The stratosphere is a hostile place.–Felix Baumgartner
As we continue to dig out from the flood nightmare . . . .
In March, I mentioned to a birder/naturalist friend (RD) that one of the nesting Great Horned Owls on the west side of 40-Acre Lake showed some signs of facial injuries or infestation by ectoparasites. He asked for more information. I have been slow honoring this request . . . but here goes.
Bird nests, especially those of raptors, are not hygienic places. The adult birds drag dead or moribund prey to the nest where it is torn apart and distributed to nestlings. Spilled blood and gore, as well as the birds themselves, are attractive to parasitic insects. Black flies (which incidentally carry avian malaria), for example, are known to be especially vexing to Great Horned Owls.
In the above image, the owl appears to have several small injuries around the eyes. What follows is pure speculation, but perhaps the owl got nicked up in a battle with prey. The wounds would naturally be attractive to egg-laying flies, which feed on necrotic as well as living tissues. The whitish objects on the left eyelid appear to be maggots.
What is interesting is that by the very next day (below) the region around the eyes is very much better (sidebar: this is clearly the same bird. Note the stray white fleck above the right eye in both images). The eyelids still appear injured and crusty, but no blood or maggots are visible. Perhaps this bird was able to clean itself up, or perhaps it got help in grooming from its mate. In any case, this bird appears to have had a brush with fate, and I for one am delighted at the outcome.
Last weekend we managed to get out to Brazos Bend State Park during a sunbreak. Along the southern margin of Pilant Lake, between Elm Lake and the bridge, we noticed a pair of Green Herons fishing. Both were adult birds, but were in different stages of development of breeding colors. One (shown above and immediately below) was in full breeding color. The other was just shy of full development.
These birds buzzed each other a few times and generally acted as though they were squabbling. This may have been an aspect of courtship behavior or a territorial dispute. Based on the benign nature of the interactions, it seemed more likely to be the former. The bird in full breeding had brilliant violet-blue lores without a trace of yellow, and the feet were a bright orange. The beak was, more or less, a glossy jet-black. This bird is likely involved in courtship.
The second bird (above) had blueish lores that still showed an upper outline of yellowish green. The feet and legs were still the predominately blotchy yellow-black of nonbreeding, but patches of orange had formed. The lower bill retained a stripe of yellowish green along the lower margin. I think that this bird had just started courtship behavior.
The image below shows an adult Green Heron in nonbreeding colors during late summer. Note the stripe of greenish yellow above the lore and along the lower margin of the mandible. This is how I typically see Green Herons, which is why it’s so exciting to see them in their flamboyant, transitory breeding colors.
Essentially what photography is is life lit up.—Sam Abell
Most birds are enthusiastic bathers. They bathe in standing water, rain, dew, wet leaves—even dust. This bathing keeps feathers in optimal condition for flight and thermoregulation. Excess oil and bits of detritus that can clog or dishevel the fine structure of feathers (barbules and barbicels) can be removed by a good rinse. After a flight across (or around) the Gulf of Mexico, it probably feels pretty good, too. Many birds wade out into to shallow water and splash around a bit, usually producing a spectacular shower of droplets. The salinity seems not to matter much, as birds bathe in fresh, brackish, and salt water with equal gusto. For a discussion of bird bathing in gory detail see that monumental tome, Terres (1991).
The best place that I knew of to watch bathing Neotropical migrant songbirds was the main dripper at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. During past migrations it was commonplace to observe Northern Parulas, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Yellow, Hooded, Yellow-rumped, Black and White, and sometimes other less common warblers, plus vireos, cardinals, catbirds, grosbeaks, tanagers, and orioles bathing in the shallow water. Typically after bathing, birds would fly up to a low branch to fluff and preen—thus avoiding the snakes and cats that prey on drinking and bathing birds in the sanctuary.
A visit to the site this week, though, revealed that the dripper area has been (Gasp!) remodeled! A Wooden table-like platform now sits where the main pool used to be. This new arrangement seems much less conducive to bathing, but further observation is required to make a final pronouncement. (Sidebar: for anyone thinking of visiting Lafitte’s Cove, as of last Sunday, Hooded and Black and White Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos were about—but, the flood of migrants hadn’t yet started.).
