Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reddish Egret

When I was at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge in June, I had the opportunity to photograph a Reddish Egret.  I'd seen them before, but in a white morph.  Reddish egrets hunt differently than all other egrets and herons - instead of quietly waiting for a fish to swim by, they run quickly through the water chasing their prey, often in circles.  It is very distinctive as well as being the best way to identify a white morph reddish egret.  So I was extremely happy to find this egret in his more outstanding plumage close enough to photograph. The white morphs I had seen were always too far away for good photography.

The dark morph reddish egret are a pale gray with reddish neck and head. The bill is pink with a dark tip.  Legs are blue.  The white morph is solid white with bluish legs, a pink bill with a dark tip.  The white morph looks so much like other egrets that I generally identify it by the distinctive hunting behavior before I see the field marks.  White phase are only 10 to 20 percent of the population in Texas.

Diet consists of small fish - minnows, mullet, pinfish and killfish.  In addition to the aggressive running and splashing through the water, they also open their wings to shade the water below luring small fish into the shaded area.  They frequent shallow brackish waters, flats and lagoons for their foraging.

In Texas, reddish egret nests are found on the ground near a bush, or a prickly pear cactus or on an oyster shell beach.  The nest will have three to four blue green eggs.  Genetically two dark phase birds can have white  phase chicks, but two white phase birds can never have dark phase chick.  When a dark phase and white phase bird mate, their chicks are almost always dark phase.  Both parents construct the nest, incubate and feed the chicks.

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, reddish egrets are listed as a threatened species in Texas.  It is found year round along the Texas coast.  In 1918, it completely disappeared from Florida. Today in addition to the Texas coast it is found in some parts of Louisiana, Alabama and southern Florida.  While they can be found along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, the West Indies and Baja California, they are rare there.  There are only 1500 to 2000 nesting pairs in the United States and most of these are in Texas.  While no longer hunted for their feathers for women's hats, habitat intrusion by water recreation, pesticides, and land development decrease the available habitat.  Predation by raccoons, coyotes, great-tailed grackles also limits their population growth.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Black-Necked Stilts

Black-necked stilts are one of my favorite birds. For one thing they are EASY to identify - nothing else looks like them with their long pink legs and bold black and white markings.

They breed in shallow wetlands from Washington State and Montana, west to California and south through Texas.  They live and breed year round along the Texas Coast down through Mexico and in Southern California and also in a few places in South America. 

Black-necked stilts nest on the ground. They choose surfaces above the water line, such as clumps of vegetation above the water line.  Both the parents choose the site, looking for places with soft ground that can be scraped away to form a two inch depression for the nest.  They may add lining as they build the nest together  grass, shells, mud chips - whatever is nearby.

The chicks hatch after a 21-26 day incubation time.  They are down-covered and precocial, able to move around, leave the nest, and begin foraging with two hours of hatching.  They are well camouflaged, blending in well with their marshy environment.

 I find that the parents are very vocal when you come near their nest. They fly off, calling plaintively, hoping you will follow them away from the nest.  At Brazoria, there was a very vocal stilt nesting near the port-a-pottie.  I felt sorry for it because it seemed so upset when people came by to use the facility.

Wading through shallow marsh areas, stilts hunt for small aquatic invertebrates and fish.  Sometimes they herd fish into shallow waters to trap them for easy hunting.

In the Austin area, they can be seen in the water treatment ponds at Hornsby Bend. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Black Terns

 Photographing birds in flight is a challenge.  They fly by fast, it is hard to get the camera and lens to focus on your fast moving target, it is tricky to get a fast enough shutterspeed to stop the motion.  But it IS a fun challenge.

During my last two visits to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, I was seeing terns and gulls flying near me.  I have not studied terns enough to immediately identify them as they fly swiftly past me.  So, I wanted to photograph them to help me study their markings in order to identify what I was seeing. When you have a photograph, you can connect with other birders to confirm your guess.  But, getting that photograph . . .

My birding lens is a Sigma 300-800mm lens that I purchased before the price got so high. I also bought a strong tripod and a Wimberly Gimbal Tripod Head to be able to support the big lens and to get the most benefit from it.


The Wimberly head allows me to track birds as they go up and down in flight as well as to pan as they fly by. Sometimes I feel like Luke Skywalker on the Millenium Falcon as I try to pan with the bird's flight, get the focus on the bird and attempt the shot. I use AI focus which helps keep the focus on the bird in flight. But there are elements of both skill and luck in getting the focus on the bird and the shot taken before the camera focuses on something else. There are a lot of images that are destined for the trash folder, but with practice you can get images certainly good enough to make the identification. Sometimes you even get some good behavioral images as well.

These are black terns in their non breeding plumage.

Note the gray wings and the black smudgy spot right above the breast (under the wing) as well as the dark spot right behind the eye. 

In trying to capture the images, I was just shooting away.  But it was luck that I caught this shot in this pose.
You don't have a lot of time to frame your photo when you are shooting just to capture the bird in flight, so it is fun when you get the reflection as part of the image as well.

