A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

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Seaside Sparrow

When James and I first discussed taking a short trip to the Upper Texas Coast, we had two species on our mind: Black Scoters that had been seen in Galveston, and a Short-eared Owl that had been regularly observed at Anahuac.  I’ll save the suspense, and tell you know that we did not find either target.  Despite this, our short outing to the coast would end up being an especially memorable, productive trip.

Carolina and I left Saturday afternoon to stay with my parents in The Woodlands.  After 150,000 shutter actuations, my trusty Canon 7D is beginning to show its age.  It still takes excellent photos, however it is beginning to have some mechanical issues including occasional trouble powering on.  I had mentioned to my mom that I was considering purchasing a new camera, and she completely surprised me by offering to buy it for me using some money left to her by her late Aunt Jan.  I remember Aunt Jan from all of our family outings growing up in Chicago.  After we moved to Texas she would faithfully send me a birthday card every year up until just a few years ago.  My mom wanted to use some of the money left to her to do something nice for my brother and I, and this was as nice as it gets.  When I arrived at my parent’s house I became the proud new owner of a Canon 7D Mark II.  That evening we visited with my folks, ate my Dad’s famous New York strip and baked potato, and I readied my gear for the next day.

The next morning we woke at an inhumane hour.  I wanted to arrive on the coast before sunrise in order to try out my new gear and try to capture some images in that golden morning light that photographers are always raving about.  We would be meeting James and Erin on the beach.  They had left a day earlier and were camped at High Island.

We arrived just as the sun was cresting the undulating Gulf, casting its warmth upon the beach.  It wasn’t long before the first photo op presented itself.  I spotted a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a clump of dried camphor daisy.  The bird was surprisingly trusting and allowed for a close approach as it flit from bush to bush.  The trip was off to a good start.

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Loggerhead Shrike

James and Erin arrived just as I was finishing up with the shrike, and much to James’s disappointment, it vanished into the distant dunes.  We would end up seeing many shrikes over the course of the trip, but none provided such excellent photographic opportunities as the first.  Shrikes are fascinating, morbid birds.  These vicious hunters will pounce on anything smaller than themselves and quickly eviscerate them with their hooked beaks.  When I worked at Anahuac as a research biologist over a decade ago, we trapped Loggerhead Shrikes for research purposes.  The trapping method included placing a white mouse in a circular trap with a partition in the middle.  In the chamber opposite the mouse there was a small door that provided the only opportunity for the shrike to access the mouse.  As the bird entered it would trip a trigger and the door would close.  The partition protected the mouse from harm and we were able to safely extract the shrike.  Their bites drew blood, and we had to use special steel bands, as their powerful beaks would make short work of the standard aluminum versions.  If all of this wasn’t enough evidence as to their voracity, they decorate their territory with the carcasses of their victims, impaling them on thorns and barbed wire.  This gruesome behavior has earned them the nickname “Butcher Birds”

After chatting for a few minutes, James and I set out in pursuit of shorebirds while Erin combed the beach and Caro took in the warmth of the winter sun.  The shorebirds were out in force, and within a few minutes we had seen Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Snowy Plovers, Piping Plovers, Wilson’s Plovers, and more.  My eye was drawn to a Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) standing in a shallow pool created by the advancing tide.  It was yawning(?) repeatedly, which provided for an interesting photo.  I created the image below to highlight the layers of color and light on the beach that morning, and like how bands of color exist throughout the image, from the foreground through the background.  Black-bellied Plover seems an unfitting name when seen in their winter plumage, but in the breeding season the males will don a dramatic pattern of black and white.

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Black-bellied Plover

I had really hoped to photograph a Long-billed Curlew that morning, and we did see one.  Unfortunately it proved too skittish and vanished before we would get our chance.  We also missed an opportunity to photograph a group of Horned Larks which flew into the wrack and blended almost perfectly into their surroundings.  It’s hard to be disappointed on such a beautiful morning, however.  And as the sun rose higher and the light became too harsh, we enjoyed watching the Brown and American White Pelicans fishing just offshore.

Satisfied with our morning at the beach, we all took the Ferry to Galveston Island.  Here we drove up and down the beach diligently seeking the group of Black Scoters that had been seen in the area.  Unfortunately this day it was not to be.

After lunch and a visit to La King’s Confectionery, we set out to explore Galveston Island State Park.  James and I trudged through the mucky saltmarsh while Caro and Erin sat at the Marsh’s edge.  We encountered a handful of Swamp and Savannah Sparrows, and a pair of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) tucked away in the grass.

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Roseate Spoonbills

After the park we took one more pass down the sea wall to look for the scoters, again we found none.  Then it was back to the Ferry where we watched dolphins from the upper deck.  Once on Bolivar we returned to the beach.  There was a special light that evening, as the setting sun pushed through wispy clouds on the horizon.  This light, and distant skies painted by interesting clouds convinced me to take a break from birds and turn my camera to the subtle yet beautiful landscapes of the area.

The first scene to catch my eye was the sky’s reflection in a Black Needlerush marsh.  I waded into the marsh to capture this image, and endured the bites of what must have been thousands of mosquitoes.  The tiny bloodsuckers hadn’t even crossed my mind as we left east Texas, but I suppose the season had thus far been mild on the coast and recent rains provided the breeding ground.  Despite being probed by hundreds of needle-like probosces, I could not pull myself away from the tranquil scene.

