Author Archives: Chris Cunningham

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 3): Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Even your silence holds a sort of prayer.– Apache saying

Female Williamson's Sapsucker, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Female Williamson’s Sapsucker, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Williamson’s Sapsucker is a bird of the high elevation pine forests of the West. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Cave Creek Canyon is perhaps our favorite birding get-away spot. On the southeast flanks of the Madrean highlands of the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, it has one the highest biodiversities in the United States. The adjective Madrean refers to the flora, a type of pine-oak woodland community. In Arizona, the Arizona madrone, Arbutus arizonica, is a characteristic member of that flora.

Madrone in Fruit, Vista Point Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Madrone in Fruit, Vista Point Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We have seen the madrones in other mountainous regions of the Southwest, Big Bend National Park, Texas, for example. But on this trip, we saw trees in fruit for the first time. We got wind of madrones in fruit along the Vista Point Trail in Cave Creek Canyon. Madrone fruits are reportedly a favorite for many animals and provide needed sustenance in fall. On this trip, Rufous-backed Robins were eating the berries (reportedly) so we monitored a patch of trees one morning. After watching for about an hour, all we saw were some avian stirrings within the foliage of the trees, but no identifiable birds . . . .

Northern Cardinal, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Male Northern Cardinal, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The quest for madrone fruit-eating birds, brings up the classic problem of travel birding: You have such limited time in the field that you are only likely to see very common species–unless you stake out a special situation like a madrone tree with fruit, but . . . wait a minute . . . .

Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 2): Franklin Mountains, West Texas

As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.–Albert Camus

Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Curve-billed Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park is literally minutes outside the margins of El Paso. Here, a fiberglass blind sits in the Chihuahuan Desert. A water feature and feeders attract a variety of desert and migratory birds–admittedly mostly common species. The place is thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds during migrations.

Ergonomically, the blind has a few issues, but is really quite usable for a blind in a state park. Being isolated and lacking ferris wheels, noisy yokel tourists rarely find it. Rather than the guy wanting to know how much your camera cost, most of your miseries associated with this blind will stem from attempts to use a tripod inside. Tripods can not coexist with this blind. Accept it. You must rest the foot plate of your super-telephoto on the window ledge . . . .

Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But as I hope these images show, it is possible to capture fine images here with nice bokeh and uncluttered, natural-looking context. The next time you are on your way to a major birding mecca like Bosque del Apache or the Chiricahuas, I recommend making a pit stop in the Franklins. It may ultimately make your short-list of favorite photo-birding spots as it has ours.

Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Cha-cha-cha: Cactus Wren on Log at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 1): Davis Mountains, West Texas

If the Texans had kept out of my country there might have been peace . . . . –Ten Bears

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Portrait: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. The blinds at Davis Mountains State Park are a bit gloomy, but occasionally birds will emerge from the shade and offer up a portrait. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Over Thanksgiving week we took an epic road trip across the desert Southwest from West Texas to southeast Arizona. During that time we photo-birded at three main spots: Davis Mountains State Park (Texas), Franklin Mountains State Park (Texas), and Cave Creek Canyon (Arizona). Although the weather was perfect along the way, we shot under a variety of conditions. This is due to shooting mainly at blinds–a typical strategy for us on road trips with limited time.

Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. This bird was drinking from a quasi-natural looking dripper. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On this trip I was less concerned with the philosophical problems associated with shooting from blinds than the practical ones. The two blinds at Davis Mountains SP are ergonomic nightmares with lots of dark, shady areas, obstructions, unnatural-looking masonry, and terrible angles.

The blind near the Montezuma Quail Trail is the better of he two given that birds sometimes emerge from the gloom. In general, I would say that the Davis Mountain blinds are better for birders than photo-birders and are loaded with birds this time of year–but they are also loaded with many unbelievably noisy tourists. Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lesser Goldfinches, a variety of woodpeckers, and White-crowned and Lincoln Sparrows were abundant. A lone Pyrrhuloxia made an appearance while we were there, too.

Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. Hermit Thrushes are a common sight in shady areas across the desert Southwest at this time of year. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Our next stop, the blind at Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, is not without its problems, but is light-years better than the one at Davis Mountains SP. Stay tuned!

