When I was living in Florida Myakka River State Park was one of my favorite (late discoveries) trips to make for wildlife photography. The park takes up part of Sarasota County (most of the park) and Manatee County. The official address of the park is listed for Sarasota. Of all the state parks and national parks I have been to this park is BIG in terms wildlife. Every time I have been I have spotted deer, wild hogs, a bobcat, a gator (or two or many) and many birds.
The park offers camping and boat tours but that isn’t the coolest thing about this park. For me it’s the boardwalks (canopy boardwalk to be specific). You have a boardwalk that takes you over the water and you have one that is suspended in the canopy of the trees. Now, I grew up with camping in a tent, hiking, fishing and canoeing (and tubing) on the Withlacoochee River in Brooksville Florida (the part of the river that connects to Silver Lake) so I’m prefer to shoot from the ground rather than a boardwalk. Getting your feet wet and dirty and watching for cotton mouths, rattle snakes and sneaky bold gators makes getting that shot that more special. Besides, some of the best wildlife photographs are done at the animals eye level.
See, this park is more than just the lake and river but it’s about the forest too. With plenty of trails (over 30 miles of hiking) that takes you along the edge of the river or through the woods you have to be ready as animals just tend to “pop” out of hiding (you get my drift). Myakka River State Park does hold itself up for those into scenic/landscape photography (especially for sunsets) but it’s best for those with medium to long telephoto or zoom lenses. Most of the birds, wild hogs and alligators you can get pretty close to (along with the campers bandit…the raccoon) it’s the other animals that you’ll find a challenge without a long lens. Unlike many animals here up north, the ones down south tend to be a bit more skittish when it comes to people. Once they spot you they’ll give you a couple of seconds to shoot and then they are gone! If you are hoping to capture deer, the rare panther or bobcats then prepare to find a spot (look for animal trails) sit and wait. A truly successful wildlife photographer will go all camouflage to blend in with the environment.
Now let me get to some word of cautions for shooting in Myakka River State Park (actually this is for shooting anywhere in Florida or southern states). DO NOT feed the alligators. I’ve seen people do this just to bait the gators in close to get pictures. This is REALLY BAD news. You might think a little isn’t gonna hurt but what you are doing is telling this king of the river that we are a food source. Making them dangerous. Now that I’ve said that, alligators are one of my favorite subjects to shoot. I used to be really foolish back in the day when I first starting taking pictures. I was one of those that was limited on money and could only afford medium zoom lens. I didn’t do my own printing either (this was back when film was the only thing going). So, I would venture to golf courses to take pictures of alligators. They were so used to people being around that you often could walk within feet of them without the risk that they would rush back in the water. What made me look crazy to many was the fact that I would lay on the ground and elbow crawl to them so I could get the tight framing that I wanted. All was good until one day one of those gators decided to run back into the water. Not so bad you would think but you are wrong. I nearly had a heart attack. I had him (or her) within my view finder and all it takes is a little movement for your subject to be out of the view finder and you couple that with a loud splash you can now imagine how I thought for a split second that I was had. Anyway I used more caution from that point. I had already had plenty of respect for them but even more so after getting an in person experience on their explosive speed. Don’t let that discourage you though. You can usually get great pictures from a boat or canoe and even from the bank of the river. Of course when you are on the bank you have to be mindful of your surroundings. Gators are like crocodiles in the way they hunt. They approach from just under the water so they can still see the prey while their bodies stay concealed. The approach is slow so as to not make ripples that will give them away. Many of Florida’s bodies of water are stained and murky making seeing them once submerged quite difficult. You can see gators year round in Florida but most will find a place to lay low during the winter time. There is one particular time when you should take special care to give them the respect they deserve and that is during mating season (usually starting in April). The alligators are on the move looking for mates.
The wild hogs in the area usually will ignore you BUT if you come across a momma and her babies then do not approach. They are very protective and may charge you. The males on the other hand are usually only aggressive when they are cornered and trust me. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those 6 inch tusk. Just saying.
Florida has six poisonous snakes (but only four in the area we are talking about today) that you should be aware of as well. One of those thankfully will usually give you plenty of warning if you get too close (thanks to the rattles on the tail) and that one is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. You are more likely to come across one of these within the forested areas of the park (I haven’t come across one yet being there but I do know they are there). The second one is the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake also has rattle but their rattles are so small that more time than not you won’t even hear them. The third snake on this list is the Florida Cottonmouth. This guy (along with the next one but for a different reason) is particularly dangerous due to it’s coloration. It easily blends in with it’s environment (usually nestled among fallen logs, trees and limbs) and found along wetlands and waterways. Cottonmouths are also very adept to swimming and are often mistaken for a common water snake (non-poisonous). How can you quickly tell between it and a harmless water snake is by the head (the easiest way). Cottonmouths have a pit on the side of their head (water snakes don’t), viewed from above you can’t see their eyes (water snakes you can) and their eyes are slanted (water snakes are round). The above snakes are part of the pit viper family which means they have a pit on the side of their heads. The last snake on the list is the exception as it looks harmless but as beautiful as it is, it is also just as dangerous. I’m talking about the Eastern Coral Snake. The Eastern Coral Snake has colorful red, yellow and black bands. It’s strikingly beautiful but beware. These little guys (despite not having fangs) are potent. As a relative of the cobra one would think they are just as deadly but according to research the Diamondback Rattlesnake is more dangerous. This may be in part that a rattlesnake as fangs which allows it to easily give a full dose of it’s venom when it strikes when the coral snake actually has to chew to get through the skin. Then again maybe the venom isn’t as toxic but who wants to find out. Right? The coral snake can be found all over Florida and often is discovered under anything that protects it from predators (rocks, logs and the likes). The two that I haven’t mentioned is the Timber Rattlesnake and the Southern Copperhead. The ranges of these two are only as far south as north Florida. The Southern Copperhead being mostly in the Florida Panhandle area.
While Florida is known to have one two species of poisonous spiders (widows and recluses) you probably won’t come across them on one of the hikes here. What you will often see is a very large web spinning spider that we (Floridians) call “Banana Spider” but is more officially known as the Golden Silk Orb Weaver. Despite the large size of the female and her bright colors they are harmless. Sure they can bite you (as anything else when they feel threatened) but they are quite docile. So don’t worry if you run through a web and don’t try swatting one off if it gets on you. Just take a stick and prod it to leave you.
Anyway, if you want to see Florida and it’s natural beauty and abundance of wildlife then Myakka River State Park has to be on your list for places to go. If you are into wildlife and bird photography then you will not be disappointed.
Best ~ R