Author Archives: Elisa Lewis

ID Bracelets: For the Birds?

What gets measured, gets managed. —Peter Drucker

Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.
Banded Male White-tailed Ptarmigan in Breeding Plumage, Trail at Medicine Bow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

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.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico
Banded Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Sandia Crest, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, "The Tree," Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Banded Female Mountain Bluebird, “The Tree,” Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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.

Banded Female Wilson's Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas
Banded Female Wilson’s Plover, East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas. 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.

The Yellow-eyed Rump-warmer

Sunny days (especially sunny weekend days) seem to be in short supply along the Texas Gulf Coast this winter. Happily, this weekend should be among those rare sunny occasions—so we’re headed to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) to see if we can spot the Least Grebes we saw just after the new year. Allow me take you back in time a few weeks . . . . New Year’s Day had come in with a grudge—weeks of damp and dreary days latched on like leeches and drained the life right out of us. So, when the first Sunday of 2015 rotated into place with a bright, sunny sky, we geared up and headed out, giddy with optimism.

Sunning Least Grebe at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Sun worshipper. The Least Grebe fluffs its tail feathers to expose dark-pigmented skin on its rump and absorb solar energy for warmth on a cold January morning. Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

We weren’t the only ones venturing out to take advantage of the weather. This Least Grebe with it’s powder-puff posterior aimed sunward was practicing “high-sterned sunbathing,” according to the literature (Well, that’s a polite way of putting it!). The skin exposed by raising the feathers on its back-side is black and thought to absorb solar radiation. It seems reasonable enough. While in this position, I observed the bird paddle its feet back and forth to produce a stationary “waggle,” which could be interpreted as at the bird’s way of distributing the heat more evenly. You can see faint ripple-marks produced by our rump-warming friend in the photo above.

Water beads up and rolls off the back of a Least Grebe.
Waterproof. Water beads off a Least Grebe’s back after emerging from a dive. Many types of waterbirds have the ability to waterproof their feathers and insulate themselves from the wet and the cold. Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). Natural light.

The Least Grebe drew quite a crowd of onlookers along Pilant Slough at BBSP. Aside from being downright adorable, Least Grebes are infrequently seen in our neck of the woods. We usually see Pied-billed Grebes at BBSP. Although Pied-billed Grebes can be seen all over the US, Least Grebes are a tropical to sub-tropical species, and the Texas Gulf Coast populations are at the northern extremity of their typical permanent range. Even our mild Texas freezes can be fatal. As we left the park, I was excited to see two Least Grebes together. We’re hoping that they’re a mated pair and make it through our winter to raise a few broods!

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Do you see that out there? The strange unfamiliar light? It’s called the Sun. Let’s go and get us a little.” – Nora Roberts, The Hollow

©2015 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

High Drama at Low Tide

Black-bellied Plover with ghost shrimp
Black-bellied Plover with Ghost Shrimp (Family Callianassidae), Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Hello again, friends! Chris’ last post reminded me of the photos I have to share of a Black-bellied Plover plucking ghost shrimp from their burrows. Watching shorebirds pull infaunal invertebrates from tidal mudflats is definitely my idea of a good time! These photos were taken last April, when the bird was starting to molt into its breeding plumage.

I knew this plover had something big when the typical run-pause-pluck, run-pause-pluck hunting style was suspended at the “pluck.” There it was, its bill up to the nostrils in mud, completely frozen. A few beats later, a mound of mud erupted as the plover slowly pulled up a bizarre looking worm (because everything’s a worm-right?). Well, turns out, it was an arthropod – a ghost shrimp to be precise – and this little bird was a master shrimper. Fastidious too. After each catch, the black-belly would run to the water’s edge to rinse the ghost shrimp off before swallowing it whole.

Three image series of a Black-bellied Plover pulling a ghost crab out of its burrow in a mudflat.
Watch Me Pull a Ghost Shrimp Out of This Mudflat! A Black-bellied Plover “magician” extracts a ghost shrimp from its burrow at Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

As a photographer, these are the moments I shoot for. As a wildlife watcher, these little dramas starring avian predators and their cryptic prey open small windows into life beneath the surface. Considering the diversity of species and numbers of birds that make their livings pulling food from the earth, I get a sense of how alive the ground beneath our feet really is.

I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself.–Edward Steichen

©2014 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Story of the Day Was “Blue”

Male Cerulean Warbler perched in a hackberry tree
Peek-a-blue! After a long journey from Central America or northwest South America, a male Cerulean Warbler, momentarily distracted, hunts for insects in a hackberry tree on Pelican Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural Light.

