O, thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.–Christopher Marlowe
Birds of the Family Cardinalidae are some of the most striking songbirds of North America, especially the males. These are the Pyrrhuloxia, Dickcissel, Northern Cardinal, the grosbeaks (except the Evening Grosbeak which is a finch), and the buntings. All these birds have heavy seed-cracking beaks, the most extreme example being in the Pyrrhuloxia.
Although seeds form an important part of the diet of all cardinalids, most species also consume arthropods and fruit, and sometimes leaf buds. Often they vary their diets seasonally, with seeds forming the bulk of the diet in winter and arthropods and fruit when available. It is likely this generalist approach to feeding that has contributed to the success of the group as a whole, but not all species are doing well.
Both the sparrow-like Dickcissel and the Blue Grosbeak are declining in numbers, although ironically, the latter has recently expanded its range northward in the Great Plains. But in general, relative to other songbird groups, these tough little birds are mostly holding their own.
Essentially, Two Shutterbirds is a family project to get to know the birds of the world. And we have had no greater birding pleasure than acquainting ourselves with the cardinalids . . . .
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.
Charm is an intangible. Chutzpah, charm, charisma, that kind of thing, you can’t buy it. You either have it or you don’t.–Colm Feore
Among the most charming of the small songbirds are the titmice. Along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, Tufted Titmice are common year-round. And they are a delight to encounter in the woods, as they peer back with those curious, yet suspicious eyes!
Tufted Titmice seem to prefer arthropod prey (including spiders and their egg cases), but will eat nuts, seeds, and fruit during the winter. They will also visit seed and suet feeders during the lean months, but to my eye, they never seem completely at ease in doing so, being true wild creatures of the forest.
Small super-active songbirds like the titmice may be the supreme challenge for the bird photographer—especially under completely natural conditions (i.e., not baited and not near a feeder). Take a look at Elisa’s beautiful image of a singing Black-crested Titmouse from Lost Maples. We often see Bridled Titmice on our frequent trips to southeast Arizona, but I have yet to capture any really nice images (These birds are fast!).
We have seen all but two species of North American titmice: The Oak Titmouse (California), and the Juniper Titmouse (Southwest U.S., west of Texas). I have no doubt they will be just as challenging and charming as their Gulf-Coast kin!
About this time of year we always begin planning for our big summer birding trips. We try and include as many different types of habitat as possible. This year we will focus on the high elevation forests of the West. Finding and photographing forest birds is the toughest challenge I know in photography: it makes getting desert (and even marsh) birds seem simple by comparison. The openness and spectacular, clear light of the desert can make shooting a joy. The complex three-dimensional nature of the forest, often with shafts of brilliant illumination adjacent to patches of near-darkness, can test the capabilities of the birder-photographer.
I have chased birds in many forests, and I am always a bit apprehensive about birding and shooting in these environments (and spending my precious, precious vacation time here) for one main reason: it’s possible to come away with nothing at all—no good shots or even a good look! Forest birds (songbirds especially) are often so suspicious and spooky that you may get one glimpse, and they’re gone! In the really big parks, they can disappear into the vastness in a snap. In the really tall trees (like those in Sequoia National Park!) the birds can just zoom up to fantastic heights and wait for you to go away.
Although not especially spooky, the tree-clinging birds like treecreepers, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are a special challenge to watch and photograph. It’s almost comical how woodpeckers will sometimes spiral around a tree trunk to get away from the hapless photographer! Brown Creepers may allow a very close approach, sometimes almost ignoring the shooter, as they hop up a trunk in search of arthropods only to sail downwards to the base of the next tree and begin the process again. Nevertheless, Brown Creepers are really hard to photograph as they cling to the tree trunks, staying in the shadows and deep recesses in the bark, and will even spiral around to the other side of the trunk to hide from the photographer in woodpecker fashion. In contrast to creeper behavior, nuthatches often hop down the trunk in search of prey—but they, too, cling to the trunk and poke into nooks and crannies making shooting difficult much of the time.
Athough I love the marshes, swamps, estuaries, tidal flats, and bottomland forests of the Texas Gulf Coast, I look forward to getting to very different habitats. The steep, high-altitude alpine habitats I have in mind for this summer will probably require quite a bit of sans-supertelephoto, binoculars-alone birding—unless I can talk Elisa into scouting out ahead and waiting for me at elevation with a defibrillator!
Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .
Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.
Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!
At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.
Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.
Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!
