native plants

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.

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.

Fall and Winter Fruits . . . Ah, the Irony. . . .

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. –Brian O’Driscoll

One of the treats of birding in the cooler months is watching for birds enjoying the many types of conspicuous fruits and berries that can be found in the woodland habitats of the Texas Gulf Coast. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), greenbriar, and agarita are just a few of the many examples of native plants bearing brightly-colored berries during fall and winter that are popular with birds. As a photographer I always have an eye out for a Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, or Northern Cardinal with a rosy-ripe and juicy berry in its beak.

As a novice field botanist, I often photograph newly encountered fruit-bearing plants with the hopes of later identifying them. It soon becomes evident, however, that the landscape is dotted with exotic fruit-bearing plants from around the globe–escapees from gardens, seeds sown through the digestive tracts of birds or mammals. Sometimes they are identifiable, sometimes not.  I’m sure some of the species that I find impossible to identify are, to landscapers and nurserymen, commonly-known, popular garden varieties–from South America, the Caribbean, or that great cradle of Angiosperm evolution, Northern China.

A House Finch Eats Chinese Tallow Fruit. Federal biologists imported Chinese tallow into the U.S. in 1905. This plant is now taking over many forests of the South. Photo taken in Houston, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

It might be tempting to suppose that these introduced species may be harmless or even helpful to birds, given that they produce edible fruits. Species of Pyracantha, for example, are commonly encountered invasives that produce copious amounts of bird-friendly fruit–and birds are implicated in the spread of these Eurasian plants. The Chinese tallow tree is another common invasive. Chinese tallow may be the greatest challenge, after man himself, to the warm native forests of North America. About 23% of all trees in the Houston area are now Chinese tallows.

In contrast to many of the natives, some of these foreign plants seem strangely sterile: not an arthropod of any kind is to be seen on them. As these foreign invaders have proliferated, robbing pollinators and insectivorous birds, displacing and replacing native ecological equivalents, songbird numbers have declined an estimated 40% in my lifetime. Of course, it’s hard to prove which aspect of humankind’s activities–chopping, plowing, spraying, shooting, paving, or planting foreign invasives has been most disastrous for our birds–but to me it doesn’t really matter–it’s all of a piece. Homo sapiens sapiens, the Yersinia pestis, of the planet’s biosphere marches unrelentingly on  . . . We are, it seems, in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event. And the Dodo, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Hawai’i Mamo bore witness. . . .

Pyracantha sp,, in Houston, Texas
Pyracantha, a Eurasian invasive, is displacing native plants. The brightly-colored berries are attractive to birds that disperse the seeds. Photo taken in Houston, Texas. High-speed synchronized flash.

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