Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Heading for the Hills

One of the few things that Dee and I don't like about living in Houston is that the surrounding area is so unbelievably flat. So we really look forward to every opportunity that we get to spend time in mountainous areas. This is partly because we just love mountains but also because
they are home to lots of birds and other wildlife that we never see in southeast Texas.

I mention this because tomorrow we're heading to Utah for a week-long vacation, most of which will be spent camping (with other family members) in the Uinta Mountains southeast of Salt Lake City. We'll be staying at a primitive campsite at 10,2
00 feet. (Yes, that's 10,200 feet.) As we'll be arriving at the campsite just hours after leaving Houston, we're a little worried that we might suffer from altitude sickness.

We're also a little worried about the weather. Daytime temperatures should be very pleasantly cool at around 70F. However, at nights it may drop to the 30s. That's going to be a shock after Houston, where our current n
ighttime lows rarely dip below 75F. I guess that we'll adjust.

The research that I've done on wildlife in the area suggests that we might get to see black bear and moose, as well as some interesting birds, such as Cassin's Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, Townsend's Solitaire, Clark's Nutcracker, Three-toed Woodpecker and possibly even White-tailed Ptarmigan.

Cassin's Finch, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, May 2009

At worst, we should see some of the common Utah birds that we don't see around Houston: Mountain Bluebird, Steller's Jay, Pine Siskin, Red-naped Sapsucker, Common Raven etc.

Pine Siskin, Brighton, Utah, May 2009

While in Utah, I'm hoping we'll have time to drive out to Antelope Island again. I saw my first-ever Yellow-headed Blackbird there last year and I'd like to see a few more, plus some of the Burrowing Owls that live on the island.

Yellow-headed Blackbird, Antelope Island, May 2009

The causeway that connects the island to the mainland can provide excellent birding, too. If we're lucky, we should see an array of shorebirds, grebes and phalaropes.

As we won't have Internet access while we're away, I won't be posting again until Wednesday, August 4th. See you then!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Boom Year for Babies

As I mentioned in my previous post, this has been a great year for watching breeding birds in our area.

gs started off well with an opportunity to see a pair of Bald Eagles raising two chicks at Baytown.

Then Red-shouldered Hawks raised two chicks on Louetta, just half-a-mile from our house.

We missed seeing
egrets, herons and other waders raising their young at High Island this year but did get to see Yellow-crowned Heron and Snowy Egret nests at Sheldon Lake.

Visits to Brazos Bend State Park allowed us to watch Purple Gallinules guarding their chicks while juvenile Common Moorhens ventured out alone.

Brazos Bend was also a great place to watch more young Yellow-crowned Night Herons.

We didn't spot any young Clapper Rails at
Brazoria NWR this spring but did get our first sighting ever of a baby Black-necked Stilt.

Paul Rushing and Bear Creek parks also pr
oduced firsts for us: a young Common Nighthawk and Red-headed Woodpecker respectively.

The CyFair campus produced European Starling, Purple Martin and Northern Mockingbird chicks.

For the 6th year running, a pair of Eastern Kingbirds nested in the roof of the campus basketball court and raised four healthy youngsters.

At home our yards were dominated by this year's broods of House Finches, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves.

Our other yardbird breeders included Carolina Chickadees, Northern Mockingbirds, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wrens and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A young House Sparrow and a juvenil
e Common Grackle popped in to visit but luckily didn't stay too long.

Coming Up

Of course, we should get to see still more babies over the coming months. Many of our resident yardbirds breed more than once a year, and I'm also hoping that Black-bellied Whistling Ducks will breed again at CyFair. If we're really lucky, we may even see Least Grebes nesting at Brazos Bend again.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bear Creek Park

I took a very quick trip over to Bear Creek Park on Tuesday. After all the recent rain, I expected most of the park to be under water and so I was hoping for some photos of wading birds.

There was plenty of water all right but I was surpri
sed to find that waders were absent, except for a couple of young Little Blue Herons that kept well away from me.

As I got ready to leave, a smaller bird flew onto a nearby branch and stayed just long enough for a snatched photo. A young Red-headed Woodpecker, not looking anything like as elegant as its elders.

I think I have seen more baby and juvenile birds this year than in all my previous years of birdwatching. Not sure whether this means that birds have been breeding more successfully or that my birdwatching skills are improving.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another Bird ID Quiz

What with work and all the rain we've been having, I haven't had any time for birdwatching this week. So today I'm recycling a bird ID quiz that I posted some years ago.

This quiz focuses on some of the more common large birds that you're likely to see if you're out and about in the countryside in southeast Texas.

The first video has 3-4 second clips of the birds for you to ID.

If, after watching this video, you're not sure of some of the IDs, watch the second video. This repeats the clips but this time each clip is accompanied by a clue or hint to prompt you towards the correct ID.

When you're ready to check your answers, go to the third video. This shows the birds and their names.

BTW, I'm sorry some of the clips are very wobbly. It's hard to keep the camera still when you're filming without a tripod with the zoom at 25X. A tripod would help but I already have enough to lug around without adding a tripod.

Good luck!

Quiz Video

Video with ID Hints

Video Answers

Monday, July 19, 2010

Quiet Weekend

I didn't have time for any birding trips over the weekend but I did take short walks in two local parks.

On Saturday, I spent half an hour at the Little Cypress Creek Preserve (at the junction of Telge and Spring Cypre
ss roads). Although I heard and saw virtually no birds, dragonflies were plentiful.

