The stratosphere is a hostile place.–Felix Baumgartner
As we continue to dig out from the flood nightmare . . . .
In March, I mentioned to a birder/naturalist friend (RD) that one of the nesting Great Horned Owls on the west side of 40-Acre Lake showed some signs of facial injuries or infestation by ectoparasites. He asked for more information. I have been slow honoring this request . . . but here goes.
Bird nests, especially those of raptors, are not hygienic places. The adult birds drag dead or moribund prey to the nest where it is torn apart and distributed to nestlings. Spilled blood and gore, as well as the birds themselves, are attractive to parasitic insects. Black flies (which incidentally carry avian malaria), for example, are known to be especially vexing to Great Horned Owls.
In the above image, the owl appears to have several small injuries around the eyes. What follows is pure speculation, but perhaps the owl got nicked up in a battle with prey. The wounds would naturally be attractive to egg-laying flies, which feed on necrotic as well as living tissues. The whitish objects on the left eyelid appear to be maggots.
What is interesting is that by the very next day (below) the region around the eyes is very much better (sidebar: this is clearly the same bird. Note the stray white fleck above the right eye in both images). The eyelids still appear injured and crusty, but no blood or maggots are visible. Perhaps this bird was able to clean itself up, or perhaps it got help in grooming from its mate. In any case, this bird appears to have had a brush with fate, and I for one am delighted at the outcome.
This week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated as last week my father, Duane, passed away after a long illness, and Elisa and I spent three days with family in Minnesota. We have been thinking of him and remembering the happy times, the times outside. It was he who taught me photography, and from whom I gained my first appreciation of nature. So, if you have enjoyed this blog over the years, then you have, in some measure, him to thank. I will miss him.
Shortly after our return to Texas, the atmosphere decided to dump a foot of rain on west Houston, flooding our neighborhood and house (sidebar: we understand that the rain was so heavy in Fort Bend County that Brazos Bend State Park will be closed indefinitely). It will be some time before we claw our way out from the chaos, but there are signs of progress. The insurance adjuster is on the calendar, the floors are drying, and so on.
We have decided to take the flood as a positive, and to further pare down the detritus that stuffs our house. I guess this forces us to remodel! In any case, we are trying to regain our sense of humor and soldier on!
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.
—Enkindled Spring, D.H. Lawrence
The primaveral combustion of brilliantly colored Neotropical migrant songbirds and shorebirds molting into breeding plumage is giving way to the vernal, thermal Texas combustion. But every spring migration is a bit different. It seems that we saw less than last year, and certainly far less than the previous one—but not for want of trying. And I’ve got the bites, scratches, and poison ivy blisters to prove it.
This was the year of seeing Tanagers (Summer and Scarlet), Eastern Wood-pewees, and Bay-breasted Warblers. Of the Pewees, we heard even more than we saw. Everywhere we went in April and May the pee-ah-wee or wee-ooo could be heard. But luck would have it that we saw far fewer warblers and other songbirds than usual—no swarms of Hooded, Yellow, or Magnolia Warblers, just the odd bird here and there poking around in the woods.
So, as the migration tapers off, it’s time to transition into summer birding mode. My time and mind will soon be filled by planning for the upcoming big birding trips (Yea, mountains!) and stalking waders around the swamps and marshes as they hunt and fish their way through the broiling Texas summer.
Last weekend we managed to get out to Brazos Bend State Park during a sunbreak. Along the southern margin of Pilant Lake, between Elm Lake and the bridge, we noticed a pair of Green Herons fishing. Both were adult birds, but were in different stages of development of breeding colors. One (shown above and immediately below) was in full breeding color. The other was just shy of full development.
These birds buzzed each other a few times and generally acted as though they were squabbling. This may have been an aspect of courtship behavior or a territorial dispute. Based on the benign nature of the interactions, it seemed more likely to be the former. The bird in full breeding had brilliant violet-blue lores without a trace of yellow, and the feet were a bright orange. The beak was, more or less, a glossy jet-black. This bird is likely involved in courtship.
The second bird (above) had blueish lores that still showed an upper outline of yellowish green. The feet and legs were still the predominately blotchy yellow-black of nonbreeding, but patches of orange had formed. The lower bill retained a stripe of yellowish green along the lower margin. I think that this bird had just started courtship behavior.
