Monday, May 31, 2010

A weekend at the rookery: Part 2

What strikes me most when I am in the Everglades occurs in rhythm. This relates to animal behavior which is largely dictated by one of two things at any given time, being the predator and the prey. It was nearly a full moon this weekend and the tides were strongly affected, which meant that the bait fish were being swept out of the backwaters. This meant that large predatory fishes such as sharks would be in the shallows collecting up bait fish. This also means that the birds have lots to eat. It seems the area of the rookery is full of activity in the water. On both mornings, the water was broiling, mullet jumping everywhere, schools of tiny bait fish sprinkling the water surface. The sharks were there too, coming right about along the edge of the mangrove islands. At one point, one came up on my boat from behind and made a violent wake in attempt to get away from it.

Above the water in the mangroves were the birds. Aside from the great whites and brown pelicans, snowy egrets were in number, but fewer than the others. I'd say a ratio of 1 to 10 snowy to great white. The snowys, being smaller are able to forage for sticks and food among the dark mangrove roots and mud. I could barely see their tiny nests hidden well and below the larger bird activity above. One of the nests was at eye level and I watched an adult come and go often bringing nesting sticks. The snowys were much more wary of me and I noticed they would fly wide around me. The egrets do that too but they seem to get use to me after a short while. The pelicans seem to mind me the least.

I recorded the rookery sounds with my voice recorder. I can now distinguish the noises a bit more. the baby pelicans sound like mooing cows. The snowys have the funniest noises, sounding like gurgles, or like someone trying to talk underwater. The baby egrets make a constant chirp and when the adult comes in with food, the sounds rise to loud crescendos. The pelicans do the same. It's an amazing sound and could probably drive certain people crazy. To me, the sounds are entertaining at the very least.

Like clockwork, a very large flock of juvenile ibises flew across the bay from the rookery area around 7 am. They appeared on both days at approximately the same time. I noticed this on Biscayne Bay as well. Seems they roost at night among the islands and then fly inland on a schedule, during the day for food. There must have been a hundred ibises and mostly juveniles. Very beautiful to watch as the sun rose above the landscape. I also noticed a flock of roseates near the same area I saw them a few weeks ago. This area of the bay is special and for some reason, it's prime avian real estate.

Lots of flying activity throughout the morning. Great whites and brown pelicans were in greatest number. the snowys were actively flying around as well. On the second morning, I noticed a small flock of cattle egrets. I wondered about these guys, where they are nesting or if they are nesting. I heard a green heron, but never saw it and interestingly, no osprey in this area. Although they are around the launch site area as usual.

As the morning grew hotter, more pelicans jumped into the water. One time, there were about 4 or 5 juveniles in the water and they seemed to be playing with each other. One would jab the other's behind, a pelican version of goosing. I watched one pick up a piece of oyster shell and fling it around a few times. They were learning and on occasion an adult would wander over to make sure the children were behaving.

The Wurdeman's heron that I found last time was there both days. I noticed at one point there was a very young bird in its nest, I was barely able to see the crown of its head. The heron stayed on the nest. I had staked out some distance away from the bird but occasionally I would take note of it. At about 9 am or so on both days, I saw a white egret come into the nest and then the Wurdeman heron would fly off to a distant island. Not sure what that was all about, but now that I think of it, I am wondering about the white bird that exchanged places with the Wurdeman. Had I been thinking straight, I should have noticed if it was a blue heron morph or a great white egret. Aren't great blue heron's and great white egrets two separate species? Surely they do not mate and isn't a Wurdeman a cross between a great blue morph and a normal version of it? Now I wish I had paid attention to the bird that flew into its nest.

I hope to get back here one more time. I wonder who will still be there by then? May be worth a visit to find out.

A weekend at the rookery: Part 1

The rookery islands were teaming with life. From a distance, I could see the mangrove canopies were saturated with white birds. Only the brown pelicans could not be distinguished, but they were in there in great number, intermingled with the great white egrets. I approached the rookery in calm waters at about 7 am under a mostly cloudless sky on both days. Conditions could not have been any better. The earlier high tide was giving me an outgoing, perfect for the 1.5 mile paddle to the rookery. And by the time I left the rookery late morning, I had a nice incoming to help the paddle back.

It was hot, the sun never covered with clouds. This is the time of year that I crave. The heat can zap your energy quickly, but I am acclimated and was thrilled to sit among the hundreds of birds all Saturday morning knowing that I would not leave this place until the next day. Two glorious mornings among the smells and sounds of the birds; watching, studying, listening, learning. I am mesmerized by their lives, they go about them so narrowly scoped, instinctively surviving one day to the next. Like little automatons, these birds have it down to a perfection.

The babies are coming in various sizes now and they have raging appetites. Many of the brown pelicans and egrets are flying, and the pelicans are learning to swim as well. Most of the young egrets are really indistinguishable from the adults, aside from being a little scruffy necked. Then there are several of both species that I would consider medium-sized. Not yet flying, but certainly getting large. Those types of egrets were numerous and very noticeable at the highest parts of the canopies. There, I would see several long necks vertically inclined as far as they could go and all facing one direction. Within a small area, I would see 5 or 6 these skinny long white necks with their orange beaks all pointed in one direction in anticipation of an adult bringing food. And food they would bring, time and time again.

The young egret is a voracious eater and I noticed that it obtains food when mom would sticks her head inside its mouth. Many times, there would be a struggle as the baby would clamp its sharp powerful beak around mom's beak and then there would be a tug of war that lasted several seconds. One or two other babies would be eagerly looking on, waiting for its turn.

I have watched cattle egret feedings from the rookery on Biscayne Bay. What strikes me is that the cattle egrets are very messy eaters, which may reflect the type of food they are eating. I suspect that the cattle egret parent gets food from the ground, such as worms and grubs, whereas the great egret comes in with marine foods. Consequently, I have seen some disgusting stuff exchanged between cattle egrets and leftovers smeared around the beak and face of the birds. On the other hand, I never see the food stuff exchanged between the great white egrets. But what the two egret species have in common is that the babies are obnoxious and if patience is a virtue in a bird, the parent bird is quite remarkable.

I watched the egret feedings on several occasions. A few times I was able to see some of the pelicans feed. This time, the baby would stick its entire head and neck into the large adult pouch. The pelican feeding did not appear to be as painful as the egret's. There was one pelican family in particular that I was able to observe. There were 3 young ones, all huddled within a small nest. One was a bit smaller than the other two and I think about how ruthless these little survivors are with each other and hoped that this little one would survive the constant sibling battle for food.

As the hot morning grew hotter, birds began to face away from the sun and a few egrets fanned out their wings as a way to cool off or perhaps provide shade to the babies. I'll continue the description of the rookery in the next blog.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Gray day on the bay

The only day this week that I could get out to the bay was Wednesday and it just so happened to be the cloudiest morning of all. But, there were no winds to speak of, making the bay waters smooth. That alone was enough to get me out there despite the low light conditions and the fact my flash is still away for repairs.

I arrived at Matheson and the kindly gentleman who usually greets cars at the gate and collects $5, no, make that $6, was not there this morning at about 6:15 am when I arrived. I drove to the end of the road where the launch site is located, conveniently away from the busy marina and boat traffic that parades out to the bay with the Miami cityscape as a back drop. It seemed very quiet this morning; no one at the launch site except for the 2 rascal raccoons that make their presence known as soon as a car pulls up.

I unloaded as the sky barely lit up; the sun hidden behind a waxy coat of clouds. There would be no orange or red hues this morning, only a silvery appearance. The American flag that someone stuck in the ground at the edge of the high tide line lay calmly against the pole. Soon, I was drifting off into the shallow water of the outgoing tide that would reach its low point in an hour or so. Heavy clumps of sea grasses interrupted the glassy water all along the mangrove shoreline. As the tide continued to go out, more of it appeared and for about 100-150 ft from the mangroves, the water was not seen as it was all grass. This is where the wading birds should be right about now.

I paddled slowly not seeing any birds. Near the creek entrance south of the launch site is where I usually see the most action. On this dark morning, I saw none for some time until I noticed one lone white bird further down the shoreline. It was a juvenile little blue heron and I chased it around for awhile. A couple tricolor herons appears a bit later and I had more fun with one of them. I managed to sneak relatively close to it, but as with most lone birds out here, it didn't allow me to get too close as it danced around the water catching food.