Western Scrub Jay, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Western Scrub-Jay at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Technically speaking, the blind at Franklin Mountains SP is one of the better blinds in Texas Parks (that I know of). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Experiencing Animal Lives

Every seed is awakened, and all animal life.–Sitting Bull

Cooper's Hawk with Pine Bark, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas
Cooper’s Hawk with Pine Bark for Nest, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although Sitting Bull spoke these words in the context of spring, the vitality he sensed is present throughout the year. It is this very vitality we seek through birding and nature photography.

When we can pry ourselves from the grip of work and obligation, capturing images of animals going about their business puts us back in touch with the natural world and out of touch with the annoyances of Mankind . . . .

A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The grapevines at Lafitte’s Cove are food plants for caterpillars eagerly gobbled-up by trans-Gulf migrant songbirds returning to North America from the Tropics. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC), High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

One of our favorite photo-birding spots is open again (yay!) after being closed due to the devastation Harvey brought. The stretch from 40-acre Lake to Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park seems to have weathered the storm without too much damage–certainly less than the previous round of flooding.

Even the birding wasn’t too much off from a typical day this time of year. Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats were abundant. Northern Harriers hunted above the rice, and the air was filled with the clatter of Belted Kingfishers and the chittering of scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I apparently just missed a male Vermilion Flycatcher and a small flock of Blue-headed Vireos. All in all a nice visit to a beloved place that will likely steadily improve . . . until the next catastrophe.

Baby Alligators on Mom's Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Baby Alligators on Mom’s Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Brazos Bend is Back! Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Fishing by the Sea

There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville

Reddish Egret (White Morph) with Shrimp, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Reddish Egret (White Morph) with Shrimp, back beach lagoon, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.

The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.

Neotropic Cormorant with Fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Fish, back beach lagoon, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.

In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.

All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,

Ruddy Turnstone with fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Ruddy Turnstone with Fish Carcass, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Outside the frame are a group of Sanderlings waiting for the least weakening of resolve by the Turnstone. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Save These ‘Til Later . . . .

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. –Lewis Mumford

Vesper Sparrow(?), Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Vesper Sparrow, Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Given that I didn’t recognize this species in the field or find it a particularly distinctive one, images of this bird sat unidentified in the archives for years. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Traveling near or far to photo-bird is one of the great joys of life. Seeing new things is the spice of life in our post-materialistic world. But from time to time we encounter birds that defy easy identification. Often, these are species that are simply unfamiliar because we don’t live in their range. Other times, they are young birds, particularly drab individuals, or species lacking really distinctive field marks. Sometimes these birds are embarrassingly common species. Often our images of these birds sit in moth balls for a long time.

Bell's Vireo?, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Bell’s Vireo, Dugout Wells, Big Bend National Park, Texas. The vegetation around this oasis in the desert was filled will small songbirds, including some brilliantly colored ones like Pyrrhuloxia, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Varied Bunting. As a result, this drab little bird wasn’t met with proper enthusiasm! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

From time to time, when stuck indoors because of work or weather, I go sifting through our collection of images and take another look at some of these birds whose identities wasn’t clear at the time of the photos . . . .

Sandpiper, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
My, how gray you are! Western Sandpiper (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Western Sandpipers are among the most common shorebirds in North America. But I think of them as having lots of rufous markings–but not in winter! Only a rufous cheek patch remains in this individual. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Sometimes with tricky birds, like the peep above, I’ll take photos without knowing what I’m looking at with the idea of coming back later and identifying them from the images. Pondering puzzlements in the field might lead to missed shots.

On the other hand, for potentially exciting species (like the one below) it’s right to the reference books the minute I get home!

Blackburnian Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackburnian Warbler Coming into Breeding, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Several birders in the field decided that this was a Yellow-throated Warbler. That didn’t sit right, so I dragged out the field guides. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed.

Keeping an Eye Out for Ross’s Geese

Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana

Sandhill Cranes, Snow and Ross's Geese, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Sandhill Cranes with Lesser Snow and Ross’s Geese, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Ross’s Geese are much smaller than Lesser Snow Geese. Can you pick out the Ross’s Geese? Hint: there is one near the center in the foreground staring back at the camera. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Huge flocks of waterfowl are one of the great spectacles of the fall and winter. Lesser Snow Geese congregate in wetlands and agricultural fields like those in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. At Anahuac, thousands of birds can dot the land and water and form swirling clouds, but we’ve only seen them from a distance, deep in the marshes or fields. Truth be told, I assumed that all the white waterfowl we’ve seen here in the past were Lesser Snow Geese. This is probably not the case.

