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!
Synopsis: Human-introduced exotic plants and animals are all around us, and many of them are doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s sometimes hard not to notice them while out photo-birding. The proliferation of these organisms can be troubling to nature lovers, particularly eco-purists. Are these foreign organisms adversely affecting our native plants and wildlife? And if so, how badly? Are some helpful to our native species? Certainly some, like bottlebrush, are helpful to the bird photographer! Whatever your stance on exotics, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is treat them as just another opportunity to experience new species in the wild—even if they are out of place. In this talk, Chris Cunningham will share images of some frequently encountered exotic species and discuss their place in our native landscape. (Note: If this topic is too upsetting, Chris and Elisa will share and some images of native wild birds from their most recent outings to West Texas, the Coastal Bend, and central New Mexico, too!)
Time and Place: 7:00 PM, January 18, 2017 at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston TX 77079. For additional details, please see the Houston Audubon HANPA website.
Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg
Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.
Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).
As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.
As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.
Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country
Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.
And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.
Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.
Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .
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.
Love me or hate me, both are in my favor . . . If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart . . . If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.—unknown (often falsely attributed to William Shakespeare)
Despite having developed a love-hate relationship with the place, over the past month or so we’ve taken every opportunity to get down to Lafitte’s Cove for the spring migration. On a good day, this sanctuary is hard to beat, but getting there has become oppressive, and once there, the crowds can make functioning as a wildlife photographer next to impossible. Tour groups have begun to show up at Lafitte’s Cove, and with mobs of twenty-plus people ambling down narrow paths you’re not getting much work done.
The love: On April 9, we visited Lafitte’s Cove and saw American Redstart, Black and White, Hooded, Kentucky, Blue-winged, and Worm-eating Warblers along with Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos. Thrushes were common: We saw and identified the Veery and Wood Thrush, although Swainson’s Thrushes were also likely present. These recent encounters revealed a truth: Thrushes (along with Ovenbirds) represent a photographic challenge I’ve not yet mastered. Birds of this sort hop around and probe for food in nooks and crannies of the the dark understory and, at best, appear in broken light only . . . They are tough subjects.
April 23 was a good day at the Cove. We saw many birds including Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian Warblers. Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were also around. The following morning was a bust, though. The sky was a blown-out white, and the birds were in hiding. At one point, a Golden-winged and Blackburnian Warbler flew right over my head, but disappeared immediately into the brush and sky, respectively, never to be seen again . . . .
The hate: Construction on I-45 between Houston and Galveston has been going on at least since the early 90’s when I arrived in Texas. Construction is now permanent and creates catastrophic, hellish traffic jams from which there is no escape.
On our last trip back (April 24) from Lafitte’s Cove, I noticed a sign that read: HIGHWAY CLOSED AHEAD. It took a minute for that to sink in. It’s simply not possible to close I-45 without warning, is it? It would be apocalyptic. We had just traveled the same highway south a few hours before, and there was no indication of impending doom. In a matter of minutes we were in a sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic that stretched as far as the eye could see. Luckily we just barely managed to exit, and with Elisa deftly navigating with her smart phone we found ourselves on side streets (also jammed with cars). At one point I glanced up to find I was crossing Kobayashi Road. My mind reeled. Apparently I was about to face my own Kobayashi Maru scenario. Looking both ways for Klingon battle cruisers, I drove on . . . . .
Despite being only 45 miles from our house, the only solution to the current Lafitte’s Cove logistics nightmare, I fear, is to treat the sanctuary as if were a far-away destination. We must drive down in the wee hours, book a room for a few days (at inflated Galveston prices), and then drive back in the wee hours. Expletive deleted.
For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.–D. H. Lawrence
Plants of the Australian Genus Melaleuca (also sometimes referred to as “Callistemon”), the twenty-five to fifty or so species of bottlebrush (depending on author), are widely used around the world in Tropical and Subtropical gardens and have naturalized in a few places as well, where freezes are not too hard or often.
