High Island Rookery

High Island Rookery

Wow. I just spent two days photographing Great Egrets and Spoonbills and their nest building endeavors at the Rookery at High Island. Do you remember I went last year?  This year was so different. How different?

Let's just say last year my standards were lower; I shot with the FZ200 camera on Automagic and was thrilled with the experience of seeing so many birds, the nests and action. And there were babies, remember?

This year was better, but frustrating all the same. The first day's light was inconsistent; cloudy and overcast interspersed with periods of bright sunshine. Even late in the day when the sun was lower, the light bordered on harsh. The second day was overcast, one period of misty rain and finally morphing into great light when I was so tired of lifting that lens I couldn't take full advantage.

We stayed overnight in Winnie, the tiny town on I-10 where you turn south to go to the birds. The gap between Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston is where the ship recently collided with the oil carrying barge.

We stayed overnight in Winnie, the tiny town on I-10 where you turn south to go to the birds. The gap between Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston is where the ship recently collided with the oil carrying barge.

My trip last year was in May and the eggs had hatched, there were babies to catch glimpses of. This is just the end of March so I am getting to see earlier parts of the cycle. High Island (which isn't really an island; only a higher that average elevation since it is over a salt dome) has several sanctuaries run by the Houston Audubon Society; Smith Oaks contains the Rookery. Birds roost on the U-shaped island (Yes, there is an island at High Island) in Claybottom Pond year round, but now they are starting to court and build nests. The island is perfect for raising chicks as the raccoons and coyotes can't get to them, but alligators do swim close to shore. Woe to the fledglings slow to develop flying skills. 

The Great Egrets are the first to build nests, followed by the Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. Next are the Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons, with the Cattle Egrets last.  That is the order of the sequence but there is a lot of overlap. Here at the end of March, the Great Egrets are displaying and courting, mating, building nests and a few have eggs. The Roseate Spoonbills are present and some are carrying around sticks and engaging in dominance behaviors. The Cormorants have nests, but they are mostly on the back side of the island. I saw one or two Snowys and TriColoreds, but it is too early for them. And there isn't enough room.

North end of Rookery Island Panorama stitched together with the magic of Photoshop

North end of Rookery Island

Panorama stitched together with the magic of Photoshop

Let's look at the Great Egrets this week. You have seen plenty of photos of them in other adventures; they are the bigger white egret with the yellow bill and black legs. Now that it is breeding season, they have grown some fancy plumes, the area around the eyes (lores) has turned green and eventually the eye itself turns red. Really.

Great Egret showing you how great he is with Roseate Spoonbills seemingly bowing at his feet... Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Great Egret showing you how great he is with Roseate Spoonbills seemingly bowing at his feet...

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Males stake out a suitable nesting site and sometimes bring a stick or start building a nest as a signal they are ready to mate. They start to display all that fancy plumage to attract a female.

I watched one male bring a fairly large stick to a small platform. He moved it around a bit, and commenced to display. First they dip low to the front several times, rise and preen/smooth the feathers on their chest. Then they start to rise like in the image above, but eventually extend the neck straight up (usually out of the camera frame spoiling the shot). The one on the platform displayed numerous times before being joined by a female. They circled each other a bit, did a bit of mutual grooming and then....he jumped her. Evidently she required more .... ah... preliminary attention as she quickly flew away.

NSFW Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

NSFW

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

But pairs are successful, like this couple with a good start on the nest. It seems to me the pairs mate several times during the nest building phase. Can you see that her eye is red? His eyes have a red cast and I think both males and females will turn red in time. The tree they selected for the nest is just budding out; in a few weeks we might not be able to see the nest at all.

More mating Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

More mating

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

Everyone was doing it. All the photographers and birdwatchers were on platforms across the water from the island. Someone would call out "Bird Porn" and then all you could hear was rapid shutter clicks. My camera shoots 5 fps (frames per second) but there were some serious heavy opticals all around me. The Nikon D4 is capable of 11 fps and it sounds like a machine gun. 

Carrying a BIG stick Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Carrying a BIG stick

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

Once the pair has bonded, the males bring sticks to complete the nest. I think she may be quite impressed with this offering. I swear, some of the sticks were just huge. Perhaps, if a male is capable of bringing large sticks, it proves to the female he will be a good provider? As the nest takes shape, he brings smaller sticks to fill in the gaps. I wonder if he notices what is needed or if there is communication from the female.

The amazing and elegant Great Egret Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

The amazing and elegant Great Egret

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000

It was amazing to have so many opportunities to practice my bird-in-flight (BIF) skills. The egrets were constantly going to get sticks or bringing them back. Mostly they flew off to my right, circled around and passed in front of me headed out to the clear water. They found suitable sticks and I could see them coming back from quite a ways off.

But, as I said the light was ever changing, necessitating adjustments to the ISO to keep the high shutter speeds. I did best with the low contrast of the bird against the sky; my shots of the egrets flying lower against the green of the island were not as good. Often the birds flew behind the bare trees or landed in a mass of branches, but occasionally all the factors came together.

"Is this what you ordered, dear?" Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 400

"Is this what you ordered, dear?"

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 400

 Right now, there seem to be plenty of sticks. They do tear them off the trees, fly over to the mainland to scout or find them on the ground. As the season progresses and resources get harder to find, they will steal from each other and fight over the sticks.

Constant supply of sticks needed for the nests Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/5000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Constant supply of sticks needed for the nests

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/5000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Even though the birds are large, they don't weigh but about 35 oz (1000 g). I had read that birds have hollow bones because they have to get airborne, but a new book I am reading called Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird speculates there is a weight trade off via bird's eyes and the head. Birds have extraordinary eyesight with large eyes compared to the size of the head. To compensate for that added weight, birds don't have teeth.  

Nest with egg! Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

Nest with egg!

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

When the bird above stood up to adjust some branches, you can just barely see a turquoise egg. Typically, there are 3-5 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, which takes 23-27 days. I do plan to go back in a few weeks to see the chicks; I bought a $25 patch that is good for admission all year. Otherwise, the fee is $7 per visit.

Oh, for my UK readers, I did find this interesting factoid:

On 22 May 2012, it was announced a pair of Great Egrets were nesting in the UK for the first time at the Shapwick Heath nature reserve in Somerset. The species is a rare visitor to the UK and Ben Aviss of the BBC stated that the news could mean the UK's first Great Egret colony is established. The following week, Kevin Anderson of Natural England confirmed a Great Egret chick had hatched, making it a new breeding bird record for the UK. Anderson commented "We've definitely seen one chick stretching a wing just before the adult arrived and also after it left and we continue to monitor for more. The eggs of the Great Egret can hatch over a period of a few days so it may be that if there are other young on the nest they will be less developed and won't be visible yet."

Do you know anything about this? Is it near where you live? I know I have three subscribers in the UK and one in Germany (Hi Lacy). And a couple in Canada; I have an International following :-)

And for our regularly scheduled Not-bird segment:

Spring squirrel eating new buds at Brazos Bend State Park Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Spring squirrel eating new buds at Brazos Bend State Park

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

It is finally Spring and even in South Texas our cool weather should end soon. Next time I will show you my photos from the Roseate Spoonbills at the Rookery.

Have you ever thought about going to High Island? Were you jealous I spent the night in Winnie, Texas? They have McDonalds, Whataburger, Taco Bell and a Denny's! Let me know what is on your mind in the comments. Click on the little balloon icon and sign in as a Guest with any name you want. Or do the Google/Facebook thing.

Looking for Spring Migrants

Looking for Spring Migrants

A Second Look at the White Ibis

A Second Look at the White Ibis