The Rookery

There are some adult pastimes that cannot be conceived as interesting until one reaches middle age, or even after. My mother fondly pursued several of these without embarrassment. Only one of them would leave me tumped over unconscious with boredom on the back seat of the car, breathing through my mouth with wet huffing sounds while she prowled the edge of the salt marsh at the entrance to the Baytown tunnel.

Birdwatching, my brother and I called it, with an offended emphasis on the first syllable.

Mama carried her camera with the telephoto lens in the car. We could be stopped for an hour in the course of the most mundane outings. At home on Galveston Bay she had a telescope for keeping watch on birds, kids, boats, ships and goings on in the neighbors’ yards. It was a Navy-surplus scope, two and a half feet long, with an octagonal rubber guard ring at the lens end. It was tightly wrapped in waxed twine, an old form of waterproofing, black and high-tech for its day. It lived in a special wooden crate with supports to keep it from rolling. It was heavy and impressive. Mama, who regarded herself as an old salt, never referred to it as a telescope. “Pass me The Spyglass,” she’d say, peering intently at a bright blue cargo ship churning up the Houston Ship Channel. Without removing her heavy bifocals, she would hoist The Spyglass, holding it aloft with one hand, twisting the focus ring with the other. “Norway,” she might say conclusively, identifying the vessel’s flag.Spyglass-with-inset

I cannot use The Spyglass even now without propping it on a knee, a porch railing, a window frame. Even then I spend all my time trying to chase out the half moon of black that jitters around the image. Is it my eyelashes? I have never known.

But now, decades later, I seem lightly, very lightly drawn to watching a few birds now and again. With little effort I can join a group of very knowledgeable birders once a month in a park near my house. I let them tell me where to look and what to see. I trail along behind them wishing I had drunk less coffee before joining this bathroomless early morning excursion. I make that same mistake every month.

One cannot be even a sometime birder in Houston without being aware that we have some superlative birdwatching areas nearby. High Island is famous for its capture of passing migrants, for nesting in the spring, and hawkwatching raptors in the fall. I recently decided it was time to see High Island.

I drove there on a Monday afternoon at the end of the first week in May. My first stop was Boy Scout Woods, where the one other person there informed me I was about three weeks late for the songbird migration, which peaks in mid April. I wandered around exploring the preserve, but it seemed empty, dark, and mosquito-y. I gave it up and followed the signs to Smith Oaks Rookery about two miles away.

Boy Scout Woods
Boy Scout Woods, High Island, Texas May 2016

Smith Oaks is a preserve owned by the Audubon Society, centered around a manmade lake with a manmade island. The island is a long knob of hard-packed sand covered with tallow trees and scrub, ringed by marsh grass and cattails, about a hundred feet out in the lake. There are three or four wood viewing platforms spaced along the levee’d edge of the lake, from which the birders can view the rookery on the island.

I was unprepared for how amazing, how great, how cool this place is. I can’t come up with the right adjective, because it’s that good. It’s like being inside a National Geographic Special.

Rookery overview
The Rookery, High Island, Texas

There are four main species of waterfowl nesting on the island by the hundreds. The cormorants are the least interesting, except for their human-sounding hooting. As I approached the lake from the gravel parking lot, I heard men shouting to each other—but it was the cormorants. You can see them mostly from the first platform, opposite their rookery. They look like plain black ducks. I stopped at this platform and took closeup photos of a Great Egret (also known as a Great White Heron) and a cattle heron perched on the vegetation right below me.   There was not a soul there.

I moved to the second and third platforms, and staked out my favorite position from the last one. From here you could see almost the length of the island and the nesting ground of the three magnificent water birds that cohabitate there. The largest are the great white herons, long-necked birds of almost pure white, three or four feet tall. Their legs are black, their beaks bright yellow, and their plumage is a brilliant blinding white.

Single White Bird
Great White Heron at High Island Texas May 2016

Equally entrancing are the roseate spoonbills, another large wading bird with pink, white, and rust plumage, and odd spoon-shaped bills they use to capture and eat shallow water animals. These birds are so over–the–top beautiful yet comical, you might think they were not God’s own creation but Disney’s.

The third bird is the Snowy Egret. This long-legged wader is smaller than the great white heron, but also pure white, with a light crest of filigreed feathers. It sports bright yellow feet at the ends of long black legs.

Single Pink Bird
Roseate Spoonbill at High Island, Texas May 2016. Snowy Egret in the background.

