Brazos Bend

Fishing Through the Glare

There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures. –James Thurber

Great Blue Heron (Breeding) with Gizzard Shad, 40-acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron (Breeding) with Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum), 40-acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird spent a good deal of time with its head low to the surface of the water, neck outstretched. It seemed to be searching for prey by looking for minor disturbances in the surface of the water–and then the bird would go dashing after the makers of these ripples among the aquatic vegetation. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On Sunday we took a much-needed trip to Brazos Bend State Park. The light in the early morning was white, and the water shone like a mirror. Colors were washed out, and there was a general sense of omni-directional illumination. Shadows were pale, and the water lacked clarity. More than just a problem for photographers, these conditions necessitated particular hunting strategies on the part of waders . . . .

Tri-colored Heron Fishing, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Tricolored Heron Utilizes an Underwing Feeding Strategy, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird was shuffling its feet to scare up prey. Likely the shadow of the wings cut the glare from the surface of the water allowing prey to be spotted more easily. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

American Bitterns, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and a Tricolored Heron were harvesting little (and big) fish galore from vegetation-choked water. And a Great Blue Heron bullied a Great Egret into dropping a fish it had caught in 40-acre Lake . . . .

Most interesting, perhaps, was a Tricolored Heron that was employing a (single) underwing feeding strategy, and from time-to-time, a double-wing feeding strategy. Among herons and egrets, these behaviors involve a continuum of postures from shading the water with a single wing, both wings separated, to a complete canopy in which the wings meet in front of the bird as it crouches, feathers touching the surface of the water. This latter behavior, “canopy feeding” sensu strictu, occurs only in the Black Heron of Africa (Egretta ardesiaca), although the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron can approach this configuration.

Several functions for these wing positions have been proposed from scaring fish into divulging their positions, to getting fish to swim into the shade (and presumably under cover) after being be spooked by foot movements, to cutting the glare so that the bird can see its prey better. It is the latter I generally favor, primarily because I tend to observed these behaviors on days with a lot of glare. As an aside, the nickname of the Black Heron is the “umbrella bird.” If the shading to reduce glare is the correct interpretation of this behavior, then perhaps the parasol bird would be a better moniker for this creature.

Note: Special thanks go to naturalist and friend R.D. for sharing his high-speed video of a Tricolored Heron that plainly show how much clearer the water appears in the shade of an outstretched wing.

Tri-colored Heron Fishing 2, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Tricolored Heron Utilizes an Underwing Feeding Strategy 2, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. The head of this bird swayed back and forth between outstretched wings. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved, No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit. –Edward Abbey

Portrait: Brown Pelican in Flight, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Brown Pelican in Flight, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Note that the cloudiness of the eye is due to the translucent nictitating membrane. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The weather was right, we had the time off, and there was nothing more to be done about Harvey . . . So we set out for the field. East Beach was glorious. A south wind blew across the island slowing the progress of the big, slow-flying birds as they traced the edge of the land. They were the usual suspects: Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Forster’s and Royal Terns; Brown Pelicans. But as is often the case when I haven’t been shooting for a while, most of the images turned out to be mush, but it was good just to be out again.

Carolina Wren with Attitude, Pilant Lake , Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Carolina Wren with Attitude, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. The log is at least partly hollow. Likely the beginnings of a nest are inside. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The next day I returned to the field. To Brazos Bend State Park I went. This time I took Elisa’s 500mm f/4 lens, rather than my 600mm–I was giving the old shoulder a break. Again the usual suspects. The only thing unusual was the number of warblers. They were everywhere.

Large flocks of Myrtle Warblers probed leaves and hawked bugs from the air. Sometimes they joined Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in hunting in the grass. Common Yellowthroats hopped among the aquatic vegetation. Orange-crowned Warblers were also up to their normal tricks, fishing spiders and insects from dead, rolled up leaves. I spied a single Male Wilson’s Warbler pretending to be a Common Yellowthroat as he plucked aquatic insects from Pilant Lake. Of this bird’s reflection in the water, Elisa quipped: “Look, he brought his own sunshine!” The only missing warbler was the Pine Warbler–perhaps these birds got wind of the coming inclement weather.

