Sunday, December 2, 2012

Exploring the headwaters

Restoration of the Kissimmee River to its original flow is apparently the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world. For Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, this means better water quality and improved wildlife habitat all around. What a deal. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was in the area of Lake Kissimmee visiting family. Vivian and I decided to check out the Lake Kissimmee SP and rent a double canoe for a Sunday morning. We spent about 3 hours on the water, photographing and fishing. It was a beautiful wetlands marsh where powerboats and air boats can access the very large lake. It was very peaceful that morning, having only seen a few small powerboats and one airboat. We stayed in a rather small area near Tiger Creek. I had sited at least a few hundred American coots in the grassy waters, I mean they were everwhere. Several limpkins were hiding in the grasses, occasionally showing themselves in short flight. The usual egrets and herons speckled the landscape and I believe I watched two glossy ibises take flight from a distance.

The landscape, dominated by green and gold hues gave me the inspiration to use the "intentional camera movement" technique that I have been experimenting with on mangroves. Here is one creation from this experiment.

The highlight was watching a snail kite searching for food. Only managed to capture it from afar; same with the two bald eagles that circled overhead for a short period. Other than the fact we had to paddle a plastic double canoe that moved through the water like a barge, it was an awesome time on the water. Central Florida has so much to offer.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Marsh chicken...

or otherwise known as the Common Moorhen. In terms of visibility, these red-beaked freshwater marsh birds fall somewhere between the very elusive clapper rail and the social American coot often seen in large rafts moving casually around marshy lakes. Like the coot, the vegetarian moorhen forages in the water and frequently makes head dives in search of food. Unlike the duck, their feet are not webbed and they fall into Sibley's search category of "chicken-like-Marsh". It is the adult's brilliant red beak and facial shield that make this bird not so common.

During my weekend into the Everglades marshes several weeks ago, I came up on a family of moorhens, 2 adults, 2 juveniles. They were busy foraging in a small area of the fast running stream that cuts through the marsh grasses. Quite windy that day, I managed to stake out with some effort and stay in one spot for a very long time to observe the active family. I was happy to find them on the second day and in good light.  These are shy birds, but they allowed my boat to come within 6-10 feet of them. Common little birds they are, but in beautifully reflected water they make very nice subjects.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catching the low tide on the bay

Had to take advantage of the calm morning, with a low tide scheduled around 8:30 am. I expected to see many birds as the bait fish make there fall run through the bay. The water was smooth as could be except for the frequent interruption from schools of bait fish causing the water to bubble as they escape their predator. This is a good time to be on Biscayne Bay.

Early on, great white egrets were taking their place along the shoreline of grasses revealed.Typically, I see lots of great white egrets on the bay. Lately though, I have noticed many more juvenile great blue herons in the area. Rarely do I see more than one or two on any given day and it is even more rare to capture them. Of all the wading birds, the great blue heron is the most wary of an intruder in a boat. But today, I somehow got close enough to one as it fished along the shoreline. Enjoy these photos of Biscayne Bay's western shoreline.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Back to the Everglades

This weekend seemed to mark a change in season, which got me thinking a lot about our camping trips. Instead of afternoon storms and early morning temperatures above 80 degrees, we got our first glimpse into what could be a windy season. We stayed in Chokoloskee Island for the weekend so we could take advantage of the beautiful weekend. No significant rains were expected, but the relentless northeast winds would prevail, and boy did they. Another nice change was the cooler temperatures especially felt on Saturday morning when we awoke to 65 degrees.

As always when we are paddling, the winds dictate our course of action. Rather than spend the weekend on and around the large bay, we decided to launch from Seagrape Drive in the Big Cypress Preserve (off the Tamiami Trail) in an area that would offer more wind protection. Here is an aerial map of the area.

I didn't expect to have much opportunity to photograph birds. The water levels are so high right now that the fresh water is flowing like crazy. Unexpectedly though, this fact became the best part of my weekend. From the Seagrape canal, I turned into a smaller creek that immediately led me into an Everglades sawgrass meadow. The creek that I paddled was quite deep and distinctly cut through the water-saturated meadow. Several water trails tempted me to explore the area, but I didn't need a water trail. With a moderate amount of effort, I was able to glide my canoe through the grasses.

