Songbirds of Spring

March 29, 2021 ~ Each year I resolve to do more to see and learn about the warblers and other songbirds that migrate through our area each spring. But these lovely songsters are small, quick, and difficult to spot, so this year, I hired expert bird guide Greg Lavaty, of Texas Target Birds, to help me fulfill that resolution. Greg helped me find and photograph these birds in a wonderful day-long excursion that began at Brazos Bend State Park. This post focuses on the first part of the day at BBSP; I’ll cover the second half of the day in another post.

Tufted Titmouse introduces a spring morning
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)
1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This Tufted Titmouse hopped from one branch to another, this way and that, never resting. He (or she) was calling to announce his territory. Titmice (yep, that is the very logical plural form) are here year-round; in the spring they build their nests in natural cavities, or in hollows created by woodpeckers in old or dead trees. I enjoyed the foggy apricot background created by clumps of wild rice along the edge of the water.

Carolina Chickadee belting it out
1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Tufted Titmouse above and the Carolina Chickadee in this photo are both members of the same taxonomic family, Paridae (Titmice). You can see from these photos that their bills are almost exactly the same shape.

I learned an interesting fact from a post on One Photo A Day: apparently the thinking for years was that only male songbirds sing, but recent research shows that in at least 60% of songbird species, the female sings also. So, for songbirds whose appearance is the same for both genders, we cannot just assume that if it is singing, it is the male. A list of those species with documented female singers is in Appendix 5 of a 2018 paper. Both the Tufted Titmouse and the Carolina Chickadee are among these.

Yellow-throated Vireo
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Yellow-throated Vireo is only here for the breeding season, after spending the fall and winter in Central America. This bird perched high above me in the canopy of barely-budding branches, and sang to attract a mate. Their bright yellow eye-ring and clear yellow breast make them easy to spot among the bare twigs.

Northern Parula shows off those colors
1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I had never even heard of this warbler, but Greg assured me the Northern Parula (say “Pah-ROO-lah”) were nesting at BBSP, and sure enough, we found this one in deep shade, flitting about in a tangle of under-story vines and spindly shrubs. This is a male; the females don’t have the chestnut band separating the yellow of neck and chest.

Northern Parula checking me out
1/500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He was in deep shade… until he wasn’t, and the dappled light washed out the bluish-gray color on his head and neck. The above image shows his yellow underbill, a defining characteristic for Parulas among other warblers. I took over 100 photos of him, most of them in bursts of 3-5 shots at 7 shots per second… and there are no two sequential shots of the bird in the same position, he was always in motion.

Northern Parula preparing to take flight
1/500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Northern Parulas nest in hanging clumps of Spanish Moss or other draping epiphytes; there is certainly a wealth of nesting material at Brazos Bend! You can bet I’ll be keeping an eye out for their nests.

All About Birds points out an interesting feature of the map of Northern Parula breeding areas. See that yellow gap stretching across the lower Great Lakes and out to the northeast coast? Scientists speculate that it is an area of lost breeding habitat, now missing the moist air and extensive damp wooded landscapes draped with hanging moss that the Parulas favor.

Northern Parula range map, courtesy of All About Birds
Plump Carolina Wren on a weathered log
1/640 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I had seen my first Carolina Wren just a month ago, and here was another posing for us. This pose, with tail held erect behind, is characteristic of this little charmer. That deeply weathered log is attached to a giant fallen tree, which is arched about 8 inches above the soft ground right where this upright branch is connected. We saw the wren disappear into that protected area under the arch. Perhaps the family will nest there; I wrote about their nests in “Little Birds”.

Male Prothonotary Warbler high overhead
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

And here is a spring warbler that I had seen many birding references to, but had never seen for myself. This is the Prothonotary Warbler, or Golden Swamp Warbler. True to his name, we found him in the shaded swampy forest south of 40-Acre Lake. This golden-yellow warbler perched very high above our heads, scouting the area for threats and competitors, peering first above and then below. I’m so excited about seeing this bird that I’ve included two photos, even though they are flawed. The photo above was shot through hanging Spanish Moss which cast a greenish shadow over his lower body (being able to shoot through obstructions is one of the blessings of a shallow depth-of-field!). And the one below has the faint shadow of a hefty branch only part-way across his head, the blazing sunlight obscuring that hint of tangerine that gives him such a rich color.

Male Prothonotary Warbler in sunlight and shadow
1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Parula and the Prothonotary Warbler are also in the same taxonomic family, Parulidae (New World Warblers), and are both listed as species whose females have been documented singing. Unlike the other songbirds we observed, he stayed in one position for several minutes before moving. Finally, he flew closer, perhaps coming down to investigate our chittering cameras. I love the spider webs in this photo, precisely attached to the very tip of each thorn.

All of that, and the day was only half done. Greg and I packed up our gear, and he took me south to see shorebirds… and a special treat with Indian Paintbrushes! I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

13 thoughts on “Songbirds of Spring”

  1. Breathtaking! The colors are so striking and the various perches and background colors provide just the right atmosphere. It seems practice makes pretty awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These postings are clear, informative, educational and beautiful. Your spring is Our autumn, geographically and climatologically well separated, Yet the beauty of God’s creation is STUNNING in both.
    In Christ
    Ed Benya, S.J.
    (city of Russas, State of Ceará)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The pictures of the Northern Parula are excellent! I love that the colours are tone on tone. It’s a good idea to have a guide for birdwatching. That way you have more time to concentrate on taking pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve often wondered about hiring a guide so it’s great to hear you had such a fantastic experience! I enjoyed the birds, as always, but this batch seems to have especially lovely surroundings. From the “apricot” background (loved that description) to the cobweb to the branch with the twisting vine and the weathered log. You got some really great backdrops on this visit! Looking forward to part 2 especially since Indian Paintbrush is a big favorite – the “rosy” variety is where we got the color for our wedding. :o)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment about backdrops, Karen. I have been trying to add that to my mental list of things to check before I snap the photo… but it is a looong list! Thank goodness practicing is SO much fun!


  5. Lovely bird shots – as you mentioned, it is one thing to spot them, an entirely different level to get them in the tin! Especially liked the shots of the Prothonotary as I’ve been on the hunt for one of those for a couple of years now. I expect to start seeing the migrants start returning here soon – from the spoils of your outing, it looks like the move might be underway. Note, I just missed the Tropical Parula at Estero Llano while we were down there in January. Enjoyed the post.and looking forward to part 2.


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