Thursday, April 30, 2009

At Work and Play

At Work
The CyFair campus nature trail was still under water yesterday but I managed to squelch along its first section. My reward was a Northern Waterthrush. I couldn't get close to it because of all the water but I snapped a couple of photos anyway.

The Waterthrush was #194 on my year list.

At Play
This morning I got to spend a little time at Russ Pitman Park in Houston. It was my first visit there and I thought the park was very attractive. Unfortunately, it no longer had the numbers of birds that had been there earlier in the week. Apart from common yardbirds, all I saw were Magnolia Warblers, an American Redstart, a Black-and-white Warbler, a female Indigo Bunting and a Bay-breasted Warbler. Still the Magnolia and Bay-breasted were new birds for 2009.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Getting Closer

As I got out of my car at CyFair yesterday morning, I spotted an Eastern Meadowlark on the soccer field. I always find Meadowlarks hard to photograph because they tend to be easily spooked and they feed on open grassland where there is no cover for the would-be photographer.

I walked very slowly towards this bird, zig-zagging as I went and taking care not to make any sudden movements. The bird looked up and checked me out but he must have decided I was not a threat because he let me get close enough to take the photos below.

The nature trail had Baltimore Orioles, Common Yellowthroats and two groups of Indigo Buntings but none of them were willing to pose. The only photos I could manage were quick shots of a male and a female Bunting.

In the afternoon, in heavy rain, I spotted Cedar Waxwings and an American Redstart, taking my year list to 193. I also saw several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and watched a Red-shouldered Hawk having lunch.

A wet Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Red-shouldered Hawk

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Birds

As I walked out to the car yesterday morning, our lovesick male Northern Mockingbird was singing his heart out as usual. I looked up at him and was amazed to see a Black-bellied Whistling Duck sitting near him in our elm tree. I see Whistling Ducks every day but I never thought we'd get to add one to our yardlist!

Kleb Woods was fairly busy with birds yesterday and I saw some interesting species: Yellow-breasted Chats, Black-and-white Warbler, Gray Catbird and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I also say my first Eastern Wood-pewee of the year.

That takes my 2009 list to 191 species.

Signs of the Times

You can't go anywhere outside these days without being reminded that it's spring. The signs of the season are everywhere. Here are just a few that I've noticed this week.
It seems that almost every bird I see is with a partner. Even the Western Kingbird that has appeared at CyFair this week has turned out to be one of a pair.

Of course, some birds haven't quite got their relationships sorted out yet. Our front yard has a male Northern Mockingbird that is absolutely desperate for a mate. We're hoping he finds one soon because his constant calling is driving us crazy and he won't stop calling, day or night, until he is successful.

Everywhere I walk or drive I see male Great-tailed Grackles displaying and singing to attract females.

Of course, it isn't mating season only for birds. The male anoles in our yards are also looking for mates. They find a conspicuous place to stand and then puff out the pink patch on their throat.

Territorial Behavior
Some Mockingbirds are further along in the mating game than others and have already started nesting. And when they nest, they defend their area ferociously. Yesterday I watched a pair chasing off a Great-tailed Grackle that had strayed onto their territory. He didn't take the hint when they ran up to him with their wings spread.

In the end, it took a couple of minutes of claw-to-claw tussling on the ground to drive him away.

Some birds are even further along and have already produced offspring. The Killdeer at CyFair are in this happy position and they are busy leading unwelcome visitors away from the areas where their young are feeding. In our yards, our adult House Finches are now bringing their fledglings to the feeders.

Unfortunately, some families have been less lucky than others. One of our young finches isn't able to handle the sunflower seeds in our feeders because it has a badly-deformed beak.

Realizing the problem, its father brought the youngster to our hummingbird feeder, where the young bird was able to drink by hovering at the feeder.

However, finches aren't really built for hovering and it was heartbreaking to watch the young bird expending huge amounts of energy to get a few sips of sugar water. We tried to help by lowering the feeder so that the youngster can perch on the fence and reach the feeder ports from their. Meanwhile the father patiently stands guard and chases off other finches that try to access the feeder.

However, this is only a temporary solution and I doubt that the sugar water will provide enough nutrients for the young bird to survive on for long. I tried to help more by smearing peanut butter on the fence but the youngster didn't take advantage of this extra food source.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Photographic Models

I walked the soccer fields at CyFair again on Wednesday, and again adult Killdeer tried to make sure I didn't bother their young. When I approached the area where the young birds were, a pair of adults came near me and led me off in another direction. Not wanting to worry the birds, I let myself be led away.
The adults' tactics gave me an opportunity to take a couple of photos at a fairly close range, something I usually find difficult to do with Killdeer.

