Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge
Guest Columnist of the Month George Ponder talks about one of his favorite close-to-home photo spots.
Living in North Alabama as I do, the Gulf Coast is a convenient vacation spot-only a four-hour drive from my neck of the woods. Typically, I grab the golf bag for our vacations and spend time on the golf course while the wife and kids play in the sand. This year, I decided to leave the golf bag at home and carry the camera bag instead.
For the past two years, the Fort Morgan peninsula has been our destination spot on the Gulf Coast . The peninsula lies on the eastern entrance to Mobile Bay and is the home of the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge. The opportunity to explore this refuge with a camera was too great to pass up.
The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1980 and consists of approximately 7,000 acres of coastal lands that range from beach dunes to pine-oak woodlands. The refuge runs along the coasts of both the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay and is home to more than 540 species of animals ranging from herons to egrets to alligators to deer. Birds are the most visible habitant of the refuge and offer tremendous photographic opportunities. I spent my mornings roaming the refuge during our weeklong vacation and barely scratched the surface of what this habitat has to offer.
On my first day walking the fringes of the refuge, it felt as if at every turn a bird would appear. I had to consciously pace myself to avoid filling all my camera’s memory cards on the first day. I was also amazed at the differing personalities of the birds. I would come across some birds that didn’t blink an eye about my presence while others flew off squawking as soon as they noticed my presence. Others seemed to come out of the shadows and pose while others kept to the safety of concealment.
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Patience and a little stealth proved to be a requirement for my exploration. You also need to have a long lens. While a 300mm lens would do, a 400mm lens or greater is better suited for reaching the wildlife that are more skittish. I carried the Sigma 50-500mm for most of my exploration except for when I chased sunsets (then my Tokina 12-24mm came in handy). The Tamron 200-500mm would be another good choice in lenses.
I found that this type of photography is different than other wildlife photography I’ve shot. In shooting the eagles in North Alabama, a monopod or tripod was necessary because you remained stationary most of the time covering the nest. While I could have set up in one area and waited for the wildlife to come to me, I found that exploring the refuge was more revealing and rewarding. Many of the birds are territorial in that they don’t wander far from their nest and tend to remain in one area; you’d never see them if you stayed in one place. I found that a monopod was a little cumbersome for the walks and chose to use my Sigma unsupported. I’ve had this lens for sometime now and have gotten use to the weight, so losing the monopod wasn’t an issue. The sun provided enough light to easily allow for shutter speeds of 1/1000 or greater, which eliminated any handshake issues.
I would find myself forgetting I had a camera in my hands at time, as I looked around in amazement. I developed a new respect for pelicans on this trip. One morning I was walking along the shores of Mobile Bay and the pelicans were feeding-hundreds of them. If you have never seen pelicans feed in open water, it is a sight. They would soar to several hundred feet to find schools of fish below, nosedive into the water, get a mouth full of food, and return to flight.
The average wingspan of a pelican is 5-6 feet, and they weigh 8-10 pounds. Needless to say, pelicans aren’t small birds. I was stunned at the impact these birds made on the water and the ease at which they returned to flight. Many sounded like canons as they impacted the water.
Great blue herons were very common in the refuge and many would seem to pose for the camera while others had not desire to be photographed. These birds are very impressive not only in size but their ability to stay motionless. I got leg cramps just watching them stand motionless for endless periods as they stalked their lunch.
There was one refuge habitant that I didn’t get a good picture of, but wasn’t the least bit disappointed. On the second day I noticed tracks in the sand leading from one pond to another. At first it looked like sea turtle tracks, but I quickly realized that I was looking at alligator tracks. I knew that alligators were in the area, but hadn’t really thought about it until I saw the tracks.
I’ve walked nature trails knowing snakes might be in the area, but comparing a snake to an alligator seemed like one of those apples/oranges discussions. Snakes slither away while alligators hunt you down and eat you-or so I thought.
It was a different experience shooting the wildlife knowing there was an alligator in the area. The day after finding the tracks, I found the gator. Something cautioned me to look in the pond of water I was approaching and, when I did, I saw two beady eyes staring at me. As best as I could tell, the gator was about 4-5 feet in length and he was floating maybe 10 yards away. I took a few pictures of him (or her) and waited to see what it would do. To my surprise and relief, it just stared at me for a few minutes and then swam off to the other end of the pond. I only saw the alligator once more (though I was always conscious that it was in the area).
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The shore birds (gulls, sandpipers, terns, etc.) in the area were probably the most animated. They would run the shoreline in search of food as if they were in a race, trying to beat each other to the prey. Some would allow me to get really close to them while other would quickly run off, not remembering they could easily fly away. Some would stop, stretch out their necks and bob their heads in an effort to intimidate me.
I did walk up on a pair of odd-looking birds one morning. They were quietly taking a nap on the beach and I was able to get a few frames off before they noticed me. The black skimmer’s bottom beak extends beyond its upper beak, allowing it to skim the surface of the water and snatch food up with the lower beak. I always found them in pairs and once they saw me, they didn’t stick around long. I feel fortunate to have come across these birds.
My most challenging subject was the yellow-crowned night heron. These birds hang out in the tall grass surrounding glades and ponds. They show themselves long enough to grab a few crabs or fish and quickly disappear back into the grass. I walked up on one early in the week and was able to get a few frames off before it disappeared. Throughout the week, I tried to find one again, but it took camera shyness to new heights.
The week was full of challenges, excitement and fulfillment. My visits to the refuge only added to the relaxation of the trip. Getting away from the daily work grind to spend time with my family and to take in the sights of the wildlife habitat was very refreshing.
The Gulf Coast in its own rights is a joy to visit and is full of photographic opportunities from shore birds to sunsets. The Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge holds all these opportunities and more. The serenity of the Refuge and the wildlife that I came across made for a very relaxing, memorable vacation. The Gulf Coast is quickly becoming an annual vacation spot for my family and it will be tough to leave the camera bag at home from now on.