Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cosmopolitan bird

I have sort of an affection for the little cattle egret. It lacks the grace and elegance of the great white egret, it looks like a chicken when it struts around looking for bugs to eat and it hangs out with livestock. I would never consider using the word cosmopolitan to describe the cattle egret; I associate that description with sophisticated, worldly persons, not birds that can be found just about anywhere in the world. But in that latter sense, the cattle egret is truly cosmopolitan. And I really like this bird.

Originally from Africa, the cattle egret came to North America in the 1940s. Now, they are found everywhere, including Alaska. In Florida, nesting locations are seen in most areas ranging from the panhandle to the keys. It is interesting to me that the landlubber cattle egret often chooses to nest on coastal islands along with wader birds that consume marine food. The cattle egret does not fish and rarely wades in water; rather it lives primarily on insects (lots of grasshoppers). Contrary to this, I have seen cattle egrets while paddling in the salty waters of the Everglades. Recently, there were two of them hanging out with terns and other shorebirds on Little Pavilion Key, a small spit of sand in the Ten Thousand Islands region. I've also have seen a few at the brown pelican rookery I frequent, also in the Ten Thousand Islands.

My affection for the cattle egret (species identified as bubulcus ibis) began four years ago when I unexpectedly found a cattle egret rookery on Biscayne Bay. Since then, I have observed and photographed the birds of this rookery while learning many things about them. I've observed the bird's work ethic as it maintains a healthy nest and raises 3 to 4 chicks and does so in a very short period of time. Incubation takes only about 3 weeks, chicks grow rapidly and within a week or two, can regulate their own temperature and are fully feathered by 3 weeks following hatching. They begin climbing out of the nest at about 2 weeks of age and are fully independent at 6-7 weeks. The cattle egret nests along side the cormorant, which also grow quickly, but appears to rely on mom and dad for a longer period of time, compared to the cattle egret.

With breeding, nesting and raising fast growing chicks, the adult cattle egret must work very hard. While the female tends to the chicks, the male is constantly looking for nest material. The first time I photographed the rookery I noticed how specific each bird was with its flight pattern. Within a 30-min span of time, one cattle egret can fly in and out of its nest over ten times. It was at this rookery where I began to spend quality time practicing flight shots. I've improved my ability to capture birds in flight and I have the little cattle egret to thank for that.
On this memorial weekend holiday, I arrive at the rookery early in the morning with a high tide. Given the location, I would need to use my anchor with water as deep as 10 feet. I was fairly well protected from the wind, but had an outgoing current. Once I anchored correctly, my boat was quite steady and I was able to stay in one or two spots during the couple hours I spent here.

The egrets share there rookery island with cormorants and tricolor herons, but they outnumber the other bird species easily 10 to one. There was much flight activity but not very many chicks in sight. Perhaps it is too early for them to leave their nests and begin climbing around the mangrove branches. Soon though, the babies will be climbing around the canopies of the mangroves and flying about, circling earnestly around the rookery islands as they test their newly formed feathered wings. They are more difficult to capture in flight than the adults that come and go in a straight line for the most part. The chicks learn to fly by banking sharply and circling around the rookery in an unpredictable manner. I try to track them with my lens but they are very fast and are quite aware of the intruder and will quickly turn away once I am sited.

For today, I concentrated on the adults. Enjoy these photos of the beautiful cattle egret.

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