Friday, March 12, 2010

Shore Birds on Rabbit Key

A minor break in the cold gave us a weekend of mild temperatures, but as always, strong winds. This time, the winds were coming mostly from the north and by Saturday afternoon, reaching 20-25 knots. We left Chokoloskee Island Park after getting the permit for Rabbit Key and headed across Chokoloskee Bay toward Rabbit Key pass. We wanted to cross into the Auger Hole but with the outgoing tide, the Auger Hole was nothing but a large oyster shell mound, passable only with a 100-ft portage over sharp shells. So we scrapped our plans to explore the Rabbit Key grasses area and headed out toward the gulf via the pass.

Birds were plentiful on the paddle. Many active osprey nests were passed by within feet on this route. The adults were busily fishing as we paddled in the warm, sunny morning. The white pelicans were in large number on their usual oyster shell in the bay. I decided to capture them while we waited for another friend who left from a different launch site. The north winds were already 10-15 knots. For photographing from a canoe, winds that are 10 knots or higher make it pretty much impossible. Today, the outgoing tide and wind worked in unison to push the water at a very rapid rate as I approached the pelicans while maneuvering around the number of shoals in the area. The stake out pole was impossible to use with the boat moving so quickly, so I had to find water shallow enough that I could plant my foot on the ground. The birds were wary of me as usual. I did not want to try to approach too closely since I did not have total control of my boat. Although I have been photographing these birds every year for several years, it has never been easy. The winds, the currents, the boat traffic, etc all make these white pelicans a special challenge. Not to mention the fact that when they are clustered close together, framing a well composed shot is not as simple as it seems. Nevertheless, I always get excited when I see the large white "billboard" in the distance as I launch from the marina and look south over the bay toward the oyster bed.

By early afternoon we were setting up camp on lovely Rabbit Key. Soon after getting the tent up, large flocks of shorebirds began to fly in and land on the long sand bar that juts out of the island in an easterly direction. The sand was becoming more exposed with the outgoing tide. I noticed that the sand bar was about 2 feet higher than usual, probably from the north winds constantly working on it. This also created deeper water in front of our camp area on the nonexposed side of the sand bar. This is to our advantage, especially when launching at a low tide condition.

More birds began to congregate at the farthest point of the sand bar. I was hoping to see oyster catchers, and they did appear as the "tweeted" loudly across the water. There were also royal terns in large number. At first site, I have a difficult time identifying small shorebirds. But after looking over the photos more closely and checking my bird books, I learned that I photographed the following; american oyster catchers, ring billed gulls, ruddy turnstones, red knots, sanderlings, and one skimmer. I could try to guess the total number of birds, but I would probably be off by a hundred or two. The greatest majority were the smaller birds, about 75% of them were red knots the rest were sanderlings and ruddy turnstones. There were probably about 50 oyster catchers and close to the same number of royal terns. There were only 2 ring billed gulls that I could see and then there was the single skimmer. I first noticed the skimmer as he stood in the middle of a hundred or so red knots. From the end of the sand bar where a channel of water passed by, the birds gathered in clusters of their own kind, with the oyster catchers always on the farthest end near the water, the ruddy turnstones together in an area next to the oyster catchers, the royal terns in front of them and then the red knots and sanderlings scattered beyond toward the inside of the sand bar. The skimmer was on the edge of the bird population and later I noticed it had an injured foot.

Here's the cool thing about these shorebirds. When the red knots are en masse, their synchronized flying skills are a treat to watch over the water. They turn one way in synch and appear white, and then they all turn another way, appearing dark. They skim above the water quickly and cluster together like one large shimmering pile of jewels. I have wanted to capture their amazing flight so many times and have barely managed to do so. But today, I had the rest of the afternoon, I was on land and they were right there next to me. Not only that, I had the wind directly behind me which meant that any bird landing or taking off would do so facing me. Sweet. The wind did kick up a bit much, I had a lot of vibration on the lens at times, so overcoming that was a challenge.

The other thing I like about shorebirds, is that if they do scare off, they will fly around once or twice and eventually come back. And so it was that I spent the next 3 hours or so playing with the birds. I had a panoramic view of them as they flew around and landed on the beach. The sun was behind me as I laid on the ground for low shots or stood up for flight shots. It was a smorgasbord of shorebird photography. As the afternoon moved on, the tide started rising again and the sand bar became less exposed as the water crept over it. This meant that the birds had to move in closer to me! Other than the wind getting a bit out of control and a somewhat chilly, this was a glorious afternoon of birds. After about 10 gigs of memory and 2 batteries, I decided to leave the birds and prepare for dinner.

While I was engaged in bird photography, we had additional parties show up on our little island. Two parties of canoes were attempting to paddle out to Pavilion key and with the nasty winds, could not make it out there safely. Later that evening, we built a nice fire and some of our neighbors came over to join our party. In the dark I could still hear the occasional tweeting of the oyster catchers and other shorebirds as we sipped wine and enjoyed the cool temperatures. This was another beautiful evening in the Everglades.

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