Brilliant Birds on the Move
May 6, 2016 ~ Spring Migration brings a lot of colorful birds across our coastal areas. After a 600-mile, 18 hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico the wooded migrant traps such as High Island, Lafitte's Cove and Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary are stopping places for the colorful tiny, flitting birds. And all the binocular birders plus the big gun photographers show up to greet them. We have been out chasing these little jewels for the last few weeks with varying degrees of success.
I did get a good photo of the one I wanted the most on one of our first trips out. After this one, the rest were just gravy.
Painted Buntings are actually members of the Cardinal family, but are so colorful and special, they seem to be in a class of their own. And you would be surprised how well all those colors camouflage this tiny bird. They do breed in Texas, but not along the coast. For a cool look at the occurrence of Painting Buntings, look at this from eBird.
They are seed eaters and are often found on the ground. This one was working on the seeds of some stalky bushes so I was able to get him up and perched nicely. I set up my tripod between my friend Dennis Sweetman and the best boyfriend EVAH Bill Maroldo and we all focused on this same bird. And took photos until he flew away.
Another splash of color that passes through our coastal area is the Scarlet Tanager. This one was gorging on mulberries in an open field at Lafitte's Cove. A lot of birds like mulberries; I even looked at planting a bush in my yard, but... they are kind of a sprawling, unattractive mess for a suburban yard.
Now, I did get excited about this one as the Golden Winged Warbler was a new bird for me. He has come up from the coffee plantations of Central and South America and is on his way to the northeastern parts of the US. Thanks to a helpful binocular birder at Lafitte's Cove for identifying this one.
Notice this is taken at ISO 2000 and with a really slow shutter speed. It is dark under the trees at the drip and my Sony A77II does not handle high ISOs as well as I would like. Bill can shoot much higher ISOs with his Nikon and I encourage my fellow photographers to try higher settings to avoid the fatal flaw of underexposure.
Truthfully, I liked the set up last year at Lafitte's much better for photography. This year they put in another drip and more benches for seemingly better access, but the second drip is over a depression and hides the birds as they perch or bathe. And the elevated drip is not used much by the birds.
This is a Worm-eating Warbler. Bill and I discussed getting a petition up to change the name of this little guy. True, he eats mostly caterpillars, but still.. what an ugly name for a rather nicely marked bird. I read that it also eats slugs so it could be worse. Taken at Lafitte's Cove.
Not a warbler but another colorful bird passing through is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The male is very striking with a red chevron chest while the female is a quiet streaked brown. We found several hanging around a feeder at Quintana and I was astonished how orderly and polite they were. These birds waited patiently for their turn instead of the free-for-all you see with sparrows and doves. Sometimes the grosbeak males still look scruffy as they are growing in their breeding plumage.
Another bird in transition is this Blue Grosbeak. This is probably a first year male as the juveniles are brown like the females. I was not too sure of the identification of this one, but there are plenty of binocular birders around the hot spots to help you out. Blue Grosbeaks are summer residents and breed in the eastern and western parts of Texas, but not along the coast. The birds are heavily parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their own eggs in the grosbeak’s nests. And this happens to over 200 other species of birds.
One theory is that Cowbirds followed cattle to eat insects stirred up by herds and laid their eggs in other bird's nests since they couldn't stay in one place long enough to raise their offspring. Whatever the reason (and Cattle Egrets follow herds too but manage to build nests and rear their own young) brood parasitism is a highly successful strategy for everyone but the hosts.
Here is a male Blue Grosbeak with just a few brownish feathers left around his head. The females are cinnamon brown, but I haven't seen one yet. It is not unusual for males to migrate first and stake out a territory to be ready when the females show up. We saw that earlier at High Island with many male Snowy Egrets terrorizing the other males for space and dominance.
Last year I only saw ONE Indigo Bunting and he was huddled against a brick wall and way too far away for a shot. Just this week we were packing up to leave Lafitte's Cove and noticed some activity in the woods next to where we had parked. Turned out to be a small flock of Indigo Buntings, males and females with a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks as well feeding on the ground. A Northern Cardinal pair showed up, a hummingbird and periodically noisy Grackles ran everyone off. But they came back and we took photos until the light was about exhausted.
So, yes the itty-bitty flitty birds are beautiful and a real challenge since they move around a lot. Often they are in deep shadows and there are always sticks and leaves to get in the way. I end up taking a lot of images and deleting most of them; obstructions, poor head angle or too noisy from high ISOs. But, still there is a magnetic pull when you realize a strong north wind might yield good photo opportunities or you hear about great sightings at the hot spots. After all, Spring Migration only lasts a few weeks.
Have you seen any new birds in your yard? Any flashes of yellow or red? Did I mention I have a White-winged Dove sitting on a nest in my Chinese Tallow tree? Let me know in the comments below.