Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support
I’m digging in the dirt
Find the places I got hurt . . . . —Peter Gabriel, Digging in the Dirt
When birds are not around, the bird photographer must find other critters to photograph. Often that honor falls to ground squirrels and kin! As is my usual methodology, I research the animals I encounter in the field. Just as in the case of birds, ground squirrels tell a mixed story of success and struggle in a human-dominated world.
Not surprisingly, we’ve really only seen ground squirrels that are doing pretty well (for the most part) since we haven’t yet mounted specific expeditions to see and photograph the rare and threatened ones like the Mohave, Townsend’s, or Washington ground squirrels. Make no mistake, some ground squirrels are battling for survival against many of the same menaces facing birds–habitat destruction, cats, and poisons.
Although technically considered a species of “least concern,” the areal extent of Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies has fallen to about 2% of historical levels. Considered by many farmers and ranchers to be pests (Get the bazooka, Joe!), these burrowing rodents are lynchpins of their local ecology. They have many interesting ecological relationships with a variety of other organisms. Birders might be concerned about their fate given their role as prey to a variety of raptors including Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles. Also, Burrowing Owls will nest in prairie dog burrows (and the burrows of many other mammals, as well). In 2004, the black-tailed prairie dog was removed from consideration for endangered status based on population studies. One wonders what the level of concern would be if the range of human distribution decreased by 98% in a century and a half. I bet everyone would think everything was OK.
The rock squirrel is a suspicious fellow we see occasionally on outings in West and Central Texas and Arizona. This is a big, dark chunky squirrel that is way more timid than one would expect given its heft. Try and flush one of these characters into a pillowcase, BM! At places like Franklin Mountains State Park and Lost Maples State Natural Area, these seed-hogging marauders can often be seen emptying the bird feeders of seeds. In contrast to the prairie dog, this is not a popular squirrel among the birds—nor likely anyone maintaining a seed feeder within its range (Get the blunderbuss, Bob!).
Although relatively little is known about its ecology, the Uinta ground squirrel is easy to spot at Yellowstone National Park. There are no known threats to its survival, especially since a big chunk of its limited range falls within that park in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. These critters are considered by some farmers to be agricultural pests (Arm photon torpedoes, Scotty!) because of their unforgivable tendency to dig and root up plants.
Now that we’ve seen quite a few species of squirrel, tree and ground, I have started paying more attention to them. When in a strange place, I’ve stopped assuming every squirrel I’ve seen is a common species (or subspecies) I’ve seen a hundred times before. For example, turns out a patch of habitat we bird occasionally (Cave Creek, Arizona) is home to the Mexican fox squirrel. Maybe next time I’ll capture a nice image of this cheeky critter!
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid
The last few weeks have been rather hectic, and we’re wiped out. Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball soon sharing some images of, and words about, our incredible Texas avifauna! Cheers, Elisa and Chris
Do the leg bands on my subjects ruin the shots for you? Me, I’m on the fence. Generally, Chris and I like to capture an idealized view of nature. We travel to state and national parks, wildlife refuges and nature preserves. We try to avoid shots that include fences, telephone poles, signs and roads. We like our birds au natural.
Nature provides a necessary respite from the human hustle—an escape from the man-made. Perhaps its true for you, too. Alas, the escape is an illusion. Even if we agree that humans are not the center of life on earth, we can’t deny that our influence is all but ubiquitous. How I crave those vistas without a trace of mankind—hard to find when you live in a metropolis. But, peering at the world through a camera lens takes me there. I suspend disbelief with a world view framed by the viewfinder and the silent still images that result.
So, when your subject sports a leg band, it kinda bursts the bubble.
Many agencies and organizations use bird leg bands for tracking purposes. For example, U.S. federal agency bands are for birds covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state and provincial bands are for game birds (Galliformes). These banding programs are the reason we know what we know about the timing and scale of migration. Some agency programs, such as the North American MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program, also produce data on the abundance, survivorship, and ecology of our continental land birds so the conservation community can better address conservation needs.
Chris and I sometimes romanticize the idea of time-traveling to the Pleistocene Epoch and experiencing the world at the dawn of man—before we altered the environment so discriminately in our favor. But here we are, in the Anthropocene, deeply intertwined with so many of our fellow species. And, unlike our fellow species, we know what we do. Conservation science through bird banding places our best foot forward to mitigate some of the damage, or at least learn how to considerately coexist.
