Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chokoloskee : manatees, sharks and pelicans

Sometimes we get lucky and so far this hurricane season, we've been very lucky. As hurricane Bill headed north, far away from our shoreline, we looked at this weekend (my last before the semester begins) for opportunities to be on the water. I hadn't been for a few weeks and this was looking to be one of those class act weekends in the canoe. We decided to head to Chokoloskee Bay on Saturday, Biscayne Bay on Sunday. Mornings would be perfect, but various storms were crossing the state of Florida with the high pressure trough that also managed to push the hurricane away from us.

We had an outgoing tide all morning, high being around 4:30 am. On the water by 7 am, the sky was clear and it was going to heat up quickly, reaching low 90s before 11 am. I stayed close to the marina for awhile, defogging the lens and watching the eastern sky turn brilliant orange over the tall palm trees that speckle the island. Gulls and brown pelicans were flying about but not much else going on. I headed west toward the long chain of oyster beds that line the bay hoping that the outgoing would reveal them enough for the birds to take advantage of the oyster feeding grounds. It was a new moon, so it would not take long for the water levels to decline.

The area I spent the morning is challenging with the endless oyster bars. If you get on to a good photo opportunity, it's easy to not pay attention to the water below as it becomes shallower with the outgoing tide. A sharp oyster shell cutting into the gel coat of a Kevlar hull is more irritating than fingernails across the chalkboard. I cringed a few times today as I took a few too many chances with the shallow water in attempts to get to better lighting or close up. Nevertheless, hanging out in this area all morning was a blast.

The water was boiling with life. Mullet and smaller bait fish were jumping everywhere as they were being chased by larger fish lsuch as shark and tarpon. I caught a glimpse of a large snout sticking out of the water and for a long time, I chased a manatee that was working the oyster beds. It cooperated, so much so that at one point, I backed off as the animal seemed to pay more attention to me than to its fishing. I've said it before, my biggest fear on the water is getting capsized by one of these behemoths.

Despite the out going tide, there were no wading birds except for one immature blue heron and one great white egret. A few ibises were in the mangroves earlier in the morning, but then went into hiding. I couldn't figure out why no birds. I would at least expect to see the ibises and usually a yellowcrown nightheron or two. On the other hand, the brown pelicans were busily diving and flying overhead.

As the morning wore on, I headed back to the marina where by now, several brown pelicans, mostly immatures, were hanging out in the water and on the numerous pilings. A couple of herring gulls were rushing about, skimming the water for bait fish. As I sat near the pilings for an hour or so, I watched several flocks of brown pelicans fly overhead. Those that hung out on the pilings offered some fun poses and I was able to capture a few of them. By now, the sun was blazing and the lighting was harsh.

The roseates have left the bay, but soon the royal and sandwich terns will be in large numbers. Although nothing more spectacular than a common gull, the terns are always fun to photograph as they fight for space on the dock pilings. Before the camping season begins, I'll be back to Chokoloskee a couple more times.

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