Sabine Woods

New Article: Birding Gulf Coast Migrant Songbird Traps

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

Gray Catbird, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas.
Gray Catbird, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Most birders are after warblers when they visit coastal migrant traps, but there is a wealth of other birds and animals to be seen and photographed in these special places. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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.

Swainson's Thrush, Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas
Swainson’s Thrush, Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Quintana, Texas. I was waiting patiently for a Yellow Warbler and a Magnolia Warbler to reappear out of a tangle of foliage when this curious little bird stepped out into the path and stared at me. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4xTC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Building a New Nest

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.—Thomas Paine

Great Egret with Nesting Material, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Great Egret with Stick (Nesting Material), Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

After over three months of dealing with the aftermath of the Memorial Day 2015 flood, we were finally able to move back into our house this week! It is still a huge mess, and we are still dealing with contractors and loads of construction-related headaches, but we are in the house and can at least conceive of accomplishing something beyond clean-up and simple survival. We are looking forward to the end of the summer swelter and some fall birding. Please stay tuned!

Downy Woodpecker Excavating Nest, Sabine Woods, Texas
Downy Woodpecker Excavating Nest Cavity, Sabine Woods, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Spring Migration: Chasing the Sun

Let me recommend the best medicine in the world: a long journey, at a mild season, through a pleasant country, in easy stages.—James Madison

Female Summer Tanager with mulberry, Pelican Island, Texas
Female Summer Tanager with Mulberry, Pelican Island, Texas. Tanagers love mulberries. Unfortunately a major Texas A&M building project on Pelican Island has restricted access to most of the mulberry trees that were a reliable place to see migrant tanagers, orioles, buntings, Dickcissel, and others. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

This is the time of year for visiting migrant songbird traps! In these special places it’s easy to see what migration is all about—chasing the warming rays of the sun north as they bring their bounty of flowers, nectar, pollen, fruit, and succulent bugs!

Although it will probably have to wait for retirement, I dream of an April road trip, drifting slowly down the Gulf Coast from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Grand Isle, Louisiana to Sabine Woods, High Island, Pelican Island, Lafitte’s Cove, Quintana, perhaps ending at Paradise Pond, Mustang Island, Texas.

Male Indigo Bunting in Breeding Colors, Pelican Island, Texas
Male Indigo Bunting in Breeding Colors on Mulberry Tree, Pelican Island, Texas. Indigo buntings are generalist feeders and eat buds, seeds, fruit, and insects. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.
Male Scarlet Tanager with bee, Pelican Island, Texas
Male Scarlet Tanager with Bee, Pelican Island, Texas. Scarlet Tanagers are generalist feeders, but prefer bees, when available. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Many of these classic migrant traps are oak mottes, slightly elevated patches of woods, on the very edge of the land and provide desperately needed food, water, and shelter after an exhausting flight across the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most exciting parts of being out in these migrant traps during spring is observing and photographing Neotropical migrants hunting and gorging on fruits and other botanical goodies.

In the oak mottes, birds are often covered in pollen as they poke around flowers. Sometimes novice birders, field guides clutched in hand, are puzzled by a bird that looks somehow familiar—but it has a yellow face! There’s usually an old-timer around, though, who explains kindly how the birds are sometimes painted with pollen at this magical and all-too-short time of the year.

Male Orchard Oriole with Pollen on Face, Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Orchard Oriole with Pollen on His Face, Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Orchard Orioles eat primarily insects during the breeding season, but will supplement their diets with seeds, fruits, pollen, and nectar. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Songbird Jewels of the Texas Gulf Coast

Male Eastern Bluebird at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Sapphire: Male Eastern Bluebird. This bird utilized a nest cavity near Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, during spring of 2013. Eastern Bluebirds are common sights around Elm Lake throughout the summer. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Although the vast majority of brightly-colored songbirds in Texas during the spring migration continue their journeys north, a few species remain to add flashes of color to the post-migration greenery. These include Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, Eastern Bluebirds, Painted Buntings, and Summer Tanagers.

Of course, one of the things to watch for in the spring and summer is nesting behavior. Early this spring in an area of Brazos Bend State Park much frequented by warblers and other songbirds, I identified a nest cavity being used by a mated pair of Eastern Bluebirds (male shown above). Much later in the spring, the same nest cavity was adopted by Prothonotary Warblers.

Sadly, about two weeks ago I noticed that the top of the dead tree containing the nest cavity snapped off, taking the cavity with it. Last week, too, I noticed that another nest cavity in this area was gone. The whole dead tree collapsed. This is unfortunate as this little patch of forest and slough has been a reliable spot for nest cavities and songbirds for the past several years. I spotted the male Prothonotary Warbler shown below, for example, in this same area last summer. What a reminder that things humans place no value on, like dead trees, can be vital to the health of an ecosystem.

