Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones. –Paul Cezanne
We finally made it down to the Coast for the spring songbird migration today. And what a glorious day it was: cool, clear, and windy. There were migrant songbirds around, but they weren’t making it easy on birders . . . .
In the warbler department at Lafitte’s Cove, we saw Yellow, Palm, Audubon’s, Black and White, Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Bay-breasted, and Blackburnian–typical birds for this time and place. Indigo and Painted Buntings were around as were White-eyed Vireos and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Most of the birds tended to stay in protected areas, out of the wind, though.
I spent some time staking out the red mulberry trees with hopes of getting a shot at orioles or tanagers. No luck. Only Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, and Gray Catbirds came to sample the fruit. Perhaps it was too windy. The fruit-laden branches were often waving violently.
For most of the time we were there, a fox squirrel watched, unperturbed and immobile, the comings and going of birds and birders from atop a sunny dead tree-top. Too bad the birds didn’t have the same idea!
Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again? –A. A. Milne
One of my goals for this summer in Arizona was to go through a lifetime’s worth of debris and discard the worthless junk and organize and store those things we want to keep for the future. One particular challenge was to sort through the old photo gear. We have camera stuff going back to the 1950’s: Equipment inherited from my dad, Elisa’s grandfather and uncle, and all our stuff. Most of it was hurriedly thrown into cardboard boxes in the aftermath of Harvey.
Going through a pile of obsolete or broken bodies, I found a 32 GB CF card that I had forgotten about. On it were four or five hundred images I had forgotten about, also. Most of the images were Texas Gulf Coast stuff from five or six years ago. Many shots were attempts to deal with the murky and broken light of Texas Gulf Coast barrier island oak mottes during spring migration using flash.
I can almost feel the heat, the air heavy with humidity and the frequent sting of mosquitoes piercing my clothes–so different from the recent adventures featuring the blistering glare and UV fog of high altitude Arizona, but so similar in the sense of possibility of see something new.
Clearly the richness of your life depends upon the richness of your memories. Photography contributes to memory, if only in diverting our minds from the meaningless rubbish of contemporary daily life back to things . . . worth remembering.
We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. –Henri Cartier-Bresson
O, thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.–Christopher Marlowe
Birds of the Family Cardinalidae are some of the most striking songbirds of North America, especially the males. These are the Pyrrhuloxia, Dickcissel, Northern Cardinal, the grosbeaks (except the Evening Grosbeak which is a finch), and the buntings. All these birds have heavy seed-cracking beaks, the most extreme example being in the Pyrrhuloxia.
Although seeds form an important part of the diet of all cardinalids, most species also consume arthropods and fruit, and sometimes leaf buds. Often they vary their diets seasonally, with seeds forming the bulk of the diet in winter and arthropods and fruit when available. It is likely this generalist approach to feeding that has contributed to the success of the group as a whole, but not all species are doing well.
Both the sparrow-like Dickcissel and the Blue Grosbeak are declining in numbers, although ironically, the latter has recently expanded its range northward in the Great Plains. But in general, relative to other songbird groups, these tough little birds are mostly holding their own.
Essentially, Two Shutterbirds is a family project to get to know the birds of the world. And we have had no greater birding pleasure than acquainting ourselves with the cardinalids . . . .
The recent major cold front has certainly brought some fantastic weather to the Texas Gulf Coast. And this weekend we hoped to make the most of it. Fully expecting to see a fallout, or the aftermath of one, we headed to Galveston. First stop on Saturday afternoon was Lafitte’s Cove. There were fewer birds than usual for a day in mid-April, and more people than birds.
I saw only a Scarlet Tanager, a Blue-winged Warbler, a Merlin, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, an Ovenbird, some Brown Thrashers (residents), assorted ducks and shorebirds, and a few Gray Catbirds. The Gray Catbirds (along with the Scarlet Tanager) were eating from the mulberry trees near the gazebo. A greedy Northern Mockingbird was guarding the trees and ran off the other songbirds again and again.
East Beach was glorious on Saturday evening (and Sunday morning), as it usually is after cold fronts. There were large flocks of gulls, Dowitchers, terns, Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, and a few scattered waders. Most interesting to me were the small shorebirds. Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers were everywhere.
One Piping Plover was trying to pass unnoticed among the smallest shorebirds. This bird was sporting no less than five bands of assorted colors. Clearly an object of devotion, this creature is likely a member of a dying breed. Threatened everywhere it occurs, the Piping Plover numbers in less than five figures. In contrast, the nearly identical-looking (and just as darling) Semipalmated Plover is one of the most common shorebirds in the world.
