native plants

An Early Morning Walk in the (Fiorenza) Park

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head . . . .–Summer in the City, Lovin’ Spoonful

The Golden Hour, Fiorenza Park, West Houston. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
The Golden Hour, Fiorenza Park, west Houston. An inconspicuous red-eared turtle spies on two Mottled Ducks as they glide past. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). If you arrive around 7 AM, you can watch the edge of illuminated water slowly track across the lake. Photo taken from ground pod. Natural light.

It’s taken about two weeks to get back into the field after our return from Alaska. After living two weeks around 38º F, the prospect of being out when it’s near 38º C hasn’t sounded too inviting. But this week I took advantage of a so-called “cold front” and visited Fiorenza Park in west Houston. While trying to photograph fishing cormorants and waders from my ground pod by the bridge, a fellow traveler (JD) told me that a Bald Eagle was perched on a snag on the other side of the park. Ultimately I saw no eagle, but while walking to the snag I came upon a family of Loggerhead Shrikes–two young and a parent.

Loggerhead Shrike Fledgling, Firoenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Loggerhead Shrike Fledgling on Sycamore Sapling, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Adult Loggerhead Shrike on Cypress Tree, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Adult Loggerhead Shrike on Cypress Sapling, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Luckily, I was able to observe the adult hunting insects in the grass as well as begging and feeding behaviors. On this visit, I found the colors of the trees, especially the small ones, to be quite rich and beautiful–almost autumn-like. Of course, the rich colors are the result of heat stress, and these small trees have begun the slow process of being baked to death under a brutal Texas sun. But, the return of rains mid-week may have ended the dying time for this summer . . . .

Adult Loggerhead Shrike Feeding Fledgling, Firoenza Park, west Houston, Texas
Adult Loggerhead Shrike with Begging Fledgling on Heat-stressed Cedar Elm(?), Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
A Pair of Begging Loggerhead Shrike Fledglings with Parent, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas
A Pair of Begging Loggerhead Shrike Fledglings with Parent, Fiorenza Park, west Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 5DIII/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.

Oregon Coast Naturalist Adventures: Part 2

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. –William Blake

White True Foxglove (Digitalis sp.), Harris Beach State Park, Oregon
White Common Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Harris Beach State Park, Oregon. In Oregon, Common Foxglove ranges in color from pure white to pale lavender to the more common and familiar deep burgundy-pink. This plant is an exotic invasive introduced from Eastern Europe, possibly for medicinal purposes. The plant is highly toxic and the source of the cardiac drug digitalis. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

The southern Oregon Coast has to be considered one of the great botanical treasures of the country. In late spring, sometimes bordering on Majorelle, the surrounding wild profusion of plant diversity can be overwhelming, forcing the photographer to be choosy. It would take a lifetime to truly appreciate Oregon’s botany.

Bearberry Honeysuckle, Azalea Park, Brookings, Oregon
Bearberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata), Azalea Park, Brookings, Oregon. Hummingbirds love this plant. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

As a birder it often pays to know your plants. Azalea Park in Brookings could be the poster child for the debate over natives versus exotics. This spectacular little city park is loaded with exotics and cultivars and contains few natives. Our Falcon Guide for Oregon indicated that this park is frequented by Rufous, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds during summer.

After combing the park and seeing almost no birds whatsoever, Elisa finally located one native bearberry honeysuckle on the margin of the park. The tubular yellow flowers are a magnet for the hummers, and we quickly spotted Rufous and Allen’s(?) Hummingbirds. The only other interesting bird we spotted in the park was a single Chestnut-backed Chickaee—and this we sighted less than 10 feet from the bearberry, too! Message? If you want wildlife, then plant some natives! It’s just that simple!

Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Azeala Park, Brookings, Oregon
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Azeala Park, Brookings, Oregon. Except for the Mexican Chickadee, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee has a rather narrow distribution compared with other chickadees, primarily along the Pacific Coast from southern California to Alaska. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
A Pelagic Cormorant Gathers Nesting Materials, Yaquina Head, Oregon
A Pelagic Cormorant Gathers Nesting Materials, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Oregon. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite the spectacular scenery and huge breeding colonies of Common Murres and other seabirds, we both felt that the “routine birding” on the southwest Oregon Coast was a little disappointing—even after visiting every type of habitat from tidal mudflats to rocky coasts to redwood forests. One of the great advantages of traveling to bird is that what’s common in your travel destination may be new to the traveler.

But most of the places we went simply were not that birdy. We saw much of what was “supposed” to be there, but only one or two individuals. We saw a Black Oystercatcher here, and a Whimbrel there. We saw one Red Crossbill. We saw no American Dippers, even in appropriate habitat—unless dippers are no longer interested in rocky mountain streams within their range. Huge tracts of apparently perfect habitat were almost devoid of birds. No rails. No mergansers. One Killdeer. American Goldfinches in huge flocks of . . . um, three. Two Harlequin Ducks, and so on.

At one point, Elisa was so perplexed about the absence of waders (we saw one Great Blue Heron and two Great Herons in a week) she probed the mud to see if there were invertebrates to be eaten or to provide food for fish, and there were plenty. Perhaps we’ve become spoiled by Texas, or perhaps the Oregon Coast, like many areas of the country, have suffered huge losses in the bird population sizes. We suspect the latter.

Encrustaceans: mussels, barnacles, limpets, Oregon
Encrustations: Mussels, Barnacles, Limpets on Basalt, Oregon Coast. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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

Birds and Bottlebrush Flowers: A Love Story

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.–D. H. Lawrence

Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Male Cape May Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

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.

Male Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Daupin Island, Alabama
Male Prothonotary Warbler on Bottlebrush Tree Flower, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Note the dark staining on the forehead—a result of being smeared with nectar? Only some of the Prothonotary Warblers at this site had the dark brownish/reddish staining, despite Tennessee and Cape May Warblers also feeding here. Perhaps the Prothonotary Warblers got into some other species of flower before visiting the bottlebrush? Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

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.

Young Male Orchard Oriole, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Young Male Orchard Oriole on Bottlebrush Tree, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Female Scarlet Tanager, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Female Scarlet Tanager on Bottlebrush Tree, Catholic Cemetery, Dauphin Island, Alabama. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

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.

Male Indigo Bunting on Bottlebrush, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Young Male Indigo Bunting on Bottlebrush Tree, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Note the yellow pollen on this bird’s face and head. Birders can sometimes be heard arguing in the field about identifications based on “yellow faces!” Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Birds and Wildflowers: Spring Break 2016

Life stands before me like an eternal spring with new and brilliant clothes.–Carl Friedrich Gauss

Female Great Horned Owl, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
Female Great Horned Owl on Nest, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. This wild bird has selected a brick planter to nest in for the past six years. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Before the vegetation of the region becomes a burnt offering to the terrible sun god, Huitzilopochtli, I highly recommend making a visit to Central Texas for the spectacular wildflower show. Those of stout enough heart to brave the Death Race 2000-like conditions on the highways in the Austin area will find a real treat in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. But go early in the day, as by 10am there are squadrons of bonneted, wildflower-obsessed infants in their strollers being pushed by tenders.

Wild Foxglove, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
Wild Foxglove (Penstemon cobaea), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. This plant is not related to true foxglove. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.
Gray Globemallow, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
Gray Globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. A native of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, this plant reportedly explodes in numbers after wet winters. I’ve never seen it in the wild. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

A few birds were singing and flitting about the wildflower center when visited. These were mostly common species, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, and Northern Mockingbird—and, of course, the Great Horned Owl above. A few Black-chinned Hummingbirds were also drinking nectar from autumn sage.

