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
Last weekend evidence of spring was all around Galveston and environs. The big news at Lafitte’s Cove was the Hooded Warbler invasion. With the exception of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtle Race—still waiting for Audubon’s), Hooded Warblers probably outnumbered all other warbler species combined. Black and White, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Prothonotary Warblers were also in attendance. White-eyed Vireos were profuse at Dos Vacas Muertas and Lafitte’s Cove.
There was a notable uptick of numbers of birds that winter on the Gulf Coast, but have significant parts of their ranges to the south–Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, for example. Lesser Yellowlegs winter on the southern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. Coasts, as well as the Gulf Coast, but range all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Technically, I suppose, it’s impossible to tell if individual birds have moved far, but seeing Lesser Yellowlegs at Lafitte’s Cove and East Beach suggest to me that they are part of a big wave from the south.
On the flycatcher front: In a week or so, the trees of Lafitte’s Cove will be hopping with Great-crested, Least, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers—but last weekend I only saw Great-crested Flycatchers. Observations are continuing . . . .
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.—Winston Churchill
In mid-March, I noticed a large, strange immature gull among a small group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls at East Beach, Galveston gathered around a fish carcass. My first impression was that this gull had a more rounded head and relatively shorter bill than the Herring Gulls, and also tended to hold its head in a more upright posture. Tips of primaries and the tail feathers were a dark chocolate brown, rather than black. The pale yellow-gray eyes also caught my attention.
This odd gull, on the small end of the size range of typical Herring Gulls (and much larger than the Ring-billed Gulls), also acted differently from the other birds. This seemingly out-of-place gull was more curious and less suspicious than the others, slowing circling in the water as it waited for me to leave. At one point, the bird flew off, only to return a short time later. Suspecting a possible rarity, but not knowing precisely what I might have, I snapped a few images of the bird in a variety of postures for future study and moved on, leaving the birds to their breakfast.
The Thayer’s Gull is a puzzling species. These gulls are reported rarely from the Texas Gulf Coast (and much of the eastern U.S.) during winter and early spring, although they breed in the high arctic and winter mostly on the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska. The winter movements of these birds are poorly understood. What are these vagrants after? Is it mere wanderlust?
Likewise problematic is the taxonomic status of the Thayer’s Gull: some authorities consider it a separate species, although others consider it a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. Because of wide individual variation, birds of this species are notoriously difficult to identify by birders (especially in areas these birds rarely frequent!) and professional ornithologists alike, disagreements over the identity of specific birds being common. Identification puzzlements are further complicated by the existence of hybridization of Thayer’s with Herring and Iceland Gulls. My suspicion is that the bird in question is a second winter Thayer’s Gull, or possibly a hybrid, but I happily invite comments from readers about the possible identity of the bird shown in these photos.
Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing we have lost, wandering in strange lands?—Arna Bontemps
We’re just about there . . . just a few more days. Just a few more days until the most exciting birding of the year begins when hundreds of millions of birds begin pouring across and around the Gulf of Mexico. Sure, a few early birds are already moving through, but mostly it’s still the wintering species that I’m seeing. I also spotted some Wilson’s Plovers at East Beach. Many of these partial migrants extend their ranges north into Texas along the Gulf Coast of Mexico for the summer breeding season.
On a few occasions over the past several weeks, I could have taken additional opportunities to step out (and deal with the mobs of maniac drivers) and look around and see who’s around. But then I think about the date, at the time of this writing still not quite officially spring, and think no, it’s unlikely that anybody really interesting is around, yet. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. No matter what the time of year, Texas birding can offer up surprises and new experiences—it’s just a matter of exercising the discipline to get out and look.
Let’s go. We can’t. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
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
In the euphoria surrounding spring migration, it’s sometimes easy to forget that species besides warblers and other colorful songbirds are making their way across the Gulf Coast. Shorebirds are a major component of the spring migration and can really add to the excitement of being in the field in spring. Case in point: the unusual phalaropes.
Phalaropes show a reversal of typical gender roles. The brightly colored females compete for males and migrate shortly after abandoning the nest to the males–which perform all parental duties after the females lay the eggs. Of the three Phalarope species, only the Wilson’s nests in Texas. Rare Texas nesting Wilson’s Phalaropes, however, can only be seen in a few small scattered areas in the Panhandle. Your best bet for seeing Wilson’s Phalaropes (like the other phalarope species) is to spot them during migration.
Last spring we had the luck to spot a few individuals paddling around on one of the ponds at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. We did not observe their trademark feeding technique of swimming in a tight circle to form a vortex from which to pluck invertebrate prey, though. Maybe next time.
In America there are two classes of travel – first class, and with children.—Robert Benchley
I find that it’s always a good idea to carefully scrutinize flocks of shorebirds for the rarity who may be trying pass unnoticed among the hoi polloi. When I do spot an unfamiliar shorebird, I snap a few images for future research. Terns and gulls most commonly are the cause of these identification puzzlements.
Usually the mystery bird is not a rarity at all, but rather a youngster of a common species. Perhaps the most common gulls at East Beach are Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Ring-billed Gulls. All of these species have distinct breeding and non-breeding plumages as well as juvenile colors significantly different from those of the adult birds.
