Big Bend

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.

Birding for Insects

I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life – but there was no one to tell me.–George Washington Carver

Female Grackle with predaceous diving beetle larva, Casa de Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Female Great-tailed Grackle with Predaceous Diving Beetle Larva, Casa de Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Aquatic beetle larvae are the terrors of the aquatic micro-invertebrate realm, but they are just another juicy snack for a peckish icterid. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Perhaps it’s ironic to start thinking about insects the week of the first blue norther in Texas, but I have to act on ideas when I get them!

We tend to pay close attention to insects in the field because of the vital connection they have to birds: Insects are a major part of the diets of many birds. And we love documenting birds interacting with specific, identifiable prey! But insects are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.

Back when Elisa was in graduate school, we built a fine collection of insects for her course work. That collection is now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Soon after building that collection, though, we decided never to harm another wild creature if we could help it.

Comanche Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula comanche), Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Comanche Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula comanche), Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Since then, we have tried to capture insects through close-up and macrophotography in our travels to photograph birds. As anyone who has ever attempted such a thing knows, this can be a challenge—especially if one adheres strictly to the highest standards of ethical behavior.

In writing this post I am (nearly) violating one of my cardinal rules, one that I acquired from one of my finest teachers, Dr. R. R. West. He said often: “Don’t tell me what you are going to do, tell me what you have done.” Good advice. In that vein, we have designed and started to build a mobile system for collecting, photographing, and releasing insects unharmed back into to the wild. Stay tuned for the results!

Butterfly, Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, West Texas
Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus) on Guajillo (Acacia berlandieri), Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

A New Collection: Some 2015 Favorites

People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles. –Emily Dickinson

Say's Phoebe, Basin, Big Bend National Park, West Texas
Portrait: Say’s Phoebe, Basin, Big Bend National Park, West Texas. This curious little bird was taking a break in the shade on a blistering summer afternoon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

2015 was a rough year. With all the unfortunate things that happened last year, personal losses and natural disasters, it’s tempting to try and forget about the whole period entirely. But that would mean forgetting the wonderful things, too—and there were plenty. It’s taken a while to put this little collection together, but here goes!

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

New Summer Species

A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.–Henry David Thoreau

Cordilleran Flycatcher, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Cordilleran Flycatcher, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. This Empidonax flycatcher can be recognized by its teardrop-shaped extended eye-ring. The two secondary catchlights in the eye are not from a flash, but rather (presumably) internal reflections of the sun within the eyeball. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

This week’s Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting was a summer vacation show-and-tell. The association is in recess during the summer swelter, so members brought images collected during their summer vacations to share with the group. The theme we chose to explore was images of species we had perhaps seen (or perhaps not), but never photographed well before this summer.

Warbling Vireo, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Warbling Vireo, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. A group of these birds was singing and calling from a stand of aspen trees on the edge of Beaver Meadows. We also saw and photographed them gathering nesting materials. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We’re not the kind of birders who keep life lists, but we know when we see or photograph a species for the first time. Pyrrhuloxias, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Stellar’s Jays are common birds that we have seen many times in the West, but achieved reasonable images of for the the first time this summer.

Notable species completely new to us from this summer’s trips to Big Bend NP and Rocky Mountain NP included the Cordilleran Flycatcher, Varied Bunting, Warbling Vireo, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Hairy Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker.

Although we think we got some pretty nice images, it’s always a little troubling to photograph birds on vacation simply because we never feel as though we have had enough time to really do the birds justice. Thoughts tend to run like: If I just had another day, I could have gotten the Hairy Woodpecker shot of my dreams! But alas, vacation is fleeting, and it’s soon time to get back to the grind.

Stellar's Jay, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Stellar’s Jay, Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. These are common, suspicious birds. Usually when they see us they take off and fly away immediately (Is it something I said?). Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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