I spent two beautiful mornings paddling around the area where mangroves intermingle with grasses and birds have lots of hiding places. Enjoy the photos from the Everglades.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Columbus day weekend on the bay

Anyone in Miami with a boat recognizes this holiday weekend as being famous for the Columbus Day Regatta (a trademarked name that is now known as the BARDARDI Columbus Day Regatta) that is sailed on Biscayne Bay. This weekend marks the 58th anniversary of the regatta, which is the oldest organized event on the bay. The regatta is a sailing race, but over the years it has become associated with the infamous powerboat parties. Hundreds of powerboats anchor near Elliott Key which becomes Biscayne Bay's version of south beach. Everyone in Miami, including those that remotely pay attention to the local news recognizes this weekend to be the most dangerous boating weekend of the year. Alcohol/drugs, stupidity and boating never go well together and with so many boats on the water, the combination of these three ingredients is a common recipe for inevitable tragedy.

While all of that mayhem was happening offshore, I was on the western shoreline Saturday morning, quietly approaching the wading birds. It was dark when my canoe touched the water, but soon, the sun began to peer over the horizon that had already become speckled with boats. I wanted to come here as the low tide was suitable for lots of wading birds in that perfect morning light. I knew there would be more than the usual noises coming from the nearby boat channel, but the birds would still be there.

I paddled about 1/2 mile south of the launch area and there were plenty of birds lining the shoreline. Despite the nearby activity of powerboats and occasional helicopter flying over, it was peaceful as usual. Early on, I spotted the albino yellowcrown heron, but not to capture it. And surprisingly, the out-of-place mute swan flew past in a southerly direction just before sunrise. There appeared to be several young great blue herons actively feeding in the waters. At one point, I watched a flock of them (about 5) fly over. This was unusual, so I figured these might also be juveniles and perhaps there is a nesting site nearby.

So much bird activity on the water today. The tide was perfect as the low occurred at about 8:30 am, followed by a steady incoming that provided me another hour and half with the birds. By 10:30 am, the only birds seen on the water were a few great white egrets, large enough to wade in 6 or more inches of water. The smaller waders had all disappeared quietly into the trees, where they would be until the next low tide. All this happening, while another part of the bay was anything but peaceful.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Florida Bay at full moon low tide

Took advantage of the beautiful weather and made the drive to Flamingo this morning. Low tide was not scheduled until almost noon, meaning it would be an outgoing all morning. This is a good thing and a bad thing for someone attempting to photograph wading birds on the bay. It's a good thing because there were thousands of birds, including dozens of snowy egrets and dozens of skimmers. But, it was a bad thing as I could not get close enough to 99% of them. I can get rather close to the birds a few hours before low tide, but the problem is that if I stay too long, I am stuck and surrounded by exposed mud & grass flats for hundreds of feet. I would have to drag my boat a couple hundred feet (while sinking to my knees in mud) before I could get back in the boat and drift to deeper water (which, by the way, only exists in the channel coming out of Flamingo marina). So there is that. The other reason is that the lighting in the morning is such that I have to paddle around to the outside of the endless mudflat. This can be very difficult in 1-2 in of water that is thick with grass.

There was another reason today that I could not get close to birds. Every time I attempted to drift toward a group of snowy egrets or roseate spoonbills, the water would begin boiling with bait fish darting away from my boat. The birds were alerted and that's all it took for them to fly off. The one time that I managed to get rather close to several little blue herons and snowy egrets (in the best light), a low flying helicopter came right over us, and off the birds went.

Nevertheless, I managed to capture some shorebirds (willet, royal tern, long-billed dowitcher), one juvy snowy egret and some ibises hanging near the mangrove shoreline.  It was beautiful to be out there and one of the best scenes was at Snake Bight where birds covered the flats in such great number that you could not see any separation among them. Amazing sight, but like oil separating from water, the birds always put great distance between them and me any time I attempted to get close.