Birds display a wonderful range of behavior to be observed and photographed. Much of it involves water, including drinking, bathing and fishing. Waders will even dip prey items into water before swallowing to rinse off grit and provide lubrication. Clearly the best places to go birding are around water. Although I enjoy observing all types of bird behavior, my favorite type of bird photography is still documenting hunting and fishing strategies (and predator-prey interactions—you knew I had to sneak one of those in!).
Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books. New York. 1109 p.
I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.—Rodney Dangerfield
Although any break from work is welcome, spring break is almost always my most problematic free time. I want to make the best of any opportunity, but man and mother nature seldom co-operate at this time of year. Coming in the middle of March, spring break is just a bit too early for big-time migrant action, and the weather is iffy to say the least. This winter, with clouds streaming in from the Pacific nearly all the time, has been especially vexing. Furthermore, the Texas Coast (where I really want to be) is cluttered with teeny-boppers—and the parks everywhere are loaded with noisy school-age children who should be at home in their rooms silently studying McGuffey Readers.
Time off with bad weather can lead to lapses into unproductively, so I have tried to take the gloom as an opportunity to get some practice shooting hunting waders in low light. Who knows, I may find myself under similar optical conditions in Hawaii or Olympic National Park some day, and the practice may pay off.
Like most bird photography, shooting hunting scenes is best accomplished on a bright, clear morning before about 10 am. Ideally one would have a thin veil of cirrus clouds to keep the whites from being too much of an overexposure problem (while I’m wishing!). For hunting, I like to keep the shutter speed well above 1/1000, the ISO below 800 (crop sensors are noisy), and the aperture around f/7.1 (waders are big birds). Alas, such a combination of settings has generally not been possible for months. The setting information on the above two shots indicates the recent realities.
Rarely, there have been a few sunbreaks (it’s so bad I’m using Pacific Northwest lingo!) lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Of course, being in the right spot with a bird in the viewfinder at the precise moment when a few rays of sunlight come streaming onto your subject is like winning the lottery. But you can’t win if you don’t play!
Expectation is the mother of all frustration.—Antonio Banderas
Birds of prey are always exciting to see and photograph, and winter is generally the best time to see them on the Upper Texas Coast. It could be argued, I suppose, that migrations are better in that the possibility exists of seeing transient species like Swainson’s Hawks or Broad-winged Hawks, but winter residents like American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and Ospreys are common enough to count on and really seem like part of the landscape.
Wintering species plus year-round residents usually mean a visit to places like Anahuac NWR or Galveston Island State Park will yield sightings of at least a few raptor species. Inspection of fence posts and wires, power lines, and treetops at the margins of grassy areas will almost always be fruitful. It’s generally a good idea to keep the camera ready while driving to the coastal sanctuaries as birds will allow a close approach by a vehicle, but will bolt immediately if a door is opened to fish equipment from the back seat or boot.
Because many raptors like to perch in trees to scan for prey below, the absence of deciduous leaves during the cooler times of the year really helps to find and photograph these birds. Perching high in trees, though, can be troublesome for photography given the “belly-shot” problem. Case in point: I still need to find time to return to Bear Creek Park this winter for a group of wintering Merlins. I have seen these birds several times, but in each case they were perched so high in the trees that getting good shots was impossible.
On a final note, photographing raptors really drives home to me the fact that birds live in a hostile world. Most of the raptors I see are immature. This can make identification difficult as many young raptors are hard to tell apart, but more importantly it indicates to me that many of these birds don’t make it to adulthood. Humans, of course, are a big part of this equation, and it saddens me every time I see those striped tail feathers on the road.
Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.—Alfred Eisenstaedt
In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.—William Blake
The south side of Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas is the best place I know to photograph wader hunting and fishing behavior in a freshwater habitat. This winter, Pilant Lake has been a rich source of observations involving waders taking a variety of prey, amphibians in particular. Over the past few years I had heard several reports of Great Blue Herons taking Lesser Sirens (Siren intermedia), large salamander-like amphibians that have lost their hind limbs through the evolutionary process, from the area immediately north of the observation tower. This grassy area contains scattered ponds and puddles and a few taller, woody plants here and there. The substrate appears irregular, soft, and saturated with water.
