Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chokoloskee Bay: the clouds own the sky, part 2

On Saturday morning we were on the water by 7 am. Boats were lined up at the marina as we squeezed our canoes onto the boat ramp. A group called "Ladies, Let's Go Fishing" had a couple boats at the marina, one of which was powered by a local captain. The other boat belonged to one of the ladies; both boats were loaded with several fisherwomen, expecting to get as much fishing in before the weekend ended. The weather looked dubious and the wind, coming from the north, had already picked up some. The sky was covered in clouds and what a spectacle they were making. Once on the water, I got out my wide angle and looked toward the north sky where cumulus clouds were brilliantly illuminated by the sun. They appeared yellowish with some blue sky behind them; a beautiful show over the water.

In the meantime, Vivian and her fishing buddies headed across the bay. One of the "Ladies..." powering her own boat must have been intrigued by the kayak fishermen that were by now getting the fish on. The powerboat headed slowly out toward the middle of the bay, away from the channel. I continued to photograph the glorious sky and watched a rainbow form. I took several shots before the powerboat came into my view. I thought maybe the ladies were heading out to the bay toward Indian Key Pass. But, it seemed they were interested in the area where the kayak fishermen were fishing.

I turned my boat around and headed back toward the marina where several pelicans were roosting on the high pilings. Here, I might find some interesting shots as the rainbow remained in the sky. In the meantime, it became evident that the "Ladies..." boat had gotten hung up on an oyster flat. I can only guess that they watched the kayak fishermen succeeding and thought that might be a good location. Problem is, Chokoloskee Bay was near low tide and no powerboat can pass through the bay unless it is captained by a local that understands these waters intimately. The captain of the "Ladies..." boat successfully poled out before getting too high and dry and soon, the boat was back in the channel heading in the proper direction. I wished them a good day of fishing, knowing dang well the gulf was going to be a killer today. Storms were expected and that cold front was looming.

I decided to head toward the oyster flats where I saw the gulls and terns yesterday. Low tide was an hour away but the flats were already seriously revealed. A group of juvenile brown pelicans were hanging out on one of the flats. I had gotten my telephoto and flash ready to go. The flash would be used all morning as the sun remained cloud covered. I anchored near the pelicans and attempted some shots. I noticed several cormorants roosting in the branches of a mangrove situated by itself near one of the channels. I paddled over, but with the outgoing tide and the north winds, the current was extremely strong. I tried to anchor but nothing caught, so I tried to stake out. The strong current was too much and soon, my boat was driving fast toward the cormorant tree. One by one, they flew off. I hate that when that happens! I try hard to not scare birds, but this was a ridiculous situation. I got myself back on track as a few cormorants decided to come back. Finally, I anchored and stayed with one bird who perched in the clear.

I could hear the thunder off in the distance over the gulf and soon, lightening appeared. It looked to be coming this way, so I decided to paddle back closer to the island. The sun was shining with clouds surrounding it and the lighting was interesting over the water. I captured some backlit shots and turned the other way where several storm clouds were now forming over the mangroves and the front light was magical over the water.

I paddled over to the marina where I thought the gulls and terns might be swarming around and fighting with each other over roosting sites. There were only a few brown pelicans. I hung with them for awhile. The storm no longer appeared to be coming this way, but the wind had picked up stiffly. I decided to head north near Outdoor Resorts and the causeway that lines the bay. There, the oyster beds are absent and the bay floor is mud. Several wading birds were lined up along the shoreline and soon I noticed a few roseates. I tried to photograph them, but they had the advantage. They had the entire length of the bay to feed and would move away from me as soon as I staked out and got close enough for some decent photos. I continued to chase them a few more times and soon decided it was a futile attempt.

This was not a good weekend for bird photography, but the storm clouds were worth all the time on the water. The winds got very strong on Saturday and gusted to 20 knots, remaining steady at 10-15 knots the entire day and on into Sunday morning. There is no point in going out on the water in those conditions. The best part was that the heat and humidity was replaced by a mild temperature. We enjoyed the remainder of the gray covered day by driving to Everglades City and spending time in the museum. There, we looked at some paintings by Lorna Brown, Totch Brown's daughter.