While at the center, I practiced some standard botanical macrophotography. The great thing about the center is the diversity of plants from a wide range of habitats across Texas. Many species are labeled, enabling the visitor to easily learn a few more Texas native plants. There are some unusual (and photogenic) species that I’ve never seen in the wild, despite having spent quite a bit of time outdoors attentive to such matters.

Mexican Buckeye, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
Mexican Buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.
Indian Paintbrush, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

The visit to the Wildflower Center was a nice tonic after questing after, but not seeing, the elusive Golden-Cheeked Warbler. On the past two visits to the Lost Maples State Natural Area in previous years, we successfully heard and saw the singing male birds. Not being up for such a long trek this spring break, we visited the Travis Audubon Baker Sanctuary instead. But alas, no warblers. Maybe next time.

For the rest of spring break 2016, we’ll stick close to home and see what the local critters are up to.

Pulmonate Land Snail, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Pulmonate Snail, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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

A Birding Comedy of Errors

Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.–William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

Female Boat-tailed Grackle with Orthopteran, Piland Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Female Boat-tailed Grackle with Orthopteran (Conehead Katydid), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Birding is something I do alone, with Elisa, or with very small groups of people—so the impact and embarrassment of personal screw-ups has been limited. Field blunders have ranged from the minor (like calling a female Orchard Oriole a Prothonotary Warbler in front of the late Steve Gross) to silly, like hustling out the woods in grizzly country feeling like I was being hunted only to decide that it was all in my head! Probably.

In the imagination-getting-the-better-of-oneself scenario, a week or so ago I was on the levee between 40-acre and Pilant Lake when I heard a loud rustling coming from the rice on the edge of Pilant Lake. Whatever it was sounded big—and it sounded like there were several somethings. Would I see a row of feral pigs? Otters? Raccoons? Otters would be great! This could be exciting! A similar thing had happened before and a bobcat had poked its head out less than five yards in front of me!

So I fiddled with my gear in eager anticipation . . . when who popped out? A group of the noisiest grackles on the planet emerged from the vegetation, and they had nesting materials in their beaks. At least I got a few shots of that, I thought disappointedly. Later, while reviewing the images, I realized that it was not nesting materials that they had, but straw-colored katydids! The birds must have been in a line to flush out the insects. Without knowing it, I had likely observed avian cooperative hunting. I have seen Cattle Egrets doing much the same thing. So much for otters.

Male American Goldfinch (Nonbreeding) placking seeds, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male American Goldfinch (Nonbreeding) Plucking Seeds, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm F/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

In the not-knowing-what-you’re-looking-at scenario, last week I was watching American Goldfinches chiseling into stems of an unidentified plant and plucking out tiny somethings. That’s weird, I thought, what could these birds be getting out of stems? Later, I brought up the question to a naturalist friend, and he quickly offered that insects had possibly infested the stems and the birds were simply fishing them out. But later while reviewing the images trying to identify the “insects,” I realized that the stems were not stems at all, but rather dried-out elongated seed pods, and the birds were (unsurprisingly) simply eating seeds! The whole conversation about insects in stems was like the Peanuts episode when Lucy and  Linus wonder about how potato chips could migrate from Brazil (after misidentifying a potato chip as a beautiful yellow butterfly).

In my own defense, once in a while I see something unusual enough that I don’t feel silly when I misinterpret it. I remember photographing the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron below and feeling sorry that the poor animal had a growth on its lower bill. A few years later, while sifting through the archives I noted that it was not a growth, but rather a gar tooth that was protruding from the bill. The bird must have been hunting in the water when a gar bit it through the lower jaw. In the ensuing struggle, the tooth must have broken off.

Finally, this post reminds me of a question I often pose to myself: Do I see more when I am out photographing or when I am binocular birding? I’m pretty sure that I see more with binoculars alone because I’m not worrying about light, perspective, and so on. But then again, without images to check what I’ve been seeing, how do I really know that what I’ve been looking at it is what I thought I was looking at?

