As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”–Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
A few nights ago as we lay in bed, around 4 am, an eerie scratching noise pried us from the arms of Morpheus. Having had roof rats in our Houston house many years ago, we were terrified that rodents had found their way into our new Arizona house–those suckers were really hard to get rid of! After wondering who or what was making the noise, Chris got out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded out the balcony door. Fully expecting to find a cliff chipmunk living it up on our roof, he was startled to discover a female Northern Flicker attempting to chisel her way into the stucco beneath the eaves! “You have a whole forest, but you have to drill into my house!” exclaimed Chris.
Even the most dedicated bird-lovers must have doubts from time-to-time when it comes to woodpeckers. Up in the North Woods of Minnesota they are reviled pests. Once Chris watched in fascination as a Hairy Woodpecker chiseling into a log cabin at a lodge in the Colorado Rockies. He was fascinated, mainly because he had never before had such a good look at this species,* but also at the audacity of the creature. Taking such liberties with private property in broad daylight, ten feet from a human onlooker! Doubtful the owner of the lodge would have been so charmed.
Despite their tendency to knock holes in trees and human structures, woodpeckers are among our favorite birds. We are always thrilled to see them. Even in the middle of the night. Well . . . .
*Even though they look very much alike in books, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are readily distinguishable in person. The size and robustness of the bill is very different.
The vast sage desert undulates with almost imperceptible tides like the oceans. –Frank Waters
When the weather is dank and dreary like this along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast, my mind turns to just about anywhere else. Getting back out to the desert is always a top priority. Among the most interesting desert birds to pursue is the Greater Roadrunner (and the Lesser Roadrunner, too, I’ll bet, but that species doesn’t occur in the U.S., and I’m not up for living The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Greater Roadrunners occur all across Texas, but we rarely see them anywhere but in the desert or scrublands.
Roadrunners are highly predatory, mostly terrestrial cuckoos. A common birding occurrence is to be walking in the desert and to see a Roadrunner skulk off into the brush as the bird detects your presence. Sometimes you’ll see one scurry across a trail ahead with a lizard or small snake in its beak. Sometimes the tail of a large snake (or lizard?) will be poking out of the beak. In this case, the anterior portion of the herp is being digested, and the rest of animal is slowly being fed down the gullet.
Roadrunners are masters of dispatching dangerous prey. Scorpions, centipedes, horned lizards, even venomous snakes are on the menu. Seeing a Roadrunner with prey is one thing, photographing it is another. Several times I’ve gone after Roadrunners in the field, prey dangling from their beaks. By the time I catch up to them, the prey is down the hatch! But with effort, documenting a Roadrunner with a dangerous, squirming victim is just a matter of time!
Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail. –John Donne
Many birders inside and outside Texas are aware (and horrified) that planning for construction of Trump’s border wall with Mexico at Santa Ana National National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near McAllen, Texas continues to progess. Often described as the “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Santa Ana is nationally and internationally famous as one of the birding destinations in the United States. Some of our earliest and most profound birding adventures have occurred here. In fact, it is here where we became serious birders. Over the strenuous objections of world biologists and birders about the obvious threats to habitat and the exceptional beauty and biodiversity of the place, the plans continue.
I suspect that it would be useless to enumerate the types of specific threats to particular animal species–from hindering migration for purposes of finding mates and food to loss of availability of escape routes during floods–that the wall poses. The weird populist political support this boondoggle enjoys is quite beyond the bounds of reason. The work (and destruction) will continue until Trump is out of office–but then the damage will have been done. The wall will (obviously) be incomplete, and Santa Ana will be scarred.
In contemplation of the border wall, I am reminded of the history of palaces in Western Europe. Reaching back into antiquity one finds that the early residences of the nobility were fortresses. Often the power these men and women exerted over their subjects was enforced at sword-point, and rivals often staged armed insurrections. Power and influence were tenuous. However, as the power of the state increased into the early Modern Era, a curious thing happened. Kings and queens no longer lived behind moats and fortifications: They lived in palaces. The Versailles of Louis XIV was not a fortress. Nor was the Buckingham Palace of George III. Security, yes–moats, ramparts, massive walls, no. Power was exercised with the stroke of a pen, orders dispatched from an office, not a turret.
Those advocating the building of the border wall must agree that if the United States requires a physical wall, a fortification, to contain illegal immigration, then our government no longer enjoys a rule of law capacious enough or one even worthy of a Modern civilization. Rather, we must consider ourselves Medievals cowering behind stone walls and iron gates.
I wanted to know the name of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast. I wanted to know where it got its color, where it got its life – but there was no one to tell me.–George Washington Carver
Perhaps it’s ironic to start thinking about insects the week of the first blue norther in Texas, but I have to act on ideas when I get them!
