The Rookery

 

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Roseate Spoonbill with Chick – Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary
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The Rookery

In the Spring the cacophony of sound that surrounds the High Island Rookery can be deafening. Just what is a Rookery? Think of it as a giant baby nursery for several species of birds. Cormorants, Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Herons arrive each Spring from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Driven by instinct to procreate, they begin the arduous task of building nests, laying their eggs and then waiting for the pipping to begin. As each new chick emerges from its shell and makes its way into the world, the parents begin hunting for food to feed the hungry begging mouths of their offspring. Featherless, flightless and totally dependent on Mom and Dad, they must eat, grow feathers and practice all the skills that will enable them to successfully fledge at the proper moment in time.

One of my favorite rookeries is located on High Island. High Island is so named because it is the highest point of land on the Bolivar Peninsula, a small barrier beach that borders the Gulf of Mexico. A huge salt dome rose from the earth to form this piece of land that is approximately 38 feet above sea level. A predator-free island is located in Clay Bottom Pond, which was originally created to help supply drinking water for the employees of the growing oil industry. Surrounded by marshy water, the birds find it to be an ideal location for building nests and raising their young. See more history of High Island at: http://www.houstonaudubon.org/default.aspx/MenuItemID/757/MenuGroup/High+Island.htm

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Great Egret Incubating Eggs

Once sites are selected in the trees and large shrubs on the island, the building begins. Each limb of the available trees is laden with nests, stacked one above the other. Picture a condominium for birds. Some wooden platforms have been built that are several layers high which are probably considered prime real estate in the bird world. (Take a moment here and think about where you might want your nest to be in a tree….on the top with blue sky above or on the bottom where bird droppings might fall upon you). The birds begin gathering sticks and fashioning their nests to their satisfaction.There is much stick stealing that occurs on the island as nest-building season begins. It appears frantic as everyone tries to “keep up with the Jones” in building a bigger and better nest. Once nest-building is completed, everyone gets busy laying their eggs followed by the boring job of incubation. They must be kept warm and turned periodically to keep the developing embryo from adhering to the inside of the egg-shell. It is an important job and all birds seem to instinctively know how to do these tasks. And of course, if one parent leaves the nest to forage for food, then the other parent usually steps in to take on the incubating duties. The ultimate goal is one that carries a heavy burden of responsibility….survival of their species on our planet.

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Juvenile “Teenage” Egrets

The spectacular show bursts into full glory when the eggs start hatching. The noise factor increases with the added voices of babies begging for food. Incoming and outgoing flights of the parents increase as they continually are fishing for food to fill their offspring’s bellies. As the young mature and their feathers begin to appear, they are unruly teenagers and some of their spiky feathers give new meaning to the term “bad hair day”.  As they grow, food demands increase and the babies begin doing other things like inspecting their environment, spying on other birds and nests, pulling at small sticks and “flappercizing”. They practice flapping their wings and working on building the muscles in preparation for their first flight. A fall from the nest or an aborted first flight that lands a chick in the water surrounding the Rookery could mean death since there are alligators lurking just waiting for a tasty appetizer to come close to their waiting jaws.

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Tri-Colored Heron

I have stood for hours watching the activity surrounding the Rookery. I have snapped thousands of pictures trying to capture that which cannot be captured. It simply must be witnessed to be believed. So if you happen to get the opportunity to visit High Island,Texas, be sure to make time to visit the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

No happy bird searching here. If you visit the Rookery, it’s Happy Bird Watching guaranteed!

PS: Don’t forget your bug spray!!!!

The Magnificent Frigatebird

 

It was a late Spring Day with summer gently nudging its way into the South Texas coastline. Another BFF of mine, Kathleen and I are out doing our “Thelma and Louise” thing on the twenty three miles of beachfront located in Matagorda Texas.  A favorite fishing spot for many people, for us it is one of our favorite beach combing areas and of course a great bird watching venue.

