Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones. –Paul Cezanne
We finally made it down to the Coast for the spring songbird migration today. And what a glorious day it was: cool, clear, and windy. There were migrant songbirds around, but they weren’t making it easy on birders . . . .
In the warbler department at Lafitte’s Cove, we saw Yellow, Palm, Audubon’s, Black and White, Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Bay-breasted, and Blackburnian–typical birds for this time and place. Indigo and Painted Buntings were around as were White-eyed Vireos and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Most of the birds tended to stay in protected areas, out of the wind, though.
I spent some time staking out the red mulberry trees with hopes of getting a shot at orioles or tanagers. No luck. Only Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, and Gray Catbirds came to sample the fruit. Perhaps it was too windy. The fruit-laden branches were often waving violently.
For most of the time we were there, a fox squirrel watched, unperturbed and immobile, the comings and going of birds and birders from atop a sunny dead tree-top. Too bad the birds didn’t have the same idea!
When, according to habit, I was contemplating the stars in a clear sky, I noticed a new and unusual star, surpassing the other stars in brilliancy. There had never before been any star in that place in the sky.–Tycho Brahe
The Green Heron may be my favorite wader. This bird is unusual in a number of ways. On the small side (7-9 oz) for North American waders, the Green Heron is brilliantly-colored. The sexes are said to be similar, with females having slightly duller coloration. Immature birds have whitish triangular flecks on the wings and more white around the throat than adults. A number of subspecies are recognized by experts, but some of these are rejected by others. Some Green herons migrate, and others do not. Reportedly these two populations can be distinguished biometrically: the migrating birds have longer wings.
No wader is more fun to watch hunt. Like most North American waders, Green Herons are indiscriminate in their choice of prey: fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, insects, spiders will all do. But their repertoire of hunting behaviors is unsurpassed. They will hang in wait, gargoyle-like, from logs, hide from fish below on tops of lotus pads, or stroll through the weeds like other waders in search of small prey, vertebrate or invertebrate.
Most interestingly, Green Herons use tools. They exhibit bait-fishing and have been known to drown air-breathing prey in water before swallowing. I have seen this done with frogs on a number of occasions. Likewise, it is possible (rarely) to see Green Herons bait-fishing by placing aquatic beetles on the surface of the water to attract prey at Elm Lake.
Although Green Herons commonly nest across the eastern half of Texas, I usually see Green Herons in non-breeding colors. Only rarely do I see full breeding colors. Green Herons generally do not nest among large wader rookeries as most herons do, but when they do, they tend to nest away from the masses. They will nest in single pairs or in small groups, too.
While Texas Coastal populations will remain for the winter, soon the inland populations will be largely gone for wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. They will return again next year for the sweltering summer weather.
Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others. –Buddha
All of Texas Gulf Coast creation must breathe a collective sigh of relief when the first hint of fall arrives. This time, the first backing-off of the dantesque Texas summer was modest, indeed. l woke to find one day this last week that it was slightly less unpleasant outside. Surely a harbinger of great things.
Despite the fact I’d rather than be almost anywhere other than the Gulf Coast in summer, there is almost no place I’d rather be in winter. The Upper Texas Gulf Coast and Coastal Bend are fantastic when north winds blow. The bays, beaches, barrier islands, and coastal marshes are hopping with life. Fluffy white clouds zip across the sky, the waters sparkle, and you can breathe! Surely we now stand at the brink of the best of times!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
l want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it. –Frans Lanting
We were able to get out to get out birding (briefly) this last weekend–we took some time out from furnishing one house and giving another a face-lift. We took a walk around Brazos Bend State Park, binoculars in hand, hoping to run into a friend (RD). It was sweltering. The ground was soggy. The air was not full of bird-sounds–in fact, we were quite shocked by the lack of bird life. Mosquitos ruled.
This lack of avians got me thinking about our current state of affairs, ecologically-speaking. To despair is to read old-timey field accounts of bird-watching from the 1950’s and before. Works like Arizona and its Bird Life by Herbert Brandt (1951) and The Warblers of North America by Griscom and Sprunt (eds.) (1957) describe a world nearly as remote as the Miocene.
On this latest trip, I felt like I was looking into the future. Project the current trend twenty five years into the future, and you’ll see what we saw: A world nearly free of birds. It’s hard to come to grips with this, but songbird numbers have dropped by half in my lifetime. Some other groups have suffered even more significant declines. Auks, as we saw in the Pribilofs the summer before last, for example, have been decimated. But the perpetually innocent fishing industry, of course, has nothing to do with this. Welcome to the Anthropocene . . . .
