Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change. –Alfred Lord Tennyson
Over the past few weeks we’ve been slowly getting back to observing nature. It hasn’t been easy, but when it has occurred, it has been a tonic. We haven’t really had time to seek out the new and unusual, but rather have visited several nearby favorites like Brazos Bend State Park and Fiorenza Park.
After next week, we’ll be in the field again regularly, and we hope to rack up some new experiences and species. Until then, we’ll plan, stay local, and reminisce about birding trips of the past. Never has what a long-time birder told us when we were first beginning seemed more true: “Go birding, you’ll live longer.”
l want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it. –Frans Lanting
We were able to get out to get out birding (briefly) this last weekend–we took some time out from furnishing one house and giving another a face-lift. We took a walk around Brazos Bend State Park, binoculars in hand, hoping to run into a friend (RD). It was sweltering. The ground was soggy. The air was not full of bird-sounds–in fact, we were quite shocked by the lack of bird life. Mosquitos ruled.
This lack of avians got me thinking about our current state of affairs, ecologically-speaking. To despair is to read old-timey field accounts of bird-watching from the 1950’s and before. Works like Arizona and its Bird Life by Herbert Brandt (1951) and The Warblers of North America by Griscom and Sprunt (eds.) (1957) describe a world nearly as remote as the Miocene.
On this latest trip, I felt like I was looking into the future. Project the current trend twenty five years into the future, and you’ll see what we saw: A world nearly free of birds. It’s hard to come to grips with this, but songbird numbers have dropped by half in my lifetime. Some other groups have suffered even more significant declines. Auks, as we saw in the Pribilofs the summer before last, for example, have been decimated. But the perpetually innocent fishing industry, of course, has nothing to do with this. Welcome to the Anthropocene . . . .
In this terrible future, it’s hard to imagine what I’ll do in the park. Perhaps I’d better bring something to read.
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit. –Edward Abbey
The weather was right, we had the time off, and there was nothing more to be done about Harvey . . . So we set out for the field. East Beach was glorious. A south wind blew across the island slowing the progress of the big, slow-flying birds as they traced the edge of the land. They were the usual suspects: Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Forster’s and Royal Terns; Brown Pelicans. But as is often the case when I haven’t been shooting for a while, most of the images turned out to be mush, but it was good just to be out again.
The next day I returned to the field. To Brazos Bend State Park I went. This time I took Elisa’s 500mm f/4 lens, rather than my 600mm–I was giving the old shoulder a break. Again the usual suspects. The only thing unusual was the number of warblers. They were everywhere.
Large flocks of Myrtle Warblers probed leaves and hawked bugs from the air. Sometimes they joined Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in hunting in the grass. Common Yellowthroats hopped among the aquatic vegetation. Orange-crowned Warblers were also up to their normal tricks, fishing spiders and insects from dead, rolled up leaves. I spied a single Male Wilson’s Warbler pretending to be a Common Yellowthroat as he plucked aquatic insects from Pilant Lake. Of this bird’s reflection in the water, Elisa quipped: “Look, he brought his own sunshine!” The only missing warbler was the Pine Warbler–perhaps these birds got wind of the coming inclement weather.
All in all, a lovely few days. Can’t wait for the sun to shine again.
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh–Marvin Gaye, What’s going on?
Regular readers of Two Shutterbirds may be wondering what’s going on: Our posts have become sporadic, our commentary, elliptical . . . .
In a nutshell, we’ve been making the big push to get over Harvey. Both our our destroyed house and our new house are under contract.
The whole have-your-house-destroyed, sell it, and buy another one has not been the worst experience of my life, but it is on the list.
I have bought two houses before, but as those who have purchased/sold real estate since the housing crisis of 2008/2009 can tell you, it is a different world out there. It seems not to matter if you have money or a perfect credit rating or not: You are in for a [expletive deleted] nightmare. The amount of red tape has generated some real frustration. Luckily, Elisa has been a trooper and kept me in the game when I was about to give up–on repeated occasions.
So, for a while longer, all we’ll be able to do is peruse the archives, revel in the birding joys of the past, and dream of even greater birding adventures in the future . . . Stay tuned.
