Franklin Mountains

In Praise of Traveling to Bird

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.–Gilbert K. Chesterton

Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
King of the Hill: Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. What a lovely spot to prospect for seeds and bugs! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We know plenty of birders who are perfectly happy birding around the Houston area with never a thought of traveling to bird. Their birding activities often taper off by May with the end of the spring migration. We bird into the summer but by about late June, we are more than ready to say goodbye to the Texas Gulf Coast swelter (and the Summer People and their various noisemakers) and hit the road for somewhere new.

Since we started birding, summer trips are almost invariably well to the north for obvious reasons, ornithological and climatological. After a temporary lapse of reason, we once traveled to the Rio Grande Valley during summer, and we have been known to visit the deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the hot weather–usually in areas that have altitude, though. Right about this time of year I can’t help but think of General Sheridan . . . “If I owned Texas and Hell . . . .”

Common Raven with Rodent, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Common Raven with Rodent Carcass, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone is a great birding destination, but brace yourself for hellacious crowds of yahoos. The only National Park with more outrageous mobs is Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the most visited-by-yahoos park in the country. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

National parks are prime birding destinations and our greatest national treasure, but we will also travel to state parks, national wildlife refuges, or even simply regions (hopefully desolate) of the country with a different avifauna. Sometimes we travel with the intention of seeing particular species or habitats, other times we’re perfectly open to whatever we find. Sometimes, then, we’re travelers and sometimes we’re tourists, in Chesterton’s terminology.

Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race), Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race) on Driftwood, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The greatest danger in birding travel is to remain unchanged by it, to become part of the gawking rabble at the foot of the mountain. Think of the Sinclair Lewis’ satire of travel and travelers in The Man Who Knew Coolidge and their inability to become broadened by the experience. He must have had quite a laugh at the rubes . . . .

To avoid being an ugly birding American is to travel with purpose, general or specific, to place one’s observations from new geographies into the context of what you already know about your birds. You won’t hear a Wilson’s Warbler sing in Texas, but you will in Oregon. To complete the picture, the birder must travel because the birds do . . . .

Female Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Young Male Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. The photo-blind at Franklin Mountains is currently under construction. Perhaps it will be complete by our next visit. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Photo-birding Serendipity

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.—Louis Pasteur

Photo-birding Rufous Hummingbird in Flight
Rufous Hummingbird in Flight, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4c TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Pasteur’s brilliant and famous expression above (“Chance favors the prepared mind” in streamlined English translation) is undoubtably one of life’s great truths. Ultimately, seeing a particular bird species or avian behavior is a matter of chance. In all the singular sightings of difficult-to-see species (Tropical Parula, Red-faced Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Black Rail, etc) that I’ve made, I realize that had I been looking in a slightly different direction for a fraction of a second, I would have missed the bird entirely. But being in the right place at the right time to even have a possibility of making the observation in the first place is decidedly a matter of preparation (and effort), not chance.

Photo-birding Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker with Giant Walkingstick, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas
Immature Golden-fronted Woodpecker Tearing Apart a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma dentricus), Estero Llano Grande State Park, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Photographing birds is even more subject to the vagaries of chance than simply seeing birds. A passing cloud, a wind gust, a stray blade of grass in front of the subject, stepping in a hole or ant nest, or getting stung in face by a nasty bug at the precise moment a shutter should have been activated can all doom a photo that, a fraction of a second before, held great promise. The fact that rare, unpredictable natural events can be captured at all is sometimes a matter of some amazement to me given the difficulty of the problem. I think, for example, that after thousands of hours of photo-birding I’ve seen birds eating walkingsticks a total of three times in my life, and, incredibly, I was able to photograph it each time! On the other hand, I’ve never captured a single decent image of some species of birds I’ve seen dozens of times!

Photo-birding Reddish Egret, Bryan Beach, Texas
Canopy-fishing Reddish Egret with Beak Breaking the Surface, lagoon behind Bryan Beach, Texas. Surprisingly, to me at least, Reddish Egrets keep their eyes open during the impact with water. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

From time-to-time, I talk with photographers who have quit trying to photograph birds, or are at least considering quitting. They cite the difficulty and not getting any good results. What they seem to be hoping for is serendipity, or at least great good fortune. But after slogging through swamps and jungles, being pelted by rain and blasted by the sun from deserts to plains and mountain-tops, and shooting tens of thousands of images, I’ve started to doubt that serendipity or even good luck is much of a factor in photo-birding. I think that there are only drive and statistics. If you want some bird photos, then clear your calendar, break out the sunscreen and bug repellent, and get out there and photograph some birds (and enjoy the process)!

Photo-birding Gull with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Laughing Gull (Nonbreeding) with Needlefish, Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. Elisa recorded this interaction at dusk one Thanksgiving. I’ve never seen one of its kind again. I’ll keep looking. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Of Quails and Men

These are the good old days. In a situation that’s constantly deteriorating, it’s always the good old days.—Chris Cunningham (paraphrase of J. Phillips)

Young Scaled Quail Pair, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Young Scaled Quail Pair, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As I look out my front window at the giant piles of uncollected debris from the recent flood in southwest Houston, I got to thinking about quails . . . .

