Picture of a Great Blue Heron in the Viera Wetlands

Blue herons are one species of many birds seen in the man-made marshes and lakes collectively known as the Viera Wetlands.

Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett

While the Everglades is often the go-to destination for wildlife photographers, locals know that many of Florida’s lesser known parks and preserves are ideal settings for an impromptu photo safari. Wherever you choose to “shoot,” respect posted signs, stay on trails, and ask rangers or staff what local species you could encounter.

Lettuce Lake Regional Park, Tampa

Located at the confluence of the Hillsborough River and Cypress Creek, Lettuce Lake is a refuge for a myriad of wading birds and other waterfowl, including the great egret, little blue heron, white ibis, osprey, and bald eagle. Free ranger-guided nature tours (Saturdays and Sundays at 8:30 a.m.) are helpful for scouting photo locations. Even without a tour, walking the 3,500 feet of boardwalk through the hardwood hammock and along the river, and climbing the 40-foot observation tower, is sure to bring several of the park’s nesting, flying, and wading birds (and likely a few alligators, turtles, and many of the more than 300 species of plants) into clear focus.

St. George Island State Park, St. George Island

There’s a sense of isolation and serenity on this easternmost edge of St. George Island that draws photographers looking to capture the essence of wild and natural Florida. “Most of the time, you can walk down the beach without seeing another person, especially in the fall and winter,” says park manager Joshua Hodson. The often empty nine miles of white, sandy beaches and towering dunes are lined with pine flatwoods, marsh grasses, sea oats, and, in fall, fields of wildflowers. Wildlife includes shorebirds, bald eagles, barred and great horned owls, and nesting loggerhead and green turtles. Visit in early evening to photograph the sun setting in the west over Apalachicola Bay, followed by the full moon rising out of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Viera Wetlands, Viera

Constructed in 1998 to polish liquid waste from the adjacent South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands and two nearby supplemental ponds (collectively known as the Viera Wetlands) are man-made marshes and lakes designed to mimic natural central Florida wetlands. The overwhelming success of the project is measured in the abundance of birds (including herons, egrets, ducks, and hawks), as well as alligators, deer, and otters spotted here. “The site is ideally suited for nature photography—even with the simplest of equipment—because much of the wildlife frequents shorelines typically within 15 feet of berm trails,” says Viera Wetlands environmental land manager Raleigh Berry III.


Fun Fact: Lettuce Lake isn’t really a lake. The shallow body of water is a fingerlike extension of the Hillsborough River and gets its name from the clumps of swamp lettuce growing on the surface.

Best Bet: The shot to get at the Viera Wetlands is of the pair of Audubon’s crested caracara. Approximately 250 breeding pairs of Audubon’s crested caracara nest in Florida. Suitable conditions for nesting territories are highly specific, and each territory can support only a single nesting pair.


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