That night, the temperature dropped below 60 degrees and we woke up to a chilly trailer. The winds were still sustained 15 knots, so getting back on the water was not happening. From one extreme to another, this is not unusual for this time of year and it may be a sign of things to come. We think about our camping season as we make our drive back to Miami. We will be circumnavigating Whitewater Bay in December. And they don't call it Whitewater for nothing.

Chokoloskee Bay: hot and cold, day 1

A three-day weekend felt like luxury as we headed west on the Tamiami Trail by 5:30 am on Friday as most Miamians were waking up to another workday. This was a holiday for me and I couldn't think of a better place to spend it than on Chokoloskee Island. For the weekend, we stayed in our friend Mike Stubblefield's newly acquired trailer located in Chokoloskee Island Park, the place I want to kill time when I finally reach my retirement years. I could live in a small trailer, store my canoe on the screened patio and wheel it down to the marina where I could launch onto Chokoloskee Bay any damn time I pleased. In the evenings, I could drink a cocktail as I watch the sun set over the Everglades National Park. My friend Mike is living my dream, but fortunately for me, he offers his place whenever Vivian and I want to stay on the island for the weekend.

The tides would be good all three days, an outgoing early morning, and with a new moon, the oyster flats would be revealed for the birds feeding on crabs and other marine edibles. On Friday, we drove a hop, skip and a jump over to Outdoor Resorts where we could launch on the east side of the bay and head toward the mouth of the Turner River. The lighting is not the best for me as the sun rises over the mangroves and leaves much in the shade where I would likely see most of the birds. I could always paddle around to the other side so I wasn't too bothered by this so much. What did bother me were the no-see-ums that were in full force at the launch site. We were getting no breeze to speak of and on this side of the bay, would likely not get much while on the water. With mosquito net attire, I headed out to the bay and couldn't take the netting off for awhile as the tiny bugs swarmed around my head. This was not a good sign.

After awhile, I was cleared of bugs and decided to get out the camera and attach the flash. I may get lucky as I looked for birds in the area where they likely would be feeding or flying overhead. I did find some ibises and a couple young little blue herons still covered in white feathers. Where I found them was in a small lagoon completely shielded from any breeze (and the sun) and typical of their nature, the no-see-ums were there to greet me. I couldn't stand it any more. It was hot, humid and I was itching like crazy. I paddled out into the open and realized I was going to need a dose of benadryl. This happens occasionally out here as I am quite sensitive to mosquitoes and no-see-ums. We always carry children's benadryl, the version that doesn't make you sleepy. I radioed Vivian who was carrying the emergency kit; she was there to deliver the drugs in a matter of minutes.

I guess I should mention the sky and the clouds. We expected a cold front to come blasting in sometime this weekend, but from Friday morning on, we would see very little blue sky. The clouds forming in the sky were varied and it became clear that a storm would be blowing in from the southwest before our morning was through. I began to paddle toward the oyster flats that litter the bay on the south end of Choko Island, near Rabbit Key pass. The western sky was now very dark and the sun rising to the east barely had enough opportunity to shine without cloud cover. Interesting sun rays were shooting down toward the water as cumulus clouds passed over the sky. I hung out with a cormorant drying its wings on a channel marker, surrounded by dark clouds and light sun rays shining down like stage lights illuminating the water all around the bird's perch.

