wetlands

Photo-birding Alaska: Anchorage

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London

Canada Gosling hunting insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
A Canada Gosling Hunts Insects, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At first we thought the goslings were eating grass seed heads. It soon became apparent, however, that the birds were capturing insects, many of which were copulating. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x). Natural light.

Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.

Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Male Merlin, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. At one point, an American Robin was chasing and hectoring this bird. The Robin may have had a nest or young nearby. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.

Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska
Alder Flycatcher, Potter Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. Empidonax flycatchers are difficult to identify. Willow and Alder Flycatchers, for example, can not be distinguished by appearance alone. The song must be heard, except in Alaska. Willow Flycatchers do not range this far north. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4 L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.

Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska
Arctic Tern, south of Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, Alaska. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.

All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.

Red-necked Grebe with chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska
Red-necked Grebe with Chick, Cheney Lake, Anchorage, Alaska. About a week prior to when this image was taken, this bird was sitting on five eggs. By the time we arrived, two chicks were visible. The remaining eggs may still be present: This bird did not move from the nest as we observed. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Glorious Purple Gallinules

Exuberance is beauty.—William Blake

Purple Gallinule, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Adult Purple Gallinule, Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

In general, I consider bird photography to be a difficult proposition. Sometimes, as in the case of lightning-fast small songbirds, it’s right on the the edge of what is possible. If any bird makes bird photography easy, though, it is the Purple Gallinule, a fairly large, fairly slow bird that is not particularly wary of humans. Add to this the absolutely spectacular appearance of the adult, and you have a marvelous ambassador to the hobby for any beginner.

Immature Purple Gallinule, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Immature Purple Gallinule, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

A common misconception about Purple Gallinules is that the brilliantly colored individuals are the males, and the duller brown and turquoise birds are the females. This is not correct: as in most rails, sexes are similar. The more brightly colored birds are adult, and the more subdued ones immature.

Purple Gallinules breed in wetlands across the southern U.S., including our own Brazos Bend State Park. Purple Gallinules like it nice and toasty warm—so they do migrate (except Florida populations). But . . . how to say this politely? Now, I’m not using the word lazy, but rather . . . minimalist! Purple Gallinules migrate as little as possible south around the margins of the Gulf of Mexico in the fall until they find a comfy spot, returning for the summer heat along the Texas Gulf Coast (April through October).

Purple Gallinule Brawl, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Purple Gallinule Brawl, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Purple Gallinules are omnivores and eat a variety of foods. One thing to keep an eye for around here is their hunt for aquatic leaf beetles. They manipulate and inspect American lotus leaves and other aquatic vegetation to find them. Elisa documented this behavior in detail in another post.

Other things to watch for are spectacular territorial disputes that erupt between the adult birds. The image above was taken in early June. The purpose of these battles is, ultimately, to be able to produce what’s below: babies! Purple Gallinule chicks are delightful to watch with their gigantic feet, which are even bigger in proportion to the body than in the adult bird.

Purple Gallinule Chick, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Downy Purple Gallinule Chick, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.
Purple Gallinule Chick, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Slightly Older Purple Gallinule Chick on American Lotus Leaf, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Note the missing down on the head. The giant feet spread the bird’s weight over a broad area allowing it to walk on floating vegetation. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Finally, photographing the Purple Swamphen is on my very long bucket list. This bird is an exotic close relative of the Purple Gallinule that has naturalized in Florida. The Purple Swamphen is a bigger, chunkier version of the Purple Gallinule—but it’s every bit as colorful. Someday.

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

Photographing Birds in Gloomy Weather

A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes.–Joseph Addison

Reddish Egret in the Fog, South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas
Reddish Egret in the Fog, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Semipalmated Plover, South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas
What a Shorebird Sees: Mostly Mud. Semipalmated Plover, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas. Sandpipers and plovers scurry along the tidal mudflats all day day long waiting for infaunal invertebrates to betray their positions. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Female Green Kingfisher, South Texas
Female Green Kingfisher, South Texas. We found this bird at a strange little city park in South Texas. I remember the day (we sneaked up on a Harris’s Hawk that was hiding in a bush), but can’t recall the name of the town. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural gloomy light.

