For most of the month of September, a (presumably) transiting juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird laid claim to a patch of native plants in our back yard in suburban Houston. From a shepherd’s crookish twig (a dead coral bean tree branch entwined with a greenbrier vine) this feisty little bird watched over his patch of turk’s cap and coral honeysuckle. Occasionally he would make forays to visit our patio to sample the firespike flowers, but hour after hour he would sit, vigilant atop his curly perch. Whenever invading hummingbirds would appear he would, without mercy, drive them away and return to his throne. By the second week of October he was gone for parts unknown . . . perhaps he will return next year a king, gorget ablaze.
My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy.–William Shakespeare
*I think that this is a first fall male because of the high level of aggression, the slight streaking of the throat, and one dark throat feather (not visible in photo). Although, it could possibly be an adult female. I invite comments from anyone who knows better.
I have noticed a large up-tick in the number of Green Darners (Anax junius) around the Texas Gulf Coast. This no surprise as Green Darners migrate from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Panama during the fall. The details of Green Darner migration across North America are sketchy, but many millions fly south during fall with their avian predators. Why some Green Darners migrate and others stay put is a mystery, but the north-south migration is intergenerational as the reproductive adult typically only lives for an estimated 4-7 weeks. On an individual basis, telling a migrant from a resident is generally not possible.
For a bird photographer, the waxing and waning of abundance of adults of different dragonfly species means that I get to shoot birds preying on different species of dragonflies throughout the spring, summer, and fall. For dragonflies, it seems likely that emergence (molting into the flying adult from the aquatic larval form) and mating are two times of special vulnerability to avian predation. In the case of the former, the dragonfly must sit motionless on vegetation for hours while the wings extend and harden. In the latter case, the male and female insects are attached, thus presenting a larger and slower target for predatory birds.
In any case, such temporal variation in prey abundance adds a fascinating dimension to nature photography . . . .
My initial interest in macrophotography flowed from my interest in birds. Often, I would see birds eating the fruit or seeds, or even drinking the nectar, of unfamiliar plants. I would then take a few pictures of the fruit or flowers for identification purposes.
This process has been helpful in understanding the habitats and habits of birds, and forced me to learn some macrophotography. It also got me thinking about efficiency and getting the most out of life.
It takes effort to go into the field. Now when no birds are around, rather than think about the day as a waste, I immediately start looking around for other interesting photographic subjects. Although, for me, photographing a flower is not as therapeutic as photographing a warbler, it is still an interesting and valuable exercise in the study of nature.
Our first efforts in macrophotography utilized an inexpensive Canon 55mm macro (the so-called “compact macro”), and were generally unsuccessful. (Sidebar: Whenever I speak to professional photographers I typically ask for advice, and a common piece of advice is: never buy cheap equipment.) Shortly thereafter we bought the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro which is simply a superb lens, and one of the sharpest around.
After talking with a naturalist and photographer about the importance (nay necessity) of using flash in macrophotography given the intense light requirement of shooting at high f-stops, we bought a ring flash and were off and running. Now when the birds are not out, but there are interesting plants and small, non avian critters around, I fish out the macro and go to work. Once in a blue moon, one has the exciting opportunity to turn a macro lens on a bird–as you can see below.
All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.
One of the highlights of birding during the summer/fall transition is witnessing the explosion of fruits that come into season at this time. Last Saturday (9/14) I visited the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary in west Houston. Even though the drought had caused many of the plants to droop and otherwise appear stressed, the understory was bursting with ripe beautyberries and pokeberries, and greenbrier vines laden with shiny orange berries climbed to the heights everywhere. Yaupon berries were still green or just beginning to turn red and will provide food for birds later in the fall and winter.
The beautyberry and pokeberry patch was thick with frugivorous American Robins and Northern Mockingbirds. A few Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals were also hanging around the patch. Mockingbirds were plucking greenbrier berries from vines high in the crowns of trees. On Wednesday (9/18) I returned to find that many of the berries had already been stripped from the plants. But, never fear, in the shadier areas the next crop of ripening berries was waiting in the wings.
