Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others. –Buddha
All of Texas Gulf Coast creation must breathe a collective sigh of relief when the first hint of fall arrives. This time, the first backing-off of the dantesque Texas summer was modest, indeed. l woke to find one day this last week that it was slightly less unpleasant outside. Surely a harbinger of great things.
Despite the fact I’d rather than be almost anywhere other than the Gulf Coast in summer, there is almost no place I’d rather be in winter. The Upper Texas Gulf Coast and Coastal Bend are fantastic when north winds blow. The bays, beaches, barrier islands, and coastal marshes are hopping with life. Fluffy white clouds zip across the sky, the waters sparkle, and you can breathe! Surely we now stand at the brink of the best of times!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
l want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it. –Frans Lanting
We were able to get out to get out birding (briefly) this last weekend–we took some time out from furnishing one house and giving another a face-lift. We took a walk around Brazos Bend State Park, binoculars in hand, hoping to run into a friend (RD). It was sweltering. The ground was soggy. The air was not full of bird-sounds–in fact, we were quite shocked by the lack of bird life. Mosquitos ruled.
This lack of avians got me thinking about our current state of affairs, ecologically-speaking. To despair is to read old-timey field accounts of bird-watching from the 1950’s and before. Works like Arizona and its Bird Life by Herbert Brandt (1951) and The Warblers of North America by Griscom and Sprunt (eds.) (1957) describe a world nearly as remote as the Miocene.
On this latest trip, I felt like I was looking into the future. Project the current trend twenty five years into the future, and you’ll see what we saw: A world nearly free of birds. It’s hard to come to grips with this, but songbird numbers have dropped by half in my lifetime. Some other groups have suffered even more significant declines. Auks, as we saw in the Pribilofs the summer before last, for example, have been decimated. But the perpetually innocent fishing industry, of course, has nothing to do with this. Welcome to the Anthropocene . . . .
In this terrible future, it’s hard to imagine what I’ll do in the park. Perhaps I’d better bring something to read.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. –Robert Frost
If given the choice, I’d choose the latter . . . .
The recent uncharacteristic silence has been the result of being ridiculously busy with work and a variety of messy projects. We haven’t been able to work on anything related to photo-birding, except adding a few volumes to our growing ornithology library. And the disgusting dog-days of summer here along the Gulf Coast haven’t made the prospect of being outside very attractive–even if we had the time.
What I have been able to do, though, is fantasize about glorious birding outings in the cold, fresh frosty air in my face. Blow again north winds, blow! Make being outside a joy, again!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. –Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It’s been a busy summer, but now it’s time to fly away from the exotic plants and animals of the desert and get back to work work. For a while we’ll be too busy to spend much time on twoshutterbirds. But, dear reader, never fear! We’ll be back on the ball in no time flat with more images of, and prose about, our beloved feathery friends (and others)!
Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again? –A. A. Milne
One of my goals for this summer in Arizona was to go through a lifetime’s worth of debris and discard the worthless junk and organize and store those things we want to keep for the future. One particular challenge was to sort through the old photo gear. We have camera stuff going back to the 1950’s: Equipment inherited from my dad, Elisa’s grandfather and uncle, and all our stuff. Most of it was hurriedly thrown into cardboard boxes in the aftermath of Harvey.
Going through a pile of obsolete or broken bodies, I found a 32 GB CF card that I had forgotten about. On it were four or five hundred images I had forgotten about, also. Most of the images were Texas Gulf Coast stuff from five or six years ago. Many shots were attempts to deal with the murky and broken light of Texas Gulf Coast barrier island oak mottes during spring migration using flash.
I can almost feel the heat, the air heavy with humidity and the frequent sting of mosquitoes piercing my clothes–so different from the recent adventures featuring the blistering glare and UV fog of high altitude Arizona, but so similar in the sense of possibility of see something new.
Clearly the richness of your life depends upon the richness of your memories. Photography contributes to memory, if only in diverting our minds from the meaningless rubbish of contemporary daily life back to things . . . worth remembering.
We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. –Henri Cartier-Bresson
This is just like television, only you can see much further.–Chance the Gardener (from Being There)
Unlike the utterances of simpleton Chance the Gardener in the film Being There, things said or done in strange birding territory are unlikely to be perceived as brilliant by the locals–or anyone else for that matter. Travel birding generally doesn’t give you the time to get many good shots, especially since you don’t know the conditions well or even where the birds are. Generally it takes many hours of observation in a place you know well to see or photograph something interesting or unusual.
Case in point: Entertaining fantasies of becoming a world birder, I have begun building my ornithology library again. I just added Herons and Egrets of the World: A Photographic Journey by James Hancock. Published in 1999, the images contained within were captured on film and are a mixed bag. I can only imagine the difficulties involved in documenting avian species on film under what must have often been hostile conditions. The book has, however, provided some more exotic species to be added to the bucket list to be seen and photographed.
Below find my travel birding exemplar. Despite working pretty hard to get a decent shot, the following is typical of my only encounter with a Great White Heron. Some consider this bird to be a color morph of the Great Blue Heron, others a subspecies. Being such a rarity, I’m sure this bird is hounded everywhere it goes by birders. We probably chased this bird for an hour. It was quite wary, and I felt a little guilty about running around after it. As added barriers to success, the light (or should I say glare) was white, and it seemed some knuckle-headed ibis or egret always wanted to stand in the way thus lousing up the shot.
