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.”
When, according to habit, I was contemplating the stars in a clear sky, I noticed a new and unusual star, surpassing the other stars in brilliancy. There had never before been any star in that place in the sky.–Tycho Brahe
The Green Heron may be my favorite wader. This bird is unusual in a number of ways. On the small side (7-9 oz) for North American waders, the Green Heron is brilliantly-colored. The sexes are said to be similar, with females having slightly duller coloration. Immature birds have whitish triangular flecks on the wings and more white around the throat than adults. A number of subspecies are recognized by experts, but some of these are rejected by others. Some Green herons migrate, and others do not. Reportedly these two populations can be distinguished biometrically: the migrating birds have longer wings.
No wader is more fun to watch hunt. Like most North American waders, Green Herons are indiscriminate in their choice of prey: fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, insects, spiders will all do. But their repertoire of hunting behaviors is unsurpassed. They will hang in wait, gargoyle-like, from logs, hide from fish below on tops of lotus pads, or stroll through the weeds like other waders in search of small prey, vertebrate or invertebrate.
Most interestingly, Green Herons use tools. They exhibit bait-fishing and have been known to drown air-breathing prey in water before swallowing. I have seen this done with frogs on a number of occasions. Likewise, it is possible (rarely) to see Green Herons bait-fishing by placing aquatic beetles on the surface of the water to attract prey at Elm Lake.
Although Green Herons commonly nest across the eastern half of Texas, I usually see Green Herons in non-breeding colors. Only rarely do I see full breeding colors. Green Herons generally do not nest among large wader rookeries as most herons do, but when they do, they tend to nest away from the masses. They will nest in single pairs or in small groups, too.
While Texas Coastal populations will remain for the winter, soon the inland populations will be largely gone for wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. They will return again next year for the sweltering summer weather.
Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others. –Buddha
All of Texas Gulf Coast creation must breathe a collective sigh of relief when the first hint of fall arrives. This time, the first backing-off of the dantesque Texas summer was modest, indeed. l woke to find one day this last week that it was slightly less unpleasant outside. Surely a harbinger of great things.
Despite the fact I’d rather than be almost anywhere other than the Gulf Coast in summer, there is almost no place I’d rather be in winter. The Upper Texas Gulf Coast and Coastal Bend are fantastic when north winds blow. The bays, beaches, barrier islands, and coastal marshes are hopping with life. Fluffy white clouds zip across the sky, the waters sparkle, and you can breathe! Surely we now stand at the brink of the best of times!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
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.
This is just like television, only you can see much further.–Chance the Gardener (from Being There)
Unlike the utterances of simpleton Chance the Gardener in the film Being There, things said or done in strange birding territory are unlikely to be perceived as brilliant by the locals–or anyone else for that matter. Travel birding generally doesn’t give you the time to get many good shots, especially since you don’t know the conditions well or even where the birds are. Generally it takes many hours of observation in a place you know well to see or photograph something interesting or unusual.
Case in point: Entertaining fantasies of becoming a world birder, I have begun building my ornithology library again. I just added Herons and Egrets of the World: A Photographic Journey by James Hancock. Published in 1999, the images contained within were captured on film and are a mixed bag. I can only imagine the difficulties involved in documenting avian species on film under what must have often been hostile conditions. The book has, however, provided some more exotic species to be added to the bucket list to be seen and photographed.
Below find my travel birding exemplar. Despite working pretty hard to get a decent shot, the following is typical of my only encounter with a Great White Heron. Some consider this bird to be a color morph of the Great Blue Heron, others a subspecies. Being such a rarity, I’m sure this bird is hounded everywhere it goes by birders. We probably chased this bird for an hour. It was quite wary, and I felt a little guilty about running around after it. As added barriers to success, the light (or should I say glare) was white, and it seemed some knuckle-headed ibis or egret always wanted to stand in the way thus lousing up the shot.
Like my dad used to say, “There’s nothing so bad that it can’t be used as a good example.” In life, as in bird photography, all you can do is keep swinging.
There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures. –James Thurber
On Sunday we took a much-needed trip to Brazos Bend State Park. The light in the early morning was white, and the water shone like a mirror. Colors were washed out, and there was a general sense of omni-directional illumination. Shadows were pale, and the water lacked clarity. More than just a problem for photographers, these conditions necessitated particular hunting strategies on the part of waders . . . .
American Bitterns, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and a Tricolored Heron were harvesting little (and big) fish galore from vegetation-choked water. And a Great Blue Heron bullied a Great Egret into dropping a fish it had caught in 40-acre Lake . . . .
Most interesting, perhaps, was a Tricolored Heron that was employing a (single) underwing feeding strategy, and from time-to-time, a double-wing feeding strategy. Among herons and egrets, these behaviors involve a continuum of postures from shading the water with a single wing, both wings separated, to a complete canopy in which the wings meet in front of the bird as it crouches, feathers touching the surface of the water. This latter behavior, “canopy feeding” sensu strictu, occurs only in the Black Heron of Africa (Egretta ardesiaca), although the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron can approach this configuration.
Several functions for these wing positions have been proposed from scaring fish into divulging their positions, to getting fish to swim into the shade (and presumably under cover) after being be spooked by foot movements, to cutting the glare so that the bird can see its prey better. It is the latter I generally favor, primarily because I tend to observed these behaviors on days with a lot of glare. As an aside, the nickname of the Black Heron is the “umbrella bird.” If the shading to reduce glare is the correct interpretation of this behavior, then perhaps the parasolbird would be a better moniker for this creature.
Note: Special thanks go to naturalist and friend R.D. for sharing his high-speed video of a Tricolored Heron that plainly shows how much clearer the water appears in the shade of an outstretched wing.
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.
Every seed is awakened, and all animal life.–Sitting Bull
Although Sitting Bull spoke these words in the context of spring, the vitality he sensed is present throughout the year. It is this very vitality we seek through birding and nature photography.
When we can pry ourselves from the grip of work and obligation, capturing images of animals going about their business puts us back in touch with the natural world and out of touch with the annoyances of Mankind . . . .
One of our favorite photo-birding spots is open again (yay!) after being closed due to the devastation Harvey brought. The stretch from 40-acre Lake to Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park seems to have weathered the storm without too much damage–certainly less than the previous round of flooding.
Even the birding wasn’t too much off from a typical day this time of year. Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats were abundant. Northern Harriers hunted above the rice, and the air was filled with the clatter of Belted Kingfishers and the chittering of scolding Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I apparently just missed a male Vermilion Flycatcher and a small flock of Blue-headed Vireos. All in all a nice visit to a beloved place that will likely steadily improve . . . until the next catastrophe.
I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits
One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.
We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.
Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.
Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!
Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson
As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.
Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.
Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!
On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .
Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?
As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.
In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!
Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand
Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?
Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?
Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.
And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.