Everglades Coalition Conference 2017 and JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

I had the opportunity to attend my 4th Everglades Coalition Conference this year to continue learning about how I can help preserve and promote the natural resources that I enjoy capturing through the lens of my camera (see prior conference posts here and here). This year the conference was held just across the bridge from Sanibel/Captiva island and a short drive to the JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. I arrived at the conference a day early to give me an opportunity to visit JN Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge with my camera and see if I could capture some good images of their famous birds.

Last year my job kept me very busy traveling and did not leave much time for me to engage in any photography. Therefore, one of my goals for 2017 is to make some time to engage in the hobbies I love such as photography and fishing. To kick start this goal I spent a few hours in Ding Darling before the conference started. I managed to capture a few good images of some of the native birds and even captured a very vibrant sunrise.

One of the main things I learned about Ding Darling was that the tides have a larger influence on the birding than does the time of day. In most places the best time for seeing the largest variety and number of birds is to arrive early in the morning and to a lesser extent late in the afternoon. For Ding Darling this is only true if this time of day also corresponds with the occurrence of a low tide. On my trip low tide occurred just after noon. Therefore, when I arrived in the morning there were very few birds. I spent some time exploring the refuge and identifying some good future photography locations. I almost gave up thinking that I was a little to early in the season to see large number of birds, but decided to come back after lunch.

When I returned to the park after lunch the tide was nearing low tide and the birds were congregated in large numbers wading across the shallow flats looking for food. The good news was that I was able to spend some time watching the birds wading and eating, the bad news was the harsh midday lighting made quality photography difficult. To combat this I tried to photography birds that were located in sheltered areas or were sitting with good side lighting versus overhead or back-lit. I still managed to capture some good images but I they still exhibit strong contrast of highlights and shadows.

In the late afternoon I noticed we had some great high thin clouds that I thought would make a great reflector of color after the sunset. Therefore, I decided to stick around in anticipation of a good sunset. I was not disappointed, about 15 minutes after the sunset the sky lit up a vibrant yellow, orange, pink and purple. The thin clouds absorbed this color and reflected it back down on to the shallow calm waters to amplify the colorful show. Unfortunately, I did not have any great com-positional options to compliment the great colors. I like to use foreground subjects to anchor my photos and give my photography depth. The best I could come up with at this location was using the fast tidal flow from a nearby culvert to create a moving leading line to distant birds and ultimately the vibrant sky. It works but only because the sunset was so colorful.

While I was there exploring I also came across one large and one small otter walking down the main road and swimming in one of the tidal pools. Of course I did not have my camera in my hands when I saw them and by the time I came back with it they had moved on. I saw both of them around culvert 6 at different times making me think there is likely a family residing somewhere nearby.

I recommend stopping by Ding Darling if you are in the area. It is a nicely maintained refuge and I enjoyed my time there. However, for birding I believe there are equal or better locations in the southern everglades. Therefore, I don’t know that I would recommend traveling to Ding Darling specifically for birding if you did not live nearby or if you were not already in the area. Additionally, the birds were typically fairly far away requiring a long focal length (greater than 400mm) to generate quality closeups. Also, I was there on a Wednesday and Thursday and there were still large crowds all day long. This has a tendency to take away from the general nature experience.

All bird images in the below gallery were taken using my 70-200 mark ii with 2x iii teleconverter. Most images were also cropped to give the appearance a longer focal length was used.

Everglades Coalition Conference 2015

This past weekend the 30th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference took place in the only Three Palm Designated Hotel in the Florida Keys, the Hilton Key Largo which overlooks Florida Bay.  The theme of this year’s conference was Send It South: Water For America’s Everglades. Florida Bay Sunset Hilton

More than 300 people comprised of local state and federal elected officials, environmental advocacy groups, state and federal agencies, scientists, educators, media members, students and the general public came together this past weekend to work toward a common goal, restoration and preservation of the Everglades Ecosystem.  The Everglades Coalition, who puts on the annual event, is an alliance of 57 local, state and national conservation and environmental organizations dedicated to full restoration of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem through advocacy, education, research and other efforts.

One of the highlights of this year’s conference was an appearance and keynote speech by United States Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.  Prior to speaking at the conference, Secretary Jewell toured Florida Bay and Everglades National Park, including taking a slough slog through a cypress dome.  Later that evening, Secretary Jewell acknowledged the determination and hard work of the Everglades Coalition and congratulated them on their many successes including bringing Everglades restoration and preservation initiatives to the fore front.  Secretary Jewell went on to state that she would continue to be an advocate for restoration initiatives and that restoration of America’s Everglades is a top priority.

SecretaryJewell(PhotobyNPCA)The location of the conference next to Florida Bay was fitting as many of the discussions centered on Florida Bay and how the condition of the plants and animals within it are key indicators of the health of the Everglades watershed.  The consensus among experts is that more freshwater needs to be delivered into the surrounding tributaries north of Florida Bay in order to reach historical salinity levels and create an environment in which the fish, birds and plants can thrive.  To effectuate this, water that is now being diverted east and west needs to be re-engineered to once again flow south.

Presently, water that has historically flowed south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay is instead now being diverted West to the Gulf of Mexico and East to the Atlantic Ocean through a series of canals.  The diverted water contains high levels of nitrogen and other contaminants that are not given the opportunity to be filtered out through natural processes.  The result is frequent toxic algae blooms that can decimate the plant and animal life it encounters.  As a result, not only is Everglades National Park and Florida Bay being deprived of the water it needs, but the diverted water is now wreaking havoc on otherwise healthy ecosystems.

