Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Forest Buteo: Photos of a Red-shouldered Hawk at Brazos Bend

Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers are common raptors of the Texas Gulf Coast, pleasing both beginning and seasoned birders with their easy in-flight identification.
Red-tailed hawks are frequently spotted well overhead, soaring against blue sky.  Birders will stop their ground-level hunting to look skyward, tilting heads and binoculars upward, tracking the famous circular soaring motion that reveals this hawk's beautiful red-fanned tail.  This rather large buteo (19” long with a wingspan of 49”) appears especially “thick” in posture when sighted on a power line, with its red tail visible if viewing angle allows (and the birder is not in the driving position!).  If you know of no other hawk by name or identification, the Red-tailed can easily become your first.  Just watch the circular soaring motion of a large raptor against the sky, and when the angle of their flight tilts tail toward your ground view, catch that burst of color. If it is red, with no significant banding or striping, you’ve most surely identified a Red-tailed Hawk.
Contrasted to Red-tail Hawks' high sky soaring, Northern Harriers are commonly sighted flying low, over open brushy fields and marshes.   This agile raptor shares the same Accipitridae Family as the Genus Buteo, but the Northern Harrier is the solo species in the Genus Circus.  For the beginning birder, the Northern Harrier is easily identified in flight due to its rump (as you’d expect, the rump is the location on the bird where the top of the tail meets the bird’s lower back).  In low flight, the harrier readily shows a white patch on its rump, followed by a dark tail.  This white rump is quite obvious and gives beginning birders another easily identified raptor on their life list.  Whether a pale gray raptor (male harrier) or overall brownish in color (female or juvenile harrier) it is the telltale white rump that cleanly identifies the Northern Harrier.

When I first began winter day trips to Galveston, I loved the drive to East Beach to watch the Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers.  Northern Harriers became a common sighting for me as low-flight hunters, with long bodies and smooth wing beats, coursing back and forth like an air-born lawn mower, some ten feet above the marsh grasses.  These field and marsh hunters prey on small mammals and birds, and we can be thankful for their role in keeping rat and mice populations from exploding.
Most other raptors are harder to identify.  Many have multi-year molts that continue to confound me.  But another easily identified buteo, common to the Gulf Coast, is the Red-shouldered Hawk.  A winter day’s drive will commonly find it perched on power lines of F.M. roads (especially FM 2004), but there is nothing like seeing this beautiful buteo in its natural hunting element.  The Red-shouldered Hawk is a forest hunter.  This beautiful bird of prey will sit silently perched on tree limbs, in what would seem an impossible bramble for it to maneuver, and quietly wait its hunt.  Just as human hunters quietly hide behind a tree, or within a hunting blind, the Red-shouldered hunts in similar manner.  This rather small buteo (17” long and a wing span of 40”) is often missed by human observers due to its secretive perching skills. 

Frequently my sighting of a Red-shouldered is due to the noise and movement of its sudden chase and capture of a small mammal, reptile or amphibian in the forest habitat.  With a wing span of 40” (think longer than a yard stick) I’m often amazed at its capacity to maneuver thickets and crooked limbs.  And sometimes, it is the cry or squeal of the prey that draws my eye toward this stealthy hunter’s movement.  I’ve watched these patient hunters capture squirrels in a full out chase within heavily limbed trees.  As with other predators, a forest habitat is healthy when it can support these beautiful meat eaters.
Although all raptors are mighty warrior hunters, I consider just about every one of them to be skittish to the point of being “chicken”. (A slur toward their genetic personality that I admit to mumbling on occasion, just as I’m raising camera lens to shoot them and they are flying in full retreat.)  It is hard to get close to these mighty hunters, especially the Red-shouldered in its forest habitat.  Human noise or movement on wooded path, and Red-shouldered Hawks are the first to take flight, leaving those brave and cheerful kinglets and chickadees to greet the birder.  An opportunity to quietly study a Red-shouldered Hawk, in the forest setting, and at close range, is a day’s delight.
I got lucky Christmas Eve’s eve at Brazos Bend State Park.  Alone and very quietly birding at an extremely slow pace, I came upon this beautiful Red-shouldered, perched rather openly on limb.  We stared each other down for a delightfully long time.  These three photos show its constant head movement, ever the ready hunter.  And yes, it was my day’s delight.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Longspur, The Hooded Merganser and the Turkey Burger (Pictures of Which?)

