Charm is an intangible. Chutzpah, charm, charisma, that kind of thing, you can’t buy it. You either have it or you don’t.–Colm Feore
Among the most charming of the small songbirds are the titmice. Along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast, Tufted Titmice are common year-round. And they are a delight to encounter in the woods, as they peer back with those curious, yet suspicious eyes!
Tufted Titmice seem to prefer arthropod prey (including spiders and their egg cases), but will eat nuts, seeds, and fruit during the winter. They will also visit seed and suet feeders during the lean months, but to my eye, they never seem completely at ease in doing so, being true wild creatures of the forest.
Small super-active songbirds like the titmice may be the supreme challenge for the bird photographer—especially under completely natural conditions (i.e., not baited and not near a feeder). Take a look at Elisa’s beautiful image of a singing Black-crested Titmouse from Lost Maples. We often see Bridled Titmice on our frequent trips to southeast Arizona, but I have yet to capture any really nice images (These birds are fast!).
We have seen all but two species of North American titmice: The Oak Titmouse (California), and the Juniper Titmouse (Southwest U.S., west of Texas). I have no doubt they will be just as challenging and charming as their Gulf-Coast kin!
Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative. –Oscar Wilde
At some point during the winter, a major blue northern will, hopefully, blow through and stay. Until then we’ll check the radar and bore each other (and the ghost of Oscar Wilde) with endless conversations about the temperature, humidity, jet stream, and El Niño.
But even with the iffy weather, late fall and early winter seem to be the times for charming and oddball little discoveries. Last weekend the first real Arctic blast swept across Texas. Optimistically we headed to the Coast. But at 8 am Sunday on East Beach, Galveston the winds were howling so we aborted our attempts at shorebird photography (a strong wind can twirl the barrel of a supertelephoto lens around and conk an inattentive bird photographer across the skull!) and headed for Lafitte’s Cove.
Hoping the oak motte would expend some wind energy, we approached the trees. But alas, it was still too windy for big glass, and so we settled for binocular birding. On the way into the motte, we heard a Northern Mockingbird imitating the clattering call of a Belted Kingfisher—a first for us. Once in the trees, I spotted a Pine Siskin among a small group of American Goldfinches. This was my first ever sighting of a Pine Siskin on Galveston. Although (according to the literature) Siskins do rarely make it down to the Coast during winter, I have to think that this bird was blown off course by the massive cold front that had just arrived, perhaps 30 hours before.
In late fall/winter trees are bare, and as a result we see more songbirds than at any other time of the year. This is a good time to look for statistically rare individual color variations. Sometimes in winter, for example, it’s possible to observe diet-induced House Finch color variants, namely male birds with orange or yellow on their heads and throats (rather than red). I don’t know what the proportion of yellow- and orange-headed male House finches is—but it must be only one in dozens of birds.
This is also the time to really watch waders hunting. I’ve already mentioned the treefrog hunting that goes on around the southern margin of Pilant Lake (and I saw some more of that this week), but it seems that birds are having to work harder and are tapping somewhat atypical resources. The Little Blue Heron below, for example, was hunting in a patch of water hyacinth—and catching grasshoppers. Over the years I’ve watched Little Blues eat countless small fish, frogs and crayfish, but this is the first time I’ve seen one eating grasshoppers. Usually it’s Cattle Egrets that are grabbing katydids and grasshoppers. Perhaps times are getting a little lean, and everybody is a little less picky and willing to eat anything that moves.
Finally, the strangely warm and humid weather that has dragged deep into November has had one very nasty side effect: an explosion in the population of vicious biting gnats. I’ve always been sensitive to gnat bites, but these suckers raise huge itchy welts that hurt for days. On Wednesday of this week, gnats were so thick at Brazos Bend State Park that even the birds were being dogged by clouds of these nasties. So here I sit, hoping for a hard freeze to settle the bugs’ hash once and for all—and begin the real, lovely birding season.
Of all the passions of mankind, the love of novelty most rules the mind. In search of this, from realm to realm we roam. Our fleets come loaded with every folly home.—Foote, in Treasury of Wisdom, Wit, and Humor by Adam Wooléver (1891, 5th ed., p.301)
As one tied to the work-a-day world most of the time, finding new things in the field is always exciting. First (quality) encounters with species are my favorites, but observing new behaviors by familiar ones often must suffice. Last weekend, for example, a naturalist friend (RD) pointed out the barn spider below apparently eating her own web—something I’d not seen a spider do before. It is widely held that spiders do eat webs to re-utilize protein, and the one below appeared to be doing just that.
