When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.–Thornton Wilder
As much as we love birding around the Houston area, the crush of humanity–mostly traffic and yahoo encounters–has become a bit much of late. This sentiment figured prominently in our choice of retirement location: Birding had to be available right outside our door. And now there are many birding sites within a few miles of our desert home. So presently I can work myself into a near stupor with building and maintenance projects and still get out to bird once in a while . . . .
And if the birding doesn’t pan out, as was the case this morning, daubs of wildflower color do dot the landscape and are available for macro work. This day I went out to South Fork, Cave Creek seeking an image of the Elegant Trogon, but had to settle for flowers and bugs (and hearing the bird’s call). Maybe next time.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.–Henry David Thoreau
Less than two miles from downtown Portal, Arizona lies Jasper’s Feeders, a well-known birding attraction in the Cave Creek area–my understanding is that the name derives from a previous owner, the current owner continuing to allow public access. Here, a small clearing is equipped with several seed feeders and a water supply. Out in the flats of the blistering Chihuahuan Desert, food and water are a godsend for a variety of birds.
In the three or so hours I spent there (once in the evening and once in the morning), I saw White-winged Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, Gambel’s Quail, Curve-billed and Crissal(?) Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, House Finch, Ash-throated Flycatcher, a small Empidonax Flycatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Canyon Towhee, Pyrrhuloxia, and Bell’s Vireo. I question the Crissal Thrasher because, although I saw the black mustache, the bird was in shadow, and I didn’t get that good a look. In any case, signs of renewal of life were everywhere: Flocks of quail chicks scooted across the dust, and young thrashers, fledgling Pyrrhuloxia, and baby House Finches battled a tough crowd for limited resources.
Unless it’s obvious from geography, I visit new locales in the morning and evening to see when the light is best for photography. At this time of year, the feeders are hopeless in the morning: The best photography is to be had along the trail leading to the feeders, where the photographer can keep the sun to his/her back and image birds in the trees and brush. It is possible to get some nice shots at the feeders in the evening at this time of year. I look forward to visiting throughout the year to see how the light changes and who else shows up! Jasper’s Feeders are well worth a visit if you are in the area. And don’t forget to drop a few bucks in the donation box!
The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him. –Arthur Schopenhauer
Well, another grueling academic year is in the rear-view mirror, and it’s now time to get my head screwed back on properly. According to the locals, June is the most miserable month to spend in Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Too hot they say! Certainly by late morning it’s too hot for a pudgy 55-year-old physics teacher to be doing hard manual labor outside, but the early mornings, evenings, and nights are beautiful. With the windows open, sleeping is comfy under a wool blanket! Try that in the sweltering hell that is Houston!
Thus far, the birding has all been about flycatchers. Say’s Phoebes and Ash-throated Flycatchers are everywhere, calling and hawking insects. While out binocular birding early one morning, I saw an Ash-throated Flycatcher with a dragonfly slip into a cavity in the bloom stalk of a large dead agave. The next day I came back with the big glass and staked out the agave. In less than two minutes, a flycatcher returned with a grasshopper to feed babies. The bird just perched on top of the agave and would not enter the cavity, probably not wanting to give away the location of its young. I took that as a cue and slipped away with a few images, probably having spent less than four minutes there. All Myiarchus tyrant flycatchers (Ash-throated, Dusky-capped, and Brown-crested) that breed in southeastern Arizona nest in cavities–definitely something to watch out for.
By 9 AM or so, it’s far too bright for super telephoto bird photography. Around this time, I’ve been exploring the landscape for macro opportunities. Splashes of color now dot the Arizona landscape–so off I go looking for bugs and flowers . . . .
Prickly poppy, cholla, desert willow, and a variety of small yellow and white composites are in bloom at my elevation (around 5000 feet). Generally I have been surprised at how few bees and Lepidoptera are around–perhaps a manifestation of the unfolding global crisis in insect populations (Guess who’s to blame? Right!). In any case, the elderberries are also currently in flower, but the fruit is still not ripe. Soon the elderberry trees will be an irresistible draw for many of the birds in the area–and for me and my big glass!
