Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Brazos Bend: Elm Lake

We rounded off our trip to Brazos Bend with quick visits to some other sections of the park.

The sky over the Visitor Center had a pair of Mississippi Kites, the first I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately, they were circling too high to allow clear photos.

We parked at Elm Lake and I spent a few minutes exploring the water’s edge. The birds there were the same as at 40 Acre Lake: White Ibis, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Common Moorhen, etc.

Adult White Ibises

First Summer White Ibis

This 9' alligator was keeping a close eye on the Ibises.

There were more Purple Gallinules.

I noticed movement in the water under a tree and crouched down to see a family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. The white bird sharing the shade with them was a White Ibis.

I almost missed this alligator, which was being particularly sneaky by hiding most of its body in a concrete conduit pipe. (To be fair, I guess it might just have been trying to keep cool.)

On our way out of the park, we stopped at the Visitor Center again so I could have a quick look at Creekfield Lake.

Surprisingly, I’d never been to this lake on any of my many previous trips to Brazos Bend. As it seems to attract plenty of birds, I’ll certainly make a point of checking it out further during my next visit.

We made a final quick stop at the park entrance to admire the huge oak trees there.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Brazos Bend: 40 Acre Lake

We spent yesterday morning at Brazos Bend State Park and we had a wonderful time. The park was almost empty of visitors, a constant breeze made walking pleasant, and there was lots of wildlife action.

Much of the surface of 40 Acre Lake was covered with lily pads.



Common Moorhens were everywhere.

The youngest chicks stayed well away from the path.

But the older ones were much more adventurous.

Green Herons were so plentiful that I quickly lost count of how many we had seen.

The air was full with the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. I'm still always impressed by how well the latter manage to perch on trees.

We passed several Tricolored Herons, one of which let us stand only feet away while it hunted.

Mosquitoes were conspicuous by their absence but there were plenty of other bugs around.

Red-eared Sliders were common, too.

My main target bird for the day was the Purple Gallinule, perhaps the most beautiful of all the water and wading birds. I saw several around the lake but it was an hour before one of them finally came out into the open long enough for me to take photographs.

My other target bird was the Least Grebe, a very rare species in our area and one which I had seen only once before, on a trip to the Rio Grande valley. A solitary Least Grebe has been hanging out at Brazos since the spring and, with the help of some birders we met along the way, we managed to find it.

Although the park calls itself "The Home of the American Alligator," there didn't seem to be any alligators around yesterday. That is, until you examined the lake's surface more carefully.

Like many of the trees in the park, those along the southern edge of the lake were draped in Spanish Moss.

Our final sighting at 40 Acre Lake was of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron that was fishing right next to the path.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Great Photo-editing Software

Like most people who take a lot of digital photos, I edit my photos before I print them or post them on my blog. In the past I've always used the editing software that came with my camera and this has produced reasonably good results. However, I've just found software that is easier to use and does a much better job. It's called Picasa 3 - and you can download it for free!

Look at the photo of a Long-billed Curlew below. I think you'll agree that it is pretty bad: The picture is on a slant, the bird is so small in the frame that it's hard to see, and the whole photo looks flat and washed out.
Now look at the photo below. It certainly isn't a masterpiece but I'm sure you'll agree it is much better than the first one.
In fact, picture #2 is just a digitally edited version of picture #1. It was produced in 5 minutes using Picasa 3.
Let me take you through the steps that turned photo #1 into photo #2.

The 'Basic Fixes' section in Picasa has a function called 'Straighten'. You just drag a slide bar at the bottom of the screen until the picture is truly horizontal.
. .
The Curlew was a long way from me when I took the original photo. So, even though I used a zoom lens, it looks very small in the photo.
No problem. I go to the 'Crop' feature in the 'Basic Fixes' section of Picasa and now I can make the Curlew fill more of the frame.

An odd thing about our culture is that, because our writing is oriented left to right, we tend to look at pictures the same way. In my photo, the Curlew is oriented left to right and so our eyes tend to follow its direction and to move out of the picture very quickly. The solution is to press Ctrl + Shift + h in Picasa, and the bird is reversed. Most people will prefer this version.


The photo still looks very flat and washed out. This is easily fixed in Picasa. You click on 'Auto Contrast' and 'Auto Color' in the 'Basic Fixes' section and the program will improve the photo for you. (If you prefer, you can click on 'Tuning' instead and make adjustments to the contrast and color yourself.)
The photo is okay now but it's not quite as clear as I would like it to be. So I go to "Sharpen' in the 'Effects' section in Picasa and this improves the picture a little more.

In case you've forgotten how bad the original photo was, here it is again for comparison.

The 'Effects' section of Picasa 3 also lets you do things like convert the photo to black-and-white or ...

... give it that old-fashioned sepia look.

You can download Picasa 3 in a few minutes - and completely free - from

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Our visit to Galveston had given us some confidence that the coastal area was recovering fast from Hurricane Ike, and this feeling was increased when we found that the Stingaree restaurant on Bolivar had survived the storm and was again open for business. However, as we drove east along the peninsula, the communities we passed through had clearly been devastated and showed only few signs of recovery.

When we stopped to do some birding at Rollover Pass, we found the site changed beyond recognition and we were so depressed by its current state that we drove on almost immediately.

Our spirits were lifted when we found that the area around Anahuac NWR and the entrance road to the refuge seemed much the same as usual. Then we reached the office/store and started to see some of the destruction caused by Ike. Only the shell of the office/store remained.

The pond there was completely dry and the only birds around were Barn Swallows. The butterfly garden seemed to be recovering, though, and it was attracting plenty of butterflies.

Gulf Fritillary

Pipevine Swallowtail

Unfortunately, the rest of the refuge was in a much worse state than the garden. Shoveler Pond seemed to be totally dry and virtually devoid of birds except Red-winged Blackbirds and Grackles. The edge of the canal along its southern rim was lined with hurricane debris swept up by the surge of water from the coast: beams, planks, doors, sections of decks and walls, etc. Not surprisingly, we didn't see a single alligator around Shoveler Pond, whereas normally we see a dozen or more.

The Willows, a famous area for birding during migrations, was a very sorry sight. A solitary Orchard Oriole looked very out of place there.

Our trip left us wondering just how many years it will take Anahuac to recover. There was one good sign, however: The Willows boardwalk was graced by some fresh coyote scat. So either some animals survived Ike or, more likely, some have started to move into the area!