have spent yesterday late afternoon and much of today between Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Estero Llanos Grandes State Park and surrounds. It has been incredibly hot and outrageously humid, and it’s the ‘wrong season’ to bird here as 95% of the migrants have left. Nonetheless I’ve seen some cracking birds (Roseate Spoonbill, Green Kingfisher, Altamira Oriole, Harris’s Hawk etc. etc.) and had a great time. A huge majority of the natural habitat in this are has been ploughed or paved, but the tiny bits that are left are really great for birding. Biogeographically this is pretty much part of Mexico, and I spent part of today walking along the northern bank of the Rio Grande and looking across to that country (I found some bin liners and discarded clothes from undocumented Mexicans who swim the river with a bag full of dry clothes. The Border Patrol tends to stop you if you’re dripping.) I stayed at the very reasonable and extremely birder-friendly Alamo Inn, run by an ex-South African, Keith Hackland. Big thanks also go to Huck Hutchens, a volunteer at Estero Llanos Grandes State Park, who took time to show me around late this afternoon and helped find a bucketload of lifers. I doubtless missed a lot because I don’t know any calls, so it’s an indication of the quality of this area if a newbie like me can pick up this many goodies in the wrong time of year on unseasonably hot days (it was something like 39 C with 100% humidity midday, 32 C at sunset!)
No time to upload photos – must get to bed early as I have to drive 11 hours to Dallas tomorrow – but here’s my list for a day and a little bit.
Birdlist Santa Ana NWR & Estero Llano Grande SP – southern Texas – Friday & Saturday 23 & 24 May 08
(?indicates 90% probable – poor views)
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher
One of the better ways of seeing this state is from a large, red, gas-eating Ford truck with a Bush/Cheney sticker on the bumper, more than 300 000 miles on the clock and a deliquified waterbed on the back seat. Your guide should be someone like Tom Carter, a generous self styled guv’mint hating, deep fried catfish-eating Texan orig’nily from Plain Dealing, Louisiana. (He’ll tell you he’s a redneck, but one who lives in a rather nicely furnished tract home in a ‘planned community’ with fancy fountains and plastic waterslides called Grand Heritage somewhere on the far eastern periphery of Dallas.)
Escaping the landscape of multi-lane highways and even sheets of McMansions that the locals call suburban Dallas, that really do go on and on and on, punctuated only by the odd chain ‘restaurant’, is a relief. East Texas is pretty lush without being tropical. Thick, diverse woodland dotted with farmhouses and the odd small town (you go through Harmony before getting to Uncertain) and slow moving roadside stores – beautiful. The place is so durn Texan that it’s hard to describe without committing the eighth deadly sin, Americana. Rhonesboro doesn’t have a zipcode or even a hundred citizens, but it does claim a ‘world famous’ Possum Festival. I’m not sure if that means they worship or eat Possum but we didn’t stick around to find out.
Our destination was Uncertain, as in Uncertain, Texas, pop. 445 or thereabouts, on the shores of Caddo Lake. Uncertain is very quiet, the Lone Star State with lots of turtles, 15 species in the area and much hated by the locals who accuse them of eating all the fish. This one seems to have survived a shovel attack, or perhaps an Alligator (many Texan fishermen like carrying shovels to kill turtles).
‘Mericans don’t do irony well, or so they say. Rural East Texans don’t seem to bother with it at all, and are quite content to play out their Hollywood-appointed roles as lib’ral hatin’ gunlovers. The poor ones move slowly and live in rusted trailers with a thin, mottled green film of something like algae covering the windows. The rich ones wear lots of high tech camo (made in China) and drive big (very big) shiny trucks followed by trailers carrying super expensive bass fishing boats. They will launch their boats and throw a rod around every now and again, but mostly the boats seem to be conversation starters for when they’re sitting around talking nonsense and eating way too much in the numerous diners staffed by friendly girls (some with skew teeth, others pregnant) that half hide themselves off just about every road in these parts. I’m not sure that vegetarians ever come here – there’s certainly nothing without meat on the menus – and adult East Texans are almost uniformly large. In fairness I only saw a few with large shiny belt buckles and cowboy hats, but that may change further south and west.
