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STRAND OF PEARLS

Into the gunkholes we go, in search of wondrous birds traversing the shallows of Florida Bay.

For me, birding always conjures up visions of stealthily creeping through the forest at daybreak with a pair of binoculars, in the pursuit of a tiny creature that will undoubtedly fly away the moment I come near.

So it is with great surprise that for this, my first look at a wading-bird rookery in the Florida Keys, I hop into a shallow-draft boat with three other adventurers and a guide. And, before you can say "bald eagle at 10 o'clock," I am skimming across the near-shore waters of Florida Bay at nearly 40 miles per hour, headed for the area's best-kept secret junket _ a "gunkholing" expedition in the great beyond.

Before we left Duck Key _ a charming island about halfway down the 126-mile chain of Keys that straddles the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico _ I was advised to wear polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, a big-billed hat and to bring binoculars and a camera. Gunkholing means more than just bird-watching: In the shallow, mangrove-islet-sprinkled waters that encompass the Keys reside myriad species of indigenous or wintering birds, as well as a potpourri of underwater species.

The unique, uninhabited red mangrove islands that pepper the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay serve as the cornerstones of the food chain for the entire tropical ecosystem here. Every living thing in the Keys _ humans included _ is influenced by them. The red mangrove thrives in salt water. It grows prop roots that drop down from its branches like stilts, catching sediment and decaying organic material. Cigarlike seedlings called propagules, which can grow to 11 inches or more, drop off a mature red mangrove and float away, horizontally, on the tide. After about four to five weeks of absorbing water on its aimless float, the propagule gets heavier on one end and begins floating in an upright position until it snags on a rock or in the sand and sets down prop roots.

Believe it or not, this is how more than 200 little keys were created in Florida Bay, islets that now feed and house a virtual aviary of fascinating birds and a natural aquarium of marine organisms. We head at breakneck speed toward the Arsnicker Keys, about seven miles northwest of Lower Matecumbe, in Florida Bay. Our craft skims across the shallows, drawing only 8 to 10 inches.

The guide maneuvers the boat through the flats like a Formula One driver racing the LeMans course. We slalom between red and green navigational markers, upon which ubiquitous brown pelicans and laughing gulls loiter and an occasional osprey nests. Called the "fish-catching specialist," the osprey hovers in the air with wings crooked, 50 to 200 feet above the water, then plunges feet first, ultimately flying away with a snagged fish.

As we approach the Arsnicker Keys, our guide points out magnificent black frigatebirds _ which have a wingspan of 7{ feet and a distinctively forked tail _ gliding on the thermals overhead. These scavengers forage food from the surface of the water or harass other seabirds to give up their catch. After cutting the engine and raising it out of the water, our knowledgeable interpreter climbs atop an elevated poling platform at the rear of the craft. With the 22-foot-long push-pole in hand, he maneuvers us through the 10-inch-deep water, toward a tiny group of islands about 50 yards away that appear to be sprinkled with a mass of white blobs.

A glance into the crystal-clear water, which is constantly cleansed by the flow and ebb of the tides, reveals darting nurse sharks and the lazy flapping of a stingray. The sandy sea floor is littered with soft sponges, spiny sea stars and delicate algae such as sea bottle and mermaid's wineglass. In the turtlegrass beds, creatures at the base of the food chain _ worms, snails and crabs _ attach themselves to the long, flat, wide blades of grass.

We approach the red mangrove-lined shoreline of the island. The leaves of the mangroves are evergreen, but the plant constantly drops a few at a time into the shallow water. The leaves decompose, creating the much-sought-after nutrients that support the marine organisms so desired by the mangrove snappers, tarpon, snook, bonefish, sharks and dolphins that live in these waters.

The decomposing detritus also forms peat. The peat dissolves the limestone under the sediment layer on the sea bottom and, when exposed to the air, releases sulfuric acid. This is the rotten-egg smell encountered near the mangrove swamps in the Florida Keys at low tide.

