Birding for Well-Being

Birding Road Trips Down the Upper Texas Coast!

Male Scarlet Tanager in breeding color at Pelican Island, Texas
Male Scarlet Tanager in Breeding Color at Pelican Island, Texas. This dandy was feasting on bees and mulberries. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We recently stumbled upon a new strategy for birding the the Upper Texas Coast during spring migration: short road trips south from High Island across the Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island. After spending the evening birding High Island and the night in Winnie, Texas, an early morning  jaunt down Highway 87 brings the birder past numerous outstanding locales. A copy of Finding birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail by Ted Lee Eubanks et al. is an excellent resource to use for planning purposes or to have at hand on the road.

Long-billed Dowitcher at French Town Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Takeoff: Long-billed Dowitcher at Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held, from car. Natural Light.
Great Egret with stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret with Stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Birders can currently observe Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Neotropic Cormorants, and Snowy Egrets fussing with nesting materials at Smith Oaks. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The power of this approach to birding lies in the amazing diversity of coastal habitats and their avian inhabitants one encounters along this route, from oak motte migrant trap to beach to salt marsh to tidal lagoon. On such journeys one can truly appreciate how special this stretch of coast is, and how lucky we are to still be able to observe the incredible flow of biodiversity from the Neotropics (as well as our resident birds).

Pectoral Sandpiper at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Pectoral Sandpiper at the south pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird is en route from the Pampas of southern South America to the High Arctic. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Get Lost! Birding Lost Maples in Early Spring

bigtooth maple in bloom with emerging leaves
Although Bigtooth Maple flowers attract the attention of bees and flies alike, they depend on the wind for pollination. The flowers, which bloom alongside emerging leaves in spring, are unisexual. Can you tell if these flowers are male or female? (Answer: The prominent stamens with the large yellow anthers full of pollen indicate that these are male flowers.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

They say that timing is everything. For birders whose getaways are tied to school holidays, the timing of spring break is usually too early for spring migration. Not this year! With the deciduous trees just starting to put out new growth, Spring Break 2014 was timed perfectly for birding Lost Maples State Natural Area on the Edward’s Plateau of Central Texas.

Our goal was to see and photograph male Golden-cheeked Warblers (which typically arrive in Central Texas around March 10th) singing in the treetops before the trees were completely leafed-out. We heard many Golden-cheeked Warblers, but got only a few ID shots. The trip was a success for other reasons, however, in part due to the generosity of Richard Redmond of the Texas Ornithological Society who spent a day with us and shared his vast knowledge of Hill Country birds and birding techniques, especially tracking target birds by their songs . . .

White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples, SNA, Texas
Singing in the Shadows: White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Two Trips in One

When we go birding together, we often end up birding apart. Different things catch our eyes and ears, and so we end up with unique take-aways on the same get-away. In this spirit, we decided to share our Lost Maples birding experience “he said, she said” style.

Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Female Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. This colorful bird spends much of her day in the brush pile near the observation blind. Lost Maples is in the winter range of this species. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Chris’s Field Notes

The most abundant species observed were Chipping and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Black-crested Titmice, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but I also saw White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos (and also caught the merest glimpse of a Hutton’s Vireo), Black and White, Orange-crowned, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Yellow-throated Warblers. Other highlights included a male Scott’s Oriole, a pair of Canyon Wrens, and a nest-sitting Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk. Wildflowers were on the sparse side, but Agarita and Bigtooth Maple were in bloom . . . . My couch-potato Houston Flatlander lifestyle didn’t help tackling those canyon trails hauling 30lbs of photographic equipment, but I came back invigorated and looking forward to the next trip.

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas showing specular reflection and structural color. Black-chinned Hummingbirds were thick around the feeders near the observation blind. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Elisa’s Field Notes

If it weren’t for our chance encounter with Richard and his experienced ear, I would likely never have seen half the species I observed — many of which were firsts for me including the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Yellow-throated Vireo, and a far-off-in-the-distance Hutton’s Vireo. This trip, more than any other, clearly illustrated the need to know more birds by ear. Springtime is a great time to study bird songs and, wouldn’t-cha know, there’s an app for that. The bird identification mobile app that I use provides representative vocalizations, but most birds sing more than one tune. After a quick search, I downloaded BirdTunes and found it to be an encyclopedic resource of songs, calls, and scolding vocalizations, with regional variations for most species.

