Painted Buntings

Summer is an oppressive season in southeast Texas.  Long days allow heat to build up–it can be nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit well after sunset–and the humidity doesn’t letup. If northerners are snowbound in winter, we’re sunbound in summer. We visited the Ecuadorean Amazon recently, where it was cool sometimes (cold, even), days were much shorter, wind pollination was refreshingly absent (or rare), and where one stands much less of a chance of being swarmed by mosquitoes than in summertime wildernesses of the temperate zone.

However, despite the unpleasantness of the season, one can still experience the beauty of nature here, as I found out less than two weeks ago when I saw a male painted bunting for the very first time. Ironically, I’ve lived within its breeding range for most of my life but never birded within its habitat during summer.  (Also ironic: I saw it only ten minutes from where I grew up!)

If one rises early enough and travels to its breeding grounds–a shrubby, overgrown prairie with not too few and not too many small- or medium-sized trees–then one might see a male painted bunting in a treetop, head thrown back, singing its lovely song.  It might even fly from treetop to treetop, singing at each location, as did the males I observed–a magical experience!  Here are a couple photos I took of one of them:

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In May, during the tail end of spring migration, I also saw a playful, beautifully green, female painted bunting in a nearby marsh.  I was observing a female indigo bunting when the female painted suddenly appeared and landed on the same stalk of grass, making them both drop down.  The indigo flew off, but the painted remained nearby.  Here’s the quick photo I took of it:

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An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

tanager by christine casas
Male scarlet tanager photographed by Christine Casas at Boy Scout Woods on 4/29/17.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” – Evelyn Underhill

Last Sunday, my girlfriend, two friends, and I had a remarkable experience in High Island, TX:  a quiet Sunday morning hike in coastal woods slowly transitioned from seeming “birdlessness” to finding ourselves literally surrounded by tens of migrant bird species just-arrived from Central and South America.  It felt like a Big Bang of birdlife; it felt as though God had just decreed, let there be birds.  We were in the midst of a “fallout” of songbirds precipitated by a storm the night before and by abatement of the south wind that had previously allowed them to skip the island entirely.

At Boy Scout Woods (BSW), the warblers trickled in slowly at first.  We saw male birds almost exclusively the entire weekend–in many species, males migrate first–indicating that females may be seen in the next week or two.  A hooded warbler started the show by appearing suddenly at Prothonotary Pond, then a magnolia warbler and a northern waterthrush became visible.  Soon, the treetops were alive with black-throated green warblers.  Occasionally found solo, but usually in mixed flocks, we eventually saw bay-breasted, Tennessee, Canada, Nashville, and chestnut-sided warblers, as well as American redstarts and a common yellow-throat, punctuated by sightings of other species:  a peregrine falcon and a broad-winged hawk flying inland, a green heron at Prothonotary Pond, an immature orchard oriole singing far beyond the boardwalk.

Sighting a warbler–a tiny, quiet bird constantly on the move–or any other “new” bird is quite thrilling, even addictive: one raises one’s binocular in eager anticipation of identifying the species before the bird moves out of view.

By noon, in the small parking lot and adjacent street alone, in the span of fifteen minutes, I saw four male indigo buntings, at least four female indigo buntings, male and female summer tanagers, innumerable black-throated green warblers, two male Baltimore orioles, a male rose-breasted grosbeak, and a male scarlet tanager.  Soon after my girlfriend and I left for Smith Oaks, our friends saw a male painted bunting in the parking lot.  Very few of these birds will stay for the summer; most will radiate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada.  (In fact, when I returned to High Island today, I only saw two of the above species at BSW: the rest may already be at their summer homes.)

At Smith Oaks, where I hiked for about an hour last weekend, I saw numerous male and female Baltimore orioles, summer and scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, a black-billed cuckoo (we saw a yellow-billed the day before at BSW), a brief flash identified by others as a vagrant black-whiskered vireo, and, at water drips in the forest, males in breeding plumage of the following warbler species: Blackburnian, Magnolia, Tennessee (unclear if male), chestnut-sided, American redstart.  So many species observed in so little time amongst the lovely old oaks and other trees!  (The birding was so good this week along the upper Texas coast that even I–a casual birder who doesn’t aim to maximize the number of species seen, unlike more “muscular” birders–ended up seeing sixteen warbler species, including the rare golden-winged warbler.)  A short walk away, the famous High Island rookery teemed with nesting wetland species we observed and photographed the day before:  roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, common gallinules feeding with their chicks, neotropic cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, and other species.  Down the road, Bolivar Flats–we didn’t go there this trip–hosted numerous shorebird species, including (rumor had it) red knots and piping plovers, the latter of which I saw in February on a birding trip with two other friends.

