February 9, 2021 ~ There are many, many “itty-bitty flitty” birds, small birds that are great at hiding along the trail, on the other side of nearby tree trunks, in the grasses or reeds at the water’s edge. Each is seen for less than a second, then manages to flit out of sight. Sometimes I’m lucky, and I can catch one reasonably good photo (amongst dozens of poor shots), but it is difficult to build a blog post from one photo. So today, I thought I’d share isolated photos of a number of little birds. These photos were all taken in January or February of this year, here along the upper Texas Gulf Coast.
At Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP), my husband and I found this little russet beauty. This is the Carolina Wren, here year-round, but a first for me. Researching this bird, I found the Farm Dover website, where Debbie Galloway not only found a Carolina Wren, but also the wren’s unusual nest. She referenced the beautiful illustration by Genevieve Jones of this nest in America’s Other Audubon, by Joy Kiser. As with Audubon himself, sometimes the artist’s treatment of a natural subject can subtly highlight both nature’s subjective beauty, and the objective clues needed to use the artwork to make a proper identification of the living bird.
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is here year-round. I found this tiny bird zipping around in the short weeds next to the little pond at the entrance to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in January. There were a couple with excited dogs on the other side of the pond, and another couple speed-walking toward me. Neither bothered this gnatcatcher; she busily flitted through the weeds flicking her tail to stir up bugs (larger than gnats, with more protein). I liked the effect of the slanted winter sunlight providing back-lighting to her bill, reminding me that a bird’s bill is both strong and fragile.
Usually, I hear birds long before I can spot them. Out in Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge three weeks ago, I recognized the song of the Western Meadowlark, and tracked it to find him almost hidden in the tangled marsh grass. You know that you can hear the songs of most birds right on the All About Birds website page for each species, right? Try it here. Out of 30 shots, I got one that was in focus, and didn’t have a tangle of grass in front of his face. He is here only for the winter, so even though he is really too far away, I thought I’d share his cheerful colors with you.
I have always enjoyed watching swallows with their incredibly fast dives, and challenged myself trying to take photos of them. About a month ago, I found a small group of them skimming Elm Lake at BBSP. After 30 minutes of bobbing and dipping, I managed to snap one photo that was reasonably focused – purely by accident, I’m telling you. And the surprise was, this was an adult male Tree Swallow, not just black and white, but iridescent cerulean blue on his head, back and shoulders. They are only here for the winter, migrating north to cooler drier locations to raise their families.
I’ve been more successful getting photos of the Butterbutt, or Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Myrtle variety), finding them in winter at nearly all the parks and reserves that I visit regularly. This one at Anahuac put on quite the aerobatic display, aggressively going after mosquitoes. Yay! There is an ongoing academic discussion about whether this species is in fact three different species, based on DNA differences between the Myrtle, Audubon and Goldman’s varieties. But for now, I’ll just stick with “Butterbutt”.
I pursued this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) at High Island down the levee for well over 100 feet, as she hopped from one twig to another, popping out over the water to snatch a bug in mid-air, then returning to another hidden perch.
Under a heavy and darkly overcast sky, I found an adult male Northern Cardinal, with his breeding plumage just reaching pristine colors. He posed for me on this Spanish Moss, after a merry chase through the brambles. Cardinals have been a great “training” bird for me, because my eyes can track them easily as they flit from one perch to another. I’ve learned to move to a position where I can almost see the bird, get my camera raised to my nose (but not my eyes) and then move a few inches to see the bird. That way, it requires only a small movement to get the camera into shooting position – a small motion that is less likely to spook the bird than swinging my long lens up from my hip at the last minute.
Just after seeing the cardinal, I saw this little bird, another first for me. This is an immature male Common Yellowthroat. He hasn’t quite developed the sharp black mask and white facial outline of the mature male, but the female has no mask, so this is definitely a male. What a charmer! I was taken by his rich olive feathers, which, of course, got hidden a bit by a big reed in this shot; he was very shy, and it was pure luck that he stepped out of the clump for a moment. He is here year-round, so hopefully I’ll see more of him.
I see the Orange-Crowned Warbler more frequently at eye-level or above, on tree branches, rather than inches above the water. All About Birds says that the head color of this warbler varies from yellow in the western US, to gray in the eastern US. This is another migrant, wintering here, and then flying far north in spring for the breeding season in the Rockies, Canada and Alaska.
I’ve enjoyed the lively company and chatter of these little birds during my recent outings, and am eager to see them again. Four of the eight (Western Meadowlark, Tree Swallow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Orange-crowned Warbler) are only here during the winter, so I’ll be extra watchful for them through the next two months. And, on those days when I cannot go out, I can test myself on identifying their songs. Music and color – two wonderful ways to celebrate these short days of winter!