After birding or photo-birding, I often capsulize my experience into a theme or headline. For example, I’ll say to Chris, “The story of today was ‘Hooded Warbler Invasion'” or “Today’s special: ‘Unlucky Crawfish.'” On April 19th this year, with migration in full swing, the story was “Blue.” I was amazed by the number of Indigo Buntings on Pelican Island that day and equally frustrated at my inability to capture a decent image of just one of them. After exhausting my patience, I backed into the shade of a large oak to wait for something to happen in the hackberries, just onshore of Galveston Bay, in front of me.  I was practicing my spider inspired “sit-and-wait” technique where I dissolve into the brush and see what appears. Can you say chiggers?

Yes, well, before the slow-motion horror show in multiple miniature revealed itself, there were glimpses of warblers, hunting away and presumably oblivious to my presence. One particular warbler caught my eye. Could it be? Yes! A male Cerulean Warbler. My first ever sighting. I was committed. I wasn’t leaving until I captured the moment. I was focused. I didn’t dare reposition the lens to try for the Indigo Buntings now foraging, ironically, nearby. I knew the Cerulean was a rarity and I couldn’t help but feel joyful to see it finding food and shelter in my coastal backyard. Incidentally, Cerulean Warblers show the highest rate of decline of any U.S. warbler.

It took  hours of patiently waiting for the little guy to come back around to my side of the tree and almost a hundred frames, but I finally got something that reflects the beauty of the encounter. It was my best trade-off for a chigger infestation to date. It was also my top headline of Migration 2014. With migration behind us and the breeding season in progress, we are enjoying the avian birth announcements.

 You may get skinned knees and elbows, but it’s worth it if you score a spectacular goal. —Mia Hamm

 ©2014 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Hunting: Gallinule Style

An aquatic leaf beetle, Donacia sp., tries (and ultimately fails) to escape the Purple Gallinule jaws of death.

I’ve been looking forward to putting this post together since I took these photos on the first day of fall this year. I just love it when all the tumblers fall in place and I capture an interaction that tells a story. I was camped out along the banks of Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park watching Purple Gallinules methodically turning over what seemed like each and every lotus leaf in their paths. Grab; step; fold; hold. Grab; step; fold; hold.  Again and again, they applied the technique as they criss-crossed back and forth across the carpet of lotus leaves. I assumed they were hunting but, for what? Strangely enough they ignored the aquatic snails conspicuously stuck to the undersides of the overturned lily pads. The snails looked pretty good to me, and snails are on the typical Purple Gallinule menu – along with seeds, insects, crustaceans, fish, eggs, and marsh bird nestlings (!) – but they passed on the snails. Not even a “no thank you” helping. It wasn’t until I was able to look at my photos closely that I was able to identify the special of the day – aquatic leaf beetles.

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Over a period of about an hour and a half, I captured 17 unique predator-prey interactions and nine of those involved Donacia, the aquatic leaf beetle. Two involved fish and the remaining four menu items – unidentified. This juvenile Purple Gallinule found its beetles either sandwiched between overlapping lotus leaves or nestled within enrolled emergent lotus leaves. I also saw the gallinule peek inside the rolled up leaves presumably checking for beetles before ripping a small hole in the side to extract the snack. (I’ll post that series later.)

Female Purple Gallinule peeking under a lily pad
Come out, come out, wherever you are! An immature Purple Gallinule looks for aquatic leaf beetles under American Lotus leaves on Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.

©2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Hummingbird Travelog Part 1: The Oasis Effect

Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird in flight
Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird making a play for an open feeder spot at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light. 7.26.2013.

All systems in nature seek the lowest available energy state. This is a concept that my students could always grasp on a personal level. (Substitute “teenagers” for “all systems in nature” in the first sentence. See what I mean?) Human nature, like the rest of nature, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Hummingbirds are no different.

Consider the droves of hummingbirds attracted to sugar-water feeders. Well-kept feeders are an easy alternative to foraging, and field studies show that when nectar (or nectar substitute) sources are super abundant, high metabolic cost territorial activity decreases. Feeders are the path of least resistance for hummingbirds.

