Special Places

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 3): Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Even your silence holds a sort of prayer.– Apache saying

Female Williamson's Sapsucker, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Female Williamson’s Sapsucker, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Williamson’s Sapsucker is a bird of the high elevation pine forests of the West. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Cave Creek Canyon is perhaps our favorite birding get-away spot. On the southeast flanks of the Madrean highlands of the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, it has one the highest biodiversities in the United States. The adjective Madrean refers to the flora, a type of pine-oak woodland community. In Arizona, the Arizona madrone, Arbutus arizonica, is a characteristic member of that flora.

Madrone in Fruit, Vista Point Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Madrone in Fruit, Vista Point Trail, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We have seen the madrones in other mountainous regions of the Southwest, Big Bend National Park, Texas, for example. But on this trip, we saw trees in fruit for the first time. We got wind of madrones in fruit along the Vista Point Trail in Cave Creek Canyon. Madrone fruits are reportedly a favorite for many animals and provide needed sustenance in fall. On this trip, Rufous-backed Robins were eating the berries (reportedly) so we monitored a patch of trees one morning. After watching for about an hour, all we saw were some avian stirrings within the foliage of the trees, but no identifiable birds . . . .

Northern Cardinal, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Male Northern Cardinal, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The quest for madrone fruit-eating birds, brings up the classic problem of travel birding: You have such limited time in the field that you are only likely to see very common species–unless you stake out a special situation like a madrone tree with fruit, but . . . wait a minute . . . .

Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Female Northern Flicker (Red-shafted), Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. 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.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 2): Franklin Mountains, West Texas

As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.–Albert Camus

Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Curve-billed Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park is literally minutes outside the margins of El Paso. Here, a fiberglass blind sits in the Chihuahuan Desert. A water feature and feeders attract a variety of desert and migratory birds–admittedly mostly common species. The place is thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds during migrations.

Ergonomically, the blind has a few issues, but is really quite usable for a blind in a state park. Being isolated and lacking ferris wheels, noisy yokel tourists rarely find it. Rather than the guy wanting to know how much your camera cost, most of your miseries associated with this blind will stem from attempts to use a tripod inside. Tripods can not coexist with this blind. Accept it. You must rest the foot plate of your super-telephoto on the window ledge . . . .

Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But as I hope these images show, it is possible to capture fine images here with nice bokeh and uncluttered, natural-looking context. The next time you are on your way to a major birding mecca like Bosque del Apache or the Chiricahuas, I recommend making a pit stop in the Franklins. It may ultimately make your short-list of favorite photo-birding spots as it has ours.

Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Cha-cha-cha: Cactus Wren on Log at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, West 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.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 1): Davis Mountains, West Texas

If the Texans had kept out of my country there might have been peace . . . . –Ten Bears

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Portrait: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. The blinds at Davis Mountains State Park are a bit gloomy, but occasionally birds will emerge from the shade and offer up a portrait. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Over Thanksgiving week we took an epic road trip across the desert Southwest from West Texas to southeast Arizona. During that time we photo-birded at three main spots: Davis Mountains State Park (Texas), Franklin Mountains State Park (Texas), and Cave Creek Canyon (Arizona). Although the weather was perfect along the way, we shot under a variety of conditions. This is due to shooting mainly at blinds–a typical strategy for us on road trips with limited time.

Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. This bird was drinking from a quasi-natural looking dripper. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On this trip I was less concerned with the philosophical problems associated with shooting from blinds than the practical ones. The two blinds at Davis Mountains SP are ergonomic nightmares with lots of dark, shady areas, obstructions, unnatural-looking masonry, and terrible angles.

The blind near the Montezuma Quail Trail is the better of he two given that birds sometimes emerge from the gloom. In general, I would say that the Davis Mountain blinds are better for birders than photo-birders and are loaded with birds this time of year–but they are also loaded with many unbelievably noisy tourists. Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lesser Goldfinches, a variety of woodpeckers, and White-crowned and Lincoln Sparrows were abundant. A lone Pyrrhuloxia made an appearance while we were there, too.

Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. Hermit Thrushes are a common sight in shady areas across the desert Southwest at this time of year. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Our next stop, the blind at Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, is not without its problems, but is light-years better than the one at Davis Mountains SP. Stay tuned!

Western Scrub Jay, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Western Scrub-Jay at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Technically speaking, the blind at Franklin Mountains SP is one of the better blinds in Texas Parks (that I know of). 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.

Fishing by the Sea

There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville

Reddish Egret (White Morph) with Shrimp, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Reddish Egret (White Morph) with Shrimp, back beach lagoon, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.

The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.

Neotropic Cormorant with Fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Fish, back beach lagoon, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.

In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.

All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,

Ruddy Turnstone with fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Ruddy Turnstone with Fish Carcass, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Outside the frame are a group of Sanderlings waiting for the least weakening of resolve by the Turnstone. 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.

Save These ‘Til Later . . . .

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. –Lewis Mumford

Vesper Sparrow(?), Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Vesper Sparrow, Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Given that I didn’t recognize this species in the field or find it a particularly distinctive one, images of this bird sat unidentified in the archives for years. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Traveling near or far to photo-bird is one of the great joys of life. Seeing new things is the spice of life in our post-materialistic world. But from time to time we encounter birds that defy easy identification. Often, these are species that are simply unfamiliar because we don’t live in their range. Other times, they are young birds, particularly drab individuals, or species lacking really distinctive field marks. Sometimes these birds are embarrassingly common species. Often our images of these birds sit in moth balls for a long time.

Bell's Vireo?, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Bell’s Vireo, Dugout Wells, Big Bend National Park, Texas. The vegetation around this oasis in the desert was filled will small songbirds, including some brilliantly colored ones like Pyrrhuloxia, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Varied Bunting. As a result, this drab little bird wasn’t met with proper enthusiasm! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

From time to time, when stuck indoors because of work or weather, I go sifting through our collection of images and take another look at some of these birds whose identities wasn’t clear at the time of the photos . . . .

Sandpiper, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
My, how gray you are! Western Sandpiper (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Western Sandpipers are among the most common shorebirds in North America. But I think of them as having lots of rufous markings–but not in winter! Only a rufous cheek patch remains in this individual. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Sometimes with tricky birds, like the peep above, I’ll take photos without knowing what I’m looking at with the idea of coming back later and identifying them from the images. Pondering puzzlements in the field might lead to missed shots.

On the other hand, for potentially exciting species (like the one below) it’s right to the reference books the minute I get home!

Blackburnian Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackburnian Warbler Coming into Breeding, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Several birders in the field decided that this was a Yellow-throated Warbler. That didn’t sit right, so I dragged out the field guides. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed.

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.