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!
Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)
I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.
Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.
I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.
There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.
It’s very far away,
It takes about half a day,
To get there, if we travel by my, uh . . . dragonfly—Jimi Hendrix, “Spanish Castle Magic”
Well, it finally happened. After five brutal months, the first cool front of fall 2016 arrived. And we returned to the field. In just a few weeks’ time, I found that my photography skills had atrophied a bit, but in an hour or two I was getting some nice shots again. On Saturday, I visited Lafitte’s Cove and found Prothonotary, Palm, and Magnolia Warblers, a lot of Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, and mosquitos without number.
On Sunday, we visited Brazos Bend State Park and observed a flood-disrupted ecosystem. Major portions of 40-acre, Pilant, and Elm Lakes were covered with invasive water hyacinth, and hunting waders, the birds we love to see most at the park, were nearly absent. Here and there, large patches of dead hyacinth revealed where park employees had sprayed herbicide. At both Lafitte’s Cove and BBSP, the real story was about arthropods, though, and at BBSP we spent an extended visit with naturalist friend and park volunteer R.D., from whom we learned more about spiders and dragonflies.
Along the tower trail at BBSP we saw many golden silk orb-weaver spiderwebs. In many webs, entrapped prey and fallen leaves could be seen. We observed several instances of spiders cutting leaves free from their webs. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon we observed was dewdrop spiders stealing food from the web of their host. Dewdrop spiders are kleptoparasites of the Genus Argyrodes. Although some researchers have questioned whether or not dewdrop spiders were harmful to the orb-weavers (and therefore not parasites), recent studies have documented that the host spiders suffer nutritionally and must repair damage to webs caused by the small spiders as they remove entangled prey. Apparently spiders take better care of webs that theythemselves spin!
The green darner (Anax junius) migration was in full swing, the air filled with millions of these large dragonflies, many mating. Lots of other dragonfly species were zipping around, too. Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), many also coupling, even seemed to predominate at Lafitte’s Cove. Dragonflies are an important food source for birds, and I have seen several species of waders (Snowy and Cattle egrets, and Little Blue and Green Herons) and one species of warbler (Prothonotary) eat them at BBSP.
Although dragonflies seem to be a favorite food among birds, orb-weaver spiders seem not to be. Big, juicy spiders sit right out in the open while predatory birds typically operate all around them. The orb-weavers would certainly be easier to catch than a dragonfly. Perhaps the arachnids taste bad. I have heard anecdotally, though, that during drought years the orb-weavers essentially disappear from the park. Does this mean that birds will eat them if they get hungry enough? Other possibilities do exist (like humidity-sensitive fungal infections of spiders or eggs), but the report is certainly food for thought.
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.―Marcel Proust
The world is old. The world is new . . . .
Over the past few weeks we’ve made a few tepid efforts to get back into the field, mostly binocular birding. After an hour or so, I was dragging along on my heels, round-shouldered, and dripping with sweat. But the first hint that fall might arrive someday is in the air in the early, early morning hours. The sky and clouds may have just a hint more peach and pink. It’s not quite so broiling, at least for a few of these early hours.
Down at Bryan Beach we did see a few things of note. Horned Larks were hunting insects among the beach flotsam. A Ruddy Turnstone was engaged in a life-and-death battle with a large buprestid beetle. This year’s crop of young Wilson’s Plovers were everywhere. In a previous post I remarked about how much this area reminded me of the the great Western Interior Sea of the Cretaceous Period . . . .
Like Billy Pilgrim, I sometimes find myself free of the confines of a particular time. Growing up on a land shaped by glaciers–moraines, eskers, and potholes–and half the year covered in drifting snow, whipped up into sparkling wisps, it was easy for a kid to stare squinting into a world that dissolved into Clovis hunters in fox and ermine parkas, perhaps, like Eskimos, sporting stylish ivory sunglasses, pursuing herds of mammoths and musk oxen across the ice-pack.
From time to time, I find myself in haunted places that make such time travel easy.
The Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula is one such place. Russell Cave is another. The Hoh Rainforest is a misty woods, its mightly conifers draped in moss, and the forest floor covered in ferns. In such forests 150 million years ago the proto-birder could likely have heard the squawking of Archaeopteryx or Microraptor in the canopy as they waited for a stegosaur to lumber past. But steer clear of the giant bison hunters of Russell Cave. They’re a rough lot.