Human interest in hummingbirds and the resulting dedication to supplementing their diet has impacted their biogeography. Hummingbird banding data support the idea that feeders (along with native gardening practices) are the reason that overwintering hummingbird populations have expanded along the Gulf Coast after first migrating into Mexico in the fall. Feeders and native plantings also contribute to the so-called “oasis effect” observed in exurban developments in the arid southwest where increasing numbers of hummingbirds (among other birds) in resource-poor terrain take advantage of supplemental food, shelter, and water resources.

Hovering male Calliope Hummingbird drinking from a sugar-water feeder
Male Calliope Hummingbird taking advantage of the sugar-water feeders at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind in July. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchonized flash. 7.26.2013.

On our recent summer desert birding road trip, we found the Franklin Mountain State Park feeders buzzing madly with hummingbirds. Especially welcome was the opportunity to get close-up views of Calliope Hummingbirds – thought to be the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world – on their 5,000 mile southern journey to Mexico from the northwestern US and Canada.

For Calliopes, fall migration starts early. Sources report typical Calliope departures from northwest locales in late August. But wait, it was late July and they were already in Texas … Was this early arrival due to a natural seasonal shift or could it just have been the oasis effect?

I hear like you see — like that hummingbird outside that window for instance.

— Ray Charles


 © 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Nest Box 24

Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park. This Wood Duck and his mate were extremely wary of humans. Smart ducks! Photo taken in March with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“Hey, there’s a pair of Wood Ducks hanging out by Nest Box 24,” Chris says with a knowing smile as we meet on the path encircling Elm Lake. “Excellent!” I reply. It’s my turn with the 500mm, and a good opportunity to practice my sit-and-wait technique. Patience has paid off in the past – especially with flycatchers returning to perches. So, with images of Wood Ducks in my head, I hurry on down the trail–politely refusing several offers to trade cameras with my point-and-shoot counterparts.

Slowing my approach as I get closer, I collapse the tripod to sitting height, identify the best angle given the light, then slip in among the brush. I am confident that my camouflaged ninja birding skills will produce a pair of Wood Ducks.

Mated pair of Blue-winged Teal at Pliant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A mated pair of Blue-winged Teal feed on duck weed at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/3200, -0.3 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

At least there’s a handsome mated pair of Blue-winged Teal to keep me company. I wait. No Wood Ducks. The teal come in closer. Well, I might as well shoot them while I’m here. Done. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hmm, maybe the Wood Ducks are IN the box! I train the camera on the nest box hole. I guess some images of a nest box would be nice. Snap. Snap. OK. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hey! A head popped out of the hole!

Fox Squirrel peeking out from a nest box at Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A Fox Squirrel peeks out from Nest Box 24 in Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOC 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/11, ISO 500, 1/320, -0.7 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Really? A squirrel. Hmph!

Wait a minute. What’s a squirrel doing in there? Is it hunting for eggs? Hunting for chicks? (That little #*%@!) Could it be tending a nest of its own? A little bit of internet research indicates it could be any of the above. I will need to keep an eye out for this in the future. I love it when I learn something new. Don’t you?

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

Birding the Future

Pencil drawing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by a young artist.
Trepp’s interpretation of my Ruby-throated Hummingbird image. Nature illustration is one of many ways young people express their interest in and curiosity about the natural world.

We don’t often see children out birding. Frankly, as high school teachers, we inked that feature into the “pros of birding” column when we were auditioning feasible hobbies. Children, it seems, neither make happy birders nor birders happy.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte's Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX. Notice the dusting of pollen on his head
Portrait of Chris Cunningham in pencil by a young artist
Trepp captured Chris discussing our camera set-up during the HANPA April 2013 meeting.

It may seem ironic but, we were pleasantly surprised to see two young visitors to our “Behind the Blog” presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting in April. (Willing students are always appreciated!) Brothers Richard and Trepp, eight and six, stayed as long as their bedtime would allow. We were impressed by the quality and depth of their questions and received several wonderful sketches capturing parts of the program. Encouraged by this passionate interest at such a young age, I was reminded that birders need to cultivate the next generation of birders if bird conservation – let alone nature conservation – is to have a future.

Flashback to the late 1990’s when Chris and I lived in Austin: We were the only “kids” in the creek beds during school-term weekends.  We were re-living our childhood–where were the real kids spending theirs? Was this a generational shift to the indoors or a shift born of crime statistics, real and imagined?  My parent friends tell me it was fundamentally the latter. Computer activities were (and presumably still are) the safer option. How do we foster exploration and conservation if the great outdoors needs a chaperone?

