Hey there, everyone. It's mating season again for the Gulf area shorebirds, specifically different species of herons, egrets and the Roseate Spoonbill so I decided to drive to Smith Oaks a few weeks ago to get some photos. I went on Sunday the 24th of April and since I already know the location pretty well I didn't bother getting up early to go. I'm guessing most (if not all) reading this aren't familiar with Smith Oaks so I'll explain a bit.
Smith Oaks Sanctuary is a rookery where the different birds I mentioned come to mate annually. A lot of photographers prefer going to their locations early in the morning to get the best lighting conditions. Early in the morning and in the evenings is what's referred to as the "Golden Hour," which is where the sun is closest to the horizon. This causes the sunlight to pass through more of the atmosphere and refract more to cause a "softer" light condition. There is less light available at these times than around noon, but around noon is where the sunlight is coming from directly overhead and causes a more harsh contrast between light and shadow. The situation with Smith Oaks is that there is only one vantage point to shoot from which faces directly East and the rising sun backlights all of the possible subjects.
Smith Oaks itself is basically a small to medium sized pond with a few islands dotting the surface. These islands are where the birds make their nests and mating grounds. The sanctuary is located on the beginning of Bolivar Penninsula, about an 80 mile drive Eastof Houston. The area is a good spot for photographing alligators and shorebirds because of all of the specific places you can go like High Island and Anahuac. I've posted photos from Anahuac before and I plan on going back soon, not just to Anahuac but Smith Oaks and some of the other places I haven't been to yet.
After I spent about 30 minutes going back and forth between two different vantage points I got all of the photos above from the second one, which was closer to the island nesting site. I'm glad I settled there because I got to see a few interesting things from that spot.
The first shot is exactly what you think it is, an alligator trying to swallow a bird. I saw this when I settled on the second spot (which is about 100-200 feet to the left of the first observation point you have access to). According to a member of the Houston Audobon Society that was present informing people of the various species, pointing out nests and hatchlings, and so on the bird was a dead juvenile that had fallen out ofthe nest and died. The alligator just happen to see it and crawled onto the island to get it, but it was having a difficult time trying to swallow it. It took the alligator about another 15 minutes or so to swallow the bird after I noticed it.
The other photos in the slideshow below are of a lesser egret I was following. This one was a male who was getting a late start finding a mate and was still performing the mating display. I really liked this series of photos because you get to see his display, but also because of the spoonbill next to the egret. To me it looks like the spoonbill is judging the egret in an almost "what a weirdo, why is he doing that?" kind of way.
Fun fact: The long flowing plumes that you see on egrets this time of year are only present during the mating season and are specifically for these displays. Back in the 17-1800s during the heyday of hunting and trapping countless numbers of various egret species were hunting into critical numbers so their mating plumage could be used to make ornaments for hats and clothing. Luckily laws were eventually passed to protect egrets and other mating shorebirds so their numbers have bounced back so most are no longer in danger.
Now on to the star of this post, this male Great Egret. To say this guy was photogenic was an understatement. He kept flying from his nest on the island to the tree that was just to my right every few minutes for about a dozen times just to get twigs to help build his nest. Now you might have noticed I keep saying "he" and here's why, the males during mating season go through a slight color change around the eyes. The skin on their faces around their eyes change to that bright green seen below so they're easy to identify. While he was making the constant trips back and forth to gather nesting material his mate would take the sticks from him and build. It was interesting to watch and provided a lot of good photo ops as you can see.
I'll be going out to Smith Oaks and Anahuac again soon so I'll have another round of photos to post in the next week or two.
I'm going to finish this post with two photos. The one above is one of the few decent cardinal shots I've taken. For some reason cardinals are my worst enemy to shoot so I was happy with a halfway decent shot for once. The other is of a beached boat on the Colorado river in Austin. It has absolutely no relevance to this post, but I don't know where else to fit in in so why not here right?