Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It's Tough Being an Egret Parent

I took advantage of the calm mornings this past weekend and spent a couple days at the rookery. I launched minutes before sunrise and watched the bay come alive with birds in flight as I made the 1.5 mile trek across open water. As I paddled, the rising sun colored the distant storm clouds with orange and pink. Like clockwork, on both mornings I watched flocks of tri-colored herons fly toward me, sometimes coming within feet of my boat. The outer rookery islands appeared to be dusted with whiteness from a distance, but I knew the white was hundreds of ibises that roost at night and would soon take flight in unison. And what a sight to see as I approach the islands and look east toward the brilliant orange sky. There, the birds in flight speckled the sky with their silhouettes. On the openness of the bay, the birds are the morning show, a ritual of beauty that just takes your breath away. As I sat in my canoe surrounded by brilliant light and flying feathers, I wondered how so much bird life can be concentrated in one area for one person to witness.

In the meantime, the nesting brown pelicans and great white egrets were awakening to the day. As I approached, I saw several adults flying circles around the islands as they prepared for a long day; but mostly, everyone was resting somewhere in the densely populated mangroves. As I passed through the large opening between two islands, several roosting juvenile brown pelicans seemed to hold sentry duty, allowing me to pass with a wary eye. Perhaps this is an important job as these young birds are not yet ready for the hard work of nesting and raising chicks. But there are plenty of adults doing that job right now. I would not put money on it, but I bet there are well over one hundred pelican nests and just as many or more great white egret nests in the rookery. The success rate seems even more evident when I witness several nests with three healthy chicks vying for a meal from mom. Usually the third and smallest chick, last to be born, is ignored or much worse, killed by a sibling.

Competition among chick siblings is fierce to say the least. Having witnessed many times the interaction among them, it would be more appropriate to describe their lives as brutal. The statistics bear out this reality as only 1 out of 4 great white egret chicks survive the first year of life. When I visit the rookery several times during a season, it is a joy to watch them grow and eventually take flight. But all the same, it is a painful process. I am not sure whose life is more difficult, the chick or the parent. In between nest building, the parent must hunt for food, not only for itself, but for the chicks. This requires the parents to leave the nest for long periods at a time. At best guess, I believe the chicks are attended 24/7 by one or both parents until they reach a certain size. However, I see unattended chicks left alone for very long periods of time. By that time, they are big enough to move around independently and begin spreading their young wings.

When a parent comes back to the nest, perhaps several times a day to feed its chicks, the fun begins for this photographer. I placed my attention on a few nests and waited for the moment to arrive. As soon as the parent lands, the chicks begin an outlandish display of competition. Wings flap in all directions and beaks jab angrily at the air above. All this is happening as the parent stands upright, seemingly ignoring the little ones. But it is my thought that this stance is what allows food to be regurgitated. As soon as the adult is ready to transfer the food to a chick, one or two chicks grab the adult's beak and pull down. Razor sharp beaks are precariously intertwined as the chick's make a frenzied attempt to eat. After about 5 to 10 seconds, the adult pulls away from the hungry chicks and stands straight up. In a short time, the feeding frenzy begins again. This will go on several times until the adult finally makes its get-away, leaving the chicks alone once again.

This is the life of a nesting great white egret; the graceful symbol of the National Audubon Society, the bird that was once slaughtered almost to extinction for its priceless feathers, and perhaps the favorite bird of the artistic Florida Highwaymen. I have had the privilege to observe the first stages of a new generation of great white egret. From them, I have learned so much and hope that my photographs are worthy of their significant lives.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Too Many Birds!

Only kidding, there is never too many birds. Currently, a bird rookery that I have been visiting for eight years is in full throttle nesting activity. This rookery is primarily brown pelicans and great white egrets. Over the years, I have observed this rookery's ups and downs; some years seemed to do much better than others; at least if you go by numbers. In this regard, this year has proven to be the most successful with the greatest number of nests seen.

The rookery consists of several small mangrove islands within an area about half the size of a football field. Right now, if you sit in a canoe and look squarely at one of the largest mangrove islands, you will notice about 8 to 10 nests that are obvious because of the large size of the chicks. If you sit there long enough, you will notice that their are about twice that many nests, only the chicks are much smaller and less obvious. Sometimes you don't see it until an adult flies in and you may catch a glimpse of a young one's beak pointing upward toward momma. Here's one image of an area of the mangroves where the brown pelican has staked its claim. There are at least three nests in view. As with almost all of the images presented here, this one is cropped to isolate the birds.

Great white egret and pelican chicks grow very quickly and before a chick fledges, it looks very much like an adult in size. Typically, I see two or three chicks to a nest, but this year, I have spotted a few nests with as many as four chicks. There is a scientific  hypothesis called "brood reduction" that helps explain why not all chicks survive the nest. I wrote about it five years ago and you can read that here. So when I observe these nests, it is with the knowledge that not all of them will make it to the fledgling stage. What I look for is an adult that flies into her (or his) nest to feed the waiting chicks. When this happens, the chicks become very active, wings flapping, beaks open and attempting to reach mom. I look for a scene that gives a clear view of the the birds' beaks and eyes, such as the two below.

I also look for some wing spread, particularly from the adult that stands over her chicks, such as this scene. I like to see the sun light on the underside of those wings as well.

It is basically nesting chaos right now and attempting to capture that cleanly has proven to be nearly impossible. When chicks are being fed, it can be a confusing scene of feathers and beaks. For example, here's a mom attempting to feed one of her chicks while the other two look on.  The next image illustrates two pelican chicks being feed. It is always the case that one chick is fed at a time, so imagine the competition. There is almost always a dominate chick, a middle one and a smaller one that seems to always hang in the background.

I prefer a clear background, so I look for the highest sitting nests where I can get the sky behind the bird, unlike the two images above. Here's an example of a penthouse nest. I also try to avoid lots of foreground branches and leaves that will compete with the action.

Another view I try to capture are the wings of the chicks as they exercise their wings. In between feedings, the nestlings are often moving around in the nest. They may begin venturing farther away from the nest and start flapping their wings as a strengthening exercise, such as this little one.

Here's one showing a nest with some fuzzy chicks in the foreground. One of them was quite active and I tried to capture its wings, but this is about as good as it got. You can't see them here but there are brown pelicans all around, plus the two larger chicks in the background. I waited for the brown pelicans to settle down behind the mangroves; but isolating the little chick with a wing spread was a test.

Regardless of the frustration that comes with attempting to photograph nesting egrets and pelicans, I continue to visit them as often as I can. Sometimes, I put my camera away and simply watch. If that is all I can do, I will be happy. Happy to see the birds thriving.