All in all, a lovely few days. Can’t wait for the sun to shine again.

Male Wilson's Warbler, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Wilson’s Warbler with Larval Insect, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

 ©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Experiencing Animal Lives

Every seed is awakened, and all animal life.–Sitting Bull

Cooper's Hawk with Pine Bark, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas
Cooper’s Hawk with Pine Bark for Nest, Edith L. Moore, Houston, Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although Sitting Bull spoke these words in the context of spring, the vitality he sensed is present throughout the year. It is this very vitality we seek through birding and nature photography.

When we can pry ourselves from the grip of work and obligation, capturing images of animals going about their business puts us back in touch with the natural world and out of touch with the annoyances of Mankind . . . .

A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
A Blue-winged Warbler Hunts Caterpillars, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The grapevines at Lafitte’s Cove are food plants for caterpillars eagerly gobbled-up by trans-Gulf migrant songbirds returning to North America from the Tropics. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC), High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

One of our favorite photo-birding spots is open again (yay!) after being closed due to the devastation Harvey brought. The stretch from 40-acre Lake to Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park seems to have weathered the storm without too much damage–certainly less than the previous round of flooding.

Even the birding wasn’t too much off from a typical day this time of year. Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats were abundant. Northern Harriers hunted above the rice, and the air was filled with the clatter of Belted Kingfishers and the chittering of scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I apparently just missed a male Vermilion Flycatcher and a small flock of Blue-headed Vireos. All in all a nice visit to a beloved place that will likely steadily improve . . . until the next catastrophe.

Baby Alligators on Mom's Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Baby Alligators on Mom’s Back, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Brazos Bend is Back! Calling Moorhen, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. 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.

More Rookery Birds

I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits

White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
White Ibis Chicks, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.

Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas
Cattle Egret with Stick, McClendon Park Rookery, Houston, Texas. Cattle Egrets gather nesting materials well into June. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.

Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Attempted Siblicide, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The aggressor struggled mightily to toss its nest-mate to the alligator-infested water below. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egret Family, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Snowy Egret chicks are almost as brutal to each other as Great Egret chicks are. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.

Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Hopeful Neotropic Cormorant Chick with Parent, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!

Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Juvenile Tricolored Heron, Galveston Bay near Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Image taken from a boat on a brutal white-hot day. Thanks to DS for access to the boat. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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: The Old and New

Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Common Yellowthroat, Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas
Female Common Yellowthroat on Dead Vegetation, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Common Yellowthroats are among the most common warblers in North America. They winter primarily in Mexico and Central America and breed across the United States. They can be found year-round along the Texas Gulf Coast. The south side of Pilant Lake is a great place to see them picking bugs from emergent vegetation (alive or dead). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.

Portrait young Reddish Egret, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Resident: Young Reddish Egret (White Morph), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird was taking killifish from small tidal channels. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.

Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!

Loggerhead Shrike wiht Caterpillar, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Loggerhead Shrike with Caterpillar, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .

Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!

Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Female Wilson’s Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Breeding Wilson’s Plovers begin arriving along the Texas coast in mid-February and depart by September. They nest on simple scrapes on beaches, among other places, from April to June. Note the new growth sprouting up from among dead old-growth. 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.

Catching Birds in Action

Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo

A Great Egret Shades its Young, Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas
A Great Egret Shades its Young, Smith Oaks, High Island, Texas. Even in March, the brutal Texas sun can kill delicate nestlings. Mom (or dad) to the rescue! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.

Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Singing Male Red-winged Blackbird on Rice Plant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. The margins of Pilant Lake were filled with Red-winged Blackbirds (and their calls) on our last visit. What a nice change: The marsh sounds as it should. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?