It’s up to us. How will you bird the future?


“The future depends on what you do today.”

— Mahatma Ghandi

Got Fruit?

I spotted this strangely solo visitor to the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove on Galveston Island on March 12, 2013. Cedar Waxwings are seldom seen solo – they travel in small to medium flocks throughout Texas beginning in fall through late spring.

If you find yourself among any berry-laden shrubs and trees during the Texas winter or spring, you just might be engulfed by the sound of high-pitched trilling whistles followed immediately by a foraging flock of finely-feathered Cedar Waxwings. This is a birding experience not to be missed. I have often found myself delightfully engulfed by scores of Cedar Waxwings plucking late winter – early spring berries from stands of native yaupon (and pockets of invasive and unwelcome privet). Even so, I had been unsuccessful at capturing a decent image of these beauties – until now. This image was taken near the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, TX  which was full of yaupon (Ilex sp.) with ripe berries this past Tuesday. Finally, a clean shot!

Since Cedar Waxwings are primarily (though not exclusively) frugivores, these migrants tend to hang out here longer than our avian winter Texans which chase insect populations on the way to their summer breeding grounds. Cedar Waxwings are known to eat the berries of cedar, mistletoe, juniper, madrone, honeysuckle, crabapple, hawthorn, mulberry, serviceberry, dogwood, and more – a smorgasbord of successively ripening berries. So, as you bird for early spring migrants plucking insects and spiders from the vegetation, keep an eye out for ripe berries of all sorts and perk your ears for the Cedar Waxwing’s telltale song.

© 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Pelican Pouches and the Power of Citizen Science

Eastern Brown Pelican with red throat pouch at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas.
A Brown Pelican with a red throat pouch glides past the shore at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas on February 3, 2013. Many references suggest that Brown Pelicans with red throat pouches only occur along the Pacific Coast. Field observations suggest otherwise!

While we were watching the loons at Offats Bayou in early February, a Brown Pelican paddled through my viewfinder. Odd, I thought — red pouch. After much hopeful discussion and reference checking we were excited to think that we had a California Brown Pelican visiting our patch of the Texas Gulf Coast. There are five subspecies of Brown Pelican — the California, Caribbean, Eastern (ours), Galapagos, and Ecuador Brown Pelicans. The gular pouch of the Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals carolinensis) is most often described as dark gray or blackish, whereas in the California Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals californicus) the pouch is a distinctive red and olive. The difference has been used to distinguish the two subspecies.

Eastern Brown Pelican with black gular pouch
Adult Eastern Brown Pelican with the typical black gular pouch seen in early spring along the Gulf Coast.

As is often the case, things aren’t always as they seem (I love it when this happens!). Upon further investigation, I stumbled upon a post in Sibley Guides online which explains that red pouches seem to also be a part of the Eastern Brown Pelican gene pool based on field observations. The post includes speculation on whether these genes were introduced during Brown Pelican reintroduction in the 70’s or whether it’s really a matter of natural gene flow. Perhaps it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. The observation poses a bunch of new questions to investigate!

Strangely enough this topic was just mentioned on ABA Birding News this past Thursday. A birder/photographer documented a banded Brown Pelican with a red pouch and the band code indicated it was banded as a flightless juvenile in Louisiana — photographic proof that we can no longer use pouch color alone to differentiate Pacific vs. Atlantic subspecies! It seems our “visitor” is most likely a Texan after all.

It is worth noting that this “pelican brief” was brought to you by citizen science and the power of the internet to access and share data. Enthusiasts and amateur scientists interested in birds and their ecology contribute to ornithology in meaningful ways. Opportunities are out there for birders of all ages. You can participate nationally with  Cornell All About Birds Citizen Science projectsAudubon Citizen Science, or eBird – the amazing biodiversity data resource powered by amateur and professional bird watchers alike launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in 2002.

Go exploring!

 © 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Where the Loons Are

Common Loon in winter plumage head shot
Common Loon in winter plumage fishing Offatt’s Bayou close to shore.

One of our favorite birding tools is the excellent guidebook Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast by Ted Eubanks. Last weekend, tempted by Eubanks’ description of loons often feeding a few feet from shore, we visited Galveston’s Offatt’s Bayou (site 65 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). Not only did we have multiple opportunities to watch Common Loons up close but the loons seemed unperturbed by humans — we witnessed loons popping up as close as 3 feet away as we sat on the fishing dock. Indeed, a local fisherman complained to us that the loons often steal his bait while underwater.