For the birder, some plants with ripe berries are worth staking out. Hackberry trees, for example, are a favorite among primarily insectivorous birds (like warblers), as well as those mainly interested in fruits. A hackberry tree is a mini-ecosystem–fresh and decaying fruit attracts insects. Spiders hunt the insects from webs and the nooks and crannies of rolled-up leaves, and warblers grab the spiders. Ecosystems: they work!
O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe;
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruit and flowers.
All systems in nature seek the lowest available energy state. This is a concept that my students could always grasp on a personal level. (Substitute “teenagers” for “all systems in nature” in the first sentence. See what I mean?) Human nature, like the rest of nature, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Hummingbirds are no different.
Consider the droves of hummingbirds attracted to sugar-water feeders. Well-kept feeders are an easy alternative to foraging, and field studies show that when nectar (or nectar substitute) sources are super abundant, high metabolic cost territorial activity decreases. Feeders are the path of least resistance for hummingbirds.
Human interest in hummingbirds and the resulting dedication to supplementing their diet has impacted their biogeography. Hummingbird banding data support the idea that feeders (along with native gardening practices) are the reason that overwintering hummingbird populations have expanded along the Gulf Coast after first migrating into Mexico in the fall. Feeders and native plantings also contribute to the so-called “oasis effect” observed in exurban developments in the arid southwest where increasing numbers of hummingbirds (among other birds) in resource-poor terrain take advantage of supplemental food, shelter, and water resources.
On our recent summer desert birding road trip, we found the Franklin Mountain State Park feeders buzzing madly with hummingbirds. Especially welcome was the opportunity to get close-up views of Calliope Hummingbirds – thought to be the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world – on their 5,000 mile southern journey to Mexico from the northwestern US and Canada.
For Calliopes, fall migration starts early. Sources report typical Calliope departures from northwest locales in late August. But wait, it was late July and they were already in Texas … Was this early arrival due to a natural seasonal shift or could it just have been the oasis effect?
I hear like you see — like that hummingbird outside that window for instance.
September begins the fifth straight month of “the baking” of the Texas Gulf Coast. On the upside, the trickle of fall migrants that started in July finally gets into full swing. On September 1st we visited Lafitte’s Cove for the first time this fall migration (technically still summer, of course) and saw five warbler species: Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow, Canada, Black and White, and Hooded Warblers.
Warblers are are a Lafitte’s Cove speciality: In the past year we’ve seen twenty-four of the fifty-two species of warblers that regularly visit the United States. This is especially impressive given that the preserve covers only twenty acres. Surely Lafitte’s Cove must be counted among the best migrant traps in the United States.
Now, birds are fattening up on insects in preparation for their epic flight back to their wintering grounds to the south. Mosquitos can be a problem for birders at Lafitte’s Cove, but they have been less of a problem for us here than at other migrant traps along the Texas Gulf Coast like Sabine Woods and High Island.
We eagerly await the first blue norther when we’ll be able to bird in the cool fresh air! The first frost will mean an end to many of the nastiest biting bugs, and our wintering friends will be paddling peacefully across Gulf Coast waters (or otherwise doing their thing).
Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.–George Eliot
Even after several years of frequent wader-watching at Brazos Bend, these birds continue to reveal new tricks in their extensive repertoire of hunting strategies. Recently I observed a Green Heron resting on an American Lotus leaf. Green Herons are common at Brazos Bend, and they can often be seen hunting and fishing from aquatic vegetation and partly submerged logs. Birds usually stand on their toes. What was interesting in this case was that the bird was crouching low, resting on its toes and feet (digits and tarsometatarsi, respectively) near the edge of the plant. The bird peeked over the edge of the leaf, studied the surface of the water, and every so often shot out its long neck and snatched a small fish from near the surface of the water. Was the bird hiding from the fish below or studying the fish-produced ripples on the surface of the water, or both? In any case, it was fun to watch.
Waders are great preeners, constantly cleaning and fussing with their feathers. Usually preening means that the action is over for a while–so the photographer interested in capturing hunting and fishing scenes may just as well move on to another bird. However, this summer I caught a Green Heron using the brilliant sunlight to find snacks on its wings. The bird, shown above, held its wings up to the sun. The light streaming through the feathers presumably allowed the bird to spot parasites, pick them off, and eat them. Pretty neat: dining at home!
