The Canaveral National Seashore is a 25-mile expanse of pristine Atlantic Ocean beaches, dunes, and land between Titusville and New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The Seashore was formally created in 1975 and to this day it remains as the longest undeveloped tract of land along the East coast of Florida.

At the southern tip of the Seashore is the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, encompassing the unused land, salt marshes, and ponds of the 140,000 acres acquired by NASA for the Kennedy Space Center in the early 1960's. After NASA decided what portions of the land it needed for a launch complexes and other space-related facilities, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed responsibility for managing the remainder of the land.

Unimproved roads on dikes meander through saltwater estuaries, freshwater impoundments, marshes, dunes, hardwood hammocks, and scrub that serve as home to a myriad of wildlife. Some of the wildlife makes the Refuge its home year round. Some are temporary residents during the winter months, either passing through on their way elsewhere or wintering within the Refuge before returning home.

Waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, eagles, ospreys, alligators, otters, bobcats, snakes, and pigs are some of the many species that can be routinely spotted while visiting the area. On a recent February morning I paid a visit to the Refuge to photograph some of the winter residents.

A typical freshwater impoundment found at the Refuge. A large flock of Northern Pintails is in the upper right portion of the image in front of the tree line. More Pintail and a smattering of Blue Wing Teal are in the upper left portion of the image between the vegetation and the tree line.

My intent in visiting the Refuge was to photograph waterfowl and wading birds. Landscape shots were on the agenda in the event I was unable to find any suitable targets. For these diametrically opposite types of photography I knew I would likely need to shoot with the longest focal length at my disposal for any waterfowl/birds while being able to go wide for landscapes. If the action was too fast for a camera attached to a monopod I also needed to have the ability to shoot long while handholding the camera/lens . So I packed equipment that would serve all of these purposes. The gear I packed included:

  • 400mm f2.8 prime lens, my go-to long lens for sports and wildlife;
  • 200-400mm f4 zoom lens, a lens I am comfortable handholding while still giving me a long, versatile focal length;
  • Monopod for the 400mm lens
  • Nikon D800e camera body, an FX (full frame), 36MP body that excels for landscape shots;
  • Nikon D500 camera body, a DX (1.5X crop frame), 20.9MP camera body that can shoot at 10 frames per second;
  • 70-200mm f2.8 medium length zoom lens, a versatile lens that I never leave at home no matter what;
  • 1.4X Teleconverter; and
  • 17-35mm f2.8 zoom lens for landscapes.

Shortly after my arrival at the Refuge I heard the distinctive sounds of ducks even though it was still dark and I couldn't actually see them. After the first glimpses of sunrise, I could see egrets and herons wading into the water. Much to my delight, I geared up to take some long distance wildlife shots.

To get as tight as possible on my subjects I grabbed the D500, the 400mm f2.8 lens, and the 1.4X teleconverter on my monopod. That combination gave me an overall working focal length of 840mm at f4. Throughout the day, camera settings fluctuated as dawn turned to warm, early morning light and then to brighter, mid-morning sunlight. Shooting in aperture priority at f4, my ISO ranged from 1600 at dawn to 200 with full sun. ISO 400 was my choice in mixed light. My shutter speeds varied from 1/250th second to 1/8000th second.

My first subject was a Reddish Egret that was on the hunt for breakfast in one of the marsh ponds that I came across soon after arriving at the Refuge. I watched it perform its unique, frantic, schizophrenic dance, erratically darting back and forth while opening its wings to cast a shadow on the water. There is a definite method to this seeming madness - the heron's prey can't anticipate which way the heron will ultimately go and by casting a shadow on the water it is better able to see its prey below the surface.

I spent some time capturing the heron's antics as darkness turned to morning.

My next target was waterfowl, specifically a flock of Northern Pintail that flew overhead while I was mesmerized by the heron's agility. I watched the flock circle several times looking for a suitable pond to use as a fly-in breakfast diner. Finally, the flock landed at the far end of an impoundment opposite from where I was shooting the heron.

You may wonder what a flock of Pintail are doing on the East coast of Florida. As part of the Atlantic Flyway that stretches from the Arctic tundra of Baffin Island to the Caribbean, waterfowl abound at the Refuge during the yearly migration season. One notable winter visitor to the Refuge is the aforementioned Northern Pintail, a large, elegant duck that gets its name from the male's long, black tail feathers. As the flock flew overhead, I snapped away.

Another common wintertime resident of the Refuge is the Blue Wing Teal. This smallish duck is easily identified by a blue patch of feathers on its wing and by the drake's prominent white crescent moon plumage on its head. The Blue Wing Teal is the earliest arriving species of waterfowl beginning its southerly migration in the fall. It is also the last to return home.

Moving on, I found a Snowy Egret foraging in a small puddle. I positioned myself so the bird would be backlit by the sun, hoping its head feathers would be highlighted with a rim light effect. The dark shadows in the background only enhanced what I envisioned as I fired off my frames.

As time passed, I moved from location to location feeling fortunate to have been able to record some memorable moments. Before leaving the Refuge, I managed to locate other wading birds and they treated me to their morning rituals - another Snowy Egret, a Little Blue Heron, a Great Blue Heron, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbill.

As I was getting ready to pack up, a flock of pelicans flew overhead forming a long, single file line. As the lead bird dipped down and then rose, the column behind it played follow-the-leader with each bird mimicking the flight pattern of the bird in front. The result was a graceful, flowing chain that was impossible to memorialize with a single image. But, it was enough to have been able to watch this aerial dance come and go, and a fitting conclusion to my morning at the Refuge.

As I drove out of the Refuge, I couldn't help but think of Genesis 1:20-21

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

On this day, I was pretty good with it too....


Photography by Miguel A. Olivella, Jr.

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