Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Corkscrew Smorgasbord

A serious drought was causing Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida to dry up earlier and drier than usual. I was there at the end of March. The surface water was down to some shallow pools, several of which near the boardwalk. Having arrived at dawn, I headed straight for Lettuce Lakes. At the southernmost pond, I hit paydirt. It was within a day or two of drying up altogether and might as well have had a neon sign and arrow overhead to call in all diners. The small fish had been forced into such concentration that the pond was jammed with birds -- herons, egrets, ibis, storks -- all enjoying an eating spree. Three large alligators barely able to submerge and fit between birds had crashed the party as well. It was so entertaining that I had a tough time leaving, and stayed for several hours.

Every few minutes, one of the gators would pop up within inches of a wader causing a lot of fussing and shifting (click), but I never saw a bird look very scared. They were just annoyed. Though the gators looked like they could easily grab a bird, they seemed to be more content gulping down fish without all the feathers to deal with. An alligator would root around the pond floor, then stick his head into the air while opening and closing his toothy smiling mouth to help swallow his catch (click). The storks squabbled, sometimes clacking their bills and posturing for dominance (click). Herons of all kinds mingled - great blues, little blues, even a white morph, snowy and great egrets - amid the easy pickins (click).

There were many white ibis too. They seemed to be very efficient fishermen (click). A would-be thief thought so as well: Suddenly, a red-shouldered hawk swooped into the scene and landed in the mud where the water was already gone. She stood there and watched, standing high to keep her feathers clean, then flew low across the water. I noticed the waders duck and dodge but didn't think much more of it, and she was gone. But a minute later, she appeared again, this time not four feet from me on a branch (click). Ignoring me, she studied the scene with great intensity(click). Choosing her moment, she dived onto an ibis who had just caught a nice little bowfin catfish. The ibis dodged adroitly and the hawk was forced to land across the pond. Back and forth she went, divebombing every ibis who landed a fish. She'd land beside me every other attack. Finally, an ibis caught a fish that was going to take more maneuvering to swallow. The hawk saw the vulnerability, attacked relentlessly, birds squawking, the ibis dodging and clinging... finally fumbling the ball, er, fish into the air. Both players scrambled for the flying fish, then plunk, it was all over. The fish landed back in the pond, free for the moment. The hawk left, exhausted and disgusted. And the ibis went back to probing the shallows for another fish.

A relative peace descended again (click)... waders pacing and snatching, gators rising up to swallow, and the beautiful primordial swamp sanctuary (click) moving through its cycle .