Rubber Duckies in the Longleaf

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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.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch Range (Image from Wikipedia)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 1: The Birds

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Altamira Oriole

At first they appeared as flashes of brilliance – blurs of orange, blue, and green darting through the drab brush country.  It was when we sat still and silent that they revealed themselves to us.  A spectacular cast of avian characters emerged from the dense vegetation.  All around us Green Jays croaked and bobbed.  Plain Chachalacas switched between the earth and low hanging branches.  Only occasionally would an Altamira Oriole appear, descending from the tree tops for a brief moment, it’s bright orange plumage demanding our attention.  The trill of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker broke our concentration, competing with the Great Kiskadee for the loudest call in the thornscrub.

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The Rio Grande Valley of Texas attracts birders from around the world.  A suite of characteristically Latin American species reach the northern limit of their range here.  This subtropical paradise is a naturalist’s playground.  Ecologically speaking, it shares more in common with Mexico than the rest of the Lonestar State.  When Carolina and I began discussing our South Texas vacation with our close friends James and Erin, birds were certainly one of the main targets that we planned the trip around.

Followers of my blog may remember previous posts where I talked about borrowing James’s 600mm lens for bird photography.  Fortunately another of my generous friends (and one of the finest photographers and naturalists that I know), Seth Patterson, offered to lend me his 500mm lens and teleconverters for the trip.  Though he is an excellent bird photographer, recently Seth is more focused on contributing to the “Meet Your Neighbours” project.  Armed with this new gear, James and I would be able to pursue our photographic targets at the same time, and wouldn’t have to worry about missing a shot.

This post contains some of the avian highlights of our trip, which spanned the diverse Lower Rio Grande Valley, from barrier islands and salt marshes, through ancient palm forests into the unforgiving Tamaulipan Thornscrub.

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While there are many South Texas species on the top of birders’ wish lists, perhaps the most famous is the Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas).  They range from southern Texas through Mexico into northern South America.  Intelligent, inquisitive birds, they are a common sight in the brush country.

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Green Jay

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Green Jay

The Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis) is the largest “true” oriole.  It takes these striking birds two years to attain their adult plumage, with first year birds being generally duller and lacking the bold black back and wings.  Altamira Orioles build pendant nests, which hang from tree branches.

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Altamira Oriole Adult

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First Year Altamira Oriole

Smaller and less commonly encountered than the Altamira Oriole is the Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda).  They too barely enter the United States in southern Texas.  The Audubon’s Oriole is poorly understood, with few data on their natural history.  What little data are available indicate that they may be on the decline, likely due to a combination of habitat loss and nest parasitism by increasing populations of Brown-headed Cowbirds.

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Audubon’s Oriole

Another species that South Texas visitors get excited about is the Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)  This boisterous flycatcher makes its home in resacas and riparian corridors.  I’ve been fortunate enough to observe this bird in South Texas, Costa Rica, and northern Argentina.  It certainly has one of the broadest ranges of any New World songbird.  Interestingly, both the English and Spanish names for this bird are onomatopoeas.  Kisk-a-DEE in English, and Bent-e-VEO in Spanish.  In Argentina it was locally known as “bicho feo” (ugly critter), both because this phrase also sounds like its call, and because its obnoxious vocalizations were enough to drive local communities sharing the Kiskadee’s territory crazy.

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Great Kiskadee

While enjoying an intimate view of the valley’s avifauna from the comfort of a bird blind, we witnessed an incredible moment.  The blind was especially productive, with several Green Jays, White-tipped Doves, Plain Chachalacas, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Northern Cardinals.  The occassional Altamira Oriole, Great Kiskadee, and Lincoln’s Sparrow would appear.  In an instant all of the birds scattered.  We could hear their wings cut through the still air as they vanished in a hurry.  The Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula) retreated to some higher branches and began chattering furiously, sharply focused on the brush below.  It was at that moment that we noticed a series of small black blotches moving through the vegetation: the spotted pelage of a Bobcat as it slinked away, unsuccessful in its hunt.

