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HIDDEN
A Winter Playground for Bird Photographers

A Winter Playground for Bird Photographers

By Tammy and Jimmy Cash

In mid-November each year, there is a vast natural wonderland that becomes blanketed not with snow, but with thousands of migratory birds.

Just over three hours from Atlanta, nestled around the Tennessee River in various areas near Decatur, Alabama is one of America’s largest wildlife refuges and a true national treasure. Known as the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex, this 35,000-acre site becomes a winter home to literally thousands of migratory cranes, geese and ducks. The remarkable concentration of birds continues through February, peaking in mid-January.

The Sandhill Crane Dance. WNWR Visitor Center. Photo by Jimmy Cash

The Sandhill Crane Dance. WNWR Visitor Center. Photo by Jimmy Cash

The “main attraction” is situated just three miles west of the I-65 Decatur exit. As you enter the road leading to the visitor center with open fields to each side, you will begin to see sandhill cranes flying in groups overhead and scattered about the landscape, feasting on the remnants of corn, millet, winter wheat and more. As you reach the visitor center, you begin to hear the cacophony of inharmonious vocalizations of literally thousands of sandhill cranes as they frolic, feast and dance in and around the purposely flooded farm land behind the visitor center. After leaving their roosting areas each morning, this is where the majority of the cranes spend their day.

You’ll find several viewing areas and blinds, plus an enclosed, heated observation building (note: viewing and photography from the building is done through glass). From inside, we use telephoto lenses (100-400mm and a 500mm prime) on tripods with the lens positioned very close to or against the glass. The best time to visit WNWR for the cranes and waterfowl is late November to early February, before the cranes begin their migration north to their spring nesting grounds. At their peak, there were 12,000 sandhill cranes reported during the Jan. 18, 2022, waterfowl survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Sandhill Cranes in Flight Over Fields @ WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash

Sandhill Cranes in Flight Over Fields @ WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash

 

Whooping Cranes in Flight @ WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash

Whooping Cranes in Flight @ WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash

However, sandhills are not the only crane in town for the winter. Ever since 2004, a few highly endangered whooping cranes have been joining the party. Each year since, anywhere from a couple of “whoopers” up to 15 have been reported, most of which are banded and/or fitted with GPS tracking devices. Even when mixed in among the sandhills you cannot miss their snow-white plumage as they tower above their smaller cousins. Also in the mix, you may see large numbers of greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, ducks and white pelicans, plus occasional snow geese, bald eagles, hawks, wading birds and shore birds.

Whooping Crane With Sandhill Cranes @ WNWR Visitor Center. Photo by Jimmy Cash

Whooping Crane With Sandhill Cranes @ WNWR Visitor Center. Photo by Jimmy Cash

 

White Pelicans at Crabtree Slough. WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash.

White Pelicans at Crabtree Slough. WNWR. Photo by Jimmy Cash.

The refuge is also known to be the home of Alabama’s largest duck population. Various species combined to reach a total of over 55,000 ducks at their peak in the Jan. 18, 2022 survey. Wintering duck species common to Wheeler include northern pintail, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, American black duck, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, canvasback, redhead, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, hooded merganser and northern shoveler.

The year-round resident wood ducks are common nesters in the spring and summer months within the refuge. The White Springs Dikes area is the best place to view and photograph the wintering ducks, according to one of the rangers. Some can also be seen behind the observation building at the visitor center.

Great White-Fronted Geese in Flight. WNWR White Springs Dikes. Photo by Jimmy Cash.

Great White-Fronted Geese in Flight. WNWR White Springs Dikes. Photo by Jimmy Cash.

What makes WNWR such an inviting haven for migrating birds? At the time of its designation as a national wildlife refuge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, share agreements were reached with crop farmers who cultivated thousands of acres nearby. That continues today, so farmers intentionally leave a percentage of their crop in the fields as food source and cover for ducks, geese, deer and other wildlife. Additionally, water control structures were built to manage the water levels and provide food for waterfowl by encouraging the growth of moist-soil plants and flooding agricultural crops such as corn, milo and millet. Examples of water-level control and field flooding during the fall and winter can be seen behind the visitor center and at the White Springs Dikes area.

