Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography


Blue-winged Teal

It was birds that first sparked my obsession with photography some 15 or so years ago.  I remember my excitement when I finally got a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom, when digital cameras were still in their infancy.  Over the next few years I would receive my first digital SLR from my parents, which opened up a whole new world of photographic opportunities, followed shortly by a canon 100-400mm zoom lens.  I spent a lot of time photographing with that lens, and made some images that still rank among my favorites.  But over the years I began to branch out, and learned that photographing less erratic subjects, like reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers, and landscapes, while challenging in its own right, was much less frustrating than bird photography.  It was easier to get “the shot”, as I could control most aspects of the subject, and executing the shot fell largely on my skills as a photographer.  With birds, while one still must rely heavily on skill, we are at the mercy of our flighty subjects.

So bird photography took a back burner.  While I enjoyed the 100-400mm lens, it just didn’t produce the high quality images that I wanted on a regular basis.  Conditions had to be just perfect, and the subject extremely cooperative to get the type of shot I was after.  I honed my macro and landscape skills, and only occasionally returned to my feathered friends.

While I couldn’t say that I like birds more than flora or herps, it is true that in my professional career I have more experience with the Class Aves than any other group.  For my Master’s I studied the avian communities of Iguazú National Park in northeastern Argentina, where I would meet my future wife, Carolina.  I have also studied Snowy Plovers in the salt lakes and playas of the Texas Panhandle, and the rare and declining avifauna of the saltmarshes of the Delmarva Peninsula.  So as bird photography, and coincidentally birdwatching began to vanish from my life, it felt like I was left with some void.

As luck would have it, right around Christmas my good friend James Childress lucked into a fantastic deal on a very lightly used Canon 600mm.  In my book this is THE bird photography lens.  It is the lens that the pros I admired used.  It is the lens I always dreamed about but thought I would never have.  One thing that you need to know about James (and his wife Erin) is that they are extremely generous, and value shared experiences and good times over personal possessions.  Being that James and I spend a great deal of time in the field exploring and photographing together (he often credits (blames?) me for his own obsession for nature photography) , he told me that he would like me to help him test out the lens.  I was, of course, honored and overwhelmed at the thought of this dream come true.


James with his new lens

Wanting to be a good friend, I not-so-reluctantly obliged to James’s generous offer.  So we set out to test the capabilities of the new lens.  While I will only be posting my images in this blog, I HIGHLY recommend that you check out James’s Flickr photostream (click here).

We took a weekend trip to the coast, where we first found several Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris).


Ring-necked Duck


Ring-necked Duck

I was supremely impressed with how the lens captured the handsome diving ducks.  But wondered how it would work on smaller, more active birds.  I would soon get my chance.  It’s hard to imagine a bird much smaller or more active than the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), but the lens captured it beautifully among the Spanish Moss draped on an old Cedar Elm.


Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Just because I was growing interested in birds again doesn’t mean I was about to neglect the other photographic subjects I had grown so fond of.  We found this huge River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna) basking on a cold day.


River Cooter

I was amazed at how well the lens captured the ambient light.  I opted for a low angle on this Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) to help isolate it from the wetland plants it was sheltering among.


Common Gallinule

Perhaps the highlight of our weekend trip to the coast was observing several American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  Though they are quite large, these are very cryptic birds, and can be hard to isolate from their surroundings.  Thanks to the focal length and low aperture capabilities of this lens, however, getting this master of camouflage to pop was easy.


American Bittern

We also tried our hand at capturing some in flight images along the Gulf of Mexico.  Admittedly, with the extreme focal length this was a bit challenging, however we soon began to get the hang of it and honed our skills on dozens of Black Skimmers (Rhynchops niger) that patrolled just off shore, skimming the shallows with their specially adapted lower mandible.  When it feels a fish it snaps shut with lightning-like speed, trapping a meal for this unique member of the gull family.


Black Skimmer

Nearby we saw waves of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) coming in to roost.


American White Pelican

As the tide began to creep in we spotted a group of small shorebirds bouncing around in the sand.  Among the mixed species group were a few Snowy Plovers (Charadrius nivosus), the species I had spent a summer collecting data on in the Panhandle.  The lens allowed us to create images where the foreground and background seemed to blend together.


