Galveston Island

Birding the Future

Pencil drawing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird by a young artist.
Trepp’s interpretation of my Ruby-throated Hummingbird image. Nature illustration is one of many ways young people express their interest in and curiosity about the natural world.

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.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte's Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX.
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds from a lantana flower cluster at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island, TX. Notice the dusting of pollen on his head
Portrait of Chris Cunningham in pencil by a young artist
Trepp captured Chris discussing our camera set-up during the HANPA April 2013 meeting.

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?

It’s up to us. How will you bird the future?


“The future depends on what you do today.”

— Mahatma Ghandi

Spring Migration 2013 Tapers Off

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” –Galileo Galilei

After a slow start, spring migration rallied, and now has begun to taper off. Some highly unusual weather patterns made the first week in May absolutely wonderful for birding, although the birds may have suffered for it. Massive cold fronts brought record-breaking cold and dry weather to Texas (and many other places). Some birds were so exhausted after flying into strong head-winds that they staggered and stumbled through the ground cover devouring every bug they encountered, oblivious to birders standing inches away. Sadly some didn’t survive their epic flight across the Gulf of Mexico: here and there gloriously colored little bodies lay among the leaf litter–a Scarlet Tanager, here, a Magnolia Warbler, there.

Male Blackburnian Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Blackburnian Warbler at the dripper, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. The first week in May at Lafitte’s Cove was amazing. High-speed synchronized flash.

Monster rain storms at the end of April soaked the Texas Gulf Coast, clearing allergens from the air. Cool dry weather afterward meant comfortable birding. Cold fronts with dew points in the twenties, however, dried everything out quickly, allowing the air to again fill with pollen and spores leaving many a birder to wipe his or her nose every few minutes–a minor imperfection in otherwise perfect weather.

Chestnut-sided Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Chestnut-sided Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.

I spent most of the first weekend in May at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. At least one major fallout during that time frame meant exceptional birding. There were times when the vegetation was literally hopping with warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, grossbeaks, buntings, flycatchers, hummingbirds, thrashers, and thrushes, among others. Flashes of avian color were all around. The warblers were particularly amazing. I noted Blackburnian, Prothonotary, Yellow, Wilson’s, Blue-winged, Common Yellowthroat, Chesnut-sided, Canada, American Redstart, Magnolia, Tennessee, Nashville, Kentucky, Black and White, Worm-eating, Northern Parula, Palm, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Hooded Warblers–just a few short of 50% of the 49 warbler species that occur in the U.S. Add to that the seven species seen by other birders (and reported to me in the field) in the same time frame, and well over half of U.S. species were observed within this little patch of trees in just a few days.

Male Hooded Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Hooded Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.

Of all people on this trip during spring migration, I thought of Sir Isaac Newton, ornithologist. Yes, we can add ornithologist to mathematical and physical genius, ruthless enforcer of government policy, and nutty historian and theologian. Sir Isaac was the first to attribute the structural colors of bird feathers to interference and diffraction (physical optics). And he was the first to really understand the seasons as the result of the precession of the earth’s spin axis due to a gravitational torque exerted by the sun and moon–although his equations needed a little tweaking by later workers. So we owe some of our most basic understandings of two of the most important themes in birdwatching, avian color and the seasons, to Sir Isaac Newton.

Now that the spring migration is ending, I’ll have to start getting back into summer mode–primarily going after wader hunting scenes, one of my favorite subjects, but somehow lacking the glory of the migration. Just the thought and awesome spectacle of hundreds of millions of birds chasing the sun and warmth and exploding insect populations north inspires. I can’t wait for next spring!

Worm-eating Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Worm-eating Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Finally, at 11:07 AM on Sunday, May 5th, the shutter on my beloved Canon EOS 7D gave out. 7Ds are rated for 100,000 shutter actuations, which I think I far exceeded. I wasn’t even upset at the camera that died just as a Common Yellowthroat appeared for a drink of water. The 7D is a marvel of technology and among the best values on the planet. I removed the CF card and retired it to a place of honor on the shelf containing my other obsolete or spent camera bodies. I bought a new 7D on the following Monday.

