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.
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).
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.—George Santayana
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.
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.
All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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 . . .