Thursday, February 25, 2010

About once a week I take a rather indirect route to or from work in order to do some from-the-car birding on the Katy Prairie. Although very little now remains of the original prairie, once a vast area of tall grass and scattered wetlands, it is still a great area for seeing birds and even a very short visit is certain to turn up something interesting. At this time of year, the main attractions are raptors and sparrows, and both types of birds were plentiful when I took my indirect route to work on Tuesday.

As usual, many of the utility poles along the road were providing perches for Red-tailed Hawks, birds I never tire of watching. Most of the hawks fly off as soon as you stop the car to look at them, but this on
e was less skittish.

Red-tailed Hawk

It is rare that I don't see at least one crested Caracara and Tuesday was no exception.

Crested Caracara

The utility wires make excellent perches for American Kestrels and also for some of the numerous Loggerhead Shrikes that are resident in the area.

Loggerhead Shrike

Roadside fences and hedges are normally busy with sparrows. Although most of the sparrows I see there are Savannah Sparrows, I always check out the flocks in case other species are mixed in with them.

Savannah Sparrow

For some reason Field Sparrows like hanging out with Savannahs and, sure enough, this was the case on Tue

Field Sparrow

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Yesterday Dee and I were on the back deck enjoying the sun when the Carolina Wren returned. This time he perched in a ne
arby tree and sang. As always, we were amazed by how such a tiny bird can produce such a loud song.

I grabbed my camera and, to make sure he stayed until I got some photos, I whistled his song back at him.

Male Carolina Wrens are extremely territorial and so he immediately looked around for the intruder.

Then he repeated his song, this time even more loudly.

I whistled back again.

Now he was certainly not amused.

It was definitely time to get rid of the competition. He gave himself a preparatory shake.

Then he threw back his head and sang out at the very top of his voice ...

and looked haughtily around as if to say, "Try matching that!"

I sat quietly down. He waited and listened.

Then he flew off to another corner of his patch, satisfied that he had successfully dealt with the challenge to his dominance.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A New Birding Site

Lured by Texbirds reports of Wood Ducks and a Vermilion Flycatcher, I drove down to El Franco Lee Park. It was my first visit to this park, which is just south of Beltway 8 and only an hour from our house in Cypress.

At first glance the site looked like just another rather boring city park, with most of the space given over to sports fields. But then I saw there was a large wetlands area and some patches of woodland further back from the entrance. So I parked and walked past a short boardwalk to the path marked Nature Trail Two.

The air was filled with the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and within minutes I came across a pair each of Pileated, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, flitting around in the trees and by the water's edge.

The trees near the picnic table at the trailhead were full of Northern Cardinals. There were also numerous American Robins. Most flew off as soon as I approached ...

but one stayed a little longer.

The lake was busy with hundreds of American Coots and ducks. They were all too far away to photograph but even without a scope I was able to pick out Gadwalls, Mottled Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, and Blue- and Green-winged Teal.

To my surprise, the first 15 minutes of the trail had no wading birds. However, this changed as I neared the eastern corner of the water. Several Great Egrets looked majestic as they perched on snags or fished in the shallows.

The shallows also had groups of Snowy Egrets, distinctive with their yellow feet and hunched stance.

There were White Ibis, too, some in full adult plumage ...

and some still sporting their juvenile coloring.

Great Blue Herons flew off, protesting noisily, before I could photograph them but Tricolored Herons were less bothered by my presence.

When the trail left the water and looked to be heading over less interesting terrain, I decided to retrace my steps. It was a good decision. Almost immediately I saw my first new year bird, an Osprey flying high overhead.

Then another new bird, a Cave Swallow swooping over the water. Two minutes later, a third new species, my first Green Heron of 2010.

A pair of Swamp Sparrows came next, followed by a fourth new year bird, a Greater Yellowlegs.

A Red-shouldered Hawk caught my eye as it came down to settle in a distant tree. And then my final sighting, an American Kestrel, perched on a high branch.

I didn't get to see any Wood Ducks or the Vermilion Flycatcher, the main reasons for my visit. However, I wasn't at all disappointed and I would rank the short time I spent at the park among the most enjoyable birding I have ever done. Hardly a minute passed without something worth looking at - not surprising given that I saw 47 species in 90 minutes. I was pleased, too, to add four species to my year list, taking the latter to 120 species.

I'll certainly be returning to bird this park before the end of the winter and no doubt also later in the year.

The park is just south of Beltway 8 a little west of I-45. From 8 take the Blackhawk Blvd. exit south. Before you reach Blackhawk, you will see Hall Road on your right. Turn into the second entrance, which is clearly marked. (The first entrance is for the park's community center.) Then go right at the first Stop sign. Follow this road until it ends at a turnaround. The wetlands will be on your left and a clump of trees with a picnic table will be straight ahead. Nature Trail Two starts between the wetlands and the trees. Before you reach it, you will pass a short boardwalk with an observation deck.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Welcome Visitor

Our backyard feeders are popular with birds at present: Northern Cardinals, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, an Orange-crowned Warbler, a Northern Mockingbird, two Carolina Chickadees, several Chipping Sparrows and more American Goldfinches visit regularly. The feeders sometimes even attract Blue Jays, House Sparrows and White-winged Doves. Yellow-rumped Warb
lers fly in to see what all the fuss is about and some of our resident squirrels try in every way they can to reach the feeders.

