Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
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 . . . .
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!
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.
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 . . . .
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 . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid
The last few weeks have been rather hectic, and we’re wiped out. Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball soon sharing some images of, and words about, our incredible Texas avifauna! Cheers, Elisa and Chris
It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik
On the Texas Gulf Coast, birders can see Black-bellied Plovers in all plumage types, except down. Nonbreeding colors are easiest to see here, and in other coastal wintering areas from the Canadian border to South America on both East and West coasts. Although a few birds summer along the Texas Gulf Coast, Black-bellied Plovers breed exclusively in the High Arctic, so seeing nestlings in down would be a major undertaking.
Birds in transitional plumage can be seen during spring migration. Beginning in late March, birds in these intermediate colors can be seen fairly easily at such places as Frenchtown Road, Rollover Fish Pass, and across Galveston Island. By May, birds in dramatic breeding plumage can be seen in these same places. From mid-August to October, Black-bellied Plovers appear again in Texas for fall migration, and to begin their winter residence.
When we first started birding, different seasonal plumages seemed to be a nightmarish complication to an already challenging hobby. But we have grown an appreciation for these changes: Rather than seeing them as an identification problem, we consider them an opportunity. Even common birds like Black-bellied Plovers can provide the challenge of seeing and photographing birds in every plumage type.
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin
On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.
The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.
On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.
Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.
As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.
For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.
Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.
Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg
Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.
Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).
As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.
As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.
Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.
How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean. –Arthur C. Clarke
Terns are among the most beautiful and interesting birds on the planet. Few birds can match their incredible suite of behaviors. From their spectacular dives for fish, elegant mating dances, and charming nuptial feeding ritual, these birds are always a delight to watch. Luckily for Gulf Coast birders, Galveston Island is a fine place to observe several species of terns—but not all species are easy to find. Sandwich, Royal, Forster’s, and Least Terns are probably the easiest to spot and are present year-round.
The spectacular Caspian Tern, the world’s largest tern, is present on Galveston year-round, but is not as ubiquitous as the aforementioned terns. The best way to spot them is to scan U’s of Royal Terns and look for the really big birds with red, rather than orange bills. Unfortunately, Caspian Terns, like many bird species, are in decline.
The family life of terns is probably the most interesting aspect of these birds. The fact that their mating rituals and mating itself takes place right out in the open of the beach-face make terns easy pickings for birders. Among the more comical aspects of their family lives is the shocking displays of gluttony by sub-adult terns as they nag their parents mercilessly for food—even though the young are the same size as the adults. East Beach is a fine place to see this behavior exhibited by Royal and Caspian, and occasionally Forster’s Terns.
Black Terns can theoretically be seen on Galveston during migrations, but we’ve never seen them here. A reliable place to see them nearby during migrations, though, is Rollover Fish Pass on Bolivar Peninsula. Probably the closest place for a Texas birder to see them during the breeding season is at Cheyenne Bottoms in central Kansas. Snowy Plovers also breed at this somewhat isolated, but interesting wetland famous for migrating waterbirds.
Except for going to visit the nesting colonies of Sooty Terns along the coast just north of the Rio Grande, the only other opportunities for expanding your “Texas” tern experiences beyond those available on or around Galveston would involve taking to a boat. Bridled and Sooty Terns are pelagic and can be seen out over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico when not breeding in the West Indies or along the Pacific coast of southern Mexico. But trying to photograph birds from boats has, for us, been a somewhat specialized (mis)adventure. Better to just bring the binoculars!
In general, I consider bird photography to be a difficult proposition. Sometimes, as in the case of lightning-fast small songbirds, it’s right on the the edge of what is possible. If any bird makes bird photography easy, though, it is the Purple Gallinule, a fairly large, fairly slow bird that is not particularly wary of humans. Add to this the absolutely spectacular appearance of the adult, and you have a marvelous ambassador to the hobby for any beginner.
A common misconception about Purple Gallinules is that the brilliantly colored individuals are the males, and the duller brown and turquoise birds are the females. This is not correct: as in most rails, sexes are similar. The more brightly colored birds are adult, and the more subdued ones immature.
Purple Gallinules breed in wetlands across the southern U.S., including our own Brazos Bend State Park. Purple Gallinules like it nice and toasty warm—so they do migrate (except Florida populations). But . . . how to say this politely? Now, I’m not using the word lazy, but rather . . . minimalist! Purple Gallinules migrate as little as possible south around the margins of the Gulf of Mexico in the fall until they find a comfy spot, returning for the summer heat along the Texas Gulf Coast (April through October).
Purple Gallinules are omnivores and eat a variety of foods. One thing to keep an eye for around here is their hunt for aquatic leaf beetles. They manipulate and inspect American lotus leaves and other aquatic vegetation to find them. Elisa documented this behavior in detail in another post.
Other things to watch for are spectacular territorial disputes that erupt between the adult birds. The image above was taken in early June. The purpose of these battles is, ultimately, to be able to produce what’s below: babies! Purple Gallinule chicks are delightful to watch with their gigantic feet, which are even bigger in proportion to the body than in the adult bird.
