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Birding Galveston Island Early May 2013
Wednesday May 8
I keep expecting to already have finished this page, but I've got about a day and a half to go yet. Soon, soon, or eventually... At least it's on its own page now.
These two bridges, the high, very tall road and the low road with its drawbridge physically connect Galveston Island with Mainland Texas southeast of Houston. I have no idea where I was when I photographed this, but I arrived on Galveston via the high road, although the more I think about it, the more appealing the low road has become.
I couldn't stop along the high way, but there's the very real possibility of an enforced gawk stop along the drawbridge route, which appeals to the ocean-looking and bird-watching parts of me. And visually, I love the notion of having both possibilities.
The dominant species, almost always visible in the sky over this long, thin island in singles or great long lines or Vs or in flocks from a few to fifty or more birds sometimes in the near or far distance.
On land, and in its aerial proximity, Brown Pelicans will often be accompanied by the other, less large but possibly even more numerous, dominant island species, the Laughing Gull, more about whose collaboration with the pelicans we will explore later.
Unusually for this Amateur Birder's Journal, I am creating one, long story of my short, essentially three-day vacation to Galveston in a visually chronological order not unlike the popular Birding South Texas page (And yes, eventually this will be its own page also.)
I say visually chronological, because I shot this shot the second or so day of my vacation and had not the prior planning to execute it when I first got over that high bridge, off to the right from which is the cheap motel I stayed at, and just finding it from the road that passes right by it was a major geographical feat for this directionally impaired photographer.
The Motel 6, which I enjoyed for the privacy and spacious room, if not for the bed comfort nor slow hot water, difficult-to-adjust AC or swimming pool and intra-room noise, offered refuge and a view of Galveston Bay in both directions along the narrow spit of land it occupies along I-45 at the north end of the island. I loved seeing all that water so close and beautiful in the changing weather, although the neighborhood was anything but luxurious.
More about my stay in Galveston this time — not my first — as this story unfolds. Unlike most stories on these Bird Journal pages, it will continue chronologically, because I think it needs some kind of order, and that's about all I can muster.
I shot 1,814 photos in during Wednesday afternoon, all days Thursday and Friday and a while on Saturday morning, and I've slowly winnowed them down to 1,522, and I fully expect to edit down to about twelve hundred or a thousand shots, because I still see lots of out-of-focus pix (always a problem with a new camera or this old photographer).
I love colorful little carnivals with rides, but I was there to photograph birds, so I left wandering around this pier and any leanings toward understanding the histories of this place to another vacation.
Unfortunately for the long-suffering reader of this journal, new pix from this trip will be added below in this temporarily ongoing story, rather than the usual and more navigable blog-style above, in the pursuit of eventual overall chronology and story cohesiveness. But I will provide a link at the top of the page to new pix and text, while this story lasts.
Then probably long after I tire of that ritual, I will just leave this first iteration of this bird-oriented travelogue in place on this May 2013 page and begin the Birding Galveston Island story on its own page. I'll correct grammar and spelling here to the extent I am able, but any literary corrections will be made only to that page, which I will mostly promote as its own page, not text lost on some blog page somewhere in late spring of this year.
This is here because I didn't expose it this well that first time in the lilting light near the Golden Hour toward sunset after I arrived on Galveston Island, and I always thought I should have. This shot was from my second day when I figured out how to expose all their delicious under details.
This shot and all its feather details is a dream come true for this photographer. It's too easy to underexpose these dark birds traveling over their dark shadows, but I kept shooting them, and they kept coming down the ocean-side sandy beach of the island, until I got it right.
The camera I borrowed for this trip is the Nikon D800E, my first full-frame (Nikon calls them FX) in more than 20 years. It's an adventure and an experiment and another education. I read reviews and tests and How-Tos about it before and after I got it, and it came with a fat manual, only a smidgen of which I accurately absorbed, so I was left to do what I usually do with a new camera — flail around for awhile, making mistake after mistake, so I could learn more and more and make some good pictures along the way.
