A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. –Lewis Mumford
Traveling near or far to photo-bird is one of the great joys of life. Seeing new things is the spice of life in our post-materialistic world. But from time to time we encounter birds that defy easy identification. Often, these are species that are simply unfamiliar because we don’t live in their range. Other times, they are young birds, particularly drab individuals, or species lacking really distinctive field marks. Sometimes these birds are embarrassingly common species. Often our images of these birds sit in moth balls for a long time.
From time to time, when stuck indoors because of work or weather, I go sifting through our collection of images and take another look at some of these birds whose identities wasn’t clear at the time of the photos . . . .
Sometimes with tricky birds, like the peep above, I’ll take photos without knowing what I’m looking at with the idea of coming back later and identifying them from the images. Pondering puzzlements in the field might lead to missed shots.
On the other hand, for potentially exciting species (like the one below) it’s right to the reference books the minute I get home!
Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
Find the places I got hurt . . . . —Peter Gabriel, Digging in the Dirt
When birds are not around, the bird photographer must find other critters to photograph. Often that honor falls to ground squirrels and kin! As is my usual methodology, I research the animals I encounter in the field. Just as in the case of birds, ground squirrels tell a mixed story of success and struggle in a human-dominated world.
Not surprisingly, we’ve really only seen ground squirrels that are doing pretty well (for the most part) since we haven’t yet mounted specific expeditions to see and photograph the rare and threatened ones like the Mohave, Townsend’s, or Washington ground squirrels. Make no mistake, some ground squirrels are battling for survival against many of the same menaces facing birds–habitat destruction, cats, and poisons.
Although technically considered a species of “least concern,” the areal extent of Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies has fallen to about 2% of historical levels. Considered by many farmers and ranchers to be pests (Get the bazooka, Joe!), these burrowing rodents are lynchpins of their local ecology. They have many interesting ecological relationships with a variety of other organisms. Birders might be concerned about their fate given their role as prey to a variety of raptors including Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles. Also, Burrowing Owls will nest in prairie dog burrows (and the burrows of many other mammals, as well). In 2004, the black-tailed prairie dog was removed from consideration for endangered status based on population studies. One wonders what the level of concern would be if the range of human distribution decreased by 98% in a century and a half. I bet everyone would think everything was OK.
The rock squirrel is a suspicious fellow we see occasionally on outings in West and Central Texas and Arizona. This is a big, dark chunky squirrel that is way more timid than one would expect given its heft. Try and flush one of these characters into a pillowcase, BM! At places like Franklin Mountains State Park and Lost Maples State Natural Area, these seed-hogging marauders can often be seen emptying the bird feeders of seeds. In contrast to the prairie dog, this is not a popular squirrel among the birds—nor likely anyone maintaining a seed feeder within its range (Get the blunderbuss, Bob!).
Although relatively little is known about its ecology, the Uinta ground squirrel is easy to spot at Yellowstone National Park. There are no known threats to its survival, especially since a big chunk of its limited range falls within that park in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. These critters are considered by some farmers to be agricultural pests (Arm photon torpedoes, Scotty!) because of their unforgivable tendency to dig and root up plants.
Now that we’ve seen quite a few species of squirrel, tree and ground, I have started paying more attention to them. When in a strange place, I’ve stopped assuming every squirrel I’ve seen is a common species (or subspecies) I’ve seen a hundred times before. For example, turns out a patch of habitat we bird occasionally (Cave Creek, Arizona) is home to the Mexican fox squirrel. Maybe next time I’ll capture a nice image of this cheeky critter!
Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.
Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.
So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.
Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.
Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.
So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.
A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.–Henry David Thoreau
This week’s Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting was a summer vacation show-and-tell. The association is in recess during the summer swelter, so members brought images collected during their summer vacations to share with the group. The theme we chose to explore was images of species we had perhaps seen (or perhaps not), but never photographed well before this summer.
We’re not the kind of birders who keep life lists, but we know when we see or photograph a species for the first time. Pyrrhuloxias, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Stellar’s Jays are common birds that we have seen many times in the West, but achieved reasonable images of for the the first time this summer.
Notable species completely new to us from this summer’s trips to Big Bend NP and Rocky Mountain NP included the Cordilleran Flycatcher, Varied Bunting, Warbling Vireo, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Hairy Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker.
Although we think we got some pretty nice images, it’s always a little troubling to photograph birds on vacation simply because we never feel as though we have had enough time to really do the birds justice. Thoughts tend to run like: If I just had another day, I could have gotten the Hairy Woodpecker shot of my dreams! But alas, vacation is fleeting, and it’s soon time to get back to the grind.
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.―William Shakespeare
At times like this, the dreary end of a dreary Houston summer, my mind turns to some of those magical places I’ve visited in the past. Upon recollection, some of the most enchanting visions of nature have occurred in the presence of swallows. I remember such a scene in Yellowstone National Park where American Tree and Violet-green Swallows snatched insects from the air and lapped water on the wing from the surface of a beaver pond. Last spring I first noticed American Tree and Rough-winged Swallows performing similar aerobatic feats above Pilant and 40-Acre Lakes, Brazos Bend SP.
