There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville
The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.
The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.
Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.
In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.
All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,
Long ago, when the world was still quite new, there were no winds at all, neither the gentle breeze of summer nor the fierce winter gale. Everything was perfectly still. Nothing disturbed the marsh grass on the shore and when snow fell, it fell straight to earth instead of blowing and swirling into drifts as it does now . . . . Origin of the Winds, Aleut legend
The four Pribilof Islands lie in the Bering Sea about one-hundred fifty miles north of the Aleutians. Of St. George, St. Paul, Walrus, and Otter Islands, only St. Paul and St. George are inhabited. St. George and St. Paul are birding meccas, more so the latter because of better weather conditions for aviation in and out despite the former having a great deal more cliff habitat and many more birds.
Seventeen species of alcids have been observed on and around St. Paul Island. Many of these species are rare, threatened, or endangered. In summer, however, seven species are common, and these are the birds we spent a considerable time with in early July as part of a bird photography workshop conducted by Canadian photographer Chris Dodds. Least Auklets seemed to be the most abundant of the alcids on the cliffs, followed by Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets. Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins were less common. Common Murres were observed infrequently: We only observed them in flight around the sea cliffs.
The seven species of alcids are all cliff-nesting species and spend most of the year out to sea when they are not breeding or raising young. With the exception of Least Auklets which we also observed and photographed at Anton Larsen Wall, a man-made breakwater composed of boulders of volcanic rock, all species were photographed on cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Many of these sites seem quite precarious and dangerous (for birds and humans alike), and one section of cliff housing Crested Auklet nesting sites collapsed into the sea while we were visiting.
According to reports and historical records, the abundance of birds and other animals has decreased dramatically on St. Paul. According to Chris Dodds who has visited the island approximately thirty times in the last few decades, the abundance of birds has dropped by about 90% in that time. Aerial photos of the island on display in the King Eider Hotel, the only lodging available to visiting birders, also show a steep decline in northern fur seal abundance since the mid-twentieth century.
The decrease in seabird abundance on St. Paul likely reflects a general drop in bird abundance across the northern Pacific. On this trip, the local guides and Chris Dodds kept mentioning nesting failures and weird timings of birds coming and going across the island. Many causes have been suggested for the current avian crisis from human overfishing, to birds being killed in fishing nets, oil spills, other pollution, and “the blob,” a mass of unusually warm surface water that has disrupted the marine ecosystem causing mass starvation. Whatever the cause(s), if you want to see these incredible animals we suggest not waiting as the task will only become more difficult with time. Think of the northern Pacific as the American West–circa 1890.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.
Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .
I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.
In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.
Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .
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!
Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.
Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.
Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.
Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.
In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.
Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
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.
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?
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!
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. –Plutarch
This week on Galveston, Common Loons could be seen in many stages of transitional plumage. Every bird looked slightly different. All the birds I saw had some degree of spotting on the wings, and so lacked the brown, scalloped pattern of nonbreeding wing plumage. I saw one bird with a shaggy mane of pin feathers (Thanks to S.M. for pointing out this bird!) and one bird in almost complete breeding colors—only a stray feather here or there needed to be pigmented.
Many birds were engaged in hunting behavior much of the time. I saw fish, crabs, and a single mantis shrimp (Squilla empusa) being taken. This is clearly the time of year to be gorging and fattening up. It’s a long way back to Canada and environs for the breeding season! A good deal of preening was also going on, likely related to molting and keeping feathers in shape for the big trip ahead. Two birds had already pair-bonded and spent a significant amount of time together–another reminder that breeding in birds is often a process that unfolds in many stages over much of the year.
Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?—Frida Kahlo
Among extant birds, grebes have a unique method of foot propulsion. There are other foot-propelled divers, loons, for example, but these birds have significant webbing between the toes. The birds with webbed toes push themselves forward against the drag force of water. Grebes, on the other hand, have separate toes with stiff, collapsible asymmetrical lobes on each side. The lobes on the inside are larger than those on the outside. Grebes are also unusual in that their relatively short femora (thigh bones) are oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the body, and the toes beat along a complex dorso-lateral to ventro-medial path, rather than parallel to the direction of the body’s forward motion.
The traditional interpretation of how grebes paddled through the water, and the one I was taught, is that the lobes of the toes would unfold during then power stroke to provide maximum drag to push against, and fold up to reduce drag on the the recovery stroke. A more recent interpretation is that the grebe foot acts like a (slotted) hydrofoil and provides a lift force that propels the bird forward from behind (Johansson and Norberg, 2001)–physically similar to the way in which a wing allows a bird or airplane to fly. The lift hypothesis has an immediate visceral appeal to me given the asymmetrical lobes of the toes—like the vanes of a flight feather. Lift is usually explained by elementary physics textbooks as the result of the Bernoulli principle, essentially the conservation of energy for a moving fluid. This explanation is not correct quantitatively. The true explanation likely involves the most terrifying of all physics concepts . . . turbulence . . . .
As a photographer on the surface, I haven’t been able to document the strange way in which grebes move through the water. Once and a while, when conditions were right, I have been treated to a glimpse of the legs in motion as in the image below. Swimming with grebes is one more activity to add to an already lengthy bucket list.