Last Winter, on a road trip to New Mexico, we were able to get close enough to similar flocks to identify a few of the much smaller Ross’s Geese that could easily pass unnoticed. Ross’s Geese are rare visitors to Texas and New Mexico and are far fewer in number than Snow Geese, with which they have been know to interbreed.

Ross’s Geese are small and cute, with relatively stubby beaks and round domed heads, like baby animals. As a naturalist, the first word that entered my mind when I saw Ross’s Geese was neoteny. Neotenic evolution occurs when juvenile features are retained in the adult . . . .

Ross's Geese, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Two Ross’s Geese Surrounded by Lesser Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Note the bluish patch near the base of the bill on the Ross’s Geese. Also note that several of the Lesser Snow Geese are blue phase (blue geese). Blue phase Ross’s Geese are also known but are rare. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Ross’s Geese are Arctic breeders whose lives were poorly understood until the recent past. In the 1930’s, they were thought to only number several thousand individuals. Snow Geese were in a similar predicament a few decades earlier. In recent times, though, both species have greatly expanded their numbers and now make up sizable flocks.

The standard adaptationist explanation for herds or flocks or animals is that there is safety in numbers. The chance of any individual being taken by a predator is low. A logical extension of this strategy would be to be a rare species in a much larger group of another species. Any attack by a predator on the group would most likely result in a member of the more abundant species being taken.

Could the rarity of Ross’s Geese, coupled with looking like a juvenile (and hence receiving gentler treatment from the other geese?), be a survival strategy? Every trip to the field provides more questions than answers and ample fuel for speculation.

Snow Geese in Formation, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Lesser Snow Geese in Formation, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. One of these days I’ll get a Ross’s Goose in formation with Snow Geese either in Texas or New Mexico . . . but not this day. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Still Waiting for Something to Sing About . . . .

The psychic plane is clouded over by emotions and thoughts and the general dullness and malaise that develops in our contemporary world through the social conditioning that most individuals experience in the modern era.–Frederick Lenz

Lapland Longspur, Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Male Lapland Longspur (Breeding), Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. The tundra is an amazing tangle of soft and lush vegetation, including lupine (the purple haze in the bokeh), lousewort (the pink haze), and wild celery (the perch). Once, a blast of wind sent me tumbling harmlessly into it . . . . This troubled bird contemplated the falling raindrops and a man with a camera and decided not to sing. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Still, we struggle to claw out from the chaos . . . . Wednesday was a beautiful day, but we had to be at work . . . and then slog through traffic hell. But . . .  the . . . holidays. Holidays! Yes, holidays!

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Healing Power of Birds

Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton

Snow Goose in Flight, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Snow Goose in Flight, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.

On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .

Sandhill Crane in Flight, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Sandhill Crane in Flight, San Bernardo National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .

Singing Snow Bunting, Anton Larsen Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Singing Snow Bunting on Drift Log, Anton Larsen Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

To Twitch or Not to Twitch

Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?

Rock Sandpiper, Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Rock Sandpiper, Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Guided visits to birding meccas often have a twitcher aspect. The network of local guides keep each other informed of where the birds are. The day after spending a delightful two hours photographing Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, and Rock Sandpipers at Black Diamond Hill, I asked our leader to go back. He said that the birds weren’t there anymore. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.

Mallard Hen with ducklings, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. I saw this ethereal scene on a twitch to see a Red-necked Grebe with young. The white spots are feathers floating on the surface of the water. The Mallard Drakes were molting from breeding into eclipse plumage (fodder for a future post!). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?

On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.

In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.

It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!