Many wildlife biologists are concerned about populations of all six types of North American quails. Numbers of individuals of dry-adapted species of quails such as Montezuma, Gambel’s and Scaled, rise and fall with drought and rainy years as expected, but these concerns transcend impacts due to changes in the weather.

For example, in the Southwest biologists have been noticing incursions of scrub-inhabiting quails into the suburban landscape, presumably foraging for food. The sprawl of tract housing and all that accompanies it means that the “empty” expanses of desert and scrublands are dwindling and our lovely xeric creatures are under pressure.

So, what’s the connection between giant piles of uncollected garbage and quails? Well, it seems to me that humanity can have any world it wants. Man has elected to live in a world of materialistic clutter, jammed with ephemeral consumer trash soon to be in a landfill. For this we are giving away (say exterminating) nature and paving over the land.

To alter this course will require nothing less than a new great awakening . . . .

Female Gambel's Quail, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Female Gambel’s Quail, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Hummingbird Travelog Part 1: The Oasis Effect

Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird in flight
Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird making a play for an open feeder spot at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light. 7.26.2013.

All systems in nature seek the lowest available energy state. This is a concept that my students could always grasp on a personal level. (Substitute “teenagers” for “all systems in nature” in the first sentence. See what I mean?) Human nature, like the rest of nature, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Hummingbirds are no different.

Consider the droves of hummingbirds attracted to sugar-water feeders. Well-kept feeders are an easy alternative to foraging, and field studies show that when nectar (or nectar substitute) sources are super abundant, high metabolic cost territorial activity decreases. Feeders are the path of least resistance for hummingbirds.

Human interest in hummingbirds and the resulting dedication to supplementing their diet has impacted their biogeography. Hummingbird banding data support the idea that feeders (along with native gardening practices) are the reason that overwintering hummingbird populations have expanded along the Gulf Coast after first migrating into Mexico in the fall. Feeders and native plantings also contribute to the so-called “oasis effect” observed in exurban developments in the arid southwest where increasing numbers of hummingbirds (among other birds) in resource-poor terrain take advantage of supplemental food, shelter, and water resources.

Hovering male Calliope Hummingbird drinking from a sugar-water feeder
Male Calliope Hummingbird taking advantage of the sugar-water feeders at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind in July. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchonized flash. 7.26.2013.

On our recent summer desert birding road trip, we found the Franklin Mountain State Park feeders buzzing madly with hummingbirds. Especially welcome was the opportunity to get close-up views of Calliope Hummingbirds – thought to be the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world – on their 5,000 mile southern journey to Mexico from the northwestern US and Canada.

For Calliopes, fall migration starts early. Sources report typical Calliope departures from northwest locales in late August. But wait, it was late July and they were already in Texas … Was this early arrival due to a natural seasonal shift or could it just have been the oasis effect?

I hear like you see — like that hummingbird outside that window for instance.

— Ray Charles

 

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

Birding Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas in Summer

Male Rufous Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Male Rufous Hummingbird on Dead Agave Flower Stalk at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Photo taken at the observation blind, Tom Mays Unit. The feeders draw swarms of Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope hummingbirds in summer. Photo taken in late July. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

No other habitat on earth holds as much wonder for me as the desert. Franklin Mountains State Park is a consistently great place for desert birding and seeing the flora and fauna of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have visited several times in hot and cool weather and hope to return at the earliest possible date.

Make no mistake: the rocky northern Chihuahuan Desert is a hard place, especially in summer. Common plants scattered across the rocky flats include agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, eagle claw cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and mesquite. The Franklin Mountains area is the only place to see Southwest barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Texas. Stream channels contain Desert Willow, sometimes haunted by nectar-seeking hummingbirds.

Quail are also associated with stream channels. Gambel’s (a.k.a. Desert or Arizona) and Scaled Quail are common resident birds at the Tom Mays Unit. These birds are often comical to watch as they come strolling along a gully in small groups–until they notice you . . . . They will then shift around for a bit, and nonchalantly walk the other way!

Male Gambel's Quail at Franklin Mountain State Park, West Texas
I can see you, and I don’t like it: Male Gambel’s Quail at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

House finches and sparrows (Canyon and Spotted Towhees, for example) are an especially important part of the avifauna year-round. Green-tailed Towhees and Brewer’s Sparrow visit in the winter. Black-throated Sparrows are conspicuous year-round and will approach the observation blind closely at the Nature Walk Trail of the Tom Mays Unit.

The observation blind is a fiberglass affair with wooden benches inside. Although ergonomically unsuited for tripod use, the blind is remarkably cool even when temperatures are blistering outside and provides just about the only shade in the area.

Despite the harshness of the area, we can’t wait to return to Franklin Mountains State Park: hopefully we will get some better shots of the more camera-shy denizens of the park, namely Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.

Singing Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Singing in July: Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for — the whole thing — rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough

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

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

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

New Article: The View from the Park Blind

Many parks and wildlife refuges include photography and observation blinds. These can provide some excellent opportunities. In The View from the Park Blind, I consider some of the pros and cons of these structures and the associated feeding stations.

Spotted Towhee at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Spotted Towhee at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. The excellent blind at this park allows the visitor to easily observe many desert-loving species of birds and mammals.

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.