Discovering Shorebirds – and More

March 29, 2021 ~ I shared photos last week from the morning of my trip with expert bird guide Greg Lavaty, of Texas Target Birds. In this post, I’ll share those I took in the afternoon, traveling south to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge and then to Surfside, as he continued to show me how to find interesting birds, and techniques for capturing better images.

But first… here’s a big grinning Happy Easter greeting, from the Texas Gulf coast!

American Alligator sunning in her spring finery
1/1600 sec. f/11 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)

This is one of the reasons I love my 500mm lens, even for “close-ups”. I stayed a good 12 feet away from this American Alligator, and admired her smile and spring finery of flowers and algae from afar. The gators often sit sunning with their mouths half-open for thermoregulation. They are definitely NOT smiling, though the structure of her jaw makes it appear so. In this shot, I was also practicing “getting low”, that is, squatting down to provide an eye-level view of ground-dwelling critters, helping the jumbled background fade away in a blur beyond the depth-of-field.

Dancing juvenile Reddish Egret
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Greg drove us along the auto-tour in Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. The water levels were fairly high (ponds were wet, containing 2-6 inches of water), and there were numerous water birds. A juvenile Reddish Egret ventured close enough for some nice shots of his hunting behavior. The Reddish will mature into a dark-colored bird, but their juvenile coloring is especially appealing: a beautiful marbled pearly gray with a hint of gold. Above, he is intentionally dragging one toe along the surface of the water, perhaps baiting his prey.

Young Reddish Egret “shadowing” its prey
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Reddish Egret runs in long quick strides along the shallow waters, dodging left and right, abruptly reversing direction, chasing any fish or small crustaceans before him. At times, he freezes and raises his wings to shade the water in front of him, blocking the sun’s glare so that he can see his prey below the surface. It is a lovely ballet, and I enjoyed watching.

Adult female Northern Harrier dropping onto prey
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

As I leaned on the car taking shots of the water birds, Greg called out another sighting. An adult female Northern Harrier had sailed across the road and was headed to ground. Here I managed to catch her focused on her prey, and stalling for her dive into the tall marsh growth. I love her flared tail feathers and fisted talons.

Burnished colors of non-breeding adult White-faced Ibis
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Another bird was working its way along the edge of the pond along the road embankment. This is the White-faced Ibis. The Ibis (all three varieties that we see in Texas) always remind me of a sewing machine, industriously and rhythmically stitching along in the mud, probing for crustaceans. This one had a bit of a tail wind which lifted those metallic feathers, softening his profile.

Though there were many shore birds, most were too far away for good photos – a birder’s paradise, but a tiny bit disappointing for a photographer. Greg pointed out that, if the shore birds were plentiful here in Brazoria NWR, they likely would also be numerous at a favorite location: Bay Avenue, in Surfside. We were on our way.

Semipalmated Sandpiper, non-breeding colors
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Bay Street was a favorite haunt of many bird photographers due to its location on the edge of the Intercoastal Canal, and its side channel and ponds which were flooded with water when big tankers moved by on the Canal. Water birds flocked in to the continuously replenished feeding grounds. But the Powers-That-Be have recently tried to refurbish the fishing pier and parking lot, and have regraded the channels to close and level them. Rats. Not to worry, there are still numerous small ponds and ditches hosting water birds.

Willet (Western) in breeding colors
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This one gave me some particular entertainment while trying to identify it. I believe this is the Willet (Western). There are several shore birds that have very similar body shape and markings: All About Birds has a disambiguation section showing photos of similar birds for comparison. The Semipalmated Sandpiper and Sanderling were two possible alternate identifications. But the Sanderling’s and Sandpiper’s bills are much shorter than this bird’s. (You can see I failed to adjust my settings; the f/8 should have been f/5.6, which would have allowed a lower ISO.)

And, I had enough presence of mind(I’m learning, y’all) to photograph the bird in flight. Even though he was too far away for an artistic photo, his wing markings clearly identified the Willet. Now I have a useful rubric for the Willet: two Willets flying side-by-side would show a big white “W” across their paired out-spread wings.

Willet in flight
Willett adult in non-breeding plumage
1/2000 sec. f/8 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

And, there’s more. I believe this is an adult Willet in non-breeding colors. All About Birds says that they have this plain gray plumage in winter months and “during migration”, so I’m assuming that includes both the fall and spring migration. Most Willets are on their way north to their breeding grounds in the northwestern US and Canada, though there are isolated marshes in a narrow band along the Texas Gulf Coast where they nest.

Our shadows were lengthening out into the marsh, so we packed up Greg’s car to head back home. But we weren’t done yet!

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Indian Paintbrush
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

We were still on Bay Avenue, just shy of Hwy 257 (the Bluewater Highway), when a tiny bullet shape flew across the road, just in front of the car. My exhausted brain was chugging along, (“Uh…locust?”), when Greg quickly stopped the car and called out “Hummingbird!”. There was a small stand of Indian Paintbrush growing along the edge of the blacktop, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird had sped out of the clump when we approached. Moments later he zipped back to the flowers.

Pollen-dusted Ruby-throated Hummingbird
1/3200 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

We were able to quietly squat by the car (getting low, again) and take some photos. He was half-way down the patch when he drove away a second hummer, who didn’t return while we were there. The “Little Ice Age” we had in February froze many of the tender perennials hummers depend upon (our multiple Salvias were shriveled powder, and the neighbors’ Bottle Brush were dead down below the ground) and delayed flowering of many plants, so I’m sure competition for the available nectar-bearing flowers must be fierce.

Hummers make any day perfect!
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I cannot say enough good things about my bird guide, Greg Lavaty, of Texas Target Birds. His expertise on bird identification, habitat and behavior, and his many helpful hints on photographic techniques, were all delivered with relaxed good humor and infectious enthusiasm, keeping me at ease. Hummers made the perfect end to a wonderful day of bird photography, and I’m looking forward to applying my new knowledge on my next outing.

9 thoughts on “Discovering Shorebirds – and More”

  1. Love the gator shot with the flowers, especially the bright cheerful yellow one smack in between all those fierce teeth! Sounds like you had a fantastic day out and really benefited from the professional guide :o) The indian paintbrush is really interesting, almost didn’t recognize it. I guess I don’t often see it when so much of it hasn’t yet turned from green to red. Absolutely gorgeous and makes me anxious for the wildflowers to come out here! Terrific job on the hummingbirds, love that you can even see the pollen dusted on it’s face, I really struggle with those fast little buggers. Jason’s got some great shots of them, hopefully one day I’ll get one or two as well. Just another reason to get out there :o)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right – photos have opened a new world for me, one I can no longer see with my naked eye. I love the challenge of getting the fast little birds, and hummers in particular!

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  2. Enjoyed the post and the very nice shots – As you noted, the lower you can get to eye level with the wildlife the more breathtaking the shots become. I laughed at your gator comment as I learned a valuable lesson when I was birding the Georgia swamps. Had the big glass up to my eye while I was walking trying to frame a shot of some glossy ibis if I remember correctly. Now incorporated into my wildlife talks as something you shout NOT do as the glass eliminates a large amount of space between you and the subject – in my case it hid the fact that I was walking right toward a resting Gator – for some reason looked down right as my foot was about to come down on its head. Your safe distance comment is spot on ha. Was going to comment you can always discern a willet when it takes flight due to the large white bars on the wings, but you beat me to it. Gorgeous last hummer shot and nice low shot on the piper. Oh, assume Greg mentioned it already, but just in case, if you are using your car to brace for shots, never shoot across the hood or you’ll experience the wrath of heat foils off the engine. Again, wonderful shots and story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right about the heat waves from the car – I’ve experienced that, and the heat waves from pavement, paved walkways, and even the cliffsides in the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison. I’ve walked backward off paths a few times due to not taking into account the “real world” distance outside the lens – have the dings on my camera body to prove it – ouch! Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  3. Oh boy. Greg took you to some great places! And so glad you got to see a Reddish at Brazoria. We have seen a few fly over but none up close lately. And I agree, the juveniles are very handsome. Brazoria is a crap shoot; too little water or too much. Birds can be close or far or hidden. Come to think of it, ALL places are like that!

    We were super annoyed about the county blocking off the channel at the end of Bay Ave but the water may defeat their plans over time. Sometimes water seeks a NEW path that can be even better. You got some great images and you will hear Greg’s voice telling you to “get LOW” from now on! And the hummers were a fantastic way to wind up the day!

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  4. Hihi, I also wouldn’t want to look directly into the face of this broadly grinning Happy Easter greeting from the Texas Gulf Coast! 😉
    Do you sometimes use a tripod or do you take all your pictures handheld? Especially with such small birds – I love humming birds!!! Wonderful pictures! – a prop is worth its weight in gold!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Since I bought my Nikkor 500mm PF (Phased Fresnel) lens, I shoot everything hand-held. That little lens is light enough that I can easily hold it and target birds, even the little ones. I’m still practicing how to hold it to remove camera motion, and some of my photos still suffer from that… but the convenience and immediacy of being able to instantly get a bird in the frame are liberating. In a year or two I’m hoping that my skills overall will warrant upgrading to a 500mm f/4, so that I could add a 1.4 teleconverter for an effective 700mm… and in that case, I’m almost sure I’d have to use a tripod.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am sure that your skills will allow you to use the teleconverter very soon. I use the Sigma 150-600 mm sometimes with a teleconverter. It’s a great lens with a fantastic stabiliser. But when I have the opportunity, I use it with a prop like my knees or the window. It’s already quite heavy.

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