Mid-March, while still technically winter, shows the stirrings of spring. From a birder’s perspective, this time of year along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast has much to offer. Although crane flies abound and provide snacks for songbirds, mosquitos have not yet hatched in significant numbers. Also, many wintering bird species remain, and early spring migrants are starting to appear. Of course, year-round residents continue to go about their business as always. All photos in this post were taken in March.
Also on the plus-side, March nests are easier to find than April ones because leaves are just beginning to fill out. So far, I’ve spotted an active Great Horned Owl nest at Brazos Bend, a Pileated Woodpecker cavity nest at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, and a Red-headed Woodpecker cavity nest at Stephen F. Austin State Park. Red-shouldered Hawks are also nesting in the west Houston area. Obtaining good images of the occupants of these nests has so far remained elusive, though. Persistent cloudiness, rain, and blown-out white skies have doomed several attempts. Maybe next week!
Spring won’t let me stay in this house any longer! I must get out and breathe the air deeply again.—Gustav Mahler
Nothing beats being able to sneak up so close to a wild bird that it fills a significant fraction of the frame. And the crisp, fine detail of structure in feathers, scales, and eyes that is the gold standard of bird photography is hard to achieve unless you are very close. But often getting close is not possible. Birds are rightly suspicious of humans and their treachery and will bolt once the minimum approach distance is breached. Lemonade can be made from the lemons of avian suspiciousness, though.
Staying back a bit can allow the photographer to include a little more of the bird’s habitat. This context provides information on ecology and behavior. Details of background can provide the attentive viewer with information on habitat type and season. In contrast to the classic bird-on-branch shot, though, such images may require a tolerance for minor imperfections such as shadows and sticks and blades of grass that cut across the bird. Such things are hard to avoid when the bird is in habitat doing its thing. Often the insight gained by documenting birds in habitat can more than make up for some aesthetic shortcomings.
Unseasonably warm weather over the past week has has made me think about migration: Last weekend felt more like April (complete with mosquitos) than mid-December. Even in winter I like to review my Neotropical migrant songbird field marks lest I grow too rusty. The songbird return is only a few months away, after all.
One of the trickier points of identification that I hear birders argue about in the field is how to distinguish Louisiana from Northern Waterthrushes. Both waterthrush species are (rather strangely) wood warblers. Both are large-bodied, primarily ground foragers, and display a peculiar fore-and-aft rocking motion and tail-pumping behavior (not unlike Spotted Sandpipers!). But waterthrush species have very different biogeographic distributions. Northern Waterthrushes are much more wide-ranging birds than their Louisiana cousins. Northern Waterthrushes summer across Canada and Alaska and winter from the Mexican border to northern South America (with small pockets in Louisiana and Florida). The Northern Waterthrush is even listed in Birds of Peru as a vagrant. Louisiana Waterthrushes summer in the eastern U.S. and winter in Mexico and Central America (and just barely into the northern tip of South America). Texas Gulf Coast birders typically only see waterthrushes during migration, though.
Several reliable field marks distinguish waterthrush species. Throat color is probably the easiest single feature to check. Louisiana Waterthrushes have a predominantly white throat, and Northern Waterthrushes have strong brown stripes, becoming flecks, on a white background up to just beneath the mandible. The supercilium (eyebrow) in the Northern tapers to a point behind the eye, whereas in the Louisiana it tends to flair before termination. The feet of the Louisiana also tend to be a brighter shade of pink. Despite these field marks, though, I feel the overall look of these birds is the best path to identification. The Northern has crisper, sharper, and more contrasting markings. The Louisiana tends to look smoother and softer, with more blended transitions between patches of color over the entire body.
Well, now that we have identification issues sorted out for these two warbler species . . . there are only forty-seven more to go!
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.—Ray Bradbury
Things are slow now. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, we are in a time of transition within a time of transition. Most of the songbirds have moved through, but we still await the big waves of waterfowl. Some wintering shorebirds have arrived including Long-billed Curlews, and Least and Spotted Sandpipers. Sandhill Cranes can occasionally be heard and seen overhead, and there are a few ducks paddling around here and there. The numbers of Blue-winged Teal are increasing, and a few Ring-necked Ducks are about. On the big plus side, everywhere we’ve gone over the past week or so was mercifully free of biting insects.
During such slow times I have to focus on more detailed observations of familiar species. Last weekend at Brazos Bend, for example, Pied-billed Grebes were visible in unusually large numbers. Small groups of three or four birds were scattered across Elm Lake. One cluster contained three adult birds and a youngster, shown above. The youngster hunted in a different fashion than the adults. It paddled around on the surface and dunked its head and neck below the surface to search for prey (rather like a loon!). As always, the adults settled into the surface of the water and then dove, reappearing a few seconds later. But big prey was not on the menu that day. I watched for an hour or so hoping to witness an epic battle with a big fish, frog, or crawfish, but I saw only insects being consumed.