But based on the severe limitations of time and money, I usually have to find “novelty” where I can. For example, the recent shot below of a newly-returned-from-the-Arctic-for-the-winter Black-bellied Plover may reflect my closest contact with this species.
Admittedly the self-imposed pressure of always looking for new things can sometimes defeat the purposes of amateur nature photography: learning about nature and relieving the stress and strain of daily life and possibly extending life itself. Elisa is clearly better at simply getting out there and enjoying the sights and sounds and sensations. I have to (paradoxically) work on not working so hard.
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.—Victor Hugo
During our recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, we spent two half-days exploring Trail Ridge Road. This road reaches an elevation of 12,183 ft. and so cuts through a series of habitats typically encountered at much higher latitudes. Near the top, the road cuts alpine tundra, an environment similar to that near the Arctic Circle.
Admittedly, some of our early forays up to elevation were difficult. As flat-landers from sea-level a sudden visit to over 12,000 ft was a shock to our cardiovascular systems. A much longer visit (yea!) would cause red blood cell counts to increase, and allow us to hunt down and photograph the tougher species without feeling as though we were going to stroke out at any moment!
One of the thrills of traveling to bird is encountering species you know and love from another part of the country during a different time of the year wearing differently colored plumage. On this trip we found, of all things, American Pipits, birds we often find dining on crane flies in grassy areas on the Gulf Coast during late winter and early spring. During the breeding season, these birds have more of a grayish cast on the back and less intense streaking on the belly. The bird below has a splash of bright orange on the throat and upper breast, something I’ve not seen in American Pipits during the winter in Texas.
This visit to high altitude whetted our appetites for cold weather birding, and we are drawing up plans for a birding trip to the high latitude tundra—we’ve got our eyes on the Canadian Arctic near Hudson Bay!
Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.–Friedrich Nietzsche
Birds live in a dangerous world. Never is this more evident than when they are trying to sleep. Ground-roosting birds like waterfowl, shorebirds, and gulls can often be seen drifting in and out of sleep, one eye open, intermittently surveying the environment for dangers (and photographers).
Many birds sleep (or merely rest) with their heads supported on their backs, beaks nestled in the scapulars. This rests the muscles of the neck and keeps the delicate skin around the beak warm. Breath expelled into the feathers keeps the back nice and toasty warm. On some cold and windy days, it’s common to see sandpipers balanced on one leg (like the Sanderling on the right above). This, of course, reduces the amount of bare skin exposed to the hostilities of the environment.
Soon Texas birds will be much more concerned about keeping cool—and I’ll keep an eye out to document their interesting thermoregulatory behaviors!
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May . . . . –William Shakespeare
Last weekend the weather was spectacular, and Elisa and I took full advantage. East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas was our first stop of the weekend. We were surprised to find a large flock (100+) of American Avocets, mostly in breeding color (rusty-red/cinnamon head, neck, and breast) in the main lagoon just south of the parking area.
The main breeding range of the American Avocet is from the Texas Panhandle to south-central Canada, west to the Pacific Coast. American Avocets also breed along the South Texas Gulf Coast. There is a wintering population of Avocets all along the Gulf Coast, but we don’t typically see them in breeding colors this far north.
As we watched the ruddy-faced flock, we soon we noticed that some pairs were engaged in their charming and elegant courtship and mating behaviors. All images in this post taken with a Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) under natural light.
After photographing birds in the lagoon for a time, I walked south along the strand line of the Gulf. On the return hike, about a dozen Avocets flew from the lagoon and landed right in front of me in a few inches of Gulf water. One pair began courtship behavior almost immediately, as shown in this sequence of images. First, the female presented herself to the flapping and splashing male by holding her body parallel to the ground.
The male soon mounted the female and copulation began. In about a minute, the act was complete, and the elegant post-mating dance began . . . .
The pair crossed beaks as they walked along together. They then separated bills and walked together side-by-side, necks strongly inclined forward.
After a few seconds, the birds rotated their necks into a vertical position, with bills pointed strongly downward. The pair walked along together in this posture for a few paces. Necks became more vertical as the pair promenaded along together for a few paces, then separated. Soon, they were again threshing the water for prey.