So, putting aside all fantasies of a better past, I am compelled to celebrate these unwitting research subjects. They carry a burden for their well being—and so must we.
The two most joyous times of the year are Christmas morning and the end of school. –Alice Cooper
The Two Shutterbirds wish all our friends and readers a merry, merry Christmas!
A note to our readers: Corporate America strikes again. Upon returning to Houston on Christmas Eve after a birding road trip to West Texas and New Mexico, we discovered to our horror that a number of new problems with twoshutterbirds had magically appeared. Turns out that our “friends” at Google had altered the agreement involving a purchased plug-in called WP Maps ex post facto. Changes to this program prevented many maps already loaded into the WordPress program from loading onto the site. After many hours of attempting to remedy the problem by visiting on-line forums, going through lines of code, etc., I’ve given up trying to fix a problem caused by the unethical, venal, and incompetent behavior of Google. So, for a few days you may notice some glitches in our site that I’m currently working to edit around. Cheers, Chris
There is one kind of robber whom the law does not strike at, and who steals what is most precious to men: time. –Napoleon Bonaparte
Synopsis: Human-introduced exotic plants and animals are all around us, and many of them are doing nicely, thank you very much. It’s sometimes hard not to notice them while out photo-birding. The proliferation of these organisms can be troubling to nature lovers, particularly eco-purists. Are these foreign organisms adversely affecting our native plants and wildlife? And if so, how badly? Are some helpful to our native species? Certainly some, like bottlebrush, are helpful to the bird photographer! Whatever your stance on exotics, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is treat them as just another opportunity to experience new species in the wild—even if they are out of place. In this talk, Chris Cunningham will share images of some frequently encountered exotic species and discuss their place in our native landscape. (Note: If this topic is too upsetting, Chris and Elisa will share and some images of native wild birds from their most recent outings to West Texas, the Coastal Bend, and central New Mexico, too!)
Time and Place: 7:00 PM, January 18, 2017 at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd., Houston TX 77079. For additional details, please see the Houston Audubon HANPA website.
I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it. –Salvador Dali
As the weather improves, and we struggle to get out into the field, exhaustion from work, traffic, illness (minor), and the daily onslaught of our lives has (temporarily) sapped our creative juices. Never fear! We shall return (and soon) with some new stuff! The restful holidays are almost upon us, and we can’t wait!
Stop acting like a fool, Miles and accept us!—Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
More and more these days I’m doing double-takes while out birding. Last weekend I detected a flock of birds feeding on grass seed heads at Fiorenza Park, Houston. Hoping for a shot at some unusual sparrows (Oooh! Wouldn’t a Henslow’s be great!?!), I stalked toward the stand of grass. As I framed some beautiful shots of . . . whaaaa? Oh geez—some Nutmeg Mannikins or Scaly-breasted Munias or Spice Finches . . . whatever name they go by these days . . . in this part of the world. The birds were Asian exotics, natives of Tropical Asia and Oceania, escapees or releasees from captivity. At least there are both sexesto document . . . I thought.
Well, no. Apparently Scaly-beasted Munias all look alike as adults. The dark, creamy yellow ones are immatures . . . not females.
The reason I went to Fiorenza Park that day was because long-time birder friends M.B and J.R. had reported cormorants eating South American armored catfish (Loricariidae) near the bridge where the bayou connecting the the north and south lakes enters the south lake. Naturalist friend R.D. had also recently captured some nice images of a Great Blue Heron eating a big armored catfish at the northwest corner of 40-acre Lake at Brazos Bend State Park. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I sallied forth on a catfish hunt. Sure enough, in only a matter of minutes a cormorant carrying a big catfish flew over head.
In a matter of about an hour, I spotted a cormorant battling with another armored catfish in the bayou. The bird really appeared to be struggling—not surprising given the nasty fin spines and dermal armor. Ultimately, the bird won and swallowed the fish. The struggle lasted long enough for me to capture sufficient images to make a tentative identification of the fish: Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus. This is one of several common aquarium fishes informally called “plecostomus” or “algae-eaters.” P. multiradiatus has been released from aquaria in many warm places around the world. Often they are considered pests due to the displacement (dare I say replacement?) of native species and burrowing behavior. I wonder if they leave pods behind?
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . . . —T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men
I think I once read that T.S. Eliot, when asked if he would again write his poem’s famous last lines about the end of the world, replied that he would not have written a word. His rationale being that victims of aerial bombing during the Blitz never heard a thing before impact . . . . If the story’s not true, it should be.
