Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Birds de Jour on the Wacissa River

What a great day on the river!

I noticed that for the most part I saw birds in clumps…a lot of one followed by a lot of another. So that’s how we’ll see them here.

I launched around noon, on a day that anywhere else or at any other time might have seemed to be threatening rain. Hahahaha! Not here! (Although actually, forecasters are insisting that this drought is about to end. That would be great.)

I first saw several tricolored herons, which was a joy since they haven’t been here in the numbers I have seen in previous years. For this first photo, I paddled over along the shoreline to include the river behind the bird. This was a possible mistake. Our yellow flies (horrible fierce biting flies) are swarming now (in fact, I had some around me in the middle of the river…surrounded by water…they are getting desperate). Weirdly, the photo ended up with a blue cast. Not sure why, but I like the effect so I left it (it’s the only one that came out like this).

Near that heron was a second.

I came to a great egret on the east side of the river, sitting high on a branch. I could tell as I approached it that it had unusual plumage, which was blowing in the breeze. This is one of the prettiest egrets I have ever seen.

And then we come to the green heron photos. I’m always on the lookout for these birds since they seem to be rare this year. This one was in the middle of the river as I slowly drifted downstream toward it. I was positioned well to take the photo…but it was facing me head-on and not looking away. Here’s what a green heron looks like when it tries to stare you down.

Kind of like a turtle-face, if you ask me. It did finally get bored and start looking for some food.

A little later I saw another one with its neck extended. It’s so strange the way these necks elongate when you had no idea there was so much neck there in the first place.

Now that I can paddle much more often than usual at this time of year (given the total lack of rain), I am getting to see the rail chicks mature. Here’s one that was in the vicinity of the very young group I saw on my last visit here, but I don’t think this is from that group, I don’t think they mature that fast. As far as I can tell from my bird ID book description, this is a purple gallinule. I discovered where all the purple gallinules hang out, and this one was near there.

In the same area but far enough away to not be related to that one I saw these three chicks in the grass at the edge.

And finally, of course, an adult purple gallinule. I’m glad this photo came out as it did. Notice the very long toes on this bird—they help the birds walk across surface growth. In fact, an adult purple gallinule can walk across a lily pad without sinking it.

Near those I was surprised to find a single pie-billed grebe. These are so cute—they are on my Top Five Favorite Birds list. This one was diving after food.

I turned around near the snowman boat ramp and headed back upstream, a gentle wind pushing me along. As has happened before, I almost ran into Bob before I saw him. I am sure this is Bob—I’ve never encountered another limpkin so completely at ease with my presence. Is this not a glowing example of limpkin perfection?

This was a day when a lot of white birds flew away from me. This great egret is my favorite—taking off so abruptly that water flew off its feet.

This snowy egret also decided it didn’t like me being so close.

This one was actually coming in for a landing when I snapped the photo.

I was heading back to the boat ramp when I spotted my #1 birds, a pair of wood ducks. So of course I took a picture of them.

I recently mentioned to someone that wildlife photos from a kayak can occasionally be a challenge because you are photographing moving objects from a moving object. But now and then a bird gets so focused on the hunt that it holds stock-still. How conveeeeenient.

A super paddling day. I’ll be getting out again soon. Stand by.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Holiday Weekend at the Wakulla

Yesterday my husband and I decided to go paddling on the Wakulla. We have historically always taken the canoe when we paddle together, but I am on a campaign to switch our mode to two kayaks instead. He fits very well in the Prijon Motion, so he claimed that one and I was in the Impex Mystic, as usual. We did discover that we are going to have to come up with a new way to transport two kayaks to the river other than the one we used yesterday, but that’s another story.

I was amazed at how relatively quiet the river was, considering it was the first day of a holiday weekend. There were many paddlers, a few powered fishing boats, and many large pontoon boats, but the no-wake policy that covers this whole upper section of the river made for a remarkably peaceful holiday weekend paddle. We actually had portions of the river to ourselves.

This great blue heron was perched on a tree near the boat ramp.

A lot of people were out on their docks and swimming in the water. Most wildlife were absent—I’m sure the manatees decided to stay out of this area of river during all the activity, and even the gators must have been hunkered down off the main water, probably tending nests.

I have always said that SOT (sit-on-top) kayaks are very stable in flat water. This guy standing in one pretty much proves that point. (I blurred the faces a bit just in case they were supposed to be somewhere else, maybe a picnic with the grandparents…)

We had gotten a very late start and so did not go all the way to the top of the river. My husband is a little uncomfortable with the thought of paddling near gators, so he stayed in the main part of the river. Once in a while I would take a detour through the water channels that go off the river and that were easy to paddle since the tide was in. And I found where the birds were hiding. I was very surprised to find two wood storks there, and was able to get a few photos of them.

