Road Trip!

Road Trip! Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer (Part 2: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?—Richard P. Feynman

Male Costa's Hummingbird at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Male Costa’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. The Tucson area is near the eastern extremity of this hummingbird’s summer breeding range. From many angles his gorget appears blackish, but during courtship the male Costa’s is sure to direct brilliant violet rays toward potential mates! Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an interesting and highly recommended institution nestled within Saguaro National Park. Composed of zoo, botanical garden, nature park, wildlife refuge, and natural history museum, the 21-acre campus blends into the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Some animals are free to come and go as they please, and others are captive.

According to museum literature, the hummingbird aviary contains up to seven species. On the day we visited it contained only four: Anna’s, Costa’s, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Because Black-chinned and Broad-billed are common in the areas we bird, we focused our attention primarily on Anna’s and Costa’s.

Male Anna's Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Male Anna’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

The covered aviary made for a weird, muted light in which it was difficult to capture the iridescent colors of male humming bird gorgets. Because these colors are the result of the physical optics of the feathers, not pigmentation, getting the colors to show well depends on the spatial relationship between light source(s), bird, and camera. On the whole, shooting hummingbirds in the aviary was a bit unsettling: We are used to hummers being will-o’-the-wisps, and free to wander.

Verdin at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Quizzical Verdin on Desert Willow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We also saw a variety of wild desert birds. Cactus Wrens and White-winged Doves were the most common and were seen singing on saguaros and other plants. Verdin, Phainopepla, and Gila Woodpeckers were also about. Some Ash-throated Flycatchers and Gambel’s Quail made brief appearances.

Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Gila Woodpeckers nest in cavities excavated within saguaros. Many woodpeckers were raising families while we visited the Southwest, and we often saw parents bringing fruit and insects home to young. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also boasts an impressive assortment of desert plants. A number of species were in bloom including fishhook barrel cactus, red yucca, a variety of legumes, and the spectacular red bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrina), a naturalized native of the Neotropics. Some saguaros were in bloom, but coming to the end of their flowering season.

Barrel Cactus flowers at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Fishhook Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus sp. ) flowers at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring-flash.

Our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum brought up many philosophical issues about the place of nature in a human-dominated landscape. We have hinted at some of these issues before, but Elisa hopes to explore them more deeply in future writings.

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip! Desert Southwest Birding in Summer (Part 1: Madera Canyon, Arizona)

Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona.
Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

For Upper Texas Gulf Coast birding there comes a summer tipping point where the pain outweighs the gain. By about late July, it’s tough to justify going out birding with the bugs, sweltering weather, yahoos, and low diversity of birds. What to do . . . ?

It’s time for a road trip! This time around we visited Franklin Mountains State Park (West Texas), and several places in southeast Arizona including Saguaro National Park, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cave Creek, and Madera Canyon, a classic North American birding destination in the Coronado National Forest.

Southeast Arizona lies within one of the three northward-extending prongs of tropical biodiversity that extend into the U.S., the others reaching Big Bend and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Madera Canyon, one of the major birding hotspots within this Arizona prong, is on the northwest side of the Santa Rita Mountains, a Madrean Sky Island, about 25 miles south of Tucson.

Madera Canyon cuts largely through granitic rocks and passes through four major life zones, from Lower Sonoran in the blistering valley floor to cooler Canadian at the top, and ranges from about 3600 to over 9400 feet in elevation. At 9453 feet Mount Wrightson crowns the canyon.

Adult Painted Redstart perched on a branch
Shady Character. Painted Redstarts are common on the trails in Madera Canyon, Arizona in July. They prefer to sing, hunt, and preen under shaded cover, so it was quite a challenge to capture a usable image! Luckily, we saw this bird early on the hike, and my hand was still steady. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/100.

For our first visit to Madera Canyon we stayed for three days at the Santa Rita Lodge. The lodge is centrally located with hiking trails above and below in elevation. The feeders near the office were often thick with birds. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, White-winged Doves, and Mourning Doves predominated. Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers, Hepatic Tanagers, Bridled Titmice, and American Turkeys visited sporadically. Hummingbirds were abundant. Black-chinned and Broad-billeds predominated. A few Rufous and a single Plain-capped Starthroat visited while we watched. A Canyon and Bewick’s Wren appeared briefly. White-eared Hummingbirds were reported in the area, but unfortunately we didn’t see them. Mexican Jays were common around the lodge in general.

On the Nature Trail, flycatchers, especially Ash-throated and Western Wood-Pewees predominated. Elisa was lucky to see a Western Wood-Peewee nest with nestlings. Painted Redstarts were common, and we caught several possible glimpses of Flame-colored Tanagers. Just south of the lodge we were treated to a Whiskered Screech Owl roosting in a cavity in a large sycamore tree.

Hermit Thrush perched on mossy stump.
The look-out. A Hermit Thrush eyes a couple of primates walking through the woods in Madera Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/160.

On the Carrie Nation Mine Trail, we  saw Ash-throated, Western Wood-Peewee, Black Phoebe, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstarts. Elisa saw a single Red-faced Warbler.

On the last morning, we hiked the Bog Springs Trail where we saw mated pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, in one case gathering nesting materials.

Mud-puddling Two-tailed Swallowtail
Mud-puddling. This Two-tailed Swallowtail (Arizona’s state butterfly) is drinking nutrient-rich water from a mud puddle along the nature trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona. During the encounter, which lasted about 10 minutes, I observed it drink continuously and excrete excess fluid from its abdomen every 15-30 seconds. Mud-puddling allows butterflies and other insects to obtain essential mineral salts and amino acids. Canon EOS 7D/300 mm f4L IS. Hand-held in natural light, ISO 500, f/9; 1/400.

Our visit to Madera Canyon drove home one central point: There is a significant difference between birding and bird photography. In some of the places we visited, it would have required a herculean effort to haul the super telephotos up into the canyon. In those instances, we just broke out the binoculars and smaller glass and enjoyed the views or photographed flowers, insects, or reptiles.

Female Phainopepla at the Arizona Sonoran Museum.
Next time: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Female Phainopepla. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The mountains are calling and I must go.—John Muir

@2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Road Trip: Birding the Rio Grande Valley in Summer

Buff-bellied Hummingbird at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Four species of Amazilia hummingbirds occur in the U.S. Only the Buff-bellied is common. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC): f/8, ISO 640; 1/1000. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Groove-billed Ani at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
Groove-billed Ani at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. That big heavy bill gives the impression of a seed-eater. Anis do eat fruit, nuts, and seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of arthropods. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC): f/8, ISO 800; 1/640. Natural light.
Adult Clay-colored Robin gathering nesting material photographed by E.D. Lewis
This Clay-colored Robin made several fiber-gathering trips to this back-yard garden palm tree. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/5.6, ISO 500; 1/100. Natural light.

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!

Adult Altamira Oriole and nest photographed by E. D. Lewis
An Altimira Oriole emerges from its nest of grasses woven onto the branches of a mesquite tree at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/6.3, ISO 640; 1/2500. Natural light.

 What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.—Jane Austen

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Road Trips Down the Upper Texas Coast!

Male Scarlet Tanager in breeding color at Pelican Island, Texas
Male Scarlet Tanager in Breeding Color at Pelican Island, Texas. This dandy was feasting on bees and mulberries. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We recently stumbled upon a new strategy for birding the the Upper Texas Coast during spring migration: short road trips south from High Island across the Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston Island. After spending the evening birding High Island and the night in Winnie, Texas, an early morning  jaunt down Highway 87 brings the birder past numerous outstanding locales. A copy of Finding birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail by Ted Lee Eubanks et al. is an excellent resource to use for planning purposes or to have at hand on the road.

Long-billed Dowitcher at French Town Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Takeoff: Long-billed Dowitcher at Frenchtown Road, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Hand-held, from car. Natural Light.
Great Egret with stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret with Stick at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Birders can currently observe Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Neotropic Cormorants, and Snowy Egrets fussing with nesting materials at Smith Oaks. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The power of this approach to birding lies in the amazing diversity of coastal habitats and their avian inhabitants one encounters along this route, from oak motte migrant trap to beach to salt marsh to tidal lagoon. On such journeys one can truly appreciate how special this stretch of coast is, and how lucky we are to still be able to observe the incredible flow of biodiversity from the Neotropics (as well as our resident birds).

Pectoral Sandpiper at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Pectoral Sandpiper at the south pond, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. This bird is en route from the Pampas of southern South America to the High Arctic. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.—Susan Sontag

 ©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Mottled Ducks: Threatened by Man and Nature

Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas
Portrait: Female Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are quite similar looking. Females have an orangish bill (often with varying degrees of black mottling, especially near the base), whereas males tend to have more yellowish bills without black mottles. This female’s bill is relatively free of black mottles. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.
Male Mottled Duck at Rockport, Texas.
Portrait: Male Mottled Duck. Male Mottled Ducks are sometimes described as having “cleaner” faces than the females. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday we took a short road trip to Corpus Christi and environs, specifically with the hopes of seeing ducks, waders, and shorebirds. At Rockport, Texas I observed a small group of Mottled Ducks hanging around in the shadows under a dock. We see Mottled Ducks from time to time, but seeing these birds up close got me to reading more about them: they are unusual for a number of reasons. These dabblers are rather drab and show little sexual dimorphism relative to some other ducks. They are also non-migratory and reproduce in Southern marshes, rather than at higher latitudes like most other North American ducks.

Their status is of “least concern,” although their estimated numbers are only in the tens of thousands in Texas, a major part of their range. Mottled Ducks do have an unusually limited geographic range, essentially around the Gulf of Mexico, across Florida, and with an introduced population in South Carolina. There are actually two subspecies of Mottled Ducks: Anas fulvigula maculosa (Alabama to Veracruz, Mexico) and A. f. fulvigula (Florida). Numerous references suggest that Mottled Ducks, like many species, are under threat from habitat destruction such as the draining of marshes. Conventional wisdom has it that habitat destruction is more of a threat than human hunting—although seeing internet images of piles of shotgun-blast killed Mottled Ducks leads me to question that. Apparently some duck hunters collect bands, and Mottled Ducks are a heavily banded species (about 5%) thus making them a popular target.

Mottled Ducks are part of the “Mallard complex,” a group of approximately 20 closely-related species and subspecies of ducks. As a result, Mottled Ducks face another unusual challenge: gene flow from feral introduced Mallards. These “pen-raised” released and escapee Mallards generally do not migrate to northern breeding grounds. Naturally sexually aggressive male feral Mallards are interbreeding with local Mottled Ducks, thus undermining the genetic isolation of the latter and producing infertile hybrids. This problem is most significant in Florida, leading some to fear for the extinction of the Florida subspecies, although there are reports of hybrids from other areas, including Texas.

Only time will tell if the relentless crush of human ecological trouble-making will spare these lovely creatures.

Mated pair Mottled Ducks at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Are their best days behind them? Mated Pair of Mottled Ducks at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Male and female Mottled Ducks are easy to tell apart at a distance. In addition to different bill color, females tend to have a darker, more distinct eye-line and sometimes a more distinct black “fleck” just behind and below the eye, which at a distance can almost resemble a tear-drop. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it. It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis… This time it’s us that’s doing it.–Frans Lanting

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding in Portal, Arizona and Environs

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. The feeders around the main office were swarmed with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The Broad-billed Hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species, its range barely extending into the Southwest U.S. during summer. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.

Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.

Vista Point, near Cave Creek, Arizona
A View from the Vista Trail, Coronado National Forest, Arizona showing a pine-oak forest extending up to the bare volcanic rock of an arid canyon. The distribution of plants and animals varies dramatically by elevation and distance from water. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .

Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Yellow-eyed Juncos are another primarily Mexican species. This bird nests in coniferous (or Madrean pine-oak) forests at elevations of 5,900-8,200 ft and eats mostly seeds (in cool weather) and arthropods (in warm weather). Barfoot Park is at an elevation of 8169 ft and is dominated by lofty ponderosa pines. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas in Summer

Male Rufous Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Male Rufous Hummingbird on Dead Agave Flower Stalk at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Photo taken at the observation blind, Tom Mays Unit. The feeders draw swarms of Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope hummingbirds in summer. Photo taken in late July. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

No other habitat on earth holds as much wonder for me as the desert. Franklin Mountains State Park is a consistently great place for desert birding and seeing the flora and fauna of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have visited several times in hot and cool weather and hope to return at the earliest possible date.

Make no mistake: the rocky northern Chihuahuan Desert is a hard place, especially in summer. Common plants scattered across the rocky flats include agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, eagle claw cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and mesquite. The Franklin Mountains area is the only place to see Southwest barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Texas. Stream channels contain Desert Willow, sometimes haunted by nectar-seeking hummingbirds.

Quail are also associated with stream channels. Gambel’s (a.k.a. Desert or Arizona) and Scaled Quail are common resident birds at the Tom Mays Unit. These birds are often comical to watch as they come strolling along a gully in small groups–until they notice you . . . . They will then shift around for a bit, and nonchalantly walk the other way!

Male Gambel's Quail at Franklin Mountain State Park, West Texas
I can see you, and I don’t like it: Male Gambel’s Quail at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

House finches and sparrows (Canyon and Spotted Towhees, for example) are an especially important part of the avifauna year-round. Green-tailed Towhees and Brewer’s Sparrow visit in the winter. Black-throated Sparrows are conspicuous year-round and will approach the observation blind closely at the Nature Walk Trail of the Tom Mays Unit.

The observation blind is a fiberglass affair with wooden benches inside. Although ergonomically unsuited for tripod use, the blind is remarkably cool even when temperatures are blistering outside and provides just about the only shade in the area.

Despite the harshness of the area, we can’t wait to return to Franklin Mountains State Park: hopefully we will get some better shots of the more camera-shy denizens of the park, namely Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.

Singing Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Singing in July: Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for — the whole thing — rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Northern Wisconsin: Notes on a Changing World from the North Woods

Dunlin in breeding colors at Ashland, Wisconsin
Dunlin in Breeding Colors on the south shore of Lake Superior, near Ashland, Wisconsin during mid-June. We typically see Dunlin in their winter plumage along the Texas Gulf Coast. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

We usually take two to three major birding trips outside the Texas Gulf Coast region each year. We strive to visit many different types of habitats, with the hopes of seeing as many different species of plants and animals as possible.

This week we returned from a trip to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. We spent most of our time in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and along the southern shore of Lake Superior, primarily at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Besides seeking a brief respite from the Texas heat, we were eager to explore the cool temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. We found these forests to be among the most beautiful and botanically diverse woodlands we have ever encountered, rivaling the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest aesthetically. Many species of songbirds and others that migrate through Texas in the fall and spring nest in these forests. We had hopes of hearing their summer songs and seeing their summer colors.

Having grown up in Minnesota and visited similar habitats in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin many years ago, I thought I knew what to expect. I remember taking field trips for undergraduate geology courses in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1980’s and noticing the great abundance of wildlife. Sadly, a great abundance of wildlife was not what we found on this trip.

Mixed Broadleaf forest of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, northern Wisconsin
Spectacular, but Strangely Sterile: Mixed deciduous broadleaf and coniferous forest of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, northern Wisconsin in mid-June. Here and there we heard a singing male Northern Parula or Chipping Sparrow. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm. Hand-held, natural light.

Amphibians are now rare in northern Wisconsin. For someone with childhood memories of woods hopping with toads and alive with frog song, what I found was shocking. Marsh, bog, swamp, and adjacent woodland habitats that should have been noisy with Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) were nearly silent. A quick check of on-line references found numerous references to catastrophic declines in Northern Leopard Frog numbers in the past few decades.  The rarity of amphibians helps to explain the rarity of waders hunting in the vegetated shallows of lakes and marshes: we saw only a handful of Great Blue Herons and a single Green Heron. The silence of these northern Wisconsin woods is grim testimony to the global amphibian crisis.

Strangely, even Red-winged Blackbirds are not that abundant anymore. In one marsh I noted three birds: and one was banded! What gives? According to the AMNH Birds of North America, Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds in North America, known for moving around in vast flocks. Again, a quick internet search revealed references to major declines in Red-winged Blackbird populations in the northern Midwest and Canada (apparently I’m not going crazy!).

Birds that are abundant include American Crows, European Starlings, and Brown-headed Cowbirds–not surprising since these species thrive around humans and the environmental changes we cause. Brown-headed Cowbirds, of course, are contributing to the decline of songbird numbers (terrifyingly so) through nest parasitism of about 220 species. According to the video Gulf Crossing: An Essay on Bird Migration, we have lost about 40% of our songbirds in the past 25-30 years due to several causes. Based on what I have seen in the north woods, I would not be surprised if losses were significantly higher.

Birds may be suffering, but nasty arthropods are proliferating. North woods habitats are typically quite buggy in late spring and early summer, but what we found was really quite mind-boggling, and rivaling the most bug-infested salt marsh environments we’ve ever encountered (our Original Bug Shirts kept us alive!). Local after local (including some old-timers) described the bug situation as the worst they had ever seen with respect to mosquitos, wood ticks, and deer ticks (And don’t forget gnats!). One local remarked how at one point he simultaneously had three Lyme disease bull’s-eyes on his body. A quick internet search revealed articles (not surprisingly) blaming climate change for the bug infestation (Hmmmm.)

White-tailed Deer, too, are everywhere in huge numbers. I saw more White-tailed Deer than squirrels! Estimates are that White-tailed Deer populations in Wisconsin have increased 600% since 1950. This is probably due to humans feeding them and killing off predators such as wolves and mountain lions. Silly humans. White-tailed Deer abundance correlates negatively with songbird abundance because of the way deer graze away the understory vegetation.  I was shocked to learn recently that White-tailed Deer are known to eat bird nests, including eggs and nestlings, of ground- and understory-nesting birds. Habitats can only sustain a limited number of large ungulates. Cross a numerical threshold and ecosystems collapse. Northern Wisconsin has apparently crossed that threshold.

Bull Elk at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Bull Elk at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Overpopulation of Elk at Yellowstone led to overgrazing of willow and aspen saplings and decimation of songbird populations. When Elk-munching wolves were re-introduced into the park in 1995 songbird populations expanded. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, natural light.
White-tailed Buck at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Eight Points, Four Western: White-tailed buck at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. White-tailed Deer are wreaking the sort of havoc on ecosystems across eastern North America that excess Elk brought to Yellowstone. These fuzzy villains have got to be brought back into balance! Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, natural light.

Until recently I have been in the doubting camp as far as anthropogenic climate change has been concerned. My general sense of the climate has been that it is consistent with heading deeper into an interglacial regime, with warmer average temperatures and decreased equability. These periods are associated with loss of biodiversity and stormy frontal weather patterns in the higher latitudes. I thought current climatic changes could probably be explained by Milankovitch cycles, perhaps in conjunction with variation over time in solar subatomic particle production and the amount of cloud cover produced as reported by CERN. An excellent recent summary article has led me to re-evaluate my position. On the other hand, I am not at all skeptical that humans are destroying the environment globally in other ways. That we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction event is beyond question. One need look no further than Wisconsin, Texas, or wherever you live.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.