A Black-crowned Night Heron

A Black-crowned Night Heron

June 1, 2018 ~ On Monday May 22 we packed up the cart and cameras and drove out to Brazos Bend State Park.  We had been to Surfside and Brazoria on Sunday with some success, but the promised clouds had been fleeting. Showers were forecast, but you know by now how unreliable those guys are. 

We found a bit of this and that at Brazos Bend, nothing remarkable until we turned the corner from Warbler Alley onto the trail around Elm Lake. Just at the edge of the water was a beautiful Black-crowned Night Heron.

  Black-crowned Night Heron showing off   Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1000   sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Black-crowned Night Heron showing off
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

He was perfectly sited with nothing in the background and the light was stellar. We carefully moved up closer with our crates and tripoded up. I had the 1.7x TC on my 500 mm f/4 so I was effectively shooting at 850 mm. I didn't need to get too close.

Getting ready to fish
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

And he was animated. This was some kind of enormous bird yawn. We were totally focused on the bird when a group of young men walked up behind us. Bill Maroldo told them to quietly pass on by on the far side from the bird and Do.Not.Stop. He must have sounded like a teacher because they meekly walked past and the bird did not flush. 

Vibrating bill fishing technique
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

This is a fishing technique Black-crowns use. He kept his bill in the murky duckweed and I thought he was wiggling his tongue to attract a fish. All the literature plainly states they rely on "vibrating" the bill to create a disturbance to attract fish. And I can say it must have been a micro-vibration as I didn't see any movement or disturbance in the water. But, after reviewing my photos, I can see he is moving his bill. You know how the filmstrip in Bridge shows one image after another? It is obvious from my images the bill is moving but I sure didn't see much at the time. 

Maybe he waits for something to bump into his bill? It is hard to believe he can actually see through that thick duckweed. But then, I am not a bird. 

Success! 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Whatever he was doing worked really well. I had no idea such colorful fish swam around in Elm Lake. Any of you fishermen out there; do you know what kind of fish this is?

And he got it down in one gulp. Wanna see that up close?

I always wonder...How long will this keep him full? 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

Birds can swallow huge fish as long as it goes down head first. How do they do that? The short story is the upper mandible can move as well as the bottom jaw; this is called cranial kinesis and I am sure you have seen snakes do that on Wild Kingdom. If you want to read more about bird's anatomy and why they don't have teeth start here. Fascinating blogger; I am putting him on my favorites. 

Staring in the duckweed soup.. 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1250
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

We watched him for a while longer but even though he did the bill-in-the-water trick a few more times he didn't catch anything else.

Showing off that foot...
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1600
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

But he did pose for us. A few more people walked by but he still didn't move. That is one of the great things about Brazos Bend; the wildlife is fairly acclimated to people and you can get closer than some of the other parks. 

Another pose... 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.7x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

These birds are a bit of a challenge since you are in effect exposing for dark and light in the same image. You don't want to blow out the bright white on is neck resulting in no feather detail, and at the same time if his dark gray back and cap are underexposed the image will suffer. What helped the most was the soft overhead light. There were no shadows to contend with. I was using a slow shutter speed until he caught the fish (which we both missed) and then I upped it in case he did something fast.

He didn't. 

Juvenile Black-crowned NIght Heron
Sony A700 with Sony 70-400 f/5.6 ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600

Black-crowned Night Herons are fairly common but we haven't see too many lately. Looking around my archives I found this image of a juvenile I took in 2014 at almost the same place at Elm Lake. You don't think... well, it could be the same bird all grown up!

Note that I took this with Bill's ancient and worn-out Sony A700. It was a whopping 12.24 MP crop sensor with an almost defective back dial. Which meant the shutter speed had a mind of its own; you had to check and recheck as it changed on a whim. The Sony 70-400 lens he let me use was the first generation and focused rather slowly as I remember. But I learned to shoot manually in spite of the equipment, or maybe because of the challenges. 

After 359 shots of a bird that was essentially NOT MOVING we headed back to 40-acre Lake.  We did find a few Purple Gallinules along the way and watched them for a while. And then it started to sprinkle. No problem; we covered the cameras/lenses with a towel in the cart and kept walking. And then it started raining harder. We did spend about half an hour under the Observation Tower during the worst of the BOOMS and FLASHES.

It was bad, y'all. A little turtle came under the tower with us. 

Bill and a Great Egret next to the Observation Tower
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1250 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

We have taken shelter under the tower several times in past visits and when the rain finally does stop, all the birds come out. Must be great food opportunities for insects and other tasty treats stirred up by the rain. 

Bill found a Green Heron too far out to photograph (which didn't stop him) and I followed some Yellow-crowned Night Herons for a while. We were working our way out when it started to rain again. HARD. Nothing to do but keep going. And of course, you know the rain stopped exactly when we got to the parking lot. 

Have you ever gotten caught in a big downpour while out birding? Were you prepared or did you put your camera inside your shirt? And what are the odds the juvenile Black-crown I saw in 2014 is the same one we saw last week? Let me know in the comments below.

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