Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Cha-cha-cha: Cactus Wren on Log at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Scrub Jay, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Western Scrub-Jay at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Technically speaking, the blind at Franklin Mountains SP is one of the better blinds in Texas Parks (that I know of). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Fishing by the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruddy Turnstone with fish, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Ruddy Turnstone with Fish Carcass, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Outside the frame are a group of Sanderlings waiting for the least weakening of resolve by the Turnstone. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Save These ‘Til Later . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping an Eye Out for Ross’s Geese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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,

Spring at the Shore

Hug the shore; let others try the deep. –Virgil

Portrait: Whimbrel, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Portrait: Whimbrel, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Whimbrels will soon be gone: They nest in the arctic, mostly Alaska and around Hudson’s Bay. Frenchtown Road is the only dependable place to see them around here (that I know of). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

Long-billed Dowitcher, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
On the Way to the Arctic: Long-billed Dowitcher, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird seems to have a “straight” supercilium, a “brick-red” cast to its feathers, a straight bill tip, and a relatively low-set eye (a “loral angle” of 19 degrees)—all Long-billed Dowitcher features. The loral angle was defined by Lee and Birch (2006). Canon 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .

Short-billed Dowitcher, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas
Short-billed Dowitcher, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. This bird has an arcuate supercilium, an orangish cast to its feathers, and a relatively high-set eye—all Short-billed Dowitcher features. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .

Bathing Female Red-breasted Merganser, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas
Bathing Female Red-breasted Merganser, Frenchtown Road, Bovlivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Reference

Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.

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

Songbirds Among the Vines

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer

Black-throated Green Warbler on Grape Vine, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-throated Green Warbler on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .

Grape Leaffolder Caterpillar (Desmia funeralis), Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Tennessee Warbler with Grape Leaffolder Caterpillar (Desmia funeralis), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.

Palm Warbler, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Shy Bird: Palm Warbler on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.

Male Orchard Oriole, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Orchard Oriole on Grapevine, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.

After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.

I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.

Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.

Male Summer Tanager, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Quizzical Male Summer Tanager, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, 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.

New Predator-prey Action

Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in Spiderweb, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in a Spiderweb, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Why go dragonfly hunting when the spiders do all the work for you? Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers have been abundant at Lafitte’s Cove this spring. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.

Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blackpoll Warblers have been just behind Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers in abundance this spring migration at Lafitte’s Cove. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.

Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.

Cormorant with shrimp, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Where the Heck is My Shrimp Cocktail? Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Ohio River Shrimp (Macrobrachium ohione), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. For a moment the bird lost track of the shrimp as it attempted to “flip” it into easy swallowing position. The Ohio River shrimp is one of the most common freshwater macroinvertebrates in North America—but try getting a shot of a bird eating one! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Cormorant with Minnow, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Shad(?), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is the first time I’ve seen a cormorant eat a fish other than an armored catfish at Fiorenza. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.

Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.

In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.

Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
One Stone-cold Killer Eats Another: Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen

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

The Black-necked Stilt Courtship Ritual

Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne

Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.

The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.

Black-necked Stilt 1, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 1: The Nod, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The ritual proceeds with a nod to the presenting female. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 2, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 2: Look what I can do! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 3, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 3: The Stroll, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 4, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 4: Look what I can do (again)! Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed-synchronized fill-flash.

The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .

Black-necked Stilt 5, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 5: The Act, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .

Black-necked Stilts 6, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 6: Crossed Beaks, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.

Black-necked Stilts 7, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black-necked Stilts 7: Begin Promenade, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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