Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.
Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.
Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.
Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.
In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.
Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?
As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.
In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!
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
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.
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!
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 . . . .
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 . . . .
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.–Khalil Gibran
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
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 . . . .
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 . . . .
We have it in our power to begin the world over again.—Thomas Paine
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!
He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.―James Hurst, The Scarlet Ibis: The Collection of Wonder
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.—Oscar Wilde
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.
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 . . . .
I don’t believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents.—Pablo Picasso
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.—Charles Darwin