The Other Rookery at Rockport

The Other Rookery at Rockport

Feb 24, 2017 ~ Going out of town to chase birds is always a gamble. You have to choose the time based on Fake Weather Forecasts, and birds do not stay in one place. We took a trip south Feb 13-16 in hopes of seeing a few birds that don't frequent our local area. There were three goals: Whooping Cranes, Green Jays and find the Great Blue Heron Rookery. It was too early for nesting Skimmers or Tricolored Herons, but just the right time for the Great Blue Herons. The weather forecast was for some clouds and showers over the four days. We planned to bird all along the way from Goose Island to Corpus Christi and back.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. We had one great cloudy day, a massive thunderstorm with tornadoes the next morning (which gave way to the BEST conditions of the trip) and two days of bright, sunny blue-skies. You make do with what you have.

The Whooping Cranes are found this time of year at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding fields. Several of our friends have gone out on charter boats to see them but we hoped to see a few on the ground. And, actually we did see a few on the ground; three in fact in the townlet of Lamar very near Goose Island State Park. The familiar Sandhill Cranes were feeding near them and the Whooping Cranes are giants by comparison. I got four shots of them on the ground; no matter, they were so far away they look like statues.

But, then they soared above us and I can show you this:

Adults and juvenile (note the rusty head) Whooping Cranes flying by
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 800; hand-held

Next, I can report the Green Jays at Lake Corpus Christi State Park are obviously in the Federal Witness Protection Program. We *think* we saw some fly off as we came into the birding area. That day was a Blinding Sunstorm™ so I am not sure how successful I would have been with such a high-contrast bird. Just trying to get the Golden-fronted Woodpecker we saw was a challenge.  None of mine are nice enough to share although Bill Maroldo did get a few good ones. The state park has a great little birding area in the campgrounds and you might have better luck than we did.

But, hey... I got some really nice Cardinals!

Female Northern Cardinal showing off
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

At that point we had driven 271 miles and I have a nice female Cardinal with her wings up to show for it.

Now, the good news. Thanks to a Facebook friend Mike Moore we did find the Great Blue Heron Rookery in Rockport, Texas. We had heard about the site several years ago from a fellow bird photographer while visiting High Island. She had said, "Oh, it is behind the McDonald's; you can't miss it!" but we did miss it on a previous trip. Mike led us right to it (and yes, it is sorta-kinda behind the McDonald's) and stayed to shoot with us for a while. Thanks again, Mike!

If you are in the area use your Google Maps to find the intersection of Broadway and E Maple and you will be right there.

Live Oak trees facing the bay; Great Blue Herons nesting on top Panorama shot stitched together with Photoshop

Live Oak trees facing the bay; Great Blue Herons nesting on top
Panorama shot stitched together with Photoshop

This 9-acre wooded tract faces the water and was recently bought by the city of Rockport to preserve the nesting sites of the Great Blue Herons. You have to stand back at a cedar fence, so big gun telephoto lenses and tripods are necessary. You are not as close as at Smith Oaks in High Island, but the BIF shots are great; the birds circle around before landing. And they aren't nesting so much IN the trees as ON the puffy tops.

We went THREE times and I have still to cull and process most of the 1147 photos I took.

Males display to catch the eye of a female
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

Male Great Blue Herons make themselves noticeable to available females by standing tall on a chosen nest site. If she approves of the nesting site and his prowess, she lands and they may raise feathers and clatter bills. You know, kind of get to know each other. He may have a nest started that she can inspect.

Great Blues have a wingspread of 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

Once the nest building starts in earnest, the males bring sticks for the nests for the female to arrange. Sometimes they come from across the bay or long distances. Often they flew right over out heads.

Great Blue just airborne with grass plucked from ground
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; tripod

And we saw some land in front of us to pick up sticks or vegetation from the ground. I think the grass this one has might be for lining the nest. We saw them flying with dry sticks, some with foliage, big sticks and small sticks.

And you have to wonder does he decide what is needed next and hunts for it? Is she communicating what she wants to add next to the nest? Or does she work with what he brings? We have seen Great Blues and Great Egrets hunt for nesting material on the ground and reject some before choosing, so it is definitely a selection process.

Great Blue Heron with YUGE stick
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; tripod

We had bright sun on the last day so a lot of the shots were not keepers from the harsh shadows. This guy with the BIG stick caught the light at a good angle. He flew in from our right and made a lazy circle over the tops of the trees, landed and then took off again. He finally disappeared from sight over the tree tops. Was this a stick to impress a female he was trying to attract? Was it for a nest he and a mate were building?

The more you observe these behaviors, the more questions arise!

Here is a stick for you!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

Sometimes we did get to see the stick hand-off. This is a really handsome male with shaggy chest feathers. I love the russet drumsticks.

Great Blue male delivering his gift
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

This looks like a greeting and stick presentation, but she must have been warning him off as he skipped over her and gave it to a different female. Because of the angle, the birds looked a lot closer together than they actually were. I suppose vocalization plays a part in the male finding his female in the crowded rookery.

Birds mate multiple times during nesting
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

These two were getting close... there was a LOT of mating going on, but the tall trees often blocked our view.

Bird cuddling
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; tripod

This pair seemed to exhibit some bonding after the act. It is well worth remembering that these birds are solitary and competitive all during the year except for the brief time for mating and raising chicks. I read that "pairs are mostly monogamous during a season, but they choose new partners each year" so cheating has probably been documented. You don't believe birds cheat? Then you need to read my post Twigs and Trickery from last year!

And I have already seen at least one instance at High Island this year with Great Egrets. It is a wild world out there!

Have you been to the Rookery at Rockport? Are the birds starting to court and build nests in your yard? And what about all this warm weather in February? Let me know in the comments below.

Early Trip to High Island

Early Trip to High Island

A Chance Encounter with Caracaras

A Chance Encounter with Caracaras