March 24, 2021 ~ These photos are from a trip two weeks ago (I’m just slow to write it up). We picked a cloudy day from the weather forecast, and headed for another great experience at the rookery in Smith Oak Sanctuary at High Island. It turned out to be brighter than optimal; the sky was white with thin high overcast, the watery sun casting dim shadows. But we were thrilled with the birds there to greet us.
Cormorants continued to tend their nests on the southeastern edge of the Smith Pond, their assertive pig-like grunts filling the air. The week before, the island closest to the observation decks was filled with Great Egrets, pairing up and bringing sticks to their nests in the rookery, and we saw them again on this visit.
I have the complete series of shots of this Great Egret as he selected a stick from the underbrush at the water’s edge, ripped it from its trunk, hefted it up through the tangle of branches, flew it through the tops of two trees, and dropped gracefully into his nest where his mate greeted him and accepted his gift.
But the main event this week was the spoonbills. There were easily 20 Spoonies on the visible side of the island, all displaying their breeding colors; hundreds more had joined the Cormorants down at the southeastern edge of the pond.
The Roseate Spoonbill, as the name indicates, is pink, but its breeding colors are another step up. They develop fuchsia forewings, flanks and short curly feathers at their chest. They have a pink smudge high on the back of their neck. Their legs are deep pink. Their tail turns bright orange, they have orange at their shoulder and a partial orange mask. Their bill develops a lacy charcoal pattern. Their eye is bright red-orange, and their skullcap develops a pale green cast with a charcoal gray border. There are no differences between male and female plumage.
To win a mate, the birds stand on branches near each other and engage in ritual bowing, raising their wings and lowering their head as far as they can without tipping over. Notice how this bird has one foot raised? I have dozens of photos showing that they repeatedly and deliberately raise one foot an inch or so and hold it, then slowly lower it during their bowing. Then they repeat with the other foot. As they bow and rise and bow again, they edge along the branch toward a prospective mate. I noticed the scaly appearance of their feet. I cannot find any references to it in discussions of bird ailments, so I’m assuming it is just mud drying and flaking off. Let me know in the comments if you learn something different.
This early in the bonding process, there are still a lot of false starts; the females haven’t overcome their natural defensiveness enough to accept a bond, and they fly off to another branch to be wooed by a different suitor. (Pardon the out-of-focus branch that wandered directly into the center of the frame – pesky stick!)
If she is interested, she may clatter her bill. A single bird typically claps his or her bill by opening and closing their bill, or by shaking their head back and forth, letting the loose upper and lower bill clatter rapidly together. Birds may also clatter each other’s bills, crossing, whacking, poking and clasping bills.
During mating, this male clasped the female’s bill in his own, and she was quite cooperative. As with the Great Egrets, the male Spoonie will fetch sticks and present them to the female to build their nest. The nest here appears minimal; the work of fetching sticks and bedding material to finish the nest is still to be completed.
As the rookery becomes more crowded, arguments over prime nest locations will probably increase. I’ve been interested to note that the birds (at least so far) do not appear to steal sticks from other nests.
I always enjoy watching the Spoonies. Their brilliant breeding colors enliven the pre-spring landscape, and are a welcome counterpoint to their unusual bald head, uncovered ears, and staring eye. Their flight patterns often result in graceful formations, such as this “angel wing” position. They are a very special part of spring along the Texas Gulf Coast.