Thursday, February 26, 2009

One of the things I love about living and working in Cypress is that birds are so abundant here that I see a lot without actually going birding. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The other day I got up a little earlier than usual and so I decided to take what I think of as my back route to work. I drove up 290, turned onto Becker and then the Katy-Hockley Cutoff, went east on 529 and turned north on Barker Cypress to the CyFair campus.

Walking out of my front door disturbed several White-winged Doves, a Red-bellied Sapsucker and a pair of House Finches.

As I was driving down our very short street, I passed two Eurasian Collared Doves and a Blue Jay, while I noticed several Common Grackles on the feeder in a neighbor's yard.

Spring Cypress had several Black Vultures and the junction with Barker Cypress had European Starlings, House Sparrows and an American Crow.

Just before turning onto 290, there was a Spotted Sandpiper on the edge of an ornamental pond.

On 290, I was too busy surviving freeway traffic to notice any birds, except for a couple of Turkey Vultures that swooped over the road.

Becker Road had Northern Mockingbirds and an American Kestrel.

Several Red-tailed Hawks and Loggerhead Shrikes lined the Katy-Hockley Cutoff, and a Northern Harrier was quartering a nearby field. At one point the roadside had Killdeer and Eastern Meadowlark.

The 529 had more Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Mockingbirds, Black Vultures and Loggerhead Shrikes, as well as a Crested Caracara, some Mourning Doves and lots of Common Grackles.

Just before entering the CyFair campus, a Double-crested Cormorant and a (Ring-billed?) Gull crossed overhead.

The north lake at CyFair had a Great Egret, several Snowy Egrets and 3-4 Pied-billed Grebes.

Crossing the parking lot, I stirred up a group of Great-tailed Grackles.

As I parked, a flock of Savannah Sparrows was feeding on the grass 15 feet in front of my car.

I think that adds up to 28 species. Which isn't a bad total for a 30-minute commute with no stops (except for traffic signals and Stop signs) along the way.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They keep coming

On Monday I mentioned that I there were more Snowy Egrets on our campus than I'd ever seen before. Well, even more turned up yesterday: There were twelve together when I drove onto the campus. What's more, our usually solitary Great Egret had now been joined by two others. And a Great Blue Heron had turned up, too.

My initial thought was that there must be more fish than usual in the lake and that this has attracted the egrets. But then I started thinking that perhaps it's all connected with the start of the mating season. (At home, Chickadees were checking out our birdhouses yesterday and three Northern Mockingbirds were chasing each other around the yards.)

Or perhaps both explanations are partially correct: the egrets are gathering looking for mates but the Great Blue Heron took the gathering as an indication that the egrets had found a good food supply.

I suppose one of the great things about birding is trying to figure out why birds do what they do!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Birding CyFair Campus

As I’ve been neglecting the birds at CyFair College lately, I decided to start today with a half-hour birding tour of the campus.

The tour started well. The northern lake on the Barker Cypress entrance road had not only its usual four Pied-billed Grebes and Great Egret but also a line of eight Snowy Egrets. That’s the most Snowy Egrets I’ve ever seen on the campus.

The southern lake was empty of water birds but the trees there had a couple of Mourning Doves and a dozen or so Savannah Sparrows.

The area near the start of the nature trail was disappointing: a White-winged Dove and a Northern Mockingbird. However, a little pishing immediately drew in some Yellow-rumped Warblers and two Northern Cardinals, soon followed by a House Wren and a Gray Catbird.

The soccer fields had their normal complement of Killdeer and American Pipits, plus a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes, while the trees nearby had seven Red-winged Blackbirds.


The most common birds here, though, were Savannah Sparrows: A quick check revealed about forty. I was just going to walk back to the office when I remembered reading somewhere that Field Sparrows often hang out with Savannahs. As the Field Sparrow is one of my favorite sparrows and as I hadn’t yet seen one this year, I stopped to examine the sparrow flock more carefully. And the very first bird I looked at closely was – a Field Sparrow.

Field Sparrow at CyFair in 2007

A beautiful little bird, and one that takes my 2009 list to 141 species.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Run! Here comes a Great Egret!

The college campus where I work has a Great Egret that often fishes from the bank of the artificial river near our cafeteria. I’m always pleased when I spot it standing there while scores of people walk by only a few yards away, because I see it as an example of how wildlife and people can coexist. So I was amazed when one of the cafeteria workers recently told me that she was afraid of the egret and always crossed to the opposite bank of the river to avoid it. I couldn’t help but laugh as I assured her that egrets don’t attack people.

