It really doesn't get better than a two-hour hike through a nature preserve teeming with wild surprises early on a beautiful Saturday morning.
That is, unless you add two master naturalist guides, and sharp-eyed fellow hikers, who happily point out crazy plants and animals you would've missed on your own.
Make those guides professional photographers dispensing tips like gumballs from a nickel machine, subtract the nickel — because this is all totally free — and, oh yeah, it really doesn't get any better!
My husband pointed out the announcement on the Things to Do page in the Tampa Bay Times: "Guided Photography Hike: . . . hit the trails and boardwalk looking for shots that reflect the season" at Brooker Creek Preserve. No registration required.
From my home in Town 'N Country, the preserve is a half-hour drive along country roads lined with lakes, horses, citrus groves and rural gems like the Pickin' Time Produce & Peanut Co. Turn into the preserve's understated entrance (read: easy to miss), and you've got a 15 mph cruise down a mile-long winding road to the parking area and Environmental Education Center.
Obeying the speed limit has its rewards. I spotted three wild turkeys. I'd never seen wild turkeys!
The preserve is 8,700 acres of woods, the biggest undeveloped property in Florida's No. 1 most people-packed county (3,347 souls per square mile; No. 2, Broward County, has less than half that). Managed by the county's Parks and Conservation Resources department, it gets tremendous support from dedicated volunteers, including my two naturalist-photographer hike guides, Karl and Kathleen Nichter.
We met at the education center: Karl, Kathleen plus six hikers, including me. The Nichters, a married couple who retired early from corporate careers to pursue their passion, kicked off our expedition with some pointers.
• Wear long sleeves and long pants — it's deerfly season. (Wish I'd heard that earlier. I didn't stop scratching for a week.)
• This is nature so you'll never see the same thing twice.
• If you want to shoot birds, start with the big ones. They hold still longer.
You don't need a big, expensive camera to get beautiful shots of plants and wildlife, the Nichters told us. Karl carries a little Canon PowerShot G9, along with his fancier gear.
"I love it," he says of the pocket camera. "It does everything I need it to do."
Heading down the boardwalk, we soon came upon lizard's tail, Saururus cernuus, a bog plant with a tall stem topped by tiny blooms on a curving spike. (This would make a nice addition to your water garden, though you might want to keep it in a pot — some growers say it can be aggressive.)
We spotted an alligator, a fat cottonmouth snake draped over a tree root, and a bright green frog whose identity stumped even our knowledgeable guides. Stepping into a clearing, we got a stunning vista of purple pickerel weed, another pretty native for your water garden. (The University of Florida recommends planting in containers with no drainage holes to keep it in check, and in water no deeper than 12 inches.)
Throughout our hike, we got tips from Karl and Kathleen. Judging by how often he repeated them, these are Karl's two favorites.
1. "The gate opens at 7 o'clock." The earlier you arrive, the more wildlife you'll see. And the early-morning light makes for beautiful photographs. "Lighting, composition and interesting subjects are the three components of a good photograph," Karl says.
2. "Read your manual!" You won't know what your camera can do unless you sit down and read the manual. The whole manual!
Whether you're in your garden or a park or preserve, here are some more great take-aways from the Nichters.
• Shoot butterflies early in the morning. As their wings warm they pick up speed, which makes them less cooperative.
• Learn lots about a place before you visit. Find out what types of plants and wildlife are there, when they're blooming (or out and about), and where to find them.
• Err on the side of underexposing, rather than overexposing, your photos. It's easier to tease images out of too-dark photos than those shot with too much light.
• Don't shoot flowers in direct sunlight. Early morning, late afternoon or overcast conditions offer the best light for flowers. Too much sun washes out the color.
I can't thank my husband enough for pointing out that announcement in the Times. I left Brooker Creek Preserve buzzing on a nature high — and with some cute new earrings from its very cool gift shop.
Read more local garden stories and photos at digginfladirt.com. Penny Carnathan can be contacted at [email protected] or find her on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter.