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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.