Merry Christmas!

The two most joyous times of the year are Christmas morning and the end of school. –Alice Cooper

Arizona Cardinal, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Male Arizona Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis superbus) on Century Plant Bloom Stalk, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The Two Shutterbirds wish all our friends and readers a merry, merry Christmas!

Female Northern Cardinal, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis magnirostris) at Dawn, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

A note to our readers: Corporate America strikes again. Upon returning to Houston on Christmas Eve after a birding road trip to West Texas and New Mexico, we discovered to our horror that a number of new problems with twoshutterbirds had magically appeared. Turns out that our “friends” at Google had altered the agreement involving a purchased plug-in called WP Maps ex post facto. Changes to this program prevented many maps already loaded into the WordPress program from loading onto the site. After many hours of attempting to remedy the problem by visiting on-line forums, going through lines of code, etc., I’ve given up trying to fix a problem caused by the unethical, venal, and incompetent behavior of Google. So, for a few days you may notice some glitches in our site that I’m currently working to edit around. Cheers, Chris

There is one kind of robber whom the law does not strike at, and who steals what is most precious to men: time. –Napoleon Bonaparte

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

Planning Birding Vacations

When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.

Acorn Woodpecker with Acorn, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker with Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) Acorn, Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Arizona. The Acorn Woodpecker is perhaps the most spectacular of the U.S. woodpeckers . . . after the Pileated Woodpecker, of course! Cave Creek Canyon is among our favorite destinations for birding vacations, and we’re always up for the 12-hour road trip there, regardless of the season. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!

The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.

I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington. We found this charming scene near a pond in the middle of a temperate rainforest on a summer birding vacation a few years ago. Is there anything on this planet cuter than a wild duckling? Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).

Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.

Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
In Our Own Backyard: Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I’ve seen this cormorant fishing in Pilant Lake at least three times. Each time I ran after it trying to get a shot. Last week, I finally got close enough. What a spectacular animal . . . eyes like jewels, powerful, and sleek. The fish don’t stand a chance. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.


Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.

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

Bird Photography without Birds

Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.–Michel Houellebecq, Platform

Sapsucker holes, Stephen F. Austin State Park, Texas
Sapsucker Holes in Vine, Stephen F. Austin State Park (SFASP), Texas. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are common in the bottomland forests of SFASP. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Lately interesting bird sightings have been as rare as intelligent discourse during a presidential election or quality programing on network TV. The last few weeks of iffy weather and striking out on scouting expeditions to places we’ve never visited before (or perhaps only visited a time or two years ago) and seeing little in the way of birds got me thinking: Hey! I don’t need any birds to do bird photography! I can just take pictures of where birds have been! It also got me reminiscing about the all the other times out birding when we saw nothing!

Woodpecker ravaged tree, Minnesota
Hope you didn’t need this tree for anything: Woodpecker-ravaged conifer tree, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin. Theoretically eight species of woodpeckers inhabit this woods in summer, but we saw exactly zero. This woods seemed sparsely populated with birds in general. There were plenty of mosquitos, though! Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Acorn Woodpecker Larder, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Larder in Oak Tree, Portal, Arizona. Acorn Woodpeckers stash acorns in little niches that they chisel into oak trees. It’s all about planning for an uncertain future! It’s neat to watch Acorn Woodpeckers insert the acorn into its niche and hammer it into place. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, other than abandoned nests and footprints in the mud (or droppings on a post), if you’re looking for signs of past avian activity you’re pretty much looking for woodpecker handiwork. Woodpeckers are among my all time favorite birds and have been chiseling holes in trees for at least the past 25 million years, since the late Oligocene Epoch. I used to think that petrified wood was a pretty mundane fossil until I started reading about ancient woodpecker holes—now I’ll be checking those hunks of fossil wood and hoping! Incidentally, there is lots of petrified wood around the Texas Gulf Coast, but being mostly Eocene (56-34 mya) it’s way too old for evidence of woodpecker activity, though. Pity.

