NEW PORT RICHEY — For Mark Berlinger, getting the best shot is a matter of serendipity. Being in the right place. Looking up at the right time. Hearing a rustle and following a notion to take the lens cap off your camera and shoot.
Often, the right place is along the trails Berlinger traverses daily as the site supervisor at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. That’s where he encountered a pair of red shouldered hawks and their hatchlings after an adult hawk swooped across his path during a hiking trail check.
Sometimes, the right time is after the park entrance gate is locked for the night, when a happenstance glance out a window is rewarded with the sight of a handful of deer grazing on the ranger residence lawn.
Berlinger, 48, has been with the Pasco County Parks, Recreation and National Resources Department for 13 years, most recently overseeing a crew of six at Starkey Park, a 12,000-acre swath of wilderness maintained by the county and Southwest Florida Management District. Among his duties — landscaping, filling water stations, maintaining the hiking and biking trails, cleaning rest rooms, camp cabins and the playground area, as well as power-washing the boardwalk at the park education center. And if hikers get lost at the end of the day, Berlinger treks into the woods to find them.
"I love it," Berlinger said, listing of some of the creatures he has captured with his camera. "Water snakes, alligators, a great horned owl, wild boar, deer."
Add to that, a first-time sighting of a juvenile roseate spoonbill in the park, and a bee buzzing over a pigmy rattle snake in the leaves. He got down on his belly for that shot.
"Basically it’s just luck that nature presents itself," Berlinger said. "The best time, of course, is early morning, before the crowds start coming through, or close to dusk. But I have found things throughout the day. I’m on the job doing other things, and it just happens around you."
Berlinger’s photographs appear on the Starkey Park Facebook page he manages.
"Mark the Park Ranger" wildlife shots also are a regular feature on Pasco County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department’s social media pages, managed by program coordinator, Alex Fasano,
The photographs are a great way to highlight the offerings of local parks alongside notices about events and programs, prescribed burns and construction in the parks, Fasano said.
"Mark has a great eye for photography," he said. "He’s taken an initiative to showcase the wildlife and nature at the park, and this was just another avenue for us to share the beauty of Pasco County."
Berlinger may have inherited his talent from his dad, who earned a living as a school portrait photographer.
"I learned how to develop black and white photographs," he said, adding that he never warmed to taking pictures of people.
"My dad took thousands of pictures of us growing up," he said. "Nature is my thing."
It’s been a circuitous route.
Berlinger grew up in Cumberland, Rhode Island. He served as a military combat engineer in the Army during Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s. He later worked security and management jobs in nightclubs in New York City. He also had a small, recurring role as a doctor on the soap opera Loving.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Berlinger packed up his family and relocated to Spring Hill, taking a job as night security supervisor for the Tampa Convention Center.
"I had a 2-year-old son, and I wanted to raise him in a different environment," he said.
Berlinger, who is now divorced, found a his calling in a want ad for a grounds keeper and attendant at Crews Lake Park in Spring Hill.
"I figure with Florida, I wanted to work outside," he said. "I love wildlife, and I was lucky to end up where there’s lots of it."
His foray into nature photography began with a cell phone while working at Crews Lake Park. Now he carries a Cannon Rebel equipped with a 250- or 300-mm lens. He often spends his days off taking pictures at other county parks, and tags along for many of the county park nature walks.
Like any good photographer, he takes hundreds of pictures to get that one perfect shot. When he’s not sure of the species of birds or flora he’s captured with his camera, he calls on Kimberly Calhoun, the preserve ranger at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.
His photographs are a draw for visitors, said Parks and Recreation superintendent, Cristina Cordon. She is contemplating a park exhibit featuring wildlife photos taken by Berlinger and other camera bugs who volunteer or visit the parks regularly.
"He’s slowly fine-tuned from a hobby to expertise," she said. "A lot of people who have seen (his photographs) on social media like them."
Berlinger hopes that those who see his photographs will want to visit, and those who can’t will get a glimpse of local wildlife. Maybe that will help drum up support for local parks and the programs they offer throughout the year.
"I love what I do. I love where I do it," Berlinger said. "I just want people to see it."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.