ducks

To Twitch or Not to Twitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Waiting to See Neotropical Migrant Songbirds . . . .

Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Swimming diamondback water snake, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Swimming Diamondback Water Snake, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. No birds means looking for other subjects. This snake was living dangerously: The water at Fiorenza is filled with fishing cormorants. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Last week we didn’t see many Neotropical migrant songbirds. The weather was incredible . . . but maybe that was the problem. With crystal clear skies and a consistent wind out of the south, i.e. a tailwind, the trans-Gulf migrants may have simply blown past the Coast and the usual migrant traps. What’s good for birds, is bad for birders.

What’s more, dry weather means that there haven’t been many arthropods around other than caterpillars and a few flies, mosquitos, dragonflies, and spiders. So there really hasn’t been much of a reason for birds to stop if exhaustion or thirst wasn’t a problem. At Lafitte’s Cove on 4/8 I saw a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and one vireo or warbler (I saw only a creamy yellow underside through the canopy)—a terrible showing for April at a Gulf Coast migrant trap.

Some stormy weather moved into the Gulf Coast throughout this week. On Tuesday (4/11), for example, a major front swept down mid-day and looked the perfect set-up for a fallout. Sadly, I watched the atmospherics on radar from work, trapped and unable to get into the field. But yesterday (4/14) was also bad at Lafitte’s Cove. I only saw a few hummers, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a Bronze-headed Cowbird, and a White-eyed Vireo. In addition to these, Elisa saw two Tennessee Warblers. Not great.

In any case, hope springs eternal, and we’ll give the Coast the old college try again this weekend! One of these days . . . .

Dabbling Mottled Drakes, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Dabbling Mottled Drakes, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). No migrant songbirds around? Just photograph some resident ducks! High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Keep an Open Mind About Photo-birding Locations

Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer

Wood Duck Pair, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mated Wood Duck Pair, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.

Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Northern Shoveler Drake, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. At this park, the ducks are perhaps a bit more tolerant of humans than they should be. But still, one false move or a step too close, and they’re gone. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.

On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.

Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Wood Duck Drake, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Wood Duck Drake, Botanic Garden, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Birding Portland and Corpus Christi, Texas

. . . the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open . . . ― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Long-billed Curlew in Flight, Sunset Beach Park, Portland, Texas
Long-billed Curlew in Flight, Sunset Lake Park, Portland, Texas. Photo taken from a sandbar in Corpus Christi Bay.  Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 2

One of our favorite spots to bird when in the Corpus Christi area is Sunset Lake Park. The park is located on a peninsula, Sunset Lake to the west, Corpus Christi Bay to the east. This park contains a lovely stretch of shelly beach with sandbars close to shore. Sandbars along the Texas Gulf Coast are magical places, and are often covered in flocks of pelicans, terns, gulls, waders, skimmers, and shorebirds.

 

 

On this latest visit, Royal Terns, Marbled Godwits, and Long-billed Curlews predominated. As usual now on coastal trips, we brought our tall rubber boots and were able to wade out to the sandbars, a technique we often employ at East Beach, Galveston. The simple addition of boots to your field gear will dramatically transform any birding trip to the shore. It took us a few years to figure this out—just how many college and graduate degrees do we have? Maybe not enough.

 

American Oystercatcher wit h Bivalve, Sunset Beach Park, Portland, Texas
American Oystercatcher with Small Bivalve, Sunset Lake Park, Portland, Texas. Photo taken from a sandbar in Corpus Christi Bay. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

One of Chris’ favorite spots on the Coastal Bend is the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park on the south side of Corpus Christi. A shelter overlooks a stretch of beach that is often packed with ducks and waders during the colder months. This spot is great for gory hunting scenes and beauty shots of ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Redheads, and American Wigeons.

The “freshwater channel” that cuts across the northern edge of the park is another gem of a birding spot, especially for ducks. Here, the birds typically allow a close approach. Ignore the sign that says “do not pass beyond this sign.” Kidding.

Finally, we are sometimes apprehensive about having our car broken into or being mugged at Suter given the sketchy characters loitering around the parking area. It’s almost comical the way they look away when you glance in their direction. So with the caveat that you may be taking your life in your hands, we highly recommend this park!

