Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
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 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.
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
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!
When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha
Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.
After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.
This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”
What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.
Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.
Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?
Sonny: Sal, Wyoming’s not a country.
–Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
What with Elisa up in Wyoming to observe the astronomical, and Chris back in thrall attending to the physical, we’re tapped out. Not to worry–we’ll be back on the ball soon with more images and prose celebrating our feathery friends. As we enter these sweaty dog days, we’re dreaming of the first blue norther (and northern and high places)! If you’re on the Texas Gulf Coast, we bet you are too!
One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.
We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.
Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.
One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.
Long ago, when the world was still quite new, there were no winds at all, neither the gentle breeze of summer nor the fierce winter gale. Everything was perfectly still. Nothing disturbed the marsh grass on the shore and when snow fell, it fell straight to earth instead of blowing and swirling into drifts as it does now . . . . Origin of the Winds, Aleut legend
The four Pribilof Islands lie in the Bering Sea about one-hundred fifty miles north of the Aleutians. Of St. George, St. Paul, Walrus, and Otter Islands, only St. Paul and St. George are inhabited. St. George and St. Paul are birding meccas, more so the latter because of better weather conditions for aviation in and out despite the former having a great deal more cliff habitat and many more birds.
Seventeen species of alcids have been observed on and around St. Paul Island. Many of these species are rare, threatened, or endangered. In summer, however, seven species are common, and these are the birds we spent a considerable time with in early July as part of a bird photography workshop conducted by Canadian photographer Chris Dodds. Least Auklets seemed to be the most abundant of the alcids on the cliffs, followed by Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets. Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins were less common. Common Murres were observed infrequently: We only observed them in flight around the sea cliffs.
The seven species of alcids are all cliff-nesting species and spend most of the year out to sea when they are not breeding or raising young. With the exception of Least Auklets which we also observed and photographed at Anton Larsen Wall, a man-made breakwater composed of boulders of volcanic rock, all species were photographed on cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Many of these sites seem quite precarious and dangerous (for birds and humans alike), and one section of cliff housing Crested Auklet nesting sites collapsed into the sea while we were visiting.
According to reports and historical records, the abundance of birds and other animals has decreased dramatically on St. Paul. According to Chris Dodds who has visited the island approximately thirty times in the last few decades, the abundance of birds has dropped by about 90% in that time. Aerial photos of the island on display in the King Eider Hotel, the only lodging available to visiting birders, also show a steep decline in northern fur seal abundance since the mid-twentieth century.
The decrease in seabird abundance on St. Paul likely reflects a general drop in bird abundance across the northern Pacific. On this trip, the local guides and Chris Dodds kept mentioning nesting failures and weird timings of birds coming and going across the island. Many causes have been suggested for the current avian crisis from human overfishing, to birds being killed in fishing nets, oil spills, other pollution, and “the blob,” a mass of unusually warm surface water that has disrupted the marine ecosystem causing mass starvation. Whatever the cause(s), if you want to see these incredible animals we suggest not waiting as the task will only become more difficult with time. Think of the northern Pacific as the American West–circa 1890.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London
Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.
The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.
Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.
The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.
All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.
I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits
One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.
We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.
Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.
Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
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 . . . .
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.
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 . . . .
Art must take reality by surprise. –Francoise Sagan
Although better known for its traffic jams, litter, and active panhandler community, southwest Houston will occasionally yield a scene of natural beauty if you look hard enough. Fiorenza Park has been a frequent destination these days, given that I haven’t been much up for driving. Here, I have been seeing mostly common birds, but they’ve been very active hunting and fishing. Some of the images recently gathered at Fiorenza will likely feature in future posts.
Based on a tip from MAW at a recent HANPA meeting, we also made a couple of visits to a new wader rookery just west of Highway 6 and south of old Westpark Drive, dubbed the McClendon Park Rookery given its proximity to that park. Despite the patch of woods in question being surrounded by busy streets (from which yahoos will shout questions at you), several hundred Cattle Egrets and White Ibises are nesting. A few Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Tri-colored Herons are also present, but we couldn’t determine if they were nesting or not. I also understand from MAW that Anhingas are nesting in the center of the colony, but as far as we could tell were not visible from the street.
At this new rookery you can still get a few glimpses of White Ibis nestlings. Further, Cattle Egrets are currently nest-sitting and babies should be upon us shortly. Because the egret nests are close to the street, excellent images should be possible soon–despite thick brush and tricky lighting. But keep in mind: Shooting at suburban parks requires a different type of patience than shooting in the wild. You have to get it out of your head that the humans will leave you to your work . . . .
Strangely, the rookery ibises and egrets did not seem to be flying to nearby Fiorenza Park to hunt or fish, nor were they hunting in McClendon Park. Rather, they were flying off to the northeast for parts unknown. Finding the place where they are gathering food might also present some future opportunities for photography. I would expect White Ibises to be feeding their young mostly crawfish. On the other hand, we did notice that there were many Cattle Egrets feeding in grassy areas in southeast Houston in general. Perhaps the rookery egrets, too, are sustaining themselves with terrestrial prey and are not seeking out bodies of water. Once young are visible in the Cattle Egret nests, it should be possible to determine if they are being fed terrestrial or aquatic prey or both. Time will tell.
Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.