However, when I thought about it later, I realized that her fear wasn’t totally absurd. After all, people are sometimes attacked by birds, particularly during nesting season. YouTube has several videos of pedestrians being harassed by nesting Northern Mockingbirds, and anyone who walks on a beach near nesting terns is likely to get a mini-taste of what Tippi Hedren experienced in “The Birds.” Then there are those streets in downtown Houston that sometimes have to be cordoned off because nesting Common Grackles swoop down on pedestrians and even cyclists and cars. It isn’t just nesting birds that can be a problem either. On more than one occasion I have had to move quickly away from Canada Geese that seemed determined to bite my ankles. And British nature photographer Eric Hosking became famous partly as a result of losing an eye to a Tawny Owl.

Oddly enough, all this got me thinking about my grandma, Mama Douglas, who has been dead for nearly 40 years. She was a tough old bird herself. She could wring a chicken’s neck in less time than it takes to say “Sunday lunch,” and she thought nothing of going down into our cellar and whacking huge rats with a wooden broom. Even she had an Achilles heel, though: She was terrified of snakes. Whenever my (totally harmless) pet grass snake escaped from the aquarium where it lived, Mama would go and stand in the middle of the street, refusing to come back into the house until the snake had been recaptured. I can’t imagine she would have flinched at the sight of an egret but …

Friday, February 20, 2009


I can see why American birdwatchers hate the House Sparrow. For one thing, it doesn't belong here, having been introduced into the USA from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. For another, it often behaves aggressively towards native birds, pushing them aside at feeders and taking over their nesting sites. This is certainly not the kind of behavior that endears immigrants to locals and it has resulted in the House Sparrow being one of only three bird species which enjoy no protection under US law. (The others are also immigrants, the European Starling and the Rock Pigeon.)

Nonbreeding male House Sparrow

Perhaps partly because I too am an immigrant from Europe, I look more kindly on the House Sparrow, aka the English Sparrow. It may sometimes (well, often) behave objectionably but it is certainly adaptable. From its original homeland in Europe and Asia it has spread or been transplanted to almost every part of the world, and it is now the most widely distributed wild bird species on the planet. How can you not admire a species that has adapted to cope with the challenges of surviving in so many different habitats and regions?
Ironically, having spread so successfully overseas, the House Sparrow is in rapid decline in parts of Europe. Numbers in Britain have fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, and in the Netherlands the decline has been so great that the bird is considered an endangered species.
The cause of the bird’s decline in Europe is not yet totally clear but it appears to be related to its habit of feeding its young with insect larvae. Unfortunately for the House Sparrow, the supply of larvae has been greatly reduced in urban areas in Europe, partly because many people have concreted over their front yards and hedges in order to create more parking spaces. It is also possible that the toxic effects of unleaded gasoline are impacting the insect population and thus threatening the bird's future.
So it seems that the future of the most successful of all bird species is now under threat from that most successful of all animal species, man.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brazos Bend State Park

Early Sunday morning I drove an hour through drizzling rain to Brazos Bend State Park, where there have recently been many reports of uncommon and rare birds. As Deanne wasn't in the mood for birding, I went on my own.

By the time I reached the park, the rain had stopped but it was still misty enough to make taking photos with my little camera quite a challenge.

From the fishing pier at 40 Acre Lake I watched this Great Blue Heron eating what looked like an huge water snake.

The weather slowly improved as I walked round the lake, which had its usual selection of water and wading birds.

Great Egret

Blue-winged Teal

Adult and Immature White Ibis

American Coot

Common Moorhen

However, my camera still struggled to produce a usable photo of this King Rail.

Near the observation tower I bumped into Frank Farese and some other local birders who were watching an American Bittern.

I then walked across to and round Elm Lake, hoping to see the Cinnamon Teal, Vermilion Flycatcher, Rusty Blackbird and Tropical Parula that have been seen regularly there over the past weeks. As it turned out, I was probably the only birder who didn't see any of them.

Walking back to the car, I passed Frank again. He was still watching and photographing the Bittern. Surprisingly, it hadn't moved from its hunting spot in the intervening hour.

On my way out of the park, I stopped to take photos of a half-dozen or so Sandhill Cranes feeding in a field near the entrance.