For this area, the best conditions would be to get out on an incoming and in the afternoon so that the sun is behind me and the shoreline.  One of these days, one of these days...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mute Swan on the Bay

The Mute Swan is an invasive species from Europe. I associate this large bird with parks and fresh water. I never considered the mute swan to be a salt water bird, but apparently it takes to both fresh and salt water. I didn't know this when I spotted a mute swan on Biscayne Bay this morning, so I was surprised to see it. The only place I have seen mute swans in south Florida is at the old Crandon park, where several species of exotic birds live. A few years ago I watched a pair having sex in the water and a few months later I photographed the parents with their two young. Here is one photo of the swan family.

On Biscayne Bay, I first spotted it near the boat channel that comes out of Deering Bay. The bird was resting on some rocks near the mangroves as egrets and herons foraged the area in an outgoing tide. Eventually, the bird moved off the rock and began to swim south. For the next hour, I followed it until it reached the launch site near the Deering Estate. On occasion, I got myself between the bird and the shoreline and captured it with some frontlight. I had my flash on the camera and with the better beamer was able to splash the bird's feathers with some fill light (see photo above). The water was dead calm, perfect for this type of shot.

Later at home, I got online and reported my siting to the Center for Invasive Species. Apparently, these birds can be a big problem for other waterbirds because of their aggressiveness. As I searched the net, I ran across a few sites that discussed the management of mute swans in Michigan, which contains the largest mute swan population in North America at over 15,000. The DNR of Michigan issues permits allowing people to kill swans and destroy nests and eggs. This isn't the first time I heard of a bird problem in Michigan. The double crested cormorant has also wreaked havoc on this northern state through its voracious fish diet. I hope this siting is unique and is not an indication that mute swans will become a problem for Biscayne Bay's waterbirds.Here are a couple more photos of the invasive, but beautiful mute swan.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

February 28, 2014

Unexpected events happen in life. Some events change our direction or even set us back. Some events propel us forward in a way we never imagined. Sometimes, we don't recognize the event and we simply go on with our life without contemplating the "hows" and "whys". On May 26, 2012, I experienced an event, although at the time, it did not seem so significant.

From a few hundred feet away, I spotted a white bird of moderate size foraging around a mangrove tree. In these waters, a moderate sized white bird is either a snowy egret or a juvenile little blue heron. Nothing special about that. I paddled closer to the bird and stopped the boat just before entering the zone of concern (where the bird becomes alert to my presence). Something was different about the bird; it did not have the slender beak or body of a blue heron or snowy egret. I focused  at 400mm, and took a few shots. Through the LCD, I zoomed in on a photo and noticed that the bird had red eyes. Everything about it, except for the white feathers, made me think that it was a yellowcrown nightheron.

As this bird was clearly unique, I contacted the man himself, David Sibley, who confirmed that the white bird was an albino version of the nightheron. He also displayed one of my photos on his website, thank you Dr. Sibley.

A couple weeks later, I contacted Biscayne National Park as they keep a running tab on birds spotted in the park. I figured they would find the albino of interest, which they did. I communicated with Dr. Vanessa McDonough, one of the parks fishery and wildlife biologists, and park ranger Gary Bremen. The bird is now listed on the park's site:  And ranger Bremen posted one of my photos  in his "Featured Creature" Facebook site series.

At this point, I was happy to have found something so unique that others took an interest. But my discovery of the albino bird soon became more than just a rare find. This little bird opened a door for me. It turned out that Ranger Bremen is also the Director of the Dante Fascell Visitor Center's art gallery in Biscayne National Park. I asked him to visit my pbase gallery that displays Biscayne Bay. He liked my work enough to invite me to display it at the gallery. I was in.

So you see, this little white bird, so rare and so lovely became a significant event in my life. I think about it often and have seen it a few times since my first siting. I worry about it and wonder how it will survive out there. I wonder how a white bird will be able to hunt at night. I wonder if it will have the opportunity to reproduce. The albino yellowcrown is not only a symbol of opportunity, but it is a symbol of my love for Biscayne Bay.

