Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
Birds’ love and birds’ song
Flying here and there . . . . Spring, Alfred Lord Tennyson
As of this writing, we are still waiting to see a significant number of migrant songbirds and shorebirds. We are, however, watching spring unfold in other ways. New growth is sprouting up across the landscape, and will soon overwhelm the dead plant life of the previous growing season.
Flashes of wildflower-color can be seen scattered around. Insect life is starting to awaken—although, mercifully, the mosquitos have been strangely modest in number.
Everywhere caterpillars can be seen crawling around, and everywhere birds are gobbling them up! If the birds had their way, there would be no moths or butterflies!
On our last visit to Lafitte’s Cove—despite being in April–we saw no wood warblers (or any other migrant songbirds for that matter) at all. A lone Brown Thrasher called from the thicket. Disappointed, we headed over to East Beach . . . .
Here, we saw a few migratory shorebirds. Dunlins and Western Sandpipers were around and beginning to transition into breeding colors. Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers (and Killdeer) were scooting around along tidal channels and on the supratidal flats. One of these days, one of these days . . . the mottes and beaches are going to throng with avian life. Here’s to being there when it happens!
Many great actions are committed in small struggles. –Victor Hugo
As I write this, we stand on the cusp of the best month of birding on the calendar! But for the past few weeks we’ve been (mostly) photographing our more typical species (year-’rounds, wintering or summering species) going about their business, not transients flying through from somewhere to somewhere else.
One of the more pleasant surprises of the past few weeks is the recognition that Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) is starting to rebound a bit from the catastrophic floods of the recent past. It is still nowhere near the mecca for observing wader action that it was before, but day by day things are improving. It will be interesting to see if songbirds return for nesting in a big way. Elisa spotted a female Northern Cardinal building a nest just above water-line on Pilant Slough, and the trilling songs of Northern Parulas are everywhere. Can Prothonotary Warblers be far behind?
As noted, wader action at BBSP is still a bit down from the best of times, but the patient observer can still see a few things occasionally. Especially prominent now are the American Bitterns. Bitterns can be seen hunting all over BBSP. On our last visit, we observed one confrontation between two birds on Pilant Slough. Soon calling and confrontations should be common, only to die away by May.
In any case, starting today, we’ll shy away from BBSP for a few weeks and visit Galveston more. Hundreds of millions of songbirds have started streaming across the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re not going to miss it! With luck, we’ll capture some of these birds in action . . . Sipping from a flower, here, or grabbing a dragonfly, there. Can’t wait!
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here . . . .
—Emily Dickinson, A Light Exists in Spring
In our travels last week, we stopped by Smith Oaks on High Island, Texas, one of the most famous birding sites on the Texas Gulf Coast. Although we saw no early migrant songbirds in the surrounding woods, the rookery was hopping with activity—the drive toward life.
Spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants filled the air. Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants shuttled back and forth with nest-building materials. Double-crested Cormorants fished in the water surrounding the rookery. Some Great Egret pairs were building nests, sitting on eggs, or rearing chicks. Neotropic Cormorants were nest-sitting, but no chicks were to be seen. A few energetic Tricolored Herons swooped past but gave no indication of intentions. Spoonbills squabbled with each other: Nesting can’t be far behind!
Great and Snowy Egrets in glorious breeding plumes (that almost doomed these species to extinction in the Gilded Age) with lores ablaze in electric colors were everywhere and revved up on hormones. Soon, the later-breeding species, Cattle Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Roseate Spoonbills, will join the frenzy. By that time, the trees will be filled with brilliant flashes of Neotropical migrant songbird plumage and the picture of spring will be complete . . . .
But, as always, predators lurk in the dark water below waiting for larger nestlings to oust smaller, weaker ones, or for birds of any age to simply make a mistake . . . .
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.–Khalil Gibran
Beauty in art is often nothing but ugliness subdued.—Jean Rostand
Some of the most memorable photographs in history are unflinching documents of the brutality of the world. Think of Matthew Brady’s images of the American Civil War, or Robert Capa’s slightly mis-framed, slightly out-of-focus photo of a falling soldier, shot dead during the Spanish Civil War (Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, 1936). And who can ever forget Nick Ut’s image of a napalm-burned Vietnamese girl running screaming down a road surrounded by scattered refugees and soldiers?
Nature, like war, offers up some dark and grisly images. As one who is interested in photographing birds, especially waders, in the act of hunting, I often witness and document violent and bloody scenes. Waders, after all, are stone-cold killers. If a sequence of images is taken, a few images are usually relatively tame–the ones I present to friends, or in talks–or on this site. Often, there are others, typically not shared, with jets of blood and streamers of entrails. Is it not right to share these images, too?
Similarly, photographers tend to avoid birds in molt or with injuries, diseases, and deformities. But the more time one spends in the field, the more of these not-so-pretty pictures of nature emerge. Of course, these images may have value as documents of the current state of affairs in a particular place or the world in general.
And where nature photographers should document unflinchingly is where they observe the continued degradation and destruction of nature at the hand of man, whether through direct action or through the actions of human-introduced species. Who knows, it may make a difference.
. . . the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open . . . ― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Birding the Coastal Bend in Late Fall: Part 2
One of our favorite spots to bird when in the Corpus Christi area is Sunset Lake Park. The park is located on a peninsula, Sunset Lake to the west, Corpus Christi Bay to the east. This park contains a lovely stretch of shelly beach with sandbars close to shore. Sandbars along the Texas Gulf Coast are magical places, and are often covered in flocks of pelicans, terns, gulls, waders, skimmers, and shorebirds.
