Birding for Well-Being

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Oregon Coast Naturalist Adventures: Part 2

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. –William Blake

White True Foxglove (Digitalis sp.), Harris Beach State Park, Oregon
White Common Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Harris Beach State Park, Oregon. In Oregon, Common Foxglove ranges in color from pure white to pale lavender to the more common and familiar deep burgundy-pink. This plant is an exotic invasive introduced from Eastern Europe, possibly for medicinal purposes. The plant is highly toxic and the source of the cardiac drug digitalis. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

The southern Oregon Coast has to be considered one of the great botanical treasures of the country. In late spring, sometimes bordering on Majorelle, the surrounding wild profusion of plant diversity can be overwhelming, forcing the photographer to be choosy. It would take a lifetime to truly appreciate Oregon’s botany.

Bearberry Honeysuckle, Azalea Park, Brookings, Oregon
Bearberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata), Azalea Park, Brookings, Oregon. Hummingbirds love this plant. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

As a birder it often pays to know your plants. Azalea Park in Brookings could be the poster child for the debate over natives versus exotics. This spectacular little city park is loaded with exotics and cultivars and contains few natives. Our Falcon Guide for Oregon indicated that this park is frequented by Rufous, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds during summer.

After combing the park and seeing almost no birds whatsoever, Elisa finally located one native bearberry honeysuckle on the margin of the park. The tubular yellow flowers are a magnet for the hummers, and we quickly spotted Rufous and Allen’s(?) Hummingbirds. The only other interesting bird we spotted in the park was a single Chestnut-backed Chickaee—and this we sighted less than 10 feet from the bearberry, too! Message? If you want wildlife, then plant some natives! It’s just that simple!

Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Azeala Park, Brookings, Oregon
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Azeala Park, Brookings, Oregon. Except for the Mexican Chickadee, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee has a rather narrow distribution compared with other chickadees, primarily along the Pacific Coast from southern California to Alaska. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
A Pelagic Cormorant Gathers Nesting Materials, Yaquina Head, Oregon
A Pelagic Cormorant Gathers Nesting Materials, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite the spectacular scenery and huge breeding colonies of Common Murres and other seabirds, we both felt that the “routine birding” on the southwest Oregon Coast was a little disappointing—even after visiting every type of habitat from tidal mudflats to rocky coasts to redwood forests. One of the great advantages of traveling to bird is that what’s common in your travel destination may be new to the traveler.

But most of the places we went simply were not that birdy. We saw much of what was “supposed” to be there, but only one or two individuals. We saw a Black Oystercatcher here, and a Whimbrel there. We saw one Red Crossbill. We saw no American Dippers, even in appropriate habitat—unless dippers are no longer interested in rocky mountain streams within their range. Huge tracts of apparently perfect habitat were almost devoid of birds. No rails. No mergansers. One Killdeer. American Goldfinches in huge flocks of . . . um, three. Two Harlequin Ducks, and so on.

At one point, Elisa was so perplexed about the absence of waders (we saw one Great Blue Heron and two Great Herons in a week) she probed the mud to see if there were invertebrates to be eaten or to provide food for fish, and there were plenty. Perhaps we’ve become spoiled by Texas, or perhaps the Oregon Coast, like many areas of the country, have suffered huge losses in the bird population sizes. We suspect the latter.

Encrustaceans: mussels, barnacles, limpets, Oregon
Encrustations: Mussels, Barnacles, Limpets on Basalt, Oregon Coast. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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

Oregon Coast Naturalist Adventures: Part 1

The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. –Jules Verne

Sea Lion Haul-out, Simpson Reef, Cape Arago State Park, Oregon
Sea Lion Haulout, Simpson Reef, Cape Arago State Park, Oregon. Four species of marine mammals haul out on this beach: Northern Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals, and California and Stellar’s Sea Lions. Although all four species were present this day, the latter two species dominate this image. I could identify only three elephant seals in the entire colony. The larger, lighter-colored animals are Stellar’s Sea Lions. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Last week we took a photo-birding road trip along the southwest Oregon coast, from Newport to Brookings. Our goals were to unwind and enjoy the cool, fresh air, put the terrible weather and Texas floods out of our minds, maybe pick up a few new species, and sample a few new Pacific Northwest brews.