This summer at least one Snowy Egret spent a lot of time blowing bubbles (and making ripples). This bubbling clearly activity attracted a variety of prey, mostly small fish, that were quickly snapped up. Once, the bubbling attracted something that was too big to handle. I saw a disturbance in the water, and the bird ran away squawking–perhaps a big gar or bowfin came slithering up? I also caught a bubbling Snowy Egret resting on its toes and feet on a log (shown below).
Although wary and uncooperative photographic subjects, Cattle Egrets are common in the grassy areas–and occasionally at the waters’ edge–at Brazos Bend. One day I saw a group of half a dozen Cattle Egrets stalking through the brush like a gang of young toughs grabbing dragonflies and spiders and whatever else moved. They strolled along together, a few feet apart, though the understory vegetation. If one bird flushed or disturbed a prey item an adjacent bird got a crack at it. Grasshoppers, spiders, dragonflies, maybe the occasional frog–down the hatch! Co-operation: it works!
There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.—Steven Wright
Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.
Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.
Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .
Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.
Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp
No other habitat on earth holds as much wonder for me as the desert. Franklin Mountains State Park is a consistently great place for desert birding and seeing the flora and fauna of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have visited several times in hot and cool weather and hope to return at the earliest possible date.
Make no mistake: the rocky northern Chihuahuan Desert is a hard place, especially in summer. Common plants scattered across the rocky flats include agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, eagle claw cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and mesquite. The Franklin Mountains area is the only place to see Southwest barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Texas. Stream channels contain Desert Willow, sometimes haunted by nectar-seeking hummingbirds.
Quail are also associated with stream channels. Gambel’s (a.k.a. Desert or Arizona) and Scaled Quail are common resident birds at the Tom Mays Unit. These birds are often comical to watch as they come strolling along a gully in small groups–until they notice you . . . . They will then shift around for a bit, and nonchalantly walk the other way!
House finches and sparrows (Canyon and Spotted Towhees, for example) are an especially important part of the avifauna year-round. Green-tailed Towhees and Brewer’s Sparrow visit in the winter. Black-throated Sparrows are conspicuous year-round and will approach the observation blind closely at the Nature Walk Trail of the Tom Mays Unit.
The observation blind is a fiberglass affair with wooden benches inside. Although ergonomically unsuited for tripod use, the blind is remarkably cool even when temperatures are blistering outside and provides just about the only shade in the area.
Despite the harshness of the area, we can’t wait to return to Franklin Mountains State Park: hopefully we will get some better shots of the more camera-shy denizens of the park, namely Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.
“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for — the whole thing — rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough
We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.
The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!
After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!
On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.
At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!
Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.
“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo
Pied-billed Grebes are fascinating foot-propelled diving birds–submarine hunters that are uncomfortable on land due to their anatomy. These birds are fun to watch as they dive, and then emerge seconds later, sometimes with a struggling fish, frog, or crawfish clamped in their bills. Texas birders are lucky to be able to observe the complete life cycle of the Pied-billed Grebe.
One of the challenging aspects of birding, one that provides a real sense of depth and richness to the hobby, is sorting through the variation in plumage exhibited by many birds as they mature and move through their life cycles. Juvenile Pied-billed Grebes, like many young water birds, are striped. As you can see above, the nonbreeding plumage of the Pied-billed Grebe has a distinctly rufous cast, whereas the breeding plumage is more gray. During the breeding season, Pied-billed Grebes develop black throats and a black stripe on their beaks. There is no sexual dimorphism in coloration.
Although Pied-billed Grebes are common at Brazos Bend State Park, we have yet to definitely identify nests or nestlings there. Pied-billed Grebes typically build nests on floating vegetation and may produce two broods of highly precocial young from April through October. Grebe chicks can leave the nest in as little as a day, sleep on their parents’ backs, and spend the first few weeks of life outside the nest hiding in vegetation until they learn to swim. The youngster shown below is likely from the first brood of this summer, which means that we may have another chance to observe and photograph Grebe family life this season. At Brazos Bend, we’ll be scanning the water and scrutinizing the vegetation with extra diligence though the early fall until we find Grebe nests and chicks!
“It can be a trap of the photographer to think that his or her best pictures were the ones that were hardest to get.” – Timothy Allen