Sunday, February 19, 2017

As amateur wildlife photographer in Minnesota I've been wanting to do a cheap and fun travel wildlife trip for the past year. 
After some research I decided to take a trip to the Everglades. Winter is actually the best time to experience the Everglades as it is the dry season. There are many migrating birds and wildlife are more concentrated. I was on a budget and wanted to go cheap as possible. My planning started with a strong cup of coffee and an app called Hopper. You put in your destination and when you want to go and it has a fancy big data algorithm that tells you the best time to buy, or it tells you to wait for the best price. I didn't end up using Hopper, but it did get me an idea of when to buy. Hopper showed that Late January to Mid-March was the cheapest times to fly and this coincided with the best time to go to the Everglades, score! I ended up booking with Kayak as I was looking simultaneously at both sites. I also looked at going around a weekend as car rentals are cheaper.  
For the Everglades you have a couple of choices for airports. I was initially looking at Miami, but also looked at Ft. Myers, which was surprisingly cheaper. It's always a good idea to look at adjacent airports for cheaper flights. The bargain airlines seem to favor these. I was able to book a flight with Sun Country for $239 for a Thursday morning flight and a Sunday morning return. 
As I researched Ft. Myers on Google map I discovered an awesome nature preserve called the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary only a few minutes from the airport. This would be my first stop on day one. 
Audubon Corkscrew Swamp is an amazing place only a few minutes from the Ft. Myers airport. After getting my rental car via Priceline I headed straight there. 
The highlight of the park is a wonderful boardwalk that loops through the swamp for about 3 miles. Honestly its surreal leaving 20deg F Minneapolis a few hours earlier and all of a sudden walking through a streamy Jurassic park like jungle. 
I pulled out my Nikon D500 fitted with the 200-500 E f/5.6, and started shooting handheld at a myriad of wildlife. 
Here I saw Great Blue Heron, Barred Owl, Anhingas, white ibis, Snowy and Great Egret, Green Heron, Pied Grebe, Red Shouldered Hawk. On the walk, there were helpful staff who pointed out some great shots and birds I would not have, otherwise seen.
Unfortunately I could not spend anymore time as I had long drive to Homestead. Corkscrew will definitely be on the must visit list. Now to digress a bit I have to state that my travel style is very laissez faire. Being that this was my first trip to the Everglades I did choose the "must goes" for the short trip. These being; Corkscrew, Anhinga Trail, Shark Valley and the Loop Road. Except for Corkscrew the rest is the spots are best accessed from Miami or Homestead. For any trip lodging is probably the next most expensive cost. I decided to try Airbnb for the first time. I stayed with a woman named Liz in Homestead about 45 min from the areas I wanted to visit. There was even a Cracker Barrel on the way for breakfast. The house was in a nice residential area and I had a private room with bathroom for $90 for two nights stay. My host was great and the AirBnB app made it relatively easy to sort out. Overall I enjoyed my Airbnb experience.
After Corkscrew I did end up a little time to kill so I headed south to explore the south west Everglades. I had a wild hair to go on an airboat ride, while I was down here, why not! I headed for Everglade city and got the last boat out. I have to say, too much fun!
At first it felt like I was on a Disney ride minus the animatronics. The driver/pilot/guide was a lot of fun and showed us around the mangrove estuary. The water was brackish and manatees, dolphins and sharks are seen regularly. At one point the driver stopped the boat and pulled near shore and started calling out, kinda like calling a dog. I was like, what the hell is going on. Pretty soon a party of 3 young raccoons came out of the mangroves to the edge of the water to greet us. He even gave the driver a high five!! Odd and yet hilarious!
The raccoons feed on baby alligators amongst other things I was told. Apparently the mangrove also have bobcats and on occasion the Florida panther. 
Evening was approaching so I started to scope out a good place to shoot a sunset. I settled on the state park area and got a front row seat of a beautiful sunset. 
Everglade city has a lot of crab fishermen so it's a good place to check out the local restaurants and dives for Blue crab straight from the boat to your table. 
After a nice dinner, both for me and the mosquitoes I headed due east for Homestead and my Airbnb lodging. My favorite thing were all the Panther crossing signs. 
Here is a gear list for my 3 day trip:
Think Tank Streetwalker Pro Hard drive with Speedbelt
Nikon D500
Nikon D600
Nikkor 200-500E f/5.6
Nikkor 24-85G f3.5-4.5
Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro
SB700 Speedlight
ND 4 and Circ Polarizing Filter
Extra batteries, charger 
Lens cleaning stuff
Selfie stick 
Three Legged Thing Adrian tripod
Ball head
Jobu Jr. 

I enjoyed using the ThinkTank bag. It's easy to shoot out of. Several time I would be shooting a landscape and at the same time grabbing my action set up for birds that were flying by. It's a little heavy to carry fully loaded. The speed belt does help, or maybe I need to loose my beer gut. It will fit under a domestic flight under seat so it works nice with a carry on.  The back mesh is not the best for sand, however and I think I'd prefer a back opening design. I am looking at the F-Stop Ajna as an all in one. However, it was nice to have photography and personal items separate. Maybe a Mindshift or a Lowepro 500 AW bag? I'm such a gear bag whore!

Morning of day two I decided to check out the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm visitors center. I think it's best to go early in the morning for several reasons. It helps that the crowds aren't there and the wildlife is more active, not to mention the light is beautiful. For me it was a bonus that the ranger hadn't arrived and I got in free! 
As you enter the parking area you will notice a large group of turkey vultures eyeing your newly installed super-rain-off windshield wipers. Apparently they seem to love chewing on any rubber part of your car. There are blue tarps and bungees available to cover your car. Go figure! Luckily they stayed away from my Yaris Rental. 
For a Minnesota photographer, what amazed me was how close the birds will allow you to approach. They are definitely used to people. At times my 200-500 lens was too long. I bet you could get away with a 70-200, or a 70-300 lens here. I actually found bird in flight shots difficult as they were so close. 
On my D500, I would switch between single point for portraits to continuous with all points chosen for fast moving or flight. Coming from the D600 and D300 I had to use 9 point continuous and train it on the target to get focus. With the D500 the autofocus system is amazing and able to pick background from foreground for fast moving subjects. Too easy drill sergeant!
There was so much happening I felt like I was at a wedding shoot. Going from portrait to landscape orientation, listening to fighting relatives, etc. I should have brought a shoot list. 
The actual trail is not that long and I could have left my bag in the car and just hand carried the Nikon D500/200-500 combo. I thought of using a tripod but it was totally fine handholding this combo. There were locals with their 500/600/800mm f/4 giants, and they were using a hand carts, good idea!

Rental: $63.46
Flight: $239.40
Airbnb: $90
Hotel: $100
Airboat: $31
Gas: $40
Food: $

Park fee, $25, $4