Sunday, July 11, 2010

Chasing the Roseates Spoonbills

I come to Chokoloskee Bay dozens of times throughout the year. Everytime I launch from Choko Island Park, I immediately look toward the southwest end of the bay where the heads of Chokoloskee and Rabbit Key Passes begin their run out to the gulf about a mile away. near the channels are several oyster bars where during the winter months, white pelicans hang out. During the summer months, the bars are the feeding and resting grounds for the roseate spoonbills. Depending on the time of year, when I gaze out across the bay waters toward that oyster bar, it's either a wall of white or a wall of red that I find.

Today, I did not notice the red on the bar, but I did notice several large birds flying near the mangroves in that area. I could also see several white (pinkish) birds on the mud flat near the entrance of Rabbit Key Pass. I began the mile long journey to the bird. Boat traffic was moderate this morning; seems everyone was taking advantage of the calm waters and clear skies, an unusual morning for this time of year. Leaving the marina at 7 am, the low tide would be 2 hours later as I paddled in very humid conditions toward my destination. The heat and humidity coated my entire body as I got out the camera to let the lens get use to the environment.

As I approached the area, I noticed several birds perched in mangrove trees in various places. The closest group was on an island next to the channel. This is an island where I have seen dozens of brown pelicans, but today, there were roseates. Large white birds, great egrets no doubt speckled the area in fewer number and most were on the mud flats.

The roseates are particularly shy and are quite difficult to photograph, except when they are comfortably perched in the canopies, several feet above. And as far as fly shots are concerned, its mostly them flying away (unexceptable head angles!). Last year, I got lucky with several of them perched in the mangroves as a storm approached from behind them. The winds were such that as the storm became louder and the birds became more nervous, they would fly off the trees in my direction. This allowed me some good flight shots.

I approached the roseate island where I could see about a half dozen on the eastern side, perfect lighting. I approached very slowly and simply let the slow current move my boat. They noticed me right away of course. Once they spotted me, they began their alert signals. What they do is raise their bills and long necks straight up, as if blowing a trumpet. As soon as I noticed this, I took a few shots before they began to fly away, one by one. I did not approach them any closer, but still, they were not tolerant of me and my boat.
Some of them flew over to the mud flat. It was another 1/3 mile away, so I began to paddle to it. After passing through the oyster bed areas, I came into the sandy area near the pass where I glided along in 2-3 inches of water, approaching the mud flat slowly. There were a few great white egrets, one or two immature reddish egrets or little blue herons, not sure which. And several roseates. The birds slowly moved themselves to the far side of the mud flat as I approached. At this point, they were 250-300 ft away from me, way too far for my 400mm lens. Eventually, all the birds except for about 15 roseates flew off to the nearby trees. All I was doing was sitting in the canoe, not moving and keeping my distance. In the meantime, 2 or 3 powerboats powered by and the wake of the boat pretty much sealed the deal. The birds either moved farther away, or flew off.

Eventually, I decided to stake out the boat (it was too shallow to drift closer to the birds) and walk on the relatively firm mud. I walked for about 15 feet through 1-2 inches of water, making it difficult to be perfectly quiet. Once on higher ground, I could be more stealth, but the birds would notice the approaching intruder regardless. I walked a few feet, stopped and waited. If any of the birds stopped feeding to look up, I immediately froze and waited for it to resume. This went on for some time and eventually, I got about 120-150 ft away from them. I was not close enough to fill half the frame with one or two birds, but at least the lighting was right.

Another boat passed by and as soon as the wake reached the birds, they flew off. Those are the Chokoloskee roseates, unfriendly types. Oh well, can't blame them; those coveted photo subjects among bird photographers. I walked back to the boat and scooted out of the shallow flats to where I could paddle. I started to think I should have heeded my friend's VHF call to tell me she spotted several oystercatchers on the other end of the bay closer to the marina about an hour earlier.

By now, the sun was blazing as I paddled along the edge of the bay. In the high mangrove canopies, several roseates and a few ibises rested. In a clearing, I saw a juvenile ibis and roseate and thought the ibis to be quite beautiful with its brown and white feathers. Soon after, I spotted a great blue heron working the oyster-encrusted mangrove roots. It stopped and stood straight up and assumed its classic "flasher" pose with wings splayed half way as it tried to cool itself.

I came across a few ibises feeding on the oyster beds not too far from the marina. I stayed on with them for awhile. In the meantime, I watched a green heron and a tricolor heron also looking for food. This was the first tricolor heron I've seen on the bay. And this is the first time I've seen a green heron on the oyster beds. The mullet were jumping like crazy all around. I tried to capture one in mid air, but it's like "wack a mole" with those guys, you never know where they will pop up. But they were everywhere. Soon, a dophin joined the party and I followed it around for awhile trying to capture it as it worked the mangrove shoreline or oyster bed edge. As always, getting a good dolphin shot proves to be one of those things I simply cannot do. Dang those mammals (maybe I'll start calling them fish)! One of these days...

The sun was now too high and besides, the ibises had left and gone into the trees. I put away the telephoto and took out the wide angle lens attached to the second camera. There were about 9 or 10 kayak fishermen (one in a canoe) in the vicinity so I took my time heading toward the area where they would all be fishing. The oval-shaped cumulus clouds were becoming more dominant, scattering across the deep blue sky. I love these scenes, so I photographed as I made my way through the labyrinth. When I came out into the open, I spotted the fishermen, scattered about in their various colored boats; bright yellows, blues and reds, all of them with at least a couple fishing rods sticking up like antennaes.

It was terribly hot by now, and the photographs were pretty much over. I headed back to the marina where a new dock was under construction from the property next to the launch site. Several tall pilings were lined up, giving the pelicans a several more resting spots. There were about a half dozen juveniles and a couple adults resting there. All were facing away from the sun and toward whatever little breeze there was. From my angle, I could not get a photograph of a pelican facing me. I did get a shot of a young brownie cleaning its feathers and that was it.

Chokoloskee Bay has provided me several bird photo opportunities, but some days it's a challenge, like today. It goes without saying though, a bad photo day on the water is better than a day off the water.

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