Bark peeled by American Three-toed Woodpecker, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Conifer Bark Peeled by American Three-toed Woodpecker, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Seeing a Three-toed Woodpecker actually flaking off some bark would have made my day. These shy, rare birds are looking for bark beetle larvae. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, while watching a Hairy Woodpecker chisel holes in the side of some guy’s house in Colorado last summer, I just had to admire the panache and devil-may-care attitude. Never mind that the hapless owner probably toiled thirty years to pay off the mortgage: let’s blast some holes! There may be tasty grubs inside those 2×4’s! Like City of Houston road crews, hammering away and leaving a lunar landscape behind, woodpeckers work their magic and are on their way!

Female Pileated Woodpecker, Olympic Peninsula, Washington
It’s Like They Just Don’t Care: Female Pileated Woodpecker, Olympic National Park, Washington. This bird showed little remorse for knocking gaping holes in a wooden retaining wall at Kalaloch Beach while looking for carpenter ants and beetle larvae. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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.

Watching for . . . Winter Stuff

Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. –Oscar Wilde

Pine Siskin, Portal, Arizona
Pine Siskin, Portal, Arizona. These birds are common across the Lower 48 in winter—except along the Gulf Coast. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At some point during the winter, a major blue northern will, hopefully, blow through and stay. Until then we’ll check the radar and bore each other (and the ghost of Oscar Wilde) with endless conversations about the temperature, humidity, jet stream, and El Niño.

But even with the iffy weather, late fall and early winter seem to be the times for charming and oddball little discoveries. Last weekend the first real Arctic blast swept across Texas. Optimistically we headed to the Coast. But at 8 am Sunday on East Beach, Galveston the winds were howling so we aborted our attempts at shorebird photography (a strong wind can twirl the barrel of a supertelephoto lens around and conk an inattentive bird photographer across the skull!) and headed for Lafitte’s Cove.

Hoping the oak motte would expend some wind energy, we approached the trees. But alas, it was still too windy for big glass, and so we settled for binocular birding. On the way into the motte, we heard a Northern Mockingbird imitating the clattering call of a Belted Kingfisher—a first for us. Once in the trees, I spotted a Pine Siskin among a small group of American Goldfinches. This was my first ever sighting of a Pine Siskin on Galveston. Although (according to the literature) Siskins do rarely make it down to the Coast during winter, I have to think that this bird was blown off course by the massive cold front that had just arrived, perhaps 30 hours before.

House Finch with Yellow, Houston, TX
Male House Finch with Yellow on Head and Throat, Houston, Texas. Color in male House Finches is a result of the mix of plant pigments found in their almost all-vegetable diet consumed during molting, such as carotenoids, but the biochemistry is complex. Female House Finches are thought to prefer males with redder coloration. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In late fall/winter trees are bare, and as a result we see more songbirds than at any other time of the year. This is a good time to look for statistically rare individual color variations. Sometimes in winter, for example, it’s possible to observe diet-induced House Finch color variants, namely male birds with orange or yellow on their heads and throats (rather than red). I don’t know what the proportion of yellow- and orange-headed male House finches is—but it must be only one in dozens of birds.

This is also the time to really watch waders hunting. I’ve already mentioned the treefrog hunting that goes on around the southern margin of Pilant Lake (and I saw some more of that this week), but it seems that birds are having to work harder and are tapping somewhat atypical resources. The Little Blue Heron below, for example, was hunting in a patch of water hyacinth—and catching grasshoppers. Over the years I’ve watched Little Blues eat countless small fish, frogs and crayfish, but this is the first time I’ve seen one eating grasshoppers. Usually it’s Cattle Egrets that are grabbing katydids and grasshoppers. Perhaps times are getting a little lean, and everybody is a little less picky and willing to eat anything that moves.

Finally, the strangely warm and humid weather that has dragged deep into November has had one very nasty side effect: an explosion in the population of vicious biting gnats. I’ve always been sensitive to gnat bites, but these suckers raise huge itchy welts that hurt for days. On Wednesday of this week, gnats were so thick at Brazos Bend State Park that even the birds were being dogged by clouds of these nasties. So here I sit, hoping for a hard freeze to settle the bugs’  hash once and for all—and begin the real, lovely birding season.