I planned an adventure today.  I would bird an unfamiliar locale, seeking a specific new lifer—all based on information I was gathering from the “Birding on the Net” and “TexBirds” web portals. 
Multiple experienced birders have gently nudged me these past several months to make use of web resources to better “go after” new lifers and rare sightings. Apparently I was birding in The Dark Ages as one of the few birders not regularly checking these web-based lists of sightings, posted daily by enthusiastic and experienced birders.  Actually Elric, my first birding mentor, nudged me toward checking TexBirds a few years ago.   Better late than never I guess.  And so recently I searched Google, found these web portal sights, book marked them, and started checking daily.
Now an important side note is that I have long been fascinated by Longspurs.  I just like the way they look, in field guides that is, as I’ve never sighted one with my trusty 10x42s.  I knew that Longspurs were not a common find in Texas even though field guide range maps show all four Longspur species to consider wintering in wide areas of the state.  I’ve had experienced birders tell me they’d never seen a Longspur in Texas.   
And so my new daily read of “Birding on the Net” was enticing me with multiple entries, each proclaiming the sighting of Smith’s (and perhaps Lapland and McCown’s) Longspurs in a specific area, just east of Highlands Reservoir.  With the help of mapquest I realized it would be less than an hour drive to this posted and unfamiliar locale.  I detailed my plan these last few days, choosing today’s weather and weekday schedule to go after this new lifer. Today would be my first attempt at a web-enhanced field trip—and a potential homerun sighting of a Longspur!
With binoculars, camera, boots and daypack as my companions, I found my way to this unfamiliar area just north of Baytown. When I arrived at the country road on the backside of the reservoir’s grass levee, I couldn’t figure out HOW to get to the Longspur sighting area without going through (or over) barb wire fencing.  I had not realized that this locale was apparently within someone’s private land.  Obviously other birders were accessing the locale and sighting multiple species of Longspurs, but no birders were within range (or visible to roadside) for me to ask about a welcoming gate or accompany me through this uninviting fencing. 
Call it an excuse, but among other things, I’m a native Texan.  And, perhaps more importantly, I come from multiple generations of Texas farmers and ranchers.  I wasn’t about to climb over some land owner’s fencing, even if it only bounded multiple acres of “vacant” land and every other birder in the state was jumping fence.  My forefathers and foremothers would roll over in their graves.  I knew what both my granddaddies would have done if a stranger jumped fence onto their land.  None of the web posts that I’d read mentioned the “how” to access this location.  And for me, it wasn’t in my genetic makeup to try and find this new lifer under these circumstances.   I wasn’t sure if I was being smart or being really stupid; but I was definitely feeling like an ignorant goober—my plan had a critical error:  unknown technique for sight entrance. And so, this excitedly planned new adventure was a complete bust.  I pointed the car back towards Baytown, disappointed but not frustrated.  My family heritage was intact.
Spontaneity can be a wonderful thing.  I drove past a brown sign (my favorite sign color) that offered “Baytown Nature Center” with a white arrow pointing toward a different route than my homeward path.  I made a quick change of lane and turn, following the sign’s directions.  I was spontaneously headed toward another new, unknown locale that was now “off my planning map” for the day. 
I have to say, I was not impressed when I drove to the entrance gate of the nature center.  I almost convinced myself to save the $3 entrance fee and just head home.  But having just been turned away from my day’s goal based on the barbing signs of private land ownership, I was more than ready to contribute $3 toward the public land trust.     
It appeared that I was the only car, the only person, in the park.  And even though this parkland lay against the shore of the bay, mosquitoes were swarming.  I couldn’t complain as I knew these Gulf Coast aggravates were an attribute of the recent rains; a fair trade for this drought-stricken area.
My expectations were low as I rolled down the car window, fought off mosquitoes and raised my binoculars to watch egrets, herons, pipits, plovers and other shorebirds.  And then I saw them:  Hooded Mergansers! 
Hooded Mergansers are an astonishingly beautiful member of the Anatidae Family.  And even though their “over the top” head dress would suggest a Dabbling Duck, they are one of the eleven genera (and 23 species) of Diving Ducks.   Contrast any of the three species of mergansers to the Northern Shoveler—the Bountifully-billed Dabbling Duck of yesterday’s blog, and you’ll note that mergansers sit low in the water; a ready sign of a diver. 
Hooded Mergansers have been a hole, and a sore spot, in my birding life list.  I’ve sighted many Red-breasted Mergansers throughout the Upper Gulf Coast.  I’ve enjoyed the sight of Common Mergansers fishing the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.  But the Hooded has eluded me, each and every winter’s search, in my own habitat backyard.
I spontaneously found myself attempting photos of these shy Anatidae as they purposefully maneuvered away from me, and into the wrong sun direction.   But I was not looking for photographic achievement; I was looking upon a new lifer!
These breeding-plumaged Hooded Mergansers, male and female (with some yearlings in the mix) were having some fun:

