Warbler Wonderland

Warbler Wonderland

Spring migration is in full swing and all the birders are ecstatic. And the Texas coast is a premier landing place for those birds that fly across the Gulf of Mexico or up the coast from their wintering locations. One of the most informative web resources is Cornell's BirdCast for all the latest news on what birds are expected, wind directions and analysis.

The colorful little birds will stop over here to feed and rest if they encounter rain or a north wind; otherwise they will continue on to their breeding grounds. Bill Maroldo and I made two trips to one of the best stop overs, Lafitte's Cove on Galveston Island in hopes of seeing some warblers.

And it was wonderful. 

 

There are enormous McMansions all around the canals and the nature preserve sits in the middle. It is well maintained and The Place to go for warblers this time of year. Back in the oaks is a water drip with just a bit of foliage cleared out to watch the birds. There are a couple of benches for binocular birders; tripod photographers have to set up behind and shoot over their heads. It gets really crowded. You can't leave or you lose your spot. 

There are signs proclaiming "Quiet Zone" and everyone whispers or talks low as to not scare the birds. It is hysterical to hear 'spirited' arguments over bird IDs conducted at low levels. An extremely intense experience as these birds are migratory; you have limited chances to see and photograph the visitors. 

So what did I see? Too many for one report so today's post will be about warblers with orange colors. There were quite a few.

American Redstart just after a bath at the water drip - Laffite's Cove Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/200 sec ISO 3200

American Redstart just after a bath at the water drip - Laffite's Cove

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/200 sec ISO 3200

This was a totally new bird for me, the American Redstart. For the most part, warblers eat insects. And insects often move around fast. So, this halloween-colored bird seems to be in constant motion. He had just splashed around in the pool below and stayed still long enough for this shot. 

Redstarts are long distance migrants; this one probably wintered in Mexico or Central America and will travel on to the western US or Canada. The Redstarts that winter in the northern part of South America head for the Eastern US and Canada. 

And something else I learned about the Redstarts. The males might have two mates at the same time. After the first mating and the female is incubating the eggs, he attracts a new female and holds two separate territories. 

Imagine that! The strategies birds have evolved are amazing.

Male American Restart showing off his tail Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

Male American Restart showing off his tail

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

Another interesting fact about Redstarts is the 'tail flash' to startle insects and improve their chances of catching a tasty bug. I tried to get a flashing one when he was facing me, but no such luck. 

An aside here about photography at Lafitte's Cove. It is a huge wooded area with tall oaks and deciduous trees. A lot of thick shrubs, vines and other light blocking foliage. It is dark in there except for the times the sun peaks through the leaves. And there is a plethora of natural obstructions that spoil your shots. When you are dealing with low light you have a constant trade off between:

  • high ISOs = noisy photos
  • wide open aperture = shallow depth of field
  • slow shutter speeds = action shots are blurry

It is a balancing act as the light does change... often. A tripod is a must if you are going to shoot at 1/160 sec which is the slowest speed I think I attempted.

Male Bay-breasted Warbler at Lafitte's Cove Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/160 sec ISO 3200

Male Bay-breasted Warbler at Lafitte's Cove

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/160 sec ISO 3200

This was an exciting bird to see again, a Bay-breasted Warbler. The one above is a male; the females are a paler version with more olive green. I might have seen a female - at one point there were several different species around the drip and it was hard to know where to focus. I know, such a problem!

I saw one of these Bay-breasted Warblers on my first High Island adventure with Bill Maroldo at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge after the front came through. I was so excited to photograph him: totally exhausted, hiding a bush and chomping on a big bug. 

Gray Catbird has rusty tail feathers on the underside Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

Gray Catbird has rusty tail feathers on the underside

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

In between warblers coming to the drip, we were treated to a lot of Gray Catbirds. I didn't hear these make any noises, but supposedly the calls sound like a cat. He is a migrant as well; from the maps they breed across the eastern and central US. 

If this photo looks familiar, Bill posted one on Facebook that is almost identical. You should know we often stand side-by-side and have the same cameras, the Sony A77II. Only he uses a Sony f/4 500mm with a 1.4xTC and I use the Sony 70-400 G2 telephoto lens.

The differences? His photos have an equivalent focal length of 1050mm and mine are 600mm, so his birds fill more of the frame. His rig weighs about twice as much as mine and costs over four times as much. But, my minimum focus distance is around 6 feet, he can't be closer than 13 feet. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler giving me the eye Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 3200

Chestnut-sided Warbler giving me the eye

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 3200

This Chestnut-sided Warbler moves around in brushy habitats eating insects from the undersides of leaves or darting out like a flycatcher. This one was fairly cooperative as I have 69 shots. Some of them moved in and out of the drip area so fast you could only get off a few shots. 

It was fun. Often there was a serious birder sitting in front with a well-marked field identification book that would quietly call out the name of the new bird in the area. 

Blackburnian Warbler at Lafitte's Cove Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

Blackburnian Warbler at Lafitte's Cove

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/250 sec ISO 1000

I got the most excited about this Blackburnian Warbler. You know I spend most of my photographic time on waders and shorebirds but seeing one of these brilliant black-and-orange warblers just takes your breath away.

He was a fast moving flash and will soon leave us. We are just a stop-over on his journey from the highlands of Peru and Venezuela to the northern US. 

What is so amazing is most of these colorful birds weigh no more than 0.4 to 0.6 ounces. That is 11 to 17g for my metrically-knowledgeable readers. And each year they make this arduous round trip. Most songbirds migrate at night and the Texas coast is a hugely important rest stop and food source for those coming from Mexico and the northern part of South America.

Recently, ornithologists have been fitting birds with geolocators to map their journeys. Take a moment to read (or at least look at the map) The amazing 1,600-mile, open-water migration of half-ounce songbirds

Next time I will show you some of the yellow warblers I found at Lafitte's Cove.

Have you seen any flashes of orange in your backyard? The Baltimore Orioles have been spotted in neighborhoods and I have seen Robins in my patio. Let me know in the comments below. 

Photo Art

Photo Art

Little Rookery

Little Rookery