Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
Last week we didn’t see many Neotropical migrant songbirds. The weather was incredible . . . but maybe that was the problem. With crystal clear skies and a consistent wind out of the south, i.e. a tailwind, the trans-Gulf migrants may have simply blown past the Coast and the usual migrant traps. What’s good for birds, is bad for birders.
What’s more, dry weather means that there haven’t been many arthropods around other than caterpillars and a few flies, mosquitos, dragonflies, and spiders. So there really hasn’t been much of a reason for birds to stop if exhaustion or thirst wasn’t a problem. At Lafitte’s Cove on 4/8 I saw a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and one vireo or warbler (I saw only a creamy yellow underside through the canopy)—a terrible showing for April at a Gulf Coast migrant trap.
Some stormy weather moved into the Gulf Coast throughout this week. On Tuesday (4/11), for example, a major front swept down mid-day and looked the perfect set-up for a fallout. Sadly, I watched the atmospherics on radar from work, trapped and unable to get into the field. But yesterday (4/14) was also bad at Lafitte’s Cove. I only saw a few hummers, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a Bronze-headed Cowbird, and a White-eyed Vireo. In addition to these, Elisa saw two Tennessee Warblers. Not great.
In any case, hope springs eternal, and we’ll give the Coast the old college try again this weekend! One of these days . . . .
Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson
As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.
Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.
Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!
On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .
Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?
As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.
In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here . . . .
—Emily Dickinson, A Light Exists in Spring
In our travels last week, we stopped by Smith Oaks on High Island, Texas, one of the most famous birding sites on the Texas Gulf Coast. Although we saw no early migrant songbirds in the surrounding woods, the rookery was hopping with activity—the drive toward life.
Spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants filled the air. Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants shuttled back and forth with nest-building materials. Double-crested Cormorants fished in the water surrounding the rookery. Some Great Egret pairs were building nests, sitting on eggs, or rearing chicks. Neotropic Cormorants were nest-sitting, but no chicks were to be seen. A few energetic Tricolored Herons swooped past but gave no indication of intentions. Spoonbills squabbled with each other: Nesting can’t be far behind!
Great and Snowy Egrets in glorious breeding plumes (that almost doomed these species to extinction in the Gilded Age) with lores ablaze in electric colors were everywhere and revved up on hormones. Soon, the later-breeding species, Cattle Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Roseate Spoonbills, will join the frenzy. By that time, the trees will be filled with brilliant flashes of Neotropical migrant songbird plumage and the picture of spring will be complete . . . .
But, as always, predators lurk in the dark water below waiting for larger nestlings to oust smaller, weaker ones, or for birds of any age to simply make a mistake . . . .
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.–Khalil Gibran
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.