After the Storms

After the Storms

May 17, 2019 ~. Sugar Land got nine inches of rain on Tuesday and we narrowly escaped doom driving home from Surfside in the high water with my VW bug. Wednesday was relatively calm, then Thursday the east side got serious rain, flooding and hail. I think it rained some Friday night but I was so worn out I can’t even remember. But Saturday they said “last of the system along the coast in the afternoon; perhaps the bulk will be offshore”.

Conversation with Cheryl-Vance Kiser on the way

Conversation with Cheryl-Vance Kiser on the way

Bill was determined we could go to Galveston and Bolivar and find lots of birds because of the north wind accompanying all this rain. I was not convinced, but I didn’t want him to go alone. So we set out in the truck. We took big lenses and tripods, the small PFs plus wide angle lenses and our crates. We were prepared for a full day of great birding.

It was barely raining when we left. He took the Beltway around and we marveled again at the perpetual construction connecting it up to 288. The weather really wasn’t too bad until we got over on I-45 south.

And then the rain just got worse the closer we got to the coast. By the time we got to Friendswood I was really wondering if we should turn around and go home.

I was keeping up a steady text conversation with Cheryl Vance-Kiser during the drive. It was storming hard in Lake Jackson south of us and she was giving me updates. The weather radar was getting redder and bigger and scarier by the minute.

It kept raining. And thundering. And the feeder road traffic was making those rooster-tail splashes. The younger drivers on the Gulf Freeway were traveling along with their emergency flashers on and I will never understand that.

We kept on south and I kept looking at the radar and freaking out. And then… as we got to the causeway it started to slack off. As we got onto the island…

It stopped raining.

I insisted he stop and get gas before we went on to Bolivar. The weather radar looked like more to come and I did not want to get stuck on over there with no gas to get home.

Getting on the ferry

Getting on the ferry

We headed for the ferry. And it started to rain again.

When we were boxed in and TRAPPED on the ferry, it really let loose. Thunder BOOM lightening BOOM wind BOOM. Bill had a chance to look at the weather radar on my phone and exclaimed

“Oh wow, you were not exaggerating! That is a lot of rain headed this way!”


To say there was not a homicide at that point is an understatement. We sat on the ferry for almost an hour. I was beginning to think even they didn’t want to cross in this weather. But after a Coast Guard boat escorted a big orange ship out of the channel we started across. The Ship Channel is officially closed because of the recent barge/ship accident and there were evenly spaced giant ships anchored out as far as you could see.

Once we got across and off the ferry we headed to Frenchtown Rd. So much water and no birds. We headed back to the highway and on down to Rettilon Road and Bolivar Flats.

The road wasn’t flooded but had been judging by the debris on the pavement. The beach was too risky (deep puddles at the entrance) so we turned around and slowly headed back.

Clapper Rail at the side of Rettilon Road (with considerable post-processing to lighten up)
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

We tried a few shots at really high ISOS but thankfully it was getting lighter and lighter. A Clapper Rail out on the roadway moved to the fence line. We saw Yellow-crowns and Nighthawks on the fence posts. Some Black-necked Stilts and lots of tiny Westerns and Least Sandpipers.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the ditch
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1250 sec f/5.6 ISO 2000

At the entrance to Fort Travis we found two Yellow-crowned Night Herons in the ditch next to the road. I took this image from inside the truck. The light rain was coming from the other side and I had a towel draped over the lens barrel. That is one wet bird, but these sprinkles were nothing compared to what he had endured all week.

Oh, BTW a trip to Fort Travis is an adventure all by itself. Maybe we need to revisit; it has been a long time. I have my eye on a ultra wide angle lens that could be really cool to use on the structures and those DOORS…I am selling my old D810 back to B&H and I might just have enough credit to get it. Stay tuned.

Curlew on the parade grounds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000

Out on the open grounds around the Fort we saw Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of Long-billed Curlews. I really thought all of the curlews had left by now, but evidently not. According to my favorite source The Texas Breeding Atlas:

Curlews begin leaving their wintering grounds in mid- March, some migrants lingering on the Upper Coast as late as mid-May (Williams and WiIliams 1954). They arrive on their nesting grounds in the northwestern Panhandle in late March and early April, often paired. The breeding season on the High Plains extends from mid-April to early July.

