Birding for Insects

I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life – but there was no one to tell me.–George Washington Carver

Female Grackle with predaceous diving beetle larva, Casa de Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Female Great-tailed Grackle with Predaceous Diving Beetle Larva, Casa de Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Aquatic beetle larvae are the terrors of the aquatic micro-invertebrate realm, but they are just another juicy snack for a peckish icterid. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Perhaps it’s ironic to start thinking about insects the week of the first blue norther in Texas, but I have to act on ideas when I get them!

We tend to pay close attention to insects in the field because of the vital connection they have to birds: Insects are a major part of the diets of many birds. And we love documenting birds interacting with specific, identifiable prey! But insects are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.

Back when Elisa was in graduate school, we built a fine collection of insects for her course work. That collection is now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Soon after building that collection, though, we decided never to harm another wild creature if we could help it.

Comanche Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula comanche), Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Comanche Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula comanche), Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Since then, we have tried to capture insects through close-up and macrophotography in our travels to photograph birds. As anyone who has ever attempted such a thing knows, this can be a challenge—especially if one adheres strictly to the highest standards of ethical behavior.

In writing this post I am (nearly) violating one of my cardinal rules, one that I acquired from one of my finest teachers, Dr. R. R. West. He said often: “Don’t tell me what you are going to do, tell me what you have done.” Good advice. In that vein, we have designed and started to build a mobile system for collecting, photographing, and releasing insects unharmed back into to the wild. Stay tuned for the results!

Butterfly, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, West Texas
Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) on Guajillo (Acacia berlandieri), Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2016 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or image may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Autumnal Equinox: The Birth of the Cool

When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

White-eyed Vireo, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
White-eyed Vireo, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. White-eyed Vireos summer across the eastern U.S. south to the Atlantic slope of Mexico, but populations generally retreat south for the winter across their range. Canon EOD 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.

Male Vermilion Flycatcher, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Perched Male Vermilion Flycatcher, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Vermilion Flycatchers that winter on the Texas Gulf Coast have generally migrated east from breeding grounds in Mexico and the Southwest. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!

Calling Eastern Phoebe, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Fee-bee! Calling Eastern Phoebe, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. These flycatchers are a common sight on the Texas Gulf Coast in winter. But the “bee” sounds a bit worried from time to time. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Kiss Summer Goodbye, Already

When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel

Hunting Least Sandpiper, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas
Last Shot of the Swelter: Hunting Least Sandpiper, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas. It was a real trick keeping trash out of images this day. As far as I can tell, Texas beaches have never been filthier than this summer. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!

Singing Dickcissel, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas
Summer Songster: Singing Dickcissel, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas. Birdsong is one of the true joys of summer. Canon EOS 50D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.

Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).

Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.

Canada Gosling, Jackson, Wyoming
Canada Gosling, Jackson, Wyoming. Wyoming is paradise in summer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (1.4x TC). Natural light.

A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!

Young Yellow-headed Blackbird, Jackson, Wyoming
Female Yellow-headed Blackbird, Jackson, Wyoming. In summer, the marshes of cool temperate North America come to life. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.

Weevil, Lake Livingston Sgate Park, east Texas
Jack Frost Says Your Days Are Numbered: Blue Green Citrus Root Weevil (Pachaeus litus), Lake Livingston State Park, East Texas. Elisa captured the above image of this weird little character. Charming, but . . . these guys are pests. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro. Natural light.

©2016 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Past

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust

Pileated Woodpecker, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Pileated Woodpecker in Nest Cavity, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. In a pinch, with a little imagination and a suspension of disbelief, the Pileated Woodpecker could pass for the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker . . . Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The world is old. The world is new . . . .

Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.

Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .

Redwood Forest, southwest Oregon
Redwood Forest, Oregon Redwoods Trail, Siskiyou National Forest, southwest Oregon. This could be a scene from the Jurassic Period. The understory is mostly ferns, and the trees are conifers, Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Douglas fir. Sequoia conifers date back to the Late Jurassic Epoch. Mosses and ferns are far more ancient. The dark giant shapes slipping through the trees are sauropods. Canon EOS 7DII/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.

From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.

Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
Spirit Guide: A Friendly Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.

Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama
Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama. Human habitation began in Russell Cave during the Archaic Period, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists think these Native Americans occupied the cave mostly during winter. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).

Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!

Cycad, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas
Cycad Fronds, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas. Stare into a cycad understory today with impunity. Were it the Jurassic or Cretaceous Period, you might not like what was staring back! Canon EOS 7DII/50mm f/1.4. Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Shutterbirds Take a Late Summer Break!

Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.—Lasky, Walleyworld guard (from National Lampoon’s Vacation)

Over the Shoulder: Ring-necked Duck
Over the Shoulder: Ring-necked Hen, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The dog days of summer have us down! Chris’s return to work, illness (minor), and endless bad weather have cut the wind out of our sails. We’re takin’ a break! And we’re counting the days until the first blue norther arrives and brings with it the cold weather species that winter here—like ducks! See you soon!

