Rich and I decided to take a week off this spring to go to Callaway Gardens to see the azaleas. With the cold winter and early spring rain, the bloom was supposed to be spectacular. It’s also very late – so the Callaway Azalea Watch was very helpful in planning our trip.
The Mountain Creek Inn was full, so we ended up renting a cottage. It was really nice. We were right inside the gardens, and we woke every morning to bird song.
One of my favorite things about Callaway is seeing flowers and plants that like colder weather, so I can’t grow them in Florida. The flower beds were accented with pansies and tulips and daffodils.
I took this picture in Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden in the morning while the gardeners were watering the flowers. The water droplets add a fun effect.
Rich asked me to take a tulip picture for his mom, and once I started trying to get good close-ups, I had trouble stopping. Squirt says I should have gotten more close-ups of pansies while I was at it.
Of course, the real reason we went this week was to see the azaleas. Callaway has several azalea gardens, containing native and cultivated azaleas. I expected them to be pretty, but they were much more impressive than I’d anticipated. I quickly realized that my widest 24-mm focal length wasn’t wide enough, especially with my crop sensor camera. So I started taking sequences of pictures that I could later merge together into a panorama.
All the different colors of azaleas, under the fresh green oak leaves, overlooking the water of the pond – it was beautiful!
I was glad that I had taken my split neutral density filters. The light was tricky, and I ended up needing the filters to properly expose both the azaleas and the trees. Thanks to Filter Boy for his patience in carrying filters!
As we walked through the azaleas, we heard the hooded warblers calling to each other. We came up with a new mnemonic for remembering their call: told you, told you, told you so! I tried to get a good picture of one of them, but they were too high up in the trees.
We spent the whole four days walking around the gardens. There are several good hikes that Rich likes, one that takes us right near what he has dubbed Turtle Pavilion. There are also lots of turtles under the bridge outside the Discovery Center. They fight with the fish for fish food (and usually win!)
The water was covered in pollen, which was dropping all over the place. You could barely step outside without having your camera covered in pollen. A certain smart-aleck wrote “Callaway Pollen” in the dust on the back of Preeby. Rich didn’t approve. :)
While we ate lunch at the Discovery Center, we watched the turtles and also the mallards. The mallards were funny – they started out sleeping on the bank next to the pond. But as more people started to sit outside, the mallards woke up and got excited. A couple even made their way up onto the boardwalk to beg for food at the tables. They got what they were after, too!
I never thought this would happen, but…Rich got his “turtle fix” and was ready to go before I was finished taking pictures of them!!
There are so many birds at Callaway Gardens, and they are used to people, so it’s pretty easy to photograph them. Take this chickadee for example – he flew over to a fencepost and posed beautifully for me, not six feet away.
This Canadian Goose was at Hummingbird Lake every morning, sunning himself. I thought I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Goose sitting on a nest on a little island in the middle of the pond. Maybe next time we go to Callaway we’ll get to see baby geese?
We hiked on the Wildflower Trail and saw these pretty rain lilies, which made me think of Mum-mum and Mimom.
I had fun with my warming filter at the little waterfall on the Wildflower Trail. It gives the forest such a pretty glow. Rich and I laughed, remembering the animated frog that was staged in this pond during Callaway’s Fantasy in Lights celebration two years ago. Ribbit!!
We stopped several times in the Day Butterfly Center. It’s a huge room filled with nectar plants and butterflies in free flight. (Goldy wants!) It seemed like there were more varieties of butterflies this visit than I remember in the past. Or maybe they were just more active since it was bright and sunny outside. Either way, I had fun photographing them.
Although we’ve seen so many Birds of Prey shows that I think we could recite the script, we did go to one this time in hopes of seeing the bald eagle or peregrine falcon. But instead they showed Juniper the great-horned owl, Roman the Harris hawk, and they tried to show Vinnie the vulture. But Vinnie was so happy to be out and warming his wings in the nice warm sun that he kinda forgot to fly down and participate in the show! But that was OK. We see plenty of vultures at Circle B at home.
After the show, though, we got a treat. We were passing by the Birds of Prey area and I noticed that they had several birds out to sun. They were in a little clearing not too far from the main path. So with my long lens, I was able to get some pictures of the peregrine falcon after all. He obliged me by spreading his wings and posing pretty!