We tend to pay close attention to insects in the field because of the vital connection they have to birds: Insects are a major part of the diets of many birds. And we love documenting birds interacting with specific, identifiable prey! But insects are, of course, interesting in and of themselves.
Back when Elisa was in graduate school, we built a fine collection of insects for her course work. That collection is now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Soon after building that collection, though, we decided never to harm another wild creature if we could help it.
Since then, we have tried to capture insects through close-up and macrophotography in our travels to photograph birds. As anyone who has ever attempted such a thing knows, this can be a challenge—especially if one adheres strictly to the highest standards of ethical behavior.
In writing this post I am (nearly) violating one of my cardinal rules, one that I acquired from one of my finest teachers, Dr. R. R. West. He said often: “Don’t tell me what you are going to do, tell me what you have done.” Good advice. In that vein, we have designed and started to build a mobile system for collecting, photographing, and releasing insects unharmed back into to the wild. Stay tuned for the results!
People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles. –Emily Dickinson
2015 was a rough year. With all the unfortunate things that happened last year, personal losses and natural disasters, it’s tempting to try and forget about the whole period entirely. But that would mean forgetting the wonderful things, too—and there were plenty. It’s taken a while to put this little collection together, but here goes!
True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.―William Shakespeare
At times like this, the dreary end of a dreary Houston summer, my mind turns to some of those magical places I’ve visited in the past. Upon recollection, some of the most enchanting visions of nature have occurred in the presence of swallows. I remember such a scene in Yellowstone National Park where American Tree and Violet-green Swallows snatched insects from the air and lapped water on the wing from the surface of a beaver pond. Last spring I first noticed American Tree and Rough-winged Swallows performing similar aerobatic feats above Pilant and 40-Acre Lakes, Brazos Bend SP.
As a birder I pay close attention to swallows, as they often present an identification challenge while in flight (Is that a Cave or Cliff Swallow?). As a photo-birder, I often pay swallows too little attention as photographing swallows in flight would be quite a trick. Swallows are not particularly swift fliers, but their darting, acrobatic style of flight makes capturing them in the air something I’ve not yet accomplished, except under stalled circumstances like approaching a nest or perched young. Maybe someday I’ll catch one gliding across the surface of a liquid. Until then, I’ll just have to wait for them to land.
For me, birding has been a refuge and salvation from the trials and tribulations of life. In today’s world, though, a simple commercial flight to a birding destination can be a trial, too. On the return flight from our last birding trip to Colorado, for example, United Airlines temporarily lost one of our big suitcases . . . .
Now, normally a lost suitcase would not be a big deal, but in this particular case the bag contained two carbon fiber tripods and gimbal mounts, and pair of binoculars–about $3500 worth of equipment that we use all the time and couldn’t just replace at Walmart. The quest to retrieve the bag started out ominously: The United Airlines guy who is in charge of finding lost suitcases at the Houston International Airport told me it was “pointless” to look for our suitcase! Pointless!
Getting the suitcase back turned out to be even more of a headache that one would imagine because United Airlines handed the recovery of the bag over to another company (WheresMySuitcase.com), that in turn handed it over to yet another company!
Neither of these other two companies had working telephone numbers, or (apparently) any employees who could read, write, tell time, or operate a telephone or computer. One of the people we had to talk to in the course of this adventure was in India! One of the phone numbers we were given by United to reach one of the other companies (who can remember which?) turned out to belong to a scooter store! I couldn’t make this stuff up!
After navigating a web of nuttiness we eventually got the bag back–with a TSA inspection tag inside . . . Now, what does any of this diatribe have to do with birding from lodges?
Simple. The lodges from which we bird tend to be owned and operated by individuals, mom and pop teams, or at worst, small companies. The owners/operators live in the area, and many of them really know the local birds and where to find them. They care if you come back! They care about what you say to your friends about the place! It’s nothing short of great and a huge break from corporate America and its legions of know-nothings.
Over the years we have found a few really neat, highly recommendable lodges. The three that spring to mind are Cave Creek Ranch (Arizona), Casa Santa Ana (Rio Grande Valley), and my new discovery, MacGregor Mountain Lodge. What they all have in common is extensive grounds to bird and proximity to fabulous parks. Sometimes you have to stay in the run-of-the-mill corporate-owned accommodations (unless the global economy collapses, my camping days are over!), but it’s usually really worth the extra effort to seek out a lodge from which to bird.
Although the whole missing bag thing really stressed me out, I’m trying hard to take something positive from the story. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the problem of supertelephoto lenses and airlines that continues to plague wildlife photographers will lead to a solution. One possibility I’ve been considering it shipping the tripods and mounts to the lodges. Statistically, UPS and Fedex are far more dependable than the airlines at handling packages. I know that many photo-birders have simply given up on airline travel with big glass, but If any readers have solved the airline problem, I and many others, would love to hear about it!
