Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.–George Santayana
Huge flocks of waterfowl are one of the great spectacles of the fall and winter. Lesser Snow Geese congregate in wetlands and agricultural fields like those in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. At Anahuac, thousands of birds can dot the land and water and form swirling clouds, but we’ve only seen them from a distance, deep in the marshes or fields. Truth be told, I assumed that all the white waterfowl we’ve seen here in the past were Lesser Snow Geese. This is probably not the case.
Last Winter, on a road trip to New Mexico, we were able to get close enough to similar flocks to identify a few of the much smaller Ross’s Geese that could easily pass unnoticed. Ross’s Geese are rare visitors to Texas and New Mexico and are far fewer in number than Snow Geese, with which they have been know to interbreed.
Ross’s Geese are small and cute, with relatively stubby beaks and round domed heads, like baby animals. As a naturalist, the first word that entered my mind when I saw Ross’s Geese was neoteny. Neotenic evolution occurs when juvenile features are retained in the adult . . . .
Ross’s Geese are Arctic breeders whose lives were poorly understood until the recent past. In the 1930’s, they were thought to only number several thousand individuals. Snow Geese were in a similar predicament a few decades earlier. In recent times, though, both species have greatly expanded their numbers and now make up sizable flocks.
The standard adaptationist explanation for herds or flocks or animals is that there is safety in numbers. The chance of any individual being taken by a predator is low. A logical extension of this strategy would be to be a rare species in a much larger group of another species. Any attack by a predator on the group would most likely result in a member of the more abundant species being taken.
Could the rarity of Ross’s Geese, coupled with looking like a juvenile (and hence receiving gentler treatment from the other geese?), be a survival strategy? Every trip to the field provides more questions than answers and ample fuel for speculation.
Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?
There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.
Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?
On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.
In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.
It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!
When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.
At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!
After months of want and hunger, we suddenly found ourselves able to have meals fit for the gods, and with appetites the gods might have envied.–Ernest Shackleton
The current seasonal transition got me thinking about the life struggles of birds. As a birder, I look forward to the coming spring and summer with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Yes, there will be be many interesting sights and sounds to experience. But the return to the sweltering heat, blistering sun, and the ubiquitous biting insects (Zika, anyone? Chikungunya?) can and will put a damper on many a trip. The loveliness of the Texas winter for the birder disguises the fact that for birds, these are hard times. Food is in short supply and a hard freeze out of the blue can spell death subtropical species that wander just a little too far north.
Birds that would prefer a juicy arthropod, may now have settle to settle for a dried out seed or two. But change is coming! Buds are appearing, and flowers are starting to buzz with insects. Once the spring really gets rolling and winter moves out, the birds here in North America now will have a brief stretch of time to dine with little competition. Soon, though, hundreds of millions of hungry avian Neotropical migrant mouths will arrive, and the hardscrabble competition for food will begin again!
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Whoever knocks.—William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 1)
During the dreary, rain-spoilt part of last weekend, in bitter anticipation of the next monster rain storm (Monday into Tuesday), I perused our photo archives in search of interesting tidbits to brighten my mood. Some nice shots I’d forgotten about did resurface, like the hawk above.
But birds do often lead a more hardscrabble life than we sometimes think. Not surprisingly, close re-inspection of images sometimes yields evidence of disease or parasites. The Bay-breasted Warbler below–that frustratingly stayed in the shadows of a thicket–turned out to have a tick above the left eye, for example. Birds are subject to infestation by a variety of disease-causing ticks, and some researchers worry about the introduction of diseases into North America by migrating Neotropical birds.
In addition to evidence of parasitism and disease, I sometimes find physical injury to birds when I return to the archives and really scrutinize the images. In the field I didn’t notice the spine-like projection under the lower jaw in the Lesser Yellowlegs below. At first, I thought the spine might really be a spine—as in a fin-spine that pierced the floor of the lower jaw, perhaps when the bird attempted to swallow a fish. But clearly a fish with a fin spin that large would be too large to attempt to swallow. On closer inspection, it appears (based on color and texture) that the spine is a shard of the lower jaw that continued to grow, perhaps after being fractured. If any readers know more about the origin of such injuries, I would be interested in hearing about it.
