Saturday Afternoon at Brazoria

Saturday Afternoon at Brazoria

August 30, 2019 ~ Lately it seems the cloudy weather only happens on the weekend. We took a chance last Saturday to head south even though wild thunderstorms were predicted. Then of all things, the cloudy weather held and we didn’t even see a shower. In fact, I think the temperature topped out at 88 F and there was a slight breeze that kept the mosquitoes and biting flies away.

First stop was Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge at around 11 am. Yes, I know most of you have already done your birding and shooting and are home by that time but we never get early starts. Besides, if it is overcast and cloudy, you can shoot all day from any direction.

The deep part of Olney pond where we got so many good shots a few weeks ago held only a lonesome Snowy and the big alligator. That area has a levee on one side and a lot of high reeds/canes on the other plus the auto tour road across the end. It might have been that the collection of birds we found fishing there before were sheltering from the wind. Or they did some water management that concentrated the little fishes in that spot. Whatever the reason, there weren’t any birds there this time.

Map of the refuge auto tour

Finally, I found a nice map of the refuge. It is on the Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges site; lots of other good info about the refuge and about San Bernard. From the Nature Center (shown in a expanded box above) this map shows the auto tour very well. Those numbers probably correspond to a tape you could get to play as you drove around telling you all about the flora and fauna. I have no idea if they still do that? Anyway, No. 3 marker is exactly where the deep pond from Back-to-back Days at Brazoria is located. And ‘deep’ is relative here; I bet it is only a couple of feet deep, if that.

Yep. He lives in the refuge same as the birds…Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

We did stop just past the deep part as there was a Little Blue Heron fairly close to the road. Bill Maroldo was shooting out the driver’s side window and I was getting out to go to the back of the truck. But I saw something dark at the edge of the road ahead. I was thinking it was a Clapper Rail but quickly realized it was not.

Umm.. This was not the YUGE alligator that lurks in the deep pond because we had just seen him. But he was sizable. He crossed over the road in front of us and slithered into the canal that runs parallel to the auto tour road.

Little Blue Herons eat tadpoles
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250

Here is the Little Blue Heron. My angle was a bit off, but he has a tadpole. This one is fairly young, you can still see a few white patches on his wings and neck.

Olney Pond is drying up; there are now sections separated by mud and reeds. It looks to be a bit deeper far out from the road as we could see the larger waders feeding off in the distance. We had come specifically to get photos of Phalaropes as they had been seen earlier in the week by good friend and Bird Guide Extraordinaire, Greg Lavaty.

In the muck off the auto tour road - phone photo

This is where we set up about half way down. You can see a long ways on each side; there were no alligators in the area. Of course, I suppose one could have come out of the canal behind us, but with the truck parked there we felt OK. This is about the same place where we found the Shy and Secretive Sora in the Spring of 2018.

Young Black-necked Stilt
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/5.6 ISO 1000; tripod

We are seeing a lot of Black-necked Stilt families. Usually, two adults and one youngster. Some birds run off the adolescents but others keep them around for a while.

I was using my Nikkor 500 f/4E FL with the 1.4x teleconverter on the tripod at this time. That rig gives me 700 mm reach and it is quiet helpful at the refuge since the birds are not very close. About a month ago I took my big lens over to my neighbor Dixie Spurling’s house to check out the Mississippi Kites nesting in her front tree. Except the lens would not focus. Bill and I checked every setting and finally gave up and sent it off to Nikon Repair. They replaced the SWM and repaired the auto focus mechanism plus cleaned and checked all the other functions. It was all warranty work, thank goodness, but it is scary sending off expensive gear and trusting Fedex to get it there.

So it came back repaired but it just didn’t seem sharp and I was dreading the process of re-calibration. You can research lens calibration and there are umpteen ways to do it. The short story is each lens is built within a certain tolerance, as is each camera. When you put them together for the first time, your lens might be front or back focusing a bit and your images might not be completely sharp even though BOTH are performing correctly. Now, there are many other reasons why your photos aren’t sharp (poor technique, missed focus, DOF, heat waves, too small in the frame) but calibration can be an issue. But it is a laborious process with a big lens since you are supposed to do it at your “normal shooting distance” and that means the backyard and a cloudy day and … Here, you can read this and the short-cut way with Nikon doesn’t work with my lens; I already tried it.

Since the old settings seemed really off, my answer was to delete all the previous calibrations and just use it uncalibrated to evaluate. It was going to be different from before but how much? Just how far off did it seem? Did it even need calibration since it had been repaired?

Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

This Dowitcher (maybe a Short-billed?) and the Least Sandpiper next to him are about in the same focal plane, the little guy might be a bit farther away. I know I was using Single Spot on the dowitcher and he looks pretty sharp.

Group of Snowies on the prowl
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

Here is a group of Snowy Egrets that were feeding in the far areas. I expected the one in the back to be out of focus, but the group of four look pretty good. Everyone’s eye is sharp. I was getting some sharp shots, but some not so pretty good.

Inconsistency is very annoying. I didn’t know if it was the lens or me.