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Such irruptions of songbirds and other bird species are a rare occurrence for the occasional visitor to High Island, but do occur with some frequency during spring migration, especially following storms or when there’s a north wind.  However, I’ve met serious birders who have visited High Island for years without experiencing such a “fallout” of birds.

We met many other birders while there, including the ever-helpful and enthusiastic Houston Audubon Society volunteers who manage High Island’s nature sanctuaries.  It was a joy to help others see the birds we saw and to allow them to help us see what they were seeing.  Birders are a diverse bunch:  while many were casual, some were very professional, taking high-quality photographs of the birds they encountered.  Most birders are warm, engaging, and helpful people; I was surprised to find that a few were rather cold and businesslike and seemed to be there just to lengthen their lists of species seen.

I visited High Island for the first time about nine years ago.  Since then, I’ve unintentionally built up a store of happy memories associated with this tiny, unassuming salt dome in the Texas backcountry.  One of my first visits was with my friends, Jeff and Noam.  On that trip, we serendipitously chanced upon the Texas Birding Classic.  We were seen as “rare birds” by Texas Parks & Wildlife for being young men out birding–this was even rarer then than it is today–and were interviewed on the spot, had many photos taken of us, and were given free T-shirts (I still wear it; a songbird is displayed on the front with “Portable Audio Device” written under it).

A year ago, serendipity struck again:  I found one of those photos while hiking Lost Maples State Park!  At the end of a long hike, my girlfriend rested by a bird blind while I went to get the car.  When I returned, she recommended I check it out.  I glanced at the sign in front of the blind and immediately saw myself in a photo taken with a Texas Parks & Wildlife staff member that day I birded High Island with Jeff and Noam nine years ago:


Another Forest Felled

Carolina wren fledgling about to be reunited with its family

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value.  Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (1992, 1999)

The curse of all persuasive writing is that of self-selection, or “preaching to the choir”:  the majority of those who read your writing already share your views, more or less, which diminishes your impact.  Despite that handicap, I still want to write about a local, man-made disaster that occurred last week.  With all of the significant world news over the past several months, and even over the past few days, what point is there in criticizing a relatively tiny, local disaster?  The point is that I personally witnessed this event–an event that represents a significant and enduring shock to not just the local, but also the global ecosystem.

In the past year and a half since moving to southeast Harris County, where I originally spent much of my youth, I’ve gotten back into hiking/birding and have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand the cycle of ecological rhythms that occur with the change of seasons in one of our last remaining wild spaces.  For example, I know that white-eyed vireos are active in our forests now, irises gleaming in the sunlight when the birds show themselves.  Blue-headed vireos were here a few months ago; red-eyed vireos are just arriving.  The caterpillars are emerging, there are Gulf Coast ribbon snakes everywhere, broad-banded water snakes are active again, roseate spoonbills began arriving in January, and I saw my first brown thrashers of the year yesterday.

Carolina chickadees now forage energetically over tree foliage, plucking small invertebrates for themselves and for cackling, wing-fluttering fledglings that follow them around, begging for food.  Ruby-crowned kinglets are here, too, often foraging in mixed flocks with yellow-rumped warblers and other songbirds.  The thin, wheezy songs of blue-gray gnatcatchers can be heard here and there along trails.  If one stands still, a gnatcatcher often appears and hunts for insects and spiders in nooks and crannies of trees, seemingly oblivious of human presence.  In the past two months, large flocks of cedar waxwings passed through, descending upon fruit-bearing plants to feed, taking off en masse in a whoosh of wingbeats like a sudden breeze through leafy trees.