Magnolia Warbler among the grape vines, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Magnolia Warbler Among the Grape Vines, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Perhaps they’ll be laden with ripe and rotting fruit (attracting tasty bugs!) for the return journey. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may duplicated or distributed without permission.

Lafitte’s Cove for Neotropical Migrants

Despite all the whining last post, I had a delightful time at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island last weekend. Present were Short-billed Dowitchers (in summer colors), Mottled Ducks, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Parulas, Northern Waterthrushes, a Scarlet Tanager, Prothonotary Warblers, Palm Warblers, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a Cooper’s Hawk.

I used to think that Sabine Woods was the best place for springtime Neotropical migrants along the Texas Gulf Coast, but I was wrong. Lafitte’s Cove is better . . . at least this spring . . . on the days I visited . . . . Although both places are exceptional birding locales and well worth a visit, they are not without their challenges. Sabine Woods, for example, has the nastiest biting insects I’ve ever experienced (possible exceptions include Mexico and northern Minnesota). Lafitte’s Cove, because it is essentially located within a subdivision, has lots of people (some noisy). Luckily most of them are nice.

Additional images from this session will be included within the Galveston Island Birds Collection some day (when I have time).

Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Bathing Tennessee Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island. Texas
Northern Waterthrush at Lafitte’s Cove. Northern Waterthrushes are difficult to tell from Louisiana Waterthrushes. This bird is a Northern Waterthrush because the superciliary stripe thins behind the eye, and the throat is streaked, rather than white. High-speed synchronized flash.
Prothonotary Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Prothonotary Warbler (aka Golden Swamp Warbler) at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island. “Prothonotary Warbler” is a silly name of obscure origin that should be abandoned. The original name, Golden Swamp Warbler, says it all. High-speed synchronized flash.

“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission. No animals were harmed in the preparation of this blog post.

Settling for Reptiles and Flowers (For Now)

Given the fantastic spring we had last year, I had very high songbird hopes for this spring. Many I have spoken to in the field, however, have had, like me, a disappointing spring thus far. Some serious birders I have spoken to have described this spring as “strange” or  “weird” and attempted to spin personal theories about wind and weather misdirecting birds away from their normal trajectories. There were times last year at this time when Edith L. Moore, for example, was hopping with warblers. Of course, most of the spring still remains, and hope springs eternal.

This past weekend we visited Pelican Island, the Corps Woods, and Edith L. Moore. I saw a Blue-headed Vireo at the latter, and that was about it, other than extremely common Gulf Coast resident birds. Botanically, Pelican Island was the Garden of Eden, and I did enjoy some floral macrophotography. We have apparently had a bumper crop of herps this year, however. Lizards and other reptiles are common sights and sounds as they rummage around in the leaf litter. Now as fond as I am of herps (having spent most of my childhood stalking them through swamps and forests and having taken several herpetology courses in college and graduate school), let’s face it: they are no substitute for birds. At this point, the only herp I would be excited to see would be the one thrashing around in the beak of a wader, shrike, or raptor!

Great Egret with juvenile five-lined skink at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Great Egret with Juvenile Five-lined Skink at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird was hunting lizards in a dry, fully terrestrial, grassy area–not the water’s edge, where one typically sees waders taking prey.

As I write this the weather forecast looks fantastic for the weekend. A massive cold front has just pushed all the dreary, humid slop out to sea, leaving behind blazing cobalt skies–perfect for illuminating the glowing hues of warblers, vireos, and orioles among the flowers. But not herps. Hear me Fates . . . please not herps!

