bird identification

Eclipse Plumage (and Other Phenomena)

When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha

Totality, Casper, Wyoming
Totality, Casper, Wyoming. Elisa imaged the total solar eclipse on 8/21/17. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L/Thousand Oaks Optical metal foil solar filter/tripod/mirror-lock-up/cable release. Note the orange solar prominences. After sticking her toes in the astrophotography water, she is looking forward to the 11/9/19 transit of planet Mercury. Natural light.

Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.

Mallards, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Drakes in Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. If you look closely you can see tiny flecks of green in the cheek area of the bird in the foreground. The drake behind is not as far along in process of molting into eclipse. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.

Mallard Drake Molting into Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Drake Molting into Eclipse Plumage, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”

Mallard Hen, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Hen, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. Note the orange bill. The “black saddle” is just coming in. Note that the cheek area is darker than that of the drake in eclipse. Mallard drakes have olive-yellow bills, too. Even in eclipse the drakes have showier rufous breast feathers. This bird also had ducklings in tow, helping with the identification. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.

Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.

Mallard Drakes, Lake Superior, Wisconsin
Mallard Drakes in “Winter” Plumage–even though the photo was taken in June! South Shore, Lake Superior, Wisconsin. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

To Twitch or Not to Twitch

Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?

Rock Sandpiper, Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Rock Sandpiper, Black Diamond Hill, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Guided visits to birding meccas often have a twitcher aspect. The network of local guides keep each other informed of where the birds are. The day after spending a delightful two hours photographing Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, and Rock Sandpipers at Black Diamond Hill, I asked our leader to go back. He said that the birds weren’t there anymore. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.

Mallard Hen with ducklings, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. I saw this ethereal scene on a twitch to see a Red-necked Grebe with young. The white spots are feathers floating on the surface of the water. The Mallard Drakes were molting from breeding into eclipse plumage (fodder for a future post!). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?

On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.

In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.

It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!

KIng Rail, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Object Lesson: King Rail, near Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. This bird was spotted on a twitch to see a Jabiru Stork. Easily confused with the much more common Clapper Rail, the slightly larger King Rail can be identified by the brown stripe down the back of the neck. King Rails inhabit freshwater environments and Clapper Rails (except the Yuma subspecies) inhabit brackish and marine marshes. But . . . salinity is a continuum along the coast, and Clappers and King Rails interbreed where their ranges overlap. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+2.0x TC) (unfortunately). Natural light.

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

Photo-birding St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska: Larids and Fulmars

I’m off to sit on a cliff. –Nik Kershaw

Black-legged Kittiwake in flight, near Reef Rookery, St.Paul Island, Alaska
Black-legged Kittiwake in Flight, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Kittiwakes rarely stray far from the sea. The best way to photograph birds in flight on St. Paul is to stand at the edge of the cliffs and go hand-held with short focal length lenses. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.
Nest-sitting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Nest-sitting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. KIttiwakes have sharp claws to grasp rocky nesting cliffs. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held. Natural light.

One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.

Glaucous-winged Gull in flight, near Reef Rookery, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Young Glaucous-winged Gull in Flight, near Reef Rookery, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. This identification is based on the white spots near the tips of the primaries that are beginning to come in. Glaucous-winged Gulls interbreed with Western Gulls (in the south) and Herring and Glaucous Gulls in the northern part of their range–further complicating identification nightmares. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.

We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.

Northern Fulmar in Flight, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Northern Fulmar in Flight, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Northern Fulmars spend most of the year out to sea and only return to land to breed. Canon EOS 7DII/100-400mm f/4.5L IS. Hand-held. Natural light.
Nest-sitting Northern Fulmars, Ridge, St.Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Resting Northern Fulmars, Ridge, St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held. Natural light.

Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.

One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.

Calling Mew Gull (Breeding), near Potter Marsh, anchorage, Alaska
Calling Mew Gull (Breeding), near Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. Like many gulls, the Mew Gull sticks close to the coast of the continent. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Photo-birding Alaska: Anchorage

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London

Canada Gosling hunting insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
A Canada Gosling Hunts Insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At first we thought the goslings were eating grass seed heads. It soon became apparent, however, that the birds were capturing insects, many of which were copulating. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.

Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Male Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At one point, an American Robin was chasing and hectoring this bird. The Robin may have had a nest or young nearby. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.

Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. Empidonax flycatchers are difficult to identify. Willow and Alder Flycatchers, for example, can not be distinguished by appearance alone. The song must be heard, except in Alaska. Willow Flycatchers do not range this far north. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.

Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska
Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.

All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.

Red-necked Grebe with chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Red-necked Grebe with Chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. About a week prior to when this image was taken, this bird was sitting on five eggs. By the time we arrived, two chicks were visible. The remaining eggs may still be present: This bird did not move from the nest as we observed. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and 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.

