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.
Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again? –A. A. Milne
One of my goals for this summer in Arizona was to go through a lifetime’s worth of debris and discard the worthless junk and organize and store those things we want to keep for the future. One particular challenge was to sort through the old photo gear. We have camera stuff going back to the 1950’s: Equipment inherited from my dad, Elisa’s grandfather and uncle, and all our stuff. Most of it was hurriedly thrown into cardboard boxes in the aftermath of Harvey.
Going through a pile of obsolete or broken bodies, I found a 32 GB CF card that I had forgotten about. On it were four or five hundred images I had forgotten about, also. Most of the images were Texas Gulf Coast stuff from five or six years ago. Many shots were attempts to deal with the murky and broken light of Texas Gulf Coast barrier island oak mottes during spring migration using flash.
I can almost feel the heat, the air heavy with humidity and the frequent sting of mosquitoes piercing my clothes–so different from the recent adventures featuring the blistering glare and UV fog of high altitude Arizona, but so similar in the sense of possibility of see something new.
Clearly the richness of your life depends upon the richness of your memories. Photography contributes to memory, if only in diverting our minds from the meaningless rubbish of contemporary daily life back to things . . . worth remembering.
We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. –Henri Cartier-Bresson
The recent major cold front has certainly brought some fantastic weather to the Texas Gulf Coast. And this weekend we hoped to make the most of it. Fully expecting to see a fallout, or the aftermath of one, we headed to Galveston. First stop on Saturday afternoon was Lafitte’s Cove. There were fewer birds than usual for a day in mid-April, and more people than birds.
I saw only a Scarlet Tanager, a Blue-winged Warbler, a Merlin, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, an Ovenbird, some Brown Thrashers (residents), assorted ducks and shorebirds, and a few Gray Catbirds. The Gray Catbirds (along with the Scarlet Tanager) were eating from the mulberry trees near the gazebo. A greedy Northern Mockingbird was guarding the trees and ran off the other songbirds again and again.
East Beach was glorious on Saturday evening (and Sunday morning), as it usually is after cold fronts. There were large flocks of gulls, Dowitchers, terns, Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, and a few scattered waders. Most interesting to me were the small shorebirds. Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere.
One Piping Plover was trying to pass unnoticed among the smallest shorebirds. This bird was sporting no less than five bands of assorted colors. Clearly an object of devotion, this creature is likely a member of a dying breed. Threatened everywhere it occurs, the Piping Plover numbers in less than five figures. In contrast, the nearly identical-looking (and just as darling) Semipalmated Plover is one of the most common shorebirds in the world.
Finally, the contrast between East Beach and Lafitte’s Cove was stark. East Beach was nearly abandoned and a perfectly lovely place to bird. Lafitte’s Cove was jammed cheek to jowl with tourists yakking it up in the “quiet zones.” The time has likely come to bid Lafitte’s Cove a fond adieu . . . .
A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves. –Marcel Proust
This weekend we went binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park, again. We decided to leave the photo gear at home given the dense clouds and patches of rain and drizzle. While we were sitting on the bench on the west side of Old Horseshoe Lake, I was grousing about how I was tired of only seeing the usual suspects. Just as the words left my mouth, I spotted a pair of Cinnamon Teal drakes dabbling among the aquatic vegetation right off shore–a personal first for this park. These birds were likely early migrants at the extreme eastern extent of their migratory range. A nice sighting, but even with that I’m ready for a change. Of course, the next big change is spring migration . . . and the passage of dozens of glorious wood warbler species across the Upper Texas Gulf Coast.
Now is the time to start brushing up on Warbler identification. It’s amazing how quickly this skill fades over the year, but equally amazing how quickly it returns after a few days in the field in April. Last spring was a fairly good one for seeing new or unusual warblers. Specifically, we saw Blackpoll Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
After about six years of serious birding, my personal warbler species count stands at thirty-eight, with decent images of about half that many. Soon we’ll be planning trips to see specific tough-to-find species: Big Bend for the Colima Warbler, Michigan for Kirtland’s Warbler, and so on.
Spring brings hope for, if not new species, then better images of birds we’ve seen and photographed before. Maybe this is the year I will find the holy grail of bird photography–a technically perfect shot of a rare warbler, a big juicy caterpillar in its beak. Spring migration brings the sense that anything is possible –yes, Virginia, a storm could blow a Black-throated Blue to Galveston! Dream big or stay home!
Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit. –Edward Abbey
The weather was right, we had the time off, and there was nothing more to be done about Harvey . . . So we set out for the field. East Beach was glorious. A south wind blew across the island slowing the progress of the big, slow-flying birds as they traced the edge of the land. They were the usual suspects: Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Forster’s and Royal Terns; Brown Pelicans. But as is often the case when I haven’t been shooting for a while, most of the images turned out to be mush, but it was good just to be out again.
The next day I returned to the field. To Brazos Bend State Park I went. This time I took Elisa’s 500mm f/4 lens, rather than my 600mm–I was giving the old shoulder a break. Again the usual suspects. The only thing unusual was the number of warblers. They were everywhere.
Large flocks of Myrtle Warblers probed leaves and hawked bugs from the air. Sometimes they joined Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in hunting in the grass. Common Yellowthroats hopped among the aquatic vegetation. Orange-crowned Warblers were also up to their normal tricks, fishing spiders and insects from dead, rolled up leaves. I spied a single Male Wilson’s Warbler pretending to be a Common Yellowthroat as he plucked aquatic insects from Pilant Lake. Of this bird’s reflection in the water, Elisa quipped: “Look, he brought his own sunshine!” The only missing warbler was the Pine Warbler–perhaps these birds got wind of the coming inclement weather.
All in all, a lovely few days. Can’t wait for the sun to shine again.
I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad. –George Bernard Shaw
Shaw’s words have a special significance for those of us who live in Houston . . . . In any case, we’re taking a few days off to enjoy the holidays but will be back on the ball soon to share more images and prose about our delightful feathered friends! Cheers, Chris and Elisa
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.
There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath. –Herman Melville
The weather last weekend was nothing short of fantastic, so off to the coast we went! A stretch of beach with a collection of lagoons and tidal channels behind (just north of the Houston Audubon Least Tern nesting sanctuary) is one of our favorite birding spots on Galveston. Here, we saw a mix of the new and the familiar.
The birds were the usual suspects for this time of year, but we caught them doing something we’d not seen before: dining on a profusion of shrimp. We saw Reddish Egrets and Lesser Yellowlegs clearly grabbing shrimp. I also suspect that Neotropic Cormorants were eating them too, but I couldn’t document the interaction photographically. I have seen Cormorants eating shrimp before, but in freshwater.
Elisa noticed that potholes on the bottom of a lagoon–that used to be a tidal channel, now walled off from the sea by a dune–were filled wth young shrimp. These potholes appeared to be abandoned fish nests. The Lesser Yellowlegs were clearly plucking shrimp from the potholes, whereas the Reddish Egret seemed to be grabbing larger shrimp from the water column.
In addition to shrimp being taken, a variety of fish, including shad and killifish were being gobbled up by cormorants and waders. The strand line was scattered with flocks of Sanderlings. A few Ruddy Turnstones and Black-bellied Plovers were in the mix. All of these species can often be seen scavenging carcasses washed up on shore. This day was no exception: An aggressive Ruddy Turnstone repeatedly ran off a cadre of hungry Sanderlings vying for carrion.
All in all, a spectacular, winter-like day. We can only hope for many more,
Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves? –Andy Warhol
I continue to find bird watching a most challenging hobby. This week, after reading an article about cormorant identification, I discovered to my horror that I had misidentified several birds in previous posts. I was going by a common field mark (no yellow lores on Neotropic Cormorants), published in many field guides—that is wrong! As a result, I went through the entire blog and made corrections.
Small sandpipers, too, are the stuff of nightmares, as far as bird identifications go. For some reason, I often find myself staring at Dunlins, trying to establish a gestalt to distinguish them from the other look-alike cutie-pie sandpipers they might be . . . .
Because Dunlins breed in the Arctic and winter along the Texas Gulf Coast, we usually don’t see them in their distinctive breeding colors. This spring I’ve seen a few transitioning into breeding plumage, though. And in those cases, it really helped with the identification—especially the black belly feathers coming in, which are unique for a Texas sandpiper. Otherwise, I’m looking for black legs and a long, droopy black beak on a butterball. If you see these features, you’ve only got to make sure you haven’t got a Western Sandpiper, and you’re done—except for figuring out what the bird’s up to!
When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer
As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .
As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.
For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.
But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.
After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.
I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.
Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.
Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.
Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.
Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.
Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.
In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.
Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen