Monday, March 30, 2009

Warbler Walk

We decided to spend Sunday morning looking for warblers at the Edith L Moore Sanctuary. At most times of the year this isn't a great birding site but in the spring it's a good place to see warblers on their northern migration.
As it turned out, our warbler walk started even earlier than expected. When we walked out of the house, we noticed movement in the tree next to our garage. It was a Tennessee Warbler, a new yard bird for us.

After admiring the Tennessee Warbler - and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet that was buzzing it - we drove down to Edith Moore. There we got out of the car, looked up and immediately saw a Northern Parula.
The gardens at the cabin and the area around the pond were almost startlingly green as a result of recent rains.

The garden had butterflies ...

while the pond had a group of Red-eared Sliders.

We really enjoyed walking the creekside trails for the next 90 minutes, although we weren't very successful at finding warblers. The most common birds were White-eyed Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. However, we did see another Northern Parula and a Nashville Warbler. Then came the sighting of the day: A very helpful birder called Charmaine showed us a Worm-eating Warbler, US life bird #426 for me.

Back at the cabin, the feeders were attracting a succession of Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves and American Goldfinch.

American Goldfinch

Our final bird of the day was this White-eyed Vireo.

Edith L Moore
The sanctuary entrance is at 440 Wilchester Boulevard, just south of Memorial a few hundred yards west of the West Sam Houston Parkway. It is open 7:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. every day of the year and entry is free.

Each Wednesday in the spring there is an 8:30 a.m. birdwalk, led by a great local birder, Jim Hinson.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Busy with New Birds

Spring migration is really getting underway now. A 10-minute walk around the campus yesterday turned up two new year birds.

A Purple Martin was checking our one of the gourds on our Martin house.

The small patch of trees that had a Black-and-white Warbler yesterday had a White-eyed Vireo this morning.

Back at home, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was having to defend "her" feeder from a newly-arrived male.

Hummingbird Defense

Most of the books and articles that I've read suggest that male hummers are usually the ones that defend feeding sources most aggressively. I've never found this to be the case. In fact, the most active defender I've ever seen was a female Anna's in California. For several weeks she successfully defended two feeders, 15' apart, against dozens of other hummers: Anna's males, Rufous females, Allen's males, you name it. We were amazed by her persistence and by how rarely she seemed to get a chance to drink in peace herself.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First of 2009

I did a quick walk around the campus yesterday morning in the hope that a weak front had brought down some migrants. And, sure enough, the nature trail had a Black-and-white Warbler. That's the first spring warbler that I've seen this year.

When I got home, I sat down on the couch, looked out of the living-room window and there was our first (female) Ruby-throated Hummingbird of 2009.

And some people wonder why I like living in southeast Texas!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Rushing for a Lifer

Once you have been birding for a few years, it gets harder and harder to see new species. You have seen all of the common birds and so the only ways to add new ones to your life list are to search for less common species or to travel to new areas. Until yesterday I'd seen only twelve new birds in a year and half of those were spotted on trips outside my local area, to Big Bend and Rockport/Aransas.

So I was excited yesterday afternoon when I saw a Texbirds posting mentioning the presence of Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Paul Rushing Park. I made a quick diversion to the park on my drive home after work and sure enough there were several Buff-breasted Sandpipers mixed in with the American Golden Plovers that have been frequenting the grassy area between the two parking lots.
Unfortunately it was too wet and the birds were too far away to allow good photographs with my little superzoom camera. The best I could get was this blurry shot of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (right) next to an American Golden Plover.

So I was able to add #425 to my US life list and to do so with the minimum of effort. I expect that seeing #426 will involve much more work!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring has Arrived

Today is officially the start of spring in the USA and most people are happy to welcome the new season. For me, as for other birdwatchers, spring is rather a bittersweet season.

On the positive side, local birds are busy mating and preparing to raise new broods. In our subdivision, at the college where I work and at many points in-between, male Northern Mockingbirds are singing and performing their display dances. A few yards from my office, a Loggerhead Shrike is singing, too. This afternoon he was happy to pose for photos.

Meanwhile, in our yards, our resident Carolina Chickadees have been busy for a couple of weeks collecting nesting material.

Also on the positive side, new birds are migrating into our area. Three species of swallows have appeared in the past week, and Jim Hinson has reported the arrival of several migrating wood-warblers at the Edith L. Moore sanctuary.

On a less happy note, our winter visitors have either left for, or will soon be on their way to Canada, Alaska and other points north. Our American Goldfinches and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers left weeks ago, and our three types of winter warblers seem to have left, too.
There are now very few winter ducks or geese in the area and most of the winter sparrows seem to have gone: I’ve seen only one Chipping Sparrow at our feeders and the flock of Savannah Sparrows on the college campus is down to a handful of birds. This Savannah was less timid than usual.

I’m very sorry to see our winter visitors leave but, all being well, they’ll return in the fall. In the meantime, I need to brush up on my wood-warbler ID skills and to start thinking about trips to Edith Moore, High Island and other migrant traps.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

San Bernard in the Rain

After the disappointment of our cancelled Whooping Crane cruise, we made the best of our drive back to Houston by stopping off at San Bernard NWR. Unfortunately, while birds were very plentiful, the driving rain made it difficult to see them and even harder to take photos!

We had good views of a Bald Eagle but the photos didn't turn out so well.

This Great Blue Heron was kind enough to let us watch him from only a couple of yards away.

This Cattle Egret was our first of the year.

We had good views of a Crested Caracara and an American Bittern, but photos were impossible.

The road was busy with groups of American pipits. There lots of Savannah Sparrows also ...

but most of the time they were only dimly visible through the windshield wipers.

Barn Swallows constantly circled our car, often only inches away. Meanwhile, our first Tree Swallows of the year swooped over the water or sat in rows on branches.

While Dee had a snack lunch in the car, I braved the Bobcat boardwalk in pouring rain.

I was rewarded with extremely blurry views of Swamp Sparrows.

Behind Bobcat Woods, I was surprised to see that the lakes had been outfitted with an observation platform and a covered picnic area. The lakes themselves were busy with Great Blue Herons, American Coots and other wading and water birds, but I was already too wet to enjoy them.

In spite of the weather, we enjoyed our brief visit. (It isn't every day you get good views of a Bald Eagle.) We'll certainly be heading back to San Bernard before long.

Trip Totals
In spite of the weather, we enjoyed the trip and saw 50-60 species. The only lifer was Whooping Crane but we also had 8 new-for-the-year species: Redhead, Osprey, Glossy Ibis, Northern Parula, Barn Swallow, Cattle Egret, Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover. This takes my 2009 list to 154.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rockport Skimmer - or Scammer?

At 7:15 a.m. Saturday we were very excited. We were in Fulton harbor, standing beside a boat called the Skimmer and waiting for the crew to arrive. We were going on a 3.5 hour cruise to see Whooping Cranes and other birds. We'd done the 4 hour drive down from Houston in driving rain the previous day but Saturday was dawning dry and clear.

The departure time, 7:30, came and went with no sign of the crew. I phoned the company at 877-TX-BIRDS but all I got was an outdated recording.

At 8:00 we gave up and returned to our hotel, where the receptionist seemed embarrassed to tell us that it wasn't unusual for Skimmer trips to be cancelled.

Back in Houston, I called the Skimmer office and left a message for them to call me. They called back later and told me that the trip had been cancelled because there weren't enough people booked. They said they had called us Friday afternoon to move us to another trip. (Never mind that we had already left Houston by then, that our voicemail didn't show a record of a call, and that moving to a later trip would have cost us another $140 in hotel charges.) Apparently they won't run a trip if fewer than 10 people book it.

To be fair, the Skimmer web site does mention a 10-person minimum but there was no mention of a possible cancellation when we made our reservation, even though we told them that we were driving 200 miles from Houston (and spending $140 for a hotel) specially for the trip. From what we were told on the phone, the Saturday morning trip was definitely on.

When you first think about it, the 10-person minimum policy seems reasonable. But, if you think a little more, it really isn't. Imagine if restaurants, motels, airlines, movie theaters or other businesses had such a policy. Or imagine if 9 people booked and drove down to Rockport from Houston for the boat trip. Even though the people would have spent hours driving there and hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms, the company still wouldn't do the trip because they would only have received $405 in ticket sales. Earning $405 for a morning's boat trip doesn't sound like a bad deal to me! But I suppose the people who operate the Skimmer would rather inconvenience nine people and lose their goodwill than forego those extra $45.

