It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. –Erno Rubik
On the Texas Gulf Coast, birders can see Black-bellied Plovers in all plumage types, except down. Nonbreeding colors are easiest to see here, and in other coastal wintering areas from the Canadian border to South America on both East and West coasts. Although a few birds summer along the Texas Gulf Coast, Black-bellied Plovers breed exclusively in the High Arctic, so seeing nestlings in down would be a major undertaking.
Birds in transitional plumage can be seen during spring migration. Beginning in late March, birds in these intermediate colors can be seen fairly easily at such places as Frenchtown Road, Rollover Fish Pass, and across Galveston Island. By May, birds in dramatic breeding plumage can be seen in these same places. From mid-August to October, Black-bellied Plovers appear again in Texas for fall migration, and to begin their winter residence.
When we first started birding, different seasonal plumages seemed to be a nightmarish complication to an already challenging hobby. But we have grown an appreciation for these changes: Rather than seeing them as an identification problem, we consider them an opportunity. Even common birds like Black-bellied Plovers can provide the challenge of seeing and photographing birds in every plumage type.
. . . 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!
You go to Brooklyn, everybody’s got a beard and plaid shirt. They may be able to tell each other apart, but they all look alike to me.–Don Lemon
Last glorious (but-too-windy-for-flash) Sunday we took a trip down to East Beach, Galveston Island looking for shorebirds and found all three species of the smallest Texas plovers in winter plumage.
The Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Arctic and winters along the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. The Piping Plover has a complicated breeding range, but winters along the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some Snowy Plovers reside year-round on the Texas Coast. The upshot of plover biogeography: All three of these cuties can (luckily) be found on the Upper Texas Coast in winter. But telling them apart can be a bit tricky, especially if they’re doing what they’re usually doing–skedaddling along the strand line looking for detritus and tiny infaunal invertebrates. This is termed the “run, pause, and pluck” style of foraging/hunting.
The legs are always the first place I look to identify a small plover. Snowy Plovers always have pinkish gray legs, in breeding and nonbreeding colors. Piping and Semipalmated Plovers have more colorful legs. In nonbreeding, Semipalmated Plovers have more yellowish legs, whereas Piping Plovers tend to have more orangish legs. The overall color palette is usually sufficient to separate Piping and Semipalmated Plovers: Semipalmated Plovers are mostly shades of brown and white and Piping Plovers are mostly shades of gray and white.
Snowy Plovers and Piping Plovers are not common birds—neither, for that matter, are Semipalmated Plovers. The Waterbird Society places a population estimate of around 25,000 for Snowy Plovers. Wikipedia places the number of “near threatened” Piping Plovers at around 6500. Semipalmated Plovers are the “common” small plover on Texas Coast, with an estimated 150,000 individuals worldwide—about as many humans in a smallish city. I wonder what the state of alarm would be if the global human population stood at 6500, 25,000, or even 150,000?
When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees . . . . “Early Autumn,” Lyrics by Johnny Mercer
This week the sun passed the equator at high noon yielding a day with nearly equal darkness and light. But the important part: the days keep getting shorter. Birds are riding a blue train to the tropics in the hundreds of millions. We stand at the brink of the best of times, the longest stretch of cool, beautiful weather on the Texas calendar.
At least for now, the summer wind will be blowin’ in from across the sea–bringing patches of stormy weather. These atmospheric obstacles to avian movements will eventually cease as glaciers of cool breeze eventually bulldoze the sticky Gulf Coast air out to sea. On these frosty days the Gulf Coast, especially Galveston and the Coastal Bend, are a kind of Shangri-La. Can’t wait!
Few birds have been so well named. This warbler is black and white, just exactly that, no more, no less.—Alexander Sprunt, Jr. (1957)
I remember the first time I saw a Black and White Warbler. The bird was gleaning bugs from a black willow tree on the south shore of Pilant Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. I recall being amazed that such a striking bird could be found outside the Tropics. Although Black and White Warblers summer from the Yukon to South Texas, they winter mostly along coasts from the Carolinas to northern South America.
As noted, some Black and White Warblers do winter along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, but during migrations is really the time you can expect to see them. In spring, their numbers peak here during the middle of the migration, namely April. This year, during our last two trips to Lafitte’s Cove in late March and early April, the number of Black and White Warblers we saw about equalled the number of other migratory songbirds combined, including Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, Myrtle, Orange-crowned, and Hooded Warblers, Northern Parula, and White-eyed Vireos.
Rarely mistakable for any other species, the creeper-like hunting behavior alone is usually enough to recognize Black and White Warblers. And males and females are easy to tell apart. Males have black cheeks, lores, and throats. Females are pale gray in these areas. Mr. Sprunt notwithstanding, female birds will also sometimes have a wash of pale brown (“buff”) on the sides—this is a nice departure from some warbler species in which even with a good photo in hand and a stack of references, it’s tough to sex the birds.