According to Eubanks, a visit in late April just before migration should provide views of Common Loons in their distinctive checkerboard breeding plumage. Although their winter plumage is drab by breeding plumage standards, it was fascinating to watch them hunt. Swimming by, they peered underwater, moving their heads side to side presumably searching for prey. After one dive, a loon came up with a small crab and then swallowed it whole. This hunting strategy requires clear water which is why you can find loons in Offatt’s Bayou and other deep, non-silty bodies of water. Our previous experience at Texas City Dike produced many loons but Offat’s Bayou wins hands down for reliable up close photographic opportunities.

All five species of North American Loons are known to winter around the Gulf of Mexico. However, only Common Loons are common around Galveston Bay.  And although tolerance of humans allows for more intimate views (or a pre-caught lunch), sharing fishing holes has not been entirely positive, for loons or loon watchers. A quick survey of the web indicates that lead poisoning from fishing tackle is a leading cause of mortality in loons – not to mention other other wildlife. I was encouraged to read however, that anglers and conservationsists in a few Common Loon breeding ground states have successfully implemented economically viable non-lead fishing tackle alternatives.

Most likely juvenile Common Loon in winter plumage fishing in Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Juvenile Common Loon or rare Pacific Loon? Although this loon looks like an adult non-breeding Pacific Loon, it is missing a dark partial throat band. Most likely it is a juvenile Common Loon. Loon watchers: please let us know your thoughts.

© Copyright 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Vermilion Flycatchers are some of our most anticipated fall visitors along the Texas Gulf Coast. Visiting populations migrate east, not south, for the winter bringing the colors of the West with them (their U.S. breeding range includes CA, NV, AZ, NM, and western and central TX). This flycatcher’s scientific name says it all – Pyrocephalus rubinus (a reference to the spectacular coloration of the male). As if the generic name, Pyrocephalus, or “fire head,” wasn’t enough, the specific name, rubinus, emphasizes the redness of the bird.  One of a few types of so-called “firebirds,” the Vermilion Flycatcher is not only eye-catching, but is energetic and exciting to watch, just like other flycatcher species. Three vermilions – a male, female, and juvenile male –  thoroughly captivated us last weekend at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) headquarters.

This view of the male highlights why this bird is nicknamed “firebird.” Notice the subtle orange-red color variation and the crown feathers–like licking flames. I did not alter the image other than cropping.

The female provided the best viewing opportunity as she perched within 12-15 feet of me. I had the luxury of settling in and studying her behavior for almost an hour. Between bouts of preening, she tracked insects as they flew by – sometimes it appeared as if she were watching a tennis match. Why wasn’t she going after them? Then, all of a sudden, she took off and grabbed one out of the air. What was it about that last fly by? Was it the insects’ speed, trajectory, size, or proximity  that finally made the difference? Or some combination? And then again: track, track, track, go!  It reminded me of playing duck, duck, goose as a child. As I went around the circle, patting the heads of my classmates, I was calculating . . . who could I outrun?

Was the flycatcher calculating? The literature seems to suggest that the Vermilion Flycatcher always gets his/her prey. If the initial attack is unsuccessful, the prey “may be pursued in an erratic acrobatic chase until capture” (Wolf and Jones 2000, 5). Though the research sample is small, it does makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Individuals most efficient (or dogged if necessary) at capturing prey (we could call it flight/eye coordination), will most likely live the longest and leave the greatest numbers of offspring edging the overall average toward a more and more efficiently predatory population.

When watching flycatchers, one can be excused for anthropomorphizing. They often cock their heads with apparent curiosity, and just about ooze charm. Flycatchers seem to delight in taking a particularly big or juicy bug–male Vermilion Flycatchers have been seen presenting potential mates with large, showy gifts–like butterflies. That would be an awesome image indeed — the handoff of a nuptial gift of an insect gem from a male Vermilion Flycatcher to his lady. Stay tuned! I will be watching for it next season in their breeding territory.

Female Vermillion Flycatcher at Anahuac NWR, Texas
This female Vermilion Flycatcher was hunting in open grassy areas on the edge of a dense thicket at Anahuac NWR. Notice the faint wash of red on her crown–not all female Vermilion Flycatchers show this extra blush of color.


Wolf, B.O., and S.L. Jones. 2000. Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). In The Birds of North America, No. 484 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, P.A.


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