Monday, June 29, 2009

The Flamingos of the Everglades

There is a large flock of flamingos currently living in the backcountry of the Everglades. You can't get to them except by paddle boat. I found out about this flock through an acquaintance paddler, Bob Quirk. Bob is one of the volunteers working to clear the Bear Lake Trail. In fact, the Sun Sentinel ran a story about these guys:,0,4874018.story. Check it out for a very interesting story.

A few weeks ago Bob posted some photos he shot of the birds on a website devoted to the work being done by the volunteers. He also invited me to go back in with him so that I could photograph these magnificent birds. Of course I took him up on his offer. We planned to meet at the Flamingo marina and then drive to the launch site on Buttonwood canal (off the Bear Lake Rd). From there, we would paddle approximately 3 miles to get to the area where the flamingos were last sited. The drive from the marina was about 1 1/2 miles of dirt road speckled quite generously with water-filled pot holes deep enough for a good size gator to cool off during the day. We arrived at the launch site at dusk and the mosquitos were there en masse to greet us. Here it is the middle of June and I was completely covered head to toe. In addition to a bug jacket and hood, I wore the following: heavy nylon pants with elastic bands around ankles, sneakers, wool socks, long sleeve cotton shirt, heavy knit gloves and a wide brimmed hat. I froze my camelback bladder the night before and placed it inside a backpack holder which I put on before donning the mosquito jacket. Not only did this allow me to access the drinking port at any time without undoing the hood, but it also helped keep me cool.

We arrived at the area where Bob spotted the flamingos earlier and they were not there. Nor were they in another spot he had seen them. My heart sunk thinking I had missed the flamingos. We continued paddling as the morning sun continued to rise but still early enough to be perfect for photographing. About 20 minutes later I looked to the right on the other side of land point and noticed several very large colorful birds in the distant. There they were, about 16 of them along a grassy mud bank lining the water. I slowly and quietly paddled closer and eventually got within a hundred feet or so of them.
Fantastic! I had never seen flamingos in the wild and never realized how large they are. Standing upright, I'm guessing the largest of the group stood over 5 feet tall easily. There were 2 deep orange colored flamingos that were larger than the rest of the members of the group. They seemed to invite interactions with the others on occasion. The interaction would begin usually with one bird coming up to the larger bird with what looked like a kiss. Upon closer inspection of the photographs, it appears to be biting and not kissing. They would interact, beak to beak for a short period and then move on. More than a few times I watched 3 or 4 get into a similar interaction. One of the group was always a larger bird who would receive pecks from 1 or 2 others, sometimes on the beak, sometimes on its torso.

It might possibly be breeding season for these birds. I referred to the Sibley's book and learned that they mostly feed at night except during breeding season. And they breed only in years when the environmental conditions are right for raising their young. For months they go through their breeding stage with lots of groups displays of breeding behaviors, which is what I believe I witnessed. They are a gregarious bird, displaying and nesting in groups. Nests are built close together on mudflats.

Flamingos take on features of several other types of birds. They are tall like herons, have webbed feet like ducks and, here's a new one for me, they secrete a milk-like substance to feed their young, like pigeons. They are omnivorous and feed on insects, crustaceans, and algae among other things. They filter their prey from shallow water but can also capture larger animals with their beaks. In the dry season, they can consume mud and extract the nutrients from it. For feeding they primarily submerge their heads upside down and facing backward.

They are a very loud bird. They make a sound similar to the great egret or heron, but only louder and hardier. They were quite noisy at times and other times only an occasional squack could be heard. They were busily feeding when I found them and it appeared that at any given time half of the group would have heads submerged while the other half would be looking about. Once, something got the group's attention and they simultaneously stood upright and faced the same direction. During feeding I watched one bird move its legs back and forth quickly in the water, similar to what a snowy egret might do when foraging.

Bob and I hung out with the group for a couple hours, watching these fascinating birds. What a privilege to see them and amazing that they allowed me a close look at their community. The Everglades always presents something new.
It is my understanding that this area will become more easily accessible to the casual tourist soon. If this is the case, I only hope that these birds are nesting in a safe area and that they, along with all the other animals I spotted this day will not be encroached upon to the point they have no choice but to move on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summers on Biscayne Bay - Matheson Hammock

Matheson Hammock area of the bay is my favorite for capturing wading birds. They usually congregate near the mouth of the creek located a 1/2 mile south of the canoe launch. There are several lone mangroves off the main shoreline on both the north and south sides of the creek entrance and among these you can find birds roosting or feeding in and around the trees.