Few plants are as attractive to birds as the bottlebrush tree. When you see bottlebrush flowers on the Gulf Coast during migration, stop and linger. Here, bottlebrush are usually the crimson-flowered variety (although I have seen the white and green kinds) and are often buzzing with hummingbirds and songbirds. Warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles seem to be especially drawn to these flowers.
Bottlebrush flowers have a number of attractive features. They are reported to produce copious nectar and pollen. Some birds feeding on the flowers are covered in pollen and may have heads and faces stained with yellow pollen and/or nectar. Although in most cases birds probably only acquire minimal additional nutritional benefit from pollen, the nectar must be a welcome burst of calories after a daunting trans-gulf flight.
Bottlebrush trees also attract nutritious insects, ants especially. I have seen Scarlet Tanagers, well-known as bee-feeding specialists, plucking bees off the flowers, too. A have read reports of Australian parrots feeding on buds, but I’ve not witnessed any similar bird behavior in the U.S.
So what do the Bottlebrush Trees get in return from the birds? Short answer: pollination. Nectar-hungry birds deliver pollen grains from the anthers of flowers onto the stigmas of others thus fertilizing the plants.
Finally, I am not generally a fan of exotic plants in the landscape. Exotics reportedly do not support the diversity of insect life that is so critical to maintaining healthy bird populations. Bottlebrush is a tough call, though. Covered in birds and bugs, these glorious plants provide an oasis for birds and birders alike.
Few birds have been so well named. This warbler is black and white, just exactly that, no more, no less.—Alexander Sprunt, Jr. (1957)
I remember the first time I saw a Black and White Warbler. The bird was gleaning bugs from a black willow tree on the south shore of Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. I recall being amazed that such a striking bird could be found outside the Tropics. Although Black and White Warblers summer from the Yukon to South Texas, they winter mostly along coasts from the Carolinas to northern South America.
As noted, some Black and White Warblers do winter along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, but during migrations is really the time you can expect to see them. In spring, their numbers peak here during the middle of the migration, namely April. This year, during our last two trips to Lafitte’s Cove in late March and early April, the number of Black and White Warblers we saw about equalled the number of other migratory songbirds combined, including Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, Myrtle, Orange-crowned, and Hooded Warblers, Northern Parula, and White-eyed Vireos.
Rarely mistakable for any other species, the creeper-like hunting behavior alone is usually enough to recognize Black and White Warblers. And males and females are easy to tell apart. Males have black cheeks, lores, and throats. Females are pale gray in these areas. Mr. Sprunt notwithstanding, female birds will also sometimes have a wash of pale brown (“buff”) on the sides—this is a nice departure from some warbler species in which even with a good photo in hand and a stack of references, it’s tough to sex the birds.
As we get deeper into spring migration and more rare and unusual warbler species start to show up, the impact of seeing Black and White Warblers will start to fade a bit. But Black and White Warblers are definitely part of what makes migration so wonderful here along the Gulf Coast: The skies and vegetation are filled with a spectacular spattering of avian colors.
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr. 1957. Black and White Warbler, in Ludlow Grissom and Alexander Sprunt, Jr., eds., The Warblers of North America. The Devin-Adair Company, New York. 356p.
This handsome, often hard to see, warbler is rightly connected in the minds of some with the coniferous north woods.—Alexander Sprunt, Jr. and A.E. Allin (1957)
For those of us along the Gulf Coast, the Black-throated Green Warbler is, of course, associated not with conifers, but with migration. These showy birds cross the U.S. from South Texas to Florida on their way north from the lands surrounding the Caribbean Sea to the Appalachians and the Boreal forests of Newfoundland to British Columbia.
The impending spring Neotropical songbird migration has me brushing up on my warbler field marks. Given that similar-looking species (Hermit, Golden-cheeked, and Townsend’s Warblers) follow more western migratory paths, there is rarely any doubt that one is dealing with a Black-throated Green Warbler along the Upper Texas Coast. Aging and sexing these birds, however, is another matter—especially when sightings occur at random angles in patchy, broken light within the foliage of leafed-out trees.
