Summer Songbird Jewels of the Texas Gulf Coast

Male Eastern Bluebird at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Sapphire: Male Eastern Bluebird. This bird utilized a nest cavity near Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, during spring of 2013. Eastern Bluebirds are common sights around Elm Lake throughout the summer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Although the vast majority of brightly-colored songbirds in Texas during the spring migration continue their journeys north, a few species remain to add flashes of color to the post-migration greenery. These include Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Eastern Bluebirds, Painted Buntings, and Summer Tanagers.

Of course, one of the things to watch for in the spring and summer is nesting behavior. Early this spring in an area of Brazos Bend State Park much frequented by warblers and other songbirds, I identified a nest cavity being used by a mated pair of Eastern Bluebirds (male shown above). Much later in the spring, the same nest cavity was adopted by Prothonotary Warblers.

Sadly, about two weeks ago I noticed that the top of the dead tree containing the nest cavity snapped off, taking the cavity with it. Last week, too, I noticed that another nest cavity in this area was gone. The whole dead tree collapsed. This is unfortunate as this little patch of forest and slough has been a reliable spot for nest cavities and songbirds for the past several years. I spotted the male Prothonotary Warbler shown below, for example, in this same area last summer. What a reminder that things humans place no value on, like dead trees, can be vital to the health of an ecosystem.

Prothonotary Warbler at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Citrine: Male Prothonotary Warbler. Golden Swamp Warbler is the original (and so much better) name for this bird. Photo taken near Pilant Lake under natural light in late spring. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Painted buntings, especially the adult males, are among the most brilliantly-colored songbirds in North America. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to me breathlessly in the field with something like: “We saw this bird, it was . . . .”  “Male Painted Bunting,” I interrupt gently.

The best place to find Painted Buntings in summer at Brazos Bend is where there are tall grasses with mature seed-heads adjacent to wooded areas (just in case a quick getaway is required). Painted buntings are so spectacular they, no doubt, will warrant a whole post of their own at some point in the future.

First spring male Painted Bunting at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Emerald: Young Male Painted Bunting Showing Brilliant Green Specular Reflection at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Like some minerals, the iridescence and colors of some bird feathers are structural (the result of reflection, diffraction, and interference of light) rather than absorption and reflection due to pigmentation. This fellow it just starting to molt into his multicolored adult plumage. Photo taken during spring migration. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) with high-speed synchronized flash.

Tanagers are such prized summer sightings along the Texas Gulf Coast that I find myself double-checking every male Northern Cardinal I see. A rule of thumb is helpful when looking for Tanagers: find the fruit (especially mulberries), find the birds. Otherwise, Summer Tanagers are specialist feeders on bees and wasps. A few times I have chased Tanagers through the sweltering underbrush in hopes of getting a shot–usually to no avail. Photographing birds in the fully leafed-out summer forest is tough, and songbirds, coy creatures that they are, are not about to cooperate.

Male Summer Tanager at Sabine Woods, Texas
Ruby: Male Summer Tanager in a Mulberry Tree at Sabine Woods, Texas. Elisa captured this image on a hot, muggy, and buggy morning in early April. Natural light. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).
Female Summer Tanager at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Peek-a-boo: Female Summer Tanager among the Grape Vines at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. No fruit yet: bugs will have to do. Photo taken during spring migration. Perhaps this Summer Tanager stayed in East Texas–some do. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”–John Berger

 ©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Experiments in Dragonfly Photography

Flame Skimmer Dragonfly at Lost Maples State Natural Area, Central Texas
Flame Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula saturata) at Lost Maples State Natural Area, Central Texas. Elisa got this shot with a Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC)/tripod. According to internet sources, the 300mm f/4 is a popular lens for dragonfly shots. Natural light.

During the summer in Gulf Coast Texas, when bird diversity is relatively low, there are generally lots of insects–especially dragonflies–to draw the photographer’s attention. Clearly dragonflies, although small, cannot be treated like typical macro subjects, at least most of the time. First of all, they are highly aware of their surroundings and sometimes won’t let you get close to them. Second, along the Gulf Coast they are often perched on emergent vegetation in alligator- and water moccasin-infested water, or chigger-infested grass.

Mating Halloween Pennant Dragonflies in strong breeze, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Mating Halloween Pennant Dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) in a Strong Breeze at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Photo taken at Elm Lake. This shot was only cropped significantly in the horizontal dimension: In other words, these insects nearly filled the frame vertically with this combination of equipment at the minimum focus distance. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC)/tripod with high-speed synchronized flash.

