Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Audio Recording Leads To Pelican Rescue

Sunday I decided a peaceful kayak paddle on Biscayne Bay was a terrific way to enjoy the mild Florida weather and a great opportunity to record quiet ambient sounds, so I grabbed my sound recording gear and Nikon digital point n’ shoot camera and launched just five minutes away from my home. As I left I had no idea I was going to rescue a pelican from certain death nor be cursing the noisy skies above.

You may click on any photo to view larger.

Enjoying the sensation of floating freedom the first few paddle strokes, when my body realized I was not rushing through a metropolis of 2.2 million people, I threaded between a half dozen low mangrove covered islands. In this part of Biscayne Bay, which runs North 35 miles from the Florida Keys and is sandwiched between the Miami Beach barrier island and mainland Miami, I felt as if I was in the wild, yet I was surrounded by urban skyline all around. Sunday I could understood artist Christo’s  fascination with these islands which in 1983  he wrapped in miles of hot pink plastic for his Surrounded Islands art project.

One island is a popular rookery for water birds, allowing osprey, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants and even magnificent frigatebirds , which have impressive air filled red pouches and long forked tails, an isolated haven for safe nesting sites. Floating off at a reasonable distance as not to disturb them, I powered up my recorder and shotgun mic to record their raucous clamoring.

I’m not a birder, but I could distinguish the throaty clack-clack-clak of the cormorants and the angry screeching of a great blue heron. And with headphones it sounded like I was deep into a far off wilderness. Well, for about 60 seconds ... off in the distance I heard an airplane, a jet coming closer and louder, finally a roar in my ears. I waited for it to go away, and started recording again. Less than a minute later, another jet.

I quickly realized Miami International Airport was sending flights almost exactly every minute off over Biscayne Bay, and on top of me and the rookery, as the wind was coming inland from the Atlantic Ocean. And soon I picked up the mile off go fast boats, roaring up and down the Intracoastal Waterway , and then a propeller plane pulling a sign that read “I luv u Amy, will you marry me? Omar.”

What the heck, I decided to incorporate the jets into a sound clip, plus some peaceful wind blowing through island palm trees and water lapping on shore, recorded in the 30 seconds of relative silence between jets. It's 1:30 long.

By the time I left the rookery, the wind was blowing with light chop and rain squalls were passing over the bay. I headed for a more southern island, and hugging the shore, I turned a bend and was startled by a pelican less than a paddle length away. He was sitting just above the water on a mangrove branch. I said “hello”, and moved off not wanting to disturb it. But about 100 yards down the island, it struck me that something did not seem right. Pelicans always fly away from large orange kayaks.

I turned around and paddled back, approaching the pelican again and looking closely I could see it was thoroughly tied down with fishing line. I could even see a lead sinker half an inch across.  Carelessly discarded fishing tackle is a major threat to pelicans in Florida, as they can swallow baited hooks or be caught during a cast. In May I photographed Wendy Fox, the Executive Director of the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and I had seen dozens of injured and recuperating pelicans at their facility just a couple of miles up the bay from this poor fellow.

I knew from watching Wendy teach an intern how to handle pelicans that I did not have the special skills to catch a wild bird with a 10 foot wing span, and I certainly had no veterinary expertise. But this spot was in water about two feet deep so little small boat traffic passed by, and I had to do something. No telling how long it had been trapped, it could be starving to death for all I knew. I paddled over to the mangrove in the choppy water, and the pelican flapped and spun around on it’s fishing line tether. 

I cursed not carrying a knife with me, but I was wearing paddling gloves, so I figured I could at least break the line. With the bird squawking and throwing it’s beak about, I noticed a brass clip holing an 18 inch leader to a large hook caught deep into the center of his back. Bad luck for the bird, good luck for me as it was an easy fix, and the moment the bird felt the tension release, it flapped off into the water under  thick mangroves.

I really didn’t want to capture the bird and paddle it to the Seabird Station, but I had to make sure it wasn’t half dead. I beached the kayak, crawled under the mangroves, shooing the bird into open water, where it flew off. I was relieved to see it seemed vigorous, and hopefully the hook could remain in it’s back without harming him for the rest of his life.

I gladly joined the large club of Florida boaters who have rescued sea birds, and paddled off looking for more sounds to record, wondering if Amy took Omar up on his proposal.

Here's a link to more Miami multimedia photography.

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