I believe they were juveniles, based on the fuzz they still had on their heads and the color of their beaks.

On another short detour, I spotted these wood ducks trying to hide in a tree. The male looks exactly like a wood duck decoy I have on my mantle.

As we neared the boat ramp my eagle-eyed husband saw a great blue heron in the water a little way up a narrow channel, so of course I paddled over to photograph it. Herons are territorial and it seems likely this is the same one as pictured above.

And then we came to two yellow crowned night herons fairly close together. There was a large one

and a smaller one that was looking very nice against the shoreline greenery.

We reached the ramp, loaded the boats, and headed for home, which is an hour and fifteen minutes from the boat ramp if driven with no stops. However, we stopped to gather some provender (human variety) on the way. We arrived in our small north Florida town at about 8:00 pm.

There is a little pond next to a nursing home in this town; we pass it often while running errands. It is currently at a reduced level, as are all bodies of water due to this drought. When Abby recently came to visit, she commented that she had seen an egret in the pond; I’ve never seen any birds of any sort in that pond. When we drove by it last night on the way home, I was utterly amazed to see more than two dozen wood storks in the pond. We pulled into the nursing home parking lot and I jumped out of the truck with my camera in hand and, while sustaining many yellow fly bites (yellow flies are the scourge of the south and elsewhere, basically a fierce biting fly similar to deer flies and horse flies; the bites are painful and raise large welts. But I am willing to suffer for my art), took photos of them. This is a long view. Basically the entirety of the pond is contained in this photo, only a little of the sides are cropped out. This pond cannot support anywhere near this many birds. I imagine they had stopped there on their way to someplace better.

Here’s a closer photo of the group of them. There were a few egrets in the pond as well.

I’m not sure anyone else in this town would care about this visitation by so many members of an endangered species except as a passing curiosity, but I was very excited by it. I plan to bundle up in long pants and long sleeves (less than ideal when it is over 80 degrees outside but it cuts back on yellow fly bites) and drive to the pond later today to see if by chance they are still there.

I’ll be back next time I get out paddling. Stand by.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Short Day on the Wacissa

Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.
Henry David Thoreau

This was a shorter trip than usual. Added to the windy conditions was the fact that the water level was definitely lower than usual. It’s my guess that when the water table is reduced, as it must be due to our longstanding drought, the spring simply puts out less water, reducing the river level. That’s my explanation and I’m sticking to it. The result was that there were many more underwater obstacles than normal since they are usually at least a couple of inches farther below the surface. I kept encountering situations where the wind would push me sideways into a rock or a log that was just breaking the surface—this is not a good thing in a kayak.

It was still a good day.

I passed this mother wood duck and her babies shortly after leaving the boat ramp.
We will be seeing them again later.

The wind started out blowing upstream, which is ideal on this river (later it became variable in direction…not so ideal). It was an easy drift downstream, with the current just compensating for the wind. I was very surprised by how accommodating these two wood ducks were as I approached.
I took several photos of them as I drifted closer and closer. I finally decided not to push my luck and also to demonstrate the harmlessness of (most) paddlers, so I very slowly started to paddle away from them downstream. When I got about 12 feet farther from them…they flew off. Go figure.

Shortly after I turned around and began the paddle back to the ramp (aided considerably by the wind at times), I came to three little purple gallinule chicks standing around on the edge.
I pulled over to watch them, parking in the lily pads. This turned out to be the high point of the day. There were more than just those three chicks.
Hey you guys, wait for me!
Who are you?
I wonder if these things work?

(They didn’t, and even when this baby is all grown up, they still won’t work all that well, these birds run better than they fly…)

Finally Mom came over (or would that be Dad? Whichever it is—the other parent also soon joined them from behind me) to make sure everything was okay.
I took a lot of photos of them, they were so cute. And they had a nice lesson today in the harmlessness of (most) paddlers. They were pretty much all ignoring me by the time I left them.

I went into blue spring on the way back upstream. This limpkin (fairly tame, though I don’t think it was Bob) was in there fishing for snails.
This is the first year I have seen owls on this river, and now I am seeing them on almost every trip. And, like yellow crowned night herons, if I see them, I photograph them…
This was the only juvenile little blue heron I saw today, though the adults are still everywhere.
Finally, as I got close to the boat ramp, I came to those same wood ducks from the beginning of this post, this time on the move.
As much as I am enjoying never having to worry about rain ruining a paddling day, even I would welcome a downpour or two at this point. Meanwhile, I’ll be paddling. Stand by for the next report.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

St. Marks River from Newport, Florida

I keep forgetting about this river. It’s a tad bit closer than the Wakulla and is similarly spring-fed. Every time I go there I ask myself why I don’t go more often, and then when I get home…I forget about it again. It’s true there is less wildlife than on the other rivers I frequent—significantly less than on the Wacissa and somewhat less than on the Wakulla—but it is such a gorgeous river. Possibly actually prettier overall than either of those.