We could see it was getting lighter on the horizon. The line of storms coming up the coast was moving ever so slightly and slowly inland. We checked a few more places for birds and decided to take the ferry back across and go on to Lafitte’s Cove for little bitty flitty birds. Because of Bill’s surgeries we hadn’t been there at all this season. We are just at the tail end of Spring Migration, but you can be surprised.

Yellow Warbler in the distance    Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600

Yellow Warbler in the distance
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600

The surprise was that the pond in front is disappointingly covered with plants. I don’t know what is growing in the water but the leaves are like sensitive plants, you know, little compound leaflets. No ducks or wading birds. We wandered around in the dark and gloomy woods for a while. No reason for birds to be at the drips; the whole area was dripping. Back out by the pond were several Yellow Warblers but none of them wanted to come in close.

They are just passing through on the way to Ohio or somewhere up north.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the light rain
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600

Bill spotted this Yellow-billed Cuckoo close to the boardwalk entrance. I liked to NEVER found it in the willow tree. You know how it goes:

“There. Right there in front of you. No, higher. RIGHT THERE! Cant you see it?”

Nutria out of the water
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600

There were two fat nutria chomping on the front lawn pretending to be big friendly hamsters. Usually we see them all shy and sekritive in the water, but these just flat did not care we were 10 feet away. They are really bold. Not a good sign. I bet they come up to the houses and eat the dog food.

We made a quick trip down Settegast but other than some fast moving Barn Swallows, it was quiet with deep water in the ditches and canals.

On to 8 1/2 Mile Road.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600

This glorious Snowy Egret was perched on a post at the bridge with the square-wire fence near the start of 8 1/2 Mile Road. When we stopped, he flew, but only to land on the derelict pier just inside the fence. I started snapping photos out the truck window.

I love Snowy Egrets.

Bill got out and a fisherman in truck stopped just in front of us. They chatted about bait and fish while I kept taking photos. At least the visitor just wanted to visit and not throw cast nets.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600

The fluff-up just lasted FOREVAH and I kept him in focus. I wanted to get out and get closer, but I was afraid he would fly. Plus I had the lens propped on a folded towel in the truck window for support. I was not directly across from the Snowy, but the fence was not blocking my view in any way. Sometimes it is best to stay where you are if it is working.

He even did one of those propeller spins with his head, but those never turn out good.

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

It just kept going on. Watching them fluff up and preen, you can’t help but think about those ladies and their fancy feather hats back in the late 1800s. Maybe they were all city gals and never even thought about where the feathers came from? The little Snowy Egret was highly prized for his feathers and you can see why. This is a fascinating story: How Two Women Ended the Deadly Feather Trade.

I will wait right here while you read it.

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

Eventually, he raised up one leg and then continued his preening. This one is not in breeding colors; no bright red around his eyes or orange feet. He is just doing his regular maintenance to keep his feathers clean and useful.

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

And I have no idea why his toes on the right foot are speckled with black.

The light didn’t change, the bird never moved and I was in heaven. I am pretty sure I was using the D9-spot and focusing right where his head meets the chest. 1/1600 or 1/2000 sec was plenty fast to catch the feather movements. I was asked recently why I shoot so much at f/6.3 when wide open (f/5.6 or f/4 depending on the lens) would give me more light and allow a faster shutter speed or lower ISO. Probably more habit BUT at f/6.3 you get a bit more depth of field for long bills or outstretched wings and NIkon just handles higher ISOs so well I don’t think of ISO 1600 as high.

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

After 322 images I called it quits. The little Nikkor 500 f/5.6 performed well; in fact, I never got my big 500 f/4 out of the truck box that day.

Clapper Rail and chick
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

At the end of Sportsman Road we found a little Clapper Rail family (just two chicks) and spent some time on them. I also got some tern photos, but I will save those for another blog post. We were tired, the day had turned out rather well considering how bleak it looked around noon.

You just never know with the weather or the birds. Have you ever had a day you just knew was a total loss turn out to be fantastic after all? Are you an optimist and just hate to give up? Do you still believe the weather guys even though they are wrong over and over again?

Let me know in the comments below.

White-faced Ibis at Anahuac

White-faced Ibis at Anahuac

Wild Day at Brazos Bend State Park

Wild Day at Brazos Bend State Park