Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Our Yards

We recently hung a new feeder in our back yard. The feeder is right outside our living-room window and so now we can get good views of birds without moving from our couch. The birds like it, too, because they can watch Wimbledon on TV while they eat.

Our front yard is pretty busy with birds these days. We are getting more visits by Blue Jays than we've had in ages.

And "our" Red-bellied Woodpeckers now pop in several times a day.

Like most of the other birds, this Red-bellied spends a lot of time with its beak open, panting in the heat. (Yesterday was the 7th consecutive day over 100F.)

For some reason, many of the birds prefer bathing in the run-off water in our street gutter to using our birdbaths. This makes it harder to get photos of them from our front porch. However, the zoom on my camera was just long enough to let me get a picture of this House Sparrow clearly enjoying getting very wet.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Katy Prairie

7:30 on Sunday morning and I'm standing in the sun watching a Horned Lark, while three Common Nighthawks wheel overhead and a male Red-winged Blackbird sings from a nearby bush. Is this as good as it gets? If so, I'm not complaining!

I left home early to do some birding at Paul Rushing Park before the day gets uncomfortably hot. (The forecast is for around 100F/38C for the Nth day in a row.)

As usual, the utility lines along the roads between the 290 freeway and the park are busy with Northern Mockingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and the occasional Red-tailed Hawk.
Scissor-tailed Flycatchers

At the park, the first birds to catch my eye are three Common Nighthawks circling and calling out over the cricket pitches. My camera isn't well-suited to catching birds in flight but I eventually manage to get one recognizable shot.

There are several Eastern Meadowlarks and Horned Larks in the grass but they are very jumpy and the best I can do is to get one photo of a Lark.

Walking around the perimeter path, I get lucky and come upon a Nighthawk resting on the blacktop.

Overhead is a constant procession of Barn and Cliff Swallows, while the fence on the southern edge of the park is lined with N. Mockingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Eastern Kingbirds and lots of dragonflies. However, they are all very skittish and fly away as I approach. It obviously isn't going to be an easy day for photography! Part of the problem is that my progress is continously heralded by dozens of Black-necked Stilts and Killdeer which fly around me and screech loudly to warn everyone that I'm invading their territory.

Luckily, a male Red-winged Blackbird is more interested in showing off to females than in my approach.

The edges of the lakes have Great Egrets, a Snowy Egret, a Little Blue Heron and a Great Blue Heron. However, the only birds actually on the lakes are a few Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and three ducks that I think must be some sort of Mallard hybrids.
Mallard Hybrids?

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

By 9:00 a.m. it's already pretty hot and so I head home. All in all, not a bad 90 minutes of birdwatching.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I saw an odd-looking bird at Paul Rushing Park yesterday and just couldn't work out what it was.

After poring over Sibley, I decided the closest match was a Dickcissel, a bird I haven't seen yet this year. To check, I posted photos on http://www.birdforum.net/ and asked for help.

I was embarrassed when several people immediately replied "Female Red-winged Blackbird," a bird that I often see and that's really nothing at all like a Dickcissel.

So how did I go so wrong? Well, my first mistake was to be hoping for a Dickcissel and therefore willing the "mystery" bird to be one. But my real mistake was to focus on specific fieldmarks rather than looking at the bird as a whole. If I'd done the latter, I'd have noticed right away that the bird was way too big for a Dickcissel; it was almost the size of the Eastern Kingbird which was sitting a few feet away. I would also have noticed the beak and the breast streaking were not right for a Dickcissel. Instead, I got obsessed with the head and throat markings. Memo to self: Look at the whole before focusing on the details.

It isn't the first time I've been led astray by a female Red-winged. For some reason, I just can't seem to store their image in my memory and I'm almost always confused when they appear. Perhaps I should start assuming that every streak-breasted bird is a female Red-winged until I can prove that it isn't.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Paul Rushing Park

Yesterday morning I drove to the CyFair campus via Becker Road and Longenbaugh. As I forgot to take binoculars with me, I was rather limited in which birds I could identify! However, I was able to ID quite a few species on utility wires by the roadside. The most common birds were Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, followed by Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, Loggerhead Shrikes and occasionally White-winged Doves.

Paul Rushing (Chain-of-Lakes) Park had its usual complement of Killdeer and Eastern Meadowlarks. It also had perhaps a score of Black-necked Stilts.

The Stilts seemed very agitated by my presence and they circled over me, screeching loudly, wherever I walked. I don't know if they were nesting but they certainly acted like birds with nests to defend.

I don't think I've ever noticed before just how long Stilts' wings are.

As I was leaving, I noticed a vaguely gull-shaped bird circling and swooping high above me. From its flight pattern, I guessed it was a Common Nighthawk. A few moments later it was joined by another similar bird. Although the birds were far overhead, I snapped a couple of photos in the hope that these would help with the ID. As you can see from the photos, the Common Nighthawk's white wingbars really stand out even at a great distance.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

W G Jones Forest

Dee and I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning at W G Jones Forest, 40 minutes northeast of where we live. It has been several years since we last visited the site, which is one of the best places to see the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker and usually also has a good variety of other birds.

We had a very pleasant walk in the forest and saw a number of common birds: Black and Turkey Vultures, American Crows, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds and Red-headed Woodpecker. However, we didn't spot a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, although two birders we met had seen a couple earlier in the morning. In the end, the only less-than-common birds we saw were a Prothonotary Warbler and a female Orchard Oriole, both of which were impossible to photograph.

