He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson
In the summer, especially after about 9:30 am, it’s generally way too bright to do much good photo-birding (except maybe with some fill-flash), so I like to wander off into a grassy area and take advantage of the fireball in the sky and shoot some macro. Shooting with apertures smaller than f/11 requires intense light, so rather than being an obstacle to overcome, the blistering summer sun is actually a help.
Birds of the grasslands are notoriously uncooperative photographic subjects, so I am used to coming away from prairies empty-handed as far as bird photos are concerned. Further, I have learned to be satisfied with other kinds of images from this habitat. I know that some can entertain themselves by shooting wildflowers, and I can too for a while, but I need to see an animal now and again to stay interested for more than an hour or two.
Because the majority of wildflowers are yellow or white (I think), I will often times make a special effort to track down and identify plants with blooms of different colors. Purples, oranges, and reds are my favorites because of the richness of the images they can provide. The Western Wallflower below, for example, attracted my attention from the road while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This plant produces a spectacular multicolored bloom to which no mere photo can really do justice.
Although we can get away from the Texas Gulf Coast for a few days now and again during the summer, the harsh reality its that we are stuck here most of the time. The Texas Gulf Coast summer is a nice mix of hurricanes, blistering sun and drought, and floods. And staying happy in the field at this time of year requires flexibility, a sense of humor, and the capacity to remain interested in a wide variety of photographic subjects—many times not including birds.
He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.―James Hurst, The Scarlet Ibis: The Collection of Wonder
After a photo-birder friend (LM) told me about the White Ibises nesting on the the south edge of Pilant Lake, I recently spent a few hours trying to photograph nestlings. Only one nest can currently be photographed (above), but there are many others back in the swamp—and the air is filled with the weird gurgling noises ibises make.
The one nest that can be seen is still rather difficult to photograph given its distance from the trail and the profusion of vegetation. But I could see that the nest contains two nestlings, one much larger than the other. Likely the smaller chick simply hatched later, the size disparity exacerbated by the bigger chick receiving more than its fair share of food along the way. Such a disparity in nestling size often spells doom for the littlest birds. In this case, though, the little bird is a real fighter and chased mom’s beak around relentlessly hoping for a morsel or two of regurgitated crawfish. I hope it makes it, although the odds may be against.
The long, curved beak of ibises is used to probe into burrows and crevices occupied by a variety of prey. The rapid up-and-down motion of the beak reminds me of a sewing machine. At BBSP, it’s common to see White and White-faced Ibises grabbing a variety of aquatic arthropods including predaceous diving beetles (larval and adult) and crawfish. Frogs and small fish are taken, too, as are the bulbs of some aquatic plants.
Spoonbills and ibises constitute the Family Threskiornithidae, the former being close relatives of the Old World Ibises. I tend to think of spoonbills simply as ibises with a specialized feeding strategy: Typically the bill is waved back and forth through the water to capture prey, vertebrate and invertebrate, which is then flipped up into the air and ingested (below).
We have seen all U.S. species of ibises, including the Scarlet Ibis, an exotic South American and Caribbean native that was introduced into Florida in 1961. We saw this species on Sanibel Island at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the the west coast of Florida about seven years ago. A small group of these birds was walking along the strand line of this famously shelly beach. This sighting, dear reader, was before we were serious photo-birders, so you’ll just have to take my word that it occurred! We hope to return one day and document the behavior of these spectacular, brilliantly-colored Tropical birds.
The difference between humans and other mammals is that we know how to accessorize.–Madeleine Albright
My primary objective in the field is almost always to find and photograph birds. But when no birds are around, one must make concessions to mother nature. Photographing large mammals can be fun, too, but they present a few challenges. Most importantly, many of them are dangerous.
Even the humble deer can be dangerous. I’ve seen videos of grown men being kicked and gored all the way to the emergency room by infuriated deer. Bears . . . well, what more is there to say? Chills run up my spine when I think of how foolishly close I was to the bathing Grizzly Bear above. Little known fact, though: American Bison are the most dangerous animals in North America (other than humans, of course).
