There is a small wooded area, really just a patch of Live Oaks, that grows between the main highway out of Rockport, Texas and the waterfront. We’d passed it many times, and hadn’t noticed, until friends pointed it out.
It’s a rookery: the place herons and egrets come to build nests and nurse their young. I’ve never seen anything like it.
A viewing area allows us to watch the comings and goings of Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets, and others, all sporting their full breeding regalia.
We observe birds collecting twigs for nests, and pairs working together to arrange them.
Some birds, no doubt due to the close proximity of their neighbours, protest loudly, and we witness a few scuffles, but the birds soon settle down to the task at hand.
We will return here often in our last days, honoured to share in such a miracle, our cameras loaded with images to process for sometime to come.
Port Aransas has a birding centre that was damaged during hurricane Harvey. The new facility opened this week and it’s incredible!
A flock of sandpipers fly in just as we arrive. I search across the marsh to see where they’ve landed, now camouflaged among the reeds, mud, and shallow waters. I follow the sidewalk to the newly opened section – a boardwalk that extends far across the waterway with a high overlook built at the central point.
Birds are everywhere and it’s difficult to know where to aim first.
“Are there alligators?” I ask a couple.
He points out where to see the largest one. I head that way. A huge beast of a gator lies on the grass just below the lookout tower. To the right, where the land juts out another gator is basking in the sun, surrounded by long grass, not far from a flock of Roseate Spoonbills.
A Black-Necked Stilt flies by and I decide to start with him. I love the elegance of these birds. Avocet, more spoonbills, some gulls, and moorhen swim nearby.
I head back toward the beginning, where Ric has stopped. Overhead a Purple Martin swoops in close.
“Hello gorgeous,” I coo. ” Any chance you’ll land for me?”
The bird flies low to my right and that’s when I see it. The third alligator. He sees me too and our eyes lock. I take a few pics and note that he is still fixed on me.
“Hey,” I say calmly. “I don’t mean you any harm. Go about your business.”
He starts to back up and that’s when it hits me: Do alligators back up before they jump? Can they jump?
I back up too, and take more photos.
He turns and disappears into the tall grass, but not before giving me another look.
I have that effect on people too.
“Did you see the alligators?” I ask Ric. He goes off in search of them.
I note a heron sitting on a small island. It’s a Black-Crowned.
Something startles the flock of spoonbills and they rise up all at once – a wave of pink wings. Spectacular.
Moments later, four startled bitterns fly off, and then a half a dozen more.
“Something has scared them off,” the man beside me says.
“Must be the alligator that was resting over there.”
“Have you ever heard their mating call?” the man asks. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. The sound echoes for miles. Makes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the food chain.”
I think about the staring contest. I can believe it. These are formidable beasts.
One of the spoonbills has flown back and landed on the same small island as the heron. He is in full breeding regalia.
Ric catches back up to me just as the first drop of rain hits.
Time for lunch.
What a day! I check my camera for number of photos shot: 349.
“Have you been to Tule Marsh yet?” our new neighbours ask the moment we tell them we like birds. “The Whistling Ducks are there.”
I’ve been wanting to see the Whistling Ducks!
The Tule Marsh spans both sides of Highway 35 in Rockport, although apart from some small signs, it is hard to spot, which explains how we’ve missed it up until now.
A semi-circle drive is the parking area and then a walkway leads into an area thick with tall bushes and on the other side a boardwalk extends out and across the marsh. In the middle is a large pond teeming with Whistling Ducks.
They really are spectacular with their neon orange beaks and multi-coloured plumage.
A white ibis is also wading in the pond and the sound of songbirds fills the air, although catching a glimpse of the little ones is difficult as the trees here are quite lush already.
I do manage to capture an image of this catbird (a first for me), and I also spot a little yellow bird with a dark hood-like head, but he ducks out of sight faster than I can focus.
Across the road is another parking area with further boardwalks also spanning a pond, as well as a hiking/ biking trail through a wooded area. I get a picture of a mockingbird singing joyfully. Something rustles in the bushes nearby and not sure whether to be frightened or excited, I ready my camera. A furry orange head peeks out – a tabby cat. Seems we aren’t the only ones looking for birds.
