Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Common Birds

Some time ago I mentioned that, like many birders, I tend to be so excited by the prospect of seeing new or unusual birds that I forget to give common birds the attention that they deserve. I was thinking about this earlier today, when I was watching a Turkey Vulture flying over the CyFair college campus.

I seriously doubt that the Turkey Vulture is anyone's favorite bird. When you see them up close on the ground or perched, they are both ugly and ungainly. This impression is reinforced when you see them feeding. I once watched 50 fighting over (and in) the carcass of a dead cow and it was most definitely not a pretty sight.

However, I never fail to be impressed when I watch them in flight. For a start, they are huge: Their 67" wingspan is much bigger than that of any hawk and only about a foot less than that of a Bald or Golden Eagle. Still more impressive, they seem to fly totally without effort, rarely if ever flapping their wings even on the windiest of days. If only we could learn to be so energy efficient - and so graceful!

It is worth bearing in mind, too, that they do an excellent and essential job in disposing of animal remains. Think how many Turkey Vultures there are and how much rotting flesh each one presumably eats every year. Now imagine what our roads and fields would look - and smell - like if there were no Turkey Vultures around.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spring Creek Park, Tomball

On Monday morning we spent a couple of hours in Spring Creek Park. Although it was rather blustery, there were plenty of birds around: We ended up with 22 species, which I think is the most I've ever seen there. Unfortunately, few of the birds were in the mood to be photographed.

I got only brief glimpses through branches as this Cooper's Hawk circled overhead.

American Robins, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Pine Warblers were the most numerous species, but we also saw several Downy Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Orange-crowned Warblers, American Goldfinch, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Carolina Chickadees.
Carolina Chickadee

The open areas had American Pipits, Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and a solitary Killdeer.


The Cooper's Hawk was a new year bird, as was this Northern Flicker.

White-eyed Vireo and Brown Creeper took my 2009 list to 89 species.

Very Busy Yards

Our yards have been really busy lately, with the most numerous birds being 60+ Chipping Sparrows, 40+ American Goldfinch and 20+ White-winged Doves. However, Our Blue Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have still managed to muscle their way in. Other species have often had to wait for ages before they could get in for a meal.

Blue Jay

There has often been competition between birds of the same species, too. One Yellow-rumped Warbler is guarding his/her territory very fiercely and there have been numerous tussles between Pine Warblers and between Orange-crowned Warblers.

This Ruby-crowned Kinglet was shocked to discover that its preferred suet feeder had fallen to the ground but, when I rehung the feeder on another branch, he/she found it within seconds.

One of our male House Finches seems to be having trouble flying and we're hoping that it isn't anything serious. It's a little worrying that he let me get within two feet of him before flying off though.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It Ain't Over Till ...

Sunday morning we met up with our friends the Aguilars for birding and a picnic at San Bernard NWR. I was hoping for lots of sparrows, as well as a good range of water and wading birds.

Unfortunately, the refuge was closed because they were just starting a controlled burn.

To make matters worse, it was so cold and windy that there was no way we were going to be able to picnic. However, we did see a few birds, including my first Greater Yellowlegs and White-faced Ibis of the year, plus no fewer than five Wilson's Snipes.

Rather than abandon the day, we decided to drive up to Brazos Bend State Park. I've never found it to be great for birds but it's always a pleasant place to walk around.

We started our afternoon at the park with a very cold picnic at 40 Acre Lake. Even birds like this Tricolored Heron seemed to be feeling the chill.

When the sun came out and the day warmed up, we headed over to Elm Lake, which was busy with a variety of water and wading birds, as well as numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Pipits.

American Pipit

There were groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks everywhere.

They and a couple of Little Blue Herons seemed totally unconcerned by our presence.

The trees near the lake were hopping with smaller birds: Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Pine and Orange-crowned Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Bluebirds and Tufted Titmice.

I couldn't get a good photo of an Eastern Bluebird ...

... and the Tufted Titmice were almost equally skittish.