So rather than use a lens requiring a close approach (the super sharp 100mm f/2.8L IS macro, for example), the question becomes which super telephoto is the best dragonfly lens? Further, is flash necessary or even best? Should the 1.4x teleconverter be used? What about extension tubes? With this many questions and permutations of possible combinations of equipment (plus field considerations), I’ve come nowhere near a definite conclusion, but at least I have identified some issues–and I’m excited about further experimentation!

Although I know that some photographers use extension tubes in this application, for the moment I’m taking them off the table primarily because these devices (hollow tubes inserted between the camera and lens that decrease the minimum focus distance while retaining most camera functions) significantly decrease the flexibility of the set-up. Extension tubes cost image brightness, slow autofocus (if they allow it to function at all), slightly shift the focal point of the lens, and degrade the ability to focus at a distance. I’m looking for a rig that will allow excellent captures of dragonflies while preserving my options should a bird or other animal suddenly appear at a larger distance.

That said, the different super telephotos I have access to (100-400mm, 300mm, 500mm; 600mm) have different minimum focus distances (MFD) and magnifications. Of these, the 100-400mm is definitely out: It is a versatile lens, but it just isn’t as sharp as the primes (fixed focal length lenses). The 300mm has the closest MFD (4.93 ft), but in my experience that is often irrelevant because the bug won’t let you get anywhere near that close.

On the other end of the scale, dragonflies will almost always let you get to the MFD for the 600mm (18.04 ft), but that’s pretty far away for such a small animal. Teleconverters do not affect MFD, but they soak up a little light and degrade sharpness (only slightly for 1.4x on a prime). So far, I have liked some shots taken with the 600mm (+1.4x TC). This is probably because of the number of opportunities I’ve been able to take with such a large MFD–I don’t risk trying to get too close and chase the subject away.

Female Four-spotted Pennant Dragonfly at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Female Four-spotted Pennant Dragonfly (Brachymesia gravida) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS/tripod. High-speed synchronized flash.

Of the three primes (with teleconverters attached) being discussed here, the 600mm should give the worst results on theoretical grounds. The ratio of focal length (the longer, the better) to MFD (the smaller, the better), is a way to think about this issue. The larger this ratio, the better because it expresses how much focal length “firepower” you have per separation distance. For the 300mm (+1.4x TC), the focal length/MFD ratio = 85 mm/ft. For the 600mm (+1.4x TC), focal length/MFD ratio = 47 mm/ft. The ratio for the 500mm has a value of 48 mm/ft, nearly the same as the 600mm. So if you could get close, the 300mm should be best–but often you can’t get that close. Compromise strikes again!

As far as flash is concerned, it seems to be primarily a matter of taste. Natural light, of course, looks more natural. The flash reveals fine details, especially in the shadows, sometimes not visible in natural light. Flash can sometimes create a magical, almost surreal effect as in the case of the Halloween Pennants above. One clear problem with the flash is the same as in the case of birds: the flash adds an extra catchlight in the eyes. Because dragonflies have large compound eyes, the effect can be pronounced.

Swift Long-winged Skimmer Dragonfly at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State park, Texas
Swift Long-winged Skimmer Dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State park, Texas.
Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS/tripod. Natural light.

So . . . what to do? For now, keep working, trying new combinations, and see if a clear choice emerges that preserves options and image quality. Finally, all this thought about dragonflies has clearly benefitted my bird photography in one way. I can now easily recognize all the common dragonflies around the places I normally shoot, and thus can put a technical name on some of the meals my beloved waders are enjoying!

Green Heron with Green Clearwing at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Green Heron with Green Clearwing (Erythemis simplicicollis) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This is my favorite type of dragonfly photography. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC)/tripod. Natural light.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” ― Henri Cartier-Bresson

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

A Diversity of Menu Items for Waders at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Green Heron with Fishing Spider at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Green Heron with Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton) at Brazos Bend State Park. Photo taken near Pilant Slough. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

There has been a bumper crop of fishing spiders this year at Brazos Bend State Park, and I have seen Little Blue Herons and Green Herons eat them, sometimes one spider right after another. Some years it seems as though wader diets consist of a fairly uniform mix of aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates, especially crawfish. This year, rather than crawfish, waders seem to be relying more heavily on smaller invertebrate prey items than in recent years. Lots of aquatic insect larvae, dragonflies, adult aquatic bugs and beetles, and spiders are being consumed along with the occasional small fish, frog, or tadpole.

