Roseate spoonbills preening and moving nesting material around; High Island’s Smith Woods rookery, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas. Watercolor over pencil, drawn through a teeny Nikon field scope to the great amusement of the Guys with the Big Lenses. 8 1/2″ x 11, Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook.
There’s a species of birder that birds through the long lens of a high-caliber camera. These birders are usually male, although more women join the band every year. I call them the Big Lens Guys. They appear to be an army unit clothed in camo and khaki and multi-pocketed vests. As a rule, they are strong and silent, patient and intense. When a warbler alights, bazooka lenses swing to aim, focus, and fire off motorized clips of imagery. It sounds (and looks) like a battlefront. It’s awesome.
The Big Lens Guys on warbler watch. Artificial water features are staged to attract birds, and roped off to hold back the paparazzi. Ant Man, far right, expertly birdwatches and drinks coffee in one smooth motion. Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, Galveston Island, TX.
A pair of artificial water features were in operation at Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, a jungly copse of hardwood and vine on Galveston Island. A weary songbird making landfall after crossing the broad Gulf of Mexico would spot this patch of greenery and come in for a drink, lured by splashing water. In migration, anything feathered can drop down and birders will be right there to catch them. Blue winged warblers, Baltimore orioles, painted and indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, waves of Tennessees. One day I stopped by and a McGillivray’s warbler did, too.
Common nighthawk on a post near condo towers, Galveston Island. Pencil, 8″ x 10″
Here’s where the story gets a little dark. Of the two water features, one was under intense scrutiny, while the other feature, tucked away in deeper vegetation, was oddly devoid of birders. When things got quiet at Feature #1, I walked over to #2, a short distance away.
Tricolored heron studies, watercolor over pencil, Stillman & Birn Alpha Series 8 1/2″ x 11″. Fishing for teeny minnows in a Bolivar inlet on an incoming tide.
Where I saw something small and misshapen twisting in the gloom. Raising binoculars, I peered into the shadows.
In the pool, a water moccasin takes a warbler. Watercolor over pencil, Stillman & Birn Alpha Series, 8 1/2″ x 11″
A water moccasin of enormous size was gulping down a warbler. From the head and upper body of the bird, I could tell it was a female black and white. I was about to sketch the drama, but first I hurried back to relay the news (common courtesy, I guess). The Big Lens Guys uprooted and made a beeline for the second feature. With their long lenses and tripod legs they erected a barrier that shut me out as they fired off their cannons. As I struggled to see, a nice birder got indignant on my behalf (bless you, whoever you are) and pushed me to the front of the crowd, where I sat on the ground cross-legged and drew. The snake worked its jaws around the struggling warbler as photographic pandemonium exploded behind me. One Big Lens Guy even balanced his lens on my head. For a brief moment the water moccasin wore the suggestion of a mustache, gray primaries being the last to go down the throat. Then they, too, disappeared, and the snake slid backward into the mire.
White ibis and dunlin, Galveston East End marsh. Watercolor over pencil.
On our last night in Galveston, Ant Man and I ate dinner by the beach and took a long sunset walk on the darkening sand. Exhausted birds shot past us across the curling waves of the Gulf, flying low and tired. Warblers and buntings and grosbeaks, they skimmed the beach, rose up at the seawall, and disappeared into the night.
Back home again, I rigged up my own artificial dripper out of black tubing wrapped around the branches of our holly tree and attached to the faucet outside. Water dribbles into the bird bath below. Birds come from blocks around to splash in the little concrete basin. And there’s nary a snake in sight.