Sabine Woods, Texas: Close Encounters of the Feline Kind

Time spent with cats is never wasted. –Sigmund Freud

I took the opportunity to visit the Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary this week while Elisa was working in Port Arthur, Texas. I’m sunburned (sweated off my sunscreen in a matter of minutes), covered with various insect bites and stings, and my left hand is swollen due to contact with some poisonous plant. Deer flies will eat you ALIVE this time of year. It was like the CONGO!

 Got some nice shots, though–Yellow Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Orchard Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers (strangely out of place!) and a few others. The best part: I was in an area of thick, chest-deep vegetation that was alive with cotton rats when I heard a rustling noise. That sounds mammalian, I reasoned. I saw the brush parting ahead as if something the size of a Cocker Spaniel was coming toward me. And it didn’t stop! It didn’t know I was there–strange, given that I’d been sweating like Nixon for the past two hours. Is this a cougar!?! went through my mind (I saw one here last spring). Am I about to die?

Suddenly a cat-face poked right out in front of me, about five feet away. I knew it was a cat before I knew it was a . . . bobcat! The bobcat couldn’t figure out what I was. I was big, with five legs and one huge eye! The bobcat couldn’t decide to attack or not for a full two seconds, but let out a growl as if to say: “Thanks for chasing away my rats, you . . .  silly-looking creature!” The bobcat quietly slipped back into the brush and disappeared.

Bobcat at Sabine Woods Sancturary, Texas
Puzzled: This bobcat couldn’t identify an animal with five legs and one huge eye. Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Galveston Island Birds: A New Collection

When we need a break from Brazos Bend State Park, we often bird and photograph Galveston Island birds. East Beach and San Luis Pass are especially enjoyable birding hot spots, particularly during the cooler months.

Sanderling on dead fish at East Beach, Galveston, Texas
Not so innocent! Sanderlings are common, but charming winter inhabitants of Galveston Island.

Declining Yellow-billed Cuckoos

The eastern subspecies of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like many birds of North America, is in decline due in part to habitat loss. This neotropical migrant was once common to abundant during summer in appropriate environments across much of its historical range (the eastern U.S., essentially from Texas to the Canadian border) but now has stable populations only over about 2% of that range.  A shy bird more often heard than seen, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo prefers forests near water with a mix of openings and thickly vegetated areas. We catch glimpses of Cuckoos from time to time, but getting a clear shot of one at close range is not an everyday occurrence.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texs
A cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Pilant Slough, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Summer Birding at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

Many birders take the summer off in the Gulf Coast region. This is understandable given the low diversity of avian species relative to migration and the blistering sun, sweltering humidity and biting insects. Brazos Bend State Park, however, does offer some interesting possibilities in July through September if you’re willing to put up with a little pain. Family life of several species can easily be observed. At least two cohorts of juvenile Purple Gallinules, Common Moorhens, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks can be seen on Elm Lake during summer. In some places, the plants nearshore are literally alive with ducklings and baby rails. The first of the fall migrants also generally begin to show up in late July/early August as well. Even if you can’t get out there this summer, keep it in mind for next year–and don’t forget your hat!

Juvenile Purple Gallinule at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Juvenile Purple Gallinule: the huge feet of this young rail allow it walk easily across floating marsh vegetation. Photo taken at Elm Lake.

New Article and Collection: Stalking the Hunters

Stalking the Hunters: Observing and Photographing the Predatory Water Birds of Brazos Bend State Park, Texas explores the hunting activities of waders and other birds at one of the Texas Gulf Coast’s finest birding sites.

Little Blue Heron with American Bullfrog Tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
This Little Blue Heron has just captured an American Bullfrog tadpole. Photo taken at 40-Acre Lake.

Some of Our 2011 Favorites: New Collections

Each excursion into the field is filled with expectation. Will the mated pair of Pileated woodpeckers be at the nesting cavity today? Will we get another shot at photographing a Great Egret catching gar? Sometimes expectations pan out and sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by a new sighting, a new interaction, or a new discovery of some sort. In many ways, last year was our first year of serious photographic effort. We became willing to go great distances and work under hostile environmental conditions: we visited deserts, swamps, jungles, and mountains, and braved heat, cold, high-altitude electrical storms, bugs, alligators, and Grizzly Bears to get the shots. We had a blast!

We hope you will stop to take a look at Chris’s selected 2011 favorites, stay a while to see Elisa’s selected 2011 favorites, and then come back for more. Welcome!

Curious Empidonax Flycatcher at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Empidonax sp. flycatcher, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. 
Empidonaxes are notoriously hard to identify to the species level. Elisa watched for hours as this unidentifiable but undeniably charming little bird flew to and from this riverside perch occasionally bringing back a tasty insect treat.
Male Mountain Bluebird at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
This proud and confident bird allowed Chris to approach within twenty feet. Male Mountain Bluebird at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.