Little Blue Heron with Dragonfly
Juvenile Little Blue Heron with Swift Long-winged Skimmer Dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) at 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Juvenile Little Blue Herons are fun to stalk: they are prolific hunters but, being young, they still have a level of naiveté toward humans allowing a close approach. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Invertebrates are highly sensitive to environmental conditions of temperature, humidity, and rainfall. This year’s unusually cool, dry spring may have led to a different mix of potential prey for waders. The Upper Texas Gulf Coast is already behind in rainfall for the summer and water levels already appear low, perhaps impacting aquatic vertebrate numbers as well.

Many of the invertebrates (spiders especially) I see waders take are living among the Water Hyacinth that is growing profusely in some areas of the park. Water Hyacinth is native to the Amazon Basin, but has been imported to many areas of the world where it has become a major nuisance by crowding out and shading native plants and choking waterways.

Water Hyacinth at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Beautiful Invasive: Common Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) at Brazos Bend State Park. Water Hyacinth is costly and troublesome for land managers. Mechanical, chemical, and biological mechanisms for its control have been devised and employed worldwide.

Besides keeping an eye (and a lens) out for interesting wader predator-prey relationships, I am always on the look-out for hunting techniques. For example, Snowy Egrets are known for shuffling their bright yellow feet in the shallows to flush out prey. Several times over the past weeks I have seen a Snowy Egret (I think it was the same bird) employing a bubble-blowing technique on Elm Lake. This bird was (presumably) blowing bubbles to attract prey. Perhaps the bubbling simulates a small struggling animal, attractive to fish and other aquatic predators. Between bouts of bubbling, this bird also opened and closed its beak, a fishing technique I have seen employed by Black-crowned Night-Herons and Great Egrets, and one that also sends ripples out into the water. One time during this process this Snowy Egret grabbed a small aquatic invertebrate–it was down the hatch too fast to tell for sure what it was, although it was about the right size and shape for a water tiger (larval predaceous diving beetle). On another occasion, the egret was clearly catching small fish with this technique. Time will tell if anything bigger can be attracted by blowing bubbles!

Snowy Egret blowing bubbles at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Snowy Egret Blowing Bubbles at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Photo taken at Elm Lake. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS. High-speed synchronized flash.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding is Here: Young Water Birds Out and About at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Juvenile Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Juvenile Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Wood Ducks are tough to find at BBSP: They are typically suspicious of humans. These were young enough to retain their naiveté. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Photo taken near Pilant Lake in late June. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After a really interesting spring migration, I have settled into summer birding along the Texas Gulf Coast. Although I occasionally run into hearty souls willing to brave the Texas heat to see and photograph their beloved birds, the birding crowds have thinned. On those particularly broiling summer days, it sometimes feels as though I have the whole park to myself.

Common Moorhen Chick at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Common Moorhen Chick at Brazos Bend State Park. Mom will spend much of the summer feeding this little guy aquatic insects. Baby Common Moorhens, with their black fuzzy feathers and propensity to stand in blazing sunlight, are difficult to photograph. Photo taken at Elm Lake. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Although avian diversity is at its nadir at this time of year, certain things can only be seen in summer, and these make going out well worth the effort. These include Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks raising young. The latter are particularly fun to watch as parents coolly and calmly usher their ducklings into the marsh vegetation in the face of perceived threats.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducklings at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducklings at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. What is there to say, MP? Ducklings are cute. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

While the ducks and ducklings skulk off into the weeds when humans turn up, the Moorhens and Gallinules slowly stroll away from threats real and imagined on top of floating vegetation with babies in tow. Very young Moorhens and Purple Gallinules are fuzzy and black, little balls of darkness. Now and then, an alligator steams past and everyone keeps and eye out (including the photographer). A wader spears a frog. A Northern Parula sings, then a Prothonotary Warbler. And time passes slowly.

Young Purple Gallinule at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Young Purple Gallinule at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. This young Purple Gallinule has passed its black, “ball of darkness” phase. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.”–Russell Baker

 ©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Northern Wisconsin: Notes on a Changing World from the North Woods

Dunlin in breeding colors at Ashland, Wisconsin
Dunlin in Breeding Colors on the south shore of Lake Superior, near Ashland, Wisconsin during mid-June. We typically see Dunlin in their winter plumage along the Texas Gulf Coast. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We usually take two to three major birding trips outside the Texas Gulf Coast region each year. We strive to visit many different types of habitats, with the hopes of seeing as many different species of plants and animals as possible.

