A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves. –Marcel Proust
This weekend we went binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park, again. We decided to leave the photo gear at home given the dense clouds and patches of rain and drizzle. While we were sitting on the bench on the west side of Old Horseshoe Lake, I was grousing about how I was tired of only seeing the usual suspects. Just as the words left my mouth, I spotted a pair of Cinnamon Teal drakes dabbling among the aquatic vegetation right off shore–a personal first for this park. These birds were likely early migrants at the extreme eastern extent of their migratory range. A nice sighting, but even with that I’m ready for a change. Of course, the next big change is spring migration . . . and the passage of dozens of glorious wood warbler species across the Upper Texas Gulf Coast.
Now is the time to start brushing up on Warbler identification. It’s amazing how quickly this skill fades over the year, but equally amazing how quickly it returns after a few days in the field in April. Last spring was a fairly good one for seeing new or unusual warblers. Specifically, we saw Blackpoll Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
After about six years of serious birding, my personal warbler species count stands at thirty-eight, with decent images of about half that many. Soon we’ll be planning trips to see specific tough-to-find species: Big Bend for the Colima Warbler, Michigan for Kirtland’s Warbler, and so on.
Spring brings hope for, if not new species, then better images of birds we’ve seen and photographed before. Maybe this is the year I will find the holy grail of bird photography–a technically perfect shot of a rare warbler, a big juicy caterpillar in its beak. Spring migration brings the sense that anything is possible –yes, Virginia, a storm could blow a Black-throated Blue to Galveston! Dream big or stay home!
He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.―James Hurst, The Scarlet Ibis: The Collection of Wonder
After a photo-birder friend (LM) told me about the White Ibises nesting on the the south edge of Pilant Lake, I recently spent a few hours trying to photograph nestlings. Only one nest can currently be photographed (above), but there are many others back in the swamp—and the air is filled with the weird gurgling noises ibises make.
The one nest that can be seen is still rather difficult to photograph given its distance from the trail and the profusion of vegetation. But I could see that the nest contains two nestlings, one much larger than the other. Likely the smaller chick simply hatched later, the size disparity exacerbated by the bigger chick receiving more than its fair share of food along the way. Such a disparity in nestling size often spells doom for the littlest birds. In this case, though, the little bird is a real fighter and chased mom’s beak around relentlessly hoping for a morsel or two of regurgitated crawfish. I hope it makes it, although the odds may be against.
The long, curved beak of ibises is used to probe into burrows and crevices occupied by a variety of prey. The rapid up-and-down motion of the beak reminds me of a sewing machine. At BBSP, it’s common to see White and White-faced Ibises grabbing a variety of aquatic arthropods including predaceous diving beetles (larval and adult) and crawfish. Frogs and small fish are taken, too, as are the bulbs of some aquatic plants.
Spoonbills and ibises constitute the Family Threskiornithidae, the former being close relatives of the Old World Ibises. I tend to think of spoonbills simply as ibises with a specialized feeding strategy: Typically the bill is waved back and forth through the water to capture prey, vertebrate and invertebrate, which is then flipped up into the air and ingested (below).
We have seen all U.S. species of ibises, including the Scarlet Ibis, an exotic South American and Caribbean native that was introduced into Florida in 1961. We saw this species on Sanibel Island at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the the west coast of Florida about seven years ago. A small group of these birds was walking along the strand line of this famously shelly beach. This sighting, dear reader, was before we were serious photo-birders, so you’ll just have to take my word that it occurred! We hope to return one day and document the behavior of these spectacular, brilliantly-colored Tropical birds.
A sighting of two female Red-winged Blackbirds eating cautiously from the seed feeders at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary in west Houston on the afternoon of February 27 reminded me of what I saw recently in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. These suspicious birds were likely hungry migrants on their way north, to perhaps the very same Great Lakes region habitats I visited last summer.
After that trip, I wrote about ecological changes I observed birding the woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of those changes was an apparent drastic reduction in the number of Red-winged Blackbirds in a variety of habitats relative to what I remembered from childhood. Rather than large flocks in cattail marshes and around the margins of lakes and rivers, I saw only scattered small groups of fewer than ten birds.