Acacia constricta at Pelican Island, Texas
Acacia constricta (whitethorn) at Pelican Island, Texas. Pelican Island was dotted with flowering honeysuckle, evening primrose, and mulberry trees in fruit last weekend. Birds were in short supply, however. Hand-held with 100mm f/2.8L IS macro/high-speed synchronized ring flash.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Spring Migration Has Begun: Early Migrants Have Arrived on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast! (Just in Time for Wildflowers)

Male Northern Parula at the Sabine Wood Sanctuary, Texas Gulf Coast
Male Northern Parula at Sabine Woods.

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.

Leather flowers at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract)
Blue Jasmine (Clematis crispa) at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract). This elegant plant was one of the few wildflowers in bloom here.

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).

American Pipit with crane fly at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Pipit with Crane Fly at Brazos Bend State Park near 40-Acre Lake. Crane flies are a staple for insectivorous birds during cool late winter/early spring weather. Photo taken hand-held, Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS.

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.

Louisiana Iris at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Louisiana Iris (Iris sp.) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary.

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.

Black and White Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black and White Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island.

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!

Scarlet Buckeye at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Scarlet Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. One of the earliest splashes of native spring color in Gulf Coast woods.

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Got Fruit?

I spotted this strangely solo visitor to the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove on Galveston Island on March 12, 2013. Cedar Waxwings are seldom seen solo – they travel in small to medium flocks throughout Texas beginning in fall through late spring.

If you find yourself among any berry-laden shrubs and trees during the Texas winter or spring, you just might be engulfed by the sound of high-pitched trilling whistles followed immediately by a foraging flock of finely-feathered Cedar Waxwings. This is a birding experience not to be missed. I have often found myself delightfully engulfed by scores of Cedar Waxwings plucking late winter – early spring berries from stands of native yaupon (and pockets of invasive and unwelcome privet). Even so, I had been unsuccessful at capturing a decent image of these beauties – until now. This image was taken near the dripper at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, TX  which was full of yaupon (Ilex sp.) with ripe berries this past Tuesday. Finally, a clean shot!

Since Cedar Waxwings are primarily (though not exclusively) frugivores, these migrants tend to hang out here longer than our avian winter Texans which chase insect populations on the way to their summer breeding grounds. Cedar Waxwings are known to eat the berries of cedar, mistletoe, juniper, madrone, honeysuckle, crabapple, hawthorn, mulberry, serviceberry, dogwood, and more – a smorgasbord of successively ripening berries. So, as you bird for early spring migrants plucking insects and spiders from the vegetation, keep an eye out for ripe berries of all sorts and perk your ears for the Cedar Waxwing’s telltale song.

© 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Additions to Collections: Texas Ducks and Galveston Island Birds

Over the past few weeks I’ve been slipping new images into the Texas Ducks and Galveston Island Birds Collections. Please take a look!

Female Ring-necked Duck at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas
Female Ring-necked Duck at Brazos Bend State Park. Ring-necked Ducks are generally not common at Brazos Bend State Park–except this year! Mated pairs could be seen feeding in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake in February, but males would not venture into open water when humans were around. Photo taken at Elm Lake with high-speed synchronized fill flash and IS Mode 2.
Male Gadwall in flight over Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Male Gadwall in Flight over Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Pelican Pouches and the Power of Citizen Science

Eastern Brown Pelican with red throat pouch at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas.
A Brown Pelican with a red throat pouch glides past the shore at Offatts Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas on February 3, 2013. Many references suggest that Brown Pelicans with red throat pouches only occur along the Pacific Coast. Field observations suggest otherwise!

While we were watching the loons at Offats Bayou in early February, a Brown Pelican paddled through my viewfinder. Odd, I thought — red pouch. After much hopeful discussion and reference checking we were excited to think that we had a California Brown Pelican visiting our patch of the Texas Gulf Coast. There are five subspecies of Brown Pelican — the California, Caribbean, Eastern (ours), Galapagos, and Ecuador Brown Pelicans. The gular pouch of the Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals carolinensis) is most often described as dark gray or blackish, whereas in the California Brown Pelican (Pelicanus occidentals californicus) the pouch is a distinctive red and olive. The difference has been used to distinguish the two subspecies.