The Two Shutterbirds Take a Mid-winter Break

Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid

First Winter Ring-billed Gull, Port Aransas Jetty, Mustang Island, Texas
Who are you? Chris enjoys inspecting flocks of birds for rarities. Recently he scanned a large flock of gulls and terns on Mustang Island and recognized everyone—except the bird above and another like it. Complicating matters is the fact that some species of gulls change their appearance every year for the first few years of life. It turned out that the speckled birds were first-winter Ring-billed Gulls. Not rarities for sure, but it was the first time he had seen this plumage type. Port Aransas Jetty, Mustang Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Lone Blue Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico
Lone Blue Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Thousands of waterfowl winter at this incredible refuge. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Black-bellied Plover Colors

It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik

Juvenile Black-bellied Plover, Port Aransas, Texas
Black-bellied Plover in Juvenile Plumage, Port Aransas, Texas. Photo taken in late November. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Black-bellied Plover at Dawn, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Black-bellied Plover (Nonbreeding) at Dawn, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Photo taken in late October. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Black-bellied Plover in Transitional Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Black-bellied Plover in Transitional Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Photo taken in mid-April. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Black-bellied Plover in Breeding Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Male Black-bellied Plover in Breeding Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Photo in mid-May. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Distinguishing Small Nonbreeding Plovers

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

Snowy Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Snowy Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Snowy Plovers have pinkish gray legs and a more gracile, less stubby beak than the other two small Texas Plovers. We’ve seen Snowy Plovers on Bolivar Peninsula and at Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, but we’ve just recently started seeing a lot of them on Galveston. This bird shows a vestige of the incomplete black breast band of breeding plumage. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

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.

Piping Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Piping Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. In breeding and nonbreeding, Piping Plovers look more gray overall than Semipalmated Plovers. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Semipalmated Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Semipalmated Plover (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm F/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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?

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

 

Color Variation in Breeding Male Orange Bishops

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin

Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken July 13, 2016. Natural light.

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.

Displaying Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Male Orange Bishop in Display Mode, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. This is the same bird as at the top of the post. This bird was displaying into the sun. Coincidence? Note the red in the throat and upper chest. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. The camera was facing north. Natural light.
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Redder Male Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L (+1.4x TC). Photo taken on August 6, 2016. This is the same bird as the previous image. The camera was facing north. Natural light.

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.

Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Female Orange Bishop, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Migration, Nature’s Wonder, on the Gulf Coast

Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Tennessee Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Tennessee Warblers follow nearly the same migratory path north during spring migration as they follow south during the fall. In the fall, though, they avoid the Atlantic Coast on their way back to Central and northern South America from all across Canada. Only they know exactly why. Note the pollen staining on the face. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Tennessee Warbler During Spring Migration, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Blue-winged Warbler During Spring Migration, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blue-winged Warblers migrate across the same areas during both migrations. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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).

Western Sandpipers, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive You MAD 1: Western Sandpipers, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

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.

Short-billed Dowitcher, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Scenes to Drive you MAD 2: Short-billed(?) Dowitcher, fall migration, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken in late July. Natural light.

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.

Preening Black Tern, near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas
Preening Black Tern (Transitional Plumage), near East Beach Jetty, Galveston Island, Texas. Although we’ve seen them in other places, I had my first ever good look at Black Terns on Galveston this week! Most birds were preening and transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Black Terns can only be seen on Galveston during migration. I waded out calf-deep to a sandbar at high tide to get this shot. Black Terns are considered “vulnerable.” Note the molted feathers everywhere. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Terns of Galveston Island, Texas

How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean. –Arthur C. Clarke

Common Tern, East End, Galveston island, Texas
The Not-so-common Common Tern, East End, Galveston island, Texas. This bird was trying unsuccessfully to blend into a U of Sandwich Terns, but the black wing-bar gave it away. Common Terns are declining in number and are among the more difficult-to-see terns on Galveston. They can be seen during migration (they breed in Canada), or, as in this image, during winter. Common Terns will rarely wander north from from their wintering grounds in Mexico, and Central and South America. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Landing Royal Terns, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Landing Royal Tern, East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Royal Terns are perhaps the most conspicuous terns on Galveston and are present year-round all across the island. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Sandwich Tern Mated Pair, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
Sandwich Tern Mated-Pair, East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

A Young Caspian Tern Begs Adult for Food, East End, Galveston Island, Texas
A Young Caspian Tern Begs an Adult for Food, East End, Galveston Island, Texas. Even though the young bird is the same size as the adult, its free-loader attitude and speckling on the wings give it away as a juvenile. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

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.

Least Tern Portrait, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Least Tern, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Nest-sitting Gull-billed Terns, Freeport, Texas
Nest-sitting Gull-billed Terns, Freeport, Texas. Gull-billed Terns are theoretically present on Galveston year-round, but we rarely see them on Galveston proper. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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!

Diving Forster's Tern, San Luis Pass, Galveston Island, Texas
Diving Forster’s Tern, San Luis Pass, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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