I paddled toward the oyster bars where there were several gulls and terns and a few ibises. The dark sky was a perfect backdrop for the birds and the water as I paddled to a spot where I might photograph some of them. A flock of royal terns spooked by a power boat passing near by flew up into the dark sky before circling and landing back onto the oyster flats. So beautiful it was as the sun behind me cast brilliantly on the birds, contrasted against the dark sky. A flock of about 15 snowy egrets flew overhead, heading toward some refuge no doubt as a storm was forming in the gulf. I anchored and sat for a moment attempting to find the best angle for some photos. I heard a loud and odd sound from the distance. It sounded like rushing water. I looked over toward the west side of the bay and rain was falling hard near its edge, about 1/4 mile away. The water was gray and misty where the rain was contacting the water. It was coming toward me fast, so I fumbled to get the camera put away. Just as soon as I did, the rain was upon me and the wind picked up to a very brisk 10 knots. The waves were sharp across the shallow flats and my boat was in a precarious position with the anchor pulling from under the hull. I got the anchor out of the water and just let the wind blow the boat.

The scene was fantastical as the water surface all around me was punctuated with hard driving rain. The sun was still shining behind me surprisingly as so many clouds were formed in the sky. The rain drops on the bay water were illuminated by the sun and with my polarizer sunglasses, a golden hue cast across the entire bay. By now, a rainbow had formed and at one point, the bow of my boat pointed in a direction where the rainbow curved up from the water on both sides, almost forming a complete circle. Oh, how I wanted to photograph this amazing scene! I started thinking of how I might rig an umbrella or some kind of bimini on my boat for these occasions. For the time being, I sat, completely soaked and watched the storm theatre, without camera.

After about 5 minutes, the rain stopped and the wind died down. I was drenched and a bit chilly. I put my rain jacket on. The sun continued to shine and after a few minutes, I took advantage of the lighting and captured a few photos of the terns perched on some pilings near the channel. The wind picked up again and continued to drive my boat as I attempted to anchor in the deep channel. I couldn't keep the boat in one spot so it became futile to continue photographing the terns after some minutes.

The morning started out hot and humid and by the time I got off the water around 11 am, the temperature had dropped about 15 degrees and the wind had picked up steadily. I thought I could get back out in the afternoon, but the winds picked up again and although it did get hot and humid once more, the winds never died down. It's not worth the trouble in those conditions, so I would wait until the next morning. In the meantime, we relaxed and enjoyed the remainder of the day on the island, hanging out with our friends knowing we would be on the water tomorrow morning without the long drive beforehand.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Biscayne: Where the grasses are

I think my favorite place to be is in my canoe drifting along Biscayne Bay near Matheson Hammock near low tide. Today, I would spend the morning in my favorite place. Low tide was scheduled about 10 am, so the out going tide would be perfect for wading birds along the shoreline. Even better, we haven't been inundated with rain these past couple weeks, so the fresh water run-off from the canals would be nil.

We arrived at the launch site around 7 am. The Columbus Day regatta was in full swing. The evidence for this was the countless number of trucks attached to boat trailers parked at various points along the road leading to the launch site; those trucks belonging to people that got on the water yesterday and now were surely sleeping off hangovers while anchored somewhere near Elliott Key. A few cars were parked at our launch site, one with a young couple apparently rounding out an evening of who knows what by watching the sun rise over the bay. Someone had their tripod and camera set up in the water, here where sunrises are captured regularly by the locals. Dark morning clouds were raging across the horizon, just like they always do during those summer days. Above them, higher in the sky were those wispy winter-type clouds, the kind that splay out across the sky like a horse's mane and give notice of impeding weather changes. We look for those clouds during our winter trips when cold fronts and high winds can descend on us at a moment's notice.

This morning, the sun would mostly stay behind a very large cloud for awhile. I got on the water to see the sky about the Miami skyline, pretty enough that I took out the camera with the 70-400mm attached and shot some scenes at 70mm. I captured a few shots of the sun rise and after a few moments, turned my attention to the long shoreline that extends south of the launch site. Here is where I will find the birds and already I could spot a great white egret or two. I paddled over toward the mouth of the creek as I watched a number of brown pelicans diving here and there. The skittish egrets and herons flew off further from me as I continued to paddle in the shallow water.

