High Island

New Predator-prey Action

Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in Spiderweb, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Red-eyed Vireo with Dragonfly Caught in a Spiderweb, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Why go dragonfly hunting when the spiders do all the work for you? Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers have been abundant at Lafitte’s Cove this spring. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackpoll Warbler on Grapevine with Caterpillar, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Blackpoll Warblers have been just behind Red-eyed Vireos and Tennessee Warblers in abundance this spring migration at Lafitte’s Cove. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Cormorant with shrimp, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Where the Heck is My Shrimp Cocktail? Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Ohio River Shrimp (Macrobrachium ohione), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. For a moment the bird lost track of the shrimp as it attempted to “flip” it into easy swallowing position. The Ohio River shrimp is one of the most common freshwater macroinvertebrates in North America—but try getting a shot of a bird eating one! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Cormorant with Minnow, Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas
Juvenile Neotropic Cormorant with Shad(?), Fiorenza Park, Houston, Texas. This is the first time I’ve seen a cormorant eat a fish other than an armored catfish at Fiorenza. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
One Stone-cold Killer Eats Another: Alligator with Great Egret Nestling, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen

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

Catching Birds in Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Begins at Smith Oaks

A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here . . . .

—Emily Dickinson, A Light Exists in Spring

Roseate Spoonbill in Flight, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill in Flight, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In our travels last week, we stopped by Smith Oaks on High Island, Texas, one of the most famous birding sites on the Texas Gulf Coast. Although we saw no early migrant songbirds in the surrounding woods, the rookery was hopping with activity—the drive toward life.

Nest-sitting Neotropic Cormorants, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Nest-sitting Neotropic Cormorants, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Note that the nest is stained white with guano. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants filled the air. Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants shuttled back and forth with nest-building materials. Double-crested Cormorants fished in the water surrounding the rookery. Some Great Egret pairs were building nests, sitting on eggs, or rearing chicks. Neotropic Cormorants were nest-sitting, but no chicks were to be seen. A few energetic Tricolored Herons swooped past but gave no indication of intentions. Spoonbills squabbled with each other: Nesting can’t be far behind!

Snowy Egrets in High Breeding, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egrets in High Breeding, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. In high breeding color, Snowy Egrets have pink lores and feet. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Nest-building Great Egrets, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Nest-building Great Egrets, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Nest building is a team effort for Great Egrets. Note the fluorescent green lores of high breeding color. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Great and Snowy Egrets in glorious breeding plumes (that almost doomed these species to extinction in the Gilded Age) with lores ablaze in electric colors were everywhere and revved up on hormones. Soon, the later-breeding species, Cattle Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Roseate Spoonbills, will join the frenzy. By that time, the trees will be filled with brilliant flashes of Neotropical migrant songbird plumage and the picture of spring will be complete . . . .

Great Egret feeding young, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret Feeding Young, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. A regurgitated crawfish is being presented to the nestlings. Three nestlings are visible in this image, but a fourth smaller one is also present. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But, as always, predators lurk in the dark water below waiting for larger nestlings to oust smaller, weaker ones, or for birds of any age to simply make a mistake . . . .

Death Stalks the Rookery, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Death Stalks the Rookery, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Despite the beauty, have no illusions: Nature is red in tooth and claw . . . always. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.–Khalil Gibran

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

Here Comes Spring Birding

Spring comes on the World –
I sight the Aprils –
Hueless to me until thou come
As, till the Bee
Blossoms stand negative,
Touched to Conditions
By a Hum.—Spring comes on the world, Emily Dickinson

Battling Moorhens, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Let ’em Have it, Stan! Battling Common Moorhens, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. February through March is the time see Common Moorhens fight it out for territorial dominance in Texas marshes. Photo taken during the first week of February. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Even though it’s the middle of winter, signs of the drive toward life and impending spring are all around, hinting at much greater changes to come.

Some herons, night-herons, egrets, and Double-crested Cormorants are sporting breeding plumes, some of the early bloomers like redbuds and Mexican plums are starting to pop, and there are splashes of color everywhere. Soon, the most exciting time of the year begins with the return of the spring migrants . . . .