The image below shows an adult Green Heron in nonbreeding colors during late summer. Note the stripe of greenish yellow above the lore and along the lower margin of the mandible. This is how I typically see Green Herons, which is why it’s so exciting to see them in their flamboyant, transitory breeding colors.
Essentially what photography is is life lit up.—Sam Abell
The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life.—Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Last weekend we took advantage of the spectacular weather and visited a number of our favorite birding haunts, including East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove (both Galveston Island, Texas), Pelican Island, and Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). We visited the coastal sites with an eye toward seeing migrants, but alas there were no surprises, only the usual customers for this time of year both on the beach and in the motte.
At Brazos Bend State Park, Pilant Lake was again hopping with American Bitterns. They were busy hunting, singing, and displaying. On this visit, I caught one bird singing right out in the open in beautiful morning light around 7:45 am.
The song of the American Bittern, expressed onomatopoetically as oonk-a-loonk, is sometimes described as territorial and likely has a significant infrasonic component, below the threshold of human hearing. The singing is accompanied by a labored-looking performance in which the feathers of the head, neck, and shoulders (white shoulder plumes) are repeatedly roused and flattened. The beak is snapped shut producing a click that is apparently part of the song.
A bittern’s song is clearly aimed at other bitterns in the marsh as they answer each others’ calls. What exactly is being communicated is in question as these birds are on their way to breeding grounds far north of coastal Texas, and they are not likely carving out territories at BBSP. Perhaps they are merely exercising and practicing for the important performances to come on actual breeding grounds.
The series of six images below records one song, a wavelength, if you will, within a performance that may contain many repetitions of the same. All images were taken with a Canon EOS 7D + 600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) under natural light, and are uncropped. Something approximating 0.5 seconds separates each frame.
Most birds are enthusiastic bathers. They bathe in standing water, rain, dew, wet leaves—even dust. This bathing keeps feathers in optimal condition for flight and thermoregulation. Excess oil and bits of detritus that can clog or dishevel the fine structure of feathers (barbules and barbicels) can be removed by a good rinse. After a flight across (or around) the Gulf of Mexico, it probably feels pretty good, too. Many birds wade out into to shallow water and splash around a bit, usually producing a spectacular shower of droplets. The salinity seems not to matter much, as birds bathe in fresh, brackish, and salt water with equal gusto. For a discussion of bird bathing in gory detail see that monumental tome, Terres (1991).
The best place that I knew of to watch bathing Neotropical migrant songbirds was the main dripper at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. During past migrations it was commonplace to observe Northern Parulas, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Yellow, Hooded, Yellow-rumped, Black and White, and sometimes other less common warblers, plus vireos, cardinals, catbirds, grosbeaks, tanagers, and orioles bathing in the shallow water. Typically after bathing, birds would fly up to a low branch to fluff and preen—thus avoiding the snakes and cats that prey on drinking and bathing birds in the sanctuary.
A visit to the site this week, though, revealed that the dripper area has been (Gasp!) remodeled! A Wooden table-like platform now sits where the main pool used to be. This new arrangement seems much less conducive to bathing, but further observation is required to make a final pronouncement. (Sidebar: for anyone thinking of visiting Lafitte’s Cove, as of last Sunday, Hooded and Black and White Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos were about—but, the flood of migrants hadn’t yet started.).
Birds display a wonderful range of behavior to be observed and photographed. Much of it involves water, including drinking, bathing and fishing. Waders will even dip prey items into water before swallowing to rinse off grit and provide lubrication. Clearly the best places to go birding are around water. Although I enjoy observing all types of bird behavior, my favorite type of bird photography is still documenting hunting and fishing strategies (and predator-prey interactions—you knew I had to sneak one of those in!).
Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books. New York. 1109 p.
I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.—Rodney Dangerfield
Although any break from work is welcome, spring break is almost always my most problematic free time. I want to make the best of any opportunity, but man and mother nature seldom co-operate at this time of year. Coming in the middle of March, spring break is just a bit too early for big-time migrant action, and the weather is iffy to say the least. This winter, with clouds streaming in from the Pacific nearly all the time, has been especially vexing. Furthermore, the Texas Coast (where I really want to be) is cluttered with teeny-boppers—and the parks everywhere are loaded with noisy school-age children who should be at home in their rooms silently studying McGuffey Readers.
Time off with bad weather can lead to lapses into unproductively, so I have tried to take the gloom as an opportunity to get some practice shooting hunting waders in low light. Who knows, I may find myself under similar optical conditions in Hawaii or Olympic National Park some day, and the practice may pay off.
