January 4 ~ Sebastian, FL
I have been lucky enough to vacation in Florida for 7-10 days every winter, which is a wonderful escape from the Northeast cold. Both my mother and my in-laws spend the winters in Florida and my younger sister has lived there for over a decade. My mom and sister stay in the small city of Sebastian on the east coast of Florida. It is a wonderful town situated right on the Indian River (the inland water way) and only a short drive from the Atlantic Ocean. My wife's parents stay in Cape Coral on the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers.
During October of 2015 my wife and I decided we would spend about 5 weeks in Florida in the upcoming months of January and February in 2016. On New Years Day, after two days of driving we arrived in Sebastian ready to enjoy the warm weather. We arrived late that night and quickly unpacked then proceeded to sleep.
At some point the next day my wife and I walked along the Indian River to a small park where the main road leading into town dead ends at the water. Riverview Park is always busy with people, most of them stopping for just a few minutes to enjoy the view, lots of people walking their dogs and some families playing on the kid's jungle gym. It is not the typical park one would visit to see and photograph wildlife yet the wildlife exists there. As we walked up to the water I noticed some small birds floating and diving and thought to myself "those look like Grebes". As we walked closer I was thrilled to see they were in fact Grebes. There was a group of 6 or 7 Horned Grebes feeding in this small inlet, I wished I had my camera since I figured they would not hang around the area very long. The following day I ended up at the same park either walking or driving by, I can't recall, and the Grebes were still there. I decided then that the next chance I had I would come back to the park to try to photograph these neat looking birds. Thankfully I got that chance the next day.
It was Monday January 4th and around 3pm I drove to the park with my camera hoping the Horned Grebes would still be present. I parked right next to the water, stepped out of the car and to my disappointment didn't see any birds in the water. There were a bunch of gulls of various types flying around and a few White Ibis feeding in the tall grass by a parking lot but that seemed to be it. "Had I missed them?" I thought. I walked back to my car and began to set up my camera anyway. After attaching the 500mm lens and camera to the ground pod, basically a frisbee with a pan/tilt head attached to the lens, I walked back to the water's edge to look for the Grebes. After a few minutes I thought I caught a glimpse of a small bird far out in the water but it quickly disappeared, I hoped it was a diving Grebe. A few moments later it surfaced a bit closer, it was what I came for, a Horned Grebe! I climbed over some rocks and found a small section of sandy beach to lay on between two larger bushes I hoped would camouflage me somewhat and began to wait.
At first the bird stayed out pretty far from the shoreline, it actually began preening and bathing. It would dive just under the surface, come back up and start flapping and splashing around. I began to photograph this wishing the action was closer. It is always quite amusing to watch birds bathing in the water.
I had watched and photographed this bird for a while when I finally noticed a few more Horned Grebes had shown up. It can be difficult to be aware of your surroundings when you are looking through a long telephoto lens that really narrows your field of view. I have to remind myself many times to take my eye away from the camera and just look around. The Grebes were starting to come closer and diving for fish, my plan was working out perfectly!
I think I spent roughly 30-45 minutes lying on this tiny bit of sand that was slowly disappearing as the tide came in. It was getting more uncomfortable by the minute. I began to start thinking of a different approach, maybe I could get in the water? I put my hand in the water and it was warm, really warm. Thankfully December in Florida had been hotter than normal so the water temperatures didn't get too cold. The only other concern when getting in any water in Florida, alligators. The Indian River is salt water so no concern there, I decided I would give it a try. I waited until the Grebes moved away from me a bit and I went back to the car to get my tripod. I set up in pretty much the same spot I had been, between the bushes, except now I was sitting right in the water with the tripod over my legs. It was the perfect setup and still allowed my camera and lens to be very close to the water's surface which is an important part of getting the low angle photos I was looking for. With my new setup ready I began to wait again, would the birds come back now that I was in the water?
It didn't take long for the Grebes to start moving back in, my new spot seemed like it would work just fine. As I sat in the water, as motionless as possible, I noticed some movement close to shore on my left side. It was tough to see through the bush next to me but before I knew it a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers were swimming right towards me. I slowly swung the camera to point in their direction and waited for them to come into the clear. A few of them came around the bush so close to me that I couldn't focus on them, they were probably about 10 feet away. The ducks were instantly aware of my presence but didn't seem too afraid, they slowly swam away as I took photo after photo.
The small group of Mergansers were mostly females with a few young males mixed in that were starting to transition to their adult colors. The duck below is one of those males that is starting to get the black head feathers of the adult. The flock casually swam by me as I photographed them and went out of view behind the bush to my right. A while later I saw them headed back my way and again they seemed very aware of me but not scared, they cruised by right in front of me. This time around they were interacting more with each other, I got some calling, splashing, diving, and chasing, lots of fun action. It was about an hour before sunset so the lighting was starting to get really good.
I had been sitting in the water for almost 2 hours and was having so much fun watching and photographing all the birds that came nearby. I had previously read that water birds may be more comfortable with a person in the water than on land and this outing seemed to show that was true. At times the Horned Grebes were diving right near me and one would occasionally surface within 10 feet or so from where I was sitting. It was incredible to see them up close like that, their brilliant red eye shining in the sunlight. I even noticed a dolphin swimming out in the Indian River and got a photo as it swam by.
I ended the evening with a few nice portraits of the Horned Grebes swimming by as the late evening sun was disappearing. The temperature was starting to drop and even though the water was warm it was beginning to get chilly. I slowly climbed out of the water and packed up my camera and lens. My first successful wildlife outing of the Florida vacation was a wonderful success and little did I know it was just the beginning.