Back in April

The great migration of songbirds is mostly over, and the “pretty birds” have moved on to their northern breeding grounds.  Several people have commented on what an amazing spring it was this year, with so many migrants congregating in backyards everywhere.

Swainson’s Thrush was almost a common backyard bird as they stopped off to search through the fallen leaf litter for something to eat.

Apparently the extreme cold weather and snow we had back in April stalled the migration, with birds piling up just south of us, waiting for better weather and northerly winds.  Elsewhere the migration stalled where extreme flooding occurred in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

As we returned north from Texas through the Plaines states in late April, we just missed the massive concentration of waterfowl that had briefly taken up residence in Loess Bluffs wildlife refuge in northwestern Missouri.  It wasn’t easy to get to the refuge because there was flooding with road closures all around it.  The refuge itself was also flooded, but we could still drive part way around it.

Redbuds were in bloom. Flooded pools that were full of migratory waterfowl two weeks earlier in the background.

Extensive wetlands attract a variety of waterfowl, especially Snow Geese.

May Apples were just about to bloom in the forests on the Loess Hills.

A month earlier, the refuge had an enormous population of Snow Geese stopover for refueling on their northward migration.  The Kansas City Star newspaper reported that on March 5, there were about 20 Snow Geese on the refuge, and a week later there were 1.3 MIllion!  Imagine the mess 1.3 million Geese would leave behind.  Maybe it’s a good thing the water levels were so high.

The scene on the refuge on March 15, 2019. Photo from the Kansas City Star.

There were still quite a few Snow Geese on the refuge (far away across the water in the background) in late April.  But what is of interest in this shot is the horde of Tree Swallows (small black dots on the cattails in the middle of the pond) spending a few nights in the marshes fattening up on insects.

We made a sunset drive through the refuge and spotted a few of the residents.

Lots of Great Blue Herons

Another GBH

Another GBH, in a scene looking like abstract art.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes moseying along the bank.

Turkey Vultures were congregated at the outlet of this large pond, where there was a bunch of stinky, dead fish.  The last golden rays of the setting sun almost made this bird attractive…

After reveling in the spring weather of northern Missouri, we headed home to MN, where the leaves were still in buds on the trees.

A busy day at the rookery

April and May are busy months at Smith Oaks Audubon Sanctuary on High Island, east of Houston.  Great Egrets and a variety of other long-legged waders nest in high density on an island in the middle of a rather large pond.

Some nests are almost within pecking distance of each other. Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills are among the earliest nesters here.

The Island is surrounded by water, patrolled by alligators, which keeps potential coyote and raccoon predators from predating the chicks.

Great Egrets are still sporting their breeding plumes, which flair out with the wind,  and are used to attract a mate with an elaborate display.  Unfortunately, thousands of these birds used to be shot each year to collect the decorative plumes to adorn ladies’ hats.

Great Egrets are the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was initially founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

It looks like this pair are incubating eggs, which have to be turned in the nest every so often to ensure optimal development of the embryos.

The Great Egrets are well into their nesting phase, with some birds standing over their half-grown chicks and others still sitting on eggs.  Males build a large nest platform that may be as much as 3 feet across.  Once he attracts a mate to his nest site, the couple work together to finish the nest, adding a foot-thick layer of sticks to make the nest cup.

There are at least two, very vigorous chicks in this nest, which were beating up in each other until one parent interceded.

These birds typically lay more than 2 eggs, but begin incubating right away. This means the last egg laid in a clutch of 4, for example, hatches four days after the first egg laid, and the youngest chick will be a a great disadvantage in trying to compete with its larger nest mates.  In years when there is plenty of food, it might survive, but its larger siblings might steal its food or pick at it with their sharp beaks, and often this runt doesn’t survive.

Typical sibling rivalry…

A royal courtship

The East Beach of Galveston Island seems to be an attractive hangout for shorebirds trying to fatten up on the easily caught fish in the shallow bays.  But there was more than eating on the minds of the Royal Terns congregating there among the Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, Skimmers, and other small shorebirds.

What is going on with those crown feathers that look like mohawks on the two Terns on the right? Is that just wind, or some kind of social signal to other Terns?

There are definitely some preliminaries to courtship going on between the three terns in the foreground.

Terns doing a sort of funky high-step dance…

Now this is getting a little more serious, with a presumed male offering a freshly caught fish to a presumed female.

She is going to make him work for it, as she walks off, exhibiting her lack of interest in him, or the fish. Perhaps she just ate?

Courtship feeding is common in many bird species and is supposed to demonstrate to the female what a great hunter and provider the male is.  In some cases, it may provide females with the extra protein and fat they need to produce a clutch of eggs after the energy drain of migration.  However, in this case it may be that many suitors and many fish equals a disinterested partner.

[Note added:  In cases where females have refused a fish, it was because it was too small!]

The objective of the ritual of courtship is to attract a compliant female to accept his gift of sperm. But not to attract a crowd of onlookers, like Laughing Gulls.