As a visual learner, birding by ear has always been daunting, and I quickly forget which bird sings which song when I don’t see and hear them regularly. On this trip, I developed a strategy that I think will work for the long-term. I characterize the song in a way that I can associate with the bird’s name or identifying feature. For example, the song of the Canyon Wren reminds me of a horse whinny which I associate with canyons and the West. Now when I hear that cascading whinny, I think “canyon” then “Canyon Wren” and look to the rocks to find it.

I was lucky to photograph two species singing on this trip — the vireo near the top of the post and the titmouse included in this spring’s “Image of the Season” sidebar. It bears mentioning that I used the bird song app as a pre-birding and post-birding tool for review and study, and not in the field to attract the birds. If you use recordings in the field, please do so responsibly. Check out the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics section 1(b) for guidance.

Agarita branch with flowers
Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) is the quintessential hill country plant to me. It’s one of the first plants I was able to reliably identify when learning the flora of Central Texas. After the cheery yellow flowers fade, bright red berries develop among the prickly evergreen leaves. (In case you’re wondering: these flowers are bisexual – each flower has stamens and pistils.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.—George Santayana

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

Adventures in Macrophotography (or What to do When the Birding is Bad)

Prickly Pear Cactus flower, Balcones, Central Texas
Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Central Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro with high-speed synchronized flash.

My initial interest in macrophotography flowed from my interest in birds. Often, I would see birds eating the fruit or seeds, or even drinking the nectar, of unfamiliar plants. I would then take a few pictures of the fruit or flowers for identification purposes.

This process has been helpful in understanding the habitats and habits of birds, and forced me to learn some macrophotography. It also got me thinking about efficiency and getting the most out of life.

It takes effort to go into the field. Now when no birds are around, rather than think about the day as a waste, I immediately start looking around for other interesting photographic subjects. Although, for me, photographing a flower is not as therapeutic as photographing a warbler, it is still an interesting and valuable exercise in the study of nature.

Witches' Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas
Witches’ Butter Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized flash.

Our first efforts in macrophotography utilized an inexpensive Canon 55mm macro (the so-called “compact macro”), and were generally unsuccessful. (Sidebar: Whenever I speak to professional photographers I typically ask for advice, and a common piece of advice is: never buy cheap equipment.) Shortly thereafter we bought the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro which is simply a superb lens, and one of the sharpest around.

After talking with a naturalist and photographer about the importance (nay necessity) of using flash in macrophotography given the intense light requirement of shooting at high f-stops, we bought a ring flash and were off and running. Now when the birds are not out, but there are interesting plants and small, non avian critters around, I fish out the macro and go to work. Once in a blue moon, one has the exciting opportunity to turn a macro lens on a bird–as you can see below.

Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christy, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, natural light.
Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christi, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, natural light.

All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.

–Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or photos may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Dangers of Birdwatching

I would be interested to learn just how dangerous birdwatching is statistically relative to other hobbies–say rail dragster racing, extreme fighting, or chainsaw juggling. But seriously, from time-to-time major dangers do present themselves. I’ve been in the mountains with lightning bolts dancing around me, and large (or venomous) animals have moved in my direction from time to time. The crack of a nearby hunter’s gunfire has also gathered my attention on several occasions.

Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley YNP, Wyoming
Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley Sagebrush Country, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Black bears and Grizzly bears can be surprisingly difficult to tell apart. I think this is a young Grizzly given the small, rounded ears, concave face and slight shoulder hump. Also, five minutes before we saw a classic black Black Bear that looked quite different–although not all Black bears in a given area are necessarily similar. I invite comments from anyone who knows better, however. In any case, one should always bring a change of underwear when photographing bears, black or brown.

On the other hand, a host of less dramatic, but real threats await the birder. Poisonous plants like poison ivy and oak can cause significant misery–as can a cactus thorn through the foot. Biting and stinging arthropods may be a significant aspect of being in the field, depending on location. Africanized “killer” bees, lyme disease-carrying ticks, and West Nile virus-carrying mosquitos are not to be scoffed at.

