Oilfield Birds

Oilfield Birds

Recently I went back to High Island to see the birds at the Smith Oaks Rookery and look for warblers and migrants at the Boy Scouts Woods. I was thrilled with my photos of the Great Egrets bringing sticks for nest building when I went last month, and had high hopes for the nesting Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets this time around.

But, there are so many variables with bird photography - the light, wind and habitat plus the birds themselves. This visit wasn't as successful for the Rookery as I had hoped.  

A pair of nesting Great Egrets. Look closely and you can see a blue egg through the sticks In the nest. Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

A pair of nesting Great Egrets. Look closely and you can see a blue egg through the sticks In the nest.

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

Most of the Great Egrets have built nests and either have eggs or chicks. None of the chicks were really visible; the photos I took show little fuzzy lumps. I did see two chicks in a nest that were pecking at each other, but they were too far away for a good photo. Part of the problem is now the trees have leafed out and it is much harder to see the nests with all the foliage.

Roseate Spoonbill coming in for a landing; this is called the Umbrella pose Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Roseate Spoonbill coming in for a landing; this is called the Umbrella pose

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

The Roseate Spoonbills are courting and carrying sticks and a few have nests. No visible eggs or chicks. They are difficult to photograph; it is hard to get a good exposure. They have bright white backs, plus the varying shades of pink. And they were often in the shady areas of the island.

A pair of Snowy Egrets showing off Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

A pair of Snowy Egrets showing off

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

The surprise was the number of Snowy Egrets nesting on the Heron Island. In years past they have mostly built nests on the back part of the horseshoe-shaped island, but this year they were everywhere. And I had no luck getting BIF shots; they are too quick for me. The Great Egrets fly in a slow, predictable path; the Snowys swing close to the trees and then just drop. Part of the problem was there was no wind; if the birds are flying into a steady wind, they will fly slower and hover a bit before landing which is much nicer for photographers.

The entire High Island area was just choked full of birders. Half the cars parked along the tiny town's streets had out-of-state plates and there were folks with binoculars and spotting scopes set up in front of every Bottlebrush and Mulberry tree. I exaggerate, but High Island is a famous birding hotspot especially during Spring Migration.

I did not get any photos of the crowds at High Island, but here are some same groups at the mudflats at Rollover Pass. I can see at least 4 guides with spotting scopes and lots of happy birders.

BIrders seeing new birds and adding to their life lists

BIrders seeing new birds and adding to their life lists

I saw a few new warblers, but I am not happy just to see or hear one, I want to get a great photo. And that didn't happen.

But there are always birds; you just have to look for them. I had read about a nearby birding hotspot that sounded promising. The entire town is circled by what is called Oilfield Road, and the south part on the east side of Hwy 124 has pond and lakes.

Google map of High Island located about 100 miles east of Houston almost on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Google map of High Island located about 100 miles east of Houston almost on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico

High Island is built on a salt dome which has pushed up the elevation to 32 feet higher than the surrounding coastal plain. The map above shows clearly how the edges of the salt dome have been exploited for oil over the years. If you want to know more about how this geological formation relates to oil and Texas you can read about the High Island Oilfield.

The short story is they have been drilling and producing oil from the area since 1922 by tapping the various compartments along the edge of the salt dome and later by water injection. There were old plugged wells along the South Oilfield road but I could see working pumps on the horizon to the west.

Horse Head Pump Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Horse Head Pump

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

The photo above is of a shut-in well with a Pump Jack or Horse Head pump. This one looks like it was elevated to protect from storms and flooding. The Gulf of Mexico is just the other side of that working pump in the distance. I took some close ups of the rusted machinery; that large counterbalance has "Bethlehem" in raised letters. Sigh, another company that no longer exists.  

Lesser Yellowlegs having a tiff Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Lesser Yellowlegs having a tiff

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

There are several ponds and wetland areas along the side of the shale Oilfield Road. I suspect they were once mud pits or formed when water injection recovery operations were going on, but now they are just depressed areas to catch rain water. Lots of little sandpipers and shorebirds foraging in the mud. These two Lesser Yellowlegs above were having a bit of a territorial dispute. Others were in the adjoining grasses eating bugs, flies or seeds.

Black-necked Stilt (male) Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Black-necked Stilt (male)

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Have I ever shown you photos of a Black-necked Stilt? We have them along the coast year-round and those legs are really long. Actually the legs are not that long, it is his feet. That is the heel of his foot he is lifting out of the water; the toes are almost visible. This is a male, and the female looks the same except her back is more brown than black. They will build a nest together on a small island or clump of vegetation. It is more a scraped-out lined depression than a proper-built nest. I have seen photos of the Black-necked Stil chicks and .... Well. Words fail me.

Eastern Meadowlark Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

Eastern Meadowlark

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

I could hear Eastern Meadowlarks singing all over the fields and even saw one perched high overhead on a wire. When this one appeared on the bush outside the truck window, I instinctively fired off some shots without even checking the settings. You don't get second chances with these guys.

Luckily, a bit of post-processing rescued the photo.

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

This looks to be a young first year Yellow-crowned Night Heron. His neck is still streaked like a juvenile bird, plus the top of his head is not fully yellow. But, he has got crabbing down pretty well. After he captured this crab, he walked over to the edge of the water and dropped the crab. Quickly, he picked it up again by one claw (which broke off) and then dealt with the other claw. A couple of gulps and it was gone - less than 2 minutes.

I expected to show you nesting birds and maybe even babies, plus some tiny warblers but the day didn't unfold that way. No matter, Texas has so many good birding locations and I always come home with hundreds of photos to sort and cull. And while I am looking through them for keepers, almost always a story starts to form...

Did you ever think anything good would come out of the juxtaposition of oil and nature? Are you good at making the best of circumstances? Is flexibility one of your strong points? Let me know in the Comments below.

It is the Season

It is the Season

Springtime in the Swamps

Springtime in the Swamps