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.
When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that?–Kim Young-ha
Ducks are a bit weird. If you’ve ever scrutinized your reference books or field guides you may have noticed that sometimes the bright plumage of the drake is labeled “winter” and not “breeding.” This is because many species of drakes with brilliantly-colored plumage during most of the year molt into a relatively drab, female-like plumage called eclipse plumage during a short post-breeding period in summer. Their nearly year-round brilliance is briefly in eclipse.
After our return from a recent Alaska trip, several birder friends from Texas asked what we had seen. Chris replied “Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage, for one.” The reaction was similar to the one he gets when someone asks why there are not astronomical eclipses all the time (“The plane of the moon’s orbit is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic.”): bewildered stares.
This reaction is likely because only a handful of duck species breed in Texas, and more than half of these (Mottled Ducks and Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks) lack strong sexual dimorphism and a brilliantly colored drake. Only in Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks does the the possibility exist of seeing a drake noticeably in eclipse along the Upper Gulf Coast of Texas. In the case of the former, the casual birder would likely think he/she was looking at a hen. In the case of the latter, likely a juvenile or hen. Also, since none of these Texas duck species are typically a cause for excitement among birders, these drakes probably wouldn’t get a second look. In northern regions, where many duck species breed, an oft-asked question among those not clued-in to eclipse plumage is: “Where do all the beautiful drakes go in the summer.”
What is the purpose of eclipse plumage? An adaptationist explanation is that after breeding the drakes no longer need the brilliant colors, so when they enter the molt for their primary (flight) feathers, they lose their showy colors, too. This makes sense ecologically in that when molting primaries they are unable to fly, so being more camouflaged like the females would be adaptive. The hens typically molt their primaries later in the summer, when the ducklings are quite independent.
Travel birding is a worthy endeavor because the insights you gain can be applied frequently at home. The next time I see drakes in the summer here in Texas, I’m sure to look a little harder at them. Maybe you will, too.
Twitchers are only interested in adding to the list of rare birds which they have seen. With their intelligence network, the[y] are ready to set out at the drop of a hat at any time of the day or night to travel large distances for the prospect of seeing a migrant lesser spotted scrub warbler, or whatever . . . .–Julie Fairless, Why are bird watchers called twitchers?
There are apparently many definitions (often tongue-in-cheek and with varying connotations) of twitching. There is even apparent disagreement as to whether the term is originally British or American. Most definitions reference traveling large distances to see rarities. Some twitcher definitions cite birds being blown off course, or otherwise being present well outside their normal ranges. Some reference that the activity is primarily to add to a list–not to seriously study or experience the bird the way a real bird watcher would. In many cases, the term is pejorative. Clearly twitching is many things to many people. There are probably as many definitions as there are birders (or bird watchers or twitchers). My definition: traveling (near or far) to see a bird or behavior (rare or common) that I have not (or rarely) seen before after receiving a tip.
Experience, I think, will dictate whether a birder thinks twitching is worthwhile or not. After all, time, energy, and resources are very limited for most of us. While exciting, is time chasing oddities worth doing when you could be spending time at places that are nearly a sure thing?
On a recent twitch to see a Jabiru Stork in agricultural fields north of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the only bird of note we saw was a King Rail. This episode highlights many of the inherent problems in twitching. On a twitch you’re typically going to a new place. This means you don’t know the direction of the light or the details of the terrain or cover–so you don’t know which lens to have handy or where to park or where the birds are most likely to be. On this trip, I assumed that the Jabiru would be in an open field, probably with standing water, a long away. So I put my 2.0x teleconverter on the 600mm lens on the crop sensor body and had the big rig ready to go behind the seat.
In the general area where the stork had been seen, a line of cars was already parked. After parking, I started walking down the road surveying the fields with my binoculars. Once several hundred yards from our vehicle I came across another birder who pointed out the King Rail no more than three yards away from the side of the road in a drainage ditch! After hustling back to the truck, I drove back, pulled out the handiest (but way too big!) lens, got off a few (miserable) shots before the bird disappeared forever into the brush.
It’s a hard-learned lesson, and one I should have learned a long time ago: Always have a camera with you in the field! Even if it’s hot and schlepping it around is awkward and annoying! Had I brought a second body with a modest and versatile lens (like a 100-400mm zoom), I wouldn’t have been kicking myself for the past week!