As we get deeper into spring migration and more rare and unusual warbler species start to show up, the impact of seeing Black and White Warblers will start to fade a bit. But Black and White Warblers are definitely part of what makes migration so wonderful here along the Gulf Coast: The skies and vegetation are filled with a spectacular spattering of avian colors.
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr. 1957. Black and White Warbler, in Ludlow Grissom and Alexander Sprunt, Jr., eds., The Warblers of North America. The Devin-Adair Company, New York. 356p.
Unless you and your mate are united in purpose, dedication, and loyalty, you will not succeed to the extent you otherwise could.–Ezra Taft Benson
Pair bonded ducks are easy to see now, regardless of whether they nest locally or are about to depart for the north. Dabbling ducks typically bond as early as late fall or early winter, whereas divers often wait until as late as early spring. By this time of year, then, the vast majority of ducks still in Texas are pair bonded. Last week at Lafitte’s Cove I saw a pair of American Wigeons in the lagoon on the west side of Eckert Drive. With them were pairs of Blue- and Green-winged Teal and Gadwall. In the west pond on the other side of Eckert Drive was a lone pair of Mottled Ducks.
Mottled ducks pair bond earlier than other Mallard-complex ducks (Terres, 1991). The benefits of pair bonding to female ducks is well known: drakes protect their mates from the unwanted advances of other male ducks thus allowing their hens more time to feed and fatten up for nesting or the flight to breeding locations. Last week while watching the Mottled Ducks, I witnessed another possible advantage of pair bonding at Lafitte’s Cove.
While feeding, the dabbling drake and hen seemed to get into a rhythmic pattern of dabbling or head dunking and watching. When one bird’s head was submerged, the other was watchful. Only during a disruption were both watchful. This type of behavior would seem to be beneficial to both birds. The submerged partner can feed (and be vigilant against underwater menaces like alligators and large predatory fish), and the partner with head above water can watch for terrestrial predators like felids and shotgun-toting primates, as well as aerial hunters like raptors.
Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books. New York. 1109 p.
After months of want and hunger, we suddenly found ourselves able to have meals fit for the gods, and with appetites the gods might have envied.–Ernest Shackleton
The current seasonal transition got me thinking about the life struggles of birds. As a birder, I look forward to the coming spring and summer with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Yes, there will be be many interesting sights and sounds to experience. But the return to the sweltering heat, blistering sun, and the ubiquitous biting insects (Zika, anyone? Chikungunya?) can and will put a damper on many a trip. The loveliness of the Texas winter for the birder disguises the fact that for birds, these are hard times. Food is in short supply and a hard freeze out of the blue can spell death subtropical species that wander just a little too far north.
Birds that would prefer a juicy arthropod, may now have settle to settle for a dried out seed or two. But change is coming! Buds are appearing, and flowers are starting to buzz with insects. Once the spring really gets rolling and winter moves out, the birds here in North America now will have a brief stretch of time to dine with little competition. Soon, though, hundreds of millions of hungry avian Neotropical migrant mouths will arrive, and the hardscrabble competition for food will begin again!
Spring comes on the World –
I sight the Aprils –
Hueless to me until thou come
As, till the Bee
Blossoms stand negative,
Touched to Conditions
By a Hum.—Spring comes on the world, Emily Dickinson
Even though it’s the middle of winter, signs of the drive toward life and impending spring are all around, hinting at much greater changes to come.
Some herons, night-herons, egrets, and Double-crested Cormorants are sporting breeding plumes, some of the early bloomers like redbuds and Mexican plums are starting to pop, and there are splashes of color everywhere. Soon, the most exciting time of the year begins with the return of the spring migrants . . . .
Territorial displays and fights, singing, courtship and nesting behavior will be all around shortly, also. Baby birds will quickly follow. But, after a few months of chasing birds around in the Texas heat a new longing will begin . . . a longing for the first blue norther of fall . . . .
Contrived durability is a strategy of shortening the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate quickly. The design of all consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.–Planned Obsolescence, Wikipedia
Last week our big, beautiful iMac computer passed away. In the middle of the night, funny orange dashes appeared across the screen. When I rebooted, blue stripes appeared and then faded to bright white. A few quick looks around the internet led to a few attempts to revive, but in my heart I knew . . . it was over. This was our bird photography computer . . . .
A day or two later I took the lifeless hulk to the Apple Store Genius Bar so a technician could have a look. Sure enough, the video card had croaked. But then the technician kept talking (but not smiling) . . . He said that because the machine is over five years old (it was built in late 2009 by Chinese paupers and bought by us in early 2010), it is considered a vintage machine and Apple Stores will no longer service it. He said that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t work on such a machine because after five years the Apple stores ship all the replacement parts back to corporate.
