The terrible storms of spring 2016 left Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) flooded and many birders looking for alternatives. Several recent trips to Brazos Bend revealed relatively few birds by historical standards. This is not surprising, and I suspect that it will be some time before park habitats recover.
I first visited Buffalo Run in search of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills as a temporary substitute for visits to Brazos Bend. While looking for these exotics, I noticed quite a few Gray Catbirds, Barn Swallows and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Although I did not encounter the exceptional birding that is typical of BBSP under normal circumstances, what I saw was encouraging—especially given the time of year.
Buffalo Run habitats include thickets and prairie, but I am most hopeful about the lakes and nearshore environments. Buffalo Run Park covers 95 acres and has four lakes covering about 48 acres. Boating is allowed but a no-wake rule is in effect (great!), and I have not seen boats on the water.
During the summer I noticed two mated pairs of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, both with large broods of ducklings. If the lakes of Buffalo Run meet the need of Whistling-Ducks, could it be that migratory wintering waterfowl will find their waters inviting? I certainly hope so. Buffalo Run Park is a mere fifteen minutes from our house. What could be more efficient?
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. –William Blake
The southern Oregon Coast has to be considered one of the great botanical treasures of the country. In late spring, sometimes bordering on Majorelle, the surrounding wild profusion of plant diversity can be overwhelming, forcing the photographer to be choosy. It would take a lifetime to truly appreciate Oregon’s botany.
As a birder it often pays to know your plants. Azalea Park in Brookings could be the poster child for the debate over natives versus exotics. This spectacular little city park is loaded with exotics and cultivars and contains few natives. Our Falcon Guide for Oregon indicated that this park is frequented by Rufous, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds during summer.
After combing the park and seeing almost no birds whatsoever, Elisa finally located one native bearberry honeysuckle on the margin of the park. The tubular yellow flowers are a magnet for the hummers, and we quickly spotted Rufous and Allen’s(?) Hummingbirds. The only other interesting bird we spotted in the park was a single Chestnut-backed Chickaee—and this we sighted less than 10 feet from the bearberry, too! Message? If you want wildlife, then plant some natives! It’s just that simple!
Despite the spectacular scenery and huge breeding colonies of Common Murres and other seabirds, we both felt that the “routine birding” on the southwest Oregon Coast was a little disappointing—even after visiting every type of habitat from tidal mudflats to rocky coasts to redwood forests. One of the great advantages of traveling to bird is that what’s common in your travel destination may be new to the traveler.
But most of the places we went simply were not that birdy. We saw much of what was “supposed” to be there, but only one or two individuals. We saw a Black Oystercatcher here, and a Whimbrel there. We saw one Red Crossbill. We saw no American Dippers, even in appropriate habitat—unless dippers are no longer interested in rocky mountain streams within their range. Huge tracts of apparently perfect habitat were almost devoid of birds. No rails. No mergansers. One Killdeer. American Goldfinches in huge flocks of . . . um, three. Two Harlequin Ducks, and so on.
At one point, Elisa was so perplexed about the absence of waders (we saw one Great Blue Heron and two Great Herons in a week) she probed the mud to see if there were invertebrates to be eaten or to provide food for fish, and there were plenty. Perhaps we’ve become spoiled by Texas, or perhaps the Oregon Coast, like many areas of the country, have suffered huge losses in the bird population sizes. We suspect the latter.
The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. –Jules Verne
Last week we took a photo-birding road trip along the southwest Oregon coast, from Newport to Brookings. Our goals were to unwind and enjoy the cool, fresh air, put the terrible weather and Texas floods out of our minds, maybe pick up a few new species, and sample a few new Pacific Northwest brews.
The main natural attractions in southern Oregon during late spring are the marine mammals and breeding colonies of seabirds. Breeding songbirds can also be seen in the coastal forests, and we watched Wilson’s Warblers gathering insects for young and heard the song of the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we see often in Texas but never hear sing because it doesn’t breed here. For a few hours we were puzzled by the Orange-crown’s song: it sounds a bit like the song of the Northern Parula (so we knew we were dealing with a warbler), albeit lower and slower. But with a little help from iBird we sorted out most of the songbird songs, the Orange-crowned Warbler included.
The most common seabird we saw was the Common Murre. We photographed two major colonies, Coquille Point and Yaquina Head. These breeding colonies exist on small, rocky islands, and are among the most spectacular birding destinations in the country. Common Murres, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be seen in these colonies, at least at a distance, in southern Oregon.
Common Murres can be seen rarely as individuals fishing off rocky shores and jetties as well as in huge flotillas of thousands of birds far off shore. Common Murres typically lay one egg that they incubate on their feet, without nesting materials, penguin-style. A second egg may be layed if the first egg is lost to accidents or predators. Predators of Common Murre eggs and young include crows and gulls. Bald Eagles will grab adult birds, and we heard that an eagle was hunting around Yaquina Head while we were there.