Gadwall Hen, freshwater channel, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Gadwall Hen, “freshwater channel,” Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
American Widgeon Hen, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
American Wigeon Hen, Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the extra catchlights are reflections off the water.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. 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.

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.

Buffalo Run: An Easy Substitute for BBSP?

Oh, what a void there is in things. –Persius

Young Barn Swallow, Buffaloe Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Young Barn Swallow on a Bossy Sign, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Barn Swallows are tolerant of humans and nest under a pedestrian bridge at Buffalo Run. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The terrible storms of spring 2016 left Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) flooded and many birders looking for alternatives. Several recent trips to Brazos Bend revealed relatively few birds by historical standards. This is not surprising, and I suspect that it will be some time before park habitats recover.

I first visited Buffalo Run in search of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills as a temporary substitute for visits to Brazos Bend. While looking for these exotics, I noticed quite a few Gray Catbirds, Barn Swallows and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Although I did not encounter the exceptional birding that is typical of BBSP under normal circumstances, what I saw was encouraging—especially given the time of year.

 

 

Buffalo Run habitats include thickets and prairie, but I am most hopeful about the lakes and nearshore environments. Buffalo Run Park covers 95 acres and has four lakes covering about 48 acres. Boating is allowed but a no-wake rule is in effect (great!), and I have not seen boats on the water.

During the summer I noticed two mated pairs of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, both with large broods of ducklings. If the lakes of Buffalo Run meet the need of Whistling-Ducks, could it be that migratory wintering waterfowl will find their waters inviting? I certainly hope so. Buffalo Run Park is a mere fifteen minutes from our house. What could be more efficient?

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Family, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Family, Buffalo Run Park, Missouri City, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Duck Pair Bonding

Unless you and your mate are united in purpose, dedication, and loyalty, you will not succeed to the extent you otherwise could.–Ezra Taft Benson

An American Wigeon Drake Calls to His Mate, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
An American Wigeon Drake Calls to His Mate. She has strayed too far away. Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Soon, all American Wigeons will be on their way north for the breeding season, as will most Texas ducks. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
American Wigeon Hen. Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
The Object of His Affection: American Wigeon Hen, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Pair bonded ducks are easy to see now, regardless of whether they nest locally or are about to depart for the north. Dabbling ducks typically bond as early as late fall or early winter, whereas divers often wait until as late as early spring. By this time of year, then, the vast majority of ducks still in Texas are pair bonded. Last week at Lafitte’s Cove I saw a pair of American Wigeons in the lagoon on the west side of Eckert Drive. With them were pairs of Blue- and Green-winged Teal and Gadwall. In the west pond on the other side of Eckert Drive was a lone pair of Mottled Ducks.

Mottled ducks pair bond earlier than other Mallard-complex ducks (Terres, 1991). The benefits of pair bonding to female ducks is well known: drakes protect their mates from the unwanted advances of other male ducks thus allowing their hens more time to feed and fatten up for nesting or the flight to breeding locations. Last week while watching the Mottled Ducks, I witnessed another possible advantage of pair bonding at Lafitte’s Cove.

While feeding, the dabbling drake and hen seemed to get into a rhythmic pattern of dabbling or head dunking and watching. When one bird’s head was submerged, the other was watchful. Only during a disruption were both watchful. This type of behavior would seem to be beneficial to both birds. The submerged partner can feed (and be vigilant against underwater menaces like alligators and large predatory fish), and the partner with head above water can watch for terrestrial predators like felids and shotgun-toting primates, as well as aerial hunters like raptors.

Mottled Duck Drake, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Drake Up: Mated Pair Mottled Ducks, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Mottled Ducks are unusual in that they breed along the Gulf Coast. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Mottled Duck Hen, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Hen Up: Mated Pair Mottled Ducks, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Mated Pair of Mottled Ducks, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Both Watchful: Mated Pair of Mottled Ducks, West Pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. A big enough disturbance (like a bird photographer) can garner the attention of both birds. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Reference

Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books. New York. 1109 p.

