When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.–Thornton Wilder
As much as we love birding around the Houston area, the crush of humanity–mostly traffic and yahoo encounters–has become a bit much of late. This sentiment figured prominently in our choice of retirement location: Birding had to be available right outside our door. And now there are many birding sites within a few miles of our desert home. So presently I can work myself into a near stupor with building and maintenance projects and still get out to bird once in a while . . . .
And if the birding doesn’t pan out, as was the case this morning, daubs of wildflower color do dot the landscape and are available for macro work. This day I went out to South Fork, Cave Creek seeking an image of the Elegant Trogon, but had to settle for flowers and bugs (and hearing the bird’s call). Maybe next time.
If my leg falls off, I’ll get a prosthetic. There’d be no deep sadness about. I’d just get on with it! It’s called life, and I love life. You have to be positive, and you have to crack on no matter what. –John Lydon
Food, water, and cover are essentials for wildlife. All of these resources vary in their distribution over time depending on climate and weather. As a newcomer to Cave Creek, my forays out into the desert have lately been mostly about finding food plants–so I can find the birds and bugs!
Currently a number of plants are in bloom in the lower valley. Cenizo or Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), mountain yucca (Yucca schottii), Palmer’s agave (Agave palmeri), and trumpet vine and elderberry (as noted in previous posts), are all providing food for birds and other animals. When not clearing brush or refinishing woodwork, I have been hanging around these plants hoping to see some visitors.
I have, for example, spent several hours on several occasions camped out by a large Palmer’s Agave. Although hoping for Bullock’s Orioles (Never mind the Bullocks, MP!), which I’ve seen at other agaves while driving through the canyon, the only birds I’ve seen at this particular plant have been hummingbirds and Black-headed Grosbeaks. I’ll give the orioles the old college try a few more times!
The North American monsoon, variously known as the Southwest monsoon, the Mexican monsoon, the New Mexican monsoon, or the Arizona monsoon, is a pattern of pronounced increase in thunderstorms and rainfall over large areas of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, typically occurring between July and mid September. During the monsoon, thunderstorms are fueled by daytime heating and build up during the late afternoon-early evening. –North American Monsoon, Wikipedia
June in Cave Creek Canyon was unusual this year in that it rained heavily several times at low elevation. Since the second week in July, it has rained often: The monsoon is here! The vegetation is beginning to green up, and soon some angiosperm species will begin to flower. Some animals have changed their behavior, too. No longer pressed for places to drink, traffic at our dripper has decreased. Driving the roads at night is thankfully no longer a video-game-like experience of trying to avoid hitting roaming cottontails and jackrabbits on desperate searches for water.
I confess to sometimes being at a loss as how to proceed with nature photography in Cave Creek Canyon. It is such a rich environment (and getting richer every day with the rains) that it is a challenge to decide which equipment to bring out on a hike or birding trip. Most of the canyon hikes I have been on (especially the ones with the local hiking club) have been too arduous to bring the big glass (600mm f/4L). Sometimes when I bring the big glass, I regret not having the macro.
A few times I have attempted to bring both the big glass and the macro set-up (100mm f/2.8L Macro plus macro ring-flash) and have been rewarded with complete exhaustion. Often, I have hiked with binoculars only with that idea that if we find interesting plants or insects or an area rich in birds I would return with appropriate additional optics. A few times, I have brought the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L as a compromise. In those cases, there has generally been an interesting bird just out of range for such a middle-of-the-road lens!
Only additional experience, I suspect, will allow me to know how to proceed most effectively. In only a few weeks here, I have seen a number of tough-to-see bird species including Elegant Trogon, Plumbeous Vireo, and Thick-billed Kingbird–but haven’t gotten the big glass on them, yet. Time and continued effort should remedy this situation (I hope!).
Our world is made up of a myriad of microcosms, of tiny worlds, each with its own habitués, every one known to the others.–Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man
The last several weeks have found us swamped with work and moving (again!). A thousand-mile move finds us in Portal, Arizona for most of the summer. June is by local standards the “worst” month to be out here, but by Houston standards it is quite pleasant. The days have been hot and dry (around 90° F) with nights in the 60º’s F (although 50º’s are more typical historically). Strangely, over the past few days a monsoon-like pattern has developed with brief showers in the afternoon. The real monsoon should appear next month, when the “best” time of the year begins complete with the blooming of the desert.
While unpacking and working on the house, I wanted an “easy” photography project to unwind, and much to my delight the mystery vine that is threaded through the patio and onto an arbor has turned out to be a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) literally crawling with a host of insect species, including ants, flies, bugs (Homoptera), bees and wasps, and butterflies. As a bonus, while watering the vine yesterday a huge tarantula hawk (Pompilidae) appeared to drink from a splash on the patio. Many of these denizens of the Trumpet Vine World were large enough to photograph with a standard macro lens. It will be quite the task to identify the arthropodan menagerie of this mini-world–but I’ll put it on the list of Arizona projects!
This vine is also serving as a food plant for hummingbirds–nectar and associated insects. In the past two days, we have observed three hummingbird species drinking from the flowers: Blue-throated, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Likely there are also Magnificent Hummingbirds around, but we haven’t spotted any, yet. We’re not quite ready to start going after the birds seriously, at least for now. According to a neighbor, because of all the feeders, Magnificent and Blue-throated hummingbirds are now year-round residents in Cave Creek Canyon.
Finally, trumpet vine has a bad reputation among gardeners because of its aggressive and invasive nature. It is native to the eastern United States and naturalized in parts of the West. I personally love flowering vines, and once we are installed here permanently, I can foresee a diversity of native vines to feed our resident and itinerant hummingbirds–and the vast and largely unnoticed arthropod community.
When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. –E. O. Wilson
When I go to a party, nobody says hello. But when I leave, everybody says goodbye. –George Gobel
Last weekend we were on our knees on a hot, humid mudflat getting chewed up by sandflies photographing Least Sandpipers as they plucked insect larvae from the sand–when it started to pour warm rain. I looked up to see blue skies overhead. Noting the trajectory of the rain drops, I noticed that they were being blown at about a 45 degree angle from a small gray cloud coming up behind us from the Gulf. Geez. One good thing: We’re likely not far enough south to contract leishmaniasis from the fly bites!
Elisa beat me back to the truck. Once I got there, we mopped off the equipment with my handkerchief. We sat there, in silence, grimy and soggy with rain and sweat. And then, suddenly, I announced that I was finally done for the summer . . . . I will return to the field only after the the first blue norther, maybe in a week or two (or three).
Summer has many wonders: singing, nesting, and baby birds, flowers, and zillions of cool insects. But enough is enough. Texas, you finally beat me.
A friend who has long since retired and moved from Houston to the hills of Tennessee explained why September is the most trying month in Texas. He found it tough looking at the news and seeing the cooling temperatures and changing colors of the leaves up north—when it is still 95 degrees in the shade here. Houston summers, though, give a great excuse for travel!
In about a month, there will be a few nice days per week. In two months, it will be nice almost all the time. In three months . . . I will be in love with Texas again.
Spring comes on the World –
I sight the Aprils –
Hueless to me until thou come
As, till the Bee
Blossoms stand negative,
Touched to Conditions
By a Hum.—Spring comes on the world, Emily Dickinson
Even though it’s the middle of winter, signs of the drive toward life and impending spring are all around, hinting at much greater changes to come.
Some herons, night-herons, egrets, and Double-crested Cormorants are sporting breeding plumes, some of the early bloomers like redbuds and Mexican plums are starting to pop, and there are splashes of color everywhere. Soon, the most exciting time of the year begins with the return of the spring migrants . . . .
Territorial displays and fights, singing, courtship and nesting behavior will be all around shortly, also. Baby birds will quickly follow. But, after a few months of chasing birds around in the Texas heat a new longing will begin . . . a longing for the first blue norther of fall . . . .
Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.–Paul Dirac
We’ve gotten into the habit of stopping at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary (QNBS) on the way back from birding Bryan Beach and the lagoons behind—even outside the times of spring and fall migration, when it’s unlikely that there will be many birds around. I am interested in having a feel for Gulf Coast migrant traps year-round. These migrant traps are, to my mind, some of the most precious natural resources along the Gulf Coast. Likely the first major trip we’ll take upon retirement will be an April coastal road trip from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Paradise Pond, Texas hitting as many migrant traps as possible. On our last trip to Quintana, though, we saw only Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Brown Thrasher, and an Eastern Phoebe in the sanctuary itself.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Town of Quintana, the entities that maintain the QNBS, have planted a number of native and non-native nectar plants for birds, hummingbirds in particular. The taxonomic diversity of nectar plants insures that blooms will be present when the birds, mostly Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, pass through in spring (March, April, and into May) and late summer (August and September). The plants also attract insects which serve as food for insectivorous birds like warblers, tanagers, vireos, and flycatchers. I much prefer the aesthetics of food plants, even if they are not native, to feeders. What could be better than a sighting or an image of a hummingbird or oriole drinking nectar from a flower, especially a native flower? These food plants are part of chain of resources that allow the movement of birds back and forth between the Neotropics and North America . . . they literally reach out and touch the entire biosphere of the Americas . . . .