Having read a report of a sighting of a Hudsonian Godwit on Galveston several weeks ago, I recently kept an eye out for them among the flocks of Marbled Godwits on East Beach. For a few minutes I thought I had a Hudsonian Godwit in the viewfinder: The bird above has a bright orange bill base, and the back appears quite dark. The colors and barring on the underside of the bird, however, really seem to indicate that this is a Marbled Godwit. The vast majority (all but one it turns out!) of Marbled Godwits I have ever seen have had pink bill bases—even all the other Marbled Godwits I saw in the same flock on the same morning in early April (next two images) had pink-based bills. So what gives? Could this be sexual dimorphism? Breeding color? A little reading was in order.
As far as field marks are concerned, Marbled Godwits show only a hint of sexual dimorphism, females being slightly larger (by millimeters on average) than males (Ayala-Pérez et al., 2013), but no reported obvious color differences—so no help here. In Arthur Morris’ Shorebirds: Beautiful Beachcombers (1996), however, he explained that the orange-based bill in Marbled Godwits is a result of hormone level—during a time of “full breeding plumage.” I suppose that this is similar to the case of the Snowy Egret. The lores and feet are yellow in “breeding” and pinkish red in “high breeding.” I have seen Snowy Egrets sitting on nests in both breeding and high breeding color, though, so I’m not clear if there are any behavioral differences tied to these color differences, or what specific event in the reproductive cycle, if any, is tied to the appearance of high breeding color. More research and observation on my part are clearly required.
In spring on the Texas Coast, Marbled Godwits appear in a variety of color schemes before they depart for their breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest, Canada, and Alaska. When they return in the fall, they show up in faded breeding colors, but will be sporting (you guessed it!) pink bill bases. Given that Marbled Godwits winter along the Gulf Coast, this is probably how most Texas birders see them—but it’s fun to see them in other colors.
Ayala-Pérez, V., Carmona, R., Baker, A.J., Farmer, A.H., Uraga, and Arce, N. 2013. Phenotypic Sexing of Marbled Godwits (Limosa fedoa): A Molecular Validation. Waterbirds36(4): 418-425.
East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas is one of my favorite birding spots—especially in cool weather. Flying birds will often follow the strand line predictably from the north allowing flight shots of gulls, pelicans, skimmers, plovers, sandpipers, terns, and others. At low tide, exceptional, text-book sedimentary structures are visible over wide areas. But of all the natural wonders observable at East Beach, terns are my favorites. Caspian, Royal, Sandwich, and Forster’s are especially common, but careful searches of U’s will occasionally turn up Least, Common, or Gull-billed Terns. I continue to hold out hope for rarer species.
Another alluring aspect of East Beach is the fact that you often have the entire area to yourself, especially in cold weather. After a blue norther, there may be no one else at all around. This being said, rare encounters with yahoos can occur at East Beach, as they can anywhere. They are just much less probable here than at places like Brazos Bend or Lafitte’s Cove, even during nice, warm weather.
Terns have a wide variety of interesting behaviors to observe and (at least attempt) to document photographically. These include spectacular dives for fish, courtship-feeding (the male bribes the female with a small fish, a “nuptial gift,” prior to copulation), and elegant dances and promenades involving mated pairs, as below in the case of Sandwich Terns. Sandwich Terns minuet with shaggy crown feathers and necks erect, pointing beaks skyward or nodding occasionally, wing-tips directed parallel to the ground or slightly upward. And, because terns are doting parents, it’s worth watching for adults feeding “chicks” as large as themselves well after the nesting season.
Every time I review my images from East Beach, I get excited about the prospect of returning. Now especially, during the Season of the Runny Nose, the prospect of fresh sea air mercifully free of pollen is indeed attractive.
There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.—Lord Byron
The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life.—Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Last weekend we took advantage of the spectacular weather and visited a number of our favorite birding haunts, including East Beach, Lafitte’s Cove (both Galveston Island, Texas), Pelican Island, and Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). We visited the coastal sites with an eye toward seeing migrants, but alas there were no surprises, only the usual customers for this time of year both on the beach and in the motte.
At Brazos Bend State Park, Pilant Lake was again hopping with American Bitterns. They were busy hunting, singing, and displaying. On this visit, I caught one bird singing right out in the open in beautiful morning light around 7:45 am.
The song of the American Bittern, expressed onomatopoetically as oonk-a-loonk, is sometimes described as territorial and likely has a significant infrasonic component, below the threshold of human hearing. The singing is accompanied by a labored-looking performance in which the feathers of the head, neck, and shoulders (white shoulder plumes) are repeatedly roused and flattened. The beak is snapped shut producing a click that is apparently part of the song.
A bittern’s song is clearly aimed at other bitterns in the marsh as they answer each others’ calls. What exactly is being communicated is in question as these birds are on their way to breeding grounds far north of coastal Texas, and they are not likely carving out territories at BBSP. Perhaps they are merely exercising and practicing for the important performances to come on actual breeding grounds.