Carolina wrens from the nearby riparian forest–from which we often hear a barred owl calling at night–recently nested in a small flower pot on a neighbor’s porch.  Their four chicks fledged a few days ago and hopped out, three headed in the direction of food and camouflage while the fourth hopped in the wrong direction and got stuck behind a staircase.  My neighbor and I spent at least thirty minutes getting it out of its predicament; eventually, we got it out of there and reunited it with its parents and siblings.

A local pair of bald eagles overwinters practically in my “backyard.” They will migrate out of the area soon, hopefully to return again this fall as they have done for years now.  I’m told that they first appeared in this area in 2008.  As I traverse the trails, I hear a lot of birdsong I don’t recognize, which means that warblers and other small songbirds headed north have arrived.  I’ve seen gray catbirds hiding in the underbrush and have crossed paths with a three-toed box turtle.  Soon, tanagers and grosbeaks migrating from the neotropics will fly over.  A birder friend has already seen fourteen migrating swallow-tailed kites.

Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years…Such a creation is part of deep history, and the planet does not have the means nor we the time to see it repeated. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Last year, I saw and painted an imperial moth that spent a few days on my doorstep.  This year, I saw a polyphemus moth on my doorstep.  I had never seen either species before; what’s more is that I’ve seen innumerable moth species since moving here and that I continue to see new ones.  I’ve also seen and observed the behavior of belted kingfishers repeatedly for the first time in my life, I’ve spotted and photographed a juvenile peregrine falcon, and the list of such priceless experiences goes on.

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In the past year and a half, I’ve also seen progressive deforestation in multiple areas here, all by developers.

Two nights ago, I went for a twilight run at the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) and was immediately set upon by the strong smell of wet, overturned soil. Ground was dug up at a previously grassy field next to (irony #1) the Environmental Institute of Houston, where I would often see deer grazing in the late afternoon mist.

The disturbed earth was fenced off.  As I ran further, I saw that the entire edge forest habitat–which comprised several city blocks between two parking lots–had been cleared. In the span of a few days–it was there when I ran last weekend–developers had destroyed the entire forest except for a few large trees (likely left standing for future decorative purposes in a paved, boring environment devoid of plant diversity that could shelter and feed local and migrating birds). There was no warning on-site beforehand for the general public, so I had no idea this was going to happen. The university had two posters attached to the fenced-off destruction, stating that they will build a “Recreation and Wellness Center” and a “STEM and Classroom Building.” A family of at least seven or eight white-tailed deer that lived there and often fed in the adjacent clearing–including a few fawns–appeared ghostly in the deepening dark, some of them lying in the mud, others walking aimlessly.   The stench of wet soil permeated the air over the entire campus.  Ironically (#2), red-shouldered hawks (UHCL’s mascot is the hawk) also lived in–at the very least, hunted in–that forest, too. I saw them all the time there, along with Cooper’s hawks and ospreys flying overhead.

Running farther, it was surreal to see lush remaining forest with Spanish moss hanging from trees adjacent to the bulldozed mess.  Two streets connecting two of three entrances are now visible from each other where thick forest previously prevented each being seen from the other. The now-felled forest with its edge habitat was there for as long as I can remember, at least since my childhood.  It was probably quite old by local standards. Irony #3 is that Earth Day is in two weeks.  Irony #4 is that spring migration is already underway and that migrating songbirds desperately need forest habitat for cover as they fly north.

The final irony is that I saw the screening of The Messenger, a documentary about the plight of migrating songbirds, at UHCL last year.

Large numbers of new species continue to turn up every year…we don’t have time to describe more than a small fraction of [them]…how little we know of the living world, even that part necessary for our own existence. We dwell on a largely unexplored planet…killer caterpillars and entrepreneurial crickets [of Hawaii] have all been discovered within the past twenty years. Hawaii, familiar as it may seem to the casual visitor, is still a paradise full of surprises for the explorer naturalist. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

The demolition of this lovely, rich forest habitat was clearly a greed-driven project greenlighted by single-minded administrators.  The following day, while birding, I met a nearly 80-year-old birder, long-since retired from NASA, who has lived in this area since the mid-1960s.  He had seen what UHCL had done.  He said, “it makes me sick” and that this must be part of UHCL’s “four-year plan“–they plan to become a four-year university.  An avid birder here, he said that chipping sparrows seen on the local Christmas Bird Count may no longer be seen, since they were always seen along the edge forest habitat that was torn down. For some reason, the sparrows preferred that area.  He had also seen “a ton of [other] good stuff” while birding there over many years.

