Trying to capture this year’s autumnal migration has been an exercise in frustration. Spending three weeks with swine flu kept me from seeing a huge chunk of the southward migration. Then the weather became terrible for photography: dark, cloudy and always wet with drizzle, fog and rain. Finally by the time I was able to get outside for any length of time, trees had started dumping their foliage in a hurry to undress for winter, hence the world became a place of constant movement, endlessly shifting shadows, and unending sounds…which does not make it easy to identify birds given all the commotion and noises.
Add to that north winds: the true friend of birds heading south since they get pushed on their way and can speed by their normal stops. That means it’s a timing thing: having to be in the right place at just the right moment. By the time strong south winds started today, a turn of events that will slow down the birds and force them to rest and eat more often, I have to be on call this week and have little chance of getting out to see anything (though I will try before the winds shift again later in the week).
Nevertheless, I’ve had some minor opportunities for brief walks where bad circumstances and limited time still gave me quick glimpses of the autumnal migration.
Like this female Nashville warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla) who I discovered as I drove home. She skulked about the small trees and bushes lining the street that leads to my home.
I couldn’t stop the car to get a better photo, and she was busy refueling for her trip to Central America, but still I was able to aim the camera and snap a picture as I passed her location.
Mind you, the people in the car behind me no doubt thought me to be a terrorist with this huge lens hanging out the window aimed at a hospital as I slowly drove by it. I’m still waiting for the FBI to call…
Severe storms earlier in the season caused extensive damage at White Rock Lake. In some places the winds blew down several trees at once, and at least one tree has a fascinating design blown out of the bark where lightning ran down its outside and split into multiple channels as it neared the ground.
Along the woodland edge nearest my home, a huge chunk of the forest is now a gaping wound where several trees were toppled. That’s where I found this juvenile male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) as he and a few friends flitted amongst the broken branches and tree trunks.
Seeing into this area where I knew birds could be found requires standing in the wide open. There’s no way to be sneaky, to be unseen. The felled trees wiped out all the cover and brush.
So when I stepped around the debris to take a look, the bunting happened to be right there on one of the fallen branches directly in front of me. He looked at me as I aimed the camera and snapped the first photo. Then he vanished—and he took his friends with him.
But while I was watching the indigo buntings, I in turn was being watched. From atop the shattered branches and dying leaves.
A clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) stood silently observing the goings on, its head occasionally turning this way or that way as it surveyed the area. Unlike the buntings, however, the sparrow didn’t seem to mind me standing there.
Of course, I was separated from it by treetops lying on the ground, so it’s not like I posed much of a threat.
It’s also certain I couldn’t get close or get a clear view. No wonder it seemed happy to pose.
(And I’ll add there’s a certain feeling of strangeness that comes when photographing a bird through the treetops; that is to say, when I’m looking ‘down’ through the treetop and the bird is perched at the bottom. And that even when the trees are lying horizontal on the ground. It’s the odd perspective that feels alien…)
For the first time in what felt like forever, I walked this weekend for many, many hours. Having spent almost a month huddled inside suffering then recuperating from swine flu, the beautiful weather of the past few days offered me the first chance to be outside—and to enjoy it.
I ran into a group of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) near the fish hatchery. Along with house finches, blue jays, monk parakeets and a host of other birds, the sparrows meandered in and out of thickets as they enjoyed breakfast.
When I stumbled a bit after slipping in mud, I grabbed a nearby shrub to steady myself (I was climbing a steep hill). That action sent the hidden sparrows across the clearing and into brush opposite my location. They’d been hiding in the tall grass quite near where I stood and I’d almost reached a position where I had a clear view of them.
But the mud had other plans for me, so I lost the opportunity for some fantastic close-ups and settled for capturing a few images of them from across the field. By then they clearly knew I was there, so I had little hope of sneaking up on them again.
As I topped the hill near the parakeet nests and rounded the motte, a shadow caught my eye as it flitted from the ground and took position in the thicket. A juvenile female dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) looked at me from the shadows.
I had no choice but to snap a photo even though I stood facing into the sun. She just seemed so photogenic no matter how far away she was and how bad the lighting was.
As I watched, she turned from side to side, always looking at me. That’s when the second junco, the one I hadn’t seen, darted up from the grass beneath the first one and vanished into the trees.
After that, the first one watched me for a moment or two longer, then she disappeared as well.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Not all the photos have been bad. Take this ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) as an example.
No larger than a hummingbird and very active, I caught this bird at sunrise one morning as it flitted from branch to branch in a tree.
This species is by far my favorite winter visitor. They spend the cold season here, and along with golden-crowned kinglets they replace hummingbirds as our small avian inhabitants (though not all hummingbirds leave each year, at least not every year).
The most entertaining aspect of ruby-crowned kinglets is their apparent lack of worry about humans. Not that you can walk up and capture one if it’s healthy; it’s just that they don’t seem to see us as major threats.
Yesterday I stood soaking up some sunshine when one landed in the bush beside me. And I mean right beside me. Had I stretched my arm out, the bird would have been closer to me than my elbow.
As I turned and watched it, the little critter jumped from branch to branch looking for something to eat. It paused once or twice to look at me, but otherwise it went on with its business even though I stood so close to it. And that’s been my experience with them for as long as I can remember.
Always busy, sometimes chatty, and never afraid. They’ll spend winter here and will provide loads of entertainment and companionship.
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 Nashville warblers rarely stay around Dallas in winter, though from time to time they do. Mostly they pass through in autumn and spring heading to or coming from points further south. Usually their closest winter range is along the Gulf coast and in deep South Texas.
 The young male indigo bunting will be completely blue by spring. He already has blue mixing in with his juvenile brown. This species breeds and nests in the area but spends winter in Central America, South America and Cuba.
 Clay-colored sparrows migrate through here but spend winter in West and South Texas and down through Mexico into Central America. They are seen here only in autumn and spring.
 White-crowned sparrows overwinter through much of the continental United States, including here in Dallas, as well as south through most of Mexico. It’s possible I will see them in the coming months and will have better opportunities to photograph them.
 Dark-eyed juncos spend winter throughout the entire continental U.S. and into southern Canada. Like the white-crowned sparrows, I expect these birds to be around through early next year and to afford me at least a few chances to get a better photograph.
 Winter residents across a good portion of the U.S. and south through Mexico, ruby-crowned kinglets always are noticeable and numerous visitors in the cold season. They represent the smallest bird species in winter that I can expect to see every time I go for a walk.
 Over the last two days I have counted more than 200 unique bird species identified by sight (I don’t count species I hear). There are more to come. White Rock Lake has yet to receive its total influx of migratory ducks, geese, grebes, shorebirds and other waterfowl, and it’s still receiving countless migratory arrivals of other bird types. When the autumnal migration ends, more than 330 migratory species will have arrived in or passed through the state, and that’s in addition to the 300 or so resident species who either stay throughout the year or travel south for winter. Yes, that’s more than 630 bird species.