The Western Kingbird that has been hanging around the campus this week is very shy, only allowing photos from afar.
In contrast, the Northern Mockingbirds on the campus seem almost to demand that you take their photo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

High Island 2

When we got to Smith Oaks, Deanne was feeling tired and so she stayed in the car. I decided to take a very quick look in the trees nearby before walking up to the lake and the rookery islands.
As it turned out, I never reached the lake. Instead, my quick look in the trees turned into an hour of watching and trying to photograph a whole range of birds.

First up were Northern Parulas and Chestnut-sided Warblers, none of which came within reasonable camera reach. Then I was lucky when a Black-and-white Warbler scuttled down a tree trunk next to the path.

Another bird was much tougher to see and to ID but eventually revealed itself to be a Tennessee Warbler.

I had good views of Blue-headed, Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos but only the latter came close enough to photograph.

I finally saw the bird I was really looking for, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and I spent the next 15-20 minutes trying to get a clear photo. He was very obliging when it came to back views.

And I got several partial views of his front and sides.

Then, when I was on the point of giving up, he came into the open just long enough for me to get a semi-decent shot.

On my way back to the car, I passed a couple of birders looking up into the foliage. They kindly pointed out the bird they were watching, a Blackpoll Warbler, which was my third lifer of the day.

Even that wasn't quite the end. We hadn’t driven 20 yards down the road before I had to stop to check out a flash of yellow and black in a roadside shrub. The bird refused to turn around to face me but it was still easy to ID as a Baltimore Oriole. A nice note on which to end a very good half-day of birding.

Trip Totals
We saw 43 species on our trip. New life birds were Cerulean, Swainson's and Blackpoll Warblers. 13 other species were new for the year: Belted Kingfisher, Common Nighthawk, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Painted Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo and Blue-headed Vireo.

High Island 1

Dee and I spent the later part of Sunday morning in the Boy Scout Woods sanctuary at High Island. After reading all the reports of recent warbler fall-outs there, we were expecting to see a ton of warblers. As we were both tired, we were also hoping to have one of those magical High Island mornings when you sit on the benches at the water drip and let exciting birds come to you.
Well, it didn't work out quite like that. Warblers weren't as ubiquitous or as obliging as we hoped, and there were so many birders that it was hard to walk some of the trails.
The very first bird we saw was a stunner, though: a male Cerulean Warbler. A truly beautiful bird and a lifer. Unfortunately, my little camera wasn't up to catching a photo of it, or of the Gray Catbirds that were nearby. (Note to myself: I really need to get a better camera!)

Within a few minutes, we'd had enough of the crowds and so headed out of the woods into a more open area. This would probably mean we'd miss out on some warblers but might see other birds.
It turned out to be a good move. We immediately spotted several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, then a Worm-eatingWarbler quickly followed by Chestnut-sided Warbler. I did a little better with my photography this time but only because this bird was really cooperative.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The next half-hour produced some of the best birding we've ever had. First a Scarlet Tanager appeared. Next there was a Painted Bunting.

Male Painted Bunting

Then the area in front of us was full of Indigo Buntings. At one moment, eight were in view at the same time.

Male Indigo Buntings

We walked a few yards further along the trail and spent several minutes spellbound watching another group of buntings: both male and female Indigo and Painted. To add variety, an Orchard Oriole put in an appearance, followed by a Hooded Warbler, a Yellow Warbler, a Baltimore Oriole and a Summer Tanager.

Summer Tanager

It was getting hot now and we headed for the picnic tables and lunch, stopping along the way to admire a Common Nighthawk doing an excellent impersonation of a knotty branch.

A quick look at the water drip after lunch produced only quick views of an Orange-crowned Warbler, a Yellow-breasted Chat and a Swainson's Warbler, the latter another life bird for me.
It had been a good morning for new birds: 10 new year birds plus two others that were also lifers. Of course, we would have seen a lot more warblers if we hadn't spent so long admiring the buntings. But we both felt the latter were worth every minute that we spent on them.
Next we headed over to Smith Woods. Our main aim was to see the wading birds' rookery, but I was also really hoping to see a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, not a rare bird but one that I always love to watch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For a Change

Birds have been few and far between on the CyFair campus this week, but spring flowers are popping up everywhere.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kleb Woods

This morning, I was able to visit Kleb Woods, near Tomball, for a couple of hours.

