Castellow Hammock Park

Castellow Hammock Park
Castellow Hammock Park is located in Southwest Miami-Dade County, Florida just five minutes away from the densely populated Town of Cutler Bay. It is one of Miami-Dade County’s six ECO-Adventures Nature Centers and it was my second stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  I grew up in the Cutler Bay area and have lived in South Florida for more than thirty years, and I did not know about Castellow Hammock until the day before my visit.  I found it on the Great Florida Birding Trail website when searching for a birding hot spot near my home.
Park Entrance

The park entrance features a few bird feeders placed on high stilts that seemed to be empty on that particular October afternoon.  Clusters of flowering shrubs and trees dotted the grounds that attract a variety of butterflies and humming birds.  The facility includes a nature center that was staffed by a ranger-type girl, who was just closing up as I arrived.  Even though she was leaving, she said it was alright for me to explore the park as long as I parked outside the gate, which she would be locking up shortly.  The park’s main feature is the nature trail, which begins behind the nature center building.  I was surprised to see that it was really nothing more than a narrow path carved into a thicket of banyan trees, live oak and thick under growth.

Fallen Tree

The vegetation surrounding the trail was thick enough to create a canopy that filtered out a lot of the sunlight, and once I was several steps inside I felt as if I had entered into another world.  The rocks were all covered with moss and I could almost taste the dampness of this new ecosystem that was nothing like the one I had just stepped out of.  The sound of the wind brushing through the leaves of the tree tops was soothing and reminded me of an Amerindian rain stick.  I could hear many different birds singing and calling and at first I couldn’t see any of them. I was sure they all could see me.  In fact, I suspected, I was possibly the subject of their conversations.

Tiny Gorge

The trail wound approximately half a mile back into the thicket and I was grateful for the numbered posts that were left every fifty feet.  Without them I may not have been able to exit the trail as easily as I had entered it.  There were several fallen trees that were slowly decomposing, now sustaining their habitat now in a different way than they had in the past.  About half way in to the trail I found a very small gorge cut into the rock.  The basin was about ten feet below where I stood and was filled with water.  I was impressed by the  roots of the surrounding trees traveling down the steep edges to drink from the water below.  I stopped for a few minutes, hoping see a bird or some other  form of wildlife there, but it was unoccupied at that moment.  I was beginning to think that I would see nothing but trees and plant life.

Looking but not seeing…

While on the trail my inexperience as a birder was apparent.  The first time I raised my camera  to snap a picture I realized that I had forgotten to check the battery.  It was completely dead.  I would have to rely on my cell phone  for pictures.  It probably didn’t matter much, because I really need much better equipment to photgoraph the little birds I was looking for.  Small birds are fast and skittish; they won’t let you get close.   I realized then why most birders rely on some type of optical aid such as a spotting scope or binoculars just to see the see birds, let alone photograph them.  Another thing that became painfully apparent was my lack of knowledge of birds.  I was hearing many different bird calls and songs, but had no clue as to what they were.  When I would catch the occasional glimpse of a bird, most of the time I had no clue as to what kind it was.  I had been thrilled to see the hummingbirds at the park entrance, but dismayed to find out later that there are too many different species of hummingbird for me to come close to identifying what I had seen.   Birding is going to take a lot of practice and I probably need to pick up a pocket field guide to help identify birds on the spot.

One thing I did learn from this little outing is to slow down.  When I first entered the trail, I wanted to covered a lot of ground so I moved quickly and probably made a lot of noise.  I could hear many different birds but didn’t see a thing.   But once I got about as deep into the thicket as I could go I decided to stop and listen.  I was still and patience.  A few minutes I was able to distinguish, the direction the different chirps were coming from.  If I concentrated I could estimate how close or far away they were.  I heard the tree branches off to my right move and when I shifted my gaze I was thrilled to see a bright red Northern Cardinal perched on a branch not more than ten feet away.  Then he was gone before I could even think to try to snap his picture with my cell phone.  A few minutes later I spotted a bright orange female and I enjoyed listening to the two of them singing their songs of courtship.

Then another sign of my inexperience showed up in the form of mosquitoes.  I hadn’t even thought about putting on repellent.  I knew from past experience hiking and camping that now that they had found me they wouldn’t be leaving me alone, so I began making my way out of the trail.  Once I reached that nature center, I decided to sit for awhile on one of the benches outside.  I enjoyed hearing many different songbirds.  I caught a glimpse of the occasional flutter of wings, but was really able to identify anything else, except for the White-winged doves that were fly from treetop to treetop.
I have been told that in a month or so there will be many more migrating birds in South Florida, so I may return to Castellow Hammock again in the next few weeks or maybe I will try another stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  One thing is for sure; I will be out there enjoying nature and learning more about birding.

Until Next Time,

The Inexperienced Birder

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10 thoughts on “Castellow Hammock Park

  1. Very interesting! It makes one want to escape the stress of the city, to say nothing of the noise, and take a mini-vacation in a totally different world.As you say so well, we need to learn to slow down to the pace of that world, and observe and listen. (Next time take the mosquito repellant.)