The Flip, Fiorenza park, Houston, Texas
The Flip, Fiorenza park, Houston, Texas. The catfish hunt goes on! This juvenile Neotropic Cormorant is attempting to maneuver a spiny armored catfish into swallowing position. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
White Ibis in Breeding with Beak-full of Invertebrates, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White Ibis in Breeding with Beak Full of Arthropods, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird has (at least) a spider, a water bug, and a metallic bronze damselfly in its beak at the same time. Water hyacinth is a nasty invasive, but it’s full of nutritious bugs! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.

In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action  . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!

American Bittern with Crawfish, 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State park, Texas
American Bittern with Crawfish, 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Looking American Bittern, 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Looking American Bittern, 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. 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.

Two Shutterbirds Uncensored

Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand

Alligator with gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Red in Tooth and Claw: Alligator with Gar, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?

Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Despite the fact that many images of waders hunting amphibians depict clean “takes,” the process of spearing and eating a frog is usually a messy business. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?

Molting Northern Cardinal with Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Molting Northern Cardinal with Large Mashed Weevil, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird made a real mess of a great big black weevil. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.

Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Green-tailed Towhee with Bumblefoot(?), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A beautiful sparrow miles outside its range, this bird appears to have, sadly, bacterially-infected feet. There is a story here. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.

Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Black Vultures with Feral Hogs, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Feral hogs are rooting invasives introduced by humans. They wreak havoc wherever they go. Exhibit A: Here stands a nasty mud-wallow where once stood a charming little island. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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.

The Two Shutterbirds Take a Late Autumn Break!

I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it. –Salvador Dali

Her Prey, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texasa
Barn Spider (Araneus cavaticus), near Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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!

Egyptian Goose in Flight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Whaaaa . . . . ? Egyptian Goose in Flight, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. Fiorenza Park is the place to see the weird, the invasive, and the unexpected. 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.

Looking for Something Special (in a Shot)

Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)

White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Lookin’ for Mud-bugs: White Ibis with Muddy Face, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Ibises plunge their bills right up to the eyebrows into crawfish burrows. This image clearly shows the extent of this bird’s probing. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend Stgate Park, Texas
I Object! Calling Great Blue Heron, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I was hoping this bird would start on a siren hunt, but instead it started calling when another Great Blue flew past. I see (and hear) Great Blue Herons calling occasionally, but usually in flight. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
It’s Green and Gooey, and it’s What’s for Lunch: Blue-winged Teal with Strand of Algae, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight withCatfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Crunchy on the Outside: Neotropic Cormorant in Flight with Armored Catfish, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. I will happily stand on a hill at Fiorenza Park for hours waiting for a bird with a fish to fly past—especially if the fish is weird! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

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

Birding the First Pleasant Weekend of Fall

It’s very far away,
It takes about half a day,
To get there, if we travel by my, uh . . . dragonfly—Jimi Hendrix, “Spanish Castle Magic”

Gray Catbird, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Bathing Gray Catbird, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Well, it finally happened. After five brutal months, the first cool front of fall 2016 arrived. And we returned to the field. In just a few weeks’ time, I found that my photography skills had atrophied a bit, but in an hour or two I was getting some nice shots again. On Saturday, I visited Lafitte’s Cove and found Prothonotary, Palm, and Magnolia Warblers, a lot of Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, and mosquitos without number.

Golden silk orb-weaver spider cutting leaf free from web, PIlant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Golden Silk Orb-weaver Spider (Nephila clavipes) Cutting Leaf Free from Web, Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. A moment later the leaf tumbled to the ground. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

On Sunday, we visited Brazos Bend State Park and observed a flood-disrupted ecosystem. Major portions of 40-acre, Pilant, and Elm Lakes were covered with invasive water hyacinth, and hunting waders, the birds we love to see most at the park, were nearly absent. Here and there, large patches of dead hyacinth revealed where park employees had sprayed herbicide. At both Lafitte’s Cove and BBSP, the real story was about arthropods, though, and at BBSP we spent an extended visit with naturalist friend and park volunteer R.D., from whom we learned more about spiders and dragonflies.