Caddo Lake is billed as the only natural lake in Texas, natural being somewhat relative as the water level of this 30 000 acre-plus puddle is maintained by an earthen dam wall. The lake more or less as it is today formed some centuries ago when a massive natural logjam blocked a big river. Some white folks whose names I’ve forgotten blasted away the logjam, and the lake subsided, starting a mad pearl rush (Caddo’s freshwater mussels lay exposed. Many of them contained imperfections that ladies like to drape themselves in). Some people missed the fishing the lake had provided, and a few decades ago some other white folks (I think it may have been the US Army Corps of Engineers) built a dam wall to flood it again. Today Caddo is a greeny-brown, deliciously mucky shallow lake all set about with Bald Cypress trees, the latter so consistently draped in grey Spanish Moss you wonder where they find the money to pay the squads of set dressers that work away after dark, every night of the year, to keep it that way. Many of the trees are of pretty uniform size and there are very few truly large ones – that’s because the place was logged to hell and gone until about a hundred years ago and the cypress forests of the Lake are, like the vast majority of other forests in the eastern US, decidedly second-growth.
Tom rented us a small aluminium johnboat, very dented but still apparently watertight, from Shorty at Johnson’s Ranch, where we stayed in an old, creaky cabin with uneven floors.
We set off through the lake, paddling quietly so as not to scare the natives e.g. this Great Blue Heron
Caddo is beset with exotic species. Water Hyacinth, a floating water plant from South America that also infests many South African rivers, is all over the show. Giant Salvinia is moving in. Some years ago fur farmers imported giant guinea-piggy creatures called Nutria from South America to Louisiana. The story is that a hurricane wrecked the fur farm cages, and today these rather amazing beasts that look a lot like Beaver but with slippery, fascinating, inch-thick ratlike tails instead of flat paddles, are naturalised all through the lakes of the South. Tom said they’re tame and easy for pictures, so I did not shoot the ones we saw first because the light was crap and we were far away. He said the real prize would be to get good images of Beaver because they are notoriously shy and hard to approach, but that we probably would not see them well or at all. An hour or so later we saw a couple of ‘Nutria’ nibbling about on top of what looked like a beaver lodge. We paddled closer, and they ignored us. Typical for Nutria. It was only when we were about 20 metres away that we noticed that these beasts were, in fact, headcase Beaver playing tame.
Tom skillfully and very silently manoeuvered us closer and we had an astonishing half-hour encounter with this pair. Beaver, like hippos, don’t seem to see too well, and by moving slowly and staying silent we got within a few feet of the lodge. Their teeth are stained reddish, like east Asians with bad betel nut habits, and obviously very dangerous – anything that chews its way through trees has got to have a serious bite on it. The male is the large one with its tail visible.
These animals had two youngsters with them that mostly remained part hidden in the roof of the lodge. One youngster was injured (a large gash in its side) and did not do much, but the other walked around and communicated with its parents.
Wildlife photography tends to be rather formulaic. Lots of sharp action shots, pretty colours etc. I think I want to start a trend of semi-abstract nature photography. Disjointed bits of animals in their habitats. Sort of the ‘essence’ of Beaver rather than Beaver. Don’t think anyone will publish them in a magazine, but if I enlarge them and make inkjet prints on fancy cotton rag paper and hang them on some white cube gallery wall I’m sure they’ll find buyers.
Who would have thought that a couple of guys in an old boat could get a close, wide shot like this of a pair of wild Beaver? It’s the kind of things that most wildlife shooters spend weeks in a hide to get. The youngsters are the two dark blobs of fur to the right of the adults.
Turtles, as I said earlier, are Reptilia Non Grata in much of Caddo. They tend to be incredibly skittish. Here are two.
I never did get that Nutria pic, but Caddo Lake was fantastic, worth the visit, and another visit again. Thanks, Tom!
