Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bulletin 216 - Best of 10 years - #1 raptors

I can hardly believe that this is my 10th year doing bird photography. I have had almost 850,000 hits on my photos and almost 80,000 on the blog.

So in recognition of this milestone there are several special people that I would like to thank. First is Susan Billetdeaux, the web master at Houston Audubon. She encouraged me at the beginning to get photos decent enough to qualify for their web site and later suggested I start the blog. The other are 2 couples, the Alexanders and the Amunys. I met them during spring migration in 2008 at LaFitte's Cove and they asked me to send them some of the photos. Thus was born these bulletins. So from a group of 2 people on the list, I now have more than 250 who receive these by email.

Also, I would like to recognize the wonderful guides I have used over the years who have helped me find the birds to photograph. All of them are highly recommended.  I will provide a link to their web site or email.

California - Rick Fournier

Arizona - Tucson - Melody Kehl
               Patagonia - Matt Brown

Texas - Darrell Vollert

Florida - Sarasota - Rick Greenspun
               Miami - Paul Bithorn - email

Minnesota - Duluth - Sparky Stensaas

Michigan - Upper Peninsula - Skye Haas - email

Ontario - Geoff Carpentier

Panama - Gonzalo Horna

Dominican Republic - Kate Wallace 
                                  Ivan Mota

So I am going to select about a dozen photos in each group, that are my favorites. What makes a favorite photo for me? Well there are a number of things.
  1. Rarity of the bird
  2. A special bird in my yard
  3. Difficulty in finding the bird
  4. Action shots or several birds interacting
  5. The few photos that the lighting is just right, background is perfect and in my mind approach a 'work of art', if I may be so presumptuous.
I will start with the raptors, the hawks and falcons. These birds look majestic and powerful and a photo might project that.

Here is a Bald Eagle, the national bird of the USA. Just sitting still, he looks majestic.

Bald Eagle - adult
For sheer strength and power, no bird matches the awesome Peregrine Falcon, the fastest animal in the world. This Peregrine, on a ledge in Florida, is just waiting to take off on a hunt. Her breast feathers are blowing in the wind and she is staring off in the distance.

Peregrine Falcon
Cooper's Hawks hunt down birds in flight in a chase and are nimble flyers. This juvenile chased a bird, but it got away by diving into some low shrubs. He landed on my driveway. I glanced out and saw him and grabbed the camera and took the photo out the kitchen window. Is there anything more menacing looking than this bird?

Cooper's Hawk - juvenile

This Gray Hawk just happened to fan his tail while I was taking his photo.

Gray Hawk

This beautiful White-tailed Kite was in perfect morning light in Galveston. I stopped the car and he let me take his portrait. This is one of the 'almost artistic' photos. It would have been ideal if he was on a branch rather than a wire, but he wouldn't move when I asked him.

White-tailed Kite
The Merlin is a small falcon and rather plain streaky brown. This bird was wintering at Anahuac NWR and I had seen him several times. I wanted to get a photo in perfect light, so went at daybreak and he cooperated by sitting on a curved branch, adding to the artistry of the photo.


On the trip to Panama, we were driving down a mountain road and this Broad-winged Hawk was sitting on a branch, perhaps 30 feet from the car. This is another 'ideal' photo with the bird at eye level and looking slightly forward. The background is uncluttered and blurred out. The pink on the left must have been a tree in bloom as there was nothing around.

Broad-winged Hawk

Because of their large size, it is rare to get a raptor and flowers in the same photo. They usually perch on poles, large trees etc, so when I got this photo of a Harris's Hawk in the Rio Grande Valley, it was unique for me. It was a very windy afternoon and he was perched on top of a yucca flower with another bloom beside him.

Harris's Hawk

In the summer of 2011, we had a severe drought in Houston and all sorts of birds were using the bird bath. I have photos of a Pileated Woodpecker in the bird bath as well as a couple of Red-shouldered Hawks, an adult and a juvenile. In addition, I was feeding the hawks live crayfish, so they were always waiting in the trees in the yard for 'dinner time' when I got home from work. However, I got photos of the hawk pair only twice, once in bird bath, and this time they were side by side in a tree when I arrived home from work. I ran into the house and grabbed my camera. I call this one, 'Learning to Dance'. The juvie is looking over at the parent and they both have a foot raised. It looks like he is trying to follow her foot routine.