Given the superficial similarities between murres and penguins, I wondered if a predator-prey relationship existed between the murres and sea lions paralleling the famous relationship between penguins and leopard seals documented by wildlife photographer Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. I could find no references to specific predators eating murres while at sea, although sharks and toothed whales seem possible candidates. California Sea Lions have been observed grabbing Common Murre chicks in the water near breeding colonies, though. Storms and fishing nets certainly kill many as dead murres sometimes wash up on shore and images of drowned murres and other seabirds tangled in fishing nets and lines exist from around the Northern Hemisphere.
Our last stop was at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. We usually steer clear of zoos and the like, but we read that there was an open air aviary with a number of pelagic Pacific species that are very hard to photograph in the wild up close because they stay out to sea, and their nesting areas are federally protected (it is unlawful to approach closer than 500 feet). The aquarium opens at 10am, so photography is tough. Nevertheless, we took some acceptable portraits of Rhinoceros Auklets, puffins, and other alcids—images that would be extremely challenging to capture in any other way.
Amazing as the animals of the Pacific Northwest are, the dazzling display of plant life, native and exotic, especially flowering species, give them a run for their money—fodder for a future post.
When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.
It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!
The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.
I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).
Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.
Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.
Of all the passions of mankind, the love of novelty most rules the mind. In search of this, from realm to realm we roam. Our fleets come loaded with every folly home.—Foote, in Treasury of Wisdom, Wit, and Humor by Adam Wooléver (1891, 5th ed., p.301)
As one tied to the work-a-day world most of the time, finding new things in the field is always exciting. First (quality) encounters with species are my favorites, but observing new behaviors by familiar ones often must suffice. Last weekend, for example, a naturalist friend (RD) pointed out the barn spider below apparently eating her own web—something I’d not seen a spider do before. It is widely held that spiders do eat webs to re-utilize protein, and the one below appeared to be doing just that.
But based on the severe limitations of time and money, I usually have to find “novelty” where I can. For example, the recent shot below of a newly-returned-from-the-Arctic-for-the-winter Black-bellied Plover may reflect my closest contact with this species.
Admittedly the self-imposed pressure of always looking for new things can sometimes defeat the purposes of amateur nature photography: learning about nature and relieving the stress and strain of daily life and possibly extending life itself. Elisa is clearly better at simply getting out there and enjoying the sights and sounds and sensations. I have to (paradoxically) work on not working so hard.
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.―William Shakespeare
At times like this, the dreary end of a dreary Houston summer, my mind turns to some of those magical places I’ve visited in the past. Upon recollection, some of the most enchanting visions of nature have occurred in the presence of swallows. I remember such a scene in Yellowstone National Park where American Tree and Violet-green Swallows snatched insects from the air and lapped water on the wing from the surface of a beaver pond. Last spring I first noticed American Tree and Rough-winged Swallows performing similar aerobatic feats above Pilant and 40-Acre Lakes, Brazos Bend SP.
As a birder I pay close attention to swallows, as they often present an identification challenge while in flight (Is that a Cave or Cliff Swallow?). As a photo-birder, I often pay swallows too little attention as photographing swallows in flight would be quite a trick. Swallows are not particularly swift fliers, but their darting, acrobatic style of flight makes capturing them in the air something I’ve not yet accomplished, except under stalled circumstances like approaching a nest or perched young. Maybe someday I’ll catch one gliding across the surface of a liquid. Until then, I’ll just have to wait for them to land.
For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .
Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless!
Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!
Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!
After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?
Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.
Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.
Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!
This week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated as last week my father, Duane, passed away after a long illness, and Elisa and I spent three days with family in Minnesota. We have been thinking of him and remembering the happy times, the times outside. It was he who taught me photography, and from whom I gained my first appreciation of nature. So, if you have enjoyed this blog over the years, then you have, in some measure, him to thank. I will miss him.
Shortly after our return to Texas, the atmosphere decided to dump a foot of rain on west Houston, flooding our neighborhood and house (sidebar: we understand that the rain was so heavy in Fort Bend County that Brazos Bend State Park will be closed indefinitely). It will be some time before we claw our way out from the chaos, but there are signs of progress. The insurance adjuster is on the calendar, the floors are drying, and so on.
We have decided to take the flood as a positive, and to further pare down the detritus that stuffs our house. I guess this forces us to remodel! In any case, we are trying to regain our sense of humor and soldier on!