In this terrible future, it’s hard to imagine what I’ll do in the park. Perhaps I’d better bring something to read.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. –Robert Frost
If given the choice, I’d choose the latter . . . .
The recent uncharacteristic silence has been the result of being ridiculously busy with work and a variety of messy projects. We haven’t been able to work on anything related to photo-birding, except adding a few volumes to our growing ornithology library. And the disgusting dog-days of summer here along the Gulf Coast haven’t made the prospect of being outside very attractive–even if we had the time.
What I have been able to do, though, is fantasize about glorious birding outings in the cold, fresh frosty air in my face. Blow again north winds, blow! Make being outside a joy, again!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again? –A. A. Milne
One of my goals for this summer in Arizona was to go through a lifetime’s worth of debris and discard the worthless junk and organize and store those things we want to keep for the future. One particular challenge was to sort through the old photo gear. We have camera stuff going back to the 1950’s: Equipment inherited from my dad, Elisa’s grandfather and uncle, and all our stuff. Most of it was hurriedly thrown into cardboard boxes in the aftermath of Harvey.
Going through a pile of obsolete or broken bodies, I found a 32 GB CF card that I had forgotten about. On it were four or five hundred images I had forgotten about, also. Most of the images were Texas Gulf Coast stuff from five or six years ago. Many shots were attempts to deal with the murky and broken light of Texas Gulf Coast barrier island oak mottes during spring migration using flash.
I can almost feel the heat, the air heavy with humidity and the frequent sting of mosquitoes piercing my clothes–so different from the recent adventures featuring the blistering glare and UV fog of high altitude Arizona, but so similar in the sense of possibility of see something new.
Clearly the richness of your life depends upon the richness of your memories. Photography contributes to memory, if only in diverting our minds from the meaningless rubbish of contemporary daily life back to things . . . worth remembering.
We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. –Henri Cartier-Bresson
The rain begins with a single drop. –Manal al-Sharif
I haven’t been spending much time directly behind a super-telephoto lately, but indirectly I have. During the past few weeks, I’ve been clearing brush and selecting sites for photography blinds and set-ups. It is a daunting task that has just begun, but I’ve decided to enjoy the process as much as (hopefully) the result.
We have adopted the firesafe methodology and are clearing dead brush and low limbs near the house. But I have decided to leave a few dead trees here and there adjacent to blind areas for perches. No natural forest is ever going to be completely free of dead vegetation, and its presence is part of the overall aesthetic. Dead vegetation also provides valuable habitat for wildlife.
We have also begun to identify trees and other plants with the help of some local experts and references. Desert mountain canyons are home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals. After several previous visits to the Cave Creek Canyon area, and the desert Southwest in general, I find myself being able to identify most of the birds at a glance. No so most of the plants–or the reptiles for that matter (herpetology was many moons ago). At present very few plants are in flower, though, making identification relatively easy.
The remnants of Hurricane Bud brought much needed moisture to the drought-stricken desert Southwest. And a day later there are still a few puddles around Cave Creek, but they will soon be dry, and we will begin again our wait for the true beginning of the monsoon–and the true beginning of our difficulties identifying a bewildering multitude of flowering plants!
Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.–Benjamin Disraeli
If Disraeli was correct, then Rufous Hummingbirds are both fire and smoke.
I recently took the time to peruse our collection of images of hummingbirds from the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park in West Texas. Specifically, I was looking for evidence of the presence of Allen’s Hummingbirds, those little flying gems that are often indistinguishable from Rufous Hummingbirds. One of our field guides shows the migratory range of the Allen’s Hummingbird just barely touching the western extremity of Texas. Maybe . . . . But alas, no Allen’ Hummingbirds were in evidence.
But Rufous Hummingbirds are common in this desert park. One of the most aggressive of all hummingbirds, the males are known for their spectacular aerial fights–and their ruthless defense of nectar resources. Immatures are often frustratingly difficult to distinguish from females. But young and old, male and female perch, bold as brass, on the yuccas, agaves, desert willows, and ocotillos of the Franklin Mountains.
The recent major cold front has certainly brought some fantastic weather to the Texas Gulf Coast. And this weekend we hoped to make the most of it. Fully expecting to see a fallout, or the aftermath of one, we headed to Galveston. First stop on Saturday afternoon was Lafitte’s Cove. There were fewer birds than usual for a day in mid-April, and more people than birds.
I saw only a Scarlet Tanager, a Blue-winged Warbler, a Merlin, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, an Ovenbird, some Brown Thrashers (residents), assorted ducks and shorebirds, and a few Gray Catbirds. The Gray Catbirds (along with the Scarlet Tanager) were eating from the mulberry trees near the gazebo. A greedy Northern Mockingbird was guarding the trees and ran off the other songbirds again and again.
East Beach was glorious on Saturday evening (and Sunday morning), as it usually is after cold fronts. There were large flocks of gulls, Dowitchers, terns, Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, and a few scattered waders. Most interesting to me were the small shorebirds. Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere.
One Piping Plover was trying to pass unnoticed among the smallest shorebirds. This bird was sporting no less than five bands of assorted colors. Clearly an object of devotion, this creature is likely a member of a dying breed. Threatened everywhere it occurs, the Piping Plover numbers in less than five figures. In contrast, the nearly identical-looking (and just as darling) Semipalmated Plover is one of the most common shorebirds in the world.
Finally, the contrast between East Beach and Lafitte’s Cove was stark. East Beach was nearly abandoned and a perfectly lovely place to bird. Lafitte’s Cove was jammed cheek to jowl with tourists yakking it up in the “quiet zones.” The time has likely come to bid Lafitte’s Cove a fond adieu . . . .
For I must tell you that we artists cannot tread the path of Beauty without Eros keeping company with us and appointing himself as our guide. –Thomas Mann
A rarity occurred this week: A passing spring cold front with beautiful weather behind coincided with a three-day weekend. We hit the road! The Smith Oaks Rookery is an afternoon photography site so we generally depart Houston mid-day and stay in Winnie the first evening for such getaways. The golden hour hits just as the shadow of the trees to the west of the rookery envelope the spoils-pile island–so the best shooting is at about 6:15 pm.
On this trip, we saw a number of new things. Roseate Spoonbills were bathing en mass at times, and every so often alligators would breach like bolts of lightning and attempt to grab birds from the shore. Strangely, when this occurred, the flocks of Roseate Spoonbills would walk towards the disturbance. Perhaps they were trying to give the predator sensory overload so it couldn’t decide which way to strike.
Quite a bit of plant material was being collected and presented to mates by Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Neotropic Cormorants. Eggs and chicks were present in Great Egret nests. We saw only eggs in Snowy Egret nests, and Roseate Spoonbills have not finished their nest-building, yet. Many cormorants were building or stuck like glue on their nests, so eggs, but no nestlings, are present in some nests.
On the way back we took our normal route: down Bolivar, stopping at Frenchtown Road, crossing the ferry to Galveston, and then stopping at Lafitte’s Cove. Not much was going on at either other place, though. Dowitchers have overrun Frenchtown road, and the Clapper Rails were chattering up a storm. There were more humans than birds at Lafitte’s Cove. One exhausted Blue-winged Warbler was flopping around in the thicket for a while but still managed the give the flock of photographers the slip.
Soon the songbirds will be arriving in the millions, and won’t be able to escape unphotographed . . . .
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!
There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures. –James Thurber
On Sunday we took a much-needed trip to Brazos Bend State Park. The light in the early morning was white, and the water shone like a mirror. Colors were washed out, and there was a general sense of omni-directional illumination. Shadows were pale, and the water lacked clarity. More than just a problem for photographers, these conditions necessitated particular hunting strategies on the part of waders . . . .
American Bitterns, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and a Tricolored Heron were harvesting little (and big) fish galore from vegetation-choked water. And a Great Blue Heron bullied a Great Egret into dropping a fish it had caught in 40-acre Lake . . . .
Most interesting, perhaps, was a Tricolored Heron that was employing a (single) underwing feeding strategy, and from time-to-time, a double-wing feeding strategy. Among herons and egrets, these behaviors involve a continuum of postures from shading the water with a single wing, both wings separated, to a complete canopy in which the wings meet in front of the bird as it crouches, feathers touching the surface of the water. This latter behavior, “canopy feeding” sensu strictu, occurs only in the Black Heron of Africa (Egretta ardesiaca), although the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron can approach this configuration.
Several functions for these wing positions have been proposed from scaring fish into divulging their positions, to getting fish to swim into the shade (and presumably under cover) after being be spooked by foot movements, to cutting the glare so that the bird can see its prey better. It is the latter I generally favor, primarily because I tend to observed these behaviors on days with a lot of glare. As an aside, the nickname of the Black Heron is the “umbrella bird.” If the shading to reduce glare is the correct interpretation of this behavior, then perhaps the parasolbird would be a better moniker for this creature.
Note: Special thanks go to naturalist and friend R.D. for sharing his high-speed video of a Tricolored Heron that plainly shows how much clearer the water appears in the shade of an outstretched wing.