Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Bird Count!

A peregrine falcon must have scared this flock of shorebirds in Florida Bay. The sound they made while flying was incredible.

Every year National Audubon conducts bird counts in each state to assess the health and status of bird populations around the country. From December 14th through January 5th of 2012, thousands of volunteers selflessly dedicate their time to slog, hike, boat, and paddle with guide books, binoculars, and checklists in hand. For many, this has become a family tradition as it's a great excuse to get outside and see some incredible wildlife while contributing to conservation.

Rafael uses a scope to identify shorebirds in the distance at one of the keys in central Florida Bay

To be honest, I was a little nervous about my first count. I know my wading birds and raptors fairly well but identifying shorebirds and songbirds is so frustratingly difficult for me that I feel I'm a disgrace to the Audubon name. My redemption would be found in calling out the bright pink roseate spoonbills flying against the stark blue sky. Fortunately, I was assigned to be captain of a boat with two of the most knowledgable birders and naturalists I've ever met. Rafael Galvez and Michelle Davis just finished a bird count on the Dry Tortugas two days prior and politely assured me all I would have to do is steer the boat. Huge sigh of relief.

The Tavernier Science Center hosted the bird count of Florida Bay and the Upper Keys. With a team of 15 birders, biologists, enthusiasts, and naturalists we scoured the region from 6:30 AM until 6:00 PM. We identified 95 species and counted 11,164 individuals!

Semipalmated sandpiper, as close as I could get with a 400mm lens.

Part of the purpose of the bird count is to also help determine the range and migratory behaviors of certain birds. Our team spent a great deal of time just trying to verify the identity and number of semipalmated sandpipers. Florida Bay, it turns out, is the only place where these birds don't continue to fly south for the winter. Florida Bay is also the only place to find prairie warblers with a distinctive orange coloration in their faces.

The hardest groups to count, however, were the floating mats of cormorants. Any guesses as to how many are in the photo above?

After participating in my first bird count, I can see how it attracts so many volunteers. My group alone accounted for 5,640 birds, which is an incredible sight to behold in an 11 hour period. I would highly recommend the Christmas Bird Count to anyone looking to spend a day outside for a cause certainly worth supporting. I'm definitely going to make it an annual tradition, wherever I might be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Roseate Spoonbills

A mix of adult and juvenile spoonbills in flight at Snake Bight

Starting in November, I accepted a small promotion within Audubon's Tavernier Science Center office as head of spoonbill research. For the last two years I have been working with prey-base fish monitoring, so this will be a much welcomed change. The spoonbill position requires that I go into the field every week to collect data on spoonbill populations and their nesting success for the entire Florida Bay. Doing so means that I must visit nearly every island in search of spoonbills and report back to state director of research, Jerry Lorenz. So far it's been slow as water levels are still fairly high, but we're not quite sure what to expect this year. Already we're seeing some shifts in their range, but only recently did I find my first nest.

The first spoonbill eggs found on an island in the central part of Florida Bay

Trends have shown an overall decline in spoonbill nesting success in Florida Bay. In the northeast Bay, colonies once hosted up to 600 nesting pairs, now we're struggling to find a handful. These declines started right after the construction of the C-111 canal that drained much of the Taylor Slough watershed out to the Atlantic. Our research is helping to provide water management authorities with the empirical data they require to shape policies and change the flow of water. It is our belief that bringing more freshwater back into the system will provide more productive foraging grounds for spoonbills and other wading birds.

Only time will tell us if we're on the right track as Everglades restoration plans are underway. In the mean time, I'll enjoy trudging through mangrove islands and boating across the Bay in search of these pink beauties.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

That's what Hannah said as she walked, crunching the brittle ground with every step under a palm tree canopy lining the shore of Myakka River. It was perfect the way it hit her, like recognizing an old friend. She couldn't stop smiling, gazing around at the strange landscape. And I felt the same way too when I first visited Myakka River State Park ten years ago. There's something incredibly wild, fabled, and yet, familiar about this place, like we've been told about it before.

As a dedicated member of the sunshine state's PR team, it's my job and great pleasure in life to reconnect people with this fantastical alternative reality that is old Florida. Just a few days ago we were paddling down the Turner River when a visiting friend from California (home of the redwood forest, giant sand dunes, and some of the most dramatic vistas in the country) said, "This reminds me of Lord of the Rings." I was beaming with pride. For all of us lucky folks that call this wonderful state "home," take the reins and share your backyard with your out-of-town families this holiday season. Take them to one of your favorite places. Show them around Florida; where prehistoric reptiles roam the rivers, emerald springs boil from the earth, and fluorescent-pink birds decorate the blue sky. It is, after all, where the wild things are. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Florida's Special Places: Corkscrew Swamp

About four months ago I started a proposal with the help of National Geographic producer Katie Carpenter and director of Audubon Florida Eric Draper to create short HD videos highlighting Audubon's role in protecting Florida's special places. The idea came at the heels of my Florida Bay videos as I began to realize that a great deal of the public has very little clue of what this organization does around the state. We thought that combining interviews with compelling imagery and videography would be a great way to connect to the masses.