So where are the best places to photograph wintering birds at WNWR?  Here are our suggestions:

The Visitor Center (3121 Visitor Center Road, Decatur, AL 35603). Here you can see cranes, geese, ducks, wading birds, bald eagles, hawks and more. From November–February, the Visitor Center is open seven day a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance gate to the Visitor Center  locks at 5 p.m. (see “Important Note” below for ongoing renovation info). A brief walk to the water’s edge directly behind the Visitor Center offers an open view.

A short trail behind the Visitor Center and to the right leads to the Wildlife Observation Building, offering glass-enclosed rooms with seating and spotting scopes.

Also, viewing and photography blinds overlooking the fields are scattered about, and established walking trails wind along the water and through the fields and woodlands.

Flint Creek Day Use Area and Hiking Trail: Leaving the visitor center, turn left onto Hwy. 67 and take an immediate right into the parking lot of the day-use area. Cranes can be seen along the water’s edge, and white pelicans frequent this area. Songbirds and other wildlife can be spotted along the trail.

Crabtree Slough: Leaving the visitor center, turn left onto Hwy. 67, travel a half mile and turn left into a small parking area with walking access to what looks like an old road on top of a pond dam. The slough to the left is often frequented by white pelicans.

White Springs Dikes: Located eight miles from the visitor center, this is the best place for viewing wintering ducks, colonial waterbirds, marsh birds and shorebirds. Leave the Visitor Center and turn left onto Hwy. 67. At the Hwy. 31 & 67 intersection in Decatur, turn right onto Hwy. 31. Follow 31/72A through Decatur and, just after crossing the Tennessee River, turn left onto a gated gravel road with a very small parking area to the left before the gate (GPS: 34.628761, -86.951042). Walk around the gate to enter. There are several miles of dikes that you can walk to view birds and wildlife in and around the wetlands and backwaters of the Tennessee River. This area of the WNWR is noted as a premier birding area by Alabama Birding Trails.

Other nearby areas of interest within WNWR:

  • Beaver Dam Swamp Boardwalk (GPS 650328, -86.818176)
  • Arrowhead Landing & Boat Ramp area on Limestone Bay for birding, kayaking and canoeing. (GPS 602002, -86.891991)
  • Public boat ramp on Hwy 67 on the left before the Visitor Center entrance for birding, kayaking and canoeing. (GPS545650, -86.931404)

With the exception of the Visitor Center, all other locations are accessible from sunup to sundown. View the refuge map and website for additional locations and information.

Click here to view the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s video of the refuge to learn more about the wildlife at WNWR.

Photo Equipment
For bird photography you will want to use a long telephoto lens, ideally 400mm or more, and a tripod. For capturing birds in flight, a camera with fast autofocus capabilities is ideal. You may also want to bring your lens of choice for landscape photography, especially for early mornings and evenings.

Whether you make it a daytrip or choose to spend a couple days photographing in the various areas of the refuge, we believe you will not be disappointed.

Important Note
Due to on-going renovations at and around the Visitor Center, some of the areas have been closed. However, we were told by the ranger the renovation of the observation building, board walk replacement, and new viewing blinds have been completed, and the refuge around the visitor center is scheduled to reopen November 12. Renovations of the Visitor Center building are ongoing through the winter, but the restrooms inside the center are scheduled to be accessible via a side door beginning November 1. Because plans are dependent on contractors and weather, it is best to call or check their website to confirm days and hours prior to making the trip. Their annual Festival of Cranes will still take place on January 14-15, 2023.

 

 

Tammy and Jimmy are avid nature photographers and conservationists. Their hope is that by capturing and sharing images, they will inspire a greater appreciation, awareness, and stewardship in others for the infinite wonders our natural world has to offer. They enjoy being members of Friends of Chattahoochee Bend State Park and serving as the park’s photographers. As active members of the GNPA, both are members of the Conservation Committee. Jimmy serves as a GNPA Instagram moderator, and Tammy chairs the Communication Committee and serves as the Conservation Committee’s Communications Sub-Committee Chair

Fall Color at George L. Smith State Park

Fall Color at George L. Smith State Park

Text and photos by Jamie Anderson

If you enjoy photographing fall colors, now’s the time to plan a visit to George L. Smith State Park in Georgia.