In 2009 APHIS, part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas, and 461,669 in Louisiana.—Martha Rosenberg, huffingtonpost.com
Further reading after these observations substantiated impressions of massive population losses. Ever since that time, I have kept an eye out for these birds wherever possible. I am aware, however, that reports based on anecdotal evidence will likely convince no-one, especially those with a vested interest in denial.
The “famous” taxpayer-supported USDA program of mass poisoning of icterids (blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds) and other agricultural pest species like magpies and European Starlings called “Bye bye blackbird” is probably just the tip of the iceberg of officially sanctioned avian extermination. I say famous because this is a well-known program widely reported on in the blogosphere—but never (to my knowledge) in the really “big time” popular media outlets, the ABC Evening News or the PBS Newshour, for example. (Sidebar: Why is this? Why must we look only to elite publications like Audubon’s “Common Birds in Decline” or National Geographic ‘s “Last Song for Migrating Birds” for reports of the destruction of the environment and the slaughter of its innocents? I guess it would take time away from reports of Justin Bieber’s latest brush with the law and interviews with random passersby about the weather.)
Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (part of the Department of the Interior) has issued a directive, a so-called depredation order, that anyone can kill any number of pest birds they suspect of causing economic damage or posing health risks (sometimes with avicides like Starlicide and administered by professional contractors in the form of poisoned brown rice baits). These private activities are perhaps more disturbing than the USDA programs because of the much larger potential scale of the killing–and the USDA kills birds by the millions! In the eyes of the federal government (and many farmers) icterids are apparently vermin of no worth whatsoever—despite detailed agricultural studies showing that as a result of insectivorous blackbirds, farmers can use 50% less pesticide.
For me, the bold, difficult to describe call of the Male Red-winged Black-bird is the sound of a marsh. Males perched atop cattails with females poking around in the brush below is what a marsh is supposed to look and sound like. Should the Red-winged Blackbird go the way of the Passenger Pigeon, marshes across North America will lose some of their most defining characteristics and aesthetic qualities—the experience of visiting a marsh will be immeasurably degraded.
Perhaps the plight of the Rusty Blackbird will focus some more attention on systematic, deliberate avian extermination. Rusty Blackbirds have suffered an estimated 85-98% reduction in population over the past 40 years likely due, in part, to agricultural poisoning by the government and private individuals. The Rusty Blackbird (along with the Mexican Crow) has been removed from the depredation order—at least taxpayers are not paying for the extermination and protection of the same species. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for in the current Age of Dysfunction—although I fail to understand how Rusty Blackbirds and Mexican Crows will be kept from eating the poisoned rice.
I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.—Joseph Addison, The Spectator
On a recent birding to trip to Florida we were excited to see Limpkins, odd rail-like birds that feed primarily (75%) on applesnails. Limpkins are snail specialists with slightly right-curving beak-tips to reach inside snail shells. Historically, Limpkins have fed on the Florida Applesnail, the one indigenous U.S. applesnail species. However, the U.S., especially the Gulf Coast, is currently under invasion by several additional species of Neotropical applesnails (Genus Pomacea, but we’ll leave the contested details of which species are which to the gastropod taxonomists!).
Two species of snail-eating birds appear to be taking advantage of this invasion: Limpkins and Snail Kites. Limpkins are reportedly expanding their range in Florida to harvest the explosion of invasive snails, and the Florida subspecies of Snail Kite appears to be rebounding from the brink of extinction based on the proliferation of prey. White Ibis also dine on applesnails and may be benefitting from increased food supplies.
Although these invasive mollusks seem to be benefiting these birds, many naturalists fear the applesnail invasion. These snails have become major agricultural pests in other parts of the world where introduced, and some species host the rat lungworm parasite (now doesn’t that sound pleasant?). Even in death applesnails pose a threat: shells discarded by Limpkins and Snail Kites serve as water reservoirs for the breeding of invasive Asian tiger mosquitos.