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.

Common Yellowthroat, South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas
Common Yellowthroat among Cattails, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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

Winter’s Amphibian Hunters

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.—William Blake

Great Blue Heron with Siren intermedia, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron with Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The south side of Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas is the best place I know to photograph wader hunting and fishing behavior in a freshwater habitat. This winter, Pilant Lake has been a rich source of observations involving waders taking a variety of prey, amphibians in particular. Over the past few years I had heard several reports of Great Blue Herons taking Lesser Sirens (Siren intermedia), large salamander-like amphibians that have lost their hind limbs through the evolutionary process, from the area immediately north of the observation tower. This grassy area contains scattered ponds and puddles and a few taller, woody plants here and there. The substrate appears irregular, soft, and saturated with water.

Ever since learning that sirens were frequently taken here, I have kept an eye on the area, especially during winter (when most of the reported events occurred), and on other areas in the park that look the same. Judging by reports from other birders, on several occasions I had apparently just missed a heron taking a siren. On 1/24/15, my patience finally paid off, though. A Great Blue was hunting very near the tower, so I set up, chimped my settings, and waited for the action to unfold. Almost immediately the bird plunged it head nearly eye-deep into the muck and froze.

Great Blue Heron with  Beak in Siren Burrow, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron with Beak in Siren Burrow, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I could tell that the bird was straining to pull up something big. At that point I knew that the heron had found a siren in a burrow—any lesser critter would have been yanked out immediately! After about five seconds, the bird pulled its head up without a meal. Over the next hour or so, the bird waited patiently over the burrow. Finally the bird struck into the mud again and dragged out the huge wriggling amphibian. The bird had speared the siren in the right shoulder region through to the throat with the lower beak and clamped the amphibian in place with the upper beak. Because a noisy group of babbling tourists had descended upon the tower, the heron almost immediately flew off with its catch. Pity.

Great Egret with Frog, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Egret with Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

In addition to sirens, this area is rich in other amphibians (especially frogs) during winter. Most commonly, waders take American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) and Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinerea), along with an occasional Southern Leopard Frog (R. sphenocephala). Green Treefrogs are most often taken from the water hyacinth that grows in profusion in Pilant Lake, as well as taller plants that grow at the margin of the water. In summer, I have seen Little Blue Herons and Great Blue Herons take Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) in this area, too.

Little Blue Heron with Green Tree Frog, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Little Blue Heron with Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird picked treefrogs from tall vegetation at the water’s edge. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Amphibians are the most exciting prey items that you are likely to see being grabbed by waders at Pilant Lake—mostly you will see invertebrates like crawfish and water tigers being eaten. Small fish are also frequent prey. Eventually I hope be on hand when a water snake or baby alligator is grabbed. I have heard reports of American Bitterns taking songbirds from the marsh vegetation, and photographs exist of Great Blue Herons grabbing baby nutria in similar environments. It’s only a matter of time before I can document these relatively rare and exciting events at Pilant Lake.

American Bittern with Green Tree Frog, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bittern in Water Hyacinth with Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea), Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Green Treefrogs range in color from bright green to yellow and brown. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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

Transitioning Back into Summer Mode: Hunting Waders with a Camera

Great Egret Nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Pure Id: Great Egret Nestlings at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. These guys are all about lunch. Natural light. All photos Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Now that spring migration, the most exciting time of the birding year, is almost over, I have to seek adventure where I can find it. This often involves chasing waders around at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) as they hunt. Of course, a few of the spring (and summer) spectacles are still playing out–like the frenzy of nesting, breeding, and nurturing young observable at the coastal rookeries. Photographing this profusion of life-energy will be mosquito-bloodied interludes in my late spring and summer studies of wader feeding behaviors at BBSP.