And just as I’m arriving home as a happy birder, my phone rings. A dear friend, not sighted by me for several months, gives me an unexpected call:  “How about lunch—right now?   Can you be spontaneous?”  Absolutely!  And so turkey burgers and three hours of lively conversation were a wonderfully unplanned closure to this surprising day in the field. 
Spontaneity is a wonderful thing!

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Bountifully-billed Dabbler: A Northern Shoveler at Brazos Bend

My Christmas Eve’s eve daytrip to Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) provided wonderful birding and photography opportunities, and I plan to blog post a few of the photographs this coming week.
One of my most exciting observations for the day was a close-up viewing of a small group of female (and immature) Northern Shovelers.  Like most species of ducks, geese, and swans (Family Anatidae), Shovelers are shy of human observation.  Time and time again I’ve come upon these ducks on marshy ponds or lakes, and watched their sly but quick movement towards the opposite shoreline. I stand and watch with limited viewing of their backsides, as their heads are pointed away, gracefully swimming in any direction away from my stance.  Side views are only granted when their large personal space requirements are fulfilled, with significant surface water between their position and my binoculars or camera.  I can’t really hold this common, antisocial behavior (with respect to humans) against any of the Anatidae species.  I too have an infamous reputation for needing a significant personal space.  In crowded conditions, whether friendly or unknown, the rick-man has noted that I tend towards a sly but quick movement to the least-crowded edge of any given gathering of humans.
But this past Friday, I was delighted to see these shy beauties in the marshy wetland, quite close to the trail between the BBSP observation platform and Elm Lake.  With no other humans in the area, they were within 15 yards of the trail’s edge.  I was able to stealthily approach and hide behind brushy undergrowth for a close-up viewing of these bountifully-billed beauties:

Northern Shovelers are a member of the Subfamily Anatinae, and within this Subfamily, a member of the Anatini Tribe.  This tribal grouping is commonly described, by both birders and hunters, as the Dabbling Ducks.  These surface-feeding ducks “dabble” on the surface of the water, straining aquatic invertebrates through their specialized bills.  It is not uncommon to see dabbling ducks “upended” with “rear ends” pointed to the sky and heads just under water, feeding near surface level.  Just for fun I thought I’d include this picture that I captured in January 2006 at BBSP, showing three Blue-winged Teals (Anatini cousins of the Shoveler) in, ahem, the somewhat undignified but famous dabbling duck “up-end” feeding position:

 However, Shovelers are a bit too dignified for this behavior, and rarely tip up in this manner.  Rather, Mother Nature has especially outfitted Northern Shovelers with the best-known bill of the Anatini Tribe, a spatula-like instrument for filtering mud and water, straining both for aquatic invertebrates of various sizes. 
I think you would agree, especially with my rare close-up, and direct head-on viewing, that Northern Shovelers are “graced” with an exquisite “snout”:

And if you didn't "click on" the above photo for full-size bill viewing, you may miss why this bountifully-billed beauty is one of my favorites!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Brazos Bend State Park: Bald Eagles and Other Feathered Friends

