Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail

Duck! Birding the Texas Coastal Bend in Fall

Redhead at the Freshwater Channel, Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Redhead Drake at the “Freshwater Channel,” Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park, Corpus Christi, Texas. This park is one of the best places on the Coastal Bend to see waterfowl, and the evening light can be spectacular. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Over a three-day period this Thanksgiving Holiday we visited a number of our favorite Coastal Bend birding haunts in and around Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. These included Paradise Pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, the Nature Sanctuary at Charlie’s Pasture (all Mustang Island), and San José Island, and the Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Nature Park in Corpus Christi. And yes, when it was over we were wiped out!

All of these sites were flush with birds, except San José Island which proved to be such a disappointment that we found ourselves photographing crabs! With the exception of San José, all of these sites are really better for birding than for bird photography for one simple reason: Narrow boardwalks make tripods problematic, especially when other birders are present.

Hooded Merganser Hen, Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas.
Hooded Merganser Hen, Paradise Pond, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas. This bird was perhaps the most co-operative merganser I have ever seen. In the past, be they Hooded, Common, or Red-Breasted, Mergansers have quickly retreated upon our approach. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Highlights of these late Fall and early winter trips to the Coastal Bend are often the waterfowl. You just can’t beat a crisp morning with formations of ducks and geese overhead and wet, feathered-friends paddling peacefully around the waterways. Although we saw plenty of ducks and geese, seeing vast tracts of prairie and wetland without a single bird (and often hearing the crack of gunfire in the background) got me wondering about duck populations in North America.

A quick survey of a recently published U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report reassured that duck numbers are (in general) large by “historical” standards. This report presented data but provided little analysis or discussion. Overall, a few duck species are down relative to recent years, but the total number of ducks is close to 50 million. So humans must not be adversely affecting waterfowl populations, right?

Wait! The above cited historical quantitative records of duck numbers begin in 1955. The 1930’s (think Dust Bowl), 40’s, and 50’s were times of drought across North America. Could it be that our concept of how many waterfowl there “should be” in wetter times is too low? Again according to the report, some duck species (Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall) show a steady increase in numbers, with minor ups and downs, beginning in the mid-1950’s—perhaps indicating a recovery from a time of ecological decimation? Given the interplay of anthropogenic, meteorological, and ecological influences, we’ll never know for sure what waterfowl populations would look like without the pervasive human impacts of the past fifty years. But in North American waterfowl numbers there is certainly food for thought.

Green-winged Teal Hen, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas
Green-winged Teal Hen, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The fallacy of presentism is a complex anachronism, in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent.—David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Road Trips Down the Upper Texas Coast!

Male Scarlet Tanager in breeding color at Pelican Island, Texas
Male Scarlet Tanager in Breeding Color at Pelican Island, Texas. This dandy was feasting on bees and mulberries. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Long-billed Dowitcher at French Town Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Takeoff: Long-billed Dowitcher at Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held, from car. Natural Light.
Great Egret with stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret with Stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Birders can currently observe Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Neotropic Cormorants, and Snowy Egrets fussing with nesting materials at Smith Oaks. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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).

Pectoral Sandpiper at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Pectoral Sandpiper at the south pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird is en route from the Pampas of southern South America to the High Arctic. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. 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.

Looking for Loons in All the Right Places

Common Loons are reported to be common along the Texas Gulf Coast during winter and spring, and we do see them from time to time. Often, however, they keep their distance from humans. At a few spots in the Galveston Bay area, loons are reported to come in fairly close to shore. We plan on visiting a few of these places before spring ends and the birds return north. This morning we went looking for loons along the Texas City Dike. From a photographic perspective, this is a location that is going to require some further study, as is usually the case when one first tries to shoot somewhere new.

We were thrilled to see about two dozen Common Loons, mostly along the South side of the dike–as one would expect after reading the literature. The problem is that the sun is in the southern sky at this time of year, and so most of the time the birds are back-lit. A few birds were present on the north side of the dike, but they stayed much further off shore. The reason is possibly that the water is too shallow for them close to the dike on the north side. Loons prefer clear deep water for fishing, and we observed numerous fish being taken by these submarine hunters.

On this trip, we tried our usual tripod techniques as well as using our car as a blind while driving down the dike (a method often recommended for this site), trying to anticipate where the birds would surface next. I did notice distinct patterns of loon behavior relative to differences in water surface texture, no doubt reflecting water depth and currents. The loons were also fairly consistent in the amount of time submerged/distance travelled underwater. In the future, I hope I can become better at connecting water texture and loon behavior so as to predict more precisely where these fascinating creatures will next surface after diving. Can’t wait to get out there looking for loons again: Offatts Bayou is next on the itinerary!

Common Loon at Texas City Dike
Living in the Wake of a Loon: Common Loon along the south side of the Texas City Dike. This beauty allowed me to practice my swimming bird tracking technique. Common Loons are common, but they often won’t let you get anywhere near them.

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