Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
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 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.
Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton
As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.
On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .
But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .
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.
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.
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.
Art must take reality by surprise. –Francoise Sagan
Although better known for its traffic jams, litter, and active panhandler community, southwest Houston will occasionally yield a scene of natural beauty if you look hard enough. Fiorenza Park has been a frequent destination these days, given that I haven’t been much up for driving. Here, I have been seeing mostly common birds, but they’ve been very active hunting and fishing. Some of the images recently gathered at Fiorenza will likely feature in future posts.
Based on a tip from MAW at a recent HANPA meeting, we also made a couple of visits to a new wader rookery just west of Highway 6 and south of old Westpark Drive, dubbed the McClendon Park Rookery given its proximity to that park. Despite the patch of woods in question being surrounded by busy streets (from which yahoos will shout questions at you), several hundred Cattle Egrets and White Ibises are nesting. A few Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Tri-colored Herons are also present, but we couldn’t determine if they were nesting or not. I also understand from MAW that Anhingas are nesting in the center of the colony, but as far as we could tell were not visible from the street.
At this new rookery you can still get a few glimpses of White Ibis nestlings. Further, Cattle Egrets are currently nest-sitting and babies should be upon us shortly. Because the egret nests are close to the street, excellent images should be possible soon–despite thick brush and tricky lighting. But keep in mind: Shooting at suburban parks requires a different type of patience than shooting in the wild. You have to get it out of your head that the humans will leave you to your work . . . .
Strangely, the rookery ibises and egrets did not seem to be flying to nearby Fiorenza Park to hunt or fish, nor were they hunting in McClendon Park. Rather, they were flying off to the northeast for parts unknown. Finding the place where they are gathering food might also present some future opportunities for photography. I would expect White Ibises to be feeding their young mostly crawfish. On the other hand, we did notice that there were many Cattle Egrets feeding in grassy areas in southeast Houston in general. Perhaps the rookery egrets, too, are sustaining themselves with terrestrial prey and are not seeking out bodies of water. Once young are visible in the Cattle Egret nests, it should be possible to determine if they are being fed terrestrial or aquatic prey or both. Time will tell.
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. –Homer
The school year is winding down, and exhaustion has settled in—so we’re takin’ a break! Never fear, we’ll be back on the job in no time to share some more images and prose. We’ll have some neat nature photography projects to report on in the upcoming weeks and months–so stay tuned!
I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it. –Salvador Dali
As the weather improves, and we struggle to get out into the field, exhaustion from work, traffic, illness (minor), and the daily onslaught of our lives has (temporarily) sapped our creative juices. Never fear! We shall return (and soon) with some new stuff! The restful holidays are almost upon us, and we can’t wait!
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.
Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)
I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.
Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.
I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.
There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.
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.
By late fall, most traces of punishing summer have gone, and the bird photographer can think more about birds and light and less about heat, mosquitos, chiggers, and biting flies.
On some seasonal days, cold weather high altitude cirrus clouds–diaphanous veils of ice crystals–act like natural diffusers, reducing glare without sacrificing vibrance of color. This cool winter light is perfect for shorebird colors: black, white, and shades of gray. Even on dreary cumulonimbus days, when light is not optimal, chill breezes keep land and sea fresh and invigorated, and this glory shall persist until . . . March.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.–Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
The best technique for shooting birds in flight (BIF) arguably involves spotting a bird at distance and then tracking it in the viewfinder until it fills a significant part of the frame. For this technique to be employed, the photographer must be able to predictably track the bird over a long distance without significant obstructions. A large number of birds following along a similar glide path is also helpful. Because of these requirements, getting BIF shots is highly dependent upon a special place.
East Beach, Galveston is such a place. Numerous shorebirds and waders typically fly parallel to the shore. Obstructions are few–mainly ships that appear in the background. The morning sun is at your back while you shoot toward the sea. And after a blue norther, with a cold wind in your face the place is . . . paradise.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.–Jules Verne
I once read a criticism of bird photographers that went something like this: most of the bird photos out there are of birds sitting on branches or on the ground. Since birds spend most of their time flying, why aren’t there more photos of birds in flight? My first reaction was: here is a person who knows neither birds nor photography. The exact percentage of time many species of birds spend in the air is not known. However, with the exceptions of some pelagic birds (e.g., frigate birds), Common Swifts (famously), and some other birds during migration, many birds do not spend most of the time in the air. Hummingbirds, for example, have been estimated to spend about 75-80% of their time perched. Furthermore, getting a shot of a bird in the air is a major technical challenge–not something the average person with a point-and-shoot is going to be able to do.
Even slow-moving birds are extremely fast by human standards, and their movements can seem erratic. Lucky shots excepted, the best hope for getting birds in flight (BIF) is to find a spot where birds frequently fly past and try to anticipate their motion along a glide path. Shorebirds, for example, often congregate in large groups along the strand line–and may remain there for hours unless disturbed. Individuals will come and go for their own reasons, but the photographer at least knows the starting or ending point of the bird’s motion.
Although I am still perfecting my technique, I have noticed a few things. It seems that there are really only two techniques that work consistently for capturing a BIF, given that a birdy spot has been identified and the photographer has a good sense of how the subjects will, in general, be moving. It seems that the shooter could either track the BIF by panning as it moves in from a distance or point the camera along the anticipated flight path and start shooting when the bird enters the frame. Of course, both of these approaches have built-in technical challenges. The problem with waiting for a bird to enter the frame and then shoot is reaction time–and as I age, this problem isn’t getting better! Sometimes I get a beautiful picture of an empty sky! Panning, on the other hand, means the camera is moving relative to the ground, so vibration and deviations in smooth linear motion are major concerns.
Many sports and action photographers will simply point and swing their cameras along the direction of subject motion and fire off a burst of frames (without looking through the viewfinder) and hope for the best. But birds are too small in the frame for this approach to work, so the focus point must be on the bird, and the camera must be panning steadily and smoothly.
The last two generations of Canon lenses have image stabilization (IS) in two modes, one for panning (mode 2) and one for stationary shooting (mode 1). Mode 1 is primarily for shooting hand-held at relatively slow shutter speeds. Camera shake is often a problem when shooting at shutter speeds slower than 1/(focal length), and IS addresses this. When my 500 mm f/4 IS is on the tripod (99.9% of the time) the IS is generally switched off (exceptions include very windy days or being on a boat). I have read that most tripod photographers also generally leave IS off when the lens is on the tripod–although Canon literature says it should be left on because the IS system senses the tripod and responds accordingly. In my experience, however, the IS slows focusing and sometimes produces a slight, but annoying torque on the lens. When panning, however, I will leave the IS on. I have not noticed the slowing or torquing while panning–perhaps the whole operation of capturing a BIF is so seat-of-the pants, the IS the least of my worries!
In any case, I can’t wait to get out again and keep shooting those birds in flight–with my perennial goal of continuous improvement in knowledge and technique.