For the past three weekends in a row, I’ve planned a visit to Fort De Soto. I even planned to go and stay overnight so that I’d have more time with golden light. Then there were thunderstorms. And rain. And clouds. Two weekends in a row! So this past weekend I finally made it there.
When you drive into Fort De Soto and come to the flagpole, you have to make an important decision. Going left takes you to the East Beach, where you can view the sunrise as the sun peeks up over the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Or you can go right, which takes you to North Beach, one of the best places I know for nature photography. I’d been opting for pre-dawn bird portraits on North Beach as I made the long drive from Orlando, but as the first glimmers of daylight showed me some gorgeous clouds, I opted to turn left and shoot the sunrise. I’m so glad I did. I think this is my first Fort De Soto sunrise with any sort of clouds in the sky!
Fort De Soto in April can be spectacular during migration. For the millions of neotropical songbirds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in one long night of migration, Fort De Soto is the first land they see in many hours. It has fresh water and blooming mulberry bushes to refuel the exhausted birds. Last year I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a fallout, when birds literally “fell out” of the skies from exhaustion after a cold front impeded their migration. This year I didn’t have such luck, but I did have a great time on North Beach with the shorebirds.
I started at the North Beach lagoon, where I thought it was going to be low tide with plenty of birds feeding on the beach. Except it was high tide and there were very few birds! :( I found a couple of lone Semipalmated Plovers in bright breeding colors feeding in the sand. My new groundpod came in handy as I laid down to photograph them at eye level. The black patches on their faces and black ring around their necks are so striking at this time of year. But the sun wasn’t out yet at this location, so I headed down the beach to see what else I could find…
There are a couple of breeding pairs of American Oystercatchers at North Beach, and often you find them together. So I was surprised to find this American Oystercatcher resting by himself on the beach. He barely opened an eye as I positioned the camera and took his picture. I liked how the sand in the foreground blurs the image a little, making him look like he’s in a cloud. He posed for a while, then hopped away. That’s when I noticed that he had a bit of wire or something tied around one leg. Poor bird – as soon as I realized he was injured, I left him alone. :(
It’s always fun to capture the gulls and terns mating at this time of year. All the terns were in the bird sanctuary on this morning, and there were very few gulls out and about. I found this pair on top of a tree trunk, and they showed off nicely for me. I’m still not used to the North Beach changes since last summer’s tropical storms so dramatically re-shaped the beach. These trees had to be cut down after the storms, and only the stumps remain. The gulls didn’t seem to mind.
For the past few years I’ve been on a quest to find and photograph a Black-Bellied Plover in full breeding colors. I’ve gotten some that had very dark tummies, but I’ve yet to capture one at the peak of breeding colors. They finish molting each year at the beginning of May, then fly off to Alaska to have their babies. I’m in awe as I think of how many miles these birds fly in a few short months. On this visit, the Black-Bellied Plovers had started their molt, but none were very black yet. This one entertained me taking a bath in a tidal pool near my camera.
Just as I was getting ready to pack up my Beast and head to the Mulberry trees, this Reddish Egret White Morph flew up. I’ve had relatively few opportunities to photograph this unusual white version of our friend “Big Red.” He didn’t pose long, as he had fish to catch and birds to see…he gave me a few “drunken sailor” moves as he headed up the beach, then I caught him take off to fly away. I loved the trail of water that followed him!
At the Mulberry trees I found a couple of migrants, including Indigo Bunting, Cape May Warbler, Prairie Warbler, late Palm and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, and a cooperative Black-and-white Warbler. The Black-Whiskered Vireo was still there, but he flew away as soon as I walked up! The area was crowded with an Audubon field trip, and I didn’t stay all that long. I guess last year’s fallout spoiled me! :)
Want to learn more about nature photography at Fort De Soto?
Check out my Fort De Soto 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!
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