Snowy Plover

Still reeling from the success of our trip to the coast, James and I wanted to try the lens out on our home turf.  So we spend several days exploring his expansive property in Angelina County, and documenting the birds as best we could.  I captured this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristus) on a frigid morning, when puddles from recent rains froze solid and frost clung to the leaves.


American Goldfinch

I shot this Great Egret (Ardea alba) at a local park.  I couldn’t believe how far away from this bird I had to be to get the entire animal in the frame.  And even at a distance, the level of detail that the 600mm captures is astonishing.


Great Egret

Back at James’s farm we spend some time strolling through the woods in search of resident and wintering birds.  Though they are common, I have always wanted to capture a good image of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).  I think they are beautiful, and they are iconic woodland birds.  I captured this one as it called from a branch that was swaying in the breeze.  Utilizing high speed continuous shooting, I was able to catch it as the branched swayed away from the twig in the foreground, providing a clear shot at the bird.


Blue Jay

I’m quite fond of this shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), another familiar bird of the eastern United States.


Tufted Titmouse

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) was one of a large group foraging on seed near James’s cabin.


Chipping Sparrow

As we were wandering through the woods we saw and heard a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) foraging in the underbrush.  We found a spot to conceal ourselves as best we could and waited for over an hour while the bird teased us by flitting back and forth through dense vegetation before us.  Unable to get a clear shot, we were about ready to give up when it hopped out onto a large vine in the open.  Remarkably it sat still on this perch long enough for both James and I to take several shots.  See one of James’s photos here.


Hermit Thrush

While we were busy photographing the songbirds, we heard a haunting call ring out above us.  It was a Barred Owl (Strix varia).  We came to realize that there was a pair in the treetops around us.  I struggled to get a clear shot until one of the owls flew and provided me a relatively unobstructed view.


Barred Owl

Carolina and I are lucky to have friends like James and Erin Childress.  I know that James will make good use of his new lens, and look forward to spending many more hours with him in the field capturing images of the natural world we both love so much.


Slow and Steady

The first month of 2017 has passed by and I have yet to cross any species off my list.  Most of the species I put on the list are seasonal, so I spent January focusing on the few resident species that I included, namely the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis).

Recently my good friend James Childress found a population close to home.  My wife Carolina and i began visiting the site on the weekends, sometimes 2-3 times per day to no avail.  However the waterway and adjacent wetlands and pine-oak uplands are rich with wildlife, and I found many photographic subjects in the otters’ absence


Wood Duck Drake

.One group that is noticeably missing from my list are birds.  I didn’t include them because though I love bird photography, it is a difficult endeavor, and results are often unpredictable.  If I were to have made a list, however, I would have incorporated the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).  These denizens of creeks, backwater sloughs, flooded oxbows, and ephemeral ponds can be abundant in parts of The Pineywoods.  Unfortunately they are wary and secretive, and typically all I have to show from encountering one is a memory of splashing, their whistle like vocalization as they retreat, and if I’m lucky a distant glimpse of them flying through the trees.  While pursuing the otters, however, I found a less wary subject and with a bit of patience and luck I was able to finally capture some images of what many consider to be North America’s most beautiful duck.


Wood Duck Drake


Wood Duck Drake

One afternoon, as I was trekking with my photographic gear to a spot where we expected the otters might show themselves, I heard my wife call out frantically.  Not in fear, but rather a sense of urgency that I might miss the treasure she had stumbled upon.  She had found a large Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius).  I had tried numerous times to photographic this species, but found them too wary and difficult to approach.  But on this warm January day I found a bold, curious specimen that made for a perfect photographic subject.