Seems that everywhere we go on our birding adventures we find invasives (or their impacts), or in researching these posts, read about the impacts invasives have on birds or the environment in general. Pristine environments are now non-existent. Even in parks and preserves billed as being “native,” cursory inspection of land or water soon usually reveals invasives, be they Chinese tallow trees, water hyacinth, Hydrilla, or privet—or applesnails. I somehow doubt, though, that Limpkins and Florida Snail Kites will accompany the applesnail invasion of Texas. Pity.
Time sometimes flies like a bird, sometimes crawls like a snail; but a man is happiest when he does not even notice whether it passes swiftly or slowly.—Ivan Turgenev
Although spring migration is the best time to look for warblers along the subtropical U.S. Gulf Coast, many species can be spotted during the winter months. We specify the subtropical part of the U.S. Gulf Coast to distinguish it from the southern tip of Florida, which has a wet-dry tropical climate. (Many species of warblers winter in southern Florida and nowhere else on the U.S. Gulf Coast. These include Magnolia, Cape May, American Redstart, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.)
Across much of subtropical Gulf Coast Texas one may find Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped (generally Myrtle Race, but sometimes Audubon’s Race or hybrids), Black and White, Pine, Wilson’s, Palm, and Common Yellowthroat Warblers. Prairie Warblers may be found on the coastal tip of Louisiana and in Florida, except the Panhandle. At the extreme southern terminus of the Texas Gulf Coast, one may find Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Gray, Yellow, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Northern and Tropical Parula, and Nashville Warblers–which makes it just about as good a place to bird in the winter as Florida.
Warblers are among the most difficult birds to photograph given their small size, lightning fast reflexes, and (often) a propensity to inhabit dense, thickly tangled vegetation—so we like to bird for warblers as much as possible to maximize photo-ops, even during less than ideal times of the year.
Birding for warblers in the winter has positives and negatives. The biggest positives are, of course, the cool weather and lack of biting insects. The slight downside is not seeing the Dendroica genus of Wood Warblers in their most flamboyant breeding colors. Dendroica warblers often exhibit different plumage colors in the breeding (spring and summer) and non-breeding (fall and winter) seasons as illustrated in the two photos above. The solution to this minor drawback for winter bird photography is, of course, is to bird for these fellows in both breeding and non-breeding seasons!
If winter comes, can spring be far behind? —Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to the West Wind
Over the past week we were able to spend a few days at Myakka River State Park (MRSP) in western Florida near Sarasota. We were struck immediately by similarities to Brazos Bend State Park, Texas (BBSP). Both are subtropical low-relief state parks centered around rivers and lakes. The winter water bird avifaunas are also similar–with a few exceptions, Wood Storks and Double-crested Cormorants having the most conspicuously different abundances at the two parks.
Over the years I have only seen one Wood Stork at BBSP. On the other hand, Wood Storks proved to be common at MRSP during our stay, and we were able to observe them in flight overhead, underwing hunting/fishing and “wing flashing” (herding aquatic prey by waving a wing) at Alligator Point. The oxbow lake at Alligator Point provides the birder or photographer an excellent vantage point to observe bird behavior deep off the beaten track—but watch out for poison ivy! Pied-billed Grebes are present in small numbers (relative to BBSP) at MRSP, but Double-crested Cormorants are abundant and making a living the way the grebes do at BBSP, namely diving after prey in shallow freshwater lakes.
The prey are conspicuously different at these two parks, however. At this time of year at BBSP the birds seem to be consuming a mix of fish, amphibians (frogs and salamanders), and arthropods. At MRSP we only saw fish being taken–several species of gar, Tilapia, bass, and small catfish . . . although one Great Blue Heron was convinced he had a snake or Amphiuma salamander and pecked a poor stick to bits! The absence of crawfish prey struck me as remarkable, and I asked a ranger about it. He said that during the dry season, the crawfish remain in their burrows. Perhaps when the rains return and some the low-lying areas flood again, crawfish will be on the water bird menu.
In general, our time in western Florida has brought up a number of fascinating topics for thought, research, and future travel plans that will no doubt be discussed in this blog at some point in time. How are Tilapia (an invasive), for example, impacting the environment generally and wader diets in particular. Also, where are the amphibians? Could we be seeing another example of the global amphibian crisis? These questions make me want to bird this amazing park during other times of the year.
My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.–Jerry Seinfeld