Monday, May 31, 2010

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.

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