The result of these sorts of searches serve to remind that nature, like the world of Man, can be a harsh place. Birds face a gauntlet of challenges, and I often regret not being able to do more to preserve them and their world.
From time to time, I’ll be going through old images when I suddenly discover something I overlooked or misinterpreted in the field. For example, I remember photographing the scruffy young Eastern Bluebird above because I had a hard time figuring out what the heck it was (until I saw another one in better plumage!).
I also remember being perplexed about why it was gathering nesting materials in November—normally that sort of thing should end around July or August. I probably just scratched my head and chalked it up to Texas and our subtropical climate. Birds here in the swelter zone can sometimes breed outside their usual temperate region breeding seasons.
But upon re-inspection of the image (I’m sure I chimped my settings in the field!) all is revealed: There are no nesting materials, but rather a twiggy-looking meal, namely a praying mantis! This has happened a few times now with mantids and phasmids, so it’s something to watch out for. Sometimes birds with sticks (apparently) actually have walking sticks!
Having images to study hours or months later allows for testing your notions of what you saw in the field and to even make brand new discoveries ex post facto. The Clapper Rail above, for example, was hunting along the margin of the water at ANWR last winter. I could tell that the bird was grabbing small fish and what looked like leeches. I have seen and photographed waders and other water birds eating leeches. Upon closer inspection of the images, though, it looks like this Clapper Rail has a big juicy planarian its beak—a first sighting for me.
On the other hand, I know that I see less overall in the field in the first place when I am photo-birding, rather than binocular birding. Just like the old joke where the guy is looking under the street light for his lost keys because this is where the light is best, it’s sometimes tempting to photo-bird only where the light is good. I have caught myself ignoring movement in gloomy or brushy areas simply because I knew that I couldn’t get a decent shot. So, in this case, contrary to the quote above, photography can help birders not to see.
On a final note, Brazos Bend State Park re-opened July 8, and I was among the first members of the public to return post-flood. During the first half-hour there, I could feel the stress of life melt away. My general impression, though, is that there were not as many birds around as usual. I suspect that ground-nesting species of birds were drowned out. On the other hand, the mosquito and gnat populations were certainly healthy, as was the frog population. Perhaps the waders will rediscover the park and its bonanza of amphibians.
Most interesting to me was that the Prairie Trail looked different from usual as regards summer wildflowers. A few regulars were around like widow’s tears, but what struck really me was the profusion of partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). This common legume is native to most of the eastern U.S. and is known to thrive in disturbed areas, such as those recently burned, and apparently recently flooded. It will be interesting to document how quickly the park returns to its former glory.
Birds of prey are always exciting to see and photograph, and winter is generally the best time to see them on the Upper Texas Coast. It could be argued, I suppose, that migrations are better in that the possibility exists of seeing transient species like Swainson’s Hawks or Broad-winged Hawks, but winter residents like American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and Ospreys are common enough to count on and really seem like part of the landscape.
Wintering species plus year-round residents usually mean a visit to places like Anahuac NWR or Galveston Island State Park will yield sightings of at least a few raptor species. Inspection of fence posts and wires, power lines, and treetops at the margins of grassy areas will almost always be fruitful. It’s generally a good idea to keep the camera ready while driving to the coastal sanctuaries as birds will allow a close approach by a vehicle, but will bolt immediately if a door is opened to fish equipment from the back seat or boot.
Because many raptors like to perch in trees to scan for prey below, the absence of deciduous leaves during the cooler times of the year really helps to find and photograph these birds. Perching high in trees, though, can be troublesome for photography given the “belly-shot” problem. Case in point: I still need to find time to return to Bear Creek Park this winter for a group of wintering Merlins. I have seen these birds several times, but in each case they were perched so high in the trees that getting good shots was impossible.
