Saturday, May 30, 2009

What a bird!

When I first came to Houston, on a weekend trip in 2002, the very first new bird that I saw was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I thought then that it was one of the most spectacular birds I'd ever seen - and I haven't changed my opinion since.

As much as I love Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, though, I've always found them difficult birds to photograph. So I was delighted when one let me get a close-up shot at Sheldon Lake on Sunday.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sheldon Lake, Houston

I spent a couple of hours at Sheldon Lake on Sunday morning, hoping to see lots of nesting activity in the heron and egret rookery there.

Unfortunately, water hyacinth has largely choked Carpenter's Bayou and the section of the lake along Garrett Road. If they don't get the money soon to clear out the invasive plants, the effect on the rookeries is going to be devastating.

On a brighter note, I spotted spot my first Purple Gallinules of 2009, and the sky overhead was very busy with Great Blue and Tricolored Herons, White Ibis and Great Egrets. No doubt these and other birds have their nests on islands in the middle of the lake.

I stopped in at one of the jetties along Fauna Road where there always used to be scores of nests, including those of Anhingas, Black-crowned Night Herons and Roseate Spoonbills. Again the water was covered with plants and no nests were visible. However, the resident Red-shouldered Hawks were in evidence as usual.

At the parking lot at the south end of Fauna/Pineland Road, the lake was clearer and there were a few Great Egret nests. This area also gave me views of several Little Blue Herons and a couple of Green Herons.

As before, the sky was busy with herons, egrets and ibis. The path here was lined with Passion Flower vines.

Next I drove to the Environmental Learning Center, where I birded the prairie area behind the Center. Apart from Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, the only birds here were Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Most of the ponds at the Center were quiet, with only Common Moorhens, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and the odd Pied-billed Grebe.

However, one pond had a Least Bittern, a bird that I rarely see - and that is always hard to photograph!

Finally, one pond had nests, lots of nests.

They seemed to be mainly those of Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and Yellow-crowned Night Herons.

A quick walk along the trails behind the ponds turned up no passerine birds except Northern Cardinals.

Leaving the Center, I stopped to take a photo of a Black-bellied Whistling Duck. I never cease to marvel at the ease with which these large birds can balance on utility wires.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Utah Trip Summary

I enjoyed our trip to Salt Lake City and the opportunity to bird in different habitats. However, given the time of year and the glorious weather, I was rather surprised not to see more birds in the mountains.

I missed some new species that I was hoping to see, including Warbling Vireo, Red Crossbill and MacGillivray’s Warbler. I also missed some old friends that I really expected to find, notably Burrowing Owl, Chukar, Townsend’s Solitaire and Clark’s Nutcracker. Even more surprisingly, I saw only a handful of shorebirds and ducks, virtually no hawks or woodpeckers, and absolutely no towhees.

Still, there were plenty of interesting birds among the 61 species that I did spot. In terms of new-year and life birds, I saw about half the species that were possible in the areas I birded. There were 30 new-for-the-year species, which was about what I had hoped for. Six species were life birds: Dusky Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Sage Thrasher, Black-headed Grosbeak and Yellow-headed Blackbird. The latter was certainly the highlight of the trip and a sighting that I will long treasure.

Day 5 - Antelope Island

Sunday morning we set out for Antelope Island with our brother Paul and son Winston. I have visited the island twice before but both times in the winter, so I was curious to see how it would look when not under snow and when not surrounded by a frozen Great Salt Lake.

On my last visit

Although the island and the causeway leading to it are primarily winter birding sites, I was hoping that we would still see some interesting birds, as well as bison and antelopes. Most important of all, this was going to be my last chance to spot a bird that’s eluded me for over ten years – the Yellow-headed Blackbird.

The drive along the causeway didn’t inspire us with hope. Apart from California Gulls, the only birds we saw were two American Avocets. Worse yet, there were unbelievable numbers of brine flies, rising in columns like smoke above the low bushes on both sides.

Once on the island, though, we forgot about the bugs when we saw our first antelope.

The view from Buffalo Point was spectacular, although we were pestered by gnats and no-see-ums as we watched more antelopes and a lone bison on the shore below.

Dee and her brother Paul

California Gulls and Great Blue Herons flew overhead as we drove down back towards the causeway, stopping along the way to admire this Long-billed Curlew.

Western Meadowlarks were calling on all sides.

A Sage Thrasher zoomed away as we stopped the car again and several Horned Larks were equally shy.

Back at the point where the causeway meets the road to Garr Ranch, we stopped to look at a pair of Gadwall on the water. Then a flash of yellow in the reeds caught my eye and I was out of the car and running. Yes, at last, a Yellow-headed Blackbird!

