Sunny San Bernard NWR

May 5, 2021 – A weak cool front had ambled through the area bringing rain on and off for 3 days, filling the bayous and drainage ditches. But it finally pushed through, leaving crystal clear cool evenings and warm bright blue-sky days, so we celebrated by driving south to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. Even if we didn’t see anything but buzzards in the blazing sky, it would be good to get out.

The refuge seemed empty compared to my visit in late February, after our Little Ice Age. But there were still a few birds to welcome us.

Female (probably) Barn Swallow on nest
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)
1/3200 sec. f/6.3 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

There are Barn Swallow nests along the I-beams under the eaves of the steel picnic table awning along Bobcat Woods Trail.

This is the most widespread swallow in North America, covering most of the US, and they are commonly seen swooping out from under overpasses, pavilions, and other elevated open structures. By some accounts, there are seven species of swallow living in Texas, and keeping the identifiers straight for our local Tree, Bank and Cliff swallows has been a challenge. I have a handy mnemonic for these: Blue Barn Swallows Have Bifurcated Tails. Of course, that would be really handy if the birds actually appeared blue, but they often don’t; the blue is an iridescence across their head, shoulders and back that only appears at some angles of lighting; their deeply forked tail is a key differentiating feature. The belly of the female is more buffy than that of the russet male, so I’m assuming my photo shows a female.

The awning is not very tall, so viewing the birds is fairly easy, except for the deep shade (I’ve increased the exposure in post-processing by almost one full stop). This is early in their breeding cycle; the heads and cheeping of little birds are not yet evident.

Juvenile Tricolored Heron
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

We eased all the way down the auto-tour route, to the intersection with Cow Trap Marsh Trail (gotta love the name) where we spotted this gangly juvenile Tricolored Heron. He flew up from the marsh grass to perch in a scraggly weed, took one look at me, and flew off down the road. His chestnut plumage is part-way toward being replaced by the adult gray.

Adult Tricolored Heron in breeding plumage
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Before I could be disappointed, he was replaced by this regal adult Tricolored Heron in breeding plumage. I love his half-blue bill and red eye, the maroon plumes along the back of his head and spilling down his neck, the spiffy white plumes from his crown tipped with cinnamon, and the buffy plumes down his back. He sat for a minute (that’s an eternity in Bird Photography Time), perhaps assuring that the juvenile had made it to safety while he stoutly held the birdwatcher at bay.

Green Heron peering out from the reeds
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I was turning to head back to the car when I spotted a orange-gold eye peering from between the reeds around the culvert at my feet. Oh boy, a Green Heron!

Adult Green Heron landing in sticks
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

When he flew a few feet up from the ground to land in the raggedy sticks just vacated by the Tricolored Heron, the blazing sun earned its keep – it revealed flashes of green iridescence in both his wings and his crown.

Robust adult Green Heron, possibly in breeding plumage
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He balanced precariously keeping that golden eye firmly fixed on me. I love how his eye matches his legs. I have not seen orange legs on the Green Heron before, and I suspect that the orange-gold eye and orange legs might consist of his breeding plumage. His posture here is typical for what I’ve seen of Green Herons; his neck is compactly tucked in, its s-curve hidden under his chestnut feathers. I got to see just a bit more of his crown… and then he took off in a flurry for the wide-open marsh.

So, an afternoon drive in blazing sunshine paid off. If it had been cloudy, I probably could not have gotten the photo of the swallow in the deep shade of the awning, and I wouldn’t have seen the green highlights in the heron’s feathers. Every day shows us something new!

10 thoughts on “Sunny San Bernard NWR”

  1. What beautiful birds! I can’t help but marvel at the plumes and iridescences. Whether those qualities are for breeding display or for camouflage, their beauty – and its durability – astound me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Linda – I don’t know about “durability” of the bird plumage… the birds which have both breeding and non-breeding plumage molt at least twice per year, and the height of their breeding coloration lasts only while they are pairing and mating, a couple months, at best. The rigors of hunting and feeding the young birds quickly wear out these lovely plumes.


  2. Nice rich colors in these shots. Will have to remember your barn swallow mnemonic – you are correct, they all look very similar in flight granted you can get the focus on their erratic flights. Actually like the green heron shots when their neck is out as in your shots – most of the time I see the all hunched up just sitting by the edge of the water. Enjoyed the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pretty good for a quick sunny afternoon! We have been through San Bernard with nothing but distant ducks and maybe a meadowlark. That is just the way it is; some days are better than others, but you have to just get out and look!

    Liked by 1 person

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