Late spring and early summer can be a frustrating time for birding given the relatively low avian diversity, the bugs, and the traffic headaches/low-quality encounters as the Summer People emerge from their pods. But there are ducklings around! And ducklings are fun!
Several things always strike me about ducklings (besides how cute they are). First, they face some significant challenges . . . such as being on a lot of menus.
I remember as a child in Minnesota being horrified to learn that muskellunge (a type of large aggressive pike known to Midwesterners as “muskies”) eat ducklings. I remember standing on a dock and staring down into the water and seeing a bunch of these black and green striped killers on a stringer and thinking no more ducklings for you! Down here in Texas it’s alligators, snapping turtles, gar . . . and rat snakes. There’s no question about it, wild ducklings live in a dangerous world.
Another striking thing about wild ducklings is that many species look so much alike. Domestic ducklings, like Call Ducklings, are often all yellow, but sometimes show a variety of black markings. Apparently being yellow with black stripes and blotches makes for a perfect duckling in a wilderness setting.
A dark-colored top (with some disruptive stripes or spots) may camouflage the ducklings from predators from above, while the brightly-colored underside may not be as visible to aquatic predators viewing them from below against the sky. In any case, a counter-shaded black and yellow pattern certainly makes for a perfectly charming wild duckling.
I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike.—Andy Warhol
What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.—Werner Heisenberg
Photographing nesting birds has many of the challenges of other types of bird photography–and a few of it’s own. On the technical side, nests are typically made of sticks (although not always) so nest shots often have the “stick-in-face” problem–like the image shown above. Many bird species also nest well above eye-level in trees, so, short of going to extraordinary lengths, you’re not going to get any good nest shots of many species. More significant, though, are the ethical concerns that come up in the course of nest photography.
Once you’ve found a nest, you know where to look for the action. There’s no chasing birds around in the brush! At first, this seems like this will make for getting great photographic results easily. A little consideration, however, reveals that this is decidedly not the case.
Normally when photographing birds one tries to get as close as possible. If the bird becomes annoyed it will simply fly (or run) off. Obviously nestlings can not flee, so the photographer or observer must use personal discipline to keep an ethical distance. And the duration of the observation must also be taken into account. Unless I’m somewhere like Smith Oaks where the birds are used to being observed all day long by large numbers of observers, after a few minutes of shooting, I’m on my way. Furthermore, although there is no evidence that the use of flash injures wildlife, it is logical that it should not used on nesting birds lest parents and young birds be unduly stressed.
One last philosophical point: We must concede that most of the time we do not really know how birds behave in their natural state. If we are observing them (and their perceptions are much sharper than ours), then they know we are watching and are likely behaving accordingly. Ironically, then, it would seem that places like Smith Oaks where many thousands of birders visit during the nesting season may provide the most “natural” viewing experience as birds simply learn to tune out the human throng completely and go about their business.
As far as I can judge, not much good can be done without disturbing something or somebody.—Edward Blake
After birding or photo-birding, I often capsulize my experience into a theme or headline. For example, I’ll say to Chris, “The story of today was ‘Hooded Warbler Invasion'” or “Today’s special: ‘Unlucky Crawfish.'” On April 19th this year, with migration in full swing, the story was “Blue.” I was amazed by the number of Indigo Buntings on Pelican Island that day and equally frustrated at my inability to capture a decent image of just one of them. After exhausting my patience, I backed into the shade of a large oak to wait for something to happen in the hackberries, just onshore of Galveston Bay, in front of me. I was practicing my spider inspired “sit-and-wait” technique where I dissolve into the brush and see what appears. Can you say chiggers?
Yes, well, before the slow-motion horror show in multiple miniature revealed itself, there were glimpses of warblers, hunting away and presumably oblivious to my presence. One particular warbler caught my eye. Could it be? Yes! A male Cerulean Warbler. My first ever sighting. I was committed. I wasn’t leaving until I captured the moment. I was focused. I didn’t dare reposition the lens to try for the Indigo Buntings now foraging, ironically, nearby. I knew the Cerulean was a rarity and I couldn’t help but feel joyful to see it finding food and shelter in my coastal backyard. Incidentally, Cerulean Warblers show the highest rate of decline of any U.S. warbler.
