When traveling to a new location it is always interesting to see what gull species is the local equivalent to our Ring-billed Gull. In the case of the Texas gulf coast, that is definitely the Laughing Gull. We found that a really great place to see hundreds at great distance is the ferry ride between the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston. Be sure to check the water as well as the skies if you take this 20 minute boat ride. Steve and I were able to spot a bottlenose dolphin or two during the crossing.
After hearing their vocalizations for quite a long period, we can say this species is quite aptly named!
In summer plumage, this is obviously one of the easier gulls to identify. Largest of the hooded gulls, with red bill, legs and feet, slate-colored back and black primaries.
Most birders who have had the opportunity to travel will know about High Island, a small township along the gulf coast that is among the most famous of birding locations in the country. This relatively small plot of land, along with other spots within a few minutes drive, can boast bird lists higher than many states, if not whole geographic regions of the country. What surprised me during our visit last May was the diversity in habitat. High Island is mostly famous for its potential for massive fallout during spring migration – migrating songbirds either traveling up the coast or flying directly over the gulf will stop here for a drink of fresh water and to fill up on grub before continuing north to nesting grounds. We realized we were going to miss most of the migration at the end of May, but still wanted to pay a visit. The place is so popular that there is bleacher seating around key ponds to allow for visitors to watch as birds by the hundreds land for a drink and forage through the live oaks.
The numbers and diversity of songbirds across the Houston/Galveston coastal areas we visited were even sparser than we anticipated, but on arriving pre-dawn at the rookery we were quite surprised. Every bit of vegetation on this relatively small island was being used by wading birds. We were in awe by the numbers of Neotropical Cormorants and Roseate Spoonbills that filled the branches as well as the skies.
Lighting was quite challenging – what little light available at this time of the morning was often coming from behind the subject. Evening may have been better photographically but we had lots of ground to cover. One of the sights that had me the most excited was a nesting Great-Egret. These are birds that are routinely found during the warmer months in Missouri, but finding one feeding chicks was a real treat.
Early in the dawn hours we were treated a Common Gallinule (Moorhead) hen bringing her chicks down to the water for a drink.
Prehistoric looking Spoonbills would sometimes fly right overhead.
I hope to visit High Island some spring during a nice fallout period one day, but I will be just as excited to watch and photograph at the rookery once more.
You can see more photos from the High Island rookery and the Texas Gulf Coast by visiting me on Flickr.
Until next time…
- Weidensaul, Scott. Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.
- Dunne, Pete. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
Until next time…
Coastal bird photographers, particularly those who have access to areas highly trafficked by humans, have really got things easy. We were consistently surprised at how much luck we had getting close enough to our subjects – and this was with visiting these locations for the first time. I can’t imagine the fun to be had with some time, experience and practice.
The Black Skimmer just may be one of the perfect targets for the bird photographer. The species is colorful and contrasty, which is so nice for autofocus. This species is rather large. It prefers to spend time in groups that enable the photographer to capture interesting social behaviors. If you are lucky enough to be at the right time and place, the chicks are unbelievably cute. And, if that isn’t enough, they of course have their namesake feeding behavior that can be seen in the image at the top of this post.
Closely related to the gulls, auks and waders, the skimmers are in the small family – Rynchopidae (roughly translated to beak-faced).
If you inadvertently flush a group, don’t give up or chase. Skimmers have favorite resting places and will often settle to the same stretch from which they flushed.
Until next time…
This stunning and large buteo is often seen with the last Texas gulf coast bird featured, the White-tailed Kite. This was one of the birds that Steve and I got a big kick out of finding. Although common and abundant over much of its range in the Americas, the White-tailed Hawk can only be found along the Texas coast and the Rio Grande Valley within the United States. I was doubly fortunate to be able to find another perched in a tree in Fort Bend County when my New-Englander friend, Sam, and I came across it during a few precious hours birding following several hectic days on the job.
White-tailed Hawks are birds of the air. Pete Dunne (Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion) suggests that the species is most often spotted in the air. Steve and I first located a pair at San Bernard NWR on an island of trees within coastal prairie. I paid the price by taking a number of fire ant bites by wading through the prairie trying to get a bit closer. We watched as the pair eventual flushed and rose higher and higher on the coastal thermals, eventually rising to a height where they were almost invisible to the naked eye. Once spotted in the air, there is no mistaking this species with any other bird, with contrasting white body with black-edged wings and striped tail.
Until next time…
“The Pinnacles are not easy to reach but a visit to the site is worth a considerable amount of time and effort. Differential weathering of vertically fractured pink porphyry created a sheer bluff cresting a hundred feet above the bed of the Little St. Francis River. Individual columns rising as monoliths above the bluff are responsible for the name, but the bluff per se is even more spectacular than the pinnacles. The site could be compared to the Palisades of the Hudson and merits photography but defies the lazy or poor planner.”
Thomas R. Beveridge
Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri
Eight different pinnacles are listed in the Legacy that Dr. Beveridge left this state. This particular pinnacles, along with associated geological features, is located in the St. Francois Mountains, just a stone’s throw away from a number of other classic destinations of this area. Steve and I had been discussing our potential route for this excursion for quite some time. We had tried once for an overland route but could not find or did not wish to aproach the private property owners and so decided that a water route was the best option for us. This past November, with leaves being mostly fallen and temperatures being much warmer than average, was the perfect opportunity to try out our designed route.
This destination lies on a stretch of the Little St. Francis River (LSF) approximately 1.5 – 2.0 miles upstream from its confluence with the St. Francis River. We knew that water levels were on the low side but we were completely uncertain what this would mean for traveling upstream into the LSF. Would there be any navigable water at all? If not, would it be possible to navigate within its bed by foot? Facing the possibility of failure, we decided to give it a shot. We loaded the canoe onto the powerful, symmetrical all wheel drive Subaru Forester and hit the road.
We dropped off Steve’s truck at our takeout – the Cedar Bottom Creek bridge and put into the St. Francis at Silver Mines Recreation Area. With the sun directly in our eyes (as almost always seems to be the case), it was a pleasant and short paddle downstream to its confluence with the LSF. See the following map for the highlighted route that we took that day.
Arriving at the confluence, our spirits were lifted. We were forced to push a little to get over a sandbar, but the route upstream was slow and just deep enough to allow for paddling most of the way. We portaged a few times, but we expected worse.
After taking in the initial views of the bluffs, we were naturally drawn to see the pinnacles themselves up close. A quick lung-burning climb and we were there.
Although not the tallest of these spires, this monolith was the more picturesque. I have other photography plans in mind for this guy if I can ever visit again. See below to see Steve in the frame for scale.
The views from atop the bluff were quite nice. The primary hill that faces south was Tin Mill Mountain and Pine Mountain lies to the north. Here is an example of the rhyolite porphyry that composes the majority of this bluff.
This place reminded us a lot of Lee’s Bluff, which was not surprising due to how close these locations are to one another. However, the pinnacles here brought a bit more visual interest. Here Steve poses with a small, but likely ancient cedar, clutched within a crack that is probably older than the human species.
To conclude, here I captured Steve doing a belly crawl to the edge of the bluff. As I say so often, I long for another visit here. It seems the LSF has several other features to share. I hope we can one day float the entire ~15 miles with a couple or more feet of water. There are apparently a couple of stretches of shut-ins that shouldn’t be missed.
Until next time…