At the earliest of light, this is one of the best places for photographing in the direction of the mangroves. the golden light is spectacular and the reflections offer some beautiful contrasts to the wading birds. At low tide, it is not unusual to find several ibises and little blue herons feeding vigorously in the flats. This is the only area of Biscayne Bay where I've seen so many little blue herons in one place. Great white egrets and a lone great blue heron can be spotted here also. Tricolor herons are present, although they tend to stay closer to the shoreline. In winter months, I've spotted wood storks herel. And those winter southeasterly winds tend to blow the portuguese man-a-wars into the shallow areas. I've captured some interesting photos of those creatures.

This summer, I found a couple black-necked stilts in the shallows. Not only was it the first time I've seen them here, it was the first time I've photographed these birds.

Another aspect of Matheson that I like is the creek that runs from the bay back into the canal. Here, I have photographed large mangrove crabs that seem to be more obvious in late summer months. Once, I captured several of them and two that seemed to be mating. These shy crabs are very difficult to photograph, with so much opportunity for hiding among the mangrove mud and roots. A flash is useful and this year, I will have a 180mm macro to take in there making the photographing easier. With my 420mm lens/teleconverter, I have a hard time getting to the right distance away from the crabs. It's easier to get close ups, thus a macro lens will serve that purpose well.

Another creature I find in the creeks is the large female golden silk spider that spins her web above the creek. This is a beautiful spider that photographs well with a clear sky background if you can situate your boat for such a scene. It's worth the maneuvering to get a shot of this large spider, but it takes lots of patience.

As for the birds, this is a great place for photographing, but only at low tides. I find the best time to come here is when low tide is between 7-9 am. The park opens very early and it will cost $5-6 to get in.

Summers on Biscayne Bay - Deering Estate

Deering Estate area of the bay has proven to be an interesting spot for photographing in the summer. It is quite beautiful for sunrise shots from the launch area. Here, you will find very large limestone rocks sticking out of the low tide water, providing a nice foreground display with chicken Key off in the distance near the rising sun. At low tide, I've spotted several great white egrets wading near by and once, I hung out with a very busy snowy egret next to the People's Dock. The bird didn't mind me being only 10-15 ft away in the very shallow water. I stayed on with the bird for over an hour while it displayed several dances and wing fanning behaviors as it fished for crustaceans, worms and other marine edibles. Early in the morning with an incoming or outgoing tide, this area is often busy with sharks and you'll spot the telltale dorsal fin moving swiftly in the shallow waters. Cormorants are almost always in the area feeding, resting in trees, or flying by.

For the past two years in August, I have come across a very large flock of cormorants swimming in the water near Chicken Key. Not sure what the behavior is, but none seemed to be feeding, they were simply swimming and staring in unison with their heads tilted upward. Even more interesting is that the herring gulls took a keen interest in the flock and on several occasions would swoop down toward the cormorants. The gulls seem to be after something in the water, but why they were doing this near the cormorants is a mystery to me. I suppose birds hang out where there is a food source or for protection.

There are a couple islands near the estate house and often you can find many birds roosting. Two years ago I found several fledgling green herons among a few adults living among the mangroves. Cormorants roost in relatively large number and I'll spot some brown pelicans doing the same sometimes. Ibises are relatively common here with an occasional tricolor heron or great white egret. At low tide, ibises, yellowcrown nightherons and others wade near the shoreline just north of the Deering Estate house. Chicken Key is not too far, about 1/2 mile from shore. At lowest of tides there is a large flat on the southeast side of the island where several wading birds feed.

Overall, this is a fair spot to photograph, but for me, it is mostly the area I paddle across before reaching the bird rookery. On a good day, I may be delayed getting to the rookery because of various opportunities that pop up along the way, especially at low tide. For photographing birds, it's livelier than Blackpoint, but not as lively as Matheson Hammock or the rookery.