As we round the first mangrove islet, my nose detects a smell unlike rotten eggs, but equally as odoriferous. Guano! The mangroves are frosted with the sticky, white droppings, the calling cards of the winged creatures that dwell within. The ActionCraft soundlessly glides around the curve of the island and, suddenly, we spy hundreds of white pelicans peacefully fishing a cove.

White pelicans, the true Florida snowbirds, winter at Arsnicker from December through March, after which they head north to summer in the Missouri River area of Montana. They are regal-looking albescent birds, showier yet more reserved than their fish-begging brown cousins. The span between their black-tipped wings exceeds 10 feet.

White pelicans are cooperative feeders. They congregate on the water in large groups (300 or more are usually found in the Arsnicker Keys). Encircling schools of fish, the pelicans herd their aquatic prey into a concentrated mass that leads to their ultimate demise. Noting our approach, the shy and skittish white pelicans begin swimming away from our boat.

A sneeze from one of the gunkholers frightens the white pelicans into flight, a glorious mass of yellow beaks and black-tipped wings. The birds don't go far, just around the island out of our sight range, but they initiate a near riot. All but invisible upon our arrival, a rookery of double-crested cormorants roosts atop the mangroves, wings outspread to warm in the sun. Frightened by the flap of the white pelicans, the entire colony attempts to flee _ like a rock-concert audience during a fire alarm _ with varying degrees of success.

Cormorants are large, heavy-bodied black birds that are relatives of the pelicans. Like wide-bodied jets, the birds need a long runway to become airborne. Hundreds of black missiles simultaneously take off from the treetops, most belly-flopping first on the water before finally finding their wings. They fly about a hundred yards offshore, congregating on the shallow flats in a cackling cacophony like merrymakers at a company holiday party.

Our cover is blown. The natives recognize the aliens among them. But some species here in the backcountry remain little bothered by our presence. Still perched in the mangroves are a smattering of great white herons, great blue herons and great egrets. A colony of snowy egrets occupies the tops of some of the inner-island black mangrove trees.

The great blue herons of the Keys, about 50 inches tall, are paler than their northern counterparts. The white morph of this species _ which sports showy alabaster plumage, a yellow bill and yellow legs _ is commonly called the great white heron and is found only in South Florida and the Keys. The great egret is also tall (about 40 inches), white and has a yellow bill, but it is distinguished from the great white heron by its long black legs.

Snowy egrets are about half the size of the great egrets, with black legs, yellow feet, a black bill and a yellowish streak around the eyes. Both great egrets and snowy egrets were hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s for their coveted plumes, which were used in the millinery industry for the fashionable ladies' hats of the era. Now the species' greatest threat is the drainage of the wetlands in South Florida.

The herons and egrets breed between November and July in the Keys, building nests in the red mangroves. We pass by the camouflaged nest of a great white heron, startling the sitting female, which flies away with a disgusted squawk. Our guide spots two fluffy baby herons peeking out of the nest, feathers spiked like punk rockers. We take turns scrambling up on the poling platform to garner a glimpse of the nursery.

Suddenly a bald eagle soars overhead, its distinctive white head shimmering in the intense tropical sun, wings held rigidly flat. With a collective gasp, we catch our breath. We had flushed it from its nest with our clamorous maneuvers. Paired eagles will use the same site year after year, adding material each year until the nests are very large. (Florida supports the largest resident bald eagle population of the lower 48 states.)

It is little wonder that the Nature Conservancy considers the Florida Keys one of the "Last Great Places." Rachel Carson most eloquently revealed its special essence when she wrote in The Edge of the Sea: "I doubt that anyone can travel the length of the Florida Keys without having communicated to his mind a sense of the uniqueness of this land of sky and water and scattered mangrove-covered islands."

Victoria Shearer is the co-author of "The Insiders' Guide to the Florida Keys and Key West" (Falcon Press).

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