Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
Huge flocks of waterfowl are one of the great spectacles of the fall and winter. Lesser Snow Geese congregate in wetlands and agricultural fields like those in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. At Anahuac, thousands of birds can dot the land and water and form swirling clouds, but we’ve only seen them from a distance, deep in the marshes or fields. Truth be told, I assumed that all the white waterfowl we’ve seen here in the past were Lesser Snow Geese. This is probably not the case.
Last Winter, on a road trip to New Mexico, we were able to get close enough to similar flocks to identify a few of the much smaller Ross’s Geese that could easily pass unnoticed. Ross’s Geese are rare visitors to Texas and New Mexico and are far fewer in number than Snow Geese, with which they have been know to interbreed.
Ross’s Geese are small and cute, with relatively stubby beaks and round domed heads, like baby animals. As a naturalist, the first word that entered my mind when I saw Ross’s Geese was neoteny. Neotenic evolution occurs when juvenile features are retained in the adult . . . .
Ross’s Geese are Arctic breeders whose lives were poorly understood until the recent past. In the 1930’s, they were thought to only number several thousand individuals. Snow Geese were in a similar predicament a few decades earlier. In recent times, though, both species have greatly expanded their numbers and now make up sizable flocks.
The standard adaptationist explanation for herds or flocks or animals is that there is safety in numbers. The chance of any individual being taken by a predator is low. A logical extension of this strategy would be to be a rare species in a much larger group of another species. Any attack by a predator on the group would most likely result in a member of the more abundant species being taken.
Could the rarity of Ross’s Geese, coupled with looking like a juvenile (and hence receiving gentler treatment from the other geese?), be a survival strategy? Every trip to the field provides more questions than answers and ample fuel for speculation.
The psychic plane is clouded over by emotions and thoughts and the general dullness and malaise that develops in our contemporary world through the social conditioning that most individuals experience in the modern era.–Frederick Lenz
Still, we struggle to claw out from the chaos . . . . Wednesday was a beautiful day, but we had to be at work . . . and then slog through traffic hell. But . . . the . . . holidays. Holidays! Yes, holidays!
Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton
As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.
On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .
But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .
Late last week we evacuated to Huntsville for the epic floods associated with Harvey. At this writing, we don’t know the extent of the damage to our house, but we’re expecting it to be severe. Given the uncertainties and the likelihood of being extremely busy for the next few weeks, we’re putting Two Shutterbirds on hiatus. But don’t despair, we may be back with more images of our avian friends sooner than we think. Cheers, Elisa and Chris
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1: 5
When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha
Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.
After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.
This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”
What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.
Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.
Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?
Sonny: Sal, Wyoming’s not a country.
–Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
What with Elisa up in Wyoming to observe the astronomical, and Chris back in thrall attending to the physical, we’re tapped out. Not to worry–we’ll be back on the ball soon with more images and prose celebrating our feathery friends. As we enter these sweaty dog days, we’re dreaming of the first blue norther (and northern and high places)! If you’re on the Texas Gulf Coast, we bet you are too!
Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?
There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.
Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?
On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.
In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.
It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head . . . .–Summer in the City, Lovin’ Spoonful
It’s taken about two weeks to get back into the field after our return from Alaska. After living two weeks around 38º F, the prospect of being out when it’s near 38º C hasn’t sounded too inviting. But this week I took advantage of a so-called “cold front” and visited Fiorenza Park in west Houston. While trying to photograph fishing cormorants and waders from my ground pod by the bridge, a fellow traveler (JD) told me that a Bald Eagle was perched on a snag on the other side of the park. Ultimately I saw no eagle, but while walking to the snag I came upon a family of Loggerhead Shrikes–two young and a parent.
Luckily, I was able to observe the adult hunting insects in the grass as well as begging and feeding behaviors. On this visit, I found the colors of the trees, especially the small ones, to be quite rich and beautiful–almost autumn-like. Of course, the rich colors are the result of heat stress, and these small trees have begun the slow process of being baked to death under a brutal Texas sun. But, the return of rains mid-week may have ended the dying time for this summer . . . .
One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.
We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.
Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.
One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.
Long ago, when the world was still quite new, there were no winds at all, neither the gentle breeze of summer nor the fierce winter gale. Everything was perfectly still. Nothing disturbed the marsh grass on the shore and when snow fell, it fell straight to earth instead of blowing and swirling into drifts as it does now . . . . Origin of the Winds, Aleut legend
The four Pribilof Islands lie in the Bering Sea about one-hundred fifty miles north of the Aleutians. Of St. George, St. Paul, Walrus, and Otter Islands, only St. Paul and St. George are inhabited. St. George and St. Paul are birding meccas, more so the latter because of better weather conditions for aviation in and out despite the former having a great deal more cliff habitat and many more birds.
Seventeen species of alcids have been observed on and around St. Paul Island. Many of these species are rare, threatened, or endangered. In summer, however, seven species are common, and these are the birds we spent a considerable time with in early July as part of a bird photography workshop conducted by Canadian photographer Chris Dodds. Least Auklets seemed to be the most abundant of the alcids on the cliffs, followed by Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets. Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins were less common. Common Murres were observed infrequently: We only observed them in flight around the sea cliffs.
The seven species of alcids are all cliff-nesting species and spend most of the year out to sea when they are not breeding or raising young. With the exception of Least Auklets which we also observed and photographed at Anton Larsen Wall, a man-made breakwater composed of boulders of volcanic rock, all species were photographed on cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Many of these sites seem quite precarious and dangerous (for birds and humans alike), and one section of cliff housing Crested Auklet nesting sites collapsed into the sea while we were visiting.
According to reports and historical records, the abundance of birds and other animals has decreased dramatically on St. Paul. According to Chris Dodds who has visited the island approximately thirty times in the last few decades, the abundance of birds has dropped by about 90% in that time. Aerial photos of the island on display in the King Eider Hotel, the only lodging available to visiting birders, also show a steep decline in northern fur seal abundance since the mid-twentieth century.
The decrease in seabird abundance on St. Paul likely reflects a general drop in bird abundance across the northern Pacific. On this trip, the local guides and Chris Dodds kept mentioning nesting failures and weird timings of birds coming and going across the island. Many causes have been suggested for the current avian crisis from human overfishing, to birds being killed in fishing nets, oil spills, other pollution, and “the blob,” a mass of unusually warm surface water that has disrupted the marine ecosystem causing mass starvation. Whatever the cause(s), if you want to see these incredible animals we suggest not waiting as the task will only become more difficult with time. Think of the northern Pacific as the American West–circa 1890.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London
Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.
The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.
Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.
The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.
All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.
Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach… it pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’ –Steven Wright
Sometimes it’s best to just sit back and stop tryin’ so hard–so we’re takin’ a break! Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball in no time with a few surprises up our sleeves! Cheers!