In the first 30 minutes, I saw and heard only a few common birds: Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Blue Jay, American Crow, Mourning Dove and Northern Mockingbird. As I’ve mentioned before, this seems to be the pattern for me when I start birding early.

As usual, things changed at about 9:00 a.m., when I spotted a group of White-throated and Lincoln’s Sparrows foraging under some bushes. They were joined, but only for a moment, by a Brown Thrasher. Then came one of the highlights of the walk: A Gray Catbird appeared and posed for a moment on a branch, the red under his rump absolutely glowing in the sunlight.

A few yards further on, a Great Blue Heron took flight at my approach and a male Red-bellied Woodpecker vented his outrage from the top of a tree. A Green Heron was more diplomatic and simply hopped up from the edge of a wetland area to the safety of a branch in shadow.

Back in the parking lot, movement in the tree tops caught my attention. Several birds were darting among the branches. When I finally got a good view of one, it had such bold black and yellow markings around its neck and chest that I thought it was a spring warbler. In fact, I soon realized it was a Myrtle form Yellow-rumped Warbler, much more brightly colored than the Yellow-rumpeds that I’m used to seeing.

Not all the birds there were Yellow-rumpeds, though. I caught several glimpses of a Yellow Warbler and then the sight of the day: An Indigo Bunting with its intensely blue plumage.

My final sighting at Kleb was of a Chimney Swift streaking over the parking area.

On my way to work, I drove along Longenbaugh and was amazed to see a group of eight Red-shouldered Hawks circling and swooping at each other right over the road. Quite a sight – although I have no idea whether they were playing or flirting or arguing!

The Yellow Warbler, Indigo Bunting and Chimney Swift take my year total to 169 species.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lifer at CyFair

April and May are the time of year when birders in our area are watching out for migrants, and especially warblers, heading north. You never know quite what will turn up, particularly on days when a north wind brings the migrating birds down to land near the coast.

I haven't been very successful with migrants so far this year but I'll be watching the weather this weekend to see whether it looks like a trip out to High Island will be worthwhile. On the right day the Audubon sites at High Island can be spectacular: Some recent days have yielded over 20 species of warblers.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping an eye out for migrants on the CyFair campus. A quick walk around yesterday produced only 15 species but one of them was a bird I've been wanting to see for years: a Chuck-will's-widow. It was a new life bird for me and #166 for 2009.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Two More Yard Birds

Reducing squirrel visits to our yard is definitely paying off. This afternoon we had a visit from a Tufted Titmouse, a rare visitor to our yards, probably because so much woodland has been cleared on our side of Houston.

We also had a flyover from a Swallow-tailed Kite. People have been reporting this species lately from the Tomball area and I suspect this bird may have popped down from there to check out our neighborhood.

Our Yardbirds Are Back

As regular readers know, we’ve been having a problem with squirrels at our bird feeders. We like squirrels but ours have been eating their way through an unbelievable amount of food, emptying whole suet cages and sunflower feeders in a matter of hours. Apart from costing us a fortune, this has meant that the number of birds visiting our yards has dropped to just a handful.

Our front yard

My first step towards a solution was to put out a squirrel corn feeder. This helped but only a little: The squirrels would spend 15 minutes polishing off the ear of corn before moving on to the bird feeders.

We already had one supposedly squirrel-proof feeder, the round cage type, and this has kept out all but the most determined squirrels. On Saturday, I bought and put up another squirrel-proof feeder, and I added a baffle above one of the suet feeders. I then spent an hour or so watching Fox and Eastern Gray Squirrels trying every which way to get around our new defenses. In the end, they gave up and settled for eating from the corn feeder and scavenging on the ground for seeds and other goodies.

They came

They tried

They gave up

The result on our bird visitors has been remarkable and rapid. Since the squirrels took over, we’ve rarely seen more than half-a-dozen species in a day. In an hour yesterday morning we were back up to fourteen species. Most of them came to eat: Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Carolina Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, House Sparrow, White-winged Doves, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, American Goldfinches and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Others seemed to come just to see what was going on: Blue Jays, Mourning Dove, Common Grackles and Northern Mockingbirds.

American Goldfinch

So it was a good morning, made better by the fact that we had flyovers by a Crested Caracara, a Great Egret, a Turkey Vulture and Several Black Vultures.

Now I have to keep watching out to see if the squirrels can find a way around our new defenses.