Monday, August 30, 2010

Away Again

I won't be blogging for a few days because I'm going to be away until Friday. My daughter has arrived from Barcelona and we're spending the week in a beach house at Surfside, just along the coast from Galveston.

We all went to Surfside once before, in September 2008. That time we got just one day there before having to evacuate because of Hurricane Ike. So we're glad that there currently no hurricanes in our forecast.

While we're at the beach, I'm hoping to see lots of migrating shorebirds. I also hope that I'll be able to do some birding at nearby sites, including Brazoria NWR, Quintana and Bolivar. If everything turns out as planned, I should have some interesting photos to post when I return.

See you soon!


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back Home

After my recent trips to Utah and Mexico, I thought it was time to visit some local sites and get re-acquainted with some of our local birds. So Tuesday morning I drove to work via the Katy Prairie.

A utility post on 290 had a fine Red-t
ailed Hawk, while posts along the Katy-Hockley Cutoff had Black Vultures. A Crested Caracara flew ahead of me for a while before disappearing off across the fields.

I decided to visit Paul Rushing Park to see if any migrating shorebirds had dropped in there.

I had gone only 50 yards from the car when I flushed a Green Heron. It fled to the safety of a small tree, from which it dislodged a Common Nighthawk. The Nighthawk moved to another tree, in turn displacing a Northern Mockingbird. A Loggerhead Shrik
e watched nervously as I passed while Barn and Tree Swallows swooped overhead. A minute later, a pair of Common Nighthawks rose into the air and circled above me, their distinctive white wing stripes flashing in the morning light.

The lakes had a few larger birds: a dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, five Great Egrets, two Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a Little Blue Heron. The only shorebirds I spotted were the usual Killdeer, plus a Black-necked Stilt and a Greater Yellowlegs.

A few Mourning Doves skittered away wh
en I drew near them, as did three Eastern Meadowlarks. For once there was no sign of Horned Larks.

The next stage in my short trip was a
drive along Longenbaugh Road, mainly in hopes of seeing Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Unfortunately, the utility wires had just really common birds: scores of White-winged Doves, dozens of European Starlings and a scattering of Northern Mockingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes. My spirits were raised by a group of Dickcessels - only to fall when I realized the Dickcissels were actually House Sparrows.

Then, just as I was leaving Longenbaugh, I finally got lucky when three Scissor-tailed Flycatchers posed on a wire. One of them had particularly beautiful plumage.

I wasn't expecting to see anything of interest on my drive back to work along FM529. However, a flock of Cattle Egrets lifting off from a field caught my eye. As I watched, a hawk swooped through the flock. From its dark chest, light belly and distinctive wing patterns I had no problem IDing it as a Swainson's Hawk. A good bird to see on the way to work!


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I had a good time in Cuernavaca. It's a beautiful city, surrounded by spectacular mountains and
with great weather year-round.

Unfortunately, though, I wasn't able to
rent a car for my one free day (Saturday) and so couldn't fit in any birding trips. Instead I had to settle for looking for birds in the neighborhood where I was staying and in the city's botanical gardens, the Jardin Borda.

Although there were lots of birds around, they were mainly species that are also common in Texas. The street outside my hotel was always busy with House Sparrows, Inca Doves and House Finches.

House Finches

Great-tailed Grackles were everywhere.

For some reason, I had real problems getting my camera to focus well, as you can see from this photos of a pair of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.

In the mornings and evenings, flocks of incredibly noisy Red-lored Parrots filled the treetops but they were always too far away for photos.

The hotel gardens were surprisingly empty of birds. The only large bird was a very shy Rufous-backed Robin.

I spent a lot of time trying to photograph a pair of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds that hung out mainly in a pomegranate tree, but I could never manage a good photo.

I did a little better with the Barn Swallows that populated the nearby ruins of an ancient pyramid.

While the botanical gardens were very picturesque, the only birds I saw there were Great Kiskadees. One of the Kiskadees seemed puzzled, not to say upset, by its reflection in the gardens' lake.

So, not a good trip as regards birds. However, the Mexicans' love of gardening at least insured that there were
plenty of of plants and flowers to look at!


Saturday, August 21, 2010

More Yardbirds

All summer we have had several families of Northern Cardinals visiting our feeders.The plumage of the adult males is still beautiful even though they are moulting.

However, no doubt it won't be long until even this scruffy juvenile looks every bit as strikingly red as his dad.

I spent a lot of time earlier this week trying to take photos of a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird that has stopped here on his migration trip south. Unfortunately, he is a very skittish bird and flies off as soon as I make a move towards my camera. (This is even though he is 8' outside our living room and I am 15' inside the room.) This is the best picture I've managed so far.

It's going to be even harder to get a photo of him now because a female Ruby-throated has moved in and she is determined to keep the male away from the feeder. Luckily, she is much bolder than the male and therefore easier to photograph.


Thursday, August 19, 2010


Our yards continue to be fairly busy. We have several families of House Finches and there are constantly ten or more of the birds on our feeders. A lot of them are youngsters, like this little male who is just starting to get his red plumage.

Young Blue Jays and a juvenile Red-bellied Woodpeckers are frequent visitors,
too, and our family of Carolina Wrens pops up now and then to visit the feeders and to root around in our hanging baskets and flower pots.

White-winged Doves are always in one yard or the other - or both.

Unfortunately, they aren't our smartest birds and they haven't noticed that a stray black cat has moved into our backyard and hides under a w

So today there is one fewer White-winged Dove in the world than there was yesterday. Gray and Fox Squirrels are now back in numbers and they're looking very spiffy.

The Fox Squirrels' tails are absolutely gorgeous.

The Grays' tails aren't looking bad either.

Incidentally, the squirrels are totally unconcerned by the stray. Yesterday I watched anxiously as one wandered within 3 feet of the cat. I rapped on the window to warn it. I needn't have bothered. The squirrel kept wandering, then ran over right to where the cat was crouched. "One less squirrel," I thought. But no. It scampered up up into the branches of the wisteria - using the cat's head as a staging point along the way! The cat was so humiliated that it slunk away and hid behind the shed for a while.

Another Trip
I'm off to Cuernavaca, Mexico today and will be there until Sunday. (I'll prepare another blog posting and will schedule it to appear on Saturday, while I'm still away.) I'm hoping to fit in a day of birding around Cuernavaca and in the nearby mountains. If I'm successful, I should have some interesting photos to post when I return. Wish me luck!


Monday, August 16, 2010

What Are Those Big White Birds?

Non-birders that I meet often tell me about "big white birds" they've seen and ask what the birds are. So I thought it would be useful to comment on the big white birds that you're likely to see in our area, and on some that you're less likely to spot.

I'm going to restrict myself to birds that stand at least 20" tall and whose plumage is more or less completely white. I won't include geese, ducks or White Pelicans because most people recognize these; and I won't include Whooping Cranes, because you're not going to see those unless you travel down to Aransas in the winter.

When you read about each species, it is worth paying particular attention to the comments about behavior and habitat. These often provide the easiest way to distinguish between similar-looking species.


Great Egret (39" tall)
You will see this resident bird in or around water, or flying overhead with slow wing-strokes. Its plumage is completely white, and it has a yellow bill and black legs and feet. It spends a lot of time standing motionless; when it moves, it does so very slowly and gracefully.

Snowy Egret (24" tall)
This resident is common in or around water. It has white, fine plumage with a black bill, black legs and bright yellow feet. In water, it usually moves around often and quickly, using its yellow feet to stir up prey.

Snowy Egret

Cattle Egret (20" tall)
This resident is usually found in flocks in fields and along roadsides, often with cattle or other livestock. Its bill is yellow and its legs and feet are dark. It normally has all-white plumage, but in March-July breeding birds have orange feathers on their crown, their back and the front of their neck.

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage

White Ibis (25" tall)
This resident is usually seen in water or in wet and muddy areas. It is often in a flock. Its red legs and large down-curved red bill contrast with its white plumage. In flight, it has obvious black wingtips.

White Ibis


The White Ibis is impossible to miss because of its red bill. Also, no egret has black wingtips.
Breeding Cattle Egrets are easy to ID because of the distinctive orange patches on their plumage. However, the easiest way to tell all Cattle Egrets from the other egrets and White Ibis is by their location and behavior. They prefer to hang out in fields with livestock rather than in or around water. So if you see large white birds walking between the legs of cows or standing on the backs of bison, you're sure to be looking at Cattle Egrets.

Unlike Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets have bright yellow feet. The two species act very differently, too. Great Egrets fish/hunt standing still or moving very slowly; Snowy Egrets tend to run around in water, stirring up fish and other small prey with their yellow feet.


Little Blue Heron (24" tall)
This resident fishes in shallow freshwater. As its name suggests, it usually has all-blue plumage - and a blue bill. However, young birds have pure white plumage. Juvenile Little Blue Herons can be distinguished from Cattle and Snowy Egrets by their gray bill and dull greenish legs. Their normal habitat is also different from that of Cattle Egrets.

Juvenile Little Blue Heron

Reddish Egret (30" tall)
This resident is normally found only in shallow saltwater along the coast. Most birds have a gray body and a reddish-brown neck and head. However, at coastal sites such as Bolivar Peninsula, you may see a pure white morph of this bird. If you watch any Reddish Egret for a few minutes, its unique and very active fishing tactics will distinguish it from all other birds: Often with its wings raised, it runs about in bursts, jumps up and down, and spins around.

