When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer
As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .
As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.
For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.
But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.
After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.
I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.
Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.
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
Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
Last week we didn’t see many Neotropical migrant songbirds. The weather was incredible . . . but maybe that was the problem. With crystal clear skies and a consistent wind out of the south, i.e. a tailwind, the trans-Gulf migrants may have simply blown past the Coast and the usual migrant traps. What’s good for birds, is bad for birders.
What’s more, dry weather means that there haven’t been many arthropods around other than caterpillars and a few flies, mosquitos, dragonflies, and spiders. So there really hasn’t been much of a reason for birds to stop if exhaustion or thirst wasn’t a problem. At Lafitte’s Cove on 4/8 I saw a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and one vireo or warbler (I saw only a creamy yellow underside through the canopy)—a terrible showing for April at a Gulf Coast migrant trap.
Some stormy weather moved into the Gulf Coast throughout this week. On Tuesday (4/11), for example, a major front swept down mid-day and looked the perfect set-up for a fallout. Sadly, I watched the atmospherics on radar from work, trapped and unable to get into the field. But yesterday (4/14) was also bad at Lafitte’s Cove. I only saw a few hummers, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a Bronze-headed Cowbird, and a White-eyed Vireo. In addition to these, Elisa saw two Tennessee Warblers. Not great.
In any case, hope springs eternal, and we’ll give the Coast the old college try again this weekend! One of these days . . . .
Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson
As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.
Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.
Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!
On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .
Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!
It’s very far away,
It takes about half a day,
To get there, if we travel by my, uh . . . dragonfly—Jimi Hendrix, “Spanish Castle Magic”
Well, it finally happened. After five brutal months, the first cool front of fall 2016 arrived. And we returned to the field. In just a few weeks’ time, I found that my photography skills had atrophied a bit, but in an hour or two I was getting some nice shots again. On Saturday, I visited Lafitte’s Cove and found Prothonotary, Palm, and Magnolia Warblers, a lot of Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, and mosquitos without number.
On Sunday, we visited Brazos Bend State Park and observed a flood-disrupted ecosystem. Major portions of 40-acre, Pilant, and Elm Lakes were covered with invasive water hyacinth, and hunting waders, the birds we love to see most at the park, were nearly absent. Here and there, large patches of dead hyacinth revealed where park employees had sprayed herbicide. At both Lafitte’s Cove and BBSP, the real story was about arthropods, though, and at BBSP we spent an extended visit with naturalist friend and park volunteer R.D., from whom we learned more about spiders and dragonflies.
Along the tower trail at BBSP we saw many golden silk orb-weaver spiderwebs. In many webs, entrapped prey and fallen leaves could be seen. We observed several instances of spiders cutting leaves free from their webs. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon we observed was dewdrop spiders stealing food from the web of their host. Dewdrop spiders are kleptoparasites of the Genus Argyrodes. Although some researchers have questioned whether or not dewdrop spiders were harmful to the orb-weavers (and therefore not parasites), recent studies have documented that the host spiders suffer nutritionally and must repair damage to webs caused by the small spiders as they remove entangled prey. Apparently spiders take better care of webs that theythemselves spin!
The green darner (Anax junius) migration was in full swing, the air filled with millions of these large dragonflies, many mating. Lots of other dragonfly species were zipping around, too. Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), many also coupling, even seemed to predominate at Lafitte’s Cove. Dragonflies are an important food source for birds, and I have seen several species of waders (Snowy and Cattle egrets, and Little Blue and Green Herons) and one species of warbler (Prothonotary) eat them at BBSP.
Although dragonflies seem to be a favorite food among birds, orb-weaver spiders seem not to be. Big, juicy spiders sit right out in the open while predatory birds typically operate all around them. The orb-weavers would certainly be easier to catch than a dragonfly. Perhaps the arachnids taste bad. I have heard anecdotally, though, that during drought years the orb-weavers essentially disappear from the park. Does this mean that birds will eat them if they get hungry enough? Other possibilities do exist (like humidity-sensitive fungal infections of spiders or eggs), but the report is certainly food for thought.
When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.
At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!
Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg
Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.
Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).
As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.
As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.
Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. –John Muir
I think of migrant traps as the first quality habitat, usually on barrier islands, visible to birds after their epic flights across the Gulf of Mexico during the spring migration. In fall, these places are the last chance to drink up and fatten up before chasing the sun south for the winter. The best migrant traps have food, water, and cover—the essentials of life for birds. Cover usually means trees, and most of the best and most famous migrant traps are mottes, slightly elevated areas with trees on an otherwise low-lying and exposed mixture of land- and sea-scape. In this new article, I discuss findings and birding adventures in some of our favorite migrant traps from Alabama to the Coastal Bend of Texas.
