Olympic National Park

In Praise of Traveling to Bird

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.–Gilbert K. Chesterton

Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
King of the Hill: Male Mountain Bluebird on American Bison Dung, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. What a lovely spot to prospect for seeds and bugs! Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We know plenty of birders who are perfectly happy birding around the Houston area with never a thought of traveling to bird. Their birding activities often taper off by May with the end of the spring migration. We bird into the summer but by about late June, we are more than ready to say goodbye to the Texas Gulf Coast swelter (and the Summer People and their various noisemakers) and hit the road for somewhere new.

Since we started birding, summer trips are almost invariably well to the north for obvious reasons, ornithological and climatological. After a temporary lapse of reason, we once traveled to the Rio Grande Valley during summer, and we have been known to visit the deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the hot weather–usually in areas that have altitude, though. Right about this time of year I can’t help but think of General Sheridan . . . “If I owned Texas and Hell . . . .”

Common Raven with Rodent, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Common Raven with Rodent Carcass, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Yellowstone is a great birding destination, but brace yourself for hellacious crowds of yahoos. The only National Park with more outrageous mobs is Great Smokey Mountains National Park, the most visited-by-yahoos park in the country. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

National parks are prime birding destinations and our greatest national treasure, but we will also travel to state parks, national wildlife refuges, or even simply regions (hopefully desolate) of the country with a different avifauna. Sometimes we travel with the intention of seeing particular species or habitats, other times we’re perfectly open to whatever we find. Sometimes, then, we’re travelers and sometimes we’re tourists, in Chesterton’s terminology.

Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race), Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Singing Song Sparrow (Dark Western Race) on Driftwood, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The greatest danger in birding travel is to remain unchanged by it, to become part of the gawking rabble at the foot of the mountain. Think of the Sinclair Lewis’ satire of travel and travelers in The Man Who Knew Coolidge and their inability to become broadened by the experience. He must have had quite a laugh at the rubes . . . .

To avoid being an ugly birding American is to travel with purpose, general or specific, to place one’s observations from new geographies into the context of what you already know about your birds. You won’t hear a Wilson’s Warbler sing in Texas, but you will in Oregon. To complete the picture, the birder must travel because the birds do . . . .

Female Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Young Male Rufous Hummingbird, Tom Mays Unit, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. The photo-blind at Franklin Mountains is currently under construction. Perhaps it will be complete by our next visit. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2017 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Past

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust

Pileated Woodpecker, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Pileated Woodpecker in Nest Cavity, Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. In a pinch, with a little imagination and a suspension of disbelief, the Pileated Woodpecker could pass for the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker . . . Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The world is old. The world is new . . . .

Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.

Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .

Redwood Forest, southwest Oregon
Redwood Forest, Oregon Redwoods Trail, Siskiyou National Forest, southwest Oregon. This could be a scene from the Jurassic Period. The understory is mostly ferns, and the trees are conifers, Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Douglas fir. Sequoia conifers date back to the Late Jurassic Epoch. Mosses and ferns are far more ancient. The dark giant shapes slipping through the trees are sauropods. Canon EOS 7DII/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.

From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.

Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington
Spirit Guide: A Friendly Gray Jay, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.

Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama
Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama. Human habitation began in Russell Cave during the Archaic Period, around 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists think these Native Americans occupied the cave mostly during winter. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).

Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!

Cycad, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas
Cycad Fronds, Prehistoric Garden, Mercer Botanical Garden, Humble, Texas. Stare into a cycad understory today with impunity. Were it the Jurassic or Cretaceous Period, you might not like what was staring back! Canon EOS 7DII/50mm f/1.4. Natural light.

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

Planning Birding Vacations

When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.

Acorn Woodpecker with Acorn, Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker with Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) Acorn, Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Arizona. The Acorn Woodpecker is perhaps the most spectacular of the U.S. woodpeckers . . . after the Pileated Woodpecker, of course! Cave Creek Canyon is among our favorite destinations for birding vacations, and we’re always up for the 12-hour road trip there, regardless of the season. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!

The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.

I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington
Mallard Hen with Ducklings, Olympic National Park, Washington. We found this charming scene near a pond in the middle of a temperate rainforest on a summer birding vacation a few years ago. Is there anything on this planet cuter than a wild duckling? Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).

Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.

Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
In Our Own Backyard: Double-crested Cormorant, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. I’ve seen this cormorant fishing in Pilant Lake at least three times. Each time I ran after it trying to get a shot. Last week, I finally got close enough. What a spectacular animal . . . eyes like jewels, powerful, and sleek. The fish don’t stand a chance. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.


Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.

