Well my wife and I just got back from spending 7 days in that wonderful part of the world. Over the next few weeks I will share on the birds and wildlife forums some of the shots that we both got while on this wonderful trip. (It will take me that long to wade through the large number of photos that we were able to get while there.)
First I would like to say thank you to all that responded to this post and the tips and hints that I got. The second thing is that I would like to pass on from my experience on this trip some of the things that we learned that might help someone else who is going there and wants to shoot some photos.
First, go with a plan and use a Calendar to help you plan the best times to be in certain areas.
Do not think of only Early and late, look at the tide tables and make sure that you "understand" how the tide will affect the availabillity of subjects that you want to shoot. The wildlife drive will be best at the lowest tide possible, plan your stay there with this in mind, and be there at the best available time, and understand that the tides in this part of the Refuge will run as much as an hour or more,"behind" the tide tables posted for Tarpon Bay. knowledge of this can help you to maximize your time spent.
Buy a Federal Duck Stamp, "you should anyway if you are into bird photography", But with a duck stamp you get to come and go whenever the refuge is "open" without paying a fee, this allows you to take the trails on any day and multiple times without paying the entry fees.
Rent a Kayak and hit the mangrove trails out from Tarpon Bay Marina, if you use common sense and are cautious you can use your gear without getting it wet, they are good folks to deal with and offer very good equipment to rent. I am over 200 lbs and my wife and I used a Perception 2 person kayak that was very comfortable, manueverable and was able to be paddled very easily even in a good chop without getting my gear wet. In one two hour period I got some fantastic shots (for me) of multiple species of herons, Ibis, egrets, kingfishers, Anhingas, Cormorants, Osprey, and even frigate birds. Many that allowed us to get so close that my 150 to 500 was too much at 150mm.
Hit the beaches at multple sites, we were able to get shots of different species of Terns and Gulls at different beaches.
Talk to several of the locals at the Nature centers in the area. The SCCF and CROW are two that can give you some great ideas for getting different species, and there facillities also offer some photo ops as well.
Carry Insect repellant and/or protective clothing. I saw several people in full net suits, and headnets as the no seeums, were an issue for many early in the day until the wind got up. I am one of the lucky ones that they do not really bother, but some people really have a hard time with them, and mosquitoes at some times. Also watch out for "fire ants" I was shooting a group of manatees near one of the Marinas one morning and did not watch my footing, and before I knew it I was literally covered up with fire ants (flip flops and bare legs are not the best protection for fire ants) I had to laugh at myself.
Remain flexible, and with all nature activities watch the weather and winds, and be safe and have fun!!!
Also for good eats on the Island at a reasonable price and a good time, the Island Cow, beat all that we tried hands down, for Breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.
If I can be of any other assistance to anyone headed that way let me know and I will be glad to pass along what little knowledge that I have accumulated.
Bill Hampton firstname.lastname@example.org