Red-shouldered Hawks
Learning to Dance
Another pair of birds is this couple of Northern Caracaras at Anahuac NWR. Anahuac NWR was publishing a book for the 50th anniversary of the refuge. Photos could be submitted up until Dec 31, 2013. On Dec 29th, I saw this pair of birds far away on the ground, but too far far a photo. As I was leaving the refuge, I saw them together at the top of a bare tree. I took some photos from a distance as soon as I saw them, as not to scare them and gradually moved a little closer. Finally, I was probably about 25 yards away and I took quite a few. When I saw this one, with them looking in opposite directions and both in focus, I was pretty sure it would make the book. Sure enough, it made a full page photo, which was quite an honor.

Northern Caracaras
The last 3 are action photos. The first is unusual in that I got 2 things happening simultaneously. A good photo is a flight shot of raptor carrying some prey. Probably the most common one for photographers is an Osprey carrying a fish. As they have to fly back to shore with their catch of the day and perch to eat it. I have photographed this several times. A much less common occurrence is to get a raptor defecating. I have occasionally seen them do this and usually it is while perched. Well on Jan 2, 2012, I was in Galveston and saw this Osprey flying onshore with a large fish. I started filming him and, darn if he didn't let fly, as I was taking his photos. I doubt I will ever get another like it. This is the reason I always wear a hat when I am birding. LOL

In this photo, an adult Bald Eagle flew up from the ground carrying some prey. A subadult all brown eagle followed him and was chasing him. I got several photos as he was chasing the adult and managed this one just at the instant he came up underneath and grabbed onto the prey. It was pure luck to get the right instant as the photos on either side of this one about 1/8 second apart have the birds 4-6 feet apart.

Bald Eagles

This last photos has a gray male Northern Harrier attacking a female Harrier. I was at Brazoria NWR. I watched a male Northern Harrier fly across a field and I filmed him as he flew. He veered upwards into the direct sun, so I stopped taking photos of him. About a minute later, a brown female Northern Harrier flew across on exactly the same path. As I followed her with my camera, I caught a glimpse of the male diving down at her. She saw him and swerved upwards to meet the challenge.  In this photo of their closest approach, their talons are extended and are just a foot or so apart.

Northern Harriers dueling

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2015 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bulletin 215 - Winter Birds #2 and coyote

Texas never cease to amaze me with the diversity of birds found here. In the previous winter bird bulletin, I had my first photos of a Mountain Plover. Well, this time I had to go inland a little most of the way to Austin, but a Mexican species showed up that had never before been in the USA.

The Striped Sparrow (Oriturus superciliosus) is a non-migratory resident in the mountains of Mexico. How it ended up in Texas is uncertain, but birders have been coming from all over USA and Canada to see it. It has been shy and tends to stay hidden in bushes, but I was lucky to see it within 10 minutes of arriving at the location. He is readily IDed by black mask and white line above

Striped Sparrow
On one trip to Anahuac NWR I saw 3 large birds lift off from a field near the highway. I saw one had a white tail, so I knew it was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I stopped and turned around and went back. Fortunately they were still close to the road. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos. A subadult all brown eagle was chasing the adult who was carrying some prey. He actually caught up to the adult and I got a photo just as he grabbed on to the prey from under the adult. An extremely lucky capture and in focus too.

Bald Eagles
Another raptor found recently was a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). This bird is native to the southwest USA, but a few winter in Texas and east. I have only seen this bird about 5 times and all were the light morph. Sibley says that dark birds are about 9% of the population. I had joined the Louisiana bird list as perhaps some birds might show up in western Louisiana, that I would like to photo, and this was one of them.

Ferruginous Hawk - adult dark morph
Cameron Prairie NWR, LA

On a visit to Hermann Park in downtown Houston, I saw this really peculiar looking duck that I though was some kind of hybrid, although there was a pair that looked the same. They had a pair of babies with them. It turns out that this is an Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca).

Egyptian Goose
The babies are really cute - brown and white patterned.

Egyptian Goose - goslings
The term leucistic refers to a bird that has some abnormal white feathers. It is very rare to find a leucistic bird and I have photos of only 2 of them in 10 years. This is the second one. I saw this Great-tailed Grackle on the beach at Bolivar. As I was driving along the beach, the wind blew his long tail into the air and a flash of white caught my attention. He has 2 white feathers in his tail.

Great-tailed Grackle - leucistic
There has been a nest of Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) in Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Houston for the past 3 years. I was just made aware of it this week and visited it to take some photos. The first in mid-afternoon has an adult in the nest with 2 babies visible.

