Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and Sebastian Inlet State Park

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and Sebastian Inlet State Park

January 9 ~ Vero Beach, FL

It had been a few years since I visited Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge so I decided my second outing of the trip would be there.  I was going to go at sunrise so I checked the weather the night before, clear skies with some clouds coming in mid-day, it looked perfect.  With sunrise at 7:15 and the refuge only about 20 minutes away from where I was staying I didn't have to get up that early which was really nice. I woke up that morning, walked outside in the dark and didn't see a single star, I decided to go anyway.  As I drove over to the refuge I could see a small break in the clouds right near the horizon where it looked like the sun could shine through, there was still a chance for some nice morning light.

As soon as I got onto the barrier island the chance of good morning light disappeared into the heavy fog.  I couldn't believe how foggy it was and only on the island of course. I arrived at the north end of the refuge and figured I would start the morning at the Bird's Impoundment Trail. I parked the car and started walking down the trail, I thought maybe I could still make some unique photos in the fog, it can be different which can be good. I walked for about 15-20 minutes down the trail and didn't see or hear a thing, it was dead, no birds anywhere.  I began to get frustrated and walked back to the car to try another spot at the refuge. This morning wasn't turning out as good as I had hoped.

Just a few minutes later I arrived at the parking area for the Centennial Trail, the fog was still thick but starting to show signs of clearing a bit.  I took my time and walked along the trail that leads to the elevated boardwalk that overlooks Pelican Island.  I passed a small lake along the way that had a few Northern Shovelers but they were not close enough for photos.  Once I got on the boardwalk I did manage to scare an Anhinga but thankfully it didn't fly to far and perched nearby on a branch that allowed for a scenic photo of it.  I continued on my way to the end of the boardwalk, still seeing no other birds, it was such a slow morning. 

I returned to the parking area and started hearing some bird calls so I spent some time in that area.  I did manage to get a few good photos of some Red-bellied Woodpeckers searching the palm trees looking for food.  Once they flew away I decided that was enough with Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, it was time to go to another spot.  I knew I wasn't far from the Sebastian Inlet so I figured I'd go check that out and see if any interesting sea birds could be found. 

I wasn't familiar with the area so I first drove into Sebastian Inlet State Park on the south side of the inlet.  Once I realized I had to pay for parking I dismissed that idea figuring if there were no birds there I would be upset for paying. Instead, I found a little dirt lot on the side of highway A1A, I figured I would walk along the beach to get to the inlet.

As soon as I walked onto the beach I could see just how foggy it was, I think there may have been even thicker fog hanging over the ocean.  The large waves were crashing hard, it was surprisingly loud.  It didn't take long before I stumbled into a couple of Sanderlings running back and forth with the waves searching for food.  These were the first cooperative birds of the morning so I laid on the sand trying to anticipate the direction they were searching and began taking photos.  They are surprisingly fast little birds as they run from the crashing waves so I was having fun trying to keep them in focus.  Finally I had some photos worth sharing.

After spending some time with the Sanderlings I left them behind and continued walking towards the inlet.  Just as I walked up to the jetty along the Sebastian Inlet I saw a Willet feeding in the surf.  There were a few people fishing around it and the bird did not seemed bothered by human presence so I knew I had my next subject.  This was hands down the most cooperative Willet I had ever encountered and I started having a blast photographing it.  It would walk right towards me, sometimes providing me with some very interesting poses.  Thanks to the fog I was able to get some unique high key white backgrounds.  Occasionally the Willet would move in front of the jetty rocks which provided me with a different darker background, this bird was being a perfect subject.  After what seemed like an hour but was more like 30 minutes I decided I had enough great photos of this bird and moved on.

I walked along the jetty and path on the southern side of the inlet and watch a bunch of Royal Terns diving and fishing in the swift moving water.  They were very fast moving and with not a lot of light and an all white sky they weren't the best photos. I walked a bit further and realized I had walked right into the Sebastian Inlet State Park area.  I was still along the rocky shoreline and first noticed a large Wood Stork walking in the grass right near the water, the foggy background made for a great mood for this prehistoric looking bird.  My day was starting to turn around!

While spending some time in the state park area I came upon a few very cooperative birds including some Snowy Egrets and a few Ruddy Turnstones.  I had left the Wood Stork alone for a while concentrating on other birds when I noticed it had come very close to me.  Occasionally there were some breaks in the fog and some very soft sunlight would start to shine through.  I tried to take advantage of this lighting to get some very close portraits of this somewhat unattractive bird and followed that up with a portrait of one of the Snowy Egrets.  The fog was now beginning to work in my favor.  Normally at this point in the morning if it was a clear day the sun would be so harsh I would have probably stopped photography much earlier in the day.  Instead I was taking my time with these birds and getting some unique looking photos, at least to me, all thanks to the fog.  

I wrapped up my time at the jetty and began my my walk back to the car.  The very slow morning had certainly turned around for me and I couldn't believe how many great photos I had at this point.  I figured my morning was done but it was about to get even better. 

Just as I reached the walking path that would take me back to my car I looked further down the beach and noticed a large flock of birds quite a ways off.  They were too far away to tell what they were so I decided to walk down to see what was there.  It was just after 11am and the light was still amazing, I figured it was worth a short walk.  


As I got close to the first flock of birds, I could identify them as Sanderlings, the quick little birds I had photographed earlier in the day.  This time instead of just a few of them it was a flock of at least 100 all huddled together resting. Normally I would have started photographing them right away but as I approached I noticed something even better.  Closer to the ocean was a small flock of 40-50 Royal Terns all resting together.  I never had a chance to photograph that species up close so I laid down on the sand a good distance away and started my inch-by-inch belly crawl to get closer.  


It didn't take me long before I was in good photo range for the 500mm lens and I started shooting away.  At this point the sun was finally starting to break through the heavy fog from the morning but the fog was still there softening everything, the light was great!  It almost never happens that I get to have nice light this late in the day, thank you fog!  

I started my normal approach to photograph birds that are stationary and comfortable.  I take more scenic photos that include some of the surroundings and sometimes try to show off the whole flock.  After each short series of photos I take, I move forward a bit more and repeat.  As I get closer I start to isolate individual birds that may be on the outside edge of the flock or any bird exhibiting unique behavior.  Within this flock of terns some of them had started preening which made for some unique photos. 


After some time with the Royal Terns I noticed a few of the Sanderlings had broken off from the flock to head down to the water for some bathing.  I wasn't able to get too close to the bathing birds but I did get a few of them cleaning up and drying off after they came out of the water.  A couple of them were flapping around right in front of me.  I was now embedded in with the flocks of birds, they were all around me and none of them seemed bothered by my slow and steady approach.  It doesn't happen often but when you can work your way into a flock of shorebirds like this it is so fun to watch and hear them all around you.  Sometimes they will walk right up to you, I've even had the occasional bird try to use me for some shelter.  

I had moved back to concentrating on the Royal Terns when I noticed their flock had split up.  One particular bird began calling like crazy and generally making a racket.  It started out in the smaller group but eventually walked and squawked its way into the larger flock.  Most of the other birds seemed rather unfazed by this loud intruder but that didn't stop it from continuing the ruckus. I think I was actually laughing as I was taking these photos, this bird really stood out.  

At one point the entire flock of Royal Terns took off and flew out over the ocean.  I looked around to see what could have scared them, hoping it wasn't me but I didn't see anything.  I'm still not sure what caused it but thankfully they flew back around and landed right near me again.  This time some of them landed even closer so I was able to get a few very close portraits of these beautiful terns.  Moments later it happened again and only some of them took off and flew around before landing.  This time I was ready for the landing photos and I wrapped up the morning capturing a few of them just before touch down.  

This outing was a perfect example of sticking with it sometimes.  The thought of quitting that morning crossed my mind quite a few times but had I not stuck around and continued trying I would have missed so many wonderful opportunities.  Thank you for viewing and reading along and I hope you'll join me on my next installment when I visit a local fish market and hang out with a bunch of Pelicans.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.