Short Stories - April 2017

Short Stories - April 2017

April 21, 2017 ~ This Spring has been difficult for chasing birds. Locals know we had warmer than average days in March and April and now a steady southern wind has helped the migrants pass over the Texas coast on their way to breeding grounds.

One afternoon recently it started to rain and there was a pretty brisk wind out of the north.  We were hoping some migrants would show up at Quintana Neotropical Sanctuary since we were close by, but I think they just take cover anywhere and then the next morning look for food. I know one year we found an Indigo Bunting huddled against a brick foundation during some bad weather. We made a quick walk around and saw one hummer and a glimpse of a couple of Summer Tanagers plus the usual grackles and blackbirds. I heard the next morning was better.

So we have been working on shorebirds. And anything else we run across.

Greater Yellowlegs posing
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
sec f/7.1 ISO 500; tripod

One afternoon we found a big puddle near a public boat ramp on the Intracoastal Canal in Surfside. It was fairly sunny but we had the sun behind us so it was workable. This Greater Yellowlegs was probing around and occasionally squabbling with the ubiquitous Willet. This guy is so dainty and delicate; he reminded me of a dancer. If you see the Lesser and Greater together it is easy to tell them apart, but alone is always hard. One trick is the Greater's bill is longer than its head plus it is grayish at the base when in breeding plumage. The Lesser's bill is uniformly dark and about the same length as its head.

We were sitting on our crates in the mud focusing intensely on the birds when I heard a big whoosh. A large barge had passed by and pushed water onto the shore ... which had found its way to the puddle we were near. For a few minutes were were IN the puddle and then it receded some and we were marooned on a new island. It was a bit tricky wading back to the truck but other than losing one of the rubber feet from my tripod, no damage was done.

Essential photography gear: Rubber boots

Wild coyote! Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800 sec f/14.0 ISO 800; from vehicle window

On another bright afternoon I saw movement in a field off the residential street we call Meadowlark Lane in Surfside. Bill Maroldo backed up and there was a Coyote! I fired off a few shots without even checking my settings (f/14.0 !) and hoped for the best. He moved into the brush rather quickly.

This one looked a bit healthier than the one we have seen off Bay Rd. Later that day I talked to a homeowner nearby and he told me the coyotes congregate at a corner under the streetlight at night and eat bugs. Googling around I find that coyotes are opportunistic hunters and insects are on the menu. In fact, grasshoppers are important training prey for juveniles.

Now, see if you can work that interesting factoid into a conversation.

Whimbrel chasing Willets
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; braced on truck bed

And the Whimbrels are showing up! They will be leaving sometime later but we have seen quite a few on the mudflats. This one was chasing some Willets (Willets are EVERYWHERE) out of the area where he wanted to feed. Both of them like tasty fiddler crabs, so they are direct competitors. In case you need a brush up on identifying these guys see Curlew, Godwit or Whimbrel?

Clapper Rail with tongue action
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

We are seeing Clapper Rail adults, but no chicks yet. I saw some chicks on FB from around the Anahuac area, but none in Surfside. Maybe soon. This was taken in Surfside where they built a new pipeline last year. The construction opened up an area of marsh next to the road and we find a variety of birds scouring the mudflats for bugs and such; deeper areas of the marsh are fine for long-legged waders, but the little guys need shallow water and mud.

Barn Swallow holding on for dear life
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/5.6 ISO 1600; hand held shooting over Bill's shoulder from the truck

On that windy, rainy day we did find this Barn Swallow hanging on to a stick. All swallows are fast flyers and almost impossible to track. I did get a photo last year of one collecting mud for a nest, but this one is much better. His perch was wrapped with twine for some reason; there is a lot of crabbing that goes on along that road between the ponds behind Bryan Beach. Maybe it was a leftover crabbing tool?

I can report the washed out road has been fixed, the pile of debris at the corner has been picked up AND two trash cans provided near the bridge. We will see how long it lasts.

Laughing Gull tug-of-war
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 500; tripod

Like I said, the shorebirds are pretty dependable. These Laughing Gulls are doing a bit of courtship at the Texas City Dike. The male hides a fish in this throat and then brings it up as an offering to a prospective mate. I am sure the behavior evolved because if he flew around with a visible fish, the other gulls would take it from him. The pair had a bit of tug-of-war over the fish, but she finally got it.

They did do a bit of practice mating. She may be holding out for more fish.

Forster's Terns competing for attention
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 500; tripod

Males of the avian world will do anything to get noticed. These two Forster's Terns on the right are strutting around with lowered wings and calling loudly in typical fashion. The overanxious one with upraised wings is doing his own thing.

The Forster's and Sandwich Terns were skipping the shallows right in front of us at the Texas City Dike. They would fly about 10-12 feet above the water and repeatedly dive down every 20 feet or so to pluck fish that only they could see. I watched and started trying to track them in the air. Then to anticipate when they would hit the water. All this from a tripod mount, mind you.

Could these be white feathered sharks?

Could these be white feathered sharks?

These are only SOME of the misses. What did I tell you about shooting in bursts? I got some clear shots as they were diving and a few nice ones as they climbed out of the water.

Forster's Tern coming out of the water with NO fish
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 640; tripod

Unless we get a few good storms out of the north soon, finding songbirds for Spring Migration 2017 is going to be slow and spotty. We were at Quintana on Wednesday and you could see one or two birds if you were patient. I saw a male Scarlet Tanager, a Blackpoll Warbler and a female something. All were just quick glimpses and not suitable for photos.

But things can change. You just never know. We might get a norther on Sunday but weather forecasters are often wrong.

Have you been out much this Spring? Are you seeing many migrants? Have you set up your yard to attract birds so you can stay home and enjoy them? Let me know in the comments below.

Quintana Mini-Fallout

Quintana Mini-Fallout

A Closer Look at Chicks

A Closer Look at Chicks