Here you can discover beautiful pond reflections of cypress and tupelo trees, complete with all the amber colors of autumn. Most years, the trees will transition from green to amber sometime in mid-November. (The trees in these photos were actually past peak when photographed in late November, but still showed some fall colors.)

While fall offers some colorful opportunities for photographers, this state park includes surprises as well, such as white sand dunes and a 137-year-old gristmill. Outdoor enthusiasts will find lakeside camping, cottage camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking and biking.

The mill pond invites you to explore the cypress and tupelo trees, some draped in Spanish Moss, to look for beavers, blue herons, great egrets, white ibis and other wading birds. The seven miles of hiking trails make it easy to explore the exterior forest, where you might find Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise.

On the 3-mile loop trail behind the covered bridge you can see areas with a lot of white sand. These are actually beach sand dunes (yes, in mid-Georgia) created when the ocean level was receding from the mountains and hills of northern Georgia thousands of years ago.

Hognose snakes, which prefer sandy soil, are sometimes spotted in this area. They are completely harmless, but if they feel threatened they may hiss and puff up like a cobra. If that doesn’t work, their best defense is to simply roll over and play dead. If you look closely, you may also find a tiny rare lichen growing on the sand in this area.

 

 

 

 

 

Of particular interest to photographers and history buffs is the Parrish Mill. Built in 1879 by Alexander Hendricks and James Parrish, it was considered an engineering miracle of the day. The dam and base of the mill were completed in a few months, and within a year the house – which would eventually contain a sawmill, cotton gin and gristmill – were also standing.

The road to the mill passed right over the dam and through a covered bridge. So the “mill” was a combination dam, covered bridge, lumber mill, cotton gin and gristmill. It was first used to saw cedar, pine, and oak trees that were felled near the dam. A cotton gin was installed next, and by 1885 a gristmill was added.

Local people could bring wagonloads of cotton and corn right into the mill for processing, and buy lumber to build farms and barns. The gristmill ran 24 hours a day to produce corn meal that was sold to all the surrounding counties. By 1944 the gristmill was the only part of the site that was still operating, and it continued to do so until 1973. The covered bridge was not closed to automobiles until 1984. In 1998 the mill was restored, and it can still grind corn occasionally at the rate of 200 pounds per hour.

To reach George L. Smith State Park, take I-16 to the Metter, Georgia, exit (which is also Hwy 23). Follow Hwy 23 to George L. Smith State Park Road (which is before you get to Twin City, Georgia). For navigation purposes, the address is 371 George L. Smith State Park Road.

 

 

Jamie Anderson

Jamie Anderson is a contributing writer for the GNPA newsletter, and also serves as the newsletter production editor and the co-coordinator for the Coastal Chapter of the GNPA. His website is www.CoastalGeorgiaPrints.com.

Cades Cove: Smoky Mountain Magic

Cades Cove: Smoky Mountain Magic

By Jenny Burdette

Magical. That’s the first word that comes to my mind when anyone mentions Cades Cove. Whether your goal is photographing wildlife, landscapes or historic structures, a summer visit to the Cove is perfect for viewing bears and other wildlife, flower-filled meadows and tumbling mountain streams.

Getting There: Navigating the Cove
Located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, TN, the only access into Cades Cove is on Laurel Creek Road, driving west from the Townsend “Wye.” The entrance is about 20 minutes from Townsend and an hour from Gatlinburg.

As you enter Cades Cove, stop at the entrance parking area and pick up a Cades Cove Tour booklet for $1 (these are also available at the Visitors Centers at Sugarlands and Oconaluftee). The booklet contain a map and descriptions of various locations in the Cove, which is open from sunrise to sunset.

During the summer months, the Cove is closed to motorized traffic all day on Wednesdays. If photographing the historic cabins and churches is your goal, Wednesday is a great day to get in without the crowds. The Cove has some serious hills, however, so know your limits and use caution! You can walk or bike in before sunrise on any day to catch a sunrise view from Sparks Lane. The walk in and back out will be 2–4 miles, depending on how far down Sparks Lane you walk. A stream crosses Sparks about a quarter of a mile in, and after a recent rain walkers should be prepared for wet feet.

Coyote on the move. Photo by Jenny Burdette.

Coyote on the move. Photo by Jenny Burdette.