October was my first shoot, as it was a time-sensitive issue. Around the second week of that month every year wild sunflowers bloom and surround Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It's a spectacular sight to see and if we were going to include it in the video we wanted to capture it at its peak.

Jason Lauristen (left) and Adam Chasey roll through a trail of sunflowers at sunrise

Thankfully, Jason Lauritsen the assistant director of Corkscrew was willing to wake up before dawn and pick us up in one of their swamp buggies. This put us up above the sunflowers and offered a really unique perspective that I otherwise wouldn't have been able to get.

I spent the next two days slaving away from dawn until dusk capturing as many close-up and wide angle shots as I could before wrapping it up. The devil is in the details and I'm still learning to think like a videographer. Because we have a set budget I had to treat the assignment like I would never be coming back, so the added pressure helped to keep me shooting all day. A lot goes into these small productions and while digital SLRs are great in that now include high definition video capabilities, there's no limit on the amount of accessories you need to make it fluid. I'm usually a very light traveler (in comparison to some other photographers) because I like staying mobile. No such luck on this trip. My packing list included:

Canon 5d mark ii camera body
Canon 24-105mm lens
Canon 16-35mm lens
Canon 100-400mm lens
Canon 100mm macro lens
Redrock Micro shoulder mount
Manfrotto tripod with fluid head
Manfrotto tripod with ball head
Two Canon external strobes
Rode Videomic Pro
Sennheiser wireless mics
4 Batteries
100gb of flash memory cards
500gb external hard drive
MacBook laptop

And there's still more I've acquired since then! Luckily I drove my truck. Although, the truck didn't help much when I had to schlep most of this gear down the boardwalk all day. I hope you enjoy the video. Feel free to share it with friends. It was edited by Josh Cook in New York and will be the first in several more to come.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Turner River

The Turner River

Two places that I've been hearing about since I arrived in 2009 are the Dry Tortugas and the Turner River. While it's shameful that I still haven't made it to the islands off the coast of Florida, Turner River is a lesser-known, but equally beautiful area in Everglades National Park, just two hours from my doorstep. A group of ten friends got together this weekend to paddle the river on a ten-mile one-way trek out to Chokoloskee. I knew it was going to be a promising trip when a one-eyed, nine-foot alligator was guarding the entrance.

Whitewater rushes out of a mangrove forest along the banks of the Turner River

For the first three miles we floated through freshwater mangrove tunnels. Our paddles were nearly useless so we grabbed the limbs like monkey bars and swung our way until reaching open water. To my amazement, we came upon a ripping tributary that was gushing whitewater over a mangrove bank. I have never seen whitewater in the Everglades, frankly because there just isn't enough relief to create riffles. I didn't have enough time to go find the source, but it's very possible it was spring-fed.

Garl Harrold and Linda Lorenz happy to arrive at Chokoloskee

After four hours on the water, we made it to Chokoloskee, just barely out-running a storm as the sun was setting. I'd love to go back to explore those mangrove tunnels a little more with my camera. There are certainly more photos to be had in such a primeval place. Until then, I'll just enjoy having spent a wonderful afternoon with my friends in another one of Florida's hidden gems.

Audubon Aventure Sunday crew

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Winter's Approach

Rainbow over the mangrove shoreline of Madiera Bay in Everglades National Park

We had our first bite of winter last week. It's strange. One day I'm snorkeling in the Bay, the next, I'm wearing a ski hat and winter coat while boating to work. I love this time of year. Migratory birds are filling the skies and roseate spoonbills are starting to build nests. The mornings are electric with piercing warm light that seems to last for an hour. On the open water, crisp zephyrs rip across the Bay ushering in the seasonal shift. The wind is changing and there's no better place to put it than a couple of sails.

Sailing on Florida Bay we met up with Jerry Lorenz on his boat, R. mangle 

It seems like it's my first weekend in quite some time where I'm not running around at a thousand miles per hour trying to juggle deadlines and catching flights. So when my friend Steve Pollock invited me out on his newly restored sailboat, it actually felt strange to say yes. Sometimes the grind keeps me going, it keeps me fulfilled knowing that my time bears fruit. Sometimes though, it's just nice to turn off the motor and go slow for a change.