Prothonotary Warbler at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Citrine: Male Prothonotary Warbler. Golden Swamp Warbler is the original (and so much better) name for this bird. Photo taken near Pilant Lake under natural light in late spring. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

Painted buntings, especially the adult males, are among the most brilliantly-colored songbirds in North America. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to me breathlessly in the field with something like: “We saw this bird, it was . . . .”  “Male Painted Bunting,” I interrupt gently.

The best place to find Painted Buntings in summer at Brazos Bend is where there are tall grasses with mature seed-heads adjacent to wooded areas (just in case a quick getaway is required). Painted buntings are so spectacular they, no doubt, will warrant a whole post of their own at some point in the future.

First spring male Painted Bunting at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Emerald: Young Male Painted Bunting Showing Brilliant Green Specular Reflection at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Like some minerals, the iridescence and colors of some bird feathers are structural (the result of reflection, diffraction, and interference of light) rather than absorption and reflection due to pigmentation. This fellow it just starting to molt into his multicolored adult plumage. Photo taken during spring migration. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) with high-speed synchronized flash.

Tanagers are such prized summer sightings along the Texas Gulf Coast that I find myself double-checking every male Northern Cardinal I see. A rule of thumb is helpful when looking for Tanagers: find the fruit (especially mulberries), find the birds. Otherwise, Summer Tanagers are specialist feeders on bees and wasps. A few times I have chased Tanagers through the sweltering underbrush in hopes of getting a shot–usually to no avail. Photographing birds in the fully leafed-out summer forest is tough, and songbirds, coy creatures that they are, are not about to cooperate.

Male Summer Tanager at Sabine Woods, Texas
Ruby: Male Summer Tanager in a Mulberry Tree at Sabine Woods, Texas. Elisa captured this image on a hot, muggy, and buggy morning in early April. Natural light. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).
Female Summer Tanager at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Peek-a-boo: Female Summer Tanager among the Grape Vines at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. No fruit yet: bugs will have to do. Photo taken during spring migration. Perhaps this Summer Tanager stayed in East Texas–some do. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) with high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”–John Berger

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

Spring Migration Has Begun: Early Migrants Have Arrived on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast! (Just in Time for Wildflowers)

Male Northern Parula at the Sabine Wood Sanctuary, Texas Gulf Coast
Male Northern Parula at Sabine Woods.

We spent Spring Break 2013 (March 9-17) visiting some of out favorite birding sites along the upper Texas Coast in search of early migrants, with mixed results. Places visited included Lafitte’s Cove, East Beach, Sabine Woods, Edith L. Moore, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Brazos Bend State Park, and the Big Thicket National Preserve (Pitcher Plant Trail). The weather was spectacular–crisp and dry. Recent frosts, however, probably have diminished the diversity and abundance of wildflowers in some areas.

Leather flowers at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract)
Blue Jasmine (Clematis crispa) at Anahuac NWR (Skillern Tract). This elegant plant was one of the few wildflowers in bloom here.

The insect (i.e., food) supply varied dramatically by location. Brazos Bend, as is typical, had relatively few biting insects but had a lot of crane flies, which at this time of year seem to be a staple for insectivorous birds. I saw American Pipits and Myrtle Warblers feasting on them. Likewise at Lafitte’s Cove there were few biting insects, but abundant Black and White Warblers and Northern Parulas were also dining on crane flies. Also at Lafitte’s Cove we were treated to a shy mated pair of Mottled Ducks.  Anahuac NWR had far fewer biting insects than is usual–but also fewer birds. Sabine Woods was, as always, loaded with biting insects–mosquitos, gnats, and other flies. At Sabine Woods, Gray Catbirds, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black and White Warblers, and Northern Parulas were about. I was disappointed not to see Hooded Warblers in the lantana thicket on the east side of the sanctuary given that I had just seen one among the cane on the east end of Galveston the day before (March 12).

American Pipit with crane fly at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Pipit with Crane Fly at Brazos Bend State Park near 40-Acre Lake. Crane flies are a staple for insectivorous birds during cool late winter/early spring weather. Photo taken hand-held, Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS.

We erred in not calling ahead before visiting Big Thicket. A recent controlled burn had swept through the Pitcher Plant Trail, leaving the understory and ground cover (including the Pitchers!) ash–although some grasses were making a recovery. The whole area was dry, black and desolate. A few titmice could be heard singing, a few woodpeckers drumming, but that was about it.

Louisiana Iris at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Louisiana Iris (Iris sp.) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary.

