For the past two years I have been pursuing Florida panthers with camera traps — the only reliable method for photographing them. But two weeks ago, at Audubon's @CorkscrewSwamp, I had an encounter that I'll be talking about the rest of my life. I was driving into the backcountry and rounded a corner to see a panther sitting in the dirt road. I grabbed a telephoto lens and nervously snapped a few distant frames through the windshield before rolling a little closer and pulling off to the side. The panther was still 150 yards away in harsh 3 PM light. I was just watching when filmmaker Eric Bendick called. I whispered that I was staring at a real-life panther; the conference about our panther film would have to wait. Eric told me to take some video, and with the panther still sitting in the road in bad light, I complied, not realizing how jacked up I was until trying to hold my iPhone steady. After a few seconds of jittery self-narration, the panther started walking right towards me. When it sat back down in the road I resumed my video, but the panther started walking toward me again! I switched back to my main camera, put it in silent mode and held my breath. The panther kept coming, skirting the edge of the swamp behind grass and low palms. I let the shutter rip every time it revealed itself, coming closer with every step. Then it walked within 20 yards of my truck and sat down in an island of palms directly out my window! I filled the frame with its body and looked straight into its piercing eyes! I had mistaken it for a young male by its height, but was corrected when a ruffling in the palms transformed into a kitten. When the little guy got closer, its mother stood and continued down the road. Then they vanished into a thick hammock leaving me alone with my thoughts. When I went to change the batteries in my nearby camera trap, the process felt mechanical and empty. Remote cameras are invaluable, but it’s a whole different experience when the panther is looking right back at you. I am thankful @audubonsociety for protecting this place and giving me access their land. Please join me in following the #PathofthePanther for @natgeo. #floridawild#keepflwild
It is ghost orchid season again in South Florida. The pond apple and pop ash sloughs where the orchids live are now filled with summer rains. A stand up paddleboard with the rear fin removed is my preferred method of travel, making carrying heavy camera trap equipment much easier than wading. This video by @leyoho from last week shows me paddling in to service a camera trap in the upper Fakahatchee Strand. My @yoloboard 12’ Hammerhead Explorer is proving a worthy vessel for these swamps. #swamp#paddle#sup@fl_wildcorridor@insidenatgeo#floridawild#keepflwild
Please check out my editorial and photo essay in today’s @tampabaytimes (link in my profile) about what we need to do to save wild Florida. This photo shows Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle which the centerpiece of the largest connected corridor of longleaf forests left on the planet. We need to invest in buying conservation easements and selective public acquisitions if there is any hope to keep North Florida’s wilderness areas connected to the Everglades in the south. Some of America’s most rapidly sprawling development in between threatens to sever the Florida Wildlife Corridor that still keeps wild Florida connected. @fl_wildcorridor#pathofthepanther#floridawild#keepflwild#forest#sunrise#conservation
Path of the Panther. The reason I am focusing on the Florida panther for my current storytelling project with @NatGeo is that protecting the land needed for the wide-ranging panther will protect millions of acres of habitat for thousands of other species that depend on the panther’s domain. Not to mention saving Florida rangelands, timberlands, groves and the headwaters of the Everglades from development. As rancher Cary Lightsey told me, “the panther is going to have to help us save Florida.” A male panther has a home range of 200 square miles — four time larger than the city of Miami but approximately the same amount of wildlife habitat lost to development in Florida each year. This camera trap at Babcock Ranch shows a few of the species relying on the “Path of the Panther.” Swipe for 3 more photos following this adult male panther: white-tailed deer, Osceola turkey and raccoon, all captured on the same trail during a couple weeks in January. Please share this story to help inspire the protection of the #FloridaWildlifeCorridor. @fl_wildcorridor#PathofthePanther#FloridaWild#KeepFLWild#panther#deer#turkey#raccoon#corridor
Coral reefs rise close to the surface in Dry Tortugas National Park, with the historic lighthouse at Loggerhead Key in the background. Seventy miles west of Key West, Florida, this lighthouse marks the tip of a Marine Protected Area where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico meet. Corals here remain relatively pristine compared to reefs closer to Florida's heavily developed coastlines. But no corner of the ocean is beyond the reach of plastics pollution. I share this photograph on #WorldOceansDay as a reminder of what is at stake if we don't clean up our act. Join me in signing the #planetorplastics pledge @natgeo. Shot #onassigment for @nature_org in @drytortugasnps. #Coral#reef#ocean#floridawild#keepflwild#pureflorida#lovefl
Did you know that Florida has black bears? There are seven subpopulations distributed throughout the state from Naples to Pensacola that are increasingly isolated by roads and suburban sprawl (swipe right for a map). The core populations are centered on large, forested, public lands. This camera trap photo is from a cattle ranch in between. The importance of ranches to wide-ranging bears inspired the Florida Wildlife Corridor project, which advocates for the habitat protection needed to keep wild Florida connected. In 2012, I hiked, paddled and biked 1,000+ miles in 100 consecutive days, tracing this last remaining wildlife corridor between the Everglades (southern tip of Florida) north to the Okefenokee Swamp (southern Georgia). My current #PathofthePanther project with @NatGeo is focused on the same Corridor through the story of the endangered Florida panther, because without protecting a wildlife corridor north from the Everglades, the panther will have no path to recovery. The clock is ticking as 1000 people move to Florida each day, and 5 million acres of the Corridor are projected to be lost by 2070 if development continues on its current trajectory. Please share this story so we can help save the #FloridaWildlifeCorridor. @fl_wildcorridor@insidenatgeo. #everglades#expedition#FloridaWild#KeepFLWild#bear#corridor@myfwc. Bear research by @joeguthrie8 at @archboldstation, expedition team with @mallorydimmitt.
