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).
“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
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!
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!
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 Photography—namely, 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.
“Nature photography is not easy. If it was, then everyone would do it.” –C. Cunningham
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
We are honored to have been invited to present Behind the Blogwith 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!
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.
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 projects, Audubon 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.
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.
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.