Bitterns at San Bernard and More Brazoria Birds

Bitterns at San Bernard and More Brazoria Birds

August 2, 2019 ~ Oh boy, I outdid myself on alliterations this week! Recently we did a rather long Brazoria Loop trip that started with the step-child of Upper Texas coast refuges, San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. They just combined their Facebook page with Brazoria NWR not long ago, probably because both have similar birds and habitats. San Bernard actually fronts the Gulf of Mexico (Brazoria has the barrier island between it and the Gulf) but both share the same salt to brackish to fresh water transition.

Map of our Sunday drive … which took much longer than 1 hr and 26 min…we are very slow

We hadn’t been to San Bernard in a long time and did not see a single car there on our trip. The first corner on the auto tour is wide open; all the heavy growth of cane and reeds have been removed from the pond or perhaps died in a freeze? It was strange to see so much open water but on the positive side, maybe we will get ducks this winter.

Phone photo with the platform in the far distance. All that open and clear water…

Phone photo with the platform in the far distance. All that open and clear water…

That corner (with the rickety platform) was great for Least Bitterns and Green Herons in previous years. In fact, some of the best images I ever got were there in Least Bitterns of San Bernard. They like to remain hidden or at least not too much in the open.

But all the foliage is gone and so were the hopes of finding the sekritive birds so we started looking across the road at the trail to Cowtrap Lake. The trail is actually a levee road with canals on each side. The same tall reeds and canes grow next to the water providing a perfect habitat for Least Bitterns. It is closed to vehicles (with a gate) but easy walking in the mown grass. We only walked back 75-100 feet, not like it was a day’s hike where you have to take water.

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron settling into the reeds…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

There were several juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Herons standing around and cooperatively flying off to give us great BIF opportunities. We saw so many on the trip; successful youngsters mean the food sources were plentiful for them to thrive. That tells you we had a bumper crop of crawfish this year.

Least Bittern in the reeds
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

And in the tall reeds … we found Least Bitterns. These guys are really small; just a bit bigger than a Blue Jay for comparison. They fly pretty fast and land a lot like rails with their feet out front. We were standing next to the canal in some marshy areas with our little Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PFs so these are cropped quite a bit. The advantage to shooting a full frame camera like the Nikon D850 is the sensor size (and image) is so large (45MP) you have plenty of real estate to crop.

He was turning to go back into the heavy growth
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

This is a male; note the darker head and back. The females and juveniles are much plainer and lighter. He knew we were there and kept a close watch. Then he must of gotten bored with us and went back into the reeds.

Don’t pay any attention to me, I am just a reed…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250

This is a different one, maybe a youngster or female. They are incredible acrobats in the reeds; can you see the splayed legs? The coloration really camouflages them in dried cane and foliage. They can hunt in fairly deep water by hanging onto the reeds and leaning WAY down.

We took a LOT of pictures and most are duplicates as you are positive they are going to DO something and you want to be ready but you end up getting the same thing over and over. Bill Maroldo got some good flight shots; all of mine are blurry or blurry AND flying away.

Traveling around the auto tour we skipped the turn off to Rail Pond and went on straight down the road less traveled, for sure. That section has NOT been mowed in a very long time and the grass in the center of the road was brushing the bottom of the truck. I am not sure a little car could make it. And the place with "double-culverts across the small pond with creepy alligator that watched every move you made" as described by our friend Cheryl Vance-Kiser is almost unrecognizable as the tall trees are all gone. The pond is still there but mostly hidden by the rampant growth.

Hope they mow soon.

We went on to Surfside as the clouds were holding.

Clapper Rail on the move
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

The tide was LOW for a change with lots of exposed mudflats so we got plenty of Clapper Rail shots, both at Casco Rd and Bay Road. There are adults and almost grown youngsters that weren’t all that shy. Most of the tiny black babies might be grown by now.

Maybe they are harder to find in other areas but we usually see a few in the reeds if you are patient and wait a while.

Does this guy look like he is afraid of us or what?
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

We were sitting on our crates on the side of Bay Road. Bill was down at the edge of the water and I was a bit higher than him on the bank, but still below the road. This one was hurrying across the open canal and the determination should have been a MAJOR tip-off…

Hell no!  Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

Hell no!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

As he flew straight toward us!