Oh, well, it seems that this is the way a lot of businesses run in these greedy days. I wonder whatever happened to "the customer is always right"? It obviously isn't a policy that the people at 877-TX-BIRDS subscribe to.

Aransas NWR

On Friday we drove 200 miles down to Rockport in pouring rain to go on a Whooping Crane cruise. (As you'll see in my next blog, the cruise was cancelled.) On the way, we stopped in at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where we were lucky enough to hit a 3-hour window of more or less dry weather.

The recent months of drought have badly affected the refuge and birds were comparatively few and far between. However, the beautiful grasses and blooming yuccas alone would have made the visit worthwhile.

Apart from Great Blue Herons, White and Glossy Ibis, and Great and Snowy Egrets, we didn't see any large wading birds. Shorebirds were scarce, except for a handful of Long-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs and Sanderlings.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The highlights of the visit were distant views of two small groups of Whooping Cranes, new life birds for us. We also had looks at a White-tailed Kite and two more new 2009 birds, an Osprey and a Northern Parula.

The Rail Trail didn't have any rails but it did have American Coots and Common Moorhen.

If birds were hard to find, other animals were much more plentiful. The alligator pond had an alligator, while a Javelina was wandering nearby.

White-tailed Deer were everywhere, and at one dried-up lake they were accompanied by a family of wild pigs.

From Aransas to Rockport
Driving from Aransas to Fulton, we stopped at the causeway to admire our first Black-bellied Plover of the year.
In Rockport, the shoreline and bay were largely empty of birds but the jetty opposite the Magic Sun Tan Motel was crowded with Laughing Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and a Great Blue Heron.

Our final sighting for the day was a small flock of Redheads, another new bird for 2009.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Jesse Jones

I managed to squeeze in a half-hour walk around Jesse Jones park this morning. As usual, the park had mainly yardbirds and other common species: Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jay, American Robin, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Pine Warbler.

Less usual were the three good views I had of Hermit Thrushes.

The highlight of the walk was a very close-up view of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, bird #143 on my 2009 year list. I could have taken some great photos - if only I hadn't left my camera at home!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Back to Brazos

Deanne and I had planned to spend the weekend at Rockport, seeing the Whooping Cranes. However, the weather didn’t look wonderful for a boat trip and so we ended up staying in Cypress and spending Sunday morning at Brazos Bend State Park instead.

Just outside the entrance to BBSP, we stopped by the roadside to admire a group of perhaps 40 Sandhill Cranes.

Pulling into the 40 Acre Lake parking lot, we noticed that the trees were very busy with birds. Within ten minutes I had seen Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Orange-crowned Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

The picnic area had its usual complement of American Crows but we also came across a Hermit Thrush, American Pipit and Eastern Phoebe.

It was very cold and windy near the lake and perhaps because of this there were fewer birds than usual on the water. American Coots, Blue-winged Teal and Pied-billed Grebes were numerous, but we saw only a handful of Green-winged Teal, Common Moorhens and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, plus a couple of Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants.

Green-winged Teal

Common Moorhen

As coots and moorhen presumably share the same taste in food, I would have expected them to squabble over territory. However, this Common Moorhen and American Coot appeared to be getting along well together.

This group of Blue-winged Teal was clearly in the sights of a small alligator.

The edges of the lake had dozens of Killdeer, as well as a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Snipe. Also rummaging at the water’s edge were several Savannah Sparrows and many Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Larger wading birds at 40 Acre were Great and Snowy Egrets, White Ibis, Great and Little Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, and Roseate Spoonbills. There were also a couple of Caspian Terns.

We didn’t see any American Bitterns or rails, but the grasses and reeds back from the water had Lincoln’s Sparrows and Common Yellowthroat.

Elm Lake was much quieter than usual, with only a sprinkling of water and wading birds. Hoping to see Vermilion Flycatcher and Cinnamon Teal, I walked right around the lake without seeing either species. As compensation, I spotted my first Tree Swallows of the year and had good views of a Swamp Sparrow and several alligators.

Swamp Sparrow

This alligator seemed happy to pose for photos.

A picnic under the “Tropical Parula” tree didn’t produce any parulas but we were joined there by Tufted Titmice and a flock of Chipping Sparrows.

Overall, it wasn’t a great birding day, with a total of 43 species and no uncommon birds. However, BBSP is always beautiful and we certainly enjoyed our three hours there.