Busy old fool, unruly Sun, why dost thou thus through windows and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions lovers seasons run? –John Donne
Walking through the woods the other day, the ascending trill of the male Northern Parula signaled the spring songbird migration on the Gulf Coast and the culmination of the breeding season. I have to always remind myself that breeding in birds is not an activity that can be considered circumscribed in time. Courtship, pair-bonding, migration to places with enough food to sustain young, development of breeding plumage, nesting, and rearing young are activities that encompass much of the year. But now is the time to start to be on the alert for the most interesting and conspicuous of these behaviors. It is the best of times . . . .
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. –Robert Frost
If given the choice, I’d choose the latter . . . .
The recent uncharacteristic silence has been the result of being ridiculously busy with work and a variety of messy projects. We haven’t been able to work on anything related to photo-birding, except adding a few volumes to our growing ornithology library. And the disgusting dog-days of summer here along the Gulf Coast haven’t made the prospect of being outside very attractive–even if we had the time.
What I have been able to do, though, is fantasize about glorious birding outings in the cold, fresh frosty air in my face. Blow again north winds, blow! Make being outside a joy, again!
@2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. –John Muir
On a blazingly bright morning this week I took a long, hot walk in the Chihuahuan Desert. Signs of the renewal of life were everywhere. Cactus Wrens gathered nesting materials, Curve-billed Thrashers squabbled over territory, and young birds of several species, under the ever-watchful eyes of parents, explored their newly-discovered world . . . .
Out on the desert flats, the best hope for photographing birds is to keep an eye on agave or yucca bloom stalks or the tops of prickly pear cacti. Photographing here, though, can be a challenge. In addition to cataract-inducing glare, birds can see you coming from a long way off, and they have thousands of square miles of similar habitat to choose from.
On this trip, an adult monitored and fed a pair of young Western Kingbirds. The fledglings exhibited begging behavior as the adult approached. Occasionally, the adult would call out over the desert. Eventually I pushed my luck too far, and the adult flew off. The young birds flowed a minute or so after.
In this same general area, I have seen kingbirds hawking insects in a rather un-flycatcher-like fashion. Rather than grabbing bugs on the wing and returning to a perch to consume them, they swirled and darted in the air while consuming prey, without landing. Beautiful and interesting to observe, but nearly impossible to photograph (at least by me!).
For I must tell you that we artists cannot tread the path of Beauty without Eros keeping company with us and appointing himself as our guide. –Thomas Mann
A rarity occurred this week: A passing spring cold front with beautiful weather behind coincided with a three-day weekend. We hit the road! The Smith Oaks Rookery is an afternoon photography site so we generally depart Houston mid-day and stay in Winnie the first evening for such getaways. The golden hour hits just as the shadow of the trees to the west of the rookery envelope the spoils-pile island–so the best shooting is at about 6:15 pm.
On this trip, we saw a number of new things. Roseate Spoonbills were bathing en mass at times, and every so often alligators would breach like bolts of lightning and attempt to grab birds from the shore. Strangely, when this occurred, the flocks of Roseate Spoonbills would walk towards the disturbance. Perhaps they were trying to give the predator sensory overload so it couldn’t decide which way to strike.
Quite a bit of plant material was being collected and presented to mates by Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Neotropic Cormorants. Eggs and chicks were present in Great Egret nests. We saw only eggs in Snowy Egret nests, and Roseate Spoonbills have not finished their nest-building, yet. Many cormorants were building or stuck like glue on their nests, so eggs, but no nestlings, are present in some nests.
On the way back we took our normal route: down Bolivar, stopping at Frenchtown Road, crossing the ferry to Galveston, and then stopping at Lafitte’s Cove. Not much was going on at either other place, though. Dowitchers have overrun Frenchtown road, and the Clapper Rails were chattering up a storm. There were more humans than birds at Lafitte’s Cove. One exhausted Blue-winged Warbler was flopping around in the thicket for a while but still managed the give the flock of photographers the slip.
Soon the songbirds will be arriving in the millions, and won’t be able to escape unphotographed . . . .
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.
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!
Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
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.
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.