October 13, 2017 ~ Last Saturday we made a trip to Surfside based on a "mostly cloudy" forecast that turned out to be a big lie. When we got down there, we were amazed at the high tides. It was so high I was internet researching as we drove. I think it was a combination of sun-moon-earth alignment, the wind direction and the effect of Hurricane Nate heading toward New Orleans. I did see that for Freeport the highest tide of the day was to be around 6 pm. That at least told us it wasn't going to go away soon; in fact it would get worse.
The marshes were flooded with shallow water across a lot of the residential roads. This abundance of high water scatters the birds as they can find food almost anywhere. It forces the smaller shorebirds to the far-flung edges and you are lucky to see a few long-legged waders here and there. So, we were driving around a lot and not finding much. We saw a lot of the bigger birds, such as Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons hunting way out in the marshes. Plus, did I mention the sun was out?
On our second trip to check out the ponds at Casko Road near the Intracoastal Canal we saw a few birds in the flooded gravel road. Finally, a few birds that were close and accessible! We slowly drove through the water, turned around and parked on slightly higher ground. Out came the tripods and crates. We positioned ourselves so the sun was at our backs. That is the best you can do in these situations. The bird we were interested in was a young Reddish Egret.
Young ones do not have the shaggy, russet-colored neck feathers, nor the pinkish basal coloration of the bill. They are a bit lighter gray than the adults. There is not much difference in the relative size, but a huge difference in behavior. This youngster was successful in finding fish in the shallow water, but he worked hard for each one.
So many twists and turns and lunges! I have hundreds of images with deep shadows from his wings and body, or where he moved too quickly and I chopped off his head, his wing or feet. It is difficult to keep a bird moving so fast in focus - especially when he is close.
We quickly realized that he was also keeping the sun to his back as he used his wings to shade the clear water. Thus, a lot of images are of his backside. But you keep clicking because he can turn on a dime.
His head and body are shaded here, but not too darkly. The gravel road was very light cream-colored rock and reflected a lot of light back through the clear water.
I was shooting at f/8 since he did get pretty close at times, and the bright light allowed for the 1/2500 sec shooting speed. My ISOs were on the high side (640-1000) because I was exposing for the dark bird, not the bright water. And occasionally we did get a thin cloud. If you ever get a chance to sit and follow a Reddish on the hunt, it is a great experience. You will need a fast-focusing camera, adequate buffer and a fast-writing card. It is a real challenge.
So sometimes he did run toward us. Bill removed the telecoverter from his 600mm lens, but I kept mine on; so I was effectively shooting at 700mm. And I just kept moving back away from the bird as the tide continues to come in and the temporary pond grew larger. After a while, Bill decided we needed to move the truck and park it closer to the intersection just in case this got too deep. We had on rubber boots and could wade and be rescued, but you have to protect the vehicle.
While we were deciding, a Clapper Rail came to check us out. He ran straight down the edge of the road. Thanks goodness, I had been using f/8 and a fast shutter speed for the Reddish Egret, so most of the rail is in focus. If I had been thinking I would have upped the f/stop to f/10 or higher. But, this little guy was hurrying, he crossed my minimum focus distance (13 feet) way too quick, so I was happy to get these.
Just a note. I was sitting on my milk crate and the tripod-mounted camera was at about 30 inches. Yes, low shots from ground level are very impressive, but laying in the dirt and mud is not for everyone. But, anything you can do to get yourself out of standing position will help with the composition.
After we reparked the truck, waded back across the water and set up again, the little guy came right back and started catching fish like nothing had happened.
We took hundreds of photos of this sub-adult. It is always good to see healthy young birds; there are only between 1500-2000 Reddish Egret pairs in Texas. They don't become sexually mature until 3-4 years of age and a lot can happen during those early years.
And then I noticed he crouched down low, waited a bit and suddenly flew off. Gone. I took a few photos of a little Snowy Egret I had been ignoring for the Reddish.
You know how the Snowies do that wiggle foot technique to attract fish in shallow water? The literature is full of "may stir bottom sediments with feet to startle prey into motion" but we have seen a lot of the waders do the same thing.
And we looked up at a fully grown adult hunting in the shallow water. In no time, he found the small fish junior had been chasing. What impressed me the most was the economy of movement. He still ran, turned, and lunged but the moves were so polished and smooth.
We still had the same problem with avoiding shots that would have had harsh shadows, but photographing this adult was so much easier. He was less erratic, more efficient and that shaggy mane made great details.
But even the adult Reddish could get into Drunken Sailor mode now and then.
Do you see the tiny fish in the lower left he is staring at? We saw a lot of small fish jumping and breaking the surface. I got to thinking about floods and tides moving animals from local areas to new. Bill told me once about a big flood near Brazos Bend that spread the residents of a giant crayfish farm to a lot of new areas. Animals are so adaptive.
We were facing the feeder road below the Intracoastal Canal and the Bait House bar was just to our right. Trucks and some cars had been traversing the flooded roadway successfully. I was watching it to kind of gauge how much the incoming tide was affecting the area. And I saw a motorcycle gal come up to the edge and check it out. She turned around and went back to the bar area for a while, but soon she approached again.
And she made it through with no difficulty at all.
The sun got lower and we noticed the waters were subsiding from the wet high water marks. We were on second batteries and the flash cards were getting full, so we packed up and waded back to the truck. The Reddish let us get within about ten feet but finally spooked and flew away.
You can never have too many photos of Reddish Egrets.
Have you taken photos of Reddish Egrets hunting? Do you count rubber boots as essential photographic gear? What about a crate for getting low shots? Let me know in the comments below.