Tag Archives: American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

Farewells – Part 2

All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self.

A nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) perched on a branch (2009_12_19_044964)

He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.

A nonbreeding Harris's sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) perched on a branch (2009_12_20_045764)

The wind and the sun will tear no holes in his skin.

An orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata) perched in a bush (2009_12_13_044384)

And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.

An adult yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) climbing the side of a tree (2009_11_28_042637)

The freest song comes not through bars and wires.

An American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) standing on the shore (2009_11_26_041712)

And he to whom worshipping is a window, to open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn.

— — — — — — — — — —

Text from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran; all images from White Rock Lake.


[1] American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

[2] Harris’s sparrow (Zonotrichia querula)

[3] Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)

[4] Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

[5] American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

Winter visitors – Part 3

Like sheets of rain they arrive, waves of life washing over the land in downpours of sight and sound.  Even within the confines of a hectic city, the torrent of wing beats can drown out the cacophony of metropolitan noise, and the flood of songs and calls can fill a cloudless sky with a storm of beautiful music.

More appear each day.  Great billowing tempests borne of feathers in flight roil over the horizon.  Thunderous roars fill the air as the winter landscape takes form and innumerable species come to fill the barren trees.

For those parched and in need of nature’s bounty, no better flood can be found.

A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched in a treetop (2009_11_01_036709)

Where eastern meadowlarks abound, a singular voice grabbed my ear.  A western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  Just looking at it I would have assumed it to be its eastern cousin.  The bluestem and wildflowers hid many of their kind, yet this bird came with a song that could be from no other species.  I stood and photographed it in the treetop where it came to rest…then heard another further across the meadow.  Though both meadowlark species live yearround in Texas, only the western meadowlark migrates into Dallas for winter, coming to spend the cold season with eastern meadowlarks who are always here.

An American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) feeding in a withering thicket (2009_11_26_041988)

Drab little American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  Winter is a mix of breeding and nonbreeding plumage, with ducks arriving in their impressive best while finches and warblers arrive in the drab clothes of disinterest.  But while they stay and feast and wait for spring, they change their outfits until early next year they have donned the gayest apparel of bright colors and stunning patterns.  So for now we don’t blame the goldfinch for visiting in such a mundane outfit, for we know these next few months will contain marvelous transformations resulting in the freshest and brightest hues.

A Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) flying overhead (2009_11_01_036572)

Though in time for breeding season its head will take on a stunning black cap and face and its beak will turn brilliant orange with a black tip, this Forster’s tern (Sterna forsteri) still demonstrates that a dash of color is better than no color at all.  And these birds will freshen their plumage in time for spring migration.  Until then, however, they dive and dine and outrun the gulls who try to take their meals.

A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched in a treetop (2009_11_28_042792)

Intoxicating.  No word better describes the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).  A creature airbrushed with subtle hues and transitions coupled with a bold mask and lively crest.  Flocks of a few birds to many dozens flit from tree to tree.  They swarm into the air and move like a single organism, the whole of their numbers rolling and banking, little voices calling all the while.

A marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) hunting through withering reeds (2009_11_26_040944)

It took more than an hour of sitting in wet grass to finally capture a photo of this marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris).  Like all its wren cousins, it’s a chatty critter who talks constantly while it hunts.  The reeds in which it stands kept it nothing more than a voice occasionally mingled with a shadow hidden deep.  Then suddenly it exploded into the open, perched, stared.  One click of the shutter was the amount of time it took for the bird to return to its search for sustenance.  Delightfully energetic little thing, and one whose yammering makes it easy to locate—though not necessarily see.

A ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) flying overhead (2009_11_26_041010)

The most numerous and in-your-face gull species to settle here for winter: the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis).  Opportunistic bullies they are, giving chase and mobbing anyone with food.  So it was with a sense of cosmic justice that I watched the tables turned by great-tailed grackles who kept chasing the gulls away from a spot of bread tossed to them by a passerby.  And in the rare instance when a gull succeeded in grabbing a piece, the grackles swarmed the larger bird and forced it to flee, often without the food in question.  Gulls are fun and gregarious creatures, though, and their personalities make a walk at the lake as entertaining as it can be.

Bad birds – Part 3 (with bonus alligator)

I generally avoid people when I stroll around White Rock Lake (or anywhere else for that matter).  Nothing chases away nature faster than a legion of yammering halfwits or a crush of unobservant dweebs.  Yet I’m not always antisocial: I rarely turn down an opportunity to talk to like-minded or sincere parties if they offer real interest, such as asking questions about what I’m photographing or pointing out a worthwhile subject.

