Alley North: Science, Photography, and Subject Welfare

As you may know, the Florida Everglades are near and dear to me as I spent nearly two years dedicated to my project, Everglades Imagery: Intimate Detail of a Vast Landscape.  I have not spent any significant time in the region for quite a few years so I have planned to spend some time there in January.  As I have been planning this trip, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the experiences I had when I lived in the National Park during the first half of 2005.  One of those experiences was so unique that I thought I’d share it with you today.

On the morning of March 30, 2005, I found myself on an airboat headed out several miles into the open sawgrass prairie of Water Conservation Area 3, an area north of Everglades National Park. I was in the company of two students and their research advisor and we were trailing another couple airboats also loaded with researchers.  Our destination?  The Alley North Rookery.

First off, you may ask, what exactly is a rookery?  It is at the very simplest, a breeding colony of birds, though not all bird colonies receive this terminology.  The term originated to describe a colony of Rooks, a crow that lives across Europe and Asia.  Over the years, the term has come to describe seabird nesting colonies and, as in this case, colonies of wading birds such as herons and egrets.

Alley North is the largest rookery in the Everglades system by a long shot. In 2002, this one rookery contained more nests than the entire Everglades system had twenty years earlier. Most of the wading birds species that nest in the Everglades can be found in Alley North. Among the thousands of nests you can find hundreds of Great and Snowy Egrets, Tricolored, Little Blue, and Great Blue Herons as well as Black-crowned Night Herons, Glossy Ibis, Anhingas, and a handful of Roseate Spoonbills. However, of all the birds found in this rookery, White Ibis dominate. In 2002, there were just over 19,000 nests total and an estimated 16,000 of those nests were built by White Ibis.

White Ibis - Alley North Rookery, Everglades, Florida

My first ever experience in a rookery was as a child when my dad and I were fishing off the west coast of Florida and discovered a tiny mangrove island with a dozen or so Green Heron nests.  We promptly dubbed the island “Green Heron Island” and returned numerous times over the years.  We’ve changed the name to “Pelican Island” to reflect the change in breeding birds, but that is one of those seminal experiences of my early years birding.  However, that was only a couple dozen nests, I simply could not fathom visiting a colony that numbered nearly 20,000 nests.

After about a half hour of traveling through a maze of airboat trails, we arrived at a large tree island, a high point in the marsh where willows and other trees can grow. As we pulled up, hundreds of adult White Ibis and herons took flight and circled overhead and then settled back down once the airboat propellers had been shut off.  The tree island was dominated by small willow trees barely reaching ten feet in height surrounded by a marsh made up of primarily cattails with a few patches of sawgrass. The cattails reached about seven feet above the water making it extremely easy to get lost since there was no way to find a point of reference beyond the cattails that were right in front of your face. A few inches of water flooded the marsh with deeper pockets up to a foot or more. Below the water was a deep layer of peat that formed from the years of dying grasses that were not able to decay and break down in the water. This rather spongy yet mucky bottom was fairly easy to walk on, as long as your foot didn’t go into someone else’s footprint and stick.

White Ibis Chick - Alley North Rookery, Everglades, Florida

I had joined a group of researchers from the University of Florida who had been studying the Alley North rookery for several years.  We split into groups to cover more ground and reduce the amount of time we spent inside the rookery disturbing the birds.  My group was surveying a transect through the rookery of nests that had been marked earlier in the season. Every week or so, the researchers return to check the status of each of the marked nests; this data served as a representative sample of the rest of the rookery and allows them to estimate the success of the entire rookery.

As we entered the water and headed into the rookery, I was told that this year had been a particularly bad year for the wading birds and that the researchers had been observing extremely high failure rates. Unusual dry season rains a few weeks before had raised the water level throughout much of the marsh, flooding some nests and dispersing the birds’ food sources making life difficult for birds that were attempting to feed chicks. As we entered the willows, we passed a number of nests that were only a few inches above the water at the base of cattails. All of these nests were empty or contained a few broken eggs. These eggs were not left behind by newly hatched chicks but rather from vultures, crows, and other predators that had found the unprotected or abandoned nests.  (Later data showed a failure rate of nearly 90% for that particular season).

Predated Nest, White Ibis - Alley North Rookery, Everglades, Florida

Farther into the island, we started to find nests that were still occupied, and we began to record data (the number of eggs or number and size of chicks).  As we made our way through the rookery, we found several White Ibis nests with one or two small black chicks that looked nothing like the adult birds. If it hadn’t been for the slightly curved bill, I never would have guessed that they were even ibis. Among the ibis nests we found one Great Egret nest with two fairly large chicks that threatened to jump out as we approached.  One small nest contained four light blue eggs. These eggs and the chicks in a nest a few meters away belonged to two pairs of Tricolored Herons, one of which was watching us keenly from a tree above.

The photography inside the rookery was unlike anything I had done up to that point.  Nearly all the photographs were taken at arm’s length without looking through the camera.  It was the only way I could get close enough to make the image while minimizing the stress to the birds.  I photographed nests with chicks, nests with eggs, nests with broken eggs, empty nests, and the researchers working. The photographs I walked away with will probably never hang on someone’s wall. They are not the beautiful images of portraits of birds with nice clean backgrounds that I often strive to take. Instead, they tell a complex story of chaos and survival.

