Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
Huge flocks of waterfowl are one of the great spectacles of the fall and winter. Lesser Snow Geese congregate in wetlands and agricultural fields like those in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. At Anahuac, thousands of birds can dot the land and water and form swirling clouds, but we’ve only seen them from a distance, deep in the marshes or fields. Truth be told, I assumed that all the white waterfowl we’ve seen here in the past were Lesser Snow Geese. This is probably not the case.
Last Winter, on a road trip to New Mexico, we were able to get close enough to similar flocks to identify a few of the much smaller Ross’s Geese that could easily pass unnoticed. Ross’s Geese are rare visitors to Texas and New Mexico and are far fewer in number than Snow Geese, with which they have been know to interbreed.
Ross’s Geese are small and cute, with relatively stubby beaks and round domed heads, like baby animals. As a naturalist, the first word that entered my mind when I saw Ross’s Geese was neoteny. Neotenic evolution occurs when juvenile features are retained in the adult . . . .
Ross’s Geese are Arctic breeders whose lives were poorly understood until the recent past. In the 1930’s, they were thought to only number several thousand individuals. Snow Geese were in a similar predicament a few decades earlier. In recent times, though, both species have greatly expanded their numbers and now make up sizable flocks.
The standard adaptationist explanation for herds or flocks or animals is that there is safety in numbers. The chance of any individual being taken by a predator is low. A logical extension of this strategy would be to be a rare species in a much larger group of another species. Any attack by a predator on the group would most likely result in a member of the more abundant species being taken.
Could the rarity of Ross’s Geese, coupled with looking like a juvenile (and hence receiving gentler treatment from the other geese?), be a survival strategy? Every trip to the field provides more questions than answers and ample fuel for speculation.
It might well be that getting used to things up here was simply a matter of getting used to not getting used to them—but . . . .
―Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Given their alpine habits, shy ways, and (generally) restricted geographic ranges, the Rosy-Finches are among the hardest birds in North America to see. The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch has the most restricted range of the the three species that occur in the U.S. and can only be seen in southern Wyoming, central Colorado, and northern New Mexico. In warmer weather, it tends to occur only at high elevation, but descends in winter. The Black Rosy-Finch has a larger, but sill relatively restricted range within the western interior of the U.S. The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch has the widest distribution of the three species and ranges from northern New Mexico up through western Canada and Alaska, and across the Bering Strait into eastern Asia. All birds tend to be ground foragers for insects and seeds, which are often collected from the surface of snow. According to stateofthebirds.org, the Black and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are of high conservation concern, and the Gray-crowned is of high moderate concern.
Sandia Crest, a snowy mountain-top about an hour drive east of Albuquerque, is an unusual place where all three species can be seen together in small flocks during winter. A gift shop and restaurant can be found on the crest at an elevation of about 10,600 feet. Getting up the icy, winding road to the top can be a bit hairy but well worth the anxiety . . . .
And now the hard part . . . feeders on the observation platform attract the birds which typically come and go throughout the day. The nature photographers in us struggle against this idea of seeking and photographing birds baited to a place. But as birds become rarer and rarer, and time and resources are so limited . . . .
Other alpine birds like Pine Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills can also (theoretically) be seen at Sandia Crest, but we were not lucky in this regard. In addition to the Rosy-finches we saw only Stellar’s Jays, White-crowned Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos.
New Mexico is one of our favorite states to visit. Perhaps it has something to do with the romance of the prehistoric past. Some of the earliest North American cultures are named after places in New Mexico: Folsom, Clovis, and Sandia. Perhaps it is this state’s important role in the history of aerospace and nuclear technology, White Sands, Trinity . . . . To these attractions we can add a number first-rate birding sites like Sandia Crest, San Bernardo and Bosque del Apache NWR. We already have a return visit planned.
Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer
There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.
On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.
On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.
Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.
. . . the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open . . . ― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 2
One of our favorite spots to bird when in the Corpus Christi area is Sunset Lake Park. The park is located on a peninsula, Sunset Lake to the west, Corpus Christi Bay to the east. This park contains a lovely stretch of shelly beach with sandbars close to shore. Sandbars along the Texas Gulf Coast are magical places, and are often covered in flocks of pelicans, terns, gulls, waders, skimmers, and shorebirds.