But children tend to be a wholly different animal, up to and including teenagers.  They simply lack the awareness of nature’s needs, and often they lack any semblance of humanity (especially when traveling in packs, though individuals can surprise me).

So imagine the shock I felt during a walk in January 2009 when a family strolling along the norther floodplain of Dixon Branch towed along a young boy who couldn’t stop stopping.  He had to point out everything of interest, from simple flowers to birds to the neat design of sunlight dappling the ground as it passed through naked branches.  I heard this from quite a distance and made an effort to watch them indirectly.

Once they caught up to me, which I allowed against my better judgment, the boy wandered over even as his parents told him not to bother me.  I had been watching some birds in the barren canopy, so he followed my gaze and immediately asked, “What are you looking at?”

Before I knew it he was sitting on my knee looking into the treetops through the camera.  I should point out that the camera, from viewfinder to lens hood, was almost as long as he was tall, so we’re not talking about a large kid.  He couldn’t hold the camera due to its weight, so I held it for him as he snapped photos and scanned the area.  (I didn’t mind if he took pictures since he was only wasting digital space, not film.)

His mother said repeatedly that he should leave me alone and let me enjoy the day.  I countered that he wasn’t bothering me at all—a truth that shocked me.  How could I not feed his hunger to know about nature, to notice all it had to offer?  It would have been a crime had I turned my back on that opportunity.

A nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) perched in a tree (2009_01_17_004505)

The spark of a true naturalist seemed to be lurking inside him.  I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to throw fuel on the fire.  I answered his questions and identified the various birds, plants and insects he pointed out.  But finally his parents insisted that they should move on.  So with a downtrodden expression the boy thanked me, then the group of them continued east toward the bridge.

Imagine my surprise to see in all the various haphazard images he captured that somehow he’d focused on this nonbreeding male American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).  Some of the other photos seemed to be close to the mark as well, but this one really showed that he was in fact looking at something and not just intrigued by the 400mm zoom.

Other than cropping it, I left the picture just as he took it.  Sure, the camera settings were wrong and he’d actually focused on a branch just above and to the right of the bird, but the bird was almost centered and no doubt was precisely the object he was interested in.

His parents seemed genuinely supportive of his naturalist’s heart, answering his questions as best they could and often pausing longer than they’d like so he could look—really look.  If he’s an example of the next generation, perhaps there’s hope for the world yet.

In early May 2009 we suffered torrential rains that flooded the entire area.  So much water washed into the lake that the Sunset Bay sandbar vanished as the confluence ripped it apart with rushing rapids.  But floods always mean something interesting here, always mean the standing water on the floodplains will bring all sorts of life to the once grassy fields.

Two white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi) standing in a flooded field (2009_05_04_017730)

I drove by slowly on my way home and immediately noticed two white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi) strolling through the deep pond that sat along the southern edge of Dixon Branch.  Wow!  I rushed home and grabbed my camera and tripod, then I ran the short distance back to the park.

But here’s where the frustration of the day materialized.  There was simply too much water to get close to them; they stayed on the opposite edge of the field.  Each time I stepped into the water, I’d sink, lose a shoe—or both, or the tripod would sink (even with tripod coasters).  Sometimes all three happened at once.

The only way to take photos was to keep moving, to stay ahead of the constant sinking.  The tripod stayed upright no longer than a few seconds before one or more legs would plummet (several times I thought I lost the coasters).  I slipped and fell more often than I’ll admit.  My shoes had more mud inside than outside.  It just wasn’t working out the way I’d hoped.

Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) swimming in shallow water (2009_05_04_018178)

But ibises weren’t the only floodplain visitors, so I wasn’t giving up no matter the obstacles.

A large flock of Wilson’s phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) swirled and swam in a temporary waterworld.  Along with mallards and blue-winged teals, the phalaropes seemed to be having a swimmingly good time.

I knew there had to be plenty of food available since the standing water would bring loads of invertebrates to the surface.  No doubt all of the birds appreciated the veritable buffet.

Just like the ibises, however, the phalaropes remained far across the floodplain.  This plethora of avian visitors was proving difficult to photograph due to the environmental issues.

A lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) wading through shallow water (2009_05_04_017651)

By the time I saw them, I was drenched, muddy up to my knees, struggling to keep the camera from falling in the water, and starting to curse not having a canoe or kayak.  Still, half a dozen lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) wandering about the swamp put a smile on my face.

They and the phalaropes tended toward the same areas, though not always.

