On the coldest, wettest and nastiest morning last week, I headed out to see if there were still birders at the Venice Rookery.
Of course there were.
Don Popp had been there since dawn.
He was admiring egrets, anhingas and herons, along with a flock of black-bellied whistling ducks.
Like so many photographers, he couldn’t wait to talk about the camera gear atop his tripod.
“I’ve got a Canon 5D Mark 3 with a 300 millimeter 2.8 lens,” he said, “and I’ve got a two times extender that converts the 300 to a 600.”
When I gave him a look, Popp laughed.
“You’ve got to put that in there,” he said. “People will know what you’re talking about.”
The Englewood retiree is a regular at the Venice Rookery, where a tiny island in a small lake offers a big opportunity for great photographs.
“I have so many pictures of these birds,” Popp said, “but you always want a better one, you know?”
Audubon guest book
The Venice Rookery draws about 1,500 visitors a month, according to the Venice Area Audubon Society, which has a visitors center next door.
Birders from across the continent sign the Audubon guest book:
“Chicago, Ill. ... Los Gatos, Calif. ... Santa Fe, N.M. ... Ottawa, Ont. ... Brevard, N.C.”
The Venice Rookery may be popular, but it is not pristine.
Traffic hums on the Tamiami Trail. Church bells chime on the hour. Bulldozers and backhoes rumble in a nearby equipment yard.
When birders compose their amazing photos, they try not to focus on the trailer park in the background.
‘A real show’
Yet the Venice Rookery remains a magical place, especially during winter nesting months. Dozens of birds cluster on the island, while nearly as many photographers line the shore.
Becki Babb, a Venice artist, can’t get enough of the place. She marvels at the sight and sound of the whistling ducks.
“The first one I ever saw, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The bill is such an intense color. It looks like some crazy nail polish.”
As soon as the ducks passed, there were glossy black ibis, and then a great blue heron flew just overhead.
“Did you hear its wings?” Babb asked. “We’re getting a real show today.”
Discovering the rookery
Popp, the Englewood gear guy, is an early bird.
He rises at 4 or 5 a.m., then grabs a donut and coffee on the way to the rookery. By 10 a.m., the light isn’t so good, so he heads home.
“You want to see birds,” he said, scrolling down a file on his iPhone.
“Here’s one I got yesterday. A bald eagle. This was off Placida Road in Englewood.”
Popp was a tool and die maker in Ohio for more than 40 years. After retiring to Florida, he got serious about photography.
It took him years, though, to discover the Venice Rookery.
“I didn’t even know this was here,” he said, laughing. “I saw it in a photography magazine. They mentioned this rookery in Venice, Fla., and I said, ‘What?’ But there are people all over the world who come here for this.”