`WE'LL have to leave at sunrise to see the birds catching their breakfasts,'' our guide had told us on the phone the night before. And sure enough, the sky was glowing pink and rosy that morning as we eased the canoe into the brownish waters of the J.N. (Ding) Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Fla. It was our family's first time to explore a tropical mangrove swamp, with its pelicans, raccoons, jumping mullet, and even alligators. It was also four-year-old Jonathan's first time in a canoe, and he could hardly wait to get his hands on one of the paddles.
As we strained to listen to the distant chattering and squinted into the rising sun, we began to pick out a few silhouettes along the shore. ``White ibis,'' our guide, Mark (Bird) Westall, told us. ``And over there, some snowy egrets, a yellow-crowned night heron, a couple of wood storks, several roseate spoonbills, and...''
Wait a minute! They eat together? Practically at the same table?
``It's advantageous for all of them,'' Bird explained. ``While they talk back and forth to one another, defining their territories, they also shuffle their feet around to stir up fish and fiddler crabs. If the prey escapes from one bird, it bumps right into the legs of another bird. Everyone gets his share in the end.''
As Bird paddled past clusters of mottled ducks, he told us how double-breasted cormorants take off ``like a seaplane,'' with a distinctive slapping sound. He asked us to listen for the little blue herons - the ``neighborhood alarm system,'' he called them. He explained that alligators help to protect the bird rookeries by staying close by and scaring away raccoons.
Bird had lots of tales to tell, some taller than others. At first we didn't believe his story about the fish he's caught - when they've jumped right into his canoe! But when we saw one mullet after another leaping several feet out of the water, we began to think he might be telling the truth.
While we scanned the shoreline and the treetops for birds, Jonathan discovered a world of wildlife down below. The water was very shallow, only six to 12 inches deep at some spots, and he could see blue crabs and horseshoe crabs scuttling over the mud flats.
Still another world was waiting for us inside a ``mangrove cave.'' At one moment it looked as if we were heading into a solid wall of trees, and at the next we'd slipped through a break just big enough for a canoe. We had to duck in some places to avoid the low-growing branches that arched above our heads, and Bird warned Jonathan not to wave his paddle around as we passed underneath a wasp's nest. Bird wasn't afraid of the wasps - he just didn't want to disturb them.
Like all naturalists, Bird works hard to make sure that wildlife will always have a place to live. As more and more houses are built on the island, he helps the planning commission set aside special areas for the native birds and animals, as well. Sometimes Bird even acts as a referee - and wrestler! - when an alligator slips into a neighbor's swimming pool and he has to haul it back to the swamp in his truck.
The days Bird likes best are those he can spend studying his favorite birds, the ospreys. He knows many of the ospreys in the refuge by sight, by behavior, and by the sound of their calls. ``They have six or seven different calls, and I can give them all - sometimes with the right accent,'' he said jokingly.
To prove his point, he stopped the canoe as we were heading back to shore and gave a piercing ``chewk-chewk-chewk'' whistle. Whether he was saying ``How are you?'' or ``Bring me some fish!'' we didn't know. But in a minute or two, several ospreys had flown over to investigate!