Both Elisa and I have had unplanned encounters with large mammals in the wild. Recently while chasing woodpeckers around in Colorado, Elisa suddenly looked up to find herself face-to-face with a bull Elk—and he wasn’t backing down. Gingerly, she slinked away, keeping her photographic accessories between her body and the beast.
Once while in Wyoming, I was chasing Western Tanagers around in a grove of cottonwood and aspen trees by the banks of a stream in Grand Teton National Park. Oblivious to everything but the birds and the light, I glanced up to find myself about five feet from the female moose shown below. I was sure I was about to be kicked through the pearly gates! But ever so slowly (keeping my tripod and camera between the animal and myself), I crept backward. Once I put about ten yards between the moose and myself, she slowly walked off into the forest.
It took me a while to regain my composure after that one.
From time to time, I’ll be going through old images when I suddenly discover something I overlooked or misinterpreted in the field. For example, I remember photographing the scruffy young Eastern Bluebird above because I had a hard time figuring out what the heck it was (until I saw another one in better plumage!).
I also remember being perplexed about why it was gathering nesting materials in November—normally that sort of thing should end around July or August. I probably just scratched my head and chalked it up to Texas and our subtropical climate. Birds here in the swelter zone can sometimes breed outside their usual temperate region breeding seasons.
But upon re-inspection of the image (I’m sure I chimped my settings in the field!) all is revealed: There are no nesting materials, but rather a twiggy-looking meal, namely a praying mantis! This has happened a few times now with mantids and phasmids, so it’s something to watch out for. Sometimes birds with sticks (apparently) actually have walking sticks!
Having images to study hours or months later allows for testing your notions of what you saw in the field and to even make brand new discoveries ex post facto. The Clapper Rail above, for example, was hunting along the margin of the water at ANWR last winter. I could tell that the bird was grabbing small fish and what looked like leeches. I have seen and photographed waders and other water birds eating leeches. Upon closer inspection of the images, though, it looks like this Clapper Rail has a big juicy planarian its beak—a first sighting for me.
On the other hand, I know that I see less overall in the field in the first place when I am photo-birding, rather than binocular birding. Just like the old joke where the guy is looking under the street light for his lost keys because this is where the light is best, it’s sometimes tempting to photo-bird only where the light is good. I have caught myself ignoring movement in gloomy or brushy areas simply because I knew that I couldn’t get a decent shot. So, in this case, contrary to the quote above, photography can help birders not to see.
On a final note, Brazos Bend State Park re-opened July 8, and I was among the first members of the public to return post-flood. During the first half-hour there, I could feel the stress of life melt away. My general impression, though, is that there were not as many birds around as usual. I suspect that ground-nesting species of birds were drowned out. On the other hand, the mosquito and gnat populations were certainly healthy, as was the frog population. Perhaps the waders will rediscover the park and its bonanza of amphibians.
Most interesting to me was that the Prairie Trail looked different from usual as regards summer wildflowers. A few regulars were around like widow’s tears, but what struck really me was the profusion of partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). This common legume is native to most of the eastern U.S. and is known to thrive in disturbed areas, such as those recently burned, and apparently recently flooded. It will be interesting to document how quickly the park returns to its former glory.
I heard myself proclaimed,
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt . . . . from King Lear, William Shakespeare
One of the places we made a special point to visit while at Rocky Mountain National Park was a notable large, dead Ponderosa Pine at Upper Beaver Meadows. A birder friend from Houston Audubon (SM) first told us about The Tree when we mentioned that we were going to RMNP. We tried in vain several times to find it on our own, but finally a park ranger explained exactly where it was. The Tree turned out to be a spectacular spot to photograph cavity nesting birds. In this tree alone we saw Mountain Bluebirds, Red-naped Sapsuckers, Pygmy Nuthatches, House Wrens, and Violet-green Swallows nesting. A Northern Flicker even came by and checked out the Bluebird nest as if to say: “What are you doing in my cavity? I dug it, you squatter!”