I found some little blue herons that I could capture in backlit style. They are relatively easy to capture this way because they tend to feed at the edge of the grass flat that extends out from the shoreline a couple hundred feet in some areas. If you get between the bird and the shoreline, you can often get them in undisturbed water where little grass sticks out above the surface. Today, the wind was strong enough to cause a constant ripple effect, so finding that kind of shot would be impossible today. I decided to try my luck at some shots with various lighting. At one point, I set up my flash with better beamer for some shots of other birds that were closer to the shoreline. I managed one shot of the great white egret preening before it flew off far away.

The clouds came and went and for long periods, the sun would shine brightly before being covered again. Most of the morning I wen back and forth between highkey backlit shots to natural frontlight with or without flash to capture the birds feeding in the grasses. The little blue herons and ibises were the stars of the day while my attempts at shooting a tricolored heron or great white egret did not come to anything worthwhile. During much of the morning, the birds and I were punished with the loud and obnoxious music from the boats leaving the marina as they headed toward Elliott Key where an even more obnoxious and loud party awaited them. I felt safe and secluded in my grass flats, where no powerboats could come anywhere near.

Later, I paddled closer to the launch site where a couple of great white egrets were hanging with some other waders, two yellowcrown nightherons, a tricolored heron, little blue herons, and white ibises. I found a good location and stayed there for the remainder of the morning. I noticed that closer to the shoreline the water was not disturbed by the grasses, seemingly a bit deeper in that portion of the flats. Here, I watched the great egrets rumble with the tricolored heron over fish that would jump several feet at a time while being chased by a bird. I watched the egrets and tricolor capture relatively large fish, 6-8 inches in length. In the meantime, the ibises were nervously poking around the grasses and behind me were some little blue herons farther away from the shoreline. At one point, an osprey flew overhead but soon moved on. Brown pelicans were still coming and going.
It got hot today, as it has every day. By 11 am, I was off the water. In October, we are usually spending all our time in Chokoloskee Bay rather than Biscayne Bay. My photographs are testimony to that as I have no October dated photographs from Biscayne Bay, until today. I'm thinking that I may see some new things out here if I can continue to visit the bay before the new year. It's fall season for the northerners and that means more birds for us down here. Photographers have been waiting for this season to come. In the meantime, I'll continue to photograph into the fall season, as I have been doing all summer long in my canoe.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chokoloskee Bay: life in the oyster flats

A full moon low tide at 9:36 am would make this a very good day to observe life in the oyster flats that scatter throughout the bay. We arrived at Chokoloskee Island Park and were on the water by 7:30 am, just in time to watch the pink cast from the rising sun cover the calm surface of the water. Gulls and terns were busily diving for food near the active docks. If I had been on the water 15 minutes sooner, I could have captured some of those beautiful dives surrounded by the sun's reflection on the water. By the time I did get out there, the gulls had moved on.

This was a perfect day to ride the tide out to the gulf and wait for the incoming to ride back later in the morning. Vivian and her fishing buddies would do that, taking Chokoloskee Pass out to the gulf where Jewel Key resides about 5 miles away. Sometimes, I make the wrong decisions when I am thinking about where to go for the best bird photos. Today, I thought the oyster flats on the bay would be a good bet and I could always hang out with the gulls as they fight amongst themselves for territory, always fun to photograph. Besides, I was feeling very tired and the 10-mile round trip to the gulf and back didn't appeal to my weary body, despite the positive influence of the tide. I've been running on high for the past several weeks with all the activities going on in the lab. Beginning each weekday at 5 am, I can barely muster enough energy to stay awake past 10 pm. By the time the weekend rolls around, a short drive to Biscayne Bay on one of those days is about all I feel up for. I was craving to get back to Chokoloskee Bay, so I decided to make the 1 1/2 hr drive to take advantage of the perfect tide and weather conditions in our favorite place. It would be good for the soul.
I parted ways with Vivian and the boys as they paddled out to the gulf and I headed an opposite direction toward the nearby oyster beds a mile or so west of the island. It wasn't a complete bust for me, realizing this after Vivian comes back with stories of roseate spoonbills on the safe mudflats along with several other wading birds. Apparently she had promptly tried to contact me via VHF radio, but for some reason I did not hear her call. I stayed on the oyster flats, a precarious place to have a canoe. Water that is no more than a few inches deep was barely clear enough to see all the sharp shells that cover practically the entire bay bottom. Oyster beds are revealed sometimes 1-2 ft above the water when at low tide. Such was this morning as I gingerly paddled close to several flats where the white ibises were in number. Willets and other shorebirds were busy feeding among the shells that look like a pile of roguish mud to the undiscerning eye.

