Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trouble With Warblers

Warblers are exceptionally beautiful birds but they cause birders a lot of trouble.

First, warblers are small birds, typically around 5" in length. So they are much harder to spot and watch than bigger birds, such as Mockingbirds and Cardinals.

Second, many warblers tend to flit around high in the tree tops, forcing birders to strain their heads back in order to watch the birds. The result is "warbler neck," a common affliction among birdwatchers during migration seasons.

Then there is the problem of movement. Unlike many other birds, warblers rarely perch for long in one place or in exposed positions. They are insect-eaters and so they are constantly in motion, foraging among leaves and twigs, looking for bugs. This makes it very difficult to get good looks at them. And it makes it extremely difficult to get good photos or video of them! (Video is particularly hard to shoot: For a still picture you need the bird to stay in one place for a fraction of a second, but for video you need it to stay there for several seconds.)

This morning I decided to use my coffee break to film some of the warblers that have been frequenting our campus nature trail. Finding the birds was easy: Within 5 minutes I'd spotted an American Redstart and Wilson's, Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Greeen Warblers. Filming the birds was a different matter. After 20 minutes of clambering through undergrowth and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I had lots of video footage of leaves with only the occasional blurred frame of part of a wing or tail.

I decided to give up and go back to work. That was when a Black-throated Green Warbler took pity on me and allowed me to film the short clips shown below.

Monday, May 12, 2008

More Migrants at Work

I went into work early this morning, hoping that a cold front might have brought some migrating birds to the CyFair college campus. My hunch paid off! There were lots of new birds in the clump of trees at the start of the nature trail.

First up were two flycatchers, who gave me very good looks and were even obliging enough to pose for photos on various trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, they were Empidax flycatchers, of which we get three almost identical species. So they were fun to watch but impossible to identify.

Empidonax Flycatcher

The next bird up was impossible to mistake: a Blackburnian Warbler. His plumage was so stunning that I forgot to use my camera until he was disappearing into the foliage. So this is the only photo I got.

Blackburnian Warbler

The next hour was hectic as I scrambled around in the undergrowth, following a succession of other warblers and trying to get photos of them while trying to avoid stepping in fire ant nests. However, taking photos of such restless birds as warblers is not easy, particularly with a digital camera. (Digital cameras have a significant time-lag between when you press the release and when the shutter actually opens.) I ended up with photo after photo of branches that a warbler had just left. Very frustrating!

Overall, though, I had an excellent hour's birding. As well as Blackburnian and Magnolia Warblers, I had good looks at three new-for-2008 warblers: Canada, Wilson's and Black-throated Green. So my year list has moved to 188 species.

On Friday, I'd noticed a Carolina Wren using a nesting box by the trail and had found that she'd just started building a nest there. This morning the front of the box was hanging open and so I went to look. The nest was now complete - and the wren was sitting on it. She flew away when I closed up the box but hopefully she will return to lay her eggs.

Just as I was leaving, I noticed a different but familiar-looking bird on a tree top. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that it was a female Orchard Oriole. Just at that moment, she was joined by a male in full breeding plumage. A great way to end a good hour's birding.

P.S. 5/13/08

A quick walk this morning revealed a very different story: Only one Empidonax and one Canada Warbler. However, I did spot a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, another new bird for the campus list.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Big Weekend: Bolivar Beach

I finally have time today to finish editing and posting photos of last weekend's trip.

On the way from High Island to Bolivar beach, we stopped for a few minutes at Rollover Pass. This is normally an excellent place to view a wide variety of sea birds and waders. Unfortunately, the site was fairly empty this time and the wind made it difficult to see very far. The only birds we spotted were right on the beach: Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstones at Rollover Pass

So we drove on to Retillon Road and Bolivar beach.

The blustery conditions were even worse at Bolivar, where we were forced to eat lunch in the car. However, the beach and sea were busy with birds.

Bolivar always has some interesting species, but the real beauty of the site is the sheer number of birds and the way many different species mix and interact together.

In the typical scene below, American Avocets provided a background to a mixed group of Laughing Gulls and Common, Royal and Sandwich Terns.

Nearby, a Royal Tern and a Laughing Gull shared a patch of beach with Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings.

While groups of Sanderlings huddled on the sand, individuals in a range of plumages scuttled around or picked at fish carcasses.

Brown and White Pelicans were present as expected, but more surprising was the number of American Oystercatchers, a much less common bird.

Bolivar wouldn't be Bolivar without a Reddish Egret or two. This time, there were several in their normal gray and rust plumage.

Even better, there were two white morph Reddish Egrets, a truly beautiful bird. The photo below shows one in a typical fishing pose. (They rush and jump around in the shallow water, extend their wings and stab at fish.)


I was quite pleased to have seen 86 species in 24 hours. However, my sightings pale into insignificance beside those of other local birders. A week earlier, a team of Texas birders broke the US "big birding day" record: Their total on a day trip around Austin and the upper Texas Coast was 260 species!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Big Weekend: Anahuac

There are few places more beautiful than Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in the spring. The reeds and grasses provide a constantly moving background of different shades of brown and green, while clumps of wildflowers add patches of more vibrant colors. Then, of course, you have the beauty provided by the wildlife.

On this trip, I got to the refuge alone at around 7:30 a.m. and birded the Willows and Shoveler's Pond. I then went back to the hotel to pick up Dee, and we both spent the next couple of hours exploring the same parts of Anahuac.

One of the early birds at the Willows was a Blackburnian Warbler. Sorry about the dreadful photo below but at least it shows the Blackburnian's trademark throat. (Restless birds like warblers are hard to photograph with a digital camera because of the latter's shutter delay.)