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

Birds: Sleeping with One Eye Open

Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.–Friedrich Nietzsche

Green-wing Teal, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Texas
Green-winged Teal Hen, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas. Late fall. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Birds live in a dangerous world. Never is this more evident than when they are trying to sleep. Ground-roosting birds like waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls can often be seen drifting in and out of sleep, one eye open, intermittently surveying the environment for dangers (and photographers).

Sleeping Sanderlings, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Sleeping Sanderlings (Nonbreeding), East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Note the beautiful ripple marks. Late winter. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Herring Gull in Sleeping Position, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Herring Gull (Nonbreeding) in Sleeping Position, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Late winter. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many birds sleep (or merely rest) with their heads supported on their backs, beaks nestled in the scapulars. This rests the muscles of the neck and keeps the delicate skin around the beak warm. Breath expelled into the feathers keeps the back nice and toasty warm. On some cold and windy days, it’s common to see sandpipers balanced on one leg (like the Sanderling on the right above). This, of course, reduces the amount of bare skin exposed to the hostilities of the environment.

Soon Texas birds will be much more concerned about keeping cool—and I’ll keep an eye out to document their interesting thermoregulatory behaviors!

Sleeping Black Skimmer, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Sleeping Black Skimmer, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. Late fall. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Duck! Birding the Texas Coastal Bend in Fall

Redhead at the Freshwater Channel, Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Redhead Drake at the “Freshwater Channel,” Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. This park is one of the best places on the Coastal Bend to see waterfowl, and the evening light can be spectacular. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Over a three-day period this Thanksgiving Holiday we visited a number of our favorite Coastal Bend birding haunts in and around Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. These included Paradise Pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, the Nature Sanctuary at Charlie’s Pasture (all Mustang Island), and San José Island, and the Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Nature Park in Corpus Christi. And yes, when it was over we were wiped out!

All of these sites were flush with birds, except San José Island which proved to be such a disappointment that we found ourselves photographing crabs! With the exception of San José, all of these sites are really better for birding than for bird photography for one simple reason: Narrow boardwalks make tripods problematic, especially when other birders are present.

Hooded Merganser Hen, Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas.
Hooded Merganser Hen, Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas. This bird was perhaps the most co-operative merganser I have ever seen. In the past, be they Hooded, Common, or Red-Breasted, Mergansers have quickly retreated upon our approach. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Highlights of these late Fall and early winter trips to the Coastal Bend are often the waterfowl. You just can’t beat a crisp morning with formations of ducks and geese overhead and wet, feathered-friends paddling peacefully around the waterways. Although we saw plenty of ducks and geese, seeing vast tracts of prairie and wetland without a single bird (and often hearing the crack of gunfire in the background) got me wondering about duck populations in North America.

A quick survey of a recently published U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report reassured that duck numbers are (in general) large by “historical” standards. This report presented data but provided little analysis or discussion. Overall, a few duck species are down relative to recent years, but the total number of ducks is close to 50 million. So humans must not be adversely affecting waterfowl populations, right?

Wait! The above cited historical quantitative records of duck numbers begin in 1955. The 1930’s (think Dust Bowl), 40’s, and 50’s were times of drought across North America. Could it be that our concept of how many waterfowl there “should be” in wetter times is too low? Again according to the report, some duck species (Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall) show a steady increase in numbers, with minor ups and downs, beginning in the mid-1950’s—perhaps indicating a recovery from a time of ecological decimation? Given the interplay of anthropogenic, meteorological, and ecological influences, we’ll never know for sure what waterfowl populations would look like without the pervasive human impacts of the past fifty years. But in North American waterfowl numbers there is certainly food for thought.

Green-winged Teal Hen, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas
Green-winged Teal Hen, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The fallacy of presentism is a complex anachronism, in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent.—David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Slow Stretches

Young Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Young Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Birds this young utilize different hunting techniques than fully adult birds and show vestiges of their striped juvenile plumage. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Things are slow now. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, we are in a time of transition within a time of transition. Most of the songbirds have moved through, but we still await the big waves of waterfowl. Some wintering shorebirds have arrived including Long-billed Curlews, and Least and Spotted Sandpipers. Sandhill Cranes can occasionally be heard and seen overhead, and there are a few ducks paddling around here and there. The numbers of Blue-winged Teal are increasing, and a few Ring-necked Ducks are about. On the big plus side, everywhere we’ve gone over the past week or so was mercifully free of biting insects.

