Sorta-kinda Sunny Day at Anahuac
May 11, 2018 ~ It was supposed to be cloudy, and of course we believe our weather forecasters especially when they say what we want to hear. But the clouds had mostly dissipated by the time we got to Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve. Just an in-and-out cloudiness that had you constantly changing your ISO and hunting for the best position. We wanted to see if there were any Purple Gallinules around, check on the Caracara nest and hopefully see some Green Herons.
We found a Green Heron almost immediately off the short road to the boat ramp near the Nature Center. He was on the far side of the canal, the sun was out and there were a lot of brushy branches but... it was a Green Heron. Later we saw another way down the canal at Crab Corner but he was just a speck in my viewfinder, grabbing one little fish after another.
And the Purple Gallinule showed up right as we started the Auto Tour. We saw several on the sloped sides, and a couple in Shovelers Pond near the reeds but they were wary and not up to being internet stars. Yet. They do nest and raise babies at ANWR, so hopefully we will get more photos later in the season. The best images are when they climb up the reeds with those long, yellow feet.
But this Least Bittern was all about posing. Bill Maroldo saw him first while following a Purple Gallinule and we got some hand-held shots, then I hurried back to fetch my tripod. When I walked back to the truck, I realized we had blocked the road and a car was coming along behind us. We were not going to move the truck and lose this opportunity, so there was nothing to do but to share our discovery. They were visiting birder/photographers, and were happy to get in on the action. Least Bitterns are usually buried in the reeds and it is hard to get an unobstructed shot.
Little Least Bittern cooperated and showed us her wing and some poses. The females and juveniles are browner and lack the dark head and back of the adult males, so I am deciding this is a girl. We all snapped away while she looked from side to side. She was in the front part of the canal in a very open place for a shy and secretive bird.
She even made a short flight to our left and then looked back to see if we got that. Finally, she had enough and flew off. I got some in flight, but the wings were not sharp enough to share. Counting up now, I got 74 shots of the Least Bittern. From the first shot until the last about 4 minutes passed. I spent part of that time walking back to get my tripod and bringing the others up to the spot.
By this time the sun was out most of the time. We saw another Green Heron, some Kingbirds but nothing else close or interesting. Then a juvenile Clapper Rail followed its parent across the road in front of us. As we got to the last leg of the Auto Tour drive there were Cattle Egrets in breeding colors along the slopes picking up nesting materials...
This one was flying away by the time I caught up with him; I was astounded by the size of that branch. We have seen Great Egrets and Spoonbills carry large sticks, but dang. Cattle Egrets are really small birds. With obviously large ambitions. They flew around and were landing in the bamboo growth at the edge of Shovelers Pond.
Last year we watched herons and egrets land in the bamboo growth on the west side of the pond, but the wind was always against us. The wind on Thursday was southerly and the birds fought hard to land. Which helped us immensely.
The sun was at our backs, and we tripoded up on the side of the road to watch the show. While following the Cattle Egrets we were amazed to see the White-faced Ibis bringing nesting materials as well.
Bill has a fixation on White-faced Ibis in breeding colors and I am beginning to share his enthusiasm. The sun was a bit brighter than I care for, but it certainly highlights the iridescent colors. The bright white around their eyes is very prominent now. Everyone argues over Is-it-a-Glossy-or-White-faced? but in breeding colors there is NO doubt. The Glossy Ibis do get some white around the face, but much much less than the White-faced. The rest of the year we argue about eye and leg color since both birds occur along the Texas/La Gulf coast.
Often they just settled into the bamboo and were lost to view, but occasionally there was a gap in the foliage. White-faced Ibis breed in mixed-species colonies and I am reading that they often shift locations year-to-year based on water levels or vegetation growth. That might explain why they are on now the east side of the pond; the regrowth of freeze-damaged bamboo/rushes is much more extensive on this side than their previous location.
This industrious fellow made several trips and landed on this heavy pole. He often dropped what he brought; there must be a learning curve for this nest building behavior. And I never did see a nest but you could hear loud greetings as he disappeared from view.
I was trying to get shots of anything flying by, and was a bit surprised to see this Black-crowned Night Heron. Bill had seen one earlier at the edge of the reeds, but he was long gone by the time I got out of the truck.
A quick flash of brown turned out to be another Least Bittern! Right in front of me! This one is definitely an adult male; he has a dark head and back. I cannot stress enough how small these guys are. Just a tad larger than a Blue Jay.
It was a fun time and a real exposure/auto focus challenge. We had dark birds (the ibis) and white birds (the egrets) against a bright sky and light colored moving reeds.The birds were coming in from all directions and often swooped low behind the waving bamboo and then up again to bank and slowly settle into the reeds. I was using the Dynamic 9-spot focus mode because it is good for in-flight shots, but once they started dipping below the tops of the foliage, it was difficult to stay right on the bird and not catch one of the reeds.
Plus all of these were shot from the tripod which does limit your mobility. But the setup performed well; some misses but lots of keepers.
After a while we toured the locks and drove down the road to Frozen Point to check out the Caracara nest at a feed lot. We saw an adult sitting on the nest and surmised the eggs had not hatched yet. Just a few days a photo was posted on FB of a small chick being fed. I guess we didn't wait long enough to catch the action!
Have you been to Anahuac lately? When you travel the Auto Tour, do you stay in the car or get out and try to get closer? And do you think we are seeing more Least Bitterns this year than usual? Let me know in the comments below!