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with lower jaw pierced by gar tooth, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with Lower Jaw Pierced by Gar Tooth, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Shooting Macro while Birding Quintana, Texas in Late Fall

Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.–Paul Dirac

Mexican Turk's Cap, Quintana, Texas
Giant Mexican Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus penduliflorus), Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas. Hummingbird nectar plant, Mexican native. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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.

Shrimp plant, Quintana, Texas
Burgundy Shrimp Plant (Justicia brandegeena), Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas. Hummingbird nectar plant, Mexican native. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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 . . . .

Cape Honeysuckle, Quintana, Texas
Bee Emerging from Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas. Not a true honeysuckle, but rather a bignonia. Hummingbird nectar plant, South African native. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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.

Lantana, Quintana, Texas
Lantana camara(?), Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas. Naturalized in Texas. Butterfly magnet, hummingbird nectar plant, too. Canon EOS 7DII/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized macro ring-flash.

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

‘Tis the Season for Vegetable Foods

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.–Henry David Thoreau

A Gray Squirrel Munches Maple Seeds, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) Munches Ashleaf Maple (Acer negundo) Seeds, near Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Gray Squirrels subsist mainly on seeds and nuts, but also eat a variety of animal foods including bird eggs, amphibians, and insects. It’s fairly common to see Texas tree squirrels munching on cicadas when they’re around. Some references also report cannibalism. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Frequent readers of this blog may know that I prize images of birds struggling with prey above all others. But sometimes the birds and mammals of the marsh and forest, either through preference or requirement, dine on plant foods—especially during the colder part of the year when insects and other arthropods are less abundant.

A Swamp Sparrow Plucks Seeds from a Plant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
A Swamp Sparrow Plucks Seeds from an Unidentified Plant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Swamp Sparrows eat mostly grasshoppers during the warm months and seeds during the winter. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

It’s sometimes a challenge to identify animal prey items seized by birds and other animals. Plant foods are often even more of a challenge—unless the meal is something easy like hackberries, tallow seeds, privet fruits, maple seeds, and so on. Sometimes birds are munching seeds or buds of what I (as no botanist) consider fairly nondescript, difficult to identify plants. The fact that there are so many invasive species around these days only complicates the task. I will often make attempts at identification, but these are often frustrated by constraints of time and available references—but it’s fun to try!

An American Coot Forages for Aquatic Plants, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
An American Coot Forages for Aquatic Plants, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Coots are primarily herbivores, but like many birds and small mammals, they will eat small animal prey (mostly mollusks and arthropods) and carrion. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm 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.

Shooting Macro Off in the Weeds

He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson

Orb-weaver, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Garden Spider (Orb-weaver), Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Argiope aurantia typically builds webs in protected areas on the edge of open spaces. This one built her web out on the prairie. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

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.

Cloudless Sulphur, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae), Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Western Wallflower, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Western Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum), Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

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

Birding and Photo-birding

Photography helps people to see.–Berenice Abbott

Eastern Bluebird with Praying Mantis, Jones State Forest, Texas
Scruffy-looking Molting Eastern Bluebird with Praying Mantis, W. G. Jones State Forest, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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!

Clapper Rail with Planarian (flatworm), Anuhuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Clapper Rail with Planarian (Flatworm), Anuhuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Texas. Note the worm’s triangular head poking out about half-way up the beak. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Partridge-pea, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Partridge-pea, Prairie Trail, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

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.

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

Birding the Slow Stretches

Young Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Young Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Birds this young utilize different hunting techniques than fully adult birds and show vestiges of their striped juvenile plumage. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Young female Ring-billed Duck, east pond, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
A Lone Young Female Ring-necked Duck, east pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. A white ring on the bill has just started to appear. Gentle paddling produced a subtle wake of crescents. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Spotted Sandpiper in nonbreeding plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Spotted Sandpiper in Non-breeding Plumage, Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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?

Widow's tears, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Widow’s tears (Commelina sp.), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. In fall, widow’s tears bloom only in the morning. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro (+25mm extension tube II). High-speed synchronized ring-flash.

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 . . . .

