Monday, June 4, 2012

STALKING THE GREAT EGRET - and maintaining peace of mind

click on photos to enlarge
A ride up the French Broad River

Last week I gave the state Ornithologist a ride on the French Broad River to a cormorant rookery I knew about.  Along the way we passed great egrets that were wading back in the marsh area of the flood plain behind the tree line that borders the river.  There were upwards of  fifty of the big birds gathered together.  They obviously were feeding on the numerous frogs and small fish that are plentiful in the wetland.  I have seen these big birds on the lakes before but never in groups this large.  We discussed the likelihood of an egret rookery in the area.  We did a short search for an egret rookery but found no nesting trees.  We didn't have unlimited time as he had to meet some TVA fisheries people for a ride on Cherokee Lake to look for and observe other cormorant rookeries on that lake.

I never forgot those egrets.  They are an impressive, beautiful bird that stands between 4 and 5' tall.  Adults are larger than the great blue heron.  The great egret has been called many names and even has been called great white heron.  The great white heron is a separate species of great blue heron who resides in Florida and actually is larger than the blue and has yellow legs which differentiates it from the great egret. The great egret has black legs and feet.  The great white egret is widely spread over the United States and has successfully returned in numbers after being persecuted by plume hunters earlier in the century.  Since I was on a mission, I selected the Gheenoe for the mornings outing.  Dogs were out of the question.  There is no place to disembark onto dry land anywhere in the wetlands and they would be demanding too much attention.
 I pushed the throttle forward and a strange thought entered my mind.  I thought, "I'd experience total bliss and would be a terror if I could get this boat on the Amazon River".  Fat chance, but what a dream!

I planned on running up the river a mile and turning right onto the shallow flood plain with its narrow water passage ways that lead in all directions and no direction in particular.  It would be there I would be able to find the great egrets - I hoped.
I turned the boat to the right just past the little projection of foliage you see in the shot above.  I instantly entered another world - a strange and beautiful green place that shouldn't be here on the French Broad River.  The sounds of bull frogs instantly met my ears and the croaking and guttural sounds of many cormorants made me look up and constantly twist my head in all directions trying to locate the position of the rookery.

I wanted to slip through all these trees and enter the more open water on the other side.  I could see farther out in the open water.  The binoculars could be employed and prove more useful out there.

A cormorant was making his way down the same water corridor I was on and he turned left and swam toward the heavy grass bordering the shoreline in that direction.
The little guy turned and swam in the opposite direction.  He appeared confused.  I shut the engine down and remained still until he disappeared.  I'm not here to add turmoil to their world.   This is why a canoe is so effective in the wild water places.  It is totally silent and most critters view it as they would a log.  Canoe's are non invasive out here.  My next trip here will absolutely be in a canoe.  

The little cormorant swam to the left again and then turned back right.  He kept his eye on me.  He was curious at the oddity that invaded his space.  I found that interesting.  He didn't show fear and splash furiously in retreat.  He displayed a definite curiosity.  I sat motionless.  He finally swam out of sight.
I post many photos of cormorants and birds and you may get bored with all the similar pictures.  Simply move on down the line of photos if you get tired of the view.  It's OK.  Really it is.  I can't expect everyone to be as enthusiastic over these wading birds as I am.
I heard the shrill cry of an osprey.  I knew where the nests were on the main river but this could be a treat back here on this flood plain.
Gotta love ospreys.  They are exciting to watch.  They dominate the sky's up here on the French Broad.
I have many photos of ospreys and I never get tired of hanging out with them.  They always have that "I mean business" on their face.  They are dignified and a wonder to behold in flight as well as on the nest.

This great bird did everything but fly into the boat with me.  I couldn't resist taking photo after photo of him.  He shrieked and chirped the entire time.  He made it plain I was not welcome in the vicinity of his nest.  But, oh, it's hard to leave him.  If I could hang out with a wild bird, it would be an osprey or a bald eagle.  They are majestic examples of what's still wild in this country - and there isn't much left.

I hope some day to own a professional 500 mm camera lens.  It's a shallow hope as I can't imagine myself having an extra $7000.00 laying around.  Great photographs start with the photographer but end at the lens, not the camera.  Without a great lens, the best camera in the world is a waste of time and money.  It took me over a year to save up the bucks to get my Sigma 500 mm lens.  It cost $800.00 and is known as a commercial lens.- an outrageous sum for a guy in my fixed income position.  I guess that statement says a lot about my status in the world of financial wealth.  I'm happy though.  I just wish stuff.  Wishing is fun.  OK - I won't get into a philosophical rant.  