Little Blue Heron with Orthopteran (Grasshopper), Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Orthopteran (Grasshopper), Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Note that this bird is speckled with gnats. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

It’s a Wren Thing

Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming
Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming. Occurring from Canada to southern South America, House Wrens are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas. They are also one of the most aggressive small birds, vigorously defending their cavity nesting sites. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Several weeks ago it seemed as if Marsh Wrens were everywhere we were along the Upper Texas Coast. One minute they were singing, and the next they were hiding. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the Marsh Wrens disappeared completely. A week later, there were Carolina Wrens–also alternately singing and sneaking–where the Marsh Wrens had been before. House Wrens, too, should be around at this time of year, but where are they? Hiding, no doubt.

The name for the Wren Family, Troglodytidae, refers to a “creeper into holes, or cave dweller.” One can, of course, think of many examples to justify this name. The booming voices of Canyon Wrens can be heard up and down the arid canyons they inhabit. They are fun to watch as they climb up vertical cliff walls and poke around nooks, crannies, and caves. House Wrens nest in cavities, and we’ve seen Rock Wrens in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) nesting in limestone caves.

While birding the rain forests of Olympic National Park, Washington, we were treated to the incredibly loud and penetrating songs of the Winter Wren. Finding and photographing the birds was a challenge, though. These birds favor the understory vegetation among the massive fallen logs of mighty conifers. This humid, gloomy, atmospheric environment is low on light, and the birds scurried and sneaked suspiciously among the shadows when not serenading.

Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
You’ve already seen enough: A quick look over the shoulder, and then back into the marsh. Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

Be they House, Carolina, Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Marsh, or Winter, all wrens seem to have this now you-see-me, now-you-don’t personality. One minute they are singing their lungs out obliviously ten feet from the birder, the next they re scurrying and hiding.

Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. This bird hid in a pile of brush when not singing. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, this contradictory behavior is the result of two competing impulses. Most of the time wrens are secretive and shy—like most birds as they try to remain inconspicuous to predators. Then the singing begins, for all the reasons songbirds sing. They have no secrets . . . from potential mates and pretenders to their kingdoms, that is.

How infinitely charming, though, when after an hour or so of playing hide-and-seek with the birder, a wren hops up onto stump or low branch and starts his aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird)! Fortississimo, if you please!

Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington
Singing in the Darkness: Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.—Ayn Rand

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Cactus Flowers (Of All Things)

Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona. This small cactus grows in the shadows cast by other, larger cacti and desert plants. All images Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring flash.

In last week’s post, I noted that due to lousy weather we had been stuck indoors a lot lately contemplating future projects. One pet project I want to work on is building a collection of images of cactus flowers (and developing the skill to do it well). Currently I do shoot plants and animals other than birds when there are no birds around. Up to this point, I’ve been using our 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens for this work, but I have purchased (after reading technical reports and moping around the house for a week or two) a used 90mm Canon tilt-shift f/2.8, primarily for botanical work. I can’t wait to use it!

Tilt-shift lenses employ the Scheimpflug Principle and convert a plane of sharp of focus into a wedge, thus increasing the apparent depth of field. Shallow depth of field in macro photography, frankly, has what has prevented me from becoming really interested in “macro” work. (Note: I put macro in quotes because much of this work is not true macro, i.e. 1: 1 or greater, but rather just fairly close up using a macro lens.) Depth of field is a function of three variables: aperture (f-stop), focal length, and object distance. Super telephoto work has its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties (like heavy, bulky and expensive lenses, inordinate susceptibility to vibration, etc.), but macro has always seemed especially fussy. Dazzlingly bright light (read bright light and flash) is usually required to capture a macro image that is close enough to present enough detail to be interesting with sufficient depth of field to not look like a child took the photo. Maybe the tilt-shift will help.

Cholla flower at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona.
Stale Cane(?) Cholla Flower (Cylindropuntia sp.) at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Looking for a fun time? Check out Cylinderopuntia taxonomy.

But why cactus flowers, of all things? I must confess a special affection for desert organisms, and deserts in general. The most spectacular places I’ve ever visited are in deserts. As a child, I studied the Arizona Highways magazines at the local library and by February often dreamed of moving away from the frozen wastes of Minnesota. Cactus flowers are especially beautiful–the hummingbirds of the plant world–and I have decided that I would travel just to see and photograph them. Like hummingbirds, they are native to the New World only, and I feel lucky to be able to see and photograph them in the wild.