Summers on Biscayne Bay - Blackpoint

Summer is when I have the most time to photograph on Biscayne Bay. I find summer full of bird photo opportunities, especially from the water. Of all the places I launch from on Biscayne Bay, Blackpoint is the least consistent for birds. At low tide, you might find tricolors or green herons along the jetty edge. I've spotted an eagle in the area, and almost always an osprey or two and a few brown pelicans. Ibises congregate sometimes in the trees and you can capture them feeding occasionally near the jetty at low tide. Once, I spotted a large flock of snowy egrets in the trees. During late summer months, gulls and terns (royal terns, herring gulls mostly) congregate around the jetty. Once while sitting near the jetty with the gulls I spotted an extremely large flock of white birds about 500 feet or so from the other side of the channel near the mangrove shoreline. With my telephoto I was able to see hundreds of gulls flying. They had been swimming on the water and all of a sudden lifted off into the sky en masse.

I first became acquainted with Biscayne Bay at Blackpoint. During 2005 and 2006, I took several photos from this area while friends fished from kayaks and canoes. But since discovering some other areas on the bay, I spend less time here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where and when to launch your boat on Biscayne Bay

I spend my summers on Biscayne Bay, foregoing the Everglades camping until November. Because of my work demands, early May is about the time I begin to visit the bay frequently and continue this through August. In the summer, timing is everything in order to make these day trips worthwhile for photography. I get on the water as close to sunrise as possible and get off the water typically before noon. Early morning is the time to be out here, for several reasons:

1. The mangrove shoreline (where the wading birds are located) receives the morning light. From a boat, you have access to the golden front light.
2. Afternoon summer storms. You can count on them like clockwork. Mostly, these storms come in from the west-southwest and you must be very observant of cloud formations.
3. Prevailing east-southeast winds, which typically increase as the day progresses. Calm waters are the norm during early morning hours.
4. Heat and humidity. I am always puzzled when coming off the water and watching people getting on the water around 11 am or noon. By 9-10 am, the sun is intense, the humidity is oppressing.
5. Catching the sunrise over the bay as you load your boat and prepare to launch. I often bring my tripod and wide angle lens to capture some of these sunrise scenes.
6. Fewer people around.

There are 3 launch sites that I choose from. The most southern site is Blackpoint marina. Paddle craft have their own launch site, on the west side of the jetty. Continue driving past the entrance to the marina and eventually the road dead ends. Before the dead end is a small opening in the mangroves where you can launch. You access the bay from a small creek that runs parallel with the jetty before opening up into the Blackpoint lagoon area. Large powerboats can be seen through the mangroves on the other side of the jetty as they head out through the channel into the bay. Paddlers never have to contend with these boats. There is a gate that closes after sunset and before sunrise.

Deering Estate is another launch site, quite popular for paddlers. Maybe it is the convenient location of this site that makes it so popular, but whoever designed it was not thinking about paddlers. This launch site is gated and opens at sunrise, closes at sunset. It is a popular spot for families and fishermen to hang out on the water's edge on the weekends. There is a launch area made with large bags of sand on the canal side, but you can also bypass the canal and launch from the grassy area on the east side. There are a couple open areas along the canal that can also be accessed if you don't mind stepping up and down some steep drop offs while carrying your boat to and from the water. This is the closest launch site to several bird rookeries and Chicken Key and it offers one of the best sunrise views

The most northern access site is Matheson Hammock. There are two separate launching areas for paddlers. While Blackpoint and Deering launch sites are free, this one costs $6 ($5 on weekdays), but still a good deal. Once past the gate drive to the right and continue on to the bridge. Just before the bridge is a driveway on the right leading to a canal. Here you find one of the launch sites. For those very windy days, this is a good place to launch because you can take the canal to a creek that eventually leads out to the bay. The other launch site is on the bay. To get to it, continue over the bridge and go to the end where there is a large circular drive. At the highest of tides, especially with a strong east wind, water can get up onto the road and the grassy area where you park can get muddy. But other than that, this is a very convenient access site. there are a couple picnic tables in the area, so often you will see people having picnics and enjoying the bay.

Disclaimer: I sometimes get out on the bay alone, but often I am with at least one other person. I am very comfortable launching alone in the pre-sunrise darkness from Deering, somewhat less comfortable from Matheson (because it is more remote) and have never launched alone from Blackpoint (very remote and near the jetty that is frequented by fishermen on foot or bicycle). Most often, I am the only person present (especially on a weekday before 7 am). This is an urban area and any of these launch sites are easily accessed by car or foot. So be mindful of your environment if you do come to one of these sites by yourself.