Flocks of Feathers

Flocks of Feathers

Oct 19, 2018 ~ Oh boy, this week has been so great with the overcast days and cooler temps. We have been out A LOT - the sky acts like a huge diffuser and you can shoot from any direction as the birds are evenly illuminated. And there were a lot of birds out. Maybe they like this cool weather as much as we do?

Young Brown Pelican aloft
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

On Wednesday we headed for the Texas City Dike. I mentioned last week I had gotten the Nikon D850 and I wanted to work with birds-in-flight using my NIKKOR 300 f/4 PF. We had a strong north wind that day. Bill Maroldo and I first stopped at the Pavilion cleaning station at the beginning of the dike. There are usually a lot of pelicans around.

Note: Weekend charges end the last weekend of October and then admission will be free until first weekend of March. Just so you know.

We walked down to the boat ramp dock, turned with our backs to the channel and it was a perfect location. The Brown Pelicans came over the road straight at us and then struggled to land against the wind.

Young Brown Pelican looking for a place to land
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

Because of the stiff wind, they seemed to just hang in the air. New camera’s autofocus held very well; I was surprised to find every single image in a series was crisp and sharp. Of course, a big bird like a pelican flying slowly against the wind is not a severe test, but hey. The NIKKOR 300 f/4 fresnel lens is so light and easy to hand-hold. I can’t say enough good things about this lens.

Young Brown Pelican portrait
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

We moved down the steps at the dock and that put us more at eye level with the crowd of Brown Pelicans hanging around the cleaning station. We weren’t fishing but I suppose they have learned to associate the presence of people with free hand-outs so we were tolerated being so close. The youngsters have such a variety of colors and plumage. The above shot is hardly cropped at all and I love the detail.

Make way! make way!
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

And the lens/camera combo did very well when things got crowded. Stepping back a bit I got this guy coming in to find a spot with his friends. The auto-focus does lock on.

We decided to head back to the truck and check out the rest of the dike. As we were getting ready to go Bill heard some really strange bird chirpings. I looked up from swapping out the 300 f/4 to my 500 f/4 and saw a dove-sized bird flying away but with a super fast wing beat. What the…

OMG… yes! Monk Parakeets!
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

Just outside the truck in the grass were ….

Monk Parakeets!

OMG! They got established here in Texas in the 1970s and have thrived and multiplied in several locations. Along our coast there is the Texas City flock, plus there are some around Kemah and Clear Lake. They have been seen in Galveston, San Leon and near Corpus Christi. The colony in DFW has its own Facebook page as well as the group in Austin. Introduced exotics are always fun to see.

We got some shots of them on the ground but it was hard to isolate one and get an unobstructed shot. Flocks of birds are a real challenge. It was overcast, it was dim, so getting enough depth of field was difficult. One or more of them is moving at all times. Stuff gets in the way. They are facing the camera and then they are not.

And then we noticed two high ahead on the wires. That is more like it!

Flower powers
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

He was eating a flower! You know these guys hang out in the palm trees around the parking lot at the Texas City Wastewater Treatment Plant on Bay St Extension? We have seen them there a couple of times but at that location, you are shooting straight up into the trees. I have never seen them at the dike before, but it is only a short ways down Skyline Road to the Dike Pavilion from that area.

Especially if you are a bird.

Flowers are for eating, not smelling
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

The other one seemed to be eating a dried flower. I suppose they are after the small seeds. This was taken with my big NIKKOR 500 f/4 hand-held in a pretty strong wind. I think Bill removed his lens hood but I just braced against the truck and hoped for the best.

And then they were gone.

Driving on down the dike we saw no loons or mergansers, and a few Great Blue Herons trying to hold on in the wind. We did see a huge, I mean YUGE flock of Black Skimmers just before the breakers area. They were swooping and undulating before finally settling on the beach. You know, like a mumuration.

  Skimmer crowd Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; hand-held

Skimmer crowd
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; hand-held

This is just a small portion; I would have had to used my wide-angle lens to get more, but they would have looked so far away. We got out and slowly walked closer.

Young Skimmer practicing…
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; hand-held

The new arrivals at the back of the group skimmed the water up to the crowd. I think this young guy might have picked up some trash, but it is the first time I have ever gotten a skimmer picking up anything!

Black Skimmer almost getting something
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; hand-held

And this adult is bending his head back to pick up something. He might have missed his prey; but this is a detail I have struggled to get for a long time. This little NIKKOR 300 f/4 is just amazing. And the new Nikon D850 has enough pixels to make much bigger crops. Compared to the Nikon D810 it has about the same ability for high ISOs - BUT the auto-focus is better. And a frame rate of 7 fps over 5 fps doesn’t sound like much, but it is.

Just part of the crowd
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; hand-held

And then of course they flew. We were very close and it is difficult to pick one bird and stay focused on that ONE when hundreds of birds are swirling past you. But is was fun. They wheeled around a couple of times and came back to exactly the same spot as before. No harm done.

We decided to leave the dike and try our luck in Galveston. On the way out we stopped one more time at the Pavilion fish cleaning station. Bill was complaining the Monk Parakeets had left when we saw a small group on the ground near the parking lot. Surprising how well green blends with gravel and sand; we almost missed them. He moved the truck up carefully and I shot out of the window. He got his tripod and crate and set up a bit in front of the birds.

How sweet is this?
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; braced on truck window

Same problem as before; it was hard to single out a bird in the flock.

I focused on two birds that seemed to be almost … cuddling. When I downloaded the images, I saw one was actually preening the other. Let’s say HE is trying to cozy up to HER by touching and taking care of her feathers.

Let me nibble on your toes
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; braced on truck window

HE is so helpful he tries to help HER clean her foot.

Um… back off a bit, buddy
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; braced on truck window

That might have been just too much for HER as they quickly got into a stare down. And of course it is stupidly anthropomorphic to think, but it looks to me like SHE is winning.

Alright already. I will just kiss you a little more
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; braced on truck window

It didn’t seem to be a permanent spat; SHE went back to working her her foot and HE stayed close and nuzzled her feathers.

I have no idea what I was watching, but it was fun to construct a story. Pronoun choices are completely arbitrary; I can’t tell the difference in sexes but they obviously tolerate close company.

After writing all of this I started thinking about …flocks. It is a reoccurring theme of this adventure; I didn’t start out thinking about flocks of birds. Monk Parakeets nest in huge stick structures and spend their entire lives in close proximity with their kin. Black Skimmers are almost always seen in large groups. You do see a singular Brown Pelicans now and then but it is unusual enough you wonder why he is alone? Usually you see a line of Brown Pelicans flying in formation or a group diving and fishing together. Maybe when they see one being successful, it gives the others confidence. Flocks give individuals security in raising alarms in case of prey. Even solitary birds like egrets and herons come together in huge colonies for breeding raising young.

The phrase “birds of a feather flock together” is an old phrase. William Turner is said to have used a version of this expression in the Rescuing of Romish Fox, from the year 1545:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together."

One of my goals is to get better images of large flocks of birds. They are so impressive a single zoomed-in portrait does not capture the energy and force. Something to research and think about. Have you taken photos of large flocks of birds? What gear did you use? Any tricks you care to share? Let me know in the comments below.

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