Rockin' the Rookery at Smith Oaks

Rockin' the Rookery at Smith Oaks

March 9, 2018 ~ Wow. I have to tell you after a trip to Smith Oaks Rookery at High Island on February 16th and I was very disheartened and depressed. The damage from Harvey was being cleaned up by the crews and volunteers, but the rookery island looked so bare and exposed.

View from top of pay platform at rookery island Feb 16th - Galaxy 4 Note photo

There were Neotropic Cormorants and a few Great Egrets on the far side. None of the trees had leafed out and we were not even sure if they would! The small shrubs along the island were gone, and some of the larger trees. The pond had been recently dredged and new clay/dirt had been moved up to the shore. Reeds and under story growth near the water's edge was gone and it was a quiet, ghostly place. The circling vultures just added to the dismal atmosphere. Last year we made an early trip Feb 19-20 and there were nesting Great Egrets and even some eggs!

We went back on Sunday, March 4 and were thrilled to find the birds are all back and it is business as usual! Amazing the change in just three short weeks. 

Great Egret displaying his fancy plumes
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

Many of the Great Egrets have found mates, we only saw two males performing full displays in the area we were watching.

  Range of ISO settings for 5 hour session

Range of ISO settings for 5 hour session

We had purposely picked a cloudy, overcast day to maximize the ethereal light of the white birds against a monochrome background. Your preference may be bright blue skies and dazzling white birds but I don't care for the inevitable harsh shadows from wings, bodies and branches.  I took over 2300 photos and the range of ISOs used is shown at the right. Bill Maroldo and I both shoot manually and changing the settings according to the light, subject and position is just part of it.

We periodically call out our settings to each other but mostly they are the same or very close.

"Going up to ISO 1000 now"
"Already there"
"Dang. The cloud just left, dropping to ISO 640"
"Yeah, I just went to f/8 instead"

Great Egrets mating
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

The trees are just starting to leaf out, but you still have to work at isolating action that is not obscured by branches. This mating pair were ... ah... active long enough to get about 30 shots; sometimes you notice the flapping wings and it is over before you can get a shot framed up.  If you have never been, the magnitude of activity is overwhelming at first. 

Great Egrets choose interesting sticks for the nests
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

The males are bringing sticks for the females to work into the nests. Some bring sticks from across the water, others find sticks on the ground below. There is still a lot of debris/sticks along the shore. All of my photos including the in-flight shots were taken with a tripod. I can hand-hold my Nikkor 500 f/4E but not for long so I have worked hard at following the birds from the mount.

The birds are relatively close, but you will need at least a 400 mm lens to get nice detail (or 300 mm plus teleconverter). In fact, 400 mm on a crop camera can be just right for flight shots, plus you are much more mobile hand-holding. Take a look at Here is a Stick for You from 2015 where all the photos were shot with a Sony A77II and the 70-400 G2 lens.

Heh... I hadn't learned about f/stops then; everything was shot wide open :-) But the point is big lenses are great, no doubt, but you CAN get wonderful images with less. 

  Young Roseate Spoonbill coming in for a landing Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500   sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

Young Roseate Spoonbill coming in for a landing
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

Unusual for this early in the season is the number of Roseate Spoonbills. There were hundreds along the island shoreline the day we went. I would guess half of them are juveniles, like the one above. We did see a lot getting breeding colors and ONE pair attempting to mate. It was awkward and looked more like practice. But, a few pink spots in some dense tree tops might mean nesting has begun for them, too. 

Very vigorous bathing
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

Several Spoonbills bathed in a shallow spot directly in front of the Paying Platform. I think five separate birds bathed right in front of that danged stick. We moved back and forth along the platform trying to get a better angle, but this was the best I could do. They make a huge racket bathing, so listen for the flapping and splashes. 

The rookery is noisy with all these birds calling and squawking but you do notice something different...a uprising of sound. And we heard almost a dull roar south of us.

Spoonbills aloft
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

Looking through the trees to the right I could just see spots of pink and it was a SPOONBILL STAMPEDE! Something spooked them and they all took off and flew past us. They made a big circle and some started to drop back to the island but most made another pass before settling down again. Not long after that we saw a rather large alligator swimming down the center of the new-deepened channel. He circled around and the smaller alligator that had been at the point of the island moseyed off. New alligator parked himself perpendicular to the shore line and watched the birds. Their job is to keep the ground clean (chicks will fall out of the nests) and sometime grab unsuspecting birds.

A volunteer told us the channel and pond were dredged/deepened so the alligators would be a continuing presence. Since the pond is only sustained by rainfall, in the dry summer months it can get shallow enough for raccoons and predators to easily make their way to the island. They are also doing some extensive drainage work to divert water to the pond, plus a new island is being built on a second pond. The crews had planted small trees on the new island, but the cormorants had unplanted them. There is a lot of work being done on the rookery side. 

Spoonbill disagreement
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

With all the Spoonbills it was hard to decide which ones to watch. The trees are just starting to bud out and I like the added color to this shot. Once the foliage appears, the contrast with the new green is wonderful but it does obscure a lot of activity. 

  Broken Beak and lady friend Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500   sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

Broken Beak and lady friend
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 800; tripod

We had been watching a male display for several hours. He had a slight deformity on the upper bill, so he was easier to keep tabs on. He finally got a female to land on his perch and in no time they were going at it. Maybe they knew each other from before, you just never know. I don't think I have ever seen mating done over a big branch before, and perhaps she was not impressed as she flew away afterwards and he went back to displaying his wares. 

Great Egret and bristly stick
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1250; tripod

Watching them bring in sticks is endlessly entertaining. Large or small, they bring them back to the nest. We saw one drop his giant stick into the pond, and attempt to retrieve it several times. The viewing platform at the very end is closest to the island and you have a clear view of the approaching stick carriers BUT you have less time to get them in focus. Panning as they cross your view you sometimes end up with a shot of the bird flying away - which is not as desirable. The front of the pay platform is nicer as you have more time to zero in. IMO. The birds are beginning to nest in the trees in front of the very first platform as you come up to the levee trail, so check out new places. 

Note: Here is the policy on the paying platform. Same as last year, free unless specifically reserved. 

Stick exchange
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 640; tripod

Following a stick carrier to the nest is fun, and sometimes you can see the transfer. Just as often he flies behind the trees or there is a bird, branch or both in front of the exchange. 

The males bring sticks large and small
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2500
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000; tripod

A branch in the foreground is not too bad as long as it is in sharp focus. Blurry obstructions from foliage are very distracting. There are advantages in going to Smith Oaks early in the year even if you have to hike in; once the trees are fully leafed out you might not see as much bird behavior details. 

Bill clattering is part of their courtship rituals
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 640; tripod

A mated pair continues to bond during the nesting period. They will mate several times as the eggs are fertilized separately. She will lay an egg a day or every other day and will start incubation with the first egg. This will result in the chicks hatching over a period of days ensuring the first born will be much stronger than the doomed last. Yep, it is tough but that is just the way it is. For more details on babies and siblicide see last year's post A Closer Look at Chicks.

Female arranging new stick in nest
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; tripod

We saw a few pale blue eggs and quite a few birds sitting on nests. Let's see... March 4 plus 23-27 days incubation period... End of March, first of April we will have baby chicks! And then the real fun begins!

Are you going to High Island and the rookery this year? Are you waiting until the main gate is open March 16th? Let me know in the comments below.

Short Stories - March 2018

Short Stories - March 2018

South to Rockport and Port Aransas

South to Rockport and Port Aransas