On our second day in east Texas we found a beautiful specimen of what I consider Texas’ state flower. Armadillo roadkill, cleaned out by vultures. Tom cut off the tail-tip for me to keep as a souvenir.
Unfortunately this Black Vulture, a few yards down the road, hadn’t taken Truck Evasion 101.
PS Every image in this post bar the Gt Blue Heron shot with the Nikon 18-200 AFS VRII… who’d a thought.
Making cynical landscape shots is easy. Making pretty landscape photos is easy, too. Well, as easy as any top-notch photography is. Making uncynical landscape photos of beautiful places without falling into making pretty postcard photos is pretty hard, and harder still when you’re as off-the-bicycle as I am. You have to put your hangups in your pocket and just get on with it – open yourself to the images without having to make them a certain way and putting away all your know-it-allness about this stuff – just get something modest to go home with and say a small thanks for being here.
I love the light just after the sun has set, but before it gets totally dead. It was cold and roughly windy on the Big Sur. I think the first one’s my favourite.
hugely behind on my blog posts as I’m trying to rewrite and finish important (and difficult) stuff and see some of Alaska while I’m up here. Anyhow, I’ll try to get things out in whatever order they happen to be available in.
30 April 08. Driving north up California Route 1 towards the Big Sur. I stop next to the road to stretch my legs. Next to me, on the fence, is this sign. Yes. William Randolph Hearst. The mega media baron. As in the inspiration for Citizen Kane. I’d passed his loony-tunes castle (the “Rosebud” scene) a bit earlier.
What’s that? One of the Estate’s kitties? Closer look. Whoa. That’s the biggest tabby I’ve ever laid eyes on. Quick. Grab camera. Forget that it’s still set to 800 ISO. Click.
This beast is a little more than feral. He’s wild! With an incredible calmness, less than 50 feet away, he slowly walks out and reveals himself to be twice the length of a normal housecat.
…and then disappears into a thicket.
A Mutant Media Mogul Moggie? Nope – my first encounter with a Bobcat! While teaching English in Taiwan one of my 10-12 year old boys told me that it would be no problem if tigers went extinct because we can always see them on Discovery Channel. Discovery Channel my arse.
PS According to http://www.lioncrusher.com/animal.asp?animal=41 this beast is the Californian subspecies of the Bobcat – Lynx rufus californicus
went out this morning with Steve Heinl, one of the most experienced birders in Ketchikan. We went out north of town, along the Tongass Highway (the main road on the island), stopping in various strategic places.
The landscape around Ketchikan is extraordinarily beautiful. As I understand it, southeast Alaska was dominated for a long time by glaciers until the end of the most recent Ice Age, a mere 11 -15 000 years ago. These carved huge valleys to make today’s geologically young landscape, a region consisting of thousands of steep sided islands separated by extremely deep fjordlike waterways mostly made of dark, slaty schist. Relatively warm Pacific ocean currents give off a lot of humid air which is forced up over islands, creating a huge amount of orographic (remember that word from geography?) rainfall, which in turn feeds an amazing, lush, coniferous temperate rainforest. The oceans are also extremely productive, containing huge numbers of fish.
It was a colder than normal spring day here, but otherwise typical for this region i.e. low cloud, mist, and rain. I did not take as many bird photos as I had planned (light was terrible and my camera doesn’t like getting wet. These types of pictures look more spectacular with some sun in them, but that wasn’t on the agenda for today).
Here is Steve at one of the places we stopped at. The birds (black spots) in the back are mostly Surf Scoter.
The western US has a large number of various types of seagoing ducks – something we lack in Africa. Although many of the species breed on freshwater, they’ll spend great chunks of the year bobbing about quite happily in salt. Around Ketchikan this morning we saw groups of several hundred or more Surf Scoter along with much smaller numbers of White-winged Scoter, Bufflehead, Harlequin Duck, Greater Scaup, Barrow’s and Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Mallard, American Wigeon and other seagoing ducks. (Steve found us a an Eurasian Wigeon on the shore – very rarely seen in the US.) The Scoters were diving down to feed on herring eggs. Herring come to some points inshore and lay thousands of eggs which stick to clumps of seaweed – a great source of duck protein. Sometimes the duck-rafts are filled in with gulls, loons, and other seabirds. The picture below shows a raft of Surf Scoter over a herring spawning ground along with good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gull (there are also a few other things in the shot but I can’t ID them now.)
