Pelicans and Propellers
Recently I had the opportunity to go to the Texas City Dike on a photo shoot. It was a wildly successful adventure: full of loud birds, amazing pictures, major traffic jams, blinding rainstorms and near miss floods.
Shall we get started?
Now, some of my local readers are familiar with Texas City, but let's do a bit of a recap to set the stage for those living in square states, Canada and the UK. Or new to the area. Texas City is about 60 miles from Houston. It is a huge deepwater port on Galveston Bay and home to many chemical and refining operations. And it is the site of the worst industrial accident in US history. In 1947 a ship with 2300 tons of fertilizer blew up, causing more explosions in nearby ships and oil storage facilities. It killed over 600 people and demolished most of the town. Read the Texas City Disaster if you don't know about it or need the details. It is a powerful story.
But the town and port was rebuilt. The Texas City Dike, a 5 mile long strip of granite boulders stretching out into Galveston Bay, was built to control silting in Houston Ship Channel in the 1930s. Now it is a hugely popular fishing pier and home to countless birds. The dike was destroyed by Hurricane Ike (dang, that was 2008, y'all) and rebuilt in two years time.
This time around the lighting is all solar powered, there are no vendors allowed on the pier and littering is strictly prohibited. It is a wonderful place to see and photograph birds.
I was fortunate to make this trip with a photographer friend who knows the area and the birds. The day was a bit overcast - perfect for taking pictures. Just after you enter the dike, we stopped and looked at the pelicans on the piers.
These are Brown Pelicans, although Texas does get the White Pelicans as well. I had no idea they were so pretty... or photogenic. See the red on his/her neck and pouch? That denotes breeding plumage. A lot of the birds you see now are showing their colors - they are smart; no sense wasting time courting a juvenile!
What I learned right away concerns the light. This day was overcast; the sky was not eye-shattering blue and the shadows were subtle. Perfect for photography. And my bridge camera is capable of handling the low light.
See the difference in the colors of the neck and pouch on this one? There still are some interesting colors and textures without the breeding plumage. Their eyes are so bright and engaging. I learned that pelicans have internal air sacks beneath their skin and in their bones, which makes them really buoyant. I watched them flying about and diving straight down to catch fish. My in-flight photo skills still need developing, so I can't show you that.
The bird above is a Neotropic Cormorant. They are hard to photograph since they are so dark but this soft light is better that brilliant sunshine which would make hard shadows. I like his feet; looks like he is wearing leather socks! And look at that eye!
Cormorants nest in colonies like the ones I am going to show you in a later adventure when I go to High Island. Something to look forward to.
OK, I know all of you recognize the Great Blue Heron above. I have posted tons of photos of them from Brazos Bend. But look how low and horizontal he is. Fishing in the waves and the tide is not at all the same as watching for fish in still water.
The waves make interesting patterns for the background without all that vegetation you have to shoot around in other places. And the birds look cleaner!
These photo were all taken from the vehicle. The way it works is you
drive close to the shore, preferably in a 4-wheel drive truck. The birds
don't notice you so much. Think of it as a traveling blind. As they
work down the shoreline, feeding, you move and stop with them. When they turn, you back up.
This is an American Oystercatcher. They have those long bills that are flattened laterally; better to split the membrane hinge that holds the oyster closed. I didn't see any with oysters but the birds all looked well fed.
Are you bored yet? Take a break cause I have so many more birds to show you.
Not all the birds I saw were big.
These Sanderlings were new birds to me. Even when I was birdwatching in California I didn't pay much attention to shorebirds. But these are high on the cute scale. They run around at a fast clip, but when they need a rest, they huddle up in groups.
The Sanderlings have a complicated life cycle. Let me see if I can explain it to you.
The juveniles are a bit darker than the non-breeding adults, which are pale, almost white most of the year. The second year birds are considered breeding adults and they develop a lot more rufous (that is bird nomenclature for reddish-brown) coloring. The breeding adults migrate all the way to the High Arctic tundra where they nest on gravel patches. Then the adults and new juveniles come back and eat marine invertebrates at the shoreline. All over the world. Makes me tired just to write about it.
A lot of the shore birds are showing breeding plumage.
So, up above are two Black-bellied Plovers. The one on the left is just coming into its breeding colors. The other one is looking good. These little guys also migrate to the Arctic Tundra to breed. It is said the black feathers help retain heat and warm the eggs they are incubating.
The birds above are Laughing Gulls . And they are probably the loudest of all. Summer adults have a crisp black hood, white arcs around the eye, and a reddish bill. In winter, the hood becomes a blurry gray mask on a white head. We are lucky enough to have them year round here on the Gulf Coast.
The Texas City Dike is a loud and exciting place. The birds gather up in open areas and always there is competition for real estate. Cars drive by on the road and they all lift up, wheel through the air and then settle down again, facing the wind. Evidently we have a bit of a communication problem above. The Royal Tern on the left seems determined to have the patch of ground the Sandwich Tern is using.
These Black Skimmers are really goofy looking on the ground. They have funny short legs, but great color. They are not blind, they have black eyes just at the edge of that black cap. I am told they are nice in flight, feeding in large flocks, sailing just above the surface of the water and skimming up small fish and insects with their bills open.
What a day. The light was fading, I had taken 650 photos. That is a record for me,
On the way out, we stopped at the memorial park at the entrance of the dike. This is the propeller of the SS Highcamp, one of the ships that exploded that day. The anchor of the SS Grandcamp is in this same park.
I thought the day was over but there was that surprise rainstorm ahead. Three hours and 8 inches of rain later I got home. And I had a leak in my kitchen!
Have you ever been to the Texas City Dike? Do you remember what it was like before it was rebuilt? Can you believe it has been two years since we had a hurricane?