Like my dad used to say, “There’s nothing so bad that it can’t be used as a good example.” In life, as in bird photography, all you can do is keep swinging.
Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail. –John Donne
Many birders inside and outside Texas are aware (and horrified) that planning for construction of Trump’s border wall with Mexico at Santa Ana National National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near McAllen, Texas continues to progess. Often described as the “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Santa Ana is nationally and internationally famous as one of the birding destinations in the United States. Some of our earliest and most profound birding adventures have occurred here. In fact, it is here where we became serious birders. Over the strenuous objections of world biologists and birders about the obvious threats to habitat and the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the place, the plans continue.
I suspect that it would be useless to enumerate the types of specific threats to particular animal species–from hindering migration for purposes of finding mates and food to loss of availability of escape routes during floods–that the wall poses. The weird populist political support this boondoggle enjoys is quite beyond the bounds of reason. The work (and destruction) will continue until Trump is out of office–but then the damage will have been done. The wall will (obviously) be incomplete, and Santa Ana will be scarred.
In contemplation of the border wall, I am reminded of the history of palaces in Western Europe. Reaching back into antiquity one finds that the early residences of the nobility were fortresses. Often the power these men and women exerted over their subjects was enforced at sword-point, and rivals often staged armed insurrections. Power and influence were tenuous. However, as the power of the state increased into the early Modern Era, a curious thing happened. Kings and queens no longer lived behind moats and fortifications: They lived in palaces. The Versailles of Louis XIV was not a fortress. Nor was the Buckingham Palace of George III. Security, yes–moats, ramparts, massive walls, no. Power was exercised with the stroke of a pen, orders dispatched from an office, not a turret.
Those advocating the building of the border wall must agree that if the United States requires a physical wall, a fortification, to contain illegal immigration, then our government no longer enjoys a rule of law capacious enough or one even worthy of a Modern civilization. Rather, we must consider ourselves Medievals cowering behind stone walls and iron gates.
Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton
As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.
On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .
But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .
Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?
There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.
Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?
On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.
In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.
It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!
The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.–Gilbert K. Chesterton
We know plenty of birders who are perfectly happy birding around the Houston area with never a thought of traveling to bird. Their birding activities often taper off by May with the end of the spring migration. We bird into the summer but by about late June, we are more than ready to say goodbye to the Texas Gulf Coast swelter (and the Summer People and their various noisemakers) and hit the road for somewhere new.
Since we started birding, summer trips are almost invariably well to the north for obvious reasons, ornithological and climatological. After a temporary lapse of reason, we once traveled to the Rio Grande Valley during summer, and we have been known to visit the deserts of West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the hot weather–usually in areas that have altitude, though. Right about this time of year I can’t help but think of General Sheridan . . . “If I owned Texas and Hell . . . .”
National parks are prime birding destinations and our greatest national treasure, but we will also travel to state parks, national wildlife refuges, or even simply regions (hopefully desolate) of the country with a different avifauna. Sometimes we travel with the intention of seeing particular species or habitats, other times we’re perfectly open to whatever we find. Sometimes, then, we’re travelers and sometimes we’re tourists, in Chesterton’s terminology.
The greatest danger in birding travel is to remain unchanged by it, to become part of the gawking rabble at the foot of the mountain. Think of the Sinclair Lewis’ satire of travel and travelers in The Man Who Knew Coolidge and their inability to become broadened by the experience. He must have had quite a laugh at the rubes . . . .
To avoid being an ugly birding American is to travel with purpose, general or specific, to place one’s observations from new geographies into the context of what you already know about your birds. You won’t hear a Wilson’s Warbler sing in Texas, but you will in Oregon. To complete the picture, the birder must travel because the birds do . . . .
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.
Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .
I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.
In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.
Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. –William Shakespeare
l know there is a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but my favorite kind of Texas photo-birding day is the day after a strong blue norther. The howling winds have died down, and the 40º sky is clear, but for a thin haze of cirrus clouds. This kind of day has been in very short supply for several years now.
Lately the weather has been wildly variable, with clear, cold days rare. This has meant having to make the most of a wide variety of lighting situations. The two cormorant shots above were taken under what I consider to be “bad” conditions. The sky was mostly cloudy with sunbreaks every few minutes leading to having to constantly chimp settings. When the sun emerged, it produced a blinding, muddy-yellow glare off the water’s surface. Because the fishing behavior documented was happening all around me, the sun was sometimes behind and sometimes ahead—making for an exciting morning of work!
Two recent visits to Offatt’s Bayou occurred during very different optical conditions. The upper grebe and loon immediately below were shot on a gloomy, gray, foggy morning. And the lower grebe and loon were shot on the same glorious, clear, bright morning about a week later at the same place.
This shooting locale (where 61st crosses Offfatt’s Bayou) has only recently become accessible again. Where rickety old docks used to stand, there is now a large raised cement viewing/fishing platform. The problem with the new platform is that it is too high, leading to an extreme shooting angle. The old situation was actually better, assuming you were willing to risk falling into the drink to get the shot. Alas, there’s really nothing to be done about the angle now—except to try and capture some interesting wave forms, colors, reflections, or textures from the surface of the water. Sometimes you have to take what you can get! Progress!