Friday, May 20, 2011

Biscayne favorites

I have my favorite places to photograph. One of them is on Biscayne Bay near Matheson Hammock. From the launch site south, there is about a mile-long unhindered shoreline guarded by several small red mangrove trees that have spread out into the water. If I am not photographing birds, I am photographing the mangroves. At low tide, this area becomes a feeding ground for egrets (great whites and snowys), herons (tricolor, green, great blue, little blue) and white ibis. Low tide at 7 am, was right where I wanted it to be. The east winds were brisk somewhere between 10-15 knots and when I did not see a single bird upon arriving near the mouth of the creek, I thought I might paddle south a few miles to the hidden lake where a cormorant rookery sits. I was not wanting to paddle much distance with the winds, but with no wading birds around, it seemed to be the best alternative. I continued paddling and felt letdown to not even see a flock of ibis flying over. I paddled past the creek another 1/4 mile or so and all of a sudden, the birds appeared.

This was not going to be easy. The birds have endless space and can stay away from me without compromising their breakfast opportunities. The low tide grasses made it difficult for me to approach and I could only hope for one or two brave birds to feed where the grass meets the water. Often, I get my boat into shallow ground where I can only move if I push off with my paddle. If the birds decide to move away, I am stuck and have to push myself out before I can paddle over to the birds. It's painstaking sometimes, but today, the birds were relatively cooperative. I approached slowly while the sun eventually rose above the morning clouds. Once the sun came out, the white birds began to glow in the grasses of Biscayne Bay. I noticed a couple snowys but they never got close enough to be more than specks. Most of the white birds were juvenile little blue herons.

Little blue herons are quite common in this particular area; typically if I see one I see a half dozen or more. They are generally not too shy and often allow me to get close enough. Today, most of them were juvys, still mostly white feathered. During its first year, the juvy little blue begins its life all white and gradually turns blue in a calico kind of way. It takes about 1 year before the white-blue juvy turns completely blue. The little blue heron is the only heron that changes feather colors in such a dramatic way.

Some white ibises were about, but not as many as I usually see. My experience is that these birds begin to appear in greater number in this area towards mid to late summer. I think they are still nesting right now. I enjoy photographing white ibises, especially the beautifully patterned juveniles. The juvy ibis is similar to the little blue heron in that its feathers turn from brown to white, giving it a speckled brown and white appearance (see first photo above). But, they lack the aqua blue eyes of the adult white ibis. For the ibis, foraging is all about touch and not sight. This is one reason I like photographing these birds because they move their beaks around the water constantly. This makes for very nice poses and reflections that go well with the mangrove scenery. I follow an ibis with my continuous auto focus as it moves around the water, poking its peak in and around the grassy waters and frequently pulls out a crab or crayfish. I wait for the right moment to rifle off a few shots as the bird quickly captures its prey. The heron, on the other hand is a sight feeder. The little blue heron, unlike the great blues moves around constantly and is quite busy at feeding by moving its neck sideways back and forth before jabbing the water. It's feeding technique makes this bird one of my favorites to photograph. Once it hones in on its prey, you can be certain that the next move will be a precise jab at the water and the bird will almost always pull something out of the water.

The incoming tide rolled in quickly, which was good for me. I can bring my boat closer to the birds. After about 2 hours, most of the birds had moved toward the shoreline. As the tide moved in, I stayed with a juvy white ibis that was working a mangrove tree, looking for food among the oyster encrusted roots.

A tricolor heron flew in near the shoreline and with the sun now at a steep 45 degree angle, I followed the bird around for about 20 min. A couple great white egrets worked the shoreline and I captured a late morning shot of one of them. The mangrove roots compliment the birds that stand with their curvey long necks.

Not a bad morning at all. What am I saying? It can never be a bad morning on Biscayne Bay. Soon, the creeks will contain my favorite non-bird subject, the golden silk spider. Today, there were none, too early in the year for the females to be seen with their large webs that cross high over the creeks. In the meantime, I will try to get back to the pelican rookery in the Everglades and see how those babies are doing.

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