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Plain Chachalaca vocalizing at a Bobcat

The Plain Chachalaca is a large chicken-like bird that skulks in the understory and forest floor.  They are social birds, generally found in small groups as they forage for fruits, seeds, and similar food sources.  Like the kiskadee, they are named for their raucous call.

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Plain Chachalaca

The White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) also barely enters the United States in South Texas.  Though they are most frequently observed foraging on the ground in the shade of the dense underbrush, they would occasionally perch on low-hanging limbs.

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White-tipped Dove

Ranging deeper into the United States than the previously mentioned species, the Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus) none-the-less, is one of the more range-restricted species that we observed during our trip.  It occurs from central Mexico through central and western Texas to extreme southwestern Oklahoma.

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Black-crested Titmouse

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) is much more widespread, occurring throughout much of Central America and the southwestern United States.  Pictured below is a male, identifiable by its red crown.

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Travelling west into western Hidalgo and Starr Counties, the landscape begins to transition from forested brushland to a mix of thornscrub and desert scrub.  Here we were serenaded by Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) as we looked for the succulent plants that lend this large wren its name.  Erin spotted one particularly cooperative individual that sat atop the developing buds of a prickly pear and sang for several minutes.

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Cactus Wren

The ubiquitous Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is ever-present in the valley.  I remember on a previous trip, 10 years ago or more with my family, a couple from western Canada excitedly proclaimed that they had just seen one of the “red jays”.  It was one of the birds they were most excited to see during their trip.  It’s easy to take the common birds for granted, but the Northern Cardinal really is a beautiful species.  The generally duller female has a subtle beauty that makes for a fine image.

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Northern Cardinal

Resacas are shallow ponds and wetlands that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, most of which have formed in old oxbow scars of the Rio Grande.  The term “resaca” apparently originated from a corruption of rio seco, Spanish for “dry river”.  It also means hangover (at least in Argentina).  These Resacas are home to a variety of interesting bird species.  Green and Ringed Kingfishers fish from their banks, and Least Grebes and Masked Ducks breed here.  They are also an important habitat for wintering waterfowl.  We observed several species of duck here, including Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata).

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Cinnamon Teal

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Green-winged Teal

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Northern Shoveler

James and I spent one morning on our bellies in the tidal flats along the Gulf of Mexico.  We took advantage of the calm, shallow water to photograph foraging shorebirds and wading birds.  There were also large groups of Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers Present.  After a while I had sand all over everything.  All over me, all over my camera.  So many grains of sand became trapped in the buttons of my camera that the shutter button became stuck in a depressed position.  As soon as I turned the camera on it would begin firing in rapid succession.  I was unable to change any settings.  Unfortunately as a result I missed some opportunities for shots of Marbled Godwits and a few other species.  Fortunately I was able to capture a few images prior to this malfunction, like this Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) on the hunt for invertebrates.

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Short-billed Dowitcher

Perhaps my favorite of the long-legged wading birds, the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) is an uncommon species that appears to be on the decline.  They are closely tied to coastal habitats, and most population estimates put the number of birds at less than 10,000 pairs globally.

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Reddish Egret

These handsome birds put on a truly spectacular show as they forage in the shallows.  They are famous for their graceful, acrobatic hunting technique. They seemingly dance upon the shallow water, running, turning, and waving their wings in a way that seems at the same time chaotic and choreographed. This technique startles small fish in the shallows, and the egrets will then cup their wings over their head to shade out the sun so that they may more easily spot their quarry.

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Reddish Egret oh the hunt

Fortunately, with the help of a needle and some compressed air, I was able to get the sand out of my shutter button, and captured many memorable photographs during our short time in the valley.  While we observed many spectacular landscapes and organisms on our trip, our time spent with the birds was truly special, and I’ll always cherish the memories of chasing after them, camera in hand.

How To: Bluebird Photography

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Eastern Bluebird Male

For the past several years I’ve been collecting images for a book I hope to publish on the natural history of the Pineywoods.  I have set out to capture images of species both common and rare, and those unknown and iconic.  Some of our more iconic birds, however, can be difficult to capture in a natural setting.