Finally, the contrast between East Beach and Lafitte’s Cove was stark. East Beach was nearly abandoned and a perfectly lovely place to bird. Lafitte’s Cove was jammed cheek to jowl with tourists yakking it up in the “quiet zones.” The time has likely come to bid Lafitte’s Cove a fond adieu . . . .
A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves. –Marcel Proust
This weekend we went binocular birding at Brazos Bend State Park, again. We decided to leave the photo gear at home given the dense clouds and patches of rain and drizzle. While we were sitting on the bench on the west side of Old Horseshoe Lake, I was grousing about how I was tired of only seeing the usual suspects. Just as the words left my mouth, I spotted a pair of Cinnamon Teal drakes dabbling among the aquatic vegetation right off shore–a personal first for this park. These birds were likely early migrants at the extreme eastern extent of their migratory range. A nice sighting, but even with that I’m ready for a change. Of course, the next big change is spring migration . . . and the passage of dozens of glorious wood warbler species across the Upper Texas Gulf Coast.
Now is the time to start brushing up on Warbler identification. It’s amazing how quickly this skill fades over the year, but equally amazing how quickly it returns after a few days in the field in April. Last spring was a fairly good one for seeing new or unusual warblers. Specifically, we saw Blackpoll Warblers, Golden-winged Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
After about six years of serious birding, my personal warbler species count stands at thirty-eight, with decent images of about half that many. Soon we’ll be planning trips to see specific tough-to-find species: Big Bend for the Colima Warbler, Michigan for Kirtland’s Warbler, and so on.
Spring brings hope for, if not new species, then better images of birds we’ve seen and photographed before. Maybe this is the year I will find the holy grail of bird photography–a technically perfect shot of a rare warbler, a big juicy caterpillar in its beak. Spring migration brings the sense that anything is possible –yes, Virginia, a storm could blow a Black-throated Blue to Galveston! Dream big or stay home!
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh–Marvin Gaye, What’s going on?
Regular readers of Two Shutterbirds may be wondering what’s going on: Our posts have become sporadic, our commentary, elliptical . . . .
In a nutshell, we’ve been making the big push to get over Harvey. Both our our destroyed house and our new house are under contract.
The whole have-your-house-destroyed, sell it, and buy another one has not been the worst experience of my life, but it is on the list.
I have bought two houses before, but as those who have purchased/sold real estate since the housing crisis of 2008/2009 can tell you, it is a different world out there. It seems not to matter if you have money or a perfect credit rating or not: You are in for a [expletive deleted] nightmare. The amount of red tape has generated some real frustration. Luckily, Elisa has been a trooper and kept me in the game when I was about to give up–on repeated occasions.
So, for a while longer, all we’ll be able to do is peruse the archives, revel in the birding joys of the past, and dream of even greater birding adventures in the future . . . Stay tuned.
When not chasing songbirds around during migration, we’re chasing shorebirds! In one sense, we’ve been less successful on the shorebird front than the songbird front this year. Specifically, this spring we saw two new warbler species (Blackpoll and Prairie, making a total of 38 species!), but we have yet to see a new shorebird. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
As far as shorebirds (and waterbirds) are concerned, it really has been a “usual suspects” year. There are lots of Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, dowitchers, and Semipalmated, Snowy, and Wilson’s Plovers around places like East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove, and Frenchtown Road (a favorite spot). And I can say that we’re getting better at identifying the trickier ones. Snowy, Semipalmated, and Piping Plovers are no longer look-a-likes in the field. I’ve even attempted to study up on dowitcher identification, one of the toughest challenges in North American birding. I feel more confident in my dowitcher identifications, but whether or not I’m right . . . .
Finally, irrespective of which species you love most, the shorebird migration has two distinct advantages over the songbird migration. First there are almost never crowds. You can always find a lonely stretch of beach to bird alone. Second the beaches are almost always breezy enough to spare the birder the annoyance of mosquitos. Oh, yeah . . . and then there is the magnificent sea . . . .
Lee, Cin-Ty, and Birch, Andrew. 2006. Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers. Birding (Sept./Oct.): 34-42.
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. –Albert Schweitzer
As we get into May, the number of migrant songbirds appearing at the coastal migrant traps will begin to taper off. We found this spring to be a mixed bag of birding experiences. Due to south winds, we went long stretches without seeing much. Visits to the Corps Woods (Galveston), Smith Oaks, and Quintana did not bear much fruit. But there were a few really birdy days at Lafitte’s Cove, 4/23 and 4/30, for example. The mix of migrant songbird species here was a bit different from migrations of the recent past, though. We continue to hope for some good sightings before the spring migration effectively draws to a close . . . .