Great Horned Owl on nest
 At sunset I went back and hoped that one of the parents would be out of the nest on a bare tree. Also, the warm sunlight at sunset really enhances the image. Well sure enough, one posed on a bare tree.
Great Horned Owl
And a short time later she flew to another tree and showed her other side. What a cooperative bird. All the photographers were impressed.
Great Horned Owl
Mammals are hard to find except deer and squirrels, so this coyote on Galveston was only my second time to see them on the island. This guy was very red and appeared to be as large as a German Shepherd dog. There used to be a red wolf in the southeast USA, but it was almost extirpated by the 70's. The last group were trapped and many were found to be coyote hybrids, but the few pure wolves were set up in a captive breeding program. Due to the color and size of this one, I suspect it has at least some wolf genes in it.

possible red wolf hybrid

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2015 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bulletin 214 - Dominican Republic #6 - tanagers, hummingbirds, finch and lizards

There are 5 endemic tanagers in Hispaniola. The Black-crowned Tanager (Phaenicophilus palmarum) is also known as the Black-crowned Palm-Tanager. It has a black and white face and head, olive wings and tail and gray breast. I saw it several times.

Black-crowned Tanager
There is a Gray-crowned tanager but it is resident in Haiti only so wasn't seen on this trip.

The male Hispaniolan Spindalis (Spindalis dominicensis) has black head with white stripes and orange  on the breast.

Hispaniolan Spindalis - male

The female spindalis is olive above and gray below. She has some white stripes on the head as well.

Hispaniolan Spindalis - female

The other two are Eastern and Western Chat-Tanagers. I saw one of them but couldn't get a photo and missed the opportunity to look for the other as the roads were washed out.

There are 2 endemic cuckoos on the island, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo and Bay-breasted Cuckoo. I saw them both, but only got a photo of the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo (Saurothera longirostris). It is a large 18" bird with striped tail, rusty throat and belly and red eye ring. Unmistakable.

Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo

I was able to photograph all 3 hummingbirds on the island. The Antillean Mango (Anthrocorax dominicus) is a 5" hummer with curved beak. The female, here, is green above and gray below. It is found only on Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Hispaniola.

Antillean Mango - female

The Vervain Hummingbird (Mellisuga minima) is a tiny 2.5" hummer found here and Jamaica. It is the same genus as the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba which is the smallest bird in the world. This guy sits prominently on the top of trees and looks more the size of an insect. It is just green above, with a gray throat and green flanks in both sexes. The male here has a notched tail.

Vervain Hummingbird - male
The last is the endemic Hispaniolan Emerald (Chlorostilbon swainsonii). The male here is green all over with a bright green throat.

Hispaniolan Emerald - male

The last bird is the Antillean Euphonia (Euphonia musica). This small (4.75") colorful finch is found from Hispaniola to Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. The male has orange underparts, black face and blue crown. This was my 800th bird to photograph.

Antillean Euphonia - male

The female is similar but she has yellow underparts.

Antillean Euphonia - female

I also found a couple on small endemic lizards. The first is the Southern Green Anole. It is similar to the Green Anole in USA except for the white line along the throat.

Southern Green Anole

The other was a reddish lizard whose name I have not been able to discover.

Red Lizard - Hispaniola

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2015 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bulletin 213 - Dominican Republic #5 - water birds their national bird, colorful snail

I thought I would provide  the next chapter in the history of Hispaniola. In the previous discussion, the late 1600's saw France take over the western third of the island as Saint Domingue (now Haiti). They established sugar cane plantations based on slave labor and Saint Domingue soon became the 'Pearl of the Caribbean' as the richest colony. By the late 1700s, Saint Domingue had a slave population of 500,000 and the whites numbered only 32,000. The French Revolution in 1789 was caused in part by the bankruptcy of the country following the Seven Years War against Britain and then France's aid to the colonies during the American Revolution. Inspired by the French Revolution and the declaration of the rights of man that men are all equal, a major slave rebellion in 1791 broke out in Saint Domingue.

In 1794, France abolished slavery at home and in all the colonies. The next year Spain ceded the eastern part of the island to France, and the black rebels under Toussaint L'ouverture claimed the whole island. Back in France, Napoleon seized power in 1799, and didn't want the richest colony under the leadership of blacks. He reimposed slavery in the sugar cane growing colonies in 1802 and sent an army of 20,000 to take back control of Saint Domingue. It turned into a disaster as half the army died of yellow fever, and the blacks decisively routed the French in 1803, and declared independence as Haiti on Jan 1, 1804.

So with the loss of the revenue from Saint Domingue, Napoleon was short of cash and this led to the Louisiana purchase, when he sold most of central North America to the USA for a pittance. President Jefferson had wanted to get control of New Orleans as it was the most important port in the south. He was willing to pay $10,000,000 for the city, but suddenly Napolean offered the whole thing for $15,000,000. and the US wisely accepted.