Up to this point, I’ve only photographed the most common species encountered while chasing birds around, and I know very little about cacti other than that the flowers are pretty and the plants grow in exotic places that I love. Getting serious about cactus flower photography would mean, of course, learning the taxonomy, ecology, and biogeography of the plants. At present this seems a daunting task . . . but it would involve trips to places like Big Bend, the Painted Desert, and . . . dozens of really, really interesting places (i.e., not Houston). Are these just the fantasies of a Dog Days of Houston shut-in? We’ll see.

Prickly Pear flower with bee at Balcones
Prickly Pear (Opuntia robusta) Flower with Bee at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Central Texas.

When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes — disease and death and the rotting of flesh.—Edward Abbey, Down the River

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding for Tyrant Flycatchers of the Genus Tyrannus

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Pelican Island, Texas
The Most Spectacular Member of the Tyrannus Clan: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (T. forticatus) on Pelican Island, Texas. Exceptional in coloration and plumage, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is a stand-out among the relatively conservative-looking members of its genus. Scissor-tails prefer open, grassy environments with small clumps of trees from which to hunt. They also love to perch and hunt along barbed-wire fence lines and are a common sight in summer on the plains of the southern U.S. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The family Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers) is primarily a South American group. Of over 370 species, only 35 have ranges that extend far enough north to reach the United States. Eight genera of tyrant flycatchers occur in North America, north of Mexico. Considered by evolutionary biologists to be among the most primitive of songbirds, tyrannids are nevertheless highly successful, ranging from Patagonia, and even the Falkland and Galápagos Islands, to Canada. These birds occur across a wide variety of habitats, from bottomland forests to the high Andes.

Due to their bold personalities and active hunting behaviors, the Tyrant Flycatchers of the genus Tyrannus (kingbirds and kin) are some of the most exciting birds to watch. Exhibiting a rather limited palette of colors relative to some other songbirds, ranging primarily from browns and olives to gray on top (plus orange or red semi-concealed crown stripes for display), and a variety of shades of yellow below, species of Tyrannus may never be as popular as warblers with birders. But what they lack (usually) in terms of showy colors they make up for in personality and behavior.

Couch's Kingbird at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas
Couch’s Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii) on Cable at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. This young bird showed no fear of me whatsoever, despite a close approach. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1/4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Other than the Great Kiskadee, perhaps, Kingbirds are the most conspicuous of the North American flycatchers. These large, aggressive birds will not tolerate being pushed around by other, larger birds like crows or even raptors. Although they will eat fruit and seeds during certain times of the year (depending on the Kingbird species), insects form an integral part of their diets.

From a perch, they will hawk large insects from the air above water or ground and also grab prey from the ground. The fact that they return again and again to a perch can make photography relatively easy and enjoyable. After locating an avian photographic subject, I often snap few frames, advance a few paces, snap a few frames, advance a few paces, and so on. Some bird species will flush as soon as they see a human. Others will hesitate until a particular distance is breeched (minimum approach distance). Tyrant flycatchers, too, eventually flee hesitantly into the air upon a close enough approach, but I can’t help feeling as though these bird are asking themselves: Do I really have to leave? Can I take this guy?

Cassin's Kingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona.
Cassin’s Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans) on Mesquite at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. This bird flashed a bright orange (on top) and red (below) crown-stripe upon takeoff and could easily be confused for a Western Kingbird. Considering a number of other images together, however, the identification was based upon absence of bold white outer tail feather margins, lighter brownish wings with pale feather edges, and a crescent-shaped white patch or “mustache” below eye. In such similar species, though, there is room for uncertainty. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Although not as difficult to tell apart as some Empidonax Flycatchers, which are literally indistinguishable based on appearance alone, some species of Tyrannus are quite tricky to identify. Even based on a reasonably good photograph, experienced birders may disagree about the identity of a specific individual. Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, for example, overlap in range in the West and are often confused. Likewise Couch’s, Tropical, and Western Kingbirds have overlapping ranges in the Lower Rio Grade Valley.