Snowy Egret Chick Stretches its Wings, Smoth Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
A Snowy Egret Chick Stretches its Wings, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Territorial displays and fights, singing, courtship and nesting behavior will be all around shortly, also. Baby birds will quickly follow. But, after a few months of chasing birds around in the Texas heat a new longing will begin  . . .  a longing for the first blue norther of fall . . . .

Monarch Butterfly, winter, South Padre Island, Texas
Monarch Butterfly, in Early Winter, South Padre Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

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

Building a New Nest

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.—Thomas Paine

Great Egret with Nesting Material, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret with Stick (Nesting Material), Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

After over three months of dealing with the aftermath of the Memorial Day 2015 flood, we were finally able to move back into our house this week! It is still a huge mess, and we are still dealing with contractors and loads of construction-related headaches, but we are in the house and can at least conceive of accomplishing something beyond clean-up and simple survival. We are looking forward to the end of the summer swelter and some fall birding. Please stay tuned!

Downy Woodpecker Excavating Nest, Sabine Woods, Texas
Downy Woodpecker Excavating Nest Cavity, Sabine Woods, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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.

Observing Spoonbills and Ibises

He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.―James Hurst, The Scarlet Ibis: The Collection of Wonder

White Ibis Nest with Nestlings, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White Ibis Nest with Nestlings, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This nest contains two nestlings: The one on the left is much larger. In this image, the parent is feeding the smaller of the two, and the larger chick is plotting to knock the smaller one from the nest, “accidentally,” of course. Note that this ibis nest, like the spoonbill nest below, is in an invasive Chinese tallow tree. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

After a photo-birder friend (LM) told me about the White Ibises nesting on the the south edge of Pilant Lake, I recently spent a few hours trying to photograph nestlings. Only one nest can currently be photographed (above), but there are many others back in the swamp—and the air is filled with the weird gurgling noises ibises make.

The one nest that can be seen is still rather difficult to photograph given its distance from the trail and the profusion of vegetation. But I could see that the nest contains two nestlings, one much larger than the other. Likely the smaller chick simply hatched later, the size disparity exacerbated by the bigger chick receiving more than its fair share of food along the way. Such a disparity in nestling size often spells doom for the littlest birds. In this case, though, the little bird is a real fighter and chased mom’s beak around relentlessly hoping for a morsel or two of regurgitated crawfish. I hope it makes it, although the odds may be against.

White Ibis with Crawfish, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend Sstate Park, Texas
White Ibis with Crawfish, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Ibises are enthusiastic consumers of aquatic arthropods. White Ibises nesting in salty environments will travel to freshwater environments to collect crawfish for their young. Baby ibises have poorly developed salt glands and can’t handle the high salt content of marine and brackish arthropods. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The long, curved beak of ibises is used to probe into burrows and crevices occupied by a variety of prey. The rapid up-and-down motion of the beak reminds me of a sewing machine. At BBSP, it’s common to see White and White-faced Ibises grabbing a variety of aquatic arthropods including predaceous diving beetles (larval and adult) and crawfish. Frogs and small fish are taken, too, as are the bulbs of some aquatic plants.

Spoonbill Nest with Nestlings, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill Nest with Nestlings, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The chick on the far left is much smaller than the others. In Roseate Spoonbill nests that I have photographed, the smallest sibling is usually listless and helpless seeming, clearly not long for this world. The little bird above was consistently left out of the feeding frenzy initiated by the return of an adult bird. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Spoonbills and ibises constitute the Family Threskiornithidae, the former being close relatives of the Old World Ibises. I tend to think of spoonbills simply as ibises with a specialized feeding strategy: Typically the bill is waved back and forth through the water to capture prey, vertebrate and invertebrate, which is then flipped up into the air and ingested (below).

Feeding Spoonbill, Myakka Rivefr State Park, Florida
Feeding Roseate Spoonbill, Myakka River State Park, Florida. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We have seen all U.S. species of ibises, including the Scarlet Ibis, an exotic South American and Caribbean native that was introduced into Florida in 1961. We saw this species on Sanibel Island at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the the west coast of Florida about seven years ago. A small group of these birds was walking along the strand line of this famously shelly beach. This sighting, dear reader, was before we were serious photo-birders, so you’ll just have to take my word that it occurred! We hope to return one day and document the behavior of these spectacular, brilliantly-colored Tropical birds.

