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 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.
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.
Long ago, when the world was still quite new, there were no winds at all, neither the gentle breeze of summer nor the fierce winter gale. Everything was perfectly still. Nothing disturbed the marsh grass on the shore and when snow fell, it fell straight to earth instead of blowing and swirling into drifts as it does now . . . . Origin of the Winds, Aleut legend
The four Pribilof Islands lie in the Bering Sea about one-hundred fifty miles north of the Aleutians. Of St. George, St. Paul, Walrus, and Otter Islands, only St. Paul and St. George are inhabited. St. George and St. Paul are birding meccas, more so the latter because of better weather conditions for aviation in and out despite the former having a great deal more cliff habitat and many more birds.
Seventeen species of alcids have been observed on and around St. Paul Island. Many of these species are rare, threatened, or endangered. In summer, however, seven species are common, and these are the birds we spent a considerable time with in early July as part of a bird photography workshop conducted by Canadian photographer Chris Dodds. Least Auklets seemed to be the most abundant of the alcids on the cliffs, followed by Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets. Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins were less common. Common Murres were observed infrequently: We only observed them in flight around the sea cliffs.
The seven species of alcids are all cliff-nesting species and spend most of the year out to sea when they are not breeding or raising young. With the exception of Least Auklets which we also observed and photographed at Anton Larsen Wall, a man-made breakwater composed of boulders of volcanic rock, all species were photographed on cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Many of these sites seem quite precarious and dangerous (for birds and humans alike), and one section of cliff housing Crested Auklet nesting sites collapsed into the sea while we were visiting.
According to reports and historical records, the abundance of birds and other animals has decreased dramatically on St. Paul. According to Chris Dodds who has visited the island approximately thirty times in the last few decades, the abundance of birds has dropped by about 90% in that time. Aerial photos of the island on display in the King Eider Hotel, the only lodging available to visiting birders, also show a steep decline in northern fur seal abundance since the mid-twentieth century.
The decrease in seabird abundance on St. Paul likely reflects a general drop in bird abundance across the northern Pacific. On this trip, the local guides and Chris Dodds kept mentioning nesting failures and weird timings of birds coming and going across the island. Many causes have been suggested for the current avian crisis from human overfishing, to birds being killed in fishing nets, oil spills, other pollution, and “the blob,” a mass of unusually warm surface water that has disrupted the marine ecosystem causing mass starvation. Whatever the cause(s), if you want to see these incredible animals we suggest not waiting as the task will only become more difficult with time. Think of the northern Pacific as the American West–circa 1890.
Problem solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it. –Thomas Harris
Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 1
This Thanksgiving holiday we took the opportunity to photo-bird a few of our favorite spots along the Coastal Bend. Our first stop was Paradise Pond in Port Aransas on Mustang Island, Texas. Sitting on a perched water table, Paradise Pond is the only open source of fresh water in the area—thus making it a mecca for birds and birders. To our delight, a single Least Grebe was patrolling the pond.
Least Grebes typically feed on aquatic insects and insect larvae and also consume small fish, tadpoles, and crawfish. This grebe, though, was occasionally doing battle with large Anax junius dragonflies. Strangely, the bird would emerge from underwater out toward the middle of the pond with struggling dragonflies in its beak. At first, brain-storming in the field, we wondered if the bird was: 1) finding moribund dragonflies on the bottom and bringing them up, 2) capturing insects as they emerged from metamorphosis underwater, 3) capturing the insects as they laid eggs at the surface somewhere and then swimming underwater, 4) grabbing insects in flight and then dragging them under to drown them, or 5) grabbing dragonflies from emergent vegetation and then submarining away. During most of the time we observed, the grebe was in a high state of vigilance, and appeared to be tracking dragonflies as they zipped around.
As a sidebar, Chris encountered a bit of a photographic challenge during our study of the Least Grebe. The recent removal of the Brazilian Pepper trees to the west of the pond meant that the water in the pond had three distinct regions. Along the eastern edge of the pond, the water was shaded by vegetation and appeared dark green (images immediately above and below). The middle of the pond appeared a brilliant blue (top image), and the western part of the pond had strong glare and appeared striped gold and blue (bottom image). Images from the latter tended to look washed out. As the grebe patrolled looking for dragonflies, it crossed into the three types of water, thus requiring constant chimping to keep exposure correct.
After several hours of observation, Elisa finally saw the bird picking dragonflies and damselflies from emergent vegetation after approaching from underwater—one question answered! Soon after that, Chris and Elisa both saw a spectacular hunting display: a pair of autumn meadowhawk dragonflies was flying in tandem across the surface of the pond when the Grebe erupted from under the water, lunged toward the insects, and took a snap at them! So we did learn that Least Grebes will attempt to snatch dragonflies from mid-air.
After our return home, we spent Sunday morning binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). There, we spoke with naturalist and friend R.D. who told us that he had seen a Least Grebe grab a dragonfly from the air at BBSP (Pilant Slough). The insect later escaped, but now we know: Least Grebes employ a variety of tactics to capture dragonflies.
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.
Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.–William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors
Birding is something I do alone, with Elisa, or with very small groups of people—so the impact and embarrassment of personal screw-ups has been limited. Field blunders have ranged from the minor (like calling a female Orchard Oriole a Prothonotary Warbler in front of the late Steve Gross) to silly, like hustling out the woods in grizzly country feeling like I was being hunted only to decide that it was all in my head! Probably.
In the imagination-getting-the-better-of-oneself scenario, a week or so ago I was on the levee between 40-acre and Pilant Lake when I heard a loud rustling coming from the rice on the edge of Pilant Lake. Whatever it was sounded big—and it sounded like there were several somethings. Would I see a row of feral pigs? Otters? Raccoons? Otters would be great! This could be exciting! A similar thing had happened before and a bobcat had poked its head out less than five yards in front of me!