During such slow times I have to focus on more detailed observations of familiar species. Last weekend at Brazos Bend, for example, Pied-billed Grebes were visible in unusually large numbers. Small groups of three or four birds were scattered across Elm Lake. One cluster contained three adult birds and a youngster, shown above. The youngster hunted in a different fashion than the adults. It paddled around on the surface and dunked its head and neck below the surface to search for prey (rather like a loon!). As always, the adults settled into the surface of the water and then dove, reappearing a few seconds later. But big prey was not on the menu that day. I watched for an hour or so hoping to witness an epic battle with a big fish, frog, or crawfish, but I saw only insects being consumed.

Young female Ring-billed Duck, east pond, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
A Lone Young Female Ring-necked Duck, east pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. A white ring on the bill has just started to appear. Gentle paddling produced a subtle wake of crescents. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

A visit to the drippers and environs at Lafitte’s Cove last week yielded few avian sightings. I spotted a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Pine Warbler or two, and a few Northern Mockingbirds. The ponds were nearly as unproductive. I noted Mottled Ducks and  a single Ring-necked Duck, and I played hide-and-seek with a deeply distrustful Marsh Wren.

Spotted Sandpiper in nonbreeding plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Spotted Sandpiper in Non-breeding Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Frenchtown Road, Bolivar yielded a lone Spotted Sandpiper that strutted and posed along the remains of a floating wrecked wooden structure for an extended photo shoot. Overall, I saw the usual mix of winter waders and shorebirds, including a bathing Long-billed Curlew. Again, nothing unusual. Come on birds! Where are all you oddballs?

Widow's tears, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Widow’s tears (Commelina sp.), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. In fall, widow’s tears bloom only in the morning. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro (+25mm extension tube II). High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

When no birds were to be seen (and this was most of the time), I turned my lenses on insects and flowers. Elm Lake was ablaze with brilliant yellow Bidens aurea. I am still experimenting with my new 25mm extension tube. This week I discovered the arthropod macrophotography of Thomas Shahan, an Oklahoma artist who has been getting extraordinary results with some rather modest equipment—clearly an impetus to up my own macro game. I even ordered a few new minor gadgets to help out with macro. Overall, I am still waiting for something weird  to happen . . . .

Variegated Meadowhawk, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Lafitte’s Cove is almost as good for dragonflies as it is for migrating birds. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Nest Box 24

Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park. This Wood Duck and his mate were extremely wary of humans. Smart ducks! Photo taken in March with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“Hey, there’s a pair of Wood Ducks hanging out by Nest Box 24,” Chris says with a knowing smile as we meet on the path encircling Elm Lake. “Excellent!” I reply. It’s my turn with the 500mm, and a good opportunity to practice my sit-and-wait technique. Patience has paid off in the past – especially with flycatchers returning to perches. So, with images of Wood Ducks in my head, I hurry on down the trail–politely refusing several offers to trade cameras with my point-and-shoot counterparts.

Slowing my approach as I get closer, I collapse the tripod to sitting height, identify the best angle given the light, then slip in among the brush. I am confident that my camouflaged ninja birding skills will produce a pair of Wood Ducks.

Mated pair of Blue-winged Teal at Pliant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A mated pair of Blue-winged Teal feed on duck weed at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/3200, -0.3 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

At least there’s a handsome mated pair of Blue-winged Teal to keep me company. I wait. No Wood Ducks. The teal come in closer. Well, I might as well shoot them while I’m here. Done. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hmm, maybe the Wood Ducks are IN the box! I train the camera on the nest box hole. I guess some images of a nest box would be nice. Snap. Snap. OK. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hey! A head popped out of the hole!

Fox Squirrel peeking out from a nest box at Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A Fox Squirrel peeks out from Nest Box 24 in Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOC 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/11, ISO 500, 1/320, -0.7 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Really? A squirrel. Hmph!

Wait a minute. What’s a squirrel doing in there? Is it hunting for eggs? Hunting for chicks? (That little #*%@!) Could it be tending a nest of its own? A little bit of internet research indicates it could be any of the above. I will need to keep an eye out for this in the future. I love it when I learn something new. Don’t you?

©2013 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.