In the euphoria surrounding spring migration, it’s sometimes easy to forget that species besides warblers and other colorful songbirds are making their way across the Gulf Coast. Shorebirds are a major component of the spring migration and can really add to the excitement of being in the field in spring. Case in point: the unusual phalaropes.
Phalaropes show a reversal of typical gender roles. The brightly colored females compete for males and migrate shortly after abandoning the nest to the males–which perform all parental duties after the females lay the eggs. Of the three Phalarope species, only the Wilson’s nests in Texas. Rare Texas nesting Wilson’s Phalaropes, however, can only be seen in a few small scattered areas in the Panhandle. Your best bet for seeing Wilson’s Phalaropes (like the other phalarope species) is to spot them during migration.
Last spring we had the luck to spot a few individuals paddling around on one of the ponds at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. We did not observe their trademark feeding technique of swimming in a tight circle to form a vortex from which to pluck invertebrate prey, though. Maybe next time.
In America there are two classes of travel – first class, and with children.—Robert Benchley
I find that it’s always a good idea to carefully scrutinize flocks of shorebirds for the rarity who may be trying pass unnoticed among the hoi polloi. When I do spot an unfamiliar shorebird, I snap a few images for future research. Terns and gulls most commonly are the cause of these identification puzzlements.
Usually the mystery bird is not a rarity at all, but rather a youngster of a common species. Perhaps the most common gulls at East Beach are Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Ring-billed Gulls. All of these species have distinct breeding and non-breeding plumages as well as juvenile colors significantly different from those of the adult birds.
This great seasonal and developmental variation in appearance within a singles species is one of the challenges of birding. And one that keeps me, at least, heading back to the reference books after just about every trip to the beach.
East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas at low tide is a magical place: a place equally suited for a biology or geology field trip. Gorgeous bedforms of a dozen kinds—those structures formed by the action of water on sediments like ripple marks and dunes—bring back memories of sedimentology classes many moons ago. Running around on theses surfaces (or occasionally trying to pry a recalcitrant worm from the sand and mud) are the sandpipers.
In their winter colors, the smallest ones, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, and Western Sandpipers sometimes test the birder’s ability to distinguish one species from another. In this endeavor, behavior is often just as good a guide to identification as are the details of appearance.
Sanderlings are perhaps the most charming and easiest to identify of the sandpiper clan as they chase the waves as they drain back out to sea, plucking stranded invertebrates and detritus as they go. Dunlins typically poke about at the strand line, and Western Sandpipers often explore the puddles of the intertidal zone. Least Sandpipers tend to probe for food along the margins of vegetation.
Although I tend to notice sandpipers most often in intertidal habitats, all of these birds can also be found in freshwater and terrestrial environments such as the margins of lakes, flooded fields, and freshwater marshes. All birds mentioned in this post are still common, but Dunlin and Sanderlings are declining in numbers, mainly due to human use (and misuse) of beaches and other coastal habitats . . . yet another tragic tale of our time.
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Over the Thanksgiving holiday we took a short road trip to Corpus Christi and environs, specifically with the hopes of seeing ducks, waders, and shorebirds. At Rockport, Texas I observed a small group of Mottled Ducks hanging around in the shadows under a dock. We see Mottled Ducks from time to time, but seeing these birds up close got me to reading more about them: they are unusual for a number of reasons. These dabblers are rather drab and show little sexual dimorphism relative to some other ducks. They are also non-migratory and reproduce in Southern marshes, rather than at higher latitudes like most other North American ducks.
Their status is of “least concern,” although their estimated numbers are only in the tens of thousands in Texas, a major part of their range. Mottled Ducks do have an unusually limited geographic range, essentially around the Gulf of Mexico, across Florida, and with an introduced population in South Carolina. There are actually two subspecies of Mottled Ducks: Anas fulvigula maculosa (Alabama to Veracruz, Mexico) and A. f. fulvigula (Florida). Numerous references suggest that Mottled Ducks, like many species, are under threat from habitat destruction such as the draining of marshes. Conventional wisdom has it that habitat destruction is more of a threat than human hunting—although seeing internet images of piles of shotgun-blast killed Mottled Ducks leads me to question that. Apparently some duck hunters collect bands, and Mottled Ducks are a heavily banded species (about 5%) thus making them a popular target.