Harbor Seal Parent and Pup, southwest Oregon coast
Harbor Seal Parent and Pup, Coquille Point, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The main natural attractions in southern Oregon during late spring are the marine mammals and breeding colonies of seabirds. Breeding songbirds can also be seen in the coastal forests, and we watched Wilson’s Warblers gathering insects for young and heard the song of the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we see often in Texas but never hear sing because it doesn’t breed here. For a few hours we were puzzled by the Orange-crown’s song: it sounds a bit like the song of the Northern Parula (so we knew we were dealing with a warbler), albeit lower and slower. But with a little help from iBird we sorted out most of the songbird songs, the Orange-crowned Warbler included.

Glaucous-Winged Gull on Nest, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon
Western Gull on Nest, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. The most common gull in the area is the Western Gull, surely constituting more than 90% of the gull population at this time of year. Perhaps 5% of the gulls in the area were Glaucous-winged Gulls. We may have seen one Glaucous Gull, which are completely white when young and breed in the high-Arctic. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Common Murre Colony, Yaquina Head, Oregon
Common Murre Breeding Colony, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The most common seabird we saw was the Common Murre. We photographed two major colonies, Coquille Point and Yaquina Head. These breeding colonies exist on small, rocky islands, and are among the most spectacular birding destinations in the country. Common Murres, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be seen in these colonies, at least at a distance, in southern Oregon.

Common Murres can be seen rarely as individuals fishing off rocky shores and jetties as well as in huge flotillas of thousands of birds far off shore. Common Murres typically lay one egg that they incubate on their feet, without nesting materials, penguin-style. A second egg may be layed if the first egg is lost to accidents or predators. Predators of Common Murre eggs and young include crows and gulls. Bald Eagles will grab adult birds, and we heard that an eagle was hunting around Yaquina Head while we were there.

Given the superficial similarities between murres and penguins, I wondered if a predator-prey relationship existed between the murres and sea lions paralleling the famous relationship between penguins and leopard seals documented by wildlife photographer Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. I could find no references to specific predators eating murres while at sea, although sharks and toothed whales seem possible candidates. California Sea Lions have been observed grabbing Common Murre chicks in the water near breeding colonies, though. Storms and fishing nets certainly kill many as dead murres sometimes wash up on shore and images of drowned murres and other seabirds tangled in fishing nets and lines exist from around the Northern Hemisphere.

Tufted Puffin, Oregon State Aquarium, Newport, Oregon
Tufted Puffin, Oregon State Aquarium, Newport, Oregon. Aviary bird. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm. Natural light.

Our last stop was at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. We usually steer clear of zoos and the like, but we read that there was an open air aviary with a number of pelagic Pacific species that are very hard to photograph in the wild up close because they stay out to sea, and their nesting areas are federally protected (it is unlawful to approach closer than 500 feet). The aquarium opens at 10am, so photography is tough. Nevertheless, we took some acceptable portraits of Rhinoceros Auklets, puffins, and other alcids—images that would be extremely challenging to capture in any other way.

Amazing as the animals of the Pacific Northwest are, the dazzling display of plant life, native and exotic, especially flowering species, give them a run for their money—fodder for a future post.

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

Planning Birding Vacations

When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.

Acorn Woodpecker with Acorn, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker with Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) Acorn, Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Arizona. The Acorn Woodpecker is perhaps the most spectacular of the U.S. woodpeckers . . . after the Pileated Woodpecker, of course! Cave Creek Canyon is among our favorite destinations for birding vacations, and we’re always up for the 12-hour road trip there, regardless of the season. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!

The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.

I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington. We found this charming scene near a pond in the middle of a temperate rainforest on a summer birding vacation a few years ago. Is there anything on this planet cuter than a wild duckling? Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).

Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.

Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
In Our Own Backyard: Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I’ve seen this cormorant fishing in Pilant Lake at least three times. Each time I ran after it trying to get a shot. Last week, I finally got close enough. What a spectacular animal . . . eyes like jewels, powerful, and sleek. The fish don’t stand a chance. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Reference

Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.

