Friday, December 4, 2009

Base camping at the Watson Place, Everglades

When I started this blog, my intention was to write about my day trips that are for the purpose of photographing and not much else. I write about my camping experiences in the Everglades through my website where I also post photos of the trips. But on my first camping trip of the season, I decided that there were things to be shared on this blog. I thought I would include specific stories relating to photography experiences while on long paddling trips.

Normally on paddling trips, photography is more or less a journal of our journey. The photos boost my memory and make it easier to write about the experiences. Rarely do I have the opportunity to take side excursions for the sake of photographing. The only way you can really do this is to base camp and spend a day or more in one area. And so we did just that for our Thanksgiving holiday trip.

We base-camped at the Watson Place, which sits on the Chatham River that connects the backcountry bays to the gulf within the 10,000 Islands. We spent 2 nights at Watson Place and our last night on Rabbit Key. On the morning following our first night at Watson, I got on the water by 7 am. The sun was not yet peering over the mangroves that line the gloriously broad Chatham River. The river bends lazily toward the gulf and on this morning, we had some incoming tide, but not too strong. The winds were going to be a very stiff 15-20 knots out of the northeast but I was heading toward the mouth of the river where lay several mangrove isles that could protect me. There, I thought I would find lots of birds feeding and since the low tide was only a couple hours earlier, I might get lucky and find birds on some exposed bars.

The birds were out and about, but on the river they were mostly treed. The water levels were unusually high and although I spotted a great blue heron and tricolor heron on the mud below the mangroves, I would not see any wading birds wading today. White ibises, especially juveniles were in abundance. So were the snowy egrets. I also spotted several juvy little blue herons, still in their white plumage.

I paddled along the river spotting several birds along the way. But here is the thing with Everglades birds, they scare easily; at least from objects floating in the water. So it was that I spent much of the morning chasing them down, so to speak. Many would fly overhead, but mostly they were flying away.
One thing that was quite noticeable, and something that I have noticed before is that the juvenile ibises scare the least. On more than one occasion I came right up on a flock of them standing at the level of the mangrove roots (where they blend well). Once, I was able to get some shots of about a half dozen or so standing closely together. Then all of a sudden, they took off one by one. But it wasn't just the birds I saw, but several more that were hiding behind the roots. There must have been 2 dozen juvenile ibises that flew off to a farther point only to be spooked again by the passing boat.

Once I got to the mouth of the river, the winds became evident. I rounded the corner and followed the shoreline that eventually leads into the Huston River. Here, I felt a strong head wind and the waves were choppy in the relatively wide open area I was in. The birds were going to lead me to some enchanted area where I would be surrounded by little mangrove islands that would protect me from the nasty winds. I would float in calm water and the birds would be all around me. Pink, orange, yellow, blue, red, brown and white, the colors would be well represented among them.

I continued chasing a flock of snowy egrets that flew somewhere past a couple islands. I paddled between them and came into a more protected area. I could see the mangroves ahead lined with white birds. I thought if I approach carefully, I might get close enough. Among the white figures was a lone pink, larger figure. I didn't get no less than 500 feet from the birds when they flew off to various distant points. Dang, they must have awesome eyesight! The lone roseate spoonbill flew off, but toward me luckily.

I continued trying to get close shots of birds but except for the occasional juvy white ibis, it would be mostly futile. On my last attempt at grasping for straws, I began to cross a small bay that all of a sudden became directly exposed the northeast winds. It was a side wind and could not have been less than 15 knots. Of all the winds there are, I least prefer a side wind. I braced and continued to paddle vigorously, with camera and lens in lap to a point that would provide me some shelter. Finally I reached it. It was the same point where several birds had just been roosting before I scared them away. Forget the birds, I needed to put away the camera safely into the pelican case for now. I needed to get out of this bay and on the lee side of the island. With life jacket now securely on, I paddled on and eventually arrived in calmer waters.

The remainder of the morning on the water did not amount to any bird photos. The conditions were not the best, water levels and winds were too high. The paddle back to Watson was leisurely. We explored a little creek where osprey were nesting near by, we spotted 3 manatee in the river, one with its large head clearly out of water. I spotted the other 2 by seeing only the ends of their snouts, but we all know what they look like in the water. As always, they scare me as much as I scare the birds! The last thing I want to experience in the Everglades is a manatee tipping my boat. Well, maybe the second last thing. The last thing I want to experience is a Burmese python. But, I'll save that fear for our next camping trip.