When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.
At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!
People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles. –Emily Dickinson
2015 was a rough year. With all the unfortunate things that happened last year, personal losses and natural disasters, it’s tempting to try and forget about the whole period entirely. But that would mean forgetting the wonderful things, too—and there were plenty. It’s taken a while to put this little collection together, but here goes!
A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.–Henry David Thoreau
This week’s Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting was a summer vacation show-and-tell. The association is in recess during the summer swelter, so members brought images collected during their summer vacations to share with the group. The theme we chose to explore was images of species we had perhaps seen (or perhaps not), but never photographed well before this summer.
We’re not the kind of birders who keep life lists, but we know when we see or photograph a species for the first time. Pyrrhuloxias, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Stellar’s Jays are common birds that we have seen many times in the West, but achieved reasonable images of for the the first time this summer.
Notable species completely new to us from this summer’s trips to Big Bend NP and Rocky Mountain NP included the Cordilleran Flycatcher, Varied Bunting, Warbling Vireo, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Hairy Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker.
Although we think we got some pretty nice images, it’s always a little troubling to photograph birds on vacation simply because we never feel as though we have had enough time to really do the birds justice. Thoughts tend to run like: If I just had another day, I could have gotten the Hairy Woodpecker shot of my dreams! But alas, vacation is fleeting, and it’s soon time to get back to the grind.
In the empire of desert, water is the king and shadow is the queen.―Mehmet Murat ildan
Tyrant Flycatchers and kin (Family Tyrannidae) are among the most charming of birds with their curiosity and sallying hunting style. On our recent visit to Big Bend National Park, we found flycatchers everywhere, in all habitats. Small flocks of Say’s Phoebes were especially prominent around the buildings and parking areas of the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the undeveloped areas nearby. The lodge, being at an elevation of about 5400 feet, is near the upper altitude limit for these birds.
At the low altitude abandoned ranches we saw a greater diversity of flycatchers than at altitude. Many individual birds were extremely difficult to identify–even if perched in plain sight! Forget about those lurking in the shadows! Ash-throated Flycatchers, though, were likely the most abundant and seemed to be just about everywhere at low elevation. We spotted the unmistakable Vermilion Flycatcher at several such localities including the Rio Grande Valley Campgrounds and Daniels Ranch–so it wasn’t always an ID guessing game!
Of all the identification puzzlements afflicting birding, the Empidonax flycatchers take the cake. Widely regarded as “nearly indistinguishable” visually, birders must rely on song (aided by distribution) to confidently identify some of these species. But what if the birds are not singing? Well . . . I guess one must learn to live with uncertainty.
The bird below, for example, would seem to be a Willow Flycatcher. Given the ranges of Willow Flycatcher subspecies, that would likely make this bird a member of the Southwestern race, Empidonax triallii extimus, a federally-listed endangered subspecies. I invite comment from readers who wish to confirm or deny my tentative identification, though.
And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.
—Enkindled Spring, D.H. Lawrence
The primaveral combustion of brilliantly colored Neotropical migrant songbirds and shorebirds molting into breeding plumage is giving way to the vernal, thermal Texas combustion. But every spring migration is a bit different. It seems that we saw less than last year, and certainly far less than the previous one—but not for want of trying. And I’ve got the bites, scratches, and poison ivy blisters to prove it.
This was the year of seeing Tanagers (Summer and Scarlet), Eastern Wood-pewees, and Bay-breasted Warblers. Of the Pewees, we heard even more than we saw. Everywhere we went in April and May the pee-ah-wee or wee-ooo could be heard. But luck would have it that we saw far fewer warblers and other songbirds than usual—no swarms of Hooded, Yellow, or Magnolia Warblers, just the odd bird here and there poking around in the woods.
So, as the migration tapers off, it’s time to transition into summer birding mode. My time and mind will soon be filled by planning for the upcoming big birding trips (Yea, mountains!) and stalking waders around the swamps and marshes as they hunt and fish their way through the broiling Texas summer.
The family Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers) is primarily a South American group. Of over 370 species, only 35 have ranges that extend far enough north to reach the United States. Eight genera of tyrant flycatchers occur in North America, north of Mexico. Considered by evolutionary biologists to be among the most primitive of songbirds, tyrannids are nevertheless highly successful, ranging from Patagonia, and even the Falkland and Galápagos Islands, to Canada. These birds occur across a wide variety of habitats, from bottomland forests to the high Andes.
Due to their bold personalities and active hunting behaviors, the Tyrant Flycatchers of the genus Tyrannus (kingbirds and kin) are some of the most exciting birds to watch. Exhibiting a rather limited palette of colors relative to some other songbirds, ranging primarily from browns and olives to gray on top (plus orange or red semi-concealed crown stripes for display), and a variety of shades of yellow below, species of Tyrannus may never be as popular as warblers with birders. But what they lack (usually) in terms of showy colors they make up for in personality and behavior.
Other than the Great Kiskadee, perhaps, Kingbirds are the most conspicuous of the North American flycatchers. These large, aggressive birds will not tolerate being pushed around by other, larger birds like crows or even raptors. Although they will eat fruit and seeds during certain times of the year (depending on the Kingbird species), insects form an integral part of their diets.
From a perch, they will hawk large insects from the air above water or ground and also grab prey from the ground. The fact that they return again and again to a perch can make photography relatively easy and enjoyable. After locating an avian photographic subject, I often snap few frames, advance a few paces, snap a few frames, advance a few paces, and so on. Some bird species will flush as soon as they see a human. Others will hesitate until a particular distance is breeched (minimum approach distance). Tyrant flycatchers, too, eventually flee hesitantly into the air upon a close enough approach, but I can’t help feeling as though these bird are asking themselves: Do I really have to leave? Can I take this guy?
Although not as difficult to tell apart as some Empidonax Flycatchers, which are literally indistinguishable based on appearance alone, some species of Tyrannus are quite tricky to identify. Even based on a reasonably good photograph, experienced birders may disagree about the identity of a specific individual. Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, for example, overlap in range in the West and are often confused. Likewise Couch’s, Tropical, and Western Kingbirds have overlapping ranges in the Lower Rio Grade Valley.
All these species, though, do have distinctive field marks and can in principle be distinguished. However, depending on the light and angle of view, colors can change. Vegetation can obscure minor or subtle features. In these troublesome cases, after exhausting reasonable avenues of identification, I try to live with the uncertainty–rather than decide which member of this sometimes look-a-like group I’ve spotted.
The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.—Erich Fromm
For Upper Texas Gulf Coast birding there comes a summer tipping point where the pain outweighs the gain. By about late July, it’s tough to justify going out birding with the bugs, sweltering weather, yahoos, and low diversity of birds. What to do . . . ?
It’s time for a road trip! This time around we visited Franklin Mountains State Park (West Texas), and several places in southeast Arizona including Saguaro National Park, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cave Creek, and Madera Canyon, a classic North American birding destination in the Coronado National Forest.
Southeast Arizona lies within one of the three northward-extending prongs of tropical biodiversity that extend into the U.S., the others reaching Big Bend and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Madera Canyon, one of the major birding hotspots within this Arizona prong, is on the northwest side of the Santa Rita Mountains, a Madrean Sky Island, about 25 miles south of Tucson.
Madera Canyon cuts largely through granitic rocks and passes through four major life zones, from Lower Sonoran in the blistering valley floor to cooler Canadian at the top, and ranges from about 3600 to over 9400 feet in elevation. At 9453 feet Mount Wrightson crowns the canyon.
For our first visit to Madera Canyon we stayed for three days at the Santa Rita Lodge. The lodge is centrally located with hiking trails above and below in elevation. The feeders near the office were often thick with birds. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, White-winged Doves, and Mourning Doves predominated. Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers, Hepatic Tanagers, Bridled Titmice, and American Turkeys visited sporadically. Hummingbirds were abundant. Black-chinned and Broad-billeds predominated. A few Rufous and a single Plain-capped Starthroat visited while we watched. A Canyon and Bewick’s Wren appeared briefly. White-eared Hummingbirds were reported in the area, but unfortunately we didn’t see them. Mexican Jays were common around the lodge in general.