Golden silk orb-weaver with moth and dewdrop spider, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Spiderweb as Micro-habitat: Golden silk orb-weaver with moth and dewdrop spider (Argyrodes sp.), Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Every so often the smaller spider would run down and touch the moth—only to run away before the monster could strike. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Along the tower trail at BBSP we saw many golden silk orb-weaver spiderwebs. In many webs, entrapped prey and fallen leaves could be seen. We observed several instances of spiders cutting leaves free from their webs. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon we observed was dewdrop spiders stealing food from the web of their host. Dewdrop spiders are kleptoparasites of the Genus Argyrodes. Although some researchers have questioned whether or not dewdrop spiders were harmful to the orb-weavers (and therefore not parasites), recent studies have documented that the host spiders suffer nutritionally and must repair damage to webs caused by the small spiders as they remove entangled prey. Apparently spiders take better care of webs that they themselves spin!

Anax junius caught in orb-weaver web, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Anax junius Caught in Golden Silk Orb-weaver Web, Tower Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The green darner (Anax junius) migration was in full swing, the air filled with millions of these large dragonflies, many mating. Lots of other dragonfly species were zipping around, too. Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), many also coupling, even seemed to predominate at Lafitte’s Cove. Dragonflies are an important food source for birds, and I have seen several species of waders (Snowy and Cattle egrets, and Little Blue and Green Herons) and one species of warbler (Prothonotary) eat them at BBSP.

Although dragonflies seem to be a favorite food among birds, orb-weaver spiders seem not to be. Big, juicy spiders sit right out in the open while predatory birds typically operate all around them. The orb-weavers would certainly be easier to catch than a dragonfly. Perhaps the arachnids taste bad. I have heard anecdotally, though, that during drought years the orb-weavers essentially disappear from the park. Does this mean that birds will eat them if they get hungry enough? Other possibilities do exist (like humidity-sensitive fungal infections of spiders or eggs), but the report is certainly food for thought.

Little Blue Heron wiht Anax junius, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Male Anax junius Dragonfly, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Birding the Past

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust

Pileated Woodpecker, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Pileated Woodpecker in Nest Cavity, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. In a pinch, with a little imagination and a suspension of disbelief, the Pileated Woodpecker could pass for the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker . . . Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The world is old. The world is new . . . .

Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.

Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .

Redwood Forest, southwest Oregon
Redwood Forest, Oregon Redwoods Trail, Siskiyou National Forest, southwest Oregon. This could be a scene from the Jurassic Period. The understory is mostly ferns, and the trees are conifers, Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Douglas fir. Sequoia conifers date back to the Late Jurassic Epoch. Mosses and ferns are far more ancient. The dark giant shapes slipping through the trees are sauropods. Canon EOS 7DII/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.

From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.

Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
Spirit Guide: A Friendly Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.

Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama
Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama. Human habitation began in Russell Cave during the Archaic Period, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists think these Native Americans occupied the cave mostly during winter. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).

Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!

Cycad, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas
Cycad Fronds, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas. Stare into a cycad understory today with impunity. Were it the Jurassic or Cretaceous Period, you might not like what was staring back! Canon EOS 7DII/50mm f/1.4. Natural light.

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

The Shutterbirds Take a Late Summer Break!

Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.—Lasky, Walleyworld guard (from National Lampoon’s Vacation)

Over the Shoulder: Ring-necked Duck
Over the Shoulder: Ring-necked Hen, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The dog days of summer have us down! Chris’s return to work, illness (minor), and endless bad weather have cut the wind out of our sails. We’re takin’ a break! And we’re counting the days until the first blue norther arrives and brings with it the cold weather species that winter here—like ducks! See you soon!

Dragonfly on American Lotus Seed Pod, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Slaty Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula incesta) on American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) Seed Pod, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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