One bird that rarely turns up, at least while we're watching, is one of our favorites: Carolina Wren. However, yesterday one ap
peared and spent several minutes eating seed and then checking out a birdhouse nailed to the eaves of our garden shed.

Now, of course, we're both hoping that Wrens decide to use the birdhouse to raise this year's family.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Being very busy at work and having a bad cold, I haven't managed to do any birding for several days. However, yesterday morning was so beautifully clear, crisp and sunny that I just couldn't resist spending 20 minutes taking a longer route to work. The route went across part of the Katy Prairie and I was sure that, on such a clear winter day, I would see lots of raptors.

I was right. I spotted a total of 16 Red-tailed Hawks, two American Kestrels and three Northern Harriers, as well as innumerable Loggerhead Shrikes.

Red-tailed Hawk

Northern Harrier

Since I didn't have much time and still wasn't feeling great, I never got out of the car. But this didn't stop me seeing and photographing a few smaller birds along Longenbaugh Road.

Savannah Sparrows are always plentiful in this area.

Northern Mockingbirds were were
everywhere, too, and one gave me some great views.

An Eastern Phoebe was kind enough to pose close to the car.

And a House Wren popped up and perched on a roadside fence.

I drove on feeling very lucky to live and work where I do, and ready to face another hectic day of teacher-training.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bits and Pieces

Bad weather and a bad cold put a crimp in my birdwatching activities at the end of the week.

I took a longer-than-usual drive home, via the Katy Prairie, in hopes of adding Brewer's Blackbirds to my year list. I saw a score of Brewer's at a local ranch but I was even more pleas
ed to come across a male Red-winged Blackbird singing his heart out in a tree.

There may be more beautiful birdsongs but the distinctive song of the Red-winged is one that never fails to stop me in my tracks.

The campus was generally very quiet. However, I spent my coffee break sitting by the nature trail watching a couple of dozen White-winged Doves and no fewer than 50 Cedar Waxwings.

I had intended to spend the day visiting a few local sites for the GBBC: Great Backyard Bird Count. Unfortunately, I had caught a cold and had to spend the day at home instead. The morning produced only a handful of birds and it looked like my count was going to be much lower than in previous years. Then noon came around and the birds arrived for lunch. Over the next hour I logged 14 species, with the most numerous being 16 American Goldfinch. A flyover by 40 Cedar Waxwings brought the day's total of individuals to 40.

The most exciting development, though, was not the number of species or individuals. It was the presence of Downy Woodpeckers. On Thursday I blogged that I hadn't seen any woodpeckers in our yards this year. So I was thrilled to see a pair of Downys in our front yard on Saturday. At one point the male and female settled down together on the same suet feeder. A very pretty sight with which to end the week!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One of the things I love about our front yard is that it has always attracted woodpeckers, birds that I find totally fascinating to watch. We normally get three species.

The most regular visitors have been Downy Woodpeckers. Ever since we moved in five years ago, we've had daily visits from Downys. Even on days when few other birds visited, we could be pretty sure that a Downy male or fema
le or both would come several times to eat at the suet feeder. We've watched their courting behavior - we once saw four males trying to impress our female, all in the same tree at the same time. Each year we've watched them raise their young and show them how to access the feeder.

We've also had regular visits from male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Much larger than the Downy, these birds haven't restricted themselves to eating suet. Instead, they have often come to the tube feeders, scattering House Finches and Northern Cardinals as they arrive. They have even managed to push aside White-winged Doves to get at the seeds on the platform feeder. Like the Downys, they have raised young and introduced them to our yard.

Then there have been the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. A male and female have arrived from the north every fall and have spent the winter feeding on our elm tree. They often drill a series of holes around a branch and then sit for hours waiting for the sap to collect.

Well, something has changed and our woodpeckers seem to have deserted us. The Red-bellieds were the first to disappear: I haven't seen one since the middle of December. A male Sapsucker turned up as usual at the start of fall and came regularly until mid-December, when he, too, stopped visiting. Then at the end of the year the Downys abandoned us and still have not returned.

I know that all three species are still in our neighborhood, because I hear them as I drive or walk along our street. So it's just our yard that they have decided to boycott. I wish I knew why, because I really miss them!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Attwater Refuge (Part 2)

In winter, Attwater is generally a very
good place to see sparrows and this was the case on Sunday. The entrance road had many Savannah Sparrows, while the auto route had Field, Vesper, Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrows

The track and the verges were busy with Eastern Phoebes, American Pipits, Northern Mockingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Mourning Doves and many Eastern Meadowlarks. We also had good looks at a Marsh Wren and, seemingly very out of place, a Pine Warbler.

Eastern Meadowlark

As there was plenty of water eve
rywhere, we expected to see lots of wading birds. However, the only ones we spotted were a couple of Great Blue Herons and a handful of Great Egrets.

Great Egret

The lake area was very busy with American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes and a good number of ducks. Lesser Scaup, Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers were plentiful and I was glad to see two new-for-2010 species: Gadwall and Northern Pintail.

Northern Pintails

We stopped to look at the refuge's
herd of bison.

While we sat there admiring the bison, we were treated to the spectacle of hundreds of Snow Geese streaming overhead, their haunting calls filling the air.

Snow Geese

By the time we left the refuge, we had seen 32 species, which was significantly fewer than we had expected. However, we were not at all disappointed. The great views we had of Northern Harriers, White-tailed Hawks and Snow Geese alone made the trip worthwhile - and there was the added bonus of increasing my year list from 111 to 115 species.