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.
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.
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 structural complexity, adaptation to all sorts of environments, and development of a remarkable social organization among some, the arthropods are judged to represent the peak of evolutionary advancement attained by invertebrates.—Moore, Lalicker, and Fischer, Invertebrate Fossils (1952)
It’s almost time to get back into one of our spring birding habits: A road trip to the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island in the afternoon (for the best light), followed by the night in Winnie, and a trip down the Bolivar Peninsula the next morning. The highlight of Bolivar is usually Frenchtown Road, where shorebirds and waders can often be seen hunting for invertebrates, especially arthropods, on the tidal flats, in the shallow tidal channels, and from among the exposed oyster patch reefs.
Another spring tradition is travel to Bryan Beach (or Surfside Jetty Park or Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary), followed by a trip up Follett’s Island, across to Galveston Island, ending at Lafitte’s Cove. These trips have the best of both worlds, littoral marine habitats and songbird migrant traps among mighty hardwoods.
This time of year reminds the birder of the fact that birds are governed by the never-ending search for food. As avian migrants follow the sun’s energy north, they are mostly following the the exploding biomass of terrestrial invertebrates, primarily arthropods. Birds lucky enough to be able the tap the perennial invertebrate bounty of the sea can overwinter along the coast. Those dependent on terrestrial and aquatic arthropods like insects must wait for the inevitable return of the summer swelter.
If the earth should cease to attract its waters to itself all the waters of the sea would be raised and would flow to the body of the moon.—Johannes Kepler, Astronomia nova (1609)
Among all the great men who have philosophized about this remarkable effect, I am more astonished at Kepler than at any other. Despite his open and acute mind, and though he has at his fingertips the motions attributed to the earth, he nevertheless lent his ear and his assent to the moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and to such puerilities.–Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)
Last weekend offered up the most spectacular weather imaginable, and we headed to East Beach, Galveston and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar. Arriving at low tide, our timing was perfect. Both these localities present exceptional naturalist experiences, especially at low tide. Where else is there evident a more elegant connection between the astrophysical, geological, and biological worlds than in an intertidal zone?
At East Beach we watched Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs hunt among the ripple marks, tidal channels, and pools abandoned by the retreating tides. Vast flocks of Black Skimmers whirled overhead and large numbers of gulls, terns, and American White Pelicans gathered on emergent sand bars.
Near Frenchtown Road, low tide means that oyster patch reefs are exposed, and Red-breasted Mergansers, cormorants, and waders fished in the tidal channels between the reefs. Shorebirds like American Avocets, Willets, and dowitchers hunted among the exposed clusters of oysters. Forster’s Terns were plucking small fish from the surface waters of the channels. I was surprised to observe the Willet below catching fish in the shallows between patch reefs—usually these birds are grabbing crabs from among the oysters.
Frustratingly, I realized that (being a landlubber from Minnesota) I do not know my Gulf Coast tidal zone fishes, so I could not identify any of the birds’ menu items. To remedy this situation, this week I ordered a copy of Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters by Hoese and Moore. It will sit next to my Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico—so soon I’ll at least have a shot at identifying piscine prey, no matter the salinity.
The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water. There are too many inconsistencies.–Margaret Atwood
Last weekend we made the most of the phenomenal weather and birded the Coast, specifically East Beach, Galveston, and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula. Although the weather was amazing, not many birds were around, Brown (and a few American White) Pelicans, excepted. A spectacular frenzy of diving for fish that I observed near Frenchtown Road got me thinking about Brown Pelicans.
I was tempted to repeat the oft-told (and published) tale of how how DDT usage caused the decline of these birds in the U.S. through egg shell thinning, and how they rebounded once the pesticide was outlawed. An offhanded recent comment by an astute friend with a chemistry background (DT) that “DDT doesn’t cause egg shells to thin” gave me pause, though.
A quick internet search revealed a wealth of information about the numbers of Pelicans present in Texas and California in the early to mid-20th Century, as well as other potential causes for the collapse of Brown Pelican populations. I would encourage readers to do their own search and come to their own conclusions . . . . but by my reading of history, in California, the story involves oil spills (note ingested oil does cause thinning of egg shells), disease (Newcastle Disease, specifically), and (horrifyingly) the outright killing and disturbance of nesting birds by, of all people, government employees.
In Texas, the story appears more straightforward: hunters and fisherman in the early 20th Century (before DDT) simply shot most of them. Since the Brown Pelican was placed upon the Endangered Species List in 1970, its numbers have rebounded—and I for one am delighted.
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.–Jacques Yves Cousteau
The time is almost here . . . the time when the wretched heat finally breaks once and for all, and we can look forward to the longest stretch of pleasant weather on the Texas calendar. And the place to spend this glorious time is undoubtably on the coast.
Once those blue northers start blowing in, it’s off to the field at every opportunity! We’re already hatching plans for visits to Frenchtown Road, Galveston, and Mustang Island. Beaches, estuaries, and lagoons, here we come!
Salt marshes, tidal channels, and lagoons along Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas often make for exceptional birding. On our last visit to Frenchtown Road (8-10 AM, 1/17/15), I observed several interesting avian fishing techniques at low tide among the exposed oyster patch reefs. Although a number of bird species (including Short-billed Dowitchers, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpipers, and American Avocets) were taking advantage of the low water level, a Snowy Egret was being especially opportunistic. I made observations referenced in this post on the north shore of the western extremity of the east-west channel just south of the “Overton Ave” label in the map below.
