Least Grebe: Dragonfly Hunter

Problem solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it. –Thomas Harris

Least Grebe, Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas
All Charm: Least Grebe, Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas. This bird was warming its behind in the sun by exposing its bare skin to the sun. For more about this behavior see Elisa’s 2015 post regarding Least Grebe sunning and diving. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 1

This Thanksgiving holiday we took the opportunity to photo-bird a few of our favorite spots along the Coastal Bend. Our first stop was Paradise Pond in Port Aransas on Mustang Island, Texas. Sitting on a perched water table, Paradise Pond is the only open source of fresh water in the area—thus making it a mecca for birds and birders. To our delight, a single Least Grebe was patrolling the pond.

Least Grebes typically feed on aquatic insects and insect larvae and also consume small fish, tadpoles, and crawfish. This grebe, though, was occasionally doing battle with large Anax junius dragonflies. Strangely, the bird would emerge from underwater out toward the middle of the pond with struggling dragonflies in its beak. At first, brain-storming in the field, we wondered if the bird was: 1) finding moribund dragonflies on the bottom and bringing them up, 2) capturing insects as they emerged from metamorphosis underwater, 3) capturing the insects as they laid eggs at the surface somewhere and then swimming underwater, 4) grabbing insects in flight and then dragging them under to drown them, or 5) grabbing dragonflies from emergent vegetation and then submarining away. During most of the time we observed, the grebe was in a high state of vigilance, and appeared to be tracking dragonflies as they zipped around.

Least Grebe with Anax junius dragonfly, Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas
Dark Water: Least Grebe with Anax junius Dragonfly, Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As a sidebar, Chris encountered a bit of a photographic challenge during our study of the Least Grebe. The recent removal of the Brazilian Pepper trees to the west of the pond meant that the water in the pond had three distinct regions. Along the eastern edge of the pond, the water was shaded by vegetation and appeared dark green (images immediately above and below). The middle of the pond appeared a brilliant blue (top image), and the western part of the pond had strong glare and appeared striped gold and blue (bottom image). Images from the latter tended to look washed out. As the grebe patrolled looking for dragonflies, it crossed into the three types of water, thus requiring constant chimping to keep exposure correct.

Least Grebe with female Anax junius dragonfly, Paradise Pond, Mustang island, Texas
Down the Hatch: Least Grebe with Female Anax junius Dragonfly, Paradise Pond, Mustang island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

After several hours of observation, Elisa finally saw the bird picking dragonflies and damselflies from emergent vegetation after approaching from underwater—one question answered! Soon after that, Chris and Elisa both saw a spectacular hunting display: a pair of autumn meadowhawk dragonflies was flying in tandem across the surface of the pond when the Grebe erupted from under the water, lunged toward the insects, and took a snap at them! So we did learn that Least Grebes will attempt to snatch dragonflies from mid-air.

After our return home, we spent Sunday morning binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). There, we spoke with naturalist and friend R.D. who told us that he had seen a Least Grebe grab a dragonfly from the air at BBSP (Pilant Slough). The insect later escaped, but now we know: Least Grebes employ a variety of tactics to capture dragonflies.

Least Grebe with Dragonfly, Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas
Into the Glare: Least Grebe with Male Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Save the Date (January 18, 2017): A New Two Shutterbirds Presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA)

All of life is a foreign country. –Jack Kerouac

Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Flower During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Bottlebrushes are Australian plants, but birds everywhere love them because of the copious nectar and pollen they produce. Sweet, calorie-rich nectar must be a wonderful treat after a grueling trans-Gulf flight! This bird’s head has been stained above the eyes with nectar or sap from some other unknown plant. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Exotics Gone Native!

Synopsis: Human-introduced exotic plants and animals are all around us, and many of them are doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s sometimes hard not to notice them while out photo-birding. The proliferation of these organisms can be troubling to nature lovers, particularly eco-purists. Are these foreign organisms adversely affecting our native plants and wildlife? And if so, how badly? Are some helpful to our native species? Certainly some, like bottlebrush, are helpful to the bird photographer! Whatever your stance on exotics, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is treat them as just another opportunity to experience new species in the wild—even if they are out of place. In this talk, Chris Cunningham will share images of some frequently encountered exotic species and discuss their place in our native landscape. (Note: If this topic is too upsetting, Chris and Elisa will share and some images of native wild birds from their most recent outings to West Texas, the Coastal Bend, and central New Mexico, too!)

Time and Place: 7:00 PM, January 18, 2017 at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston TX 77079. For additional details, please see the Houston Audubon HANPA website.

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

The Two Shutterbirds Take a Late Autumn Break!

I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it. –Salvador Dali

Her Prey, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texasa
Barn Spider (Araneus cavaticus), near Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

As the weather improves, and we struggle to get out into the field, exhaustion from work, traffic, illness (minor), and the daily onslaught of our lives has (temporarily) sapped our creative juices. Never fear! We shall return (and soon) with some new stuff! The restful holidays are almost upon us, and we can’t wait!

