Wintering Waterfowl in North-Central Texas

4n1a3226b

A Hooded Merganser swims through water reflecting remnant fall color in Post Oaks lining a wetland in North-Central Texas.

“Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t help but ask myself as I lay flat on my side in the muck, piles of duck feces inches from my face.  I was cold and wet, and tired – so very tired.  We woke up at 3:30 that morning and were on the road by 4, just so that we could arrive at our destination at first light.  I had come all this way and endured all this suffering for the chance to take pictures of ducks.  To many, ducks are those familiar, pesky waterbirds that harass them during a day at the park or a picnic near a pond.  To me, however, they are a diverse, fascinating group of some of the most beautiful birds on the planet with incredible life histories full of harrowing journeys, dramatic performances and tales of incredible hardship.  Yes, the world of ducks extends beyond the familiar Mallard and its domesticated descendants.  In this blog I will explore a slice of the diversity of ducks that spend the winter in North-Central Texas.

In Texas, the northern portion of the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers serves as an important wintering ground for a variety of waterfowl.  Wetland complexes adjacent to the Red and Trinity Rivers provide excellent habitat within a matrix of woodlands and prairies.  It is also located near the boundary of the Central and Mississippi flyways.  These factors help make the region a haven to ducks and geese that have traveled from as far as the Arctic Circle.

So this winter, I took three trips to the region in hopes of observing and photographing some of these beautiful birds.  I researched the region extensively, looking for promising locations.  We took our first trip on a grey, bitterly cold day in late December.  We would end up seeing many ducks at a few different locations, but the light was not with us.

Disappointing light aside, I did leave with a few image of one of my favorite ducks, and a species I had long wanted to photograph – the Canvasback (Aythya valiseneria).  With it’s long, broad black bill, characteristically sloping forehead, rusty head and bright white wings and flanks, the drake Canvasback is one of our most elegant ducks.  A black bib and tail help complete its dapper plumage.

There are four basic tribes of ducks: dabbling (Anatini), diving (Aythyini), sea (Mergini), and stiff-tailed (Oxyurini) ducks.  Canvasbacks are diving ducks.  Members of this tribe have legs set farther back on their bodies to aid in diving.  They feed by diving and foraging from the bottom of waterbodies.  Canvasbacks feed heavily on underwater tubers as well as snails, mollusks, and other aquatic invertebrates.  Most Canvasbacks winter in and around the Chesapeake Bay, and are generally uncommon elsewhere along the coast and inland.

4n1a2834

Drake Canvasback

4n1a2912a

Drake Canvasback

On our next trip in early January, Caro and I were up and out hours before the sun came up.  My main target for this trip was the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), my favorite duck and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful birds in the country.  We arrived at our first location, a forested pond in the Cross Timbers, for the day just as the sun was cresting the horizon.  Sure enough, there we spotted a pair of mergansers along the distant shoreline.

I made my way to the water’s edge and lied in wait.  Unfortunately, the drake never warmed up to my presence, and stayed well away.  The image below is the only time he ever raised his crest, and after just a few minutes he took off and never returned.

4n1a3384ab

Drake Hooded Merganser

The hen remained, however, and eventually she and the other ducks in the pond became accustomed to my presence.  She swam in close and provided several nice looks at her understated plumage.

4n1a3530a

Hen Hooded Merganser

As I was admiring the merganser, a group of American Wigeon (Anas americana) flew in.  I had recently photographed these stunning ducks near Austin on Christmas Day.  Not one to pass up a good photo op, I captured the drake below mid-preen, as he showed off his wing coverts, scapulars, tertials, and just a hint of that iridescent speculum.

4n1a3494a

Drake American Wigeon

The sky was cloudless that day, and soon the sun was too high and the light too harsh for photography.  So we grabbed lunch and traveled east, to a series of prairie ponds.  Here we found a variety of ducks, including both of our Scaup species.

Scaups can be tricky to differentiate, but there are a few good characteristics to look for.  Despite bearing the descriptors “Lesser” and “Greater”, size is generally not a reliable method to differentiate species, unless they are seen together.

In general, the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) is smaller, however it is more readily identified by head shape and plumage detail.  Lessers generally have a more raised forehead, often having a crest-like appearance with the point near the back of the head.  The barring on Lesser Scaup’s feathers also extend all the way down its flanks.  Other, less reliable characteristics for identification include the iridescent sheen on the head, which is generally purple in Lesser Scaups, and the black at the tip of the bill, which is generally less extensive in Lessers.

Lesser Scaups are a common winter resident on waterbodies throughout the Lonestar State.  I photographed the drake below as it swam through waters reflecting the brilliant blue skies, with the muted browns of prairie grass in the background.

4n1a3600a

Lesser Scaup

Much less common a winter visitor is the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).  In Texas, they can be found sporadically along the coast in winter.  Inland, they are only observed with any regularity in a small area in north-central and northeast Texas.  They have journeyed here from the far north, where they breed in small ponds on the tundra and in the boreal forest.

True to their name, they are larger than Lesser Scaup, though this is only a useful diagnostic when both species are observed together.  They are more reliably differentiated by their more rounded heads, pure white flanks, broader bill with more prominent black marking at the tip, and greenish sheen to the feathers on their heads.

After spending some time among the scaups, and fruitlessly stalking a Bufflehead pair, we returned home, tired but satisfied from a long day in the field.

