Special Places

Photo-birding St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska: Larids and Fulmars

I’m off to sit on a cliff. –Nik Kershaw

Black-legged Kittiwake in flight, near Reef Rookery, St.Paul Island, Alaska
Black-legged Kittiwake in Flight, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Kittiwakes rarely stray far from the sea. The best way to photograph birds in flight on St. Paul is to stand at the edge of the cliffs and go hand-held with short focal length lenses. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.
Nest-sitting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Nest-sitting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. KIttiwakes have sharp claws to grasp rocky nesting cliffs. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held. Natural light.

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.

Glaucous-winged Gull in flight, near Reef Rookery, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Young Glaucous-winged Gull in Flight, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. This identification is based on the white spots near the tips of the primaries that are beginning to come in. Glaucous-winged Gulls interbreed with Western Gulls (in the south) and Herring and Glaucous Gulls in the northern part of their range–further complicating identification nightmares. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.

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.

Northern Fulmar in Flight, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Northern Fulmar in Flight, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Northern Fulmars spend most of the year out to sea and only return to land to breed. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.
Nest-sitting Northern Fulmars, Ridge, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Resting Northern Fulmars, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held. Natural light.

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.

Calling Mew Gull (Breeding), near Potter Marsh, anchorage, Alaska
Calling Mew Gull (Breeding), near Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. Like many gulls, the Mew Gull sticks close to the coast of the continent. 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.

Photo-birding St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska: The Alcids

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

Horned Puffin, near Reef Rookery, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Portrait: Horned Puffin, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Seabird portraits like this are obtained by dangling over a wind-swept cliff and capturing the bird against dark rocks or a raging sea below. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light

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.

Thick-billed Murre with Egg, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Thick-billed Murre with Egg, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. According to conventional wisdom, the shape of murre eggs causes them to roll in a tight arc–and therefore not off the cliff. Recent studies indicate that this is not correct, or at least only part of the story. The authors of these studies suggest that the shape is an adaption to combat impact and infection of the eggs on filthy, crowded ledges. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Tufted Puffin Portrait, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Portrait: Tufted Puffin, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Sometimes you can capture seabirds against fog or sea mist. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Least Auklet, Anton larsen Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Least Auklet on Boulder, Anton Larsen Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Portrait:Parakeet Auklet, Ridge Wall, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Portrait: Parakeet Auklet, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Are you ready to Rumble? Parakeet Auklet Confrontation, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Are you ready to Rumble? Parakeet Auklet Confrontation, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. These two birds are about to battle over the rock surface they are standing on. Parakeet and Crested Auklets lock beaks and engage in twisting and shoving matches over real estate. The upper bird prevailed. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Parakeet auklet Staredown, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Don’t even think about it! Crested Auklet staredown, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Crested Auklet Squabble, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Crested Auklet Squabble with Onlookers, Ridge Wall, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Shortly after these images were captured, this section of cliff collapsed into the sea. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L (=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.

Photo-birding Alaska: Anchorage

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London

Canada Gosling hunting insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
A Canada Gosling Hunts Insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At first we thought the goslings were eating grass seed heads. It soon became apparent, however, that the birds were capturing insects, many of which were copulating. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

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.

Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Male Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At one point, an American Robin was chasing and hectoring this bird. The Robin may have had a nest or young nearby. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. Empidonax flycatchers are difficult to identify. Willow and Alder Flycatchers, for example, can not be distinguished by appearance alone. The song must be heard, except in Alaska. Willow Flycatchers do not range this far north. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska
Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Red-necked Grebe with chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Red-necked Grebe with Chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. About a week prior to when this image was taken, this bird was sitting on five eggs. By the time we arrived, two chicks were visible. The remaining eggs may still be present: This bird did not move from the nest as we observed. 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.

More Rookery Birds

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

White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Cattle Egrets gather nesting materials well into June. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The aggressor struggled mightily to toss its nest-mate to the alligator-infested water below. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Snowy Egret chicks are almost as brutal to each other as Great Egret chicks are. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick with Parent, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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!

Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Image taken from a boat on a brutal white-hot day. Thanks to DS for access to the boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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.

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.

Beauty Shots from Southwest Houston

Art must take reality by surprise. –Francoise Sagan

Snowy Egret with Breeding Plumes, Fiorenza Park , Houston, Texas
Snowy Egret with Breeding Plumes, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This gorgeous bird was plucking threadfin shad from the bayou between the lakes. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Great blue Heron in Fight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Blue Heron in Fight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. The hill overlooking the bayou between the lakes is a good place to camp out to capture birds in flight. You’ll mostly see waders and cormorants but an occasional raptor (even a Bald Eagle) will soar past. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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 . . . .