KIng Rail, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Object Lesson: King Rail, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. This bird was spotted on a twitch to see a Jabiru Stork. Easily confused with the much more common Clapper Rail, the slightly larger King Rail can be identified by the brown stripe down the back of the neck. King Rails inhabit freshwater environments and Clapper Rails (except the Yuma subspecies) inhabit brackish and marine marshes. But . . . salinity is a continuum along the coast, and Clappers and King Rails interbreed where their ranges overlap. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+2.0x TC) (unfortunately). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

An Early Morning Walk in the (Fiorenza) Park

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head . . . .–Summer in the City, Lovin’ Spoonful

The Golden Hour, Fiorenza Park, West Houston. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
The Golden Hour, Fiorenza Park, west Houston. An inconspicuous red-eared turtle spies on two Mottled Ducks as they glide past. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). If you arrive around 7 AM, you can watch the edge of illuminated water slowly track across the lake. Photo taken from ground pod. Natural light.

It’s taken about two weeks to get back into the field after our return from Alaska. After living two weeks around 38º F, the prospect of being out when it’s near 38º C hasn’t sounded too inviting. But this week I took advantage of a so-called “cold front” and visited Fiorenza Park in west Houston. While trying to photograph fishing cormorants and waders from my ground pod by the bridge, a fellow traveler (JD) told me that a Bald Eagle was perched on a snag on the other side of the park. Ultimately I saw no eagle, but while walking to the snag I came upon a family of Loggerhead Shrikes–two young and a parent.

Loggerhead Shrike Fledgling, Firoenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Loggerhead Shrike Fledgling on Sycamore Sapling, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Adult Loggerhead Shrike on Cypress Tree, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Adult Loggerhead Shrike on Cypress Sapling, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Luckily, I was able to observe the adult hunting insects in the grass as well as begging and feeding behaviors. On this visit, I found the colors of the trees, especially the small ones, to be quite rich and beautiful–almost autumn-like. Of course, the rich colors are the result of heat stress, and these small trees have begun the slow process of being baked to death under a brutal Texas sun. But, the return of rains mid-week may have ended the dying time for this summer . . . .

Adult Loggerhead Shrike Feeding Fledgling, Firoenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Adult Loggerhead Shrike with Begging Fledgling on Heat-stressed Cedar Elm(?), Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
A Pair of Begging Loggerhead Shrike Fledglings with Parent, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas
A Pair of Begging Loggerhead Shrike Fledglings with Parent, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC), Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

In Praise of Traveling to Bird

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.–Gilbert K. Chesterton

Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
King of the Hill: Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. What a lovely spot to prospect for seeds and bugs! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We know plenty of birders who are perfectly happy birding around the Houston area with never a thought of traveling to bird. Their birding activities often taper off by May with the end of the spring migration. We bird into the summer but by about late June, we are more than ready to say goodbye to the Texas Gulf Coast swelter (and the Summer People and their various noisemakers) and hit the road for somewhere new.

Since we started birding, summer trips are almost invariably well to the north for obvious reasons, ornithological and climatological. After a temporary lapse of reason, we once traveled to the Rio Grande Valley during summer, and we have been known to visit the deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the hot weather–usually in areas that have altitude, though. Right about this time of year I can’t help but think of General Sheridan . . . “If I owned Texas and Hell . . . .”

Common Raven with Rodent, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Common Raven with Rodent Carcass, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone is a great birding destination, but brace yourself for hellacious crowds of yahoos. The only National Park with more outrageous mobs is Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the most visited-by-yahoos park in the country. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

National parks are prime birding destinations and our greatest national treasure, but we will also travel to state parks, national wildlife refuges, or even simply regions (hopefully desolate) of the country with a different avifauna. Sometimes we travel with the intention of seeing particular species or habitats, other times we’re perfectly open to whatever we find. Sometimes, then, we’re travelers and sometimes we’re tourists, in Chesterton’s terminology.

Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race), Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race) on Driftwood, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The greatest danger in birding travel is to remain unchanged by it, to become part of the gawking rabble at the foot of the mountain. Think of the Sinclair Lewis’ satire of travel and travelers in The Man Who Knew Coolidge and their inability to become broadened by the experience. He must have had quite a laugh at the rubes . . . .

To avoid being an ugly birding American is to travel with purpose, general or specific, to place one’s observations from new geographies into the context of what you already know about your birds. You won’t hear a Wilson’s Warbler sing in Texas, but you will in Oregon. To complete the picture, the birder must travel because the birds do . . . .

Female Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Young Male Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. The photo-blind at Franklin Mountains is currently under construction. Perhaps it will be complete by our next visit. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.