4n1a3971b

Greater Scaup

An alternate name for this blog post could have been “My Quest for a Hooded Merganser”.  Since I was a child I have been enamored with this peculiar yet spectacular sea duck.  They lack the brilliant colors and iridescence of other species, but their bold black, white, and chestnut patterns along with that remarkable crest that is raised during courtship rituals sets them ahead of the pack.  It also doesn’t hurt that they are one of just a few duck species to breed in forested wetlands and nest in tree cavities.

I don’t see Hooded Mergansers very often, and most sightings consist of them rapidly disappearing on the wing after having spotted me at a great distance.  Though I had captured a few images on my previous visit, I wasn’t successful in getting the image I wanted – a drake with his crest raise, displaying the full glory of his breeding plumage.  So despite already having made the 6-hour round trip just twice in as many weeks, I rose again before 4 AM, and hit the road to the Cross Timbers.  This time I was joined by my good friend and photo buddy James Childress.

We arrived before first light, to a shallow pond nestled within a Post Oak – Cedar Elm woodland.  We donned our camo and settled in, laying flat in the mud at the water’s edge.  It wasn’t long before the ducks started coming in.  And sure enough, we spotted a lone drake Hooded Merganser.  Unfortunately he was sitting at rest, eyes barely open and crest laid flat.  Much to our disappointment, he would spent most of the morning in this state.

But he was not alone.  And there were plenty of other gorgeous ducks to occupy our time.  One of the most striking was the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).  A few drakes passed by fairly closely in waters reflecting the browns of dried leaves and greens of evergreen vines lining the shore.

4n1a6036a

Northern Shoveler

I also took this opportunity to photograph a species I had long avoided, the ever present Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  It’s not a lack of beauty that kept me from photographing them, as they are undeniably striking birds.  Instead, it was the prevalence of domestic ducks, descendants of Mallards bred in captivity that have since escaped, or been released, and are now naturalized throughout much of the country.  I simply have no interest in photographing feral domestic descendants, and many are virtually indistinguishable from the wild type.  There are still plenty of wild Mallards in the country, however, though there are concerns that the gene pool is being diluted by these free ranging domestics.  The birds we saw that day seemed to fit into the wild phenotype, and I was fairly confident and hopeful that the animals I photographed were from wild, naturally migrating populations, but there is really no way to be sure.

4n1a6260

Mallards

4n1a7184

Mallards

The real star of the morning however, was the American Wigeon.  Some of the beautiful drakes passed close providing us with a variety of settings in which to photograph them, each better than the last.  Wigeons are known for their bully-like behavior, and despite being much smaller than the Mallards, they chased them out of the best feeding grounds.  In some cases they act like pirates, stealing hard-earned meals from diving ducks who, unlike the wigeons, are equipped to swim to the bottom of the pond to choose the most succulent, nutrient rich aquatic plants like Wild Celery (Vallisineria americana) We enjoyed their antics and the constantly whistle like call of the drakes.

4N1A7327.jpg

American Wigeon

4n1a7349

American Wigeon

4n1a6800

American Wigeon

The sun was getting high, pushing the envelope of what I consider good light and I was beginning to worry that I would again be heading home without a decent Hooded Merganser shot.  But just as we were starting to give up hope a second drake flew in.  This caught the attention of our first male, and both became active, diving in search of prey, and actively preening.  In the same moment a wispy veil of clouds crossed the sun, creating one of my favorite qualities of light.  I captured them in some truly bizarre, yet interesting poses.

4n1a6615

Hooded Merganser

4N1A6848.jpg

Hooded Merganser

I captured one of the drakes as he yawned, showing of the narrow, serrated bill specially adapted for capturing fish, crustaceans, and small aquatic animals.  I was certainly capturing some memorable images, but I still had failed to capture a pose with the crest raised.  I missed out on two opportunities as my camera’s auto-focus failed to lock onto the subject.

4n1a7020

Hooded Merganser

And then it happened.  After a short preening session, one of the drakes raised its crest and began to really show of its spectacular plumage.  It continued to preen and raise up to flap its wings and dry off its feathers.  I was thrilled to check off a subject that has been on my photographic bucket list for years.

4n1a7215a

Hooded Merganser

4n1a7256ab

Hooded Merganser

4N1A7260.jpg

Hooded Merganser

While one drake was putting on a show in the distance, the other passed by close, and I was able to capture the image below in still, flat water – perhaps my favorite of the trip.

4n1a6882

Hooded Merganser

“That’s why I’m doing this!” I thought to myself with a smile.  It’s easy to lose sight of the prize while suffering in the cold and wet, and while every muscle in your body is screaming from the awkward contorted position you’ve taken up to get the perfect angle on one of the ducks.  But all of the misery seems to fade away while these beautiful animals appear within range of the lens, and the suffering seems a small price to play for these images that we may enjoy and reflect on for a lifetime.  I dare say, that these moments of unpleasantness only serve to enhance the experience, and I don’t think I would be rid of them, even if I could.

Christmas with the Quacks

Sometimes the best Christmas gifts are not items, but rather experiences.  And sometimes they come from no giver in particular, but happenstance.  This year I received some of these intangible gifts, on a level I had not experienced before.  That’s not to say that I didn’t also receive many wonderful gifts from my family.  This year I was lucky enough to get a fantastic new camera backpack and some other accessories, a few excellent books, a blow gun, and another year’s supply of socks.  But the unique nature of some photo opportunities this Christmas, and their relevance to the nature of my blog has prompted this special holiday post.