Five species nesting in one tree beats our previous record of seeing Pileated, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, plus Prothonotary warblers nesting in a single tree at BBSP. But The Tree likely contains even more nesting species as there were more holes and several other species of cavity nesters are very common in the area, namely Hairy Woodpeckers and American Tree Swallows (not to mention Western Wood-Peewees). The mind reels at the thought of a single tree with eight or more cavity-nesting species inside!
A place we’ve been meaning to spend some more time looking for cavity nesters is the W. G. Jones State Forest near Conroe, Texas. This area is home to nesting clusters of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. This interesting and endangered species has a few tricks up its sleeves in terms of cavity nesting.
These birds drill upward through the sapwood and then downward into the heartwood of pine trees. The birds prefer to excavate into trees with a fungal infection of the heartwood called red heart. This disease softens the wood and makes excavation of the cavity easier. Interestingly, active Red-cockaded Woodpecker nests are easy to spot because of the river of resin that flows downward from around the cavity entrance. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers drill and maintain extra holes into the sapwood around the cavity (resin wells) to keep the resin flowing. The resin is a natural deterrent for nest-raiding snakes.
The Jones Forest is also home to one of my favorites, the Red-headed Woodpecker. Of all the North American woodpeckers, this bird is perhaps the most active hunter of larger prey, and one of my dreams is to capture photographically a Red-headed Woodpecker dragging a mouse or lizard into a cavity nest.
Finally, as noted in the last post, the lodge we visited in Colorado (MacGregor Mountain Lodge) was a great spot for cavity nesting. One morning I was hoping to capture some images of a Hairy Woodpecker or Red-naped Sapsucker entering or leaving a nest cavity. So I found an appropriately sized hole and waited patiently. After just about giving up, I detected movement inside the nest: Here we go! I thought. But who should appear? A lousy Pine Squirrel! A mean ol’ Chickeree spoiled my morning! Just like a nasty old Fox squirrel foiled Elisa’s attempt to capture some Wood Ducks entering or leaving a nest box at BBSP!
For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .
Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless!
Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!
Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!
After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?
Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.
Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.
Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.—Victor Hugo
During our recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, we spent two half-days exploring Trail Ridge Road. This road reaches an elevation of 12,183 ft. and so cuts through a series of habitats typically encountered at much higher latitudes. Near the top, the road cuts alpine tundra, an environment similar to that near the Arctic Circle.
Admittedly, some of our early forays up to elevation were difficult. As flat-landers from sea-level a sudden visit to over 12,000 ft was a shock to our cardiovascular systems. A much longer visit (yea!) would cause red blood cell counts to increase, and allow us to hunt down and photograph the tougher species without feeling as though we were going to stroke out at any moment!
One of the thrills of traveling to bird is encountering species you know and love from another part of the country during a different time of the year wearing differently colored plumage. On this trip we found, of all things, American Pipits, birds we often find dining on crane flies in grassy areas on the Gulf Coast during late winter and early spring. During the breeding season, these birds have more of a grayish cast on the back and less intense streaking on the belly. The bird below has a splash of bright orange on the throat and upper breast, something I’ve not seen in American Pipits during the winter in Texas.
This visit to high altitude whetted our appetites for cold weather birding, and we are drawing up plans for a birding trip to the high latitude tundra—we’ve got our eyes on the Canadian Arctic near Hudson Bay!
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.–Black Elk
This is the first of a series of posts about Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and the first Two Shutterbirds post ever prepared completely in the field–writing, editing, researching, and photo-processing. Usually when we take an extended birding trip we prepare and schedule posts ahead of time. The Houston flood several weeks ago left us so nonplussed that we were unable to “act naturally,” so to speak. In any case, here goes . . . .