White-faced Ibis with Predaceous Diving Beetle, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White-faced Ibis (Non-breeding) with Predaceous Diving Beetle, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm 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.

Spring Migration: Chasing the Sun

Let me recommend the best medicine in the world: a long journey, at a mild season, through a pleasant country, in easy stages.—James Madison

Female Summer Tanager with mulberry, Pelican Island, Texas
Female Summer Tanager with Mulberry, Pelican Island, Texas. Tanagers love mulberries. Unfortunately a major Texas A&M building project on Pelican Island has restricted access to most of the mulberry trees that were a reliable place to see migrant tanagers, orioles, buntings, Dickcissel, and others. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

This is the time of year for visiting migrant songbird traps! In these special places it’s easy to see what migration is all about—chasing the warming rays of the sun north as they bring their bounty of flowers, nectar, pollen, fruit, and succulent bugs!

Although it will probably have to wait for retirement, I dream of an April road trip, drifting slowly down the Gulf Coast from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Grand Isle, Louisiana to Sabine Woods, High Island, Pelican Island, Lafitte’s Cove, Quintana, perhaps ending at Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas.

Male Indigo Bunting in Breeding Colors, Pelican Island, Texas
Male Indigo Bunting in Breeding Colors on Mulberry Tree, Pelican Island, Texas. Indigo buntings are generalist feeders and eat buds, seeds, fruit, and insects. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Male Scarlet Tanager with bee, Pelican Island, Texas
Male Scarlet Tanager with Bee, Pelican Island, Texas. Scarlet Tanagers are generalist feeders, but prefer bees, when available. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many of these classic migrant traps are oak mottes, slightly elevated patches of woods, on the very edge of the land and provide desperately needed food, water, and shelter after an exhausting flight across the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most exciting parts of being out in these migrant traps during spring is observing and photographing Neotropical migrants hunting and gorging on fruits and other botanical goodies.

In the oak mottes, birds are often covered in pollen as they poke around flowers. Sometimes novice birders, field guides clutched in hand, are puzzled by a bird that looks somehow familiar—but it has a yellow face! There’s usually an old-timer around, though, who explains kindly how the birds are sometimes painted with pollen at this magical and all-too-short time of the year.

Male Orchard Oriole with Pollen on Face, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Orchard Oriole with Pollen on His Face, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Orchard Orioles eat primarily insects during the breeding season, but will supplement their diets with seeds, fruits, pollen, and nectar. 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.

A Season of Extravagance

Snowy Egrets in High Breeding Plumage, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Snowy Egrets in High Breeding Color and Plumage, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. The lores and feet of Snowy Egrets turn from yellow to pink and orange, respectively, at the peak of breeding season. Photo taken in April. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We are now entering a season of extravagance—extravagance of avian color, plumage, and behavior. Soon, displays, mating and nesting will be going on all along the Texas Gulf Coast. Early birds have already begun. Some waders are sporting nuptial (breeding) plumes, and lore and leg/foot colors are beginning to pop. Hormones are surging through bloodstreams. Many of the waders and other water birds are on edge: Common Moorhens are fighting it out amongst themselves for dominance, and Great Blue Herons are nesting deep in the marshes. A Great Horned Owl, too, is currently nesting in the woods west of 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Display Mode, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Display Mode, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This may have been a threat display directed at the photographer: no other birds were around (that I noticed). Photo taken in late May, when Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are raising young at Brazos Bend SP. During breeding, the legs of these birds turn from yellowish to a pinkish orange. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Back-off, Camera Boy! Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Another probable threat display during nesting season (May) directed at the photographer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light

Soon, an exciting time of the year for birding will become the most exciting time. Neotropical migrant songbirds will be showing up in droves along the coast. For now, as far as migrants are concerned, we’ll have to settle for American Bitterns. Recently American Bitterns have been extremely active at Brazos Bend State Park (especially Pilant Lake). They have been hunting, calling, and engaged in threat displays among themselves and in the face of humans. American Bitterns do not often breed in Texas, and are sometimes described as “winter visitors” to Texas. Brazos Bend Bitterns are most likely on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. or Canada.