Ever since learning that sirens were frequently taken here, I have kept an eye on the area, especially during winter (when most of the reported events occurred), and on other areas in the park that look the same. Judging by reports from other birders, on several occasions I had apparently just missed a heron taking a siren. On 1/24/15, my patience finally paid off, though. A Great Blue was hunting very near the tower, so I set up, chimped my settings, and waited for the action to unfold. Almost immediately the bird plunged it head nearly eye-deep into the muck and froze.
I could tell that the bird was straining to pull up something big. At that point I knew that the heron had found a siren in a burrow—any lesser critter would have been yanked out immediately! After about five seconds, the bird pulled its head up without a meal. Over the next hour or so, the bird waited patiently over the burrow. Finally the bird struck into the mud again and dragged out the huge wriggling amphibian. The bird had speared the siren in the right shoulder region through to the throat with the lower beak and clamped the amphibian in place with the upper beak. Because a noisy group of babbling tourists had descended upon the tower, the heron almost immediately flew off with its catch. Pity.
In addition to sirens, this area is rich in other amphibians (especially frogs) during winter. Most commonly, waders take American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana) and Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinerea), along with an occasional Southern Leopard Frog (R. sphenocephala). Green Treefrogs are most often taken from the water hyacinth that grows in profusion in Pilant Lake, as well as taller plants that grow at the margin of the water. In summer, I have seen Little Blue Herons and Great Blue Herons take Eastern Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens) in this area, too.
Amphibians are the most exciting prey items that you are likely to see being grabbed by waders at Pilant Lake—mostly you will see invertebrates like crawfish and water tigers being eaten. Small fish are also frequent prey. Eventually I hope be on hand when a water snake or baby alligator is grabbed. I have heard reports of American Bitterns taking songbirds from the marsh vegetation, and photographs exist of Great Blue Herons grabbing baby nutria in similar environments. It’s only a matter of time before I can document these relatively rare and exciting events at Pilant Lake.
About this time of year we always begin planning for our big summer birding trips. We try and include as many different types of habitat as possible. This year we will focus on the high elevation forests of the West. Finding and photographing forest birds is the toughest challenge I know in photography: it makes getting desert (and even marsh) birds seem simple by comparison. The openness and spectacular, clear light of the desert can make shooting a joy. The complex three-dimensional nature of the forest, often with shafts of brilliant illumination adjacent to patches of near-darkness, can test the capabilities of the birder-photographer.
I have chased birds in many forests, and I am always a bit apprehensive about birding and shooting in these environments (and spending my precious, precious vacation time here) for one main reason: it’s possible to come away with nothing at all—no good shots or even a good look! Forest birds (songbirds especially) are often so suspicious and spooky that you may get one glimpse, and they’re gone! In the really big parks, they can disappear into the vastness in a snap. In the really tall trees (like those in Sequoia National Park!) the birds can just zoom up to fantastic heights and wait for you to go away.
Although not especially spooky, the tree-clinging birds like treecreepers, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are a special challenge to watch and photograph. It’s almost comical how woodpeckers will sometimes spiral around a tree trunk to get away from the hapless photographer! Brown Creepers may allow a very close approach, sometimes almost ignoring the shooter, as they hop up a trunk in search of arthropods only to sail downwards to the base of the next tree and begin the process again. Nevertheless, Brown Creepers are really hard to photograph as they cling to the tree trunks, staying in the shadows and deep recesses in the bark, and will even spiral around to the other side of the trunk to hide from the photographer in woodpecker fashion. In contrast to creeper behavior, nuthatches often hop down the trunk in search of prey—but they, too, cling to the trunk and poke into nooks and crannies making shooting difficult much of the time.
Athough I love the marshes, swamps, estuaries, tidal flats, and bottomland forests of the Texas Gulf Coast, I look forward to getting to very different habitats. The steep, high-altitude alpine habitats I have in mind for this summer will probably require quite a bit of sans-supertelephoto, binoculars-alone birding—unless I can talk Elisa into scouting out ahead and waiting for me at elevation with a defibrillator!