The main road through Cades Cove is the Loop Road, an 11-mile one-way road with historic structures spaced out along the way. The Loop is bisected by Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane, two-way gravel roads that tend to be less heavily traveled than the Loop. Both roads have fields on each side that offer good opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing. These bisecting roads are a good option to create shorter loops, double back, or take a shortcut if the traffic becomes unbearable.

The Loop Road continues along the far end of the Cove, curving past the Visitors Center and Cable Mill, continuing past the opposite ends of Hyatt and Sparks Lanes, and ending near the campground and campground store, where you can rent bikes or purchase lunch, snacks, and souvenirs.

Wildlife in the Cove
Myriad opportunities for wildlife viewing are what draw most visitors to Cades Cove. Summer blackberries entice bears into the fields and the plentiful wild cherries of late summer attract bears to the trees lining the roads. The Cove boasts an abundance of bear, deer, and wild turkeys, and the easiest and surest way to spot them is simply to drive the Loop Road. The fields along Sparks and Hyatt Lanes also provide glimpses of bear, deer, and an occasional coyote, and offer excellent birding opportunities. You can often photograph directly from your vehicle; just pull off the road and don’t block traffic.

Black bear at Cades Cove. Photo by Jenny Burdette

Black bear at Cades Cove. Photo by Jenny Burdette

Bears – even turkeys – can bring traffic to a standstill. Pull into one of the numerous pull-offs, grab your camera, and walk if you suspect that you are in a “bear jam.” Chances are, a volunteer will already be on the scene, directing traffic and trying to keep onlookers at a safe distance. When you pull off, all four tires need to be off the asphalt. If not, you will be asked to move and may miss your photo op while you are moving the car.

Park Service volunteers work diligently to keep 50 yards between bears and people, so bring your longest lens. With patience, you can get “the shot” without endangering yourself or the animal. Remember, animals involved in any interaction with humans, or those that simply become too comfortable with close human presence, often end up being euthanized. So be mindful of the animals’ safety, as well as your own.

Pileated woodpeckers are common throughout the Cove, and you may also spot an owl. Eastern Meadowlarks are common in the fields along Hyatt Lane near the Dan Lawson cabin, and songbirds are plentiful in the shrubs around the cabin, as well as in the trees near the creeks on Sparks and Hyatt.

Conventional wisdom holds that wildlife will be most visible in the early morning and late afternoon, especially on hot summer days.

Historic Structures
Historic structures in the Cove consist of five cabins along the Loop Road and one along Forge Creek Road, three churches, and a gristmill. All are open for visitors. In the summer, a church or cabin provides a perfect anchor to the verdant green of the surrounding woods and makes a lovely composition. However, by late morning the light becomes harsh on sunny days, and the crowds at these structures challenge the landscape photographer. I recommend getting in early and heading directly to a chosen structure. Use the Cades Cove Tour booklet to develop a plan, and you may be able to photograph several structures in soft early morning light before the crowds arrive.

Golden fog along the Loop Road. Photo by Jenny Burdette

Golden fog along the Loop Road. Photo by Jenny Burdette

Landscapes: Sweeping Vistas and Intimate Close-ups
The early morning light in Cades Cove is truly magical, and morning fog often enhances the magic. More than once, I have entered the Cove with a definite plan, only to be completely sidetracked by gorgeous golden light and fog.

Sparks and Hyatt Lanes both offer iconic spots to photograph the road flanked by stands of trees and tall meadow grasses pushing along the fence line. The horses from the stables are usually in the fields along the intersection of Sparks and the Loop Road and can add some interest to a landscape image.

Driving along the Loop Road between Sparks and Hyatt Lanes offers some beautiful landscapes of fields, with a lone tree and towering mountains in the background. In summer, some of these fields will be covered in Queen Ann’s Lace, yellow wildflowers, or thick golden grasses.

Photo by Jenny Burdette

Photo by Jenny Burdette

The far end of the Loop Road, between the Missionary Baptist Church and the Visitor Center, offers some beautiful, sweeping views of the mountain ranges surrounding the Cove. The hiking trail to the Elijah Oliver cabin begins in this area and has beautiful glades of thick ferns, offering wonderful opportunities to shoot intimate landscapes. The Abrams trailhead has beautiful views of Abrams creek, and Forge Creek Road meanders creekside for several miles with attractive views of tumbling water. You can access Forge Creek Road at the Visitor Center/Cable Mill parking area.

