For most of the month of September, a (presumably) transiting juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird laid claim to a patch of native plants in our back yard in suburban Houston. From a shepherd’s crookish twig (a dead coral bean tree branch entwined with a greenbrier vine) this feisty little bird watched over his patch of turk’s cap and coral honeysuckle. Occasionally he would make forays to visit our patio to sample the firespike flowers, but hour after hour he would sit, vigilant atop his curly perch. Whenever invading hummingbirds would appear he would, without mercy, drive them away and return to his throne. By the second week of October he was gone for parts unknown . . . perhaps he will return next year a king, gorget ablaze.
My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy.–William Shakespeare
*I think that this is a first fall male because of the high level of aggression, the slight streaking of the throat, and one dark throat feather (not visible in photo). Although, it could possibly be an adult female. I invite comments from anyone who knows better.
I have noticed a large up-tick in the number of Green Darners (Anax junius) around the Texas Gulf Coast. This no surprise as Green Darners migrate from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Panama during the fall. The details of Green Darner migration across North America are sketchy, but many millions fly south during fall with their avian predators. Why some Green Darners migrate and others stay put is a mystery, but the north-south migration is intergenerational as the reproductive adult typically only lives for an estimated 4-7 weeks. On an individual basis, telling a migrant from a resident is generally not possible.
For a bird photographer, the waxing and waning of abundance of adults of different dragonfly species means that I get to shoot birds preying on different species of dragonflies throughout the spring, summer, and fall. For dragonflies, it seems likely that emergence (molting into the flying adult from the aquatic larval form) and mating are two times of special vulnerability to avian predation. In the case of the former, the dragonfly must sit motionless on vegetation for hours while the wings extend and harden. In the latter case, the male and female insects are attached, thus presenting a larger and slower target for predatory birds.
In any case, such temporal variation in prey abundance adds a fascinating dimension to nature photography . . . .
All systems in nature seek the lowest available energy state. This is a concept that my students could always grasp on a personal level. (Substitute “teenagers” for “all systems in nature” in the first sentence. See what I mean?) Human nature, like the rest of nature, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Hummingbirds are no different.
Consider the droves of hummingbirds attracted to sugar-water feeders. Well-kept feeders are an easy alternative to foraging, and field studies show that when nectar (or nectar substitute) sources are super abundant, high metabolic cost territorial activity decreases. Feeders are the path of least resistance for hummingbirds.
Human interest in hummingbirds and the resulting dedication to supplementing their diet has impacted their biogeography. Hummingbird banding data support the idea that feeders (along with native gardening practices) are the reason that overwintering hummingbird populations have expanded along the Gulf Coast after first migrating into Mexico in the fall. Feeders and native plantings also contribute to the so-called “oasis effect” observed in exurban developments in the arid southwest where increasing numbers of hummingbirds (among other birds) in resource-poor terrain take advantage of supplemental food, shelter, and water resources.
On our recent summer desert birding road trip, we found the Franklin Mountain State Park feeders buzzing madly with hummingbirds. Especially welcome was the opportunity to get close-up views of Calliope Hummingbirds – thought to be the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world – on their 5,000 mile southern journey to Mexico from the northwestern US and Canada.
For Calliopes, fall migration starts early. Sources report typical Calliope departures from northwest locales in late August. But wait, it was late July and they were already in Texas … Was this early arrival due to a natural seasonal shift or could it just have been the oasis effect?
I hear like you see — like that hummingbird outside that window for instance.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
“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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
Elisa and I have been out trying to catch glimpses of the early fall migrants, especially songbirds, along the Texas Gulf Coast at places like Sabine Woods, Brazos Bend State Park, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) . . . and we have been paying the price. Until the first real norther arrives, the heat, humidity, and bugs rule. It makes sense that the larger the number of insects, the larger the number of migratory insectivorous songbirds that one would find at any given locale along the Texas Gulf Coast. This is the general pattern that we have observed: Brazos Bend is generally the least buggy (almost anomalously so) of any of the major birding spots we frequent, and we see the fewest insectivorous songbirds there. Of course, Brazos Bend is farther from the coast than the other localities, so it not a migrant trap. But Brazos Bend has so few flying insects, biting and otherwise, that it has caused me speculate about the cause(s). There is plenty of standing water for mosquito reproduction, but there are also large numbers of deer in the park, and large ungulate populations have been shown to negatively impact songbird populations due to grazing on insect and bird food plants (reference Aldo Leopold). On the other hand, the bugs at Sabine Woods and ANWR can be brutal. Today at ANWR (Skillern Tract) the deer flies and mosquitos literally chased us out of the marsh! Bugs are food for birds and food for thought.