Now… this is more of a documentary shot because it has some definite shortcomings but we can learn a lot from an image like this. I love the pose, the water drops, and the wings and feet look good but his head and bill are soft. Dang.

First, you just have to be ready for anything when you are shooting birds. You just have to be quick and have that shutter speed way up, right? Haven’t I said that over and over? Didn’t I write a whole blog post on that? Of course they will fly away, they are birds! I had 1/2000 sec so I had a chance of getting a good image.

And because he was flying straight at me and getting closer all the time, a larger depth of field is required to get the whole bird in focus. Just moments before he was poking around in the mud where f/5.6 or even f/6.3 was plenty. But then he turned and was walking toward us…. I had a clue I ignored and I should have dialed in at least f/7.1. But I didn’t and this is what I got. Who knows if a Clapper Rail will ever fly straight at me again???

I was using 3-D AF and it performed pretty well considering how quickly it all happened. The focus point was on his chest; if I had gotten it up on his head… well. That is why we just keep trying, right?

Great Blue Heron looking less than spiffy…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

Just over the next group of reeds were Snowies and Tricolors and White Ibis but they were hidden from our view. We were sharing the road with a noisy family that were crabbing and have a big time, so the birds were not going to start feeding close to us. Occasionally one would fly up or join the hidden group.

This Great Blue Heron is in the midst of his moult. Feathers get old, frayed and heavy with dirt and grime and have to be replaced. We saw some that looked pretty ragged at Anahuac last week. Note that they lose feathers symmetrically. From Wikipedia:

The process of moulting in birds is as follows: First, the bird begins to shed some old feathers, then pin feathers grow in to replace the old feathers. As the pin feathers become full feathers, other feathers are shed. This is a cyclical process that occurs in many phases. It is usually symmetrical, with feather loss equal on each side of the body. Because feathers make up 4–12% of a bird's body weight, it takes a large amount of energy to replace them. For this reason, moults often occur immediately after the breeding season, but while food is still abundant. The plumage produced during this time is called postnuptial plumage

After a lot more Clapper Rail photos we went on over to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe to see more Wood Storks; there were some there the week before but too far out.

On the first part of the road into the park workmen have been replacing the fence on your left. They cleared out about 15 feet on each side for access and machinery leaving giant brush piles ever so often. We saw a dark bird sitting upright on one of the piles.

Young White-tailed Hawk
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

Vulture? no… too straight… Caracara… could be … hmmm…danged big hawk… Turned out to be a young White-tailed Hawk. Two of them in fact, the other was on the next brush pile. You know what they say about young birds being so much more approachable?

Bill was shooting his big Nikkor 600 f/4 out the passenger side of the truck. He had already pulled up on the wrong side of the road to get closer.

Bird did not move. I got out carefully and walked to the back of the truck. Creep creep creep around to where I could see him.

Bird did not move. I was crouched down some, shooting between two strands of barbed wire. I moved closer and Bill got out of the truck.

Bird did not move.

One-hundred and thirty shots taken and he finally fluffed up a bit and took off.

Just after lift off…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

He took off slowly so I got some great shots except for the ones with the back of Bill’s head in them. We were a bit surprised he flew up and then actually circled around us before finally heading out of range.

White-tailed Hawk fly by
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

It was pretty exciting, I will admit. We saw two adult White-tailed Hawks along the same road late one afternoon years ago. I wrote about it in the Feb 2018 post BIFs or Birds in Flight when I was still shooting the big heavy 500 f/4 (which is fantastic for long reach: 700 mm with the 1.4x TC). But this time I got all these cool flight shots with the nimble and light-weight little 500 PF.

These young White-tailed Hawks are dark and don’t look like the adults; I read it takes four years to attain full adult plumage. They are year-round resident in this part of Texas, so keep an eye out for them at Brazoria.

We didn’t find any Wood Storks at the lakes but others have seen them so they are probably still around although the water is very low in those ponds. August is coming up and usually I take off blogging because it is too hot to get outside. But, we have had strange weather this summer; that cool front and now it is raining most afternoons. We will just see what happens. I do have trips I haven’t written about and there is always something to photograph.

Have you been out much in the steamy heat? And what would you do if a bird flew straight at you? Would you keep clicking or duck? Let me know in the comments below.

Back-to-back Days at Brazoria

Back-to-back Days at Brazoria

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Summer Trips to Texas City Dike