South to Rockport and Port Aransas
March 2, 2018 ~ One of the favorite places on the Texas coast for birders and photographers is Rockport and the surrounding areas. We made a quick trip last week and familiar places look very different. The annual Hummingbird Festival was canceled at Rockport last fall because of Harvey destruction and bird lovers responded by sending feeders and supplies since the little birds came anyway. That we could all rebuild the damaged wetland habitat so easily.
Rockport Beach is open except for the restroom/shower pavilions, but they do have port-a-potties. No nesting birds at this time, but I see on FB that some Skimmers have returned but not to the same place as before. Paradise Pond has just reopened with repaired walkways and a lot of cleanup, but many of the willow trees were knocked down and destroyed. It is still early in the season and nothing has leafed out; hard to tell what is dead and what might come back. There were some Blue-winged Teals, a few flitty birds in the brush and a lot of binocular birders in town for the Whooping Crane Festival. Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is open, but the long boardwalk only extends about 30 feet into the new mud flat and the rest of it is broken and destroyed. Still, we saw dozens of Black-crowned Night Herons, Avocets, White Pelicans, Long-billed Curlews and countless ducks at a distance. Salt water has come in to the area from a new channel cut near the Charlie's Pasture pavilion. We found Port St blocked just past a housing area; we could not drive along the Intracoastal Canal at that time.
All of the area is one big construction zone and new businesses and facilities are reopening every day. Some hotels have not reopened, but we found lodging, food and gas in good supply. I am not discouraging anyone from visiting; on the contrary, they need our tourist dollars and support. It is just different and it will take time to regrow and repair. But, things change rapidly so check/call ahead and pack your spirit of adventure! The birds are still there, maybe just in different locations.
Just so you know, this is the location of the Great Blue Heron Rookery in Rockport. The property was bought by the city of Rockport in 2015 and is posted as a breeding site. You have to stand outside of a cedar post fence and long lenses/tripods are required for good visibility. It is a very different environment from Smith Oaks as you are not as close and you have to shoot up at the birds.
Thankfully, it was relatively undamaged from the storm. This was our second trip; I wrote about it in The Other Rookery at Rockport last year. The huge oak trees looked a bit thinned out, but they are old and strong and have weathered many a storm. When we first got there it didn't look like any nests were built yet, but they construct them just below the visible tree tops. We watched graceful herons fly in and circle around above.
This was perfect conditions for using the Dynamic AF 9-spot I have mentioned before. Nothing in the background to interfere with the wider focus area. I took about 1100 shots that second day and very few were out of focus. The first day's shots were good, but the light was harsh and so most of these are from the fine overcast second day.
Even the shots when he was flying away were sharp. I like this one because the stick is so freakin' YUGE plus it shows the fanned tail in preparation of slowing down to land. Great Blues are very slow fliers; we varied the ISO from 1600 to 2000 depending on the clouds/light and tried to keep the shutter speed around 1/2000 sec.
I LOVE the landing shots. I have so many of these - they are such big, slow birds it is possible to fire off a burst and get a great sequence of approach and the slow landing.
We saw them pulling branches off trees and some birds were gathering sticks on the ground in front of us. Shortly after this shot, he dropped the stick. Must not have been what he was looking for.
Sometimes we could see the stick exchange. The nests are down in the trees, and you are lucky to see the female's head as she rises up to accept the stick.
Another shot of the stick delivery. This one shows off his back feathers really well and a clear view of her.
I never tire of watching these birds. Someone was asking on FB "what kind of lens do you need to get this close?" and this is one of those times where gear really matters. Not only am I using a 500mm lens with the teleconverter yielding a 700mm focal length, my camera has a 36mp sensor so I can crop the photos much more and still retain image quality.
Want to see?
It is a busy, bustling place. The is a male standing over his selected nest site waiting for a female to choose him. I do know there were a lot of males displaying along the tops of the trees. And it got a little testy now and then.
Several times we saw males extend and inflate their necks and deliver a loud call. It seemed to directed toward other males. Or perhaps it is just an announcement that This. Place. Is. Mine. Or is it a call the females will respond to? They puff up their throats in a full extension. When they retract that long neck, the shaggy feathers make a remarkable ruff.
It is crowded at the top. The standing bird did cause the other bird to leave. Latecomers to the tops of the trees seemed to have a hard time finding a place and moved over to lower branches. We observed one bird chased off several locations. The area is large, we could not see what was happening on the back side of the trees, but could see birds flying in and out.
Mating was happening all over the tree tops, but usually you could just see the male's wings flapping. She is partially obscured by the branches, but he does have a firm grip on her neck.
The pairs develop a strong bond and are monogamous for the breeding season. I find it amazing since they are solitary birds during the rest of the year, that they can come together and raise chicks in this crowded, noisy enviornment. This pair seem to be cuddling; I saw the same behavior last year.
We saw other pairs perched closely together in nests. No eggs were observed, but I don't think you could at this angle. She lays 2-6 eggs and they are incubated for 27-29 days. They hatch sequentially; same as Great Egrets but the chicks are not nearly as aggressive. These chicks are fed food regurgitated on the nest floor instead of having to monopolize a returning parent.
Whew. I could go on and on I have so many great images to share. Sorry this is so long, but I just couldn't stop! Have you been to the Great Blue Heron Rookery at Rockport? Do you want to go down south and support the recovery? As I said in the beginning, the birds are there, but maybe not in the same places as before. Let me know in the comments below.