Yesterday morning I drove out of the ‘burbs of the Upper Gulf Coast, headed for a day of birding in my beloved Brazos Bend State Park.  I was excited about a solo day in the field, and hopeful for a quiet park in terms of human presence, and a lively park in terms of feathered friends.
I am comfortable expressing hope when the outcome is highly probable.  And I believed that both the day’s date and the weather forecast would limit human presence.  My morning drive began early Christmas Eve’s eve (as msnbc’s Morning Joe was calling it).  I confess that I was listening to this highly opinionated program at 5:30 in the morning, as I quickly ate my favored breakfast of homemade cornbread, washed down with a glass of orange juice. 
I find that there is nothing like an orchestrated cacophony of televised human opinions, on political subjects no less, to jar me awake and hurry me to an early outside, with the non-human members of Mother Nature’s creation promising to voice their own particular self-centered interests.  And these feathered beauties voice opinions on topics we humans feverishly claim our own (and sometimes take for granted):  homestead territorial rights; safety of mates and family members; warning words to intruders and unwelcome strangers; and of course, the gregarious noise of food fights, not uncommon at holiday tables.
 This Christmas Eve’s eve fell on a Friday, which turns out to simply be another day of gainful employment for many.  But for a good number of others it has become a day of travel; a day of shopping in overcrowded malls and grocers; a day of cooking; a day of preparations related to the familiar activities of present history’s secular emphasis on Christmas customs.  No complaint on my part; my binoculars, camera, daypack and water were in the car; along with several layers of clothes.  It was 46 degrees outside, with gray skies trying to hold back a winter day’s drizzle, and no sunshine promised in the forecast. 
And so both the weather and this particular work day’s customs should keep most humans out of the park.  And the day’s weather and the former day’s heavy rains should encourage the feathered ones to get an early start of finding their daily bread.  My hopeful wishes for both quiet and liveliness were rewarded.
I tend to drive toward (and home from) birding destinations with wool socks and slip-on open-toed sandals, regardless the temperature.  Boots travel in the trunk, and the boot-type to be donned depends on both the destination and trail conditions:  rubber boots for marshes, beaches and puddled trails; hiking boots for dryer locales and long hikes.  Switching back to open-toed sandals for the drive home, after a day in boots, just plain feels good.  Not to mention it makes the rick-man happy to NOT find the driver’s floor covered in mud, sand or other such trappings. 
Boots stowed in the car's trunk:

My hour drive away from the ‘burbs and onto F.M. roads brought the welcoming sight of American Kestrels, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, and Northern Shrikes; all four species are the expected power-line hunters of a Gulf Coast winter morning.  Just before arriving at the park entrance, I found four Turkey Vultures perched quietly at roadside, welcoming a slow morning before beginning their daytime job in the underappreciated role of Mother Nature’s cleanup committee:

It was 48 degrees and solid gray sky when I arrived at the 40 Acre Lake parking lot. I noted only 2 other cars in the lot; a good sign. Hiking boots laced, multiple clothing layers donned, and binoculars and camera in place—I began my day’s hike.  My five hours on the trail began at 48 degrees and ended at 54 degrees.  The sun never broke through the solid gray sky.  A bit of wind greeted the mid-day, adding to the chill.  A few hours in, cold fingers became a bit clumsy with focus and shutter control.   Serious photographers would frown upon the low light conditions.  But for me, it was the weather I most love for a winter day of birding:

The past week’s rains brought some restoration of habitat.  These two photos make for a good comparison to photos of the same park location in my August 2011 blog post.  Today’s habitat included some standing water (far left in below photo), but not anything close to the nominal conditions:

Resurrection fern, throughout the park, was showing renewed life with the recent rains.  This plant’s amazing lifecycle, for which it earned its symbolic name, would lead one to believe yesterday was a beautiful springtime Easter occasion, rather than the first week of winter:

I plan to post multiple blogs over the next few days, with bird-specific photos from this fabulous day, as I am pleased with close-range photographs of several species.  I sighted fifty species of birds this day, during five hours of trail time.  A total bird species count was not my goal for the day, as it had been awhile since I focused my attention on 400 mm lens photography.  My species count was limited by slow hikes around the oxbow habitat.  I did not venture the mature woodlands along the Brazos River that reward with more passerine and riparian specialties.
Birders will probably be most interested in the occurrence of two mature Bald Eagles, sighted from the observation tower as perched in a distant snag, some 100+ yards out into the marsh.  And so today I will include this blurry photo, stretching the capability of my lens, but documenting these two mature eagles.  The Bald Eagles’ size comparison to the two Crested Caracara’s (occupying the same snag) provides a great perspective for this American icon’s overall stature.  A mature Bald Eagle has an average weight of 9.5 lbs (heavier than a gallon of milk) and a wing span of 80”. (Almost 7 feet!)

