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!
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 . . . .
When, according to habit, I was contemplating the stars in a clear sky, I noticed a new and unusual star, surpassing the other stars in brilliancy. There had never before been any star in that place in the sky.–Tycho Brahe
The Green Heron may be my favorite wader. This bird is unusual in a number of ways. On the small side (7-9 oz) for North American waders, the Green Heron is brilliantly-colored. The sexes are said to be similar, with females having slightly duller coloration. Immature birds have whitish triangular flecks on the wings and more white around the throat than adults. A number of subspecies are recognized by experts, but some of these are rejected by others. Some Green herons migrate, and others do not. Reportedly these two populations can be distinguished biometrically: the migrating birds have longer wings.
No wader is more fun to watch hunt. Like most North American waders, Green Herons are indiscriminate in their choice of prey: fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, insects, spiders will all do. But their repertoire of hunting behaviors is unsurpassed. They will hang in wait, gargoyle-like, from logs, hide from fish below on tops of lotus pads, or stroll through the weeds like other waders in search of small prey, vertebrate or invertebrate.
Most interestingly, Green Herons use tools. They exhibit bait-fishing and have been known to drown air-breathing prey in water before swallowing. I have seen this done with frogs on a number of occasions. Likewise, it is possible (rarely) to see Green Herons bait-fishing by placing aquatic beetles on the surface of the water to attract prey at Elm Lake.
Although Green Herons commonly nest across the eastern half of Texas, I usually see Green Herons in non-breeding colors. Only rarely do I see full breeding colors. Green Herons generally do not nest among large wader rookeries as most herons do, but when they do, they tend to nest away from the masses. They will nest in single pairs or in small groups, too.
While Texas Coastal populations will remain for the winter, soon the inland populations will be largely gone for wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. They will return again next year for the sweltering summer weather.
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 . . . .
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!
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head . . . .–Summer in the City, Lovin’ Spoonful
It’s taken about two weeks to get back into the field after our return from Alaska. After living two weeks around 38º F, the prospect of being out when it’s near 38º C hasn’t sounded too inviting. But this week I took advantage of a so-called “cold front” and visited Fiorenza Park in west Houston. While trying to photograph fishing cormorants and waders from my ground pod by the bridge, a fellow traveler (JD) told me that a Bald Eagle was perched on a snag on the other side of the park. Ultimately I saw no eagle, but while walking to the snag I came upon a family of Loggerhead Shrikes–two young and a parent.
Luckily, I was able to observe the adult hunting insects in the grass as well as begging and feeding behaviors. On this visit, I found the colors of the trees, especially the small ones, to be quite rich and beautiful–almost autumn-like. Of course, the rich colors are the result of heat stress, and these small trees have begun the slow process of being baked to death under a brutal Texas sun. But, the return of rains mid-week may have ended the dying time for this summer . . . .
One of the great surprises for us on St. Paul Island was the low diversity and abundance of larids. We saw nothing like the large mixed flocks of seagulls and terns we are accustomed to around here. To be sure, there were lots of Black-legged Kittiwakes (and a few Red-legged Kittiwakes), but we only observed two species of gulls, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged, and no terns whatsoever. One of the local guides also said there were Herring Gulls around, but we couldn’t swear to seeing one. Further, the only confident identifications of Glaucous Gulls we made were a couple of completely white juveniles that we saw from a distance. Thayer’s Gulls and Black-backed Gulls do occur in the Pribilof Islands in summer, but none were apparent to us.
We know a lot of birders can take or leave gulls (Elisa for one!), a likely reason being difficulties in identification–especially the dramatic changes in appearance many species make from year to year early in life. Chris generally makes an effort to identify any gulls that he sees when visiting coasts. And terns are among his favorite birds, which is why he found the absence of terns on the island a bit of a disappointment. Based on reading, we had reason to expect Arctic Terns on St. Paul. Luckily, we saw Arctic Terns around Anchorage so we didn’t miss them entirely during this trip. Aleutian Terns can theoretically make an appearance on the island during spring and fall, but not summer. Oh, well.
Another big surprise was the small number of Northern Fulmars. According to the literature, the Northern Fulmar is one of the most common tubenoses in the world and one of the most abundant breeders on St. Paul Island. But we saw only a few breeding pairs. More fulmars are killed by commercial fishermen than any other seabird, but fulmar populations are large. In the North Atlantic, fulmars have even increased in numbers in recent years. Perhaps had we visited a bit later we would have seen more.
One of the things about travel birding is that it forces you to confront your assumptions. At first we thought the low diversity and abundance of gulls on St. Paul might have had something to do with island biogeography (or the toll humans have been taking on nature). Now it seems clear it has more to do with larid biogeography. Most gulls really do stick close to continental shores and do not range far out to sea. Exceptions include Herring Gulls, Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and the kittiwakes, the most sea-loving of all the gulls, of course)–exactly the ones that occur on St. Paul. Despite the fact that we see seagulls by the sea they are not really seabirds, at least not the way alcids and tubenoses are.