A summer visit to Cades Cove provides views of leafy woods, lush meadows, and abundant wildlife. Expect crowds, and plan accordingly. Get into the Cove as early as possible; a park ranger unlocks the gate at sunrise, and serious photographers are there waiting. As the crowds increase mid-day, consider heading back to town for lunch. Or bring a picnic and spend some time streamside in the picnic area. Or perhaps take a hike on one of the many trails visible from the Loop Road; just pick one and explore for a bit when you need a break from the traffic. However you choose to spend your time, every day spent in Cades Cove is magical.

 

 

Jenny Burdette is an avid nature photographer and conservationist. Her work has appeared on the covers and pages of Georgia’s Great Places magazine, Birds and Blooms magazine, and Living Bird, the membership magazine for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Her images are featured in the Visitor Centers and other buildings at several of Georgia’s state parks. Jenny currently serves as a Member at Large on GNPA’s Board and is a member of GNPA’s Conservation and Communication committees.

High-Country Photography Along The Blue Ridge Parkway

High-Country Photography Along The Blue Ridge Parkway

By Nye Simmons

Spring starts early on the Southern Coast, and the blooms don’t culminate until they reach the high ridges of Tennessee and North Carolina in mid-June. The early color from maple and serviceberry will be mostly gone by the time you read this, but there is still much to enjoy in the high country. Even though I live in the shadows of the Great Smokies, I would choose the Blue Ridge Parkway and nearby Roan Mountain for the best opportunities after mid-May.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina can yield delightful images at any turn, and if the cloud deck is low (aka fog) the opportunities for intimate nature scenes are almost endless. A day in the clouds with something blooming is a gift that happens only a few times each season. So I watch the skies and adjust accordingly.

There are a few iconic locations that new visitors should investigate, and you can branch out from there. Here are great places to begin:

Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8): In early May the blooming maple and serviceberry make this a visual treat that gives way later in the month (and into June) to Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel. Prime time for the latter is usually the end of May into first week of June. Lower Yellowstone Falls is a short hike and is a local icon. Nearby Tennent Mountain is an excellent place for sunrise, as is Pounding Mill Overlook (MP 413.2). If the cloud deck is low and you are in fog, then the entire area is a target for photographers. Good opportunities can be found by hiking down to the falls and then following some of the short connecting trails.

Rhododendrons at Yellowstone Falls

Rhododendrons at Yellowstone Falls

If the weather indicates there will be light at sunrise, two spots can provide some memorable shots. The Tennent Mountain summit, accessed from FR 816 near Graveyard, with its 20–30-minute hike from the road is one of them, along with the more convenient Pounding Mill Overlook. Though late light can be attractive, a ridge to the west blocks such light at this spot. But last light at Cowee Mountains Overlook (MP 430.7) can be spectacular, and a low sun will back-illuminate any foreground blooms and fresh leaves. This overlook is about a 20-minute drive and is a Blue Ridge Parkway icon.

Lodging is most convenient in Waynesville, N.C. This is a bit of a resort town, so there are multiple choices of hotels and restaurants. The Pisgah Inn is nearby, but usually fills up months in advance. Its restaurant is a dining option, regardless. Keep an eye on the clock so as not to miss last seating.

Those prepared to camp can find dispersed camping near the trailhead to the Shining Rock Wilderness at the end of the spur road (FS 816). You can access this from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Graveyard Fields, or find a spot in the Mount Pisgah Campground, which is open seasonally, across from the inn.

Above Craggy

Above Craggy

Craggy Gardens (MP 364): Regionally known for its Catawba rhododendrons, peak bloom has traditionally occurred around mid-month. Short hikes will take you to the best scenes. A low cloud deck (fog) is ideal here. Often the mountain laurel along the higher elevations nearby will be good as well, though there are few to be found at Craggy itself. For last light, the parkway just north of Craggy and Graybeard Overlook (MP 363.4) offers strong options. The beech grove at Graybeard, meanwhile, can be enchanting.

Mount Mitchell State Park (MP 355): The spur from the Blue Ridge Parkway leads to the highest point in North Carolina, and its bloom often lags lower areas by a few days. It is only a few minutes’ detour to investigate the opportunities there. False hellebore (corn lily) grows here, too.

