When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel
Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!
Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).
Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.
A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!
In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.
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 . . . .
Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.–Paul Dirac
We’ve gotten into the habit of stopping at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary (QNBS) on the way back from birding Bryan Beach and the lagoons behind—even outside the times of spring and fall migration, when it’s unlikely that there will be many birds around. I am interested in having a feel for Gulf Coast migrant traps year-round. These migrant traps are, to my mind, some of the most precious natural resources along the Gulf Coast. Likely the first major trip we’ll take upon retirement will be an April coastal road trip from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Paradise Pond, Texas hitting as many migrant traps as possible. On our last trip to Quintana, though, we saw only Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Brown Thrasher, and an Eastern Phoebe in the sanctuary itself.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Town of Quintana, the entities that maintain the QNBS, have planted a number of native and non-native nectar plants for birds, hummingbirds in particular. The taxonomic diversity of nectar plants insures that blooms will be present when the birds, mostly Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, pass through in spring (March, April, and into May) and late summer (August and September). The plants also attract insects which serve as food for insectivorous birds like warblers, tanagers, vireos, and flycatchers. I much prefer the aesthetics of food plants, even if they are not native, to feeders. What could be better than a sighting or an image of a hummingbird or oriole drinking nectar from a flower, especially a native flower? These food plants are part of chain of resources that allow the movement of birds back and forth between the Neotropics and North America . . . they literally reach out and touch the entire biosphere of the Americas . . . .
Not having many birds around allows me to focus on my neophyte macrophotography skills. Blooms can be beautiful, but clearly the presence of an insect adds a lot to any flower image. No matter how spectacular the bloom my eye is always drawn to the bug, no matter how drab or nondescript (as in the shrimp plant above).
In conclusion, one piece of advice for budding flower photographers: get a macro ring flash. Are you reading this, MP? The naturalist at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area (southeast Oklahoma), David Arbour, was kind enough to take us on birding tour of the refuge several years ago and said that flash was not only helpful, but necessary for macrophotography. After several years in the field since then, I completely agree.
Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. –Oscar Wilde
At some point during the winter, a major blue northern will, hopefully, blow through and stay. Until then we’ll check the radar and bore each other (and the ghost of Oscar Wilde) with endless conversations about the temperature, humidity, jet stream, and El Niño.
But even with the iffy weather, late fall and early winter seem to be the times for charming and oddball little discoveries. Last weekend the first real Arctic blast swept across Texas. Optimistically we headed to the Coast. But at 8 am Sunday on East Beach, Galveston the winds were howling so we aborted our attempts at shorebird photography (a strong wind can twirl the barrel of a supertelephoto lens around and conk an inattentive bird photographer across the skull!) and headed for Lafitte’s Cove.
Hoping the oak motte would expend some wind energy, we approached the trees. But alas, it was still too windy for big glass, and so we settled for binocular birding. On the way into the motte, we heard a Northern Mockingbird imitating the clattering call of a Belted Kingfisher—a first for us. Once in the trees, I spotted a Pine Siskin among a small group of American Goldfinches. This was my first ever sighting of a Pine Siskin on Galveston. Although (according to the literature) Siskins do rarely make it down to the Coast during winter, I have to think that this bird was blown off course by the massive cold front that had just arrived, perhaps 30 hours before.
In late fall/winter trees are bare, and as a result we see more songbirds than at any other time of the year. This is a good time to look for statistically rare individual color variations. Sometimes in winter, for example, it’s possible to observe diet-induced House Finch color variants, namely male birds with orange or yellow on their heads and throats (rather than red). I don’t know what the proportion of yellow- and orange-headed male House finches is—but it must be only one in dozens of birds.
This is also the time to really watch waders hunting. I’ve already mentioned the treefrog hunting that goes on around the southern margin of Pilant Lake (and I saw some more of that this week), but it seems that birds are having to work harder and are tapping somewhat atypical resources. The Little Blue Heron below, for example, was hunting in a patch of water hyacinth—and catching grasshoppers. Over the years I’ve watched Little Blues eat countless small fish, frogs and crayfish, but this is the first time I’ve seen one eating grasshoppers. Usually it’s Cattle Egrets that are grabbing katydids and grasshoppers. Perhaps times are getting a little lean, and everybody is a little less picky and willing to eat anything that moves.
Finally, the strangely warm and humid weather that has dragged deep into November has had one very nasty side effect: an explosion in the population of vicious biting gnats. I’ve always been sensitive to gnat bites, but these suckers raise huge itchy welts that hurt for days. On Wednesday of this week, gnats were so thick at Brazos Bend State Park that even the birds were being dogged by clouds of these nasties. So here I sit, hoping for a hard freeze to settle the bugs’ hash once and for all—and begin the real, lovely birding season.