All three of these species, and several hangers on, were hopping, flapping, yapping, regurgitating, and screaming at each other in complete oblivion. They ignored the humans on the shore, going about their family business in the open, airing dirty laundry, insulting each other, and slapping the chicks around, not to mention eating and pooping. The noise was like living near a freeway—not so loud you can’t talk over it, but never ceasing.

I was enraptured. I have read that there is only one comparable, viewable, rookery in the United States, and it’s in Florida. I was astounded to find only one other couple in the park that afternoon. They were a retired couple from Spring. The woman, Sherry, is an artist who paints gorgeous portraits of the birds from photos she takes with a long lens. We murmured appreciatively as the birds strutted and posed for us. The roseates, especially, seemed willing to stand still for our lenses in the late afternoon light, their pink bodies glowing. The great egrets fought and flapped their giant wings, creating an almost limitless stream of photo op’s. One of them had a nest at the top of the island silhouetted perfectly against the sky. I was in heaven on my side of the lens. I couldn’t stop shooting. When the camera battery conked out I took movies with my phone.  It was something like eating a whole bag of potato chips. Or four bags. There was some kind of loss of control, the sensation was so enveloping and satisfying. I couldn’t stop.

Food Fighters
Great White Herons (Great Egrets) High Island, Texas May 2016

Around six-thirty, with the sun’s horizontal rays painting the birds in luminous tones, they all became very excited. It must be an end-of-day roosting time. The flapping and flying and squawking became very intense as they all competed for space. I took movies of this, and finally, reluctantly left the place.

At home, the photos proved disappointing. They weren’t in sharp focus and all the white birds were overexposed and the details of their feathers had been lost. I read up on this, and it’s called “blowing the highlights.” It happens when the camera’s auto mode averages the exposure between the brilliant white bird and the dark green around it. A common problem, which could only be solved by a return to The Rookery.

Two days later I was back, this time with a better camera and a longer lens. I also had the camera from before, and my phone. I timed the trip to catch the birds in the late afternoon light. This place is so perfect, the island is even oriented so that dramatic evening light drenches it for hours. I also made sure to be there when the 6:30 roosting excitement would provide many shots of opened flapping wings and birds in flight.

Sherry and her husband were there again. I think they were in the same potato chip thrall as me. In addition, there was a professional wildlife photographer named John Eriksson. John  travels around in a camper shooting mostly deer (they sell very well) and some birds (not as lucrative). He arrived in camo gear with a huge tripod and a ten thousand dollar digital camera with a lens easily a foot and half long.   Even the lens wore a little camo outfit.

We all shot and shot until we could shoot no more. I endeavored to sharpen the focus by using the railing as a tripod. I also bypassed the auto exposure, opting for “spot exposure,” so only the white bird would determine the setting. I guessed on a few other techniques, bracketing the exposure and increasing the ISO. I wasn’t confident that any of this would work, but again I was seized by the spell of just being there and watching the birds.

With a stronger telephoto lens this time, I could see into the nests. The juvenile great egrets were a few weeks old. One family with three chicks was directly across from the platform, feeding, fighting, and flapping. I took many shots with up to four species in a single frame. This is one of the most amazing things about The Rookery, how they all nest so close to each other, even different species.

Egret family
Great Egret family, High Island Texas May 2016

John showed me his trailer and his set-up after we finally decamped. His photos are flawless, with every pinfeather in gleaming focus. In one photo, two Great Egrets appeared to be standing in midair confronting each other. He explained that at the beginning of the roosting season, the males fight for the best nesting sites. He has been to The Rookery many times.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 3.33.57 PM John Ericksson's photo
John Ericksson’s shot of male Great Egrets in a contretemps early in the nesting season, High Island, Texas, May 2015

Ultimately I took about 600 photos, none of any great quality. Sharp focus and perfect exposure eluded me, but I had great fun sorting the best shots into categories such as Single White Bird, Multi-family, Food Fighters, and Hilltop Bird. They are so amateur compared to John’s and Sherry’s, and truly, the scenery was so gorgeous a chipmunk could have taken them.

Multi-family with three species, Great Egrets, roseate spoonbills and the well behaved guy at left is a Snowy Egret. High Island, Texas May 2016
Hilltop bird
Hilltop Bird, a Great Egret. Cormorant at left. High Island, Texas May 2016

I wish my mother could have seen it, but The Rookery was only established about twenty years ago, and her birding days were over by then. I feel so lucky to have it near home. I’ll be back.