I do have additional photos of both which I’m hoping to fix.  Some of them show the proximity of the two, including one that looks like the yellowlegs are acting as advanced guards for the phalarope flock.  Hopefully I can fix those images (which is not one of my strengths).

After walking out of both shoes simultaneously, kneeling in the mud and deep water trying to locate two of the three tripod coasters, and finally realizing I was losing the battle, I decided to head to the opposite side of the lake.  So off I went…

But things didn’t improve when I got there.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying across White Rock Lake (2009_05_04_018113)

I saw two Canada geese (Branta canadensis) standing along the edge of the lake just beyond the paddle boat house.  They seemed unconcerned with my presence, so I slowly approached hoping for some great snapshots.

That’s when I slipped in the mud and landed flat on my butt.

Do you think the geese remained unconcerned?  Hardly.  The litany of vulgarities streaming from my mouth coupled with my loud and graceless crash to the ground caused them to immediately take to wing.

I rolled over in the mud and snapped one picture as they glided above the lake’s surface.

A common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) standing in a marsh (2009_05_16_018929)

Probably my favorite bad bird photo: a common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) standing in a marsh at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in May 2009.

What makes it my favorite?  The circumstances, of course!

I had just spied the moorhen swimming amongst the reeds.  After finding a usable opening in the surrounding brush, I focused on it to get a feel for the scene, then decided to change a few settings to get the image I wanted.

From behind me came a rather abrupt crash in the thicket lining a tidal marsh.  I pressed the shutter button as I turned to see what was approaching.

A large American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) was climbing up a gator slide and in my direction.  It couldn’t have been more than six feet/two meters away.

Knowing how to move through nature without being seen, heard or smelled is an advantage in that it allows you to get closer to wildlife than most people can imagine.  The flip side of that coin is the disadvantage of wildlife not knowing you’re there and stumbling upon you with little or no notice.

As for the alligator, yes, I got a photo.  In fact, several.  Mind you the large reptile entered the trail then did an immediate u-turn when it saw me swing around in its direction.  A quick slide back down the hill and into the water gave it an easy escape.

Without missing a beat, I aimed and fired the camera sans worry for the settings.  Here’s the u-turn sequence for those interested in close calls.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018627)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018628)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018629)
An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) turning around (2009_05_16_018630)

I immediately followed the critter.  After stepping over to the slide and finding a clear view through the brush, here’s the alligator retreating back into the marsh.

An American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) swimming into a tidal marsh (2009_05_16_01)

It quickly disappeared behind the reeds.

Birds I never knew – The End

Haphazard photos taken with the assumption that what lurked at the other end of the lens was something more common than what was discovered in the image later.  Running down a hill snapping picture after picture of something flitting about the shore so far away that I felt convinced it would be better displayed in my memories than in the camera.  A flippant photograph, one taken over my shoulder with nary a thought.

I can’t help but think I chance upon a great many of the images shared here, and not by skill or preparation as much as luck.

Which brings us to the end of our story…

A female yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata) perched behind bare branches (20071228_00463)

A female yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata).  I saw across the floodplain in a barren tree some tiny bit of movement as I walked through dry grass.  Winter had long taken hold of the world.  That meant no foliage protected whatever life busied itself in the nearby woodlands.  Still trying to gain comfort with my new camera at the time, I held it up and clicked a few images of what I believed to be a mockingbird.  Thankfully the lens knew better than I and helped clear up the confusion by seeing more clearly than I did.

A male yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) standing in the grass next to a tree (20080420_04303)

A male yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus).  An infrequent visitor to White Rock Lake, I immediately recognized it the moment I topped the hill at Winfrey Point.  Clouds had long obscured the world when a flash of gold wrapped in the deepest black turned my attention from the drab surroundings.  Far ahead of me down at the shore danced this marvelous creature.  Watching it flit from spot to spot, I ran headlong, nearly tumbling down the hill several times, and I snapped photo after photo along the way.  The bird vanished long before I approached its location.

A spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) in non-breeding plumage standing on a pier (IMG_20080106_00986)

A spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) in non-breeding plumage.  A marvelous aspect of the lake comes from how localized wildlife can be.  Looking for buffleheads?  You won’t find them in Sunset Bay.  Looking for American white pelicans?  You’ll find them mostly in Sunset Bay.  The whole lake seems apportioned by species with only a select group claiming the entire refuge.  So as I rounded the north shore and spied a pier overflowing with gulls and cormorants, this tiny bird dashing along the edge drew my attention more than the raucous giants who very much dwarfed it.

An eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perched on a bare branch (20080120_01484)

An eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe).  One thing I learned quickly when I started photographing wildlife is this: No matter what creature you hope to capture in an image, you have better luck if they don’t think you’re looking at them.  As large mammals with forward-facing eyes, we automatically come across as predators.  Other animals recognize that and know when those eyes have settled upon their location.  Pretending not to notice has often given me a better opportunity to take a picture or two than has stopping and looking directly at the subject.  So it was with this phoebe who dashed from tree to tree each time I stopped and took aim.  So instead of trying intently, I tried flippantly: Walking by and quickly pressing the button a time or two as I held the camera over my shoulder.

A great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) perched on a fence wire (20080523_05733)

A great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus).  One disadvantage of visiting the family farm stems from the amount of territory it covers.  The house sits atop a hill with pastures and woodlands stretching in all directions.  While standing in the main yard helping my parents tend to the rabbits, a bit of movement far off in the distance caught my eye.  Something loud flew into view and perched atop a fence.  Without thinking, I turned, faced into the sun, zoomed in all the way despite knowing I was ill prepared for such an endeavor, and I pulled the trigger—photographically speaking.  Much to my surprise, I captured this rather poor image of a bird that rarely stands still.

(Honestly, without time to change lenses or get closer, I took four pictures, all the while telling myself I’d get nothing for the effort.  That even one of them showed the actual subject with any clarity brought a great deal of cheer to my heart!)

A juvenile Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in a tree (211_1135)

A juvenile Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii).  Lake Tawakoni impressed me beyond measure.  The giant spider web overwhelmed me with its vast reach and unexpected majesty, yet every direction I turned offered one more surprise…and one more challenge for my little PowerShot S50.  When this accipiter landed in a tree some distance from me, its tail resting comfortably on a branch behind it as the predator surveyed the morning landscape, I scarcely thought I would be able to see it in any of the photos I took.  Small and compact, the camera I had with me offered few answers to the challenges I put before it.  In this case, however, it at least let me know it tried.

An American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) seen through brush and branches (IMG_20080105_00804)

This poor unidentified bird left me wanting (see update at bottom of post).  Never having seen its face, let alone a profile shot that might offer a bit more of its plumage for comparison, it landed only once in a small stream hidden by brush and branches.  Its song made me turn and look; the click of the camera made it disappear into the sunrise.

A female northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) clinging to the side of a tree as she looks to the side (IMG_20080106_00932)

A female northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).  The rat-tat-tat of pecking above my head called my attention to an otherwise silent visitor.  She clamored along the tree’s bark high in the treetop, and the faint echo of her efforts provided the only evidence of the encounter.  I backed away snapping photo after photo under less than ideal circumstances: the sun had not yet risen above the treeline; a great number of bare branches stood between me and her position; and her color made her all but invisible in such dim light and at such a great distance.  The only thing I could focus on was the spot of red on the back of her neck.

A male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) standing on a bit of tall grass (20080629_08622)

A male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus).  I followed this chap from Garland Road to Sunset Bay (quite a distance for those unfamiliar with White Rock Lake).  He stayed well ahead of me, and each time I got close and tried to take a photo, he darted further ahead—but always stayed close enough that I could see him.  Native to this area, I never doubted his identity; I did, however, doubt that I would get a respectable image of him.  This is another case of pretending not to notice the very thing I wanted to photograph.  Only when I leisurely walked by as though he didn’t exist was I able to surreptitiously aim the camera at him and snap a few images.

— — — — — — — — — —

The purpose of this series has been manifold:

  1. To show that one need not have the greatest equipment available in order to capture a memory.  None of these photographs will be published, but each of them means a great deal to me.
  2. Every picture doesn’t have to be a work of art, let alone something worthy of inclusion in a nature guide (or other publication).  I’ve been published because of my photography, yet the image that started me down that path was taken with a weak and simple point-and-shoot camera, and it was an image taken only because I wanted to capture a beautiful thing that Mom pointed out to me.
  3. Photography is a personal endeavor.  What I show here has nothing whatsoever to do with wanting to share with the world.  It has everything to do with wanting to experience the world, and once in a while finding that effort resulted in a moment others might enjoy.
  4. I’ve long advocated that a camera at the ready is the most meaningful tool anyone can have, for it enables us to memorialize life as it happens.  A small red bird.  A waterfall casting a rainbow upon the day.  A simple confluence of stars and planets that won’t be seen again for a hundred years.  The list goes on.  Memories are personal and fleeting; photographs can be forever and immemorial.

[Update] I have since identified that bird as an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

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