In the evenings, Rich and I went to Mr. Cason’s vegetable garden to birdwatch. The garden is the set for the Victory Garden television show, and it is also a certified backyard bird habitat. Cardinals cavort in the muscandine grape vines, and bluebirds sit on fenceposts while finding their before-bedtime snacks. It’s clear who really owns these gardens!
I’d been photographing the bluebirds separately on their respective fenceposts when suddenly Mr. Bluebird decided that he wanted to share his worm with his wife. He flew over to her post and I was able to snap a few pictures before he took off again.
Robins live at Callaway year-round (as opposed to Central FL, where they visit only during the winter). The robins were busy building their nests. They’re such fun to watch as they strut up and down the garden paths, poking their beaks into the ground as they hunt for bugs.
There are lots of sparrows in the vegetable garden. Song sparrows and white-throated sparrows especially are very abundant, posing nicely on fenceposts and in trees. As a matter of fact, Rich and I joked that I should start a collection called “Callaway Birds on Fenceposts.”
At one point, Rich turned around and asked, “Isn’t that a northern flicker”? He was sitting (of course) on a fencepost, and I barely had time to snap a few frames before he flew off again. Even though the focus could be a bit sharper (the light was really fading), I was pleased to capture the bright red on his head and the yellow underneath his tail. He’s pretty!
Last time we went to Callaway, we saw a female orchard oriole. This time we saw the male. There were several of them calling back and forth to each other. The first night, the sun was pretty much set before we saw our first oriole, and even so, we chased him halfway across the garden trying to get a picture for Mum-mum. The second night, I looked for him early, and found him singing in a tall tree at the entrance to the vegetable garden. He wouldn’t climb a little higher to get a better picture (stubborn bird.)
I’d never seen a purple martin before, so it was fun to look over at the purple martin house and realize that it was occupied. I went back several times, and finally both the male and female came out to sing on top of the house:
It was such fun to watch them dart in and out of their little compartment of the house. I watched them bringing in nesting material several times. They were being so protective that I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t already babies in there.
The male was very animated, flapping his wings around and fussing and singing. I spent a few minutes trying to get pictures of him with his mouth open, and I laughed when I downloaded the pictures and realized how well I could see straight down his throat! The poor little female just sat there listening to him carry on.
Look at his feathers glisten! But I’d say that he’s more navy than purple. The female’s colors are closer to a light purple, if you catch her in the right light. They are both very pretty birds and it was fun to see them for the first time.
We heard flocks of cedar waxwings high in the trees every morning and evening that we spent in the vegetable garden, but only once did one bird actually come down close enough to take his picture.
We had a very pleasant surprise when we saw ruby-throated hummingbirds at the herb garden entrance to the vegetable gardens. I knew they returned to Georgia in April, but we saw so few of them last June, I didn’t expect to see any this trip. But we saw at least one male every evening, and on the first night we saw at least two females as well. Silly birds, they seemed to nectar most at dusk, after the sun’s light had faded. So most of my pictures didn’t turn out well (serious birdie red-eye issues!) This one picture, though, is fun because it shows the glistening tiny feathers:
Rich made friends with all the field mice while he patiently waited during the birdie photography sessions.
We normally see chipmunks in the vegetable garden, too, but we didn’t this time. Actually we didn’t see a chipmunk until our last full day there, when we saw this little guy scurrying between oak trees by the Discovery Center:
As a Florida girl who is used to squirrels, but never sees chipmunks, I never get tired of watching these little guys running around.
On the last morning we took one final walk through the azaleas.
I used what Filter Boy calls the “doughnut filter” to capture this close-up of the azaleas wet with dew.
At the top of the Overlook area, there were several dogwoods in bloom, next to a pretty flower bed full of tulips. Each day we went up to this place after the sun was too high in the sky to get a good picture. On our last day, the morning was cloudy, and that helped to finally get this picture:
Then it was time to eat lunch and start the drive home. After seeing all the pansies in bloom at Callaway, I hoped that maybe they would still be in stores in Georgia (after all, it’s a bit cooler up there than it is in Florida). So we stopped at a Pansies-r-Us (a.k.a. Lowes) on the way back, and unfortunately, they did not have pansies. Poor Squirt. He’ll have to content himself with pictures of pansies until next winter!
So Rich, are you ready to go back to see more hummers? :)
Want to learn more about nature photography at Callaway Gardens?
Check out my Callaway Gardens page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!