The good news for advocates is that most parties now seem to agree that the problem needs to be addressed however, a unified solution remains elusive.  The main stumbling block is that the land necessary to restore clean natural water flow south from Lake Okeechobee is presently in the hands of private land owners.  This land is needed to create water storage retention areas that can be used to naturally filter the contaminants from the water as well as give the Water Management Districts the tools they need to properly control the rate of flow during the rainy and dry seasons.  Advocates for Everglades restoration hope that Amendment One (1), passed by 70% of Florida’s voters, will help provide a necessary state revenue source to purchase lands and fund water projects to send the water south.

While a solution is being devised, other projects are already moving forward further south to help increase the flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay and restore the Everglades Ecosystem.  Most of these projects are 20 years in the making and have had to carefully balance the need for flood control for the heavily populated areas in South Florida with the need to restore the natural sheet flow of water through the Everglades.  Some projects have been completed, such as the 1 mile bridge on Tamiami Trail, or are nearing completion like the Picayune Strand restoration and pump project, whereas others have stalled due to a lack of federal funding.

On this front, legislation has been filed by both the Federal House and Senate to expedite 1.9 billion in funding for restoration projects set forth in the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), specifically those focused on moving the water south.  The legislation has bi-partisan support but was not heard during the recent lame duck session.  It is anticipated that action will be taken on the proposed legislation during the 114th Congress.         _66A9771

What does a restored Everglades mean to Florida and local communities?  Traditionally, most arguments in favor of Everglades restoration have focused on environmental and scientific facts and figures.  However, recently the argument for Everglades restoration has morphed into an discussion of economics and return on investment.

In 2011, Florida had 87.3 million visitors that generated 67 billion dollars and resulted in Florida being the number one (1) tourist destination in the world.  The attraction for many of Florida’s visitors is its natural resources such as lakes, rivers, beaches, parks and forests.  Fishing and related activities accounted for 80,200 jobs and 5 billion dollars in annual revenue.  Photography, bird and animal watching activities generated more than 5.2 billion dollars.  In 2011, Florida’s state parks had 21.1 million visitors, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando only had 18 million visitors.  In 2013, Florida’s National Parks had 10.2 million visitors.

The argument for restoration economics is that without clean water and a healthy ecosystem there will not be any fish to catch, birds to watch or nature to enjoy.  A depleted and unhealthy ecosystem will result in a huge negative economic impact to Florida’s economy and a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

A recent study funded by the Everglades Foundation found that for every $1 invested in Everglades Restoration activities $4 will be generated in economic benefits or a 4 to 1 return on investment.  It is estimated that a restored everglades will add an additional 46.5 billion dollars to the Florida economy over the next 50 years and create an additional 440,000 jobs.

Everglades restoration and activities related thereto have the potential to create huge economic benefits to those communities ready to embrace the environment around them.  By branding themselves as the “Gateway to Everglades and Biscayne National Parks” and building a partnership with their neighboring national parks, the City of Homestead has already positioned itself to not only advocate for its neighbors but to also benefit economically.

_66A9778The Homestead National Parks Trolley has already generated economic benefits to Historic Downtown Homestead by hosting more than 5,000 riders during last year’s shortened trolley season.  Additional projects already in the works, such as the Biscayne/Everglades Greenway, look to further solidify the City’s partnerships and create additional economic benefits to both the City and the National Parks.

Moreover, the City of Homestead’s connections with Everglades and Biscayne National Parks have created positive news media coverage both locally and nationally, providing invaluable marketing dollars to the City of Homestead.  The most recent national media coverage centered on the release of the Everglades Quarter this past December and the Homestead National Parks Trolley’s participation in NASCAR this past November.

A restored Everglades benefits all; the wildlife, residents, local communities and the economy of the State of Florida.

Naples, Florida Colorful Beach Sunset

I attended the 29th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Naples, Florida this past weekend.  This is my second time attending this conference and I really enjoyed learning more about conservation, preservation and restoration issues affecting the Florida Everglades.  I also spent some time promoting the new National Park Trolley that was recently launched by the City of Homestead.  I will have another blog post specifically discussing this conference.

The purpose of this blog post is to post a few pictures I took while attending the conference.  I was able to run out to the beach Thursday night before the kick-off reception to capture what turned out to be an amazing sunset.  There was a large cloud bank out over the water that seemed like it might block the setting sun.  I looked up the azimuth of the sunset and checked it with my compass.  It turned out the sun was going to set just on the edge of the cloud bank.  I set up my camera and tripod using some nearby rocks as a foreground subject and hoped that the sun would light up the clouds once it sand below the horizon.  I got lucky and the sunset was beautiful to witness.

I used a slow shutter speed to cause the water to blur and give the image a more dramatic feel.  I used an aperture of f18 or higher to slow the shutter speed but also to give me a nice sun star as the sun sank low on the horizon.  Lastly, I used HDR to capture the full dynamic range and allow for me to see the foreground rocks as something other than black silhouettes.  I was happy with the resulting photos and will likely add one of them to my gallery of images on my website.

I also took a few shots late Friday afternoon after the conference dinner to utilize the almost full moon and empty beach.  I liked the result but would have preferred a cloudless sky or puffy clouds to the thin wispy clouds that were present.  I tried to turn the camera at an angle that would capture as little clouds as possible and more stars.  The resulting image was fun to capture and I will make a note to try and do some more full moon light photography in the future.

Click on Thumbnail for full size image.