Philosophical Musings

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.

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.

The Bridge: Isolating the Subject

Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 1, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. The bird was photographed against a shaded patch of water. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.

Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .

Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas.
The Flip: Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). The action is close enough at the bridge to use a full-frame body without fear of not having enough reach. Shot from ground pod across the bridge from the south. Natural light.
Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 2, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Here the bird was photographed against a brightly illuminated patch of water from south of the bridge. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 3, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. In this case, the background is the cement walkway of the bridge itself. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.

Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .

Now, get out there and photograph some birds!

Neotropic Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Big “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is a low angle shot (kneeling) of a bird at close range. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Butter Beak: Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Shot from ground pod. Natural light.

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

Birds in “Good” and “Bad” Light

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare

Double-crested Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston
Double-crested Cormorant with “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. We Texans may be horrified by the proliferation of these South American armored catfish in our waters, but to cormorants that range far to the south, it still feels like home when they’re around. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.

Neotropic Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Eye to Eye: Neotropic Cormorant with “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. In this shot, the sun was in the wrong position (or rather I was), leading to too much glare from the water and a backlit bird. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!

Eared Grebe, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Ad Noctem: An Eared Grebe Paddles off into the Fog, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. I like the way the wake ends at a veil of fog. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Eared Grebe, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Eared Grebe, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. Perfect light, but not perfect perspective. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.

This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!

Common Loon, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Made in the Shade: Common Loon, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. It looks like this bird is swimming in mercury. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Common Loon, Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Transitional Common Loon, Offatt’s Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas. Images from this locale tend to look better from a bit of a distance, given the raised nature of the observation platform. 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.

Two Shutterbirds Uncensored

Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand

Alligator with gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Red in Tooth and Claw: Alligator with Gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?

Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Despite the fact that many images of waders hunting amphibians depict clean “takes,” the process of spearing and eating a frog is usually a messy business. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?

Molting Northern Cardinal with Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Molting Northern Cardinal with Large Mashed Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird made a real mess of a great big black weevil. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.

Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A beautiful sparrow miles outside its range, this bird appears to have, sadly, bacterially-infected feet. There is a story here. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.

Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Feral hogs are rooting invasives introduced by humans. They wreak havoc wherever they go. Exhibit A: Here stands a nasty mud-wallow where once stood a charming little island. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

ID Bracelets: For the Birds?

What gets measured, gets managed. —Peter Drucker

Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.
Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.

Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.

So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico
Banded Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.

Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, "The Tree," Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, “The Tree,” Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.

So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.

Banded Female Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Banded Female Wilson’s Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Keep an Open Mind About Photo-birding Locations

Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer

Wood Duck Pair, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mated Wood Duck Pair, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.

Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. At this park, the ducks are perhaps a bit more tolerant of humans than they should be. But still, one false move or a step too close, and they’re gone. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.

On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.

Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Wood Duck Drake, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wood Duck Drake, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and 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.

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.

With a Whimper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Impending End of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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