I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad. –George Bernard Shaw
Shaw’s words have a special significance for those of us who live in Houston . . . . In any case, we’re taking a few days off to enjoy the holidays but will be back on the ball soon to share more images and prose about our delightful feathered friends! Cheers, Chris and Elisa
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.
Economy, prudence, and a simple life are the sure masters of need, and will often accomplish that which, their opposites, with a fortune at hand, will fail to do. –Clara Barton
As you may have guessed, dear readers, Harvey destroyed our house. For the past month, we have been struggling to begin the clean-up while still going to our jobs. This last week we managed to get back out into the field for the first time in quite a while. Although too hot to really enjoy being out, it reminded us of the joy birding has been for us in the past, and what a source of pleasure it will be in the future.
On this outing, we visited East Beach, Galveston hoping for some migrant shorebirds and Lafitte’s Cove hoping for some migrant songbirds. Neither spot was very birdy during our visit. In the shorebird department, we saw only Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Sanderlings (the usual suspects). At Lafitte’s Cove, in addition to resident birds, we saw but a single Magnolia and Wilson’s Warbler . . . .
But soon, it will be cool, and the ducks and geese will return. The Sandhill Cranes will return, and the beaches will swarm with migrant shorebirds, and the woods will teem with migrant songbirds. Soon even the bloodsucking flies will disappear (mostly), and we’ll not have to be slathered in sunscreen to avoid getting fried. In short, this birder’s world will return to the paradise it often is, and dreams of local and far-away trips can return, and the healing can begin . . . .
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.
Art must take reality by surprise. –Francoise Sagan
Although better known for its traffic jams, litter, and active panhandler community, southwest Houston will occasionally yield a scene of natural beauty if you look hard enough. Fiorenza Park has been a frequent destination these days, given that I haven’t been much up for driving. Here, I have been seeing mostly common birds, but they’ve been very active hunting and fishing. Some of the images recently gathered at Fiorenza will likely feature in future posts.
Based on a tip from MAW at a recent HANPA meeting, we also made a couple of visits to a new wader rookery just west of Highway 6 and south of old Westpark Drive, dubbed the McClendon Park Rookery given its proximity to that park. Despite the patch of woods in question being surrounded by busy streets (from which yahoos will shout questions at you), several hundred Cattle Egrets and White Ibises are nesting. A few Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Tri-colored Herons are also present, but we couldn’t determine if they were nesting or not. I also understand from MAW that Anhingas are nesting in the center of the colony, but as far as we could tell were not visible from the street.
At this new rookery you can still get a few glimpses of White Ibis nestlings. Further, Cattle Egrets are currently nest-sitting and babies should be upon us shortly. Because the egret nests are close to the street, excellent images should be possible soon–despite thick brush and tricky lighting. But keep in mind: Shooting at suburban parks requires a different type of patience than shooting in the wild. You have to get it out of your head that the humans will leave you to your work . . . .
Strangely, the rookery ibises and egrets did not seem to be flying to nearby Fiorenza Park to hunt or fish, nor were they hunting in McClendon Park. Rather, they were flying off to the northeast for parts unknown. Finding the place where they are gathering food might also present some future opportunities for photography. I would expect White Ibises to be feeding their young mostly crawfish. On the other hand, we did notice that there were many Cattle Egrets feeding in grassy areas in southeast Houston in general. Perhaps the rookery egrets, too, are sustaining themselves with terrestrial prey and are not seeking out bodies of water. Once young are visible in the Cattle Egret nests, it should be possible to determine if they are being fed terrestrial or aquatic prey or both. Time will tell.
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. –Homer
The school year is winding down, and exhaustion has settled in—so we’re takin’ a break! Never fear, we’ll be back on the job in no time to share some more images and prose. We’ll have some neat nature photography projects to report on in the upcoming weeks and months–so stay tuned!
I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it. –Salvador Dali
As the weather improves, and we struggle to get out into the field, exhaustion from work, traffic, illness (minor), and the daily onslaught of our lives has (temporarily) sapped our creative juices. Never fear! We shall return (and soon) with some new stuff! The restful holidays are almost upon us, and we can’t wait!
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.