Hello again, friends! Chris’ last post reminded me of the photos I have to share of a Black-bellied Plover plucking ghost shrimp from their burrows. Watching shorebirds pull infaunal invertebrates from tidal mudflats is definitely my idea of a good time! These photos were taken last April, when the bird was starting to molt into its breeding plumage.
I knew this plover had something big when the typical run-pause-pluck, run-pause-pluck hunting style was suspended at the “pluck.” There it was, its bill up to the nostrils in mud, completely frozen. A few beats later, a mound of mud erupted as the plover slowly pulled up a bizarre looking worm (because everything’s a worm-right?). Well, turns out, it was an arthropod – a ghost shrimp to be precise – and this little bird was a master shrimper. Fastidious too. After each catch, the black-belly would run to the water’s edge to rinse the ghost shrimp off before swallowing it whole.
As a photographer, these are the moments I shoot for. As a wildlife watcher, these little dramas starring avian predators and their cryptic prey open small windows into life beneath the surface. Considering the diversity of species and numbers of birds that make their livings pulling food from the earth, I get a sense of how alive the ground beneath our feet really is.
I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up toward the light. But I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself.–Edward Steichen
Hunting High. Recently I was stalking a Little Blue Heron as it worked its way through the vegetation at water’s edge, Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. The vast majority of the time, waders are looking down in their search for fish, amphibians and invertebrates. This time the bird was looking up, inspecting the plants as it went. I new what this meant, having seen it three or four times before at Elm Lake: The bird was after tree frogs! (Sidebar: sometimes waders act like this when they’re looking for dragonflies or spiders.) Interestingly, the water level in this part of the park seems to be down a bit from last year, and perhaps the tree frog hunt may be in response to this. Because I knew what was coming, I was able to get a nice series of shots documenting the bird eating four tree frogs.
Hunting at the surface. Cold weather fun can be had watching shorebirds pull infaunal invertebrates from tidal mudflats. Once in a while it’s a ghost shrimp or a crab, but often these meals are unidentifiable to me, and I just peg them as “worms.” I remember one of my professors on a rant about the term “worm” only being used out of a state of complete ignorance as many phyla of marine organisms could be lumped under that term. In this case, guilty as charged! Most of the time I have no idea what these little shorebirds are prying wriggling from the muck! It’s always exciting to watch, and every so often a bird grabs something big, nasty, and identifiable!
Hunting low. Perhaps the most suspenseful type of hunt to watch is one in which prey is sought from below the surface of the water. Sure, most of the time if you are in a freshwater environment, a small fish, tadpole, or larval invertebrate is plucked up, but sometimes really big prey items are dragged out thrashing and snapping. But turnabout is fair play. It’s not uncommon to see waders poking around in the shallows only to go running away squawking after having poked or prodded something really big, toothy and nasty like an alligator gar or . . . God knows what! And considering the beasties that swim beneath the waves of the salty seas, I marvel at the boldness of waders as they hunt in the marine shallows.
Finally, one of my goals for this winter is to capture images of a Great Blue Heron grappling with a Siren intermedia. During winter, the place to look for these giant amphibians being dragged from their burrows is the edge of Pilant Lake just north of the observation tower. However, this year the terrain in this area looks very different from the recent past: It is drier and much overgrown. Fortunately, Pilant Slough just to the south and east looks very much like Pilant Lake has in recently past years. This occurred to me as I noted a Great Blue standing right in the middle of the slough. Clearly, this is the spot to watch for the siren hunt this year!
Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.—Oscar Wilde
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
The family Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers) is primarily a South American group. Of over 370 species, only 35 have ranges that extend far enough north to reach the United States. Eight genera of tyrant flycatchers occur in North America, north of Mexico. Considered by evolutionary biologists to be among the most primitive of songbirds, tyrannids are nevertheless highly successful, ranging from Patagonia, and even the Falkland and Galápagos Islands, to Canada. These birds occur across a wide variety of habitats, from bottomland forests to the high Andes.
