Thursday, September 3, 2009

Biscayne Bay: summer comes to a screeching halt

An early morning Sunday on Biscayne Bay was perfect, the day before I begin a new semester. Juggling work and photography from a canoe has been challenging and naturally I would prefer to spend my time in the canoe. With work consuming most of it, I will find trinkets of time to get on the bay. And as always, a fantastic camping season in the Everglades will begin soon.

We launched from Deering on Sunday morning and were on the glassy water by 7 am as the sun rose behind thick clouds muting the entire scene over the bay. The shadowy flocks of white ibises flew over the launch area heading in an easterly direction, as they do every morning like clockwork. You can count on so little these days, but the ibis's flight schedule is perfect. The air is thick with humidity, even more so with no wind apparent. I paddled north toward the rookery feeling a layer of sweat that could not evaporate. The water was crystal clear and reflected a metallic gray as the clouds covered much of the sky. The horizon and water blended as one, disrupted by an occasional powerboat speeding off far, far away.

I saw a large flock of egrets, snowy or cattle fly along the mangrove canopy and the white feathers punctuated the glowing green mangroves, capturing the sun as it began peeking out between the clouds. There was plenty of opportunity to shine today as the clouds dissipated. A large dark mass was hovering just southwest of us, but we did not get rained on today.

As I paddled north across the bay bordered by Chicken Key, I saw the usual fish popping, cormorants flying fast over the water's surface and several gulls (laughing types I think) flying overhead. This is exactly the time of year that I witness hundreds of cormorants congregating in the water. As the sun rose higher, I noticed dozens of birds flying behind Chicken Key, wondering if thy were the cormorants.

Instead of paddling directly to the rookery, I head out toward the bay and watch for cormorants. I like the high key effect, shooting in the direction of the sun to capture the bird and its reflection on the water. Along the channel are several mangrove mini-islands where some great white egrets and the less common great white herons were waiting for the outgoing tide to become low. Cormorants speckled the mangroves, possibly young fledglings born in the nearby rookery island.

Soon, I begin to see several cormorants flying in an easterly direction out toward the horizon. Dozens of them flew a common route. I paddled somewhere in the middle of their flight path to watch and photograph them. They seemed to all be heading toward a distant point on the water, but I could not see it well enough to estimate how far I would need to paddle to reach them. A lone kayaker was heading in a southerly direction right toward the birds and the paddler seems to be right in the midst of the cormorant activity from my perspective. Where there are hoards of cormorants there are gulls. Dozens of them were flying about and diving for an occasional snack.

The cormorants were too far away, I could not make out their tiny silhouettes on the water, so I headed to the rookery. It was blazing with noise but I could not see as many birds today. I noticed one cormorant flying in with a branch and frequently watched an adult egret fly out of and into the island. There were many young birds flitting around the mangroves, and some were testing their young wings in circles around the canopy. It would not be easy to capture much activity, so I paddled back out to the bay where a large group of cormorants in the water were resting near the sponge farm sticks. The sponge farms consist of nothing more than wooden beams sticking out of the water. At three different locations about 100 or so feet from the shoreline, 8-12 beams of varying height and decrepitness are situated closely together spanning an area of about 200 sq ft. Here, gulls and cormorants perch and occasionally fight each other for a measly spot on a beam. I approached the scene with the sun at about 10 o'clock from me and captured the stark scene, nothing but wooden poles and a bird perched on each.

Gulls are fairly use to humans and it takes a deliberate act to scare them off. In fact, the gull is the consummate opportunist and often times one will fly over my boat looking for bait or leftovers of some sort. I thought I'd hang out with these guys for awhile as the cormorants shied away one by one. I noticed one royal tern among the group but the gulls I watched today were laughing gulls. Many looked like the immature types and some looked like the winter plumage types. When it comes to gulls and other small shorebirds, identification is a bleak process for me.

I head back to the rookery and paddle over the extension of the rookery on the other side of the channel. There was nothing to photograph, most of the birds had left. I paddled back toward Deering as the western sky looked to be forming some storm clouds. I still had time so I paddled into the little channel where we launched a couple weekend ago. I had seen some golden silk spiders stringing their web across the water in the narrow channel. Sure enough, I spotted three of them. I got out the external flash; now the sun was almost directly above, frontlighting these behemoth 8-legged animals. I tried to capture them from directly below to get a fresh angle for a photograph. I anchored but there was a current giving me a challenge as I tried to focus on the spider and capture a sharp image. After some time, I paddled out to the bay and headed back to the launch. By now, the storm clouds were beginning to mass over the area and it was time to get off the water.

Summers on Biscayne Bay are golden. I have one more long weekend ahead and plan to stay away from the holiday weekend rush and get on the bay a couple of mornings. The tropics, you got to love it.

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