So Much to See at Elm Lake

July 24, 2020 ~ I typically spend most of my time around 40-acre Lake when I visit Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). But a cool front (high around 80F instead of 100F) blew in, and it seemed time for some exploring. I headed over to Elm Lake, on the eastern side of BBSP.  Elm Lake is just short of one-half mile long, and the trail along its southern edge is dotted with small wooden piers for wildlife viewing. There was full cloud cover, and the air was so humid my glasses steamed up when I looked through the viewfinder.

Following a soft rustling noise from the southeastern pier, I spotted a first-year Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica) poking about under the lotus leaves. This juvenile has already replaced his fuzzy chick down with the glossy flat feathers of young adulthood. Can you see just the hint of teal blue visible in his lower wing feathers?

JJuvenile Purple Gallinule in golden plumage
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 800, handheld propped on pier railing
(Click on any image to enlarge in a new window; close that window to return here.)

Next spring, his shades of burnished gold will be replaced by the teal and indigo plumage of this lovely adult, spotted in the same location three weeks ago. Gallinules typically breed when 1 year old; during their first year, the older juveniles often become “helpers” feeding younger birds from later-season nests.

Adult Purple Gallinule closeup
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/800 f/5.6 ISO 2000, handheld propped on pier railing

A small brown bird darted among the reeds and lotus at my elbow. I suspected this was a juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) based on an adult male keeping watch nearby. But I’ve learned the juvenile looks very similar to the adult female. Comparing the adult female with the juvenile, Wikipedia says the adult female is browner above with less beige below, and has a closely veined chin; the adult female has brown feathers, while the juvenile has brown with buff edges. This bird has a creamy chin with no veining, and buff edges. And if you look very closely, you can see a teeny bright red spot on the shoulder of this bird. The adult female has no red on the shoulder, though a dark russet patch is sometimes seen. So maybe this is a very young juvenile male (older juvenile males start molting towards their black adult color very quickly).

Juvenile male Red-winged Blackbird (presumed)
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/500 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250

Both the Purple Gallinules and the Red-winged Blackbirds feed on the fruit pecked from the green lotus pods. The American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) is found in shallow fresh water from Texas to Ontario. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the large tuberous roots (the size of a human arm) can be baked like sweet potatoes, the young furled leaves can be eaten like spinach and the seeds can be eaten raw when still green, or they can be dried and either popped as we do corn, or ground into flour. And I know you will do your own research before trying any new food!

American Lotus blossom, with maturing and dried pods in background
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 f/5.6 ISO 800

I was tickled to see my friends the Green Herons again. This time, they were doing more than sitting and staring. After several minutes of still watchfulness, this adult Green Heron crept ever so slowly down the mossy log, intently focused on something I couldn’t see.

Adult Green Heron being stealthy
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

In a silent dash, he leapt forward arching out over the water, his wingtips just touching the surface. He gave 2 strong strokes of his wings, traveling three extended body lengths.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 800

He arrowed into the water after his prey. I don’t know whether he was successful. I missed the “catch” shot, as the view was obscured by flashing wings and Watermeal.

Red mane and green Watermeal, what a mix
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 800

With strong wing beats, he rose up out of the water, and headed back toward the mossy log, making a perfect landing, then doing a major fluff-up to shake out the water.

Perfect landing!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 800

And, lest we forget, Brazos Bend State Park is a great place to see American Alligators (A. mississippiensis). This handsome young fellow was about 40 feet from the Green Heron, and about 60 feet from me; the portion of his head visible here is roughly 2 feet long. I say he is young because his skin has not yet aged to the solid black cragginess of an older animal. He had surfaced so slowly that the Watermeal and other water plants did not sluice off his skin, but stuck at the elevation where he’d been watching with only his eyes and nostrils above water. You can see the little muddy ball of vegetation resting on his nose from his foraging under water. The sharpness of this lens is really incredible; if you click and zoom in on his eyeball, you can see the reflection of the grassy bank, the flat horizon line of the lake path, and the tall trees beyond. My reflection would be right where the slit of his pupil bisects his eyeball.

American Alligator reconnoitering
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/800 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250

Another familiar wading bird is the Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). This one stood in the short grass at the edge of the path. As I tried to sneak up, he bent his knees and lifted silently into the air, his long wings stroking slowly. He appears to be missing a tail feather – I hope the story behind that event was not too traumatic. It’s fun to see the same plume feather shapes on his back that we saw in the stalking and leaping Green Heron photos, above.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron leaving pesky human behind
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/6.3 ISO 800

As I rounded the final segment of the lake path, the watery sun struggled through the cloud cover, and I found a juvenile Green Heron in a field of diamonds.

Juvenile Green Heron on lotus leaf
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec f/5.6 ISO 800

And that seemed the perfect way to end this summer afternoon of exploration around Elm Lake, at Brazos Bend State Park.

In this trip, I had some challenging light (a little dim) and air (high humidity), and a range of distances to birds from 9 feet (the closest limit of my lens) out to 200 feet (the departing YCNH). I failed to raise my f-stop for the very close Gallinules, so parts of their bodies are out of focus. The farther the distance, the lower my f-stop can be, and I need to practice using the extra light more effectively, raising the shutter speed and/or lowering the ISO appropriately. I had lots of action to consider, and clearly need to improve my technique – why did I reduce my shutter speed when hoping the heron would pounce on a fish?? But the important thing is that I can continue to practice, while enjoying this wonderful park.

6 thoughts on “So Much to See at Elm Lake”

  1. Really great action shots of the Green Heron! You did good!

    Summer heat is challenging and the birds are starting to look scraggly. As far as the missing feather on the YCNH – I suspect he is starting to molt now in preparation of heading south at the end of the summer.


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