Last week we didn’t see many Neotropical migrant songbirds. The weather was incredible . . . but maybe that was the problem. With crystal clear skies and a consistent wind out of the south, i.e. a tailwind, the trans-Gulf migrants may have simply blown past the Coast and the usual migrant traps. What’s good for birds, is bad for birders.
What’s more, dry weather means that there haven’t been many arthropods around other than caterpillars and a few flies, mosquitos, dragonflies, and spiders. So there really hasn’t been much of a reason for birds to stop if exhaustion or thirst wasn’t a problem. At Lafitte’s Cove on 4/8 I saw a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and one vireo or warbler (I saw only a creamy yellow underside through the canopy)—a terrible showing for April at a Gulf Coast migrant trap.
Some stormy weather moved into the Gulf Coast throughout this week. On Tuesday (4/11), for example, a major front swept down mid-day and looked the perfect set-up for a fallout. Sadly, I watched the atmospherics on radar from work, trapped and unable to get into the field. But yesterday (4/14) was also bad at Lafitte’s Cove. I only saw a few hummers, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a Bronze-headed Cowbird, and a White-eyed Vireo. In addition to these, Elisa saw two Tennessee Warblers. Not great.
In any case, hope springs eternal, and we’ll give the Coast the old college try again this weekend! One of these days . . . .
Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor. –Eric Hoffer
There is no question that human influence has penetrated into just about every corner of the world. To get to a truly wild place, one would have to go the ends of the earth. That said, the level of “wildness” encountered while out photo-birding falls along a continuum. Rarely, we are able to get to fairly remote and wild places (e.g., Gila Wilderness). But like many, we generally find ourselves going to national wildlife refuges, national and state and city parks, bird sanctuaries, and so on because that’s what resources allow. In these places, the birds are somewhat used to humans and may allow approaches closer than one would normally expect in the real wilds.
On the other hand, in some of these quasi-wild places the birds are less tolerant of people than expected or what is natural. Think about wildlife refuges that allow hunting. In some of these places, we’ve had birds flee at the first sight of us—often from a great distance. In the past, in some truly wild places, the animals have been completely naive, allowing humans to walk right up to them an dispatch them. On some remote islands this is still the case.
On a recent visit to the City of Albuquerque Botanic Garden during the middle of the day, we were delighted to find an associated pond with a variety of waterfowl, including Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeons, and Mallards. Some of these species are typically shy, at least around the Texas Gulf Coast. On the off chance we see Wood Ducks at Brazos Bend or Anahuac NWR, for instance, they are off in a flash. Used to being around humans (and perhaps hoping for a handout) the Albuquerque ducks paddled right up to us. As in the “wild,” the American Wigeons were still distrustful of humans and generally kept their distance, though.
Realizing that in an hour or two the light would be beautiful, we went back to the car and got our gear. For the next few hours we blazed away and collected some nice images. Is this nature photography? Probably not. Technically, these are still wild birds—or wildish birds. In a world of ever-dimishing nature, sometimes you have to take what you can get.
. . . the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open . . . ― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 2
One of our favorite spots to bird when in the Corpus Christi area is Sunset Lake Park. The park is located on a peninsula, Sunset Lake to the west, Corpus Christi Bay to the east. This park contains a lovely stretch of shelly beach with sandbars close to shore. Sandbars along the Texas Gulf Coast are magical places, and are often covered in flocks of pelicans, terns, gulls, waders, skimmers, and shorebirds.
On this latest visit, Royal Terns, Marbled Godwits, and Long-billed Curlews predominated. As usual now on coastal trips, we brought our tall rubber boots and were able to wade out to the sandbars, a technique we often employ at East Beach, Galveston. The simple addition of boots to your field gear will dramatically transform any birding trip to the shore. It took us a few years to figure this out—just how many college and graduate degrees do we have? Maybe not enough.
One of Chris’ favorite spots on the Coastal Bend is the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park on the south side of Corpus Christi. A shelter overlooks a stretch of beach that is often packed with ducks and waders during the colder months. This spot is great for gory hunting scenes and beauty shots of ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Redheads, and American Wigeons.
The “freshwater channel” that cuts across the northern edge of the park is another gem of a birding spot, especially for ducks. Here, the birds typically allow a close approach. Ignore the sign that says “do not pass beyond this sign.” Kidding.
Finally, we are sometimes apprehensive about having our car broken into or being mugged at Suter given the sketchy characters loitering around the parking area. It’s almost comical the way they look away when you glance in their direction. So with the caveat that you may be taking your life in your hands, we highly recommend this park!
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.
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?
Unless you and your mate are united in purpose, dedication, and loyalty, you will not succeed to the extent you otherwise could.–Ezra Taft Benson
Pair bonded ducks are easy to see now, regardless of whether they nest locally or are about to depart for the north. Dabbling ducks typically bond as early as late fall or early winter, whereas divers often wait until as late as early spring. By this time of year, then, the vast majority of ducks still in Texas are pair bonded. Last week at Lafitte’s Cove I saw a pair of American Wigeons in the lagoon on the west side of Eckert Drive. With them were pairs of Blue- and Green-winged Teal and Gadwall. In the west pond on the other side of Eckert Drive was a lone pair of Mottled Ducks.
Mottled ducks pair bond earlier than other Mallard-complex ducks (Terres, 1991). The benefits of pair bonding to female ducks is well known: drakes protect their mates from the unwanted advances of other male ducks thus allowing their hens more time to feed and fatten up for nesting or the flight to breeding locations. Last week while watching the Mottled Ducks, I witnessed another possible advantage of pair bonding at Lafitte’s Cove.
While feeding, the dabbling drake and hen seemed to get into a rhythmic pattern of dabbling or head dunking and watching. When one bird’s head was submerged, the other was watchful. Only during a disruption were both watchful. This type of behavior would seem to be beneficial to both birds. The submerged partner can feed (and be vigilant against underwater menaces like alligators and large predatory fish), and the partner with head above water can watch for terrestrial predators like felids and shotgun-toting primates, as well as aerial hunters like raptors.
Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books. New York. 1109 p.
Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.–Friedrich Nietzsche
Birds live in a dangerous world. Never is this more evident than when they are trying to sleep. Ground-roosting birds like waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls can often be seen drifting in and out of sleep, one eye open, intermittently surveying the environment for dangers (and photographers).
Many birds sleep (or merely rest) with their heads supported on their backs, beaks nestled in the scapulars. This rests the muscles of the neck and keeps the delicate skin around the beak warm. Breath expelled into the feathers keeps the back nice and toasty warm. On some cold and windy days, it’s common to see sandpipers balanced on one leg (like the Sanderling on the right above). This, of course, reduces the amount of bare skin exposed to the hostilities of the environment.
Soon Texas birds will be much more concerned about keeping cool—and I’ll keep an eye out to document their interesting thermoregulatory behaviors!
Over a three-day period this Thanksgiving Holiday we visited a number of our favorite Coastal Bend birding haunts in and around Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. These included Paradise Pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, the Nature Sanctuary at Charlie’s Pasture (all Mustang Island), and San José Island, and the Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Nature Park in Corpus Christi. And yes, when it was over we were wiped out!
All of these sites were flush with birds, except San José Island which proved to be such a disappointment that we found ourselves photographing crabs! With the exception of San José, all of these sites are really better for birding than for bird photography for one simple reason: Narrow boardwalks make tripods problematic, especially when other birders are present.
Highlights of these late Fall and early winter trips to the Coastal Bend are often the waterfowl. You just can’t beat a crisp morning with formations of ducks and geese overhead and wet, feathered-friends paddling peacefully around the waterways. Although we saw plenty of ducks and geese, seeing vast tracts of prairie and wetland without a single bird (and often hearing the crack of gunfire in the background) got me wondering about duck populations in North America.
A quick survey of a recently published U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report reassured that duck numbers are (in general) large by “historical” standards. This report presented data but provided little analysis or discussion. Overall, a few duck species are down relative to recent years, but the total number of ducks is close to 50 million. So humans must not be adversely affecting waterfowl populations, right?
Wait! The above cited historical quantitative records of duck numbers begin in 1955. The 1930’s (think Dust Bowl), 40’s, and 50’s were times of drought across North America. Could it be that our concept of how many waterfowl there “should be” in wetter times is too low? Again according to the report, some duck species (Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall) show a steady increase in numbers, with minor ups and downs, beginning in the mid-1950’s—perhaps indicating a recovery from a time of ecological decimation? Given the interplay of anthropogenic, meteorological, and ecological influences, we’ll never know for sure what waterfowl populations would look like without the pervasive human impacts of the past fifty years. But in North American waterfowl numbers there is certainly food for thought.
The fallacy of presentism is a complex anachronism, in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent.—David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies