The Winter Wonderland of Florida’s North Gulf Coast

The Winter Wonderland of Florida’s North Gulf Coast

One of the most amazing places for winter nature photography in Florida that I know of is along the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico where there are no condos, no restaurants, and more importantly there are no people. This wondrous place is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It is a seemingly endless vista of salt marshes pock-marked with isolated islands of pine and oak that are home to an incredible array of wildlife and natural wonders.

Yesterday morning, I set off early – well before dawn – in hopes of catching some sunrise landscape shots over the salt marshes. I’ve photographed these same locations many times, but never at first light. It was a rare morning where the temperature dipped a few degrees below freezing, and the frost on the ground looked a lot like snow in my car’s headlights. It was so worth it, as I was rewarded with the most stunning sunrise I’ve seen in a long time! Winter often offers interesting colors and hues with the first hints of light, but this was something special….. just pure beauty in all its glory!

My original idea was to get some nice landscape shots, then get back to town and start working on some other photography projects, but I was all alone out in all this wilderness, and there were all kinds of birds everywhere. As a nature photographer – I’m supposed to know all about birds, right? Nope – birds are my weak point. I’m a botany guy at heart. Birds got my attention on this morning, and I went into the marshes after them – freezing water or not. At least I didn’t have to worry about alligators or snakes – too cold!

This great blue heron stood in contrast against the landscape as the early sunlight spread across the salt marsh. One of the many pine stands can be seen in the background.

Heading down to the actual Gulf of Mexico, I wanted to get a photograph of the lighthouse for my Florida history collection, and what I saw there was a halo around the sun! It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen this – and it was a great additional element to a common lighthouse composition. It was already turning into a fantastic morning!

One last shot of the shoreline with the sun halo at its peak, and I was off to find good locations to photograph birds in the myriad of scattered pools and grasses. I didn’t have to go far…

This sleepy great egret was standing on the edge of a marsh near the lighthouse. The first press of my camera’s shutter-release sent it silently flying off into the distance.

Walking along the shore – dozens of warblers and sparrows darted among the trees and foliage ahead of me. I was able to get some of them on camera, like this female yellow-rumped warbler.

Not unexpectedly – a male yellow-rumped warbler was close by!

Deciding eventually to get out of the cold wind and into the trees, I ended up walking into one of the mixed pine/oak islands and just to be scared out of my wits by a sudden shriek of a bald eagle in the tree not far above me. Nearby, as if outraged about all the noise – this chattering male red-bellied woodpecker got close enough for me to get a few hand-held shots without the tripod.

A female red-winged blackbird poses over a shallow freshwater pond. A great variety of birds were in this pond… ducks, egrets, herons, moorhens, coots, grebes, even a pair of soras that wouldn’t let me get close enough for a clear shot.

This pied-billed grebe kept popping up near me from under the surface of the pond where I was trying to get a clear shot of the soras…. causing enough of a distraction that I never did get a clear shot of them. At least I got this rare close-up of an unusual but very common water bird!

A catbird! These are so frustratingly difficult to photograph, that I gave up years ago trying to get one. This one popped up right in front of me as I was walking back to my car. Luckily my camera settings were perfect for this shot – I had no time for adjustments!

Florida’s State Bird – the northern mockingbird…. I’ve never photographed one of these, as they are so common, I wouldn’t have thought of it until this chilly morning. I’m glad I paused long enough to get this shot.

As the morning was becoming noon, and I was thinking of heading home to edit these photos on our new iMac, I found this female bufflehead duck swimming in a pond on the way back into town. As I have no ducks in my web galleries, this is the first, and I have a feeling it will be followed by many others in the very near future!
Rich Leighton
December 22, 2009

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About The Author

Pro photographer, writer, master naturalist, Florida native in the PNW, lucky husband, father of two boys, big hockey and soccer fan, and native orchid hunter.

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