Like most bird photography, shooting hunting scenes is best accomplished on a bright, clear morning before about 10 am. Ideally one would have a thin veil of cirrus clouds to keep the whites from being too much of an overexposure problem (while I’m wishing!). For hunting, I like to keep the shutter speed well above 1/1000, the ISO below 800 (crop sensors are noisy), and the aperture around f/7.1 (waders are big birds). Alas, such a combination of settings has generally not been possible for months. The setting information on the above two shots indicates the recent realities.
Rarely, there have been a few sunbreaks (it’s so bad I’m using Pacific Northwest lingo!) lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Of course, being in the right spot with a bird in the viewfinder at the precise moment when a few rays of sunlight come streaming onto your subject is like winning the lottery. But you can’t win if you don’t play!
Expectation is the mother of all frustration.—Antonio Banderas
Nothing beats being able to sneak up so close to a wild bird that it fills a significant fraction of the frame. And the crisp, fine detail of structure in feathers, scales, and eyes that is the gold standard of bird photography is hard to achieve unless you are very close. But often getting close is not possible. Birds are rightly suspicious of humans and their treachery and will bolt once the minimum approach distance is breached. Lemonade can be made from the lemons of avian suspiciousness, though.
Staying back a bit can allow the photographer to include a little more of the bird’s habitat. This context provides information on ecology and behavior. Details of background can provide the attentive viewer with information on habitat type and season. In contrast to the classic bird-on-branch shot, though, such images may require a tolerance for minor imperfections such as shadows and sticks and blades of grass that cut across the bird. Such things are hard to avoid when the bird is in habitat doing its thing. Often the insight gained by documenting birds in habitat can more than make up for some aesthetic shortcomings.
We are now entering a season of extravagance—extravagance of avian color, plumage, and behavior. Soon, displays, mating and nesting will be going on all along the Texas Gulf Coast. Early birds have already begun. Some waders are sporting nuptial (breeding) plumes, and lore and leg/foot colors are beginning to pop. Hormones are surging through bloodstreams. Many of the waders and other water birds are on edge: Common Moorhens are fighting it out amongst themselves for dominance, and Great Blue Herons are nesting deep in the marshes. A Great Horned Owl, too, is currently nesting in the woods west of 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.
Soon, an exciting time of the year for birding will become the most exciting time. Neotropical migrant songbirds will be showing up in droves along the coast. For now, as far as migrants are concerned, we’ll have to settle for American Bitterns. Recently American Bitterns have been extremely active at Brazos Bend State Park (especially Pilant Lake). They have been hunting, calling, and engaged in threat displays among themselves and in the face of humans. American Bitterns do not often breed in Texas, and are sometimes described as “winter visitors” to Texas. Brazos Bend Bitterns are most likely on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. or Canada.
Although the weather continues to look pretty bad for adventures in the out-of-doors, anticipation of the spring excitement ahead keeps me looking up (and down and sideways)! And then it’s summer and the mountains!
Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.—Oscar Wilde
Birds of prey are always exciting to see and photograph, and winter is generally the best time to see them on the Upper Texas Coast. It could be argued, I suppose, that migrations are better in that the possibility exists of seeing transient species like Swainson’s Hawks or Broad-winged Hawks, but winter residents like American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and Ospreys are common enough to count on and really seem like part of the landscape.
Wintering species plus year-round residents usually mean a visit to places like Anahuac NWR or Galveston Island State Park will yield sightings of at least a few raptor species. Inspection of fence posts and wires, power lines, and treetops at the margins of grassy areas will almost always be fruitful. It’s generally a good idea to keep the camera ready while driving to the coastal sanctuaries as birds will allow a close approach by a vehicle, but will bolt immediately if a door is opened to fish equipment from the back seat or boot.
Because many raptors like to perch in trees to scan for prey below, the absence of deciduous leaves during the cooler times of the year really helps to find and photograph these birds. Perching high in trees, though, can be troublesome for photography given the “belly-shot” problem. Case in point: I still need to find time to return to Bear Creek Park this winter for a group of wintering Merlins. I have seen these birds several times, but in each case they were perched so high in the trees that getting good shots was impossible.
On a final note, photographing raptors really drives home to me the fact that birds live in a hostile world. Most of the raptors I see are immature. This can make identification difficult as many young raptors are hard to tell apart, but more importantly it indicates to me that many of these birds don’t make it to adulthood. Humans, of course, are a big part of this equation, and it saddens me every time I see those striped tail feathers on the road.
Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.—Alfred Eisenstaedt
For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.—William Blake
Having grown up among the frozen wastes of Minnesota during the 1960’s and 1970’s (when it was cold!), it’s always a shock to me how early spring begins here in the Texas subtropics. This year breeding behavior seems to have begun even earlier than usual, probably due to the unusually warm winter weather (82° F in Houston on 2/9/15?). February has barely begun and the air is full of birdsong, the four-note song of the Carolina Chickadee being especially prominent. Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens are also singing proudly from the bare branches.
On 2/7/15 I observed a pair of Blue-winged Teal mating on Pilant Lake, BBSP. Blue-winged Teal nest primarily in grassy areas around calm ponds and lakes on the prairies (“pothole prairie” habitat) across North America, especially the upper Midwest. In Texas, Blue-winged Teal breed primarily in the Panhandle, although they are known to breed sporadically along the Upper Texas Coast down to the Rio Grande Valley. Females are known for their secretive nesting behavior, so Blue-winged Teal nests and ducklings are definitely worth keeping an eye out for this spring at BBSP.
Despite the oft-purported “widespread” and “common” nature of the Sora reported in the literature, I am always excited to see these quirky and charming (and often—nay usually—photographically uncooperative) rails. One caught my eye recently along the southern margin of Pilant Lake. This bird saw me and ambled into a hollow patch of brush under a fallen limb and kept an eye on me. This foolish bird thought it could wait me out! Me!
Sure enough, after half an hour the bird gave up on the silly man with the camera and came back out for a sun bath. Interestingly, the spot where the rail rested had two trails of tamped-down grasses leading up to it. The spot had several features in common with published descriptions of nesting sites. Although Sora nests are rare in Texas, and the spot this bird hunkered down in was probably just a hidey-hole, hope springs eternal that I found a nesting site, and I’ll keep my eye on it in the weeks to come.
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.—William Blake
The south side of Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas is the best place I know to photograph wader hunting and fishing behavior in a freshwater habitat. This winter, Pilant Lake has been a rich source of observations involving waders taking a variety of prey, amphibians in particular. Over the past few years I had heard several reports of Great Blue Herons taking Lesser Sirens (Siren intermedia), large salamander-like amphibians that have lost their hind limbs through the evolutionary process, from the area immediately north of the observation tower. This grassy area contains scattered ponds and puddles and a few taller, woody plants here and there. The substrate appears irregular, soft, and saturated with water.
Ever since learning that sirens were frequently taken here, I have kept an eye on the area, especially during winter (when most of the reported events occurred), and on other areas in the park that look the same. Judging by reports from other birders, on several occasions I had apparently just missed a heron taking a siren. On 1/24/15, my patience finally paid off, though. A Great Blue was hunting very near the tower, so I set up, chimped my settings, and waited for the action to unfold. Almost immediately the bird plunged it head nearly eye-deep into the muck and froze.
I could tell that the bird was straining to pull up something big. At that point I knew that the heron had found a siren in a burrow—any lesser critter would have been yanked out immediately! After about five seconds, the bird pulled its head up without a meal. Over the next hour or so, the bird waited patiently over the burrow. Finally the bird struck into the mud again and dragged out the huge wriggling amphibian. The bird had speared the siren in the right shoulder region through to the throat with the lower beak and clamped the amphibian in place with the upper beak. Because a noisy group of babbling tourists had descended upon the tower, the heron almost immediately flew off with its catch. Pity.
In addition to sirens, this area is rich in other amphibians (especially frogs) during winter. Most commonly, waders take American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) and Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinerea), along with an occasional Southern Leopard Frog (R. sphenocephala). Green Treefrogs are most often taken from the water hyacinth that grows in profusion in Pilant Lake, as well as taller plants that grow at the margin of the water. In summer, I have seen Little Blue Herons and Great Blue Herons take Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) in this area, too.
Amphibians are the most exciting prey items that you are likely to see being grabbed by waders at Pilant Lake—mostly you will see invertebrates like crawfish and water tigers being eaten. Small fish are also frequent prey. Eventually I hope be on hand when a water snake or baby alligator is grabbed. I have heard reports of American Bitterns taking songbirds from the marsh vegetation, and photographs exist of Great Blue Herons grabbing baby nutria in similar environments. It’s only a matter of time before I can document these relatively rare and exciting events at Pilant Lake.