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.
Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton
As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.
On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .
But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .
Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. –Plutarch
This week on Galveston, Common Loons could be seen in many stages of transitional plumage. Every bird looked slightly different. All the birds I saw had some degree of spotting on the wings, and so lacked the brown, scalloped pattern of nonbreeding wing plumage. I saw one bird with a shaggy mane of pin feathers (Thanks to S.M. for pointing out this bird!) and one bird in almost complete breeding colors—only a stray feather here or there needed to be pigmented.
Many birds were engaged in hunting behavior much of the time. I saw fish, crabs, and a single mantis shrimp (Squilla empusa) being taken. This is clearly the time of year to be gorging and fattening up. It’s a long way back to Canada and environs for the breeding season! A good deal of preening was also going on, likely related to molting and keeping feathers in shape for the big trip ahead. Two birds had already pair-bonded and spent a significant amount of time together–another reminder that breeding in birds is often a process that unfolds in many stages over much of the year.
Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?—Frida Kahlo
Among extant birds, grebes have a unique method of foot propulsion. There are other foot-propelled divers, loons, for example, but these birds have significant webbing between the toes. The birds with webbed toes push themselves forward against the drag force of water. Grebes, on the other hand, have separate toes with stiff, collapsible asymmetrical lobes on each side. The lobes on the inside are larger than those on the outside. Grebes are also unusual in that their relatively short femora (thigh bones) are oriented perpendicular to the long axis of the body, and the toes beat along a complex dorso-lateral to ventro-medial path, rather than parallel to the direction of the body’s forward motion.
The traditional interpretation of how grebes paddled through the water, and the one I was taught, is that the lobes of the toes would unfold during then power stroke to provide maximum drag to push against, and fold up to reduce drag on the the recovery stroke. A more recent interpretation is that the grebe foot acts like a (slotted) hydrofoil and provides a lift force that propels the bird forward from behind (Johansson and Norberg, 2001)–physically similar to the way in which a wing allows a bird or airplane to fly. The lift hypothesis has an immediate visceral appeal to me given the asymmetrical lobes of the toes—like the vanes of a flight feather. Lift is usually explained by elementary physics textbooks as the result of the Bernoulli principle, essentially the conservation of energy for a moving fluid. This explanation is not correct quantitatively. The true explanation likely involves the most terrifying of all physics concepts . . . turbulence . . . .
As a photographer on the surface, I haven’t been able to document the strange way in which grebes move through the water. Once and a while, when conditions were right, I have been treated to a glimpse of the legs in motion as in the image below. Swimming with grebes is one more activity to add to an already lengthy bucket list.
I mentioned at the opening that grebes were unique among extant birds. Hesperornithiformes, a group of toothed Cretaceous foot-propelled diving birds, are thought to have had a method of propulsion similar to grebes and to have possessed asymmetrically lobed individual toes. On a recent visit to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, I had the opportunity to study the feet of a life-sized model of Hesperornis regalis, the largest of these Cretaceous divers from the Kansas Chalk Sea. Reading the label . . . sure enough, reconstruction supervised by Dr. L. D. Martin, my late (paleo)ornithology professor, a gifted teacher with so many fascinating stories to tell about the lives of birds. . . .
While grebe-watching, I am always interested in seeing these birds return to the surface with prey. In my experience along the Gulf Coast, Eared Grebes rarely return to the surface with prey. After dozens of dives, I have seen only one small fish clamped in a beak. This means that grebes are either remarkably unsuccessful hunters (unlikely), or that they can swallow small prey underwater (likely). Pied-billed and Least Grebes can be seen with large prey on the surface like fish, crawfish, frogs, and dragonflies. Perhaps small prey may be easily swallowed in the submarine realm, whereas large prey items may need to be manipulated into an ideal orientation in the air. In any case, grebes are certainly among the most interesting subjects for study and observation. Elisa doesn’t have to ask me twice to go grebe-watching!
Johansson, L.C., and Norberg, U. M. L. Norberg. 2001. Lift-based Paddling in Diving Grebe. The Journal of Experimental Biology204: 1687-1696.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare
l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.
Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!
Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.
This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!
Birds are the most popular group in the animal kingdom. We feed them and tame them and think we know them. And yet they inhabit a world which is really rather mysterious. –David Attenborough
Frankly we haven’t gotten out much lately. This is a function of terrible weather and just plain exhaustion. The prospect of fighting traffic on a gloomly, humid 85° day in February hasn’t held much charm. Spending time indoors has led to combing through the photo archives and pining for past years in which we had a proper winter.
One of the things we would have been watching for this week, had we been outdoors, is the cooperative feeding behavior of American White Pelicans. Whenever I see these birds I stand in awe, just waiting for them to so something neat. Is there anything more majestic in American birding than a string of White Pelicans paddling in formation along the shallows searching for schools of fish?
American White Pelicans are known to cooperatively herd fish into the shallows by beating their wings. On Galveston, a fairly common sight is a line of White Pelicans suddenly forming a circle, beaks pointed inward, and gobbling up a school of fish (presumably).
Once the feeding frenzy is over, the birds turn around within their circular formation and reassemble into their line and continue paddling along peacefully . . . until the next school of fish.
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid
The last few weeks have been rather hectic, and we’re wiped out. Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball soon sharing some images of, and words about, our incredible Texas avifauna! Cheers, Elisa and Chris
It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik
On the Texas Gulf Coast, birders can see Black-bellied Plovers in all plumage types, except down. Nonbreeding colors are easiest to see here, and in other coastal wintering areas from the Canadian border to South America on both East and West coasts. Although a few birds summer along the Texas Gulf Coast, Black-bellied Plovers breed exclusively in the High Arctic, so seeing nestlings in down would be a major undertaking.
Birds in transitional plumage can be seen during spring migration. Beginning in late March, birds in these intermediate colors can be seen fairly easily at such places as Frenchtown Road, Rollover Fish Pass, and across Galveston Island. By May, birds in dramatic breeding plumage can be seen in these same places. From mid-August to October, Black-bellied Plovers appear again in Texas for fall migration, and to begin their winter residence.
When we first started birding, different seasonal plumages seemed to be a nightmarish complication to an already challenging hobby. But we have grown an appreciation for these changes: Rather than seeing them as an identification problem, we consider them an opportunity. Even common birds like Black-bellied Plovers can provide the challenge of seeing and photographing birds in every plumage type.
. . . 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!
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?