Fort De Soto Park entranceThe entrance sign to Fort De Soto – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 250, 18-200mm VR at 80mm, natural light.

I unashamedly admit that I have an ongoing love affair with Fort De Soto County Park in Pinellas County, Florida.

There are a few places I have been to or lived near in my life’s journey that simply feel like “home” to me. Places where I am completely at ease, where I am enthralled by what my eyes drink in, where the smells are familiar and the paths that I take are forever etched into my spirit.  Fort De Soto County Park is one of those locations for me.

It is a place where I feel welcomed by the birds & wildlife, where the sand between my toes reminds me of well-worn bedroom slippers and the sound of the waves on the shoreline a lovely melody.

When I lived in Florida near the park and would travel to far off locations across the globe upon my return THE first place I wanted and needed to go was to Fort De Soto to sink my feet in the white sands, to feel the warm water on my skin and watch Reddish Egrets dance like drunken sailors while hunting for prey. I wanted to feel the breeze off the warm Gulf’s waters and bask in the beauty of the surroundings.

Fort DeSoto north beach sunriseA stormy but colorful sunrise at Fort De Soto’s North Beach – D200, f5.6, 1/400, ISO 200, Nikkor 18-70mm at 18mm, natural light

Once when I had made a 50 hour trip from Auckland, New Zealand, I was exhausted by traveling and by having very little sleep but I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. for the next day and before sunrise I was walking on the north beach waiting for the sunrise.  I would not have felt at “home” without going to Fort De Soto.

Mornings at Fort De Soto are a delight. Pulling into the north beach parking lot then walking across the small footbridge to the beach. I’d often stop and look to see if any Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis or Yellow-crowned Night Herons were feeding on either side of the footbridge.

Snowy Egret in mangrovesSnowy Egret under the mangroves at the footbridge of North Beach – D200, f6.3, 1/125, ISO 500, 80-400mm VR at 240mm, natural light

Walking north in the pre-dawn light I’d come to what I affectionately called “Sunrise Lagoon”, a spot where I have often sat down in the sugar sand to watch the sun light up the sky. All is quiet except for the sound of the water lapping the shore of the lagoon and the occasional squawk of a Great Blue Heron in flight.

Sunrise over the lagoon at Fort DeSotoSunrise over the lagoon – Nikon D70, f4, 1/640, ISO 200, 28-105mm at 28mm, natural light

On breezy mornings the clouds can scuttle across the sky at rapid speeds and those breezes can cause the Sea Oats to rustle, which for me is a very welcoming sound. Layers of different types of clouds appear in all the gorgeous colors of sunrise. Soon, it will be light enough to locate the objects of my passion. The birds of Fort De Soto.

Great Blue Heron with Earth shadowGreat Blue Heron on the North Beach with the Earth’s shadow on the horizon –  D200, f5.6, 1/320, ISO 640, 80-400mm VR at 300mm, wind at 25-30 knots, natural light

There is a great variety of shore, wading and sea birds to be seen at Fort De Soto. Some of my favorite wading birds year round are the Reddish Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets and the Tricolored Herons.

Tricolored Heron hunting in the surf of the Gulf of MexicoTricolored Heron hunting in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico – D200,  f6.3, 1/1500, ISO 250, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Fort De Soto is an excellent location for migrating shorebirds and quite often you will see many different species at the same time.  American Oystercatchers seem to be year round shorebird residents, I don’t think there is a single month of the year that I didn’t see or photograph them.  Seasonally you will see different shorebirds on the beaches, dunes and lagoons, too many species to list here.

Semipalmated Plover on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico Semipalmated Plover on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico – D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 160, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Throughout the year you will see many species of Gulls and Terns and the unusual but interesting Black Skimmers. The most often seen gull is the Laughing Gull and for terns I believe it is the Royal Tern. Flocks of these gulls, skimmers and terns are beautiful in flight and the calls they make are a delight.

Black Skimmers in flight over Fort De Soto’s North BeachBlack Skimmers in flight over Fort De Soto’s North Beach – D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

 Another bird you will see year round is the Brown Pelican. They are very entertaining to observe as they skim just inches over the water or when they are feeding seeing them crash dive into the water.  There are also Double-crested Cormorants,  and during some seasons Northern Gannets fly just off the coast. In the winter you can see large groups of American White Pelicans in the lagoons.

Juvenile Brown Pelican at rest at the Gulf Pier of Fort DeSotoJuvenile Brown Pelican at rest at the Gulf Pier of Fort De Soto – D200, f8, 1/640, ISO 160, 80-400mm at 340mm, natural light

At the North Beach of Fort De Soto the raptor you will see most often is the Osprey which used to be called the “Fish Hawk” and for good reason. Ospreys dive for fish in the lagoons and waters of the Gulf. Their calls are unmistakable.

Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers show up in the fall and winter and the Red-shouldered Hawks abound near the Arrowhead Trail all year long. Kestrels perch on power lines during the winter and though I wasn’t able to get close enough to them for decent photos seeing them always delighted me. If you are lucky you might also catch sight of the Great-horned Owls at the North Beach.

Osprey with flounder over the GulfOsprey with flounder over the Gulf – D200, f6.3, 1/750, ISO 160, 80-400mm VR at 116mm, natural light, not baited

Fort De Soto is a great migrant trap and many migrating passerines rest and refuel near the park headquarters. Spring time seems to have the most activity.  There are too many species to list here.

As I am sure you can tell from all that I have posted above, I love the birds of Fort De Soto. They inspired me to become a better photographer, to learn more about the birds behavior and habitat. They still inspire me.

Fort De Soto also has many animals, Loggerhead Turtles lay their eggs on the beaches, Bottlenose Dolphins cavort in the waters just off shore, Ghost Crabs scurry through the dunes and watch out for Rattlesnakes on Arrowhead Trail. That trail is also where I would also find the most Raccoons.

During the years I walked Fort De Soto’s beaches and trails photographing birds, views and animals I got to know each gentle curve of the dunes even though they changed over time.  I can recognize where other people’s images were taken at the park.

Evenings at Fort De Soto can be magical, the light terrific and if you watch very close you might be able to spot the Green Flash that can happen when the sun dips below the horizon. Very magical indeed.

Green Flash from Fort DeSotoFort De Soto Green Flash – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/2500, ISO 500, 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

Yes, I do have a love affair with Fort De Soto County Park. Even though I live hundreds of miles away from now, it beckons to me. I’ll visit it again soon and I know I will feel right at “home”.

Day is doneSunset at Fort De Soto – D200, f6.3, 1/3000, ISO 400, 80-400mm VR at 370mm, natural light