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.

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