Animals (except man-eaters, typically injured large felids) seem to know that humans are a menace instinctively and flee or keep a safe distance at the approach of man. When an animal does not flee, or even approaches people (especially during daylight hours), one of two things is usually the case: people have been feeding the animal, or it is sick. Rabies, the most terrifying of the zoonotic diseases with its extreme virulence in mammals, is the worst fear. Even the cure is a nightmare.

Sick raccoon near the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Not cute, MP: This raccoon is sick. It showed no fear of humans and marched right toward person after person. At first I though people had been feeding it, but the dull, lifeless mucous-encrusted eyes suggested illness, probably canine distemper. Elisa called animal control. Photo taken hand-held with Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS USM under natural light.

As fearsome as some animals can be, the most dangerous animal in the woods is almost always man. It is sometimes difficult to assess just how dangerous any particular human is to other people without access to their rap sheet. Thankfully I have not crossed paths with any truly dangerous individuals (that I know of). I have, however, been made extremely nervous a few times by other humans. This nervousness has led me to acquire a set of walkie-talkies so that I can periodically check on Elisa’s safety (and she on mine).

Gaping alligator at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast
Gaping Gator: no match for a man with a gun. Alligators are dangerous, no question. But, unlike bears and big cats, I do not fear them. Only one has come after me in the field–and it was my fault. I was standing ankle-deep in a patch of water hyacinth, so engrossed in the birds around me that I missed the submarine threat.

Although birdwatching can be dangerous, the benefits (especially health benefits) clearly outweigh the risks. The minute I step into the field I can feel the stress melt away. By the end of the day the little nagging headache is gone, and I can think clearly–no more of the mental fog, the result of daily trials and tribulations. One old-timer I met on a catwalk across a subtropical forest canopy said: “Go birding, you’ll live longer.” Unless I lose my balance, I thought.

In any case, just like the old joke about the really dangerous part of skydiving being the drive to the airport, I am confident that the real danger in birdwatching lies in getting to the park or sanctuary via our Texas highways.

Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Warblers are not dangerous: approach with confidence. Photo taken in a drizzle on a dank, gloomy morning with high-speed synchronized flash.

Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.–Jim Corbett, Man-eaters of Kumaon

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

A Quest for Rare Birds?

As we’ve grown older, Elisa and I, like many people, have agreed to slowly divest ourselves of many of the material things that clutter our lives. I, for example, have decided that if I buy a new book, then I must discard two old books. If I acquire a trinket, I must discard two, and so on. As part of this process, we have decided to collect experiences and images rather than material objects. Birding is very much a part of this process. Becoming serious about birding has forced us to think about visiting places and acquiring experiences that we would have never considered before–for there is no reason to visit some of these places other than the birds. Many birders have life lists of species that they have observed. But as a near-novice birder, I have purposely avoided this approach because I fear that this would turn birding primarily into a quest for rare birds. Perhaps as I gain experience in birding I will switch to a “life list” philosophy, but for now I find as much interest and joy in a common sparrow as I do in the rarest of birds.

Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Gulf Coast
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Gulf Coast. With only about 600 individuals surviving in the wild and in captivity, Whooping Cranes are among the rarest birds in the world. These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, summer in the Canadian Arctic and winter along the southern Texas Gulf Coast. Photo taken from a boat.
Swamp Sparrow at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Swamp Sparrow at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Swamp Sparrows are common but delightful winter residents along the Texas Gulf Coast. Photo taken near Pilant Lake.


© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

New Article: Birding the Four Seasons

As a birder it seems that there is always something to look forward to–and not just the work-a-day longings for the next weekend or vacation. The precession of the equinoxes now deeply affect what I see and do. Like some pagan Celt or a boy waiting for the thaw, I connect with the seasons, how the tilted planet travels around the sun, and the flow of energy across the solar system and into the biosphere . . .

Male Pileated Woodpecker in nest cavity at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Pileated Woodpecker in nest cavity at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Woodpeckers in nest cavities are one of the real treats of spring. Sadly, this dead old tree, simultaneously home to at least three woodpecker nests (Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated) fell over this spring.