Chasing Birds with Bill and Linda

Chasing Birds with Bill and Linda

May 26, 2017 ~ Just for fun I thought I would chronicle a typical day out chasing birds - the details of how we plan a day out, what we take, where we go and how it turns out. You can just pretend you are riding along in the back seat. Ready?

First consideration is the weather. Being retired we are flexible about when we can go and we are always watching the forecasts for cloudy and even rainy days. If you have been reading my blog for any length of time you know we are not blue-sky photographers, at least not on purpose. We saw that clouds and rain were forecast for the next few days along the southeast Texas coast so we chose to go out on Sunday, May 21.

Potential route for Sunday - Google maps; click to embiggen

Next is location and goals. Because it was a weekend, that ruled out Texas City Dike due to the crowds and even Galveston since coming back from either involves Gulf Freeway traffic. Brazos Bend State Park is also crowded on weekends. We had been east recently so that left the Surfside area.

We decided to start with San Bernard Wildlife Refuge. We hadn't been there in a while and our goals for the trip were Green Herons, Least Bitterns and maybe Purple Gallinules. And perhaps baby Clapper Rails. All frequent the marshy wetlands and we have seen them at this time in prior years. We planned to first try San Bernard, then the marsh areas around Quintana/Surfside and come back through Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. We do this circuit frequently but vary the order. Sometimes the birds are so good in one of the stops we never make it to the rest. You do have to be flexible but having a goal that matches the habitat you are exploring works for us.

Being frequent bird photographers we can pack the truck and be ready to go in a really short time. Cameras, lenses, extra cards and batteries are always ready. Then the tripods, milk crates, water jug and snack bag. We take cheese, crackers and fruit and do not ever stop for lunch. Hats, rain jackets and sun screen stay in the truck as well as towels and plastic bags just in case. We are not crack-of-dawn people; well, I am but Bill isn't, so we leave about 8:30 am after the morning traffic dies down. A quick stop at McDonald's for Egg McMuffins (umm...yum) and we are on the road.

First stop at San Bernard was a bust. I can report they have taken up that mossy, slippery boardwalk along the Wolfweed Wetlands area. I don't know if they are going to replace it with a new boardwalk or use gravel. I did see a Cardinal flash by in that area while hunting for Green Herons but nothing else. Then, we did the whole Auto Tour. We saw a Dickcissel singing in the meadow, a good sized turtle in the road and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on a wire fence. I ended up with 42 crap shots and nothing worth sharing, and the dratted sun had started coming out.

Same for the Quintana areas. The Bryan Beach ponds were practically empty, nothing in the salt cedars, nothing in the concertina wire atop the fences along side the LNG plant, and we didn't even stop at the Quintana Neotropical since I had read on FB it was dead. A swing around the roads to the jetty just found too many fisherfolks. Well, it was Sunday.

Surfside was a bit better. We cruised our regular places, Casco Rd, under the Intracoastal bridge, and along Boot Road. Ah, Boot Rd has a real name, but there is an old Boot stuck on a fence post so that is how it got renamed.

Behind the Crabbing Pier on Bluewater Highway we saw a Clapper Rail. The pond is tidal but has shrunk considerably lately and we walked out in the mudflats with our crates and tripods. We both have straps on the tripods; makes it easier to carry it on your shoulder with so much gear. There were a few clouds for a while.

Clapper Rail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

We moved around several times trying to get better angles as there were two Clapper Rails that kept coming out and yelling at us. I suspect there was a nest somewhere. We saw chicks a few weeks ago down by the corner and hoped to see some this trip, but no luck.

Getting close and low often gives the best images. I sit on a milk crate with my tripod lowered to a comfortable height. Rubber boots are mandatory for marsh birds. 72 shots this time, some are deletes, but a lot of good shots. I had removed my teleconverter before we ventured out in the mud. In fact, 500mm can be too much for these guys. I have gotten great shots with my 70-400 Sony gear in the past. They can move really fast so hand-held is actually easier.

At the end of Bay Avenue near the boat ramp are some shallow ponds. We have had great luck in that location (see Shrimpin' at Surfside ) but this trip the sun had come out AGAIN and a lone Reddish Egret was really far from the road. I decided to stay in the truck while Bill trudged out in the muck carrying his camera rig and the milk crate. There were some Willets chasing crabs near by so I focused on those (which turned out terrible due to the light). I noticed at one point he was moving in closer to the birds and I decided to snap off some shots. I thought they might fit in this blog I was writing in my head of "A day in the life..."

Bill almost takes a spill Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 500; braced on truck window

Bill almost takes a spill
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 500; braced on truck window

This was not expected! His foot hit a hidden slope and he almost lost it all. Thank goodness no harm done except for muddy clothes. I was ready to slog out there and rescue him, but I soon saw he had righted himself and the gear. A quick phone call reassured me that all was well.

We then backtracked to Surfside and found nothing along Crab Road and then checked the area under the bridge near the red boat storage place. Bill got out again and spent 37 minutes with a Great Blue Heron fishing near a culvert. I took a few shots from the truck, but maybe because I just did Great Blues for the last blog I wasn't as enthused as he was.

Great Blue Heron with fish ~ photo by Wm Maroldo

Great Blue Heron with fish ~ photo by Wm Maroldo

It was a mistake since he did get some awesome shots! We were headed back around to Casco Road but stopped to check out some activity directly under the bridge.

Cliff Swallows! They were swarming all around (they snatch insects right out of the air!) and then fluttering in the exposed mud. You can see where they are building nests high on the concrete bridge supports. We got out and set up our crates and tripods to see if we could get closer shots.