On the Nature Trail, flycatchers, especially Ash-throated and Western Wood-Pewees predominated. Elisa was lucky to see a Western Wood-Peewee nest with nestlings. Painted Redstarts were common, and we caught several possible glimpses of Flame-colored Tanagers. Just south of the lodge we were treated to a Whiskered Screech Owl roosting in a cavity in a large sycamore tree.
On the Carrie Nation Mine Trail, we saw Ash-throated, Western Wood-Peewee, Black Phoebe, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstarts. Elisa saw a single Red-faced Warbler.
On the last morning, we hiked the Bog Springs Trail where we saw mated pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, in one case gathering nesting materials.
Our visit to Madera Canyon drove home one central point: There is a significant difference between birding and bird photography. In some of the places we visited, it would have required a herculean effort to haul the super telephotos up into the canyon. In those instances, we just broke out the binoculars and smaller glass and enjoyed the views or photographed flowers, insects, or reptiles.
The mountains are calling and I must go.—John Muir
@2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
Surely flycatchers must be counted among the most interesting birds to watch as they “hawk” insects from mid-air above land or water, or swoop down to the grass to snatch prey and then return to their perches to consume it. In this new collection, we include images primarily from the Texas Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley. Enjoy!
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.–E. O. Wilson
Vermilion Flycatchers are some of our most anticipated fall visitors along the Texas Gulf Coast. Visiting populations migrate east, not south, for the winter bringing the colors of the West with them (their U.S. breeding range includes CA, NV, AZ, NM, and western and central TX). This flycatcher’s scientific name says it all – Pyrocephalus rubinus (a reference to the spectacular coloration of the male). As if the generic name, Pyrocephalus, or “fire head,” wasn’t enough, the specific name, rubinus, emphasizes the redness of the bird. One of a few types of so-called “firebirds,” the Vermilion Flycatcher is not only eye-catching, but is energetic and exciting to watch, just like other flycatcher species. Three vermilions – a male, female, and juvenile male – thoroughly captivated us last weekend at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) headquarters.
The female provided the best viewing opportunity as she perched within 12-15 feet of me. I had the luxury of settling in and studying her behavior for almost an hour. Between bouts of preening, she tracked insects as they flew by – sometimes it appeared as if she were watching a tennis match. Why wasn’t she going after them? Then, all of a sudden, she took off and grabbed one out of the air. What was it about that last fly by? Was it the insects’ speed, trajectory, size, or proximity that finally made the difference? Or some combination? And then again: track, track, track, go! It reminded me of playing duck, duck, goose as a child. As I went around the circle, patting the heads of my classmates, I was calculating . . . who could I outrun?
Was the flycatcher calculating? The literature seems to suggest that the Vermilion Flycatcher always gets his/her prey. If the initial attack is unsuccessful, the prey “may be pursued in an erratic acrobatic chase until capture” (Wolf and Jones 2000, 5). Though the research sample is small, it does makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Individuals most efficient (or dogged if necessary) at capturing prey (we could call it flight/eye coordination), will most likely live the longest and leave the greatest numbers of offspring edging the overall average toward a more and more efficiently predatory population.
When watching flycatchers, one can be excused for anthropomorphizing. They often cock their heads with apparent curiosity, and just about ooze charm. Flycatchers seem to delight in taking a particularly big or juicy bug–male Vermilion Flycatchers have been seen presenting potential mates with large, showy gifts–like butterflies. That would be an awesome image indeed — the handoff of a nuptial gift of an insect gem from a male Vermilion Flycatcher to his lady. Stay tuned! I will be watching for it next season in their breeding territory.
Wolf, B.O., and S.L. Jones. 2000. Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). InThe Birds of North America, No. 484 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, P.A.