Not having many birds around allows me to focus on my neophyte macrophotography skills. Blooms can be beautiful, but clearly the presence of an insect adds a lot to any flower image. No matter how spectacular the bloom my eye is always drawn to the bug, no matter how drab or nondescript (as in the shrimp plant above).
In conclusion, one piece of advice for budding flower photographers: get a macro ring flash. Are you reading this, MP? The naturalist at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area (southeast Oklahoma), David Arbour, was kind enough to take us on birding tour of the refuge several years ago and said that flash was not only helpful, but necessary for macrophotography. After several years in the field since then, I completely agree.
Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. –Oscar Wilde
At some point during the winter, a major blue northern will, hopefully, blow through and stay. Until then we’ll check the radar and bore each other (and the ghost of Oscar Wilde) with endless conversations about the temperature, humidity, jet stream, and El Niño.
But even with the iffy weather, late fall and early winter seem to be the times for charming and oddball little discoveries. Last weekend the first real Arctic blast swept across Texas. Optimistically we headed to the Coast. But at 8 am Sunday on East Beach, Galveston the winds were howling so we aborted our attempts at shorebird photography (a strong wind can twirl the barrel of a supertelephoto lens around and conk an inattentive bird photographer across the skull!) and headed for Lafitte’s Cove.
Hoping the oak motte would expend some wind energy, we approached the trees. But alas, it was still too windy for big glass, and so we settled for binocular birding. On the way into the motte, we heard a Northern Mockingbird imitating the clattering call of a Belted Kingfisher—a first for us. Once in the trees, I spotted a Pine Siskin among a small group of American Goldfinches. This was my first ever sighting of a Pine Siskin on Galveston. Although (according to the literature) Siskins do rarely make it down to the Coast during winter, I have to think that this bird was blown off course by the massive cold front that had just arrived, perhaps 30 hours before.
In late fall/winter trees are bare, and as a result we see more songbirds than at any other time of the year. This is a good time to look for statistically rare individual color variations. Sometimes in winter, for example, it’s possible to observe diet-induced House Finch color variants, namely male birds with orange or yellow on their heads and throats (rather than red). I don’t know what the proportion of yellow- and orange-headed male House finches is—but it must be only one in dozens of birds.
This is also the time to really watch waders hunting. I’ve already mentioned the treefrog hunting that goes on around the southern margin of Pilant Lake (and I saw some more of that this week), but it seems that birds are having to work harder and are tapping somewhat atypical resources. The Little Blue Heron below, for example, was hunting in a patch of water hyacinth—and catching grasshoppers. Over the years I’ve watched Little Blues eat countless small fish, frogs and crayfish, but this is the first time I’ve seen one eating grasshoppers. Usually it’s Cattle Egrets that are grabbing katydids and grasshoppers. Perhaps times are getting a little lean, and everybody is a little less picky and willing to eat anything that moves.
Finally, the strangely warm and humid weather that has dragged deep into November has had one very nasty side effect: an explosion in the population of vicious biting gnats. I’ve always been sensitive to gnat bites, but these suckers raise huge itchy welts that hurt for days. On Wednesday of this week, gnats were so thick at Brazos Bend State Park that even the birds were being dogged by clouds of these nasties. So here I sit, hoping for a hard freeze to settle the bugs’ hash once and for all—and begin the real, lovely birding season.
He that will enjoy the brightness of sunshine, must quit the coolness of the shade.–Samuel Johnson
In the summer, especially after about 9:30 am, it’s generally way too bright to do much good photo-birding (except maybe with some fill-flash), so I like to wander off into a grassy area and take advantage of the fireball in the sky and shoot some macro. Shooting with apertures smaller than f/11 requires intense light, so rather than being an obstacle to overcome, the blistering summer sun is actually a help.
Birds of the grasslands are notoriously uncooperative photographic subjects, so I am used to coming away from prairies empty-handed as far as bird photos are concerned. Further, I have learned to be satisfied with other kinds of images from this habitat. I know that some can entertain themselves by shooting wildflowers, and I can too for a while, but I need to see an animal now and again to stay interested for more than an hour or two.