I returned to the ‘burbs late afternoon, a happy and tired birder, with over 300 photos needing digital development.  What better way to complete the daytrip than a stop at my favorite non-chain Tex-Mex restaurant?  My 5:30 a.m. cornbread was in need of supplementing.   After devouring a basket of chips and salsa, one rita, three chicken tacos, rice and charro beans, I headed home, not remembering a single subject from Morning Joe.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hundreds of Millions Dead

The Texas Forest Service’s top story this week is their report estimating that hundreds of millions of trees were killed by the 2011 drought.  That number is HUNDREDS of MILLIONS.
Killed is the specific word used by the Texas Forest Service to describe the impact of this year’s extreme drought conditions on one of the great natural resources we often take for granted:  an estimated 4.9 billion trees in Texas.  The drought killed, and is killing, somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of the state’s trees.  And the dying process will continue.
It is hard to visualize the numbers, but the report estimates a range from 100 million to 500 million trees that died this year as a direct result of the drought.  And these reported numbers were limited to trees with a diameter of 5 inches or larger, so they do not include the loss of young saplings.
The numbers sited are based on the expertise, and eye witness reports, of forestry professionals. Each forestry expert was tasked by the Texas Forest Service to evaluate their respective local communities, using the data analysis techniques provided by the Texas Forest Service.
Per the report:  “Each forestry expert estimated the percentage of trees in their region that had died as a result of the 2011 drought.  That percentage was applied to the estimated number of trees in the region, a figure determined by the agency’s Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) program.”
These staggering numbers will continue to be refined—and perhaps “grow” through refined data collection and analysis, including planned aerial imagery.  The numbers will surely grow due to the undetermined number of trees that are currently in a non-recoverable dying process.  The spring of 2012 will certainly bring about an increased awareness for the staggering number of dead trees.  As early spring’s “greening” occurs, the hundreds of millions of dead trees will stand silent and stark in contrast to spring’s expectations.  
I took quite a few pictures this fall of landscapes filled with dead trees—many that died the agonizing slow death from thirst, and many that died the quick and horrible death from fire.  But no picture can begin to portray the significance of this loss.
Whether driving across Texas, across a local county, across a major city or small town, I encourage each of us to note the number of dead trees standing.  There are millions of dead trees standing.  We mustn’t mistake them for the normally leafless winter dress of a healthy tree.  We must not assume that these killed trees will be returned to normal conditions with rain-soaked winter days.   
And yes, nature is doing what nature does—responding to habitat change.  But we would be somewhat arrogant and na├»ve to assume no causal human involvement and to assume no resulting human impact.  And the impact of a probable long term habitat change is a topic pondered by all whose livelihood, lifestyles and interests are coupled to these beauties.  I’m not talking about the politically polarized subject of global warming.  I’m talking about the obvious specificity of this state’s multi-year drought conditions and the habitat changes that accompany this current trend.  My lifetime won’t see the mature replacement of these hundreds of millions.
The 2011 drought was pained by the unnecessary number of fires that were NOT initiated by Mother Nature’s lighting strikes.  Nine out of ten wildfires are caused by humans.  This past years reporting on these fires often included the bad, and sometimes illegal, human behavior that initiated the uncontrolled flames. 
And most of us are aware of the 20/20 hindsight regarding the negative impact of well intended years of human suppression of naturally occurring wildfires.  Those one in ten naturally occurring wildfires will burn hotter and more dangerous in this state’s and our nation’s artificially created tinderboxes, created by unnatural undergrowth and overgrowth resulting from human suppression of natural wildfires.
I am not getting on a soap box.  I am not looking for blame.  But I do encourage observation and thoughtful consideration when these majestic and critical natural resources are killed in such astounding numbers.  And so, as we drive about this December season, busily engaged with both national and family traditions and celebrations, I encourage a thoughtful look to the trees that make this state an extraordinary habitat for a diverse population of Mother Nature’s creation. 
As we assess our personal yearly budgets for the planned and unplanned expenses of the past year, and goals for the next, I encourage a thoughtful consideration of the significant impact on the operating budgets of city, county, state and national parks.  The cost of providing safe access for the many human visitors will be reflected in an enormous unplanned budget line item for removal of an off-nominal number of dead limbs and trees. Many trails that we take for granted will be closed until the “all clear” cost and work is paid and performed.   And for the economy and welfare of our neighbors whose businesses produce products or services that are directly or indirectly linked to our state’s trees?  The impact is probably not measurable at this time.  But can we consumers even create a list of these businesses that are impacted?  That would be an enlightening science fair project.
The torrential rains on the Texas Upper Gulf Coast were a welcome sound this morning.  The weather reports of widespread rain across much of Texas these last few weeks have brought the beginnings of relief to so many areas.  The RGV has received an unusual multi-day rain this past week—the first real rain in that area since last winter.  Whether this relief to much of Texas is temporary, or a drought trend changer, is to be determined—but the experts caution of repeating patterns from this past year’s drought. 
But today, we can delight in these healing rains. There are trees out there right now, fighting for life, in a self-induced form of dormancy, in an attempt of self-preservation.  These recent rains will not bring killed trees back to life.  But they wonderfully strengthen the chances for weakened trees by providing a natural catalyst to return to a nominal botanic lifecycle; a restoration from the self-induced water-starved dormancy.  There is nothing like the tenacity of an old tree. 
Check out the Texas Forest Service website.  Explore their “Big Tree Registry” and listing of Famous Trees of Texas.  Talk about this fascinating information with family and friends, young and old.  And if you haven’t climbed a tree lately, you may find it the best therapy for the stress of your daily responsibilities and “to do” lists. 
I think we all turn into smiling children, when up a tree.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Enjoying the Common Finds, in the Local Fields