On Sunday, we walked around Paul Rushing Chain-of-Lakes Park on the Katy Prairie. There were quite a few birds there, including Killdeer, Black-necked Stilts, Eurasian Collared Doves, Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds. As usual, the la
kes had a handful of Great Egrets, a Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron, plus an adult Pied-billed Grebe with three baby grebes.

As we were leaving, we came across two adult Common Nighthawks sitting on a fence. Sitting nearby was a much smaller Nighthawk.

At first I thought the smaller bird had to be a Lesser Nighthawk. However, from the way the two adults flew around and shepherded it away from us, I assume the smaller bird was actually a juvenile.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bits and Bobs

CyFair Campus

Dee and I walked around the campus yesterday morning. I was hoping to see families of Black-bellied Whistling
Ducks on the retention ponds but there weren't any. Perhaps recent construction work on the campus has caused them to nest elsewhere this summer. I hope not, because I always enjoy watching the ducklings paddling around under the watchful eyes of their parents and other adults.

Although the ponds didn't have any ducks, they did have several other birds: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, two G
reen Herons, Mourning Doves and Northern Mockingbirds. There were lots of dragonflies, too. Until I looked at this photo, I'd never noticed that dragonfly wings have very intricate patterns of thin lines on their surfaces. They look almost like veins.

Elsewhere on the campus, I managed to get photos of a juvenile N. Mockingbird. We've had several juveniles in our yards this year but they've disappeared every time I've raised a camera.

As you can see, juvenile Mockingbirds have speckling on their throats and chests.

At Home

We've been keeping a hummingbird feeder stocked for weeks now. However, we haven't yet seen a hummer. This isn't really surprising, since our House Finches flock to the feeder as soon as we refill it.

I thought I could foil the Finche
s by removing the perches from the feeder but they've foiled me by learning how to access the sugar water without using perches.

Upsetting News

I've just read a really upsetting news report from England about Goldfinches being captured and then sold as caged singing birds. Apparently north African immigrants like keeping caged songbirds. So they are capturing Goldfinches by putting glue on tree branches. They then place a caged Goldfinch nearby. As Goldfinches are territorial, the "owner" of the local patch soon flies in to check out the intruder - and it gets stuck to the branches. (I remember reading somewhere that this is how Hawai'ians used to catch tens of thousands of songbirds to get the feathers for a chief's ceremonial cloak.)

All this would be bad enough but there is worse. As Goldfinches normally sing only on their own territories, the caged "bait birds" often refuse to sing. The hunters get around this problem by burning out the birds' eyes so that the birds can't tell where they are.

I wonder how many of the exotic birds that are sold as pets in the USA are snared using similarly cruel methods. I suspect it's a lot.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Praise of Common Birds

Like most birders, I spend a lot of time looking for unusual birds: that is, birds that are comparatively scarce in our area or that we see only at certain times of the year. However, every now and then I try to remind myself to focus on the common species, the birds we see so often that we refer to them rather dismissively as "yardbirds".

One of our most common yardbird
s is the Northern Cardinal, which many Texans refer to simply as the "Red Bird". This photo of a male Cardinal that visits our yards daily leaves no doubt about how the species gets its nickname.

As you can see, the only part of the bird that isn't red is a black patch around the bill.

Of course, only male Cardinals are r
ed. Females are mainly brown, with just touches of red on their wings, tails and crests.

Their bills are orange rather than red.

Young Northern Cardinals have even less colorful plumage and their bills are black rather than red or orange.

As the young males grow, their plumage gradually turns red, sometimes making the birds look rather comical in the process.

Southern Cousins

There are actually two different species in the Cardinal family. One is the our Northern Cardinal. The other is the Pyrrhuloxia, a common resident of Mexico and the extreme south
western USA.

This photo shows a female Pyrrhuloxia. The males are similar except that they have pure yellow bills and have a line of red blotches around their faces and down their fronts.

If you want to see a Pyrrhuloxia in Texas, you usually have to travel to the Rio Grande Valley or Big Bend areas. However, individual birds occasionally stray into our part of the state. In fact, the photo above is of a female that recently spent several winters on Longenbaugh Road, just west of Houston.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Brazoria NWR (3)

In spite of the recent heavy rains, several of the ponds remained dry and birds were certainly nothing like as plentiful as they were before Hurricane Ike covered the area in saltwater. However, there were enough birds to make the visit very enjoyable. (To be honest, we would have enjoyed the visit even without any birds, because the landscape at the refuge is simply beautiful.)

The most common shorebirds were Black-necked Stilts. We came across them at every pond and also along the flooded verges of the road.

Near the shelter where we stopped to have our picnic, several Willets were nesting. I didn't notice the nests at first, but the parents' calls soon alerted me and so I backed off.

While we were having lunch, we were able to watch several adult and juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Herons feeding among the marsh grasses. This species must have had an extremely successful breeding season because we have seen lots of juveniles everywhere we have birded recently.

On this occasion, the adults and juveniles were accompanied by what looked like a very young chick.

We had been sitting at the shelter for some time before Deanne noticed that a Barn Swallow was nesting under the structure's roof.

The parent seemed totally unconcerned by our presence.

Nearby a couple of Black Terns were busy fishing.

As you would expect in our area at this time of year, there were frequent flyovers by Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

If every year is good for these ducks, this year seems to have been a particularly good one for Common Nighthawks: I've seen more in the past few months than in all of the years I've been birdwatching.

Our drive out of the refuge was punctuated with stops to admire numerous Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as several Dickcissels, a species we had never previously seen at Brazoria.