Return to the Rookery

Return to the Rookery

We made a trip to Smith Oaks Rookery at High Island April 11-12 to see the baby egrets and check on the status of the other nesting birds. For those of you who haven't made a trip before you can plan your excursion from here. It is really crowded on the weekends, and is much more enjoyable during the week. We met a lot of out of state birders and some Facebook friends; it is a world-famous destination and the place to be during April. The other parts of the sanctuary are teaming with tiny flitting birds if you have the patience for that.

Quick technical note. Most of the two-day trip at the rookery I was using Bill's Sony f/4 500mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter and my tripod. This limits mobility and some action shots have clipped wings, but I wanted to concentrate on the babies. For that, the 1050mm reach was fantastic. And I was using much higher f/stops than usual at this distance to ensure the chicks were all in focus.

Most of the Great Egrets have paired up and have a nest with eggs and lots already have chicks. We only observed a few pairs mating, and one lonely fellow displaying his lovely feathers trying to attract a mate.

Squeee.... baby chicks! Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.0 1/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Squeee.... baby chicks!
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.0 1/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

This nest is built on one of the platforms provided by the Audubon Society. Trees are available, but fill up fast. There is some kind of wire mesh stretched over the wood to help secure the sticks. I worry for the safety of the little ones, but for photography it provides a clear, open view of the chicks.

And they are everywhere.

Chicks eager to be fed Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.01/1600 sec ISO 1000; tripod

Chicks eager to be fed
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/8.01/1600 sec ISO 1000; tripod

Great Egrets feed their chicks by regurgitation. A lot of birds do this since the food must be transported over a long distance; none of the adults were foraging for food around the island. A bird carrying food may be subjected to robbers plus the prey could be too large to safely carry. 

A parent shows up (and both adults feed the chicks) and if her bill is within reach, the chicks mob her. I have no idea if their behavior triggers the regurgitation reaction on the adult's part, but they all seem to do it. It takes a while for whatever she brought to them to be made available. I am trying to say that delicately since some of you might be reading this at lunch.

Chicks waiting for food Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/10.01/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Chicks waiting for food
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/10.01/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

In fact, I saw a lot of neck contortions and even this one above seems to be applying pressure to the contents. Until I really started watching them, I thought they just flew up and presented food to the babies. Seems like there is more to it; it took maybe 10 or 15 minutes before the chicks had the food.

Over eager chicks and besieged parent Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1250 sec ISO 800; tripod

Over eager chicks and besieged parent
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1250 sec ISO 800; tripod

The chicks are impatient. I don't know if they are actually hungry or if it is just instinct to ensure they get fed. You know competition between the chicks is fierce. The chicks hatch at least a day apart (asynchronous hatching), sometimes more. I saw lots of nests with three birds and a few with big healthy chicks and one smaller, scrawny chick. Several theories for this such as first hatched gets more of diminishing resources in times of scarcity, or to minimize risk of predation by having offspring in varying developmental stages. What does happen is the last hatched isn't strong enough to compete with his older siblings for food, and additionally gets picked on and often killed by his siblings.

Tough world.

Chicks not sharing the food Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Chicks not sharing the food
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Even here you can see two of the chicks have the food (multiple small fish) and one is left out. And these three look to be about the same size.

Two big guys and weaker sibling Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Two big guys and weaker sibling
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

These two are much larger than the chick at the bottom, and more active. The adults don't seem to try to ensure the tiniest chick gets fed; after watching them for a while it is amazing what they do accomplish in raising multiple chicks.

Smallest chicks have a hard time Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Smallest chicks have a hard time
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/800 sec ISO 1250; tripod

This little guy did join his siblings and may have gotten some food, but he is definitely smaller and not as strong.

And the others pick on him.

Adult taking a small break Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/6.31/2000 sec ISO 800; tripod

Adult taking a small break
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/6.31/2000 sec ISO 800; tripod

This adult has obviously been fishing and collecting food for his chicks. He is wet and bedraggled; he still has to keep his own feathers in good shape to be able to fly off repeatedly to find food. And he is competing with countless other adults looking for food for their own chicks.

Notice his lores are no longer green; once the eggs hatch the breeding colors start to fade.

Open mouths and empty stomachs Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

Open mouths and empty stomachs
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/9.01/1250 sec ISO 1250; tripod

The chicks are fed several times a day for about three weeks. I saw some exercising their wings and walking about in the nests. Before this visit I thought the tiny chicks were in danger of falling out of the nests, but I suspect the almost grown fledglings are the bigger risk. A misstep before learning to fly could send one tumbling to the ground below where alligators lurk. And last visit I saw a large alligator climb out of the water and rest on the bare ground under the nests.

The alligators do offer protection to the nesting birds from mammalian predators such as raccoons but it comes with a price.

Not babies any longer Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1000 sec ISO 800; tripod

Not babies any longer
Sony A77II with Sony f/4 500 G ~ f/7.11/1000 sec ISO 800; tripod

These three might have been some of the first hatched. The platform isn't very attractive, but it still provides a clear view of the chicks. They look like teen gang members! Just imagine the effort it takes for the two adults to keep these guys fed. It is a noisy, busy place.

The Snowy Egret males have arrived and are terrorizing each other trying to stake out territories before the females show up. And the Roseate Spoonbills were just starting to court and mate. In about a month there will be tiny, fuzzy pink baby chicks and I want to go back again.

Related adventures from High Island: High Island in the Clouds, Twigs and Trickery

Have you been to High Island this year? Do you think the chicks are cute? Do you have any baby birds in your yard? Let me know in the comments below:

Photo Art

Photo Art

Old BW

Old BW