Among waders, Snowy Egrets may have the widest repertoire of hunting and fishing techniques, and I have written about several of them, including blowing bubbles to attract prey and shadowing Pied-billed Grebes from the shore as the latter spooked up prey, among others. At Frenchtown Road, this Snowy Egret shadowed a group of White Ibises as they hunted the shallows for infaunal invertebrates along the margins of the exposed oyster reefs at low tide. Presumably the ibises flushed prey, thus saving the egret the energy of exercising its most famous hunting technique, that of waving its bright yellow feet.
More interesting was when a Double-crested Cormorant went zooming back and forth, through the channels between reefs. As the cormorant swam past, the Snowy Egret launched into a frenetic dance and struck at prey in the cormorant’s wake, not unlike the dancing between bouts of canopy fishing exhibited by Reddish Egrets and Tri-colored Herons. This type of commensal behavior has been documented previously in the scientific literature (Bennett and Smithson, 2001; Emlen and Ambrose, 1970) and on-line for interaction of Snowy Egrets with such species as White Ibises, Double-crested Cormorants, Blue-winged Teal, and Red-breasted Mergansers.
These observations suggest several questions: Why do Snowy Egrets Exhibit such a wide range of hunting behaviors relative to other waders? How many new strategies remain to be be discovered? Given the widespread distribution of Snowy Egrets across the Americas, do Snowy Egrets interact with only a handful of other species, or rather do they simply look for prey-flushing disturbances, irrespective of the species/source? Clearly, there are many more observations and interpretations to be made.
You can observe a lot by watching.—Yogi Berra
Bennett, J., and Smithson, W. S. 2001. Feeding associations between Snowy Egrets and Red-breasted Mergansers. Waterbirds24 (1): 125-128.
Emlen, S. T., and Ambrose III, H. W. 1970. Feeding interactions of snowy egrets and red-breasted mergansers. Auk87: 164-5.
Hello again, friends! Chris’ last post reminded me of the photos I have to share of a Black-bellied Plover plucking ghost shrimp from their burrows. Watching shorebirds pull infaunal invertebrates from tidal mudflats is definitely my idea of a good time! These photos were taken last April, when the bird was starting to molt into its breeding plumage.
I knew this plover had something big when the typical run-pause-pluck, run-pause-pluck hunting style was suspended at the “pluck.” There it was, its bill up to the nostrils in mud, completely frozen. A few beats later, a mound of mud erupted as the plover slowly pulled up a bizarre looking worm (because everything’s a worm-right?). Well, turns out, it was an arthropod – a ghost shrimp to be precise – and this little bird was a master shrimper. Fastidious too. After each catch, the black-belly would run to the water’s edge to rinse the ghost shrimp off before swallowing it whole.
As a photographer, these are the moments I shoot for. As a wildlife watcher, these little dramas starring avian predators and their cryptic prey open small windows into life beneath the surface. Considering the diversity of species and numbers of birds that make their livings pulling food from the earth, I get a sense of how alive the ground beneath our feet really is.
I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself.–Edward Steichen
Hunting High. Recently I was stalking a Little Blue Heron as it worked its way through the vegetation at water’s edge, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. The vast majority of the time, waders are looking down in their search for fish, amphibians and invertebrates. This time the bird was looking up, inspecting the plants as it went. I new what this meant, having seen it three or four times before at Elm Lake: The bird was after tree frogs! (Sidebar: sometimes waders act like this when they’re looking for dragonflies or spiders.) Interestingly, the water level in this part of the park seems to be down a bit from last year, and perhaps the tree frog hunt may be in response to this. Because I knew what was coming, I was able to get a nice series of shots documenting the bird eating four tree frogs.
Hunting at the surface. Cold weather fun can be had watching shorebirds pull infaunal invertebrates from tidal mudflats. Once in a while it’s a ghost shrimp or a crab, but often these meals are unidentifiable to me, and I just peg them as “worms.” I remember one of my professors on a rant about the term “worm” only being used out of a state of complete ignorance as many phyla of marine organisms could be lumped under that term. In this case, guilty as charged! Most of the time I have no idea what these little shorebirds are prying wriggling from the muck! It’s always exciting to watch, and every so often a bird grabs something big, nasty, and identifiable!
Hunting low. Perhaps the most suspenseful type of hunt to watch is one in which prey is sought from below the surface of the water. Sure, most of the time if you are in a freshwater environment, a small fish, tadpole, or larval invertebrate is plucked up, but sometimes really big prey items are dragged out thrashing and snapping. But turnabout is fair play. It’s not uncommon to see waders poking around in the shallows only to go running away squawking after having poked or prodded something really big, toothy and nasty like an alligator gar or . . . God knows what! And considering the beasties that swim beneath the waves of the salty seas, I marvel at the boldness of waders as they hunt in the marine shallows.
Finally, one of my goals for this winter is to capture images of a Great Blue Heron grappling with a Siren intermedia. During winter, the place to look for these giant amphibians being dragged from their burrows is the edge of Pilant Lake just north of the observation tower. However, this year the terrain in this area looks very different from the recent past: It is drier and much overgrown. Fortunately, Pilant Slough just to the south and east looks very much like Pilant Lake has in recently past years. This occurred to me as I noted a Great Blue standing right in the middle of the slough. Clearly, this is the spot to watch for the siren hunt this year!
Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.—Oscar Wilde