Sunday, October 24, 2010

The white pelicans are back

It is that time of year again that makes me nostalgic for winter months in the Everglades. It means preparing for our camping season, enjoying the cooler temperatures and witnessing the return of one of the most beautiful birds in south Florida. Groups of American white pelicans have already been spotted in the gulf islands of the Ten Thousand Islands. If I lived on Chokoloskee Island, I would be able to capture the amazing migration flights of thousands of these birds as I could look up into the sky frequently and it would only be a matter of short time before I see them. Everything about the American white Pelican is spectacular, not the least of which is the 8-ft wing span! I once thought the brown pelican was amazingly large, until I first saw one standing next to a white pelican.

Besides the obvious differences body size and feather colors, there are other differences between the white and brown pelicans. If you are around them enough to observe their behaviors in the water, you will quickly notice that they also differ in how they catch fish. Brown pelicans typically dive for fish; sometimes alone, sometimes in the presence of other pelicans. White pelicans, on the other hand, catch fish while swimming in groups. They don't dive into the water, rather they dip their pouch to catch schools of bait fish. Another notable difference is that white pelicans rest on ground, such as mud flats (near Flamingo in Florida Bay), oyster shell beds (Chokoloskee Bay), or beachy islands (such as Plover or Pavilion keys in the Ten Thousand Islands). You will not see them resting in trees like the brown pelicans normally do. Nor will you see them taking up a piling post near a marina where you often watch brown pelicans hanging with the gulls and eagerly awaiting the remains of a fisherman's catch. The white pelicans are more elusive and rarely seen alone.

And yet another difference between the white and brown is that the whites do not nest in southern Florida. Rather, they make a long migration from northern United States and Canada around October and November each year. Late in winter, you'll begin to notice large bumps on their beaks, an indication that they are preparing for breeding season which begins with a migration back north sometime around March.

On two occasions, I have seen white pelicans here in the summer, once on Chokoloskee Bay and once on Biscayne Bay. The two things that struck me most were that it was summer and the bird was alone. I reckon that the bird on Chokoloskee Bay was old and could not make the migration back. There it stood among active roseate spoonbills all around it. It appeared beaten with old age and simply worn down. The other bird on Biscayne Bay had some grayish coloring on its feathers and I suspect this was a young one that made a migration south with its parents and did not go back north in spring since it was not yet ready for breeding.

I think the most amazing scene I have witnessed in the Everglades was in January of 2008 when paddling to Pearl Bay for an easy overnight trip. The plan was to spend a good portion of the time exploring the area and look for hidden bays. While paddling to the chickee, I watched some birds flying high, swirling around with the thermals, much like vultures do. Woodstorks also appear this way. I soon recognized them as white pelicans. As I continued paddling, I continued seeing more birds. They appeared to be coming out of a back area, arising over the mangrove canopy. Once I arrived in Pearl Bay, I had already watched several hundred fly overhead. As I set up camp and went back out on the water, their flights continued for the entire afternoon. Where were they coming from I wondered?

I learned that they feed in the hidden back bays during the day and fly out in the afternoon, which is what I was witnessing. The next morning, I headed into one of those back bays before sunrise, sat in the boat and waited as the sun began to peak over the horizon. Before long, I could hear their powerful wings and then they appeared. By the hundreds, the large birds were soon flying directly over me, almost within reach! They were coming back to feed again. Seems that the fish get caught in these back bays in the winter, and that's food for these birds.
The white pelicans are back now and soon I will be out there with them. Just look up and you can see their magnificence . Another Everglades precious gem.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Water boiling with bait fish

That time of year, the mullet are running and wow, what an incoming tide it was this morning. Low was scheduled around 6:30 with a new moon effect. High tide was to be so high today that there were flood warnings for the Miami coastal area. Instead of parking at the usual launch site at Mattheson, we put our boats in at the canal. I was paddling under the bridge and toward the marina at first light, about 7:15 am, expecting to get into very shallow flats where there would be plenty of birds around.

Winds were calm as I passed the powerboat launch area toward the open waters. I could see small silhouettes of birds on the flat. As the sun began to peak over the horizon and cast a brilliant orange glow on the water, I thought it would be fun to try to capture a bird or two sihouetted against the bright color. I was surprised that the water was deep enough between the birds and the shoreline so much so that I had no problem drifting along. There were a few little blue herons and one great white egret. Gulls were actively diving for food and what a opportunity that would be; a beautiful silhouette of a bird diving and coming back up with fish in beak.

All that was a dream as the birds, one by one flew away. By now, I realized that the incoming tide was quite strong and the water was rising by the second. I paddled further south along the shoreline. I've seen negative tides here where I would need to paddle at least 500 feet off shore. Not today, the strong incoming did not give the low tide a chance. Wading birds were few as a result.

Despite there being few birds in the water, the water was alive with bait fish. This became a spectacle as the sun rose over the water. Soon, I was staked out and waiting for a spray of fish to capture. I had two choices, high key facing the open water or facing the mangroves where the greens and browns reflected beautifully on the water. This is where I concentrated and waited. I got where I could find an underwater chase and follow the leading ripples that indicated bait fish would be jumping in number at any second. Sometimes, I would hear that sound of spraying water and find them that way. Even without birds to photograph, Biscayne Bay's got something. Alway.

The water rose quickly and later I headed into the creek. The current rushed me in as I looked for my golden silk weaver spider. One was still there, surprisingly. I see them late in summer, but by fall, these spiders seem to disappear. I got out the flash and set up the anchor. No way could I photograph without the anchor today. I threw it in the water and waited to see where the boat would end up. After a few attempts, I finally got the position I wanted and started shooting. I closed the aperture to f11 (but preferred f16) and increased the ISO so as not to compromise shutter speed too much. As slow as 1/250, I was able to get some good shots of the 8-legged beauty.