Cattle Egret in Breeding Plumage, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
Cattle Egret in Breeding Plumage, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

White Ibis Nestlings, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
With a Little Help From the Humans: White Ibis Nestlings, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. I thought I had some nice shots of nests–but note the trash. Further evidence that humans improve everything. 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.

Dunlin!

Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol

Dunlin in Breeding Color, Lake Superior, Wisconsin
Dunlin (Breeding), South Shore, Lake Superior, Wisconsin. The bright rufous back is unique for a North American sandpiper. Note how trim this bird is compared to the Texas fatties below! Flying a few thousand miles will definitely get a bird in shape! This bird was still on its way to the Arctic. Photo taken in June, 2013. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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 . . . .

Dunlin, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Dunlin (transitional), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Photo taken this spring. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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!

Dunlin, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Dunlin (Nonbreeding), Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Photo taken November 7, 2016. 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,

Spring at the Shore

Hug the shore; let others try the deep. –Virgil

Portrait: Whimbrel, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Portrait: Whimbrel, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Whimbrels will soon be gone: They nest in the arctic, mostly Alaska and around Hudson’s Bay. Frenchtown Road is the only dependable place to see them around here (that I know of). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
On the Way to the Arctic: Long-billed Dowitcher, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird seems to have a “straight” supercilium, a “brick-red” cast to its feathers, a straight bill tip, and a relatively low-set eye (a “loral angle” of 19 degrees)—all Long-billed Dowitcher features. The loral angle was defined by Lee and Birch (2006). Canon 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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 . . . .

Short-billed Dowitcher, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas
Short-billed Dowitcher, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. This bird has an arcuate supercilium, an orangish cast to its feathers, and a relatively high-set eye—all Short-billed Dowitcher features. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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 . . . .

Bathing Female Red-breasted Merganser, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas
Bathing Female Red-breasted Merganser, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Reference

Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.

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

Songbirds Among the Vines

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer

Black-throated Green Warbler on Grape Vine, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-throated Green Warbler on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .

Grape Leaffolder Caterpillar (Desmia funeralis), Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Tennessee Warbler with Grape Leaffolder Caterpillar (Desmia funeralis), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.

Palm Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Shy Bird: Palm Warbler on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.

Male Orchard Oriole, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Orchard Oriole on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.

After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.

I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.

Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.

Male Summer Tanager, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Quizzical Male Summer Tanager, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

New Predator-prey Action

Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in Spiderweb, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in a Spiderweb, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Why go dragonfly hunting when the spiders do all the work for you? Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers have been abundant at Lafitte’s Cove this spring. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.

Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blackpoll Warblers have been just behind Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers in abundance this spring migration at Lafitte’s Cove. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.

Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.

Cormorant with shrimp, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Where the Heck is My Shrimp Cocktail? Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Ohio River Shrimp (Macrobrachium ohione), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. For a moment the bird lost track of the shrimp as it attempted to “flip” it into easy swallowing position. The Ohio River shrimp is one of the most common freshwater macroinvertebrates in North America—but try getting a shot of a bird eating one! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Cormorant with Minnow, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Shad(?), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is the first time I’ve seen a cormorant eat a fish other than an armored catfish at Fiorenza. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.

Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.

In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.

Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
One Stone-cold Killer Eats Another: Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen

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

The Black-necked Stilt Courtship Ritual

Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne

Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.

The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.

Black-necked Stilt 1, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 1: The Nod, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The ritual proceeds with a nod to the presenting female. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 2, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 2: Look what I can do! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 3, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 3: The Stroll, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 4, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 4: Look what I can do (again)! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed-synchronized fill-flash.

The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 5, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 5: The Act, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 6, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 6: Crossed Beaks, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.

Black-necked Stilts 7, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 7: Begin Promenade, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Spring: The Old and New

Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Common Yellowthroat, Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas
Female Common Yellowthroat on Dead Vegetation, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Common Yellowthroats are among the most common warblers in North America. They winter primarily in Mexico and Central America and breed across the United States. They can be found year-round along the Texas Gulf Coast. The south side of Pilant Lake is a great place to see them picking bugs from emergent vegetation (alive or dead). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.

Portrait young Reddish Egret, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Resident: Young Reddish Egret (White Morph), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird was taking killifish from small tidal channels. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.

Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!

Loggerhead Shrike wiht Caterpillar, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Loggerhead Shrike with Caterpillar, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .

Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!

Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Female Wilson’s Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Breeding Wilson’s Plovers begin arriving along the Texas coast in mid-February and depart by September. They nest on simple scrapes on beaches, among other places, from April to June. Note the new growth sprouting up from among dead old-growth. 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.