Little Blue Heron with little crawfish at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Little Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Although I’ve only been out to BBSP a few times recently, one thing already seems evident: 2014 is shaping up as the Year of the Crawfish. Despite hearing lots of frog song and even seeing lots of frogs jump when alligators move around, I haven’t been seeing waders eating frogs. But crawfish are being gobbled down left and right! Why are frogs not on the menu? Have I just missed them being eaten? Will wader tastes change with the summer?

White Ibis in breeding color with crawfish at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White Ibis in Breeding Color with Big Juicy Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. Natural light.

This is one of the eternal joys of birding: new observations that lead to questions and more questions. Sorting out (or at least attempting to) why some types of prey proliferate some years while others are scarce is an ongoing research problem. Some years there are spiders (terrestrial or aquatic) everywhere and are eaten by hungry birds, and some years there are frogs and tadpoles everywhere and are grabbed, but sometimes rejected. But if you travel this path beware: you may find yourself reading articles about fungal infections of spiderlings or how winter water temperatures affect crawfish populations or . . . you get the idea.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with little crawfish at Pilant lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with Little Crawfish at Pilant Lake, BBSP, Texas. Natural light.

Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.—Alfred North Whitehead

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

Pilant Lake, BBSP: An Exciting Spot for Winter Birders

White-faced Ibis at Brazos Bend State park, Texas
White-faced Ibis With Bulb or Tuber Being Shadowed by Common Moorhen at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. These tubers or bulbs are apparently worth fighting over. This sneaky little Common Moorhen stole the poor Ibis’s snack! Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Despite often gloomy and dismal weather and optical conditions, the marshy south flank of Pilant Lake near the observation tower at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas has been an exciting place for birders this winter. In addition to the usual suspects present during winter, American Pipits, Wilson’s Snipes, American Bitterns, Song Sparrows, Least Sandpipers, and a Solitary Sandpiper have been spotted in the vicinity. What’s more, interesting bird behavior and interactions have been common lately, and I’ve made  inter- and intra-species conflicts and confrontations the theme of my photos for this post. There are, for example, so many Wilson’s Snipes around that they’re getting into each other’s business: violations of personal space result in displays as shown below.

Snipe Confrontation at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Shall We Dance? Wilson’s Snipe Confrontation at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. Canon 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The south side of Pilant Lake is also one of the best spots to photograph wader hunting behavior that I know. This winter has been no exception. Two weeks ago a Great Blue Heron is reported to have taken a large siren (Siren intermedia), a very large salamander, from immediately north of the observation tower. As a result, I spent a few hours stalking a Great Blue in that area the day after the report, but I only saw the bird catch frogs. Maybe next time.

Great Blue Heron with frog at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Great Blue Heron With Frog at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State park, Texas. After repeatedly pecking this unfortunate frog, the heron ultimately rejected it and walked off. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The passions are the same in every conflict, large or small.—Mason Cooley

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

Bitterns: Secretive Hunters of the Marsh

Least Bittern with fish at Mcfaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Least Bittern with Fish (Darter?) at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. A prized sighting not because Least Bitterns are rare, but because they are secretive. They may be quite common . . . it’s hard to tell. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of the heron, egret and bittern family, the two species of North American bitterns are the most secretive. When spotted, their slow, precise, almost machine-like stalking behavior is mesmerizing to watch. Sometimes bitterns seem acutely aware of the photographer’s every breath and muscle-twitch, and sometimes they are completely oblivious to observers and go about their hunting as if they alone occupied the planet.

Least Bitterns summer in the eastern U.S., including the Gulf Coast, and American Bitterns winter along the Gulf Coast—so for the Texas birder, the possibility (at least) exists for seeing bitterns throughout much of the year.

Least Bittern at Mcfaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Beauty Shot: Least Bittern at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Sometimes even the most secretive birds cooperate. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Of the two bittern species, the American Bittern has the more cryptic coloration, I think. Many times I have had to double-take when I first noticed one–especially if the bird had adopted its neck-straight-up “I’m-a-clump-of-marsh-vegetation pose.” Least Bitterns are also difficult to see among marsh vegetation and have been known to sway back and forth to mimic the gentle motion of vegetation tussled by the wind. These are clearly creatures that do not want to be noticed.