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
It is always during a passing state of mind that we make lasting resolutions.—Marcel Proust
Elisa’s Resolution. I absolutely love welcoming in a New Year! I love the “fresh start” feeling—artificial though it may be. I’m also a sucker for an annual plan (I’m the first-born: It’s not my fault!), but only as a scaffold for investigation, adventure, and inspiration. I don’t really DO traditional resolutions because, well, life happens. However, in recognition of flipping the page on the ol’ Gregorian calendar, there are a few beams I’d like to add to the birding and blogging scaffold this year. In the spirit of our friend the Marsh Wren, I plan to get serious about learning more bird songs and to share my experiences in the field more often. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I am an infrequent contributor. (Frequently behind the lens, but not so much the keyboard.) Thankfully, Chris holds down an excellent fort, and hopefully, I’ll lighten his load a bit more this year.
Chris’s Resolution. With the new year comes a time of reflection and goal-setting. When I started the bird photography hobby, I thought of the camera primarily as a tool to better learn birds and document what I saw in the field. But photography, like many technical pursuits, has a way of taking on a life of it’s own. A perusal of the major digital photography blogs, for example, will show how pixel-peeping and endless hand-wringing about high-ISO noise and yadda-yadda-yadda can bleed the life right out of the birding-by-camera hobby (and which is better Canon or Nikon?). I guess gadget-talk is more amenable to the American norm of sowing insecurities to peddle a fix and turn a buck, but I want to get back to birds! I resolve to pick up the ornithology references more and the photography references less. Maybe, once and a while, I’ll leave the 600mm ball-and-chain behind and only take along the binoculars and a notebook (and most important of all—Elisa!).
“I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic.”–Horace Lamb
The weather has been trending toward the pleasant lately, but has still often been a bit too warm (and buggy) by mid-day to really enjoy seeking and shooting birds all day long (Uh-oh! We’ll have to stop for a pint and a brat at the Wurst Haus!). We have been taking every opportunity, though, to get out (mostly to the coast and Brazos Bend) and be productive. October 19 was the first genuinely perfect day of the fall. Nice from start to finish, dry with cool breezes and creamy, beautiful light all day long. What a day to forget about your cares and let your blood pressure return to normal!
Last Weekend, after hearing reports of Wood Storks flying over Brazos Bend State Park toward the coast, we visited Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. The mosquitos were prodigious in number so we drove the Auto Loop, using the truck as a mobile photo blind. We employed a little trick we learned on the web: pool noodles, cut to length, split to the center and slipped over a half-rolled-down window served as nice supports for the barrels of our super telephoto lenses. Sometimes Elisa rode around in the bed of the pick-up while I drove and shot through my window . . . but no storks.
During a brief visit to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, we found surprisingly few birds, but the beautiful grounds offered many opportunities for macrophotography of flowers and arthropods, especially spiders. Brazos Bend State Park, too, has been a rich hunting ground for spiders lately, with several species of large orb-weavers being very much in evidence.
I was also happy to discover that the thick layer of reeking seaweed that has been blanketing East Beach, Galveston has finally rotted down to the consistency of scattered coffee grounds. As a result, a favorite birding spot is livable again. For the first time, I saw a Reddish Egret do the Snowy Egret thing—wave a foot back and forth underwater to spook up prey.
In the near future we plan to continue our hunt for migratory shorebirds and songbirds. And Wood Storks remain on the target bird list. Hmmmm . . . San Bernard NWR?
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.—Andrew Wyeth
Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .
Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.
Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!
At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.
Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.
Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!
In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Late spring and early summer can be a frustrating time for birding given the relatively low avian diversity, the bugs, and the traffic headaches/low-quality encounters as the Summer People emerge from their pods. But there are ducklings around! And ducklings are fun!
Several things always strike me about ducklings (besides how cute they are). First, they face some significant challenges . . . such as being on a lot of menus.
I remember as a child in Minnesota being horrified to learn that muskellunge (a type of large aggressive pike known to Midwesterners as “muskies”) eat ducklings. I remember standing on a dock and staring down into the water and seeing a bunch of these black and green striped killers on a stringer and thinking no more ducklings for you! Down here in Texas it’s alligators, snapping turtles, gar . . . and rat snakes. There’s no question about it, wild ducklings live in a dangerous world.
Another striking thing about wild ducklings is that many species look so much alike. Domestic ducklings, like Call Ducklings, are often all yellow, but sometimes show a variety of black markings. Apparently being yellow with black stripes and blotches makes for a perfect duckling in a wilderness setting.
A dark-colored top (with some disruptive stripes or spots) may camouflage the ducklings from predators from above, while the brightly-colored underside may not be as visible to aquatic predators viewing them from below against the sky. In any case, a counter-shaded black and yellow pattern certainly makes for a perfectly charming wild duckling.
I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike.—Andy Warhol