Anhingas, Bitterns and More SNAKES

Anhingas, Bitterns and More SNAKES

March 1, 2019 ~ We have been going to Brazos Bend State Park a lot lately. It seems 'back to normal’ after so many floods. The water hyacinth and other aquatic foliage looks to be under control and each time we have seen a wide variety of birds. I do have concerns for all the trees along Spillway Trail and south to the park road; they have been standing in water for years. The healthy trees alongside the trail are leafing out but I fear the distant ones are dead.

Which is going to be a major change for the park.

Youngish White Ibis precariously perched…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800; hand-held

This is an almost adult White Ibis with only a smidgen of brown left on her head and neck. Oh, I don’t know for sure it is a female, but … why not? Males and females are identical. This kind of shot can play heck with your autofocus since there are so many branches to catch - especially if you are using a multi-point focus mode. You always read it is best to keep the focus point on the bird’s eye, but sometimes that is just impossible. Aim for that point where the neck meets the body and you should be OK if the bird is parallel to the camera’s sensor.

The adult White Ibis are showing more red coloration in their bills and legs in preparation for breeding. Last year they nested in the high trees just north of 40-acre Lake and judging by the number of immature birds around, it was a very successful year.

Anhinga alongside the trail to the tower.
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/9.0 ISO 800; hand-held

Along the trail to the Tower at 40-acre Lake are a couple of male Anhingas that make great subjects since they will stay still for long periods of time. We did some head shots last trip; this time we worked on the whole bird. I have written about them before in Awesome Anhingas if you want more birding facts.

The wing feathers are striking, but check out that tail with the horizontal crimping. Audubon noted the structure becomes more pronounced during breeding season. This one is getting a lot of white feathers on his neck but his lores have not changed to blue-green yet. I used f/9 because he was close, big and perched at a slant. The tip of his tail is much closer to me than the tip of his beak. And they move that head around a lot.

We have Anhingas year round and the Texas Breeding Atlas notes “most frequently reported confirmed nesting along the Sulphur, Sabine, Neches, Trinity and Brazos Rivers (all in the eastern third of the state north of 29 degrees latitude)”. The park headquarters is located at

Latitude (degrees, minutes, seconds) N:  29° 22' 15.16"
Longitude (degrees, minutes, seconds) W:  95° 37' 54.58"

So… maybe. Surely we are in the eastern third? I heard that they may be nesting at Resoft Park. Will have to check that out.

Anhinga preening…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

This is a different male and much later in the day. Notice the tips of his tail are not as rusty orange as the first one and he is getting some blue-green around his eyes. You often see Anhingas in this ‘spread wing’ position. The literature is full of notations that Anhingas have to dry their wings since they lack the gland that produces oil to keep their feathers waterproof.

Here is an Anhinga showing you his non-existent uropygial gland at the base of his tail as he preens his feathers. Cormorants do the same spread wing posture and no one disparages their uropygial gland.

AND Bill Maroldo was sitting just to my right and got this near-identical shot:

Award-winning shot of Anhinga preening by Bill Maroldo
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/4 FL VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250; hand-held

You can pixel peep if you want, the only difference we can see is his background is slightly more bokehed than mine; probably an effect of the f/4 telephoto lens as our settings were almost identical. No, there must be more than that since his was chosen to be the banner shot at Birds of Texas FB site :-).

Calling Anhinga
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1600; hand-held

And they like to call. Bill, Greg Lavaty and I were set up on the side of the trail, sitting on crates and the ground. He did turn and look toward us for a few seconds before he started to call. Perhaps he was telling us ‘this perch is MINE’ but did not seem too distressed by our presence. We took photos for over 20 minutes and identified him to numerous inquisitive park visitors while he sunned and preened.

That is another great thing about Brazos Bend. The wildlife is by no means tame but they are acclimated to people passing by and gawking.

We three were headed around the back side of 40-acre Lake when some birders stopped to tell us about a Bittern eating a siren. No, it was a snake. Well, it was something really big and exciting. They said it was just before the Spillway Bridge so Greg and I headed that way. Bill stayed and talked with the birders for a bit and followed us with the cart. I believe he thought the event would be over by the time we got there.

How long does it take for a bird to eat a snake anyway?

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

We spotted a crowd on the side of the trail and hurried. This American Bittern was behind a lot of bare sticks; the kind that you can barely see through the viewfinder but either catch your focus or make soft blurs. This is a lot more typical of wildlife situations; those crystal clear shots with perfect lighting and no obstructions are what you strive for, but don’t often find.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

Plus it was crowded with photographers. Greg is tall and shot over the crowd but I was having more trouble finding a clear spot. You could not get low because of the sticks and obstructions.

Wouldn’t that have been a GREAT shot?

In these situations you take a few quick shots and quickly adjust if necessary. I see I was using what I had previously set for a Common Yellow-throat I had been chasing and didn’t change.

But my first 3 shots were out of focus as I struggled with the branches. I do remember glancing at the display in the beginning and thinking it was OK. We had clouds most of the day and this was still bright overcast.

The bird was moving, the snake was moving.

Bill finally showed up and was jockeying for position. I think there were about eight of us oohing and ahhing and most taking photos. Can’t nudge the cell-phone shooters out of the way, you know. As much as you want to…

On the bright side there wasn’t a sunning alligator to avoid.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

He has it going down head first. I don’t know if they crush the head first and the snakes’s movements are just … nerve reflexes or if the bird’s esophagus is so tight the snake can’t get its mouth open to bite inside. This particular snake is not venomous. Birds that eat poisonous snakes have developed immunities and antibodies to the venom.

Probably by trial and error over time…

The snake has a injury where he was probably stabbed in the initial encounter - Update: A reader pointed out this might well be the snakes… anus. I know, they have to have one but it never crossed my mind. Thanks Thomas for the correction!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

Isn’t that gross? I found out the snake is a Crayfish Snake which makes perfect sense. There are crayfish living under all that foliage; we see other birds plucking them out all the time.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

The literature says the Crayfish Snakes “have chisel-shaped teeth that enable them to ingest hard-shelled individuals” which is even more amazing that the Bittern can swallow them whole.

He finally got it all down and stood around for a while. The crowd dispersed and we tracked the Bittern as he headed toward the bridge.

American Bittern going sneak sneak sneak
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

The American Bittern is a common migrant and winter visitor although a few confirmed breeding sites in Texas have been reported. It was great to see this one now in the open. You can read how shy and secretive they are but are often seen at Brazos Bend like this against the green foliage.

You would think that a big snake would fill the bird up, but we found him with a crayfish not ten minutes later. I wonder how many other Crayfish Snakes are hiding under all that growth? I know the park is full of snakes and I should really be more careful where I step... and sit.

Is Brazos Bend Park on your list of best birding places? Do you think the park is recovered from Harvey now? And…have you had any snake encounters lately? Let me know in the comments below.

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