Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. –John Muir
I think of migrant traps as the first quality habitat, usually on barrier islands, visible to birds after their epic flights across the Gulf of Mexico during the spring migration. In fall, these places are the last chance to drink up and fatten up before chasing the sun south for the winter. The best migrant traps have food, water, and cover—the essentials of life for birds. Cover usually means trees, and most of the best and most famous migrant traps are mottes, slightly elevated areas with trees on an otherwise low-lying and exposed mixture of land- and sea-scape. In this new article, I discuss findings and birding adventures in some of our favorite migrant traps from Alabama to the Coastal Bend of Texas.
Life stands before me like an eternal spring with new and brilliant clothes.–Carl Friedrich Gauss
Before the vegetation of the region becomes a burnt offering to the terrible sun god, Huitzilopochtli, I highly recommend making a visit to Central Texas for the spectacular wildflower show. Those of stout enough heart to brave the Death Race 2000-like conditions on the highways in the Austin area will find a real treat in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. But go early in the day, as by 10am there are squadrons of bonneted, wildflower-obsessed infants in their strollers being pushed by tenders.
A few birds were singing and flitting about the wildflower center when visited. These were mostly common species, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, and Northern Mockingbird—and, of course, the Great Horned Owl above. A few Black-chinned Hummingbirds were also drinking nectar from autumn sage.
While at the center, I practiced some standard botanical macrophotography. The great thing about the center is the diversity of plants from a wide range of habitats across Texas. Many species are labeled, enabling the visitor to easily learn a few more Texas native plants. There are some unusual (and photogenic) species that I’ve never seen in the wild, despite having spent quite a bit of time outdoors attentive to such matters.
The visit to the Wildflower Center was a nice tonic after questing after, but not seeing, the elusive Golden-Cheeked Warbler. On the past two visits to the Lost Maples State Natural Area in previous years, we successfully heard and saw the singing male birds. Not being up for such a long trek this spring break, we visited the Travis Audubon Baker Sanctuary instead. But alas, no warblers. Maybe next time.
For the rest of spring break 2016, we’ll stick close to home and see what the local critters are up to.
When I was a boy, just about every summer we’d take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had any fun.–Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.
It’s that time of year again, the time to start planning for summer birding vacations. The time for idle daydreaming has come and gone, and the time to start picking out particular spots and places to stay has arrived!
The impulse to see new species is, perhaps, the main impetus behind birding travel. But seeing new habitats and familiar birds in their full breeding plumage is also exciting, especially given that we see so many species only during migration along the Texas Gulf Coast. Road trips are usually my favorites, mainly because I don’t have to deal with the horror that airline travel has become. I keep waiting for the inevitable row that ensues when I finally encounter a security screener who hasn’t seen a big super telephoto lens before and wants me to check the bag containing it.
I also dread the five hours crammed into a seat “designed” for a 5′ 1,” 95-pound child. I do, though, force myself to submit to airline travel at least every other year or so. The prospect of driving to the Pacific Northwest or Wisconsin, say, is just too daunting. I friend recently described a summer vacation driving trip from Houston to Winnipeg: He said “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
The birding vacation question is always: do we go somewhere familiar or go somewhere completely new? During any given summer, we will usually strike a balance between the familiar and the novel. For novelty, it’s starting to look like southwest Oregon will be the major new get-away destination this summer. I’ve never been to Oregon, but some of the descriptions of birding sites in southwest Oregon, especially near the Rogue River sound quite appealing. The close proximity of riparian, estuarine, and beach habitats seem promising for a diversity of birds. Likewise, the “Mediterranean” climate that I’ve read about (I’ll believe it when I see it!) will be a nice change of pace from Houston’s summertime “Calcutta” climate. Research continues with John Rakestraw’s Birding Oregon (2007).
Until we can get away for a big trip, we’ll bird locally, or in Central Texas for the Golden-cheeked Warblers that have just returned for the breeding season. We’ve seen and heard the Golden-cheeks several times before, but have never captured any good images. Maybe this time. We continue to wait anxiously for the the spring songbird and shorebird migrations to really get rolling.
Rakestraw, John. 2007. Birding Oregon. The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 209 p.
