Story & photos by Linda Burek
My husband and I travel extensively around the United States and Canada in our motorhome from a home base in St. Augustine, Florida. With all that traveling, the Silver River remains one of my favorite places to photograph wildlife. The river is located east of Ocala in Florida. The thirty springs that comprise Silver Springs form the headwaters of this river and its clear waters flow through dense cypress swamp for almost 5 miles before it feeds into the Ocklawaha River. The area is accessible through Silver Springs State Park and Ray Wayside Park.
I think the best way to photograph the abundant wildlife is to get on the river. The Fort King Paddling Trail starts near Mammoth Spring (or Main Spring). The boat launch is accessible through the Main Entrance to the park off Route 40. You can launch your own kayak/canoe or you can rent one at the boat launch. Some of the kayaks have glass bottoms which allow for great views in the clear water. From Mammoth Spring you can embark on a glass-bottomed boat tour, but you will not get the same wildlife viewing opportunities as you would in a kayak or canoe.
The paddling trail is a loop through a portion of the river and a man-made alternate route with a slower current. The man-made route was created when the area was part of a theme park that has since closed. The alternate route opened to the public for paddling in 2013. The easiest way to paddle the loop is to keep to the left after leaving the boat launch and head down the main part of the river where you can go downstream with the faster current and return upstream with the slower current in the alternate route. The entrance to the alternate route is on the right side of the Silver River as you head down stream and it will return you to the boat ramp. With the slower current on the alternate route, it is easier to take pictures. Also, the narrow waterway brings you closer to the wildlife. I have seen turkeys along the shore of the alternate route and a barred owl in a tree. I would have missed the barred owl if it hadn’t announced its presence.
There are abundant birds year-round and any time is a good time to go. My favorite trip to the river was at the end of May this year. There were double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) and anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) nesting in trees in the middle of the river just downstream from Mammoth Spring. There was a lot of nest making, chick rearing, and bird noises. There were other species of young birds along the river with their parents including common gallinules (Gallinula chloropus) and wood ducks (Aix sponsa). Perhaps my favorite experience was watching three juvenile double-crested cormorants playing with some vegetation. It reminded me of playing tug of war when I was young. At one point, one juvenile began playing with a stick.
Any time of year, there are numerous turtles to be found sunning themselves on branches and logs alongside anhingas drying their wings or resting. Alligators abound and you can catch them sunning themselves sometimes draped with vegetation. Anhingas and double-crested cormorants can be seen actively fishing. They swim under the water to catch their prey. The clear water makes it possible to view their underwater activity. There are also some feral rhesus macaque monkeys that can sometimes be spotted along the sides of the river, typically farther downstream. They were released in the 1930’s and continue to thrive in the area. Manatees and river otters can also be found.
When I first started kayaking, I was afraid to bring my expensive camera gear with me. Being in a kayak presents opportunities to see wildlife from a more interesting perspective and often you can get closer without disturbing them. It can present challenges if you areconcerned about your gear getting wet and it can be difficult to takephotographs when you and the animal are both moving. Nevertheless, I think the amazing opportunities are well worth working through the challenges.
To mitigate some of the risk to my equipment. I only bring one camera and one lens and I keep them in a dry bag tied to the kayak while getting in and out of the water. That seems to be the most likely time I could flip. If the wind picks up or the water gets rough, I put my gear back into the dry bag. I make sure my gear is easily accessible. When my gear is out, I have the strap placed around my neck, so I don’t drop my camera in the water.
For equipment, I bring one DSLR camera body and my 100-400mm lens. Because I am moving in thecurrent, I use a high shutter speed. I usually begin with a shutter speed of 1250 but may lower it if light conditions, water movement, and animal behavior allow. I usually start with an f-stop at 5.6 but will change that depending on the photograph I am trying to take. When I make the mistake of picking up too much detail in the background, I use photoshop in post processing to remove the distraction.
My husband brings an inexpensive WinBook Action Camera to take video. He holds the camera underwater and has gotten video of anhingas, double-crested cormorants, otters, alligators, turtles, manatees, and fish swimming underwater. Some of the cutest video is the juvenile double-crested cormorants as viewed from below while they stuck their heads under water to look for fish.
Moving with the current while trying to take photographs can be challenging. If I am interested in a specific animal that is hanging around one area, I will park myself among some vegetation in order to limit my movement. Over time, I have found my skills for capturing animals while dealing with the current are getting better. I still need more practice!
There are lots of great places to see wildlife in Florida, but the Silver River remains one of my favorites.
Linda Burek is a Fine Art and documentary nature photographer. She and her husband travel regularly in an RV, giving them an opportunity to take photographs and videos. They maintain a regular blog showcasing their art and experiences at www.landrtravels.com. They published their first book in 2019, The Gifts of the Day: Traveling and Camping with Dogs, which documents their experiences the first summer they traveled full time.
Linda has won the top 100 in the 2018 NANPA Showcase Photo Competition and several awards in Florida Camera Council photo competitions.