Special Places

Keeping an Eye Out for Ross’s Geese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Waiting for Something to Sing About . . . .

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

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

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

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

Eclipse Plumage (and Other Phenomena)

When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha

Totality, Casper, Wyoming
Totality, Casper, Wyoming. Elisa imaged the total solar eclipse on 8/21/17. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L/Thousand Oaks Optical metal foil solar filter/tripod/mirror-lock-up/cable release. Note the orange solar prominences. After sticking her toes in the astrophotography water, she is looking forward to the 11/9/19 transit of planet Mercury. Natural light.

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.

Mallards, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Drakes in Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. If you look closely you can see tiny flecks of green in the cheek area of the bird in the foreground. The drake behind is not as far along in process of molting into eclipse. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Mallard Drake Molting into Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Drake Molting into Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.”

Mallard Hen, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Hen, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. Note the orange bill. The “black saddle” is just coming in. Note that the cheek area is darker than that of the drake in eclipse. Mallard drakes have olive-yellow bills, too. Even in eclipse the drakes have showier rufous breast feathers. This bird also had ducklings in tow, helping with the identification. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Mallard Drakes, Lake Superior, Wisconsin
Mallard Drakes in “Winter” Plumage–even though the photo was taken in June! South Shore, Lake Superior, Wisconsin. Canon EOS 7D/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.

Twoshutterbirds Takes a Break!

Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?

Sal: Wyoming.

Sonny: Sal, Wyoming’s not a country.

–Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
35° F Bird: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Pribilof subspecies, Leucosticte tephrocotis umbrina), near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Only three songbird species are common on St. Paul in summer: Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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!

©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: 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.