It took hours of patiently waiting for the little guy to come back around to my side of the tree and almost a hundred frames, but I finally got something that reflects the beauty of the encounter. It was my best trade-off for a chigger infestation to date. It was also my top headline of Migration 2014. With migration behind us and the breeding season in progress, we are enjoying the avian birth announcements.
You may get skinned knees and elbows, but it’s worth it if you score a spectacular goal. —Mia Hamm
Now that spring migration, the most exciting time of the birding year, is almost over, I have to seek adventure where I can find it. This often involves chasing waders around at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) as they hunt. Of course, a few of the spring (and summer) spectacles are still playing out–like the frenzy of nesting, breeding, and nurturing young observable at the coastal rookeries. Photographing this profusion of life-energy will be mosquito-bloodied interludes in my late spring and summer studies of wader feeding behaviors at BBSP.
Although I’ve only been out to BBSP a few times recently, one thing already seems evident: 2014 is shaping up as the Year of the Crawfish. Despite hearing lots of frog song and even seeing lots of frogs jump when alligators move around, I haven’t been seeing waders eating frogs. But crawfish are being gobbled down left and right! Why are frogs not on the menu? Have I just missed them being eaten? Will wader tastes change with the summer?
This is one of the eternal joys of birding: new observations that lead to questions and more questions. Sorting out (or at least attempting to) why some types of prey proliferate some years while others are scarce is an ongoing research problem. Some years there are spiders (terrestrial or aquatic) everywhere and are eaten by hungry birds, and some years there are frogs and tadpoles everywhere and are grabbed, but sometimes rejected. But if you travel this path beware: you may find yourself reading articles about fungal infections of spiderlings or how winter water temperatures affect crawfish populations or . . . you get the idea.
Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.—Alfred North Whitehead
Now that May is almost over, it’s time to reflect on spring migration 2014 and plan for fall 2014 and spring 2015. This spring I had less success with songbirds and more success with shorebirds than I did last year. This was in part a function of taking special care to include shorebird localities (some new to us) in our travel plans along the Texas Gulf Coast, and in part simple luck. The results were shorebird species new to us and familiar species in different plumage colors than we’d seen before.
Of course, more time devoted to one arena of birding means less time for others. This year that didn’t fill me with too much regret as I often found the songbird hotspots to be really overcrowded, in some cases to the point where it was impossible to work. Many times shortly after arriving at a migrant songbird trap I’d find myself seeking a remote stretch of beach.
Birding for shorebirds has it’s own challenges, of course. Let’s face it: identifying peeps (small sandpipers) can be tough. But I don’t mind a steep learning curve. My hope is that with after a little struggle and effort for a few years, I’ll be able to ID shorebirds easily in the future. The crowding at songbird localities is not a problem that’s going away, though.
As a partial solution (I hope) we’re looking into exploring some migrant traps further east, perhaps Grand Isle, Louisiana and Dauphin Island, Alabama. I know these are famous places, too, but it’s hard to believe that they will be as crowded as High Island or Lafitte’s Cove in mid-April, given that the metropolitan areas near them are much smaller than Houston. We’ll see.
So it’s like starting over again, but I look forward to the challenge.—Lee Majors
Over the past week, as migration began to wind down, we birded from High Island, down the Bolivar Peninsula, to Pelican Island, and south to Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, taking pains to see a variety of habitats. I also took a solo trip to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP), hoping to capture wader hunting scenes, as well as nesting and singing birds along the trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lakes (sometimes called Observation Tower Trail), a place I call “Warbler Alley.”
Many of the songbirds that migrate through Texas do not breed along the Gulf Coast, so we are not treated to their songs. Some birds do breed here, however, and at this time of year the forests, fields, and wetlands are filled with singing males of these species.