American Bittern at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bittern Out in the Open at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

It’s hard to recommend a place to see bitterns in the Houston area. The south side of Pilant Lake at Brazos Bend State Park is the most reliable spot to see American Bitterns I know. But in many visits to that area, I’ve only seen a Least Bittern once. And that’s how I would characterize my experience with Least Bitterns: I’ve seen them many places once.

Calls of both species of bitterns are distinctive enough to know when they’re around, even if they are invisible, especially the Least Bittern’s rather monkey-like (to my ear) coo-coo-coo. Least Bitterns are also easy to spot in flight, given their heron-style of flight and rufous markings—but once they’re back in the reeds, it’s good-bye, Charlie!

Cryptic American Bittern at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Move along! Move along—nothing to see here! What you normally get in the way of bittern photos: cryptic American Bittern at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This bird soon slowly turned and skulked off into the marsh. Canon EOS 7D/500mm F/4L IS (+1/4x TC). Natural light.

Don’t wait to be hunted to hide, that was always my motto. —Samuel Beckett, Molloy

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

Birding Myakka River State Park: Brazos Bend State Park’s Florida Cousin

Tricolored Heron with Warmouth at Myakka River State Park, Florida
Too big? Tricolored Heron with Warmouth at Alligator Point, Myakka River State Park, Florida. Alligator Point is on an oxbow lake. After trying to swallow the fish a few times, this bird eventually gave up and walked away. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light on a dark, gloomy day.

Over the past week we were able to spend a few days at Myakka River State Park (MRSP) in western Florida near Sarasota. We were struck immediately by similarities to Brazos Bend State Park, Texas (BBSP). Both are subtropical low-relief state parks centered around rivers and lakes. The winter water bird avifaunas are also similar–with a few exceptions, Wood Storks and Double-crested Cormorants having the most conspicuously different abundances at the two parks.

 

 

Over the years I have only seen one Wood Stork at BBSP. On the other hand, Wood Storks proved to be common at MRSP during our stay, and we were able to observe them in flight overhead, canopy hunting/fishing and “wing flashing” (herding aquatic prey by waving a wing) at Alligator Point. The oxbow lake at Alligator Point provides the birder or photographer an excellent vantage point to observe bird behavior deep off the beaten track—but watch out for poison ivy! Pied-billed Grebes are present in small numbers (relative to BBSP) at MRSP, but Double-crested Cormorants are abundant and making a living the way the grebes do at BBSP, namely diving after prey in shallow freshwater lakes.

Double-crested Cormorant at Alligator Point, Myakka State Park, Florida
Double-crested Cormorant at Alligator Point, Myakka State Park, Florida. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The prey are conspicuously different at these two parks, however. At this time of year at BBSP the birds seem to be consuming a mix of fish, amphibians (frogs and salamanders), and arthropods. At MRSP we only saw fish being taken–several species of gar, Tilapia, bass, and small catfish . . . although one Great Blue Heron was convinced he had a snake or Amphiuma salamander and pecked a poor stick to bits! The absence of crawfish prey struck me as remarkable, and I asked a ranger about it. He said that during the dry season, the crawfish remain in their burrows. Perhaps when the rains return and some the low-lying areas flood again, crawfish will be on the water bird menu.

In general, our time in western Florida has brought up a number of fascinating topics for thought, research, and future travel plans that will no doubt be discussed in this blog at some point in time. How are Tilapia (an invasive), for example, impacting the environment generally and wader diets in particular. Also, where are the amphibians? Could we be seeing another example of the global amphibian crisis? These questions make me want to bird this amazing park during other times of the year.