We headed over to Garr Ranch for a picnic lunch. I hadn’t visited the ranch on my previous visits to the island and I was surprised to see it was a very attractive location, with no mosquitoes or other bugs.

The elm trees had a good variety of birds, including Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, Bullock’s Oriole, Western Tanager, Western Kingbirds and Dusky Flycatcher.

Western Kingbird

Cedar Waxwing

Other trees had Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and a very tuneful Western Meadowlark.

However, the main attraction for most of the visitors was a pair of Great Horned Owls, one of which was being constantly harassed by an American Robin.


The ride back across the causeway was uneventful, although we had good views of a couple of Willets and a quick sighting of a Northern Harrier.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Salt Lake City Birding: Day 4

Saturday morning, I headed back up Big Cottonwood Canyon in the hope of seeing woodpeckers and American Dipper, and getting a better look at Steller's Jays.

I pulled off the road where a bridge crosses the creek at the mouth of the canyon. American Robins were singing away and a Cooper's Hawk zoomed overhead but there were no other birds around. Lots of butterflies on the bushes, though.

Next stop was the Ledgemere picnic area.

I scoured the edges of the creek for Dippers but had no luck. Perhaps the water was flowing swiftly for even these amazing swimming birds.

I heard the singing of what looked to be a Western Bluebird, a most unlikely bird for this part of Utah. A closer look showed it to be a Lazuli Bunting.
A few minutes later, I was lucky to spot my first and only woodpecker, a Northern Flicker but was too slow with my camera to get a shot of it.
A Hammond's Flycatcher was kinder and gave me just enough time to get a photo.
When twenty more minutes at the site turned up only a Yellow Warbler, I decided to move on up the canyon.
My next stop was a wetland area, a prominent feature of which was a beaver home.
I didn't see any beavers but I spent several minutes trying to photograph Song Sparrows.
Next was the site I was counting on for some really good birding: the Spruces Campground.
I pulled into the entrance way and ... the campground was closed. Bummer! All I could do was park on the verge and trudge over the hardpacked snow to bird the nearby trees and undergrowth. Twenty minutes revealed only common birds: Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Then I spotted a very familiar bird, a Chipping Sparrow. These sparrows winter in Texas and then move further north for the summer.

Disappointed by the morning's birding (but not the scenery) , I turned the car around and was just starting back down the canyon when I heard several very distinctive calls. Steller's Jay. In fact, there was a pair chasing each other through the treetops across the road. Although they wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a decent photo, I managed to grab one (barely) recognizable shot.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Salt Lake City Birding: Day 3

Day 1 - Big Cottonwood Canyon

Early on Friday morning I drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Brighton. Although the snow had disappeared from the lower sections, there was plenty from about 8,000 feet up. My target birds were Dark-eyed Junco, Cassin's Finch, Steller's Jay and woodpeckers..

I never saw a person during my 90 minutes at Brighton.

But as soon as I arrived, I was welcomed by American Robins ...

and a Dark-eyed Junco, wonderfully camouflaged against the fallen branches.

At first I thought that the snow was going to make it impossible for me to walk the Silver Lake trail. However, it turned out to be frozen solid and so I was able to spend the next hour slipping and sliding around the edge of the lake.


There were three Mallards in one of the few patches of open water and the ground had several Fox Sparrows, difficult to photograph against the snow.

The surrounding woods were busy with American Robins, Mountain Chickadees, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Many of the Nuthatches were foraging in the snow.

One was busy excavating a nesting hole.

But not too busy to check me out, its breast covered in sawdust.

Although I often heard the rapping of woodpeckers from the surrounding trees, I never managed to see any.

Back in the parking lot, White-crowned Sparrows were singing away while Violet-green Swallows swooped overhead. Much more exciting to me, though, was a group of Pine Siskins, who seemed very unconcerned by my presence.

On my way down the canyon, I stopped at the Silver Fork Diner. Here I was able to have breakfast on the deck where several feeders drew in Mountain Chickadees and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.


I was excited when some female Finches appeared. Cassin's? I thought so but I wouldn't be really sure until I saw a male.
Right on cue, a male flew up. Definitely Cassin's Finch!

On the way down the canyon, I saw another of my target birds when I passed a pair of Steller's Jays on a tree top. Perhaps I would be able to return the following day and get a photo of the Steller's - and maybe finally get to see some woodpeckers.

Later That Day

In the late afternoon, we spent an hour in City Creek Canyon.

Like all the creeks we saw in Utah, the one here was rushing along, fueled by melting snow.

I scoured the banks, hoping for an American Dipper but all I saw were Yellow and Wilson's Warblers, American Robins and a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks.

Male Black-headed Grosbeak
Female Black-headed Grosbeak

We spent the evening with our family - and with a family of Mallards.