For Christmas Eve, Carolina and I stayed in Lufkin.  We made a hearty breakfast, took a pleasant walk in the morning, and enjoyed each other’s company throughout the day.  In the late afternoon, Caro suggested that we visit some local ponds to look for ducks.  This in and of itself was a Christmas in my eyes!  So we went to a local pond where a large group of Gadwall (Anas strepera) has been spending the winter.  The birds were skittish at first, taking flight at our initial response.  But they regrouped at the opposite end of the pond, and I was able to take advantage of some old willows lining the pond’s edge to creep closer.  I found a break in the trees where I could lay flat and capture a few images of a spectacular drake.  The Gadwall is perhaps our most underrated species of duck.  It lacks the bold colors of many species, but the subtle intricacies of its plumage and varying tones of brown and gray make it a beautiful thing to behold.  That evening Caro prepared a delicious meal, and we toasted the season and built a fire in the yard.

4N1A1377

Gadwall

The next morning we woke early and set out for Austin, where we would be celebrating Christmas Day at my brother Seth’s girlfriend’s house.  After arriving, visiting, and enjoying some snacks that she had prepared, his girlfriend, Jen, informed us that there was a detention pond in the back of her neighborhood that often had ducks on it.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so we took a family walk to see what was there. Sure enough, upon arriving I spied a large group of American Wigeon (Anas americana), a few Gadwall, and a lone Ringneck Duck. I tried to circle wide and creep up on some of the wigeon.  I have long wished for an opportunity to capture good images of this spectacular duck, but they had thus far eluded my lens.  Unfortunately the birds proved initially skittish, and due to the steep banks grading into the pond I was unable to get a shot from a suitable angle. I tried a few different methods of approaching until they finally flew off for good. Or so we thought… After a few minutes of wandering around we decided it was time to head back.  It was in that precise moment that the wigeons returned to the opposite end of the pond. So my brother and I opted to remain.  We formulated a plan of attack.  I skirted wide, using the pond’s berm to hide my approach, while my brother approached from the opposite side, obscured by dense vegetation.  I then belly-crawled to the edge of the detention pond where I was at least partially hidden by cattails and dried stalks of Powdery Alligator Flag. I was at a good angle, but unfortunately I was unable to get a clear shot through wetland vegetation.  So I decided to start crab-walking into the pond itself, as one does, until i was submerged to my waist. To my surprise, I found the ducks to be much more tolerant of my presence when I was actually in the water. Instead of flushing, they only swam to the other side of the pond, just out of photo’s reach.

Enter Seth. He crept up behind the vegetation on that side and started shaking some of the plants and making some bizarre noises that I could only describe as a mix of a wounded duck and disturbed house cat. It did the trick, however, and the wigeons came toward me, at times approaching too close for me to focus, and I was finally able to capture some fine images of this beautiful species.  I couldn’t believe it.  There are those times as a photographer where everything just seems to fall into place.  It is a rare thing, made all the more special for me that I was able to share the experience with my brother on Christmas Day.

I don’t think my family was surprised when I returned soaking wet and covered from head to toe in mud and bits of wetland vegetation, as they have become desensitized to my antics over the years.  I cleaned up and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner.  It was certainly not your most traditional Christmas experience, but a fitting one, and one that I will never forget.

4N1A2168ab

American Wigeon

4N1A2181

American Wigeon

4N1A2226

American Wigeons

A Productive Visit to the Upper Texas Coast

4N1A1035ab

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.

4N1A0129b

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.

4N1A0222

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.

4N1A0325

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.

IMG_7455

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.

IMG_7468

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.

4N1A0443a

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.

4N1A0578

American Bittern

4N1A0918a

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.

4N1A0670

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.

4N1A0928

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.

4N1A0962

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.

4N1A1149a

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.

4N1A0903b

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.

4N1A1085a

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.

4N1A0999a

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.

Finding Paradise in the Bandera Canyonlands

IMG_6516

Hill Country Waterfall

It’s a pilgrimage that many Texans undertake at some point – to see the fall colors of Lost Maples.  Despite living in Texas for over 20 years and extensively exploring all corners of the state, it was a trip I had yet to take.  This year we finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  It would turn out to be an adventure, filled with frustrations and rewards.

Carolina and I left early and made our way to the Bandera Canyonlands, a term used by the nature conservancy to describe the region in the western Hill Country that contains a labyrinth of canyons carved through the limestone over millennia by springfed streams.

We arrived at the Love Creek Preserve in the early afternoon.  We were granted special permission to visit this preserve which has limited public access.  The Love Creek Preserve is another example of the substantial conservation efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Here they succeeded in protecting over 2,500 acres of excellent Hill Country habitat, home to rare plants and animals and numerous Texas endemics.  The preserve also protects several spring-heads which feed tributaries to the Medina River, which ultimately feeds the Edward’s Aquifer.  The Nature Conservancy truly has protected some of the most spectacular places in the Lonestar State.

It was a sunny day, and being early in the afternoon, the conditions were not ideal for photography.  I took my gear along anyway, as one never knows what they might encounter in a place such as this.  I carried my camera atop my tripod as I descended the precarious canyon walls with little difficulty.  I then rock-hopped my way across a wide stream without incident.  Then, after casually stepping on an innocuous boulder I somehow lost my footing and went down hard.  I was extremely unhappy, as Carolina can attest, but not hurt.  Then I looked at my camera, laying lens first in the cobble adjacent to the stream.  I feared the worst.  Miraculously my camera and lens survived unscathed, but my neutral density filter and circular polarizing filter had both been cracked.  I could live without the latter, but the polarizer is a crucial bit of gear for photographing fall color.  I was disheartened, to say the least.