Wood Stork canopy fishing at Myakka State Park, Florida
Canopy Fishing(?) Wood Stork at Alligator Point, Myakka River State Park, Florida. By creating a shadow, the canopy-fisher can better see through the glare and spot prey beneath the surface. Reddish Egrets are best known for this technique, but this Wood Stork appeared to be using the same approach. The Wood Stork is considered an Endangered Species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.–Jerry Seinfeld

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

Mottled Ducks: Threatened by Man and Nature

Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas
Portrait: Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are quite similar looking. Females have an orangish bill (often with varying degrees of black mottling, especially near the base), whereas males tend to have more yellowish bills without black mottles. This female’s bill is relatively free of black mottles. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.
Male Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas.
Portrait: Male Mottled Duck. Male Mottled Ducks are sometimes described as having “cleaner” faces than the females. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday we took a short road trip to Corpus Christi and environs, specifically with the hopes of seeing ducks, waders, and shorebirds. At Rockport, Texas I observed a small group of Mottled Ducks hanging around in the shadows under a dock. We see Mottled Ducks from time to time, but seeing these birds up close got me to reading more about them: they are unusual for a number of reasons. These dabblers are rather drab and show little sexual dimorphism relative to some other ducks. They are also non-migratory and reproduce in Southern marshes, rather than at higher latitudes like most other North American ducks.

Their status is of “least concern,” although their estimated numbers are only in the tens of thousands in Texas, a major part of their range. Mottled Ducks do have an unusually limited geographic range, essentially around the Gulf of Mexico, across Florida, and with an introduced population in South Carolina. There are actually two subspecies of Mottled Ducks: Anas fulvigula maculosa (Alabama to Veracruz, Mexico) and A. f. fulvigula (Florida). Numerous references suggest that Mottled Ducks, like many species, are under threat from habitat destruction such as the draining of marshes. Conventional wisdom has it that habitat destruction is more of a threat than human hunting—although seeing internet images of piles of shotgun-blast killed Mottled Ducks leads me to question that. Apparently some duck hunters collect bands, and Mottled Ducks are a heavily banded species (about 5%) thus making them a popular target.

Mottled Ducks are part of the “Mallard complex,” a group of approximately 20 closely-related species and subspecies of ducks. As a result, Mottled Ducks face another unusual challenge: gene flow from feral introduced Mallards. These “pen-raised” released and escapee Mallards generally do not migrate to northern breeding grounds. Naturally sexually aggressive male feral Mallards are interbreeding with local Mottled Ducks, thus undermining the genetic isolation of the latter and producing infertile hybrids. This problem is most significant in Florida, leading some to fear for the extinction of the Florida subspecies, although there are reports of hybrids from other areas, including Texas.

Only time will tell if the relentless crush of human ecological trouble-making will spare these lovely creatures.

Mated pair Mottled Ducks at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Are their best days behind them? Mated Pair of Mottled Ducks at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are easy to tell apart at a distance. In addition to different bill color, females tend to have a darker, more distinct eye-line and sometimes a more distinct black “fleck” just behind and below the eye, which at a distance can almost resemble a tear-drop. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it.–Frans Lanting

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Why Birders Should Care About the Global Amphibian Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Brood of the Moorhens?

Common Moorhens may raise up to three broods per breeding season, especially in their southern range, but I was a bit surprised to find a pair of Moorhens with young chicks on the autumnal equinox, September 22, 2012. It got me thinking that these chicks, seen near the end of September, are most likely the last brood of the season at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Day-length, or photoperiod, along with temperature changes, govern many seasonal changes in animals including changes in the coloration of fur/feathers, hibernation, migration, and mating behavior. Here, along the gulf coast, our seasonal changes are gradual – permitting longer growing seasons and, happily, longer baby bird watching as well!

Common Moorhen with chick exhibiting begging behavior.
With their bald patches and what look like bad hair-plugs, Common Moorhen chicks could easily win a “so-ugly-they’re-cute” contest. This little one is begging for food by “flapping” its stubby wings.  Moorhens with young can be found throughout the long, hot summer at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.