This is the time of year the migrating birds stop on Galveston Island and the neighboring Bolivar Peninsula to rest and refuel after flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Also, the year-round shore, marsh, and wading birds are in high color for breeding. With the opportunity to see birds of all sizes, shapes, and colors, how could we not go and enjoy? We could not; so we went and we enjoyed.
In other years we have packed up the motorhome and headed for the state park. But this year we rented a beach house as we had expected Linda's sister to be with us, and the RV is strictly for just two old folks. Alas, Sally ran into a minor roadblock and couldn't join us, but Linda kept the rental. I must admit it was very convenient for us. Like all homes on the island, it is built up in the air in case of flooding. But there was an elevator (yea!) which made things easier – especially with all the stuff my girl likes to pack.
The festival is a four day affair with many, many workshops and field trips. Typically Linda goes her way and I go mine, but we always schedule one field trip together. This year we went to them band birds with I.D. tags.
My first day was an unqualified success. My morning field trip was scheduled to begin at 8:00 which meant leaving the beach house by 7. Driving up the Seawall I looked out on the wonderful sunrise you see in the photo above. That sunrise was a good omen as Thursday was a totally successful day.
By the time our trip ended at lunch we had seen over 40 different birds, both residents and migrants. I did not get too many photos as a birding field trip is different from a photography field trip – we were just looking to see and identify as many different birds as possible.
Here are some photos of a few of the birds I did see. The Black-necked Stilts are a mated pair; the male is feeding and the female with a bit of brown on her back is in the front. The middle photo is a Greater Yellowlegs with the sun glistening on his wet bill, and on the right is a family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks with their little black and yellow ducklings. The family of whistlers was a real treat as it was the first time I have seen the ducklings.
On the second row the brown bird with a tasty in its long bill is a White-faced Ibis, not rare but certainly not nearly as common as its white feathered cousin. To see this fellow with a catch in his mouth was special. The little bird in the middle is a Lesser Yellowlegs in breeding feathers. This photo was taken at a drainage pond, not at the beach. We were there to look for a Sora – ya gotta go where the birds are – and I have no idea why this yellowlegs chose the pond over the beach. Lastly the right-most photo shows the White-faced Ibis again, this time dropping in to visit a pair of Blue-winged Teals.
Remember to click on one of the photos to see them all full-sized.
Thursday afternoon I was off to a rookery to see mating egrets and Roseate Spoonbills. You want birds? Here there are birds, thousands of birds. This is an almost unbelievable experience. There are truly thousands of Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Cormorants all nesting on three small islands in a pond. The rookery is owned by the Houston Audubon Society which has constructed a number of observation platforms along one edge of the pond.
In previous years of the festival the Great Egrets were in their full breeding glory. This year, however, the festival was held a week later in the month and many of the egrets were already losing their colors and plumage. On the other hand, there were far more chicks to see. The spoonbills were still pairing up so most of them were still displaying deep pink and red colors.
Great Egrets are second only to the Great Blue Heron in size among the heron family. They are typically 36 to 40 inches long with a wingspan of almost 5 feet.
They are patient hunters who wade in shallow water hunting for fish, frogs, and other small aquatics. They stand still and watch for prey to pass by and then spear their lunch with incredible quickness.
Coming In for Landing
Here is a sequence of photos of a Great Egret coming in for a landing at its nest in the treetops. There are other egrets about, including at least one chick, and also – for some reason – a cormorant. These photos were taken in burst mode at 1/2000th second shutter speed.
Snowy Egrets are smaller than their Great Egret cousins. They are easy to tell apart because the snowies have a black bill with yellow at its base and black legs with bright yellow feet (its golden slippers). When spring turns their fancies to romance, they grow some fancy feathers and then strut and jump about to display them – much like teenagers. Check out the two guys below.
Few birds are as fascinating to me as the Roseate Spoonbill. The bird is a visual enigma – lovely in flight but almost grotesque when seen close up. It flies with both its neck and its legs extended creating a long line that is further amplified by its long, broad bill. With its 4 foot wingspan and nice, easy wing rate, the spoonbill is really elegant in flight.
Spoonbills feed in shallow water, walking forward slowly while they swing their heads from side to side, sifting the bottom silt with their wide, flat bells. They like having buddies around and are often seen in groups, both while feeding and flying.