This great seasonal and developmental variation in appearance within a singles species is one of the challenges of birding. And one that keeps me, at least, heading back to the reference books after just about every trip to the beach.
East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas at low tide is a magical place: a place equally suited for a biology or geology field trip. Gorgeous bedforms of a dozen kinds—those structures formed by the action of water on sediments like ripple marks and dunes—bring back memories of sedimentology classes many moons ago. Running around on theses surfaces (or occasionally trying to pry a recalcitrant worm from the sand and mud) are the sandpipers.
In their winter colors, the smallest ones, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, and Western Sandpipers sometimes test the birder’s ability to distinguish one species from another. In this endeavor, behavior is often just as good a guide to identification as are the details of appearance.
Sanderlings are perhaps the most charming and easiest to identify of the sandpiper clan as they chase the waves as they drain back out to sea, plucking stranded invertebrates and detritus as they go. Dunlins typically poke about at the strand line, and Western Sandpipers often explore the puddles of the intertidal zone. Least Sandpipers tend to probe for food along the margins of vegetation.
Although I tend to notice sandpipers most often in intertidal habitats, all of these birds can also be found in freshwater and terrestrial environments such as the margins of lakes, flooded fields, and freshwater marshes. All birds mentioned in this post are still common, but Dunlin and Sanderlings are declining in numbers, mainly due to human use (and misuse) of beaches and other coastal habitats . . . yet another tragic tale of our time.
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Being from Minnesota, I am usually only reluctantly looking forward to spring in Texas—mainly because the summer swelter soon follows. But this winter, the weather (mostly drizzle, fog, mist, clouds; rain) has been so appalling that I am definitely looking forward to spring more than most years. In addition to watching out for migrants, primarily at the migrant traps like Lafitte’s Cove, High Island, Sabine Woods, etc., we’ll be on the lookout for nesting birds, eggs and babies. And the Texas Gulf Coast is a great place for rookeries . . .
One of the best rookeries for observation and photography, of course, is the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island. I have not been there since buying our 600mm f/4L, though. Some of the nests at Smith Oaks are just a little too far for optimum results with a 500mm lens, so I am looking forward to what can be gained with the extra focal length.
Unfortunately, two problems exist at Smith Oaks: crowding and mosquitos. Although not quite as bad as a shopping mall the day before Christmas, High Island can be quite crowded and not all birders are quite civilized. Some birders seem insistent that photographers stay in the “designated tripod photography areas, ” while some others feel free to stand around in those areas without taking pictures. In any case, listening to the snarky comments while swatting mosquitos may be amusing. Or not.
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.—Joseph Campbell
Despite often gloomy and dismal weather and optical conditions, the marshy south flank of Pilant Lake near the observation tower at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas has been an exciting place for birders this winter. In addition to the usual suspects present during winter, American Pipits, Wilson’s Snipes, American Bitterns, Song Sparrows, Least Sandpipers, and a Solitary Sandpiper have been spotted in the vicinity. What’s more, interesting bird behavior and interactions have been common lately, and I’ve made inter- and intra-species conflicts and confrontations the theme of my photos for this post. There are, for example, so many Wilson’s Snipes around that they’re getting into each other’s business: violations of personal space result in displays as shown below.
The south side of Pilant Lake is also one of the best spots to photograph wader hunting behavior that I know. This winter has been no exception. Two weeks ago a Great Blue Heron is reported to have taken a large siren (Siren intermedia), a very large salamander, from immediately north of the observation tower. As a result, I spent a few hours stalking a Great Blue in that area the day after the report, but I only saw the bird catch frogs. Maybe next time.
The passions are the same in every conflict, large or small.—Mason Cooley
Of the heron, egret and bittern family, the two species of North American bitterns are the most secretive. When spotted, their slow, precise, almost machine-like stalking behavior is mesmerizing to watch. Sometimes bitterns seem acutely aware of the photographer’s every breath and muscle-twitch, and sometimes they are completely oblivious to observers and go about their hunting as if they alone occupied the planet.
Least Bitterns summer in the eastern U.S., including the Gulf Coast, and American Bitterns winter along the Gulf Coast—so for the Texas birder, the possibility (at least) exists for seeing bitterns throughout much of the year.
Of the two bittern species, the American Bittern has the more cryptic coloration, I think. Many times I have had to double-take when I first noticed one–especially if the bird had adopted its neck-straight-up “I’m-a-clump-of-marsh-vegetation pose.” Least Bitterns are also difficult to see among marsh vegetation and have been known to sway back and forth to mimic the gentle motion of vegetation tussled by the wind. These are clearly creatures that do not want to be noticed.
It’s hard to recommend a place to see bitterns in the Houston area. The south side of Pilant Lake at Brazos Bend State Park is the most reliable spot to see American Bitterns I know. But in many visits to that area, I’ve only seen a Least Bittern once. And that’s how I would characterize my experience with Least Bitterns: I’ve seen them many places once.
Calls of both species of bitterns are distinctive enough to know when they’re around, even if they are invisible, especially the Least Bittern’s rather monkey-like (to my ear) coo-coo-coo. Least Bitterns are also easy to spot in flight, given their heron-style of flight and rufous markings—but once they’re back in the reeds, it’s good-bye, Charlie!
Don’t wait to be hunted to hide, that was always my motto. —Samuel Beckett, Molloy