We had limited ourselves to a single hour in the rookery to minimize the disturbance so we were in and out quickly.  Afterwards, we stopped at a second portion of the rookery to do another survey before heading back towards home.  During the half hour ride back to the boat ramp, my mind was at war with itself.  The experience had been amazing as we walked among the thousands of nests, yet the shocking site of so many empty nests was stunning.  While I wanted to tell the story of the rookery and the struggle for life, I had my own struggles. I struggled with the need to tell the story and the impact of our presence on the rookery.  We strive to protect these birds from the near extinction of the early twentieth century, yet our very presence can be detrimental to any individual bird or nest.

Dead White Ibis Chick - Alley North Rookery, Everglades, Florida

There are thousands of nests at this rookery. Of all of the thousands of eggs laid, only a small percentage of the chicks reach adulthood. Many fall victim to vultures and crows. Others become a meal for a snake or alligator or raccoon. Still more die of starvation as water levels rise and foraging becomes more difficult for the adult birds.  Here we are, in the name of science, trying to understand our mistakes of the past and correct them for the future. But as we make efforts to understand these birds, we are causing chicks to jump out of their nests and flee into the marsh.  Some will return to the nests, others won’t and will cement their fate by meeting an alligator or other predator.  Does the data gathered from this one small transect of a hundred nests enable us to protect the tens of thousands elsewhere?  Can we justify the death of some of those chicks that we disturbed to save the greater good?  As we rode back to the boat, these are the questions that were streaming through my head.

It’s now been more than four and a half years since that experience.  I have spent a lot of time working in the field alongside various researchers and struggling to answer some of those same questions.  The reality is this: science can’t be performed in a vacuum.  This simple paradox can’t be avoided; it is impossible to study something without impacting it.  The struggle is to observe and document while minimizing that impact at every possible moment.  That morning crystallized that fact in my mind and was one of the many extraordinary experiences I had during my time in the Everglades.

So what do you think?  How can science, photography, and the welfare of our subjects interact?  For me, the subject always comes first and if that means I don’t get the picture, well I don’t get the picture.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Let’s get a discussion going here in the comments section.

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  1. Drew, excellent post. Normally I would totally agree with your take that the subject “always” comes first but there are seldom absolutes. There are cases where the greater good takes precedence, much as your research visit to the rookery. In these special cases “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn-1982). 🙂 In short, I believe it depends up the circumstances, but the welfare of the subject should be a priority consideration.

  2. Drew,

    This post raises an important consideration that scientists work on with great frequency. In the scientific literature, there is a growing body of work that tries to systematically discern the presence of the observer effect…can something be studied without altering its behavior or dynamics. This is sometimes erroneously referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; however, that is a very specific reference to a phenomenon in physics.

    More pressing seems to be weighing the costs and benefits of harming a “subject” while engaging in its documentation. In this regard, science also has a very strict set of rules that governs work with vertebrates…effectively bioethics committees. The work of a photographer doesn’t seem as well defined and these are not clear cut choices…Earl has succinctly noted that the benefits of a few photos might well outweigh the costs of a few lost birds….

    Now…how directly do we intervene into natural cycles (i.e. dry season rains) to try and reduce natural predation in the effort to save endangered species. If anthropogenic activities put a species on the brink of survival…do you let nature run its course once you have established a protected rookery or do you keep intervening…where’s the line?


  3. All,

    A very relevant commentary from Andrew Revkin et al. here:

  4. Greg,

    Thanks for your comments and the great link. I don’t know where draw the line. I look at the birds that have become extinct here in the US and most of them were specialists of some sort. When you consider that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Warbler, and, to some extent, the Carolina Parakeet all used the same old growth habitat, now almost entirely gone. They are birds of highly specialized niches and never in massive abundance. In the long run, they were one of many species to briefly appear and blink out of existence. Yes, we helped them along but they weren’t around in huge populations to begin with.

    I wonder how we would approach the conservation of these species if they were still around today compared with how we would approach the crash of a massively abundant species like the Passenger Pigeon (flocks were described as darkening the sky). I suppose there are analogs. Look at how we have treated the swamps in Arkansas where the Ivory-billed sightings have occurred. Yet on the other hand, we haven’t dedicated that sort of resource or power of the Endangered Species Act to the catastrophic crash of the Red Knot over the past decade or so.

    I don’t have an answer and probably never will. It’s something to consider though whenever I pick up a camera and walk into the field.

  5. Hey Drew,
    Another great article. Most of my comments are tangential to Greg’s. Greg, I think you were alluding to the Hawthorne effect in research – do animals alter their behavior simply because they are being watched.

    I think you have some reason to be concerned when you watch birds run out of their nests, as these appear to have a relatively high proportion of negative outcomes. However, I think your intent is good, and just because you noticed broken shells and dead birds does not mean these outcomes are directly attributable to your research. On the contrary, your baseline positive impact with the rookeries makes the project worthwhile.

    Also, remember that you saw the rookery at one point in time. This cross-section may not be representative of the true impact that your presence has on these birds. It could be that the heightened stress of that year led to more chicks going without their parents for longer periods, and therefore more fleeing chicks.

    I would argue that you have little to lose sleep over, given that you even stop to consider these potential negative consequences. This thinking puts you in a better position than most others, and for that you should be proud.

    I didn’t read Greg’s article, so I’m sorry if some of these overlap with the article.

  6. What an experience and I appreciate you sharing it. The questions…such a challenge… I respect your position in putting the subject first. Why contribute to the negative consequences if you don’t need to?

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