Alone Again, Nature-Ally

Milky Way season runs April through September in Florida but there’s no guarantee that you will be able to photograph it. More often than not, clouds block out most of the night sky. Even when it’s clear the amount of moisture in the air can make the stars look like they’re under a layer of rippling water.

Milky Way over Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

All that being said, one of the best places around here to see and photograph the Milky Way is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. So, I took a chance and booked two nights over the new moon in May.

We knew that tent-camping with the pups was not an option. So, we agreed that TG would help me set up and drive out for dinners, but otherwise he would stay home with Oscar and Maddie while I camped solo.

my home away from home

When we arrived on Sunday afternoon the clouds to the north looked ominous and we raced to get everything organized before the rains started.

downy woodpecker busy pecking above my tent

Fortunately, it never did rain and once everything was ready, TG was on his way.

a fan, coffee maker, microwave, and mini fridge: all the creature comforts!

After a quick dinner, I went for a short walk.

Prairie Loop Trail

I didn’t see much in the heat of the late afternoon but did spy a chatty, red-shouldered hawk,

red-shouldered hawk

Beautiful butterflies,

zebra swallowtail butterfly
little butterfly on a thistle

And iconic Kissimmee white-tailed deer and turkeys!

wild turkey in the equestrian campground

One of my favorite things to do while camping is a sunset drive through the park. The daytime crowds have gone home and I eagerly look forward to what I might spy as dusk turns to dark.

Over the years I’ve spied everything from alligators to bobcats to (gasp) a 6ft Eastern diamondback rattlesnake slithering across the road.

Eastern diamondback, July 2019

I headed towards the main entrance around sunset. As I drove along, groups of five or six dark-colored birds kept flushing just ahead of the car. In talking to a park ranger the next morning, we determined that they were common nighthawks. These birds migrate through KPPSP and are only here for a brief time. I was lucky to see them!

common nighthawk in flight

By the time I turned around it was almost dark. I counted three different barred owls and a little burrowing owl that fluttered to a fence post for just long enough to snap a quick photo.

burrowing owl in the disappearing light

Once back at camp, I set up for a star stack but the clouds rolled in so I called it a night.

too cloudy for a Star Stack this night!

I was awakened at 3 am by the “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl directly over my tent, and then again at 5:30 when a cacophony of owl calls filled the campground. I was wide awake and decided to take advantage of the cool morning for a hike on the Prairie Loop Trail.

white-tailed deer in the early morning fog

This trail is a 4.6-mile loop and takes you through open prairie and wooded hammocks.

wild flower on the trail

I enjoyed some time with a tom turkey,

tom turkey

Plenty of red-winged blackbirds and Eastern meadowlarks,

Eastern meadowlark singing his heart out

A common yellowthroat,

common yellowthroat

Towhee,

Eastern towhee

And rare spy:  a Bachman’s sparrow!

Bachman’s sparrow

As I headed towards the hammock, I snapped a photo of a vulture looking quite pretty for once,

a vulture looking quite pretty!

And a pair of swallow-tailed kites far off on a tree snag.

swallow-tailed kite on a far off tree snag

By the time I got back to camp, temperatures had soared and I was tired. I rested until TG arrived and then we drove over to check out the alligator pit. At least a couple dozen lay in and around the water, not doing much of anything.

the gator pit
TG called this one “Boss Hog”
this was as much action as we got

After dinner, TG headed for home and I went for another sunset drive. You can usually spy bobwhites scampering along the side of the park roads but they are skittery and difficult to photograph. I was able to capture one by staying far enough back and zooming in with the long reach of my little Nikon P900.

bobwhite on the road

I scanned the area for deer,

always be on the look-out for deer crossing the roads at sunset!

And spotted a wild hog grazing in the meadow, not at all interested in me.

wild hog

Up ahead I saw the unmistakable shape of a four-footed animal – a bobcat or small coyote – but it vanished into the darkness before I could be sure.

I spied burrowing owls, three more barred owls, and quite a few snakes.

green snake on the road

As I turned the corner to head back towards the campground, my headlights picked up a barred owl sitting in the middle of the road. She immediately flew to a nearby pole.

she immediately flew to a nearby pole

I put the car in Park, lowered my window, and just as I got ready to take a shot, she turned to look at me.  Hello, Gorgeous!  She was still sitting there as I thanked her and went on my way.

Thank you!

Once back at camp I set up for a star stack. This technique is a composite of 100+ images taken over an hour or more, and then stacked together in a free program called “Star Stax.”

It was wonderful to sit alone in the dark, listening to the night sounds around me. Suddenly out of nowhere, three little furry things came bounding towards me. They were baby raccoons and mama was not far behind! Upon seeing me, they ran across the road but I could still see their black outlines scurrying back and forth beside the scrub palmettos.

a star stack

I woke during the night to footsteps crunching in the leaves outside my screen window. I grabbed my flashlight and peered out:  a little opossum waddled into the woods behind my tent.

Unfortunately, the sky did not give me the Milky Way opportunity I was hoping for this visit. But it’s only May and I have the whole summer ahead of me.

Milky Way at KPPSP, June 2021

You’ll know where to find me:  alone again, nature-ally!

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

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