In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A sighting of two female Red-winged Blackbirds eating cautiously from the seed feeders at the Edith L. Moore Sanctuary in west Houston on the afternoon of February 27 reminded me of what I saw recently in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. These suspicious birds were likely hungry migrants on their way north, to perhaps the very same Great Lakes region habitats I visited last summer.
After that trip, I wrote about ecological changes I observed birding the woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of those changes was an apparent drastic reduction in the number of Red-winged Blackbirds in a variety of habitats relative to what I remembered from childhood. Rather than large flocks in cattail marshes and around the margins of lakes and rivers, I saw only scattered small groups of fewer than ten birds.
In 2009 APHIS, part of USDA, says it poisoned 489,444 red-winged blackbirds in Texas, and 461,669 in Louisiana.—Martha Rosenberg, huffingtonpost.com
Further reading after these observations substantiated impressions of massive population losses. Ever since that time, I have kept an eye out for these birds wherever possible. I am aware, however, that reports based on anecdotal evidence will likely convince no-one, especially those with a vested interest in denial.
The “famous” taxpayer-supported USDA program of mass poisoning of icterids (blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds) and other agricultural pest species like magpies and European Starlings called “Bye bye blackbird” is probably just the tip of the iceberg of officially sanctioned avian extermination. I say famous because this is a well-known program widely reported on in the blogosphere—but never (to my knowledge) in the really “big time” popular media outlets, the ABC Evening News or the PBS Newshour, for example. (Sidebar: Why is this? Why must we look only to elite publications like Audubon’s “Common Birds in Decline” or National Geographic ‘s “Last Song for Migrating Birds” for reports of the destruction of the environment and the slaughter of its innocents? I guess it would take time away from reports of Justin Bieber’s latest brush with the law and interviews with random passersby about the weather.)
Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (part of the Department of the Interior) has issued a directive, a so-called depredation order, that anyone can kill any number of pest birds they suspect of causing economic damage or posing health risks (sometimes with avicides like Starlicide and administered by professional contractors in the form of poisoned brown rice baits). These private activities are perhaps more disturbing than the USDA programs because of the much larger potential scale of the killing–and the USDA kills birds by the millions! In the eyes of the federal government (and many farmers) icterids are apparently vermin of no worth whatsoever—despite detailed agricultural studies showing that as a result of insectivorous blackbirds, farmers can use 50% less pesticide.
For me, the bold, difficult to describe call of the Male Red-winged Black-bird is the sound of a marsh. Males perched atop cattails with females poking around in the brush below is what a marsh is supposed to look and sound like. Should the Red-winged Blackbird go the way of the Passenger Pigeon, marshes across North America will lose some of their most defining characteristics and aesthetic qualities—the experience of visiting a marsh will be immeasurably degraded.
Perhaps the plight of the Rusty Blackbird will focus some more attention on systematic, deliberate avian extermination. Rusty Blackbirds have suffered an estimated 85-98% reduction in population over the past 40 years likely due, in part, to agricultural poisoning by the government and private individuals. The Rusty Blackbird (along with the Mexican Crow) has been removed from the depredation order—at least taxpayers are not paying for the extermination and protection of the same species. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for in the current Age of Dysfunction—although I fail to understand how Rusty Blackbirds and Mexican Crows will be kept from eating the poisoned rice.
I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.—Joseph Addison, The Spectator
We don’t often see children out birding. Frankly, as high school teachers, we inked that feature into the “pros of birding” column when we were auditioning feasible hobbies. Children, it seems, neither make happy birders nor birders happy.
It may seem ironic but, we were pleasantly surprised to see two young visitors to our “Behind the Blog” presentation at the Houston Audubon Nature Photography Association (HANPA) meeting in April. (Willing students are always appreciated!) Brothers Richard and Trepp, eight and six, stayed as long as their bedtime would allow. We were impressed by the quality and depth of their questions and received several wonderful sketches capturing parts of the program. Encouraged by this passionate interest at such a young age, I was reminded that birders need to cultivate the next generation of birders if bird conservation – let alone nature conservation – is to have a future.
Flashback to the late 1990’s when Chris and I lived in Austin: We were the only “kids” in the creek beds during school-term weekends. We were re-living our childhood–where were the real kids spending theirs? Was this a generational shift to the indoors or a shift born of crime statistics, real and imagined? My parent friends tell me it was fundamentally the latter. Computer activities were (and presumably still are) the safer option. How do we foster exploration and conservation if the great outdoors needs a chaperone?
Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary is a gem: 17 acres of dense forest and thicket in an easy-to-get-to suburban setting. A great diversity of food plants, both native (e.g., yaupon holly, trumpet creeper; scarlet buckeye) and non-native (Ligustrum, Pyracantha) no doubt contribute to the diversity and abundance of wildlife. Any time is a great time to visit, but we visit especially often in winter and spring, particularly for the resident and migrating songbirds and raptors, some of which can be seen in this small collection.