This week we returned from a trip to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. We spent most of our time in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and along the southern shore of Lake Superior, primarily at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Besides seeking a brief respite from the Texas heat, we were eager to explore the cool temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. We found these forests to be among the most beautiful and botanically diverse woodlands we have ever encountered, rivaling the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest aesthetically. Many species of songbirds and others that migrate through Texas in the fall and spring nest in these forests. We had hopes of hearing their summer songs and seeing their summer colors.

Having grown up in Minnesota and visited similar habitats in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin many years ago, I thought I knew what to expect. I remember taking field trips for undergraduate geology courses in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1980’s and noticing the great abundance of wildlife. Sadly, a great abundance of wildlife was not what we found on this trip.

Mixed Broadleaf forest of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, northern Wisconsin
Spectacular, but Strangely Sterile: Mixed deciduous broadleaf and coniferous forest of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, northern Wisconsin in mid-June. Here and there we heard a singing male Northern Parula or Chipping Sparrow. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm. Hand-held, natural light.

Amphibians are now rare in northern Wisconsin. For someone with childhood memories of woods hopping with toads and alive with frog song, what I found was shocking. Marsh, bog, swamp, and adjacent woodland habitats that should have been noisy with Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) were nearly silent. A quick check of on-line references found numerous references to catastrophic declines in Northern Leopard Frog numbers in the past few decades.  The rarity of amphibians helps to explain the rarity of waders hunting in the vegetated shallows of lakes and marshes: we saw only a handful of Great Blue Herons and a single Green Heron. The silence of these northern Wisconsin woods is grim testimony to the global amphibian crisis.

Strangely, even Red-winged Blackbirds are not that abundant anymore. In one marsh I noted three birds: and one was banded! What gives? According to the AMNH Birds of North America, Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds in North America, known for moving around in vast flocks. Again, a quick internet search revealed references to major declines in Red-winged Blackbird populations in the northern Midwest and Canada (apparently I’m not going crazy!).

Birds that are abundant include American Crows, European Starlings, and Brown-headed Cowbirds–not surprising since these species thrive around humans and the environmental changes we cause. Brown-headed Cowbirds, of course, are contributing to the decline of songbird numbers (terrifyingly so) through nest parasitism of about 220 species. According to the video Gulf Crossing: An Essay on Bird Migration, we have lost about 40% of our songbirds in the past 25-30 years due to several causes. Based on what I have seen in the north woods, I would not be surprised if losses were significantly higher.

Birds may be suffering, but nasty arthropods are proliferating. North woods habitats are typically quite buggy in late spring and early summer, but what we found was really quite mind-boggling, and rivaling the most bug-infested salt marsh environments we’ve ever encountered (our Original Bug Shirts kept us alive!). Local after local (including some old-timers) described the bug situation as the worst they had ever seen with respect to mosquitos, wood ticks, and deer ticks (And don’t forget gnats!). One local remarked how at one point he simultaneously had three Lyme disease bull’s-eyes on his body. A quick internet search revealed articles (not surprisingly) blaming climate change for the bug infestation (Hmmmm.)

White-tailed Deer, too, are everywhere in huge numbers. I saw more White-tailed Deer than squirrels! Estimates are that White-tailed Deer populations in Wisconsin have increased 600% since 1950. This is probably due to humans feeding them and killing off predators such as wolves and mountain lions. Silly humans. White-tailed Deer abundance correlates negatively with songbird abundance because of the way deer graze away the understory vegetation.  I was shocked to learn recently that White-tailed Deer are known to eat bird nests, including eggs and nestlings, of ground- and understory-nesting birds. Habitats can only sustain a limited number of large ungulates. Cross a numerical threshold and ecosystems collapse. Northern Wisconsin has apparently crossed that threshold.

Bull Elk at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Bull Elk at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Overpopulation of Elk at Yellowstone led to overgrazing of willow and aspen saplings and decimation of songbird populations. When Elk-munching wolves were re-introduced into the park in 1995 songbird populations expanded. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, natural light.
White-tailed Buck at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Eight Points, Four Western: White-tailed buck at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. White-tailed Deer are wreaking the sort of havoc on ecosystems across eastern North America that excess Elk brought to Yellowstone. These fuzzy villains have got to be brought back into balance! Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, natural light.