The last day of birding over spring break was Saturday, March 16. We spent almost the entire day at Brazos Bend State Park, where male Northern Parulas could be heard singing in the trees. Also on this day, male Ring-necked Ducks could finally be seen and photographed out in open water with their mates. Over the past few weeks they have only been visible hiding out in the shallows off the islands in Elm Lake. A mated pair of Wood Ducks has been hanging around one of the nest boxes on the trail between Elm and 40-Acre Lakes, but they have been very shy, swimming for cover any time someone approaches. I finally got a decent shot of the male. I will keep trying for a shot of the pair.

Black and White Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Black and White Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island.

Within a few weeks or so the woods and thickets should be hopping with additional migrants . . . Palm Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Magnolia Warblers . . . and we can hardly wait!

Scarlet Buckeye at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston
Scarlet Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, Houston. One of the earliest splashes of native spring color in Gulf Coast woods.

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

Birding the Spectacular Thickets of the Texas Gulf Coast in Fall

Thicket at Anahuac NWR
A thicket at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Texas Gulf Coast. This densely vegetated area was hopping with Yellow-rumped Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and Swamp Sparrows.

Fall is an incredible time to bird the Texas Gulf Coast: migrants are returning or passing through, the plants are changing colors, mornings are cool, and the bugs are on the way out–but not all the way out, lest our beloved insect-eaters keep moving! Some of the most exciting environments to bird at this time of year are the densely-tangled thickets near the numerous waterways of the region. We especially love to bird Brazos Bend State Park, Sabine Woods, and Anahuac NWR (both the Skillern and Main tracts) at this time of year. Thickets in these areas are challenging for photography most of the year, but in fall are literally hopping in places with insectivorous birds.

Fall shedding of leaves leads to an opening up of possibilities for photography: the dense (often frustrating) greenery of summer, sometimes making it impossible to photograph shy, secretive thicket species is slowly breaking up. Splashes of color now punctuate images, and the amber and reddish glow of autumnal mornings and evenings tint backgrounds.

Common Yellowthroat at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Young Common Yellowthroat in Fall Morning Light. Photo taken at Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.

The explosion of insect-eaters during the fall migration is a reminder that the mass migrations of birds are all about the flow of solar energy. As the supply of warm-weather prey dwindles in the northern latitudes the bug-eaters must move south in search of their (mostly) ectothermic prey. The Texas Gulf Coast stays warm enough throughout the winter to keep a supply of insects large enough to support a large population of flycatchers, especially Eastern Phoebes, that can be seen perched on branches over water or open grassy areas. They flit down, grab an insect and then return to their perch to dine. A spectacular sight  to behold is a Phoebe grabbing a butterfly on the wing. Surprisingly, they ingest the whole insect, wings and all. One wonders how much nutritional value a butterfly wing has, though. Vermilion Flycatchers exhibit similar behavior in these thicket environments, but a discussion of these beautiful little birds must await Elisa’s next post!

Myrtle Warbler at Anahuac NWR, Texas
 Audubon’s Warbler Against Fall Colors at Anahuac NWR.  This locality is in East Texas, a place where one doesn’t normally see Audubon’s Warblers. Perhaps this bird is a Myrtle-Audubon’s hybrid? Shot hand-held Canon 7D EOS with 300mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC).

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

Why Birders Should Care About the Global Amphibian Crisis

Little Blue Heron with tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Little Blue Heron with Tadpole at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas Gulf Coast.

Over the past several decades the diversity and abundance of Amphibia have declined precipitously: estimates for the amphibian extinction rate range from tens to tens of thousands of times the typical background rate of species loss. Despite conservation efforts (Amphibian Ark) and some publicity, most people I speak to are completely unaware of this catastrophic decline. Over the past decade or so, it has become clear that there are several major causes. The most important appears to be habitat loss. As freshwater swamps and marshes are drained to build the endless suburban sprawl of tract housing, and forests are bulldozed into the chippers, amphibian habitats are dwindling. Acidification of lakes and ponds, other forms of pollution, and an infectious fungal disease (chytridiomycosis), are also implicated.

American Bullfrog at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
American Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas. American Bullfrogs are an abundant food source for waders along the Texas Gulf Coast. Luckily, bullfrogs appear to have resistance to chytridiomycosis.

Many think that the reason amphibians have been among the hardest hit groups in the current anthropogenic mass extinction event (the Holocene mass extinction) is because these animals have aquatic larval stages and a terrestrial or amphibious adult stage, and can be negatively impacted by changes in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments. The process of metamorphosis, which typically occurs in an aquatic environment (or at least an aqueous one–think about the bromeliad treefrog!), is biochemically sensitive. For these reasons, some refer to amphibians as the “canaries in the coal mine” of ecosystems.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington
Northern Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora) at Olympic National Park, Washington. In some places, the ground-cover vegetation of the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest is alive with amphibians.

As a photographer, one of my favorite subjects is hunting waders: please see Stalking the Hunters. Along with fish, crawfish, and aquatic insects, amphibians (primarily frogs and tadpoles, and to a lesser extent salamanders) form a staple of the wader diet. Other predatory birds, Loggerhead Shrikes, for example, also eat amphibians. Shrikes are fascinating birds known to kill their prey by impaling it on sharp objects, usually thorns. On one, and only one, occasion we heard what we thought was a frog call coming from above. We looked up to notice a Loggerhead Shrike on wire over a frog-filled bayou. Was this a simple case of mimicry? Or deception—trying to get a frog to divulge its location? Research turned up no mention of Loggerheads making frog calls. Shrikes are known to deceive each other away from kills with frightening false alarm calls–so they’re not above trickery. The Asian Rufous-backed Shrike is an accomplished mimic, and, of course, the Northern Mockingbird is known to mimic frog calls, but a Loggerhead Shrike? We will continue to keep our eyes and ears peeled for this phenomenon.  If we heard what what we think we heard, we hope the time a Shike’s frog-call goes unanswered never comes.

Shrike-impaled Green Tree Frog on rose thorn, Sabine Woods, Texas
Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea) on Rose Thorn. Elisa captured this macabre image of a Loggerhead Shrike-impaled tree frog at Sabine Woods, Texas Gulf Coast. The shrike had just killed this frog and a mouse, whose decapitated body was impaled on some more rose thorns and whose head was impaled on some nearby barbed wire. As soon as Elisa finished the shoot and walked away, the shrike returned and reclaimed the mouse’s head.

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

See Early Fall Migrants on the Texas Gulf Coast (and don’t forget your sunscreen and bug repellent)!

Elisa and I have been out trying to catch glimpses of the early fall migrants, especially songbirds, along the Texas Gulf Coast at places like Sabine Woods, Brazos Bend State Park, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) . . . and we have been paying the price. Until the first real norther arrives, the heat, humidity, and bugs rule. It makes sense that the larger the number of insects, the larger the number of migratory insectivorous songbirds that one would find at any given locale along the Texas Gulf Coast. This is the general pattern that we have observed: Brazos Bend is generally the least buggy (almost anomalously so) of any of the major birding spots we frequent, and we see the fewest insectivorous songbirds there. Of course, Brazos Bend is farther from the coast than the other localities, so it not a migrant trap. But Brazos Bend has so few flying insects, biting and otherwise, that it has caused me speculate about the cause(s). There is plenty of standing water for mosquito reproduction, but there are also large numbers of deer in the park, and large ungulate populations have been shown to negatively impact songbird populations due to grazing on insect and bird food plants (reference Aldo Leopold). On the other hand, the bugs at Sabine Woods and ANWR can be brutal. Today at ANWR (Skillern Tract) the deer flies and mosquitos literally chased us out of the marsh! Bugs are food for birds and food for thought.

Black-throated Green Warbler portrait at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Black-throated Green Warbler on Hackberry Branch. Note the insect body parts on the tip of the beak. I think I was being eaten alive by the very bugs this beauty was dining upon. Skillern Tract, ANWR, Texas Gulf Coast.


Yellow Warbler on Oak branch at Sabine Woods, Texas
A Young Yellow Warbler perches on an oak branch at Sabine Woods, Texas Gulf Coast. A glimpse of paradise in a sweltering purgatory of biting insect nasties.

Sabine Woods, Texas: Close Encounters of the Feline Kind

Time spent with cats is never wasted. –Sigmund Freud

I took the opportunity to visit the Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary this week while Elisa was working in Port Arthur, Texas. I’m sunburned (sweated off my sunscreen in a matter of minutes), covered with various insect bites and stings, and my left hand is swollen due to contact with some poisonous plant. Deer flies will eat you ALIVE this time of year. It was like the CONGO!

 Got some nice shots, though–Yellow Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Orchard Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers (strangely out of place!) and a few others. The best part: I was in an area of thick, chest-deep vegetation that was alive with cotton rats when I heard a rustling noise. That sounds mammalian, I reasoned. I saw the brush parting ahead as if something the size of a Cocker Spaniel was coming toward me. And it didn’t stop! It didn’t know I was there–strange, given that I’d been sweating like Nixon for the past two hours. Is this a cougar!?! went through my mind (I saw one here last spring). Am I about to die?

Suddenly a cat-face poked right out in front of me, about five feet away. I knew it was a cat before I knew it was a . . . bobcat! The bobcat couldn’t figure out what I was. I was big, with five legs and one huge eye! The bobcat couldn’t decide to attack or not for a full two seconds, but let out a growl as if to say: “Thanks for chasing away my rats, you . . .  silly-looking creature!” The bobcat quietly slipped back into the brush and disappeared.

Bobcat at Sabine Woods Sancturary, Texas
Puzzled: This bobcat couldn’t identify an animal with five legs and one huge eye. Texas Ornithological Society Sabine Woods Sanctuary. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

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