I tried not to let this bad news dampen my enjoyment of the small canyon that we had set out to explore.  Just being in such a place – taking in it’s sights, smells, and sounds, is a joy and a privilege that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  And as the sun drew closer to the top of the canyon walls I was able to capture a sunburst through the leaves of a Bigtooth Maple that quivered in a gentle Autumn breeze.

IMG_6122

Hill Country Canyon

As the daylight faded, we bid farewell to Love Creek, for the time being at least.  Our base camp, so to speak, for the trip was the Cool River Cabin, located on the Native American Seed farm near Junction.  Native American Seed is a fantastic company that grows a huge assortment of native plants and offers seeds and root stock for sale.  They rent out the cabin, which is actually a three bedroom house with two porches and a full kitchen!  It is a short walk from the Llano River, and contains scenic views and abundant wildlife.  I highly recommend staying here!

The next morning we set out to the Caverns of Sonora.  It was one of the more extensive cave tours I’ve taken in Texas cave country, and we marveled at the subterranean formations.  After exploring the caves we spent some time at the Eaton Hill Nature Center in Sonora.  We discovered this little gem by chance, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits which include several live rattlesnakes.

As the shadows grew longer we found ourselves at South Llano River State Park.  A good portion of the park remained closed due to the unprecedented flooding experienced by the region just a month before our visit.  There was still plenty to see, however.  Not long after entering the park we were greeted by a large Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) foraging in a mowed area adjacent to some dense brush.  It was quite focused on its pursuit of dinner, and barely took a second to lift his head long enough for me to fire off a shot.  Armadillos are one of our more entertaining mammals, often allowing for a close approach due to their generally poor senses.  When they do finally realize that there is a perceived threat too close for comfort they will suddenly stop their activity, and bolt off, bounding erratically toward the safety of denser brush.

IMG_6220

Nine-banded Armadillo

We came upon a group of Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) scouring a juniper thicket as the sun vanished behind the distant hills.  These intelligent, expressive birds are a joy to watch as they examine their surroundings.  They seem to display genuine curiosity and approach problem solving with some semblance of enjoyment.  Until recently these were considered Western Scrub Jays, but were split due to genetic evidence that suggest they, as well as the California Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay, and Florida Scrub Jay are distinct species.

There was very little light to work with, and I took the image below at 1600 ISO and 1/200 second.  The resulting image was grainy and softer than I would have liked.  I debated trashing the image, but decided that I liked the texture and colors on the bird, so I tried to clean it up through post processing.  I ended up with an image that i was happy with.  As digital photo processing technology continues to advance, I find myself saving more and more images that I would have otherwise thrown away.

IMG_6370

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

That night, I posed the idea of traveling the three hour round trip from our cabin to a Best Buy in San Antonio to buy a new polarizing filter, and Caro agreed.  I am very fortunate to have a wife that encourages my passions so.  We returned “home” that evening around at around 11 o’clock, with a new polarizing filter that I hoped would help my lens bring out the colors of the canyons.

The next day broke to gray skies.  We were up and out early, packing our things and bidding farewell to the Native American Seed Farm.  Our first destination would be Lost Maples State Natural Area.  This iconic park is extremely popular from mid October through November, particularly on the weekends, which just happens to be when we arrived.  We learned, as we watched vehicle after vehicle pour in, that it had been a less than stellar year for the maples in the park, apparently affected by the heavy rains a month prior.  Many of the leaves had simply turned brown and fallen from the trees.  The park was certainly beautiful, as we hiked along droves of other leaf peepers, but it did not provide that spectacular autumn color that I had hoped for.

Lost Maples gets its name for the relictual populations of Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) that persist in the area.  Once more widespread throughout the region, as the glaciars retreated and the climate in the region warmed and dried, the maples were pushed to moist canyons along sprinfed streams and rivers.

The State Natural Area is not the only place to protect remnant groves of Bigtooth Maples however.  After spending a couple of hours hiking popular trails, we decided to return to Love Creek.  On the way we explored a few county roads to see what we might see.  The morning was cold, with temperatures never leaving the 40s.  The last thing I expected to find was a snake, however that’s exactly what I expected when we saw a group of Black-crested Titmice going crazy just a few feet off the ground.  They were chattering incessantly, crests raised, hopping from branch to branch staring directly at the ground.  Shaking off the cold I approached, and saw a gray and yellow striped serpent stretched out across the ground.

It was a young Baird’s Rat Snake (Pantherophis bairdi), not something I had expected to find here at the eastern edge of their range on such a cold November day.  They are restricted in range to the Trans-Pecos and western Edward’s Plateau of Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico.  They are one of our state’s most beautiful snakes, in my opinion, displaying shades of steely gray, yellow, and orange.  Despite the cold, this individual was feisty, and once disturbed never backed down from his coiled defensive posture.

IMG_6452.jpg

Baird’s Rat Snake

After spending some time in the company of the splendid reptile, we continued onto Love Creek  the sheltered canyons here were displaying spectacular color not seen at Lost Maples.  We marveled at the shades of orange and yellow that glowed like flames brightening the otherwise dreary day.

IMG_6508b

Bigtooth Maples at Love Creek

My friend David Bezanson of the Nature Conservancy told us where we could find a waterfall that drained the crystal clear springfed water of one of the many canyons that cut into the preserve’s limestone bluffs.  It was like an oasis in otherwise semi-arid country.  Mosses and Maiden-hair Fern clung to the rock, kept perpetually moist by spray from the falling waters.  I could imagine the water at the base of the falls stayed cool, clear, and deep even during the height of summer.