So I fiddled with my gear in eager anticipation . . . when who popped out? A group of the noisiest grackles on the planet emerged from the vegetation, and they had nesting materials in their beaks. At least I got a few shots of that, I thought disappointedly. Later, while reviewing the images, I realized that it was not nesting materials that they had, but straw-colored katydids! The birds must have been in a line to flush out the insects. Without knowing it, I had likely observed avian cooperative hunting. I have seen Cattle Egrets doing much the same thing. So much for otters.
In the not-knowing-what-you’re-looking-at scenario, last week I was watching American Goldfinches chiseling into stems of an unidentified plant and plucking out tiny somethings. That’s weird, I thought, what could these birds be getting out of stems? Later, I brought up the question to a naturalist friend, and he quickly offered that insects had possibly infested the stems and the birds were simply fishing them out. But later while reviewing the images trying to identify the “insects,” I realized that the stems were not stems at all, but rather dried-out elongated seed pods, and the birds were (unsurprisingly) simply eating seeds! The whole conversation about insects in stems was like the Peanuts episode when Lucy and Linus wonder about how potato chips could migrate from Brazil (after misidentifying a potato chip as a beautiful yellow butterfly).
In my own defense, once in a while I see something unusual enough that I don’t feel silly when I misinterpret it. I remember photographing the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron below and feeling sorry that the poor animal had a growth on its lower bill. A few years later, while sifting through the archives I noted that it was not a growth, but rather a gar tooth that was protruding from the bill. The bird must have been hunting in the water when a gar bit it through the lower jaw. In the ensuing struggle, the tooth must have broken off.
Finally, this post reminds me of a question I often pose to myself: Do I see more when I am out photographing or when I am binocular birding? I’m pretty sure that I see more with binoculars alone because I’m not worrying about light, perspective, and so on. But then again, without images to check what I’ve been seeing, how do I really know that what I’ve been looking at it is what I thought I was looking at?
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
Snowy Egrets are known for shuffling their bright yellow feet in the shallow water to scare up dinner. This summer I also caught one employing a bubble-blowing hunting technique to attract invertebrates and small fish.
On Saturday (11/2) at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas I noticed another Snowy Egret fishing/hunting strategy that was new to me–and one that also involves scaring up prey. The egret shown above tracked Pied-billed Grebes back and forth as they chased fish and crawfish in the shallows, perhaps 3-4 feet from the shore. Likely fish and invertebrates scatter as grebes go swimming past–and likely this egret was making use of this to pick off prey responding to the grebes. During this shadowing behavior, the egret was quite good at predicting just where the grebe would surface. Perhaps the grebes were visible, at least sometimes, from the egret’s vantage point? Or was this wader ESP? In any case, the egret would often dash to a position on the shore closest to where the Grebe would suddenly emerge from the water.
Commensalism, a symbiosis in which one organism benefits and another is largely unaffected, is likely the label an ecologist would place on the above relationship. But could it be mutalism? Did the grebes benefit from the presence of the egret? Perhaps the egret could have revealed the presence of predators lurking in the shallows or the weeds? Did the grebes have one eye out on a friend on the shore who might signal (through behavior) the presence of an alligator lurking on the shore otherwise undetected? Or a nasty old alligator gar floating, log-like in the shallows? Perhaps the egret chased prey items (like plump juicy frogs) from the shoreline into the water? Food for thought.
Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.–FDR
For most of the month of September, a (presumably) transiting juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird laid claim to a patch of native plants in our back yard in suburban Houston. From a shepherd’s crookish twig (a dead coral bean tree branch entwined with a greenbrier vine) this feisty little bird watched over his patch of turk’s cap and coral honeysuckle. Occasionally he would make forays to visit our patio to sample the firespike flowers, but hour after hour he would sit, vigilant atop his curly perch. Whenever invading hummingbirds would appear he would, without mercy, drive them away and return to his throne. By the second week of October he was gone for parts unknown . . . perhaps he will return next year a king, gorget ablaze.
My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy.–William Shakespeare
*I think that this is a first fall male because of the high level of aggression, the slight streaking of the throat, and one dark throat feather (not visible in photo). Although, it could possibly be an adult female. I invite comments from anyone who knows better.
“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.
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!
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?
Time spent with cats is never wasted. –Sigmund Freud
I took the opportunity to visit the Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary this week while Elisa was working in Port Arthur, Texas. I’m sunburned (sweated off my sunscreen in a matter of minutes), covered with various insect bites and stings, and my left hand is swollen due to contact with some poisonous plant. Deer flies will eat you ALIVE this time of year. It was like the CONGO!
Got some nice shots, though–Yellow Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Orchard Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers (strangely out of place!) and a few others. The best part: I was in an area of thick, chest-deep vegetation that was alive with cotton rats when I heard a rustling noise. That sounds mammalian, I reasoned. I saw the brush parting ahead as if something the size of a Cocker Spaniel was coming toward me. And it didn’t stop! It didn’t know I was there–strange, given that I’d been sweating like Nixon for the past two hours. Is this a cougar!?! went through my mind (I saw one here last spring). Am I about to die?
Suddenly a cat-face poked right out in front of me, about five feet away. I knew it was a cat before I knew it was a . . . bobcat! The bobcat couldn’t figure out what I was. I was big, with five legs and one huge eye! The bobcat couldn’t decide to attack or not for a full two seconds, but let out a growl as if to say: “Thanks for chasing away my rats, you . . . silly-looking creature!” The bobcat quietly slipped back into the brush and disappeared.