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Bird Photography on the Strip

Sunday, November 25, 2012

There are some really big things in Texas. As you get nearer to South Padre Island and the beach, they get bigger and bigger. Seashells. Dinosaurs. Menacing gorillas. Volcanoes. That kind of thing.

For whatever reason, perhaps Freddie's '80's 'do, this water tower cracks me up. It's big, too.

We were after much smaller things. Like this leetle pied-billed grebe who was floating around preening hisself just off the South Padre Island Convention Center boardwalk.

He's fluffling himself, and the vibrations spread as if he were a tuning fork. I don't really understand how grebe plumage can be at once so fluffy and waterproof. I think it has to do with sleeking down, and abundant oil in the feathers. Really, though, they look like feather dusters, and you wouldn't dunk one of those in the water and expect it to float. Just another mystery to leave unsolved.

I had a pied-billed grebe in my hand who had hit a powerline years ago. He weighed a full pound. I was amazed at the density and heft for his size. Ballast for dives, I guess. They're powerful birds, who migrate at night on tiny narrow wings. So much we don't know or appreciate about grebes. They are extremely cool birds.

There were so many wonderful things hidden in the reeds that walking the marvelous boardwalks was like being in a Highlights for Children double-page spread. Oh look. An American bittern!

who sleeked down when he saw a small fish.

Most of the dabbling ducks were in eclipse plumage in early November, but this drake American wigeon was impressing his mate with fully  molted raiment. He's ready to display.

And in flight. What a gorgeous sight. Oh, I would love to spread that wing and feel that velvet green speculum.

Ahh, crap. You're poopin' up my flight shot, Mr. Wigeon. Spoiled anyway by the hotel behind. This photo does convey the sharp contrast of wild and insanely built-up that is South Padre. Or any beach area, for that matter. Sigh. I see the wildlife crampacked into the tiny refuges and wonder what it must've been like before the giant hotels and condos and restaurants and tattoo parlors and beach towel/sunglasses stores crowded it all into pockets. Beaches. I love 'em. But coastal areas swiftly drive me nuts, because the balance is usually tilted toward all those giant things, and the throngs and their dopey thongs. Poo on that. We should leave more room for wildlife. Tear some of those buildings down and bring the marsh back where it once was and ought still to be.

Having vented, I'm deeply grateful for what remains around the Convention Center and the World Birding Center. I guess I'm just greedy for what used to and ought to be here. And will never understand how a row of sunglasses stores could have taken precedence over a vital breathing living nursery for fish, crustaceans, invertebrates, and birds. How many damn beach towel stores does one town need? In my mind I'd love to be a sort of Carrie Nation for beach development, busting in and swinging my ax around, riding a bulldozer in my big long flouncy dress.

 The pintails were looking a bit shabby by contrast to the wigeon, if such a graceful greyhound can ever look shabby.

The challenge as a photographer is to get the birds framed up in those golden moments before they fly across the facade of the hotel, the marina, the electrical tower. Bill of the Birds took these two roseate spoonbill shots. I forget why he had my camera in his hands but he responded beautifully to GIT 'IM GIT 'IM GIT 'IM which is what I hissed when the spoonbill took off.

 Ahhh. There you are. A million miles, visually, from Big Johnson's Bar. And just a couple of wingstrokes away.


I have many fond memories of South Padre Island... My family spent a week there in November of 1974, BEFORE it was built up! One day I remember in particular was one where my Mom drove my Dad and I about 10 miles to the north. We walked back to our little one story motel and it took us most of the day! The best part was that we had buried our lunch in a dune at the halfway mark:)

One of my hopes is that Congress revises the federal flood insurance program to discourage beach development and prevent rebuilding in sensitive areas.

Great photos!

Julie, did you get a chance to visit the turtle rescue center on Padre Is while you were there?

That little grebe might be the cutest bird ever. Lovely photos of the spoonbill too! As a transplant to Florida, I heartily agree that beaches and coastal areas would be well served with fewer shops (and people) and more birds and fish.

I think one of the coolest things about grebes is the location of their legs. They're so far back that they can barely walk, but they're perfectly positioned to propel them like little submarines underwater. A Pie-billed chasing minnows in clear, shallow water is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

@Claudia... Think how us natives feel!

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