So the sensor on this baby is 50% larger than the sensor on any of my other Nikon cameras and twice the size of my micro four-thirds cameras, which I brought along, just in case, but never found any use for, so concentrated upon using the D800E I was. At 1,814, I'm certain I shot too many shots, but if I don't I don't learn, and learn I did.
I think I shot this, then-unknown bird late on the Wednesday evening of the afternoon I arrived. I knew the weather-persons said it was going to rain all the time I was on the island, but it hadn't started yet — and did not until the day after the day after this day (I think. My sense of chronology is about as accurate as my absent sense of direction. Luckily, cameras keep track of chronology superbly, with actual numbers, which I, of course, mostly ignore. So I can find out, if I really need to, but I don't, so I probably won't.
I saw a lot of Willets, doing all sorts of things. My early guess is that I saw this one on the east end of the island, where I'd birded before. I'd even driven off to the right from the end of Seawall Boulevard toward East Beach on the last bit of ocean-facing land on Galveston Island. The beach behind this bird is blue, because it was getting late in the day.
8:10 PM May 8 2013
Mainly what that end of the island does is to allow ships — big ships — to go from Galveston Bay out into the ocean and the world beyond. And because of the deep water there and all the fish in it, that end was dotted with fisher-persons every time I went there — a total four visits, all of which netted bird photographs and the inevitable scenic oceanic shots. I love the contrast of scale here in the lilting darkness.
And I love having a camera that with only minor tweaking, lets me shoot a shot like this even after what they used to call dark. Part of it doing that is because its files are much bigger than my usual little JPEG files. I did not shoot RAW, although I'll certainly try it when/if I get my own D800E, which after this trip has become a likelihood more than just a possibility.
THURSDAY May 9
7:52 AM May 9 2013
The glint of bright out on the ocean was the sign I had been hoping for that would tell me that it wouldn't be socko all day. No, there would be light, and there was light, and photography was good.
And it takes a lot longer for those big files to come up, let me work with them, save them, adjust them, etc. It takes a more disciplined attitude toward deleting all the excess shots I shoot just in case, and it'll take more storage to store the good ones. I hope you readers can tell there's more quality in these images. Years ago, I decided to standardize the 777 pixels wide image format, going to 555 pixels wide for tall images up to ten inches tall, which is about what 777 pixels is wide.
I have very little idea on what beach I found this cat. I do remember being startled and amazed by it slowly staring up at me as I attempted to focus and photograph it. I always think of black cats as extremely lucky, even if they aren't necessarily all black.
I can easily imagine what a cat might be doing on a beach, but like the torpor that overcomes birds after they've eaten a fish that's almost as big as they are or other birds or whatever they've got down their gullet — while they just stand out there digesting, is what I think this cat was down to when I photographed it, after it had been up to something else earlier. I have no real proof. I'm just guessing, which I do a lot of.
Throughout my little trip I kept seeing Willets, and when I saw Willets, I almost always had no idea what they were. Kinda a parallel with my directional skills. But I began to recognize this shape almost everywhere on the island I went to photograph birds. For those three days, my full-time occupation was to photograph birds, and it mattered very little which ones.
I only photographed a couple of grackles, and I passed on several opportunities to photograph Doves, because they are so ordinary and abundant they have their own season. But I really wanted to figure out if I would ever want to buy my own D800E, and by the end of my three-day "vacation," even though I was exhausted from carrying it and my big honker of a 300mm f2.8 lens, I knew that I did. But I had to test it thoroughly in the one-week-only borrow period. And boy, did I.
These guys only look like they're joined
at the hip. I didn't smoosh them together in Photoshop or anything. I just greatly
enlarged these guys from a much-wider shot of a bar ditch full of water and birds
I could see, and fishes I couldn't but the wild variety of birds in
the pond could, and they caught and ate and ate and ate those fish.