American Bittern Threat Display, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bittern Threat Display, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Again, I think this was for my benefit: no other birds were around. Photo taken in February. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (_1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although the weather continues to look pretty bad for adventures in the out-of-doors, anticipation of the spring excitement ahead keeps me looking up (and down and sideways)! And then it’s summer and the mountains!

Great Blue Heron in Breeding Colors (in February!), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron in Breeding Colors (in late February), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. During breeding season, the lores become a deep blue and the beak turns to a deep orangish red. Similarly, the legs change from a grayish black to an orangish red. Note the erect black eyebrow feathers. This bird was jumpy. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Great Blue Heron in Non-breeding color, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron in Non-breeding (Post-breeding) Color in late May, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.—Oscar Wilde

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

Finding Those Unappreciated Sparrows (by Accident)

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. This bird was moving through seed-laden grasses with a group of Seaside Sparrows. Photo taken at about 7:30 am under a beautiful golden fall light. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC).

Last weekend we birded High Island (Boy Scout Woods), Bolivar Flats, and Frenchtown Road. Frenchtown Road is an exceptional spot, and almost always the highlight of any Bolivar trip. It is a great spot for Clapper Rails, Whimbrel, and waders and shorebirds hunting prey, especially crustaceans. But, (rather unexpectedly) grass seed-head-chomping Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows were the highlight of this visit. Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows breed mostly in Canada, winter along the Gulf Coast, and are not a common sight in Texas—at least not where we usually bird.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas
Rufous-crowned Sparrow on Mountain Laurel, Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas. This bird was spotted on the way to find Golden-cheeked Warblers, which we found a few minutes later. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Sparrows, in general, may be the least appreciated of birds, and I myself am often guilty of not affording them the respect they deserve. It’s rare for us to plan a trip around sparrows. This is despite their ecological importance and often beautiful earth-tone color schemes. We usually have more glamorous species in mind, like the rock stars of the birding world, the wood warblers when we plan birding trips. I spotted the the Rufous-crowned Sparrow above, for example, on a Central Texas trip centered around finding Golden-cheeked Warblers. Of course, It wouldn’t have hurt our feeling to have spotted Black-capped Vireos, too.

In my own defense, though, we do make an annual pilgrimage to Barfoot Park, in the Coronado National Forest, Arizona to see Yellow-eyed Juncos, an American Sparrow you’re not going to find by accident. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see a few Hepatic Tanagers while we’re there . . . .

Grasshopper Sparrow
Not Rare, but Secretive: Grasshopper Sparrow, Galveston Island State Park, Texas. Grasshopper Sparrows get their name from the grasshopper-like sounds they make. They’re not a sparrow one sees every day in this part of the world. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I don’t believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents.—Pablo Picasso

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

The Dog Days of Summer Roll On and On

Black-necked Stilt in Late Summer at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Black-necked Stilt in Late Summer 2011 at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. The broiling, buggy coastal marshes where these birds summer can test the resolve of the birder. But what a cool-looking bird! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

During the past few weeks we haven’t been going out into the field much due to the weather. The dog days of summer are a bit hard to stomach along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. Patchy rain storms, interspersed with blistering sun, temperatures in the 90’s and dew points in the upper 70’s—not to mention clouds of winged bloodsuckers—can make for tough going. A sense of humor is definitely required.

Driving to High Island last week, passing the turn to Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge I just shook my my head, imagining the bugs. We visited Frenchtown Road, though, on the Bolivar Peninsula, and through the windows of the truck it looked very promising. In fact, Elisa saw a family of Clapper Rails with four young, a first for her. Recent heavy rains and high tide, though, meant everything was soaked and exuding humidity. The instant we opened the truck doors, the cab was flooded with mosquitos. The cloud stayed with the vehicle (in the bed) as we drove away, and even remained as we waited for the ferry to cross to Galveston!

Clapper Rail at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Clapper Rail at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Clapper Rails breed in Coastal Texas marshes from late February through September and produce darling fluffy, black young. Frenchtown Road is the most reliable place we know to see Clappers. But for some reason we haven’t been able to get any first-class images there, yet. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

To further dampen our enthusiasm, at East Beach, Galveston, we found astronomical amounts of reeking, rotting seaweed still (summer stuff) covering the beach. Please! A fall storm to wash all this rubbish out to sea! At East Beach we nevertheless tried for some terns in flight. The conditions were strange to say the least: sweltering on the buggy beach in a dead calm shooting at 1/4000 sec with bright sun and simultaneous rain. In early September in Texas, I fantasize about being in the field without being smeared with blood, sweat, and bug parts! Ha!