Perhaps the most noticeable of these singers are the Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Northern Parulas, and Prothonotary Warblers. The calls and songs of flycatchers can also be heard here and there if you listen carefully. I’ve seen the songs of the Prothonotary Warbler slighted by authors as repetitive, but I am grateful for any help I can get in locating any warbler species, especially such a beautiful one that, in the great majority of cases, sings in the shaded canopy.
One of the things I especially like to keep an eye out for at this time of year is cavity nesting. Two of the loud singers common at BBSP, Prothonotary Warblers and Carolina Wrens, nest in cavities, such as abandoned woodpecker holes. Northern Parulas breed in the eastern one-third of Texas among Spanish moss and other epiphytes in forested areas near water. This makes BBSP an excellent place to search for singing and nesting Parulas.
Although Scissor-tailed Flycatchers breed throughout Texas (except for the western extremities of the state) I’ve never noticed any nesting scissor-tails at BBSP, even though there are significant grassy areas bordering forest. Perhaps I’ve just missed them. In total, I’ve seen just two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers at Brazos Bend. Both were flying along Pilant Slough. All the more reason to keep looking!
The only thing better than singing is more singing.—Ella Fitzgerald
Three years ago it was a struggle to identify many of the migrant songbirds that filter through Texas every spring. Now, after quite a bit of study and observation, we can identify most fairly easily—although every so often . . . .
Shorebird identification, on the other hand, can still often be a challenge, especially during spring migration when nonbreeding, transitional, and breeding plumages are all around. Last week, with that in mind, we decided to focus on strand line habitat, Rollover Pass and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, specifically, in the hopes of increasing our shorebird knowledge as well as avoiding the mobs at the songbird hotspots!
Light conditions varied wildly from fair to appalling, often frustratingly so. I admit to having felt a bit annoyed when a Whimbrel or Snowy Plover was standing right in front of me and the glare of a white-hot sky cooked all the color out of everything—and no amount of chimping and tinkering with settings could coax a good image.
Some of the highlights of Rollover Pass included Snowy, Wilson’s, Black-bellied, and Semipalmated Plovers, dark and white morphs of the Reddish Egret, Least and Black Terns, Ruddy Turnstones in breeding colors, and Sanderlings in transitional plumage. Frenchtown Road yielded Whimbrel, Wilson’s Phalaropes, a Clappper Rail, and Dunlins and Least Sandpipers in breeding plumage, among others. Hopefully we can get to these localities again on a few clear days before these birds are off to the arctic or sub-arctic in their new colors.
Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.—Loren Eiseley
We recently stumbled upon a new strategy for birding the the Upper Texas Coast during spring migration: short road trips south from High Island across the Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island. After spending the evening birding High Island and the night in Winnie, Texas, an early morning jaunt down Highway 87 brings the birder past numerous outstanding locales. A copy of Finding birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail by Ted Lee Eubanks et al. is an excellent resource to use for planning purposes or to have at hand on the road.
The power of this approach to birding lies in the amazing diversity of coastal habitats and their avian inhabitants one encounters along this route, from oak motte migrant trap to beach to salt marsh to tidal lagoon. On such journeys one can truly appreciate how special this stretch of coast is, and how lucky we are to still be able to observe the incredible flow of biodiversity from the Neotropics (as well as our resident birds).
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag
Over the past week we’ve been visiting our favorite springtime haunts and hotspots. The Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island was an explosion of color dominated by Snowy Egrets (some in breeding, some in high breeding colors), Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. At Lafitte’s Cove the Hooded Warbler invasion continued, accompanied by a new invasion of Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings. Tennessee Warblers and White-eyed Vireos were common, too.
Lafitte’s Cove is wonderful because in one small preserve one can explore oak motte, marsh, and prairie habitat. The motte, of course, is famous for migrating songbirds, but the marshes and ponds, too, are almost always productive during migrations. This time, at the pond south of the trail we saw Solitary Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers, both firsts for us at this locale. Explorations continuing . . . .
