Early Trip to High Island
March 3, 2017 ~ Just after we returned from our Rockport trip, we saw on Facebook the Great Egrets were already nesting at Smith Oaks Rookery at High Island. We had planned to go by the end of February, but this news moved the date up considerably. One of the best photographic opportunities is competitive male Great Egrets making airborne claims to the most desirable nesting sites, but apparently that was over for the year. We quickly made plans and headed for out for an overnight trip.
Feb 19th (Sunday) was cloudy and warm. Some of the photos below were taken that day, but soon the sun came out and we left. We cruised around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge looking for hawks and owls in the afternoon.
We knew it was supposed to rain Monday morning, but should clear up after the front passed. And sure enough, early morning radar showed a long scary line of RED and PURPLE storms stretching from North Texas to the coast moving in from the west. After a brief discussion, we quickly headed to High Island with windbreakers for us and black trash bags for the cameras. The viewing platforms are partially covered, but blowing rain can be a big problem. We decided it was better to take a chance than sit around the hotel waiting for the storm to pass.
On Monday, we shot from about 9 am straight through until 2 pm with only a couple of light showers. So much for weather forecasts!
A lot of the pairs had eggs; in fact most of the nests were occupied by a sitting female. As we were setting up the first day, this couple above lost an egg. I saw runny yellow cascading from the nest and then one of the birds threw the broken egg shell over the side. They had at least one egg left, but I feared for the survivor as occasionally it was moved to the very edge of the nest. I watched the pair closely over the two days and they didn't seem to know what they were doing. Maybe it was their first time.
Most of the birds had mates and we only saw one or two single males trying to attract females by the traditional display of feathers. This pair has several eggs in the nest, but they continue to mate. Eggs are fertilized separately over several days so they will hatch sequentially. Even two parents could not feed 3-4 chicks of the same size all at once.
Like I said, it was going on everywhere! This pair gave a clear view of the nest and behaviors. The trees are still bare; once the leaves come out there is a beautiful green background for the white birds, but it does obscure a lot of the activity.
The Neotropical Cormorants are nesting among the Great Egrets at the far end of the island; in fact they have claimed a tree that I know had egrets last year. The first time I went to Smith Oaks Rookery, it seemed they had all been exiled to the other end in the willows, but this year they were right in the midst of the action.
It is still early for the Roseate Spoonbills to mate and nest. This is an adult with breeding colors doing the characteristic bobbing movements to attract a mate. We did see a few carrying sticks, some bill clattering and even juveniles mimicking the adult's behavior. Next trip over there should be a lot more Spoonbill action.
There are always alligators under the trees to take unwary birds and later on, chicks that fall out of nests. This one has a large Nutria he got from the water. Funny, you will notice an alligator on the bare ground and then in all the excitement of watching the birds, you notice he is just... gone. They lurk around in the water near the shore looking for an opportunity.
Yes, it seems cruel that little chicks become alligator food BUT when we visited the rookery in Dallas at UTSWMC last year, it was much sadder to see dead birds on the ground or crippled fledglings starving in the underbrush. I think the neighborhood cats prey on the weak, but at High Island the ground below the birds is clean and bare thanks to the alligators.
As we were leaving the first day (because of the bright sun) we climbed the stairs to the new Pay-for-Half-Day Platform to see the view from there. It is very nice, you can see over the island to the parts behind. Instead of having the birds and nests at eye level, they are slightly below you. Interesting, but some of the BIFs taken from that high have very messy backgrounds. I prefer a cloudy sky, but you might like it. And you can zoom in on birds swooping around to land near a nest.
NOTE: All the existing platforms at Smith Oaks are FREE as they always have been. This new rental platform is also available FREE except during high season; and it is also FREE unless someone has paid to reserve one of the nine spots. You can use a numbered spot unless someone has specifically rented it. There was a lot of misunderstandings about this new platform with Facebook people threatening to boycott Audubon and/or complaining about their motives. The only thing that has changed for locals that like to go several times a year is (1) they are collecting money from Feb 15th instead of Mar 15 and (2) the day fee is now $8 and season's pass is $30. You can reserve a spot on the new platform, or use the FREE ones just like you always have.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled adventure! On the second day we had just perfect conditions for us. Bright overcast, a couple of showers and the birds were much more active.
I love the soft white light, the evenly lit birds and ethereal backgrounds. There is quite a discussion going on about good vs bad light and a lot of differing opinions. Bill Maroldo and I might be in the minority in our preference for overcast conditions; it works for us. You can add a bit of depth in post-processing with contrast and clarity. I just can't deal with harsh shadows in my own work. Of course, Nikon gear is exceptional with low light conditions. You will notice in the EXIF data that I was able to use high shutter speeds (to stop the action) with a higher ISO. Your mileage may vary; I know I would not have had so many keepers with my old Sony rig.
Wind direction at Smith Oaks is hugely important. The ideal wind direction is from the South. When the wind is coming from the south, the birds flying back with sticks will be in a headwind and have to fly slower. That makes it easier for you to get a photo.
After the front came in the wind direction changed and blew from the north. Birds coming by with sticks were so fast you couldn't get a focus, but they circled around and fought the north wind to land. That made for some nice images.
Getting a great shot is the result of many things: lighting, wind, position, technique, camera capabilities, patience and knowledge of your subject. And a big helping of luck.
We got a lot of BIF photos, stick transfers, and mating shots. No images of displaying males this year. There was one male in a fairly clear area that dipped low and then preened his leading wing feathers. Over and over and over again; we were begging him to stretch his neck straight up and display his feathers... but he didn't.
I don't think he attracted a mate, either.
This couple stands proudly over their egg-laden nest. If you watch the pairs, you can see the female start to call as the male hovers over their nest with a new stick. They move together and often strike the same pose. We noticed they use their bills to gently nip or bite at the others body when one returns to the nest. Extra-pair coupling attempts are so obvious since the female is definitely not interested in the male interloper.
That's it for the first report. I still have a lot of great images from the second day. Everything is early this year with all the high day time temperatures. I would have thought day length was more influential but maybe not. We are having night time temperatures in the 40s so I hope they are sitting tight on those eggs.
Have you been to High Island yet? Would you go when thunderstorms were forecast on the chance they would be wrong? And are you a sunny-blue sky photographer? If are going and need a bit of help for camera settings, check out this High Island post from last year.