Alabama

Save the Date (January 18, 2017): A New Two Shutterbirds Presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA)

All of life is a foreign country. –Jack Kerouac

Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Flower During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Bottlebrushes are Australian plants, but birds everywhere love them because of the copious nectar and pollen they produce. Sweet, calorie-rich nectar must be a wonderful treat after a grueling trans-Gulf flight! This bird’s head has been stained above the eyes with nectar or sap from some other unknown plant. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Exotics Gone Native!

Synopsis: Human-introduced exotic plants and animals are all around us, and many of them are doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s sometimes hard not to notice them while out photo-birding. The proliferation of these organisms can be troubling to nature lovers, particularly eco-purists. Are these foreign organisms adversely affecting our native plants and wildlife? And if so, how badly? Are some helpful to our native species? Certainly some, like bottlebrush, are helpful to the bird photographer! Whatever your stance on exotics, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is treat them as just another opportunity to experience new species in the wild—even if they are out of place. In this talk, Chris Cunningham will share images of some frequently encountered exotic species and discuss their place in our native landscape. (Note: If this topic is too upsetting, Chris and Elisa will share and some images of native wild birds from their most recent outings to West Texas, the Coastal Bend, and central New Mexico, too!)

Time and Place: 7:00 PM, January 18, 2017 at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston TX 77079. For additional details, please see the Houston Audubon HANPA website.

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

Birding the Past

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust

Pileated Woodpecker, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Pileated Woodpecker in Nest Cavity, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. In a pinch, with a little imagination and a suspension of disbelief, the Pileated Woodpecker could pass for the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker . . . Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The world is old. The world is new . . . .

Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.

Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .

Redwood Forest, southwest Oregon
Redwood Forest, Oregon Redwoods Trail, Siskiyou National Forest, southwest Oregon. This could be a scene from the Jurassic Period. The understory is mostly ferns, and the trees are conifers, Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Douglas fir. Sequoia conifers date back to the Late Jurassic Epoch. Mosses and ferns are far more ancient. The dark giant shapes slipping through the trees are sauropods. Canon EOS 7DII/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.

From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.

Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
Spirit Guide: A Friendly Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.

Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama
Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama. Human habitation began in Russell Cave during the Archaic Period, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists think these Native Americans occupied the cave mostly during winter. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).

Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!

Cycad, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas
Cycad Fronds, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas. Stare into a cycad understory today with impunity. Were it the Jurassic or Cretaceous Period, you might not like what was staring back! Canon EOS 7DII/50mm f/1.4. Natural light.

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

With a Whimper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migration, Nature’s Wonder, on the Gulf Coast

Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Tennessee Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Tennessee Warblers follow nearly the same migratory path north during spring migration as they follow south during the fall. In the fall, though, they avoid the Atlantic Coast on their way back to Central and northern South America from all across Canada. Only they know exactly why. Note the pollen staining on the face. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Blue-winged Warbler During Spring Migration, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blue-winged Warblers migrate across the same areas during both migrations. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).

Western Sandpipers, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive You MAD 1: Western Sandpipers, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.

Short-billed Dowitcher, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive you MAD 2: Short-billed(?) Dowitcher, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.

Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.

Preening Black Tern, near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas
Preening Black Tern (Transitional Plumage), near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas. Although we’ve seen them in other places, I had my first ever good look at Black Terns on Galveston this week! Most birds were preening and transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Black Terns can only be seen on Galveston during migration. I waded out calf-deep to a sandbar at high tide to get this shot. Black Terns are considered “vulnerable.” Note the molted feathers everywhere. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Birds and Bottlebrush Flowers: A Love Story

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.–D. H. Lawrence

Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Plants of the Australian Genus Melaleuca (also sometimes referred to as “Callistemon”), the twenty-five to fifty or so species of bottlebrush (depending on author), are widely used around the world in Tropical and Subtropical gardens and have naturalized in a few places as well, where freezes are not too hard or often.

Male Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Daupin Island, Alabama
Male Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Note the dark staining on the forehead—a result of being smeared with nectar? Only some of the Prothonotary Warblers at this site had the dark brownish/reddish staining, despite Tennessee and Cape May Warblers also feeding here. Perhaps the Prothonotary Warblers got into some other species of flower before visiting the bottlebrush? Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Few plants are as attractive to birds as the bottlebrush tree. When you see bottlebrush flowers on the Gulf Coast during migration, stop and linger. Here, bottlebrush are usually the crimson-flowered variety (although I have seen the white and green kinds) and are often buzzing with hummingbirds and songbirds. Warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles seem to be especially drawn to these flowers.

Bottlebrush flowers have a number of attractive features. They are reported to produce copious nectar and pollen. Some birds feeding on the flowers are covered in pollen and may have heads and faces stained with yellow pollen and/or nectar. Although in most cases birds probably only acquire minimal additional nutritional benefit from pollen, the nectar must be a welcome burst of calories after a daunting trans-gulf flight.

Bottlebrush trees also attract nutritious insects, ants especially. I have seen Scarlet Tanagers, well-known as bee-feeding specialists, plucking bees off the flowers, too. A have read reports of Australian parrots feeding on buds, but I’ve not witnessed any similar bird behavior in the U.S.

So what do the Bottlebrush Trees get in return from the birds? Short answer: pollination. Nectar-hungry birds deliver pollen grains from the anthers of flowers onto the stigmas of others thus fertilizing the plants.

Young Male Orchard Oriole, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Young Male Orchard Oriole on Bottlebrush Tree, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Female Scarlet Tanager, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Female Scarlet Tanager on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Finally, I am not generally a fan of exotic plants in the landscape. Exotics reportedly do not support the diversity of insect life that is so critical to maintaining healthy bird populations. Bottlebrush is a tough call, though. Covered in birds and bugs, these glorious plants provide an oasis for birds and birders alike.

Male Indigo Bunting on Bottlebrush, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Young Male Indigo Bunting on Bottlebrush Tree, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Note the yellow pollen on this bird’s face and head. Birders can sometimes be heard arguing in the field about identifications based on “yellow faces!” Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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