A Cornucopia of Birds
- 8:29 AM, May 9 2013
If you look carefully, you can see Push-Me and Pull-Me along the bottom edge of this photo.
I could have put on a wider-angle lens to show the whole pond-ditch in one shot, and I did have an elderly (I think I bought it in 1991, when auto-focus was still very new.) 180mm f2.8 lens that though painfully slow to focus is also incredibly sharp (so a good match for the D800E), but it never entered my mind to zoom back and show the whole water hole. If I had as sharp an even longer telephoto, I might have engaged it instead. But then I tend to think in telephoto most of the time when I'm photographing birds.
That ditch brought forth hundreds of photographs, only the best of which I am showing here.
I found this watering hole along a meandering road in the extended green area between Stewart Beach Park and East Beach (Apffel Park) at the east-most point of the island known as Galveston.
The depth of field is shallow with my 300mm lens doubled to 600mm, and though some of the birds in the back are out of focus, there were a remarkable variety of exotic birds fishing here — including Black-necked Stilts, White Ibis, Blue-winged Teal (brown duck with partial white face), then across the bottom: Black-necked Stilt, a White Ibis, a Willet flying, another Teal, Breeding Adult Snowy Egret, another couple stilts and another White Ibis. I believe the big brown ducks at the top right edge are American Black Ducks, which I'd never photographed before, and I didn't do a good job of it this time, either.
A woman who stopped her car when she saw me photographing these guys and I spoke briefly. When I called it a cornucopia, she asked if that was the official term for something like this. I said, "No, it's just what I'm calling it."
She wanted to look through my lens, but I told her I was using it. I hoped that wasn't rude, but I had it up high on my tripod, so I could look through it while standing about half way up my driver's door, so I could photograph over a small hill between me and the pond, and it would have been complicated to move it. Besides, I really was using it to all those birds.
Now, I wonder if regular birders have a name for something like this, where a variety of differing species show up to catch fish.
I'm calling these last two photos Left and Right, because they are each about a half of one full-frame shot. If I showed them as one, everything would look much smaller, and there's little sense having a 36-megapixel camera if I'm going to show dinky pictures. These are two adult Roseate Spoonbills and a Willet. This is not the closest I've ever got to the Rosies, but I got more detailed shots of them with the D800E than ever before. Gorgeous birds, until you consider those strange, bald greenish heads.
This species used to be rare in Dallas, but now there are Tricolored Herons breeding in Dallas — and I've seen their progeny along The Trinity River and at White Rock Lake, so I don't have to go to the South Texas Coast to see them anymore. But there's many more of them along the South Texas Coast.
Luckily, the D800 is hi-res enough that I can crop images of some of the more interesting characters in the mob scene doing more interesting things on their own, without turning them to smudgy blurs. There's plenty of resolution left in this shot of a Snowy Egret taking something fresh caught off to somewhere it won't have to share its bounty. Snowies are feisty, stingy and fight-oriented, so I think I understand their need to get away from the crowd.
When I first stopped The Slider and set up the tripod, several of the Roseates flew off to hide behind some taller plants farther away, but they all came back when it became obvious I was only a temporary nuisance, not likely to steal anybody's fishes.
And nearly no camera can render those pink legs anywhere near as pink as they really are. Big Pink.
I love this photograph. I remember taking this picture of the Ibis among a bunch of other birds in that ditch / pond, but I didn't know then how beautifully toned and detailed this small crop of that whole image would be.
That the bigger birds here are all three in focus means they're the same distance from the photographer, so the apparent size is correct, but the little one appears not to be a Willet, and it's got yellow legs. The center of attraction in this shot is a juvenile White Ibis (even though it's mostly brown), but not a Young Juvenile, because it's already got its orange bill.
The Sibley Guide to Birds notes that those white feathers begin to appear on young Ibis backs beginning in December.