He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson
In the summer, especially after about 9:30 am, it’s generally way too bright to do much good photo-birding (except maybe with some fill-flash), so I like to wander off into a grassy area and take advantage of the fireball in the sky and shoot some macro. Shooting with apertures smaller than f/11 requires intense light, so rather than being an obstacle to overcome, the blistering summer sun is actually a help.
Birds of the grasslands are notoriously uncooperative photographic subjects, so I am used to coming away from prairies empty-handed as far as bird photos are concerned. Further, I have learned to be satisfied with other kinds of images from this habitat. I know that some can entertain themselves by shooting wildflowers, and I can too for a while, but I need to see an animal now and again to stay interested for more than an hour or two.
Because the majority of wildflowers are yellow or white (I think), I will often times make a special effort to track down and identify plants with blooms of different colors. Purples, oranges, and reds are my favorites because of the richness of the images they can provide. The Western Wallflower below, for example, attracted my attention from the road while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This plant produces a spectacular multicolored bloom to which no mere photo can really do justice.
Although we can get away from the Texas Gulf Coast for a few days now and again during the summer, the harsh reality its that we are stuck here most of the time. The Texas Gulf Coast summer is a nice mix of hurricanes, blistering sun and drought, and floods. And staying happy in the field at this time of year requires flexibility, a sense of humor, and the capacity to remain interested in a wide variety of photographic subjects—many times not including birds.
From time to time, I’ll be going through old images when I suddenly discover something I overlooked or misinterpreted in the field. For example, I remember photographing the scruffy young Eastern Bluebird above because I had a hard time figuring out what the heck it was (until I saw another one in better plumage!).
I also remember being perplexed about why it was gathering nesting materials in November—normally that sort of thing should end around July or August. I probably just scratched my head and chalked it up to Texas and our subtropical climate. Birds here in the swelter zone can sometimes breed outside their usual temperate region breeding seasons.
But upon re-inspection of the image (I’m sure I chimped my settings in the field!) all is revealed: There are no nesting materials, but rather a twiggy-looking meal, namely a praying mantis! This has happened a few times now with mantids and phasmids, so it’s something to watch out for. Sometimes birds with sticks (apparently) actually have walking sticks!
Having images to study hours or months later allows for testing your notions of what you saw in the field and to even make brand new discoveries ex post facto. The Clapper Rail above, for example, was hunting along the margin of the water at ANWR last winter. I could tell that the bird was grabbing small fish and what looked like leeches. I have seen and photographed waders and other water birds eating leeches. Upon closer inspection of the images, though, it looks like this Clapper Rail has a big juicy planarian its beak—a first sighting for me.
On the other hand, I know that I see less overall in the field in the first place when I am photo-birding, rather than binocular birding. Just like the old joke where the guy is looking under the street light for his lost keys because this is where the light is best, it’s sometimes tempting to photo-bird only where the light is good. I have caught myself ignoring movement in gloomy or brushy areas simply because I knew that I couldn’t get a decent shot. So, in this case, contrary to the quote above, photography can help birders not to see.
On a final note, Brazos Bend State Park re-opened July 8, and I was among the first members of the public to return post-flood. During the first half-hour there, I could feel the stress of life melt away. My general impression, though, is that there were not as many birds around as usual. I suspect that ground-nesting species of birds were drowned out. On the other hand, the mosquito and gnat populations were certainly healthy, as was the frog population. Perhaps the waders will rediscover the park and its bonanza of amphibians.
Most interesting to me was that the Prairie Trail looked different from usual as regards summer wildflowers. A few regulars were around like widow’s tears, but what struck really me was the profusion of partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). This common legume is native to most of the eastern U.S. and is known to thrive in disturbed areas, such as those recently burned, and apparently recently flooded. It will be interesting to document how quickly the park returns to its former glory.
My favorite bird photos document apparently undisturbed behavior. There is a big element of luck in obtaining such photos as birds tend to spook and stop whatever they’re doing by the time you’re close enough to get a decent shot. You can stack the odds a bit in your favor by modifying your own behavior. Wearing camouflage, making only slow, deliberate, and tangential movements can help. Also, pretending to ignore the bird and not making direct eye contact can squeeze a few extra feet from those all-important minimum approach distances.
The most fun to be had in bird photography is when the birds are so wrapped up in their world that they ignore you completely. Reddish Egrets, for example, will sometimes start running around willy-nilly in a hunting frenzy that alternates between a staggering postmodernist dance and canopy hunting. Raptors, however, seem to never zone out, and with their incredible senses always seem minutely aware of your every movement. They may continue doing their thing, but they clearly never forget that you are there.