We spent Spring Break 2013 (March 9-17) visiting some of out favorite birding sites along the upper Texas Coast in search of early migrants, with mixed results. Places visited included Lafitte’s Cove, East Beach, Sabine Woods, Edith L. Moore, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Brazos Bend State Park, and the Big Thicket National Preserve (Pitcher Plant Trail). The weather was spectacular–crisp and dry. Recent frosts, however, probably have diminished the diversity and abundance of wildflowers in some areas.
The insect (i.e., food) supply varied dramatically by location. Brazos Bend, as is typical, had relatively few biting insects but had a lot of crane flies, which at this time of year seem to be a staple for insectivorous birds. I saw American Pipits and Myrtle Warblers feasting on them. Likewise at Lafitte’s Cove there were few biting insects, but abundant Black and White Warblers and Northern Parulas were also dining on crane flies. Also at Lafitte’s Cove we were treated to a shy mated pair of Mottled Ducks. Anahuac NWR had far fewer biting insects than is usual–but also fewer birds. Sabine Woods was, as always, loaded with biting insects–mosquitos, gnats, and other flies. At Sabine Woods, Gray Catbirds, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black and White Warblers, and Northern Parulas were about. I was disappointed not to see Hooded Warblers in the lantana thicket on the east side of the sanctuary given that I had just seen one among the cane on the east end of Galveston the day before (March 12).
We erred in not calling ahead before visiting Big Thicket. A recent controlled burn had swept through the Pitcher Plant Trail, leaving the understory and ground cover (including the Pitchers!) ash–although some grasses were making a recovery. The whole area was dry, black and desolate. A few titmice could be heard singing, a few woodpeckers drumming, but that was about it.
The last day of birding over spring break was Saturday, March 16. We spent almost the entire day at Brazos Bend State Park, where male Northern Parulas could be heard singing in the trees. Also on this day, male Ring-necked Ducks could finally be seen and photographed out in open water with their mates. Over the past few weeks they have only been visible hiding out in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake. A mated pair of Wood Ducks has been hanging around one of the nest boxes on the trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lakes, but they have been very shy, swimming for cover any time someone approaches. I finally got a decent shot of the male. I will keep trying for a shot of the pair.
Within a few weeks or so the woods and thickets should be hopping with additional migrants . . . Palm Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Magnolia Warblers . . . and we can hardly wait!
It took me quite a while to try flash nature photography, and I am still a bit uneasy about my decision to do so. The decision: to use flash on a very limited basis, only when no other technical solution is possible, and when I am sure that the animals are not too upset by it. Some bird photographers consider flash absolutely necessary, and others vehemently reject it. I come down somewhere in the middle, but tending toward rejection in many cases.
To be clear, I know of no evidence that flash photography harms birds–if I did, I wouldn’t use flash. Period. We have all had our pictures taken with flash, and I know that I have not been injured by it. The question of whether or not birds (and other wildlife) are upset (i.e., stressed) by flash is a different matter, and I know that some species are clearly annoyed by it. Of course, many species of animals are stressed simply by humans being in the wild. In many cases, birds react no more strongly to the flash than they do when I move an arm or click the shutter. This is probably because I use the high-speed synchronized flash setting with a fast shutter speed (1/800-1/1250). This “fill flash” approach means that the flash output is much lower than it would be if the flash were used as the primary light source. In general, it seems that birds notice the flash less when there is a significant amount of ambient light–which makes sense.
I began using a ring flash for botanicals and macro. I shot a variety of herps with the flash on the high-speed synchronized setting and saw no reaction whatsoever . . . until I tried shooting an Ornate Box Turtle (Terrepene ornata). This fellow startled every time the flash went off: no more flash photos of ornate box turtles. Indeed, no more flash photography of any terrestrial chelonians (turtles and tortoises). Aquatic turtles apparently ignore flash.
When flash can be used ethically, it provides an incredible expansion of possibilities for bird photography. For example, It allows photography throughout the day, especially in dark or contrasty heavily-wooded areas–where many of the most exciting and challenging species are to be found. I no longer feel confined to the optimal shooting times in the early morning and late afternoon (the “golden hours”). On the down side, it is very easy to blow out whites or to make the bird appear as though it was suspended in a cave, surrounded by a severely underexposed background. Despite numerous technical challenges, I look forward to exploring the possibilities in the world of avian flash photography.