On this latest visit, Royal Terns, Marbled Godwits, and Long-billed Curlews predominated. As usual now on coastal trips, we brought our tall rubber boots and were able to wade out to the sandbars, a technique we often employ at East Beach, Galveston. The simple addition of boots to your field gear will dramatically transform any birding trip to the shore. It took us a few years to figure this out—just how many college and graduate degrees do we have? Maybe not enough.
One of Chris’ favorite spots on the Coastal Bend is the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park on the south side of Corpus Christi. A shelter overlooks a stretch of beach that is often packed with ducks and waders during the colder months. This spot is great for gory hunting scenes and beauty shots of ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Redheads, and American Wigeons.
The “freshwater channel” that cuts across the northern edge of the park is another gem of a birding spot, especially for ducks. Here, the birds typically allow a close approach. Ignore the sign that says “do not pass beyond this sign.” Kidding.
Finally, we are sometimes apprehensive about having our car broken into or being mugged at Suter given the sketchy characters loitering around the parking area. It’s almost comical the way they look away when you glance in their direction. So with the caveat that you may be taking your life in your hands, we highly recommend this park!
Problem solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it. –Thomas Harris
Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 1
This Thanksgiving holiday we took the opportunity to photo-bird a few of our favorite spots along the Coastal Bend. Our first stop was Paradise Pond in Port Aransas on Mustang Island, Texas. Sitting on a perched water table, Paradise Pond is the only open source of fresh water in the area—thus making it a mecca for birds and birders. To our delight, a single Least Grebe was patrolling the pond.
Least Grebes typically feed on aquatic insects and insect larvae and also consume small fish, tadpoles, and crawfish. This grebe, though, was occasionally doing battle with large Anax junius dragonflies. Strangely, the bird would emerge from underwater out toward the middle of the pond with struggling dragonflies in its beak. At first, brain-storming in the field, we wondered if the bird was: 1) finding moribund dragonflies on the bottom and bringing them up, 2) capturing insects as they emerged from metamorphosis underwater, 3) capturing the insects as they laid eggs at the surface somewhere and then swimming underwater, 4) grabbing insects in flight and then dragging them under to drown them, or 5) grabbing dragonflies from emergent vegetation and then submarining away. During most of the time we observed, the grebe was in a high state of vigilance, and appeared to be tracking dragonflies as they zipped around.
As a sidebar, Chris encountered a bit of a photographic challenge during our study of the Least Grebe. The recent removal of the Brazilian Pepper trees to the west of the pond meant that the water in the pond had three distinct regions. Along the eastern edge of the pond, the water was shaded by vegetation and appeared dark green (images immediately above and below). The middle of the pond appeared a brilliant blue (top image), and the western part of the pond had strong glare and appeared striped gold and blue (bottom image). Images from the latter tended to look washed out. As the grebe patrolled looking for dragonflies, it crossed into the three types of water, thus requiring constant chimping to keep exposure correct.
After several hours of observation, Elisa finally saw the bird picking dragonflies and damselflies from emergent vegetation after approaching from underwater—one question answered! Soon after that, Chris and Elisa both saw a spectacular hunting display: a pair of autumn meadowhawk dragonflies was flying in tandem across the surface of the pond when the Grebe erupted from under the water, lunged toward the insects, and took a snap at them! So we did learn that Least Grebes will attempt to snatch dragonflies from mid-air.
After our return home, we spent Sunday morning binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). There, we spoke with naturalist and friend R.D. who told us that he had seen a Least Grebe grab a dragonfly from the air at BBSP (Pilant Slough). The insect later escaped, but now we know: Least Grebes employ a variety of tactics to capture dragonflies.
People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles. –Emily Dickinson
2015 was a rough year. With all the unfortunate things that happened last year, personal losses and natural disasters, it’s tempting to try and forget about the whole period entirely. But that would mean forgetting the wonderful things, too—and there were plenty. It’s taken a while to put this little collection together, but here goes!
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
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.
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!
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.
The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. –Jules Verne
Last week we took a photo-birding road trip along the southwest Oregon coast, from Newport to Brookings. Our goals were to unwind and enjoy the cool, fresh air, put the terrible weather and Texas floods out of our minds, maybe pick up a few new species, and sample a few new Pacific Northwest brews.
