As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”–Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
A few nights ago as we lay in bed, around 4 am, an eerie scratching noise pried us from the arms of Morpheus. Having had roof rats in our Houston house many years ago, we were terrified that rodents had found their way into our new Arizona house–those suckers were really hard to get rid of! After wondering who or what was making the noise, Chris got out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded out the balcony door. Fully expecting to find a cliff chipmunk living it up on our roof, he was startled to discover a female Northern Flicker attempting to chisel her way into the stucco beneath the eaves! “You have a whole forest, but you have to drill into my house!” exclaimed Chris.
Even the most dedicated bird-lovers must have doubts from time-to-time when it comes to woodpeckers. Up in the North Woods of Minnesota they are reviled pests. Once Chris watched in fascination as a Hairy Woodpecker chiseling into a log cabin at a lodge in the Colorado Rockies. He was fascinated, mainly because he had never before had such a good look at this species,* but also at the audacity of the creature. Taking such liberties with private property in broad daylight, ten feet from a human onlooker! Doubtful the owner of the lodge would have been so charmed.
Despite their tendency to knock holes in trees and human structures, woodpeckers are among our favorite birds. We are always thrilled to see them. Even in the middle of the night. Well . . . .
*Even though they look very much alike in books, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are readily distinguishable in person. The size and robustness of the bill is very different.
The most splendid achievement of all is the constant striving to surpass yourself and to be worthy of your own approval.–Denis Waitley
Regular readers will no doubt have noticed a decline in the rate of posting on twoshutterbirds.com. This is not by choice! This drop-off in productivity has been the result of a number of factors affecting our luxurious new post-Harvey lifestyle. A change in Chris’s teaching schedule has also meant the loss of an hour after work every day–the time he used to work on bird photography. Chris having a tenacious head cold the past few weeks hasn’t helped, either. In any case, for the near-term we’ll likely not be as productive as we have been in the distant past. Keep checking back! We’ll keep slogging forward, and a new equilibrium will eventually be reached!
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. –Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It’s been a busy summer, but now it’s time to fly away from the exotic plants and animals of the desert and get back to work work. For a while we’ll be too busy to spend much time on twoshutterbirds. But, dear reader, never fear! We’ll be back on the ball in no time flat with more images of, and prose about, our beloved feathery friends (and others)!
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. –Marcel Proust
Don’t forget to join us for . . . .
Topic: Birding Cave Creek Canyon (and Other Adventures), Arizona and West Texas
Time/date: 7 pm/May 2, 2018
Place: Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd, Houston, TX 77079
Synopsis: Cave Creek Canyon (CCC) in the Chiricahuas of southeast Arizona is one of the great birding destinations of the United States. Especially known for a diversity and abundance of hummingbirds, CCC is an important migratory route for Neotropical migrant songbirds entering the West and contains birds and other biota from the surrounding deserts, grasslands, and Madrean Highlands (Sky Islands). Since they first visited CCC about five years ago, Chris and Elisa have been drawing up plans to visit as often as possible and ultimately wish to retire to this area. Although they have much yet to learn, join this husband/wife photo-birding team at they relate some of their first avian encounters in this incredible area. We will also discuss the Franklin Mountains of West Texas, a frequent stopover site on the way to CCC with excellent photobirding and a similar avifauna.
Place: Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd, Houston, TX 77079
Synopsis: Cave Creek Canyon (CCC) in the Chiricahuas of southeast Arizona is one of the great birding destinations of the United States. Especially known for a diversity and abundance of hummingbirds, CCC is an important migratory route for Neotropical migrant songbirds entering the West and contains birds and other biota from the surrounding deserts, grasslands, and Madrean Highlands (Sky Islands). Since they first visited CCC about five years ago, Chris and Elisa have been drawing up plans to visit as often as possible and ultimately wish to retire to this area. Although they have much yet to learn, join this husband/wife photo-birding team at they relate some of their first avian encounters in this incredible area.
I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad. –George Bernard Shaw
Shaw’s words have a special significance for those of us who live in Houston . . . . In any case, we’re taking a few days off to enjoy the holidays but will be back on the ball soon to share more images and prose about our delightful feathered friends! Cheers, Chris and Elisa
Late last week we evacuated to Huntsville for the epic floods associated with Harvey. At this writing, we don’t know the extent of the damage to our house, but we’re expecting it to be severe. Given the uncertainties and the likelihood of being extremely busy for the next few weeks, we’re putting Two Shutterbirds on hiatus. But don’t despair, we may be back with more images of our avian friends sooner than we think. Cheers, Elisa and Chris
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1: 5
When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha
Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.
After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.
This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”
What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.
Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.
Sonny: Is there any special country you wanna go to?
Sonny: Sal, Wyoming’s not a country.
–Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
What with Elisa up in Wyoming to observe the astronomical, and Chris back in thrall attending to the physical, we’re tapped out. Not to worry–we’ll be back on the ball soon with more images and prose celebrating our feathery friends. As we enter these sweaty dog days, we’re dreaming of the first blue norther (and northern and high places)! If you’re on the Texas Gulf Coast, we bet you are too!
One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.
We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.
Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.
One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.