Lodging for both locations is most convenient in nearby Asheville with many options. Limited camping (tent only) is available at Mount Mitchell State Park.

Roan rocks

Roan rocks

Roan Mountain: If you are on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is most easily accessed from the MP 331 exit to Spruce Pine, NC, and map it from there. A recent fire at Carvers Gap near the road burned several acres but Round and Jane Bald were spared, according to reports. Look for these balds to peak around mid-June, sometimes as early as the 10th  of the month. It’s the middle of nowhere.

The closest lodging is Roan Mountain State Park, with some vacation rentals closer to the Gap. Dining options are limited in the little hamlet of Roan Mountain, TN, at least a 30-minute drive from the Gap. A vacation rental is likely the best choice for those seeking a measure of comfort and a place to nap during mid-day, and of course you can cook there. For those who are prepared, camping in the vehicle or tent at the trailhead saves a bit of sleep, as sunrise comes early in June.

How To Work It

The best way to approach these opportunities really depends on the weather and your personal vision. If this is your first trip, visiting the icons is not a bad start. After that, drive pilgrim. Most of my favorite photos from the Parkway are found images that were given up by light at the time. It’s about 70 miles from Mitchell to the Smokies, and each mile can offer up a great image in the right conditions.

I like fog, so a low cloud deck is my jam, and the thicker the better. If the skies will cooperate for first or last light, then consider the options above. Blue sky of death? Look for back-illuminated leaves and intimate settings in the shade. This is also a great time to look for images than work well in black and white. The white blooms of Rosebay rhododendron may be going at lower elevations, providing yet another option to investigate.

Editor’s Note: If you want more detailed information, Nye wrote Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway with photographers in mind. It’s available at Parkway visitor centers and from the Smokies Association. The e-book can be found on his website at www.nyesimmopns.com.

 

 

A retired emergency medicine physician, Nye Simmons is a photography educator who has been freelancing and self-publishing for many years. He’s the sole author of Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Blue Ridge Parkway Celebration, Tennessee Wonder and Light, and The Greater Smoky Mountains Photographer’s Guide, while co-authoring four other books. His upcoming photo workshops include the Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway, Colorado fall color and Death Valley.

Photographing The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail

Photographing The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail

By Tom Wilson.

If you like to photograph wildflowers, March and April are prime time. One of my favorite places to go in the last week of March is a particularly easy boardwalk/trail in Northwest Georgia. The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail, located at 299 Pocket Road in Chickamauga, is about a two-hour drive from my home in Woodstock. But no matter where you live, it’s worth a trip to the place called “the Pocket.”

The entire walk is just under a mile, including a portion at the end of the boardwalk that takes you to a waterfall at the end of the trail. There are approximately 50 species of wildflowers that can be seen and photographed from the boardwalk and the trail. In addition to the wildflowers, there are also many opportunities for intimate landscapes in this area.

Eastern Red Columbine. Photo by Tom Wilson

Eastern Red Columbine. Photo by Tom Wilson

The days that I typically target to visit this area are March 28-29. To help you plan your visit, you may want to check out this website – The Pocket/Pigeon Mountain | USWildflowers.com Journal – which includes a calendar of blooming dates for various wildflowers.

I tend to take a variety of camera gear with me to the Pocket, including my 70-180 micro Nikkor as well as my Sigma 150mm f2.8 Macro lens. One of the reasons I prefer longer focal length lenses at this location is because you are required to stay on the boardwalk, so sometimes you need a little more reach. I also take the lenses that I use for wide-angle close-up shots.

Dutchman’s Breeches. Photo by Tom Wilson

Dutchman’s Breeches. Photo by Tom Wilson

Additionally, I pack equipment for modifying the light, such as macro flash, reflectors and diffusers. A tripod and remote releases are always in my bag, too. It’s not a bad idea to carry a gardener’s kneepad, because even a boardwalk can start to feel pretty hard if you kneel on it long enough. I’ll also carry the lenses and filters that I use for making landscape photographs, since there are good opportunities in the area.

One of those opportunities isn’t on the property itself. It’s the “Blue Hole” in the Crockford Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This natural spring, with its cold, clear water, marks a good starting point for those hiking to Ellison’s Cave, one of the deepest in the continental United States. It’s definitely worth a stop on your way to or from the Pocket. The address is 1399 Blue Hole Rd, #1025, LaFayette, GA 30728.