As a birder I pay close attention to swallows, as they often present an identification challenge while in flight (Is that a Cave or Cliff Swallow?). As a photo-birder, I often pay swallows too little attention as photographing swallows in flight would be quite a trick. Swallows are not particularly swift fliers, but their darting, acrobatic style of flight makes capturing them in the air something I’ve not yet accomplished, except under stalled circumstances like approaching a nest or perched young. Maybe someday I’ll catch one gliding across the surface of a liquid. Until then, I’ll just have to wait for them to land.
He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson
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.
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.
The difference between humans and other mammals is that we know how to accessorize.–Madeleine Albright
My primary objective in the field is almost always to find and photograph birds. But when no birds are around, one must make concessions to mother nature. Photographing large mammals can be fun, too, but they present a few challenges. Most importantly, many of them are dangerous.
Even the humble deer can be dangerous. I’ve seen videos of grown men being kicked and gored all the way to the emergency room by infuriated deer. Bears . . . well, what more is there to say? Chills run up my spine when I think of how foolishly close I was to the bathing Grizzly Bear above. Little known fact, though: American Bison are the most dangerous animals in North America (other than humans, of course).
Both Elisa and I have had unplanned encounters with large mammals in the wild. Recently while chasing woodpeckers around in Colorado, Elisa suddenly looked up to find herself face-to-face with a bull Elk—and he wasn’t backing down. Gingerly, she slinked away, keeping her photographic accessories between her body and the beast.
Once while in Wyoming, I was chasing Western Tanagers around in a grove of cottonwood and aspen trees by the banks of a stream in Grand Teton National Park. Oblivious to everything but the birds and the light, I glanced up to find myself about five feet from the female moose shown below. I was sure I was about to be kicked through the pearly gates! But ever so slowly (keeping my tripod and camera between the animal and myself), I crept backward. Once I put about ten yards between the moose and myself, she slowly walked off into the forest.
It took me a while to regain my composure after that one.
I heard myself proclaimed,
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt . . . . from King Lear, William Shakespeare
One of the places we made a special point to visit while at Rocky Mountain National Park was a notable large, dead Ponderosa Pine at Upper Beaver Meadows. A birder friend from Houston Audubon (SM) first told us about The Tree when we mentioned that we were going to RMNP. We tried in vain several times to find it on our own, but finally a park ranger explained exactly where it was. The Tree turned out to be a spectacular spot to photograph cavity nesting birds. In this tree alone we saw Mountain Bluebirds, Red-naped Sapsuckers, Pygmy Nuthatches, House Wrens, and Violet-green Swallows nesting. A Northern Flicker even came by and checked out the Bluebird nest as if to say: “What are you doing in my cavity? I dug it, you squatter!”
Five species nesting in one tree beats our previous record of seeing Pileated, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, plus Prothonotary warblers nesting in a single tree at BBSP. But The Tree likely contains even more nesting species as there were more holes and several other species of cavity nesters are very common in the area, namely Hairy Woodpeckers and American Tree Swallows (not to mention Western Wood-Peewees). The mind reels at the thought of a single tree with eight or more cavity-nesting species inside!
A place we’ve been meaning to spend some more time looking for cavity nesters is the W. G. Jones State Forest near Conroe, Texas. This area is home to nesting clusters of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. This interesting and endangered species has a few tricks up its sleeves in terms of cavity nesting.
These birds drill upward through the sapwood and then downward into the heartwood of pine trees. The birds prefer to excavate into trees with a fungal infection of the heartwood called red heart. This disease softens the wood and makes excavation of the cavity easier. Interestingly, active Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests are easy to spot because of the river of resin that flows downward from around the cavity entrance. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers drill and maintain extra holes into the sapwood around the cavity (resin wells) to keep the resin flowing. The resin is a natural deterrent for nest-raiding snakes.
The Jones Forest is also home to one of my favorites, the Red-headed Woodpecker. Of all the North American woodpeckers, this bird is perhaps the most active hunter of larger prey, and one of my dreams is to capture photographically a Red-headed Woodpecker dragging a mouse or lizard into a cavity nest.
Finally, as noted in the last post, the lodge we visited in Colorado (MacGregor Mountain Lodge) was a great spot for cavity nesting. One morning I was hoping to capture some images of a Hairy Woodpecker or Red-naped Sapsucker entering or leaving a nest cavity. So I found an appropriately sized hole and waited patiently. After just about giving up, I detected movement inside the nest: Here we go! I thought. But who should appear? A lousy Pine Squirrel! A mean ol’ Chickeree spoiled my morning! Just like a nasty old Fox squirrel foiled Elisa’s attempt to capture some Wood Ducks entering or leaving a nest box at BBSP!
For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .
Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless!
Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!
Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!
After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?
Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.
Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.
Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.—Victor Hugo
During our recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, we spent two half-days exploring Trail Ridge Road. This road reaches an elevation of 12,183 ft. and so cuts through a series of habitats typically encountered at much higher latitudes. Near the top, the road cuts alpine tundra, an environment similar to that near the Arctic Circle.
Admittedly, some of our early forays up to elevation were difficult. As flat-landers from sea-level a sudden visit to over 12,000 ft was a shock to our cardiovascular systems. A much longer visit (yea!) would cause red blood cell counts to increase, and allow us to hunt down and photograph the tougher species without feeling as though we were going to stroke out at any moment!
One of the thrills of traveling to bird is encountering species you know and love from another part of the country during a different time of the year wearing differently colored plumage. On this trip we found, of all things, American Pipits, birds we often find dining on crane flies in grassy areas on the Gulf Coast during late winter and early spring. During the breeding season, these birds have more of a grayish cast on the back and less intense streaking on the belly. The bird below has a splash of bright orange on the throat and upper breast, something I’ve not seen in American Pipits during the winter in Texas.
This visit to high altitude whetted our appetites for cold weather birding, and we are drawing up plans for a birding trip to the high latitude tundra—we’ve got our eyes on the Canadian Arctic near Hudson Bay!
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.–Black Elk
This is the first of a series of posts about Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and the first Two Shutterbirds post ever prepared completely in the field–writing, editing, researching, and photo-processing. Usually when we take an extended birding trip we prepare and schedule posts ahead of time. The Houston flood several weeks ago left us so nonplussed that we were unable to “act naturally,” so to speak. In any case, here goes . . . .
If you are religious and want to see what the world was like before the Fall, come to Upper Beaver Meadows. If you are of a more scientific mindset and want to see what North America looked like when the first Paleo-Indians crossed Beringia, come to Upper Beaver Meadows. This place is a paradise in late spring and summer–the air is filled with the songs of Pine Siskins, Warbling Vireos, and House Wrens . . . .
What a welcome change of scenery! There is nothing like an open wilderness trail stretching out before you in the morning light (especially in contrast to the post-flood flotsam- and jetsam-strewn streets at home). The only sign of human activity was this little footpath and within a few steps, I was transported. The anticipation of discovery co-mingled with the effects of high altitude had me dizzy but determined. Our first exploration was sans-camera as we were still adjusting to the altitude—we traveled from near sea level to around 8,300 feet in less than 24 hours. But, by day 2, we were on the job.
West of the trail is a creek surrounded by moist bottomlands and associated aspen groves which give way to mixed conifer woodlands upland to the east. Further along the trail, rocky granitic outcrops dot the slopes that slowly rise as you enter the valley. We followed the trail through the valley about a half of a mile to a small aspen grove with a horse-hitch landmark.
In this one-half mile alone, we encountered a soul-soothing diversity of wildlife. Young ground squirrel pups scurried underfoot as American Tree Swallows swooped and dived for flying insects above. A Yellow-bellied Marmot looked on dispassionately as we delighted in watching a House Wren bring insects to its cavity nest. A Wild Turkey tom strutted and called to his seemingly disinterested hen and then gobbled at us as we passed by. A fledgling Lincoln’s Sparrow begged atop a fallen tree while a mated pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers traded nestling duties overhead inside an aspen trunk. The most charming encounter perhaps was with a decidedly curious and rambunctious Long-tailed Weasel which kept poking his head up through the brush to have a look at us.
It’s more than a little ironic that we chose to leave the productivity imperative of our workaday life behind only to immerse ourselves in the peak productivity of nature’s biological imperative. That imperative is never more evident than now, as we approach the summer solstice. Nature runs on sunlight and on vacation, we run on nature. We wouldn’t have it any other way!
Chris’s Field Notes:
As our basic reference we are using the excellent Birding Rocky Mountain National Park by Scott Roederer. Based on the book, we chose Upper Beaver Meadows as our first port of call.
Botanically, the wet valley floor is dominated by willows, aspen, and grasses. Upslope from this are grassy meadows sprinkled with wildflowers (Golden Banner being most prominent with Indian Paintbrush and Larkspur providing splashes of additional color) transition upward into conifer-dominated forests.
Although the range of temperatures was pleasant, the weather was challenging for photography, with nearly constantly changing illumination most days. Clouds and rain came and went throughout most days, also. According to locals, this has been an exceptionally cold and wet spring. For future reference, this June was probably more like a typical May.
In late spring and summer, Upper Beaver Meadows is cavity nesting central, mostly in Aspen and Ponderosa Pines. I saw House Wrens, Pygmy Nuthatches, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Mountain Bluebirds, Violet-green and American Tree Swallows, and Northern Flickers (Red-shafted) in cavity nests in riparian habitats along Beaver Brook in the valley floor. I also saw Western Wood-pewees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers here, but not in cavities.
All in all, a fantastic trip, and it will take months to sort through all the images. Frankly, Upper Beaver Meadows constitutes, in my mind, one of the best birding spots I’ve ever visited. Likely this area will be a place we visit over and over again–like Cave Creek and Santa Ana.