Cute little Semi-palmated Plover
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

This little Semipalmated Plover was fairly close; not as far away as the Snowies and while he didn’t look so good on the LCD monitor, he looks fine on my computer. It is hard to evaluate your work in the field; that little screen might not present the true image. It is a low-resolution jpg created on the fly. Plus the outside light is not ideal for looking at a small screen.

After a while all the birds we had been watching just settled in for a snooze. Nobody was feeding and many of them moved out even farther away. We decided to check out Surfside and come back later.

Clapper Rails look elegant even standing in the mud.
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 640

A LOT of nice Clapper Rail action on Casco Road. There were several young birds, juveniles with intermediate plumage running around with the adults. Some birds keep the youngsters around and teach them what to eat; American Oystercatchers often have an offspring traveling with them for the first year. I mentioned earlier we noticed several Black-necked Stilts families at Brazoria so something like that may be going on with them. Common Gallinules and Coot juveniles even help the adults with caring for a second brood. The behavior isn’t limited to waders; Blue Jays and Bluebirds do that as well. This is a fascinating account of Helpers at the Nest written in 1935.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000

We drove down Boot Road in Surfside to check things out. The actual name of the road is… Sailfish and it is in the northern section of Surfside that is adjacent to the Intracoastal Canal. We parked and walked around a bit but nothing was close. Until on the way back to the truck Bill spied this nice Green Heron on the fence. He let us get closer and closer until we were rewarded with a lovely fluff up.

You did notice I was shooting at f/7.1 since he was pretty close? The light was so good I could have probably used f/8 or more.

I like how he is turning here, look at those feet!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000

And the wind caught his crest just right. Eventually he got tired of us edging closer and flew off. Yep, down and away as they almost always do.

We got even MORE Clapper Rail shots down at the end of Bay Road near the boat ramp. You know, where I got stuck in the mud and lost my boots. Missed that one? See Short Stories and Being Rescued.

On the way back to the refuge I reviewed my shots with the big 500 f/4 and decided to switch camera bodies to see if it made any difference. So, all the images below were taken with a different Nikon D850 (I have two) and the same Nikkor 500 f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter.

Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

We got back to the refuge and set up in almost the same spot as before. I finally got a Dowitcher to stand alone without other shorebirds crowding around. This one still has some of that wonderful russet breeding plumage. They are on their way south after breeding in the north.

Short-billed Dowitcher map

Short-billed Dowitcher map

Long-billed Dowitcher map

Long-billed Dowitcher map

There are Short-billed Dowitchers and Long-billed Dowitchers. They look a lot alike, their migratory and non-breeding ranges overlap AND the male Long-billed Dowitcher has a shortish bill that might make you mistake him for Short-billed. So, I am not too keen on deciding exactly which Dowitcher is which.

Well, what about the Wilson’s Phaloropes we came to see? I have scads of images of them spinning about and none really came out all that nice. Bill had his Nikkor 600 f/4 with the 1.4x tc and with that reach he did get enough to do this cool gif:

gif by Bill Maroldo of Willson’s Phalarope doing his spiny thing…

gif by Bill Maroldo of Willson’s Phalarope doing his spiny thing…

The feeding strategy is to spin around to stir up prey which they delicately pluck from the turbulence. They are fairly plain birds on this return trip; the real treat is to see them in the Spring as they make a brief stop here on the coast before they head north. At that time of year, they are in full breeding plumage. Phalaropes do a reversal on the traditional strategy: the females are the flashy ones and she chooses a mate. After laying the eggs in a scrape, she leaves him to incubate and raise the chicks as she goes off to find a second mate.

Wilson’s Phalarope after bath
Nikon D850 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR with Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000; tripod

I did get some cool shots of one bathing. A trick with bathing shorebirds is to keep alert for that jump at the end. Almost always they will finish the bath with a big jump and wing flap to shake off the water. When looking at these on the computer at home I was surprised to see…. they have lobed feet like Coots! Technically they are TOES but there they are.

The refuge was busier in the afternoon than earlier. After a while we were joined by some Facebook friends, Gail and Seyf van der Ven. We had met them once before at Brazos Bend but it is always fun to chat with folks you see on FB all the time. We were joined by two ladies (whose names I did not get) that were brand new to birding and had a million questions. We forget how overwhelming the subject is and there is so much to remember.

After reviewing my images at home, I don’t see any big difference with the camera bodies and most of them taken with the newly repaired 500 f/4 look sharp. These were all taken at long distances with the teleconverter, but that is how I will be using it in the future. The light-weight Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF works fine for closer in subjects. I want to test the repaired lens on some mid-range subjects as well and may end up doing a calibration run just to confirm. But so far, so good.

Have you been out to Brazoria? Judging from the images shared on Facebook the afternoon rains are keeping some water in Olney Pond and folks are seeing a variety of birds. It has been nice; we had a little breeze and the bugs weren’t bad at all. And have you calibrated your lenses to your cameras? Did you even know you could? Do these look sharp enough to you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Little Blues and Green Herons at Cullinan Park

Little Blues and Green Herons at Cullinan Park

Short Stories - End of Summer 2019

Short Stories - End of Summer 2019