Five years. Five years! After five years, a multi-thousand-dollar machine will not be serviced by its manufacturer. Sure, I could find a third party operation that might be able to fix it with “old” spare parts, but that’s a big “if.” Wow. Luckily we had ordered a replacement the night before. It will take ten days to arrive.
So, if you are planning to buy an Apple computer to service your bird photography addiction, then start saving for its replacement now. They cost about $3k and last about five years. Period.
If the earth should cease to attract its waters to itself all the waters of the sea would be raised and would flow to the body of the moon.—Johannes Kepler, Astronomia nova (1609)
Among all the great men who have philosophized about this remarkable effect, I am more astonished at Kepler than at any other. Despite his open and acute mind, and though he has at his fingertips the motions attributed to the earth, he nevertheless lent his ear and his assent to the moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and to such puerilities.–Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)
Last weekend offered up the most spectacular weather imaginable, and we headed to East Beach, Galveston and Frenchtown Road, Bolivar. Arriving at low tide, our timing was perfect. Both these localities present exceptional naturalist experiences, especially at low tide. Where else is there evident a more elegant connection between the astrophysical, geological, and biological worlds than in an intertidal zone?
At East Beach we watched Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs hunt among the ripple marks, tidal channels, and pools abandoned by the retreating tides. Vast flocks of Black Skimmers whirled overhead and large numbers of gulls, terns, and American White Pelicans gathered on emergent sand bars.
Near Frenchtown Road, low tide means that oyster patch reefs are exposed, and Red-breasted Mergansers, cormorants, and waders fished in the tidal channels between the reefs. Shorebirds like American Avocets, Willets, and dowitchers hunted among the exposed clusters of oysters. Forster’s Terns were plucking small fish from the surface waters of the channels. I was surprised to observe the Willet below catching fish in the shallows between patch reefs—usually these birds are grabbing crabs from among the oysters.
Frustratingly, I realized that (being a landlubber from Minnesota) I do not know my Gulf Coast tidal zone fishes, so I could not identify any of the birds’ menu items. To remedy this situation, this week I ordered a copy of Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters by Hoese and Moore. It will sit next to my Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico—so soon I’ll at least have a shot at identifying piscine prey, no matter the salinity.
A cloudy day or a little sunshine have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most recent blessings or misfortunes.–Joseph Addison
I am sometimes surprised by which images turn out and which don’t. Light is magic, and photography is all about light. By magic I mean inexplicable—or at least very hard to explain in the context of how a camera records light. Case in point: we were recently attempting to photograph Sandhill Cranes in a field on Galveston Island. It was a clear, beautiful day, and I had a distant but unobstructed view of the birds. I wasn’t expecting National Geographic results because the cranes were too far away, but shot after shot was utter garbage.
The humidity was low (which was good), but it was windy (which was bad). I could tell that the UV index was high (I got a sunburn through sunscreen), and I just couldn’t achieve focus using autofocus or manual focus. I first tried bracing the lens on a fence post with image stabilization turned on, then off. When that failed, I returned to best practices: tripod with cable release. But still, everything farther than about ten yards away was blurry and washed out. Was invisible (to the unaided eye) turbulence creating some sort of mirage-like effect? I turned the camera on and off—even switched bodies thinking that there was a malfunction. Somehow, conditions simply weren’t right for photography—black magic. The next day I looked like W. C. Fields with windburn, sunburn, and a bar tan.
Other days, with fog or rain or lots of gray gloomy clouds, strangely, and against all odds, some nice images can be captured—white magic. I know that some photographers and viewers even prefer the look of results achieved during these dark, gloomy overcast days. All the images in this post were taken on a road trip to South Texas a few years ago. In fact, all were taken on the same day, except the kingfisher. And it was a winter like this one, with lots of rain and clouds and fog and mist and cursing by yours truly.
Of course, these dark days test your skills. To keep ISO below 800 for reasonable image quality means shooting at ridiculously slow shutter speeds (like 1/80 to 1/320) and breaking the 1/f shutter speed rule that I like to follow–even on a tripod with cable release. At these slow speeds, you’re in mirror-slap territory, especially on a tripod, and any puff of wind or contact with the gear can have deleterious effects. And patience is required to capture even the hint of a catchlight, an important aspect of wildlife photography.
Finally, because I pursue this hobby for personal growth and physical and mental health, seeing sunlight is so important. Like most Americans I suspect that I am Vitamin D deficient due to being cooped up so much at work. On these gray days, the spirits lift during an occasional sunbreak. The image of the Common Yellowthroat below was happily captured at the end of a gloomy, misty day just as the clouds parted (finally!) at dusk.
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!