Although I hadn't seen any of the rarer birds, I had enjoyed my 2-hour walk through the park and the 41 species that I had spotted. Among these were seven new year birds: Gadwall, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, King Rail, American Bittern, Caspian Tern and Boat-tailed Grackle.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Phoenix Zoo

On the way from the Botanical Gradens to the airport, we stopped in at Papago Park to check out the large pond at the entrance to Phoenix Zoo. There were a lot fewer water birds than I had hoped, but we still spent a pleasant hour lazing by the water.

One of the nice things about the site was that the birds were very used to people and so many of them came right up to where we were. This enabled me to get some close photos of Ring-necked Ducks ...

and this Northern Shoveler.

Non-water birds were scarce - after all, it was now early afternoon. However, I spotted a Common Yellowthroat, a Gila Woodpecker, a couple of Cactus Wrens and, of course, many Great-tailed Grackles and House Sparrows.

This Black Phoebe, catching flies from a nearby branch, was our goodbye bird.

So that was our winter trip west. It provided some good birding, even though I missed some birds I'd really hoped to see, such as Burrowing Owls in Oakland and Phainopepla in Phoenix. As well as the Long-eared Owl lifer, the trip added 38 birds to my year list, taking the latter to 129 species.

California: American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Horned Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Western Gull, Herring Gull, Western Meadowlark, Brown Pelican, Golden-crowned Sparrow

Arizona: Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, Black-crowned Night Heron, Gambel’s Quail, Greater Roadrunner, Anna’s Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Abert’s Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, Gila Woodpecker, Rock Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, Common Yellowthroat

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Desert Botanical Gardens: Part 2

The gardens are an excellent place for seeing a range of desert - and more common - birds. Although we didn't see any on our visit, several hawks regularly hunt on the hillside behind the outdoor cafe.

The top of this saguaro held one of my target birds for the day, a Gila Woodpecker, while the lower branches provided perches for a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers.

I wan't able to get a close-up photo of a perched Gila Woodpecker but I did managed to grab this quick shot of one in flight.

Curve-billed Thrashers were everywhere, often in pairs.

Cactus Wrens were ubiquitous, too ...

and many of them were clearly flirting.

One of the highlights of the morning of the morning was getting to spend several minutes watching this Verdin collecting twigs and building a nest.

We even got to see him (or was it her) upside down.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see one of my other target birds, Phainopepla. However, this Rock Wren was a pleasant surprise, particularly since it hopped around within (literally) three feet of where we were standing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Desert Botanical Gardens: Part 1

As our flight back to Houston wasn't until 4:00 pm, we had made reservations for the Desert Botanical Gardens for Thursday morning. The reservations were necessary because the gardens were hosting an exhibition of glass sculptures by Chihuly and this was attracting large numbers of visitors.
The gardens are located in Papago Park, which is dotted with stunning sandstone hills.

Some of the sculptures were very striking.

However, we both felt that they generally couldn't compete with the amazing plants that surrounded them.


Not surprisingly, the gardens attract a lot of birds, including many species that you don't usually associate with desert habitat. It was a little disconcerting to see House Finches and European Starlings perching on saguaro cactuses.

House Finches

European Starling

Of course, there were lots of more typical desert birds around. Like us, these children were very excited to see Abert's Towhees and Gambel's Quail foraging near the outdoor cafe.

Abert's Towhee

Male Gambel's Quail

Female Gambel's Quail

We saw a lot of other birds, too, but I'll put photos of those in my next posting.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thunderbird Park: Part 2

After lunch on Wednesday, I walked up from the house to the back section of Thunderbird, hoping to see Gila Woodpeckers.

The trail is lined with different types of cactus and other wonderful desert plants.


Every saguaro cactus had at least one nesting hole made by Gila Woodpeckers.

These holes are used by many other birds after the Gilas have moved on. On my walk, all the occupants were Northern Flickers.

Northern Flicker

One of the trees had an Anna's Hummingbird that let me get close enough to admire its back ...

and then dazzled me with its gorget.

Where the artificial river reaches the park, it ends in a wetland area that provides habitat for a range of water and wading birds.

When I visited, the wetland was very busy with Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots and Common Mergansers.

I was treated to a flying display by several of the egrets and cormorants.

Later in the Day
In the late afternoon I took Deanne to see the Long-eared Owl, which was sitting exactly where I had first seen it. We spent a few minutes watching White-crowned Sparrows and Verdins, and then we were thrilled to get a fleeting view of a Greater Roadrunner trotting across the picnic area.

So, all in all, it had been a very good day and I had seen everything I wanted to see except Gila Woodpeckers. With any luck, I would see those, and maybe Phainopeplas, the next day at the Desert Botanical Gardens.