I mentioned at the opening that grebes were unique among extant birds. Hesperornithiformes, a group of toothed Cretaceous foot-propelled diving birds, are thought to have had a method of propulsion similar to grebes and to have possessed asymmetrically lobed individual toes. On a recent visit to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, I had the opportunity to study the feet of a life-sized model of Hesperornis regalis, the largest of these Cretaceous divers from the Kansas Chalk Sea. Reading the label . . . sure enough, reconstruction supervised by Dr. L. D. Martin, my late (paleo)ornithology professor, a gifted teacher with so many fascinating stories to tell about the lives of birds. . . .
While grebe-watching, I am always interested in seeing these birds return to the surface with prey. In my experience along the Gulf Coast, Eared Grebes rarely return to the surface with prey. After dozens of dives, I have seen only one small fish clamped in a beak. This means that grebes are either remarkably unsuccessful hunters (unlikely), or that they can swallow small prey underwater (likely). Pied-billed and Least Grebes can be seen with large prey on the surface like fish, crawfish, frogs, and dragonflies. Perhaps small prey may be easily swallowed in the submarine realm, whereas large prey items may need to be manipulated into an ideal orientation in the air. In any case, grebes are certainly among the most interesting subjects for study and observation. Elisa doesn’t have to ask me twice to go grebe-watching!
Johansson, L.C., and Norberg, U. M. L. Norberg. 2001. Lift-based Paddling in Diving Grebe. The Journal of Experimental Biology204: 1687-1696.
Anhingas may spread their wings when underwater to lure fish into the shade their wings create, a hunting technique known as “canopy-feeding” that is also used by herons standing over the water.—Brinkley and Humann (2013)
Like cormorants, Anhingas can sometimes be seen, wings spread, drying their feathers on live trees and dead logs in or near water. Also like cormorants, Anhingas are skilled underwater fishers, and lucky observers can sometimes see these birds paddling past with fish. Anhingas, though, have sharp, dagger-like bills that they use as spears rather than meat hooks to snag.
Many a time I have waited patiently for an Anhinga to re-emerge after a dive—but they are only slightly more predictable than Pied-billed Grebes, and with or without prey, they are difficult to photograph while swimming past with their jerky, bobbing head motions.
While seeming like resident birds at places like Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Anhingas actually do migrate along the coast in the U.S., and to an extent, inland during summer.
Internet sources are riddled with “facts” about Anhingas that can be refuted by simple observation. These birds, for example, are said to lack preen glands, which is plainly not the case. They are also said to be unable to fly (or at best are poor flyers) with wet plumage, which is nonsense as they can often be seen taking off from the surface of water.
Anhingas are said to have feathers that saturate with water because of a lack of oils in the feathers. Brinkley and Humann (2013) indicated that this is not the case, however. Rather than lacking oils, the feathers have a fine structure that permits the penetration of water, resulting in low buoyancy and permitting a low swimming and fishing profile.
There is also much speculation about what Anhingas are up to when they are sunning themselves. Personally, I think it has to do with thermal physiology and grooming. After a big meal meal, Anhingas will climb from the water and sun themselves. Perhaps the warmth of the sun will speed the chemistry of digestion. Often they will also preen themselves by dipping their beaks into their preen glands and comb through their feathers with their oiled, finely crenulated beaks to keep plumage in fine aerodynamic and hydrodynamic condition.
The northeast corner of 40-acre Lake is a good spot to observe Anhingas spearfishing. Sometimes, if you look down into the water from the levee between 40-acre and Pliant Lakes, you can see them silently submarine past. This summer, from time to time, I plan to park myself here, perhaps seated on the bench, and try to improve my collection of Anhinga images.
Brinkley, Edward S., and Humann, Alec. 2013. Darters (Anhinga) in Elphick, C., Dunning, John B., Jr., Sibley, D. A. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 588 p.
Sunny days (especially sunny weekend days) seem to be in short supply along the Texas Gulf Coast this winter. Happily, this weekend should be among those rare sunny occasions—so we’re headed to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) to see if we can spot the Least Grebes we saw just after the new year. Allow me take you back in time a few weeks . . . . New Year’s Day had come in with a grudge—weeks of damp and dreary days latched on like leeches and drained the life right out of us. So, when the first Sunday of 2015 rotated into place with a bright, sunny sky, we geared up and headed out, giddy with optimism.
We weren’t the only ones venturing out to take advantage of the weather. This Least Grebe with it’s powder-puff posterior aimed sunward was practicing “high-sterned sunbathing,” according to the literature (Well, that’s a polite way of putting it!). The skin exposed by raising the feathers on its back-side is black and thought to absorb solar radiation. It seems reasonable enough. While in this position, I observed the bird paddle its feet back and forth to produce a stationary “waggle,” which could be interpreted as at the bird’s way of distributing the heat more evenly. You can see faint ripple-marks produced by our rump-warming friend in the photo above.
The Least Grebe drew quite a crowd of onlookers along Pilant Slough at BBSP. Aside from being downright adorable, Least Grebes are infrequently seen in our neck of the woods. We usually see Pied-billed Grebes at BBSP. Although Pied-billed Grebes can be seen all over the US, Least Grebes are a tropical to sub-tropical species, and the Texas Gulf Coast populations are at the northern extremity of their typical permanent range. Even our mild Texas freezes can be fatal. As we left the park, I was excited to see two Least Grebes together. We’re hoping that they’re a mated pair and make it through our winter to raise a few broods!
Note: If you’d like to view the slide show at a faster pace, move your mouse cursor over the picture and click the arrow at the desired speed.
Do you see that out there? The strange unfamiliar light? It’s called the Sun. Let’s go and get us a little.” – Nora Roberts, The Hollow