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

The Traveling Birder

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.—T.S. Eliot

Male Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon Race), Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Male Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon Race), Olympic Peninsula, Washington. This beauty was just standing around crunching sunflower seeds at a Lake Quinault Lodge feeder. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Endless weeks of gray skies and cold, dreary rain have meant not much field work of late. The birding hobby, during these times, then, becomes one of reading and poking around in our photo archives. The reading and research, naturally, turns to travel planning . . . fantasies of birding the forests of Hawaii led to a re-reading of the heartbreaking (human-caused) decimations, extirpations, and extinctions of Hawaii’s endemic birds in The Song of the Dodo and a re-perusal of Hawaii’s Birds. Is two days on Maui time enough to find an I’iwi? What about an ‘Apapane?

Young Male Lazuli Bunting, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Young Male Lazuli Bunting in Meadow, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. This colorful fellow (as well as the next two birds) was munching dandelion seeds suspiciously on a stunning meadow . . . right in front of the Old Faithful Inn. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Besides a respite from the horrors of the Houston climate, travel allows the easy finding of new birds, especially relatively human-tolerant seed eaters. Many times I have been driving through a strange place only to be thrilled by what I’m seeing at bird feeders in people’s suburban yards! Travel has the power to make seeing new species easy . . . well, easy in one sense and difficult in others. Easy in that you are within the ranges of common birds that don’t occur at home, but difficult in that you have to get somewhere new.

Cassin's Finch, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Male Cassin’s Finch with Dandelion Seed, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Travel these days is rarely a pleasant experience, especially if one has to fly commercially. Many commentators have remarked about what used to be a pleasant, civilized experience (1980’s and before) has degenerated into little more than a ride in a flying cattle car. Carrying a large amount of photographic equipment dramatically raises the stress level, too (binoculars, anyone?).

Equipment must be divvied up amongst several bags so as not run afoul of airline rules or restrictions. Normally our 500 and 600mm super telephotos live together in our Gura Gear Kiboko bag. This bag, with both lenses, weighs 31 pounds—over the carry-on weight limit for many airlines, including Hoi Polloi Airlines, the one we normally fly. I’m always apprehensive about getting bags jammed with optics and electronics through the faux airport security, and I steel myself for a possible confrontation with government apparatchiks who don’t know what the innards of a 600EX-RT are supposed to look like.

Driving isn’t much better. In 2012 over 33,000 were killed on U.S. highways (in addition to the hundreds of thousands who were merely terrorized or maimed during wrecks), but apparently no level of carnage is sufficient to make the maniacs put down their cell phones, stop boozing, and slow down. But once I’m somewhere else. . . I soon realize that the destination is worth all the fears and hassles.

Female Cassin's Finch with Dandelion, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Female Cassin’s Finch with Dandelion Head, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

 The land created me. I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I’m more at home in the vacant lots.—Bob Dylan

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

It’s a Wren Thing

Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming
Singing House Wren, Moose, Wyoming. Occurring from Canada to southern South America, House Wrens are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas. They are also one of the most aggressive small birds, vigorously defending their cavity nesting sites. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Several weeks ago it seemed as if Marsh Wrens were everywhere we were along the Upper Texas Coast. One minute they were singing, and the next they were hiding. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the Marsh Wrens disappeared completely. A week later, there were Carolina Wrens–also alternately singing and sneaking–where the Marsh Wrens had been before. House Wrens, too, should be around at this time of year, but where are they? Hiding, no doubt.

The name for the Wren Family, Troglodytidae, refers to a “creeper into holes, or cave dweller.” One can, of course, think of many examples to justify this name. The booming voices of Canyon Wrens can be heard up and down the arid canyons they inhabit. They are fun to watch as they climb up vertical cliff walls and poke around nooks, crannies, and caves. House Wrens nest in cavities, and we’ve seen Rock Wrens in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) nesting in limestone caves.

While birding the rain forests of Olympic National Park, Washington, we were treated to the incredibly loud and penetrating songs of the Winter Wren. Finding and photographing the birds was a challenge, though. These birds favor the understory vegetation among the massive fallen logs of mighty conifers. This humid, gloomy, atmospheric environment is low on light, and the birds scurried and sneaked suspiciously among the shadows when not serenading.

Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
You’ve already seen enough: A quick look over the shoulder, and then back into the marsh. Marsh Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

Be they House, Carolina, Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Marsh, or Winter, all wrens seem to have this now you-see-me, now-you-don’t personality. One minute they are singing their lungs out obliviously ten feet from the birder, the next they re scurrying and hiding.

Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Singing Cactus Wren, Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. This bird hid in a pile of brush when not singing. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Singing Carolina Wren, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of course, this contradictory behavior is the result of two competing impulses. Most of the time wrens are secretive and shy—like most birds as they try to remain inconspicuous to predators. Then the singing begins, for all the reasons songbirds sing. They have no secrets . . . from potential mates and pretenders to their kingdoms, that is.

How infinitely charming, though, when after an hour or so of playing hide-and-seek with the birder, a wren hops up onto stump or low branch and starts his aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird)! Fortississimo, if you please!

Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington
Singing in the Darkness: Winter Wren, Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.—Ayn Rand

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

Ducklings are Fun!

Mallard Duckling in Olympic National Park, Washington
Mallard Duckling in Olympic National Park, Washington. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Late spring and early summer can be a frustrating time for birding given the relatively low avian diversity, the bugs, and the traffic headaches/low-quality encounters as the Summer People emerge from their pods. But there are ducklings around! And ducklings are fun!

Several things always strike me about ducklings (besides how cute they are). First, they face some significant challenges . . . such as being on a lot of menus.

Muscovy Ducklings in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas
Muscovy Ducklings in Hermann Park, Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

I remember as a child in Minnesota being horrified to learn that muskellunge (a type of large aggressive pike known to Midwesterners as “muskies”) eat ducklings. I remember standing on a dock and staring down into the water and seeing a bunch of these black and green striped killers on a stringer and thinking no more ducklings for you! Down here in Texas it’s alligators, snapping turtles, gar . . . and rat snakes. There’s no question about it, wild ducklings live in a dangerous world.

Another striking thing about wild ducklings is that many species look so much alike. Domestic ducklings, like Call Ducklings, are often all yellow, but sometimes show a variety of black markings. Apparently being yellow with black stripes and blotches makes for a perfect duckling in a wilderness setting.

A dark-colored top (with some disruptive stripes or spots) may camouflage the ducklings from predators from above, while the brightly-colored underside may not be as visible to aquatic predators viewing them from below against the sky. In any case, a counter-shaded black and yellow pattern certainly makes for a perfectly charming wild duckling.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck family at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck Family at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike.—Andy Warhol

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

Why Birders Should Care About the Global Amphibian Crisis

Little Blue Heron with tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast.

Over the past several decades the diversity and abundance of Amphibia have declined precipitously: estimates for the amphibian extinction rate range from tens to tens of thousands of times the typical background rate of species loss. Despite conservation efforts (Amphibian Ark) and some publicity, most people I speak to are completely unaware of this catastrophic decline. Over the past decade or so, it has become clear that there are several major causes. The most important appears to be habitat loss. As freshwater swamps and marshes are drained to build the endless suburban sprawl of tract housing, and forests are bulldozed into the chippers, amphibian habitats are dwindling. Acidification of lakes and ponds, other forms of pollution, and an infectious fungal disease (chytridiomycosis), are also implicated.

American Bullfrog at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. American Bullfrogs are an abundant food source for waders along the Texas Gulf Coast. Luckily, bullfrogs appear to have resistance to chytridiomycosis.

Many think that the reason amphibians have been among the hardest hit groups in the current anthropogenic mass extinction event (the Holocene mass extinction) is because these animals have aquatic larval stages and a terrestrial or amphibious adult stage, and can be negatively impacted by changes in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments. The process of metamorphosis, which typically occurs in an aquatic environment (or at least an aqueous one–think about the bromeliad treefrog!), is biochemically sensitive. For these reasons, some refer to amphibians as the “canaries in the coal mine” of ecosystems.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Northern Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora) at Olympic National Park, Washington. In some places, the ground-cover vegetation of the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest is alive with amphibians.

As a photographer, one of my favorite subjects is hunting waders: please see Stalking the Hunters. Along with fish, crawfish, and aquatic insects, amphibians (primarily frogs and tadpoles, and to a lesser extent salamanders) form a staple of the wader diet. Other predatory birds, Loggerhead Shrikes, for example, also eat amphibians. Shrikes are fascinating birds known to kill their prey by impaling it on sharp objects, usually thorns. On one, and only one, occasion we heard what we thought was a frog call coming from above. We looked up to notice a Loggerhead Shrike on wire over a frog-filled bayou. Was this a simple case of mimicry? Or deception—trying to get a frog to divulge its location? Research turned up no mention of Loggerheads making frog calls. Shrikes are known to deceive each other away from kills with frightening false alarm calls–so they’re not above trickery. The Asian Rufous-backed Shrike is an accomplished mimic, and, of course, the Northern Mockingbird is known to mimic frog calls, but a Loggerhead Shrike? We will continue to keep our eyes and ears peeled for this phenomenon.  If we heard what what we think we heard, we hope the time a Shike’s frog-call goes unanswered never comes.

Shrike-impaled Green Tree Frog on rose thorn, Sabine Woods, Texas
Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea) on Rose Thorn. Elisa captured this macabre image of a Loggerhead Shrike-impaled tree frog at Sabine Woods, Texas Gulf Coast. The shrike had just killed this frog and a mouse, whose decapitated body was impaled on some more rose thorns and whose head was impaled on some nearby barbed wire. As soon as Elisa finished the shoot and walked away, the shrike returned and reclaimed the mouse’s head.

 © 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.