Perhaps it’s because of working on my other website (trilobiteseas.com) that deals with an entirely extinct group, perhaps it’s because of what I keep seeing (and hearing) in the field while photo-birding, but I’ve got the end of the world on my mind. Of course, as humans in the early 21st Century, we’re experiencing the end of a world, not the end of the world. Without getting into the semantics of to whether humans are part of nature or not, the world that is ending is the natural biosphere, and it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. Songbird populations are collapsing everywhere, and human fingerprints are on their demise.
Fact is, wherever I go in the Lower Forty-eight, I am hard-pressed to find a completely natural scene.
Always there is the hand of man. Roads, trash, roadkills, and everywhere invasive plants and animals brought in by humans. A colleague at work who is quite knowledgeable about wildlife recently showed me some images of birds from her backyard feeders–because she had never seen anything like some of the birds before. They were Scaly-breasted Munias, exotics introduced into Texas from Asia. Those birds were eating someone else’s lunch!
While driving through southwest Oregon recently I saw weird, huge, orange flowers growing by the side of the road. What in the hell are those? I thought. Turns out they were red hot poker plants. Like the Bottlebrush, this plant is a big favorite of birds . . . in southern Africa where they come from! Perhaps some North American bird species will find a use for them.
If you want to get bummed out, read birding accounts from the 1950’s . . . .
Man’s deleterious influence on the wild is always, always moving inexorably ahead altering and killing as it goes. Cars, buildings, cats, windmills . . . all slaughtering birds in the billions. Introduced invasives are replacing natives all around us. And although some of the introduced plants and animals are pretty, the havoc they’re causing in ecosystems isn’t!
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin
On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.
The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.
On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.
Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.
As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.
For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.
Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.
In the jungle, welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your sha na na na na knees knees
I wanna watch you bleed . . . . Guns N’ Roses, Welcome to the Jungle
As of this writing, the terrible floods of spring 2016 have left Brazos Bend State Park closed. My normal routine of visiting the park a few times a week during the summer has been shattered, leaving me searching for other spots to bird. East End, Galveston Island has helped to fill the gap, but by 8am it’s broiling and the glare precludes photography. But then there is looking for exotic, invasive birds.
Thanks to a heads-up from a longtime friend and birder (M.B.) I was able to locate a patch of cane and prairie that a mixed flock of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills (Estrilda melpoda) have made their home at Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City, Texas. These invasive African bird species and pet shop escapee descendants have been spotted around the Houston area—to the delight of many birders who are excited about seeing something new without having to travel to the ends of the earth, and to the horror of those concerned about the impacts they may be having on our native birds. Perhaps these emotions co-exist in some.
Many Houston birders are aware of invasives like Monk Parkeets, Red-vented Bulbuls–and now Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills. But the true extent of the alien invasion has yet to be understood. This week during our evening neighborhood walk, for example, we observed a small flock of “what the hell are those” feeding off grass seed heads along a bayou. These tiny birds were likely Asian munias of some sort, probably descendants of Asian wedding releasees. I’ll keep checking back until I can figure out exactly what they are, or get a good enough image to identify them definitively.
Oddly, I’ve been referring to my Hawaii’s Birds (Hawaii Audubon Society) book to identify things I’m seeing in Houston. Many of the same Asian and African species that are threatening native Hawaiian birds with extinction are now gaining a toe-hold along the Texas Gulf Coast. Not good.
Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe? –Georges Cuvier
Readers of Two Shutterbirds may know me as an obsessed photo-birder who traipses around the country doing his best to master his birds and bird photography. A few of my readers know that before my ornithology obsession, I was an obsessed fossil-nut who traipsed around the country (often with Elisa, too!) hunting for fossils, especially trilobites, trying to learn how these fascinating creatures lived their lives so many millions of years ago.
I have enjoyed our Two Shutterbirds blog so much and have felt it has lead to so much personal growth in ornithological knowledge and photographic capability, I have decided to take a similar approach with trilobites. It has been years since I have thought seriously about these creatures, and I hope preparing articles about and taking photographs of trilobites, as well as corresponding with whomever chooses to write me on this topic, will get me back into the trilo-world. So, without further ado, I launch Trilobiteseas.com: Paleobiology of a Paleozoic Icon for the Collector and Enthusiast with a new article, Cryptic Strategies in Trilobites. Enjoy!
Just to reassure: Devoted twoshutterbirds.com readers should not fret. My trilobitic escapades should in no way hinder the flow of bird-related images and prose. Cheers!