Special Places

Birders’ Paradise: Fall Migration at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas

Male Yellow Warbler on September 1, 2013 at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Yellow Warbler on September 1st, 2013 at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

September begins the fifth straight month of “the baking” of the Texas Gulf Coast. On the upside, the trickle of fall migrants that started in July finally gets into full swing. On September 1st we visited Lafitte’s Cove for the first time this fall migration (technically still summer, of course) and saw five warbler species: Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow, Canada, Black and White, and Hooded Warblers.

Canada Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Canada Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Warblers are are a Lafitte’s Cove speciality: In the past year we’ve seen twenty-four of the fifty-two species of warblers that regularly visit the United States. This is especially impressive given that the preserve covers only twenty acres. Surely Lafitte’s Cove must be counted among the best migrant traps in the United States.

Louisiana Waterthrush attracted to the dripper at Lafitte's Cove on Galveston Island, TX
Hunting Louisiana Waterthrush surveying a dripper-flooded patch of oak motte at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+ 1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash. 9.1.2013.

Now, birds are fattening up on insects in preparation for their epic flight back to their wintering grounds to the south. Mosquitos can be a problem for birders at Lafitte’s Cove, but they have been less of a problem for us here than at other migrant traps along the Texas Gulf Coast like Sabine Woods and High Island.

We eagerly await the first blue norther when we’ll be able to bird in the cool fresh air! The first frost will mean an end to many of the nastiest biting bugs, and our wintering friends will be paddling peacefully across Gulf Coast waters (or otherwise doing their thing).

juvenile male Ruby-throated hummingbird at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island
Resting Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I spotted this juvenile male perched just above a patch of blooming Turk’s Cap at Lafitte’s Cove on Galveston Island, Texas. Note the liberal dusting of pollen on his head. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash. 9.1.2013.

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.–George Eliot

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding in Portal, Arizona and Environs

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. The feeders around the main office were swarmed with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The Broad-billed Hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species, its range barely extending into the Southwest U.S. during summer. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.

Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.

Vista Point, near Cave Creek, Arizona
A View from the Vista Trail, Coronado National Forest, Arizona showing a pine-oak forest extending up to the bare volcanic rock of an arid canyon. The distribution of plants and animals varies dramatically by elevation and distance from water. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .

Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Yellow-eyed Juncos are another primarily Mexican species. This bird nests in coniferous (or Madrean pine-oak) forests at elevations of 5,900-8,200 ft and eats mostly seeds (in cool weather) and arthropods (in warm weather). Barfoot Park is at an elevation of 8169 ft and is dominated by lofty ponderosa pines. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas in Summer

Male Rufous Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Male Rufous Hummingbird on Dead Agave Flower Stalk at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Photo taken at the observation blind, Tom Mays Unit. The feeders draw swarms of Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope hummingbirds in summer. Photo taken in late July. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

No other habitat on earth holds as much wonder for me as the desert. Franklin Mountains State Park is a consistently great place for desert birding and seeing the flora and fauna of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have visited several times in hot and cool weather and hope to return at the earliest possible date.

Make no mistake: the rocky northern Chihuahuan Desert is a hard place, especially in summer. Common plants scattered across the rocky flats include agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, eagle claw cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and mesquite. The Franklin Mountains area is the only place to see Southwest barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Texas. Stream channels contain Desert Willow, sometimes haunted by nectar-seeking hummingbirds.

Quail are also associated with stream channels. Gambel’s (a.k.a. Desert or Arizona) and Scaled Quail are common resident birds at the Tom Mays Unit. These birds are often comical to watch as they come strolling along a gully in small groups–until they notice you . . . . They will then shift around for a bit, and nonchalantly walk the other way!

Male Gambel's Quail at Franklin Mountain State Park, West Texas
I can see you, and I don’t like it: Male Gambel’s Quail at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

House finches and sparrows (Canyon and Spotted Towhees, for example) are an especially important part of the avifauna year-round. Green-tailed Towhees and Brewer’s Sparrow visit in the winter. Black-throated Sparrows are conspicuous year-round and will approach the observation blind closely at the Nature Walk Trail of the Tom Mays Unit.

The observation blind is a fiberglass affair with wooden benches inside. Although ergonomically unsuited for tripod use, the blind is remarkably cool even when temperatures are blistering outside and provides just about the only shade in the area.

Despite the harshness of the area, we can’t wait to return to Franklin Mountains State Park: hopefully we will get some better shots of the more camera-shy denizens of the park, namely Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.

Singing Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Singing in July: Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for — the whole thing — rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Lafitte’s Cove for Neotropical Migrants

Despite all the whining last post, I had a delightful time at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island last weekend. Present were Short-billed Dowitchers (in summer colors), Mottled Ducks, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Parulas, Northern Waterthrushes, a Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warblers, Palm Warblers, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a Cooper’s Hawk.

