Saturday, March 29, 2014

Murphy Park Rookery

This afternoon, we drove to Murphy Park in Taylor, TX.  This is 30 minutes from Georgetown. We had gotten a tip from another birder that there is a small lake in the park with an island that serves as a rookery for various egrets and herons.  Although it's early in the breeding season, we decided to check it out.

When we got there around 17:30 CDT, we saw a dozen egrets and a couple of cormorants perched in a few small trees. We were told that most of the birds came in near sunset. By the time we left at 19:30 CDT we counted approximately:
  • 100 Cattle Egret
  • 50 Double-Crested Cormorant, juvenile and adults
  • 40 Great Egret
  • 10 Little Blue Heron
  • 5 Snowy Egret
  • 5 American Coot
  • 1 Black-Crowned Night Heron
...and the birds were still arriving in bunches, especially the cattle egrets. I understand that at the peak of the season there are a thousand birds crowded here. Roaming the grounds were also a number of aggressive Swan Geese as well as Mallards ... a typical urban park.

After walking around, we decided that more birds were visible on the west side of the island. I set up a Canon SX-50 HS on a tripod and settled down. Danielle went hand-held with her Canon SX-50 HS. We were only able to get within 80 feet of the birds from the shore.

Initially, the majority of the birds were Great Egrets, almost all crowded near the tops of the three bare trees on the island. Most were in breeding plumage, sporting fluffy aigrettes (plumes on their backs used in the 19th century for trimming ladies' hats, until the species was hunted almost to extinction) and bright neon green lores. On our winter trips to the coast, they were much less showy. Note also the long delicate necks, yellow bill, and black legs and feet. Amazing how they perch like passerines despite those long wading legs.

Many of these egrets were busy constructing nests in the trees. Here is one placing a branch that it bought in earlier. It really does not seem that there is enough place in the trees for all of these birds to nest there.

A few were displaying their aigrettes like a peacock while standing on their nesting platform. This one was situated below the trees in the cane stalks. It stood there displaying like this for the two hours we were watching, occasionally reaching its bill down to rearrange a branch.

Ironically, we only saw a few egrets approach the water and only one went in. It did not seem to be actively hunting; I suppose it spends the day elsewhere doing that.

In the sunset glow, their plumage took on a golden cast adding another dimension to their beauty.

I had understood that Murphy Park was mostly a heron and egret rookery, and I see these birds from time to time in the rivers around here. Thus, the presence of cormorants was the surprise for me as I have never seen them around home. A quick check in the bird guide confirms that the ones we saw were all Double-Crested Cormorants, different from the Neotropic Cormorants we saw on the coast this winter.

The adults, in the first two images, are glossy black with orange skin both below the bill and in the lore patch.  The breeding adults show a pair of tufted plumes on either side of their head. These were only obvious on a couple of the birds we saw today. The juveniles, in the subsequent two images, have a paler skin patch and brown plumage with a mottled tan breast.

Unlike the egrets, we saw a number of the cormorants venture into the water. They are very inefficient when taking flight.  I saw a cormorant floating next to the island race furiously along the surface of the water gaining altitude very slowly. It needed two passes of the island to get enough height to settle in the low trees right next to where it started.

For the most part, the cormorants sunned themselves quietly. At one point a pair of juveniles squared off against each other as you can see in this short YouTube video:

The cormorants and great egrets were the largest birds on the island. However, there were many other species, as well. When we first got to the park, a Little Blue Heron had just arrived and ducked into the cane. Eventually, there were a dozen. These are quite small compared to the Great Blue Heron, which we see much more often. This rookery trip has been very useful to gauge relative sizes of these species; the Little Blue Heron is only about two thirds the size of a Great Egret, which is slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron. Note the blue body and contrasting maroon neck and head. Also notice the grey and blue bill which helps to distinguish it from the larger Reddish Egret.

Update - 2014-05-17 - We saw a juvenile Little Blue Heron. in May. I am posting the picture here for comparison. Note the similar blue on the beak, but not as bright.

Though there were no Cattle Egrets initially, they soon dominated the island. They are recognizable from their golden crests, breast and back plumage. They are slightly smaller even than the Little Blue Herons. We last saw Cattle Egrets in cow pastures down near the coast. I have never seen them in the Austin area but they must spend the day around here somewhere, perhaps in the farmland in the Taylor area.

The Snowy Egret, of which we saw a number on Mustang Island, is about the same size as the Little Blue Heron. They have a black bill and legs but the lores and feet are both yellow. We only counted a few today.

A special treat was this Black Crowned Night Heron, a new confirmed species for us. We have a yellow-crowned pair nesting on the river near our house again this year, though we haven't yet gotten a photograph. This one stayed mostly hidden in the cane.

One last note. As we sat observing the birds on the island, a this bunch of Mallards flew out of the water and squabbled past our feet quacking loudly, only to land in a pile-up next to us.  All I can say is: it was a bad day to be Miss Mallard.

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