If you are religious and want to see what the world was like before the Fall, come to Upper Beaver Meadows. If you are of a more scientific mindset and want to see what North America looked like when the first Paleo-Indians crossed Beringia, come to Upper Beaver Meadows. This place is a paradise in late spring and summer–the air is filled with the songs of Pine Siskins, Warbling Vireos, and House Wrens . . . .
Elisa’s Field Notes:
What a welcome change of scenery! There is nothing like an open wilderness trail stretching out before you in the morning light (especially in contrast to the post-flood flotsam- and jetsam-strewn streets at home). The only sign of human activity was this little footpath and within a few steps, I was transported. The anticipation of discovery co-mingled with the effects of high altitude had me dizzy but determined. Our first exploration was sans-camera as we were still adjusting to the altitude—we traveled from near sea level to around 8,300 feet in less than 24 hours. But, by day 2, we were on the job.
West of the trail is a creek surrounded by moist bottomlands and associated aspen groves which give way to mixed conifer woodlands upland to the east. Further along the trail, rocky granitic outcrops dot the slopes that slowly rise as you enter the valley. We followed the trail through the valley about a half of a mile to a small aspen grove with a horse-hitch landmark.
In this one-half mile alone, we encountered a soul-soothing diversity of wildlife. Young ground squirrel pups scurried underfoot as American Tree Swallows swooped and dived for flying insects above. A Yellow-bellied Marmot looked on dispassionately as we delighted in watching a House Wren bring insects to its cavity nest. A Wild Turkey tom strutted and called to his seemingly disinterested hen and then gobbled at us as we passed by. A fledgling Lincoln’s Sparrow begged atop a fallen tree while a mated pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers traded nestling duties overhead inside an aspen trunk. The most charming encounter perhaps was with a decidedly curious and rambunctious Long-tailed Weasel which kept poking his head up through the brush to have a look at us.
It’s more than a little ironic that we chose to leave the productivity imperative of our workaday life behind only to immerse ourselves in the peak productivity of nature’s biological imperative. That imperative is never more evident than now, as we approach the summer solstice. Nature runs on sunlight and on vacation, we run on nature. We wouldn’t have it any other way!
Chris’s Field Notes:
As our basic reference we are using the excellent Birding Rocky Mountain National Park by Scott Roederer. Based on the book, we chose Upper Beaver Meadows as our first port of call.
Botanically, the wet valley floor is dominated by willows, aspen, and grasses. Upslope from this are grassy meadows sprinkled with wildflowers (Golden Banner being most prominent with Indian Paintbrush and Larkspur providing splashes of additional color) transition upward into conifer-dominated forests.
Although the range of temperatures was pleasant, the weather was challenging for photography, with nearly constantly changing illumination most days. Clouds and rain came and went throughout most days, also. According to locals, this has been an exceptionally cold and wet spring. For future reference, this June was probably more like a typical May.
In late spring and summer, Upper Beaver Meadows is cavity nesting central, mostly in Aspen and Ponderosa Pines. I saw House Wrens, Pygmy Nuthatches, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Mountain Bluebirds, Violet-green and American Tree Swallows, and Northern Flickers (Red-shafted) in cavity nests in riparian habitats along Beaver Brook in the valley floor. I also saw Western Wood-pewees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers here, but not in cavities.
All in all, a fantastic trip, and it will take months to sort through all the images. Frankly, Upper Beaver Meadows constitutes, in my mind, one of the best birding spots I’ve ever visited. Likely this area will be a place we visit over and over again–like Cave Creek and Santa Ana.
These are the good old days. In a situation that’s constantly deteriorating, it’s always the good old days.—Chris Cunningham (paraphrase of J. Phillips)
As I look out my front window at the giant piles of uncollected debris from the recent flood in southwest Houston, I got to thinking about quails . . . .