All these species, though, do have distinctive field marks and can in principle be distinguished. However, depending on the light and angle of view, colors can change. Vegetation can obscure minor or subtle features. In these troublesome cases, after exhausting reasonable avenues of identification, I try to live with the uncertainty–rather than decide which member of this sometimes look-a-like group I’ve spotted.

Eastern Kingbird on Hackberry at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) on Hackberry at the Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Kingbirds, like many other insectivorous birds, often hang around Hackberry trees. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, natural light.

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.—Erich Fromm

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip! Desert Southwest Birding in Summer (Part 3: Cave Creek Canyon)

Acorn Woodpecker Feeding Young at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Feeding Youngster at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Visiting Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, and environs in Cave Creek Canyon for a few days each year has become a Two Shutterbirds birding tradition. We arrive each time hoping to discover or photograph something new or obtain better shots of species we have photographed before. Usually we do see or document things new to us. This July’s visit was no exception.

White-breasted Nuthatch at Cave Creek Ranch, southeast Arizona
White-breasted Nuthatch with Sunflower Seed at Cave Creek Ranch, southeast Arizona. To get this shot, I filled a small cavity with seed in the exposed roots of a tree just outside our cabin. It was less than an hour before a jar of nuthatches found the cache. I happily sat still as they flew in, hopped down the trunk, and grabbed a sunflower seed before posing briefly for a picture! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At Cave Creek, we spend days exploring places like Barfoot Park, South Fork, and the Vista trail—trying to include a mix of new and familiar locales. Because the terrain can often be steep, these are typically pure birding trips (binoculars or, at most, small glass only). This July, Hermit Thrushes, Western Wood-Pewees, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were the most commonly encountered birds at lower elevations, and Yellow-eyed Juncos predominated at higher ones. In the evenings, once we were beat, and upon return to the ranch, we sometimes spent a few hours hanging around shooting the numerous birds that visit the seed and nectar feeders.

Blue-throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona.
Blue-throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. These are the largest hummingbirds you’re likely to see at Cave Creek, or anywhere in North America—unless you’re lucky enough to see a Magnificent or Plain-capped Starthroat! Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Seed feeders at Cave Creek Ranch attract large numbers of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Mexican Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers. Occasionally a White-Breasted Nuthatch, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Arizona Cardinal, Hepatic or Summer Tanager, or Curve-billed Thrasher showed up as we watched. In the thickets along the road behind the office we saw Cassin’s Kingbirds, Black Phoebes, and Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens. At the nectar feeders, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds predominated. We saw a few Blue-throated and a single Anna’s Hummingbird. Another birder saw a single Violet-crowned Hummingbird, but Chris was looking the other way. A lifer missed by a fraction of a second! A Plain-capped Starthroat was reported in the area (we saw one a few days earlier in Madera Canyon). Without exaggeration, Cave Creek Canyon is a magical place, and place not to be missed by anyone interested in birds or nature.

Cave Creek Canyon at Dusk
South Wall of the Entrance to Cave Creek Canyon at Dusk. The mouth of the canyon opens into the Chihuahuan Desert. Canon 7D/Tokina 11-16mm. Natural light.

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.—W. Somerset Maugham

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Most Spectacular Northern Cardinal Subspecies?

Male Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona
Portrait in Red: Male Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona. There are nineteen subspecies of Northern Cardinal in North and Central America. The “Arizona Cardinal,” Cardinalis cardinals superbus, may be the most spectacular cardinal in the U.S. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash. All images in this post were saturated 3%.

During our recent road trip to southeast Arizona we once again encountered Cardinalis cardinals superbus, a bird sometimes referred to as the “Arizona Cardinal.” I paused for a closer look and made a few comparisons with our own Cardinalis cardinals magnirostris, the Northern Cardinal subspecies that occurs throughout the eastern third of Texas.