Finally, photographing the Purple Swamphen is on my very long bucket list. This bird is an exotic close relative of the Purple Gallinule that has naturalized in Florida. The Purple Swamphen is a bigger, chunkier version of the Purple Gallinule—but it’s every bit as colorful. Someday.
This handsome, often hard to see, warbler is rightly connected in the minds of some with the coniferous north woods.—Alexander Sprunt, Jr. and A.E. Allin (1957)
For those of us along the Gulf Coast, the Black-throated Green Warbler is, of course, associated not with conifers, but with migration. These showy birds cross the U.S. from South Texas to Florida on their way north from the lands surrounding the Caribbean Sea to the Appalachians and the Boreal forests of Newfoundland to British Columbia.
The impending spring Neotropical songbird migration has me brushing up on my warbler field marks. Given that similar-looking species (Hermit, Golden-cheeked, and Townsend’s Warblers) follow more western migratory paths, there is rarely any doubt that one is dealing with a Black-throated Green Warbler along the Upper Texas Coast. Aging and sexing these birds, however, is another matter—especially when sightings occur at random angles in patchy, broken light within the foliage of leafed-out trees.
My go-to reference book for warblers is The Warbler Guide by Stephenson and Whittle (2013). In matters of sexing and aging, these authors suggest paying attention to streaking on the back, the amount of black in the throat, and the nature of mottling on the breast. Males tend to be more streaked on the back and have black throats and greater contrast. Note the two birds above. The female, for example, has a pale-yellow black-flecked throat, streaking is nearly absent on the mantle, and black mottles on the breast trail off into broken streaks along the sides. This bird strongly resembles the first-year female figured in Stephenson and Whittle (2013), p. 205. The male above is unmistakable in lateral view with its black throat stretching into a strong black streak along the sides. The bird below shows the least contrast of birds in this post and is likely a female.
Black-throated Green Warblers typically show up along the Gulf Coast late in the middle of the spring migration, making the first week of May the ideal time to watch for them as they glean insects from the mighty hardwoods of migrant traps. Although these charming little birds are among the most common gems of the avian treasure trove that is about to return to North America, they are well worth the effort to seek out, identify, and study.
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr. and Allin, A. E. 1957. Black-throated Green Warbler, in Ludlow Grissom and Alexander Sprunt, Jr., eds., The Warblers of North America. The Devin-Adair Company, New York. 356p.
Stephenson, Tom, and Whittle, Scott. 2013. The Warbler Guide. Princeton University Press. 554p.
Contrived durability is a strategy of shortening the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate quickly. The design of all consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.–Planned Obsolescence, Wikipedia
Last week our big, beautiful iMac computer passed away. In the middle of the night, funny orange dashes appeared across the screen. When I rebooted, blue stripes appeared and then faded to bright white. A few quick looks around the internet led to a few attempts to revive, but in my heart I knew . . . it was over. This was our bird photography computer . . . .
A day or two later I took the lifeless hulk to the Apple Store Genius Bar so a technician could have a look. Sure enough, the video card had croaked. But then the technician kept talking (but not smiling) . . . He said that because the machine is over five years old (it was built in late 2009 by Chinese paupers and bought by us in early 2010), it is considered a vintage machine and Apple Stores will no longer service it. He said that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t work on such a machine because after five years the Apple stores ship all the replacement parts back to corporate.
Five years. Five years! After five years, a multi-thousand-dollar machine will not be serviced by its manufacturer. Sure, I could find a third party operation that might be able to fix it with “old” spare parts, but that’s a big “if.” Wow. Luckily we had ordered a replacement the night before. It will take ten days to arrive.
So, if you are planning to buy an Apple computer to service your bird photography addiction, then start saving for its replacement now. They cost about $3k and last about five years. Period.
In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.―Mehmet Murat ildan
Tyrant Flycatchers and kin (Family Tyrannidae) are among the most charming of birds with their curiosity and sallying hunting style. On our recent visit to Big Bend National Park, we found flycatchers everywhere, in all habitats. Small flocks of Say’s Phoebes were especially prominent around the buildings and parking areas of the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the undeveloped areas nearby. The lodge, being at an elevation of about 5400 feet, is near the upper altitude limit for these birds.
At the low altitude abandoned ranches we saw a greater diversity of flycatchers than at altitude. Many individual birds were extremely difficult to identify–even if perched in plain sight! Forget about those lurking in the shadows! Ash-throated Flycatchers, though, were likely the most abundant and seemed to be just about everywhere at low elevation. We spotted the unmistakable Vermilion Flycatcher at several such localities including the Rio Grande Valley Campgrounds and Daniels Ranch–so it wasn’t always an ID guessing game!
Of all the identification puzzlements afflicting birding, the Empidonax flycatchers take the cake. Widely regarded as “nearly indistinguishable” visually, birders must rely on song (aided by distribution) to confidently identify some of these species. But what if the birds are not singing? Well . . . I guess one must learn to live with uncertainty.
The bird below, for example, would seem to be a Willow Flycatcher. Given the ranges of Willow Flycatcher subspecies, that would likely make this bird a member of the Southwestern race, Empidonax triallii extimus, a federally-listed endangered subspecies. I invite comment from readers who wish to confirm or deny my tentative identification, though.