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Black Needlerush Marsh

It was uncharacteristically still that day.  Only the faintest breeze swept across the beach from time to time.  Some of the clumps of Camphor Daisy still had blooms on them, and when I spotted one particular clump, half in fruit, half in bloom, just above tiny windswept ridges and a myriad of mammal tracks in the sand, my mind immediately began framing a scene.  Another distant group of Camphor Daisies and ethereal clouds in the distance added to the mood.  I composed the scene and captured the image below, which ended up being one of my favorite landscape images from 2018.

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Stories in the Sand

On the water a massive raft of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) was forming.  There was little light left, but dusk had dyed the water with hues of pink and blue.  The image below was taken at ISO 2500 and a very low shutter speed, but the unique light was just too good an opportunity to squander.

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American White Pelicans

As the day’s light vanished we went to set up camp at High Island.  Caro made a very impressive fire while I prepared one of my camp specialties, macaroni and tuna.  The mosquitoes were relentless despite temperatures dipping to the upper 40s.

Dawn broke to cloudy skies.  We took down camp and set out to explore Anahuac.  It would prove to be a most productive visit to a refuge where I have spent countless hours.  The roadsides were lined with American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  The trick was spotting these incredibly cryptic birds among the grasses, sedges, and rushes of the marsh.

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American Bittern

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American Bittern

As we were photographing a bittern, a pair of male Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major).  Both birds began to display in unison, though it seemed more like a joint effort than a ritualized competitive display.  I remain curious as to the nature of their interaction.  Boat-tailed Grackles are endemic to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S., occurring in coastal marshes from southeast Texas to Long Island, New York.

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Boat-tailed Grackles

We spent most of the day driving the various roads in the refuge in search of things to photograph.  As we neared one of the refuge’s boat ramps, we caught site of a ball of fluff waddling toward the marsh.  It was a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and her progeny.  She stopped for a moment at the edge of the grass and allowed time for me to fire off a handful of shots before vanishing from sight.

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Northern Raccoon

It was an amazing opportunity.  Despite being ubiquitous, ranging across most of North America, and living in close proximity to human habitations, they are seldom observed, particularly in the daylight.  Their nocturnal habits and generally secretive nature makes capturing good images a real challenge.  I got a few shots that I was happy with, but really hoped for more time with these little carnivores.

We waited a moment but they didn’t show themselves.  After some time we decided to walk the edge of the saltmarsh for a while in search of sparrows.  The mosquitoes once again proved to be relentless, so Caro and I returned to the truck so I could change my shorts for pants.  As we neared we saw that the raccoons had emerged once again from the marsh, and I was able to capture a few more images, including the photo below.  It wasn’t long before they disappeared again.  I returned to look for sparrows while Caro hung around in the area to see if they might return.  Sure enough, when we came back from the saltmarsh she showed us a video of them foraging in the marsh, not far from where she sat, obstructed by my truck.

Seeing raccoons always reminds me of my mom’s sister, my Aunt Jer.  They were her favorite animal, and I still remember portraits of them in her home in Chicago.  It has been over 20 years since she passed, and while we all still miss her to this day, it brings me some joy and comfort knowing that, for me, her memory lives on in these masked bandits of the mammal world.

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Northern Raccoon

As we set out on our quest for sparrows we immediately began observing Marsh and Sedge Wrens skulking in the dense vegetation.  These tiny songbirds are generally very secretive, so it was a surprise when one of the Marsh Wrens (Cistothorus palustris) popped up for long enough for me to capture a few images.  In the spring, their distinctive chattery songs will bring joy to these coastal wetlands.

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Marsh Wren

The stars of the entire trip, however, were the Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus).  These saltmarsh specialists occur in an extremely narrow band along the coast from south Texas to extreme southern Maine.  They spend most of their lives hidden among the Spartina and Distichlis of the saltmarsh, but occassionally will make themselves visible for the briefest of moments.

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Seaside Sparrow

I have learned that bird photography is often just as much about luck as it is skill and equipment.  I had visited this particular part of the refuge dozens of times in search of Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows.  I typically see a few, but they generally remain elusive, and provide only fleeting glimpses.  This day, for whatever reason, they were out in force, and provided several good, relatively open looks.  I suspect that if I returned tomorrow, they would return to their secretive ways.

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Seaside Sparrow

Though they remain common in some areas of Texas, Seaside Sparrow populations are decreasing throughout their range.  They are under assault from a variety of factors including climate change, sea level rise, and rapid human development of coastal areas.  One race, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, went extinct just over 30 years ago, while another, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, is Federally Endangered.  Though I have decent images of this species from my time in Maryland, I have long wanted better images, specifically from Texas, and it was a dream come true to have the opportunity to capture some.

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Seaside Sparrow

Sadly our trip had to come to an end, as they always do.  But as we returned to the Pineywoods, in my mind I kept hearing the waves breaking on the shore, smelling the salt of the sea, feeling the mud sink beneath my feet, and seeing those coastal birds in their element.  And thanks to the images I captured on the trip, I can revisit those moments at any time, until I find myself trudging through the saltmarsh once more.

8 thoughts on “A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

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