Rush to Spring

We have had way too much winter this year in South East Texas. Sometimes we pass the season without even a threat of a freeze. But this year we have had a lot of dark days with bone-chilling winds. Miserable ISO 3200 days.

 And then it gets warm and teases us that winter is over for good. But it is a LIE.

Typical forecast:

Can you believe this? One day it "feels like 80F" and the next is "feels like 30F" Weather guestimate via accuweather.com

Can you believe this? One day it "feels like 80F" and the next is "feels like 30F"

Weather guestimate via accuweather.com

The March 3rd forecast was for fog and clouds so my fave photographer Bill Maroldo and I decided to head for world-famous High Island rookery and see if the Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills were starting to nest. I had seen a couple of reports on Facebook that looked promising.

 

From my house to High Island, Texas is about 100 miles. A bit long for a day trip, but not that bad. We packed up and left in soupy fog with high hopes for the day.

The trip was mostly uneventful... well, mostly. 

Cattle on Hwy 124. Yep, those are real Texas cowboys moving the cows down the highway. Photo by William Maroldo with Galaxy Note 4

Cattle on Hwy 124. Yep, those are real Texas cowboys moving the cows down the highway.

Photo by William Maroldo with Galaxy Note 4

A short delay on the road from Winnie to High Island. I think that it must be easier to get permission from the local authorities to move your cows from one pasture to the another using the road instead of loading them up in a trailer. Not a lot of traffic in that area anyway. Winnie has a population of 3,254 and High Island has less than 500.

If you are planning to go, the main gate to the Smith Oaks Rookery is closed until March 15th. We had to park at the other gate and then carry all our gear in the famous cart. Yes, we had to unload the cart and wrestle it it up that flight of stairs, but still better than toting all of it almost a mile.

We had the last viewing platform all to ourselves. And there were some birds. 

Roseate Spoonbill taking off... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

Roseate Spoonbill taking off...

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

We had talked to an intern/volunteer for the Audubon Society at the gate who told us there had just been a bird count the day before showing 20 Roseate Spoonbills. They don't seem to be nesting yet, but there was a lot of moving, flying and squabbling. 

In some ways it is easier to go this early: fewer birds allows you to isolate a single bird without distractions and the lack of foliage enhances visibility. On the other hand, not as much action and those fine, bare branches often don't show up in the viewfinder. You see those only after you get home and download the day's take.

Roseate Spoonbill showing you his fantastical orange tail feathers Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 500

Roseate Spoonbill showing you his fantastical orange tail feathers

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 500

This first trip was so much more satisfactory than my trips last year. This time I have a tripod with a gimbal head and although it does limit your mobility a bit, it makes for much steadier shots when they are moving from branch to branch or coming in for a landing. Hand-holding a camera with telephoto lens gets tiresome. And heavy.

And I have my Sony A77II which I am completely comfortable with. Last year I was using Bill's old Sony A700 and the dial for the shutter speed was worn. It wouldn't work half the time and often would change all on its own. Extremely frustrating as the light was constantly changing and I wasn't able to quickly respond.

A bit of a squabble among friends Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500

A bit of a squabble among friends

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500

If you are shooting manually, you need to change the f/stop depending on how much depth of field you need, the ISO in relation to the available light and the shutter speed to freeze action or allow more or less light to the sensor as required.

It is a constant dance in adjustments that some photographers are content to leave up to the camera. And some cameras do quite well on AutoMagic. That is the way I started out with my bridge camera and I made some pretty nice photos. Other photographers set one or two variables and let the camera decide the rest.

I was trained to take control of all of the settings and it isn't that hard. Of course I have had a lot of practice; these photos are culled from over a thousand images I took that day. And I often do that couple of times a week. But, I am still learning. 

Great Egrets are getting their green lores... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2500 sec. f/8.0 ISO 400

Great Egrets are getting their green lores...

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2500 sec. f/8.0 ISO 400

A few of the Great Egrets have nests; there were several in this evergreen tree with what looked like females sitting on eggs. Others are building nests, bringing sticks to their mates. Only a few were displaying and they were either obstructed by the the bare branches or facing the wrong way.

The fog we were chasing burned off by the time we set up and for the most part it was bright and sunny. Not my favorite shooting weather as it makes the shadows too harsh. The one above works because the bird is in a compressed position that minimizes the shadows. But the light was less than ideal. IMO. When we arrived there was a slight south-southeast wind which helped with flight shots as they would hover a bit before dropping. But even that stopped after a while.

NSFW photo Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

NSFW photo

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

There was some mating behavior going on. This pair had made a start on a nest; he will bring sticks for her to weave into the structure. I always wonder how picky he is for branches. Does he hunt for that perfect stick or just grab one hoping she can use it? Later in the season, nearby sticks are in short supply and there are often fights and stick stealing to document.

We saw a documentary on Bald Eagles where they had a cam on the nest. They reuse the nests, but do add and remodel each year. It was a long term study and after the female of the pair died, they weren't sure what the male would do. But, he found a young first-time breeding female and they used the same nest. He would bring her sticks and she would work them into the nest.

And then he would rearrange her work. Every single time.

Bonding behavior Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

Bonding behavior

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

The pairs greet each other with a lot of squawking. Once this couple settled down, the front bird turned around and they each started to groom. You can see the lores are bright yellow-green at this stage. That color will change to a more blue-green and then the eyes will be bright red.

There were some Neotropical Cormorants already nesting but most of their action seemed to be on the back side of the island or completely obstructed by bare branches. A lot of flybys with sticks and vines for nest construction, but they are just too fast for me that close in.

Well, here is the first report. I am sure we will go back in a few weeks to check on the progress. Hopefully, this is our last blast of winter weather.

Are you sick of winter? Do you think snow highly over rated? Are you tired of wearing too many layers? Do you think you will ever be warm again? Let me know in the comments below.

Related adventures: High Island Adventure; High Island Rookery; Oilfield Birds