For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.—Jean-Paul Sartre
They say that timing is everything. For birders whose getaways are tied to school holidays, the timing of spring break is usually too early for spring migration. Not this year! With the deciduous trees just starting to put out new growth, Spring Break 2014 was timed perfectly for birding Lost Maples State Natural Area on the Edward’s Plateau of Central Texas.
Our goal was to see and photograph male Golden-cheeked Warblers (which typically arrive in Central Texas around March 10th) singing in the treetops before the trees were completely leafed-out. We heard many Golden-cheeked Warblers, but got only a few ID shots. The trip was a success for other reasons, however, in part due to the generosity of Richard Redmond of the Texas Ornithological Society who spent a day with us and shared his vast knowledge of Hill Country birds and birding techniques, especially tracking target birds by their songs . . .
Two Trips in One
When we go birding together, we often end up birding apart. Different things catch our eyes and ears, and so we end up with unique take-aways on the same get-away. In this spirit, we decided to share our Lost Maples birding experience “he said, she said” style.
Chris’s Field Notes
The most abundant species observed were Chipping and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Black-crested Titmice, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but I also saw White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos (and also caught the merest glimpse of a Hutton’s Vireo), Black and White, Orange-crowned, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Yellow-throated Warblers. Other highlights included a male Scott’s Oriole, a pair of Canyon Wrens, and a nest-sitting Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk. Wildflowers were on the sparse side, but Agarita and Bigtooth Maple were in bloom . . . . My couch-potato Houston Flatlander lifestyle didn’t help tackling those canyon trails hauling 30lbs of photographic equipment, but I came back invigorated and looking forward to the next trip.
Elisa’s Field Notes
If it weren’t for our chance encounter with Richard and his experienced ear, I would likely never have seen half the species I observed — many of which were firsts for me including the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Yellow-throated Vireo, and a far-off-in-the-distance Hutton’s Vireo. This trip, more than any other, clearly illustrated the need to know more birds by ear. Springtime is a great time to study bird songs and, wouldn’t-cha know, there’s an app for that. The bird identification mobile app that I use provides representative vocalizations, but most birds sing more than one tune. After a quick search, I downloaded BirdTunes and found it to be an encyclopedic resource of songs, calls, and scolding vocalizations, with regional variations for most species.
As a visual learner, birding by ear has always been daunting, and I quickly forget which bird sings which song when I don’t see and hear them regularly. On this trip, I developed a strategy that I think will work for the long-term. I characterize the song in a way that I can associate with the bird’s name or identifying feature. For example, the song of the Canyon Wren reminds me of a horse whinny which I associate with canyons and the West. Now when I hear that cascading whinny, I think “canyon” then “Canyon Wren” and look to the rocks to find it.
I was lucky to photograph two species singing on this trip — the vireo near the top of the post and the titmouse included in this spring’s “Image of the Season” sidebar. It bears mentioning that I used the bird song app as a pre-birding and post-birding tool for review and study, and not in the field to attract the birds. If you use recordings in the field, please do so responsibly. Check out the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics section 1(b) for guidance.
To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.—George Santayana
Last weekend evidence of spring was all around Galveston and environs. The big news at Lafitte’s Cove was the Hooded Warbler invasion. With the exception of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtle Race—still waiting for Audubon’s), Hooded Warblers probably outnumbered all other warbler species combined. Black and White, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Prothonotary Warblers were also in attendance. White-eyed Vireos were profuse at Dos Vacas Muertas and Lafitte’s Cove.
There was a notable uptick of numbers of birds that winter on the Gulf Coast, but have significant parts of their ranges to the south–Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, for example. Lesser Yellowlegs winter on the southern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. Coasts, as well as the Gulf Coast, but range all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Technically, I suppose, it’s impossible to tell if individual birds have moved far, but seeing Lesser Yellowlegs at Lafitte’s Cove and East Beach suggest to me that they are part of a big wave from the south.
On the flycatcher front: In a week or so, the trees of Lafitte’s Cove will be hopping with Great-crested, Least, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers—but last weekend I only saw Great-crested Flycatchers. Observations are continuing . . . .
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.—Winston Churchill