Photographing Wildlife In Southwest Florida

This post is going to focus on some wildlife that I have ran into during some of my field trips with my classes. It’s always amazing to see what is out when I visit various locations. It’s never a dull moment when I’m out with the students, as just when I think it’s going to be a “normal” trip, that Murphy guy has to step in and make things interesting. One of the many places that everyone likes to go is Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida. I have written many posts on this location before, but there is always something new to see.

During this particular trip some of the students had bought some new DSLRs and telephoto lenses. We met there early in the morning to beat the heat and hope that there would be some animals out doing their thing. We assembled at the main parking lot and came up with a plan. Generally I stop at the bridge first to see if anything is stirring. This is a hit or miss opportunity, there are times I have seen 14 foot alligators and other times it’s a calm day. As we made our way up the main road we decided to check out the weir (I call it a dam).

I fitted the camera with my 80mm-400mm lens and took my card wallet with me. We trampled down the path towards the dam. As we were walking, we heard various noises coming from the usual animal in the park, the human. I knew the chances of seeing anything was going to be limited with all of the commotion going on. When we arrived, Murphy didn’t let me down. Here was a family that was fishing for dinner. They already had a cooler full of fish, however they must have been going for the monthly quota as they had another cooler that they were trying fill. Now, I’m no expert but when you are let loose in a park like this, you’re kind of on your own and a little common sense goes along way. I couldn’t understand what these folks were saying as they were speaking some language that I’m not trained in. The father had a net and was casting it off the shore and he was catching Tilapia, or at least that is what I was told what it was. I looked up and a few yards away I saw what you would expect at this place, an alligator. Again, I’ve only lived here since 1988, so having seen a few of these since I have been here; I generally like to keep some distance between these particular creatures and me. The alligator had spotted free lunch being picked up by a net so he was coming over to sample the goods. It wasn’t long and this rather large fellow made it to shore.

 Alligator ready to come on to the bank at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida. Photographed by Spencer Pullen.I’ve Arrived – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

In my case, I had a two foot concrete barrier in front of me so I wasn’t too worried for my safety yet. I also made sure that all of the students were behind the concrete barrier, this would look really bad on the evaluation form, “Class was great until we lost Suzy. At least we knew how to take the photos of her getting eaten!” At this point, this gator was in striking distance. The father of the family was yelling back to his kids and wife in what must have been in Klingon . All of the sudden the father learned English and was yelling, “I ain’t scared of no gator!” OK, this sounds like the precursor to a video on America’s Dumbest just before someone is about to experience a large amount of pain. We were telling him that it was time to drop the net and come into the safety zone. Our pleas went unheard. The students were looking to me for an idea, so I told them the first thing that popped into my mind, “OK, here’s the plan, make sure your camera is turned on, the lens cap is off and get ready to take some amazing photos of this idiot getting his butt whooped by this alligator!” At this point you can’t fix stupid so we might as well go home with some “different” photos of the park. Ten seconds later the gator charged the man and he jumped backwards and fell down. During this time, I was hammering down on the shutter button and firing about ten frames a second. This was going to make it on the six o’clock news. The wife and kids were screaming their heads off and at the last second, the father dropped the net and the gator went for the fish in the net. He was safe for the moment.

 Spencer Pullen photographed this alligator as he eats a fish. Taken at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida.Thanks, I’ll Be Coming Again – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

As you can see from the above photo, the fish is in the gator’s mouth and the dirt is flying as he was propelling himself on to the bank. This gave the father time to retreat on the other side of the concrete barrier. You would think that this would be enough to inject a few brain cells into a person and leave this critter alone. Oh, no this proof that there is a shallow end to the gene pool. It was then the father realized that his cooler full of fish was next to the alligator and he didn’t want to loose the day’s catch. He jumped back over the barrier and grabbed the cooler and was walking rather briskly toward the safe zone, with alligator in tow. The whole time, I’m just shooting away along with the students waiting for this guy to loose a limb. He managed to get the cooler over the barrier and they decided to call it a day.

I’m sorry; I can’t make this stuff up. It’s never a dull moment when I go out. Sometimes the best action happens when you just sit back and let idiots-r-us handle things. After the gator realized that meal time was over he retreated back to the water and climbed on to an adjacent bank.

 This alligator is "yawning" after eating some fish at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida. Photographed by Spencer Pullen.Nap Time – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

Now that his tummy was full, it was time for a nap. I had never seen alligators “yawn” so this was a unique opportunity.

Watching all of this excitement made me hungry so we grabbed lunch at the restaurant and had a rest for a bit. We decided that we wanted something that was a little more uneventful so we trekked up to the bird walk. It was the middle of the day so seeing any wildlife was going to be a challenge. As we started out onto the boardwalk, I noticed in the distance there were some butterflies dancing around. I was hoping that they were going to land so I could get a decent shot of them. I still had the 400mm on and this was going to allow me to fill the frame from a distance. I stood there and was patient and hoping this was going to work out.