Blue Hole spring. Photo by Tom Wilson

Blue Hole spring. Photo by Tom Wilson

When I visit the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail, I like to get there early and bring a lunch with me, even if I leave it in the car. As with all nature photography it’s good to have water, raingear, sun protection, bug repellent and any other gear that you carry on outdoor activities. To legally access this area, you need a valid Georgia fishing or hunting license, or the Lands Pass that provides access to state wildlife management areas.

Miterwort. Photo by Tom Wilson

Miterwort. Photo by Tom Wilson

When planning a trip, remember to consider the weather. Overcast conditions can be very good for photographing wildflowers, and those are the kind of days that I tend to favor when picking a time to visit the Pocket. The other element I consider is the wind. If the forecast calls for windy conditions, I will usually try to select a different day to visit there. Photographing wildflowers in windy conditions can be very frustrating, so it’s best to target calmer days. But whenever you go, have fun and enjoy this beautiful place.

 

 

Tom Wilson head shot

Tom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.

Exploring The Okefenokee

Exploring The Okefenokee

By Tom Wilson.

If you’re looking for a great spot for your next photography trip, you may want to point your vehicle south toward the Okefenokee Swamp.

Why Go
South Georgia’s Okefenokee National Refuge is worthy of every superlative in the dictionary. It is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems and the biggest “blackwater swamp” in all of North America. At over 400,000 acres, this legendary location is unique in Georgia, and should be on the bucket list for any photographer in the state.

female Pileated PortraitIn the fall, when the Cypress trees are transforming into otherworldly colors, the display is like nothing else on earth. But there are special opportunities there every month of the year. Plus, in 2022, you have another reason to visit. This is the “Year of the Okefenokee,” sponsored by GNPA and the Georgia Sierra Club. You will have two opportunities to enter photo contests for images made in the Okefenokee, as well as workshop and tour opportunities associated with the 2022 Expo. See the “Year of the Okefenokee” article on the GNPA website (here) and stay tuned to the website for updates all year long.

 

 

 

 

Subjects
If you are a bird photographer, or if you prefer to focus on landscapes, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, dragonflies, flowers, plants or any other kind of nature photography, you will find more subjects in the Okefenokee than you could photograph in a lifetime.

Gator Pile Pano

Best time to go
My favorite time to visit the Okefenokee is in the shoulder seasons of March to May, and then in October to December. Fall is an especially good season, since the crowds that tend to increase visitation during school spring breaks are absent. Plus, autumn offers a good chance of seeing Sandhill Cranes.

Trails are well marked

Plan Your Trip
What’s the best starting point for planning a visit? Go to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge website, and click on “Plan Your Visit” Plan Your Visit – Okefenokee – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov). The information here covers all the access points to the swamp and gives a good overview of your options, regardless of where and how you will access the Okefenokee.

Campsites and cabins are available at Stephen C. Foster State Park, where you can also rent powerboats. Canoes and kayaks are also available at several locations. Many photographic opportunities can be enjoyed, however, without ever getting into a boat. There are plenty of boardwalks and trails, as well as an auto trail called Swamp Island Drive on the east side. All of this information is available at the site listed above. Also, make sure to check out the “Visitor Activities” tab on the same website.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Photo Gear
This really depends on your subject. I usually try to carry everything from wide-angle lenses to zoom lenses covering the super-telephoto range. I always have a polarizer for all my lenses. And while much of my photography is from a canoe or boat, I also carry a tripod for when I’m on land.

Drybags to keep your gear dryIf you do plan to use some sort of watercraft, I would highly recommend using gear that has image stabilization capabilities, since much of your photography is likely to be handheld. I carry all the gear I take with me in a boat or canoe in a “dry bag” made specifically to keep your gear dry even if it gets dunked in the water. But I’d also suggest that even if your gear is in a dry bag, don’t let it sit for a long time in water, like that which often collects in the bottom of a canoe from dropping paddles or rainfall. And of course you also need to take appropriate safety gear for your activities.

 

Female Needhams Skimmer Dragonfly

 

If you’ve never explored the Okefenokee, perhaps this is the year you should discover its amazing opportunities. And if you have visited it before, perhaps it’s time to make a return trip.

 

 

Tom Wilson head shotTom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.

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