When I shoot birds, I generally shoot shutter priority.  In this case I started at 1/400, but decided that wasn't doing a good enough stop motion.  I bumped it up to 1/640 for these shots. I then set my ISO for the lighting conditions to get a good exposure at the optimum shutter speed.  With the muted early morning sun, it was ISO 500 for these shots.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Billing Info Archive

Lost Maples Image File
License to print 1 Wall Mural

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge

Back in July, I photographed these black-bellied whistling duck families.  Wednesday afternoon, I saw a family with older ducklings that I suspect is one of the families from July.

Here is the family portrait in August. I didn't have a great angle - fearing that if I got out of the car to get a clearer shot, the ducks would fly.

It was fun to see how much they had grown.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Brazos Bend State Park

I visited Brazos Bend State Park for the first time about a month ago - mid afternoon on a hot summer day.  I went over to the deck at Elm Lake and thoroughly enjoyed watching the purple gallinules, common gallinules, whistling ducks, and all the other birds in the marsh.  I knew I needed to come back and bring my big lens over and sit a spell there.  

I had ordered this  Beach Rolly so that it would be easy to transport my heavy Sigma 300-800 and its sturdy tripod.  This was its first test and it passed handsomely!  It even carried my folding chair!

I got set up just after sunrise.  There were common gallinules in the distance.  But it wasn't long before the bird that I was hoping to photograph came into view - the purple gallinule!  I love this bird with its beautiful irridescent feathers and that beautiful light blue forehead.  I got several chances.  I loved hearing it call. 

There was a juvenile working its way around the lily pads as well.

On one of the snags was a yellow crowned night heron.

There were several little blue herons that posed for me.

I loved seeing this little blue heron with his freshly caught frog.  He worked in around in his mouth and swallowed it whole!

There were several juvenile little blues - notice the green legs and gray beak!

A green heron stopped by for a visit as well.

I don't want to forget the black bellied whistling ducks that kept coming in and perching on the trees around me.  

My bird list at Brazos Bend State Park for August 8, 2012:

Black-bellied whistling duck
Little Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Green heron
Yellow-crowned night heron
White ibis
White-faced ibis
Turkey vulture
Purple gallinule
Common Gallinule
Red-bellied woodpecker
American crow
Red-winged blackbird

I need to come back in cooler weather and hike the trails. I know there are more birds to see!  

P.S.  Although I have yet to see alligators at Brazos Bend State Park - there are supposed to be 300 of them here. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Checklist for a Photography Trip

I've learned that I'd better check what equipment I'm packing and then check it twice before I leave on a trip. I've had too many trips where I got off in a hurry, grabbed my stuff, and then got on location and didn't have something I like to use.  I always get by with the equipment I have, but sometimes I miss something that got left behind.

I also have a house check list as well . . . so here goes:

Photography & Wildlife Watching equipment

All lenses with their circular polarizing filters, ND grad filters, etc
Everything in the big camera bag that belongs there
          (Sensor cleaning equipment, bulb blower, extra lens caps,  etc)
Hot shoe levels
Shutter release cable
All purpose tripod
Plenty of camera cards - preferably formatted and ready to go
Camera Batteries
Camera Card Reader
Portable hard drives - 2 so that I can have immediate backups before formatting cards
Cables for hard drives
Computer with charging cable
Big lens
Big lens tripod
New tote to roll big lens and tripod when on location and the distance to haul heavy stuff
       is too far for comfortable hauling

Extra quick release plates (all cameras, bigger lenses, and scope should have their own
      release plate in my opinion.)
Small window mount for photographing lightning from the safety of the car
Lens cleaning cloths

Miscellaneous items to pack

Cell phone with alarm for early morning wakeup calls
Binoculars for spotting birds and wildlife
Scope for close views of birds and wildlife
Bird books, wildflower books, etc
Portable chair
Mosquito repellant
Hand sanitizer
Water bottles
Ice Chest

Leaving home

Air conditioner set at reasonable level
Dishes washed
Doors locked
Alarms set
Plants watered - watering arrangements made
Horse fed - and feeding arrangements made
House watching and house sitting arranged

Now that these are all taken care of . . . we're off on a short trip - birdwatching first - science fiction convention and probably more birding for me.

I'm hoping to photograph purple gallinules tomorrow!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Purple Martins at Highland Mall, Austin, Texas 2012

I became fascinated with the purple martin roost at Highland Mall in Austin this summer.  The tremendous number of birds coming in each evening - with the incredible speed and intricate flight patterns.  The sounds as they chattered to one another and as their wings brushed the twigs around them, sounding like water flowing over gravel.  

I shot this with my new Canon 5D MKIII.  The ease to get to the video mode made it easy to film.  This is my first YouTube video.  I can see things I can do better next year when I try once again to capture the amazing flight of 600,000 martins coming in for the night.