Not a bad day, I was happy to be able to practice capturing the bait fish. That has always eluded me, but with the mullet running thick through these waters, I had an unusual amount of opportunity. Next time, I'll be ready for them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quality time on the bay

Over two months has passed since having a good photo day on Biscayne. August and September were filled with weekends of storm clouds and rain,work and other obligations. Finally, it was a perfect day to be on the bay. Let me count the ways; good tide conditions, no rain or storms in the forecast, mostly unclouded skies, and extremely calm winds. On the water by 7:15 am just as the sun peaked over the horizon, I did not leave until noon.

The sky was brilliant with oranges and reds, clouds still remaining on the low horizon and directing the sun's rays in all parts of the sky. As we loaded the boats, we watched the hundreds of ibises that make their morning southerly flight. They roost at night on Chicken Key and the island near the Deering Estate and always just before the sun reaches its full view, they fly off to where I do not know; inland somewhere, perhaps where they can feed on insects. Whatever reason they have, the scene on the bay was breathtaking and of course my camera was still in the pelican case. Meanwhile, the mullet were running like crazy through the water; it's that time of year. Because these schools of bait fish are constantly under attack, the water was boiling with activity. As I began my paddle, a large shark could be seen about 200 ft away, its back fin swishing back and forth behind the front fin. It was a thing of beauty, black silhouette on sky reflected waters, and it was coming closer. Once again, my camera was not ready!

Ah well, I had a purpose today and that was to get over to the sponge farms to photograph the social interactions of the laughing gulls and royal terns. Always fun to watch, I thought the conditions would work to my advantage because of the lowering tide and the fact that the winds were to come out of the N to NE at 5-10 sometime later in the morning. With those winds, the birds would be landing and taking off facing me as I sit with the sun to my back. With anticipation, I began the paddle to the sponge farms.

Several gulls and some cormorants were roosting on the sticks. There are basically 3 clusters of sticks of varying lengths arranged close to each other. The first cluster is in open waters near the channel and offers mostly a clean sky background. You have to watch for boats in the channel and the buildings that sit behind the distant shoreline. Good shots have been taken from here. The second set of sticks is further north and lies a couple hundred feet from mangroves. This offers a nice background and can be quite rewarding when attempting to capture the birds flying off and banking as they swoop around the sticks. The third cluster is larger than the other two and contains probably 3 times as many sticks. There can be lots of activity there, but the problem is that the scene is very crowded. Rarely can you get a clean shot of a bird. So, I settled on the second cluster where there were fewer birds, but plenty of action.

Everything was working well. I staked out easily in the water that was gradually getting shallower and the birds did not mind my presence at all. That's one of the best things about photographing gulls. Yes they are common and sometimes annoying, but they are a great subject for a few reasons; they don't mind you getting close, they are very social and offer lots of interactions, they have character, and frankly, they are beautiful with their wings spread. I can sit with them all day and not get bored. That's an important ingredient for a wildlife photographer, you must have endless amounts of patience and the absolute desire to learn every nuance of a bird or other animal. There are rarely "lucky" shots in nature.

Everything was working well except for one thing; there was no wind and the birds were facing away from me. Beautiful landing scenes were happening, lots of territorial disputes and I could not capture one scene! At one point, a gull landed with a shrimp in mouth. I had never seen this before. How great a shot this could have been had the bird only landed toward me. Here's the shot as it was seen, and will never get past this post.

Since I couldn't capture the birds landing or taking off, I concentrated on capturing them as they took flight and banked around the sticks, with the beautiful mangrove and their reflections in the water. Many flight shots were taken, but none was considered good enough to post because of inadequate wing position, blurriness or bad angle. But I did manage a few cute shots of them resting on the sticks.

In the meantime, the tide was rolling out and white birds began to accumulate along the nearby shoreline. Feeding time for the wading birds!! One particular area was filled with about a dozen white birds. Further north, great white egrets were starting to appear, scattered about giving each other a wide berth. I left the gulls and headed toward the white birds. I approached them and watched quietly, getting myself into the best lighting spot. There were about 8 snowy egrets, all appearing to be quite young. I think this because their yellow feet were not as brilliant yellow as I am use to seeing them. There were a few ibises among them. They were mostly standing and preening but on occasion one would break off and spear the water for food.

I had a good set up, I just needed the birds to cooperate; alittle separation between them, good background, some action, some good poses, etc. And then I heard the noisy motor off in the distance getting louder. It was a motorized glider, one of those single seaters. I've seen them out here before, probably the same one. It approached on the gulf side and came within 500 feet. The birds spooked immediately. The glider moved on, and eventually the birds returned one by one. Then the glider came back, and once again the birds spooked. For some reason, the driver of this noisy aircraft decided to fly over me at least 3 times. At one point, I had got very close to a tricolor heron and as soon as the air craft flew over, the bird was gone. I suppose the birds flying looked nice from above.

The morning wore on and the sun was quite high by now, well past optimal lighting. I faced the sun and watched the sponge farm activity. It was high key time, those shots that are very simple, yet compelling. I experimented with several horizontal and vertical compositions. Cormorants were around and I waited for one to spread its wings, making a lovely silhouette. For these shots, I meter on the water or sky, use a aperture of at least f11, and compensate between +1 to +1.67, depending on the sun's angle. Wnith a high enough ISO, I can get a shutter speed of 1/400, quite adequate for still targets.

High key shots mean that the sun is high above and it is hot. The heat felt good, but it has been four hours already on the water. Time to get back with a near perfect morning on the bay behind me. Oh what the hell, it WAS perfect.