Dragonfly on American Lotus Seed Pod, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula incesta) on American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Seed Pod, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

With a Whimper

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . . . —T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men

Brewer's Blackbird, Shell Mound Park, Dauphin Island, Alabama
In Shadow: Brewer’s Blackbird, Shell Mound Park, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Brewer’s Blackbirds are tolerant of humans and their activities. Perhaps they will survive the unfolding anthropogenic mass extinction. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I think I once read that T.S. Eliot, when asked if he would again write his poem’s famous last lines about the end of the world, replied that he would not have written a word. His rationale being that victims of aerial bombing during the Blitz never heard a thing before impact . . . . If the story’s not true, it should be.

Perhaps it’s because of working on my other website (trilobiteseas.com) that deals with an entirely extinct group, perhaps it’s because of what I keep seeing (and hearing) in the field while photo-birding, but I’ve got the end of the world on my mind. Of course, as humans in the early 21st Century, we’re experiencing the end of a world, not the end of the world. Without getting into the semantics of to whether humans are part of nature or not, the world that is ending is the natural biosphere, and it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. Songbird populations are collapsing everywhere, and human fingerprints are on their demise.

Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Bottlebrush is an Australian plant. Birds around the world love them, but are we harming birds and other aspects of the environment in ways we don’t understand by offering up such weird food sources? Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Fact is, wherever I go in the Lower Forty-eight, I am hard-pressed to find a completely natural scene.

Always there is the hand of man. Roads, trash, roadkills, and everywhere invasive plants and animals brought in by humans. A colleague at work who is quite knowledgeable about wildlife recently showed me some images of birds from her backyard feeders–because she had never seen anything like some of the birds before. They were Scaly-breasted Munias, exotics introduced into Texas from Asia. Those birds were eating someone else’s lunch!

While driving through southwest Oregon recently I saw weird, huge, orange flowers growing by the side of the road. What in the hell are those? I thought. Turns out they were red hot poker plants. Like the Bottlebrush, this plant is a big favorite of birds . . . in southern Africa where they come from! Perhaps some North American bird species will find a use for them.

If you want to get bummed out, read birding accounts from the 1950’s . . . .

Red Hot Poker Plant, Southwest Oregon
Red Hot Poker Plant (Kniphofia sp.), Southwest Oregon. The orange “petals” inflate into Digitalis-like flowers. I was taken aback the first time I saw this plant in the wild. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Natural light.

Man’s deleterious influence on the wild is always, always moving inexorably ahead altering and killing as it goes. Cars, buildings, cats, windmills . . . all slaughtering birds in the billions. Introduced invasives are replacing natives all around us. And although some of the introduced plants and animals are pretty, the havoc they’re causing in ecosystems isn’t!

What should we do? What, if anything, can we do?

Crow, Cape Arago, Oregon
American Crow, Cape Arago, Oregon. Crows, like grackles, pigeons, and starlings, get along fine with humans. They probably have a bright future. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Buffalo Run: An Easy Substitute for BBSP?

Oh, what a void there is in things. –Persius

Young Barn Swallow, Buffaloe Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Young Barn Swallow on a Bossy Sign, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Barn Swallows are tolerant of humans and nest under a pedestrian bridge at Buffalo Run. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The terrible storms of spring 2016 left Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) flooded and many birders looking for alternatives. Several recent trips to Brazos Bend revealed relatively few birds by historical standards. This is not surprising, and I suspect that it will be some time before park habitats recover.

I first visited Buffalo Run in search of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills as a temporary substitute for visits to Brazos Bend. While looking for these exotics, I noticed quite a few Gray Catbirds, Barn Swallows and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Although I did not encounter the exceptional birding that is typical of BBSP under normal circumstances, what I saw was encouraging—especially given the time of year.

 

 

Buffalo Run habitats include thickets and prairie, but I am most hopeful about the lakes and nearshore environments. Buffalo Run Park covers 95 acres and has four lakes covering about 48 acres. Boating is allowed but a no-wake rule is in effect (great!), and I have not seen boats on the water.

During the summer I noticed two mated pairs of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, both with large broods of ducklings. If the lakes of Buffalo Run meet the need of Whistling-Ducks, could it be that migratory wintering waterfowl will find their waters inviting? I certainly hope so. Buffalo Run Park is a mere fifteen minutes from our house. What could be more efficient?

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Family, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Family, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Color Variation in Breeding Male Orange Bishops

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin

Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken July 13, 2016. Natural light.

On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.

The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.

Displaying Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop in Display Mode, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. This is the same bird as at the top of the post. This bird was displaying into the sun. Coincidence? Note the red in the throat and upper chest. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.

Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.

As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.

For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.

Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. The camera was facing north. Natural light.
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. This is the same bird as the previous image. The camera was facing north. Natural light.

Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.

Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Reflections on the Impending End of Summer

Is there a reason for today?
Is there a reason for today?
Do you remember? –Gail Collins/Felix Pappalardi, “World of Pain” (as recorded by Cream)

Bathing Western Gull, Oregon
Bathing Western Gull, Sunset Bay State Park, Oregon. This bird was bathing in big waves as they came rolling in. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As I write this, I have less than a week remaining of my summer vacation. As a teacher, I, of course, look forward to summer every year. The two-and-a-half months off give us a chance to travel, and me a chance to get caught up on house repairs and maintenance. I usually go into summer with a long list of things to accomplish, and I’m lucky if half gets done. The prospect of being able to go out every day photographing plants and animals is exciting. But usually after about a month or so of shooting frequently, the grind of the Texas heat starts to take the edge off the enthusiasm at bit, productivity trails off, and I start to long for the first blue norther of fall.

Briza maxima (greater quaking-grass), Oregon
Briza maxima (greater quaking-grass), Coos Bay, Oregon. This lovely plant is native to southern Europe, western Asia, and north Africa, among other places—but not North America. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS. Natural light.

Summers off for students and teachers is a holdover from an agrarian past. Objectively, summer off is obsolete, and I would love to see the school calendar changed. Nine months of instruction is fine (unless you want to expand content, but no one but the most hard-core AP teachers want that), but summer vacation should be at most a month long lest student knowledge and skills tank. The additional time should be distributed throughout the year—longer mini-vacations in fall, winter, and spring. Of course, as a birder it would be wonderful to be able to travel to see major birding hotspots at the proper time of the year. Big Bend for Colima Warblers in May, anyone? Cape May for waterfowl in November? Anyone? Remember: The birds always decide when it’s the right time to be somewhere.

Bank Swallow, Oregon
Bank Swallow, Nesika Beach Bank Swallow Colony, near Gold Beach, Oregon. It takes some effort to see this colony: A half-mile hike through deep sand is required. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

During this summer, like every other one, I tried to cram as many new experiences as I could into available time. As the clock runs out, I always ask myself: Was the time as well-used as it could have been? The answer is almost always a resounding no. But as a life-long learner, that failure gives something to aspire to next time.

Snowy Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Snowy Plover (Breeding) at Dawn, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Snowy Plovers are “declining” and classified as “near threatened.” We saw them for the first time on Galveston Island this summer. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Black Terns, East Beach jetty, Galveston Island, Texas
Black Terns (Transitional) at Dawn, near East Beach jetty, Galveston Island, Texas. Black Terns are classified as “vulnerable” and a real treat wherever you find them. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Migration, Nature’s Wonder, on the Gulf Coast

Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Tennessee Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Tennessee Warblers follow nearly the same migratory path north during spring migration as they follow south during the fall. In the fall, though, they avoid the Atlantic Coast on their way back to Central and northern South America from all across Canada. Only they know exactly why. Note the pollen staining on the face. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Blue-winged Warbler During Spring Migration, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blue-winged Warblers migrate across the same areas during both migrations. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).

Western Sandpipers, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive You MAD 1: Western Sandpipers, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.

Short-billed Dowitcher, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive you MAD 2: Short-billed(?) Dowitcher, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.

Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.

Preening Black Tern, near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas
Preening Black Tern (Transitional Plumage), near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas. Although we’ve seen them in other places, I had my first ever good look at Black Terns on Galveston this week! Most birds were preening and transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Black Terns can only be seen on Galveston during migration. I waded out calf-deep to a sandbar at high tide to get this shot. Black Terns are considered “vulnerable.” Note the molted feathers everywhere. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Shorebirds and Terns at Ground-level

If they play dirty, then you play dirty. –Lawrence Taylor

Piping Plover (Breeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Female Piping Plover (Breeding Colors), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Piping Plovers are rare birds. The world population was estimated at 12,000 individuals in 2009 (Lockwood and Freeman, 2014). Fall migrants begin to appear in Texas at the end of June. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) on ground pod. Natural light.

It’s an extremely interesting time to visit the Texas Gulf Coast these days. The fall shorebird migration is in full swing, and there is still plenty of family life to observe. Identifying some birds can be a bit of a challenge, though, as some species are showing immature, breeding, and non-breeding plumages simultaneously.

Last month, it was hard to decide if some of the birds were stragglers on their way north, or if they were planning on sticking around. But by now it’s clearly too late to be moving north, and many of the birds that breed here, like the Least Terns, are on their second brood. I guess I’ve exchanged one confusion for another!