The sun barely appeared brighter but there were a few good moments where the mangrove reflections lit up the water. I never dropped the ISO below 620 today and for one short period I had it up to 1800. I didn't expect to get many photos today, but I was happy to see some birds. Speaking of, not one ibis came in to feed. That was unusual, they tend to be relatively common in this area. There was a brown pelican noisily diving in the very shallow waters; how they do that without breaking their beaks is a mystery to me.

An hour or so later, I noticed a great blue heron standing on the edge of the grassy flats in front of the creek. It was a juvenile, more of a reddish tint than a blue. This bird didn't seem to mind my presence and let me get quite close. I hung out with it, first with the camera and then without. I just watched it for awhile. A glider came over the mangroves with a buzzy noise and that piqued the bird's interest as it craned its long neck up and cocked its head to one side, attempting to hear the strange noise and see the strange object fly overhead. I was making my own noise, getting water out of the cooler and unwrapping a granola bar, but the bird did not seem to mind. Chalk it up to youth I guess.

I was off the water early today, about 8:30 or so. Soon I was driving in Miami traffic. But before heading back to the traffic, I stopped at the little pond near the entrance into Matheson. There, an art object had recently been placed. It appeared to be a silvery color and floated in the water surrounded by marshy grasses and mangroves. The sculpture was of red mangroves, emphasizing the prop roots. It was stunning in contrast to the rich greens all around it. I captured some photos of it with the 70-400mm lens.

It wasn't my best day on Biscayne Bay by far and I felt a touch of sadness this morning too. Seems the oil leak in the gulf has turned me into a depressed human being. There are so many layers to this tragedy and each just makes me sad and angry. As of this writing, we already know the oil is in the loop current and it will only be a matter of days before it starts washing up on the keys. In the meantime, there is some glimmer of hope that the leak will be plugged within a few days or so; but given that this is coming from the mouths of BP men, I'm not putting much stock in that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cormorants rule the bay

It was a gorgeous Biscayne Bay morning, with slight winds from the north and an outgoing tide all morning. I launched from Matheson at about 7 am (a bit too late) and headed about 2 1/2-3 miles south with the Miami skyline behind me. I was going to the "hidden" lake where I had heard from a fisherman friend that a rookery of cormorants resided. I had been to the lake before, but that was at least a few years ago. I remember it being a beautiful paddle through a creek before rounding a corner into a large opening where a good sized mangrove island sat in the middle. That's where I figured the rookery would be.

I didn't bother taking the camera out until I reached the rookery. The tide was high as I passed the usual feeding ground for several wading birds; little blue herons, tricolor herons, great white egrets, an occasional lone great blue heron, and ibises. They would not be there today with the waters too high for wading and fishing. Instead, I watched a flock of 3 brown pelicans, a couple flocks of ibises and occasional cormorants fly by as the sun lit up the mangrove shoreline on my right and turned the bay waters a brilliant hot white to my left.

It felt good to simply paddle and enjoy the bay. Typical of these past couple weeks, I could not help think about the oil leak in the gulf and wondered if this bay will be spared the onslaught. I'm usually optimistic and have never thought Biscayne Bay or The Everglades could be destroyed to the point where it would take more than my lifetime for them to come back to present day conditions. But that idea is beginning to settle hard on my mind, cementing itself firmly to every thought about my life of paddling these waters. The heaviness pulled my thoughts to dark places where there were no birds or fish. Could this really be happening? My mind goes numb thinking about it.

Today, the birds are here. Dozens of cormorants are nesting on the mangrove island in the lake. A green heron couple were sputtering around the lower half of the mangroves, close to the water. I positioned my boat in a wind-protected spot near the island and got very close to one of the green herons. It had come out onto a mangrove branch that hovered over the water. Here the heron with its brilliant orange feet stood and made a raucous noise every 15 sec or so, and jutted its neck out attempting to catch a dragonfly darting past it. The cormorant families were loud with their deep croaking sounds. The young ones have more high pitched voices. I noticed one anhinga nest with 2 young ones. At one point, I noticed an adult anhinga flying toward the island and then turn around. I imagined that I was keeping them away with my presence directly under their nest. Sure enough, as soon as I paddled away, I noticed 2 anhingas flying near the island.

