A Good Day at Brazos Bend

A Good Day at Brazos Bend

Feb 15, 2018 ~ Brazos Bend State Park is very close to Sugar Land and I am really glad it has recovered so well from repeated flooding. We used to go almost every week, and it may be that we return to that pattern. In case you haven't been out there yet since Harvey...

Waterline from Harvey Flooding - Panorama of 3 images stitched together in Photoshop

The high-water mark persists. This is just a random view down the Spillway Trail towards Elm Lake. I should have had Bill stand in the path for relative size, but I can tell you that line is a couple of feet higher than my head when standing on the trail. The new flood record is 52.67 feet above sea level; the Thompson Topo map states Brazos Bend State Park has an "approximate elevation of 43 feet (13 meters) above sea level."

There was A LOT of water covering the park. 

  Big American Alligator on island in 40-acre Lake  Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800   sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

Big American Alligator on island in 40-acre Lake
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

We saw more than a dozen alligators. A few were close to the trail by the Spillway Bridge but most of them were laying around in shallow water soaking up the feeble sun. This fine specimen (way across 40-acre Lake) had his head up instead of sprawled out flat. I found this cool FAQ on alligators at Brazos Bend and learned a few things.

Did you know they can probably go for a year or so without eating if they had to? During the "winter" they are not known to eat at all.

Eastern Phoebe watching me watch him. Or her. 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; tripod

We saw lots of flycatchers. This Eastern Phoebe is staring me down, but we saw Eastern Kingbirds and even Yellow-rumped Warblers darting out from perches to catch insects on the wing. 

Male Vermilion Flycatcher
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

There are several male and female Vermilion Flycatchers hanging out along the 40-acre Trail to the Observation Tower; we have seen them there all winter. This is such a bonus after years of trying to get a decent image of the ONE that made his home in front of Elm Lake. There you had to fight branches and the western sun and of course he moved as soon as your got close. These are semi-cooperative and with patience you can get a close shot. We did a move back and forth along the trail trying to keep up with him.

Young Purple Gallinule next to Pliant Lake
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

The surprise of the day was an extra-early Purple Gallinule just past the Observation Tower. We usually don't see them until March. This guy is very young, if you embiggen the photo and look carefully, you can see brown vestigial feathers around his head. Plus, his front shield is brownish and hasn't turned light blue. We only saw one, and this little guy was not at all afraid of us.

In fact, half my photos are out of focus as he came too close. 

Little Blue Heron at the Spillway
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1250; tripod

Lovely Little Blue Heron fishing in the Spillway, which was actually spilling water over the rocks. Most of the time it is dry but we watched this guy, a Snowy and even a Great Egret pluck fish out of the moving water. In fact the lead-in photo is this guy. Want to see it again?

Lil Blue and his prize
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250
 sec f/9.0 ISO 800; tripod

I was shocked when I zoomed in on this. He is holding the fish by one tiny fin. Go ahead, click to embiggen. Awesome precision!

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

Walking along Warbler Alley (from the Observation Tower to Elm Lake) we were taunted by tiny flitting birds. Finally we heard a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers high above us. I shot this with the tripod, kneeling and pointing almost straight up. They were both squawking at us for invading their territory. Folks, it is tuning up out there for Spring.

American Bittern in full stretch
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

American Bitterns are in the park during the winter only and this has been a bonus year. They can be in the open but often hard to see because of the excellent camouflage. We set up with crates and tripods and watched this guy hunt in the foliage for a long time. 

Success! 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Often they grab something out of view and swallow it before you can get an image. Here he has a tiny fish. He had lunged forward and stuck his head way into the foliage. How in the world do they see something in all that mess? I had increased the f/stop to f/8.0 because he was not parallel to the sensor, he had turned more to face us and I wanted that bill in focus. Plus, I think he was slowly coming toward us if I remember.

I took 418 images of him. 

Juvenile White Ibis playing King of the Hill
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

In between watching the Bittern slooooowwwwwllllllyyyyy stalk his prey I noticed a juvenile White Ibis showing off on a big pile of flood debris. Adult White Ibis are not near as attractive as the variable juveniles. Each one is a bit different has they grow into their big-boy feathers. 

Male Double-crested Cormorant looking around
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

As we headed out Bill spotted a male Double-crested Cormorant diving and swimming around. You can see the tufts on each side of his head, the bright orange face and lores and if he would open his mouth you might see bright blue inside.

He swam and dove over and over again and then ran off down the water to get airborne and was gone. Dang, they are fast. I want to go back and work on this subject again.

Update: Link and caption corrected from Double-breasted to Double-crested. Duh. 

  Red-shouldered Hawk checks us out    Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250   sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

Red-shouldered Hawk checks us out
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

And just as we were leaving, I saw a light blotch off in the island trees near the very end of 40-acre Lake. I really thought it was a broken branch exposing the lighter wood but a quick look with the binoculars confirmed a Red-shouldered Hawk. And he was patient and cooperative allowing us to get our tripods and big lenses set up. Occasionally I have seen hawks perched back in the trees, but never one this close to the entrance trail to 40-acre Lake. 

Disclosure: I took out one thin branch across his chest with my Mad Photoshop Skilz and you would never know if I hadn't told you... right?

Locked and loaded, ready to go
Galaxy Note 4 photo

In case you have been wondering how we carry all that camera gear around all day long... We had a folding canvas cart for years, but the wheels were small and noisy and it had been repaired numerous times. Bill found a child's red wagon with pneumatic tires, discarded the top and mounted the wheels/steering mechanism on a marine plywood box he built. With some towels for padding, it holds the cameras and lenses, binoculars, jackets and water. Velcro straps hold the tripods and there is a double hook at the back for the crates. The handle had to be extended for comfort. And I did the camouflage paint after watching a bunch of YouTube videos.  

Have you been to Brazos Bend lately? Are you getting anxious for Winter to be over? And are you green with envy over our CART? Let me know in the comments below

Anahuac to Bolivar

Anahuac to Bolivar

BIFs or... Birds in Flight

BIFs or... Birds in Flight