During the next few days I’ll be sharing some photos from the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expeditions. For the first Expedition, our team started in Everglades National Park at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, and paddled, hiked and biked 1,000+ miles over 100 consecutive days, tracing the last remaining wildlife corridor still connecting the Everglades north to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. See my recent post @NatGeo for a map showing our route, alongside the route of the 2015 expedition that followed the western reaches of the Corridor from the Everglades Headwaters near Orlando around the Gulf Coast to Alabama. This photo shows a crocodile sunning itself on mangrove roots in the brackish waters where the estuary meets Florida Bay. Everglades National Park holds the largest protected mangrove coastline in the Western Hemisphere. We didn’t see people outside our team for several days of the Expedition as we explored the vast watery wilderness of this World Heritage Area that arguably has the most to lose if we fail to protect a corridor to keep the Everglades connected to its headwaters in Central Florida and the rest of the country beyond. My current #PathofthePanther project with @NatGeo is working to bring more attention to this same issue through the story of the endangered Florida panther, because without protecting a wildlife corridor to the north, the panther will have no path to recovery. The clock is ticking as 1000 people move to Florida each day. Five million acres of the Corridor are projected to be lost by 2070 if development continues along its current sprawling trajectory. @insidenatgeo. #everglades#expedition#FloridaWild#KeepFLWild@evergladesnps. With @mallorydimmitt@joeguthrie8 and @filmnatureman.
One of my camera traps, which I checked last week, produced this photo of a bobcat winding it's way through cypress knees and over a downed tree in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of my favorite and most challenging camera sites. My goal is to show an endangered Florida panther amidst the quintessential south Florida swamp habitat that has been necessary for its survival during the past century. But since I first placed a camera trap here in 2015, the swamp has been flooded with water for 70 percent of the time. I've captured an amazing alligator photo, some good bear shots, and now this bobcat, but not yet a panther image that rises to the promise of this location. And now the rainy season has started again. Hopefully I'll get a couple more weeks of when this drainage is still a dry trail, and maybe a panther will come through. If not, it will be another 8 months before the water subsides and I can try again. Meanwhile, I am thankful for this bobcat that came through in the twilight hours to show off its beautiful forest home. My #PathofthePanther project with @NatGeo is about using the story of the Florida panther to inspire appreciation and protection of the Florida Wildlife Corridor so we can keep the Everglades connected to the rest of America and provide and path for the northward expansion and recovery of the panther, for the benefit of all of the other species (and people) who rely on its domain. Please follow @CarltonWard for more hidden wildlife. @FL_WildCorridor@USFWS#FloridaWild#KeepFLWild@myfwc
My focus on wildlife corridors in Florida was motivated in 2006. I was photographing a cattle ranch in the Northern Everglades and met biologist Joe Guthrie (@joeguthrie8) who was studying black bears there with with University of KY and @archboldstation. Joe caught the bear in this photo, named M13, and fitted it with a GPS tracking collar. Data from M13 and other bears in the study told the remarkable story of how different landscapes can work together as one. State parks, national wildlife refuges, military bases, state forests, orange groves and cattle ranches were all functioning together as large connected habitat from the perspective of wide ranging bears. The black bears of the Northern Everglades and the private lands on which they depend, and the relentless conversion of natural and agricultural lands into roads and housing developments, inspired me and colleagues to found the Florida Wildlife Corridor campaign (@FL_WildCorridor) for the purpose of demonstrating that a statewide wildlife corridor exists, and can still be saved. Joe’s bear project was started by David Maehr (third photo), who was one of the first biologists to advocate for the importance of working farms and ranches for wide ranging species, especially the Florida panthers and Florida black bears that were his expertise. Maehr died tragically in a plane crash tracking a missing black bear in 2008. Our work with the Florida Wildlife Corridor and my current #pathofthepanther project with @natgeo strive to continue his legacy. #bear#wildlife#corridor#FloridaWild#KeepFLWild
There is a saying that cats don't like water, but for the endangered Florida panther, the ability to live in flooded forests and wetlands has been a matter of survival. The Florida panther is the last puma surviving in the eastern United States, where the species was hunted or displaced from most of its range, except for the southern tip of Florida. Before roads and canals were built to cut and drain the land, the inhospitable, watery wilderness protected panthers from persecution by settlers who were moving south into the rest of the peninsula. The same difficult terrain also helped Seminole Indians endure three wars with US calvalry and remain unconquered. To show a panther walking in water, I set one of my camera traps — a studio in the woods — deep in the Fakahatchee Strand on a seasonally flooded trail. This is the same camera trap that photographed the great blue heron from my last post. Finally, after several months trying, a panther came through. Part of my #PathofthePanther project with @Natgeo, working to inspire the protection of the @FL_WildCorridor through the story of the endangered Florida panther. #FloridaWild#KeepFLWild#swamplife@myfwc@usfws