A close friend and native Houstonian who recently retired to the hills of East Tennessee characterized the close of the Texas dog days best: during September one watches the weather reports from around the country with envious eyes and sees temperatures falling into the 70’s, then 60’s, then 50’s all the while Texas cooks on into month five. But things are changing in subtle ways. The days are decidedly shorter. There is some avian movement: We saw some Spotted Sandpipers at Sea Center Texas. A pair of Cooper’s Hawks has been hanging around our yard and communicating back and forth with their whistling calls. Flycatchers are passing through.

Great Blue Heron in Flight
Great Blue Heron in Flight Over 40-Acre Lake in Late Summer at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Even BBSP, my favorite birding gem, needs a breath of fresh air by September. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

So while the birding isn’t the best now, there is always research and planning for the future. Although I’m not much of a gear-head, I do read a lot of technical reports on photographic equipment in my spare time. I’m currently waiting to read the official specifications for the much-anticipated Canon EOS 7D Mark 2. What is available indicates not a quantum leap forward (no Foveon sensor!), but rather a series of incremental improvements in resolution, speed, etc.–which is a bit disappointing given the innovative products released during the past two years by Nikon (D800/D810) and Sony (a7R), especially as regards resolution. Perhaps I won’t be an early adopter when this new camera comes out later this year.

Finally, there’s always planning for a retirement that incorporates the seven lovely months in Texas. And they are lovely . . . and just around the corner.

“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

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

The Adaptable Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret with Feral Hog at Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
In Deepest, Darkest Texas: Cattle Egret with feral hog at Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. True pigs have been in the New World for centuries due to human introduction. Cattle Egrets commonly follow cattle around Texas pastures, but this is the first time I have seen the birds shadowing prey-flushing pigs. All photos Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Cattle Egrets are among my favorite waders. They are slightly sinister in appearance and behavior as they sneak and skulk around the margins of grasslands and marshes in search of invertebrate and small vertebrate prey. And judging by their large minimum approach distance they are among the most suspicious and distrustful of birds.

Given their dislike of people, it’s ironic that the rapid expansion of Cattle Egrets across the New World in the latter half of the 20th Century has been aided by human agriculture. Not long before the 20th Century the Cattle Egret was an Old World species. The first Cattle Egret was seen in the New World in 1877; in North America in 1941, and it began breeding in Florida in 1953. Today, Cattle Egrets are widely distributed across the Americas.

A Cattle Egret in Breeding Colors at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Spectacular: A Cattle Egret in Breeding Colors at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Natural light.

Although we think that the Cattle Egret reached the New World on its own, the widespread distribution of livestock here, particularly cattle, has has greatly facilitated the bird’s spread. Today, Cattle Egrets snapping up grasshoppers and other prey flushed by cattle (or farm implements!) is a common American sight.

So in the Americas, the Cattle Egret is not a human-introduced species. Yet, I find it hard to consider it precisely a native species (over much of its range) given its close association with domesticated livestock. The Cattle Egret exists exactly at the intersection of man and the rest of nature. It is one of those species well adapted to live in a human-influenced, agricultural landscape. And, as the human population increases with its ever-increasing appetite for meat and animal products, the Cattle Egret’s future looks bright indeed.

Mating Cattle Egrets at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Mating Cattle Egrets at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Cattle Egrets now breed in rookeries with native species such as Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, and Snowy Egrets. Natural light.

It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.—Charles Darwin 

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

Additions to Collections and Articles

Spirit: Adult Female Red-tailed Hawk at the Houston Audubon Raptor Shoot
Spirit: Adult Female Red-tailed Hawk at the 2014 Houston Audubon Raptor Shoot. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

Now that I have time, I’m working my way through the entire blog making edits and minor improvements. New images have been added to Avian Portraits and Stalking the Hunters. Please check them out!

Roseate Spoonbill feeding nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Roseate Spoonbill Feeding Nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Notice how much smaller the chick in the foreground is compared to the others. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.—Andy Warhol

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