Scientists, conservationists, and other concerned folks keep track of what is happening to the bird population by banding them with little I.D. tags on their legs. Birds of all types and sizes. Little birds like hummingbirds and sparrows. Songbirds like warblers. Shore birds. Waders. Tough birds such as hawks. All sorts of birds get banded.
But who does it? And how in the heck do you put a band on a hummingbird's tiny leg? Outside of the town of Lake Jackson there is a bird conservancy that does just these things, and they let us visit and see how they band the birds. The conservancy depends on contributions and private funds. Its banders are all volunteer well-trained and dedicated master bird handlers.
Look at the picture at the right. Yes, that is a hummingbird being held in a large and incredibly gentle hand. That hand just reached in a sack and pulled out a bird, a tiny hummingbird.
The whole process starts with mist nets – fine mesh nets that birds fly into and become entangled. The birds are then picked off the nets one at a time and put into cloth sacks and taken to the banding station. Each bird is evaluated for its general health, weighed, and checked for fat content. Everything is carefully recorded in a ledger. Then a band is put on the bird's leg. And the bird is gently released.
Here's an idea. Let's go up to the 26th floor of a swanky condominium, go out on the balcony and take some pictures of pelicans flying by at eye level. It's perfect. The condo is on the beach. The pelicans fly up and down the beach in squadrons every evening. It's going to be great!
It sounded great. It had to be great. So I signed up.
Friday evening arrived, and ten intrepid photographers gathered on the balcony of the 26th floor condominium. But the weather was not very April-like. It was rather chilly – I wore a winter jacket that Linda made me bring along – and the wind was over 20 mph. Pelicans do not like to fly in the wind. And when they do fly in the wind, they fly low to avoid the wind, real low.
So there we were. Ten photographers with ten cameras and ten long lenses on ten tripods just standing around talking while waiting for high flying pelicans which were never going to show. We enjoyed each other's company for about two hours and then we packed up and headed home.
We did see some pellies, but they were truly down low. Like these guys. This squadron is heading up the beach at about a second or third floor level which was far below our eye level. Here's my shot.
Here's another great idea. Let's lie in wet, soppy sand at 6:00 am and see the birds from down low. We'll be at eye level (again?) with the birds. It'll be fun.
So for my final outing of the of the festival I headed out very early on Sunday morning to do some "eye level" photography. For this outing eye level means getting down on your belly to get the camera down to the same height of the shore birds and waders. I have done this field trip twice before – so I should have known better – but this one was the messiest. There had been rain the night before and the tide had just gone out, so the sand was very soft and mushy and easy to sink into. When it was all over it took me over an hour to clean my camera gear. Sure it was messy, but it was also great fun.
The white morph is just a standard Reddish Egret with no fashion sense. It is all white and looks like your everyday Great Egret, but it is not. And you know it as soon as you see them move. The Great Egret stands very still and waits patiently to strike with lightening speed. The Reddish Egret is proactive. It is peripatetic and almost hyperactive with all of its gyrations and staggers and leaps. The one below is using its wings to cast a shadow so it can more easily see beneath the water's surface.
What's the deal with horses at a birding festival? Well, there are a lot of photography sessions at the festival, and this was a photography session. It was titled "Horses on the Beach at Sunrise." With a title like that how could I ignore it? I couldn't. So I signed up and went to take pictures of horses. On the beach. At sunrise.
A horse trailer arrived with two handsome horses, one cowboy and two cowgirls. They were probably just regular people, but cowboy and cowgirl just sounds better. As the sun was rising over the gulf, they rode the horses up and down the beach in front of our group of cameras. We kept messing with our camera settings hoping to get everything just right in that morning light that folks with cameras call the "golden hour."
I must have taken close to a million pictures. My primary method of photography is known as "spray and pray," and this was a great time for it as they just continued to ride up and back, giving me opportunities that were near endless.
It all sort of worked. I learned some more about light, and I got some pretty neat images. All in all, it was great fun, and I am happy I went to take pictures of horses. On the beach. At sunrise.
I finally have reached the end of this gosh-awful long post. If you have stayed with it all the way to here, thank you. Now just pretend the photo below is not a horse at sunrise but a cowgirl riding off into the sunset, and we will have the perfect ending to this whole thing.
Before you go, click here to see a photo of a momma egret with her chicks.