Friday, April 30, 2010

You just gotta love that prairie!

Yesterday I took my lunch up to Paul D. Rushing Park on the Katy Prairie in hopes of finally seeing the Baird's Sandpipers that have been hanging out there for a couple of weeks. They're a species that I've never seen.

I pulled into the parking lot, trained my binoculars on a group of 5-6 birds in the grass, and I was looking at the Baird's.

A friendly birder pulled his car up alongside mine to tell me that I should watch out for Nighthawks. He had just spotted both Common and Lesser near the parking lot. (I hadn't yet seen a Common Nighthawk this year and I'd never seen a Lesser.)

Sure enough, a little later both birds flew by and I even got a couple of decent shots of the Common.

So in just a few minutes I'd seen two life birds. That's pretty good lunchtime birding.

I took a quick walk around the nearest of the park's several lakes and came across a Common Nighthawk resting on the ground. They really are odd-looking birds!

The other birder had also told me that there was a pair of Fulvous Whistling Ducks around. I wasn't lucky enough to spot them but I did run into a pair of their Black-bellied cousins.

There were plenty of other birds, too: 70 Buff-breasted Sandpipers, a score of Savannah Sparrows, a pair of Crested Caracaras, a White-tailed Hawk and lots of Black-necked Stilts, Killdeer, Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and Barn Swallows. A Horned Lark came close enough for me to attempt a photo.

My lunch break almost over, I decided to drive back to work via Longenbaugh Road. If I were lucky, I might just see a Dickcissel to add my year list.

I turned onto Longenbaugh and the first bird I saw was a Dickcissel, looking very pretty against the blue Texas sky.

Now I really had to hurry back to work. But wait. A hawk was flying above the road. I pulled over and watched a Swainson's Hawk circle overhead. That was year bird #179.

As this is nesting season, I wasn't surprised to see it being chased away by a Blackbird.

My lunchtime birding foray had turned out to be very worthwhile. I just love the Katy Prairie!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Arrivals at CyFair

Last week was busy at work and so I only managed to do a few short walks around the campus. Given all the construction activity, I wasn't expecting to see many new birds but there turned out to be quite a few. Unfortunately, most of these were being very secretive and didn't allow me to get photos. This was the case with a Yellow-throated Vireo and a pair of Baltimore Orioles - two species we've never had on campus before - an Indigo Bunting and a Great-crested Flycatcher.

Others let me get only snatched photos.

Warbling Vireo

Orchard Oriole

Nashville Warbler

Summer Tanagers

A bird that was more cooperative was one of my favorite migrants: Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Other Sightings We continue to have several Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on campus, and I was happy to see that the Purple Martin houses have become a hive of activity.

The start of the Nature Trail is now a mass of blossoms. Here, like everywhere in our area, honeysuckle seems to be flourishing more than in other years and its scent is sometimes almost overpowering. Another plant that is doing well is the one shown below, whose name I'm afraid I don't know.

As you would expect, the mass of blossoms is attracting butterflies, including this type that I've never seen before. I think they must be some sort of Comma.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for Snakes

I had to go to north Houston on F
riday and so I fitted in an hour's visit to Jesse Jones Park. As it was a dark and wet morning, I wasn't expecting to see much in the way of birds but I thought it would be a good place to look for snakes.

I focused on the area
around the boardwalk which crosses a large pond containing cypress trees. If I was going to find a Water Moccasin anywhere, surely it would be here. Besides, I like this area because the cypress trees' "knees" sticking up through the water make the pond look positively primeval.

I carefully searched the ground and water along the boardwalk but all I saw was a solitary Green Heron. I was surprised to see that it had a very prominent crest.

Juvenile Green He
rons have a very slight crest but this bird's deep red throat showed clearly that it was an adult. Plus the feathers on the top of its head were really sticking right up. I wonder if the raised feathers were because I had startled the bird. Or perhaps I had just caught it before it had had time to groom itself.