More Whistling Ducks line up along the water’s edge here. A Tricolored Heron joins the group at the top. Notice how much greener everything is looking, a sure sign that Spring is here.
My favourite shot of the day is this one. If I wasn’t so tired from our outing, I’d think of something witty to say about it:
In Port Aransas, just off one of the main roads, is a driveway that cuts through a Mexican restaurant. Behind the restaurant are high fences and a boardwalk leading into a secluded area. This is Paradise Pond.
On our first visit, we met locals who described the importance of the area environmentally, and alerted us to what we might expect to see. We also encountered a couple who told us that prior to the hurricane, this was a lush, canopied area that merited the name. Now it is a dark, swamp-like pond surrounded by a tangle of fallen trees.
Still the area is alive with wildlife. The boardwalk spans the breadth of the pond and has three viewing areas built out over the water. As the weather is still cold, Ric decides to stay in the car, while I explore.
A flock of noisy grackles accompany my approach. An eerie, odd call echoes and I stop in my tracks for a moment trying to get a sense of where the sound is coming from. Another, unfamiliar trill rings out. Am I safe here, I wonder? There are no other people in sight.
Between the grackles, and the red-winged blackbirds also claiming a stake, the place is humming with dark wings. A thick, soupy green algae covers much of the water. Not far from where I’m standing I note a turtle, head held high. As I raise my lens, I see another one, closer to me, also with its head held up. Are they listening for something?
The long, ghoulish sound emanates again from across the way. Barren bushes block my view of what is there. I creep along the deck hoping for a closer look. A sudden uprising of the blacks, calls my attention away. A predator surveying the area flies by and then circles back. It’s just the two of us. He moves along.
The chirp of a small bird draws my attention back to the water. A Yellow-Rumped Warbler, common in this area. From behind the bushes, two Pied-Billed Grebes emerge. Did these cute birds make that racket?
A gull circles and joins the party, as the bully birds return. I linger a bit longer, capturing some close-ups of the grebes. Despite the cold biting my exposed fingers, there are signs of spring all around – buds on trees, and a few plants just about to burst. Soon thousands of birds will arrive in the area as migration begins.
I can’t wait. As I turn to leave, I hear that unfamiliar trill again. It’s coming from somewhere beyond where the trail leads. I think about going off the path, and then think better of it, and turn back towards the car.
My first inkling of trouble was when I glanced out to see the heron perched on the hillside, and the egret eyeing him from across the canal.
“This will be interesting,” I called to Ric. “The heron is very territorial.”
I had seen him chase off other birds, his quick stabbing beak a formidable weapon. The egret did not appear to be daunted, and instead strolled across the waterway, and in measured moves – neither of them losing eye contact – he backed up onto the hill, settling just below the Great Blue.
“Oh, I want to get my camera out there, but the egret will just fly away.”
I couldn’t contain myself though, and sure enough, seeing my approach, the egret flew. But the game was not over. Buddy soon joined his rival at the other end of the canal. I grabbed my walker and arrived just in time to see the standoff, each bird proudly erect, guarding their prospective sides of the canal.
Trying to stay out of sight, I set myself behind the thick trunk of a palm. The action was taking place on the other side.
The heron lunged and caught a fish, and before my camera could reset there was a raucous – the egret had moved in for the steal. Startled the heron must have dropped his catch as in my next shot, it is the egret grasping the fallen prize from the shallow waters, while the heron stands by in disbelief.
One last glance at me, the egret spread its wings and ascended, but either the fish was too large or his grasp too awkward, and dinner was left behind.
Buddy regained his territory and his meal and order was restored on the canal for another day.
A day of rest is on the docket, and I ponder whether or not to get dressed, but when I open the blinds, the heron is in attendance, and not long after I hear his throaty alarm. A Great Egret has decided to show up also, so I get dressed and grab my camera.
A rustle in the bush across the way, alerts me that the anhinga is also present.