Pretty much the draw for all these birds to this pond is all the fish immediately available. That's what the Snowy Egret behind these White Ibis is doing also. The Great Egret to the right and in front appears to be looking for a fish, and the mostly dark blue Tricolored Heron just seems to be there waiting for its chance.
Though only the Great Egret with its wings spread here is showing bright green lores (surface on each side of a bird's head between eyes and upper base of the beak) indicating it is ready to breed, this egret action might not be a mating ritual — or only for that one bird. But it does look like a dance, because I've seen these same moves before.
If it is not, then maybe this should be part of a ritual. It sure looks like one.
Clockwise around the big, white Great Egret
figure in this crop are: an American Black Duck, a Black-necked Stilt, two Snowy
Egrets, more stilts and a male
Blue-winged Teal with water dripping from its beak.
Along the Eastern Beach
Next stop was the beach along the eastern-most edge of the island, where were some fisher-persons and some cars whose drivers only stared at the sea, and me bumping around in The Slider angling for a couple more interesting shorebirds before the sun falls into the ocean.
Not at all expecting to find a juvenile Little Blue Heron perched on a shrub.
But there was a cormorant or three on every sign on the edge of the sandy beach. And where are I now know, at least during early May, hundreds of Ruddy Turnstones and only a few other smaller birds.
It looked like these guys were actually fighting, but there's no blood, so maybe they were just playing, like I've seen Mockingbirds and grackles and egrets play.
At first I thought these were Sanderlings or some sort of sandpiper or some other unsub, but I really wanted them to be more Turnstones, but me wanting them to be is not the same thing as them actually being turnstones, so maybe they're really Sanderlings or Sandpipers or something.. But as usual in bird I.D matters, I just don't know.
I was focusing in on the Red-winged Blackbird and didn't even see the Willet bird on the right that nearly blended into the background. It only began to be visible from the gray miasmas behind when I started dealing with the slightly mis-exposed shot. If it's a willet, they seemed to be following me everywhere I went.
Perhaps the island's most populous species — certainly the most obvious of those, the laughers are everywhere. Oddly enough, I didn't shoot many of the usual LG pix. But I'm pleased to have got this one.
Amazing detail. Wonderful camera.
Every time I looked around, there was a Willet, if that's really what this is.
This marks the end of the beginning of this Thursday's all-day birding.
I was in The Slider having slid over to the right lane over a little edge of a bump with no curb at the outer edge, where it suddenly drops off about 20-25 feet straight down into the bog. I'm always careful to put it into Park and usually to set the parking brake, too. I have enough acrophobia to remain vigilant along that shelf, but I need to be on the driver's side and that needs to be on the outside, looking down into the swampy and spring green area that is always more alive with birds that it first looks.
Often when I get out of the car, birds I want to photograph, scatter.
In the middle distance on the far edge of one of the ponds closest to me (but not this close; this is a great enlargement) I saw what I now understand was a pair of Willet wings gull-winged up and fluttering with a eerie, tittering bird scream.
This is the image I most remember. His wings up and flapping wildly. I could only see one bird wing (My far vision is terrible.) but it looked like something interesting might be going on, although I really had no idea what.
Thank goodness my rented D800E allowed me to enlarge faraway visions so spectacularly, or I could not have shown this series of images. If I'd shot it on my D300 or even my D7000, we'd have not much more than a blur. But here we can see him on top. That's usually the only time I know for sure which is the male and which the female.
The one bird I dearly hoped to see this trip was a Reddish Egret. And sure enough, while I sat on that concrete edge overlooking the extended swampy green wild area between Seawall Boulevard and The Gulf of Mexico, which I always think of simply as the ocean or even the Atlantic Ocean, I saw my first of the trip's several Reddish Egrets playing the waters just a few feet from where I'd seen the Willets mating.
This Reddish wasn't acting nearly as drunken as the first Reddish Egret Anna and I ever saw in the wide marsh near Matagorda Bay, which itself is near Port Lavaca maybe a hundred miles down along the coast toward Corpus Christi, Texas. So nice to have such a substantially better camera and lens for this trip.
