Surely flycatchers must be counted among the most interesting birds to watch as they “hawk” insects from mid-air above land or water, or swoop down to the grass to snatch prey and then return to their perches to consume it. In this new collection, we include images primarily from the Texas Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley. Enjoy!
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.–E. O. Wilson
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!
In keeping with new year’s resolutions, we struck out this three-day weekend for Galveston in search of new areas to explore for birds. We scouted the northern edge of San Luis Pass, Lafitte’s Cove, and several trails we had not visited before at Galveston Island State Park, especially the Prairie and Freshwater Ponds Trails. We were lucky to see a group of about twelve Red-breasted Mergansers in a tidal channel at San Luis Pass. The Freshwater Ponds and Prairie Trails produced White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Barn Owl, Eastern(?) Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, a Palm Warbler, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Orange-Crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American White Pelicans, and Buffleheads, among others.
On this trip the conditions were just what the doctor ordered: clear and dry, upper thirties in the early mornings and warming into the low sixties by afternoon. Over the past several weeks unusually nasty weather had keep us indoors, and our photographic skills atrophied. On this trip I got to practice my in-flight, hand-held technique with the 300mm f/4L IS and tripod work with the 500mm f/4L, including tracking swimming birds with IS Mode 2.
We were excited to discover a man-made “water feature” in a wooded area at Lafitte’s Cove, specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. This feature is very similar to the one maintained by the Texas Ornithological Society at Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Although I have never experienced anything but the utmost in civility at Sabine Woods, apparently photographers and binocular users can’t get along with each other at Lafitte’s Cove. Like at the Smith Oaks Rookery (where squabbles and hard feelings are common) there are posted time limits for spots and separately designated areas for binocular users and tripod photographers/spotting scope users. We’ll find out during spring migration if both groups can respect posted rules, avoid hogging the best viewing/shooting spots, and refrain from snarky comments . . . although a “night of the tiny fists” type encounter as described by the late Gore Vidal might be amusing to witness.
On the way home we visited the Skillern Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we were treated to a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in one of the eastern fields near the tract entrance. During most of this trip to Galveston and environs I had the feeling that the birds were warier than usual. The frequent crack of gunfire in the background–not to mention yahoos in ATVs crashing through the marshes, music blaring–may hold the key. During the drive back along the White-knuckle Express (I-10), where I was treated to many interactions with maniacs and nincompoops, I had time to reflect upon the wonderful effects humans have had on the biosphere.
Vermilion Flycatchers are some of our most anticipated fall visitors along the Texas Gulf Coast. Visiting populations migrate east, not south, for the winter bringing the colors of the West with them (their U.S. breeding range includes CA, NV, AZ, NM, and western and central TX). This flycatcher’s scientific name says it all – Pyrocephalus rubinus (a reference to the spectacular coloration of the male). As if the generic name, Pyrocephalus, or “fire head,” wasn’t enough, the specific name, rubinus, emphasizes the redness of the bird. One of a few types of so-called “firebirds,” the Vermilion Flycatcher is not only eye-catching, but is energetic and exciting to watch, just like other flycatcher species. Three vermilions – a male, female, and juvenile male – thoroughly captivated us last weekend at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) headquarters.
The female provided the best viewing opportunity as she perched within 12-15 feet of me. I had the luxury of settling in and studying her behavior for almost an hour. Between bouts of preening, she tracked insects as they flew by – sometimes it appeared as if she were watching a tennis match. Why wasn’t she going after them? Then, all of a sudden, she took off and grabbed one out of the air. What was it about that last fly by? Was it the insects’ speed, trajectory, size, or proximity that finally made the difference? Or some combination? And then again: track, track, track, go! It reminded me of playing duck, duck, goose as a child. As I went around the circle, patting the heads of my classmates, I was calculating . . . who could I outrun?
