A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. –Lewis Mumford
Traveling near or far to photo-bird is one of the great joys of life. Seeing new things is the spice of life in our post-materialistic world. But from time to time we encounter birds that defy easy identification. Often, these are species that are simply unfamiliar because we don’t live in their range. Other times, they are young birds, particularly drab individuals, or species lacking really distinctive field marks. Sometimes these birds are embarrassingly common species. Often our images of these birds sit in moth balls for a long time.
From time to time, when stuck indoors because of work or weather, I go sifting through our collection of images and take another look at some of these birds whose identities wasn’t clear at the time of the photos . . . .
Sometimes with tricky birds, like the peep above, I’ll take photos without knowing what I’m looking at with the idea of coming back later and identifying them from the images. Pondering puzzlements in the field might lead to missed shots.
On the other hand, for potentially exciting species (like the one below) it’s right to the reference books the minute I get home!
When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha
Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.
After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.
This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”
What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.
Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.
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!
One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.
We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.
Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.
One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London
Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.
The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.
Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.
The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.
All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.
Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. –Ovid
The last few weeks have been rather hectic, and we’re wiped out. Never fear, we’ll be back on the ball soon sharing some images of, and words about, our incredible Texas avifauna! Cheers, Elisa and Chris
It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik
On the Texas Gulf Coast, birders can see Black-bellied Plovers in all plumage types, except down. Nonbreeding colors are easiest to see here, and in other coastal wintering areas from the Canadian border to South America on both East and West coasts. Although a few birds summer along the Texas Gulf Coast, Black-bellied Plovers breed exclusively in the High Arctic, so seeing nestlings in down would be a major undertaking.
Birds in transitional plumage can be seen during spring migration. Beginning in late March, birds in these intermediate colors can be seen fairly easily at such places as Frenchtown Road, Rollover Fish Pass, and across Galveston Island. By May, birds in dramatic breeding plumage can be seen in these same places. From mid-August to October, Black-bellied Plovers appear again in Texas for fall migration, and to begin their winter residence.
When we first started birding, different seasonal plumages seemed to be a nightmarish complication to an already challenging hobby. But we have grown an appreciation for these changes: Rather than seeing them as an identification problem, we consider them an opportunity. Even common birds like Black-bellied Plovers can provide the challenge of seeing and photographing birds in every plumage type.
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin
On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.
The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.
On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.
Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.
As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.
For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.
Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.
Where was I going? I puzzled and wondered about it til I actually enjoyed the puzzlement and wondering. –Carl Sandburg
Gulf Coast birders are fortunate in that they have great places to enjoy both Neotropical migratory songbirds and shorebirds during spring and fall migrations. Despite the nasty weather, now is definitely the time to be out to catch the earliest migrants. With a little planning, you can see migrating songbirds and shorebirds on the same outing. Bolivar Flats and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, and East Beach, Galveston, are great for the fall shorebird migration. Although known as a songbird mecca, Lafitte’s Cove is worth checking in the fall for shorebirds, too. We’ve seen Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalaropes there, for example.
Sometimes being aware of different migratory paths in spring and fall can be helpful in identification, especially for warblers. Cerulean Warblers, for example, migrate across essentially all of the Gulf Coast during spring migration. In the fall, however, they cross the Gulf of Mexico much further east. Hence, it’s possible to see Cerulean Warblers along the Upper Texas Coast in the spring, but not the fall (barring birds being blown off-course by storms, of course).
As noted in the previous post, fall migration is especially challenging as far as shorebird identification is concerned. Case in point: the Western Sandpipers above. Based on the rusty-red crown, ear-patch and wing markings, most of the birds in the above scene are clearly Western Sandpipers in breeding plumage. But notice that the in-focus bird is paler than the others. After flipping around in various books and scratching my head for a while (Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?), I “decided on” what I was seeing. This bird, I think, is ahead of the curve on transitioning into non-breeding plumage. Being a juvenile is also a possibility, but the markings on the heads of juvenile Western Sandpipers tend to be less distinct. I invite comments from readers who know more, though.
As similar problem faces the birder confronted with the dowitcher above: Long-billed or Short-billed? I believe this to be a Short-billed Dowitcher transitioning into non-breeding plumage. In my experience, the beaks of Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be blacker than this in non-breeding colors. Also, the few remaining feathers in breeding color on the wings appear to have orange, rather than brick-red markings—ambient light affects this, though, and identification is far from certain.
Finally, if you enjoy identification puzzlements such as these, now is the time to be at the beach along the Upper Texas Coast. A variety of dowitchers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others in every possible plumage (even down!) await you.