nests have birds sitting on eggs, while others have chicks of various ages. Some of the nests are just a few feet away from the boardwalk. Besides nesting, adult birds are also photographed while fishing. Great blue herons and anhingas are frequently photographed with large fish. As the sun gets higher, we leave for lunch. We go to a nearby deli and have sandwiches made to order which we take back to our hotel where we stay cool during the harsh light of midday. We head back to the boardwalk in the afternoon and shoot during the great late day light. There are several great blue heron nests in good light in the afternoon. We also saw and photographed a very large alligator that caught and ate a large softshell turtle. We shoot until the light diminishes. Then head back to the hotel and on to dinner at a local favorite restaurant. The next morning finds us back on the boardwalk, unexpectedly greeted by three roseate spoonbills, two immature and one adult in magnificent breeding plumage that flies by in perfect light for great flight shots.
Floria sunsetWe leave the boardwalk for the final time at about 10:30 am to head back to the hotel to check out. We have the option of stopping by the eagle nest again on the way back to Orlando. But that would mean a very late final dinner. Everyone wants to go back to the eagles. So instead of a late restaurant dinner, we opt to simply get both lunch and dinner at the deli as we head north. We eat our lunch on the road, store the rest on ice in a cooler and later enjoy our dinners while sitting in comfortable chairs watching the eagles as the sun sets on our adventure. A short 30-minute ride and we are back in our Orlando hotel. We had great photo opportunities at each location during our Florida tours—Just Look at The Pictures!