Was the flycatcher calculating? The literature seems to suggest that the Vermilion Flycatcher always gets his/her prey. If the initial attack is unsuccessful, the prey “may be pursued in an erratic acrobatic chase until capture” (Wolf and Jones 2000, 5). Though the research sample is small, it does makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Individuals most efficient (or dogged if necessary) at capturing prey (we could call it flight/eye coordination), will most likely live the longest and leave the greatest numbers of offspring edging the overall average toward a more and more efficiently predatory population.
When watching flycatchers, one can be excused for anthropomorphizing. They often cock their heads with apparent curiosity, and just about ooze charm. Flycatchers seem to delight in taking a particularly big or juicy bug–male Vermilion Flycatchers have been seen presenting potential mates with large, showy gifts–like butterflies. That would be an awesome image indeed — the handoff of a nuptial gift of an insect gem from a male Vermilion Flycatcher to his lady. Stay tuned! I will be watching for it next season in their breeding territory.
Wolf, B.O., and S.L. Jones. 2000. Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). InThe Birds of North America, No. 484 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, P.A.
Fall is an incredible time to bird the Texas Gulf Coast: migrants are returning or passing through, the plants are changing colors, mornings are cool, and the bugs are on the way out–but not all the way out, lest our beloved insect-eaters keep moving! Some of the most exciting environments to bird at this time of year are the densely-tangled thickets near the numerous waterways of the region. We especially love to bird Brazos Bend State Park, Sabine Woods, and Anahuac NWR (both the Skillern and Main tracts) at this time of year. Thickets in these areas are challenging for photography most of the year, but in fall are literally hopping in places with insectivorous birds.
Fall shedding of leaves leads to an opening up of possibilities for photography: the dense (often frustrating) greenery of summer, sometimes making it impossible to photograph shy, secretive thicket species is slowly breaking up. Splashes of color now punctuate images, and the amber and reddish glow of autumnal mornings and evenings tint backgrounds.
The explosion of insect-eaters during the fall migration is a reminder that the mass migrations of birds are all about the flow of solar energy. As the supply of warm-weather prey dwindles in the northern latitudes the bug-eaters must move south in search of their (mostly) ectothermic prey. The Texas Gulf Coast stays warm enough throughout the winter to keep a supply of insects large enough to support a large population of flycatchers, especially Eastern Phoebes, that can be seen perched on branches over water or open grassy areas. They flit down, grab an insect and then return to their perch to dine. A spectacular sight to behold is a Phoebe grabbing a butterfly on the wing. Surprisingly, they ingest the whole insect, wings and all. One wonders how much nutritional value a butterfly wing has, though. Vermilion Flycatchers exhibit similar behavior in these thicket environments, but a discussion of these beautiful little birds must await Elisa’s next post!
Elisa and I have been out trying to catch glimpses of the early fall migrants, especially songbirds, along the Texas Gulf Coast at places like Sabine Woods, Brazos Bend State Park, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) . . . and we have been paying the price. Until the first real norther arrives, the heat, humidity, and bugs rule. It makes sense that the larger the number of insects, the larger the number of migratory insectivorous songbirds that one would find at any given locale along the Texas Gulf Coast. This is the general pattern that we have observed: Brazos Bend is generally the least buggy (almost anomalously so) of any of the major birding spots we frequent, and we see the fewest insectivorous songbirds there. Of course, Brazos Bend is farther from the coast than the other localities, so it not a migrant trap. But Brazos Bend has so few flying insects, biting and otherwise, that it has caused me speculate about the cause(s). There is plenty of standing water for mosquito reproduction, but there are also large numbers of deer in the park, and large ungulate populations have been shown to negatively impact songbird populations due to grazing on insect and bird food plants (reference Aldo Leopold). On the other hand, the bugs at Sabine Woods and ANWR can be brutal. Today at ANWR (Skillern Tract) the deer flies and mosquitos literally chased us out of the marsh! Bugs are food for birds and food for thought.