Until recently I have been in the doubting camp as far as anthropogenic climate change has been concerned. My general sense of the climate has been that it is consistent with heading deeper into an interglacial regime, with warmer average temperatures and decreased equability. These periods are associated with loss of biodiversity and stormy frontal weather patterns in the higher latitudes. I thought current climatic changes could probably be explained by Milankovitch cycles, perhaps in conjunction with variation over time in solar subatomic particle production and the amount of cloud cover produced as reported by CERN. An excellent recent summary article has led me to re-evaluate my position. On the other hand, I am not at all skeptical that humans are destroying the environment globally in other ways. That we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event is beyond question. One need look no further than Wisconsin, Texas, or wherever you live.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM versus 600mm f/4L IS USM: First Field Comparisons

Baby alligators on their mother's back at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.
Baby Alligators on their Mother’s Back at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. Photo taken near Pilant Lake. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS USM with high-speed synchronized fill-flash at 1/640, ISO 640; f/13.

I feel incredibly lucky to have a wife who shares my passion for nature and bird photography: not only for companionship in the field, but for constructive criticism, technical help, and tolerance for acquisition of expensive pieces of equipment. One frustration of having a photographer partner, however, has been having to share the “big” lens.

Buying the 500mm f/4L IS two years ago was a life-altering experience for us. Before that, we had to share the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS: a nice lens, but nowhere in the same league as the 500mm in terms of autofocus speed, sharpness, image quality, and reach. With a 1.4x teleconverter (not to mention the 1.6x crop sensor EOS 7D) our new 500mm set-up really expanded our capabilities and started to land us some really nice results. No wonder this is such a popular combination of equipment among serious amateurs and professionals.

That said, the 500mm rig is heavy and awkward, especially with tripod, Wimberley gimbal, flash and “Better Beamer” flash extender attached. Lugging it through the brush can be exhausting, especially if there are low-hanging branches or tangled ground cover. It also attracts attention from the public who feel compelled to comment about the size of your “camera.”

To remedy the problem of having to share the 500mm, we recently acquired a used 600mm f/4 IS from B&H in New York. My first impression is that the 600mm is heavy, heavy, heavy. In fairness, it is only about 3 pounds heavier than the 500mm, 11.8 versus 8.5 pounds–but heavy enough to cause the tripod legs (Gitzo GT3541XLS) to slip when only tightened to minimum non-slip tightness for the 500mm. The 600mm is also physically larger–I would say chunkier and more ungainly. The carbon-fiber hood is much larger (I worry how it will behave in a significant wind). If you are not in good shape, these differences are significant–especially after about a four-plus mile hike, which is our typical outing. Furthermore, because the 600mm calls for the P-50 Wimberley lens plate for the gimbal, rather than the smaller P-40, the 600mm is much harder to carry the way I carry the 500mm set-up, namely with the top of the tripod resting on my shoulder. The P-50 digs into my shoulder. If I slide the lens backwards, it feels quite off-balance. I soon discovered that a folded handkerchief under the shoulder of my shirt makes a world of difference. On the second trip I figured out a way to position the 600mm set-up on my shoulder (with handkerchief)  without causing pain–at least for about three hours.

White-faced Ibis in non-breeding colors at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
White-faced Ibis in Non-breeding Colors at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas.  Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC) with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

My first impression optically of the 600mm is that the extra 140mm of reach (with 1.4x TC) really tests your technique, especially when exhausted, a bit shaky, sweat is burning your eyes, and deer flies are chewing on your face. My sense is that the 600mm focuses slightly faster than our 500mm (which is odd given that the 600mm has bigger elements to move), but I don’t have actual measurements, it just feels like it is faster. The depth of field for the 600mm is noticeably less than the 500mm, which is expected as depth of field is a function of object distance, f-stop, and focal length. This generally means shooting at higher f-stops and slower shutter speeds. I am already automatically nudging up the f-stop on the 600mm above what I would shoot on the 500mm: f/7.1 versus f/6.3 for small, relatively close birds, for example.

In some places we shoot some birds that are quite tolerant of humans, Brazos Bend State Park, for example. Juvenile little Blue Herons and Ibises, when they are focused on tasty frogs and crawfish will essentially ignore humans. They rarely will approach closer than the minimum focus distance (MFD) for the 500mm (14.8 ft.), though. Not so the 600mm (18.0 ft.). On several occasions I found myself having to back up to keep these birds in focus. After shooting with the 500mm for about two years, I more or less automatically and subconsciously adjust the object distance to be outside the MFD. I’m sure with practice my brain will adjust to the 600mm.