IMG_6519

Each angle of the falls provided some unique perspective.  The contrast of the aquamarine waters, the bright green ferns, and the yellows of overhanging witch hazel and orange of distant maples painted a scene that seemed almost impossibly beautiful.

IMG_6522ab

Venturing into the narrow canyon that fed the falls, we found a lush forest that seemed out of place in this region that is knocking on the desert’s door.  Towering trees shaded a thick layer of leaf litter that blanketed scattered boulders and smaller rocks.  Beneath this leaf litter we found several Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula).  Another relict of cooler time, the central Texas populations of P. albagula are isolated from the the main portion of the species’s range by hundreds of miles, with the nearest known populations occurring in southwest Oklahoma.  Genetic analyses may reveal that this disjunct population is in fact a species unto itself.

IMG_6582

Western Slimy Salamanders

The trees here are remarkable as well, and include several other disjunct, relictual species like American Basswood, Chinkapin Oak, and Witch Hazel.  They join the Bigtooth Maples, Lacey Oak, Texas Red Oak, Texas Mountain Laurel, Texas Redbud, and more to create a diverse, layered, closed-canopy forest.

As we ventured deeper into the canyon we found the stream’s source.  Water was literally pouring out from the base of a massive limestone cliff, nourishing verdant Maiden-hair Fern, and what I imagined to be a profusion of spring wildflowers.  The water here is home to an endemic species of neotonic Eurycea.  It was humbling to see the literal source of so much life.

IMG_6600

Water pours from the base of a limestone cliff, fueling a lush, diverse canyon

Deeper into the preserve we found a wider, drier canyon fed by a different spring.  Here the maples were absent, but Texas Red Oak (Quercus buckleyi) provided a splash of color to the scene.  I was truly blown away by the beauty of this place, an area unlike any other in the world.  I don’t proclaim to know if Heaven exists, but in my book, the Bandera Canyonlands are about as close to Heaven on Earth as one can get.

IMG_6666

Bandera Canyonlands

Reflecting on Summer in the Pineywoods

IMG_2657

S-banded Tiger Beetle

With the arrival of our first “real” cold front of the season, and temperatures in the extended forecast barely creeping out of the 60s, I think it’s safe to say that fall has arrived.  The forests are full of fungi and fall-blooming asters.  And just the other day I found several Marbled Salamander, a true harbinger of fall.

But before I set out to bask in the beauty of Autumn, I find myself thinking back to a summer spent in the forests of my home.  This year’s was a particularly hot, dry summer.  After a few years of relatively mild summers, at least in terms of Texas, this one was intense.  Yet even in the midst of heat waves and drought there are natural treasures to be found by those willing to look.

I found one such treasure on a sweltering day in late June.  On the advice of my friend Joe Liggio, author of Wild Orchids of Texas, I went to check on a local population of Crest Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris spicata).  This is a wide ranging species, occurring from Arizona to Florida to Virginia.  In Texas they occur in scattered populations throughout the state, with the most robust populations being in the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, the Edward’s Plateau, and the mountains of the Trans Pecos.  In the Pineywoods they are only known from a few localized populations.  Here they are generally found singly, or in small, scattered clumps.  This year however, we found a huge clump of over 30 stems.

The Crested Coralroot is a non-photosynthesizing mycoheterotroph, meaning that it lacks chlorophyll and has no real leaves to speak of.  It lives out its days a little more than an underground rhizome and small roots that penetrate the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots in order to rob them of a portion of their energy and nutrients.  All that alerts the average forest-goer to their presence is the flesh colored flowering stalk and purple-streaked flowers that emerge all to briefly in the early summer.

IMG_8719WM

Crested Coralroot

Emerging from forest floors rich in decomposing organic material in early June is the Ox Beetle (Strategus aloeus).  These massive coleopterans are among the largest insects in the United States.  The pronotums of males are decorated with three horns that are utilized in combat to win the favor of females.  These massive beetles are familiar visitors to porch and gas station lights on warm, humid, moonless summer nights.

IMG_9046

Male Ox Beetle

Another, much more occasional, visitor to night lights is the assassin bug known as Microtomus purcis.  So named for their tendency to ambush other insects and dispatch them with their long spear-like beak, assassin bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Microtomus purcis is one of the largest, and most striking.  When not visiting man-made lights in errors, they spend much of their time hidden beneath the bark of rotting tree trunks.

IMG_8951.jpg

Microtomus purcis

We spent much of July away from the Pineywoods, visiting the sky islands of West Texas and the beaches of the Upper Texas Coast.  I could not resist, however, seeking out the brilliant orange Platanthera orchids that light up the bog like tiny torches.  There are four species in Texas, however this year I would only photograph two of them.  Interestingly, I would find them both on the same day.

In late July we traveled to the Big Thicket, where deep in a mosquito infested baygall I spotted the brilliant inflorescence of the Crested Fringed Orchid (Platanthera cristata).  This is perhaps the second rarest of our Platanthera species, only known from a few sites in the central and southern Pineywoods.  In Texas they seem to prefer the shaded, highly acidic conditions of forested seeps, occurring either on their margins or interiors.  I have also found them at acidic seeps along springfed streams.  They are generally in the company of a variety of ferns, and other forest seep specialists like Nodding Nixie (Apteria aphylla).  This seemed a good year for them.  I often wonder what triggers an orchid bloom, as some years none will bloom, other years only a handful, and that rare year where many will bloom.  Rainfall no doubt plays some important roll, but as to when the rain should fall to trigger the bloom and what other factors may contribute, I am at a loss.

