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Times of the Islands Magazine

Photography Tours for SWFL Birders: Professional Guides Provide Invaluable Expertise

A snowy plover stretches its wings near a crab on the beach

Florida’s great birding areas have transformed into hotspots for birding photography. The crowds of photographers with telescope-like lenses at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island demonstrate that many amateurs take their hobby seriously—from investing in high-tech gear to staking out wildlife spots for hours on end. Now, bird photography tours occur throughout the region, offering information about different species and the environment, in addition to photography techniques.

The state is home to an abundance of avian wildlife. It’s where Don Mammoser chooses to lead his Don Mammoser Photography tours, because “the birdlife is so varied and amazingly rich in the Sunshine State.” It’s possible to see breeding, nesting and chick-rearing birds in photogenic locations.

Roman Kurywczak, owner of Roamin’ with Roman Photo Tours, adds, “The birds are greatly habituated to the people … yet are still wild enough to migrate as per their usual behavior.” The entire state offers great opportunities to capture birds on camera.

Specific nature reserves serve as backdrops for photos and determine the species that are encountered. Florida Bird Photo Adventures is run by Sanibel resident David Meardon and Nick Leadley, who spend a lot of time at “Ding” Darling. They note that they also spy bald eagles, ospreys and burrowing owls throughout the greater Fort Myers area.

Meardon and Leadley say that in spring, they especially like to photograph migrating songbirds soaring in giant flocks over the shimmering Gulf of Mexico. Their favorite avian species to photograph include pink roseate spoonbills, large white pelicans, spindly-legged reddish egrets, and shorebirds such as snowy plovers.  

During birding photography tours, professional guides are able to provide invaluable expertise to cut beginners’ learning curves and build upon amateurs’ foundations. Meardon and Leadley explain that experienced guides “can put participants into the right locations in the best light to capture compelling images.”

Guides’ awareness of wildlife behavior can also contribute to the creation of successful photos. Both Meardon and Leadley possess vast knowledge of avian species, good locations to shoot, and methods to approach birds in a safe and ethical manner.

Kurywczak agrees that tour guides’ insight into prime photography locations will take the guesswork out of finding the species on your own. He also drives his passengers between sites during his tours, which “allows participants the ability to ask questions about post-processing and other technical aspects.”

Many participants attend tours to learn about their camera equipment. After receiving a digital camera as a gift, Don Miller met Leadley for instruction. He confesses, “I would never have learned [to use] the camera … on my own. As a result of [Nick’s lessons], I had a great time photographing the landscape, plants and animals on our trip.” Miller especially appreciates that his talented instructor was a thorough and patient teacher.

Kathryn, a Virginian who took part in a recent Don Mammoser Photography tour, shares similar experiences: Mammoser “helped us to set the camera [and] helped each one of us—even though all of our cameras and skill levels were different.” Beyond lessons in nature and technology, photographers can impart crucial knowledge of the craft to workshop attendees. She adds that Mammoser’s guidance and critiquing “taught [his group] what makes a really good image.”

Mike Hiza, of Manchester, Connecticut, says Meardon’s coaching improved his “use of light, composition, and framing.” Along with technical improvement, Hiza learned to take photos that tell a story. Photography tour participants leave with a better understanding of the art form and applicable photography skills.

Attendees of all skill levels are welcome on bird photography tours. However, photography experts do mention certain standards of camera gear to more easily create “epic” images. Meardon recommends a digital camera with a 300mm lens and suggests a tripod to ensure stability and sharper images when shooting with longer lenses.

A snowy plover stretches its wings near a crab on the beach

Kurywczak explains there is no substitute for long focal lengths in bird photography, because it allows photographers to capture images without spooking the birds or encroaching upon their space. It’s especially useful to photograph smaller shorebirds. Mammoser also values quality equipment, yet admits that some participants fare pretty well with simple point-and-shoot cameras.  

Whether you join a bird photography tour or serenely shoot images solo, the experts offer some tips: Kurywczak cautions not to alter the birds’ behavior just to get a shot. Meardon advises, “Get up with the light… Know your equipment, and be ready to capture the decisive moment.” Mammoser emphasizes learning from passionate mentors and, most importantly, getting outside to photograph the nature and birds that you love.


Don Mammoser Photography


Florida Bird Photo Adventures


Roamin’ with Roman Photo Tours


Alison Roberts-Tse has been haphazardly scribbling in journals since she was a small-town small fry. She has degrees in communications and dance from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She now lives in London, spends time on Sanibel and obsessively plans getaways, both near and far.