Birds at Bolivar Flats
July 12, 2019 ~ We had been seeing reports of large numbers of Reddish Egrets at Bolivar Flats and were just waiting for a cloudy day to make the trip. The forecast for July 3 was ‘partly cloudy with scattered T-storms’ so we packed up and took a chance. We do use Accuweather (which isn’t) but lately have been looking at two different sites for cloud forecasts. The NOAA Geos Viewer shows an animation of the current cloud cover and is really useful for seeing large patterns. Another cool site is Ventusky which allows you to look at a lot of weather possibilities. But mostly you just get out there and deal with what happens.
We left in high sunshine and found clouds on the southeast side of town. And then the closer we got to Galveston the more it rained. A bit like another trip to the coast (remember After the Storms) but this time I was much more optimistic. Sure enough, it had stopped by the time we got to the ferry.
First stop was Fort Travis because… they have good restrooms.
There are wide grassy expanses all around the Fort and one of the nicest places to see Marbled Godwits this time of year. I think we found some Long-billed Curlews there earlier this Spring. We just knelt in the grass next to the road and got these while they poked the ground for insects and larvae.
And we were fighting the mosquitoes. Don’t you hate it when they get in your nose? And how did the early Texians stand it without bug spray and air conditioning?
We startled them by moving too close and they circled around and came right back just a short distance away. This one has just landed; I wasn’t fast enough to get the approach.
That is something to remember with flocks of birds. Often when they leave… they don’t really leave. Must be hard to give up a great feeding place; if you are patient they might come back.
Over by Frenchtown we spotted some tiny baby Clapper Rails between the road and the ponds. And we tried to get shots of the chicks, but they stayed well hidden.
Another adult, probably the male, showed up and started calling loudly. I think he was announcing to the world that this was HIS family and HIS territory and we should just scram.
We went on down to Rettilon Road to check out the reported Reddish Egrets.
It is easy enough to get to. Take the free ferry over from Galveston and head north. At Rettilon Road, turn right. You will probably see Nighthawks on the fence posts, and Barn Swallows on the wires. Depending on how much water is standing in the ditches you could see waders like Black-necked Stilts, Willets and even Snowies and White Ibis.
The paved road dead-ends at the beach. Turn right again. It can be muddy or sandy at the beach entrance; you should know if your car/truck can safely drive on the terrain. Head down the beach (south) to a row of wooden post barriers and park. Walk down the beach until you find birds. The dunes are posted because little Plovers and such nest there, but we found lots of birds fishing in the shallow waters.
It was rather crowded, in fact. We counted about five dark Reddish Egrets, a couple of White Morph Reddish Egrets and lots and lots of Snowies. We have friends who have been going to the same location with ground pods and shooting from eye level. It is a lot of work and if you are young and hardy you might want to try it. These wading birds are big enough that sitting down still puts you at close to eye level with them. We had our crates, but you could always bring a trash bag and sit on the ground.
Sometimes the Snowies even got the best of the Reddish. We saw several fishing with outstretched wings in classic Reddish poses. Why not copy something that obviously works? We have even seen Reddish Egrets do that foot-wiggling thing Snowies are famous for.
But there were plenty of fish for everyone. Rather large ones judging by this shot.
And the Reddish were in fine form. One adult came pretty close to us and also a juvenile that was honing his skills. The youngsters are great fun to watch since they aren’t all that efficient yet.
Bill Maroldo and I have been playing around with making gifs from sequential images. This one was made from a series of 13 images as I focused on one bird. The youngster hasn’t gotten all his big boy feathers yet and is a motley gray with not much neck feathers.
We are using Photoshop Timeline feature to make these and it isn’t very hard at all once you get the hang of it. If you want to learn how, here is the video tutorial I watched. Bill learned how to use Guides to keep the little fellows in line and that helped a lot.
This gif is set a 0.5 seconds per frame. The actual time stamp in my camera for this sequence was 2:24:41 to 2:24:49 or 7 seconds elapsed from start to finish. Hmm.. 13 images displayed at half a second each = 6.5 seconds. So, it is a pretty accurate depiction of how quickly they move. Which is why I repeat over and over and over again, you have to keep the shutter speed up on moving birds.
I was shooting at 1/2000 of a second and each one is tack sharp. For these birds my autofocus settings were either Dynamic 9-spot (default) or if the bird was relatively still Single Spot (mapped to my lens buttons).
Works for me.
We had brought the cart and big lenses with us but decided to hike out with the Nikon 500 f/5.6 PFs and a milk crate to sit on to reconnoiter the area first. Turned out to be a good decision. They were feeding between the shoreline and a small sandbar which put them in perfect range for the 500 mm. We usually keep the 1.4x TC on the longer lenses and that would have been way too much. Plus, hand-holding the little 500s gives you great mobility and flexibility.
Because you just never know what these guys will do.
When we first got out there it was quite sunny. We had a few clouds, and the light was constantly changing so we were changing ISO settings A LOT. I keep my White Balance set on Cloudy by default, so the ones I took in bright sun have had corrections made in ACR. Shooting RAW allows you a lot of leeway in corrections and adjustments.
OK. I will show you. Here is one Straight Out Of the Camera (SOOC) right after we got there and I was still getting my exposure down.
Now, you would think it was hopeless, right? All pale and flat looking. And if you had shot a jpg, then there is some recovery but this is about what you would be stuck with. Great pose but bad exposure.
Go ahead. Click to embiggen.
But who knew there was that pretty soft layered background hiding? That there was actually sparkly water around his feet? And so much detail in his mane and under those giant wings?
I opened this in ACR, corrected the White Balance with the temperature sliders, dropped the Exposure a lot, opened the shadows up, dropped the Highlights, added a little Clarity and a tiny bit of Saturation and… there it is.
There was even a little Tern action on the sandbar to watch. Baby Royal Terns will beg from any adult.
But the Reddish were the biggest stars. This one came in pretty close but actually we did better on the ones a bit further out. When they are too close and start to move, they can run right out of the frame or jump high enough to clip wings.
Reddish Egrets are found along the Gulf coast and breed in sekrit offshore islands. We see them frequently at Bolivar, Texas City Dike, Galveston and Surfside. The numbers vary, but according to the Reddish Egret Working Group there may be only 2000 breeding pairs in the US. Some data states the White Morph makes up from 5-12% of the total population here; it is more common in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles. I know we see the White Morphs from time to time but not nearly as often as the dark. It is not a phase they go through, but a distinct variety. They do interbreed and the White is evidently a recessive gene as most of the offspring are dark. We have even seen a dark Reddish with numerous white wing feathers.
This White Morph only favored us with a few shots and moved off where the light was less favorable. We took a lot of photos (more than 1100) that day and only left when it started sprinkling. It is tough slogging through the sand trying to shelter the camera rig with your body from the rain! Thankfully we made it back to the truck before it started raining hard. After a bit of discussion while we waited for the rain to stop we decided to move on and see what else we could find. We ended up at Texas City Dike… but that is another adventure.
Have you ever photographed Reddish Egrets? Do you think they really look like drunken sailors? And do you have a desire to get down in the muck and shoot these from eye level? Let me know in the comments below!