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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Swamp Things


Despite the popular vision of swamps as creepy wastelands, these environmental oases offer some of the richest opportunities for wildlife

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A prothonotary warbler feeding its young in a nest in a hollowed tree.
Commonly associated with bootleggers, rebels, convicts and eccentric hermits, swamps have always been the outliers—the places where people would go to escape the world. And where people are scarce, nature abounds. As humans develop around wetlands, the deep interiors serve as wilderness alcoves, natural bottlenecks for myriad species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fishes and birds. Wildlife teems in these landscapes, allowing unparalleled access and proximity to a number of animals. Combined with the subtle seasonal pulse of water levels and temperatures, species diversity is constantly in flux beneath the canopy. In the spring, migratory birds like the prothonotary warbler fly in from Central America to nest in tree cavities. The bright-yellow birds fill the air with flashes of color trailed by their distinct songs. During this time, various snake species emerge from their warm subterranean homes and begin basking on branches. Competing for precious sunny real estate, alligators and turtles clamber on logs and exposed banks to soak up the sun. Wildflowers and orchids bloom en masse along high burms, and radiant greens fill in the lush understory.


Red mangrove in Florida Bay, Everglades National Park, Florida.
During the fall, red maples and cypress trees turn a fiery orange before dropping their leaves. When winter arrives, the skeletal bodies of knobby tupelos and sweet gums remain, providing hollowed homes for wintering reptiles, bats, owls and various mammals. In South Florida's swamps, the winter is marked by rapid decreases in water levels. As the creeks and sloughs dry up, wildlife is concentrated into the deepest areas. In some places within Big Cypress National Preserve, during the dry season one can find gator holes, muddy depressions where hundreds of American alligators congregate until the rains return.

Wading birds also take advantage of the shallow water during the winter, arriving by the hundreds to feed upon trapped fishes, which they bring back to their hungry chicks. With so much verdant life, photographing bottomlands is often overwhelming.

When hiking through swamps, I frequently prefer to go barefoot to avoid losing shoes or sandals in viscous sediment. Once you get past the squish of organic leaf litter between your toes, the only discomfort you feel is the occasional nipping by killifish. At night, I bring a high-power flashlight to paint intricate scenes of the blackwater landscape. Going to sleep, I hang my hammock above the water and listen to the cacophonous chirps of green tree frogs. It's all so perfect.

Over the years, we've become so accustomed to tidy trails and tame landscapes that raw wilderness makes most of us uneasy. As photographers, we have a unique opportunity to rewrite the narrative for our heralded wetlands and reshape public opinion. Swamps hold the key to the hydrology of our southeastern states and are sanctuaries for down-home adventure. If nothing else, swamps are great barometers for any photographer looking to push the limits of his or her creativity and grit while experiencing one of America's remaining relics of true wilderness.

You can see more of Mac Stone's photography at www.macstonephoto.com.

How To Photograph In The Swamps

In this way, swamps can be both a photographer's nightmare and a visual paradise. There are no towering mountains, topographical relief or scenic canyons that allow the eye to wander into an endless horizon. The complex and baroque nature of these ecosystems challenges photographers to find subtle beauty amidst the chaos of epiphytes, twisting branches and mottled light. Like shopping in a bustling market, we have to retrain our eyes to see selectively. Forcing the adage that less is more, wide lenses are often replaced by mid-range zooms, condensing scenes into their most basic elements. The fickle weather of Southern ecosystems also creates another obstacle. In this way, swamps can be both a photographer's nightmare and a visual paradise. There are no towering mountains, topographical relief or scenic canyons that allow the eye to wander into an endless horizon. The complex and baroque nature of these ecosystems challenges photographers to find subtle beauty amidst the chaos of epiphytes, twisting branches and mottled light. Like shopping in a bustling market, we have to retrain our eyes to see selectively. Forcing the adage that less is more, wide lenses are often replaced by mid-range zooms, condensing scenes into their most basic elements. The fickle weather of Southern ecosystems also creates another obstacle. The constant onslaught of water is problematic, but easily solved by waterproof bags and rain sleeves. Photographing beneath a canopy during summer rains is one of the most invigorating experiences, and I often plan my trips to coincide with bad weather specifically for this reason. Photographing beneath a canopy during summer rains is one of the most invigorating experiences, and I often plan my trips to coincide with bad weather specifically for this reason.

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