Ranger Bremen and I may have several things in common, but one thing I know for sure is that we share a love and appreciation for Biscayne Bay. I believe he recognized that in my photos. Ranger Bremen grew up on Biscayne Bay. He experienced the bay before it became protected waters, when it was on the brink of death from overfishing, over-development and pollution. He has experienced it from all angles. In comparison, my relationship with Biscayne Bay did not begin until 2004, when Vivian introduced it to me from our kayaks. While she fished, I explored. Since 2005, I have been photographing the western shoreline of Biscayne Bay. And now, my work and love of Biscayne Bay will be displayed in print, in public.

So what is the significance of February 28, 2014? It is the opening day of my 3-month gallery at Dante Fascell Visitor Center. It is a very long time from now, but that time is a gift. It is more than simply preparing photographs for a gallery; rather it will be a new level of exploration and learning the bay, and then attempting to incorporate these experiences into my photographs that will make the next 17 months the most important ones for the photographer in me. My goal is simply this: present Biscayne Bay in a way that will make people take notice of its unique and amazingly beautiful qualities that should never be taken for granted. I want them to recognize Biscayne Bay's significance in their lives. Exactly what the albino yellowcrown nightheron did for me.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Another visit with the albino nightheron

I am convinced that the rare albino bird lives in a specific area of the bay. For the third time, I was able to photograph this bird while it cooperated quite well. Many other birds were in the area (including the juvy reddish egret I posted in my previous blog), and the albino seemed to not be bothered by anyone else (many birds walked by it, including the juvy snowy egret shown below). In fact, while other birds appeared to get into minor confrontations with each other, only once did I see the albino bird disturbed by another bird that happened to walk too close.

I hung out with it for awhile, until the reddish egret got my attention. So once again, here are some photos of this rare bird. May it continue to thrive.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Reddish Egret

My list of first-sightings on Biscayne Bay continued to increase, now that I can add the reddish egret. Having only photographed this bird on Florida Bay and the gulf coast, this was a rare treat to see this fun bird. The tide situation was perfect for the morning, but the winds were high enough to make the water messy. I was able to move in close to the shoreline where most of the wading birds were feeding. Within a span of about 1/5 mile, there were several birds and most of them were juveniles, tricolor herons outnumbering all the others that included little blue heron, snowy egret and ibis. And oh yes, my little yellowcrown nightheron albino was found among them today as well.

As I concentrated on the albino, a frisky bird flew into the area and it was colored a bit differently that the rest. At first, I believed it was a juvenile little blue heron, but with more observation I was able to see that it was something else. As I continued to watch it, I began to see the tell tale signs of a reddish egret. It appeared to run across the water chasing a bait fish jumping and with that, I knew I had a reddish egret, a juvenile one at that. This bird searches for food in the most comical way with its wing fanning and jumping.

This was going to be great if I could capture it with a full wing span facing the camera while it catches a bait fish. But, it was not going to be easy and ended up being  impossible. Here's why. The bird did not like me around and consequently stayed a fair distance away (the closest it came to me was about 30 feet away). Upon approaching the bird, it would move itself farther away and this went on all morning. I chased that dang bird over about 1/4 mile span. Imagine if you will how this happens when shooting from a canoe. In order to move the boat well I need my paddle, which means I cannot photograph. Many times, I missed opportunities to shoot the bird in good light and position because I had paddle in hand. As an alternative, I was able to use one or both feet to move the boat in the shallow water, but with the wind, this took some effort and was slow going.

In the meantime, the bird was jumping around, sometimes toward me, sometimes away. This went on for some time. I managed to capture some of its antics, but never achieving exactly what I wanted. I did capture it with a pufferfish in its beak, but the image was not sharp enough, as was the case many times as I tried to stay focused on the fast moving bird.  The water was messy from the wind and grass and the background sometimes interfered with the bird. The bird moved around so much that it often ran out of my sweet spot for lighting or was facing away from the camera. I stayed with it as much as I could, until it finally flew off toward the shoreline, about a 300-ft distance. At that point, I gave up. At least these photos demonstrate some of the movements of the reddish egret.