After a fruitless 20 minutes of looking for snakes, I abandoned the pond and did a quick walk through the woods. As the light improved, so did the volume of bird calls. The calls
of a Pileated Woodpecker and several Red-bellied Woodpeckers echoed around me but I couldn't see the birds making them. I could hear a Northern Parula, too, but again didn't get to see bird itself. In fact, the only birds I actually managed to see were several Red-headed Woodpeckers high in the trees and lots of Northern Cardinals.

I'm always a little surprised to see Cardinals when I'm out birding
. I am so used to seeing them at our feeders that I tend to think of them as yardbirds and to forget that they really are wild birds.

Walking back
towards the parking area, I crossed the boardwalk again. The Green Heron was in the same place but this time it looked more normal with its head feathers neatly in place.

There were still no snakes, though. Bummer! I consoled my self by taking a photo of an interesting flower near the end of the boardwalk.

That's when I noticed a movement in the water. Yes! A Water Moccasin was swimming quietly around, its tongue out to test the air as it went. It was a very pretty sight, although you can't tell this from my rather blurry photos.

As my available time had run out, I hurried back to the car, stopping only to take a couple of photos of some insectivorous Pale Pitcher plants and stunning Irises near the visitor center.

So not a great morning but at least I had a good look at a Water Moccasin.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Whenever I'm out birding in long grass - even around the CyFair campus - I try to remember to watch out for snakes. However, I sometimes forget. Just as I sometimes forget that snakes don't hang out only in long grass.

When I was walking along a trail last Tuesday morning, I noticed a sudden movement under my feet. It was a large Water Moccasin. Before I had time to react, it slithered away into a nearby puddle and then swam off.

After I had grabbed a photo, I turned back and - nearly stepped right on another, smaller Moccasin lying on
the trail. Given that this is springtime, I suppose the snakes were a pair and I had interrupted them while they were sharing some quality time.

Unlike its larger partner, this snake didn't try to flee, perhaps because I was between it and the water. It let me take a few photos.

Then it decided I was getting too close and warned me off by opening its mouth wide and showing the white that gives the animal its common name, Cottonmouth.

As she closed her mouth, I was struck by how beautiful the patterning is on the underneath of the lower jaw was. I'd never noticed that before.

Cottonmouths have a reputation for being aggressive but I suspect they don't deserve it. In my experience, they generally react like other venomous snakes: They either make a hasty retreat or they go into defensive mode.

Of course, there are always exceptions. A few years ago I was videoing a Water Moccasin swimming along a small stream on Bolivar Peninsula. I walked along beside it for maybe 20 yards. Then suddenly it came out of the water and headed straight for me, hissing with mouth wide open. I had to back up very quickly. I imagine that the snake felt I was stalking it and so felt threatened.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Rookery at High Island

When we finally reached the rookery, we were thrilled to see there were hundreds if not thousands of birds present.

Roseate Spoonbills were the most numerous in the trees closest to the observation platforms.

One reason we love this rookery is that you are near enough to be able to watch the behavior of individual birds. We watched the antics of several individual Spoonbills for quite a while.

They look rather ungainly on their feet but they are extremely graceful in flight.

There were plenty of Great Egrets, too, both in the trees and flying around.

I'd never noticed before how the area in front of the eye turns green in mating season.

Most of the Great Egrets looked splendid in their breeding plumage.

But we both agreed that this bird easily won the most-beautiful-plumage prize.

Mixed in with the Greats were quite a few Snowy Egrets. In their case, the area in front of the eye turns red in this season. Their normally bright yellow feet turn red, too.

Given the spectacular appearance of the Egrets and Spoonbills, it was easy to overlook the presence of other, less dramatic birds. Common Moorhens paddled around on the water while Double-crested Cormorants posed on snags.

A solitary Anhinga looked quite forlorn as he perched on a branch among all the more brightly colored birds.

By now it was time for us to head for home and so we reluctantly left the rookery and walked back to the car. We both agreed that we'd had an excellent day of birding - and that we'd return to High Island in May. Next time we might not hit on a day with so many migrants but we can be sure of seeing lots of action - and lots of baby birds - at the rookery.

At this time of the year, roadsides in Texas are a mass of wildflowers. Our personal favorites are the Indian Paintbrush.