A pod of dolphins play behind the R. mangle 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Until It Sings

Nature photography is a labor of love. It takes a lot of patience and serious type-A focus flowing through your veins to make the shot and sit satisfied with the result. I'm constantly reviewing old images and thinking of how I could have done them better. I'm never satisfied.  I'm not sure if this is a character flaw or just a layer of callous that's built up from years of relationships with picky editors. When I first starting learning, a great mentor and friend of mine, Nancy Rotenberg, used to tell me to "shoot it 'till it sings." While this was a great motto, I really just used it as an excuse to indulge my compulsiveness. I'm becoming more and more self conscious of this as I'm in the field with friends and coworkers who sit and wait for me to finish photographing, but luckily, they're more patient than I am.

A couple weeks ago we found a healthy population of tadpoles swimming around in one of our equipment rinse tanks. I brought a few home to photograph different stages of their lives for a composite image. It was a fun project that I thought would take only an hour. The more I photographed, however, the pickier I got and the more I demanded from these little amphibians. Before I knew it, I spent 4 hours photographing 5 very uncooperative tadpoles and pollywogs. I worked every angle and wouldn't rest until I had all my bases covered.

After compiling the images, I was thrilled to see the genesis of this small afternoon project. What started out as one-dimensional photos, turned into a three-dimensional story about time and form. And for me, that's when it sings. But I still wasn't satisfied. It was killing me that the last frog wasn't a true adult. It crawled under my skin that the series could be better, and yet I published the photo knowing there was still room for improvement.

In art, this is a big no-no. We're only supposed to display our pieces, always showing our best face. I've never been comfortable with this idea, though. I appreciate the often slow and steady pace of creativity. Sometimes I just need to move on from a photo in order to come back and see it in its best light. Hitting the "publish" button often provides that necessary distance.

Tonight I found the missing piece to this image, sitting right outside my front door. As soon as I saw the Cuban tree frog adult, I grabbed my camera equipment and set up a studio knowing exactly what position I wanted of him for the final portrait. With a little help from Adam Chasey, frog-wrangler extraordinaire and most patient man alive, I got the photo I needed. Like a kid on Christmas morning I immediately uploaded the photos and began working on the finished piece.

I'm pretty happy with this one. My compulsiveness is at bay. At least for now. Well, until I start thinking about adding a clump of eggs at the bottom left.    

Friday, November 18, 2011

At a Loss

Water management in south Florida has been at the forefront of environmental and political debate ever since the turn of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, even today with all that we know of the Everglades and its significance to Florida and imperiled watersheds all around the world, we're still struggling to get it right.

This September the two agencies in charge of Everglades restoration efforts, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, slashed their funding of scientific monitoring programs by 60%. These monitoring programs help gauge the effectiveness of Everglades restoration and are the foundation in which water management policies are shaped. Without the science, we're essentially losing the cause-and-effect data that tells us if our restoration projects are working. As you know, the Army Corps and SFWMD's funding comes from taxes, from us. By the power vested in Gov Rick Scott, the budget cuts were designed to cut taxes and reduce state spending, so he looked for places to trim the fat; somewhere no one would notice. But instead, he chose the backbone fund of Everglades restoration.

The taxes to be cut are taxes on homeowners. If you have a home valued at $100,000 then you are saving $15 a year from this monumental tax break. I know what you're thinking, "holy crap, what am I going to do with all this extra cash now?!" The possibilities are endless. At the cost of science and hundreds of jobs, we can all enjoy a few more lattes from Starbucks or that leopard-print Snuggie we've always wanted.

The truth is that we've been here before and it didn't work. We tried water management without monitoring programs, which is why we're now stuck spending 14 billion dollars to bring our Everglades back. History alone should teach us that we're far from understanding the complexities of mother nature, but the more we invest in the comprehensive science, the better our understanding will be, and the more informed we will become when making decisions for our people and environment.

A satellite-tagged crocodile, one of Frank Mazzotti's, who's program was eliminated after the budget cuts.

To give you a little perspective, the overall price tag of Everglades restoration is $14,000,000,000. With these cuts, $4,000,000 will be taken away and thus the funding to many key programs such as fish monitoring, crocodile and alligator research, submerged aquatic vegetation studies, and several other water quality programs. For such invaluable data, it's merely a drop in the budget bucket, not even one percent. By definition these monitoring programs are the only way we have of knowing for sure if the other $13,996,000,000 we spend is going to good use. 

A plug on East Cape Canal at Cape Sable keeps saltwater from pushing further
into the freshwater Everglades ecosystem. Tavernier Science Center's sample site
was just beyond the plug, but no longer receives funding to conduct research there.

We are one of the lucky few at Tavernier Science Center. Well, lucky in that we still have jobs. Our budget also suffered from the cuts and we lost nearly half of our sample sites. We closed sites at Cape Sable where they just finished putting in plugs to stop saltwater encroachment, so we won't know if they're working to restore the freshwater ecosystem. We were also forced to close sites in the Biscayne Bay area and northeastern Florida Bay. No longer will we have access to helicopters, so last month we had to decommission four locations hauling all of our equipment out in a swing-loaded cargo net. State director of research, Jerry Lorenz, decided to take a day away from the office to help breakdown our Rocky Creek site, and see it for the last time.

