Texas

Wishing for Warblers

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves. –Marcel Proust

Prothonotary Warbler, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Prothonotary Warbler, Dauphin Island, Alabama. This bird was drinking nectar from bottlebrush flowers. A cavity-nesting species, this songster breeds in the swamps of Brazos Bend State Park. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

This weekend we went binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park, again. We decided to leave the photo gear at home given the dense clouds and patches of rain and drizzle. While we were sitting on the bench on the west side of Old Horseshoe Lake, I was grousing about how I was tired of only seeing the usual suspects. Just as the words left my mouth, I spotted a pair of Cinnamon Teal drakes dabbling among the aquatic vegetation right off shore–a personal first for this park. These birds were likely early migrants at the extreme eastern extent of their migratory range. A nice sighting, but even with that I’m ready for a change. Of course, the next big change is spring migration . . . and the passage of dozens of glorious wood warbler species across the Upper Texas Gulf Coast.

Nashville Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Nashville Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Warbler photography usually involves finding birds in woods with dappled sunlight. The options are flash or no flash. With no flash in dense woods, artsy shots like this are possible (but rare). Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

Now is the time to start brushing up on Warbler identification. It’s amazing how quickly this skill fades over the year, but equally amazing how quickly it returns after a few days in the field in April. Last spring was a fairly good one for seeing new or unusual warblers. Specifically, we saw Blackpoll Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Chestnut-sided Warbler, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. We were lucky enough to hear this species sing on the North Shore of Lake Superior a few summers ago. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After about six years of serious birding, my personal warbler species count stands at thirty-eight, with decent images of about half that many. Soon we’ll be planning trips to see specific tough-to-find species: Big Bend for the Colima Warbler, Michigan for Kirtland’s Warbler, and so on.

Spring brings hope for, if not new species, then better images of birds we’ve seen and photographed before. Maybe this is the year I will find the holy grail of bird photography–a technically perfect shot of a rare warbler, a big juicy caterpillar in its beak. Spring migration brings the sense that anything is possible –yes, Virginia, a storm could blow a Black-throated Blue to Galveston! Dream big or stay home!

Palm Warbler, Myakka River State Park, Florida
Palm Warbler, Myakka River State Park, Florida. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Fishing Through the Glare

There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures. –James Thurber

Great Blue Heron (Breeding) with Gizzard Shad, 40-acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron (Breeding) with Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), 40-acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird spent a good deal of time with its head low to the surface of the water, neck outstretched. It seemed to be searching for prey by looking for minor disturbances in the surface of the water–and then the bird would go dashing after the makers of these ripples among the aquatic vegetation. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On Sunday we took a much-needed trip to Brazos Bend State Park. The light in the early morning was white, and the water shone like a mirror. Colors were washed out, and there was a general sense of omni-directional illumination. Shadows were pale, and the water lacked clarity. More than just a problem for photographers, these conditions necessitated particular hunting strategies on the part of waders . . . .

Tri-colored Heron Fishing, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Tricolored Heron Utilizes an Underwing Feeding Strategy, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird was shuffling its feet to scare up prey. Likely the shadow of the wings cut the glare from the surface of the water allowing prey to be spotted more easily. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

American Bitterns, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and a Tricolored Heron were harvesting little (and big) fish galore from vegetation-choked water. And a Great Blue Heron bullied a Great Egret into dropping a fish it had caught in 40-acre Lake . . . .

Most interesting, perhaps, was a Tricolored Heron that was employing a (single) underwing feeding strategy, and from time-to-time, a double-wing feeding strategy. Among herons and egrets, these behaviors involve a continuum of postures from shading the water with a single wing, both wings separated, to a complete canopy in which the wings meet in front of the bird as it crouches, feathers touching the surface of the water. This latter behavior, “canopy feeding” sensu strictu, occurs only in the Black Heron of Africa (Egretta ardesiaca), although the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron can approach this configuration.

Several functions for these wing positions have been proposed from scaring fish into divulging their positions, to getting fish to swim into the shade (and presumably under cover) after being be spooked by foot movements, to cutting the glare so that the bird can see its prey better. It is the latter I generally favor, primarily because I tend to observed these behaviors on days with a lot of glare. As an aside, the nickname of the Black Heron is the “umbrella bird.” If the shading to reduce glare is the correct interpretation of this behavior, then perhaps the parasol bird would be a better moniker for this creature.

Note: Special thanks go to naturalist and friend R.D. for sharing his high-speed video of a Tricolored Heron that plainly show how much clearer the water appears in the shade of an outstretched wing.