 I noticed a patch of white through the trees.  It had to be a great egret.  I killed the engine and lowered the electric motor.  I would try to sneak through the center of this flooded area and come out silently just below the birds.
I backed the boat under some flooded trees and sat in silence.  I wanted to let quiet prevail.  I would proceed toward the white splotch I saw earlier with the electric motor in ten or fifteen minutes.  The water was only one foot deep back here and I would have to retract the shaft that holds the propeller of the electric motor so the prop would clear the bottom of the lake.  This boat will travel easily through this water even with the engine.  It is a wonderful boat to make way over ultra shallow water.  I scanned the shoreline from the inside out.  I was glassing the tree line from behind the trees and not from the lake itself.  I dropped the trolling motor into the water and made way.
I had to select tiny narrow water ditches that lead slowly in the direction I needed to go.

It is indeed beautiful back in here.  The place has the flavor of a great swamp.  I like swamps too.  I can't wait to get in here with the canoe.

This was slow going but the boat moved relentlessly toward the egrets.  He startled me.  A little further and I would have hit him.  The great blue heron was just as much surprised at my presence as I was of his.  I came up on him very quietly and was upon him before he noticed.  He cocked his head toward me, squawked loudly and exited stage left.  I hoped the egrets wouldn't identify his loud squawk with danger.



I suddenly realized that I wasn't certain where I was in relationship to the egrets.  I was very close to poking out through the trees at the edge of the river shoreline.  It would be what it was because I wasn't of a mind to do some massive investigation on the subject.  If I came out on top of them - it was still fun.

The Gheenoe was very close now and I had the sudden realization that this would be a lot easier if the boat was covered with camo cloth.  I'm getting some of that stuff from a army surplus store when I get back.  It would be super to cover a canoe with also.  I bet I could run right up on birds with that material hiding all the glittery stuff on the boat, not to mention my white face and arms that the sun reflects off of. 
I couldn't see the birds.  The heck with it.  I'll pull right out onto the river channel and hug the shoreline.  Then I saw them.  Great white birds were hunting along the water.  The camera came into my hands and I let the boat move with the current, which was almost stagnant.
 They had no idea I was there - yet.


The boat continued to float imperceptibly downstream with the slowly moving current.  The bow of the boat remained pointing down stream.  Great luck there.  I pulled off my green shirt and pulled it over the stainless steel hand rail that surrounded the console and laid the back of the shirt over my head and back to conceal my face, hands and arms.  The boat moved closer to them.
I felt the corners of my mouth tighten in a smile.  They were ignoring the boat.

Look at that gorgeous bird!  His plumage appears soft as silk.

He is oblivious to my presence and continues about his business of fishing.  Enlarge the shot and take a look at the size of his feet.  They can support him in heavy brush as well as on muddy shorelines.  He can seize any limb on any tree with total confidence.  Quite a bird!

Note how his long toes grip the log hes standing on.  I only see three birds along the shoreline that can offer photo opportunities.  However, I can see the white on other birds far back in the shallow water under the trees.  There aren't many birds in this group.  It makes me think the rather large group of birds seen last week were transients, as I believe these are.  In short, I doubt there is a rookery here.
Again, I invite you to enlarge the above photo and see the beautiful plumage up close.  This bird has just caught a fish and has wolfed it down.  He instantly thrust himself aloft.  The action was so fast and abrupt that I missed the launch.  I did get a couple of airborne shots.
 Pure elegance!

I believe I could have floated past them thirty feet closer.  They still haven't become aware of the boat.  This bird flew away in a casual fashion.  A motor driven boat would never, ever begin to get this close to great egrets.  Another bird was perched against a tree just ahead.  He is the last one I see near the river's edge.

The morning is a success as far as I my efforts to find and photograph these egrets.  I'm very happy with the results of the search.  I've satisfied my curiosity about finding a rookery, which I know doesn't exist up here.

 I watched the last great egret fly away and disappear behind the trees.  I stood up finally and sat down on the seat cushion.  It felt good.  My legs were cramping up from being jammed behind the boat's console on my knees.  I felt good - successful.  I fired up the motor and turned the boat around toward the boat ramp at Rankin.  I'd stop at the heron rookery to see if there were any babies born yet.  There were as it turned out.  They were impossible to photograph as I could only see the tops of their heads in the nests.  One baby was out on a limb but well camouflaged by foliage.  I took the shot anyhow.
In the shot above:  The baby is standing on the edge of the nest with his rear end toward you.  See his spindly little legs parted widely to support his young wobbly body.
The old Rankin railroad bridge is dead ahead.  Note the osprey nest on top of the first section of span.  We'll stop there to see if the babies are born yet.
A proud mother stands behind junior.  What a great sight.
There are two babies in the nest.  One is laying low.  Mom and dad's proud blood line is guaranteed to be continued.  Nature's great!

I hope you enjoyed my morning with me.  I didn't put anymore photos up here because I fear you would eventually become bored.  I can get carried away sometimes with the great outdoors.  I have to get back home now as I have my three girls to feed.   Shade, Chestnut and Happy are patiently waiting, looking out the window for my truck to return.  Gotta go.  See you later.