IMG_0878

Crested Fringed Orchid

After leaving the baygall we traveled east to a wetland pine savannah where we found the enigmatic Chapman’s Fringed Orchid (Platanthera chapmanii).  P. chapmanii occurs in scattered populations in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.  It is believed by many to have arisen from an ancient hybrid of P. cristata and P. cilliaris, seeming to display characteristics of both.  It can be differentiated from the former by its long beard and reflexed lateral sepals.  It differs from the latter by its hooked columns.  In Texas P. chapmanii is known from a few remnant wetland pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.

IMG_0968

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid

IMG_0964

Chapman’s Fringed Orchid in a wetland pine savannah

Growing alongisde the Chapman’s Orchids were a variety of carnivorous plants, including the conspicuous Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata).  The leaves of these carnivores, known as pitchers, are hollow and form long tubes with pools of digestive enzymes at their base.  Unsuspecting insects that enter the pitchers may become trapped in the enzyme soup, where they are slowly digested, nourishing the plants.

IMG_1010

Pitcher Plants in Love

In early August Caro and I found ourselves in pursuit of another orange beauty, the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Uncommon in Texas, the Carolina Lily grows in rich, mature forests, generally on hardwood slopes, though it may occur on rocky slopes dominated by Longleaf Pine.  We actually spotted our first lily of the season growing along a county road in a remnant patch of forest surrounded by pine plantations.

IMG_0899

Carolina Lily

A few days later we went to visit a population that Caro had spotted last year long after antithesis.  This year we found them in full bloom, and even spotted one plant that had three flowers, something I had never seen before.

IMG_1113

Carolina Lily

Carolina maintains our garden, which is full of a variety of native plant species.  A benefit to a diversity of native plants in our yard is that we are able to attract a variety of native pollinators.  And with the pollinators come the predators.  In essence we get to observe the food chain in action every day.  One of my favorite back yard predators is the Widow Skimmer, which stalks the garden and occasionally pauses for a brief photo shoot.

IMG_1234

Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer past-times is wandering along the numerous clear, cold, springfed streams that transect portions of the Pineywoods.  There is so much to see beneath the water, along the banks, and in the surrounding forests.  It was on the banks of one such stream that I spotted these striking red fungi.

IMG_1249

Fungi

Late summer brings with it a peak in tiger beetle activity.  Undisturbed beaches along streams and rivers may literally be swarming with a variety of species, voraciously chasing down any prey item unfortunate enough to get in their path.  One species, the S-banded Tiger beetle (Cicindelidia trifasciata) was historically considered a species of the coast, however in recent years it has been found along waterways hundreds of miles inland.  In the Pineywoods it is now quite common in many areas.

IMG_2613

S-banded Tiger Beetle

IMG_2585

S-banded Tiger Beetle

The Bronzed Tiger Beetle (Cicindela repanda) is a wide-ranging, somewhat variable species.  Their elytra may appear dark brown, coppery, or even golden under the right light conditions.  They are commonly encountered on sandy stream banks and sandbars of streams and rivers.

IMG_2945

Perhaps the most commonly encountered Tiger Beetle in the Pineywoods is the Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindelidia ocellata).  Unlike most species of the Pineywoods, which are characteristically eastern and at the western edge of their range, the Ocellated Tiger Beetle is primarily a species of the southwest and reaches the eastern limit of its range here.

IMG_3250

Ocellated Tiger Beetle

A visit to my good friend James Childress‘s farm is always good for turning up a few invertebrates.  The plants and woodpiles along his cabin harbor rich arachnid diversity, and we are always treated to a wealth of spider sightings.  Perhaps the most entertaining of all of the farm’s eight-legged denizens is the Bold Jumping Spider (Phiddipus audax).

IMG_3198

Bold Jumping Spider

Under a chair on James’s patio we found this large female Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).  Perhaps the most famous/infamous spider in the country, the Black Widow has a reputation of being dangerous and ruthless due to its potent venom and tendency to cannibalize males seeking mating opportunities.  In reality, they are docile, gentle creatures disinclined to bite.

IMG_3105

Black Widow

As August turned to September, my friend Scott Wahlberg spotted something truly remarkable.  Deep in a mature hardwood stream bottom he caught a glimpse of a massive Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that we estimated to be pushing five feet in length and as thick as my upper arm.  Finding this snake was a reminder that all manner of fantastic creatures are hidden deep in the forest, many of which will never be seen by visitors to their woodland realm. We were fortunate, however, to see one of these elusive forest spirits.  In a time and place when so many seem determined to wipe these beautiful animals out based on unfounded fears and ignorance, it is nothing short of incredible that this snake would live long enough to attain such an impressive size. Spending a moment with this gentle giant truly was a gift from the forest.

IMG_3045

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Back at James’s farm the hummingbirds had arrived in force.  South-bound Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) begin arriving in the Pineywoods in late summer.  Dozens of these tiny aerial acrobats were fighting for position among James’s feeders, eager to refuel and prepare for the continued journey south.

IMG_3320

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Many shorebirds also pass through the Pineywoods in East Texas as they migrate south.  In early September while laying flat on a river sandbar photographing tiger beetles I caught a blur of motion our of the corner of my eye. Slowly I turned my head to focus on this new distraction, and saw that it was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularis) darting back and forth in pursuit of invertebrate prey. Though the bird was only about 25 feet away, it was still too far for my macro to reach. Slowly I crept backwards, and then made my way to my truck to seek out my telephoto lens. I could only hope that the tiny hunter would stick around. As I retreated I watched the shorebird make several mad dashes in the area I had just left, undoubtedly snatching up some of the tiger beetles I had just been observing.

