The great thing about the natural environment here in Florida is that you don’t have to wander far from the beaten path to experience it, and with a brisk north breeze and the first real cool front of the season upon us, I could not resist the outdoor urge. So this morning at sunrise I grabbed my camera and eagerly launched my canoe into Lake Osborne.
I didn’t go paddling to look at birds. I was looking for alligators. But when the birds are out and the gators aren’t, well, then you look at birds.
We are fortunate here in South Florida to have an abundance of bird life, especially when the weather turns cool, but if you want to get really close to them you have to first earn their trust.
The sun rose, spilling orange light over the lake. The first bird I saw was an Osprey (top left). Perched in a tree by the bank, it was waiting for enough light to start hunting. Also called the Fish Eagle, Ospreys have excellent vision, and hover high over the water to spot fish near the surface. You often see them swooping quickly down to snatch fish, flying off with them in their large talons. They have a funny way of carrying the fish with its head forward so that it is more aerodynamic. This particular Osprey saw me coming from a long way off, did not trust me at all, and launched from its branch before I could get very close.
(Fair Warning: This blog article contains educational material I looked up in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida—an actual printed book).
I paddled on and came across an Anhinga (second from the top), or Snake-Bird. Anhingas use their sharp beaks to spear fish underwater, then they toss them up into the air to swallow them. Anhingas can swim far under the water, but because they don't have waterproofing oil glands, have to dry their feathers out before they can fly again. You often see them perched in the sun with their wings outstretched. This particular Anhinga was almost dry, but not quite—probably why it sat for so long with me nearby. I was patient and slow-moving, and as long as I didn’t make any sudden moves or noises, it was fine with me paddling in for a close-up. I had earned its trust by being predictable.
Around a bend I tried to get equally close to a Great Egret (third from the top). Brilliant white in the early golden light, it was wading in the shallows when it saw me. I was too eager for another close-up, was moving too fast, and so it didn’t hesitate to lift its gangly legs and spread its four-foot wingspan to get away, making croaking noises as it went. No trust here. As they say, fools rush in.
Not far away, an adolescent Great Blue Heron (fourth from top) was just waking and warming up, its crest feathers ruffling in the cool breeze. I took my time but kept shooting as I inched closer and closer. Soon I was less than ten feet away. That’s very close to a large bird like that, and the Heron must have been too cold or too sleepy to care. It had trusted me completely. I got the shot I wanted and it barely acknowledged me as I paddled away.
If you ask me, the Wood Stork, with its scaly and oily-looking head, is a sinister-looking bird—not photogenic at all. They're known to eat baby alligators. See? Sinister.
I came across a Wood Stork in another part of the lake (second from bottom). They’re big like the Herons, standing over three feet tall. They have a wingspan of over five feet, and are also the only stork in North America. It was very skittish, and so I could not get close enough to this one to get more than one shot. It quickly flew off to the top of a high tree.
As it flew away I noticed a fairly new football in the grassy shallows. I picked it up and tossed it into my canoe, planning to give it to the boy next door. As I paddled around the next bend though, I saw a father and son riding their bikes along a lakeside path. Even better.
“Mira! Mira!” the boy called to his dad when he saw me. Apparently canoes are still a novel sight for a little boy.
I called out and waved to them. They stopped. The little boy’s eyes were wide and wary. His father’s body language was instantly protective. I held up the football and motioned towards the little boy, “I just found this in the lake. Do you think he would like it?”
The father’s face softened as he smiled, “Sure! Thanks!”
I tossed the ball over and waved goodbye to the wide-eyed little boy. Trust, I thought later, is a currency we all exchange, and it is undervalued.
October 22nd, 2011