Take one of our most iconic American birds, the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), for example.  This member of the thrush family can be found open areas, such as pastures, fallow fields, rural residences, golf courses, etc. provided that there are at least some trees in the vicinity.  They are most often seen perched on fence posts, telephone wires, or similar human constructs.  For my book, however, I wanted to capture them in a setting that would mimic their habitat prior to human settlement.

Before I get into how we went about creating the images, I would like to share a little information on my subject.  The story of the Eastern Bluebird is a long an interesting one, filled with ups and downs. Historic accounts indicate that as the first settlers pushed into the bluebird’s habitat they were restricted to open pine savannahs, mature woodlands with open understories, prairie inclusions within broader expanses of forests, and similar habitats. The bluebird likely benefited from the these early settlers, as they cleared small patches of forests, resulting in an increase of the open habitat preferred by the birds.

Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they nest in cavities that have already been excavated by primary cavity nesters like woodpeckers. Historically they would have selected abandoned tree cavities. Unfortunately for the bluebird, in the late 19th century two invasive cavity nesters, the European Starling and the House Sparrow, were introduced from the Old World. They quickly proliferated and outcompeted native Bluebirds for cavity sites.

As the 20th century wore on land conversion continued, and in increased urbanization eliminated the habitats that the bluebird, and so many other species depend on. The one-two punch of habitat loss and competition from the invading cavity nesters caused a sharp decline in bluebird populations, until by the 1970s naturalists noted that they had become exceedingly scarce.

Around this time bluebird boxes began to gain in popularity, and landowners who were enthralled by the striking beauty of the little thrushes established “bluebird trails” on their property. Bluebird boxes are crafted in a way that they are unsuitable for use by European Starlings. This, coupled with increased environmental awareness and regulations enacted to protect native wildlife, has resulted in a steady increase in bluebird populations. Today this iconic species is once again a common sight throughout much of the American countryside.

Armed with the knowledge of their historic habitat, James and I set out to capture them in a naturalistic setting.  James has a large group of bluebirds that utilize the bluebird trail around the cabin on his ranch.  We looked around the area for ideas to create suitable natural perches, and came across a Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata), its branches laden with pine cones.  Similar to its cousin the Longleaf Pine, shortleaf often occurred in open, occassionally savannah-like uplands alongside scattered oaks and hickories.  I speculate that in their old growth condition, these forests would have been ideal Eastern Bluebird habitat.

So we selected some prime looking shortleaf boughs and fastened them to the back of the bluebird boxes and adjacent fence posts.  We then set up a portable blind and waited.  Once again James lent me his Canon 600mm lens.  A note on the photo below, following our photo session I forgot to take an image of the setup, so I asked James to grab one for me the next time he was at his property.  When he set out to do so he realized that his cows had pulled down all of our perches.  He set them back up the best he could, and the setup in the image is essentially the same as the one we used to capture the image.

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Bluebird Photography Setup

We waited for some time before the male bluebird came in to check on his box.  Almost immediately he landed on one of the perches.  Excitedly I rattled off a series of shots and as soon as he had arrived, he hopped down to the fence.

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Eastern Bluebird Male

Ecstatic that our idea had worked so effectively, we anticipated that any moment he would hop back up onto one of the perches for more opportunities, but instead he just sat on the fence.  Occasionally he went to examine his nest box, but soon returned to the fence or to forage on the ground nearby.  After a while a female and a few of last year’s offspring showed up.  They were much more willing to land on the perches than the showier mature male.

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Eastern Bluebird Female

Eventually he did return to some of the perches, each time providing us a few seconds to try and craft an image.  Though a setup like this requires a lot patience and downtime in the blind, ultimately it paid off with the type of images I was seeking.  If we can find a way to keep the cows from pulling down the perches, I think these limbs can also provide some benefit to the bluebirds.  Perhaps they will provide a better means to survey their territory, and attract invertebrates to provide an easy meal to their future offspring.  Either way, I’m happy for the opportunity to provide a glimpse into what the life of the Eastern Bluebird may have been like before the hand of man changed the landscape forever.

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Eastern Bluebird Male

Back to my Roots: Fun with Bird Photography

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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.

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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).

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Ring-necked Duck

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Black Skimmer

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Blue Jay

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

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Tufted Titmouse

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

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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.

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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.

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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.