Male Northern Cardinal at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
East Texas Bird: Male Northern Cardinal (C. c. magnirostris) at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona race of cardinals occurs in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico and is generally larger, taller-crested, longer-tailed, and more brightly colored (less gray on the back) than Texas Gulf Coast cardinals, or any of the other races of cardinals in the U.S. The Arizona Cardinal’s face mask also tends toward lighter shades and is smaller, often not meeting across the top of the bill. In general behavior, the Arizona subspecies was indistinguishable from our familiar Texas birds. Their songs, however, varied by a note or two here and there.

Female Arizona Cardinal at Cave Creek, Arizona.
Female Arizona Cardinal (C. c. superbus) on Century Plant at Cave Creek, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

C. c. magnirostris is a beautiful bird and common bird—a bird so common that we tend to ignore it, despite its beauty. Sometimes in our travels, too, we are so taken with the new species encountered that we overlook the close relatives of familiar animals that cross our paths.

Female Northern Cardinal at the Houston Arboretum
Female Northern Cardinal (C.C. magnirostris) at the Houston Arboretum. In portrait, t’s easy to see why Northern Cardinals were referred to as “Cardinal Grosbeaks” in previous centuries. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona Cardinal is a spectacular bird, and not easy to miss. But how many other close relatives of our less showy backyard birds are we overlooking during our far-flung birding adventures? Learning about (and keeping straight) these minor geographic variations in our native birds is yet another aspect of this incredible hobby we call birdwatching.

Why hurry over beautiful things? Why not linger and enjoy them?—Clara Schumann

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip! Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer (Part 2: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?—Richard P. Feynman

Male Costa's Hummingbird at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Male Costa’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. The Tucson area is near the eastern extremity of this hummingbird’s summer breeding range. From many angles his gorget appears blackish, but during courtship the male Costa’s is sure to direct brilliant violet rays toward potential mates! Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an interesting and highly recommended institution nestled within Saguaro National Park. Composed of zoo, botanical garden, nature park, wildlife refuge, and natural history museum, the 21-acre campus blends into the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Some animals are free to come and go as they please, and others are captive.

According to museum literature, the hummingbird aviary contains up to seven species. On the day we visited it contained only four: Anna’s, Costa’s, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Because Black-chinned and Broad-billed are common in the areas we bird, we focused our attention primarily on Anna’s and Costa’s.

Male Anna's Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Male Anna’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

The covered aviary made for a weird, muted light in which it was difficult to capture the iridescent colors of male humming bird gorgets. Because these colors are the result of the physical optics of the feathers, not pigmentation, getting the colors to show well depends on the spatial relationship between light source(s), bird, and camera. On the whole, shooting hummingbirds in the aviary was a bit unsettling: We are used to hummers being will-o’-the-wisps, and free to wander.

Verdin at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Quizzical Verdin on Desert Willow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We also saw a variety of wild desert birds. Cactus Wrens and White-winged Doves were the most common and were seen singing on saguaros and other plants. Verdin, Phainopepla, and Gila Woodpeckers were also about. Some Ash-throated Flycatchers and Gambel’s Quail made brief appearances.

Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Gila Woodpeckers nest in cavities excavated within saguaros. Many woodpeckers were raising families while we visited the Southwest, and we often saw parents bringing fruit and insects home to young. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also boasts an impressive assortment of desert plants. A number of species were in bloom including fishhook barrel cactus, red yucca, a variety of legumes, and the spectacular red bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrina), a naturalized native of the Neotropics. Some saguaros were in bloom, but coming to the end of their flowering season.

Barrel Cactus flowers at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Fishhook Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus sp. ) flowers at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring-flash.

Our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum brought up many philosophical issues about the place of nature in a human-dominated landscape. We have hinted at some of these issues before, but Elisa hopes to explore them more deeply in future writings.

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip! Desert Southwest Birding in Summer (Part 1: Madera Canyon, Arizona)

Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona.
Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

For Upper Texas Gulf Coast birding there comes a summer tipping point where the pain outweighs the gain. By about late July, it’s tough to justify going out birding with the bugs, sweltering weather, yahoos, and low diversity of birds. What to do . . . ?

It’s time for a road trip! This time around we visited Franklin Mountains State Park (West Texas), and several places in southeast Arizona including Saguaro National Park, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cave Creek, and Madera Canyon, a classic North American birding destination in the Coronado National Forest.

