Texas City Dike Report
April 6, 2018 ~ Going to the Texas City Dike almost always guarantees some great bird photos. This time of year the gulls and terns are sporting full breeding colors, and are very busy courting and mating. The Brown Pelicans are looking good, too, but they must mate on those islands where they lay their eggs.
We made a trip down the Monday after Easter to check on the terns. And before I start showing you photos I want to rant a bit. I have never ever seen so much trash on the beach as after the three day Easter weekend! We talked to some of the crew cleaning up the big stuff left behind (broken grills, awning supports, chairs and coolers) and they told us that this is not as bad as Memorial Day weekend will be. We saw another crew getting the actual trash off the beach; paper and foods and bottles and clothes and so much plastic. No wonder they charge $10 a car for holiday weekends with all the extra clean up expense. I guess no one picks up after themselves any more and it is a shame
Back to your regularly scheduled program.
The Laughing Gulls look very fine now with solid black heads and dark red bills. You will find pairs close to each other and occasionally see a smaller one walk around the larger calling and calling and calling. You know that sound! I always thought the noisy one was the male hollering out "look at me!" and that may be true, but the females get in on the act as well.
We were set up with crates and tripods at the breakers watching all the action. A pair was fairly close and after a lot of walking and calling the smaller one started pecking at the larger ones beak... And he had something hidden in his throat.
It was a giant shrimp! And the smaller female pulled it out of his mouth! They were so close I had considered removing the 1.4x TC but there really wasn't enough time. I couldn't back up since I was next to the truck so I just kept shooting knowing I was clipping tails.
It broke in half! She ate her half and then begged for more...
I was shooting this in short bursts and left out some of the intermediate images. Note I was shooting f/8.0 because they were so very close. My minimum focus distance is just shy of 12 feet and I was afraid they would move even closer!
He held on to the tail of the shrimp and she called and called and...
And was rewarded with another piece of shrimp. I would guess that Laughing Gulls developed this strategy of hiding the offering because carrying exposed food is just an invitation to other gulls to try to steal it.
They continued to share the shrimp, even the smallest piece. This is courtship feeding and is practiced by a lot of birds. It serves many functions: ceremonial, pair bonding and is an important nutritional source for the females. Most males will feed the female when she is incubating eggs and even in the days leading up to egg laying. One theory I read was she is heavier (stored fat for egg laying) and less adept at hunting at that time.
I didn't see that pair mate, but it was all around us. Most of the time the females look disinterested and when it is over just nonchalantly walk away.
Or so it seems.
And the Sandwich Terns were also in the mood. The male flies in with a tasty fish and then struts through the crowd trying to impress the ladies. This guy walked about 10 feet through the crowd and plenty of females approached him, but evidently no one struck his fancy. He flew off with the fish to another group.
This pair is circling each other with short, choppy steps. Notice the lowered wings and erect posture. Sandwich Terns develop a pinkish cast to their chest feathers in addition to jet black caps. A most handsome species.
And quite amorous! I have hundreds of images of these two mating. Our overcast day had turned into brief periods of sun and then varying amounts of clouds. Sometimes I changed the ISO, sometimes I just upped the f/stop. There are many combinations that will work; the trick is to know how to make rapid changes on the fly. I know, y'all just rely on Auto ISO but I want to be in control of my camera. If you want to read more about terns and their mating behavior check out this old blog post: A Tale of Three Fishes
Finally the sun came out in force and we moved on. We are finding it challenging this year to find birds AND the lighting we prefer. All this rain has scattered the birds; they can find food almost anywhere and don't always show up in the expected places. The constant southerly wind is moving our migrants right on to their breeding grounds.
But it could change at any moment, right? How are you doing for birds this Spring? Do you think it is just too early? Were we spoiled since everything happened so early last year? Let me know in the comments below!