Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
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
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. –Plutarch
This week on Galveston, Common Loons could be seen in many stages of transitional plumage. Every bird looked slightly different. All the birds I saw had some degree of spotting on the wings, and so lacked the brown, scalloped pattern of nonbreeding wing plumage. I saw one bird with a shaggy mane of pin feathers (Thanks to S.M. for pointing out this bird!) and one bird in almost complete breeding colors—only a stray feather here or there needed to be pigmented.
Many birds were engaged in hunting behavior much of the time. I saw fish, crabs, and a single mantis shrimp (Squilla empusa) being taken. This is clearly the time of year to be gorging and fattening up. It’s a long way back to Canada and environs for the breeding season! A good deal of preening was also going on, likely related to molting and keeping feathers in shape for the big trip ahead. Two birds had already pair-bonded and spent a significant amount of time together–another reminder that breeding in birds is often a process that unfolds in many stages over much of the year.
Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.
Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.
So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.
Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.
Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.
So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.
It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik
On the Texas Gulf Coast, birders can see Black-bellied Plovers in all plumage types, except down. Nonbreeding colors are easiest to see here, and in other coastal wintering areas from the Canadian border to South America on both East and West coasts. Although a few birds summer along the Texas Gulf Coast, Black-bellied Plovers breed exclusively in the High Arctic, so seeing nestlings in down would be a major undertaking.
Birds in transitional plumage can be seen during spring migration. Beginning in late March, birds in these intermediate colors can be seen fairly easily at such places as Frenchtown Road, Rollover Fish Pass, and across Galveston Island. By May, birds in dramatic breeding plumage can be seen in these same places. From mid-August to October, Black-bellied Plovers appear again in Texas for fall migration, and to begin their winter residence.
When we first started birding, different seasonal plumages seemed to be a nightmarish complication to an already challenging hobby. But we have grown an appreciation for these changes: Rather than seeing them as an identification problem, we consider them an opportunity. Even common birds like Black-bellied Plovers can provide the challenge of seeing and photographing birds in every plumage type.
Synopsis: Human-introduced exotic plants and animals are all around us, and many of them are doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s sometimes hard not to notice them while out photo-birding. The proliferation of these organisms can be troubling to nature lovers, particularly eco-purists. Are these foreign organisms adversely affecting our native plants and wildlife? And if so, how badly? Are some helpful to our native species? Certainly some, like bottlebrush, are helpful to the bird photographer! Whatever your stance on exotics, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is treat them as just another opportunity to experience new species in the wild—even if they are out of place. In this talk, Chris Cunningham will share images of some frequently encountered exotic species and discuss their place in our native landscape. (Note: If this topic is too upsetting, Chris and Elisa will share and some images of native wild birds from their most recent outings to West Texas, the Coastal Bend, and central New Mexico, too!)
Time and Place: 7:00 PM, January 18, 2017 at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston TX 77079. For additional details, please see the Houston Audubon HANPA website.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it . . . . —Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
This is the time of year for sporadic frustrations. The unpredictable weather, sometimes nice, sometimes oppressive and freakishly warm, can easily become an excuse for doing nothing. Witnessing the saddening, nit-witted babbling of the media during the current silly season of politics doesn’t inspire great energy, either.
The birds and other organisms, however, are still out there and waiting to be observed and photographed! Biologically, there is quite a bit going on along the Texas Gulf Coast these days: Lately we haven’t been disappointed by East Beach or Fiorenza Park.
Our field work is undoubtedly the healthiest thing we do. It is a tragedy when nature lovers sit out a day in the field because of the malaise or exhaustion brought on by our absurdist era or the fear (or revulsion) of traffic jams and hordes of yahoos. This realization is why we drag ourselves out of bed early, even on our days off. We almost never regret getting out there, even if we had to talk ourselves into it in the first place!
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?
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.