I used to think that Sabine Woods was the best place for springtime Neotropical migrants along the Texas Gulf Coast, but I was wrong. Lafitte’s Cove is better . . . at least this spring . . . on the days I visited . . . . Although both places are exceptional birding locales and well worth a visit, they are not without their challenges. Sabine Woods, for example, has the nastiest biting insects I’ve ever experienced (possible exceptions include Mexico and northern Minnesota). Lafitte’s Cove, because it is essentially located within a subdivision, has lots of people (some noisy). Luckily most of them are nice.

Additional images from this session will be included within the Galveston Island Birds Collection some day (when I have time).

Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island. Texas
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte’s Cove. Northern Waterthrushes are difficult to tell from Louisiana Waterthrushes. This bird is a Northern Waterthrush because the superciliary stripe thins behind the eye, and the throat is streaked, rather than white. High-speed synchronized flash.
Prothonotary Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Prothonotary Warbler (aka Golden Swamp Warbler) at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. “Prothonotary Warbler” is a silly name of obscure origin that should be abandoned. The original name, Golden Swamp Warbler, says it all. High-speed synchronized flash.

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this blog post.

Appreciating Galveston

Eastern Meadowlark at Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Eastern(?) Meadowlark at the Prairie Trail, Galveston Island State Park, Texas.

In keeping with new year’s resolutions, we struck out this three-day weekend for Galveston in search of new areas to explore for birds. We scouted the northern edge of San Luis Pass, Lafitte’s Cove, and several trails we had not visited before at Galveston Island State Park, especially the Prairie and Freshwater Ponds Trails. We were lucky to see a group of about twelve Red-breasted Mergansers in a tidal channel at San Luis Pass. The Freshwater Ponds and Prairie Trails produced White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Barn Owl, Eastern(?) Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, a Palm Warbler, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Orange-Crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American White Pelicans, and Buffleheads, among others.

On this trip the conditions were just what the doctor ordered: clear and dry, upper thirties in the early mornings and warming into the low sixties by afternoon. Over the past several weeks unusually nasty weather had keep us indoors, and our photographic skills atrophied. On this trip I got to practice my in-flight, hand-held technique with the 300mm f/4L IS and tripod work with the 500mm f/4L, including tracking swimming birds with IS Mode 2.

American White Pelican at Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park
American White Pelican at the Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park. These majestic creatures allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique.

We were excited to discover a man-made  “water feature” in a wooded area at Lafitte’s Cove, specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. This feature is very similar to the one maintained by the Texas Ornithological Society at Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Although I have never experienced anything but the utmost in civility at Sabine Woods, apparently photographers and binocular users can’t get along with each other at Lafitte’s Cove. Like at the Smith Oaks Rookery (where squabbles and hard feelings are common) there are posted time limits for spots and separately designated areas for binocular users and tripod photographers/spotting scope users. We’ll find out during spring migration if both groups can respect posted rules, avoid hogging the best viewing/shooting spots, and refrain from snarky comments . . . although a “night of the tiny fists” type encounter as described by the late Gore Vidal might be amusing to witness.

On the way home we visited the Skillern Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we were treated to a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in one of the eastern fields near the tract entrance. During most of this trip to Galveston and environs I had the feeling that the birds were warier than usual. The frequent crack of gunfire in the background–not to mention yahoos in ATVs crashing through the marshes, music blaring–may hold the key. During the drive back along the White-knuckle Express (I-10), where I was treated to many interactions with maniacs and nincompoops, I had time to reflect upon the wonderful effects humans have had on the biosphere.

Greater White-fronted Geese at Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Greater White-fronted Geese at the Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. These geese were extremely wary of humans. I wonder why.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Galveston Island Birds: A New Collection

When we need a break from Brazos Bend State Park, we often bird and photograph Galveston Island birds. East Beach and San Luis Pass are especially enjoyable birding hot spots, particularly during the cooler months.

Sanderling on dead fish at East Beach, Galveston, Texas
Not so innocent! Sanderlings are common, but charming winter inhabitants of Galveston Island.

Summer Birding at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Many birders take the summer off in the Gulf Coast region. This is understandable given the low diversity of avian species relative to migration and the blistering sun, sweltering humidity and biting insects. Brazos Bend State Park, however, does offer some interesting possibilities in July through September if you’re willing to put up with a little pain. Family life of several species can easily be observed. At least two cohorts of juvenile Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks can be seen on Elm Lake during summer. In some places, the plants nearshore are literally alive with ducklings and baby rails. The first of the fall migrants also generally begin to show up in late July/early August as well. Even if you can’t get out there this summer, keep it in mind for next year–and don’t forget your hat!

Juvenile Purple Gallinule at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Juvenile Purple Gallinule: the huge feet of this young rail allow it walk easily across floating marsh vegetation. Photo taken at Elm Lake.