“Looks like it might be a busy day on the canal.” I tell Ric.
I toss in a load of wash, then lounge on the bed, read some emails, and when it’s time to move, I glance out again. A new bird has joined the activity.
I rush outside, but too late. Whoever the visitor was, it is gone. I glance around to see a kestrel perched on an overhead wire. I take a few pictures and then go back inside. I really need to rest.
When the washer signals, I get up to see the bird is back. This time I approach more carefully. A lone wigeon ducks beneath a bush. I get a few shots before it disappears, and just as I’m putting the lens down, see another lone figure standing on the bank. The Green Heron is back!
I am able to take quite a few pictures before he notices me and moves out of sight. Chuffed, I decide to look around to see what else might be happening. My friend is strolling through the shallow water, and the anhinga is fishing under water.
I notice the arrival of another heron, just as the anhinga raises up out of the water with a fish. Neck fully extended, he somehow manages to swallow the fish whole. Quite a sight.
Meantime, the second heron and my friend are approaching one another.
“Oh boy,” I think. “This won’t be pretty.” Buddy doesn’t like other birds getting in his territory.
My camera starts going crazy as I witness a synchronistic dance between the two birds. I’m not sure what I’m witnessing – whether it’s a statement of prowess or a mating ritual.
In the end, Buddy raises his wings, and then turns away. The second heron moves upstream.
All returns to calm on our little patch of canal. I’ve taken a hundred photos.
I don’t get to sleep till after 3:00; he wakes up at 4:30. At 7:30 we both decide to try again, so by the time we are ready to do anything, it is late morning.
“Why don’t we go out for breakfast?”
We pick a restaurant nearby that looks like it would have all day breakfast, but when I try to order an omelette the waitress informs me there is no breakfast between 11:00 and 2:00.
“Can you recommend something else?” I list off my allergies.
Corn chips and salsa it is. Ric has a turkey dinner with all the fixings.
We’ve decided to go back to Goose Island, so I think I better use the washroom first. I turn back as soon as I walk in the door.
“That’s a no go!”
We stop at a Dollar General on the way, so I can get a juice. Ric asks if they have a washroom. They do, and…it is out of order.
“I’ll be okay.”
On the way to Goose Island there is a boardwalk and bird viewing area that expands over some marshland. We pull up there, and walk the length only to find that this area was devastated in the last hurricane.
“Let’s just get to Goose Island Park,” I tell Ric. “I know their washroom works.”
While he checks in, I run to the washroom. The wind has picked up and the sun diminished.
“Doesn’t look like we’ll see anything.”
He’s right about that at the shoreline, and when we get out at the crane viewing area, I hear a loud raucous – Whooping Cranes flying away.
The pelicans are out in numbers, and we stop to witness the feeding frenzy at the fish cleaning station.
Only one bird shows up in the viewing garden, and not willing to let the day be a total disappointment, I suggest we go find the Big Tree.
We follow the signs, and when we get to the viewing area, Ric drives right past.
“Oh, that was it?”
“Yes. Turn around!”
“I will at the end of this road.”
The road leads back to the waterway. On the right is a large pasture with cattle. Several birds are gathered at the edge of a pond. One appears to be quite large.
“Slow down. What is that?”
Ric pulls off the road and we are distracted by a jeep that roars past us. Up ahead two cars are pulled over and people with tripods are set up pointing huge lenses towards the water. We creep up beside them.
Seven Whooping Cranes are grooming in the shallow water!
We whisper excitedly not wanting to disturb the birds. In the 1940’s there were only fifteen known to be in existence. Recent surveys indicate there are now closer to five hundred, but these birds are still considered endangered.
An eighth crane flies overhead and joins the others. We take our pictures and move back across the street towards the pasture. Two more cranes wandering amongst the large horned steer. What a sight!
We drive along the water a bit further, and witness the flock of cranes heading to their next destination.
Then, we head back and visit the Big Tree. A thousand-year-old Live Oak. The tree is a marvel, but we are still chuckling to ourselves about how this day – such a let down in the beginning – turned out so miraculously.