What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. –Plutarch
This week on Galveston, Common Loons could be seen in many stages of transitional plumage. Every bird looked slightly different. All the birds I saw had some degree of spotting on the wings, and so lacked the brown, scalloped pattern of nonbreeding wing plumage. I saw one bird with a shaggy mane of pin feathers (Thanks to S.M. for pointing out this bird!) and one bird in almost complete breeding colors—only a stray feather here or there needed to be pigmented.
Many birds were engaged in hunting behavior much of the time. I saw fish, crabs, and a single mantis shrimp (Squilla empusa) being taken. This is clearly the time of year to be gorging and fattening up. It’s a long way back to Canada and environs for the breeding season! A good deal of preening was also going on, likely related to molting and keeping feathers in shape for the big trip ahead. Two birds had already pair-bonded and spent a significant amount of time together–another reminder that breeding in birds is often a process that unfolds in many stages over much of the year.
Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?—Frida Kahlo
Among extant birds, grebes have a unique method of foot propulsion. There are other foot-propelled divers, loons, for example, but these birds have significant webbing between the toes. The birds with webbed toes push themselves forward against the drag force of water. Grebes, on the other hand, have separate toes with stiff, collapsible asymmetrical lobes on each side. The lobes on the inside are larger than those on the outside. Grebes are also unusual in that their relatively short femora (thigh bones) are oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the body, and the toes beat along a complex dorso-lateral to ventro-medial path, rather than parallel to the direction of the body’s forward motion.
The traditional interpretation of how grebes paddled through the water, and the one I was taught, is that the lobes of the toes would unfold during then power stroke to provide maximum drag to push against, and fold up to reduce drag on the the recovery stroke. A more recent interpretation is that the grebe foot acts like a (slotted) hydrofoil and provides a lift force that propels the bird forward from behind (Johansson and Norberg, 2001)–physically similar to the way in which a wing allows a bird or airplane to fly. The lift hypothesis has an immediate visceral appeal to me given the asymmetrical lobes of the toes—like the vanes of a flight feather. Lift is usually explained by elementary physics textbooks as the result of the Bernoulli principle, essentially the conservation of energy for a moving fluid. This explanation is not correct quantitatively. The true explanation likely involves the most terrifying of all physics concepts . . . turbulence . . . .
As a photographer on the surface, I haven’t been able to document the strange way in which grebes move through the water. Once and a while, when conditions were right, I have been treated to a glimpse of the legs in motion as in the image below. Swimming with grebes is one more activity to add to an already lengthy bucket list.
I mentioned at the opening that grebes were unique among extant birds. Hesperornithiformes, a group of toothed Cretaceous foot-propelled diving birds, are thought to have had a method of propulsion similar to grebes and to have possessed asymmetrically lobed individual toes. On a recent visit to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, I had the opportunity to study the feet of a life-sized model of Hesperornis regalis, the largest of these Cretaceous divers from the Kansas Chalk Sea. Reading the label . . . sure enough, reconstruction supervised by Dr. L. D. Martin, my late (paleo)ornithology professor, a gifted teacher with so many fascinating stories to tell about the lives of birds. . . .
While grebe-watching, I am always interested in seeing these birds return to the surface with prey. In my experience along the Gulf Coast, Eared Grebes rarely return to the surface with prey. After dozens of dives, I have seen only one small fish clamped in a beak. This means that grebes are either remarkably unsuccessful hunters (unlikely), or that they can swallow small prey underwater (likely). Pied-billed and Least Grebes can be seen with large prey on the surface like fish, crawfish, frogs, and dragonflies. Perhaps small prey may be easily swallowed in the submarine realm, whereas large prey items may need to be manipulated into an ideal orientation in the air. In any case, grebes are certainly among the most interesting subjects for study and observation. Elisa doesn’t have to ask me twice to go grebe-watching!
Johansson, L.C., and Norberg, U. M. L. Norberg. 2001. Lift-based Paddling in Diving Grebe. The Journal of Experimental Biology204: 1687-1696.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare
l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.
Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!
Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.
This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!
Birds are the most popular group in the animal kingdom. We feed them and tame them and think we know them. And yet they inhabit a world which is really rather mysterious. –David Attenborough
Frankly we haven’t gotten out much lately. This is a function of terrible weather and just plain exhaustion. The prospect of fighting traffic on a gloomly, humid 85° day in February hasn’t held much charm. Spending time indoors has led to combing through the photo archives and pining for past years in which we had a proper winter.
One of the things we would have been watching for this week, had we been outdoors, is the cooperative feeding behavior of American White Pelicans. Whenever I see these birds I stand in awe, just waiting for them to so something neat. Is there anything more majestic in American birding than a string of White Pelicans paddling in formation along the shallows searching for schools of fish?
American White Pelicans are known to cooperatively herd fish into the shallows by beating their wings. On Galveston, a fairly common sight is a line of White Pelicans suddenly forming a circle, beaks pointed inward, and gobbling up a school of fish (presumably).
Once the feeding frenzy is over, the birds turn around within their circular formation and reassemble into their line and continue paddling along peacefully . . . until the next school of fish.