Snapping its beak together splashes water out in two directions.
It's a lot less dangerous — no likelihood of falling off the edge, although it did seem precarious on that approximately 30-degree berm up, opposite the swamp drop-off on the lower side of Seawall Boulevard.
This was the last decent shot I got along the eastern-most edge of Galveston Island that Thursday morning.
I shot this Scissor-tail with its very distinctive profile about four hours later, in what I consider the next new chapter of my Galveston Island shooting spree. I must have gone for lunch, probably at the motel, since I brought makings for peanut butter and jelly and lunch meat sandwiches. Might even have taken a nap and driven around lost for awhile. My modus operendi.
Like Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee, it's our State Bird. This and the scissor-tail above were the first birds I photographed along the 8-mile Road / Anderson Ways,, which bumps continuously north to Galveston Bay..
Ever a sucker for brightly colored geometric machines, I took time off from birding to do a little craning.
Stewart Road, Anderson Ways & Sportsman Road
Along the barely two-lane wide blacktop, vestiges of the city or of urban civilization quickly faded into an extended green-way, where I saw lots of birds in the wetlands on either side of the road.
Sudden movements were especially difficult to follow, but even still, I got a pretty good shot out of this Yellow-crowned Night Heron scurrying away with its antenna-like occipital plume trailing. Love the abstract notion of landscape. Talk about bokeh.
Puffed all up drying every feather after a bout with the pond. I hope it caught what it was after.
Back off a little to photograph some more incidental and smaller birds.
Just north of Sportsman Road was a concrete pier-looking area that juts out into the West Bay, where one can see the mainland across the bay and flight after flight of Brown Pelicans lined-up or V-ing over to Galveston Island. Makes me glad I was right where I was and not over there. All that pollution can't be good for anybody. Nice of them to park it on the edge of the ocean.
At least that's where they seemed to be coming from, flight after flight after flight of them, slowly turning from the gray of the surrounding fog, to dark silhouettes, then back to gray Brown Pelicans as they flapped and soared their way to fly up the ocean edge of Galveston Island.
Not just to splash down for food, but to splash down for food right in front of my eyes. Ever since I saw them on the ocean-side horizon well off the coast, flying furiously into the water out there, disappear for a while, then fly away a little better fed — most details of which action we could only surmise standing well up the beach, I've been wanting to see that happen a little closer.
It sees what it wants.
It institutes a stall, stopping forward motion and begins to fall into the bay.
Since I never once managed to photograph any one pelican execute the entire sequence of flyover, look-down, stall, fall and splash in, I should probably note that except for this and the next image down, which are sequential and the same bird, the rest of the photographs in this sequence down this page are a composite of four separate actions.
Its wings are still up, but its body and especially that gaping beak with its flexible lower mandible stretching out to catch whatever it saw from above.
And here's a little better version of the same thing. I got better at shooting the splashdown with a little practice, but I never did manage that decisive moment as the bird turned from flying forward to dropping precipitously toward the water's surface, but I'll probably get more opportunities. The trick will be to be prepared and ready.
But it's not like they're alone out there. Not every time, but many of the times I followed them down and in, they were accompanied by a Laughing Gull.
These first three images are actually sequential.
I wonder what the gull is seeing and exactly what the pelican is doing.
When I'm shooting, I never really know exactly what I'm getting images of and what goes on between shots that I miss. This paralleling of poses is utterly amazing to me. Friends and lovers, it is said, parallel each other's form and pose to feel like they belong right thee.
But this is funny. Do these guys really want to be this close.
I don't know brown pelicans as well as I do American White Pelicans, but I think we can see its lower mandible dropped down to scoop in whatever fish its targeted. Not sure why the Laughing Gull is that close, when it doesn't seem to be accomplishing very much here. But I suspect these two species have been doing this sort of thing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They're up to something.
