Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hundreds of birds on the bay...

...and very little to show for it. It was another day on Chokoloskee Bay, chasing the birds around a 2 1/2 square mile area. I couldn't have asked for more perfect conditions today. The winds trailing tropical storm Bonnie had died down considerably, making it a very welcome calm morning on the bay. I didn't even mind the heat today, it just felt so good to be here. I expected to see some birds with the 98% moon outgoing and a low tide at about 9:30 am. Eager to get on the water, we launched before 7 am, the sun not yet reaching over the island landscape.

I headed south toward the area where I knew there would be birds, most likely roseates and white ibises. A large flock of juvenile brown pelicans flew overhead and an occasional great white egret could be seen. A couple osprey were fishing the bay and as I approached the channel leading out to Rabbit and Chokoloskee passes, I noticed the small mangrove island next to the channel was loaded with whitish birds. I say whitish because from that distance, I didn't know if they were roseates, egrets or ibises. I saw several clusters of whitish birds scattered about along some of the mangroves and oyster bars; some quite far away.

Soon, I was approaching the oyster bar area of the bay and was on the channel. I heard a power boat coming from behind as it came around the southeast point of Choko island. It would be upon me very soon so I paddled closer to the shallow area. As soon as it breezed by me, all the birds in the mangrove island took off into the air. A massive exodus was underway and there must have been a few hundred birds. As I attempted to capture some of this scene (not from a good angle), I noticed that the majority of them were ibises, a mixture of juvys and adults. There were some roseates around and I noticed them flying off in other directions. Most of the ibises landed on oyster flats, some flew off farther away.

Now I had large oyster beds on my left full of birds, rabbit key pass ahead of me where a large mud flat appeared to be riddled with various types of waders, and more oyster bars to my right where I noticed a small group of white birds about the size of snowy egrets. Where should I paddle? I started over to the closest group of birds on my left. They appeared to be mostly egrets. From their size, I figured they were snowys. I had enough water to get into a good light, but as I continued paddling softly several hundred feet from the birds, they decided to take off, one by one. I got snubbed and that would be the first of many more snubbs to come today.

"Fine", I thought, "I'll paddle somewhere else". I headed toward the mud flat that would give me a couple advantages. First, there were so many birds over there that most of them would be more inclined to stay even with an approaching boat (safety in numbers). Second, there were no sharp oyster shells to compete with. And third, it would be an easy stake out for me as I drifted closer to the birds. I continued on toward the birds and started to get fairly close in the very shallow waters. There were roseates, great whites, snowys, juvy little blue herons, tricolor herons, and lots of ibises. It was a smorgasboard of wading birds for sure. I was starting to think that I might get relatively close to these guys as many of them searched for food or preened in earnest. In other words, they weren't paying too much attention to the intruder. I snapped some shots and honed in on a preening great white egret that has enough clearance around its fanned out wings that I could isolate it for a nice shot. Another powerboat was approaching. This time, it was coming up behind me as I sat near the pass. It passed by several hundred feet away but the wave action was strong. It didn't matter anyway because as soon as it came into the pass, the birds were gone. All but 3 ibises and one tricolor heron that attempted to stick around were gone.

How frustrating! I decided that these birds go on alert despite my quiet approach and any disturbance beyond me is enough to take them over the top, so to speak. There I was, sitting in the shallows and looking all around me wondering where the hell all the birds went to? So close, yet so far when you are in a canoe!

I noticed more in the distance on various oyster beds. All ibises except for a roseate or two. I did spot a yellowcrown nightheron on a couple occasions, but it was less tolerant than the social ibises and would fly off before I got within a couple hundred feet.

Later, I got a bit lucky with a flock of American oystercatchers. Sometimes, I hear them before I see them. They "twitter" loudly as they fly across the bay looking for a good place to dine. Other than those guys, it was all about the ibises today. Even they were not allowing me too close.

My theory is that in this full moon low tide these birds have lots of choices for places to feed. I sometimes find that if birds are confined to a small area and are successfully feeding, they are less inclined to get up and leave. Not the case today where they had lots of choices. And the oyster mounds on the bay are sometimes wide enough that the birds can move across to the other side where I can only see the tops of their heads.

It wasn't a great bird photo day, but I was impressed with the number of birds I saw on the bay. I can't remember ever seeing so many birds here. Glorious as they are, they frustrated me to no end today. I wonder if there is a way that I can camouflage my boat for these waters.

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