Endearing In-Betweens

July 12, 2021 – Out at Brazos Bend State Park, I saw many young birds and their parents, allowing an interesting contrast between plumages. For birds, their first summer is a real challenge, learning how and where to find food and shelter, while their feathers may not be up to full functionality.

Big family of Common Gallinules foraging
1/320 sec. f/11 ISO 800
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 mamma Common Gallinule had her work cut out for her, keeping nine chicks together, and teaching them to graze. If you’re counting heads, one of the chicks is behind the little fellow displaying his outsized feet. Gallinules grow up to have big feet for walking across marsh plants floating on the water, and this little guy is dealing with feet that are almost as big as his body. The chicks’ soft down barely covers them, leaving little wings naked, and heads nearly bald.

Common Gallinule parent and young
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This family has more mature young, which have started to replace the hatchling down with gray juvenile feathers. I love the speckles of green on their legs and chests; like kids everywhere, they’ve been enjoying their lunch! Their heads and wings are now covered with proto-feathers. And you can clearly see the size differences between the chicks often aged just a day or two apart. It is also common to see the initial brood size of 8-10 chicks reduced by predation.

Immature Common Gallinule grooming
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

An older teenager demonstrated his near-adult athletic powers by balancing on one leg and sticking one wing out to sun while grooming his opposite armpit… and checking to see that he was being admired, just like The Fonz, on the TV series “Happy Days”.

Immature Little Blue Heron in calico plumage
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A calico-stage Little Blue Heron tried to ignore me. His plumage tells me this is his second year, and he is more than half-way through his molt, going from being pure white, to being the mature dark slate-blue.

Mature Little Blue Heron
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

In both sun and shade, I’ve found it difficult to capture the “blue” in the mature Little Blue Heron. The angle and color of the light against his feathers has to be just right; I only managed a hint of it in this image.

Immature Great Blue Heron looking spiff between molts
1/1600 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Great Blue Herons go through four molts in their first two years, the fourth one being their first breeding plumage. This immature Great Blue Heron has no plumes, and his forehead is still black; from my reading, I think he is a first-year bird. He looks perfectly poised.

Immature Great Blue Heron with muddy bill, looking a bit ragged in mid-molt
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

But his neighbor is going through a seriously rough patch with his molt. Although he shows some head and back plumes, his chest plumes are thin. His forehead is still mottled, he is missing the black ribs of the adult, and his chestnut shoulders and pantaloons are still patchy. My estimation is that he’s in his second year, perhaps in the middle of his third molt.

Immature Red-bellied Woodpecker
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

An immature Red-bellied Woodpecker was busily hunting bugs on a tree branch. When this young bird molts to adult plumage, his peachy hint of a crown will be replaced by blazing red feathers.

Mature Tricolored Heron in rushing water
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

At the Spillway Bridge, a Tricolored Heron was fishing in the fast-moving water after 3 days of rain. Clearly his adult color is perfect for hiding in plain sight along waterways. In this image, I like how there is just enough light across his face to highlight the details, without washing it out… the thin clouds were really cooperating.

Mature Tricolored Heron fussing at me
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Above him, another mature bird was sitting on a tall branch, and as soon as I pointed the lens at him and started clicking, he puffed up his feathers and swung his head back and forth, his neck plumes waving. He lowered his head straight at me, glowering, then calmed and straightened his plumes. I didn’t see any juvenile Tricolored Herons – they are easy to distinguish in their cinnamon plumage.

Seeing both mature and immature birds on the same outing helps me appreciate their changing appearance – and I’m getting better at recognizing their identity, even when they are not in their “basic” plumage.  

5 thoughts on “Endearing In-Betweens”

  1. I bet it is tough for a mother of that sized brood to get them fully fledged with the number of gators that inhabit that state park. Very educational post with plenty of great shots – I have never seen a calico plumaged little blue heron so that was a first for me. I had to go look up your woodpecker shot. That is a tough one as I initially thought it might be an immature Golden-Fronted. Enjoyed reading about the maturing birds and their various molt stages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Gulf Coast area is a wildlife bonanza… and many of those critters are predatory. In riparian environments, alligators are certainly a danger, but so are snakes, coyotes, otters, turtles and some raptors. There is a dark side to “the balance of nature”. I’ll have to keep an eye peeled for the Golden-fronted – we are right on the edge of his range map. Hmm, a trip out towards San Antonio might be in order 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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