The pickerel rushes were out on this trip. Here’s what the river looks like in a wide section near the boat ramp.

A juvenile little blue heron followed me upstream, always flying ahead of me when I got close (looking like this)

And then finally it settled in a most picturesque area, so I took a wide view photo of it, just in case it took off again.

But it didn’t, allowing me a better look at it.

This river is very green. The water is green, the shoreline is green. And there is a lot of greenery just beneath the surface in parts.

The magnolia trees are blooming now and there was a huge one towering over the water, with a few low branches with blooms on them.

I paddled upstream for two hours. I wish they would post “you are here” maps somewhere on the shoreline! There is a large spring at the top of this river and I wanted to reach it, but after two hours I had no idea if it was 5 minutes ahead of me or another hour ahead of me (gps would be handy, but my Garmin tends to shut itself off when it overheats from being in the sun. However, if I remove from the sun into the shade of the cockpit, it loses contact with the satellites. Is it just my device that does this?). So I turned around and headed back downstream, which turned into a very slow drift. Another paddler passed me from behind at one point—he must have launched before me and gone farther. He looked nice as he paddled downstream ahead of me.

The sun was getting lower as I continued my slow drift. It highlighted these rushes nicely.

So I was very near the boat ramp and in fact putting the lens cap back on the camera in anticipation of pulling up to the ramp and loading the boat in the car. Much to my surprise, two manatees appeared to my left. There are many signs on this river indicating that manatees populate it, but in the few times I have paddled here in summer, I have never seen any, so this was a surprise. No video, but I did take this photo of the two of them.

And this of a single one.

(If you missed the video that was posted some time ago and is now slowly becoming buried in the archives and you’d like to see it, here’s a direct link to it.)

I need to get back to this river more often. It would be good to paddle following a Wacissa trip—I can get my bird photos on the Wacissa and then enjoy the beauty of this river without looking for birds.

No new paddling spots in the works until next month, but I’m sure I will get back to my regular ones. Stand by.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Birds of the Wacissa River

There’s just nothing quite like paddling quietly on a peaceful river to put things in perspective. If you are not (yet) a paddler, I highly recommend it. If you live in the area, make that river the Wacissa.

Very near the boat ramp I spotted a bird I had not seen before perched in a tree.

My bird book tells me that this is a Eurasian collared-dove. They are originally from Eurasia (I imagine you figured that part out); they were introduced into the Bahamas and have since spread to Florida, with recent reports from Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Further range expansion is expected.

And then not too far from the dove, I came to the resident barred owl, which is starting to be a more regular sight for me.

It occurred to me that the birds on this river change from year to year. Two years ago every trip report included at least one snowy egret photo, since they were everywhere here and unalarmed by my proximity. Now I see only one or two per trip, if that.

On the other hand, two years ago I had never even heard of a yellow crowned night heron, but lately I have seen several on each trip. Since they are still a novelty to me on our rivers around here, I end up with a lot of photos of them.

But this was definitely Wood Duck Day for me! If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that this is my #1 bird for photographs—mostly because they present the greatest challenge. The females are not too difficult, but the males are almost impossible because they are so excessively shy. Today I lucked out. These two were perched on a branch and didn’t flee in terror when I passed, which was thrilling for me.

This male was busy fishing, as evidenced by his wet head, maybe so engrossed in his search for food that he didn’t notice how close I was.

And the mothers are still out with their babies, some of which are definitely getting bigger now. This pair were hanging out together

while the rest of the brood were a few feet away.

This mother had a much younger one with her.

Meanwhile, there actually were other birds on the river as well, including a great blue heron,

great egret,

and the only green heron I saw on this trip.

This red-winged blackbird landed in a small shrub nearby and squawked at me a bit before flying off.

I got out at the snowman boat ramp to stretch my legs. I decided to walk up the road a bit to see where it led. Well, it leads to more (dirt) road, but I would like to find out how to get on that road, because it would be nice to be able to launch from there and explore farther downriver than I usually get.

The paddle back upstream was simple. There was not much wind (and surprisingly little smoke). Aside from three seaweed harvesting couples, I had the river to myself until I came to people in a canoe up by little blue spring. I was on the west side of the river and saw a single bird standing in the surface growth on the other side. I checked it out through the binoculars and it was a lone male wood duck. Even though it seemed unlikely that it would remain so far out in the open if I got anywhere close to it, I decided to paddle over in that direction. Surprisingly enough, it let me get relatively close. And you thought we were done with the wood duck photos!

How perfect are those birds? After taking that, I noticed a pair swimming nearby.

It was another 5-hour day on the water (which felt like less than two hours, as usual). Pesky work will be taking up some of the rest of the week; not sure when I will get back out. Stand by.