As of this writing (after four one-half days in the field), I have not encountered a situation where the 600mm is superior to what the 500mm would have produced. That being said, I also haven’t yet encountered a situation where the 600mm would really be expected to shine: where the subject is about 5-15 feet beyond the ideal distance for the 500mm. The 600mm reminds that photography is all about trade-offs and compromises and diminishing returns. For an extra 100mm of reach there is a large financial cost as well as a physical one. My favorite summer subjects are hunting waders, and I really expect that throughout the next few months many opportunities will arise (such as hunting waders on the other side of a bayou) that will convince me of the correctness of acquiring a 600mm rather than another 500mm lens. Time will tell.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with crawfish at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with Red Swamp Crawfish at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas. Photo taken at Elm Lake. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Avian Portraits: A New Collection

Sometimes I find myself able to get close enough to birds to fill the frame without being able to fit the whole bird in the shot. Rather than fight it, I go with the flow and shoot portraits! I’ll be adding new portraits of captive and wild birds to this collection as I encounter co-operative subjects.

Peregrine Falcon portrait
Portrait: Peregrine Falcon. Captive bird, natural light. Canon 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Thanks to Mary Anne Weber of the Houston Audubon Society for access to her collection of beautiful rehabilitated raptors. Photo taken at the Sims Bayou Urban Nature Center, Houston.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Nest Box 24

Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Wood Duck at Brazos Bend State Park. This Wood Duck and his mate were extremely wary of humans. Smart ducks! Photo taken in March with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“Hey, there’s a pair of Wood Ducks hanging out by Nest Box 24,” Chris says with a knowing smile as we meet on the path encircling Elm Lake. “Excellent!” I reply. It’s my turn with the 500mm, and a good opportunity to practice my sit-and-wait technique. Patience has paid off in the past – especially with flycatchers returning to perches. So, with images of Wood Ducks in my head, I hurry on down the trail–politely refusing several offers to trade cameras with my point-and-shoot counterparts.

Slowing my approach as I get closer, I collapse the tripod to sitting height, identify the best angle given the light, then slip in among the brush. I am confident that my camouflaged ninja birding skills will produce a pair of Wood Ducks.

Mated pair of Blue-winged Teal at Pliant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A mated pair of Blue-winged Teal feed on duck weed at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/3200, -0.3 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

At least there’s a handsome mated pair of Blue-winged Teal to keep me company. I wait. No Wood Ducks. The teal come in closer. Well, I might as well shoot them while I’m here. Done. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hmm, maybe the Wood Ducks are IN the box! I train the camera on the nest box hole. I guess some images of a nest box would be nice. Snap. Snap. OK. I wait. No Wood Ducks. Hey! A head popped out of the hole!

Fox Squirrel peeking out from a nest box at Brazos Bend State Park, TX
A Fox Squirrel peeks out from Nest Box 24 in Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, TX. Canon EOC 7D/500 mm f/4L IS (+1.4 TC): f/11, ISO 500, 1/320, -0.7 EV, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Really? A squirrel. Hmph!

Wait a minute. What’s a squirrel doing in there? Is it hunting for eggs? Hunting for chicks? (That little #*%@!) Could it be tending a nest of its own? A little bit of internet research indicates it could be any of the above. I will need to keep an eye out for this in the future. I love it when I learn something new. Don’t you?

©2013 Elisa D. Lewis and Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Additions to a Collection: Galveston Island Birds

“To a man, ornithologists are tall, slender, and bearded so that they can stand motionless for hours, imitating kindly trees, as they watch for birds.”–Gore Vidal

Galveston Island has been a central focus for our birding activities during spring migration 2013. Over the past week I have been quietly adding images to my Galveston Island Birds Collection. Please take a look.

Common Nighthawk Portrait at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Portrait: Common Nighthawk. As a child in Minnesota I watched nighthawks feeding on insects high in the air. I never dreamed I would get such a close look. Lafitte’s Cove, natural light.

Soon I will be trying to acclimate to the broiling Gulf Coast summer–and dreaming of staking out coastal migrant traps during fall migration 2013. It’s not that far off . . . the earliest crop of migrants should start showing up in late July! Can’t wait!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Shots like this showing specular reflection and structural color sparked some reading on the optics of avian color–and may have hatched an area of research regarding those hard to identify female and juvenile hummingbirds. High-speed synchronized flash.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Future

Pencil drawing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by a young artist.
Trepp’s interpretation of my Ruby-throated Hummingbird image. Nature illustration is one of many ways young people express their interest in and curiosity about the natural world.

We don’t often see children out birding. Frankly, as high school teachers, we inked that feature into the “pros of birding” column when we were auditioning feasible hobbies. Children, it seems, neither make happy birders nor birders happy.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte's Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX. Notice the dusting of pollen on his head
Portrait of Chris Cunningham in pencil by a young artist
Trepp captured Chris discussing our camera set-up during the HANPA April 2013 meeting.

It may seem ironic but, we were pleasantly surprised to see two young visitors to our “Behind the Blog” presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting in April. (Willing students are always appreciated!) Brothers Richard and Trepp, eight and six, stayed as long as their bedtime would allow. We were impressed by the quality and depth of their questions and received several wonderful sketches capturing parts of the program. Encouraged by this passionate interest at such a young age, I was reminded that birders need to cultivate the next generation of birders if bird conservation – let alone nature conservation – is to have a future.

Flashback to the late 1990’s when Chris and I lived in Austin: We were the only “kids” in the creek beds during school-term weekends.  We were re-living our childhood–where were the real kids spending theirs? Was this a generational shift to the indoors or a shift born of crime statistics, real and imagined?  My parent friends tell me it was fundamentally the latter. Computer activities were (and presumably still are) the safer option. How do we foster exploration and conservation if the great outdoors needs a chaperone?

It’s up to us. How will you bird the future?


“The future depends on what you do today.”

— Mahatma Ghandi

Spring Migration 2013 Tapers Off

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” –Galileo Galilei

After a slow start, spring migration rallied, and now has begun to taper off. Some highly unusual weather patterns made the first week in May absolutely wonderful for birding, although the birds may have suffered for it. Massive cold fronts brought record-breaking cold and dry weather to Texas (and many other places). Some birds were so exhausted after flying into strong head-winds that they staggered and stumbled through the ground cover devouring every bug they encountered, oblivious to birders standing inches away. Sadly some didn’t survive their epic flight across the Gulf of Mexico: here and there gloriously colored little bodies lay among the leaf litter–a Scarlet Tanager, here, a Magnolia Warbler, there.

Male Blackburnian Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackburnian Warbler at the dripper, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The first week in May at Lafitte’s Cove was amazing. High-speed synchronized flash.

Monster rain storms at the end of April soaked the Texas Gulf Coast, clearing allergens from the air. Cool dry weather afterward meant comfortable birding. Cold fronts with dew points in the twenties, however, dried everything out quickly, allowing the air to again fill with pollen and spores leaving many a birder to wipe his or her nose every few minutes–a minor imperfection in otherwise perfect weather.

Chestnut-sided Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Chestnut-sided Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.

I spent most of the first weekend in May at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. At least one major fallout during that time frame meant exceptional birding. There were times when the vegetation was literally hopping with warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, grossbeaks, buntings, flycatchers, hummingbirds, thrashers, and thrushes, among others. Flashes of avian color were all around. The warblers were particularly amazing. I noted Blackburnian, Prothonotary, Yellow, Wilson’s, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Chesnut-sided, Canada, American Redstart, Magnolia, Tennessee, Nashville, Kentucky, Black and White, Worm-eating, Northern Parula, Palm, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Hooded Warblers–just a few short of 50% of the 49 warbler species that occur in the U.S. Add to that the seven species seen by other birders (and reported to me in the field) in the same time frame, and well over half of U.S. species were observed within this little patch of trees in just a few days.

Male Hooded Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Hooded Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.

Of all people on this trip during spring migration, I thought of Sir Isaac Newton, ornithologist. Yes, we can add ornithologist to mathematical and physical genius, ruthless enforcer of government policy, and nutty historian and theologian. Sir Isaac was the first to attribute the structural colors of bird feathers to interference and diffraction (physical optics). And he was the first to really understand the seasons as the result of the precession of the earth’s spin axis due to a gravitational torque exerted by the sun and moon–although his equations needed a little tweaking by later workers. So we owe some of our most basic understandings of two of the most important themes in birdwatching, avian color and the seasons, to Sir Isaac Newton.