We saw huge numbers of sparrows migrating through (mostly Golden-crowned Sparrow), and all through the morning frayed strings and vees of hundreds of geese passed high overhead, purposefully heading to their northern Arctic breeding areas. The famous American nature writer Aldo Leopold spoke of ‘goose music’ – the gentle, continuous honking that floats down from the groups as they make their way across this vast continent. It’s a wonderfully clear manifestation to me of the changing seasons and the ecological connections that span the globe.
Enough of that. Here’s this morning’s list (in Sibley guide order):
1) Pacific Loon
2) Common Loon
3) Red-necked Grebe
4) Pelagic Cormorant
5) Great Blue Heron
6) Greater White-fronted Goose
7) Snow Goose
8 ) Canada Goose
9) Brant (goose)
10) Mallard (duck)
11) American Wigeon
12) Eurasian Wigeon
13) Northern Shoveler
14) Green-winged Teal
15) Greater Scaup
16) Harlequin Duck (a small, dainty duck that rejoices in the scientific name of Histrionicus histrionicus)
17) Long-tailed Duck
18 ) Surf Scoter
19) White-winged Scoter
20) Common Goldeneye
21) Barrow’s Goldeneye
23) Red-breasted Merganser
24) Northern Harrier
25) Bald Eagle
26) Black-bellied Plover
27) Killdeer (a type of plover)
28 ) Greater Yellowlegs (calls just like Greenshank)
30) Western Sandpiper
31) Least Sandpiper
32) Wilson’s Snipe
33) Bonaparte’s Gull
34) Mew Gull
35) California Gull
36) Herring Gull
37) Thayer’s Gull
38 ) Glaucous Gull
39) Glaucous-winged Gull
40) Marbled Murrulet
41) Feral Pigeon (introduced exotic)
42) Belted Kingfisher
43) Rufous Hummingbird
44) Steller’s Jay
45) Northwestern Crow
46) Common Raven
47) Tree Swallow
48) Chestnut-backed Chickadee
49) American Dipper (what a great bird)
50) Golden-crowned Kinglet
51) Ruby-crowned Kinglet
52) Varied Thrush
53) American Robin
54) Hermit Thrush
55) American Pipit
56) European Starling (introduced exotic)
57) Orange-crowned Warbler
58) Townsend’s Warbler
59) Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle, Audubon’s & intergrade forms)
60) Savannah Sparrow
61) Fox Sparrow (sooty form)
62) Song Sparrow
63) Lincoln’s Sparrow
64) Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon form)
65) White-crowned Sparrow (seen after Steve went home)
66) Golden-crowned Sparrow
also heard (and identified by Steve) but not seen
a) Red-throated Loon
b) Northern Flicker
c) Winter Wren
I also saw Red-breasted Sapsucker and House Sparrow around Ketchikan yesterday – so I might crack 100 in Alaska if I get lucky up near Anchorage.
A good total for half a day in this area. Thanks Steve, and happy birding to all of you, even the ones who haven’t been hooked by this silly sport yet…
PS there seems to be a bug in this blogging program that sometimes turns the number eight (or is it the number eight and a bracket?) into a smiley… will figure that out. Whenever you see a smiley, read ‘eight’!
no time to write a proper blog entry today (working on a real story) but an hour’s birding this morning south of Ketchikan city limits produced enough birds to raise the trip list to 105… Will be going out with local hotshot birder Steve Heinl tomorrow for the morn so expect a decent list (and some nice pics) after that. I did not quite crack 100 in Cali – think it’s in the mid-90s – next time will find some local birders to go out with and do it a little more seriously!
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