No pretense.  I love the adrenaline rush when sighting a rare bird never before viewed through my trusty 10x42’s.  I believe it is a part of our human nature to stop and give awe to the extraordinary.  For some of us, our focus is drawn to Mother Nature’s creation; for others, the draw is to the great works of human art, architecture, and engineering wonders of the world; and for some many-faceted individuals, it is both.

Regardless the form of creation, it seems both the business of life--and the busyness of life, can put blinders on observation.  December seems a prime candidate for the marketing of busyness.  I am not immune.
But sometimes I find the greatest pleasure in pausing and giving praise for the common finds in the local field.  It is so easy for me to give a passing glance to a Northern Cardinal—or to another human being, and miss the extraordinary beauty of their unique nature. 

I stood in the check-out line of my local “Super Target” this morning, with only four items in my grocery cart, giving me fair access to the “20 items or less” line. For once in my life I waited patiently while the woman ahead of me placed some thirty or more items on the black-rubber conveyer belt, headed toward the experienced hands of the middle-aged female Checker of this line. 

I was wonderfully rewarded for my patience, as it opened my blinders to observation.  As the lady ahead of me unloaded her bounty of Christmas-genre items (chatting absently to the Checker without looking at her), the Checker looked at me, made eye contact, and then looked up at the blatant “20 items or less” sign. The Checker then looked back at me and gave me the most subtle of eye rolls and shoulder rolls that John Stewart would envy, and that made Woody Allen famous.  I was rewarded with a wonderful first-hand sighting of this Checker’s sense of humor, and her unique (and silent) apology to me. It took all my self control not to laugh with delight—but I did reward the Checker with a smile that applauded her playful personality.  Today, she was my beautiful find, the common species in the local field.

This Fall I photographed other beautiful finds, all common species in local fields (that I could photograph without causing a scene):

At South Llano River State Park, I sat and watched this female Northern Cardinal enjoy an afternoon soak:

And suddenly this Grey Fox, common to the hill country, moved through and surprised me (and I surprised her, as our eyes met from my ground-perched position):

At Pedernales Falls State Park an Inca Dove enjoyed a sunny spot to glean her food:

At Brazos Bend State Park a Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and her bounty of youngsters, gave me a delightful example of faces that could use a good washing:

And at the National Butterfly Center in my RGV backyard, I took this photo of the commonly found White Peacock butterfly, and delighted that it was “mostly” in focus:

There is much to enjoy in the most common finds in our local fields—if only we pause from the business, and busyness, of life.  Whether observing human nature—or other, perhaps more beautiful species of Mother Nature’s creation, observation is a gift to be celebrated in December, as well as the other eleven months of the year.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Golden-crowned Warbler! (with photos)

A famous specialty bird of Texas is the Golden-cheeked warbler.  It is a beauty that I’ve had the pleasure of studying at favorite locales such as Lost Maples State Natural Area, South Llano River State Park and the Balcones Preserve in Austin. The Golden-cheeked has many claims to fame, including the fact that it ONLY nests in Texas.  Every Golden-cheeked Warbler is a Texan, by birthright, and simply spends a good part of each year vacationing in Mexico and further south. 