That lower mandible seems stretched out, so there has been something a larger that a little fish in there stretching it out. Wish I could see what.
There was the inevitable gull in the picture, but I cropped it out, because the two birds were so far away from each other, and then the pic would have been much smaller. I'm reveling in all the detail that camera provides.
I never saw or knew that I had seen if I did, a laughing gull actually assist a Brown Pelican, but I sure have seen them occupy nearly the same space under very similar circumstances many times.
Standing on the concrete at the north end of Anderson Ways / 8-Mile Road, I could see miles and miles of white puffy nothing, with a few landmark structures and mainland Texas across the bay. I drove back down to Sporstman Road, turned right and drove very slowly west, stopping often along that two-lane blacktop, being careful not to fall into the bog but getting as close as I possibly could. Gangs Bayou on the left/south and not much land but a long line of really nice houses and Galveston Bay on the right.
Birds were everywhere. Not mobs,
but lots of singles and a few scattered groups.
Thanks to my newish book, Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson's The Shorebird Guide, I may now be right in calling this bird a Western Willet, who looks a lot like the pic of one in Texas in mid-April of some year, at the bottom of page 96 of that book. Except this one's head is boxier. But the legs, feathers, wings, underside, beak and face colors and tones look remarkably right.
This is (one of two essentially similar, dark chicks I saw) very close to the corner with Anderson ways and 8-Mile Road. But I would never have seen, let along identified, it without the help of a white van full of bird watchers I followed for awhile on Sportsman Road, west of the city of Galveston and just short of Galveston Bay. One of them walked back to tell me what it was and exactly where to find it. All I did was drive closer to the edge of the narrow road and focus — always an amazing feat — down into the ditch where they were, then work it up when I got back to Dallas. Thank you, kind ladies.
This is another one of their discoveries they were willing to share with me, because I had "that big lens." But even with the 300mm lens doubled = 600mm full frame, I can barely see it here in this full-frame shot. Took me a lot longer than it will take you to find it out there ever so slightly south of Sportsman Road. It's the gray blob nearly in the center of the frame, in the middle of the grass just above the biggest mud splat. I was lucky it was moving around.
I am only now as I write this and work up these images realizing the value of a high-powered and high-resolution birder's scope. I didn't see the scopes they were using, but through them, they could see a great deal more detail than I could. Might have been using some binocs. I should check those out.
I've eschewed those encumbrances, because I'm already toting a ton of stuff, but being able to see tiny animate objects at great distances does seem to have it usefulnesses. Of course, my ace in the hole was that I could late enlarge what I could see to this.
I bet those fields were far fuller of flyers than I could even see out there. I'm always being surprised by birds in close when I'm concentrating on focusing and composing the ones I can see. Probably why I tend to favor larger species. I wonder how many other tiny birds they counted that day.
Not that there weren't plenty of exotic species walking, flying or swimming around the area.
And every time I'd start to get bored with one bunch I'd find out there, another would swoop in and join the frey.
Then suddenly swoop out again.
Something deeply calming about this picture. Kinda like I continually felt as I slowly drove westerly along Sportsmans Road. Eerily uncomplicated, despite the flurries of birds.
When I'd pull myself from overconcentrating on one fascinating species, look up, and I'd find yet another. Talk about a cornucopia of birds.
A Willet with breast feathers flapping in the wind.
Cattle with Cattle Egrets.
Egrets are everywhere, but since some where there, too, I photographed them there, also.
Luckily, I have much worse-focused shots of this same bird not jumping up in a plume of dripping water. In those, it looks a lot more like what it really is.
text and photographs Copyright 2013 by J
All Rights Reserved. No reproduction in any medium without
specific written permission from and payment to
the writer or photographer.
My favorite answer is, "I don't
am, after all, an amateur.
I'm not kidding. I've only been birding for six years,
although I've been photographing professionally since 1964.
counter stays with monthly content