The best time to photograph the Milky Way is the spring through fall months – when the galactic center is visible above the horizon. And clear, dark skies are a must for a good photo. Of course, being in Florida “clear, dark skies” are never a given so the best one can do is plan and then hope the weather cooperates!
We’ve found that both Cleardarksky and Accuweather are great tools for helping to plan night sky shots but then you need to find a dark spot with good composition opportunities to make for a truly compelling photo.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one of only two Dark Sky parks in Florida – and on a clear night the sky is exceptionally dark, making stars, planets, and the Milky Way visible even with the naked eye.
Fortunately for us, Kissimmee is located less than an hour from our home in Okeechobee and our favorite place to camp. We booked three nights over the new moon in June and then hoped the weather would cooperate.
Our plan was to stay up late each night and take it easy during the day.
So, after we set up, I went for a short hike to scout out some potential locations for later that night.
On my walk I saw a beautiful female eastern towhee enjoying a little snack
And a hole I thought might be home to a snake until this little guy popped out!
This scraggly tree looked like it might make for a good composition so I planned to return to this spot later that night.
After dinner we watched a beautiful sunset
And relaxed by the campfire while we waited for nightfall.
The sky was so clear, and the stars so bright that TG set up his tripod around 9pm to start shooting a star stack. A star stack is a series of photos taken over several hours and then stacked together into a single photo using a special (free) program. The rotation of the earth gives the stars a beautiful “pinwheel” effect.
There weren’t a lot of campers that night, and everyone was out with lawn chairs set up to enjoy the cool evening and the brilliant night sky. Suddenly a meteor shot directly over our heads. It was the largest, brightest, most long-lasting meteor I had ever seen as it sailed across the sky and disappeared in a fireball on the horizon. And because TG was already shooting continuous 10-second exposures pointed in that direction, he was able to capture it!
A short time later I heard the unmistakable “squee” of a juvenile barred owl. I followed the sound and found her sitting on a branch directly behind the bath house – in so much light I was able to spot her as soon as I got close.
She was watching an opossum, but must have decided it was too big a meal.
I heard more rustling in the bushes and suddenly out popped three armadillos! Armadillos are nearly blind and this one practically bumped into me as he scurried on his way.
By now it was after 11pm and the Milky Way was rising above the tree line behind the campground. I took a few shots and then hiked to the scraggly tree I had scouted out earlier.
Just as I thought, the tree made for a beautiful composition with the Milky Way rising behind it.
After taking a few shots I headed back to our campsite and set up my tripod for my own star stack. I locked my shutter release for continuous 20-second exposures and went to bed.
TG woke me around 5am. The Milky Way was directly overhead
And we enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet with our morning coffee.
We decided to go for a short drive before the park opened.
The road was quiet this morning but we still managed to capture “iconic Kissimmee.”
We spent most of the day napping. Before dinner, I walked over to the Kilpatrick Hammock trail. This short, 1/2-mile loop is mostly shady, with two pretty wooden bridges.
I saw a black racer sunning on the path
And two lizards in some sort of territorial war on a palm frond.
Night drives at Kissimmee are always interesting and you never know what you might spy. Over the years I’ve seen alligators, wild hogs, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, deer, bullfrogs, and three different species of owls on the road after dark.
I’ve been meaning to do one for a while, so around dusk I drove the five miles to the park entrance. On my way I spied a beautiful red rat snake,
And a half dozen burrowing owls. I have seen these owls before but they usually fly away as soon as my headlights hit them. But this one stayed long enough for me to snap a quick photo.
Unfortunately, just as the Milky Way rose that night black clouds rolled in.
We had planned to stay until Saturday morning but received word that the new tent we ordered was to be delivered and required a signature.
The forecast called for another cloudy evening so we packed up and headed home early.
We are just at the start of Milky Way season. We have already booked dates in July, August, and September so, conditions permitting, we should have a lot more opportunities to see – and photograph – starry nights out at Kissimmee!