  2. Thanks. Hopefully the weather cools down and the mosquitoes leave!

  3. "While on the trail my inexperience as a birder was apparent. The first time I raised my camera to snap a picture I realized that I had forgotten to check the battery. It was completely dead. I would have to rely on my cell phone for pictures. It probably didn't matter much, because I really need much better equipment to photgoraph the little birds I was looking for. " Don't worry about inexperience. Everyone started out as a beginner. Keep going out to take pictures as often and you can and you will get experience! The more mistakes you make, the faster you will learn. The more annoyed you get with yourself for some mistake, the better you will remember not to do it in the future. This is true in many fields but particularly true in photography. Here is some great advice on what equipment to get to photograph birds:http://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=158964It's a bit pricy but I think it is well worth it (although I don't own that equipment I wish I did).If you don't have a lot of experience with photography you might want to start with something less expensive and simpler like a point-and-shoot ultra zoom for under $500. I used a canon SX20 IS which is sometimes used in high-school photography classes. It has the equivalent of a 200mm zoom lens compared to a typical digital slr camera, or a 300 mm on film 35mm camera. The manufacturer claims it is 20X magnification and equivalent to more than 500mm on a 35 mm camera. I have no idea how they rationalize that. If you want to get a digital slr but can't afford the 400mm zoom recommended at the link you can usually get a digital SLR camera with 50 mm lens and a 200 or 300 mm zoom lens for under $1000. I am using the pentax k-x for which there is a 55-300 mm zoom lens. If you can find a package with the longer zoom included you will probably save money.No matter how much telephoto magnification you have, you will always push it to it's limits photographying distant birds and wish for more.If you want to see pictures with the canon or pentax cameras I mentioned you can look at my blog ( http://o3cpcs.blogspot.com/ ) I started using the pentax k-x in June so go back before then to see pictures with the canon SX20SI. The image quality of a digital slr will probably be much better than a point and shoot ultra zoom's if you are going to crop your pictures to enlarge tiny birds that are just a small part of the frame. A dslr will also let you take pictures faster – I used to get highly frustrated waiting for the point and shoot trying to get in a few shots before the bird flew off.Also a dslr will let you focus manually. While the ultrazoom I had did have manual focus, it was not practical. You need manual focus when there is a leaf or twig in front of the bird that the auto focus locks on to leaving the bird out of focus.The main things to consider when looking for a camera are (in my opinion) magnification and image quality, iso performance, and if you are going to shoot in raw mode, then speed in frames per second.A great web site to compare camera features is:http://www.dpreview.comThey have extremely detailed reviews and a side by side comparison feature that produces a chart comparing the features of cameras you select.You also might want to investigate the artistic side of photography. You can find information on the internet about composition, lighting etc etc. It doesn't hurt to think of these things when you photograph birds and, birds aside, you can use a much less expensive camera to take great artistic pictures because you are only limited by your own creativity not by the amount of magnification in your telephoto lens.Have Fun,

  4. Sounds like you had a good walk. One thing I learned:1) buy a backup battery and memory card and keep them in your bag (camera bag or backpack) or at least in your car. 2)I bought Off deet wipes that are individually wrapped and keep them in my camera bag as well. You could buy a pocket size Florida bird book but I usually try and get pictures, then look them up later.

  5. Great advice, Dina. The wipes sound like a good idea and getting photos would definitely be preferable to carrying a book around.

  6. "I used a canon SX20 IS which is sometimes used in high-school photography classes. It has the equivalent of a 200mm zoom lens compared to a typical digital slr camera, or a 300 mm on film 35mm camera. The manufacturer claims it is 20X magnification and equivalent to more than 500mm on a 35 mm camera. I have no idea how they rationalize that."Sam,I'm not so sure about the magnification anymore, I just checked again and the magnification of the sx20si is between that of a 200mm and 300mm on my dslr. 300mm on my dslr would be equivalent to 450 on 35mm so the manufacturers claims might not be as far off as I thought.Dina: About the deet wipes… Deet is a powerful solvent and it can melt some types of plastics. I have a fingerprint on my binoculars from holding it after I put on some deet spray. I have been afraid to use deet for fear of damaging my camera. Have you had any problems like that? Do you do anything special after you apply the deet like wiping your hands etc?Thanks

  7. Don't worry about being inexperienced – the only way to know your birds is to go birding. And you don't need to worry about identifying the hummingbirds. The only kind likely to be seen in the Eastern US is the Ruby-throated.

  8. Thanks Anonymous. I looked up the Ruby-throated and it definitely could have been of them.

  9. Deet is a very agreassive product, there are other bug repelents in that work just as well if not better. There is one that uses eucalyptus and cintronela you can buy them at Bass Pro, target, wallmart and so on its a clear container with a green pump spray on top. I have used that repelent while doing research in Everglades national park during the summer and it works great!

  10. Great advice. I'm definitely going to try that stuff.

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