On a final note, photographing raptors really drives home to me the fact that birds live in a hostile world. Most of the raptors I see are immature. This can make identification difficult as many young raptors are hard to tell apart, but more importantly it indicates to me that many of these birds don’t make it to adulthood. Humans, of course, are a big part of this equation, and it saddens me every time I see those striped tail feathers on the road.
Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.—Alfred Eisenstaedt
During the past few weeks we haven’t been going out into the field much due to the weather. The dog days of summer are a bit hard to stomach along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. Patchy rain storms, interspersed with blistering sun, temperatures in the 90’s and dew points in the upper 70’s—not to mention clouds of winged bloodsuckers—can make for tough going. A sense of humor is definitely required.
Driving to High Island last week, passing the turn to Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge I just shook my my head, imagining the bugs. We visited Frenchtown Road, though, on the Bolivar Peninsula, and through the windows of the truck it looked very promising. In fact, Elisa saw a family of Clapper Rails with four young, a first for her. Recent heavy rains and high tide, though, meant everything was soaked and exuding humidity. The instant we opened the truck doors, the cab was flooded with mosquitos. The cloud stayed with the vehicle (in the bed) as we drove away, and even remained as we waited for the ferry to cross to Galveston!
To further dampen our enthusiasm, at East Beach, Galveston, we found astronomical amounts of reeking, rotting seaweed still (summer stuff) covering the beach. Please! A fall storm to wash all this rubbish out to sea! At East Beach we nevertheless tried for some terns in flight. The conditions were strange to say the least: sweltering on the buggy beach in a dead calm shooting at 1/4000 sec with bright sun and simultaneous rain. In early September in Texas, I fantasize about being in the field without being smeared with blood, sweat, and bug parts! Ha!
A close friend and native Houstonian who recently retired to the hills of East Tennessee characterized the close of the Texas dog days best: during September one watches the weather reports from around the country with envious eyes and sees temperatures falling into the 70’s, then 60’s, then 50’s all the while Texas cooks on into month five. But things are changing in subtle ways. The days are decidedly shorter. There is some avian movement: We saw some Spotted Sandpipers at Sea Center Texas. A pair of Cooper’s Hawks has been hanging around our yard and communicating back and forth with their whistling calls. Flycatchers are passing through.
So while the birding isn’t the best now, there is always research and planning for the future. Although I’m not much of a gear-head, I do read a lot of technical reports on photographic equipment in my spare time. I’m currently waiting to read the official specifications for the much-anticipated Canon EOS 7D Mark 2. What is available indicates not a quantum leap forward (no Foveon sensor!), but rather a series of incremental improvements in resolution, speed, etc.–which is a bit disappointing given the innovative products released during the past two years by Nikon (D800/D810) and Sony (a7R), especially as regards resolution. Perhaps I won’t be an early adopter when this new camera comes out later this year.
Finally, there’s always planning for a retirement that incorporates the seven lovely months in Texas. And they are lovely . . . and just around the corner.
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
The family Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers) is primarily a South American group. Of over 370 species, only 35 have ranges that extend far enough north to reach the United States. Eight genera of tyrant flycatchers occur in North America, north of Mexico. Considered by evolutionary biologists to be among the most primitive of songbirds, tyrannids are nevertheless highly successful, ranging from Patagonia, and even the Falkland and Galápagos Islands, to Canada. These birds occur across a wide variety of habitats, from bottomland forests to the high Andes.
Due to their bold personalities and active hunting behaviors, the Tyrant Flycatchers of the genus Tyrannus (kingbirds and kin) are some of the most exciting birds to watch. Exhibiting a rather limited palette of colors relative to some other songbirds, ranging primarily from browns and olives to gray on top (plus orange or red semi-concealed crown stripes for display), and a variety of shades of yellow below, species of Tyrannus may never be as popular as warblers with birders. But what they lack (usually) in terms of showy colors they make up for in personality and behavior.