Now that the spring migration is ending, I’ll have to start getting back into summer mode–primarily going after wader hunting scenes, one of my favorite subjects, but somehow lacking the glory of the migration. Just the thought and awesome spectacle of hundreds of millions of birds chasing the sun and warmth and exploding insect populations north inspires. I can’t wait for next spring!

Worm-eating Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Worm-eating Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Finally, at 11:07 AM on Sunday, May 5th, the shutter on my beloved Canon EOS 7D gave out. 7Ds are rated for 100,000 shutter actuations, which I think I far exceeded. I wasn’t even upset at the camera that died just as a Common Yellowthroat appeared for a drink of water. The 7D is a marvel of technology and among the best values on the planet. I removed the CF card and retired it to a place of honor on the shelf containing my other obsolete or spent camera bodies. I bought a new 7D on the following Monday.

Magnolia Warbler among the grape vines, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Magnolia Warbler Among the Grape Vines, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Perhaps they’ll be laden with ripe and rotting fruit (attracting tasty bugs!) for the return journey. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may duplicated or distributed without permission.

The Dangers of Birdwatching

I would be interested to learn just how dangerous birdwatching is statistically relative to other hobbies–say rail dragster racing, extreme fighting, or chainsaw juggling. But seriously, from time-to-time major dangers do present themselves. I’ve been in the mountains with lightning bolts dancing around me, and large (or venomous) animals have moved in my direction from time to time. The crack of a nearby hunter’s gunfire has also gathered my attention on several occasions.

Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley YNP, Wyoming
Grizzly Bear in the Lamar Valley Sagebrush Country, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Black bears and Grizzly bears can be surprisingly difficult to tell apart. I think this is a young Grizzly given the small, rounded ears, concave face and slight shoulder hump. Also, five minutes before we saw a classic black Black Bear that looked quite different–although not all Black bears in a given area are necessarily similar. I invite comments from anyone who knows better, however. In any case, one should always bring a change of underwear when photographing bears, black or brown.

On the other hand, a host of less dramatic, but real threats await the birder. Poisonous plants like poison ivy and oak can cause significant misery–as can a cactus thorn through the foot. Biting and stinging arthropods may be a significant aspect of being in the field, depending on location. Africanized “killer” bees, lyme disease-carrying ticks, and West Nile virus-carrying mosquitos are not to be scoffed at.

Animals (except man-eaters, typically injured large felids) seem to know that humans are a menace instinctively and flee or keep a safe distance at the approach of man. When an animal does not flee, or even approaches people (especially during daylight hours), one of two things is usually the case: people have been feeding the animal, or it is sick. Rabies, the most terrifying of the zoonotic diseases with its extreme virulence in mammals, is the worst fear. Even the cure is a nightmare.

Sick raccoon near the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Not cute, MP: This raccoon is sick. It showed no fear of humans and marched right toward person after person. At first I though people had been feeding it, but the dull, lifeless mucous-encrusted eyes suggested illness, probably canine distemper. Elisa called animal control. Photo taken hand-held with Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS USM under natural light.

As fearsome as some animals can be, the most dangerous animal in the woods is almost always man. It is sometimes difficult to assess just how dangerous any particular human is to other people without access to their rap sheet. Thankfully I have not crossed paths with any truly dangerous individuals (that I know of). I have, however, been made extremely nervous a few times by other humans. This nervousness has led me to acquire a set of walkie-talkies so that I can periodically check on Elisa’s safety (and she on mine).

Gaping alligator at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast
Gaping Gator: no match for a man with a gun. Alligators are dangerous, no question. But, unlike bears and big cats, I do not fear them. Only one has come after me in the field–and it was my fault. I was standing ankle-deep in a patch of water hyacinth, so engrossed in the birds around me that I missed the submarine threat.

Although birdwatching can be dangerous, the benefits (especially health benefits) clearly outweigh the risks. The minute I step into the field I can feel the stress melt away. By the end of the day the little nagging headache is gone, and I can think clearly–no more of the mental fog, the result of daily trials and tribulations. One old-timer I met on a catwalk across a subtropical forest canopy said: “Go birding, you’ll live longer.” Unless I lose my balance, I thought.

In any case, just like the old joke about the really dangerous part of skydiving being the drive to the airport, I am confident that the real danger in birdwatching lies in getting to the park or sanctuary via our Texas highways.

Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Kentucky Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Warblers are not dangerous: approach with confidence. Photo taken in a drizzle on a dank, gloomy morning with high-speed synchronized flash.

Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to live, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.–Jim Corbett, Man-eaters of Kumaon

 ©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.