On a different note, in between recent avian sightings, I’ve been working on macro technique, especially approaches to flash. Despite having a built-in diffuser, our Sigma macro ring flash (in many ways a piece of junk), which often works well on dull surfaces, tends to be too contrasty and produces excessively bright highlights on shiny surfaces. As a result, I’ve been experimenting with other set-ups, including Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce and Vello Softbox flash diffusers for our Canon 600EX-RT flashes. Reports to follow.
Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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.
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.
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?
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 . . . .
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The weather has been trending toward the pleasant lately, but has still often been a bit too warm (and buggy) by mid-day to really enjoy seeking and shooting birds all day long (Uh-oh! We’ll have to stop for a pint and a brat at the Wurst Haus!). We have been taking every opportunity, though, to get out (mostly to the coast and Brazos Bend) and be productive. October 19 was the first genuinely perfect day of the fall. Nice from start to finish, dry with cool breezes and creamy, beautiful light all day long. What a day to forget about your cares and let your blood pressure return to normal!
Last Weekend, after hearing reports of Wood Storks flying over Brazos Bend State Park toward the coast, we visited Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. The mosquitos were prodigious in number so we drove the Auto Loop, using the truck as a mobile photo blind. We employed a little trick we learned on the web: pool noodles, cut to length, split to the center and slipped over a half-rolled-down window served as nice supports for the barrels of our super telephoto lenses. Sometimes Elisa rode around in the bed of the pick-up while I drove and shot through my window . . . but no storks.
During a brief visit to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, we found surprisingly few birds, but the beautiful grounds offered many opportunities for macrophotography of flowers and arthropods, especially spiders. Brazos Bend State Park, too, has been a rich hunting ground for spiders lately, with several species of large orb-weavers being very much in evidence.
I was also happy to discover that the thick layer of reeking seaweed that has been blanketing East Beach, Galveston has finally rotted down to the consistency of scattered coffee grounds. As a result, a favorite birding spot is livable again. For the first time, I saw a Reddish Egret do the Snowy Egret thing—wave a foot back and forth underwater to spook up prey.
In the near future we plan to continue our hunt for migratory shorebirds and songbirds. And Wood Storks remain on the target bird list. Hmmmm . . . San Bernard NWR?
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.—Andrew Wyeth
I’ve been looking forward to putting this post together since I took these photos on the first day of fall this year. I just love it when all the tumblers fall in place and I capture an interaction that tells a story. I was camped out along the banks of Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park watching Purple Gallinules methodically turning over what seemed like each and every lotus leaf in their paths. Grab; step; fold; hold. Grab; step; fold; hold. Again and again, they applied the technique as they criss-crossed back and forth across the carpet of lotus leaves. I assumed they were hunting but, for what? Strangely enough they ignored the aquatic snails conspicuously stuck to the undersides of the overturned lily pads. The snails looked pretty good to me, and snails are on the typical Purple Gallinule menu – along with seeds, insects, crustaceans, fish, eggs, and marsh bird nestlings (!) – but they passed on the snails. Not even a “no thank you” helping. It wasn’t until I was able to look at my photos closely that I was able to identify the special of the day – aquatic leaf beetles.
Over a period of about an hour and a half, I captured 17 unique predator-prey interactions and nine of those involved Donacia, the aquatic leaf beetle. Two involved fish and the remaining four menu items – unidentified. This juvenile Purple Gallinule found its beetles either sandwiched between overlapping lotus leaves or nestled within enrolled emergent lotus leaves. I also saw the gallinule peek inside the rolled up leaves presumably checking for beetles before ripping a small hole in the side to extract the snack. (I’ll post that series later.)
I have noticed a large up-tick in the number of Green Darners (Anax junius) around the Texas Gulf Coast. This no surprise as Green Darners migrate from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Panama during the fall. The details of Green Darner migration across North America are sketchy, but many millions fly south during fall with their avian predators. Why some Green Darners migrate and others stay put is a mystery, but the north-south migration is intergenerational as the reproductive adult typically only lives for an estimated 4-7 weeks. On an individual basis, telling a migrant from a resident is generally not possible.
For a bird photographer, the waxing and waning of abundance of adults of different dragonfly species means that I get to shoot birds preying on different species of dragonflies throughout the spring, summer, and fall. For dragonflies, it seems likely that emergence (molting into the flying adult from the aquatic larval form) and mating are two times of special vulnerability to avian predation. In the case of the former, the dragonfly must sit motionless on vegetation for hours while the wings extend and harden. In the latter case, the male and female insects are attached, thus presenting a larger and slower target for predatory birds.
In any case, such temporal variation in prey abundance adds a fascinating dimension to nature photography . . . .
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!
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!
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.
“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