Overall, Brazos Bend was very productive for birds. I saw 39 species, of which 12 were new for the year: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Blue- and Green-winged Teal, Common Moorhen, Tricolored and Little Blue Heron, White Ibis, Red-shouldered Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Eastern Bluebird. Outside the park I saw two other new birds. Rock Dove/Pigeon and White-tiled Kites. This took my year list to 80 species, which is not bad considering how little birding I've done to date.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pleasant Surprise

In Thursday's blog I mentioned wondering if I would see any new birds at CyFair on Friday.

As it turned out, I had absolutely zero time for birding at the college on Friday. However, while I was walking between buildings at lunchtime, I heard a familar sound, looked up, and saw - my first Eastern Phoebe of the year.
Now that's what I call effortless birding.

This week birders from all over the USA have been flocking to Choke Canyon, Texas to see a Pine Flycatcher. This is a rather nondescript bird but one that is making its first recorded appearance in the USA. Part of me totally understands the excitement it has caused and the wish of birders to add a rare bird to their life lists. The other part of me totally refuses to drive several hours in order to stand in a crowd of birders and look at a bird that is much less attractive than the Eastern Phoebe that I just saw. So I guess the Pine Flycatcher is one bird I won't be adding to my life and year lists. Well, not unless it comes a lot closer to Houston anyway!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Birding at Work

One of the many reasons why I like working at CyFair College is that the campus has a good number and variety of birds. (Our current site list has 153 species.) This is partly because the campus has several different habitats: mowed soccer fields; a variety of newly-planted trees; undisturbed grassy and wooded areas; and two large retention ponds surrounded by reeds.

As my work schedule is flexible, I usually manage to fit in half-an-hour's birding several times a week and so I've become very familiar with the site and its birds.

Naturally, I tend to see many of the same birds day after day: At present, this means lots of American Pipits, Savannah Sparrows, Killdeer, Eastern Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Every few days, though, something different turns up. This is what happened this morning.

The soccer fields and the grassy area behind them had all the usual suspects. The first section of the nature trail also started out predictably with Northern Cardinals and Swamp Sparrows. But then two Lincoln's Sparrows popped up, as did a Swamp Sparrow and a House Wren.
A few moments later a vague gray shape in the bushes behind me moved into a patch of sunlight and revealed itself to be a Gray Catbird, a bird I've never before seen in this area. It was followed almost immediately by a Brown Thrasher, another bird that I hadn't previously seen in the Cypress area.

Gray Catbird (on Galveston)

So a very pleasant few minutes of birding, and three more species for my 2009 list. I wonder if any new birds will appear tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Picking Up - After a Slow Start!

Until today, I'd done very little birding since the start of the new year. Dee and I went out for a drive around the Kay Prairie on Sunday, but it was so cold and windy that there were few birds and we never really got out of the car. The only sighting of note was a distant immature Bald Eagle.

Surprisingly, though, I'd already seen 51 species by the end of yesterday, mainly in our yards and at the college where I work.
As this morning dawned bright and sunny, I set off early to do a little birding on the way to work. My hope was to see some Sandhill Cranes in Prairie View that a co-worker had mentioned yesterday. Sure enough, there were twenty Sandhills exactly where she'd seen them, and they were accompanied by a dozen Snow Geese.

Sandhill Cranes in the distance

I drove on to work via Paul Rushing Park and Longenbaugh Road, two other sites on the Katy prairie.

Paul Rushing had mainly expected birds: Savannah Sparrows, Killdeer, Horned and Horned Larks. However, I also spotted a Marbled Godwit and I was thrilled to see a Wilson's Snipe. I'd only seen a Snipe once before, ten years ago in Martinez, California.

Wilson's Snipe

Longenbaugh was quiet, except for more Savannah Sparrows. (These are the only sparrows I've seen in numbers this winter.) As usual, American Kestrels lined the road.

American Kestrel

The lone Pyrrhuloxia was at the Bear Creek bridge, accompanied by yet more Savannah Sparrows, a Winter Wren and a Brewer's Blackbird.

