Although we delight in getting properly exposed and sharply focused images of birds sitting innocuously on branches, we’re most excited to capture birds in epic battles with their prey! The Gulf Coast is an exceptional place to live if you’re interested in spotting and photographing birds grappling with fish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, and crayfish and dragonflies and a host of other invertebrates. In our photo presentation, Stalking the Hunters: Observing and Photographing Birds and Their Prey,we will focus on our adventures photographing birds hunting, fishing, and otherwise engaged in the struggle for existence (mostly) along the Gulf Coast. For logistical details, please visit the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) site.
“To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”—Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers
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
By late fall, most traces of punishing summer have gone, and the bird photographer can think more about birds and light and less about heat, mosquitos, chiggers, and biting flies.
On some seasonal days, cold weather high altitude cirrus clouds–diaphanous veils of ice crystals–act like natural diffusers, reducing glare without sacrificing vibrance of color. This cool winter light is perfect for shorebird colors: black, white, and shades of gray. Even on dreary cumulonimbus days, when light is not optimal, chill breezes keep land and sea fresh and invigorated, and this glory shall persist until . . . March.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.–Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
Certain living organisms conjure scenes of the past in my paleontologist’s brain. Seeing a pelican skimming the crests of waves over Galveston Bay spark thoughts of pterosaurs gliding above the Cretaceous Niobraran Sea of western Kansas. Dragonflies bring visions of sweltering Late Paleozoic coal swamps teeming with monstrous arthropods.
Despite knowing that some insects are endothermic (“warm-blooded”) and are active over a wide range of temperatures, I was surprised to see a variety of active dragonflies on a recent chilly mid-November day at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Perhaps this surprise was because of my bias toward thinking of dragonflies as a hot weather phenomenon.
In general, dragonflies fall into two types: “flyers” and “perchers.” Flyers like Green Darners (Anax junius)are endotherms, their elevated body temperatures largely the result of physiological processes supporting their highly active lifestyles. Perchers like Blue Dashers typically are closer to what are commonly called ectotherms, or “cold-blooded” organisms. These creatures regulate their body temperatures primarily through behavioral mechanisms like basking in the sun to raise body temperature, or conversely, as in the case of Blue Dashers, adopting the “obelisk posture.” In the obelisk posture, the abdomen is pointed toward the sun, thus decreasing the profile illuminated by the sun.
In any case, a major source of avian nutrition has stretched much deeper into the cool weather than I expected—and with it my dragonfly photography!
“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”—Gustave Flaubert, November
The best technique for shooting birds in flight (BIF) arguably involves spotting a bird at distance and then tracking it in the viewfinder until it fills a significant part of the frame. For this technique to be employed, the photographer must be able to predictably track the bird over a long distance without significant obstructions. A large number of birds following along a similar glide path is also helpful. Because of these requirements, getting BIF shots is highly dependent upon a special place.
East Beach, Galveston is such a place. Numerous shorebirds and waders typically fly parallel to the shore. Obstructions are few–mainly ships that appear in the background. The morning sun is at your back while you shoot toward the sea. And after a blue norther, with a cold wind in your face the place is . . . paradise.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.–Jules Verne
Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island was a-hoppin’ with half a dozen warbler species the weekend before last (10/19), but last weekend (10/26) only Pine Warblers were in attendance. Technically a “partial migrant,” Pine Warblers winter on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast–one of only a few warbler species that do so. We have, once again, arrived at a time when the Neotropical migrants are mostly back or well on their way back to the tropics.
Likewise, intracontinental migrants are still moving through or settling into their winter Texas homes. Of these North American wanderers, I most look forward to the ducks and can’t wait to hit their hot spots along the Texas Coast like Rockport, the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park (Corpus Christi), and the Birding Center on South Padre Island. Loons and grebes, too, will soon begin arriving in Galveston Bay and environs, imparting a definite northern feel to the coastal Texas waterscape.
“When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.” ― Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
Last weekend the dreary weather pattern finally broke (we just stepped out of the car at Lafitte’s Cove as the trailing edge of the first real arctic blast passed overhead, blue skies behind), and we made the most of it. On Saturday afternoon we observed American Redstarts, Nashville, Magnolia, Canada, Black and White, and other warblers. White-eyed Vireos and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. Sunday we traveled to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Anahuac NWR was a bit more challenging on the biting fly front–at one point Chris was swinging the 600mm lens around to frame a Swainson’s Warbler when five or so biting bugs nailed him on the face thus breaking concentration . . . the bird flew off without a single shutter click. On the upside we walked away with nice Vermilion Flycatcher and Common Yellowthroat shots. We can’t wait to get out again!
A note to our subscribers: We are aware that the images in the e-mail notifications for new posts are being cropped on one side. The problem appeared suddenly out of the blue several weeks ago. Last week, we thought (erroneously) that we had the problem fixed. This week we have tried another approach–perhaps it will work.
Surely flycatchers must be counted among the most interesting birds to watch as they “hawk” insects from mid-air above land or water, or swoop down to the grass to snatch prey and then return to their perches to consume it. In this new collection, we include images primarily from the Texas Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley. Enjoy!
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.–E. O. Wilson
I have noticed a large up-tick in the number of Green Darners (Anax junius) around the Texas Gulf Coast. This no surprise as Green Darners migrate from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Panama during the fall. The details of Green Darner migration across North America are sketchy, but many millions fly south during fall with their avian predators. Why some Green Darners migrate and others stay put is a mystery, but the north-south migration is intergenerational as the reproductive adult typically only lives for an estimated 4-7 weeks. On an individual basis, telling a migrant from a resident is generally not possible.
For a bird photographer, the waxing and waning of abundance of adults of different dragonfly species means that I get to shoot birds preying on different species of dragonflies throughout the spring, summer, and fall. For dragonflies, it seems likely that emergence (molting into the flying adult from the aquatic larval form) and mating are two times of special vulnerability to avian predation. In the case of the former, the dragonfly must sit motionless on vegetation for hours while the wings extend and harden. In the latter case, the male and female insects are attached, thus presenting a larger and slower target for predatory birds.
In any case, such temporal variation in prey abundance adds a fascinating dimension to nature photography . . . .
One of the highlights of birding during the summer/fall transition is witnessing the explosion of fruits that come into season at this time. Last Saturday (9/14) I visited the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary in west Houston. Even though the drought had caused many of the plants to droop and otherwise appear stressed, the understory was bursting with ripe beautyberries and pokeberries, and greenbrier vines laden with shiny orange berries climbed to the heights everywhere. Yaupon berries were still green or just beginning to turn red and will provide food for birds later in the fall and winter.
The beautyberry and pokeberry patch was thick with frugivorous American Robins and Northern Mockingbirds. A few Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals were also hanging around the patch. Mockingbirds were plucking greenbrier berries from vines high in the crowns of trees. On Wednesday (9/18) I returned to find that many of the berries had already been stripped from the plants. But, never fear, in the shadier areas the next crop of ripening berries was waiting in the wings.
For the birder, some plants with ripe berries are worth staking out. Hackberry trees, for example, are a favorite among primarily insectivorous birds (like warblers), as well as those mainly interested in fruits. A hackberry tree is a mini-ecosystem–fresh and decaying fruit attracts insects. Spiders hunt the insects from webs and the nooks and crannies of rolled-up leaves, and warblers grab the spiders. Ecosystems: they work!
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe;
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruit and flowers.