Monday, January 25, 2010

Tiger Key overnighter

Finally, it warmed up and we were able to get back on the water; the first time this year. We expected strong winds, especially on Sunday, so my plans to spend Sunday morning at the brown pelican rookery seemed to fade as the weekend progressed. As always, my camping and paddling trips are a challenge to bird photography. This time, I thought I could at least visit the rookery for an hour or two either on the way to Tiger or on the way back the next day. The trip to Tiger is relatively short (about 8 miles) and when coodinating the route and timing with the tides, I figured I'd have lots of time to spend with the birds. But intentions are only that.

Saturday morning started very foggy. Despite this, the warm humidity was welcomed after the long spell of cold we suffered recently. At the E. City ranger station's launch site, the smell of dead fish was prominent, as it would be on Tiger Key. The fish kill was devastating and without going into any detail, it was down right depressing to paddle and see bright shiny objects floating in the water. The first couple of times I spotted such a site I expected to head over to the object and pick out some trash from the water. As soon as I realized it was a dead fish, I just hung my head. It was sad to see them in such numbers, floating in water and hanging from the mangrove roots. In the long run, the Everglades will survive the set back; it may take years, but the fish will return. But wow, what a loss.

We expected 20-25 knot winds on Sunday so it was decided that I would visit the rookery on our way to Tiger on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, that meant that I would not arrive at the rookery no earlier than 9 am since we need to purchase our camping permit and the station does not open until 8 am. We at least had our boats loaded and ready to launch as soon as I scored the permits. I arrived at the rookery to find the brown pelicans nesting in full force. A few birds were busy flying in with branches, but mostly the birds were sitting in the canopies of several small mangrove islands situated in a shallow shoal area of the bay. On one occasion, we spotted a couple having sex. The behavior I noticed most was one partner jabbing or biting the other. Although clumsy with the huge beak and pouch, it never seemed too aggressive, more playful-like. For the most part, the birds were simply sitting among the branches. I didn't notice any nests, but they were there obviously as birds would fly in with branches.

Interesting thing I noticed about the brown pelicans is that compared to the egrets (even the smaller cattle egrets), the branches they fly in with are of a small lot. I'm guessing its difficult for them to gather branches in the first place with their beaks that are not meant to break or jab. It seemed odd to see such a large bird with a big mouth carrying a stick no longer than 12 inches.

The lighting conditions required use of the flash if I was to get any worthy shots of these birds. But, because of our tide situation, I could not stay with the birds more than 20-30 min. I had 3 paddling companions and could not be left behind. So, I did not bother to take out the flash. Instead, I increased the ISO to 800 and metered a shutter speed no faster than 1/200. This was less than optimal but I figured it was worth recording some of the behaviors and besides, I plan to visit this rookery several more times this spring.

I managed some decent shots of birds flying in with branches and the wind direction placed the bird landing at an optimal point of view for me. The only other birds near by were the cormorants mostly on their own little island. But no great whites. I wonder if they will be nesting here this year. Strange that I did not see one egret. Perhaps they begin a bit later. I did notice one frigate bird flying overhead and then land on one of the mangroves. I had never seen a frigate bird so close and not flying high overhead.

By 9:30 am we were paddling toward Russell Key pass and eventually toward the gulf to Tiger Key. We decided to camp on the north end of the island where we might enjoy the southeasterly breezes. This would help minimize the bugs. It had been over 4 years since I camped here. The high tide sandy spit was barely big enough for a few small tents but now, the large sandy embankment extended out a few hundred feet. The area for camping was large, but without shade. This turns out to be a very beautiful camping spot for both evening sunset colors over the water and a sunrise view as well.

After setting up camp, I went back out and paddled around Tiger, checking out Picnic key along the way. I noted that the west side of Tiger Key where we last camped was overtaken by dozens of black vultures feasting on the numerous dead fish washed up on shore. The sun was high overhead, so I did not plan to take photographs, I just wanted to leisurely paddle and enjoy the warmth. I noted a small bull shark and a couple of spotted rays in the water. I got back to camp and relaxed in the mid-afternoon breeze. And then I noticed an egret land in the water near the beach. It was a reddish egret! I quickly got out the telephoto and carefully walked into the water to get lined up between the sun and the bird. It continued to walk around the the sand spit and I followed it waiting for it to begin its fishing theatrics. It stayed on for about 15 min, but demonstrated its wing spread only twice, both times facing away from the camera. It managed to catch a minnow and soon, it flew off to somewhere distant.

In the evening as we ate dinner and enjoyed the sunset, I watched a flock of willets and other assorted small shorebirds flying toward the east point of the spit. I love watching these birds flying together, skimming over the water. They sparkle as they turn in unison exposing their white undersides. By now, the lighting was sweet, the water illuminated with pink and blue pastels. The birds were brilliant flying over the water so I got out the telephoto and waited for them to fly back. And they did, swirling around a few times and finally landing. If they scare off, eventually they fly back so there were several opportunities to capture them as the lighting eventually faded.

During the early morning hours while we lay in our tent, the southeast winds increased to a stiff 15 knots sustained. This would be our next morning's paddle with mostly head winds increasing to 20 knots. We left early to take advantage of the in coming tide, but by the time we reached the exposed open West Pass Bay, the winds were 15-20 knots. From that point on, the paddle was a constant drudge in my solo canoe. There would be no photography today, the waves were very choppy coming straight on.

Despite the conditions, there were some above average photo opportunities; the rookery, a frigate bird, the beautiful Tiger Key, reddish egret and the willets. My goal is to get over to the rookery as early as possible on a calm, clear day and spend some quality time with the brown pelicans. I can't wait!


  1. Nice report Connie. I'm going to head over to that area in the morning to check out the fishing and maybe see if I can get some shots of the nesting.

  2. Looking back on some photos, It looks like March for the Egrets at the rookery