It wasn't a total waste of time taking along my camera, though, because I managed to get a reasonable photo of a Palamedes Swallowtail butterfly.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Return of the Red-bellied

For our first four years living in Cypress, the dominant birds in our yards were Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Our resident pair would visit the front yard several times a day to snack on the suet feeders. Making loud calls, they would fly in dramatically, scattering any other birds that were already in our trees. We loved watching them and got used to seeing them bringing their offspring. One of them even rode out Hurricane Ike clinging to the trunk of our elm tree.

Then earlier this year they changed their habits and more or less disappeared from our yards. We really missed them!

Well, I'm very happy to report that they have returned. Over the past couple of weeks one or other of the pair has visited our feeders at least once a day. Yesterday it was the female that appeared.

Now we're hoping that they will go back to being among our most regular visitors - and to ruling the roost in our yards.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kingbirds at CyFair College

Because of work, my only birding lately has been a few minutes grabbed here and there at CyFair to see how our Western Kingbirds are getting along. (To be honest, even if my workload were lighter, I probably wouldn't be doing a lot of birding anyway since it's been 98F/36C on 8 of the last 10 days.)

The parents have moved the four young birds to some small trees behind the classroom where I teach and the family seems to be coping fine there. They should be doing well with food anyway, since the campus is very busy with dragonflies and other flying bugs.

I see the parents every day and the young when they forget to hide: Yesterday morning three of the young were too busy asking for food to notice me until I was only a few yards away. Later in the day a Loggerhead Shrike moved into their area and the parent Kingbirds lost no time swooping on it and driving it away. Interestingly, they seem to be not at all concerned about the many Northern Mockingbirds in the same area. So presumably they see Shrikes as being dangerous but Mockingbirds as not being a threat.

Weather Note:
We're having a real heatwave at present and it looks like it's going to get even worse. The forecast is 100F or higher for at least a week starting Tuesday. I hope all birdlovers in our area are keeping their birdbaths full of water!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Don't they grow up fast!

As every parent and grandparent knows, children grow up amazingly fast. Birds are no different. On Wednesday one of the W. Kingbird young had left the nest but the other three looked nowhere near ready to do the same. However, when I looked yesterday morning, the nest was empty and all four youngsters were safely esconced in the middle branches of small trees next to the basketball court, constantly watched over by one or other parent.

Three of the birds looked perfectly at ease...

and chased after the parents whenever the latter returned with food.

The fourth, presumably the runt of the litter, seemed to be very unsure of itself and sat totally still, waiting for the parents to come to feed it.

Still, no doubt this bird, too, will soon be confident of itself and at home in its new surroundings.

It will be interesting to see how long it will be before the young birds are able to fend for themselves.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Chick Is Missing

Yesterday I walked over to check on the Western Kingbird nest in the roof of the basketball court on the CyFair campus. The chicks were screeching for food as usual but one of them was now moving back and forward along the beam, trying out its wings.

This seemed to make one of the others realize that it, too, had wings.

But I soon realized that there were only three young in and near the nest. Where was the fourth? Had it fallen out of the nest?

I stepped back and checked out every inch of the roof that I could see. No luck. I checked out the grass around the basketball court. Still no fourth bird.

I turned around to leave and found myself literally face to face with the missing bird. He was sitting motionless on a branch no more than four feet away from me.

As I took a photo, one of the adult birds flew to the top of the tree and positively screamed at me. So, not wanting to panic the parent any more, I moved away and went back to class.

Colleagues tell me that another pair of Western Kingbirds has a nest in one of the college parking lots.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The young Western Kingbirds at the CyFair campus are getting bigger and bolder every day. At least one of them has now left the nest and spends its time further along the ledge. The parents seem to reward this chick by feeding it first, before feeding the chicks still in the nest.

Yesterday one of the adults started perching on a beam several yards from the nest and calling to the chicks from there. Perhaps this is an attempt to encourage the other chicks to venture out of the nest.

While watching the Kingbirds at lunchtime yesterday, I noticed a hawk circling very high overhead. It was too high for me to ID without binoculars but the quick photo I snapped revealed it to be a Swainson's Hawk, a beautiful raptor and one that I don't often get to see. The dark flight feathers, brown bib and long tail make the Swainson's easy to distinguish from other hawks.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Kingbird Nest

At the CyFair college campus, one of two pairs of Western Kingbirds has nested in the roof of our basketball court.

The nest is right in the southwest corner of the roof and on Thursday it contained four offspring.

One adult normally stands guard nearby ...

while the other catches bugs and takes them to the nest.

Yesterday, I was a little worried when I saw that there were only three birds in the nest. Then I noticed the parent going to feed a baby that had worked its way further along the roof edge ...

before going to feed the three birds still in the nest.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Busy Month

I'm leading an intensive teacher-training course at CyFair this month and will be in the classroom all day Monday-Friday each week. So I won't be able to do much birding, or to do as much blogging as usual.

Having said that, I've already had a couple of good sightings. As I was getting out of my car at the college yesterday, a Common Nighthawk circled the parking lot several times. Later in the morning, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was busy chasing bugs outside my classroom window. Not a bad start to what is going to be a tough month at work!