Shrimpin' at Surfside
October 7, 2016
The weather is finally changing! Mornings have been cool and the afternoon highs are not bad at all. Plus, we have had a few cloudy days for taking photos. We have had so much rain the usual places are too deep for small waders, but the frequent showers have made some new puddles. We found one at the end of Bay Road in Surfside recently. Usually this area is a wide dirt road, in fact we had driven on it earlier this summer. But now it is a shallow pond and we had a really productive afternoon watching a variety of birds.
Doesn't look like a very glamorous place, does it? The waders were far out when we drove but we thought they would move closer. There was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron with a crab in the small cut and Bill got some great photos but I totally missed it. We set up our crates and tripods in the shadow of the truck and after a while the birds just forgot all about us. It was raining off on the horizon, in fact all around us, but we didn't get any rain until we started to leave. Good timing for once.
There were three different Clapper Rails that ran back and forth in front of us. Sometimes two would call at the same time. They have great camouflage for the muddy marsh, but when they get out in the open and call they are quite conspicuous. I know other photographers think they are shy and retiring but these got closer than my minimum focus distance (13 feet) more than once. I even thought about removing my teleconverter, but I knew I would want it for the long-legged waders that we hoped would start to feed nearer to us.
There was a Tricolored Heron out a ways and I got a few shots. They have seemed particularly skittish this year. Several years ago I watched one fishing at Bryan Beach for a long time; you can read about it in Following a Young Tri-colored Heron. I have gotten an occasional good shot of one with a small fish since, but that was a great session to watch him repeatedly find prey.
By now the birds were moving a bit closer to us. We could see several Great Egrets and maybe a six or eight Snowy Egrets. There were a few White Ibis and a scattering of gulls. And of course a Willet or two. It was getting crowded and egrets and herons don't really like to feed in close proximity. Ibis, Spoonbills and most sandpipers will feed in a flock, but these bigger birds can get a little testy if another comes too close.
We began to see a bit of action. And I was glad I hadn't removed the teleconverter.
The Snowy Egrets were especially cantankerous. Notice the one in the back has raised his crest and is almost running across the surface of the water. They were still pretty far away, but with the 1.4x teleconverter on the 500mm lens and my cropped camera (the Sony A77II is not a full frame camera) my focal length was 1050mm. It was nice to be able to follow the action and get both birds in the shot.
We were following the egrets squabbling in the distance and the Clapper Rails and occasional juvenile Yellow-crowned in the foreground when a Long-billed Curlew just walked across the opening right in front of us.
The Curlews are just coming back to the coast for winter and we had seen a few earlier in the day probing for grubs or insects in the lawns of Surfside proper. But this guy was right in front of us! The male's shorter bill is still really long, I know, but the female's is so long she looks like she could tip over.
And then he raised his wings. The beautiful cinnamon colored inner wing is visible when they fly, but seeing him like this was fantastic. I fired off nine shots hoping I was keeping him all in the frame and not clipping anything important.
OMG did you get that? Did you see him raise his wings? OMG. I am so excited, I think mine came out!
Complete silence from the other side of me.
Bill had glanced down to check his exposure after the Curlew showed up and missed the wing-raising episode. But that is the way it is. You sometimes get distracted or you aren't fast enough or any number of things can happen to cause you to miss a good opportunity.
A Roseate Spoonbill showed up and there was NO welcoming committee. In the far distance you can see mostly gulls on the shore of the Intracoastal Canal. It is too muddy to drive back there now but in drier times we have 4-wheeled it all along the canal.
There was more squawking and movement with lots of wing action in the distance. The Laughing Gulls were attempting to take the shrimp from the Snowy. Can you see the one on the left has almost dropped his shrimp? He held onto it by the antennae but the gulls were harassing any egret with shrimp.
Here they are about to fly out of the frame, but you can see three gulls chasing the Snowy. The other Snowy might be relieved the gulls are not chasing him.
We waited and watched all the commotion in the distance, hoping the action would get closer, but it didn't. I have never seen gulls act so aggressive towards another species. We have all seen gulls chase each other at the beach and try to grab the prize or at least make the other gull drop it. This was very interesting. Each time a Snowy grabbed a shrimp he was immediately the object of attention.
I did a little research on the internet and found quite a bit of information about gulls snatching food from other birds and even mammals. Well, they will take bread from your hand on the Galveston Ferry, right? Birds are opportunistic creatures. This big puddle was a dry road earlier this year yet the shrimp and the birds found the new location. And the gulls seem to think any bird with food is fair game.
Are you glad it has cooled off just a little bit? And aren't you thankful hurricane Mathew didn't make it into the Gulf? Let me know your thoughts about those shrimp-stealing, loud and obnoxious Laughing Gulls in the comments below.