Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)
I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.
Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.
I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.
There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?
When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.
At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust
The world is old. The world is new . . . .
Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.
Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .
Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.
From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.
The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.
For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).
Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . . . —T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men
I think I once read that T.S. Eliot, when asked if he would again write his poem’s famous last lines about the end of the world, replied that he would not have written a word. His rationale being that victims of aerial bombing during the Blitz never heard a thing before impact . . . . If the story’s not true, it should be.
Perhaps it’s because of working on my other website (trilobiteseas.com) that deals with an entirely extinct group, perhaps it’s because of what I keep seeing (and hearing) in the field while photo-birding, but I’ve got the end of the world on my mind. Of course, as humans in the early 21st Century, we’re experiencing the end of a world, not the end of the world. Without getting into the semantics of to whether humans are part of nature or not, the world that is ending is the natural biosphere, and it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. Songbird populations are collapsing everywhere, and human fingerprints are on their demise.
Fact is, wherever I go in the Lower Forty-eight, I am hard-pressed to find a completely natural scene.
Always there is the hand of man. Roads, trash, roadkills, and everywhere invasive plants and animals brought in by humans. A colleague at work who is quite knowledgeable about wildlife recently showed me some images of birds from her backyard feeders–because she had never seen anything like some of the birds before. They were Scaly-breasted Munias, exotics introduced into Texas from Asia. Those birds were eating someone else’s lunch!
While driving through southwest Oregon recently I saw weird, huge, orange flowers growing by the side of the road. What in the hell are those? I thought. Turns out they were red hot poker plants. Like the Bottlebrush, this plant is a big favorite of birds . . . in southern Africa where they come from! Perhaps some North American bird species will find a use for them.
If you want to get bummed out, read birding accounts from the 1950’s . . . .
Man’s deleterious influence on the wild is always, always moving inexorably ahead altering and killing as it goes. Cars, buildings, cats, windmills . . . all slaughtering birds in the billions. Introduced invasives are replacing natives all around us. And although some of the introduced plants and animals are pretty, the havoc they’re causing in ecosystems isn’t!
Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg
Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.
Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).
As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.
As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.
Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.
How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean. –Arthur C. Clarke
Terns are among the most beautiful and interesting birds on the planet. Few birds can match their incredible suite of behaviors. From their spectacular dives for fish, elegant mating dances, and charming nuptial feeding ritual, these birds are always a delight to watch. Luckily for Gulf Coast birders, Galveston Island is a fine place to observe several species of terns—but not all species are easy to find. Sandwich, Royal, Forster’s, and Least Terns are probably the easiest to spot and are present year-round.
The spectacular Caspian Tern, the world’s largest tern, is present on Galveston year-round, but is not as ubiquitous as the aforementioned terns. The best way to spot them is to scan U’s of Royal Terns and look for the really big birds with red, rather than orange bills. Unfortunately, Caspian Terns, like many bird species, are in decline.
The family life of terns is probably the most interesting aspect of these birds. The fact that their mating rituals and mating itself takes place right out in the open of the beach-face make terns easy pickings for birders. Among the more comical aspects of their family lives is the shocking displays of gluttony by sub-adult terns as they nag their parents mercilessly for food—even though the young are the same size as the adults. East Beach is a fine place to see this behavior exhibited by Royal and Caspian, and occasionally Forster’s Terns.
Black Terns can theoretically be seen on Galveston during migrations, but we’ve never seen them here. A reliable place to see them nearby during migrations, though, is Rollover Fish Pass on Bolivar Peninsula. Probably the closest place for a Texas birder to see them during the breeding season is at Cheyenne Bottoms in central Kansas. Snowy Plovers also breed at this somewhat isolated, but interesting wetland famous for migrating waterbirds.
Except for going to visit the nesting colonies of Sooty Terns along the coast just north of the Rio Grande, the only other opportunities for expanding your “Texas” tern experiences beyond those available on or around Galveston would involve taking to a boat. Bridled and Sooty Terns are pelagic and can be seen out over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico when not breeding in the West Indies or along the Pacific coast of southern Mexico. But trying to photograph birds from boats has, for us, been a somewhat specialized (mis)adventure. Better to just bring the binoculars!
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country
Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.
And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.
Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.
Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .
In general, I consider bird photography to be a difficult proposition. Sometimes, as in the case of lightning-fast small songbirds, it’s right on the the edge of what is possible. If any bird makes bird photography easy, though, it is the Purple Gallinule, a fairly large, fairly slow bird that is not particularly wary of humans. Add to this the absolutely spectacular appearance of the adult, and you have a marvelous ambassador to the hobby for any beginner.
A common misconception about Purple Gallinules is that the brilliantly colored individuals are the males, and the duller brown and turquoise birds are the females. This is not correct: as in most rails, sexes are similar. The more brightly colored birds are adult, and the more subdued ones immature.
Purple Gallinules breed in wetlands across the southern U.S., including our own Brazos Bend State Park. Purple Gallinules like it nice and toasty warm—so they do migrate (except Florida populations). But . . . how to say this politely? Now, I’m not using the word lazy, but rather . . . minimalist! Purple Gallinules migrate as little as possible south around the margins of the Gulf of Mexico in the fall until they find a comfy spot, returning for the summer heat along the Texas Gulf Coast (April through October).
Purple Gallinules are omnivores and eat a variety of foods. One thing to keep an eye for around here is their hunt for aquatic leaf beetles. They manipulate and inspect American lotus leaves and other aquatic vegetation to find them. Elisa documented this behavior in detail in another post.
Other things to watch for are spectacular territorial disputes that erupt between the adult birds. The image above was taken in early June. The purpose of these battles is, ultimately, to be able to produce what’s below: babies! Purple Gallinule chicks are delightful to watch with their gigantic feet, which are even bigger in proportion to the body than in the adult bird.
Finally, photographing the Purple Swamphen is on my very long bucket list. This bird is an exotic close relative of the Purple Gallinule that has naturalized in Florida. The Purple Swamphen is a bigger, chunkier version of the Purple Gallinule—but it’s every bit as colorful. Someday.
Love me or hate me, both are in my favor . . . If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart . . . If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.—unknown (often falsely attributed to William Shakespeare)
Despite having developed a love-hate relationship with the place, over the past month or so we’ve taken every opportunity to get down to Lafitte’s Cove for the spring migration. On a good day, this sanctuary is hard to beat, but getting there has become oppressive, and once there, the crowds can make functioning as a wildlife photographer next to impossible. Tour groups have begun to show up at Lafitte’s Cove, and with mobs of twenty-plus people ambling down narrow paths you’re not getting much work done.
The love: On April 9, we visited Lafitte’s Cove and saw American Redstart, Black and White, Hooded, Kentucky, Blue-winged, and Worm-eating Warblers along with Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos. Thrushes were common: We saw and identified the Veery and Wood Thrush, although Swainson’s Thrushes were also likely present. These recent encounters revealed a truth: Thrushes (along with Ovenbirds) represent a photographic challenge I’ve not yet mastered. Birds of this sort hop around and probe for food in nooks and crannies of the the dark understory and, at best, appear in broken light only . . . They are tough subjects.
April 23 was a good day at the Cove. We saw many birds including Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian Warblers. Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were also around. The following morning was a bust, though. The sky was a blown-out white, and the birds were in hiding. At one point, a Golden-winged and Blackburnian Warbler flew right over my head, but disappeared immediately into the brush and sky, respectively, never to be seen again . . . .
The hate: Construction on I-45 between Houston and Galveston has been going on at least since the early 90’s when I arrived in Texas. Construction is now permanent and creates catastrophic, hellish traffic jams from which there is no escape.
On our last trip back (April 24) from Lafitte’s Cove, I noticed a sign that read: HIGHWAY CLOSED AHEAD. It took a minute for that to sink in. It’s simply not possible to close I-45 without warning, is it? It would be apocalyptic. We had just traveled the same highway south a few hours before, and there was no indication of impending doom. In a matter of minutes we were in a sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic that stretched as far as the eye could see. Luckily we just barely managed to exit, and with Elisa deftly navigating with her smart phone we found ourselves on side streets (also jammed with cars). At one point I glanced up to find I was crossing Kobayashi Road. My mind reeled. Apparently I was about to face my own Kobayashi Maru scenario. Looking both ways for Klingon battle cruisers, I drove on . . . . .