Tri-colored Heron Fishing 2, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Tricolored Heron Utilizes an Underwing Feeding Strategy 2, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. The head of this bird swayed back and forth between outstretched wings. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved, No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Chasing Greater Roadrunners

The vast sage desert undulates with almost imperceptible tides like the oceans. –Frank Waters

Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas
Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas. This bird is in a characteristic hunting posture. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

When the weather is dank and dreary like this along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast, my mind turns to just about anywhere else. Getting back out to the desert is always a top priority. Among the most interesting desert birds to pursue is the Greater Roadrunner (and the Lesser Roadrunner, too, I’ll bet, but that species doesn’t occur in the U.S., and I’m not up for living The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Greater Roadrunners occur all across Texas, but we rarely see them anywhere but in the desert or scrublands.

Roadrunners are highly predatory, mostly terrestrial cuckoos. A common birding occurrence is to be walking in the desert and to see a Roadrunner skulk off into the brush as the bird detects your presence. Sometimes you’ll see one scurry across a trail ahead with a lizard or small snake in its beak. Sometimes the tail of a large snake (or lizard?) will be poking out of the beak. In this case, the anterior portion of the herp is being digested, and the rest of animal is slowly being fed down the gullet.

Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas
Icy Stare: Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

Roadrunners are masters of dispatching dangerous prey. Scorpions, centipedes, horned lizards, even venomous snakes are on the menu. Seeing a Roadrunner with prey is one thing, photographing it is another. Several times I’ve gone after Roadrunners in the field, prey dangling from their beaks. By the time I catch up to them, the prey is down the hatch! But with effort, documenting a Roadrunner with a dangerous, squirming victim is just a matter of time!

Greater Roadrunner in Tree, Big Bend National Park, West Texas
Greater Roadrunner in Tree, Big Bend National Park, West Texas. Roadrunners spend most of their time on the ground. If you startle one, it may fly a short distance–although it will more likely just quickly scurry away. This bird was just sitting around on a branch early one morning. Perhaps a big juicy snake was digesting away inside its belly! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Santa Ana NWR: Fortress America

Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail. –John Donne

Altamira Oriole, Santa Ana NWR, South Texas
Altamira Oriole, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), South Texas. Santa Ana is one of the few places in our country where a birder can see this bird easily. Note the orange wing-bar. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many birders inside and outside Texas are aware (and horrified) that planning for construction of Trump’s border wall with Mexico at Santa Ana National National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near McAllen, Texas continues to progess. Often described as the “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Santa Ana is nationally and internationally famous as one of the birding destinations in the United States. Some of our earliest and most profound birding adventures have occurred here. In fact, it is here where we became serious birders. Over the strenuous objections of world biologists and birders about the obvious threats to habitat and the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the place, the plans continue.

I suspect that it would be useless to enumerate the types of specific threats to particular animal species–from hindering migration for purposes of finding mates and food to loss of availability of escape routes during floods–that the wall poses. The weird populist political support this boondoggle enjoys is quite beyond the bounds of reason. The work (and destruction) will continue until Trump is out of office–but then the damage will have been done. The wall will (obviously) be incomplete, and Santa Ana will be scarred.

In contemplation of the border wall, I am reminded of the history of palaces in Western Europe. Reaching back into antiquity one finds that the early residences of the nobility were fortresses. Often the power these men and women exerted over their subjects was enforced at sword-point, and rivals often staged armed insurrections. Power and influence were tenuous. However, as the power of the state increased into the early Modern Era, a curious thing happened. Kings and queens no longer lived behind moats and fortifications: They lived in palaces. The Versailles of Louis XIV was not a fortress. Nor was the Buckingham Palace of George III. Security, yes–moats, ramparts, massive walls, no. Power was exercised with the stroke of a pen, orders dispatched from an office, not a turret.

Those advocating the building of the border wall must agree that if the United States requires a physical wall, a fortification, to contain illegal immigration, then our government no longer enjoys a rule of law capacious enough or one even worthy of a Modern civilization. Rather, we must consider ourselves Medievals cowering behind stone walls and iron gates.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, South Texas
Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Santa Ana NWR, South Texas. This bird is in the process of excavating a nest cavity. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. 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
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Formerly 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.

More Rookery Birds

I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits

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

One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.

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

We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.

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

Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.

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

Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!

Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Image taken from a boat on a brutal white-hot day. Thanks to DS for access to the boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

The Bridge: Isolating the Subject

Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 1, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. The bird was photographed against a shaded patch of water. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.

Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .

Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas.
The Flip: Great Blue Heron with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). The action is close enough at the bridge to use a full-frame body without fear of not having enough reach. Shot from ground pod across the bridge from the south. Natural light.
Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 2, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Here the bird was photographed against a brightly illuminated patch of water from south of the bridge. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.

Great Egret with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Great Egret with Shad 3, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. In this case, the background is the cement walkway of the bridge itself. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.

Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .

Now, get out there and photograph some birds!

Neotropic Cormorant with Plecostomus, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant with Big “Plecostomus,” Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is a low angle shot (kneeling) of a bird at close range. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Butter Beak: Neotropic Cormorant with Shad, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Shot from ground pod. Natural light.

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

Dunlin!

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

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

I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.

Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .

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

Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!

Dunlin, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Dunlin (Nonbreeding), Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Photo taken November 7, 2016. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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