It might well be that getting used to things up here was simply a matter of getting used to not getting used to them—but . . . .
―Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Given their alpine habits, shy ways, and (generally) restricted geographic ranges, the Rosy-Finches are among the hardest birds in North America to see. The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch has the most restricted range of the the three species that occur in the U.S. and can only be seen in southern Wyoming, central Colorado, and northern New Mexico. In warmer weather, it tends to occur only at high elevation, but descends in winter. The Black Rosy-Finch has a larger, but sill relatively restricted range within the western interior of the U.S. The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch has the widest distribution of the three species and ranges from northern New Mexico up through western Canada and Alaska, and across the Bering Strait into eastern Asia. All birds tend to be ground foragers for insects and seeds, which are often collected from the surface of snow. According to stateofthebirds.org, the Black and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are of high conservation concern, and the Gray-crowned is of high moderate concern.
Sandia Crest, a snowy mountain-top about an hour drive east of Albuquerque, is an unusual place where all three species can be seen together in small flocks during winter. A gift shop and restaurant can be found on the crest at an elevation of about 10,600 feet. Getting up the icy, winding road to the top can be a bit hairy but well worth the anxiety . . . .
And now the hard part . . . feeders on the observation platform attract the birds which typically come and go throughout the day. The nature photographers in us struggle against this idea of seeking and photographing birds baited to a place. But as birds become rarer and rarer, and time and resources are so limited . . . .
Other alpine birds like Pine Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills can also (theoretically) be seen at Sandia Crest, but we were not lucky in this regard. In addition to the Rosy-finches we saw only Stellar’s Jays, White-crowned Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos.
New Mexico is one of our favorite states to visit. Perhaps it has something to do with the romance of the prehistoric past. Some of the earliest North American cultures are named after places in New Mexico: Folsom, Clovis, and Sandia. Perhaps it is this state’s important role in the history of aerospace and nuclear technology, White Sands, Trinity . . . . To these attractions we can add a number first-rate birding sites like Sandia Crest, San Bernardo and Bosque del Apache NWR. We already have a return visit planned.
Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand
Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?
Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?
Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.
And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.
Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
Find the places I got hurt . . . . —Peter Gabriel, Digging in the Dirt
When birds are not around, the bird photographer must find other critters to photograph. Often that honor falls to ground squirrels and kin! As is my usual methodology, I research the animals I encounter in the field. Just as in the case of birds, ground squirrels tell a mixed story of success and struggle in a human-dominated world.
Not surprisingly, we’ve really only seen ground squirrels that are doing pretty well (for the most part) since we haven’t yet mounted specific expeditions to see and photograph the rare and threatened ones like the Mohave, Townsend’s, or Washington ground squirrels. Make no mistake, some ground squirrels are battling for survival against many of the same menaces facing birds–habitat destruction, cats, and poisons.
Although technically considered a species of “least concern,” the areal extent of Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies has fallen to about 2% of historical levels. Considered by many farmers and ranchers to be pests (Get the bazooka, Joe!), these burrowing rodents are lynchpins of their local ecology. They have many interesting ecological relationships with a variety of other organisms. Birders might be concerned about their fate given their role as prey to a variety of raptors including Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles. Also, Burrowing Owls will nest in prairie dog burrows (and the burrows of many other mammals, as well). In 2004, the black-tailed prairie dog was removed from consideration for endangered status based on population studies. One wonders what the level of concern would be if the range of human distribution decreased by 98% in a century and a half. I bet everyone would think everything was OK.
The rock squirrel is a suspicious fellow we see occasionally on outings in West and Central Texas and Arizona. This is a big, dark chunky squirrel that is way more timid than one would expect given its heft. Try and flush one of these characters into a pillowcase, BM! At places like Franklin Mountains State Park and Lost Maples State Natural Area, these seed-hogging marauders can often be seen emptying the bird feeders of seeds. In contrast to the prairie dog, this is not a popular squirrel among the birds—nor likely anyone maintaining a seed feeder within its range (Get the blunderbuss, Bob!).
Although relatively little is known about its ecology, the Uinta ground squirrel is easy to spot at Yellowstone National Park. There are no known threats to its survival, especially since a big chunk of its limited range falls within that park in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. These critters are considered by some farmers to be agricultural pests (Arm photon torpedoes, Scotty!) because of their unforgivable tendency to dig and root up plants.
Now that we’ve seen quite a few species of squirrel, tree and ground, I have started paying more attention to them. When in a strange place, I’ve stopped assuming every squirrel I’ve seen is a common species (or subspecies) I’ve seen a hundred times before. For example, turns out a patch of habitat we bird occasionally (Cave Creek, Arizona) is home to the Mexican fox squirrel. Maybe next time I’ll capture a nice image of this cheeky critter!
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid
The last few weeks have been rather hectic, and we’re wiped out. Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball soon sharing some images of, and words about, our incredible Texas avifauna! Cheers, Elisa and Chris
Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.
Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.
So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.
Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.
Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.
So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.
Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer
There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.
On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.
On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.
Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.