Regal Jumping Spider


Regal Jumping Spider

I have been photographing the Pineywoods of East Texas for many years now.  While this species list project is a way to add a little spice to my photographic pursuits, I still love wandering the woods with a camera in hand, and no particular goal in mind.  On New Year’s Day Carolina and I went to one of our favorite spots.  We wandered the longleaf pine forest, admiring the fungi taking advantage of the moisture and humidity that remained after some recent rains.  As is typical in our forest wanderings, Carolina had the best find of the day – A pair of Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) pushing skyward from the dense carpet of longleaf pine needles.  I was surprised to see it blooming so late in the season.  The habitat also seemed unusual to me, as I was accustomed to seeing it in the rich loams of moist slopes and stream bottoms.  Pleased with the days observations, we sat among the longleaf pines as the day faded, and contemplated the adventures to come.


The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is showy, highly toxic mushroom that appears in pine-dominated forests following late fall and winter rains.


Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii)


Unlike most plants, which obtain energy through photosynthesis, Indian Pipe is a mycoheterotroph.  It obtains its energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  I have read that it is named for an old Cherokee legend that states that these plants grow where old chiefs are buried so they may have something to smoke in the afterlife.


Longleaf Pine Savannah


An old, gnarled post oak growing among longleaf pines in an upland savannah.



Opting for a change of scenery, we decided to take  our pursuit of the North American River Otter to the coast.  I used to see them regularly in the wetlands around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge when I worked there, and had heard of some recent sightings.  Hoping that we might get lucky Carolina, my mom and I spent a day exploring the Upper Texas Coast.  Though our mammalian quarry eluded us, we did see a number of birds including a variety of wintering waterfowl and wading birds.  The highlight of the day was toss up between a cooperative male Merlin ((Falco columbarius) that perched on a rustic fence post in perfect light, and an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) that foraged in a ditch next to the road.  Relying on its camouflage it allowed us to approach to within feet of it, as it slowly stalked the reeds.


American Bittern


Ringneck Duck (Aythya collaris)


Spotted Salamanders en route to a vernal pool.

Back in the Pineywoods I checked the weather daily, awaiting the conditions that would bring about one of nature’s great events – the Spotted Salamander migration.  Among the world’s most spectacular amphibians, the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) makes its home in the forests of the eastern United States.  Spotted Salamanders spend the majority of the year underground, hidden from the world in small burrows that have been excavated by rodents or other species.  In response to warm rains in later winter/early spring they emerge en masse and migrate to their breeding ponds, where they form large breeding congresses in order to propagate the next generation.  Finally we had a night with the perfect conditions and Carolina and I visited some breeding sites with our friends James and Erin Childress, where we observed hundreds of Spotted Salamanders and a handful of Mole Salamanders (Ambystoma talpoideum) swimming about the vernal pools.


A Spotted Salamander male awaits the females’ arrival to his breeding pool.


A gravid female Spotted Salamander


A gravid female Mole Salamander


A false bottomland in the East Texas Pineywoods.  False bottomlands are unique communities that occur in clay-bottomed dpressions located within upland communities.  They typically flood during the winter and spring, and become dry during the summer.  Though not associated with waterways, the community is somewhat similar to bottomland hardwood forests.  Dominant species include willow oak, overcup oak, and mayhaw.  The ephemeral nature of flooding in these communities makes for excellent amphibian habitat.


An unidentified fungus growing on a fallen tree.

The salamanders were a nice distraction, but it was soon time to return to my pursuit of the river otter.  For Christmas my wife got a remote game camera.  Following the news that James had seen otters, she began setting the camera in areas where we observed ample otter sign.  For a couple weeks she came up empty handed.  One day, while en route to set up the cameras I caught a glimpse of something moving across the leaf litter.  It turned out to be a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occupitomaculata), a small snake of the eastern U.S. that reaches the southwestern extent of its range in East Texas.  Though common throughout most of its range, the Red-bellied Snake is quite rare in Texas, and I took our encounter to be a good sign for things to come.


Florida Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata obscura)

Carolina chose a place to set the camera adjacent to some logs that were covered in otter scat and hoped for the best.  Sure enough, the next time we checked the camera’s accumulated images, among the hundreds of photos of branches blowing in the wind, songbirds, and rats, we caught sight of our objective – a North American River Otter.


With renewed energy I will continue to pursue the aquatic mammal in hopes of capturing its photograph, because slow and steady wins the race.