March 15, 2019 ~ With great excitement we made a trip over to Smith Oaks Rookery to check on the nesting birds last week. Bill Maroldo took me for the first time in 2013 and I wrote about it in High Island. I remember I was in awe of the birds, noise and all the activity. We have been back every year since then, often more than once. The sanctuary site has been affected by storms, drought and the Houston Audubon Society works hard at maintaining the facility. There are new walkways for us and new roosting platforms for the birds. Last year they did massive dredging to deepen the ponds around the island so alligators would stay even during dry spells. Without predators, raccoons and others would set up homes on the islands and prey on the eggs and young birds.
The renovated island looked so bare in late February 2018 we were afraid it would be a bad season, but the birds came back as usual. We were surprised how normal the island looked in just a few weeks. You can read about last year in Rockin’ the Rookery at Smith Oaks.
Every year is different and I really hope things work out this year as well. This is what we found on March 7, 2019:
This year emergent foliage has almost taken over the shorelines of the islands. Some of it looks dead and hopefully it will fall over on its own accord but at this point it is a real obstacle for photos and even viewing the birds.
Things could change and I hope they do.
In years past birds walked along the open ground under the nests and hunted for sticks. They squabbled and fought and the Spoonbills were fond of taking a bath in the shallows. The hard packed clay and constant bird poop retarded any foliage growth under the nesting trees.
The new fill material used to extended the perimeter of the island was probably full of dormant seeds. Being fresh, new soil (and not pooped on for years) it was ultra-receptive to any wind-borne plant material. Which has definitely thrived.
It is going to be different this year.
We set up at the very first platform as you come off the raised boardwalk. It was drizzling but there were birds in the trees directly ahead of us. I was first using the Nikkor 500 f/5.6 and Bill had my Nikkor 500 f/4 with no teleconverter on the tripod, but we soon switched. And fell in love with my big lens all over again. Yes, it is not as mobile but I have shot flying birds at the rookery for years from a tripod mount and I got some good shots. He didn’t even bring his 600 f/4 to the rookery; they are not that far away.
And it was pretty dark. We were basically shooting ISO 1600 for a long time. There were about five Great Egrets in the trees just ahead of the first platform. We could see two Egret nests and a single guy trying to display. He was completely blocked by the tree’s branches.
It is hard to remember he is displaying for the females, not for us!
But there was some activity as they shuffled about. This is one of my most favorite poses. I LOVE those feet stuck out for the landing. It was drippy and there are fine raindrops in the image you can see if you click to embiggen. The birds will still be active in the rain and if you can stand the drizzle and shoot at the required higher ISOs, you can get some great images. And you get this ethereal atmosphere instead of brilliant blue skies, blown whites and harsh shadows.
There was a nice Neotropical Cormorant nest in the top of the tree directly across from the first platform. I think they had just had sex which I missed entirely. Note the greenery in the nest; the cormorants like to use softer and live material. This pair at least had a clear background behind them.
But so many sticks.
Mostly we were watching the Cormorants land on the water, dive and reappear with some kind of aquatic plant material. Then they would fly off to their nest mates. Getting a shot of them coming out of the water with nesting materials eluded me, but I did get ONE good shot as he passed by.
It is very challenging to shoot a fast dark bird in dim light from a tripod. This image had the exposure lifted a bit in post-processing and the shadows opened up a lot. The only noise reduction was in Adobe Camera Raw.
Still there were graceful birds approaching the trees and plenty of opportunities for Egret flight shots. We didn’t see as many birds bringing sticks as previous times and it was hard to track them as they approached due to trees on the sides of the platform. And a lot of the stick pass offs were to birds turned the other way or obscured by twigs and branches.
You have to really work for it at the rookery.
But now and then you got lucky. We moved down to our favorite platform at the end but quickly gave up on that because of the new Veil of Sticks. The tree at the end of the island where I got so many great shots last year is completely obscured. There are birds nesting in the tree, but you can’t see them. We finally found the best location on top of the paying platform. At least you were UP enough the new sticks didn’t interfere as much.
And it is perfectly legit to use the paying platform unless someone who actually did pay for the privilege comes along. And BTW, there are new signs at each platform telling us tripod users we are limited to one hour at a time during peak viewing times. And the no equipment cart rule is still there. Just so you know. And the volunteer comes around to get your admission day fee or sell you a patch if you go before they set up tables for the larger crowds. Oh, the main gate at the Old Mexico entrance is now open on Feb 15 so you don’t have to hike in from the Winnie St entrance.
We just paid the day rate ($8 each) instead of getting a patch this time. With the new conditions and some other obligations we are not sure about multiple visits this year.
I had such high hopes for this stick transfer. I didn’t see him fly in with the foliage, but only noticed the yellow flowers when he got close to her. Still, there are fine branches blocking his body that I did not even see until I downloaded the images at home.
The tops of this new emergent foliage can make unpleasant blurs on your images, and even catch your focus. I found single spot focus to be the safest for perched birds.
These two were aiming for that ugly fabricated platform with the blue mesh on top. Which I completely removed and cropped out. No one has built a nest on it yet. We did have one guy on the platform doing fantastic displays for us … behind a brushy, bare tree. None of the females seemed interested in his spot.
The above image was amazing for several reasons. One, there are no major sticks covering up the birds AND the eyes of all three of them are sharp and in focus. This was shot at f/6.3 and my handy-dandy DOF Calculator says… for my camera and lens at 100 feet (does that sound right?) I have 4.57 feet depth of field. That was plenty for this. When the subject is far away you have a large depth of field even at the wide-open apertures. In this case, the sticks in between the birds are even in focus. I was probably focused on the standing bird at the point where his neck meets his body. Focusing on their eyes/head at this distance is difficult.
About this time we saw some Roseate Spoonbills fly over way high. There were dozens but none stopped. I saw on Facebook a couple had landed on the island this past weekend. All the birds have their own schedules and preferences for nesting and usually we have numerous Spoonbills by the end of March. Remember? I wrote about it in Traveling East.
Great Egrets (and other nesting birds) have elaborate greeting rituals. I don’t know if they recognize their mate’s distinctive voice or mannerisms, but they start calling when they are within about 20 feet of each other. Bill saw one incident of an attempted mating by an interloper. Perhaps the absence of the familiar call gives the female fair warning that this guy is not who they expect? It is a fascinating subject and I wrote about extra pair couplings in Twigs and Trickery a few years back.
It was hard getting close ups of their interactions. All the mating shots were obscured or facing the wrong way. This is actually a stick transfer but you can hardly tell for all the other sticks! We did see a few turquoise eggs in established nests and lots of birds sitting quietly amid all the activity.
But, the birds are busy whether we can see them or not. In a few weeks the nesting trees will leaf out and I will be complaining the green leaves are obscuring the view. Or it is too sunny or windy or crowded on the platforms. I know, we all fuss about the conditions but we keep trying for that perfect shot. I am seeing postings on Facebook from others who have visited Smith Oaks with the same reaction we had about the Veil of Sticks. Hopefully by next year Houston Audubon will have this under control; we all know it is too late to do anything now without disturbing the birds. I am well aware the sanctuary is for the conservation of the bird’s habitat BUT the fees and donations from bird watchers and photographers that want to participate do help maintain the site.
Have you been to High Island and the rookery this year? If so, do you think the Veil of Sticks will die and fall over? or will it just leaf out again and make it worse? Let me know in the comments below.