Mottled Ducks are part of the “Mallard complex,” a group of approximately 20 closely-related species and subspecies of ducks. As a result, Mottled Ducks face another unusual challenge: gene flow from feral introduced Mallards. These “pen-raised” released and escapee Mallards generally do not migrate to northern breeding grounds. Naturally sexually aggressive male feral Mallards are interbreeding with local Mottled Ducks, thus undermining the genetic isolation of the latter and producing infertile hybrids. This problem is most significant in Florida, leading some to fear for the extinction of the Florida subspecies, although there are reports of hybrids from other areas, including Texas.
Only time will tell if the relentless crush of human ecological trouble-making will spare these lovely creatures.
I 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
By late fall, most traces of punishing summer have gone, and the bird photographer can think more about birds and light and less about heat, mosquitos, chiggers, and biting flies.
On some seasonal days, cold weather high altitude cirrus clouds–diaphanous veils of ice crystals–act like natural diffusers, reducing glare without sacrificing vibrance of color. This cool winter light is perfect for shorebird colors: black, white, and shades of gray. Even on dreary cumulonimbus days, when light is not optimal, chill breezes keep land and sea fresh and invigorated, and this glory shall persist until . . . March.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.–Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds
Certain living organisms conjure scenes of the past in my paleontologist’s brain. Seeing a pelican skimming the crests of waves over Galveston Bay spark thoughts of pterosaurs gliding above the Cretaceous Niobraran Sea of western Kansas. Dragonflies bring visions of sweltering Late Paleozoic coal swamps teeming with monstrous arthropods.
Despite knowing that some insects are endothermic (“warm-blooded”) and are active over a wide range of temperatures, I was surprised to see a variety of active dragonflies on a recent chilly mid-November day at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Perhaps this surprise was because of my bias toward thinking of dragonflies as a hot weather phenomenon.
In general, dragonflies fall into two types: “flyers” and “perchers.” Flyers like Green Darners (Anax junius)are endotherms, their elevated body temperatures largely the result of physiological processes supporting their highly active lifestyles. Perchers like Blue Dashers typically are closer to what are commonly called ectotherms, or “cold-blooded” organisms. These creatures regulate their body temperatures primarily through behavioral mechanisms like basking in the sun to raise body temperature, or conversely, as in the case of Blue Dashers, adopting the “obelisk posture.” In the obelisk posture, the abdomen is pointed toward the sun, thus decreasing the profile illuminated by the sun.
In any case, a major source of avian nutrition has stretched much deeper into the cool weather than I expected—and with it my dragonfly photography!
“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”—Gustave Flaubert, November
The best technique for shooting birds in flight (BIF) arguably involves spotting a bird at distance and then tracking it in the viewfinder until it fills a significant part of the frame. For this technique to be employed, the photographer must be able to predictably track the bird over a long distance without significant obstructions. A large number of birds following along a similar glide path is also helpful. Because of these requirements, getting BIF shots is highly dependent upon a special place.
East Beach, Galveston is such a place. Numerous shorebirds and waders typically fly parallel to the shore. Obstructions are few–mainly ships that appear in the background. The morning sun is at your back while you shoot toward the sea. And after a blue norther, with a cold wind in your face the place is . . . paradise.
The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.–Jules Verne
Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island was a-hoppin’ with half a dozen warbler species the weekend before last (10/19), but last weekend (10/26) only Pine Warblers were in attendance. Technically a “partial migrant,” Pine Warblers winter on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast–one of only a few warbler species that do so. We have, once again, arrived at a time when the Neotropical migrants are mostly back or well on their way back to the tropics.
Likewise, intracontinental migrants are still moving through or settling into their winter Texas homes. Of these North American wanderers, I most look forward to the ducks and can’t wait to hit their hot spots along the Texas Coast like Rockport, the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park (Corpus Christi), and the Birding Center on South Padre Island. Loons and grebes, too, will soon begin arriving in Galveston Bay and environs, imparting a definite northern feel to the coastal Texas waterscape.
“When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.” ― Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
Last weekend the dreary weather pattern finally broke (we just stepped out of the car at Lafitte’s Cove as the trailing edge of the first real arctic blast passed overhead, blue skies behind), and we made the most of it. On Saturday afternoon we observed American Redstarts, Nashville, Magnolia, Canada, Black and White, and other warblers. White-eyed Vireos and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. Sunday we traveled to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Anahuac NWR was a bit more challenging on the biting fly front–at one point Chris was swinging the 600mm lens around to frame a Swainson’s Warbler when five or so biting bugs nailed him on the face thus breaking concentration . . . the bird flew off without a single shutter click. On the upside we walked away with nice Vermilion Flycatcher and Common Yellowthroat shots. We can’t wait to get out again!