Long ago, when the world was still quite new, there were no winds at all, neither the gentle breeze of summer nor the fierce winter gale. Everything was perfectly still. Nothing disturbed the marsh grass on the shore and when snow fell, it fell straight to earth instead of blowing and swirling into drifts as it does now . . . . Origin of the Winds, Aleut legend
The four Pribilof Islands lie in the Bering Sea about one-hundred fifty miles north of the Aleutians. Of St. George, St. Paul, Walrus, and Otter Islands, only St. Paul and St. George are inhabited. St. George and St. Paul are birding meccas, more so the latter because of better weather conditions for aviation in and out despite the former having a great deal more cliff habitat and many more birds.
Seventeen species of alcids have been observed on and around St. Paul Island. Many of these species are rare, threatened, or endangered. In summer, however, seven species are common, and these are the birds we spent a considerable time with in early July as part of a bird photography workshop conducted by Canadian photographer Chris Dodds. Least Auklets seemed to be the most abundant of the alcids on the cliffs, followed by Thick-billed Murres and Parakeet Auklets. Crested Auklets, and Horned and Tufted Puffins were less common. Common Murres were observed infrequently: We only observed them in flight around the sea cliffs.
The seven species of alcids are all cliff-nesting species and spend most of the year out to sea when they are not breeding or raising young. With the exception of Least Auklets which we also observed and photographed at Anton Larsen Wall, a man-made breakwater composed of boulders of volcanic rock, all species were photographed on cliffs overlooking the Bering Sea. Many of these sites seem quite precarious and dangerous (for birds and humans alike), and one section of cliff housing Crested Auklet nesting sites collapsed into the sea while we were visiting.
According to reports and historical records, the abundance of birds and other animals has decreased dramatically on St. Paul. According to Chris Dodds who has visited the island approximately thirty times in the last few decades, the abundance of birds has dropped by about 90% in that time. Aerial photos of the island on display in the King Eider Hotel, the only lodging available to visiting birders, also show a steep decline in northern fur seal abundance since the mid-twentieth century.
The decrease in seabird abundance on St. Paul likely reflects a general drop in bird abundance across the northern Pacific. On this trip, the local guides and Chris Dodds kept mentioning nesting failures and weird timings of birds coming and going across the island. Many causes have been suggested for the current avian crisis from human overfishing, to birds being killed in fishing nets, oil spills, other pollution, and “the blob,” a mass of unusually warm surface water that has disrupted the marine ecosystem causing mass starvation. Whatever the cause(s), if you want to see these incredible animals we suggest not waiting as the task will only become more difficult with time. Think of the northern Pacific as the American West–circa 1890.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. –Jack London
Coming and going from a photography workshop on St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska we had the opportunity to spend about two days photographing wildlife in the Anchorage area. We spent most of that time at Potter Marsh, but managed to make a visit to Cheney Lake on a tip (thanks to DK and LG) that Red-necked Grebes were nest-sitting there.
The Potter Marsh boardwalk is a well-known birding hot spot just south of Anchorage. Here, elevated walkways wind through marsh and surrounding woodlands: We added a number of new species to our list including Alder Flycatcher, Common Redpoll, Mew Gull, and Arctic Tern. We also saw Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage (and birds molting into said) for the first time. The density of visitors (and boardwalk vibration caused by footfalls) reminded us of Brazos Bend State Park where the constant flow of foot traffic can preclude serious photographic work and observation. Nevertheless, Potter Marsh is well worth a visit, especially early in the morning.
Although most of the time on St. Paul the weather consisted of some combination of fog, rain, sea mist, and wind, our time in Anchorage was mostly pleasant with sunshine and patchy clouds or an occasional thin covering of clouds with temperatures between 50º and 70º F.
The highlight of Cheney Lake was a nest-sitting Red-necked Grebe with two chicks. The babies clambered around the adult. Occasionally the other parent would deliver a small fish to the young birds. We also observed the nest-sitting parent feed the chicks white downy feathers it plucked from its own breast. These ingested feathers are thought to aid in the formation of pellets. These pellets are composed of feather fragments and indigestible particles like fish bones and are ejected through the gullet.
All in all, this was an excellent trip, and we learned a great deal. Much of what we learned during the workshop will take time to digest (and to acquire and master some new software!). But on the journey up and back we learned we should slow down in arriving at a place–and not only because getting to St. Paul requires eleven hours in a plane over three legs. We could have easily spent several more days in Anchorage birding. And even with that we would not have even begun to scratch the surface of the rich nature this city and environs offers.