On this latest visit, Royal Terns, Marbled Godwits, and Long-billed Curlews predominated. As usual now on coastal trips, we brought our tall rubber boots and were able to wade out to the sandbars, a technique we often employ at East Beach, Galveston. The simple addition of boots to your field gear will dramatically transform any birding trip to the shore. It took us a few years to figure this out—just how many college and graduate degrees do we have? Maybe not enough.
One of Chris’ favorite spots on the Coastal Bend is the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge City Park on the south side of Corpus Christi. A shelter overlooks a stretch of beach that is often packed with ducks and waders during the colder months. This spot is great for gory hunting scenes and beauty shots of ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Redheads, and American Wigeons.
The “freshwater channel” that cuts across the northern edge of the park is another gem of a birding spot, especially for ducks. Here, the birds typically allow a close approach. Ignore the sign that says “do not pass beyond this sign.” Kidding.
Finally, we are sometimes apprehensive about having our car broken into or being mugged at Suter given the sketchy characters loitering around the parking area. It’s almost comical the way they look away when you glance in their direction. So with the caveat that you may be taking your life in your hands, we highly recommend this park!
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.
Listen in time
Taken so high
To touch, to move
Listen to life —”Going for the One” by Jon Anderson (as recorded by Yes)
I was highly flattered when long-time friend M.P. wrote to me saying that he thought there was something special in just about every one of my images. Thinking about it, I guess that’s what I have been trying to achieve, even if it was often being done subconsciously.
Because we work, we can’t travel as often as we’d like. We generally frequent the same half-dozen local birding sites again and again. This is good and bad. I’m not seeing the species diversity I’d like, but it forces me to look for those special little behaviors that really provide insights into avian lives.
I’m willing to sit and watch a bird for hours if I suspect that it will do something that not seen in many images. Feeding, singing, calling and courtship rituals provide many of these special moments.
There are so many photographers out there these days, the chances of catching something unique are slim. But documenting scenes slightly out of the ordinary is very doable, even for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend in the field. Perhaps someday I’ll have time to really go for the one.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it . . . . —Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
This is the time of year for sporadic frustrations. The unpredictable weather, sometimes nice, sometimes oppressive and freakishly warm, can easily become an excuse for doing nothing. Witnessing the saddening, nit-witted babbling of the media during the current silly season of politics doesn’t inspire great energy, either.
The birds and other organisms, however, are still out there and waiting to be observed and photographed! Biologically, there is quite a bit going on along the Texas Gulf Coast these days: Lately we haven’t been disappointed by East Beach or Fiorenza Park.
Our field work is undoubtedly the healthiest thing we do. It is a tragedy when nature lovers sit out a day in the field because of the malaise or exhaustion brought on by our absurdist era or the fear (or revulsion) of traffic jams and hordes of yahoos. This realization is why we drag ourselves out of bed early, even on our days off. We almost never regret getting out there, even if we had to talk ourselves into it in the first place!
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country
Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.
And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.
Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.
Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .
Life is a little like a message in a bottle, to be carried by the winds and the tides.–Gene Tierney
In January, while walking down the beach on the East End of Galveston Island, Texas I noticed a new tidal channel that blocked my progress south. I was annoyed because I was wearing hiking shoes and not boots as I should have been. But I noticed that the outflow (it was low tide) was attracting Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs that were picking small fish and invertebrates from the gently flowing water. I didn’t think much of where the water was coming from and pressed on south along the beach (with wet feet).
In early April, we again visited the area and found that the tidal channel had grown greatly and now penetrated a lagoon that is typically a pretty good spot to bird, although the light can be challenging. I am referring to the lagoon just south of the parking area and east (seaward side) of Bodekker Road, kitty-corner from the East End Lagoon Preserve.
With the penetration of the new tidal channel, however, the lagoon now drains at low tide. Parallel to the long axis of the lagoon, on the landward side, runs a riprap and concrete levee that crabbers frequent. As the lagoon drains, water seeps through the levee from slightly higher elevation creating little trickles and streams. This change has created a birding wonderland for one simple reason: It has produced a diversity of microenvironments within a small area. Red-breasted Mergansers now fish in the deeper parts. Avocets, yellowlegs, White Ibises, Willets, and dowitchers hunt and fish in the slightly shallower areas. Sandpipers scamper across emergent rippled surfaces. Tiny differences in water depth and flow really seem to make a difference to foraging shorebirds.
We planned to explore this spot again the following week, but when we arrived we noticed that yahoos had taken over so we pressed on to Lafitte’s Cove. It was clear, however, that the tidal channel had expanded, and even though it was nearly high tide, the area was very birdy. We drew up plans to visit again at low tide. We hoped to visit again on the morning of April 17, to check channel status but a storm tide was inundating the coast. The next day, of course, a series of catastrophic storms hit the Gulf Coast in general and the Houston area in particular. I hope this recent bout of stormy weather doesn’t remodel the East End area too much. At the end of April, low tides will fall in the evening, and we plan on visiting this area again for some golden hour photography.
A simple walk on the beach reveals a great truth: A diversity of habitat means a diversity of wildlife. As humans continue to pulverize and homogenize the planet, life around us disappears—half of all songbirds and many shorebirds in my lifetime, for example. One little patch of tidal zone on the end of a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates this principle perfectly.
@2016 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.
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.