The main natural attractions in southern Oregon during late spring are the marine mammals and breeding colonies of seabirds. Breeding songbirds can also be seen in the coastal forests, and we watched Wilson’s Warblers gathering insects for young and heard the song of the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we see often in Texas but never hear sing because it doesn’t breed here. For a few hours we were puzzled by the Orange-crown’s song: it sounds a bit like the song of the Northern Parula (so we knew we were dealing with a warbler), albeit lower and slower. But with a little help from iBird we sorted out most of the songbird songs, the Orange-crowned Warbler included.
The most common seabird we saw was the Common Murre. We photographed two major colonies, Coquille Point and Yaquina Head. These breeding colonies exist on small, rocky islands, and are among the most spectacular birding destinations in the country. Common Murres, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be seen in these colonies, at least at a distance, in southern Oregon.
Common Murres can be seen rarely as individuals fishing off rocky shores and jetties as well as in huge flotillas of thousands of birds far off shore. Common Murres typically lay one egg that they incubate on their feet, without nesting materials, penguin-style. A second egg may be layed if the first egg is lost to accidents or predators. Predators of Common Murre eggs and young include crows and gulls. Bald Eagles will grab adult birds, and we heard that an eagle was hunting around Yaquina Head while we were there.
Given the superficial similarities between murres and penguins, I wondered if a predator-prey relationship existed between the murres and sea lions paralleling the famous relationship between penguins and leopard seals documented by wildlife photographer Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. I could find no references to specific predators eating murres while at sea, although sharks and toothed whales seem possible candidates. California Sea Lions have been observed grabbing Common Murre chicks in the water near breeding colonies, though. Storms and fishing nets certainly kill many as dead murres sometimes wash up on shore and images of drowned murres and other seabirds tangled in fishing nets and lines exist from around the Northern Hemisphere.
Our last stop was at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. We usually steer clear of zoos and the like, but we read that there was an open air aviary with a number of pelagic Pacific species that are very hard to photograph in the wild up close because they stay out to sea, and their nesting areas are federally protected (it is unlawful to approach closer than 500 feet). The aquarium opens at 10am, so photography is tough. Nevertheless, we took some acceptable portraits of Rhinoceros Auklets, puffins, and other alcids—images that would be extremely challenging to capture in any other way.
Amazing as the animals of the Pacific Northwest are, the dazzling display of plant life, native and exotic, especially flowering species, give them a run for their money—fodder for a future post.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. –John Muir
I think of migrant traps as the first quality habitat, usually on barrier islands, visible to birds after their epic flights across the Gulf of Mexico during the spring migration. In fall, these places are the last chance to drink up and fatten up before chasing the sun south for the winter. The best migrant traps have food, water, and cover—the essentials of life for birds. Cover usually means trees, and most of the best and most famous migrant traps are mottes, slightly elevated areas with trees on an otherwise low-lying and exposed mixture of land- and sea-scape. In this new article, I discuss findings and birding adventures in some of our favorite migrant traps from Alabama to the Coastal Bend of Texas.
Life stands before me like an eternal spring with new and brilliant clothes.–Carl Friedrich Gauss
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.
In structural complexity, adaptation to all sorts of environments, and development of a remarkable social organization among some, the arthropods are judged to represent the peak of evolutionary advancement attained by invertebrates.—Moore, Lalicker, and Fischer, Invertebrate Fossils (1952)
It’s almost time to get back into one of our spring birding habits: A road trip to the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island in the afternoon (for the best light), followed by the night in Winnie, and a trip down the Bolivar Peninsula the next morning. The highlight of Bolivar is usually Frenchtown Road, where shorebirds and waders can often be seen hunting for invertebrates, especially arthropods, on the tidal flats, in the shallow tidal channels, and from among the exposed oyster patch reefs.
Another spring tradition is travel to Bryan Beach (or Surfside Jetty Park or Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary), followed by a trip up Follett’s Island, across to Galveston Island, ending at Lafitte’s Cove. These trips have the best of both worlds, littoral marine habitats and songbird migrant traps among mighty hardwoods.
This time of year reminds the birder of the fact that birds are governed by the never-ending search for food. As avian migrants follow the sun’s energy north, they are mostly following the the exploding biomass of terrestrial invertebrates, primarily arthropods. Birds lucky enough to be able the tap the perennial invertebrate bounty of the sea can overwinter along the coast. Those dependent on terrestrial and aquatic arthropods like insects must wait for the inevitable return of the summer swelter.