Brewer's Blackbird

At the college, the soccer fields were as busy as usual with flocks of Savannah Sparrows, American Pipits, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings. A White-throated Sparrow, an American Robin and a pair of Double-crested Cormorants moved my 2009 list to 60 species.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

My Birding in 2008

My primary birding focus for 2008 was to get to know local sites better, and I did pretty well with this. In the early part of the year I fitted in numerous short, usually productive trips to the Longenbaugh Road area of the Katy Prairie. Throughout the year, except in the summer, I managed to do regular birding walks around the CyFair college campus where I work. As a result, I saw lots of species and have built up a good picture of which species appear where and when.

One of hundreds of Cedar Waxwings at CyFair in March

Red-tailed Hawk at CyFair
Birdwatching in our yards was as much of a delight as ever. Apart from all of our usual birds, this year the yards attracted two new species: a Yellow-breasted Chat and some Nutmeg Mannikins.

Nutmeg Mannikin in our yard

A little further afield, Dee and I made several very enjoyable birding trips to other Upper Texas Coast wildlife sites. Of these, the most exciting by far was a weekend in the Anahuac/High Island area in early May, during spring migration.

The rookery at High Island in May

The birding highlight of the late summer was supposed to be several days at Surfside with my daughter, her partner and our first grandchild. Although Hurricane Ike intervened to cut short the trip, we still got to do some good birdwatching at Brazoria, Surfside and Bolivar. (Unfortunately, several of our favorite birding sites were devastated by Ike and will take a very long time to recover.)

Black-bellied Plover on Surfside beach

Several business and family-related trips outside Texas were less productive for birds. A few days in London and Cambridge in March turned up plenty of birds but later trips to Mexico City and New Orleans were largely bird-free.

Tufted Duck in London

A day spent in the Denver area during the summer was also disappointing for birds, although the scenery certainly made the day worthwhile.

Swainson's Hawk in Denver

Roxborough Park near Denver

The highlight of the year was definitely our December trip to Marathon and Big Bend National Park. Birding was excellent at both places and the park scenery was absolutely breathtaking.

Chisos Basin in Big Bend

Canyon Towhee in Big Bend

My US species total for the year was 245, much higher than I managed in any previous year. I also added a dozen species to my US/Canada life list, which now stands at 421.

Other Sightings
The year was good for other wildlife, too. Among the animals we saw were numerous alligators, javelinas and deer, plus armadillo, possum and coyote.

Alligator at Brazos Bend State Park

Coyote at Brazoria NWR

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Last Day's Birding

We decided to spend the last birding day of the year at Brazoria NWR with Carlos and Macarena Aguilar and two friends of theirs from Colorado. The reason for choosing Brazoria was partly because it's always reliable for birds and partly to see how it is recovering from Hurricane Ike.
It was very windy, and signs at the visitor center warned us not to expect many birds: Ike had pushed 8' of water over the site, destroying vegetation and eliminating most of the invertebrates that many birds feed on. Visitors were advised to go to San Bernard NWR, which is apparently much birdier.
The site certainly wasn't looking its best - the pond near the visitor center was in particularly bad condition - and it didn't have any large flocks. However, we found there were still plenty of species around.
The birding started before we entered the site, with good views of a Clapper Rail by the roadside. The track to the Salt Lake then had an Osprey, which we saw later in several other areas.

The same track had its usual pair of Crested Caracaras, one of which let us watch it from only 10' away.
Crested Caracara
Although there were no geese, we saw Blue- and Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Mottled Duck and Northern Shoveler, as well as four species of gulls and terns and five types of shorebirds.
Northern Shoveler

Herons and egrets were few and far between but this Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron were hanging out in the pond at the visitor center.

Snowy Egret (left) and Tricolored Heron

Northern Harriers seemed to be everywhere but never close enough to photograph. The only shot I got was this one of a Harrier scaring up a couple of Blue-winged Teal.

So Brazoria may have suffered badly from Ike but we still had a very enjoyable visit. We ended up with a list of 43 species.