I paddled up toward to the ibises, always fun to photograph as they capture little bait crabs while walking carefully over the sharp shells. Sometimes they fly in and out of a scene with their lovely black-tipped white feathers and fanastic beak profiles displayed. I love these birds and am happy they are as common as they are. I can look out my office window now and watch them in the grasses along the land-locked reservoir behind my home. They offer much to the photographer and I might also add that gulls and terns do too. If you are patient with such birds, you are rewarded with photos demonstrating interesting behaviors. All birds are lovely with their feathers of various colors, but I'll always place the white ibis near the top of my list as I continue to add birds to it.

The white ibises of the Everglades are much more wary of human presence than those we see in the city daily. So I chased them about today, but with the prominence of the oyster shells, they could easily run away to the opposite side of a bed where I could only see their heads and long necks above it. I played with the ibises and the willets in this area for awhile until I tired of trying to keep my boat from being banged against the shells. I had not set up my anchor absentmindedly and had only my stake out pole. With that on one side of the boat and a foot planted on some oyster shells on the other side, I would attempt to shoot from as low a position as possible. In the meantime, the easterly wind (not a strong one) was enough to keep pushing my boat toward the sharp clumps of oyster shells. That sound of a shell scratching the boat's hull is more annoying than fingers on a chalkboard and I cringed as I decided that this was not worth the trouble. A few times I was able to get into a stable enough position that I could stay inside the boat and get my self sitting on the bottom, proving to be a nice low profile.

I decided to paddle back to the main part of the bay. I noticed several sandwich terns, a few herring gulls and royal terns on the oyster flat that sits along side the channel in front of the marina. There was a great blue heron near them, the lone fisherman. The gulls basically were resting and not doing much else on the shells. It is this time of year that the bay becomes home to hundreds of sandwich terns, herring gulls, laughing gulls and royal terns. Among them, I only see royal terns during the summer months, and only a few at that. Now, the bay is crazy with gulls and they tend to hang out near the marina where old dock pilings offer resting spots for them and the brown pelicans. Today though, they would only be seen in number hanging out on the oyster beds as the incoming tide began and over a course of a couple hours, completely covered the oyster flats of the bay. When the tide rises, the birds no longer have the flats to hang out and will scurry over to the docks where much fighting can result as birds fight over precious real estate.

Today, I would be off the water by the time the birds moved to the docks and also began diving for lunch. By noon, it was a very hot 90 degrees and the sun was intense without much cloud cover, a rare experience these days. Prior to this, I attempted to hang out with them on the oyster flats, watched the great blue catch a small grouper and observed a yellowcrown nightheron busily capturing crabs nearby.

Back on land, we cleaned our gear and boats as our friend Mike came back in on his Carolina Skiff from a beautiful morning of touring the backcountry and gulf with his sister and her husband visiting from Texas. Afterwards, we all met at City Seafood where fry baskets are the only cooking tools used. I watched in dismay to learn that even the corn on the cob is fried here along with the grouper fingers and french fries. You can sit outside where a nice breeze and shade keeps you comfortable while the tour airboats loaded with off-season tourists go back and forth along the Barron River. Because I don't eat fried foods much, I enjoyed my grouper fingers (after soaking up as much oil as possible with paper towels) and visiting with friends after a very fine morning on the water. I decided to come back to Chokoloskee in 2 weeks when I would have a 3-day weekend. Maybe I'll have the energy to head out the gulf.