White morph Reddish Egret fishing

Wood Stork (40" tall)
This is not a common species and it appears in our area only in the summer, when it may be seen walking around in shallow water. It is very easily identified by its huge down-curved dark bill. Its wings are edged in black; this is not very obvious when the bird is on the ground but it is impossible to miss when the bird flies.

Two Wood Storks (with a Roseate Spoonbill)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tidying Up

We've spent the last few days tidying up the house and garage to get ready for a visit by our daughter and her family. So there hasn't been time for birdwatching. However, when I was going through the closet in my home office, I came across some old videotapes from when we lived in California.

One of the videos was taken in Monterey Bay, a great place for watching all kinds of wildlife including birds, whales, sea otters and sea lions.

Now that I have a still camera with a long zoom lens, I'd love to get back to Monterey to take some photos.

In the meantime, here's a clip showing sea lions just hanging loose in Monterey harbor.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

Let Us Now Praise Common Birds

Brits divide birders into two groups: birdwatchers and twitchers. Birdwatchers enjoy watching all kinds of birds. Twitchers are fanatics who are interested only in seeing rare birds, or not-so-rare birds which turn up outside their normal range. Twitchers have reached that stage where normal birds in their normal habitats have lost all appeal and “nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.”

I have always prided myself on being a birdwatcher rather than a twitcher. However, something happened a while back day which made me realize that I need to be careful not to start down the slippery slope to twitcherdom.

I noticed a large bird hiding in a tree and walked over to get a better view. I was really disappointed to find the bird was only a Great-tailed Grackle, a very common species here. Only a Great-tailed Grackle!

As soon as I'd thought this, I realized I was dismissing a magnificent bird simply because it's such a common resident in our area. Then I remembered how excited I was t
he first time I saw one - and I recalled once driving miles to see three Great-tailed Grackles that had strayed into the San Francisco area.
So now I try to remember to give even our common birds the attention and respect that they deserve.

While I'm on the topic of disrespected birds, here's a photo of another much-maligned bird: the European Starling. Yes, I know they are unwelcome visitors in the USA - but they are amazingly adaptable and very beautiful.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bits and Bobs

Hummers Are Back
We finally saw the first migrating hummingbirds in our yards yesterday. A Ruby-throated Male turned up at our feeders in the afternoon. That is about par for the course since the males usually arrive here a couple of weeks before the females start showing up.

CyFair Campus
I've checked both retention ponds for the pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that normally raise families on the campus in the summer. Unfortunately, the only BBWDs to be seen were two adolescents. A couple of months ago there was a lot of construction work around the ponds and I suppose the disturbance made the ducks look for a different place for nesting this year. That's a great pity. I was looking forward to watching the adults raising new ducklings again this year.

Utah Trip
Looking over my records for the trip, I find that I saw 66 species in Utah. 36 of these were new birds for 2010 and three of them were life-birds for me: Brewer's Sparrow, Gray Jay and Red Crossbill.

Year List
At 243 species so far, my year list is almost 30 down on this time in 2009. However, by August last year I had done trips to San Francisco, Phoenix and New York, as well as to Utah.

Coming Soon
In a couple of weeks I'll be spending a day or two in Cuernavaca, Mexico. There won't be much time for birding but I'm sure I'll manage to fit in a little. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the thousands of swifts that roost in the city's main square.

At the end of the month, we're going to have a few days in a beach house at Surfside. Barring the arrival of a hurricane, this should give me a chance to see migrating shorebirds. (Two years ago we rented the same house but had to evacuate after just one day because of the approach of Hurricane Ike.) No doubt I'll also squeeze in side-trips to Brazoria and San Bernard refuges.

Then, in late September, I'm doing a little work in Denver, Colorado. I should be able to fit in a day in the Rocky Mountain National Park. With luck I might see some of the mountain birds that I missed in Utah, such as Three-toed Woodpecker and Steller's Jay.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Utah Trip (5)

Dee and I decided to spend part of our final afternoon in Utah at the Red Butte Botanical Gardens. We visited the gardens last year and were impressed by both the botanical displays and the birds that we saw there.

On this visit, the gardens were as beautiful as before.

The birding started out well, too, when we almost literally stumbled over a family of California Quail.

The mother quickly sheph
erded the chicks to safety ...

while the father stood guard.

After that, we saw plenty of bugs but very few birds, except occasional glimpses of American Robins and Warbling Vireos among the trees.

I stopped beside a small fountain and was soon rewarded by the arrival of a Black-capped Chickadee that was in need of a drink and a bath.

My final sighting was a female Western Tanager that came in to the same fountain. Surprisingly, this was the only Tanager that we saw on our whole trip to Utah.

Utah Skies

One of the delights of being in Salt Lake City is watching the play of sun and clouds on the Wasatch Mountains. This is how the sky over the mountains looked on Sunday evening.