Summer is the season of inferior sledding.–Eskimo proverb
During the last hours of our holiday visit to Cave Creek Canyon, I took a walk in the wintery landscape. The previous day a blizzard deposited about eight inches of snow. On this trek, I saw mostly common species that I’ve seen many times before (except for a Fox Sparrow!), but the light was bright and clear, and the sky was blue–a welcome change from days of fog, rain, and snow flurries.
According to the locals, this sort of heavy snowfall is highly unusual for Cave Creek Canyon. The last time it happened was about a dozen years ago. I made an attempt at photography the previous day, during the blizzard, but that turned out to be fruitless: It was a weird combination of darkness and glare. It’s tough getting satisfactory results involving quick songbirds at ISO 1600 and above and shutter speeds at 1/320 second or below at 840mm. On this trip, I really discovered the limitations of the sensor in a 7DII–and wished I had a 1DXII or a Nikon D5!
But on the bright, clear day, the 7DII performed just fine. I had some worries about glare from the snow and blowing out the whites while photographing dark-colored birds against the snow, but these turned out to be mostly unfounded. Overall, with the creamy white backgrounds, rather than green foliage, the results were very different from the normal sorts of images I capture in steamy Gulf Coast Texas.
Hopefully this day of shooting will serve as a practice session for trips to photograph boreal species that I’ve been dreaming about for some time. It was mostly practice on sparrows for time with rosy-finches, redpolls, and crossbills . . . .
Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.–Henry David Thoreau
Frequent readers of this blog may know that I prize images of birds struggling with prey above all others. But sometimes the birds and mammals of the marsh and forest, either through preference or requirement, dine on plant foods—especially during the colder part of the year when insects and other arthropods are less abundant.
It’s sometimes a challenge to identify animal prey items seized by birds and other animals. Plant foods are often even more of a challenge—unless the meal is something easy like hackberries, tallow seeds, privet fruits, maple seeds, and so on. Sometimes birds are munching seeds or buds of what I (as no botanist) consider fairly nondescript, difficult to identify plants. The fact that there are so many invasive species around these days only complicates the task. I will often make attempts at identification, but these are often frustrated by constraints of time and available references—but it’s fun to try!
Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.–George Eastman
Canyon Towhees are usually described as drab (“dirt-colored”) nonmigratory desert sparrows of the Southwest. Their charms are, perhaps, a little more difficult to appreciate than those of most birds, but closer inspection reveals a subtle beauty . . . cinnamon undertail coverts, speckling on the breast, a rusty mohawk. And careful observation reveals a few charming behaviors, notably picking dead bugs off parked vehicles and huddling together in the chill of the desert night. In the harsh scrubland environments that these birds inhabit, none of the elements of survival can be wasted–especially not on flamboyance of any kind!.
The blistering desert sun of a Big Bend summer requires the photo-birder to operate primarily at dusk and dawn. In the Basin, where Canyon Towhees are most observable, the optical conditions at dawn are quite different from those at dusk. Dawn light is cool and gray-green, whereas just before sunset the basin is bathed in a warm red light as noted above. It’s hard to tell, though, how much of the reddish light comes from atmospheric physics and how much is light reflected from the oxide staining that covers the Chisos.
Like many desert birds, Canyon Towhees are curious and will allow a close approach (or they may even approach the birder!). But once they decide the actions of the intruder are threatening or inscrutable, they disappear into the arid landscape.
Last weekend we birded High Island (Boy Scout Woods), Bolivar Flats, and Frenchtown Road. Frenchtown Road is an exceptional spot, and almost always the highlight of any Bolivar trip. It is a great spot for Clapper Rails, Whimbrel, and waders and shorebirds hunting prey, especially crustaceans. But, (rather unexpectedly) grass seed-head-chomping Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows were the highlight of this visit. Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows breed mostly in Canada, winter along the Gulf Coast, and are not a common sight in Texas—at least not where we usually bird.
Sparrows, in general, may be the least appreciated of birds, and I myself am often guilty of not affording them the respect they deserve. It’s rare for us to plan a trip around sparrows. This is despite their ecological importance and often beautiful earth-tone color schemes. We usually have more glamorous species in mind, like the rock stars of the birding world, the wood warblers when we plan birding trips. I spotted the the Rufous-crowned Sparrow above, for example, on a Central Texas trip centered around finding Golden-cheeked Warblers. Of course, It wouldn’t have hurt our feeling to have spotted Black-capped Vireos, too.
In my own defense, though, we do make an annual pilgrimage to Barfoot Park, in the Coronado National Forest, Arizona to see Yellow-eyed Juncos, an American Sparrow you’re not going to find by accident. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to see a few Hepatic Tanagers while we’re there . . . .
I don’t believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history. There are no accidents.—Pablo Picasso
American sparrows (Family Emberizidae including longspurs, seedeaters, towhees, juncos, and sparrows) may be among the least appreciated of all birds, but they can be charming–although treacherous to photograph with their quick movements and often suspicious natures. They can also be tricky to identify. Based on their huge numbers they are among the most ecologically significant of all birds. Please take a look at our new sparrow collection.