The reeds at the edges of Shoveler's Pond were excellent for Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules (below). My early morning drive turned up three of each. We saw both species again later.

The Willows remained good for birding later in the morning, with appearances by Magnolia Warbler, Orchard Orioles, Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart and Common Yellowthroat. The Black-and-white Warbler shown below was very cooperative and came within 4-5 feet of us.

The bullrushes and reeds everywhere around Shoveler's Pond had numbers of displaying Boat-tailed Grackles.

Sparrows were few and far between. We saw only a couple of Seaside Sparrows and a handful of Savannah Sparrows.

Savannah Sparrow

The Shoveler's Pond boardwalk was very productive. The White Ibis below seemed to enjoy being photographed ...

... as did this Mottled Duck.

A Dowitcher and a Stilt Sandpiper were equally obliging ...

... as was this Solitary Sandpiper.

The other birds near the boardwalk included Least Bittern, Common Moorhen, Blue-winged Teal, Great and Tricolored Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, Least Bittern, Eastern Kingbird and Barn Swallows.

Our final tally for the morning was 48 bird species, which is about the number we usually see in 2-3 hours at Anahuac.

We also saw 19 alligators. That equals our alligator-spotting record set at Brazos Bend Park a few springs ago.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Big Weekend: High Island Rookeries

The main attraction at Smith Oaks are the rookeries. These are on small islands in the lake but many are close enough to the path that you can get great views of the birds.

When we arrived, the islands' trees were absolutely packed with the nests of different birds: Double-crested Cormorants, Great and Snowy Egrets, Anhingas, Roseate Spoonbills and Tricolored Herons. The spectacle was almost overwhelming - as was the noise of hundreds of chicks screaming for food.

A Typical Tree Top

Great Egrets were among the most common birds.

Some of the egrets, like the one below, appeared to be more interested in preening than in their chicks.

Others were attentively feeding their babies.

Plenty of color was added to the scene by the large number of Roseate Spoonbills.

Tricolored Herons were fairly few and far between but we saw a couple fly over.

Tricolored Heron

Surprisingly, considering how crowded the rookery was, most of the birds seemed to co-exist quite happily, like these Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbill.

Great and Snowy Egrets and a Spoonbill

However, there was some jockeying for good perches, as between this Spoonbill and Cormorant...

... and tempers got a little frayed now and then.

We were going to stay until dusk to see the rest of the birds fly back to their roosts but the mosquitoes became too fierce. So we headed back to the hotel, stopping to admire this very bold rabbit.

The trees near the parking area had many Eastern Kingbirds and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, as well as a couple of Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers.

Bay-breasted Warbler (Another life bird)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Migrants at Work

At 9:30 a.m. I got an email from a colleague, saying he could see some interesting birds out of his office window. I rushed down. Sure enough, the little patch of mesquite trees next to the technology building had an Eastern Phoebe, two American Redstarts, a Magnolia Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush. (The latter was a new life bird.)

Later in the day, I spotted another Redstart and a Scarlet Tanager. The Tanager took our campus bird list to 142 species.

It's good that my office doesn't have a window or I'd never get any work done during spring migration!

On May 8, Clay White spotted a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Chestnut-sided Warbler on our nature trail, taking the campus list to 144. I saw a Common Yellowthroat, a Magnolia Warbler, an Empidonax sp. and a Black-and-white Warbler. The latter took our list to 145.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Big Weekend: High Island

We arrived at Boy Scout Woods at 3:30 p.m. and the sanctuary was hopping with birds and birders. Before we reached the sign-in desk, I'd seen a Brown-headed Cowbird, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and two Red-eyed Vireos.

Red-eyed Vireos

A short walk produced several more birds, including Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Kingbird, Philadelphia Vireo, Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-pewee.

Eastern Wood-pewee

The drip had several a Gray Catbird, American Redstarts and several Magnolia Warblers.

Magnolia Warbler

We debated over whether to stay in the woods or to head to Smith Oaks to see the rookery. In the end, the rookery won out.

What a Weekend!

As planned, we drove down to Winnie on Saturday to spend the weekend birding High Island, Anahuac and Bolivar. And what a weekend it was! We saw 86 species in less than 24 hours. It'll take me a couple of days to do a full blog of the trip but let me post some highlights now.

High Island

Migrants were all over Boy Scout Woods and the rookery at Smith Oaks was a mass of birds and nests. Bird of the day for me was a Bay-breasted Warbler, a lifer.

Roseate Spoonbills at Smith Oaks


We spent Sunday morning at Anahuac - more migrants and another life bird, Stilt Sandpiper. Plus lots of other birds, including four each of Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules, and 19 alligators.

Purple Gallinule at Anahuac


The Bolivar beach sanctuary was wild and windy but had quite a few interesting birds, including lots of American Avocets, 6 tern species and two white-morph Reddish Egrets.

White-morph Reddish Egret Fishing at Bolivar

A Really Big Surprise

Back home, I had just started downloading photos from the trip when I noticed an odd bird through my study window. It was standing boldly on the fence and ripping apart an orange that I'd put out to attract orioles. Olive back, yellow breast, white belly. White spectacles, too. Could it be ...? Yes!!! A Yellow-breasted Chat. A bird I've been actively looking for at the college over the past two weeks, and another lifer. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo but only a quick video clip, shot through a dirty windown and window screen.

As I said, what a weekend! It added 3 life birds and increased my 2008 list by 22 to 184 species.