As always at Lafitte’s Cove, there were quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers, but there were far fewer Black and White, Magnolia, and Hooded Warblers. We haven’t seen the “usual” unusual bids like Canada, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Blue-winged, or Kentucky Warblers (yet). We also only saw a handful of Prothonotary, Yellow, Palm, and Chestnut-side Warblers along with a single Ovenbird. On the other hand, Tennessee Warblers were around in large numbers.
For the first time ever we saw Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers, and a single Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove. On 4/23 there were loads of Red-eyed Vireos (and at least one Black-whiskered Vireo), but we haven’t seen more than a handful of White-eyed Vireos, typically one of the most common migrants in the migrant traps. My impression is also that the number of other “common” brightly-colored songbirds like Indigo and Painted Buntings, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers has been down relative to recent years.
But what really struck me at Lafitte’s Cove this year was the central role of the grapevines in attracting birds. The sanctuary at Lafitte’s Cove is an oak motte, a patch of trees on a slightly elevated section of a barrier island. As such, it is inherently a natural attraction for trans-Gulf migrants.
After several days at Lafitte’s Cove, however, it seems clear that the mere presence of the motte is not enough to explain why this spot is so much more attractive to birds than many other potentially similar localities.
I think the grapevines are the real draw. I witnessed many bird species eating grape leaffold caterpillars plucked from the grapevines. At times the vines were alive with foraging birds. For millennia, grapevines have been used as a symbol of blessing, and at Lafitte’s Cove they are a literal blessing to passing birds.
Building your own migrant trap? Plant some grapevines.
Being the height of spring migration, we’re spending as much time as possible in the field. Weather conditions have determined that it will not be a great year for sighting Neotropical migrant songbirds along the Texas Gulf Coast (except for the fallout of 4/23!), but we have been seeing a few things of interest—notably Blackpoll Warblers, a Black-whiskered Vireo (Elisa only), and a Prairie Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove.
We’ve also been seeing a variety of interesting predator-prey interactions we’ve not seen before. Catching songbirds in the act of grabbing prey in the dense thickets of a place like Lafitte’s Cove is the supreme challenge of bird photography. The split-second timing of the action, coupled with contrasty lighting conditions and a myriad of obstructions really test your resolve.
Slightly less formidable, though still not easy, is documenting waders and divers grabbing and eating prey. I truly love watching these birds going about making a living.
Finally, we witnessed some survival of the fittest action in stark, brutal terms at the Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island.
Great Egret nestlings put on a show of pure Id as they attempted to jostle, push, or toss each other from their nests. One nasty little bird had its sibling by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it from the nest for a solid fifteen minutes. When it accepted that its nemesis was just as strong and heavy as it was, the aggressor cuddled up for warmth. Charming.
In less than two hours, I witnessed three displaced Great Egret nestlings being eaten by alligators. The Cain and Abel stuff probably tapers off for the night as the warming rays of the sun disappear.
Sometimes siblings can get in each other’s space. –Gisele Bundchen
Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
Last week we didn’t see many Neotropical migrant songbirds. The weather was incredible . . . but maybe that was the problem. With crystal clear skies and a consistent wind out of the south, i.e. a tailwind, the trans-Gulf migrants may have simply blown past the Coast and the usual migrant traps. What’s good for birds, is bad for birders.
What’s more, dry weather means that there haven’t been many arthropods around other than caterpillars and a few flies, mosquitos, dragonflies, and spiders. So there really hasn’t been much of a reason for birds to stop if exhaustion or thirst wasn’t a problem. At Lafitte’s Cove on 4/8 I saw a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and one vireo or warbler (I saw only a creamy yellow underside through the canopy)—a terrible showing for April at a Gulf Coast migrant trap.
Some stormy weather moved into the Gulf Coast throughout this week. On Tuesday (4/11), for example, a major front swept down mid-day and looked the perfect set-up for a fallout. Sadly, I watched the atmospherics on radar from work, trapped and unable to get into the field. But yesterday (4/14) was also bad at Lafitte’s Cove. I only saw a few hummers, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, a Bronze-headed Cowbird, and a White-eyed Vireo. In addition to these, Elisa saw two Tennessee Warblers. Not great.
In any case, hope springs eternal, and we’ll give the Coast the old college try again this weekend! One of these days . . . .
Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson
As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.
Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.
Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!
On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .
Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!