My go-to reference book for warblers is The Warbler Guide by Stephenson and Whittle (2013). In matters of sexing and aging, these authors suggest paying attention to streaking on the back, the amount of black in the throat, and the nature of mottling on the breast. Males tend to be more streaked on the back and have black throats and greater contrast. Note the two birds above. The female, for example, has a pale-yellow black-flecked throat, streaking is nearly absent on the mantle, and black mottles on the breast trail off into broken streaks along the sides. This bird strongly resembles the first-year female figured in Stephenson and Whittle (2013), p. 205. The male above is unmistakable in lateral view with its black throat stretching into a strong black streak along the sides. The bird below shows the least contrast of birds in this post and is likely a female.
Black-throated Green Warblers typically show up along the Gulf Coast late in the middle of the spring migration, making the first week of May the ideal time to watch for them as they glean insects from the mighty hardwoods of migrant traps. Although these charming little birds are among the most common gems of the avian treasure trove that is about to return to North America, they are well worth the effort to seek out, identify, and study.
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr. and Allin, A. E. 1957. Black-throated Green Warbler, in Ludlow Grissom and Alexander Sprunt, Jr., eds., The Warblers of North America. The Devin-Adair Company, New York. 356p.
Stephenson, Tom, and Whittle, Scott. 2013. The Warbler Guide. Princeton University Press. 554p.
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.
A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes.–Joseph Addison
I am sometimes surprised by which images turn out and which don’t. Light is magic, and photography is all about light. By magic I mean inexplicable—or at least very hard to explain in the context of how a camera records light. Case in point: we were recently attempting to photograph Sandhill Cranes in a field on Galveston Island. It was a clear, beautiful day, and I had a distant but unobstructed view of the birds. I wasn’t expecting National Geographic results because the cranes were too far away, but shot after shot was utter garbage.
The humidity was low (which was good), but it was windy (which was bad). I could tell that the UV index was high (I got a sunburn through sunscreen), and I just couldn’t achieve focus using autofocus or manual focus. I first tried bracing the lens on a fence post with image stabilization turned on, then off. When that failed, I returned to best practices: tripod with cable release. But still, everything farther than about ten yards away was blurry and washed out. Was invisible (to the unaided eye) turbulence creating some sort of mirage-like effect? I turned the camera on and off—even switched bodies thinking that there was a malfunction. Somehow, conditions simply weren’t right for photography—black magic. The next day I looked like W. C. Fields with windburn, sunburn, and a bar tan.
Other days, with fog or rain or lots of gray gloomy clouds, strangely, and against all odds, some nice images can be captured—white magic. I know that some photographers and viewers even prefer the look of results achieved during these dark, gloomy overcast days. All the images in this post were taken on a road trip to South Texas a few years ago. In fact, all were taken on the same day, except the kingfisher. And it was a winter like this one, with lots of rain and clouds and fog and mist and cursing by yours truly.
Of course, these dark days test your skills. To keep ISO below 800 for reasonable image quality means shooting at ridiculously slow shutter speeds (like 1/80 to 1/320) and breaking the 1/f shutter speed rule that I like to follow–even on a tripod with cable release. At these slow speeds, you’re in mirror-slap territory, especially on a tripod, and any puff of wind or contact with the gear can have deleterious effects. And patience is required to capture even the hint of a catchlight, an important aspect of wildlife photography.
Finally, because I pursue this hobby for personal growth and physical and mental health, seeing sunlight is so important. Like most Americans I suspect that I am Vitamin D deficient due to being cooped up so much at work. On these gray days, the spirits lift during an occasional sunbreak. The image of the Common Yellowthroat below was happily captured at the end of a gloomy, misty day just as the clouds parted (finally!) at dusk.