The series of six images below records one song, a wavelength, if you will, within a performance that may contain many repetitions of the same. All images were taken with a Canon EOS 7D + 600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) under natural light, and are uncropped. Something approximating 0.5 seconds separates each frame.
Although any break from work is welcome, spring break is almost always my most problematic free time. I want to make the best of any opportunity, but man and mother nature seldom co-operate at this time of year. Coming in the middle of March, spring break is just a bit too early for big-time migrant action, and the weather is iffy to say the least. This winter, with clouds streaming in from the Pacific nearly all the time, has been especially vexing. Furthermore, the Texas Coast (where I really want to be) is cluttered with teeny-boppers—and the parks everywhere are loaded with noisy school-age children who should be at home in their rooms silently studying McGuffey Readers.
Time off with bad weather can lead to lapses into unproductively, so I have tried to take the gloom as an opportunity to get some practice shooting hunting waders in low light. Who knows, I may find myself under similar optical conditions in Hawaii or Olympic National Park some day, and the practice may pay off.
Like most bird photography, shooting hunting scenes is best accomplished on a bright, clear morning before about 10 am. Ideally one would have a thin veil of cirrus clouds to keep the whites from being too much of an overexposure problem (while I’m wishing!). For hunting, I like to keep the shutter speed well above 1/1000, the ISO below 800 (crop sensors are noisy), and the aperture around f/7.1 (waders are big birds). Alas, such a combination of settings has generally not been possible for months. The setting information on the above two shots indicates the recent realities.
Rarely, there have been a few sunbreaks (it’s so bad I’m using Pacific Northwest lingo!) lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Of course, being in the right spot with a bird in the viewfinder at the precise moment when a few rays of sunlight come streaming onto your subject is like winning the lottery. But you can’t win if you don’t play!
Expectation is the mother of all frustration.—Antonio Banderas
Mid-March, while still technically winter, shows the stirrings of spring. From a birder’s perspective, this time of year along the Upper Texas Gulf Coast has much to offer. Although crane flies abound and provide snacks for songbirds, mosquitos have not yet hatched in significant numbers. Also, many wintering bird species remain, and early spring migrants are starting to appear. Of course, year-round residents continue to go about their business as always. All photos in this post were taken in March.
Also on the plus-side, March nests are easier to find than April ones because leaves are just beginning to fill out. So far, I’ve spotted an active Great Horned Owl nest at Brazos Bend, a Pileated Woodpecker cavity nest at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, and a Red-headed Woodpecker cavity nest at Stephen F. Austin State Park. Red-shouldered Hawks are also nesting in the west Houston area. Obtaining good images of the occupants of these nests has so far remained elusive, though. Persistent cloudiness, rain, and blown-out white skies have doomed several attempts. Maybe next week!
Spring won’t let me stay in this house any longer! I must get out and breathe the air deeply again.—Gustav Mahler
Birds of prey are always exciting to see and photograph, and winter is generally the best time to see them on the Upper Texas Coast. It could be argued, I suppose, that migrations are better in that the possibility exists of seeing transient species like Swainson’s Hawks or Broad-winged Hawks, but winter residents like American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and Ospreys are common enough to count on and really seem like part of the landscape.
Wintering species plus year-round residents usually mean a visit to places like Anahuac NWR or Galveston Island State Park will yield sightings of at least a few raptor species. Inspection of fence posts and wires, power lines, and treetops at the margins of grassy areas will almost always be fruitful. It’s generally a good idea to keep the camera ready while driving to the coastal sanctuaries as birds will allow a close approach by a vehicle, but will bolt immediately if a door is opened to fish equipment from the back seat or boot.
Because many raptors like to perch in trees to scan for prey below, the absence of deciduous leaves during the cooler times of the year really helps to find and photograph these birds. Perching high in trees, though, can be troublesome for photography given the “belly-shot” problem. Case in point: I still need to find time to return to Bear Creek Park this winter for a group of wintering Merlins. I have seen these birds several times, but in each case they were perched so high in the trees that getting good shots was impossible.
On a final note, photographing raptors really drives home to me the fact that birds live in a hostile world. Most of the raptors I see are immature. This can make identification difficult as many young raptors are hard to tell apart, but more importantly it indicates to me that many of these birds don’t make it to adulthood. Humans, of course, are a big part of this equation, and it saddens me every time I see those striped tail feathers on the road.
Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.—Alfred Eisenstaedt