Southeast Arizona lies within one of the three northward-extending prongs of tropical biodiversity that extend into the U.S., the others reaching Big Bend and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Madera Canyon, one of the major birding hotspots within this Arizona prong, is on the northwest side of the Santa Rita Mountains, a Madrean Sky Island, about 25 miles south of Tucson.

Madera Canyon cuts largely through granitic rocks and passes through four major life zones, from Lower Sonoran in the blistering valley floor to cooler Canadian at the top, and ranges from about 3600 to over 9400 feet in elevation. At 9453 feet Mount Wrightson crowns the canyon.

Adult Painted Redstart perched on a branch
Shady Character. Painted Redstarts are common on the trails in Madera Canyon, Arizona in July. They prefer to sing, hunt, and preen under shaded cover, so it was quite a challenge to capture a usable image! Luckily, we saw this bird early on the hike, and my hand was still steady. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/100.

For our first visit to Madera Canyon we stayed for three days at the Santa Rita Lodge. The lodge is centrally located with hiking trails above and below in elevation. The feeders near the office were often thick with birds. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, White-winged Doves, and Mourning Doves predominated. Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers, Hepatic Tanagers, Bridled Titmice, and American Turkeys visited sporadically. Hummingbirds were abundant. Black-chinned and Broad-billeds predominated. A few Rufous and a single Plain-capped Starthroat visited while we watched. A Canyon and Bewick’s Wren appeared briefly. White-eared Hummingbirds were reported in the area, but unfortunately we didn’t see them. Mexican Jays were common around the lodge in general.

On the Nature Trail, flycatchers, especially Ash-throated and Western Wood-Pewees predominated. Elisa was lucky to see a Western Wood-Peewee nest with nestlings. Painted Redstarts were common, and we caught several possible glimpses of Flame-colored Tanagers. Just south of the lodge we were treated to a Whiskered Screech Owl roosting in a cavity in a large sycamore tree.

Hermit Thrush perched on mossy stump.
The look-out. A Hermit Thrush eyes a couple of primates walking through the woods in Madera Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/160.

On the Carrie Nation Mine Trail, we  saw Ash-throated, Western Wood-Peewee, Black Phoebe, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstarts. Elisa saw a single Red-faced Warbler.

On the last morning, we hiked the Bog Springs Trail where we saw mated pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, in one case gathering nesting materials.

Mud-puddling Two-tailed Swallowtail
Mud-puddling. This Two-tailed Swallowtail (Arizona’s state butterfly) is drinking nutrient-rich water from a mud puddle along the nature trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona. During the encounter, which lasted about 10 minutes, I observed it drink continuously and excrete excess fluid from its abdomen every 15-30 seconds. Mud-puddling allows butterflies and other insects to obtain essential mineral salts and amino acids. Canon EOS 7D/300 mm f4L IS. Hand-held in natural light, ISO 500, f/9; 1/400.

Our visit to Madera Canyon drove home one central point: There is a significant difference between birding and bird photography. In some of the places we visited, it would have required a herculean effort to haul the super telephotos up into the canyon. In those instances, we just broke out the binoculars and smaller glass and enjoyed the views or photographed flowers, insects, or reptiles.

Female Phainopepla at the Arizona Sonoran Museum.
Next time: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Female Phainopepla. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The mountains are calling and I must go.—John Muir

@2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding in Portal, Arizona and Environs

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. The feeders around the main office were swarmed with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The Broad-billed Hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species, its range barely extending into the Southwest U.S. during summer. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.

Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.

Vista Point, near Cave Creek, Arizona
A View from the Vista Trail, Coronado National Forest, Arizona showing a pine-oak forest extending up to the bare volcanic rock of an arid canyon. The distribution of plants and animals varies dramatically by elevation and distance from water. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .

Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Yellow-eyed Juncos are another primarily Mexican species. This bird nests in coniferous (or Madrean pine-oak) forests at elevations of 5,900-8,200 ft and eats mostly seeds (in cool weather) and arthropods (in warm weather). Barfoot Park is at an elevation of 8169 ft and is dominated by lofty ponderosa pines. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.