Tag Archives: killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)

Not just cows

I told my family a month ago that they were here, that they were in the pasture, that they were holding their ground.

Only I hadn’t seen more than two adults.  Though, admittedly, I knew what they were up to, where they’d be, what they had planned.

And I’d never seen them so early, at least not like this, at least not like before, in June.

This is March, right?  Besides, it was late February when I first spied them.

Yet despite my feeling that it was too early, they proved me wrong.  Very wrong.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) eggs (20130320_05732)

For that’s what I discovered a few weeks ago.  In the pasture.  With the cows.

Nest.  Eggs.  Life forthcoming.

“There are no eggs,” I declared, “because it’s too soon, too early.”

Oh, but I was wrong.

And whose nest is it?

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) on a nest (20130320_05743)

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), of course.

Today I almost stepped on it, at least before I was turned away by abrupt and loud diversions right at my feet.  Trust me: I mean right at my feet.

I was close enough to kick the bird, to step on the eggs.  For I’d forgotten precisely where the nest hid.

But they reminded me.  They always remind me.

So along with calves less than two weeks old, we have a vibrant killdeer nest two months earlier than I’d expect.

Two months earlier than I’ve ever seen.

In Texas.

But no worries.  My family—my father especially—wants to ensure the birds aren’t bothered.  I’m the only one who’d bother them since I’m the only one who understands them.

Still, there’s much excitement here on the farm given this new source of life, this new family, this new pleasure in small things.

So I’m watching them.  And waiting.  Like before.

Because I know how they are.  I know what they plan.  I know what they wish to create.

I’m watching.  And waiting.  Like before.

Because this show is worth patience.

A textbook photo

Back in summer 2009 I spent several weeks monitoring a bird nest.  Not just any bird nest, but the nest of killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), the shorebird species least likely to be associated with a shore.

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) (2009_06_03_021880_n)

The few times I walked through the field where the pair nested, the adults gave me their best diversionary tactics, which is how the adventure began: their no-holds-barred displays to lead me, the predator, away from their nest.  They showed me false brooding, the broken wing display, the threat display, and the ungulate display, though they didn’t treat me to their most dramatic move: flying into the face of an approaching threat, something that often scares animals into changing directions—away from the nest, of course!

Eventually I also captured photos of them standing guard over the nest, their last-ditch maneuver when a predator just doesn’t get the hint, and of course when the happy day finally arrived, I got to see the chicks as they hatched and left the nest, never to look back.

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) (2009_06_03_021915_c)

The opportunity was too cool for words for many reasons, one being the opportunity to get some totally excellent photos and another being the learning opportunity, but the most important being the chance to experience nature as it happens, something I rather enjoy and much prefer to reading about it later.

One of the photos to appear in the first post linked above happens to be of the male giving me his best broken wing act.  Killdeer have mastered this display, as you can see from the photos in that post, but the image in question I snapped as I walked slowly behind him, letting him feel confident his display was working.  (It’s important under these circumstances to let the animals feel accomplished lest they abandon the nest due to failure.)  The picture is this one:

A killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving the broken wing display (2009_06_03_021847)

All his acting skills are brought to bear, as you can see, and I let him win by leading me away from the nest and the eggs (seen in the second post linked above).  I had by that time let them show me all their moves, and I wanted them to be there later as I continued to watch the nest, so we trailed across the field until he felt confident I wouldn’t find the nest, then off he flew.  (Of course I already knew damn well where the nest was, but we must play our games.)

Almost a year later, I had all but forgotten the photo.  But then the talented Seabrooke Leckie reminded me of it by showing off her own version, a colored pencil sketch that is rather impressive.  I was glad someone had seen something in that photo and decided to work some personal magic on the scene.

Then in October 2010, I received an e-mail from Dr. Jack W. Bradbury, the Robert G. Engel Professor of Ornithology Emeritus in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University.  He said in part:

Dr. Sandra Vehrencamp and I are working on a second edition of a textbook entitled Principles of Animal Communication. We have a draft figure in which we want to show a shorebird doing a broken wing display and really liked your third (from the top) photo of a killdeer doing this display on your site …

Would you be interested in letting us use this photo?

Would I be interested?  Does a bear…  Well, yes, of course I’d be interested, and so I pursued the opportunity.  After agreements were made and the file provided, I then had to sit back and wait.  And wait.  Because the book wasn’t to be published until summer 2011, precisely two years after I took the shot.

But now the wait has ended.  I recently received my contributor’s copy of Principles of Animal Communication, Second Edition, and I’m thrilled to say it’s one more notch in my photographic belt.


As these things go, it’s a large book, but it’s a textbook, so I shouldn’t be too surprised by its bulk.  Better than many of the textbooks I grew up using, this one is full color and thorough.  It covers tremendous amounts of science and overflows with graphics, photographs and diagrams.  It’s a mighty fine piece of work!

And there on page 574, in the section titled “Last-ditch prey signals to predators,” is my charming killdeer, right beside a skink showing off its recently detached tail:


As has happened with all my licensed photographs, this opportunity presented itself not because I went looking for the chance, but rather because the chance came to me, thanks to simple web searches bringing someone to my blog.  It’s called crowd sourcing, and take it from me, it’s pretty damned neat!

The observer effect

Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving me a little peep (2009_06_03_021880)

When I began voraciously studying physics in high school, the term “observer effect” intrigued me.  It applies to all observational methods, and although quantum mechanics was studied only in the cursory way an AP Physics class can cover any one topic, it put a whole new spin on the premise of the observer effect by showing it remained valid for all observers, even those who weren’t aware they were observing anything (e.g., an electron can cause the observer effect just as easily as a human can).

What the observer effect helps us understand is that the act of observing a phenomenon changes the state of that phenomenon, even if only a small bit.  Consider this: When you take a baby’s temperature, the thermometer must draw heat from the infant’s body in order to measure it, therefore the child’s temperature is changed by the act of observing it.

Although focused on quantum mechanics, a highly controlled study more than ten years ago proved a startling truth: “The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of ‘watching,’ the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.”  But what does this have to do with the environment, saving the planet or nature in general?

Let’s start with this:

It features regularly on lists of things people want to do before they die, but swimming with stingray may not be the life-enhancing experience expected — at least not for the animals.

A new study has revealed that stingray at a tourist hotspot in the Cayman Islands are suffering because of all the human attention. The Grand Cayman sandbank, dubbed Stingray City, is regularly swamped with up to 2,500 visitors at a time, most of whom have paid handsomely for the chance to feed, stroke and swim with the creatures.

The study highlights the risks to animals posed by the growing “wildlife tourism” industry. Experts say wild populations of creatures such as dolphins, penguins and sharks are also affected by increased contact with curious people.

Other examples of the observer effect and how it impacts nature:

Dolphins: Creatures in Australia targeted by tourists are more likely to abandon their young

Killer whales: Whale watching in Canadian waters is shown to reduce animal feeding time

Penguins: Even minimal human contact is shown to double the heart rate of New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguins

Apes: Mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are known to be susceptible to human diseases

Yet not all manifestations of the observer effect mean obvious harm to nature.  In some cases humans are not seen as predators because they supply food and because they reduce the risk of predation.  Certain species react well to this arrangement, and it allows them to focus more time and energy on reproduction.  Take this video for example:

Simply by being there and observing, the people in the boat drastically change the outcome of the orca hunt, but their impact is not intentional and it is not entirely detrimental.  No one would argue that the penguin thought they were interfering, though it can be asked if the lack of a kill negatively impacted the whale pod, perhaps because of an ill or older member, or a very young member, who did not eat because of the observer effect.