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Brown Pelicans on beach patrol

This day was a little different from our usual beach jaunts though. We drove perhaps 10 miles or so down the beach and selected a spot to stop and begin our beach combing work. Because of some recent health issues, I was too fatigued to do the miles of walking required to thoroughly scour the beach for sand dollars, whelks, starfish, cockle shells, sundials or any of the many other treasures we hoped to find. So for today, Kathleen had the beach entirely to herself.

I pulled my beach chair from the car, set it in place and planted myself to enjoy the ocean breezes, the blue sky with its scudding white fluffy clouds, and the many different birds that might present themselves to me for observation. The screeching laughing gulls and the terns were scanning the breaking waves at the shoreline in search of a meal, the sanderlings and the “always there” Willets raced back and forth along the shoreline and the Brown Pelicans flew in perfect formation patrolling the beach. So I settled in to rest, enjoy and just be present in that moment. I leaned back in my beach chair and gazed up at the cloud formations and it happened.IMG_6105

I spotted a very large bird soaring high in the sky, higher than most of the regular beach loving birds. I could hardly believe my good fortune. She was huge and effortlessly gliding with the thermal waves around, up and down and through that beautiful blue sky. She was the queen of the air, a magnificent specimen for sure. So impressive that this bird has the name of Magnificent Frigatebird. A name like that tells us right up front that this must be a special bird. And so she is. Her giant forked tail was my first clue to her identity coupled with her large size and great white breast. The male and female are distinctively different from one another, more so than any other bird species. She has a massive white breast and he sports a brilliant red throat. This bird has a nickname of Man O’War because of its speed, sleek body lines and the ability to steal fish from other birds. They spend most of their lives soaring high above the ocean and rarely descend to land on the ocean. They build shaky platforms in mangroves on which to lay their eggs. A group of frigatebirds is known as a “flotilla” or “fleet” of frigatebirds. Seriously…a fleet or flotilla!  With a wingspan of 6-8 feet these are extremely large birds!

Unfortunately for this one moment in time, I had forgotten my camera back at our hotel room so I was forced to record this beautiful bird only in my memory. Later I wrote about her in my Bird Journal and painted a poor image of what I had seen. I have no regrets of not having the photos (Well, maybe a few).  I was forced to record it with the best camera in the world, my eyes, and store it on the best computer hard drive ever made, the brain. That moment, the memory of her beauty will remain with me always. It was a special communion with nature at its finest.IMG_6803

Happy bird searching!

Hornsby Bend – December 4, 2015

A clear crisp,blue skies day In Austin Texas, the perfect day for a short trip out to Hornsby Bend to check out which birds may have stopped by for a rest while on their migratory trip South.

Hornsby Bend is a 1200 acre site situated on the Colorado River and it did not have its beginnings as a bird sanctuary, but instead was built in the 1950’s as the main water treatment facility for Austin. It has become a national recognized biosolids recycling center and is expertly managed. Here the sewage from Austin is transformed back into potable water and returned to the Colorado River. Here sludge is transformed into Dillo Dirt which is sold to gardeners throughout the area.

Hornsby Bend has been a birding hotspot for over 50 years now. The story of how the first birders found the ponds goes something like this…A young birder named G. Frank ‘Pancho’ Oatman was visiting relatives in the area over the Thanksgiving holidays when he spotted some ducks flying across the Colorado River. He began exploring and found the sewage facilities at Hornsby Bend. He spotted several different species and began spreading the word to other birders who flocked (pun intended) to the area to enjoy looking at multiple species that had never before been seen in the Austin area. Over the years, thousands of birders have visited this facility to enjoy the many birds as they drop in for a visit and rest on their migratory travels.

Check out more about Hornsby Bend at http://www.hornsbybend.org

Today I visited Hornsby with my BFF Linda who is in Austin visiting for a few days. We spotted Killdeer, starlings, mockingbirds, Gadwalls and a large flock of Northern Shovelers. My friend on the right was nowhere to be seen today however. No matter, I am sure I’ll catch him on the back side.

Happy bird searching.