For a minor creative project I’m working on, we took a trip to Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden. I was interested in taking a few images of primitive plants in the Prehistoric Garden. In the garden are a number of types of plants representing groups that date back to the Mesozoic Era, and in a few cases even the Paleozoic Era. We saw the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), ferns, tree ferns, cycads, dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and several strangely wonderful Araucaria conifers (including the Moreton Bay pine, A. cunninghami, and the bunya-bunya, A. bidwillii).
Spinkled throughout the gardens we saw other plants of nearly equal antiquity. Magnolia and sycamore, for example, date back to the Early Cretaceous Epoch. On this trip we even saw a tyrannosaur eat a guy! I swear!
Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.—Lasky, Walleyworld guard (from National Lampoon’s Vacation)
The dog days of summer have us down! Chris’s return to work, illness (minor), and endless bad weather have cut the wind out of our sails. We’re takin’ a break! And we’re counting the days until the first blue norther arrives and brings with it the cold weather species that winter here—like ducks! See you soon!
The terrible storms of spring 2016 left Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) flooded and many birders looking for alternatives. Several recent trips to Brazos Bend revealed relatively few birds by historical standards. This is not surprising, and I suspect that it will be some time before park habitats recover.
I first visited Buffalo Run in search of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills as a temporary substitute for visits to Brazos Bend. While looking for these exotics, I noticed quite a few Gray Catbirds, Barn Swallows and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. Although I did not encounter the exceptional birding that is typical of BBSP under normal circumstances, what I saw was encouraging—especially given the time of year.
Buffalo Run habitats include thickets and prairie, but I am most hopeful about the lakes and nearshore environments. Buffalo Run Park covers 95 acres and has four lakes covering about 48 acres. Boating is allowed but a no-wake rule is in effect (great!), and I have not seen boats on the water.
During the summer I noticed two mated pairs of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, both with large broods of ducklings. If the lakes of Buffalo Run meet the need of Whistling-Ducks, could it be that migratory wintering waterfowl will find their waters inviting? I certainly hope so. Buffalo Run Park is a mere fifteen minutes from our house. What could be more efficient?
In the jungle, welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your sha na na na na knees knees
I wanna watch you bleed . . . . Guns N’ Roses, Welcome to the Jungle
As of this writing, the terrible floods of spring 2016 have left Brazos Bend State Park closed. My normal routine of visiting the park a few times a week during the summer has been shattered, leaving me searching for other spots to bird. East End, Galveston Island has helped to fill the gap, but by 8am it’s broiling and the glare precludes photography. But then there is looking for exotic, invasive birds.
Thanks to a heads-up from a longtime friend and birder (M.B.) I was able to locate a patch of cane and prairie that a mixed flock of Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills (Estrilda melpoda) have made their home at Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City, Texas. These invasive African bird species and pet shop escapee descendants have been spotted around the Houston area—to the delight of many birders who are excited about seeing something new without having to travel to the ends of the earth, and to the horror of those concerned about the impacts they may be having on our native birds. Perhaps these emotions co-exist in some.
Many Houston birders are aware of invasives like Monk Parkeets, Red-vented Bulbuls–and now Orange Bishops and Orange-cheeked Waxbills. But the true extent of the alien invasion has yet to be understood. This week during our evening neighborhood walk, for example, we observed a small flock of “what the hell are those” feeding off grass seed heads along a bayou. These tiny birds were likely Asian munias of some sort, probably descendants of Asian wedding releasees. I’ll keep checking back until I can figure out exactly what they are, or get a good enough image to identify them definitively.
Oddly, I’ve been referring to my Hawaii’s Birds (Hawaii Audubon Society) book to identify things I’m seeing in Houston. Many of the same Asian and African species that are threatening native Hawaiian birds with extinction are now gaining a toe-hold along the Texas Gulf Coast. Not good.
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country
Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.
And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.
Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.
Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .
In general, I consider bird photography to be a difficult proposition. Sometimes, as in the case of lightning-fast small songbirds, it’s right on the the edge of what is possible. If any bird makes bird photography easy, though, it is the Purple Gallinule, a fairly large, fairly slow bird that is not particularly wary of humans. Add to this the absolutely spectacular appearance of the adult, and you have a marvelous ambassador to the hobby for any beginner.
A common misconception about Purple Gallinules is that the brilliantly colored individuals are the males, and the duller brown and turquoise birds are the females. This is not correct: as in most rails, sexes are similar. The more brightly colored birds are adult, and the more subdued ones immature.
Purple Gallinules breed in wetlands across the southern U.S., including our own Brazos Bend State Park. Purple Gallinules like it nice and toasty warm—so they do migrate (except Florida populations). But . . . how to say this politely? Now, I’m not using the word lazy, but rather . . . minimalist! Purple Gallinules migrate as little as possible south around the margins of the Gulf of Mexico in the fall until they find a comfy spot, returning for the summer heat along the Texas Gulf Coast (April through October).
Purple Gallinules are omnivores and eat a variety of foods. One thing to keep an eye for around here is their hunt for aquatic leaf beetles. They manipulate and inspect American lotus leaves and other aquatic vegetation to find them. Elisa documented this behavior in detail in another post.
Other things to watch for are spectacular territorial disputes that erupt between the adult birds. The image above was taken in early June. The purpose of these battles is, ultimately, to be able to produce what’s below: babies! Purple Gallinule chicks are delightful to watch with their gigantic feet, which are even bigger in proportion to the body than in the adult bird.
Finally, photographing the Purple Swamphen is on my very long bucket list. This bird is an exotic close relative of the Purple Gallinule that has naturalized in Florida. The Purple Swamphen is a bigger, chunkier version of the Purple Gallinule—but it’s every bit as colorful. Someday.
Anhingas may spread their wings when underwater to lure fish into the shade their wings create, a hunting technique known as “canopy-feeding” that is also used by herons standing over the water.—Brinkley and Humann (2013)
Like cormorants, Anhingas can sometimes be seen, wings spread, drying their feathers on live trees and dead logs in or near water. Also like cormorants, Anhingas are skilled underwater fishers, and lucky observers can sometimes see these birds paddling past with fish. Anhingas, though, have sharp, dagger-like bills that they use as spears rather than meat hooks to snag.
Many a time I have waited patiently for an Anhinga to re-emerge after a dive—but they are only slightly more predictable than Pied-billed Grebes, and with or without prey, they are difficult to photograph while swimming past with their jerky, bobbing head motions.
While seeming like resident birds at places like Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Anhingas actually do migrate along the coast in the U.S., and to an extent, inland during summer.
Internet sources are riddled with “facts” about Anhingas that can be refuted by simple observation. These birds, for example, are said to lack preen glands, which is plainly not the case. They are also said to be unable to fly (or at best are poor flyers) with wet plumage, which is nonsense as they can often be seen taking off from the surface of water.
Anhingas are said to have feathers that saturate with water because of a lack of oils in the feathers. Brinkley and Humann (2013) indicated that this is not the case, however. Rather than lacking oils, the feathers have a fine structure that permits the penetration of water, resulting in low buoyancy and permitting a low swimming and fishing profile.
There is also much speculation about what Anhingas are up to when they are sunning themselves. Personally, I think it has to do with thermal physiology and grooming. After a big meal meal, Anhingas will climb from the water and sun themselves. Perhaps the warmth of the sun will speed the chemistry of digestion. Often they will also preen themselves by dipping their beaks into their preen glands and comb through their feathers with their oiled, finely crenulated beaks to keep plumage in fine aerodynamic and hydrodynamic condition.
The northeast corner of 40-acre Lake is a good spot to observe Anhingas spearfishing. Sometimes, if you look down into the water from the levee between 40-acre and Pliant Lakes, you can see them silently submarine past. This summer, from time to time, I plan to park myself here, perhaps seated on the bench, and try to improve my collection of Anhinga images.
Brinkley, Edward S., and Humann, Alec. 2013. Darters (Anhinga) in Elphick, C., Dunning, John B., Jr., Sibley, D. A. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 588 p.
When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.
It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!
The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.
I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).
Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.
Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.
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!