Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lots of action at the rookery

It was a classic weekend spent on Chokoloskee Bay. Saturday morning started off calm, a bit chilly and clear skied. I spent the entire morning at the rookery knowing that I would not be making a drive back to Miami; instead, we stayed Saturday night with our friend Mike at Chokoloskee Island Park, home away from home. The morning would wear on and I was in no rush to get off the water.

It was an easy paddle to the rookery and before I reached the series of rookery islands, I could see the white egrets in number among the mangrove canopies. Finally, the long necks were nesting among the brown pelicans. Last year at this time I photographed baby brown pelicans and egrets. But this year, the constant cold weather had delayed spring time and the birds began their nesting later than usual.

Today, I spent four solid hours at the rookery. The shallow waters around the rookery islands got shallower as the outgoing continued until late morning. Anchoring and staking out was not a problem and for the first couple hours, I was in very protected waters with calm winds. I found an island that was particularly busy with egrets and decided to stay with that group for some time. Among the dozens of brown pelicans were about 6 or so great whites and no distinct pairs. One egret stood out among the others because it was in a good light, not hidden by leaves and branches and it kept a fair distance from other birds. This is not an easy thing to do on this busy bird island. Finding a good shot of a couple or a nest is nearly impossible to get without extraneous characters in the frame.

Soon, another egret entered the picture and for the next couple hours, I watched the pair interact. When one egret was absent, the lone egret would preen and perform its mating posture with beautiful splays of white delicate feathers. The other egret would come back with a branch and the two would work together to get the branch settled into the nest under construction. I was hoping to see them interact and sure enough, the couple had sex, a scene lasting no more than 10 seconds. The act was performed in clear view and except for the top of a pelican head in the background, perfectly framed. I managed a series of shots of the couple. Shortly after the sex, they started some beak jabbing with each other in a way that caused one to move away. Finally it flew off, looking for another branch no doubt.

There were several brown pelican couples, easily spotted when one would fly in with a branch. Acquiring branches is a frequent event for the pelican. I watched several fly out and back like clockwork. The bird would disappear to some distant mangroves and would not be seen for about 2 to 3 minutes. Then it would appear again with a branch, always from the same location and in a predictable flight pattern. It would come in and hand off the branch to its mate. It would stick around for about 5 to 10 minutes and then repeat its quest. The other mate never left the nest. It spent most of its time sitting low, perhaps with eggs. Several times, I spotted couples having sex, not as conspicuously as the egrets. The pelicans tend to stay lower in the mangroves and with their dark colors they blend in too well.

One turkey vulture and a few black vultures soared around the island. It seems that vultures like to hang out at bird rookeries expecting to find a dead bird now and then. The struggle for survivial is a tough act and while we photograph beautiful interactions among birds, and watch babies grow into fledglings and eventually adults, we also know that many of these birds don't make it to adulthood. The vultures reminded me today that life in these rookeries is not an easy one. But here they are nevertheless, giving it a shot. Genes get passed on and with them come adaptations to changing environments.

The sun rose high and bird feathers in flight were now shadowed and the highlights from the sun were becoming too harsh. The winds had picked up to 10-15 knots from the southeast, which was actually quite nice as the birds flew in to the mangroves facing me and the oncoming winds. I stayed on until about noon, getting as much from my stay at the rookery as possible.

I hope to get back here at least one more time before summer. With all the sex these birds were having, it should be paying off soon and I hope to see the babies during my next visit.

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