Egyptian Goose in Flight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Whaaaa . . . . ? Egyptian Goose in Flight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Fiorenza Park is the place to see the weird, the invasive, and the unexpected. 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.

Fiorenza Park Action!

Motion is tranquility. –Stirling Moss

Soaring Great Blue Heron, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Soaring Great Blue Heron, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. After spending a morning trying to photograph cormorants blazing past, capturing a slowly passing Great Blue seemed almost easy by comparison. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!

Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.

Neotropic Cormorant with Vine, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Vine, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 300k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.

For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.

Great Egret with Ibis Head, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Weird Scene: Great Egret with Juvenile Ibis Head, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Waders are not above eating carrion. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.

Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.

Great Egret with Diamondback Water Snake, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Diamondback Water Snake (Nerodia rhombifer), Fiorenza Park, Houston, 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.

Looking for Something Special (in a Shot)

Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)

White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Lookin’ for Mud-bugs: White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Ibises plunge their bills right up to the eyebrows into crawfish burrows. This image clearly shows the extent of this bird’s probing. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.

Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend Stgate Park, Texas
I Object! Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I was hoping this bird would start on a siren hunt, but instead it started calling when another Great Blue flew past. I see (and hear) Great Blue Herons calling occasionally, but usually in flight. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.

I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.

Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
It’s Green and Gooey, and it’s What’s for Lunch: Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight withCatfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Crunchy on the Outside: Neotropic Cormorant in Flight with Armored Catfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. I will happily stand on a hill at Fiorenza Park for hours waiting for a bird with a fish to fly past—especially if the fish is weird! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

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

Invasion Fiorenza Park!

Stop acting like a fool, Miles and accept us!—Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

A Male Scaly-breasted Munia Chomps on Grass Seeds, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
“That’s right, I’m just an innocent sparrow! An innocent sparrow, I tell you. You know, a harmless sparrow (of some kind). Now move along, move along. Nothing to see here!” A Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) Chomps on Grass Seeds, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This Old World finch was first described by none other than the great Linnaeus in the 10th Edition of the Systema Naturae (1758). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

More and more these days I’m doing double-takes while out birding. Last weekend I detected a flock of birds feeding on grass seed heads at Fiorenza Park, Houston. Hoping for a shot at some unusual sparrows (Oooh! Wouldn’t a Henslow’s be great!?!), I stalked toward the stand of grass. As I framed some beautiful shots of  . . . whaaaa? Oh geez—some Nutmeg Mannikins or Scaly-breasted Munias or Spice Finches . . . whatever name they go by these days . . . in this part of the world. The birds were Asian exotics, natives of Tropical Asia and Oceania, escapees or releasees from captivity. At least there are both sexes to document . . . I thought.

Female Scaly-breasted Munia, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Immature Scaly-breasted Munia, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Well, no. Apparently Scaly-beasted Munias all look alike as adults. The dark, creamy yellow ones are immatures . . . not females.

The reason I went to Fiorenza Park that day was because long-time birder friends M.B and J.R. had reported cormorants eating South American armored catfish (Loricariidae) near the bridge where the bayou connecting the the north and south lakes enters the south lake. Naturalist friend R.D. had also recently captured some nice images of a Great Blue Heron eating a big armored catfish at the northwest corner of 40-acre Lake at Brazos Bend State Park. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I sallied forth on a catfish hunt. Sure enough, in only a matter of minutes a cormorant carrying a big catfish flew over head.

In a matter of about an hour, I spotted a cormorant battling with another armored catfish in the bayou. The bird really appeared to be struggling—not surprising given the nasty fin spines and dermal armor. Ultimately, the bird won and swallowed the fish. The struggle lasted long enough for me to capture sufficient images to make a tentative identification of the fish: Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus. This is one of several common aquarium fishes informally called “plecostomus” or “algae-eaters.” P. multiradiatus has been released from aquaria in many warm places around the world. Often they are considered pests due to the displacement (dare I say replacement?) of native species and burrowing behavior. I wonder if they leave pods behind?

Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

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

Finding Time for Life

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it . . . . —Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

Reddish Egret, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Reddish Egret, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

This is the time of year for sporadic frustrations. The unpredictable weather, sometimes nice, sometimes oppressive and freakishly warm, can easily become an excuse for doing nothing. Witnessing the saddening, nit-witted babbling of the media during the current silly season of politics doesn’t inspire great energy, either.

The birds and other organisms, however, are still out there and waiting to be observed and photographed! Biologically, there is quite a bit going on along the Texas Gulf Coast these days: Lately we haven’t been disappointed by East Beach or Fiorenza Park.

