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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!