Rookery Near McClendon Park

Rookery Near McClendon Park

June 9, 2017 ~ Recently we had been seeing photos and references to a "West Houston Rookery" on Facebook. I knew about a place where Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets nest behind the Memorial Hospital on Richmond Ave, but that is private property and more than one photographer has been politely but firmly asked to leave. So, I was pleased to learn this was a different spot, out off Hwy 6 near McClendon Park. A recognizance trip in early May turned up no birds, only some free-range humans living on the far side.

But, a month later every Cattle Egret on the west side of Houston is there!

McClendon Park is just southwest of the wooded tract with the nesting birds. This is near the intersection of Hwy 6 and Westpark. Best viewing from the curb on Summit Valley. Map via Google

McClendon Park is just southwest of the wooded tract with the nesting birds. This is near the intersection of Hwy 6 and Westpark. Best viewing from the curb on Summit Valley.
Map via Google

I can't describe how densely packed this small wooded patch is with Cattle Egrets, White Ibis and a sprinkling of Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets. I heard there are even Tricolored Herons nesting there as well; and we have seen a couple of Black-crowned Night Herons.

The good news is they are nesting and raising chicks right beside the road and you folks with 400mm lenses can get some good shots. The bad news is most shots are going to be obscured by branches and leaves unless you are really careful in framing your shots. You will be shooting into a gloomy woodsy setting and if the sun is shining, the lighting will be very uneven. That means part of a white bird will be in brilliant sunshine and another part in deep shade. Best to wait for a cloud to pass so the lighting is more even. And under cloudy conditions, you will need to shoot a higher ISO - 1250-1600 minimum. Some of my shots were at ISO 2500.

Important Note: Parking is limited alongside the woods on Summit Valley but plentiful at the park itself. BUT there have been car break ins/assaults and not all the park visitors are families with children. You can check the area with Crime Reports. This is not a location a single woman with an expensive camera can set up and get absorbed with the birds and ignore the surroundings. You see some pretty sketchy folks driving too fast near the park. Be smart and go with a friend. Or two. Or take a non-photographer look out.

Nice locals who have stopped to talk as we set up up cameras and tripods next to the curb have said this is the first year they have seen so many nesting birds. The adjacent tract is cleared and construction has begun on something so who knows what the fate of this new rookery will be. It is against the Migratory Bird Act to disturb a nest of a protected bird (and Cattle Egrets are on the list) but once the season is over, there is no law against removing trees used for a rookery other times of the year. It would be really nice if these birds would use designated park land for nesting but they don't.

Cattle Egret almost above me
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/1600 sec f/8.0 ISO 2500; tripod

Cattle Egrets are the ones you see following cows or even horses in open fields. They eat the insects and bugs stirred up by pasture animals but also by mowing machines. They will eat grasshoppers, earthworms, crickets, cicadas, wolf spiders, ticks, millipedes, centipedes, fish, frogs, mice, songbirds, eggs, and nestlings. And they won't turn down a crawfish.

These birds are relatively new to North American in that they only arrived in the 1950s. No one has explained "arrived" so we have to assume they just flew over from Europe or Africa where they are called the Buff-backed Heron or even the Cow Crane.

Their nests are really small if you are used to the larger stick nests of Great Egrets at High Island; almost dainty by comparison. We saw a lot of chicks, some very new but none at the standing up and begging stage.

Cattle Egret nestlings
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/2000
sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

Most nests we could see (and some are only about five feet off the ground) had three chicks. It is yet to be seen if they are as aggressive and mean to their siblings as what has been observed with Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets. Bill thinks these chicks look like a cross between ET and Troll Dolls.

Try to increase your depth of field shooting these little guys; they are close and you want to get as many in focus as possible. I shot most of these at f/7.1 and f/8.0.

Adult Cattle Egret with nice russet head, but no colorful lores
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/1000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

The reddish crest and feathers are indicative of breeding plumage, but this guy has already lost the purple color around his eyes. That seems to disappear once they mate and lay eggs. I had to crop this shot because his legs and feet were obstructed by leaves and branches.

Adult Cattle Egret with full breeding colors
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/1600
sec f/7.1 ISO 2500; tripod

Since a lot of the Cattle Egrets are incubating eggs or feeding chicks, finding one in full breeding colors not obscured by the thick brush was challenging. Notice his legs are also bright purple, and the lores' color extends down his beak.

Cattle Egret chick
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/2000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1600; tripod

Here is one more ugly chick. Finding a small open spot, getting the little critters to hold up their heads and waiting for a cloud so you don't blow the whites of the image is difficult.

And did I mention it is quite fragrant next to a kazillion pooping birds? Just looking at the images while I write this brings back the smell. You don't have a wide expanse of water between you and the birds; this is much more reminiscent of the UTSWMC Rookery in Dallas. Except they have nice clean sidewalks around the woods instead of trash-strewn weedy paths. 

Young White Ibis has a bi-colored bill
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR~ 1/1250
sec f/8.0 ISO 1600; tripod

The White Ibis have been nesting longer than the Cattle Egrets and there are a number of youngsters clambering around on the branches waiting for someone to come back and feed them. I love that bi-colored bill! These guys are born very dark, develop a white chest and gradually the black is replaced by brown. The pied-bald juveniles are most attractive birds; I know you have seen them along the coast. The adult White Ibis is all white except for the black-tipped wings.

Have you been to the West Houston Rookery? Apologies for the scary note but this area gave me the same uneasy feeling as the wooded tract with the Bald Eagles over off Normandy on the east side of town. Bill and I debated several times about what to say about the area. While we did have nice conversations with people curious about what we were doing, one afternoon Bill was set up between a parked 18-wheeler and the edge of the woods. I was about 30 feet away from him and appeared to be alone. Someone driving by threw something at me; it hit my butt and left a red mark.

I wasn't hurt, but it scared me really bad. After that we stayed close together. And I strongly suggest this is definitely the place for a buddy system. You can get some great images but be aware of your surroundings.

Have you ever been scared out photographing wildlife? Not by the wildlife; we are all aware of snakes and alligators but by the people in the area? Or an area that is dangerous because of the terrain or geography? Let me know in the comments below.

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Purple Gallinules of Cullinan Park Conservancy

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