Black Skimmers and the UTC

Black Skimmers and the UTC

The Texas coast is fantastic for birds year round. And the major players in the energy industry realize protecting nature is good business.  

There is a story that years ago a few Black Skimmers built nests on part of a parking lot in the middle of Dow Chemical Texas Operations Plant A at Freeport. An employee noticed the nests (they just scrape out a depression in the surface) and blocked off the area to protect the birds from cars and foot traffic. Next year even more returned and over the years Dow has given them the entire parking lot during breeding season. I hear they show up in mid-April (this year it was May since it was cooler) and are generally gone when the employees return from Labor Day holidays.

Recently I heard about the annual Dow Texas Operations Black Skimmer Open House event to see the nesting colony. Did you know I worked for Dow Chemical in the past? Twice, actually. I was a contractor doing material take-offs (counting all the pipe, fittings and valves used in a big project) the first time; second contract stint was part of a team developing a global piping specification system. It was quite a few years ago, but I have fond memories of Dow and value the great friends I made there. I visited a few of the plants over the years but generally worked in offices in town.

This nesting site is an entire block of land in a busy refinery that Dow feels should be protected for the sake of the birds, which is pretty danged cool in my opinion. The nesting area is enclosed with a short chain link fence which is electrified to protect the birds from coyotes and/or raccoons; part of the original oyster shell surface has been replenished with crushed limestone. We were told that using crushed oyster shells for surface areas is illegal now, but Google fails me on finding a ruling or law.

So, I was eager to see the nesting birds and visit some other great birding spots in the area. The Dow Open House started at 9am.

Black Skimmer colony at Dow Chemical - it is a busy and noisy place. Check out the babies! Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/8.0 ISO 640

Black Skimmer colony at Dow Chemical - it is a busy and noisy place. Check out the babies!

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/8.0 ISO 640

Visitors and photographers were kept in one specific area. Dow was helpful and gracious; we were brought to the site in air conditioned buses, and there were soft drinks, snacks, two of the cleanest port-a-potties EVAH and we had the benefit of experienced Dow volunteers to answer our questions about the birds. But, we were too far away and facing the sun which was not ideal to get great photos.

Black Skimmers and eggs - Nests are just scrapes in the ground. Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

Black Skimmers and eggs - Nests are just scrapes in the ground.

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

The Black Skimmers share their real estate with Gull-billed Terns and there were a few Least Terns nesting as well. The ubiquitous Laughing Gull was also seen hovering around the edges. It is not much of a predator since there are so many Black Skimmers, but I did see one Black Skimmer doing a spread-winged distraction (similar to what Killdeers do) to lead the Laughing Gull away from his nest sitting mate.

But their was high drama if you had the long lens and patience.

Gull-billed chick running for his life - photo by William Maroldo Sony A77 II with 500mm f/4 G 1.4 teleconverter 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Gull-billed chick running for his life - photo by William Maroldo

Sony A77 II with 500mm f/4 G 1.4 teleconverter 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

The above photo was taken by my fave photographer, Bill Maroldo. He has exactly the same camera as I have, the Sony A77 II, but he is using it with a Sony 500mm f.4 lens plus a 1.4x teleconverter. That gives him an effective reach of 1050mm so he could zero in on interactions with the tiny chicks. The Skimmer adults were chasing the Gull-billed chicks and the tiny Skimmer chicks were not safe either. Nature is not one big happy family; there is always competition for scarce resources and any sign of weakness is exploited.

In case you wondered, the above chick survived. You can see the entire sequence on his Flickr page.

We were in the middle of one of the premier birdwatching areas on the coast, the Upper Texas Coastal Birding Trail (UTC). Surfside is just down the road from the Dow plant, so we checked out some favorite spots after watching the Skimmers. First stop was under the bridge that crosses the Intracoastal canal. There are some nice tidal pools and mud flats, good for wading birds and occasionally a Clapper Rail.

Tri-colored Heron catches a shrimp Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

Tri-colored Heron catches a shrimp

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

This Tri-colored Heron was fishing about 10 feet away from a nice Snowy Egret. They usually don't peacefully co-exist that close together, but the Snowy did not seem very upset by his presence.

The shot above shows how the heron leans so far forward to get the prey his foot comes off the ground!

We stopped by a few other places in the area including Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary and then Quintana Beach. Nothing was happening or too many fishermen disturbing the birds. This was a Saturday and we were resigned to sharing the great outdoors with other participants. That is another wonderful part of being retired; favorite birding places are not crowded during the week.

Under the overpass of Hwy 1495 and the Intracoastal canal Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/8.0 ISO 1000

Under the overpass of Hwy 1495 and the Intracoastal canal

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/8.0 ISO 1000

I had been snapping hopeless photos of Magnificent Frigate birds high overhead when I turned to go back to the truck. The cattails, power pylons and the tall bridge caught my eye. This had been jazzed up a bit with an HDR plug-in to make it more dramatic.

Next stop, Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. There had been reports (birders talk a lot) there were some Wood Storks around, but we didn't see them. After looking at Birds of Texas on Facebook, everyone else did see them!

Stilt Sandpiper Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 800

Stilt Sandpiper

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 800

Not many birds in the main areas around the Auto Tour, but way at the back we got out and sat on our crates in the mud next to a canal. Bird photography is so ... glamorous. There were some Short-billed Dowitchers feeding, but they kept their heads stuck in the water/mud and did not do anything interesting. But, in their midst I saw something different. This is a Stilt Sandpiper, a new bird for me. This one seems to be losing his breeding plumage; just a touch of russet behind his eye. This is an unusual sight this time of year, most have passed us by for breeding grounds in the Arctic Tundra AKA Canada. Maybe he is an early arrival back for the coming Winter?

I read somewhere recently that some of the various adult shorebirds are on their way back; the juveniles will come later. That means it is time to check the beaches at Galveston and Bolivar Flats.

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

American Avocet

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

These American Avocets were way off but headed our way. We waited and waited and waited and finally they got within range. We had seen a huge flock earlier this year at Rollover Pass, but the light was harsh that day and they never got very close. This time was exciting - the light was good, they were getting closer and facing the right way.

American Avocet stretching and showing off Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500

American Avocet stretching and showing off

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

It was even better when this one raised his wings and stretched. American Avocets have that wonderful russet coloring on their heads only during breeding season; the rest of the year they are a nice soft gray.

Just a regular birding day... 

Just a regular birding day... 

All told, we traveled almost 200 miles and new camera got a work out with lots of keepers. I think it is going to work out fine. I am using my 16-50 mm wide angle lens on .... non-bird subjects and will be reporting on that soon. 

Have you been to the Black Skimmer Event? Do you drive/travel endless miles to pursue your hobbies? Are you looking forward to retirement so you can do fun things when everyone else is working? Let me know in the comments.

Not a Bird in Sight ...

Not a Bird in Sight ...

Green Herons

Green Herons