With his camera in tow, Ken Johnson arrives at Port Manatee early each morning to stealthily stalk the thousands of birds that call the seaport home.
Before he begins his day as fleet supervisor, overseeing the purchasing and repair of equipment at the port, he spends the early morning hours capturing some of the 150 species of birds on film.
Johnson, who had a professional photography business years ago in Chicago, has taken more than 6,000 photos of the port’s avian wildlife, from white pelicans to nesting plover. His photographs have been compiled into a 40-page book of wildlife images titled “Birds of Port Manatee.” And a second book is in the works.
“The more pictures you take, the luckier you get,” said Johnson. “In the morning, it (the port) is loaded with wildlife.”
The former Marine served in Vietnam as part of a helicopter squadron, got to know the photographer in his unit and became interested in the art form.
When he left the service, he decided to get into the business and even built a photo lab at his home.
He did aerial photography shooting out of a Cessna and took photos at air shows. He also dabbled in other commercial projects. But after eight years, regulations and spiraling costs drove him to pack up his cameras and try another trade.
In 2007, he started taking photos again and learning the digital aspect of it. He formed a side business -- Suncoast Photo Works Inc. -- which he hopes to operate full time when he retires.
Port Director David McDonald asked Johnson recently if he could help with providing photography of the port’s birds as a gift to the Audubon Society, which works with the port in maintaining Manbirtee Key, the offshore spoil island that is a habitat haven for many of the area’s birds.
The port and Gulfstream Pipeline paid $7 million to make the spoil island a avian habitat. All the nonnative vegetation was removed along with predators like snakes and raccoons.
Mark Rachal, field biologist with the Florida Coastal Islands Sanctuaries Program operating under the Florida Audubon Society, makes monthly maintenance visits to the island and took Johnson for a guided trip through the lush vegetation that nesting, roosting and migratory birds call home.
“I got enthralled with all the birds,” Johnson said, “I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a book.”
The natural mangrove forest attracts a variety of herons, and the fact that human visits are restricted encourages bird life, Rachal said.
There is a sandbar on the island’s southeast corner used by winter roosting birds, he said, and nesting terns and plovers use the top of the island which is free of vegetation.
“We made an effort not to disturb nesting birds on the island,” Rachal said. “It provides a safe haven for them because there are few predators.”
Although the majority of birds at the port live on the island, they also can be seen all over port property.
“The way the port is laid out, there are natural areas where water accumulates -- ponds and channels of water that attract the birds,” Johnson said.
He describes himself as “an eagle kind of guy” but also loves Osprey. “It’s great to see them with young in their nests,” Johnson said.