It is still pitch dark as our caravan of 16 photographers and two instructors passes the entrance gate of Everglades National Park. We have come here on this February weekend to photograph birds on the Anhinga Trail. Escaping the Pennsylvania winter is an added bonus.
By the time we arrive at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, the darkness has given way to early dawn light. Countless vultures perch on the branches of palm trees near the visitor center and along the short trail. The sun has not risen yet, but nature never sleeps.
"The Anhinga Trail is like a zoo but without fences," announces bird photographer and workshop leader Arthur Morris during our morning session. He is not exaggerating, as we soon learn.
An alligator raises its head from the shallow water. Great blue herons and wood storks stalk the edge of the grasses for their morning meal. Now and then, a heron chases a wood stork away from its territory. Apparently, herons rank higher in the pecking order than the endangered storks. Wood storks poke their long, prehistoric-looking beaks into the shallows and scratch the bottom with their feet to stir up their prey.
Cormorantlike anhingas perch on the railing that separates the humans on the trail from the animal kingdom, ignoring the many visitors this park attracts. They spread their black-and-white wings to dry their plumage. While searching for food, anhingas swim underwater, occasionally lifting their heads and necks above the waterline. Unlike ducks and many other swimming birds, anhingas do not have oil glands and are not waterproof. After a swim, they can't fly until their plumage dries, which they accomplish in a photogenic pose, wings spread, their yellow bills pointed toward the sky.
Black vultures are another species that seems unconcerned about people, letting them approach within arm's length. They pose on the fence posts like anhingas, but they don't spread their wings.
I am thrilled by how close the birds let me approach here. While I have often seen great blue herons near our home in Pennsylvania, they have never been closer than 100 feet away. Here in the Everglades, they are as tame as zoo animals. One heron even poses for me on the roof of a shelter. Eager as I am to take great photos, I do not want to miss the opportunity to experience and study the birds firsthand. It is the only way for a photographer to anticipate a particular behavior pattern. The photographer needs to know when the birds are most active or are resting. In a park where the wildlife is accustomed to people, opportunities abound to learn more about the animals' lives.
The sun rises above the trees, illuminating a green heron stalking prey in the shallow water. Green herons are smaller than great blue herons, and their green/purple plumage blends in with the foliage. A common moorhen paddles around while an anhinga dives for fish, its neck and head surfacing above the waterline. Tricolored herons stalk through the grass, their eyes focused on their prey and their long necks thrust forward and down.
From the elevated boardwalk, we spot several anhinga nests in the thickets of trees, with chicks eagerly craning their necks for food. The birds seem unconcerned about the alligators that cruise the shallows. Woe unto the chick, though, that is unfortunate enough to fall out of the nest — it will become an easy meal for the alligators below.
Cormorants land on the roof of a shelter as Morris is teaching us techniques of flight photography. Departures and landings seem to follow a regular schedule. Those of us who have short zoom lenses are trying to photograph the birds while they are landing.
By late morning, the sun is bright, providing less than ideal lighting. We therefore decide to take a break from our field session until midafternoon. Before returning to the car, I spot an alligator so close that I can frame a headshot with my 400mm lens. Suddenly, it moves and I take some close-up shots of its mouth, revealing its impressive teeth. What an experience!
The next morning's sunrise finds us on the boardwalk, ready to photograph. In the past, Morris has photographed alligators in the water illuminated by the orange sun. This morning, the reptiles are not cooperating, even though we can detect their sonorous rumbles from all directions. Yet, there is no shortage of photogenic subjects. From the purple gallinule to anhinga chicks, from the great egret to the tricolored heron, it is hard to decide on which bird to focus the camera. At one overlook we view four alligators stacked on top of one another while a great egret stalks through the shallows, unconcerned about the reptiles. Then an alligator makes a sudden move, and a small turtle is caught in its formidable jaws.
After the workshop ends, there is still time for my husband and me to drive deeper into the park. A boardwalk leads to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. Since the average elevation in the Everglades is less than six feet, we don't get vertigo when climbing the overlook. From the boardwalk we have an unrestricted view of the marsh, stretching all the way to the horizon. Only a few trees provide focal points for our gaze. We are here in the dry season, and the water level is so low that we can see the ground. Great egrets lift up into the sky, while we spot a hawk in the distance and listen to the hammering of a red-bellied woodpecker.
We drive on to Mahogany Hammock, where we admire the largest living mahogany tree in the United States. Among the lush vegetation of this hardwood tree rise the particularly striking gumbo-limbo trees with their red and peeling bark. All in all, the abundance of subtropical plants is extraordinary. A small snake and several butterflies remind us that the park provides habitat for all kinds of wildlife.
We end our visit with one last stop at the Anhinga Trail. The midday sun blazes down on the tourists walking the short trail. Alligators are resting in the shadows, waiting out the hottest part of the day. They are silent now, as if it were too much of an effort to strain their vocal cords. Great blue herons and wood storks are getting along and the black vultures are posing on fence posts. They appear to enjoy the attention they are getting. We feel sorry for the visitors who have come here to view the wildlife activities and walk away thinking that all is quiet here. But we know that, come late afternoon, the animals will be busy, searching for their evening meal.