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

Quest for the New

Of all the passions of mankind, the love of novelty most rules the mind. In search of this, from realm to realm we roam. Our fleets come loaded with every folly home.—Foote, in Treasury of Wisdom, Wit, and Humor by Adam Wooléver (1891, 5th ed., p.301)

Green Kingfisher, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas
Female Green Kingfisher, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas. Although cagey and suspicious, kingfishers are among my favorite birds. Whenever I hear their clicking (or clattering, depending on species), I hope for a photo-op . . . but they rarely oblige. This was my first quality encounter with a Green Kingfisher. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As one tied to the work-a-day world most of the time, finding new things in the field is always exciting. First (quality) encounters with species are my favorites, but observing new behaviors by familiar ones often must suffice. Last weekend, for example, a naturalist friend (RD) pointed out the barn spider below apparently eating her own web—something I’d not seen a spider do before. It is widely held that spiders do eat webs to re-utilize protein, and the one below appeared to be doing just that.

A Barn Spider Consumes her own Web, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Barn Spider Consumes Her Own Web, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Eventually the spider ate the entire strand to the upper right. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

But based on the severe limitations of time and money, I usually have to find “novelty” where I can. For example, the recent shot below of a newly-returned-from-the-Arctic-for-the-winter Black-bellied Plover may reflect my closest contact with this species.

Admittedly the self-imposed pressure of always looking for new things can sometimes defeat the purposes of amateur nature photography: learning about nature and relieving the stress and strain of daily life and possibly extending life itself. Elisa is clearly better at simply getting out there and enjoying the sights and sounds and sensations. I have to (paradoxically) work on not working so hard.

Portrait: Black-bellied Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Black-bellied Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. By October, many shorebirds have returned to the Texas Gulf Coast for winter. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Swallows: A Glimpse of Paradise

True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.―William Shakespeare

Barn Swallow, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Barn Swallow in Early Morning Light, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. The Barn Swallow is the most widely distributed member of its family in the world. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At times like this, the dreary end of a dreary Houston summer, my mind turns to some of those magical places I’ve visited in the past. Upon recollection, some of the most enchanting visions of nature have occurred in the presence of swallows. I remember such a scene in Yellowstone National Park where American Tree and Violet-green Swallows snatched insects from the air and lapped water on the wing from the surface of a beaver pond. Last spring I first noticed American Tree and Rough-winged Swallows performing similar aerobatic feats above Pilant and 40-Acre Lakes, Brazos Bend SP.

Violet-green Swallow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Violet-green Swallow at Dawn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As a birder I pay close attention to swallows, as they often present an identification challenge while in flight (Is that a Cave or Cliff Swallow?). As a photo-birder, I often pay swallows too little attention as photographing swallows in flight would be quite a trick. Swallows are not particularly swift fliers, but their darting, acrobatic style of flight makes capturing them in the air something I’ve not yet accomplished, except under stalled circumstances like approaching a nest or perched young. Maybe someday I’ll catch one gliding across the surface of a liquid. Until then, I’ll just have to wait for them to land.

Baby Purple Martins, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas
Feed Me! Baby Purple Martins, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Purple Martins are the largest swallows in North America. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding from Lodges

Laugh? I though I’d never start . . .

Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), MacGregor Mountain Lodge, Colorado
Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted Form), MacGregor Mountain Lodge, Colorado. Elisa has visited this wonderful lodge before, but this was my first stay. The surrounding grounds are a wonderland of cavity-nesting. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .

Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless! 

Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!

Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!

After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?

Curve-billed Thrasher, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Curve-billed Thrasher, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.

Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.

Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!

Hooded Oriole, Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas
Hooded Oriole, Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or image may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Bluebird of Happiness Takes a Vacation

The Bluebird of Happiness on Vacation, Male Mountain Bluebird, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
The Bluebird of Happiness on Vacation, Male Mountain Bluebird, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The Bluebird of Happiness has left Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For all our birding friends . . . .

This week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated as last week my father, Duane, passed away after a long illness, and Elisa and I spent three days with family in Minnesota. We have been thinking of him and remembering the happy times, the times outside. It was he who taught me photography, and from whom I gained my first appreciation of nature. So, if you have enjoyed this blog over the years, then you have, in some measure, him to thank. I will miss him.

Shortly after our return to Texas, the atmosphere decided to dump a foot of rain on west Houston, flooding our neighborhood and house (sidebar: we understand that the rain was so heavy in Fort Bend County that Brazos Bend State Park will be closed indefinitely). It will be some time before we claw our way out from the chaos, but there are signs of progress. The insurance adjuster is on the calendar, the floors are drying, and so on.

We have decided to take the flood as a positive, and to further pare down the detritus that stuffs our house. I guess this forces us to remodel! In any case, we are trying to regain our sense of humor and soldier on!

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1: 5

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.