A visit to the drippers and environs at Lafitte’s Cove last week yielded few avian sightings. I spotted a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Pine Warbler or two, and a few Northern Mockingbirds. The ponds were nearly as unproductive. I noted Mottled Ducks and a single Ring-necked Duck, and I played hide-and-seek with a deeply distrustful Marsh Wren.
Frenchtown Road, Bolivar yielded a lone Spotted Sandpiper that strutted and posed along the remains of a floating wrecked wooden structure for an extended photo shoot. Overall, I saw the usual mix of winter waders and shorebirds, including a bathing Long-billed Curlew. Again, nothing unusual. Come on birds! Where are all you oddballs?
When no birds were to be seen (and this was most of the time), I turned my lenses on insects and flowers. Elm Lake was ablaze with brilliant yellow Bidens aurea. I am still experimenting with my new 25mm extension tube. This week I discovered the arthropod macrophotography of Thomas Shahan, an Oklahoma artist who has been getting extraordinary results with some rather modest equipment—clearly an impetus to up my own macro game. I even ordered a few new minor gadgets to help out with macro. Overall, I am still waiting for something weird to happen . . . .
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last weekend Texas got its first real fall blast from the North. Saturday was especially lovely, and we spent the day on the Gulf Coast. Of course, by Monday the hot, humid, sweltering stuff returned and remained for the rest of the week.
Our usual coastal road trip runs from High Island down the Bolivar Peninsula, across the ferry to Galveston (where we often visit Pelican Island and Lafitte’s Cove), and then back to Houston. This time we started at Bryan Beach, visited the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, traveled up Follett’s island, crossed the bridge to Galveston, visited Lafitte’s Cove, and returned to Houston.
The weather was spectacular at Bryan Beach. There were plenty of mosquitoes, but the brisk winds kept them off us. Having not birded on the Gulf for a couple of months we had to get over the shock (again) of just how much trash is deposited by filthy litterbugs on Texas beaches. We saw at least three white morph Reddish Egrets hunting among the rubbish on the shore face and in the lagoons. We also spent some time with a darling Piping Plover as it grabbed worms from the mudflats.
Standing on Follett’s Island, we saw a Magnificent Frigatebird sitting on a post in Christmas Bay. Before leaving Follett’s, we stopped briefly at a small nature preserve composed of salt marsh, stands of salt cedar, and beach habitat on the Gulf side of Follett’s Island within sight of San Luis Pass. I had a good laugh at one of the signs here. It noted how ranchers had planted salt cedars to provide shelter for their cattle, and now the salt cedars provide shelter for countless millions of migrating songbirds. Apparently no matter how egregious the violation of the environment, humans must be portrayed as heroes.
Lafitte’s Cove was hopping with warblers: Black and White, American Redstart, Nashville, and Wilson’s were in attendance. Here, as was often the case, flowers (some native and some non-native) were in bloom, and I spent some time working with a new toy in my bag, a 25mm extension tube. Extension tubes increase the magnification of a lens by increasing it’s image distance. After returning home I continued to turn the tube on a variety of flowers and arthropods. With continued practice, I hope to perfect my macro technique and see how the tube works with other lenses. Now, I eagerly await the next norther . . . .
The tints of autumn…a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.—John Greenleaf Whittier
Now that May is almost over, it’s time to reflect on spring migration 2014 and plan for fall 2014 and spring 2015. This spring I had less success with songbirds and more success with shorebirds than I did last year. This was in part a function of taking special care to include shorebird localities (some new to us) in our travel plans along the Texas Gulf Coast, and in part simple luck. The results were shorebird species new to us and familiar species in different plumage colors than we’d seen before.
Of course, more time devoted to one arena of birding means less time for others. This year that didn’t fill me with too much regret as I often found the songbird hotspots to be really overcrowded, in some cases to the point where it was impossible to work. Many times shortly after arriving at a migrant songbird trap I’d find myself seeking a remote stretch of beach.
Birding for shorebirds has it’s own challenges, of course. Let’s face it: identifying peeps (small sandpipers) can be tough. But I don’t mind a steep learning curve. My hope is that with after a little struggle and effort for a few years, I’ll be able to ID shorebirds easily in the future. The crowding at songbird localities is not a problem that’s going away, though.
As a partial solution (I hope) we’re looking into exploring some migrant traps further east, perhaps Grand Isle, Louisiana and Dauphin Island, Alabama. I know these are famous places, too, but it’s hard to believe that they will be as crowded as High Island or Lafitte’s Cove in mid-April, given that the metropolitan areas near them are much smaller than Houston. We’ll see.
So it’s like starting over again, but I look forward to the challenge.—Lee Majors
We recently stumbled upon a new strategy for birding the the Upper Texas Coast during spring migration: short road trips south from High Island across the Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island. After spending the evening birding High Island and the night in Winnie, Texas, an early morning jaunt down Highway 87 brings the birder past numerous outstanding locales. A copy of Finding birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail by Ted Lee Eubanks et al. is an excellent resource to use for planning purposes or to have at hand on the road.