After losing Saint Domingue in 1804, the French retained control of the eastern 2/3 of the island, but in 1809, gave it back to Spain. Spain tried to re-establish slavery there, but also, sent raiding parties to Haiti to capture blacks and re-enslave them. Haiti's president in 1822 was afraid that France might once again attack Haiti from the eastern side and reimpose slavery. So he invaded the Spanish eastern part and took control and incorporated the whole island into Haiti. For the next 22 years, the Dominicans were under Haitian control which they called the 'Haitian Occupation'.  The Spanish ruling class resented the occupation and in the 1830s launched resistance and guerilla attacks on the Haitian army. Haiti retreated in 1844 and the Dominican Republic became independent.

I found it strange that there were few gulls and terns on the trip. Apparently, there is little food in the tropical oceans compared to along the mainland, that large numbers just cannot survive. I did see 1 Royal Tern and several Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis). This one was flying outside my hotel room.

Brown Pelican
Shorebirds were another rarity on the trip. They get many migrants passing through in spring and fall, but few stay. Here is our familiar Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). He was the only shorebird I saw the whole week. He is IDed by the dark spotted wings and white eye ring.

Solitary Sandpiper

A lifer for me was the Caribbean Coot (Fulica caribea). It is very similar to the American Coot, but the white shield extends to the crown of the head. Notice in the photo that it extends to a point vertically above the eye. In the American Coot, it ends on the forehead about even with the eye horizontally. The American Coot also has a red spot on the top of the white shield, which the Caribbean lacks. It is listed as a threatened species. Its range is the Caribbean islands and the coast of Venezuela.

Caribbean Coot

The Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is also present in the Caribbean Islands, but is a different subspecies form the mainland.

Common Gallinule

A nice find was the Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus). I had photographed this bird once before in Texas. We found a pair with 2 chicks in a pond in the Botanical Gardens in the capital. Again, it is a different subspecies form the mainland. This small (9") gray bird is IDed by the bright yellow eye. Here is an adult with the nest mound behind.

Least Grebe
As you have probably seen on nature TV shows, sometimes the grebe babies will ride on their parents back. Well I was fortunate enough that one of the babies popped up onto the back of this bird.

Least Grebe with baby

The West Indian Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) is a typical long necked duck of the dendrocygna genus. This endangered species has a range from the Bahamas to Antigua. It is brown with white spots on the flanks. This was another lifer for me.

West Indian Whistling-Duck
They stand very erect on land. Here is a group of 7.

West Indian Whistling-Ducks

I saw several other duck species including Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal. Several waders were seen also but not photographed including Roseate Spoonbill, Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret etc.

The national bird of the Dominican Republic is the Palmchat (Dulus dominicus). This bird is the only bird in its family, the dulidae. It has some unusual habits for a songbird. They build large communal nests in Royal Palm trees, but sometimes will use electrical towers like the Monk Parakeet nests we see in the USA. It is an 8" brown backed bird with streaked breast, yellow bill and red eye. Sometimes the rare Ridgway's Hawk will build their nests on top of a large Palmchat nest, and neither bird seems to bother the other! The sexes are similar.

Here is a close-up.


And here is a typical location atop a Royal Palm tree.

I also found this colorful land snail on a tree. I have never seen a snail previously with colored rings around it. The scientific name is Liguus virginus. It is endemic to Hispaniola, but there are 4 others of the same genus, 3 endemic in Cuba and the last is found in both south Florida and Cuba. Unfortunately, they are at risk just because of their beauty as they are collected and/or used for jewelry.

Hispaniola Land Snail
Liguus virginus

Chocolate (Theobroma cacao) was another new world product that was brought back to Europe by the Spanish. The first record was Columbus encountering cacao beans on his fourth voyage on August 15, 1502. The natives had sacks of 'beans' which they used for trade. His son described them valuing them highly, as if they dropped a single bean, they would stop and retrieve it. Columbus took some back, but they didn't make any impact in Spain.

Cortes encountered chocolate as a bitter frothy drink in Montezuma's court in 1519. The king drank chocolate from cups made of pure gold. Now, the Spanish knew what to do with the beans and it quickly became a court favorite, especially after they added sugar or honey to counteract the natural bitterness. Over the next hundred years, chocolate spread throughout Europe.

This was my first trip to see a cacao tree. The pods are yellowish when ripe and heavy at 8" in length. The tree is 10-25 feet tall, and the heavy pods grow from the trunk and large branches rather than at the tips on the branches.

Here is a tiny flower bud growing from the trunk.

Flower bud of cacao tree

And here is a pod full of wonderful cocoa beans that give us Snickers.

Pod of cacao tree

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2015 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.