Because the majority of wildflowers are yellow or white (I think), I will often times make a special effort to track down and identify plants with blooms of different colors. Purples, oranges, and reds are my favorites because of the richness of the images they can provide. The Western Wallflower below, for example, attracted my attention from the road while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. This plant produces a spectacular multicolored bloom to which no mere photo can really do justice.
Although we can get away from the Texas Gulf Coast for a few days now and again during the summer, the harsh reality its that we are stuck here most of the time. The Texas Gulf Coast summer is a nice mix of hurricanes, blistering sun and drought, and floods. And staying happy in the field at this time of year requires flexibility, a sense of humor, and the capacity to remain interested in a wide variety of photographic subjects—many times not including birds.
From time to time, I’ll be going through old images when I suddenly discover something I overlooked or misinterpreted in the field. For example, I remember photographing the scruffy young Eastern Bluebird above because I had a hard time figuring out what the heck it was (until I saw another one in better plumage!).
I also remember being perplexed about why it was gathering nesting materials in November—normally that sort of thing should end around July or August. I probably just scratched my head and chalked it up to Texas and our subtropical climate. Birds here in the swelter zone can sometimes breed outside their usual temperate region breeding seasons.
But upon re-inspection of the image (I’m sure I chimped my settings in the field!) all is revealed: There are no nesting materials, but rather a twiggy-looking meal, namely a praying mantis! This has happened a few times now with mantids and phasmids, so it’s something to watch out for. Sometimes birds with sticks (apparently) actually have walking sticks!
Having images to study hours or months later allows for testing your notions of what you saw in the field and to even make brand new discoveries ex post facto. The Clapper Rail above, for example, was hunting along the margin of the water at ANWR last winter. I could tell that the bird was grabbing small fish and what looked like leeches. I have seen and photographed waders and other water birds eating leeches. Upon closer inspection of the images, though, it looks like this Clapper Rail has a big juicy planarian its beak—a first sighting for me.
On the other hand, I know that I see less overall in the field in the first place when I am photo-birding, rather than binocular birding. Just like the old joke where the guy is looking under the street light for his lost keys because this is where the light is best, it’s sometimes tempting to photo-bird only where the light is good. I have caught myself ignoring movement in gloomy or brushy areas simply because I knew that I couldn’t get a decent shot. So, in this case, contrary to the quote above, photography can help birders not to see.
On a final note, Brazos Bend State Park re-opened July 8, and I was among the first members of the public to return post-flood. During the first half-hour there, I could feel the stress of life melt away. My general impression, though, is that there were not as many birds around as usual. I suspect that ground-nesting species of birds were drowned out. On the other hand, the mosquito and gnat populations were certainly healthy, as was the frog population. Perhaps the waders will rediscover the park and its bonanza of amphibians.
Most interesting to me was that the Prairie Trail looked different from usual as regards summer wildflowers. A few regulars were around like widow’s tears, but what struck really me was the profusion of partridge-pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). This common legume is native to most of the eastern U.S. and is known to thrive in disturbed areas, such as those recently burned, and apparently recently flooded. It will be interesting to document how quickly the park returns to its former glory.
My favorite bird photos document apparently undisturbed behavior. There is a big element of luck in obtaining such photos as birds tend to spook and stop whatever they’re doing by the time you’re close enough to get a decent shot. You can stack the odds a bit in your favor by modifying your own behavior. Wearing camouflage, making only slow, deliberate, and tangential movements can help. Also, pretending to ignore the bird and not making direct eye contact can squeeze a few extra feet from those all-important minimum approach distances.
The most fun to be had in bird photography is when the birds are so wrapped up in their world that they ignore you completely. Reddish Egrets, for example, will sometimes start running around willy-nilly in a hunting frenzy that alternates between a staggering postmodernist dance and underwing hunting. Raptors, however, seem to never zone out, and with their incredible senses always seem minutely aware of your every movement. They may continue doing their thing, but they clearly never forget that you are there.
On a different note, in between recent avian sightings, I’ve been working on macro technique, especially approaches to flash. Despite having a built-in diffuser, our Sigma macro ring flash (in many ways a piece of junk), which often works well on dull surfaces, tends to be too contrasty and produces excessively bright highlights on shiny surfaces. As a result, I’ve been experimenting with other set-ups, including Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce and Vello Softbox flash diffusers for our Canon 600EX-RT flashes. Reports to follow.
Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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