The power of this approach to birding lies in the amazing diversity of coastal habitats and their avian inhabitants one encounters along this route, from oak motte migrant trap to beach to salt marsh to tidal lagoon. On such journeys one can truly appreciate how special this stretch of coast is, and how lucky we are to still be able to observe the incredible flow of biodiversity from the Neotropics (as well as our resident birds).
Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag
Over the past week we’ve been visiting our favorite springtime haunts and hotspots. The Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island was an explosion of color dominated by Snowy Egrets (some in breeding, some in high breeding colors), Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Neotropic Cormorants. At Lafitte’s Cove the Hooded Warbler invasion continued, accompanied by a new invasion of Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings. Tennessee Warblers and White-eyed Vireos were common, too.
Lafitte’s Cove is wonderful because in one small preserve one can explore oak motte, marsh, and prairie habitat. The motte, of course, is famous for migrating songbirds, but the marshes and ponds, too, are almost always productive during migrations. This time, at the pond south of the trail we saw Solitary Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers, both firsts for us at this locale. Explorations continuing . . . .
For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it.—Jean-Paul Sartre
Last weekend evidence of spring was all around Galveston and environs. The big news at Lafitte’s Cove was the Hooded Warbler invasion. With the exception of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtle Race—still waiting for Audubon’s), Hooded Warblers probably outnumbered all other warbler species combined. Black and White, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Prothonotary Warblers were also in attendance. White-eyed Vireos were profuse at Dos Vacas Muertas and Lafitte’s Cove.
There was a notable uptick of numbers of birds that winter on the Gulf Coast, but have significant parts of their ranges to the south–Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, for example. Lesser Yellowlegs winter on the southern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. Coasts, as well as the Gulf Coast, but range all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Technically, I suppose, it’s impossible to tell if individual birds have moved far, but seeing Lesser Yellowlegs at Lafitte’s Cove and East Beach suggest to me that they are part of a big wave from the south.
On the flycatcher front: In a week or so, the trees of Lafitte’s Cove will be hopping with Great-crested, Least, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers—but last weekend I only saw Great-crested Flycatchers. Observations are continuing . . . .
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.—Winston Churchill
In mid-March, I noticed a large, strange immature gull among a small group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls at East Beach, Galveston gathered around a fish carcass. My first impression was that this gull had a more rounded head and relatively shorter bill than the Herring Gulls, and also tended to hold its head in a more upright posture. Tips of primaries and the tail feathers were a dark chocolate brown, rather than black. The pale yellow-gray eyes also caught my attention.
This odd gull, on the small end of the size range of typical Herring Gulls (and much larger than the Ring-billed Gulls), also acted differently from the other birds. This seemingly out-of-place gull was more curious and less suspicious than the others, slowing circling in the water as it waited for me to leave. At one point, the bird flew off, only to return a short time later. Suspecting a possible rarity, but not knowing precisely what I might have, I snapped a few images of the bird in a variety of postures for future study and moved on, leaving the birds to their breakfast.
The Thayer’s Gull is a puzzling species. These gulls are reported rarely from the Texas Gulf Coast (and much of the eastern U.S.) during winter and early spring, although they breed in the high arctic and winter mostly on the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska. The winter movements of these birds are poorly understood. What are these vagrants after? Is it mere wanderlust?
Likewise problematic is the taxonomic status of the Thayer’s Gull: some authorities consider it a separate species, although others consider it a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. Because of wide individual variation, birds of this species are notoriously difficult to identify by birders (especially in areas these birds rarely frequent!) and professional ornithologists alike, disagreements over the identity of specific birds being common. Identification puzzlements are further complicated by the existence of hybridization of Thayer’s with Herring and Iceland Gulls. My suspicion is that the bird in question is a second winter Thayer’s Gull, or possibly a hybrid, but I happily invite comments from readers about the possible identity of the bird shown in these photos.
Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing we have lost, wandering in strange lands?—Arna Bontemps
We’re just about there . . . just a few more days. Just a few more days until the most exciting birding of the year begins when hundreds of millions of birds begin pouring across and around the Gulf of Mexico. Sure, a few early birds are already moving through, but mostly it’s still the wintering species that I’m seeing. I also spotted some Wilson’s Plovers at East Beach. Many of these partial migrants extend their ranges north into Texas along the Gulf Coast of Mexico for the summer breeding season.
On a few occasions over the past several weeks, I could have taken additional opportunities to step out (and deal with the mobs of maniac drivers) and look around and see who’s around. But then I think about the date, at the time of this writing still not quite officially spring, and think no, it’s unlikely that anybody really interesting is around, yet. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. No matter what the time of year, Texas birding can offer up surprises and new experiences—it’s just a matter of exercising the discipline to get out and look.
Let’s go. We can’t. Why not? We’re waiting for Godot.—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
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