Many wildlife biologists are concerned about populations of all six types of North American quails. Numbers of individuals of dry-adapted species of quails such as Montezuma, Gambel’s and Scaled, rise and fall with drought and rainy years as expected, but these concerns transcend impacts due to changes in the weather.
For example, in the Southwest biologists have been noticing incursions of scrub-inhabiting quails into the suburban landscape, presumably foraging for food. The sprawl of tract housing and all that accompanies it means that the “empty” expanses of desert and scrublands are dwindling and our lovely xeric creatures are under pressure.
So, what’s the connection between giant piles of uncollected garbage and quails? Well, it seems to me that humanity can have any world it wants. Man has elected to live in a world of materialistic clutter, jammed with ephemeral consumer trash soon to be in a landfill. For this we are giving away (say exterminating) nature and paving over the land.
To alter this course will require nothing less than a new great awakening . . . .
The stratosphere is a hostile place.–Felix Baumgartner
As we continue to dig out from the flood nightmare . . . .
In March, I mentioned to a birder/naturalist friend (RD) that one of the nesting Great Horned Owls on the west side of 40-Acre Lake showed some signs of facial injuries or infestation by ectoparasites. He asked for more information. I have been slow honoring this request . . . but here goes.
Bird nests, especially those of raptors, are not hygienic places. The adult birds drag dead or moribund prey to the nest where it is torn apart and distributed to nestlings. Spilled blood and gore, as well as the birds themselves, are attractive to parasitic insects. Black flies (which incidentally carry avian malaria), for example, are known to be especially vexing to Great Horned Owls.
In the above image, the owl appears to have several small injuries around the eyes. What follows is pure speculation, but perhaps the owl got nicked up in a battle with prey. The wounds would naturally be attractive to egg-laying flies, which feed on necrotic as well as living tissues. The whitish objects on the left eyelid appear to be maggots.
What is interesting is that by the very next day (below) the region around the eyes is very much better (sidebar: this is clearly the same bird. Note the stray white fleck above the right eye in both images). The eyelids still appear injured and crusty, but no blood or maggots are visible. Perhaps this bird was able to clean itself up, or perhaps it got help in grooming from its mate. In any case, this bird appears to have had a brush with fate, and I for one am delighted at the outcome.
This week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated as last week my father, Duane, passed away after a long illness, and Elisa and I spent three days with family in Minnesota. We have been thinking of him and remembering the happy times, the times outside. It was he who taught me photography, and from whom I gained my first appreciation of nature. So, if you have enjoyed this blog over the years, then you have, in some measure, him to thank. I will miss him.
Shortly after our return to Texas, the atmosphere decided to dump a foot of rain on west Houston, flooding our neighborhood and house (sidebar: we understand that the rain was so heavy in Fort Bend County that Brazos Bend State Park will be closed indefinitely). It will be some time before we claw our way out from the chaos, but there are signs of progress. The insurance adjuster is on the calendar, the floors are drying, and so on.
We have decided to take the flood as a positive, and to further pare down the detritus that stuffs our house. I guess this forces us to remodel! In any case, we are trying to regain our sense of humor and soldier on!
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.–Friedrich Nietzsche
Birds live in a dangerous world. Never is this more evident than when they are trying to sleep. Ground-roosting birds like waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls can often be seen drifting in and out of sleep, one eye open, intermittently surveying the environment for dangers (and photographers).
Many birds sleep (or merely rest) with their heads supported on their backs, beaks nestled in the scapulars. This rests the muscles of the neck and keeps the delicate skin around the beak warm. Breath expelled into the feathers keeps the back nice and toasty warm. On some cold and windy days, it’s common to see sandpipers balanced on one leg (like the Sanderling on the right above). This, of course, reduces the amount of bare skin exposed to the hostilities of the environment.
Soon Texas birds will be much more concerned about keeping cool—and I’ll keep an eye out to document their interesting thermoregulatory behaviors!