Variegated Meadowhawk, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum), Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Lafitte’s Cove is almost as good for dragonflies as it is for migrating birds. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

Appreciating the Totality of Nature Through Photography

Cross Vine with Bee, Houston, Texas
Crossvine Flower (Bigonia capreolata) with Bee, Houston, Texas. Step One in appreciating a plant: Is it native? Step two: Is it a food plant for birds? Yes and yes. Crossvine is a Texas native and a source of nectar and insects for hummingbirds and other birds. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS. Hand-held with high-speed synchronized ring flash.

Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .

Neotropic Cormorant at the Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant at the “freshwater channel,” Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas. The brilliant blue eyes provide the “spot of poison” in cormorant color theory. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.

Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!

Anole confrontation at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston
Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis) fight it out! at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston. When head-bobbing and dewlap extension aren’t enough, teeth will do the trick. The lizard on the right was king of the log and bullied the other out of his kingdom. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.

Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.

Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!

Queen Butterfly on Gregg's Mistflower at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Queen Butterfly (Danaus sp.) on Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Although not ideal, super telephotos can be used to get some shots of really big bugs. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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

Photographing Cactus Flowers (Of All Things)

Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona. This small cactus grows in the shadows cast by other, larger cacti and desert plants. All images Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring flash.

In last week’s post, I noted that due to lousy weather we had been stuck indoors a lot lately contemplating future projects. One pet project I want to work on is building a collection of images of cactus flowers (and developing the skill to do it well). Currently I do shoot plants and animals other than birds when there are no birds around. Up to this point, I’ve been using our 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens for this work, but I have purchased (after reading technical reports and moping around the house for a week or two) a used 90mm Canon tilt-shift f/2.8, primarily for botanical work. I can’t wait to use it!

Tilt-shift lenses employ the Scheimpflug Principle and convert a plane of sharp of focus into a wedge, thus increasing the apparent depth of field. Shallow depth of field in macro photography, frankly, has what has prevented me from becoming really interested in “macro” work. (Note: I put macro in quotes because much of this work is not true macro, i.e. 1: 1 or greater, but rather just fairly close up using a macro lens.) Depth of field is a function of three variables: aperture (f-stop), focal length, and object distance. Super telephoto work has its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties (like heavy, bulky and expensive lenses, inordinate susceptibility to vibration, etc.), but macro has always seemed especially fussy. Dazzlingly bright light (read bright light and flash) is usually required to capture a macro image that is close enough to present enough detail to be interesting with sufficient depth of field to not look like a child took the photo. Maybe the tilt-shift will help.

Cholla flower at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona.
Stale Cane(?) Cholla Flower (Cylindropuntia sp.) at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Looking for a fun time? Check out Cylinderopuntia taxonomy.

But why cactus flowers, of all things? I must confess a special affection for desert organisms, and deserts in general. The most spectacular places I’ve ever visited are in deserts. As a child, I studied the Arizona Highways magazines at the local library and by February often dreamed of moving away from the frozen wastes of Minnesota. Cactus flowers are especially beautiful–the hummingbirds of the plant world–and I have decided that I would travel just to see and photograph them. Like hummingbirds, they are native to the New World only, and I feel lucky to be able to see and photograph them in the wild.

Up to this point, I’ve only photographed the most common species encountered while chasing birds around, and I know very little about cacti other than that the flowers are pretty and the plants grow in exotic places that I love. Getting serious about cactus flower photography would mean, of course, learning the taxonomy, ecology, and biogeography of the plants. At present this seems a daunting task . . . but it would involve trips to places like Big Bend, the Painted Desert, and . . . dozens of really, really interesting places (i.e., not Houston). Are these just the fantasies of a Dog Days of Houston shut-in? We’ll see.

Prickly Pear flower with bee at Balcones
Prickly Pear (Opuntia robusta) Flower with Bee at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Central Texas.

When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes — disease and death and the rotting of flesh.—Edward Abbey, Down the River

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