I made it to the truck and equipped my bird lens. I then cautiously made my way back to the sandbar. At first I couldn’t see the sandpiper, but after some time it became visible behind a small rise in the sand, tail a-bobbing. I got into the water and laid flat, trying to conceal as much as my form as possible. I slowly moved toward my quarry, and found it to be surprisingly tolerant. Most shorebirds are in their basic, or non-breeding plumage this time of year. In the Spotted Sandpiper, I find this look to be just as striking as its breeding plumage, particularly the fine details on the wing coverts.

I watched the sandpiper through my lens as it moved up and down the edge of the sandbar, stalking and pouncing on prey, and flipping leaves and other bits of cover to see what tasty morsels might lie beneath. After it had scoured most of the sandbar’s perimeter it took off upriver, flying southward with its characteristic erratic wingbeats. I was left with a few images and a fine memory of an unexpected encounter of the best kind.

IMG_3883

Spotted Sandpiper on the prowl

IMG_3872

Spotted Sandpiper

IMG_3868

Spotted Sandpiper

I can’t say that I’ll miss the summer heat, but I will miss many of the familiar species that vanish for the year as summer turns to autumn.  I can’t be too sad, however, as each season in the Pineywoods has a unique cast of characters, and each year I look forward to seeing familiar faces and those that I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in these wonderful, diverse forests.

Birds and Blooms along the Upper Texas Coast

IMG_8222

Reddish Egret

Thunder rumbled in the distance as anvil-shaped storm clouds rose to the west of the Bolivar Peninsula.  I sighed in frustration; not because I disliked these May storms that form along the Gulf, but rather because the magic hour of perfect photographic light had just begun, and the clouds were soon to blot out the sun, leaving the beach cloaked in grey.  Desperately I searched for a subject to make the most of the few minutes of usable light that remained.  Soon I spotted one of my favorite birds, a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) standing stoic in the surf.  Quickly I dropped to the sand, laying belly flat in an attempt to meet this special wading bird on its level.  Just as I set my lens on it I noticed that the world was rapidly darkening as the wispy margins of the storm clouds drifted in front of the sun.  What I found, however, was that this thin veil of clouds actually created a very special light that seemed to paint the egret.  I managed to take advantage of a window of less than a minute before the cloud’s dense heart crossed over the sun, robbing the evening of any further photographic opportunities, and captured the image above.

Before the clouds’ arrival I did manage to capture a few images of other avian beach dwellers.  American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) were plentiful.  It was the end of May now, and many shorebirds are still making their leisurely journeys northward as their summer breeding grounds gradually thaw.  I consider avocets to be one of our most beautiful shorebirds, particularly when their heads and necks are painted burnt orange in their alternate plumage.

IMG_8026

American Avocets

A variety of “peeps” were still present, and we spotted Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and a few Western Sandpipers.  Also present were several Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus).  The latter allowed for a fairly close approach as it probed the wet sand for worms and other invetebrates.

IMG_8183

Semipalmated Plover

Though they seem scarce along much of the coast, Reddish Egrets are quite common on this stretch of the Upper Texas Coast.  They are perhaps the most entertaining feathered-thing around, and I laid for several minutes watching them perform their elaborate predatory dances.  They seemed random yet choreographed in their movements, as if putting on some performance as they skipped and danced across the shallow water’s surface, stirring up tiny fish and fanning their wings above them, confusing their prey and shading them to make them more visible at the same time.

IMG_8069

Reddish Egret Hunting

img_8093

Reddish Egret Hunting

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) were also out in force.  Many had completed molting into their breeding plumage and were truly a sight to behold.

IMG_7814

Ruddy Turnstone

This stretch of beach is an important breeding ground for Least Terns (Sterna antillarum), a species of conservation concern.  Here they block off the main breeding area in order to protect the fragile nests, which are little more than scrapes in the sand.  The terns’ breeding efforts were kicking into high gear during our visit, and we were fortunate enough to be bombarded by several pairs that felt we were getting too close to their precious offspring, still developing within their calcium carbonate shells.

IMG_7944

Least Tern

We left the beach as dusk was closing in and the Ghost Crabs left the safety of their burrows to scavenge the shore.  Caro and I watched an impressive display of lightning ahead of us, and before long the storm overtook us.  It was impressive and violent, a striking contrast to the serenity of the bird-filled beach.  Perhaps it is these contrasts – tranquility and exhilaration – that keep drawing us back to the coast.

The next day we found ourselves in the Columbia Bottomlands of Fort Bend County.  These seemingly out of place forests of ancient oaks and elms harbor staggering biodiversity including many species that are rare to uncommon elsewhere.  One such species is the Texas Pinkroot (Spigelia texana).  These dainty forbs are endemic to moist woodlands and prairie remnants in southeast Texas, with a few specimens known from isolated locations further north and west in the state.

IMG_8312

Texas Pinkroot

IMG_8364

Texas Pinkroot

Growing nearby were several Aquatic Milkweeds (Asclepias perennis).  This species is sporadically encountered in East Texas, though it seems most common in these bottomlands near the coast.

IMG_8541

Aquatic Milkweed

The Columbia Bottomlands are also home to a diversity of birdlife.  In the shallow waters of an ancient oxbow off the Brazos River we observed Anhingas, Great and Snowy Egrets, Great, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, White Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Common Gallinules, and more.  Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas called from the trees lining the water’s edge and the call of a Barred Owl rang out in the distance.  Perhaps the most spectacular of all was the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), which dazzled us with its seemingly impossible sheen of iridescent blue and green.

IMG_8456

Purple Gallinule

In early July we found ourselves back on the coast.  This trip we spent more time on the beach and in the shops in Galveston, however we found ourselves in the saltmarsh of Galveston Island State Park during the final hour of daylight.  Here I struggled to capture images of Black-necked Stilts, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.  At the end of the day I found myself instead pursuing one of the most familiar coastal birds – the Willet (Tringa semipalmata).  Though common and by many accounts “drab”, I set out to capture an interesting image of these charismatic shorebirds.  I laid belly-flat in the mud and scanned the landscape to try and formulate a plan as hordes of mosquitoes drained my blood.  Soon, as I watched a Willet approach, I developed a concept in my head.  I framed the shot by turning my lens to an open patch of mud in front of me, and utilized the Salicornia and other halophytic vegetation in order to create a blurred foreground and background that I hoped would make the bird pop.  I lucked out as the bird moved into the frame and called out its displeasure, likely to my proximity to its nest or chicks I imagined.  And with some luck and patience, I captured the image below.

IMG_9246a

Willet

Each trip to the coast brings with it some new adventure and opportunity to witness a unique natural beauty not found elsewhere in the state.  It also offers some of our state’s best photographic opportunities, particularly for birds.  I look forward to many future trips, and hope that I may continue to document in some way the very special plants, animals, and natural communities that can be found there.

Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

IMG_4486

A Brown-headed Nuthatch perches on the branch of a Longleaf Pine

Dawn in the longleaf is a magical thing – as the first rays of light filter through outstretched needles, casting long shadows over broad expanses of Little Bluestem and Eastern Gamagrass.  The air is clean and still as the savannah comes to life.  First with the familiar calls of the Prairie Warbler and Indigo Bunting.  Occasionally the buzzy trill of a Bachman’s Sparrow and the drumming of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers sounds in the distance.  There is one sound, however, that seems strangely out of place.  I remember the first time I heard it; I found myself looking around to see if there was some dog wrestling with a chew toy.  It was a set of high pitched squeaks, generally occurring in pairs.  The best thing I could liken it to was someone squeezing a rubber ducky.

It was, of course, the song of the Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla).  This tiny songbird is an inhabitant of pine forests of the southeastern United States.  It’s range generally follows the coastal plain from the Delmarva Peninsula to East Texas.  Though it may be found in a variety of open pine-dominated woodlands, and even parks with scattered mature pines in the vicinity, it’s preferred habitat is the longleaf pine savannah.  This becomes clear when comparing the range of the nuthatch and the iconic southern pine.

Brown-headed_Nuthatch-rangemap

Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

1024px-Pinus_palustris_range_map

Longleaf Pine Range (Image from Wikipedia)

Brown-headed Nuthatches are cavity nesters and may be secondary excavators (utilizing existing cavities and modifying them to their liking) or weak primary excavators (creating their own cavities in sufficiently soft parent material).  Males select the nest site, and generally prefer large standing snags.  They will, however, compromise, and I have seen them nesting in holes at joints in wooden fences.  They then line their cavities with soft materials such as feathers, dead grass, and pine straw.

IMG_4267

A Brown-headed Nuthatch peers from its cavity

Nesting begins early in the year.  In East Texas they are often working on preparing their cavities by mid to late February.  A most interesting aspect of this nuthatch’s natural history is that it will often display cooperative breeding, a trait relatively rare among songbirds.  In a cooperative breeding system, offspring may remain in their parents’ territory for a year or more in order to help raise younger siblings.  These helpers will aid in defending territory, maintaining cavities, and gathering food for their altricial siblings.  This may be a benefit, evolutionarily speaking, as it allows these helpers to ensure that their genetic material persists by raising their siblings to maturity at a time when they themselves lack the strength and experience to pass on their genes the traditional way – by establishing their own territories, finding a mate, and successfully raising offspring.

IMG_4359a

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Small invertebrates make up the majority of the Brown-headed Nuthatch’s diet.  They bounce from tree to tree, scanning the bark for any tasty morsel unfortunate to find itself in the tiny predator’s path.  They may glean insects from branches or use their narrow, piercing beaks to seek out spiders hiding in the cracks of the bark.  However these are no ordinary hunters.  Nuthatches have been observed utilizing tools, breaking off tiny flakes of bark with their beaks and using them as leverage to pry up larger pieces of bark in search of well-hidden pray.

IMG_4379

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Though they remain common in many areas of the southeast, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has not been immune to the widespread loss of longleaf pine savannahs and other mature pine-dominated habitats over the past two centuries.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates a decline in detections along its routes of almost 25% in the past 50 years.  In East Texas they remain locally common in areas where large pines and open understories persist.  This is a species that may benefit from some forestry practices, such as prescribed burning, periodic thinnings, and leaving seed and shelterwood trees during final harvest.  As long as these sustainable practices are utilized, and large protected tracts of mature longleaf pine savannahs and other open pine-dominated woodlands remain, the outlook for this quirky, fascinating species in East Texas looks promising.

IMG_4492

Brown-headed Nuthatch

I photographed these special songbirds this spring with the help of my good friend James Childress, who set out in search of these birds with me and graciously lent me his 600mm lens.  Without the zoom and image quality of that lens, these photos would have never been possible.