In structural complexity, adaptation to all sorts of environments, and development of a remarkable social organization among some, the arthropods are judged to represent the peak of evolutionary advancement attained by invertebrates.—Moore, Lalicker, and Fischer, Invertebrate Fossils (1952)
It’s almost time to get back into one of our spring birding habits: A road trip to the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island in the afternoon (for the best light), followed by the night in Winnie, and a trip down the Bolivar Peninsula the next morning. The highlight of Bolivar is usually Frenchtown Road, where shorebirds and waders can often be seen hunting for invertebrates, especially arthropods, on the tidal flats, in the shallow tidal channels, and from among the exposed oyster patch reefs.
Another spring tradition is travel to Bryan Beach (or Surfside Jetty Park or Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary), followed by a trip up Follett’s Island, across to Galveston Island, ending at Lafitte’s Cove. These trips have the best of both worlds, littoral marine habitats and songbird migrant traps among mighty hardwoods.
This time of year reminds the birder of the fact that birds are governed by the never-ending search for food. As avian migrants follow the sun’s energy north, they are mostly following the the exploding biomass of terrestrial invertebrates, primarily arthropods. Birds lucky enough to be able the tap the perennial invertebrate bounty of the sea can overwinter along the coast. Those dependent on terrestrial and aquatic arthropods like insects must wait for the inevitable return of the summer swelter.
A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes.–Joseph Addison
I am sometimes surprised by which images turn out and which don’t. Light is magic, and photography is all about light. By magic I mean inexplicable—or at least very hard to explain in the context of how a camera records light. Case in point: we were recently attempting to photograph Sandhill Cranes in a field on Galveston Island. It was a clear, beautiful day, and I had a distant but unobstructed view of the birds. I wasn’t expecting National Geographic results because the cranes were too far away, but shot after shot was utter garbage.
The humidity was low (which was good), but it was windy (which was bad). I could tell that the UV index was high (I got a sunburn through sunscreen), and I just couldn’t achieve focus using autofocus or manual focus. I first tried bracing the lens on a fence post with image stabilization turned on, then off. When that failed, I returned to best practices: tripod with cable release. But still, everything farther than about ten yards away was blurry and washed out. Was invisible (to the unaided eye) turbulence creating some sort of mirage-like effect? I turned the camera on and off—even switched bodies thinking that there was a malfunction. Somehow, conditions simply weren’t right for photography—black magic. The next day I looked like W. C. Fields with windburn, sunburn, and a bar tan.
Other days, with fog or rain or lots of gray gloomy clouds, strangely, and against all odds, some nice images can be captured—white magic. I know that some photographers and viewers even prefer the look of results achieved during these dark, gloomy overcast days. All the images in this post were taken on a road trip to South Texas a few years ago. In fact, all were taken on the same day, except the kingfisher. And it was a winter like this one, with lots of rain and clouds and fog and mist and cursing by yours truly.
Of course, these dark days test your skills. To keep ISO below 800 for reasonable image quality means shooting at ridiculously slow shutter speeds (like 1/80 to 1/320) and breaking the 1/f shutter speed rule that I like to follow–even on a tripod with cable release. At these slow speeds, you’re in mirror-slap territory, especially on a tripod, and any puff of wind or contact with the gear can have deleterious effects. And patience is required to capture even the hint of a catchlight, an important aspect of wildlife photography.
Finally, because I pursue this hobby for personal growth and physical and mental health, seeing sunlight is so important. Like most Americans I suspect that I am Vitamin D deficient due to being cooped up so much at work. On these gray days, the spirits lift during an occasional sunbreak. The image of the Common Yellowthroat below was happily captured at the end of a gloomy, misty day just as the clouds parted (finally!) at dusk.
May the sun bring you new energy by day, may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being, may you walk gently through the world and know it’s beauty all the days of your life.―Apache Blessing
Big Bend National Park (BBNP) is in one of the most spectacular corners of Texas. Broadly, BBNP consists of three major zones: Chihuahuan Desert, Chisos Mountains, and riparian habitats flanking the Rio Grande River. BBNP boasts the largest number of recorded species of birds of any U.S. national park (around 450), with about 50 being permanent residents, the others being nesters or migrants. BBNP is certainly one of the crown jewels of Texas birding.
For this trip we stayed at the Chisos Mountain Lodge in the “basin,” a depression in the center of the Chisos Mountains at an elevation of around 5400 feet. The Chisos are erosional remnants of Tertiary volcanoes that punched up through the local stratigraphic column. This volcanism ended around 12 million years ago. Surprisingly, the weather near the lodge was fairly pleasant even in early August, with highs around 90° F and lows in the mid-60°s F. Only during the heat of the day was it impossible to photo-bird due to the blazing sun. Around the lodge we saw numerous Say’s Phoebes, Canyon Towhees, and Scott’s Orioles.
In many ways, the lodge area is similar to Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricauhua Mountains region of southeast Arizona, perhaps our favorite birding destination of all. Both are mountainous madrean “sky islands” in the surrounding desert. In the case of the Chiricauhuas, though, the mountains are surrounded from the east by the Chihuahuan Desert and from the west by the Sonoran Desert, whereas the Chisos reside entirely within the Chihuahuan Desert.
For this trip we decided to work primarily at low elevation, reserving high elevation hot spots for a future trip in an upcoming May to see (among others) the famous singing male Colima warblers. Working at low elevation meant birding during early mornings and evenings only. From 10am to 7pm in the desert the temperatures routinely topped 100° F, and the sun cut like a knife.
Much of the best birding at low elevation in BBNP is to be found at abandoned ranches. Here, wells provide the life-giving water that makes these spots oases in the desert. Our first stop was the Sam Nail Ranch where we were thrilled to find both birds and shade.
At Sam Nail, we spent most of the time shooting from behind the ruin of a mud wall into a thicket backed by cottonwood and pecan trees. In general, the birds were wary and did not allow a close approach, and after about 9am, the light was incredibly harsh. In any case, we saw Varied and Painted Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats, Northern Cardinals and Mockingbirds, Pyrrhuloxias, a variety of flycatchers (the subject of a future post), Bell’s and Hutton’s Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Summer Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, Ladderback and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and White-winged Doves (Mexican mountain race).
The Painted Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chats, Northern Cardinals, and vireos were all singing at Sam Nail. Likewise Cactus Wrens and a variety of other wrens and thrashers could be heard singing and calling from the surrounding desert.
On the second morning, Elisa turned around to find a Bobcat sitting in the path behind us, but the beast was within the minimum focus distance of her 500mm lens! Later we heard a low feline growl emanating from the thicket behind us, and we decided to cut our visit short: an estimated 25 Mountain Lions live in BBNP and attacks on humans are not unknown.
One evening we also visited Dugout Wells, another abandoned ranch, where we found numerous Pyrrhuloxias, woodpeckers, and thrashers. Loggerhead Shrikes hunted the ranch, and I made a half-hearted attempt to find shrike kills posted on thorns, but frankly the heat was so intense that I could hardly move carrying the 600mm lens and had to photograph Jackrabbits and Desert Cottontails from a patch of shade until the insane fireball in the sky disappeared behind a distant thunderhead.
Although Roadrunners are common throughout the park, we decided to take a special trip to the Rio Grande Village camp grounds and Daniels Ranch one morning to see and attempt to photograph them up close. Roadrunners were as abundant as reported in A field Guide to the Birds of Big Bend by Roland Wauer–as were Inca Doves, woodpeckers, and flycatchers (including summering Vermilion flycatchers). But by 9:30am it was so sweltering that we decided to move on to higher elevation.
Big Bend is one of those majestic places that demand repeated and prolonged visits. And we are drawing up plans to visit again during the other seasons. I can hardly wait.
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.—Victor Hugo
During our recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, we spent two half-days exploring Trail Ridge Road. This road reaches an elevation of 12,183 ft. and so cuts through a series of habitats typically encountered at much higher latitudes. Near the top, the road cuts alpine tundra, an environment similar to that near the Arctic Circle.
Admittedly, some of our early forays up to elevation were difficult. As flat-landers from sea-level a sudden visit to over 12,000 ft was a shock to our cardiovascular systems. A much longer visit (yea!) would cause red blood cell counts to increase, and allow us to hunt down and photograph the tougher species without feeling as though we were going to stroke out at any moment!
One of the thrills of traveling to bird is encountering species you know and love from another part of the country during a different time of the year wearing differently colored plumage. On this trip we found, of all things, American Pipits, birds we often find dining on crane flies in grassy areas on the Gulf Coast during late winter and early spring. During the breeding season, these birds have more of a grayish cast on the back and less intense streaking on the belly. The bird below has a splash of bright orange on the throat and upper breast, something I’ve not seen in American Pipits during the winter in Texas.
This visit to high altitude whetted our appetites for cold weather birding, and we are drawing up plans for a birding trip to the high latitude tundra—we’ve got our eyes on the Canadian Arctic near Hudson Bay!
Over a three-day period this Thanksgiving Holiday we visited a number of our favorite Coastal Bend birding haunts in and around Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. These included Paradise Pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, the Nature Sanctuary at Charlie’s Pasture (all Mustang Island), and San José Island, and the Hans and Pat Suter City Wildlife Nature Park in Corpus Christi. And yes, when it was over we were wiped out!
All of these sites were flush with birds, except San José Island which proved to be such a disappointment that we found ourselves photographing crabs! With the exception of San José, all of these sites are really better for birding than for bird photography for one simple reason: Narrow boardwalks make tripods problematic, especially when other birders are present.
Highlights of these late Fall and early winter trips to the Coastal Bend are often the waterfowl. You just can’t beat a crisp morning with formations of ducks and geese overhead and wet, feathered-friends paddling peacefully around the waterways. Although we saw plenty of ducks and geese, seeing vast tracts of prairie and wetland without a single bird (and often hearing the crack of gunfire in the background) got me wondering about duck populations in North America.
A quick survey of a recently published U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report reassured that duck numbers are (in general) large by “historical” standards. This report presented data but provided little analysis or discussion. Overall, a few duck species are down relative to recent years, but the total number of ducks is close to 50 million. So humans must not be adversely affecting waterfowl populations, right?
Wait! The above cited historical quantitative records of duck numbers begin in 1955. The 1930’s (think Dust Bowl), 40’s, and 50’s were times of drought across North America. Could it be that our concept of how many waterfowl there “should be” in wetter times is too low? Again according to the report, some duck species (Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, and Gadwall) show a steady increase in numbers, with minor ups and downs, beginning in the mid-1950’s—perhaps indicating a recovery from a time of ecological decimation? Given the interplay of anthropogenic, meteorological, and ecological influences, we’ll never know for sure what waterfowl populations would look like without the pervasive human impacts of the past fifty years. But in North American waterfowl numbers there is certainly food for thought.
The fallacy of presentism is a complex anachronism, in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent.—David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies
The weather has been trending toward the pleasant lately, but has still often been a bit too warm (and buggy) by mid-day to really enjoy seeking and shooting birds all day long (Uh-oh! We’ll have to stop for a pint and a brat at the Wurst Haus!). We have been taking every opportunity, though, to get out (mostly to the coast and Brazos Bend) and be productive. October 19 was the first genuinely perfect day of the fall. Nice from start to finish, dry with cool breezes and creamy, beautiful light all day long. What a day to forget about your cares and let your blood pressure return to normal!
Last Weekend, after hearing reports of Wood Storks flying over Brazos Bend State Park toward the coast, we visited Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. The mosquitos were prodigious in number so we drove the Auto Loop, using the truck as a mobile photo blind. We employed a little trick we learned on the web: pool noodles, cut to length, split to the center and slipped over a half-rolled-down window served as nice supports for the barrels of our super telephoto lenses. Sometimes Elisa rode around in the bed of the pick-up while I drove and shot through my window . . . but no storks.
During a brief visit to the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, we found surprisingly few birds, but the beautiful grounds offered many opportunities for macrophotography of flowers and arthropods, especially spiders. Brazos Bend State Park, too, has been a rich hunting ground for spiders lately, with several species of large orb-weavers being very much in evidence.
I was also happy to discover that the thick layer of reeking seaweed that has been blanketing East Beach, Galveston has finally rotted down to the consistency of scattered coffee grounds. As a result, a favorite birding spot is livable again. For the first time, I saw a Reddish Egret do the Snowy Egret thing—wave a foot back and forth underwater to spook up prey.
In the near future we plan to continue our hunt for migratory shorebirds and songbirds. And Wood Storks remain on the target bird list. Hmmmm . . . San Bernard NWR?
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.—Andrew Wyeth
Last weekend Texas got its first real fall blast from the North. Saturday was especially lovely, and we spent the day on the Gulf Coast. Of course, by Monday the hot, humid, sweltering stuff returned and remained for the rest of the week.
Our usual coastal road trip runs from High Island down the Bolivar Peninsula, across the ferry to Galveston (where we often visit Pelican Island and Lafitte’s Cove), and then back to Houston. This time we started at Bryan Beach, visited the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, traveled up Follett’s island, crossed the bridge to Galveston, visited Lafitte’s Cove, and returned to Houston.
The weather was spectacular at Bryan Beach. There were plenty of mosquitoes, but the brisk winds kept them off us. Having not birded on the Gulf for a couple of months we had to get over the shock (again) of just how much trash is deposited by filthy litterbugs on Texas beaches. We saw at least three white morph Reddish Egrets hunting among the rubbish on the shore face and in the lagoons. We also spent some time with a darling Piping Plover as it grabbed worms from the mudflats.
Standing on Follett’s Island, we saw a Magnificent Frigatebird sitting on a post in Christmas Bay. Before leaving Follett’s, we stopped briefly at a small nature preserve composed of salt marsh, stands of salt cedar, and beach habitat on the Gulf side of Follett’s Island within sight of San Luis Pass. I had a good laugh at one of the signs here. It noted how ranchers had planted salt cedars to provide shelter for their cattle, and now the salt cedars provide shelter for countless millions of migrating songbirds. Apparently no matter how egregious the violation of the environment, humans must be portrayed as heroes.
Lafitte’s Cove was hopping with warblers: Black and White, American Redstart, Nashville, and Wilson’s were in attendance. Here, as was often the case, flowers (some native and some non-native) were in bloom, and I spent some time working with a new toy in my bag, a 25mm extension tube. Extension tubes increase the magnification of a lens by increasing it’s image distance. After returning home I continued to turn the tube on a variety of flowers and arthropods. With continued practice, I hope to perfect my macro technique and see how the tube works with other lenses. Now, I eagerly await the next norther . . . .
The tints of autumn…a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost.—John Greenleaf Whittier
Visiting Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, and environs in Cave Creek Canyon for a few days each year has become a Two Shutterbirds birding tradition. We arrive each time hoping to discover or photograph something new or obtain better shots of species we have photographed before. Usually we do see or document things new to us. This July’s visit was no exception.
At Cave Creek, we spend days exploring places like Barfoot Park, South Fork, and the Vista trail—trying to include a mix of new and familiar locales. Because the terrain can often be steep, these are typically pure birding trips (binoculars or, at most, small glass only). This July, Hermit Thrushes, Western Wood-Pewees, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were the most commonly encountered birds at lower elevations, and Yellow-eyed Juncos predominated at higher ones. In the evenings, once we were beat, and upon return to the ranch, we sometimes spent a few hours hanging around shooting the numerous birds that visit the seed and nectar feeders.
Seed feeders at Cave Creek Ranch attract large numbers of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Mexican Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers. Occasionally a White-Breasted Nuthatch, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Arizona Cardinal, Hepatic or Summer Tanager, or Curve-billed Thrasher showed up as we watched. In the thickets along the road behind the office we saw Cassin’s Kingbirds, Black Phoebes, and Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens. At the nectar feeders, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds predominated. We saw a few Blue-throated and a single Anna’s Hummingbird. Another birder saw a single Violet-crowned Hummingbird, but Chris was looking the other way. A lifer missed by a fraction of a second! A Plain-capped Starthroat was reported in the area (we saw one a few days earlier in Madera Canyon). Without exaggeration, Cave Creek Canyon is a magical place, and place not to be missed by anyone interested in birds or nature.
Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.—W. Somerset Maugham
During our recent road trip to southeast Arizona we once again encountered Cardinalis cardinals superbus, a bird sometimes referred to asthe “Arizona Cardinal.” I paused for a closer look and made a few comparisons with our own Cardinalis cardinals magnirostris, the Northern Cardinal subspecies that occurs throughout the eastern third of Texas.
The Arizona race of cardinals occurs in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico and is generally larger, taller-crested, longer-tailed, and more brightly colored (less gray on the back) than Texas Gulf Coast cardinals, or any of the other races of cardinals in the U.S. The Arizona Cardinal’s face mask also tends toward lighter shades and is smaller, often not meeting across the top of the bill. In general behavior, the Arizona subspecies was indistinguishable from our familiar Texas birds. Their songs, however, varied by a note or two here and there.
C. c. magnirostris is a beautiful bird and common bird—a bird so common that we tend to ignore it, despite its beauty. Sometimes in our travels, too, we are so taken with the new species encountered that we overlook the close relatives of familiar animals that cross our paths.
The Arizona Cardinal is a spectacular bird, and not easy to miss. But how many other close relatives of our less showy backyard birds are we overlooking during our far-flung birding adventures? Learning about (and keeping straight) these minor geographic variations in our native birds is yet another aspect of this incredible hobby we call birdwatching.
Why hurry over beautiful things? Why not linger and enjoy them?—Clara Schumann