The mature forest, razed, cannot be resurrected within a reasonable (human) timespan.

Human demographic success has brought the world to this crisis of biodiversity. Human beings–mammals of the 50-kilogram weight class and members of a group, the primates, otherwise noted for scarcity–have become a hundred times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of life. By every conceivable measure, humanity is ecologically abnormal. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Birding on the Run

Birding was the original Pokémon Go.  As with any activity that increases your appreciation of the world around you, becoming a birder can add more depth and meaning to your life.  My favorite way to bird in the Houston area is while jogging–I see the greatest number of species during my long runs.  When I lived in San Diego, I also liked to bird while cycling through the canyons and mesas there.  (In fact, unbeknownst to me for years, I routinely cycled past endangered California gnatcatchers.) The best way to see many bird species in one day, besides going to the zoo, is to not stay in one place outdoors: move around to many places, and try to bird around dawn or dusk if possible.

I’ve seen many overwintering species in the Houston area in the past month.  On December 4–a cold, rainy day–I took one of my compact binoculars (an inexpensive Olympus Tracker 8×25 PC I) on my long run and serendipitously encountered the first bald eagle I’ve ever seen in Houston!  Since then, I’ve continued to see many migrant species:  on Christmas day alone, I saw ospreys, a small fleet of American white pelicans soaring over the bayou, a flock of cedar waxwings, herons (tricolored, little blue, great blue), great egrets, a belted kingfisher, hawks (red-tailed, red-shouldered, immature Cooper’s), Eastern bluebirds, Eastern phoebes, a flock of “myrtle” yellow-rumped warblers, an immature white ibis, a blue-winged duck or ring-necked duck, two crested caracaras along the median of a road (these were seen while driving), Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and more!

If you own wild land, seriously consider not developing it.  If you own developed land, seriously consider de-developing it.  I, for one, would gladly pay an entry fee to spend some time in the serenity of a local wilderness instead of, say, paying a fee to plop down in a large theater for some escapism or going for a walk in the concrete jungle of the typical modern American city.

The following are photos I’ve taken with a smartphone and my entry-level spotting scope of some of the animals I’ve seen recently.  In order, they are a great blue heron, osprey, female belted kingfisher, and white-tailed buck.

Update 1/2/17: I added photos I took on New Year’s Day of a juvenile brown pelican and of an immature Cooper’s hawk.  The pelican preened itself while I photographed it and the Cooper’s hawk remained nonchalant as I took photos from a few feet away.  A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet, perhaps emboldened by my presence, chirped at it with curiosity from a branch directly over my head.  Ten minutes later, the hawk suddenly, explosively bolted off the branch, gliding mere inches above the paved street for half a block before suddenly sweeping itself up onto the slanted trunk of another tree, wings folding so quickly that it might as well have teleported.

The birding smorgasbord continues:  before I even left home to bird, I heard and then saw a large flock of Brewer’s blackbirds congregating in the trees beyond my living room’s windows.  At the bayou, I spotted an osprey atop a dead tree in the distance, eating a fish it had caught while flocks of cormorants criss-crossed the sky and a tireless, immature Forster’s tern circled and dived in front of me for food, not stopping to rest at all in the forty-five minutes I was there, and even feistily chasing away other terns as they entered its territory.

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The many ospreys I’ve seen recently remind me of one of the first I ever saw: on January 11, 2013, I saw the following osprey and took photos of it before my run + hike at the salt marsh adjoining Torrey Pines State Reserve in La Jolla, CA.  Two hours later, when I returned, it was circling and then dived and caught a fish! Luckily, I had my camera out and managed to photograph the entire sequence:

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Feeding Wild Birds

Blue ceramic tube feeder

I’ve been a birder for many years but never really knew the joy of feeding wild birds until I moved recently (see last post). My balcony faces the woods, so I set up some feeders I received from my mother.  Since setting them up, I’ve had many avian visitors, including small flocks of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and the occasional Carolina wren.  During spring migration, several rose-breasted grosbeaks stopped over at my feeders for about five days before flying north.

