Lafitte’s Cove for Neotropical Migrants

Despite all the whining last post, I had a delightful time at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island last weekend. Present were Short-billed Dowitchers (in summer colors), Mottled Ducks, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Parulas, Northern Waterthrushes, a Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warblers, Palm Warblers, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a Cooper’s Hawk.

I used to think that Sabine Woods was the best place for springtime Neotropical migrants along the Texas Gulf Coast, but I was wrong. Lafitte’s Cove is better . . . at least this spring . . . on the days I visited . . . . Although both places are exceptional birding locales and well worth a visit, they are not without their challenges. Sabine Woods, for example, has the nastiest biting insects I’ve ever experienced (possible exceptions include Mexico and northern Minnesota). Lafitte’s Cove, because it is essentially located within a subdivision, has lots of people (some noisy). Luckily most of them are nice.

Additional images from this session will be included within the Galveston Island Birds Collection some day (when I have time).

Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island. Texas
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte’s Cove. Northern Waterthrushes are difficult to tell from Louisiana Waterthrushes. This bird is a Northern Waterthrush because the superciliary stripe thins behind the eye, and the throat is streaked, rather than white. High-speed synchronized flash.
Prothonotary Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Prothonotary Warbler (aka Golden Swamp Warbler) at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. “Prothonotary Warbler” is a silly name of obscure origin that should be abandoned. The original name, Golden Swamp Warbler, says it all. High-speed synchronized flash.

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this blog post.

Settling for Reptiles and Flowers (For Now)

Given the fantastic spring we had last year, I had very high songbird hopes for this spring. Many I have spoken to in the field, however, have had, like me, a disappointing spring thus far. Some serious birders I have spoken to have described this spring as “strange” or  “weird” and attempted to spin personal theories about wind and weather misdirecting birds away from their normal trajectories. There were times last year at this time when Edith L. Moore, for example, was hopping with warblers. Of course, most of the spring still remains, and hope springs eternal.

This past weekend we visited Pelican Island, the Corps Woods, and Edith L. Moore. I saw a Blue-headed Vireo at the latter, and that was about it, other than extremely common Gulf Coast resident birds. Botanically, Pelican Island was the Garden of Eden, and I did enjoy some floral macrophotography. We have apparently had a bumper crop of herps this year, however. Lizards and other reptiles are common sights and sounds as they rummage around in the leaf litter. Now as fond as I am of herps (having spent most of my childhood stalking them through swamps and forests and having taken several herpetology courses in college and graduate school), let’s face it: they are no substitute for birds. At this point, the only herp I would be excited to see would be the one thrashing around in the beak of a wader, shrike, or raptor!

Great Egret with juvenile five-lined skink at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Great Egret with Juvenile Five-lined Skink at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird was hunting lizards in a dry, fully terrestrial, grassy area–not the water’s edge, where one typically sees waders taking prey.

As I write this the weather forecast looks fantastic for the weekend. A massive cold front has just pushed all the dreary, humid slop out to sea, leaving behind blazing cobalt skies–perfect for illuminating the glowing hues of warblers, vireos, and orioles among the flowers. But not herps. Hear me Fates . . . please not herps!

Acacia constricta at Pelican Island, Texas
Acacia constricta (whitethorn) at Pelican Island, Texas. Pelican Island was dotted with flowering honeysuckle, evening primrose, and mulberry trees in fruit last weekend. Birds were in short supply, however. Hand-held with 100mm f/2.8L IS macro/high-speed synchronized ring flash.

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

Low Quality Encounters with Humans and Security on the Web

Thus far I have avoided discussing the technical aspects of maintaining a bird photography blog site for a number of reasons. I am definitely interested in neither computers nor the Internet per se, being far more excited about ornithology and photography, and only working my way through the technical computer aspects as needed. Teaching myself to use IBM PC’s in the early 1980’s with their ghastly manuals, monochromatic green screens, and volatile storage media (“floppy diskettes”) left an indelible dislike and mistrust of computers. Not being interested in or knowledgeable about computer science, I have usually deferred to Elisa, who is more of a digital native, on many computer matters.

One technical aspect of the blog that I have taken the slight lead on, however, has been in the area of Internet security. Because I live in a major city and work with the public, I see the world as a vaguely hostile spider web of mostly low quality encounters: spammers, panhandlers, handbill passers, junk mailers, telemarketers, litterbugs, maniac drivers, people who bring crying babies and loose dogs to bird sanctuaries, etc., are all around–and they are up to no good! And so it goes on the Internet. Spam and near-spam vastly outnumbers legitimate e-mails just as junk mail vastly outnumbers letters from beloved friends and relatives, hundreds or thousands to one. Thank heavens for robust spam filters!

One of the lowest quality encounters, of course, is the theft of your material. There is no question that if someone wants to steal your images (or flood your site with rubbish e-mails and thus steal your time), then they can. All you can really do is make your material a slightly harder target than the next guy’s. Some easy, common sense techniques to protect your images include:

1) Signing images in the file names (within the theme) as well as on the image itself (in Photoshop or similar program). I reject watermarks as image-destroyers, and adopt the signing philosophy of W. Majoros in his fabulous Secrets of Digital Bird Photographynamely, inconspiculously and stylishly, often blending in places, and in a shade of the local color.

2) Resampling, resizing and web-optimizing (in Photoshop or similar program). Making the file size from about 150 to 250 kB in size allows it to load fairly fast and isn’t high enough resolution to be much worth stealing. If someone wants a higher quality version, then they can ask.

3) Using a right-click disable plug-in. Only people with more than a modicum of computer ability can get around this.

4) Do not link to the image within the theme. This can render some right-click disable programs useless.

5) Copyright notices in every post and page and in the margins at least informs would-be thieves that you care about your material and may fight back.

6) Google yourself from time-to-time to see if anyone has stolen content.

7) Try to maintain a sense of humor.

Muscovy Duck at Hermann Park, Houston
This duck had a low quality encounter with a human: on an otherwise lovely spring morning, a human took his picture. Muscovy Duck Portrait taken at Hermann Park, Houston. Photo taken hand-held with a Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. This image has been resampled, resized, and web-optimized in Photoshop Elements 9 to a size of 205.3 kB. The original file, of course, is many times this size. “Muscovy Duck” is a name that makes no sense and is of obscure origin. Strangely, Muscovy Ducks are native to Mexico and parts of Central and South America (not the Moscow region). Feral and domestic populations are scattered across the U.S. and southern Canada.

“Nature photography is not easy. If it was, then everyone would do it.” –C. Cunningham

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


Texas American Sparrows: A New Collection

Seaside Sparrow at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Seaside Sparrow in a Characteristic Pose at McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Gulf Coast. This sparrow has an extremely limited range in the U.S., the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Photo taken in August under natural light.

American sparrows (Family Emberizidae including longspurs, seedeaters, towhees, juncos, and sparrows) may be among the least appreciated of all birds, but they can be charming–although treacherous to photograph with their quick movements and often suspicious natures. They can also be tricky to identify. Based on their huge numbers they are among the most ecologically significant of all birds. Please take a look at our new sparrow collection.

Young House Sparrow at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Young House Sparrow at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. Although this species is probably most peoples’ concept of a sparrow, House Sparrows are not American sparrows at all. House Sparrows are members of a Eurasian group called weaver-finches and were introduced into North America in the 1850’s.

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

Birds of the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary: A New Collection

Carolina Wren with nesting materials at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Nesting? In early February!?! You gotta be kiddin’ me! A Carolina Wren collects skeletonized leaves for a nest under the eaves of the cabin at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. February 2013 started out warm, signaling an early spring. Several major cold fronts soon followed, however.

Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary is a gem: 17 acres of dense forest and thicket in an easy-to-get-to suburban setting. A great diversity of food plants, both native (e.g., yaupon holly, trumpet creeper; scarlet buckeye) and non-native (Ligustrum, Pyracantha) no doubt contribute to the diversity and abundance of wildlife.  Any time is a great time to visit, but we visit especially often in winter and spring, particularly for the resident and migrating songbirds and raptors, some of which can be seen in this small collection.

American Robin with Ligustrum Fruit at Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston
American Robin with Ligustrum Fruit at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary, Houston. Ligustrum is a foreign invasive, but Robins and Cedar Waxwings enjoy the blue-black fruit.
Cooper's Hawk with nesting materials at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Cooper’s Hawk with Nesting Material. A mated pair of Cooper’s Hawks is currently nesting at Edith L. Moore. One bird is seen here with some conifer bark it just stripped from its perch. Photo taken in late March.

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

Spring Migration Has Begun: Early Migrants Have Arrived on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast! (Just in Time for Wildflowers)

Male Northern Parula at the Sabine Wood Sanctuary, Texas Gulf Coast
Male Northern Parula at Sabine Woods.

We spent Spring Break 2013 (March 9-17) visiting some of out favorite birding sites along the upper Texas Coast in search of early migrants, with mixed results. Places visited included Lafitte’s Cove, East Beach, Sabine Woods, Edith L. Moore, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Brazos Bend State Park, and the Big Thicket National Preserve (Pitcher Plant Trail). The weather was spectacular–crisp and dry. Recent frosts, however, probably have diminished the diversity and abundance of wildflowers in some areas.

Leather flowers at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract)
Blue Jasmine (Clematis crispa) at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract). This elegant plant was one of the few wildflowers in bloom here.

The insect (i.e., food) supply varied dramatically by location. Brazos Bend, as is typical, had relatively few biting insects but had a lot of crane flies, which at this time of year seem to be a staple for insectivorous birds. I saw American Pipits and Myrtle Warblers feasting on them. Likewise at Lafitte’s Cove there were few biting insects, but abundant Black and White Warblers and Northern Parulas were also dining on crane flies. Also at Lafitte’s Cove we were treated to a shy mated pair of Mottled Ducks.  Anahuac NWR had far fewer biting insects than is usual–but also fewer birds. Sabine Woods was, as always, loaded with biting insects–mosquitos, gnats, and other flies. At Sabine Woods, Gray Catbirds, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black and White Warblers, and Northern Parulas were about. I was disappointed not to see Hooded Warblers in the lantana thicket on the east side of the sanctuary given that I had just seen one among the cane on the east end of Galveston the day before (March 12).

American Pipit with crane fly at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Pipit with Crane Fly at Brazos Bend State Park near 40-Acre Lake. Crane flies are a staple for insectivorous birds during cool late winter/early spring weather. Photo taken hand-held, Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS.

We erred in not calling ahead before visiting Big Thicket. A recent controlled burn had swept through the Pitcher Plant Trail, leaving the understory and ground cover (including the Pitchers!) ash–although some grasses were making a recovery. The whole area was dry, black and desolate. A few titmice could be heard singing, a few woodpeckers drumming, but that was about it.

Louisiana Iris at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Louisiana Iris (Iris sp.) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary.

The last day of birding over spring break was Saturday, March 16. We spent almost the entire day at Brazos Bend State Park, where male Northern Parulas could be heard singing in the trees. Also on this day, male Ring-necked Ducks could finally be seen and photographed out in open water with their mates. Over the past few weeks they have only been visible hiding out in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake. A mated pair of Wood Ducks has been hanging around one of the nest boxes on the trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lakes, but they have been very shy, swimming for cover any time someone approaches. I finally got a decent shot of the male. I will keep trying for a shot of the pair.

Black and White Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black and White Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island.