Love me or hate me, both are in my favor . . . If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart . . . If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.—unknown (often falsely attributed to William Shakespeare)
Despite having developed a love-hate relationship with the place, over the past month or so we’ve taken every opportunity to get down to Lafitte’s Cove for the spring migration. On a good day, this sanctuary is hard to beat, but getting there has become oppressive, and once there, the crowds can make functioning as a wildlife photographer next to impossible. Tour groups have begun to show up at Lafitte’s Cove, and with mobs of twenty-plus people ambling down narrow paths you’re not getting much work done.
The love: On April 9, we visited Lafitte’s Cove and saw American Redstart, Black and White, Hooded, Kentucky, Blue-winged, and Worm-eating Warblers along with Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos. Thrushes were common: We saw and identified the Veery and Wood Thrush, although Swainson’s Thrushes were also likely present. These recent encounters revealed a truth: Thrushes (along with Ovenbirds) represent a photographic challenge I’ve not yet mastered. Birds of this sort hop around and probe for food in nooks and crannies of the the dark understory and, at best, appear in broken light only . . . They are tough subjects.
April 23 was a good day at the Cove. We saw many birds including Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian Warblers. Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were also around. The following morning was a bust, though. The sky was a blown-out white, and the birds were in hiding. At one point, a Golden-winged and Blackburnian Warbler flew right over my head, but disappeared immediately into the brush and sky, respectively, never to be seen again . . . .
The hate: Construction on I-45 between Houston and Galveston has been going on at least since the early 90’s when I arrived in Texas. Construction is now permanent and creates catastrophic, hellish traffic jams from which there is no escape.
On our last trip back (April 24) from Lafitte’s Cove, I noticed a sign that read: HIGHWAY CLOSED AHEAD. It took a minute for that to sink in. It’s simply not possible to close I-45 without warning, is it? It would be apocalyptic. We had just traveled the same highway south a few hours before, and there was no indication of impending doom. In a matter of minutes we were in a sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic that stretched as far as the eye could see. Luckily we just barely managed to exit, and with Elisa deftly navigating with her smart phone we found ourselves on side streets (also jammed with cars). At one point I glanced up to find I was crossing Kobayashi Road. My mind reeled. Apparently I was about to face my own Kobayashi Maru scenario. Looking both ways for Klingon battle cruisers, I drove on . . . . .
Despite being only 45 miles from our house, the only solution to the current Lafitte’s Cove logistics nightmare, I fear, is to treat the sanctuary as if were a far-away destination. We must drive down in the wee hours, book a room for a few days (at inflated Galveston prices), and then drive back in the wee hours. Expletive deleted.
For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.–D. H. Lawrence
Plants of the Australian Genus Melaleuca (also sometimes referred to as “Callistemon”), the twenty-five to fifty or so species of bottlebrush (depending on author), are widely used around the world in Tropical and Subtropical gardens and have naturalized in a few places as well, where freezes are not too hard or often.
Few plants are as attractive to birds as the bottlebrush tree. When you see bottlebrush flowers on the Gulf Coast during migration, stop and linger. Here, bottlebrush are usually the crimson-flowered variety (although I have seen the white and green kinds) and are often buzzing with hummingbirds and songbirds. Warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles seem to be especially drawn to these flowers.
Bottlebrush flowers have a number of attractive features. They are reported to produce copious nectar and pollen. Some birds feeding on the flowers are covered in pollen and may have heads and faces stained with yellow pollen and/or nectar. Although in most cases birds probably only acquire minimal additional nutritional benefit from pollen, the nectar must be a welcome burst of calories after a daunting trans-gulf flight.
Bottlebrush trees also attract nutritious insects, ants especially. I have seen Scarlet Tanagers, well-known as bee-feeding specialists, plucking bees off the flowers, too. A have read reports of Australian parrots feeding on buds, but I’ve not witnessed any similar bird behavior in the U.S.
So what do the Bottlebrush Trees get in return from the birds? Short answer: pollination. Nectar-hungry birds deliver pollen grains from the anthers of flowers onto the stigmas of others thus fertilizing the plants.
Finally, I am not generally a fan of exotic plants in the landscape. Exotics reportedly do not support the diversity of insect life that is so critical to maintaining healthy bird populations. Bottlebrush is a tough call, though. Covered in birds and bugs, these glorious plants provide an oasis for birds and birders alike.