My girlfriend and I visited the Canadian Rockies recently, one of the most beautiful parts of the world–if not the most beautiful–we’ve visited.  We hiked ~55 km, through subalpine and alpine ecosystems, through snowstorms and hail, saw glaciers and gorgeous glacier-fed lakes up close, and visited remote teahouses on foot.  An observation I made after the trip is that watching birds at my feeders makes me at least as happy as hiking along some of the most beautiful trails in the world.

Feeding wild birds is similar to blogging in a few important ways. Potential visitors notice what you’ve provided, but they stop over only if they’re interested.  If you stop putting stuff out there, they move on.

The above is a watercolor I painted today of one of the feeders, a blue ceramic tube feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds.  I was inspired to pull my paint set out again after I skimmed a book (by Peter Partington) this morning on painting birds in watercolor.  I also skimmed Jack Reid’s Watercolor Basics over the past two days.  There’s an appealing minimalism, primitivity–some of the earliest paintings were watercolors–and portability to watercolor, as well as a unique brilliance and seeming spontaneity possessed by good watercolor paintings that’s always appealed to me and that I really missed.  I hope to start watercoloring regularly again.

I hadn’t used my Winsor & Newton watercolors for three years, but the dried  dollops of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna in my palette (from the last time I painted) came back to life with just a few drops of water!  I stubbornly tried to do the entire painting with a medium round brush.  Near the end, I pulled out a rigger and a small flat brush to help out.

Digging around in my old art materials, I also found this unfinished pencil drawing of a friend’s eye from years ago:



How to Significantly Increase Your Enjoyment of the Zoo, Museums, Hikes, or Even Your Backyard

Use a binocular.  Any decent binocular will do.  Be sure to try it out before purchasing.  Here’s a nice guide to selecting a binocular, written by the vice president of the Audubon Society.  My birding binocular is an older model of the Nikon Monarch 8×42 without the new extra-low-dispersion glass found in the Monarch 5, but I feel I couldn’t be more satisfied with it.  Here’s another good guide to selecting a binocular that discusses the updated Monarch line.  I also have an Olympus Tracker 8×25 that I run with.  However, my favorite is the featherlight Pentax Papilio II 6.5×21.

Just a few days ago, I used my Papilio, which is optimized for looking at small things like insects and flowers at very close range (it focuses down to 1.6 feet), to watch a honeybee darting in and out of jasmine flowers in my mother’s backyard, spilling pollen from its legs as it acrobatically climbed all over the flowers like a squirrel climbing a tree.  I’d never observed a honeybee this closely before, nor with such a shallow depth of view (the background was blurred, so it was easy to focus on the bee).  I watched it fall off and fly back up as petals broke off .  I watched it flex at jointed segments as it strained for nectar in each flower.  A common sight–a honeybee flying from flower to flower–became an incredibly beautiful experience rivaling any nature documentary I’ve seen.

At the Houston Zoo a few weeks ago, I looked through the Papilio and saw that the great hornbill I was admiring didn’t have the monotone black feathers I thought it had with my naked eye:  each “black” feather was one of two slightly different hues, and each hue seemed equally represented on the wing.

Months ago, when I first bought the Papilio, I saw the iris of a Carolina anole‘s eye for the first time as it eerily stared back at me.  I suddenly realized–even though I’ve seen this lizard regularly for many years–that its lower eyelid is a shade of blue unlike the upper eyelid, which is green like the rest of the animal.  I could see each individual scale on its back and sides.  I could see that some weren’t green at all but a much darker color.

I’ve also used this binocular at museums to see individual brushstrokes on paintings.  With the Papilio, one enters the world of small things in high-definition and with an artistically shallow depth of view.  It’s analogous to using a spotting scope to observe distant birds: both experiences reveal subtle details one never would have noticed otherwise.

*Note: I wasn’t paid to promote these binoculars or any other product I discuss on this blog.  I purchased them myself.  These are my “unfunded” views about them.


Two Hawks Sketched Quickly From Life

It was difficult to draw these birds.  They moved their heads, flew from perch to perch, and glared at me with suspicion (or curiosity).  The drawing on your right is more accurate than the one on your left.  However, the point of field sketching is not to create an accurate or beautiful representation.  The point is to gain a deeper understanding of and connection with what is drawn.