The vast sage desert undulates with almost imperceptible tides like the oceans. –Frank Waters
When the weather is dank and dreary like this along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast, my mind turns to just about anywhere else. Getting back out to the desert is always a top priority. Among the most interesting desert birds to pursue is the Greater Roadrunner (and the Lesser Roadrunner, too, I’ll bet, but that species doesn’t occur in the U.S., and I’m not up for living The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Greater Roadrunners occur all across Texas, but we rarely see them anywhere but in the desert or scrublands.
Roadrunners are highly predatory, mostly terrestrial cuckoos. A common birding occurrence is to be walking in the desert and to see a Roadrunner skulk off into the brush as the bird detects your presence. Sometimes you’ll see one scurry across a trail ahead with a lizard or small snake in its beak. Sometimes the tail of a large snake (or lizard?) will be poking out of the beak. In this case, the anterior portion of the herp is being digested, and the rest of animal is slowly being fed down the gullet.
Roadrunners are masters of dispatching dangerous prey. Scorpions, centipedes, horned lizards, even venomous snakes are on the menu. Seeing a Roadrunner with prey is one thing, photographing it is another. Several times I’ve gone after Roadrunners in the field, prey dangling from their beaks. By the time I catch up to them, the prey is down the hatch! But with effort, documenting a Roadrunner with a dangerous, squirming victim is just a matter of time!
Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail. –John Donne
Many birders inside and outside Texas are aware (and horrified) that planning for construction of Trump’s border wall with Mexico at Santa Ana National National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near McAllen, Texas continues to progess. Often described as the “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Santa Ana is nationally and internationally famous as one of the birding destinations in the United States. Some of our earliest and most profound birding adventures have occurred here. In fact, it is here where we became serious birders. Over the strenuous objections of world biologists and birders about the obvious threats to habitat and the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the place, the plans continue.
I suspect that it would be useless to enumerate the types of specific threats to particular animal species–from hindering migration for purposes of finding mates and food to loss of availability of escape routes during floods–that the wall poses. The weird populist political support this boondoggle enjoys is quite beyond the bounds of reason. The work (and destruction) will continue until Trump is out of office–but then the damage will have been done. The wall will (obviously) be incomplete, and Santa Ana will be scarred.
In contemplation of the border wall, I am reminded of the history of palaces in Western Europe. Reaching back into antiquity one finds that the early residences of the nobility were fortresses. Often the power these men and women exerted over their subjects was enforced at sword-point, and rivals often staged armed insurrections. Power and influence were tenuous. However, as the power of the state increased into the early Modern Era, a curious thing happened. Kings and queens no longer lived behind moats and fortifications: They lived in palaces. The Versailles of Louis XIV was not a fortress. Nor was the Buckingham Palace of George III. Security, yes–moats, ramparts, massive walls, no. Power was exercised with the stroke of a pen, orders dispatched from an office, not a turret.
Those advocating the building of the border wall must agree that if the United States requires a physical wall, a fortification, to contain illegal immigration, then our government no longer enjoys a rule of law capacious enough or one even worthy of a Modern civilization. Rather, we must consider ourselves Medievals cowering behind stone walls and iron gates.
As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.–Albert Camus
The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park is literally minutes outside the margins of El Paso. Here, a fiberglass blind sits in the Chihuahuan Desert. A water feature and feeders attract a variety of desert and migratory birds–admittedly mostly common species. The place is thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds during migrations.
Ergonomically, the blind has a few issues, but is really quite usable for a blind in a state park. Being isolated and lacking ferris wheels, noisy yokel tourists rarely find it. Rather than the guy wanting to know how much your camera cost, most of your miseries associated with this blind will stem from attempts to use a tripod inside. Tripods can not coexist with this blind. Accept it. You must rest the foot plate of your super-telephoto on the window ledge . . . .
But as I hope these images show, it is possible to capture fine images here with nice bokeh and uncluttered, natural-looking context. The next time you are on your way to a major birding mecca like Bosque del Apache or the Chiricahuas, I recommend making a pit stop in the Franklins. It may ultimately make your short-list of favorite photo-birding spots as it has ours.
If the Texans had kept out of my country there might have been peace . . . . –Ten Bears
Over Thanksgiving week we took an epic road trip across the desert Southwest from West Texas to southeast Arizona. During that time we photo-birded at three main spots: Davis Mountains State Park (Texas), Franklin Mountains State Park (Texas), and Cave Creek Canyon (Arizona). Although the weather was perfect along the way, we shot under a variety of conditions. This is due to shooting mainly at blinds–a typical strategy for us on road trips with limited time.
The blind near the Montezuma Quail Trail is the better of he two given that birds sometimes emerge from the gloom. In general, I would say that the Davis Mountain blinds are better for birders than photo-birders and are loaded with birds this time of year–but they are also loaded with many unbelievably noisy tourists. Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lesser Goldfinches, a variety of woodpeckers, and White-crowned and Lincoln Sparrows were abundant. A lone Pyrrhuloxia made an appearance while we were there, too.
Our next stop, the blind at Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, is not without its problems, but is light-years better than the one at Davis Mountains SP. Stay tuned!
There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville
The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.
The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.
Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.
In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.
All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,
A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. –Lewis Mumford
Traveling near or far to photo-bird is one of the great joys of life. Seeing new things is the spice of life in our post-materialistic world. But from time to time we encounter birds that defy easy identification. Often, these are species that are simply unfamiliar because we don’t live in their range. Other times, they are young birds, particularly drab individuals, or species lacking really distinctive field marks. Sometimes these birds are embarrassingly common species. Often our images of these birds sit in moth balls for a long time.
From time to time, when stuck indoors because of work or weather, I go sifting through our collection of images and take another look at some of these birds whose identities wasn’t clear at the time of the photos . . . .
Sometimes with tricky birds, like the peep above, I’ll take photos without knowing what I’m looking at with the idea of coming back later and identifying them from the images. Pondering puzzlements in the field might lead to missed shots.
On the other hand, for potentially exciting species (like the one below) it’s right to the reference books the minute I get home!
Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
Huge flocks of waterfowl are one of the great spectacles of the fall and winter. Lesser Snow Geese congregate in wetlands and agricultural fields like those in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. At Anahuac, thousands of birds can dot the land and water and form swirling clouds, but we’ve only seen them from a distance, deep in the marshes or fields. Truth be told, I assumed that all the white waterfowl we’ve seen here in the past were Lesser Snow Geese. This is probably not the case.
Last Winter, on a road trip to New Mexico, we were able to get close enough to similar flocks to identify a few of the much smaller Ross’s Geese that could easily pass unnoticed. Ross’s Geese are rare visitors to Texas and New Mexico and are far fewer in number than Snow Geese, with which they have been know to interbreed.
Ross’s Geese are small and cute, with relatively stubby beaks and round domed heads, like baby animals. As a naturalist, the first word that entered my mind when I saw Ross’s Geese was neoteny. Neotenic evolution occurs when juvenile features are retained in the adult . . . .
Ross’s Geese are Arctic breeders whose lives were poorly understood until the recent past. In the 1930’s, they were thought to only number several thousand individuals. Snow Geese were in a similar predicament a few decades earlier. In recent times, though, both species have greatly expanded their numbers and now make up sizable flocks.
The standard adaptationist explanation for herds or flocks or animals is that there is safety in numbers. The chance of any individual being taken by a predator is low. A logical extension of this strategy would be to be a rare species in a much larger group of another species. Any attack by a predator on the group would most likely result in a member of the more abundant species being taken.
Could the rarity of Ross’s Geese, coupled with looking like a juvenile (and hence receiving gentler treatment from the other geese?), be a survival strategy? Every trip to the field provides more questions than answers and ample fuel for speculation.
I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits
One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.
We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.
Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.
Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!
Contrast is what makes photography interesting. –Conrad Hall
Many consider the complete isolation of the subject to be an ideal in photography. This is often accomplished by photographing the subject against a contrasting, clutter-free backdrop using a shallow depth of field. Ironically, the bridge at Fiorenza Park in southwest Houston allows this sort of image to be taken in several different ways. And depending on the direction you shoot near the bridge, you can capture portraits of birds with remarkably clean backgrounds in a variety of colors.
Cormorants and a Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, and a Great Blue Heron typically fish around the bridge, and are about the only subjects you’ll find in this area. The waders stand on the bridge and pluck fish from the water. Sometimes they turn around and eat the fish while standing on the bridge. Neotropic Cormorants (and a few Double-crested Cormorants in winter) fish from the water, often emerging with a wriggling fish in their beaks . . . .
I should note that photographing around the bridge presents a number of challenges in addition to the usual ones nature photographers face. Heavy human foot traffic often spooks the birds–but they return quickly. The bridge itself with its white hand railings is an eyesore that you definitely want to keep out of your shots. Because the cormorants often swim beneath the bridge, the action switches from one side to the other. Using a ground pod clearly helps to photographically isolate the birds, but greatly limits mobility leading to missed opportunities when the action shifts to the other side of the bridge. Finally, there is no shade for a photographer working the bridge. I generally shoot in the early morning before it gets too hot, so I will stand on the east side of the bridge with the sun at my back.
In general, a photographer has a number of choices regarding the bridge. They can position themselves on the sidewalk, or north or south of it. If you stand on the sidewalk when a wader grabs a fish and turns around to eat it, you can capture images like the one immediately above. Shooting slightly downward from a tripod, the sidewalk cement makes a uniform backdrop slightly darker than the bird. Shooting from the sidewalk or south of it allows you to capture images like the others in this post.
Sometimes the waders will have shaded or unshaded water behind them leading to dark green or blue backgrounds. I generally photograph cormorants fishing on the south side of bridge form a standing or kneeling posture and capture a wavy background. From a ground pod, you can achieve maximum isolation of the birds, but with the opportunity cost noted above. If you stand north of the bridge you will generally be at a disadvantage–with one exception. When birds fish on the north side they are very close close to the shore, allowing for some really tight shots . . . .
Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer
As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .
As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.
For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.
But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.
After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.
I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.
Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.