Nutmeg Mannikin, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Asian Exotic: Nutmeg Mannikin, aka Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata), with Seeds, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Currently there are lots of interesting things to see at Fiorenza Park, including an active cormorant rookery and ravenous hordes of invasives scouring the thickets for seeds! These avian happenings will provide tasty fodder for future posts. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Orchard Spider, houston, Texas.
Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta), Houston, Texas. The wind made this a tough shot: I waited as the spider was pulled in and out of the frame! The Genus Leucauge was erected by Charles Darwin himself. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

Our field work is undoubtedly the healthiest thing we do. It is a tragedy when nature lovers sit out a day in the field because of the malaise or exhaustion brought on by our absurdist era or the fear (or revulsion) of traffic jams and hordes of yahoos. This realization is why we drag ourselves out of bed early, even on our days off. We almost never regret getting out there, even if we had to talk ourselves into it in the first place!

Dunlin Flock, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Hunkered Down: Dunlin Flock, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. These birds found shelter behind a small tuft of vegetation at the strand line. On that morning, wind gusts reached 35 mph—just shy of howling. It was glorious. 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.

Distinguishing Small Nonbreeding Plovers

You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon

Snowy Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Snowy Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Snowy Plovers have pinkish gray legs and a more gracile, less stubby beak than the other two small Texas Plovers. We’ve seen Snowy Plovers on Bolivar Peninsula and at Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, but we’ve just recently started seeing a lot of them on Galveston. This bird shows a vestige of the incomplete black breast band of breeding plumage. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.

The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.

Piping Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Piping Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. In breeding and nonbreeding, Piping Plovers look more gray overall than Semipalmated Plovers. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.

Semipalmated Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Semipalmated Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm F/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?

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

 

Birding the First Pleasant Weekend of Fall

It’s very far away,
It takes about half a day,
To get there, if we travel by my, uh . . . dragonfly—Jimi Hendrix, “Spanish Castle Magic”

Gray Catbird, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Bathing Gray Catbird, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Well, it finally happened. After five brutal months, the first cool front of fall 2016 arrived. And we returned to the field. In just a few weeks’ time, I found that my photography skills had atrophied a bit, but in an hour or two I was getting some nice shots again. On Saturday, I visited Lafitte’s Cove and found Prothonotary, Palm, and Magnolia Warblers, a lot of Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, and mosquitos without number.

Golden silk orb-weaver spider cutting leaf free from web, PIlant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Golden Silk Orb-weaver Spider (Nephila clavipes) Cutting Leaf Free from Web, Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A moment later the leaf tumbled to the ground. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

On Sunday, we visited Brazos Bend State Park and observed a flood-disrupted ecosystem. Major portions of 40-acre, Pilant, and Elm Lakes were covered with invasive water hyacinth, and hunting waders, the birds we love to see most at the park, were nearly absent. Here and there, large patches of dead hyacinth revealed where park employees had sprayed herbicide. At both Lafitte’s Cove and BBSP, the real story was about arthropods, though, and at BBSP we spent an extended visit with naturalist friend and park volunteer R.D., from whom we learned more about spiders and dragonflies.

Golden silk orb-weaver with moth and dewdrop spider, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Spiderweb as Micro-habitat: Golden silk orb-weaver with moth and dewdrop spider (Argyrodes sp.), Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Every so often the smaller spider would run down and touch the moth—only to run away before the monster could strike. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Along the tower trail at BBSP we saw many golden silk orb-weaver spiderwebs. In many webs, entrapped prey and fallen leaves could be seen. We observed several instances of spiders cutting leaves free from their webs. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon we observed was dewdrop spiders stealing food from the web of their host. Dewdrop spiders are kleptoparasites of the Genus Argyrodes. Although some researchers have questioned whether or not dewdrop spiders were harmful to the orb-weavers (and therefore not parasites), recent studies have documented that the host spiders suffer nutritionally and must repair damage to webs caused by the small spiders as they remove entangled prey. Apparently spiders take better care of webs that they themselves spin!

Anax junius caught in orb-weaver web, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Anax junius Caught in Golden Silk Orb-weaver Web, Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The green darner (Anax junius) migration was in full swing, the air filled with millions of these large dragonflies, many mating. Lots of other dragonfly species were zipping around, too. Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), many also coupling, even seemed to predominate at Lafitte’s Cove. Dragonflies are an important food source for birds, and I have seen several species of waders (Snowy and Cattle egrets, and Little Blue and Green Herons) and one species of warbler (Prothonotary) eat them at BBSP.

Although dragonflies seem to be a favorite food among birds, orb-weaver spiders seem not to be. Big, juicy spiders sit right out in the open while predatory birds typically operate all around them. The orb-weavers would certainly be easier to catch than a dragonfly. Perhaps the arachnids taste bad. I have heard anecdotally, though, that during drought years the orb-weavers essentially disappear from the park. Does this mean that birds will eat them if they get hungry enough? Other possibilities do exist (like humidity-sensitive fungal infections of spiders or eggs), but the report is certainly food for thought.

Little Blue Heron wiht Anax junius, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Male Anax junius Dragonfly, Pilant 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.

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.