Within a few weeks or so the woods and thickets should be hopping with additional migrants . . . Palm Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Magnolia Warblers . . . and we can hardly wait!

Scarlet Buckeye at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Scarlet Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. One of the earliest splashes of native spring color in Gulf Coast woods.

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

Got Fruit?

I spotted this strangely solo visitor to the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove on Galveston Island on March 12, 2013. Cedar Waxwings are seldom seen solo – they travel in small to medium flocks throughout Texas beginning in fall through late spring.

If you find yourself among any berry-laden shrubs and trees during the Texas winter or spring, you just might be engulfed by the sound of high-pitched trilling whistles followed immediately by a foraging flock of finely-feathered Cedar Waxwings. This is a birding experience not to be missed. I have often found myself delightfully engulfed by scores of Cedar Waxwings plucking late winter – early spring berries from stands of native yaupon (and pockets of invasive and unwelcome privet). Even so, I had been unsuccessful at capturing a decent image of these beauties – until now. This image was taken near the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, TX  which was full of yaupon (Ilex sp.) with ripe berries this past Tuesday. Finally, a clean shot!

Since Cedar Waxwings are primarily (though not exclusively) frugivores, these migrants tend to hang out here longer than our avian winter Texans which chase insect populations on the way to their summer breeding grounds. Cedar Waxwings are known to eat the berries of cedar, mistletoe, juniper, madrone, honeysuckle, crabapple, hawthorn, mulberry, serviceberry, dogwood, and more – a smorgasbord of successively ripening berries. So, as you bird for early spring migrants plucking insects and spiders from the vegetation, keep an eye out for ripe berries of all sorts and perk your ears for the Cedar Waxwing’s telltale song.

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

Save the Date (April 17, 2013): Two Shutterbirds at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA)

Carolina Wren in the fog at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Carolina Wren in the Fog at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary. Photo taken in early May under natural light.

We are honored to have been invited to present Behind the Blog with the Two Shutterbirds at the HANPA meeting at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary at 7:00 pm on April 17th. Find a description of the talk here. Hope to see you there!

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

Additions to Collections: Texas Ducks and Galveston Island Birds

Over the past few weeks I’ve been slipping new images into the Texas Ducks and Galveston Island Birds Collections. Please take a look!

Female Ring-necked Duck at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas
Female Ring-necked Duck at Brazos Bend State Park. Ring-necked Ducks are generally not common at Brazos Bend State Park–except this year! Mated pairs could be seen feeding in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake in February, but males would not venture into open water when humans were around. Photo taken at Elm Lake with high-speed synchronized fill flash and IS Mode 2.
Male Gadwall in flight over Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Gadwall in Flight over Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

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

Pelican Pouches and the Power of Citizen Science

Eastern Brown Pelican with red throat pouch at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas.
A Brown Pelican with a red throat pouch glides past the shore at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas on February 3, 2013. Many references suggest that Brown Pelicans with red throat pouches only occur along the Pacific Coast. Field observations suggest otherwise!

While we were watching the loons at Offats Bayou in early February, a Brown Pelican paddled through my viewfinder. Odd, I thought — red pouch. After much hopeful discussion and reference checking we were excited to think that we had a California Brown Pelican visiting our patch of the Texas Gulf Coast. There are five subspecies of Brown Pelican — the California, Caribbean, Eastern (ours), Galapagos, and Ecuador Brown Pelicans. The gular pouch of the Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals carolinensis) is most often described as dark gray or blackish, whereas in the California Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals californicus) the pouch is a distinctive red and olive. The difference has been used to distinguish the two subspecies.

Eastern Brown Pelican with black gular pouch
Adult Eastern Brown Pelican with the typical black gular pouch seen in early spring along the Gulf Coast.

As is often the case, things aren’t always as they seem (I love it when this happens!). Upon further investigation, I stumbled upon a post in Sibley Guides online which explains that red pouches seem to also be a part of the Eastern Brown Pelican gene pool based on field observations. The post includes speculation on whether these genes were introduced during Brown Pelican reintroduction in the 70’s or whether it’s really a matter of natural gene flow. Perhaps it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. The observation poses a bunch of new questions to investigate!

Strangely enough this topic was just mentioned on ABA Birding News this past Thursday. A birder/photographer documented a banded Brown Pelican with a red pouch and the band code indicated it was banded as a flightless juvenile in Louisiana — photographic proof that we can no longer use pouch color alone to differentiate Pacific vs. Atlantic subspecies! It seems our “visitor” is most likely a Texan after all.

It is worth noting that this “pelican brief” was brought to you by citizen science and the power of the internet to access and share data. Enthusiasts and amateur scientists interested in birds and their ecology contribute to ornithology in meaningful ways. Opportunities are out there for birders of all ages. You can participate nationally with  Cornell All About Birds Citizen Science projectsAudubon Citizen Science, or eBird – the amazing biodiversity data resource powered by amateur and professional bird watchers alike launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in 2002.

Go exploring!

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

New Article: The Rules of Composition

Compositional rules apply to all the arts, and they are critical to producing interesting photographic images. Many rules exist, but a handful are simple and powerful. In this article, I discuss the rules I implement to produce my favorite images of nature.

Sparring American Bison at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Sparring American Bison at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. This image utilizes several major compositional techniques. Rule of thirds: the action (the butting of heads) lies along a vertical and horizontal line about one-third the way from the bottom and right of the frame. Filling the frame: no wasted space. Negative space/background: triangular regions around the animals “point” the way to the action. This was actually a dangerous shot to get. Shortly after this photo was taken, the rest of the herd started pouring into the valley, literally chasing us out. Bison are the most dangerous animals in Yellowstone NP: they injure about three times as many humans as bears do.

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

Where the Loons Are

Common Loon in winter plumage head shot
Common Loon in winter plumage fishing Offatt’s Bayou close to shore.

One of our favorite birding tools is the excellent guidebook Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast by Ted Eubanks. Last weekend, tempted by Eubanks’ description of loons often feeding a few feet from shore, we visited Galveston’s Offatt’s Bayou (site 65 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). Not only did we have multiple opportunities to watch Common Loons up close but the loons seemed unperturbed by humans — we witnessed loons popping up as close as 3 feet away as we sat on the fishing dock. Indeed, a local fisherman complained to us that the loons often steal his bait while underwater.

According to Eubanks, a visit in late April just before migration should provide views of Common Loons in their distinctive checkerboard breeding plumage. Although their winter plumage is drab by breeding plumage standards, it was fascinating to watch them hunt. Swimming by, they peered underwater, moving their heads side to side presumably searching for prey. After one dive, a loon came up with a small crab and then swallowed it whole. This hunting strategy requires clear water which is why you can find loons in Offatt’s Bayou and other deep, non-silty bodies of water. Our previous experience at Texas City Dike produced many loons but Offat’s Bayou wins hands down for reliable up close photographic opportunities.

All five species of North American Loons are known to winter around the Gulf of Mexico. However, only Common Loons are common around Galveston Bay.  And although tolerance of humans allows for more intimate views (or a pre-caught lunch), sharing fishing holes has not been entirely positive, for loons or loon watchers. A quick survey of the web indicates that lead poisoning from fishing tackle is a leading cause of mortality in loons – not to mention other other wildlife. I was encouraged to read however, that anglers and conservationsists in a few Common Loon breeding ground states have successfully implemented economically viable non-lead fishing tackle alternatives.

Most likely juvenile Common Loon in winter plumage fishing in Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Juvenile Common Loon or rare Pacific Loon? Although this loon looks like an adult non-breeding Pacific Loon, it is missing a dark partial throat band. Most likely it is a juvenile Common Loon. Loon watchers: please let us know your thoughts.

© Copyright 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.