Months ago on the TEXBIRDS mailing list, I remember reading from one woman who gleefully explained how she and another person traveled nearly 2,000 miles over the course of three or four days in order to see two or three rare birds in Texas.  I had to wonder what kind of environmental impact they had in their travels, what with driving all that way, consuming as they went, affecting nature through the act of observation.  If the carbon footprint of that trip could be measured…

Yet it’s part of a growing trend of eco-tourism.  People travel mind-boggling distances to swim with the stingrays, to observe the orcas, to see a rare bird.  They say getting there is half the fun, but it’s also part of the problem—and an integral part of the observer effect.

The rise of eco-tourism is a product of humanity’s sudden interest in the environment as something more than a source of fuel and food.  This newfound appreciation can benefit the environment and the creatures inhabiting it.  It can reduce the killing of wildlife, it can save habitat from destruction, and it can change people and economies in ways that allow humans to make a living by protecting the planet.

The catch, though, stems from the observer effect.  It behooves us to understand the impact we have and to manage that impact as best we can.  Long has been my hope in sharing my nature photography that it would allow people to see and better appreciate what will be lost through inaction, what often goes unnoticed by others until it’s pointed out.  I share this goal with those individuals and organizations that provide eco-tourism services whereby people can experience the breathtaking splendor too long hidden by consumerism.

But we must tread carefully and be certain throngs of appreciative people don’t trample all the life we’re trying to save.  And we must be certain that we do not drastically impact that which we observe.

A great egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage hunting in the shallows at sunset (2009_06_04_022126)

— — — — — — — — — —

Photos (just to give some eye candy to my little rant):

  1. Close-up of a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) giving me a little peep.
  2. A great egret (Ardea alba) in breeding plumage hunting in the shallows at sunset.

It’s that time of year again

Last year about this time I photographed a pair of red-shouldered hawks getting to know each other in the biblical sense.  They’re the same hawks whose new nest I discovered a few weeks back.

So yesterday I checked on the nest.  She was settled down far enough to make her difficult to see, but at least they appear serious about using that location.  I snapped a few pictures to record her presence, then I continued on with a leisurely walk around White Rock Lake.

Near the meadows of Winfrey Point I heard killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) up the hill from me and decided to try for some photos.  Thankfully one of them was being vocal enough to make them locatable.

Two killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing in a meadow (2010_03_06_050633)

At that point all I could tell was that the one on the right was talking.  Not vocal as in loud, but vocal in a way that had a “come hither” feel to it.  I experienced an immediate sense of familiarity.  With the one talking and the other one approaching, it reminded me of the hawks from last year.  It didn’t take long to see that it’s that time of year again, the time of year when “go forth and multiply” becomes nature’s motto.

Mating killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) (2010_03_06_050670)

I felt somewhat like a peeping Tom.  Worse even because I was taking pictures.  Silliness aside, there’s something beautiful about nature doing its thing, not at all worried for appearances or prude human sensibilities.

A male killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) dismounting a female after mating (2010_03_06_050672)

The deed done, he dismounted—albeit not with the grace he intended.  She flinched her wing as he stepped, so off he tumbled.  But he recovered with dignity and walked away as though he’d done her a favor.  I giggled.

She moved in my direction as he moved away.  I was still some distance away from either of them, so I took a slow step toward her thinking I might grab a couple of closer shots before leaving them to their morning.  That’s when something interesting happened.

Male killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing in a meadow and watching me (2010_03_06_050674)

He ran a short distance back in my direction before turning around.  He watched me.  Closely.

Male killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) distracting me from his mate (2010_03_06_050687)

So I took one more slow step toward her.  He then parted his wings enough to show some bright rufous as he took several quick steps away from me.  He added some vocalizations to increase the effectiveness of his display.  Having spent so much time last year documenting their diversionary tactics, I know well enough that showing the flashy rump color is meant to grab the attention of threats.  Only I’d never seen it used without a nest to protect.

And when I took a few steps backward—away from her—he closed his wings yet remained where he stood, and he watched me closely.  Mate guarding.  I’d never seen the behavior before; nevertheless, there’s no doubt he was making himself a more obvious target to distract me from her.