A note to our subscribers: We are aware that the images in the e-mail notifications for new posts are being cropped on one side. The problem appeared suddenly out of the blue several weeks ago. Last week, we thought (erroneously) that we had the problem fixed. This week we have tried another approach–perhaps it will work.
September begins the fifth straight month of “the baking” of the Texas Gulf Coast. On the upside, the trickle of fall migrants that started in July finally gets into full swing. On September 1st we visited Lafitte’s Cove for the first time this fall migration (technically still summer, of course) and saw five warbler species: Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow, Canada, Black and White, and Hooded Warblers.
Warblers are are a Lafitte’s Cove speciality: In the past year we’ve seen twenty-four of the fifty-two species of warblers that regularly visit the United States. This is especially impressive given that the preserve covers only twenty acres. Surely Lafitte’s Cove must be counted among the best migrant traps in the United States.
Now, birds are fattening up on insects in preparation for their epic flight back to their wintering grounds to the south. Mosquitos can be a problem for birders at Lafitte’s Cove, but they have been less of a problem for us here than at other migrant traps along the Texas Gulf Coast like Sabine Woods and High Island.
We eagerly await the first blue norther when we’ll be able to bird in the cool fresh air! The first frost will mean an end to many of the nastiest biting bugs, and our wintering friends will be paddling peacefully across Gulf Coast waters (or otherwise doing their thing).
Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.–George Eliot
Although the vast majority of brightly-colored songbirds in Texas during the spring migration continue their journeys north, a few species remain to add flashes of color to the post-migration greenery. These include Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Eastern Bluebirds, Painted Buntings, and Summer Tanagers.
Of course, one of the things to watch for in the spring and summer is nesting behavior. Early this spring in an area of Brazos Bend State Park much frequented by warblers and other songbirds, I identified a nest cavity being used by a mated pair of Eastern Bluebirds (male shown above). Much later in the spring, the same nest cavity was adopted by Prothonotary Warblers.
Sadly, about two weeks ago I noticed that the top of the dead tree containing the nest cavity snapped off, taking the cavity with it. Last week, too, I noticed that another nest cavity in this area was gone. The whole dead tree collapsed. This is unfortunate as this little patch of forest and slough has been a reliable spot for nest cavities and songbirds for the past several years. I spotted the male Prothonotary Warbler shown below, for example, in this same area last summer. What a reminder that things humans place no value on, like dead trees, can be vital to the health of an ecosystem.
Painted buntings, especially the adult males, are among the most brilliantly-colored songbirds in North America. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to me breathlessly in the field with something like: “We saw this bird, it was . . . .” “Male Painted Bunting,” I interrupt gently.
The best place to find Painted Buntings in summer at Brazos Bend is where there are tall grasses with mature seed-heads adjacent to wooded areas (just in case a quick getaway is required). Painted buntings are so spectacular they, no doubt, will warrant a whole post of their own at some point in the future.
Tanagers are such prized summer sightings along the Texas Gulf Coast that I find myself double-checking every male Northern Cardinal I see. A rule of thumb is helpful when looking for Tanagers: find the fruit (especially mulberries), find the birds. Otherwise, Summer Tanagers are specialist feeders on bees and wasps. A few times I have chased Tanagers through the sweltering underbrush in hopes of getting a shot–usually to no avail. Photographing birds in the fully leafed-out summer forest is tough, and songbirds, coy creatures that they are, are not about to cooperate.
“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”–John Berger
“To a man, ornithologists are tall, slender, and bearded so that they can stand motionless for hours, imitating kindly trees, as they watch for birds.”–Gore Vidal
Galveston Island has been a central focus for our birding activities during spring migration 2013. Over the past week I have been quietly adding images to my Galveston Island Birds Collection. Please take a look.
Soon I will be trying to acclimate to the broiling Gulf Coast summer–and dreaming of staking out coastal migrant traps during fall migration 2013. It’s not that far off . . . the earliest crop of migrants should start showing up in late July! Can’t wait!