Friday, September 30, 2011

Venture Out! Gator Babies

Following up with the study on American alligator nests in Everglades National Park, I was able to get up in the helicopter with Mark Parry again this month to check up on the nests we surveyed in late July. The plan was to conduct aerial surveys to determine which nests were flooded, hatched, still incubating, or predated upon.

Besides being important indicators for Everglades’ health, which Mark explains in the video, baby alligators might possibly be the cutest things to ever come out of an egg. Their disarming grunts, squishy yolk-filled bellies, and gummy jaws make it hard to fathom they're the same "man-eaters" people consider them today. I imagine t-rex hatchlings were just as adorable, though. Even April was getting attached to her little friend. I'm pretty sure if Mark and I weren’t there, she would have slipped one into her pocket.

We planned on being in the air the whole day, but luckily we had some opportunities to land the helicopter and investigate a couple nests. Unfortunately, however, with the majority of our time spent circling nests and banking to get better views, my stomach was in revolt. Maybe it was the leftover fajitas I had that morning, maybe it was the awkward perspective shifts of looking through the wide-angle lens, whatever the case, I was on the cusp of decorating the side of the helicopter several times. I kept my mouth shut and just hoped I could hold out in time for lunch. Next time, I'll bring Dramamine. Here's the newest video, check it out! 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Savage Race Debut

Original savage, Mark Parry in Homestead, Florida became the face of Savage Race

Some of you may remember the entry a few months back about the promotional shoot I did for Savage Race and Map Cap Events. Using those photos of my friends from the mud pits of Homestead, Florida the Savage Race crew was able to promote their event in all different types of media and in less than four months attract over 2,000 people for their debut on August 27th.  The day before the race I had a chance to walk the course and help put some finishing touches on the obstacles and mud pits. Sam Abbitt and Lloyd Parker (owners and managers of Savage Race) made sure the 5k was going to be brutal and live up to its slogan: "the race built to kick your ass." In fact, the property was an old sand mine and current ATV course on the outskirts of the Green Swamp, which I had just visited for Florida Forever a few months back. While setting up I saw a few cottonmouths slither across the trail and had to laugh. The 2,000 plus people carb-loading on Friday night had no idea what they had in store.

On the morning of race, it was funny to see the images of my muddy friends from Homestead plastered all over banners, t-shirts, and even water bottles. The crowds slowly trickled in as the first wave commenced at 9:00 AM. There were already 6 photographers covering the race but they focused only on images where bib numbers and participants' faces were clearly showing. My assignment was to take images for promotional materials which requires a completely different style of photography. Luckily I had a four-wheeler and driver at my disposal so I was able to stay mobile throughout the day.

The trickiest part was just making sure my lens stayed clean with all the mud that was slung around. I took nearly 1,900 photos that day but here are a few favorites..

My uncle Larry Heaton in fine form

My cousin Matt Heaton flew down from Virginia to run the race

You know that I couldn't just sit there and watch everyone else have all the fun, so I jumped in the last wave at 12:00 and put my grit to the test. I had a slight advantage knowing all the pitfalls and obstacles of the course, but even then it was a brutal 3 miles. Halfway through my wave a massive lightning and rain storm swept through central Florida and I could barely see more than three feet in front of me. I finished in 39 minutes but wasn't able to attempt the swim because of the lightning. Unfortunately the rain also forced everyone home including the band, the vendors, and all the participants waiting to celebrate their mud run. I felt bad that the Savage Race crew didn't get a chance to see their event completely unfold, but during hurricane season these things are a little hard to predict. And besides, what's more savage than a lightning obstacle?

The next race is scheduled at the same location for sometime in February 2012. Check out their website and sign up. It definitely rocked me, but I'm ready for another serving. Please sir, may I have another?!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Green Swamp

Five months ago I went out on assignment for the Legacy Institute of Nature and Culture (LINC) to photograph the Green Swamp in Lake County. Every year LINC puts together a conservation photography calendar to help promote lands on the waiting list to receive Florida Forever funds. I look forward to this shoot every year because it gives me an excuse to explore new areas and dedicate three days exclusively to photography. And when I'm done, maybe, just maybe, my images will play an important role in protecting that land.

Like most adventures, however, things don't always go as planned. Equipment fails, the light gets flat, the weather changes, and in a swamp, the trail gets lost. It's rare to have an assignment where the best image just falls in your lap; you usually have to pay for it. I quickly found out the going rate in the Green Swamp for a worthy calendar photo is a pint of blood.

Adam Chasey, a coworker and friend volunteered to come along and we left after work driving 300 miles into the night. We pulled into our campsite just after midnight and were immediately attacked by the most ravenous and largest mosquitoes I've ever seen. It was going to be a long, long weekend. We quickly made a fire and set up our hammocks as close as we could, hoping we could fall asleep before the bugs got bold. We didn't.

Day 1

Still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we rolled out of the hammocks pre-dawn and started driving to see what the Green Swamp looked like in the daylight and scout for productive scenes. The Green Swamp is a watershed basin that encompasses approximately 230,000 acres in Lake, Polk, and Sumpter Counties. Hydrologically speaking, it's an extremely critical area as it encompasses the headwaters of four major rivers: the Peace, Oklawaha, Hillsborough, and the Withlacoochee. The Green Swamp also boasts the highest groundwater elevation in the peninsula which is important for maintaining the flow of water from the Floridian Aquifer. Within the basin there is a variety of ecosystems including pine uplands, scrub, sandhills, and wetlands.

While I knew the final calendar image would eventually need to be of wetlands, I promised a variety of photos, just in case. Luckily, as we drove into the management area the sun peaked on the horizon and a light fog lingered in the pines.

Wanting to take advantage of the soft light we trudged through the palmettos and made it into a cypress dome. As you know, these habitats are my bread and butter. Having spent so much time in the domes down in the Everglades, I was a little thrown off when I didn't see orchids and epiphytes clinging to everything. Instead, chain fern filled all the empty spaces and suddenly, there was order. Compositionally and spacially, it proved much cleaner than a tropical swamp. Still, the image I had in mind required something a little more dramatic; an icon of some sorts.

Adam and I started to make our way back to the campsite when my truck got stuck in the road. We were in the middle of nowhere, so after sinking the wheels even further in the dirt, I started digging them out with my dinner spoon. A feeble attempt, but I didn't see any other option. After 30 minutes of this, we saw a massive mud-covered truck bouncing down the road. We flagged down the driver and after rigging up his tow rope, out we popped in a matter of minutes. He laughed at the spoon and my five-finger shoes, then rode on to hunt turkeys. With my truck unreliable and my pride too damaged to continue driving on those backroads, we decided it time to set out on foot.

Figuring that more water flow typically brings bigger trees and abundant wildlife, the Withlacoochee River headwaters seemed like our best bet. I don't know how setting out two hours before sundown in a braided swamp without bringing a flashlight, phone, or GPS ever broke through our paper-thin caution, but we came extremely close to bedding down and spending the night lost in the middle of a swamp. The swarms of prehistoric-sized mosquitoes would have loved munching on us all night. Probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my outdoor life was that night, wading up to my chin in blackwater with my camera bag over my head hoping alligators wouldn't be attracted to the splashing. At least for the calendar's sake we found the icon we were looking for and we would return the next day to find its light.

Too dark to photograph, I thought this old growth cypress would be the perfect subject to represent Green Swamp

Day 2

In the morning we revisited the pine uplands but didn't spend long knowing our target photo was back in the swamp. The light was great for moody silhouettes which are always good to have in a portfolio, but at this point I had my sights set on wetlands. 

Instead of putting up the camera and waiting for the afternoon light, Adam and I started exploring the domes with different eyes, using macro lenses on the ferns and varying shutter speeds to create abstracts with the cypress trees. Sometimes it's just fun to get in tight and work a scene. I must have spent an hour photographing this one budding cypress limb. Had I been focused only on calendar images, I never would have shot a vertical. Now it's one of my new portfolio favorites.