Eastern Brown Pelican with black gular pouch
Adult Eastern Brown Pelican with the typical black gular pouch seen in early spring along the Gulf Coast.

As is often the case, things aren’t always as they seem (I love it when this happens!). Upon further investigation, I stumbled upon a post in Sibley Guides online which explains that red pouches seem to also be a part of the Eastern Brown Pelican gene pool based on field observations. The post includes speculation on whether these genes were introduced during Brown Pelican reintroduction in the 70’s or whether it’s really a matter of natural gene flow. Perhaps it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. The observation poses a bunch of new questions to investigate!

Strangely enough this topic was just mentioned on ABA Birding News this past Thursday. A birder/photographer documented a banded Brown Pelican with a red pouch and the band code indicated it was banded as a flightless juvenile in Louisiana — photographic proof that we can no longer use pouch color alone to differentiate Pacific vs. Atlantic subspecies! It seems our “visitor” is most likely a Texan after all.

It is worth noting that this “pelican brief” was brought to you by citizen science and the power of the internet to access and share data. Enthusiasts and amateur scientists interested in birds and their ecology contribute to ornithology in meaningful ways. Opportunities are out there for birders of all ages. You can participate nationally with  Cornell All About Birds Citizen Science projectsAudubon Citizen Science, or eBird – the amazing biodiversity data resource powered by amateur and professional bird watchers alike launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in 2002.

Go exploring!

 © 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Where the Loons Are

Common Loon in winter plumage head shot
Common Loon in winter plumage fishing Offatt’s Bayou close to shore.

One of our favorite birding tools is the excellent guidebook Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast by Ted Eubanks. Last weekend, tempted by Eubanks’ description of loons often feeding a few feet from shore, we visited Galveston’s Offatt’s Bayou (site 65 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). Not only did we have multiple opportunities to watch Common Loons up close but the loons seemed unperturbed by humans — we witnessed loons popping up as close as 3 feet away as we sat on the fishing dock. Indeed, a local fisherman complained to us that the loons often steal his bait while underwater.

According to Eubanks, a visit in late April just before migration should provide views of Common Loons in their distinctive checkerboard breeding plumage. Although their winter plumage is drab by breeding plumage standards, it was fascinating to watch them hunt. Swimming by, they peered underwater, moving their heads side to side presumably searching for prey. After one dive, a loon came up with a small crab and then swallowed it whole. This hunting strategy requires clear water which is why you can find loons in Offatt’s Bayou and other deep, non-silty bodies of water. Our previous experience at Texas City Dike produced many loons but Offat’s Bayou wins hands down for reliable up close photographic opportunities.

All five species of North American Loons are known to winter around the Gulf of Mexico. However, only Common Loons are common around Galveston Bay.  And although tolerance of humans allows for more intimate views (or a pre-caught lunch), sharing fishing holes has not been entirely positive, for loons or loon watchers. A quick survey of the web indicates that lead poisoning from fishing tackle is a leading cause of mortality in loons – not to mention other other wildlife. I was encouraged to read however, that anglers and conservationsists in a few Common Loon breeding ground states have successfully implemented economically viable non-lead fishing tackle alternatives.

Most likely juvenile Common Loon in winter plumage fishing in Offatt's Bayou, Galveston Island, Texas
Juvenile Common Loon or rare Pacific Loon? Although this loon looks like an adult non-breeding Pacific Loon, it is missing a dark partial throat band. Most likely it is a juvenile Common Loon. Loon watchers: please let us know your thoughts.

© Copyright 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Appreciating Galveston

Eastern Meadowlark at Galveston Island State Park, Texas
Eastern(?) Meadowlark at the Prairie Trail, Galveston Island State Park, Texas.

In keeping with new year’s resolutions, we struck out this three-day weekend for Galveston in search of new areas to explore for birds. We scouted the northern edge of San Luis Pass, Lafitte’s Cove, and several trails we had not visited before at Galveston Island State Park, especially the Prairie and Freshwater Ponds Trails. We were lucky to see a group of about twelve Red-breasted Mergansers in a tidal channel at San Luis Pass. The Freshwater Ponds and Prairie Trails produced White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, a Barn Owl, Eastern(?) Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, a Palm Warbler, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, Orange-Crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American White Pelicans, and Buffleheads, among others.

On this trip the conditions were just what the doctor ordered: clear and dry, upper thirties in the early mornings and warming into the low sixties by afternoon. Over the past several weeks unusually nasty weather had keep us indoors, and our photographic skills atrophied. On this trip I got to practice my in-flight, hand-held technique with the 300mm f/4L IS and tripod work with the 500mm f/4L, including tracking swimming birds with IS Mode 2.

American White Pelican at Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park
American White Pelican at the Freshwater Ponds Trail, Galveston Island State Park. These majestic creatures allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique.

We were excited to discover a man-made  “water feature” in a wooded area at Lafitte’s Cove, specifically designed for bird watchers and photographers. This feature is very similar to the one maintained by the Texas Ornithological Society at Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Although I have never experienced anything but the utmost in civility at Sabine Woods, apparently photographers and binocular users can’t get along with each other at Lafitte’s Cove. Like at the Smith Oaks Rookery (where squabbles and hard feelings are common) there are posted time limits for spots and separately designated areas for binocular users and tripod photographers/spotting scope users. We’ll find out during spring migration if both groups can respect posted rules, avoid hogging the best viewing/shooting spots, and refrain from snarky comments . . . although a “night of the tiny fists” type encounter as described by the late Gore Vidal might be amusing to witness.

On the way home we visited the Skillern Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where we were treated to a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese in one of the eastern fields near the tract entrance. During most of this trip to Galveston and environs I had the feeling that the birds were warier than usual. The frequent crack of gunfire in the background–not to mention yahoos in ATVs crashing through the marshes, music blaring–may hold the key. During the drive back along the White-knuckle Express (I-10), where I was treated to many interactions with maniacs and nincompoops, I had time to reflect upon the wonderful effects humans have had on the biosphere.

Greater White-fronted Geese at Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Greater White-fronted Geese at the Skillern Tract, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. These geese were extremely wary of humans. I wonder why.

© 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Birds in Flight: A Challenge

I once read a criticism of bird photographers that went something like this: most of the bird photos out there are of birds sitting on branches or on the ground. Since birds spend most of their time flying, why aren’t there more photos of birds in flight? My first reaction was: here is a person who knows neither birds nor photography. The exact percentage of time many species of birds spend in the air is not known. However, with the exceptions of some pelagic birds (e.g., frigate birds), Common Swifts (famously), and some other birds during migration, many birds do not spend most of the time in the air. Hummingbirds, for example, have been estimated to spend about 75-80% of their time perched. Furthermore, getting a shot of a bird in the air is a major technical challenge–not something the average person with a point-and-shoot is going to be able to do.

Even slow-moving birds are extremely fast by human standards, and their movements can seem erratic. Lucky shots excepted, the best hope for getting birds in flight (BIF) is to find a spot where birds frequently fly past and try to anticipate their motion along a glide path. Shorebirds, for example, often congregate in large groups along the strand line–and may remain there for hours unless disturbed. Individuals will come and go for their own reasons, but the photographer at least knows the starting or ending point of the bird’s motion.

Brown Pelican in flight over Galveston Bay
Brown Pelican in Flight over Galveston Bay. Pelicans are enjoyable to photograph in flight. They often soar close to the surface of the water. Sometimes they will climb to height and plunge vertically after fish in spectacular fashion. I suspect that pterodactyloid pterosaurs, like Pteranodonmust have looked rather pelican-like as they soared over the Western Interior Seaway of North America during the Cretaceous Period. For this shot, I anticipated the bird’s flight path as best I could and started shooting when it entered the frame. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/2500, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering

Although I am still perfecting my technique, I have noticed a few things. It seems that there are really only two techniques that work consistently for capturing a BIF, given that a birdy spot has been identified and the photographer has a good sense of how the subjects will, in general, be moving. It seems that the shooter could either track the BIF by panning as it moves in from a distance or point the camera along the anticipated flight path and start shooting when the bird enters the frame. Of course, both of these approaches have built-in technical challenges. The problem with waiting for a bird to enter the frame and then shoot is reaction time–and as I age, this problem isn’t getting better! Sometimes I get a beautiful picture of an empty sky! Panning, on the other hand, means the camera is moving relative to the ground, so vibration and deviations in smooth linear motion are major concerns.

Many sports and action photographers will simply point and swing their cameras along the direction of subject motion and fire off a burst of frames (without looking through the viewfinder) and hope for the best. But birds are too small in the frame for this approach to work, so the focus point must be on the bird, and the camera must be panning steadily and smoothly.

The last two generations of Canon lenses have image stabilization (IS) in two modes, one for panning (mode 2) and one for stationary shooting (mode 1). Mode 1 is primarily for shooting hand-held at relatively slow shutter speeds. Camera shake is often a problem when shooting at shutter speeds slower than 1/(focal length), and IS addresses this. When my 500 mm f/4 IS is on the tripod (99.9% of the time) the IS is generally switched off (exceptions include very windy days or being on a boat). I have read that most tripod photographers also generally leave IS off when the lens is on the tripod–although Canon literature says it should be left on because the IS system senses the tripod and responds accordingly. In my experience, however, the IS slows focusing and sometimes produces a slight, but annoying torque on the lens. When panning, however, I will leave the IS on. I have not noticed the slowing or torquing while panning–perhaps the whole operation of capturing a BIF is so seat-of-the pants, the IS the least of my worries!

In any case, I can’t wait to get out again and keep shooting those birds in flight–with my perennial goal of continuous improvement in knowledge and technique.

Royal Tern in flight, Galveston, Texas
Young Royal Tern in Fall, Galveston, Texas. I tracked this bird in flight to obtain the shot. Royal Terns have been known to steal fish from the gullets of pelicans. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4 IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/8000, exposure bias -0.33, aperture priority; spot metering.

© 2012 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.


Insect Oasis

Portrait of a Hermit Thrush on the beach at Galveston, Texas
This Hermit Thrush emerged from a patch of cane along the eastern tip of Galveston Island.

I was a bit surprised to see this Hermit Thrush hop out of the cane patch I was hiding in last weekend on the east end of Galveston Island. I’ve only seen Hermit Thrushes in their typical habitat—the understory of coniferous or deciduous forests. Instead of rummaging through moist leaf litter, this little one hunted a sea of sand punctuated by 12-foot-tall bamboo stalks. Was it lost?  I don’t think so. . . . It was keeping good company. In the course of less than an hour, I observed an Eastern Phoebe and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet find a variety of tasty insects and spiders. Also, just the week before, I spotted a Swamp Sparrow and a female Indigo Bunting and Redstart in the same small patch. Hmmmmmm.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet hunting at Galveston Island, Texas
I observed this Ruby-crowned Kinglet fishing spiders out of nooks and crannies.
Eastern Phoebe perched on giant river cane on Galveston Island, Texas
I spotted this Eastern Phoebe using cane as a hunting perch.













Questioning how this cane patch could be an insect-rich oasis for migrating and wintering birds led to a little research project (as do many of our outings). I had always assumed these patches of cane scattered on the beach and coastal waterways were foreign and invasive. Since non-natives don’t typically support complex ecosystems, I initially turned my nose up at them. (Invasive plant species often provide cover and water but do not support a wide diversity of prey species required for a complex food web.) As it turns out, Arundinaria, our only native bamboo, is endemic to the eastern half of the US.

With newfound respect, I look forward to a much more enlightened investigation of these remnant coastal bamboo “forests.” If you decide to venture into the cane, don’t forget your snake boots!

© 2012 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.