And so another foraging trip, to pick up another fish, as the Royal (Tern) courtship proceeds.

Shooting at eye (or foot) level

Most of the time I have photographed birds that were above or below my head, and it’s hard to get an accurate representation of their body shape and they way they move in their environment that way.  In photographing some shorebirds in our bird photography workshop we tried to get down at their eye level, sitting low or lying on our stomach.

This Clapper Rail, usually a secretive bird hidden in tall marsh grass, was lured over to a speaker playing rail calls on the side of the road.

Patience, grasshopper, the bird will eventually come out of the marsh grass.

Some of us could get lower than others.  The danger in getting too low is that the bird’s feet might be hidden from view. I (on the right) opted to sit higher and shoot with the camera in a lower position using the flip screen and live view on my camera.

Down on the gulf shore, we sat in the sand and photographed shorebirds coming to some bait left on the beach.

Sanderlings were uninterested in the bait, and never paused while probing in the sand continuously for small invertebrates buried just below the surface.

A Ruddy Turnstone, however, picked up some of the shrimp left on the beach.

A Willet walked over to a crab left on the beach but was put off by the Turnstone’s defensive posture.

But then a couple of herons realized there was free food available and wandered over, coming within 20 feet of where we sat in the sand.

What a pose! And what enormous feet.

And here came the Black-crowned Night Heron to check out the bait.  Sitting low really paid off getting a shot of the feet on the bird’s approach.

Do you think this bird has seen bait buckets before?

Yes, it has.

Bird walk at Alviso marina

Where have all the birds gone?  Just a handful of Avocets, a scattered few ducks, two pairs of Canada Geese, and a dozen or so Black-necked Stilts were around on this sunny (finally) morning at the salt ponds that empty into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Alviso marina county park

A beautiful morning for a bird walk, with lilac plants framing the salt ponds.

Alviso marina county park

The ponds here are usually full of waders and ducks, but not today.

Black-necked Stilts

One-legged birds? Black-necked Stilts at rest

Alviso marina county park

I must be desperate to take photos of something, if I’m shooting train pictures.

Kind of disappointing.

But we accidentally started a feud between a Marsh Wren and a Common Yellowthroat Warbler, which made the morning memorable.  After seeing a male Common Yellowthroat land nearby, we played his “wichety” song, and instead of the Yellowthroat popping into view, we made the local Marsh Wren mad enough to come scold us for several minutes.

Common Yellowthroat male

This bright Common Yellowthroat male was the one we were after.

Marsh Wren

You wouldn’t think a Marsh Wren would respond so intensely to the call of another species…but this bird was quite vocal about defending his nest territory.

Marsh Wren

Whistles, chirps, rattles, and buzzes come out in a continuous stream to drive off the invaders.

Marsh Wren

You almost never get this bird in view because they hide down in the reeds, and blend into their habitat quite well. But he/she was mad!

More Cranes at Sunset

Looking over the photos from our recent trip to the west coast, I remembered I had shot some video clips of the Sandhill Cranes arriving at their overnight roost on the Rio Grande floodplain at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico.

It was an all-too-brief encounter, but the video will give you an idea of what it was like…

They have an impressive wingspread when you see them up-close.

Sandhill Cranes, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Goose bonanza

Snow Geese may be overtaking the world; well, at least their Arctic breeding grounds.  And when they invade their winter headquarters, they dominate that landscape as well.  We thought there must be a thick layer of salt along the edge of the Rio Grande flood plain when we looked across the expanse of blue water.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

That’s not a line of salt crystals along the shoreline, it’s a dense pack of Snow Geese!  Ruddy Ducks are in the foreground.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

High densities of Snow Geese congregate in their select winter headquarters in the U.S. and eastern coast of Mexico.

There must have been tens of thousands of these medium sized geese, crowded together in the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They are described as “voracious herbivores”, eating any and all parts of a plant, ripping up roots and all, or just shearing off the tops of grasses, sedges, and other aquatic plants.  Digested food passes through their gut in just a couple of hours, so just imagine how much goose poop is going into this section of the river!  Their voracious foraging is what has been decimating their tundra breeding grounds, as more and more geeese arrive each year to raise their chicks.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Geese come in two color phases: white- and dark-bodied. The dark form was once believed to be a separate species, called the Blue Goose.  

Color is controlled by a single gene, but the dark allele is dominant over the white variant (actually dark is Incompletely dominant, to be technically correct).  So, this raises the very obvious question:  if dark color is dominant, why are there so many white Snow Geese?

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

The amount of color is variable, depending on whether the individual has one or two dark alleles.  Of the 3 most prominent birds in this photo, the one on the right has no dark alleles, the one in the middle might have two dark alleles, and the one on the left with less dark coloration might have one dark and one light allele.

The Snow Geese put on quite a display for us, with massive numbers of them taking off, circling in front of us, and then settling back on the pond. You have to marvel at their ability to fly in such close quarters without running into each other.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM


Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Coming closer…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Right in front of us….

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM


What a spectacle!

Sunset at Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache (literally “woods of the Apache”) is a 3800 acre wildlife refuge in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico that was set aside in the late 1930s as a wintering spot for waterfowl.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

One can look down on the flood plain of the Rio Grande River from an overlook a couple of miles away.  We had no idea how many thousands of birds were concentrated there.

And thousands of birds do congregate here from November to March. Snow Geese by the tens of thousands (more on them later), dozens of ducks of all kinds, and of course, the one we had come to see, hundreds, if not thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  Fortunately we arrived just as the light was turning golden, and developing into a beautiful sunset. (Click on the photos below to view them full screen and use the back arrow to return to the blog.)

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The Snow Geese don’t seem to mind that Sandhill Cranes walk through and over them.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Hundreds of birds congregated in a shallow lake right next to the road through the refuge, completely unperturbed by all the photographers lined up on the shore about 100 feet away.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

As is usually the case with Sandhill Cranes, they continually vocalize as new birds fly in, landing often in the middle of a clump of others.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Crossing America — Utah

It’s a short drive down the Lincoln Highway from Evanston, WY to Salt Lake City, and what a scenic drive through a gorgeous red canyon it is.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

What could be prettier than white snow, red cliffs, and juniper and sage?

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

As we descend from the higher elevation Wyoming plateau, the cliffs get higher, and the topography more rugged.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

Canyons with aspen and cottonwood meander back into the niches between cliffs. This must be glorious in the fall.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental routes for car travel from New Jersey to California, traversing 13 states.  Now that would be a real cross section of America, instead of this abbreviated picture I’m presenting here.

Having driven through sparkling, crystal clear landscapes from western most Wyoming, I had big expectations of the sight that would greet us as we broke through the cliffs into the Great Salt Lake flats.  But, a dense inversion layer of  smog greeted us in Salt Lake City, and instead of mountains, city, and lake landscape, we saw this.

Great Salt Lake smog

Ugh! I think there are supposed to be mountains on Antelope and Stansbury Islands visible from the southern lake shore as we drive along I-80.

If I have matched up google images correctly with our stop for lunch on the southern shore of the lake, it should have looked something like this.

Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake Tours

A summer time view, when the air is cleaner and clearer. Courtesy of Salt Lake Tours

But the best view of this amazing body of water was still ahead of us at the  Bonneville salt flat, where the salt-laden earth has dried into a hardened concrete and land speed records are set (currently 622 mph in a rocket-powered vehicle).  Imagine the g-forces the driver of that car withstands as he rockets (literally) down the 10 mile speedway.

Bonneville Salt Flat, Great Salt Lake, UT

I had to use a lot of dehaze filter to cut through the thick layer of smoky, foggy air. The reflection of the distant mountains is best seen when the water is just a few inches deep. When this area dries up in the summer, it will be a completely flat and extremely hard surface.

The drive through the rest of the salt desert went by quickly, and soon we were greeted by Wendover Will at the Nevada border.  My husband claims he always looked forward to seeing cowboy Will greet them on their trips from California to Nebraska in the summer.  It’s good to know that some things don’t change over 50-60 years in the west.

Wendover Will on the border of Nevada and Utah

the creek

I am intrigued by the idea of a creek that runs through the heart of a dense urban area with mostly clear water and that supports a variety of wildlife along its riparian border.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Water levels may fluctuate, but there is always enough to support wildlife.

Los Gatos creek runs northward 24 miles from the Santa Cruz mountains through the once orchard-rich, now highly residential Santa Clara valley to join the Guadelupe River which eventually empties into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Steep slopes along its course have been lined with sandbags or rocks to prevent the inevitable erosion of soft soils into the river that would dam its flow.

Along its length, the creek feeds two reservoirs and several small impoundments meant to recharge the ground water and prevent San Jose from subsiding as water is drawn from underground storage during urban development.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Creek water is aerated as it cascades over waterfalls and dams along its course.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

In places, the creek becomes a narrow channel, where water moves swiftly over rocks.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a major metropolis when you stand by the creek and watch a Coopers Hawk take down an errant little bird on the opposite shore.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the shore of the creek, creating colorful landscapes and providing cover for wildlife.

Walking north on the trail along the creek toward downtown San Jose, I came across an unusual painting on one of the many highway overpasses.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Was this creek a salmon run?

In the late 1800s, “speckled trout” (probably the steelhead, or pacific rainbow trout) were apparently so numerous in the creek, they could be caught by hand.  But agricultural development in the valley lowered the water table too much to sustain the salmon migration, until the reservoir and percolation pond system raised it.

Today tagged steelhead trout and Chinook salmon once again migrate up the Guadelupe River and Los Gatos creek from San Francisco Bay, which is a testament to the health of this urban riparian system.