By late afternoon we were back in the swamp, this time equipped with headlamps, phones, and my truck's keyless clicker to remotely honk the horn if we were in a jam. I was surprised how easy it felt navigating the channels and sloughs in the daylight after our debacle the night before. This time we committed our route to memory and avoided veering off the main flow.

Fishing spiders and tree frogs made for decent subjects along the way and I felt compelled to photograph them just in case we couldn't find that one old growth tree. Eventually, just as the setting sun dappled through the trees we spotted its massive trunk and started setting up our tripods. For a property that holds such ecological importance for the wetlands and rivers downstream, I needed a scene that invited people to fall in love with the swamp. While spiders, alligators, and snakes are all part of this region, I wanted a landscape that called to the essence of old Florida.

For this shot, I used a polarizer to cut down on the glare from the leaves and the water. I left my shutter open for 30 seconds to allow for the water to become smooth like glass. As a final touch to keep your attention at the cypress tree I asked Adam to climb inside the base, which could easily fit 4 people, and illuminate the sides with a flashlight. Knowing we found the shot on the last night was a huge relief and we slept well, ready for one last morning of images before driving back to the Keys. 

Day 3

On the last day, the sun didn't leave the cover of clouds until 9 AM. Frustrated, we went searching for wildlife and happened upon a few snakes. They were a little too small to put in any context but on the side of the road as we were leaving we spotted a large yellow rat snake in a stand of long leaf pines. These are fairly common snakes, but they're remarkable in how their bodies are designed climb tall trees grasping the grooves in the bark in search of bird eggs or rodents. With the blue sky locking in the background and a bit of fill light from a reflector, we photographed the snake for fifteen minutes as he made his way down the pine and into the brush.

I was grateful to end the trip on that note. When I got home and sent in my submissions the final two images that the editors picked were the yellow rat snake and the old growth cypress. Eventually we chose the landscape, and I can't wait to share the calendar with all of you when it comes out early this October.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Venture Out! Gator Nest Survey

Erin Woods with National Audubon and Mark Parry from Everglades National Park
slog through sawgrass checking American alligator nests 

Restoring the Everglades takes collaborative work from a slew of organizations and agencies. Each research program provides valuable data which helps to form the overall restoration narrative. I love being involved in this circle of biologists and researchers who have some of the coolest jobs in south Florida.

Wildlife biologist with Everglades National Park, Mark Parry, suits up for gator nest monitoring

Mark Parry, a wildlife biologist for Everglades National Park works with american alligators in the summers studying the relationship between nesting success and water management practices. By the end of July american alligators have built their nests and laid eggs in remote areas of the park. Mark has the task of locating these nests via helicopter, counting the eggs, and monitoring their success rates. Occasionally a protective mother will stand her ground and Mark takes the opportunity to measure, weigh, and tag her too. When he asked my coworkers and me to accompany him on a flight, it was a no-brainer. Jumping out of helicopters, slogging through marsh, and wrestling gators? Yes please. Plus, it'd give me a reason to wear my Top Gun-style aviators.

Check out the next Venture Out! video from our day in the field with Mark.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thank you Gore-Tex!

At the Tavernier Science Center we use drop nets to sample fish in Florida Bay and southern Everglades. Transporting the nets in boats, trucks, and helicopters to bring them to mangrove swamps where they sit under harsh sun and drag against barnacles and rebar, it's no wonder we're constantly having to repair them. At this point, it seems that several of our nets are made up entirely of duct tape. This makes the sampling extremely delicate and only complicates our schedules when we have to spend a day away from our work to fix the rips.

With a generous donation from GORE-TEX, our net mending days might be over. The company was kind enough to send an entire roll of their rip-stop and waterproof material, asking only that we use it in the field and tell them how it works.

Once the material arrived, we took it to a local seamstress at Ship Shape and had it sewn into the new generation of drop nets. The difference in material was remarkable and felt like trading in our Gremlin for a Corvette.

The very next day we took it out on the Bay and it worked perfectly. I know it's a nerdy thing to get excited about, but knowing that I won't be fiddling with duct tape after hours is pretty comforting. Moreover, I love it when big companies like GORE-TEX take the time to support the little guys. Thank you so much!