Waterbirds are among my favorite subjects and, as often as not, the surface of the water itself becomes a major compositional element within the photo. Some photographers tend to shoot at a very low angle to show the bird at eye-level. In doing this, though, the surface of the water is lost, which is why I prefer to shoot at a slight downward angle . . . .
I love the colors of water and the features that form and travel across its surface. Waves, rings, and wakes add a level of energy and context to the avian subject. The color and surface texture of the water inform the viewer about the day the image was taken. The winter colors of the Willet below, for example, indicate the season, but the chaotic, deep blue surface of the water tells the viewer that this was a cold, clear, blustery day.
Water, of course, is charismatic enough to be more than just the setting and can become the subject itself. The raging torrent below beckons to the stunning mountains of the West. I wish we were there . . . .
Water is the driving force of all nature.—Leonardo da Vinci
Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .
Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.
Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!
At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.
Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.
Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!
In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—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
Photographing birds is often not easy, and getting them in the act of hunting can be a special challenge. But even after you have the image, the work may not yet be done as prey items can be difficult to identify. Vertebrate prey items (particularly fish) can be challenging, but invertebrates, especially larval forms, can be maddening when your invertebrate biology courses were twenty-plus years ago! The rewards of such research, though, are great. Identifying prey puts you in tune with the bird’s life: Now you know what they’re looking for when you see them poking around in particular habitats, at particular times of the year. For me, this is one of the more interesting aspects of birding, one made possible by the camera.
Our retinas and brains have been wired by a hundred million years of evolution to find outlines in a visually complex landscape. This helps us to recognize prey and predators.—Seth Shostak
Chris’s Field Notes: We just returned from a three-day birding adventure in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in the vicinity of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Estero Llano Grande State Park. We stayed at Casa Santa Ana, adjacent to the wildlife refuge—highly recommended for the hospitality and birding the extensive grounds. Although the heat, humidity, and biting insects (not to mention chiggers) tested our resolve, we saw a number of new species and obtained nice (or at least better than we had!) shots of some Valley specialities, essentially Mexican species with ranges that barely extend into South Texas in summer.
Birds notable for us included: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Groove-billed Ani, Clay-colored Robin, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Altamira and Hooded Oriole, Couch’s Kingbird, Olive Sparrow, and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Nests and young birds were everywhere. I saw one adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Estero Llano Grande State Park (at the extreme southern extent of their summer range). Although we explored significant wetlands, including some with profuse amphibians (leopard frogs), waders were rare (strangely it seemed), compared to the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. I witnessed a display by the male Bronzed Cowbird. The bird was on a low branch overhanging a path at Santa Ana NWR when it lowered its head, roused its feathers, and flapped its wings while making whistling, buzzing, and clicking sounds. Spectacular.
The Tamaulipan mezquital ecoregion through which the Rio Grande winds is a harsh place in the summer. Scattered trees, often mesquite and “acacia” surrounded by grasses and low shrubs predominate. Shade is usually incomplete. Mosquitos were not a significant problem, but other types of biting (and bottle) flies abound. Dragonflies like Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) and Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata) were profuse and offered many photographic opportunities. I didn’t see many mammals, only one Southern Plains Woodrat (Neotoma micropus). Lizards were abundant, especially the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis). White skies due to high humidity often made photography difficult. Many times I had a bead on an interesting bird only to have a dazzlingly white cloud drift in behind and ruin the shot. All in all, an amazing place, and I can’t wait to get back during cooler weather.
Elisa’s Field Notes: This was our first late spring/early summer visit to the Lower RGV, and I hoped that the effort (in defiance of the heat!) would yield many observations of nesting, nestlings, fledglings, etc. I was not disappointed! With excellent summer birding in our own Gulf Coast backyard, we see quite a bit of bird family life, but mostly of the waterbird persuasion. During our short trip into Texas’ subtropical scrubland, I was able to spot White-eyed Vireo, Long-billed Thrasher, Plain Chachalaca, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Altamira Oriole juveniles just beginning to make it on their own. Our timing was rewarding in other ways, too. We essentially had the refuge and the park to ourselves! Our host mentioned that anyone who was “out here at this time of year is committed.” I suspect that he might have meant to say that we should be committed!
I was also charmed by the abundance of nests and nesting behavior. Oriole nests, in particular, are standouts. I saw the Altamira Oriole pictured below fly directly into the nest as it swung and bobbed in the wind. It must be somewhat like living in a small boat out at sea. Altamira Oriole nests are typically woven to a fork of a tree branch and, sometimes, to a telephone wire as we saw outside of the state park. I wonder if building the nest so far from stable branches is one way to make your nest more inaccessible to predators . . . Regardless, as an amateur fiber artist, any creature that weaves or works with fiber is OK by me!
What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.—Jane Austen