He and I flew out early in the morning over the ridge and sloughs of the southern Everglades. Restricted water flows had started to show their subtle but detrimental affect on the landscape, now clearly visible at 800 feet. He looked on, despondent and removed, like an artist stepping back from the canvas to see strokes and details incongruous with his original vision.

Jerry Lorenz stands with a boat loaded up with nearly 500 pounds of re-bar, PVC, lumber,
and hydrological equipment, all to be sent back to the office in Tavernier. 

When we landed at Rocky Creek and hauled away the first load of boardwalks, Jerry had trouble finding the words to express his disappointment. It took days to build the site, months to scout it out, and years to figure out its place in the greater watershed. After a matter of hours, it was completely gone. The helicopter carried out the last load and we sat silent, tired, and wet under the dissipating hum of the propeller. Jerry looked on as it faded into the horizon, but stayed watching, perhaps hoping that it would turn back around. 

A deep sigh from a frail resolve was the only audible sound I heard as we crouched in the water, quietly waiting to be picked up. Disappointing is hardly the word. Heartbreaking is more appropriate. I could see it in his face and weighing on his shoulders. Jerry and a number of other biologists have invested their lives protecting the Everglades through science and reason. Ever since restoration became a statewide conversation they have been Florida's most trusted voices. Now their throats are hoarse from screaming into deaf and often indifferent ears.

Friday, November 11, 2011

TRCP Media Summit

I'm just now catching up from a very hectic but satisfying month. I'm a little sleep deprived and a little overwhelmed right now, but that's good, it means there's lots to share from my little corner of the world.

TRCP board member Jim Martin speaks to guests at the Saltwater Media Summit

Hosting their first annual Saltwater Media Summit in Sarasota, FL at MOTE marine lab, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) invited me to attend as a member of their media team and to document the convention. For three days journalists, environmental writers, biologists, former lobbyists, and leading figures in the saltwater fishing community congregated to discuss the future of our fisheries and coasts. The shoot was to be pretty straightforward: afternoons filming indoors during presentations, evenings mixed with interviews and testimonials, and mornings filming backcountry fishing. By the end of the conference, TRCP wanted to be able to compile a video to release to potential attendees and sponsors for future events, so I would need to take both stills and video with enough footage to fill 4 minutes. Seems pretty easy, right? Well, if you're banking on two days of in-the-field video, which is the heart of the final product, and then you're suddenly only given ONE, you start to sweat a little.

Eric Schwabb, president of NOAA fisheries casts for ladyfish in the bay

TRCP decided to have this summit in Florida because our sunshine state has the largest fishing and boating industry in the US (17 billion dollars). We're a state that understands the importance of these businesses for our economy and we're trying to get it right. Fishing in Florida supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and steers the livelihoods of people from coast to coast. Fishing is a hot topic in the environmental community but the bottom line is that we need it, but we need to manage it properly. TRCP is helping by providing a network and platform for the marine scientists to converse with writers and the policy makers who affect change at the legislative and public levels.

Thursday morning I was scheduled to be in a boat fishing and filming with Whit Fosbourgh, president of TRCP and Guy Harvey, of, well, Guy Harvey. That is, until a rogue cold front sent straight from the devil himself shattered those chances with 30 mph winds. You can imagine how bummed I was. So instead, as a backup plan, MOTE marine lab offered us a tour of their aquaculture center.

A biologist at MOTE aquaculture center uses a sonogram to check a sleeping
sturgeon for eggs, while journalist Steve Waters looks on

I've been to many fish farms in the past, but they were only glorified holes in the ground that offered city-anglers the chance to catch their dinner. MOTE's facility was a fully self-sustaining laboratory that harvested sturgeon for caviar and filets. While I love to catch my own fish from the Atlantic, after three hours in their center, I started seeing this operation as a real solution to meeting market demands of threatened species or a slew of other fish for that matter.

Later on that evening the winds died down and we had a green light from the local fishing guides for our sunrise outing on Friday morning. Since this would be the meat of the final video, we decided to dedicate a chaser vessel strictly to bounce me around from boat to boat to get footage of as many anglers as possible. We had beautiful light and I was amazed at the diversity of fish that people were catching. One boat counted 12 species of fish in just three hours! If that doesn't speak to the productivity, diversity, and importance of Florida's waters, then I don't know what will.

In the three days at the summit I made some great connections and learned a lot about the necessary marriage between resource management and Florida's economy. I'm excited for the conversations that were sparked and even more thrilled about the actions that will follow. Spreading the word is what it's all about and I'm honored to be part of that movement.

TRCP board member Connie Parker and Bart Hudson, the president of the Florida House in 
Washington DC received two of my canvas prints as gifts for their support. 

Stay tuned for the video!