Always Something New

April 4th, 2022 ~ We wanted to do something special to celebrate the day, so we piled into the truck and headed out for the 2-hour trip to Smith Oaks Rookery in the village of High Island, along the Texas Gulf Coast. I have already shared photos from my 22 February trip to this rookery – now I was eager to see what was new.

Waiting patiently for more lumber
1/3200 sec f/5.6 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window; hit the Back arrow to return here.)

What a change from five weeks ago! Now the dismal veil of sticks has leafed out, and produced a delicate tracery of new chartreuse leaves and yellow blossoms, probably of the Black Swamp Willow, salix nigra. The foliage is becoming more of a hindrance to objectively clear views, but is also much more attractive than the naked branches. This female Great Egret, Ardea alba, is in the middle of nest-building, protecting the nest location while her mate is out gathering sticks. Her lores are bright green, indicating she is ready to breed.

Egret turning delicate turquoise eggs
1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Both the male and female parents take turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm. You can just glimpse turquoise eggs in this nest, and one of the parents is carefully turning them with his/her bill. Typically, two or three eggs are laid at 2-3 day intervals, and incubation lasts 27-28 days (plus the extra days for the later eggs). I had never fully appreciated how well these large white birds (with head upraised, they’re nearly 3 feet tall) are camouflaged in the open lacy greenery, against the white overcast sky.

Hard-working Great Heron tending young in nest
1/3200 sec. f/.7.1 ISO 4000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Five weeks ago, I posted an image of the parents weaving sticks together to build this nest (I recognize it by the pattern of tree branching), and since then, they have finished the nest, laid eggs, and hatched at least one baby! Their green lores fade as soon as eggs are laid, so this egret’s markings are starting to return to the yellow seen outside the breeding season. The parents constantly attend the hatchlings for about 3 weeks, and then can leave the older babies unattended for a while so that both parents can fish. 

Standing sentinel over two hatchlings
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Here you can clearly see two babies in the nest… or at least two bills! (The adult in the background is tending a different nest.) The wet back plumes of this parent show that he/she has recently been fishing; it is quite an effort to catch enough to feed yourself and two growing nestlings.

Surveying the rookery below
1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Roseate Spoonbills, Platalea ajaja, are now claiming nesting territory on the island, and were flying back and forth inspecting nest locations, and searching for likely mates.

A back-sided broadside
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 4000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Two males (I’m assuming) squabbled over territory with a noisy whacking of bills, advancing and retreating like fencers. They are on the ground, so it wasn’t clear whether they were quarreling over nesting locations, or the same female, or even over the supply of nesting materials (individual birds do seem to return repeatedly to the same spot to harvest sticks). I was surprised to see that they were turning their heads upside down to strike each other’s bill.

But you said greens were good for us!
1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 3500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This pair had gotten past the quarreling stage and were starting to work on a nest… but they’d chosen some very interesting materials. They repeatedly rearranged the vegetation – it remains to be seen whether they will keep it, or replace it with more robust sticks.

Tricolored Heron in breeding plumage steps along a branch at water’s edge
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 4000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Tricolored Herons, Egretta tricolor, are also claiming nesting sites, and are starting to hunt along the banks for perfect sticks. Their coloring undergoes some significant changes for the breeding season. They sprout short white plumes at the back of their head, their legs turn from pale yellow to pinkish-gray, and their yellow lores and the front half of their bill turn bright blue.

Courtship of Tricolored Herons
1/3200 f/7.1 ISO 4000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I feel lucky to have captured this pair courting down in the emerging vegetation. The rookery may become too leafy to see them as spring advances. I watched their courting rituals for a while. They puffed up their wing feathers and shoulder plumes, they stretched up nearly touching the tips of their bills and then bowed low to each other, they erected and fanned out their head plumes while wrestling an offering stick through the underbrush.

Willow blossoms wave in wake of Great Egret
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This adult Great Egret on a fishing trip sailed past the yellow catkins of a willow. (I’m assuming “fishing” because the lores are fading from green, and the ends of the shoulder plumes are stained brown from repeated dunking, so nest-building is long past.)

Comparative range maps
Screenshots courtesy of Cornell’s All About Birds

The range maps for these three types of birds, Tricolored Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Great Egrets, overlap in only a limited number of places. We here along the Texas Gulf Coast are truly lucky to be able to see all three of these species at the Smith Oaks rookery.

Nature waits for no one. Five short weeks brought significant changes to the birds, and to the rookery. I heard the message loud and clear: Don’t wait – get out there and see what’s happening – there is always something new.

2 thoughts on “Always Something New”

  1. I love those little fluff ball chicks! Saw a reference once liking them to Don King with a bill (might have to go back a bit for that reference). I have never seen a Tricolored in breeding plumage. very cool. Some day I need to get to High Island – now that we are able to tow our Jeep, we’ll be able to go to a lot more places – we drove by there once and wasn’t sure if the RV would fit so we kept going. Learned something new thanks to your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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