But yesterday I had the rare pleasure of seeing a Golden-crowned Warbler at the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission, Texas. Visiting the lovely NBC is an easy bike ride for me, and my day yesterday was all about chasing butterflies and attempting to photograph them with my new 180mm lens that the rick-man surprise gifted me.  After three hours looking at this new world of butterfly study, via binoculars and camera, my head was swimming with so many new species names to learn, and my knees, back and arms were in a state of anger from the near ground-level positioning often required for macro photography.  I wanted to rest mind and body with the familiar:  birding. 

I turned to the NBC’s wooded trail that runs adjacent to the dike’s wetland.  Reports were circulating via the RGV birding community, and on the web, that a Golden-crowned Warbler was being sighted, somewhat regularly, at this locale. 

This Friday afternoon I was not the only birder slowly walking this trail, carefully birding with hopes of spotting the Golden-crowned.  I was quietly alone, enjoying the company of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, when I noted two young men, some thirty yards from me, showing obvious signs of spotting something special. I attempted to move quietly, slowly and calmly in their direction, noting the viewing vector of their binoculars’ interest.  I was rewarded with a good look, albeit brief, at this rare species. 

I am a birder first, photographer second, so my camera stayed at my side during this first sighting.  I wanted to drink in all the looks I could get of this new lifer and rare Texas species.  Whether to call it a guest or a state occupant is still under determination by the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC). 

I’d like to say my binocular-focused looks at this Golden-crowned were long, but a somewhat noisy stampede of a handful of people caused the warbler to do what warblers do—quietly seek distance and refuge from commotion.

But I got a second look, less than an hour later, further down the trail! This time I fixed camera on the brush.  Unfortunately I did not have my 400 mm birding lens, and unfortunately a second stampede of a handful of humans caused this second look to be equally brief. But both of these facts give me excuse for these somewhat blurry photos.  However, I believe they would be considered “good enough” for identification records:

Golden-crowned Warbler (Basileuterus culicivorus):

The wonderful website of the Texas Bird Records Committee (TBRC), a standing committee of the Texas Ornithological Society, includes the Golden-crowned Warbler as a Review Species.  The list of Review Species includes birds sighted four times a year, or less, over an average of ten years.  And their website’s photo of the Golden-crowned is circa 1989, photographed at the Sabal Palms Sanctuary, south of Brownsville. 

A different way of describing my excitement over sighting the Golden-crowned is to look at the range map in Sibley’s Guide to Birds.  The entire U.S. map icon is blank, except for one green dot in the very southern tip of the RGV!  Sibley defines a green dot as a “location of rare occurrence.”    Quite simply, the Golden-crowned Warbler’s passport would identify it as a bird of Mexico and Central America, specifically including Argentina, Uruguay and Trinidad.
Yesterday’s rare sighting of a Golden-crowned Warbler on U.S. RGV soil, the only place to potentially spot this species in the U.S., was a wonderful experience.  But it doesn’t make my “thrilling” list of sightings. I’m certain I’ll be back at the NBC hoping for longer sightings and better photos (and relaxation from my new study of butterflies). 

Yesterday quite simply was not my favorite way of getting a new lifer, much less viewing any species, familiar or new.  Yes, I got a “good enough” look to cleanly identify the species, and I confidently added it to my life list after validation through further study with web photos, books and my two photos.  But I did not get to “watch” or study this beautiful warbler.  I was amidst a handful of people, and their excitement reflected enough kinetic energy (manifested in both movement and noise), to make this sighting too brief. 

I don’t want to just see a bird, high-five those around me, and add it to my life list.  I want to watch it; study it; listen to it.  I want to wonder over its unique beauty while it is before me. And then, and only then, sometimes an hour later, will I want to wander quietly away, smiling the silent smile of a moment in time, seemingly alone with a colorful Aves character witness to Mother Nature.

I can’t wait to be back in the field.  Tomorrow!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

South Llano River: Part 2 (Sparrows and Tennis)

There are a great many things I like about playing tennis, but the psychology of the game has often been a love/hate relationship for me.  The love part is grounded in what I’d refer to as the geometric psychology of moving the ball around the court.  Quite simply, a good tennis player doesn’t look at where the tennis ball has been—a good player creates a mental map of where the ball WILL BE—the future path, based on a whole host of factors, including the speed, height, spin and angle of the opponent’s last stroke (or volley) of the ball. 

