Every seed is awakened, and all animal life.–Sitting Bull
Although Sitting Bull spoke these words in the context of spring, the vitality he sensed is present throughout the year. It is this very vitality we seek through birding and nature photography.
When we can pry ourselves from the grip of work and obligation, capturing images of animals going about their business puts us back in touch with the natural world and out of touch with the annoyances of Mankind . . . .
One of our favorite photo-birding spots is open again (yay!) after being closed due to the devastation Harvey brought. The stretch from 40-acre Lake to Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park seems to have weathered the storm without too much damage–certainly less than the previous round of flooding.
Even the birding wasn’t too much off from a typical day this time of year. Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats were abundant. Northern Harriers hunted above the rice, and the air was filled with the clatter of Belted Kingfishers and the chittering of scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I apparently just missed a male Vermilion Flycatcher and a small flock of Blue-headed Vireos. All in all a nice visit to a beloved place that will likely steadily improve . . . until the next catastrophe.
There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville
The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.
The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.
Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.
In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.
All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.
Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .
I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.
In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.
Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. –Homer
The school year is winding down, and exhaustion has settled in—so we’re takin’ a break! Never fear, we’ll be back on the job in no time to share some more images and prose. We’ll have some neat nature photography projects to report on in the upcoming weeks and months–so stay tuned!
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
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!
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?
As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.
In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here . . . .
—Emily Dickinson, A Light Exists in Spring
In our travels last week, we stopped by Smith Oaks on High Island, Texas, one of the most famous birding sites on the Texas Gulf Coast. Although we saw no early migrant songbirds in the surrounding woods, the rookery was hopping with activity—the drive toward life.
Spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants filled the air. Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants shuttled back and forth with nest-building materials. Double-crested Cormorants fished in the water surrounding the rookery. Some Great Egret pairs were building nests, sitting on eggs, or rearing chicks. Neotropic Cormorants were nest-sitting, but no chicks were to be seen. A few energetic Tricolored Herons swooped past but gave no indication of intentions. Spoonbills squabbled with each other: Nesting can’t be far behind!
Great and Snowy Egrets in glorious breeding plumes (that almost doomed these species to extinction in the Gilded Age) with lores ablaze in electric colors were everywhere and revved up on hormones. Soon, the later-breeding species, Cattle Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Roseate Spoonbills, will join the frenzy. By that time, the trees will be filled with brilliant flashes of Neotropical migrant songbird plumage and the picture of spring will be complete . . . .
But, as always, predators lurk in the dark water below waiting for larger nestlings to oust smaller, weaker ones, or for birds of any age to simply make a mistake . . . .
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.–Khalil Gibran
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.
Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?—Frida Kahlo
Among extant birds, grebes have a unique method of foot propulsion. There are other foot-propelled divers, loons, for example, but these birds have significant webbing between the toes. The birds with webbed toes push themselves forward against the drag force of water. Grebes, on the other hand, have separate toes with stiff, collapsible asymmetrical lobes on each side. The lobes on the inside are larger than those on the outside. Grebes are also unusual in that their relatively short femora (thigh bones) are oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the body, and the toes beat along a complex dorso-lateral to ventro-medial path, rather than parallel to the direction of the body’s forward motion.
The traditional interpretation of how grebes paddled through the water, and the one I was taught, is that the lobes of the toes would unfold during then power stroke to provide maximum drag to push against, and fold up to reduce drag on the the recovery stroke. A more recent interpretation is that the grebe foot acts like a (slotted) hydrofoil and provides a lift force that propels the bird forward from behind (Johansson and Norberg, 2001)–physically similar to the way in which a wing allows a bird or airplane to fly. The lift hypothesis has an immediate visceral appeal to me given the asymmetrical lobes of the toes—like the vanes of a flight feather. Lift is usually explained by elementary physics textbooks as the result of the Bernoulli principle, essentially the conservation of energy for a moving fluid. This explanation is not correct quantitatively. The true explanation likely involves the most terrifying of all physics concepts . . . turbulence . . . .
As a photographer on the surface, I haven’t been able to document the strange way in which grebes move through the water. Once and a while, when conditions were right, I have been treated to a glimpse of the legs in motion as in the image below. Swimming with grebes is one more activity to add to an already lengthy bucket list.
I mentioned at the opening that grebes were unique among extant birds. Hesperornithiformes, a group of toothed Cretaceous foot-propelled diving birds, are thought to have had a method of propulsion similar to grebes and to have possessed asymmetrically lobed individual toes. On a recent visit to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, I had the opportunity to study the feet of a life-sized model of Hesperornis regalis, the largest of these Cretaceous divers from the Kansas Chalk Sea. Reading the label . . . sure enough, reconstruction supervised by Dr. L. D. Martin, my late (paleo)ornithology professor, a gifted teacher with so many fascinating stories to tell about the lives of birds. . . .
While grebe-watching, I am always interested in seeing these birds return to the surface with prey. In my experience along the Gulf Coast, Eared Grebes rarely return to the surface with prey. After dozens of dives, I have seen only one small fish clamped in a beak. This means that grebes are either remarkably unsuccessful hunters (unlikely), or that they can swallow small prey underwater (likely). Pied-billed and Least Grebes can be seen with large prey on the surface like fish, crawfish, frogs, and dragonflies. Perhaps small prey may be easily swallowed in the submarine realm, whereas large prey items may need to be manipulated into an ideal orientation in the air. In any case, grebes are certainly among the most interesting subjects for study and observation. Elisa doesn’t have to ask me twice to go grebe-watching!
Johansson, L.C., and Norberg, U. M. L. Norberg. 2001. Lift-based Paddling in Diving Grebe. The Journal of Experimental Biology204: 1687-1696.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare
l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.
Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!
Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.
This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!