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.

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