Despite being only 45 miles from our house, the only solution to the current Lafitte’s Cove logistics nightmare, I fear, is to treat the sanctuary as if were a far-away destination. We must drive down in the wee hours, book a room for a few days (at inflated Galveston prices), and then drive back in the wee hours. Expletive deleted.
For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.–D. H. Lawrence
Plants of the Australian Genus Melaleuca (also sometimes referred to as “Callistemon”), the twenty-five to fifty or so species of bottlebrush (depending on author), are widely used around the world in Tropical and Subtropical gardens and have naturalized in a few places as well, where freezes are not too hard or often.
Few plants are as attractive to birds as the bottlebrush tree. When you see bottlebrush flowers on the Gulf Coast during migration, stop and linger. Here, bottlebrush are usually the crimson-flowered variety (although I have seen the white and green kinds) and are often buzzing with hummingbirds and songbirds. Warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles seem to be especially drawn to these flowers.
Bottlebrush flowers have a number of attractive features. They are reported to produce copious nectar and pollen. Some birds feeding on the flowers are covered in pollen and may have heads and faces stained with yellow pollen and/or nectar. Although in most cases birds probably only acquire minimal additional nutritional benefit from pollen, the nectar must be a welcome burst of calories after a daunting trans-gulf flight.
Bottlebrush trees also attract nutritious insects, ants especially. I have seen Scarlet Tanagers, well-known as bee-feeding specialists, plucking bees off the flowers, too. A have read reports of Australian parrots feeding on buds, but I’ve not witnessed any similar bird behavior in the U.S.
So what do the Bottlebrush Trees get in return from the birds? Short answer: pollination. Nectar-hungry birds deliver pollen grains from the anthers of flowers onto the stigmas of others thus fertilizing the plants.
Finally, I am not generally a fan of exotic plants in the landscape. Exotics reportedly do not support the diversity of insect life that is so critical to maintaining healthy bird populations. Bottlebrush is a tough call, though. Covered in birds and bugs, these glorious plants provide an oasis for birds and birders alike.
Life is a little like a message in a bottle, to be carried by the winds and the tides.–Gene Tierney
In January, while walking down the beach on the East End of Galveston Island, Texas I noticed a new tidal channel that blocked my progress south. I was annoyed because I was wearing hiking shoes and not boots as I should have been. But I noticed that the outflow (it was low tide) was attracting Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs that were picking small fish and invertebrates from the gently flowing water. I didn’t think much of where the water was coming from and pressed on south along the beach (with wet feet).
In early April, we again visited the area and found that the tidal channel had grown greatly and now penetrated a lagoon that is typically a pretty good spot to bird, although the light can be challenging. I am referring to the lagoon just south of the parking area and east (seaward side) of Bodekker Road, kitty-corner from the East End Lagoon Preserve.
With the penetration of the new tidal channel, however, the lagoon now drains at low tide. Parallel to the long axis of the lagoon, on the landward side, runs a riprap and concrete levee that crabbers frequent. As the lagoon drains, water seeps through the levee from slightly higher elevation creating little trickles and streams. This change has created a birding wonderland for one simple reason: It has produced a diversity of microenvironments within a small area. Red-breasted Mergansers now fish in the deeper parts. Avocets, yellowlegs, White Ibises, Willets, and dowitchers hunt and fish in the slightly shallower areas. Sandpipers scamper across emergent rippled surfaces. Tiny differences in water depth and flow really seem to make a difference to foraging shorebirds.
We planned to explore this spot again the following week, but when we arrived we noticed that yahoos had taken over so we pressed on to Lafitte’s Cove. It was clear, however, that the tidal channel had expanded, and even though it was nearly high tide, the area was very birdy. We drew up plans to visit again at low tide. We hoped to visit again on the morning of April 17, to check channel status but a storm tide was inundating the coast. The next day, of course, a series of catastrophic storms hit the Gulf Coast in general and the Houston area in particular. I hope this recent bout of stormy weather doesn’t remodel the East End area too much. At the end of April, low tides will fall in the evening, and we plan on visiting this area again for some golden hour photography.
A simple walk on the beach reveals a great truth: A diversity of habitat means a diversity of wildlife. As humans continue to pulverize and homogenize the planet, life around us disappears—half of all songbirds and many shorebirds in my lifetime, for example. One little patch of tidal zone on the end of a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates this principle perfectly.
@2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.