In the meantime, cormorants were flying in and out, landing or taking off in the water, but I never noticed any babies. Then I watched an adult fly in and begin feeding another bird, that I had mistaken for an adult. It was a juvenile, not quite jet black like its adult parent, and still without those brilliant emerald eyes, but it was large like an adult. A cormorant feeding is harsh to watch. the baby jabs the adult's mouth and flaps its wings violently all within about 10 sec.

After about an hour, I left the island and spent the remainder of the morning paddling back and picking helium balloons out of the mangroves. "Get well soon", "Happy Birthday" and "Happy Mother's Day" were the messages displayed on these balloons that were wrecklessly released from someone's party. I found a large rubber raft and after several slits from my knife to release the water it accumulated, I had it in the back of my canoe for the ride back to the launch site where I could dispose of it properly. A woman walking near the launch site commented to me when seeing all the garbage in my boat, "What a nice thing for you to do". Nice? We all should be doing this.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The rookery is thriving

It's been so long since I've paddled in calm waters that it felt like a brand new experience to me. The winds were nothing more than a puff of air today and the sky was cloudless as I got on the water at 7 am. The heavy fog I drove through on the Tamiami had faded quickly as I loaded the boat with mosquito netting cinched around my neck. And it was hot. By the time I got off the water at 11 am, it was 90 degrees.

With an oil invasion threatening the Florida coast, I paddled and enjoyed the pastel colors drawn by the sun on the surface of the calm bay waters. The water was clear and awesome, and I wished for one things, that the container box sent 1 mile below the surface of the water works. I thought of the birds and their future. I wanted them to fly as far away as possible, hoping that they and all the others survive this catastrophe. The gulf waters will not be the same for decades and who knows what all the damage will be. I finally let the visions of tar balls and oil sheen go and began to enjoy the moment. The quiet and peace was exactly what I needed as I paddled gently, but earnestly across the bay toward the rookery islands. The sun was rising fast and I wanted to be with the birds.

As I got closer, I noticed a mangrove island full of off-white birds. Ibises maybe, but not egrets. Ah, even better, they were roseate spoonbills, about 20 of them. I took out the camera in the hot humidity of the morning and my lens promptly fogged up. I paddled, rubbed the lens, paddled closer, rubbed the lens some more and then I dropped the lens cloth. It was exposed partially to salt water and dang if I didn't have a spare. I tried to rub the lens with the dry portion of the cloth but I only made things worse.

The pink birds were resting, not doing much else, so I thought I'd move on to the rookery before the sun got too high for flight shots. From a distance, I saw dozens of white birds intermingled with dozens of brown pelicans. The rookery appeared to be thriving. I wanted to see some baby birds in number. Sure enough, the little pelican I photographed last time was bigger and more easily defined among the mangrove canopy. Mom sat next to the baby, almost always facing away from me, but every once in awhile the baby would prop up and look my way. A little feathery dinosaur, it will be a few more weeks before it starts flying.

The great whites were in great number, and many babies were seen sticking their scraggle heads out now and then, beaks jabbing the air waiting for mom to fly in with food. The sounds of the rookery were over the top. I saw a couple pairs of baby pelicans in another tree (the lighting was no good) and they were quite active and noisy. They became the loudest among the cacaphony of bird sounds; at times they sounded like cows mooing.

The morning wore on and it got hotter. The clouds never once covered the sun, there were too few of them. For the first time since visiting the rookery this year, I was completely alone with the birds. I recorded the sounds for several minutes with my voice recorder, something I play back when at home and wishing to be at the rookery.

As always, the Everglades is full of surprises. Today, I photographed a nesting Wurdemann's heron, among all the great white egrets. A beautiful version of the great blue heron, sort of a cross between the great blue and the great white, it had a nest, but there was no sign of babies yet. If I am lucky, I may get to see them on the next visit.

I paddled back to the launch site with the voice recorder playing back the sounds of the rookery. The calmness was so different from my last visit when I paddled into 20 knot head winds. Head winds, summer storms, bugs, I don't care, bring them on. That's the Everglades, and I hope the Everglades is spared.