Western Sandpipers (breeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Western Sandpipers (Breeding Colors), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Western Sandpipers begin to appear in Texas during fall migration in early July. Spring migrant stragglers can appear in Texas as late as June. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) on ground pod. Natural light.

Ever since reading Bill Majoros’ Secrets of Digital Bird Photography, I’ve had shooting from a ground pod in the back of my mind. A ground pod is a dish-like affair that sits right on the ground and serves as a support for your tripod mount. Using a ground pod means, for the photographer, lying down on the ground. Many prefer the look of bird photos shot from as low an angle as possible to get, ironically, a bird’s eye view. Such a low angle makes the foreground and background disappear and gives the impression of a very narrow depth of field, regardless of f-stop, thus isolating the subject. My desire to give a ground pod a try was given another nudge by a nice talk on this subject by Tim Timmis that Elisa and I saw at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association meeting last May.

Bathing Least Tern (Breeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Bathing Least Tern (Breeding Colors), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) on ground pod. Natural light.

As in all things photographic, shooting from a ground pod is a compromise. Use of a ground pod is also a highly specialized technique. This device can only work on level ground, free of any obstructions. A ground pod is therefore impractical in most of the places we normally shoot, like Brazos Bend State Park.

Ground pods will also not work well if the photographer needs to react to a birds moving around a lot or approaching from a variety of heights and directions. A stable place from which birds come and go is therefore needed. On certain beaches and tidal mudflats, then, the ground pod will work admirably for shorebirds and water birds—birds that tend to stick consistently to a choice patch of beach.

A photographer using a ground pod will also typically get filthy, and dirt, mud, and water can very easily be transferred to equipment—a big concern if you’re not using professional-grade equipment. Shooting from such a low angle also causes all the context of the bird to disappear in a dreamy haze, so you will lose all or most of the ecological information in the shot. But what context you fail to capture in the shot, you can bring back on your clothes!

Common(?) Tern with fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Immature Common(?) Tern with Fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) on ground pod. Natural light.

My usual response to the multiple considerations and compromises on the beach is to shoot shorebird photos from my knees. A recent mishap has made ground pod shooting more likely, though. Through over-tightening, I broke the threads of the bolt that controls the stiffness of the pan control on my Wimberley II gimbal tripod mount. I soon realized that I could permanently mount the broken gimbal on our ground pod, a NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II, because panning can be achieved by turning the whole apparatus.

Having to move a gimbal from a tripod to ground pod is an odious operation and not recommended in the field given that such mounts are prima donnas as regards fine adjustments of the center bolt, and you have to worry about getting grit in the threads. Now, with a new gimbal mounted on my tripod and the old, broken gimbal on the ground pod, I’m ready for action on the beach—I just have to talk myself into schlepping all those contraptions around!

Reference

Lockwood, Mark W., and Brush Freeman. 2014. The Texas Ornithological Society Handbook of Texas Birds. Texas A&M University Press. 403p.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Hunting Houston’s Exotic Birds

In the jungle, welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your sha na na na na knees knees
I wanna watch you bleed . . . . Guns N’ Roses, Welcome to the Jungle

Male Northern Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Exotic Bird: Male Orange Bishop (Euplectes franciscanus), Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As of this writing, the terrible floods of spring 2016 have left Brazos Bend State Park closed. My normal routine of visiting the park a few times a week during the summer has been shattered, leaving me searching for other spots to bird. East End, Galveston Island has helped to fill the gap, but by 8am it’s broiling and the glare precludes photography. But then there is looking for exotic, invasive birds.

Thanks to a heads-up from a longtime friend and birder (M.B.) I was able to locate a patch of cane and prairie that a mixed flock of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills (Estrilda melpoda) have made their home at Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City, Texas. These invasive African bird species and pet shop escapee descendants have been spotted around the Houston area—to the delight of many birders who are excited about seeing something new without having to travel to the ends of the earth, and to the horror of those concerned about the impacts they may be having on our native birds. Perhaps these emotions co-exist in some.

Many Houston birders are aware of invasives like Monk Parkeets, Red-vented Bulbuls–and now Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills. But the true extent of the alien invasion has yet to be understood. This week during our evening neighborhood walk, for example, we observed a small flock of “what the hell are those” feeding off grass seed heads along a bayou. These tiny birds were likely Asian munias of some sort, probably descendants of Asian wedding releasees. I’ll keep checking back until I can figure out exactly what they are, or get a good enough image to identify them definitively.

Oddly, I’ve been referring to my Hawaii’s Birds (Hawaii Audubon Society) book to identify things I’m seeing in Houston. Many of the same Asian and African species that are threatening native Hawaiian birds with extinction are now gaining a toe-hold along the Texas Gulf Coast. Not good.

Little Blue Heron with Crawfish, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Not Exotic Bird: Little Blue Heron with Crawfish, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Soon (I hope) I’ll be back to shooting scenes like this. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.