 Swollowtail butterfiles landing on a thistle. Photographed by Spencer Pullen.Swollowtail Butterflies – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

I took the time to look these up instead of naming these “Yellow and Black Butterflies”! There was a group of these guys going from thistle to thistle and I kept shooting away. I’m a big macro guy for these things, but all I had was the 400mm with me and I wasn’t going to wade out into the snake bite grass for a photo as I’m from the deep end of the gene pool!

 Spencer Pullen photographed this Swallowtail as it landed on a thistle at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida.Nectar Drive Thru – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

There was one butterfly that seemed to stick around and I was able to get a portrait. Using the long lens really helped me blur the background as well as shooting at f/5.6.

We stopped at the canopy walk on the way out of the park. I decided to see what else I could find while everyone else was in the canopy. I heard some rustling in the bushes and I wasn’t sure if I was about to come face to face with a boar, snake or lizard. Around the corner I ran into a friendly furry critter.

 This squrrill was posing for Spencer Pullen at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Floirida.Excuse Me, Do You Have Any Nuts? – Spencer Pullen © 2013 All Rights Reserved

He was a little skittish at first as there was a 6’4” thing with a big black box pointed at him. I figured I terrorized this little guy this far, lets go all the way. I popped up the flash and added a little light for fill. It wasn’t long I turned around and there a few folks watching and wondering what was so interesting. I showed them the squirrel and they turned around and walked away. I guess squirrels weren’t their thing, Cousin Eddie seems to like them (remember Lampoon’s Christmas vacation movie?).

The moral of the story here is make sure your lens cap is off and the camera is turned on. You just never know when someone is going to get creative. A good indication that such an event is going to take place is when you hear the words, “Hey, watch this…” I’m no expert but, I’m just sayin’! Keep your eyes and ears open out there and please be safe on location. I know this is one of those “DUH” moments, but apparently it bears repeating!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Great pictures. So glad the gator only got the fish. Good story and good opportunity.

  2. Ah Spencer! You never fail to engage!!! I grew up in the swamps and we pretty much figured gators were there to weed out the stupid. But sadly, your poacher and the Animal Planet’s Gator Boys put the lie to that!

    I witnessed a similar encounter in Yellowstone Park between a bull elk and moronic tourist. One big snort and false charge from the elk and the man tumbled backwards down a hill, camera equipment flying in all directions. It was a beauty to behold. Will people never learn? Sadly, we all know the answer to that!

    Your Swallowtail pic is stunning!!!!! My fave on this post!

    Keep ’em coming!

  3. Another great post… are always in the right place at the right time. Great story…sorry you didn’t get a photo shot of the wanta-be fisherman running!

    The family group of butterfly’s is a favorite.

  4. love the photos and your way of telling the story. Butterflies are really beautiful

  5. Aw, show us the pics of the gator in pursuit of the cooler! 😉

    The big yellow one looks to be a tiger swallow tailed butterfly; the smaller ones look to be Palamedes swallow tails. I participated in the annual butterfly count at Corkscrew Sanctuary last year. Will be doing so again in a few weeks, so I’ve got the cheat sheet handy.

  6. Spencer

    I appreciate everyone’s kind words. It was a real trip. Erin, thanks for explaining what the butterflies actually are. I’m slowly learning what the critters are called in these parts!



  7. Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction 🙂 Lol! That is all 🙂

  8. It’s a jungle out there! May the best man win!

  9. I just love the way you tell about your photo adventures. Very entertaining.
    You are right that this guy was definitely from the shallow end of the gene pool.
    What a dummy. Love the photo of the alligator “yawning “. Also I happen to like the squirrel picture.

  10. By canoe, I have seen cowboys fishing in the lower Myakka lake in the water in chest high waders with 10′ gators beside them. They seem to ignor each other. The gators want the fish not the cowboys. I would be soiling myself. The lower lake has monster gators.

    • Spencer

      I have heard of the “Deep Hole” that is on the other side of the park and that is where all of the big ones live. I’ll have to make that trip sometime…with a really long lens! Thanks…


  11. What an eventful day you had. I wonder if that man is now afraid of gators.
    Loved the story and the pictures are fabulous.
    Linda O

  12. Yo Buddy, I love that yawn…way to go.

  13. Your adventures always make me smile. That day produced some great photos for you. Thanks for sharing. My favorites were undoubtedly the butterflies.

  14. Great job getting the butterflies. Beautiful creatures but they rarely pose so you’ve got to be quick.

  15. Great shots, Spencer and the story was great too. You seem to run into those people where ever you go.
    Was just thinking, you should have pointed that squirrel in the direction of that family. They all seemed a bit “NUTS”. If the gator couldn’t get a meal out of them, maybe the squirrel could.

    • Spencer

      Yes, these folks were nuttier than a squirrel turd!



  16. Excellent photos. Your narrative leaves me almost speechless. How dumb are some folk??? Hear the banjo music??

  17. Great story indeed. It never fails to amaze me at the idiot things people will do around wildlife. I love your photo of the gator yawning.

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