Cliff Swallows getting mud for nest building
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2500; tripod

Theoretically they should have come back to get mud again, but with muddy spots being plentiful they didn't come where we wanted. Skittish little fellows; every time we moved closer (hunched over carrying milk crate, big lens on muddy tripod) they bolted. I am in awe of the process of building these mud nest colonies and intend to check their progress in the coming weeks. It is going to take a kazillion mouthfuls of mud I suspect.

Muddy Clapper Rail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

But there were plenty of Clapper Rails about. This is a fairly typical shot; they feed by probing in the mud and often look dirty.

Which causes them to take frequent baths...

After bath Clapper Rail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

Clapper Rails don't jump up and flap their wings like some other birds after a bath, but they do a lot of shaking and elaborate feather preening.

Willet showing you EVERYTHING he has
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; tripod

While waiting on the swallows to come back, of course a Willet flew in. Willets are ubiquitous and often seem to go out of their way to be noticed. I love getting one with his wings upraised but I was surprised to find this one actually stuck out his tongue while calling! Total shots for the session: Clapper Rails 201, Cliff Swallows 83 and Willet 30. Oh, and 8 of a Great Blue Heron flying by.

By around 4:30pm we decided to pack up and head for Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. We noticed last time we were there that the lack of rain had diminished the ponds but hoped there might be waders in the mud flats.

On the way we ate some crackers and cheese. And felt pretty good about finding the swallows for later. The Clapper Rails bathing should turn out nice, and Bill was happy about his Great Blue Heron. Not a GREAT day but a GOOD one. And who knows what we might find at Brazoria? Not to jinx it, but often times we get out best shots of the day late when we have almost given up.

Juvenile Crested Caracara in mid-fluff
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; hand-held

As you near the park's Nature Center there are some stock tanks on the left side of the road. We have seen Crested Caracaras there on several occasions and sure enough... there was a juvenile. Bill pulled the truck off the road and we crept up closer. This was hand-held and I wasn't fast enough when he finally noticed us and flew off.

And as we suspected, the ponds were dryer than a week before. Even some of the canals were low. It is hard to tell what is tidal and what is not; the marshes are connected in mysterious ways. But then just before the park-bench-where-an-alligator-almost-got-Bill-years-ago he spotted a Purple Gallinule at the edge of the reeds. We pulled over and I got out and headed to the back of the truck.

Autofocus can play tricks on you!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 2000; hand-held

This is my first hand-held shot of the Purple Gallinule! We quickly set up our tripods and crates in the middle of the road and had a feast. There was a pair, and I am sure they are building a nest somewhere along that road. We sat there for about 20 minutes and not one car came by to disturb us. I got 123 shots.

Purple Gallinule, one of our goals for the day Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

Purple Gallinule, one of our goals for the day
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

We got some shots in the open. They are in full breeding colors. It was getting dark, the clouds had come back and there were the reeds and foliage to contend with. Bill always drops his shutter speed waaaay down with dark birds, but I am afraid they are going to move and I will have a blurry shot. Something I am working on since under these conditions (low light, dark bird) I could have lowered the ISO and the shutter speed. Plus f/7.1 is just not enough if the bird is facing you to keep the tip of the bill in focus.

Purple Gallinule in the road - look at those feet! Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

Purple Gallinule in the road - look at those feet!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

We have photographed Purple Gallinules in the reeds at Anahuac and even Brazos Bend but this was a pretty cool experience. I was amazed at how much they act like Clapper Rails. They are close cousins; both are in the Ralliade family along with Soras, King Rails, Common Gallinules and of course, the Poor Little Coot.

Purple Gallinule peeking out at us Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

Purple Gallinule peeking out at us
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 3200; tripod

A lot of shots of them buried up in reeds or foliage. Really tricky to get enough depth of field to have the leaves in the foreground in focus as well as the bird. The above shot is OK, but you want to avoid a big green blur from the foliage in front of the bird. We plan to return a bit earlier another day and see if we can find them again.

On the way out I saw a flash of light brown over the reeds at the last canal crossing on the road out. You know the place; deep canal on the left and a reed choked area on the right side. We jumped out and started searching the reeds for it-has-to-be-a-Least-Bittern-what-else-could-it-be? Bill found it on the far side and then it skipped over the tops of the reeds and the road to land in the open.

Least Bittern posing for us Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; hand-held

Least Bittern posing for us
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; hand-held

Well. Kind of the open. We carefully approached the little guy, expecting him to bolt at any minute. I got down a bit lower in a ditch and found an unobstructed view. Least Bitterns are really tiny birds; about the size of a common Blue Jay but much more secretive and shy. At least this area was more open and the late light was a bit brighter. 30 shots and we will never pass that canal again without looking for Least Bitterns.

After all of that we headed home, about 65 miles away. We got sprinkled on a couple of times but the heavy rains had missed us. And we had gotten two of our goal birds: the Purple Gallinule AND the Least Bittern, plus a surprise Caracara and the Cliff Swallows! And some nice Clapper Rail shots. It had morphed into a GREAT day.

We made a quick stop at the HEB in Pearland (!) and got an avocado and tomato to go with chicken sandwiches we planned to have for dinner. After getting home and unloading the truck, making dinner and downloading photos it was after midnight before we went to sleep. A long day but ready to do it again... weather permitting.

Do you stay out all day chasing birds? Do you go to several places or just thoroughly explore one locale? And do you ever get muddy trying to get a good shot? Let me know in the comments below.

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