Sunday, December 20, 2009

All Access

Florida Bay and the Everglades National Park are huge places. For a novice, without the aid of topographical discontinuity or frequent trail markings, navigating through these areas is extremely difficult. The nondescript cuts and endless chains of mangrove islands help deter most people from venturing out alone. As menacing as the nautical maps may be, plenty of experienced anglers and explorers launch into the canals and blind turns of the backcountry.

Because it’s such a large area, it’s next to impossible for an underfunded park service crew to stay vigilant, especially on the fringes of the Everglades. As an avid trespasser myself, I fully understand the potential payoffs and risks that rest on the other side of an unguarded fence. In fact, many of my favorite images have roots that extend past legal property lines. My body follows my curiosity and my curiosity follows the blind theory that if there’s a fence, then generally speaking, something interesting, something forbidden, and eventually, something irresistible, rests on the other side. For the first time, however, legally, I have carte blanche to one of the most famous wildernesses in the world: Everglades National Park. I have to admit I miss the thrill of delinquency, but while in nature, the absence of adrenaline brings peace of mind, and peace of mind brings clarity, and clarity, for an artist, is a powerful tool.

Working with a reputable organization like Audubon in the Florida Keys parallels to having the golden ticket in Willy Wonka’s factory; instead of a river of chocolate we have endless estuaries, instead of fizzy lifting drinks, we have helicopters. I dug deep to find something that likened to an oompa loompa, but it would have been a stretch. I know it’s a ridiculous simile, but it’s hard not to feel like a kid in a candy shop out here.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to go out with Audubon’s bird crew to monitor and band nesting roseate spoonbills. Since my specific job with the fish crew requires that I be at our sample sites every day, this was an extremely rare opportunity to leave the nets behind and pick up some binoculars.

The spoonbill crew is responsible for finding and tagging nests all throughout the Florida Bay and into the southern tip of the Everglades. Most of the nesting sites have been protected and blocked off to human traffic in order to allow the birds a safe haven for nesting. Knowing that I would be walking through mangroves otherwise forbidden and unfamiliar to the general public was half the fun.

The most productive site for the spoonbills is Sandy Key. In a good season there can be anywhere from 100 to 300 nests. That number doesn’t include the egrets and cormorants who also nest on the island. This year, however, water levels are at an unusual high, which prevents the spoonbills from frequenting their favorite foraging grounds. Additionally burdened with a recent cold snap, spoonbills have a trying winter ahead of them.

Aside from the climate, the offspring face an array of obstacles. On some of the nesting sites, crocodiles and alligators wait patiently below for clumsy fledglings.

Despite the tough conditions, many spoonbills have tried valiantly to propagate the next generation. Sadly, some have failed.

Strangely, other adults in the same colony seem to be unaffected by the peripheral challenges.

Equipped with convex mirrors attached to painter’s poles and extension ladders, we scour the island for nests. Arching and bending beneath the mangroves’ brachial maze, we trip, slip, and slosh through the sediment and whitewashed roots like clumsy tourists. Well, at least that’s how I moved. Karen and Seth, the more experienced mangrove marauders, navigated far more gracefully.

When we found a nest with chicks old enough to receive bands, we set up the ladder and grabbing the largest bird first, we brought them down to the ground. Their blunt beaks were not quite hard enough to cause any discomfort but they had another, much more effective defense tactic. Upon lowering these guys to the ground their first reaction is to pooh everywhere; and not just a little dribble, but with an almost sniper-like accuracy. While extremely unpleasant it’s hard to hold a grudge against a terrified ball of pink feathers. Besides, I’m pretty sure I did the same thing as an infant, minus the accuracy.

Over time Audubon will monitor the birds’ progress and track their movements. This information will give us a better idea of the feeding and breeding habits of these beautiful birds and the legislative steps necessary for ensuring their future.

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