Other than the Great Kiskadee, perhaps, Kingbirds are the most conspicuous of the North American flycatchers. These large, aggressive birds will not tolerate being pushed around by other, larger birds like crows or even raptors. Although they will eat fruit and seeds during certain times of the year (depending on the Kingbird species), insects form an integral part of their diets.
From a perch, they will hawk large insects from the air above water or ground and also grab prey from the ground. The fact that they return again and again to a perch can make photography relatively easy and enjoyable. After locating an avian photographic subject, I often snap few frames, advance a few paces, snap a few frames, advance a few paces, and so on. Some bird species will flush as soon as they see a human. Others will hesitate until a particular distance is breeched (minimum approach distance). Tyrant flycatchers, too, eventually flee hesitantly into the air upon a close enough approach, but I can’t help feeling as though these bird are asking themselves: Do I really have to leave? Can I take this guy?
Although not as difficult to tell apart as some Empidonax Flycatchers, which are literally indistinguishable based on appearance alone, some species of Tyrannus are quite tricky to identify. Even based on a reasonably good photograph, experienced birders may disagree about the identity of a specific individual. Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, for example, overlap in range in the West and are often confused. Likewise Couch’s, Tropical, and Western Kingbirds have overlapping ranges in the Lower Rio Grade Valley.
All these species, though, do have distinctive field marks and can in principle be distinguished. However, depending on the light and angle of view, colors can change. Vegetation can obscure minor or subtle features. In these troublesome cases, after exhausting reasonable avenues of identification, I try to live with the uncertainty–rather than decide which member of this sometimes look-a-like group I’ve spotted.
The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.—Erich Fromm
The Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera) is a foreign invasive native to China and Japan. However, it’s not uncommon to see birds like House Finches and White-winged Doves eating Chinese tallow seeds, or to see Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers hunting insects and spiders among tallow leaves.
Chinese tallow fruits are three-lobed and contain three oily, wax-covered seeds. Recently Elisa caught Myrtle Warblers scraping wax from tallow seeds. Some birds even appeared to be squabbling over access to the choicest seeds.
Tallow seeds themselves are biochemically distinct from the wax coating, so birds consuming just tallow versus whole seeds will ingest different suites of compounds and receive different nutritional benefits. Chinese tallow seeds are more oil-rich than many seeds cultivated for human consumption such as soybeans, peanuts, and sunflower seeds, and show promise as the basis for a biodiesel industry in the U.S.
Many native plants lovers and land managers, however, consider the Chinese tallow a pestilence because of its hardy and invasive nature. Alarmingly, Chinese tallow trees now constitute 23% of all trees in the Houston area! Unfortunately Chinese tallows are highly invasive and here to stay. But on the up side, at a time of the year when arthropod abundance is at a low point, the Chinese tallow provides a vast nutritional resource for any birds capable of consuming its seeds.
Irony regards every simple truth as a challenge.—Mason Cooley
Last weekend the dreary weather pattern finally broke (we just stepped out of the car at Lafitte’s Cove as the trailing edge of the first real arctic blast passed overhead, blue skies behind), and we made the most of it. On Saturday afternoon we observed American Redstarts, Nashville, Magnolia, Canada, Black and White, and other warblers. White-eyed Vireos and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. Sunday we traveled to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Anahuac NWR was a bit more challenging on the biting fly front–at one point Chris was swinging the 600mm lens around to frame a Swainson’s Warbler when five or so biting bugs nailed him on the face thus breaking concentration . . . the bird flew off without a single shutter click. On the upside we walked away with nice Vermilion Flycatcher and Common Yellowthroat shots. We can’t wait to get out again!
A note to our subscribers: We are aware that the images in the e-mail notifications for new posts are being cropped on one side. The problem appeared suddenly out of the blue several weeks ago. Last week, we thought (erroneously) that we had the problem fixed. This week we have tried another approach–perhaps it will work.