Due to their bold personalities and active hunting behaviors, the Tyrant Flycatchers of the genus Tyrannus (kingbirds and kin) are some of the most exciting birds to watch. Exhibiting a rather limited palette of colors relative to some other songbirds, ranging primarily from browns and olives to gray on top (plus orange or red semi-concealed crown stripes for display), and a variety of shades of yellow below, species of Tyrannus may never be as popular as warblers with birders. But what they lack (usually) in terms of showy colors they make up for in personality and behavior.
Other than the Great Kiskadee, perhaps, Kingbirds are the most conspicuous of the North American flycatchers. These large, aggressive birds will not tolerate being pushed around by other, larger birds like crows or even raptors. Although they will eat fruit and seeds during certain times of the year (depending on the Kingbird species), insects form an integral part of their diets.
From a perch, they will hawk large insects from the air above water or ground and also grab prey from the ground. The fact that they return again and again to a perch can make photography relatively easy and enjoyable. After locating an avian photographic subject, I often snap few frames, advance a few paces, snap a few frames, advance a few paces, and so on. Some bird species will flush as soon as they see a human. Others will hesitate until a particular distance is breeched (minimum approach distance). Tyrant flycatchers, too, eventually flee hesitantly into the air upon a close enough approach, but I can’t help feeling as though these bird are asking themselves: Do I really have to leave? Can I take this guy?
Although not as difficult to tell apart as some Empidonax Flycatchers, which are literally indistinguishable based on appearance alone, some species of Tyrannus are quite tricky to identify. Even based on a reasonably good photograph, experienced birders may disagree about the identity of a specific individual. Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, for example, overlap in range in the West and are often confused. Likewise Couch’s, Tropical, and Western Kingbirds have overlapping ranges in the Lower Rio Grade Valley.
All these species, though, do have distinctive field marks and can in principle be distinguished. However, depending on the light and angle of view, colors can change. Vegetation can obscure minor or subtle features. In these troublesome cases, after exhausting reasonable avenues of identification, I try to live with the uncertainty–rather than decide which member of this sometimes look-a-like group I’ve spotted.
The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.—Erich Fromm
Waders are an endless source of birding pleasure for me. Their hunting and fishing strategies are highly varied, and I’m always on the lookout for techniques I’ve not seen before. This summer I spotted a number of interesting new things at Brazos Bend SP.
40-Acre Lake was a hot-bed of wader fishing behavior this summer. A Great Blue Heron with a slightly injured left wing (above) claimed the northeast corner of the lake for itself, frequently driving away lesser birds—like Little Blues, Tri-colored Herons, and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. The Great Blue, however, adhered to an uneasy peace with a Great Egret (shown below) that spent most of its time on the small islands a bit to the south. When they came face to face, they seemed to agree that the balance of powers was such that a fight would be fruitless.
For long stretches of time over a number of days, I observed the same Great Blue hunt and fish rather unsuccessfully—a bug here and there, a few muddled struggles with some snake-like sticks, but no amphibians or big fish. One morning, however, the bird swooped down from a tree top and stabbed the big bluegill in the above photo. The bird spotted the fish from at least 100 yards away, flew over, and speared the fish with a single thrust. No fuss, no muss. In a matter of minutes the fish was manipulated into swallowing position and ingested.
On another occasion, I saw the Great Blue place an insect on the surface of the water and stare at it for a few seconds. A gentle current carried the insect away from the heron. The bird suddenly snapped up and ate the bug before it got too far away. Was this bait-fishing of the type occasionally exhibited by Green Herons? Hard to say, but it’s something new to watch for.
One morning I turned my attention from the Great Blue to the Great Egret. It had its head down, and held it there. It took me a moment to realize that the bird was engaged in a type of fishing often utilized by Black-Crowned Night-Herons. The stationary bird opened and closed its beak repeatedly while keeping it in the water, perhaps hoping the gentle rythmic disturbance would attract a fish.
One might surmise that after observing waders regularly in a single park over a few years’ time, the surprises and new observations would cease. This is certainly not the case at Brazos Bend, where nearly every visit opens a new window into avian life.
Novelty has charms that our mind can hardly withstand.–William Makepeace Thackeray