This mental map of where the tennis ball WILL BE is what allows the great players to move forward TO THE BALL, striking it on the rise of its bounce (or “taking it in the air”), making the most of the geometry of angles and placement. Coaches and pros call it “moving to the ball”—and this movement is all about cutting off angles and making the most of a fluidity of motion on the court, grounded in the most basic of geometric principles: that the shortest path between two points is a straight line.  Point A is a player’s current position on the court.  Point B is the best point of strike—where the ball WILL BE, as it RISES from the bounce (or is taken “in the air”).  

This "move to the ball" technique is a significant challenge to beginning tennis players.  A beginner will stand back, and “wait for the ball”, striking it as it falls past the peak point of the bounce.  This wait costs time, distance, and angle of attack—and is a defensive strike, giving away the offense to the opponent.  The beginner did not “move to the ball” but waited to “run after” where the ball did take them.  Kind of like life—do we move in the direction we want our life to take us, or do we run after where our life is going?  This life strategy was wonderfully presented in the great movie “A Coal Miner’s Daughter,” based on the life of Loretta Lynn (sans tennis racquet).   

Tennis is a game of being in the present—with the present focused on physical movement toward the future.  And tennis is also a game of being in the present MENTALLY—with the present focused on THE point in play; not the last point’s mistake or great shot; not the next game’s strategy, when fighting wind or sun conditions, or waiting for service ownership.  Tennis is all about “Being Here Now” as human factors folk like to say.

And so, as with many sports, tennis offers a bounty of life lessons—and writing lessons.  I tend to write about where I’ve recently been, and not about my current day in the field, or how I plan to prepare for the next field experience.  I let time pass with my writing, struggling with mapping words to photos—looking for that “little story” to tell.  And as with neglected phone calls or e-mails, the longer the time passes, the harder it is to write.

I’ve been sitting on some “almost good” sparrow photos from this past October’s trip to South Llano River and Pedernales Falls state parks.  I’ve wanted to describe my love/hate relationship with sparrow identification.  I’ve wanted to share some lessons learned when staring at these LBJ’s (little brown jobbers) through the binoculars.  But it is time to simply say that these “almost good” photos speak for themselves.  And then it is time for me to move forward in my writing to where I’m “moving to the ball” which most days means chasing birds, dragonflies or butterflies in the RGV.  But I do miss the geometric psychology of moving around the court at Mills State Park…

(Note:  The below photos will be better viewed by “clicking on them” to enlarge)
Some sparrows are easy to identify, as with this White-crowned Sparrow, with name and “white crown” of head providing unmistakable markers:

And some sparrows are more of a challenge.  What say you to this species below?

A hasty glance might suggest a Chipping Sparrow or a Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  But a seasoned birder will correctly identify the above photo as a first winter White-crowned Sparrow!  Yes, this is the same species as the first photo!

And don’t confuse the above 1st winter White-crowned with one of my favorite beauties, the Field Sparrow in the photo below:

And in similar fashion, I must not confuse the Field Sparrow (or a host of other sparrows) with the adult (nonbreeding) Clay-colored Sparrow, a delightful hill country “get” in photo below: 

If you have a birder’s field guide, note the difference in coloration of sparrows such as the Clay-colored during breeding season (usually spring through late summer) versus nonbreeding season (fall and winter).

And then enjoy the expression of this Lincoln’s Sparrow's face, in below photo, and ask yourself about the key marker’s that would distinguish it from the Song Sparrow or the Swamp Sparrow.

Lincoln’s Sparrow:

Song Sparrow:

In these photos you may easily jump to the clear distinguishing characteristics.  But in the field, I find it easy to get rattled with the similarities of sparrow species and then I have a brain freeze when trying to identify the specifics of each species.  I must confess that there are times that I “suit up” for a day in the field, ready to chase birds as I begin a beautiful hike on a multi-mile trail.  And sure enough, just fifty yards into the hike, the first Aves to fill my binoculars is a LBJ.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I relate to Indiana Jones and his “snakes, not snakes” with my own version of “a sparrow, oh please, not sparrows today!”—and I must make a decision:  ignore and delve into a long hike, or stop so early in the hike and focus on the LBJ at hand (actually in bush).  And the more times I decide to stop and make the effort, the more times I am rewarded with these delightful creatures.
So the next time you see a House Sparrow in your yard (or sneaking into your dryer’s outside vent), remember that these LBJ’s can delight when viewed in the field.  And when you get the chance, spend some time at the bird blinds at South Llano River State Park and Pedernales Falls State Park—they provide a great classroom for LBJ studies.