Saturday, October 30, 2010

Busy at Bear Creek

I managed to get in a little birding at Bear Creek Park. I just stopped briefly at Restroom 8 on Golbow Road and stayed around for 30 minutes because the trees around the restroom were absolutely hopping with birds.

What first caught my eye (and ears) were a pair of American Crows.

A group of half-a-dozen Brown-headed Cowbirds flew in, soon to be chased away by a Blue Jay.

A couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers were lost among a sea of Pine Warblers. The latter were everywhere - in the trees, on the grass, under the concrete picnic tables. I've never before seen so many at one time.

Eastern Bluebirds were numerous, too, breakfasting on dragonflies and other bugs. 

A Red-headed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers competed to see who could make the most noise, while Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers climbed quietly up and down the trees.

Northern Cardinals flew in to see what was happening but didn't stay long. Several Carolina Chickadees also arrived but they hung around.

A Carolina Wren popped up for a moment. 

I almost missed a Mourning Dove and an Eastern Phoebe because they were perched silent and still among all the activity.

Turkey and Black Vultures did fly-bys.

Finally, just as I was about to drive away, I had to jump out of the car to watch an Osprey pass overhead.

Sorry about the photos! The image stabilizer on my Sony has definitely stopped working. So I'll have to go back to using my Canon S3, a much tougher and more reliable little camera.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Summer Is Over

Yesterday it certainly felt like summer was over, because it was cool (and windy) when I did a morning walk around the CyFair campus.

My walk started off quietly with just the birds that I expected to see: Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Phoebe, Indigo Buntings, Sedge Wrens and a Winter Wren.

A flyover by a Turkey Vulture and a Cooper's Hawk added more interest. (Cooper's Hawks are common enough in our area but they seem to even more common than usual this fall.  I've seen them everywhere I've walked in the past couple of weeks.)

I also had good views of a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks passing overhead, always a beautiful sight.

I kept getting brief glimpses of several small birds flitting around in the trees and bushes. Buntings? Sparrows? I couldn't tell but they didn't look right for either buntings or sparrows. Then one landed for a moment on a brush pile. Yellow-rumped Warbler! Yes!!! My camera's image stabilization is iffy at present but the photo was clear enough for ID purposes.

I was excited. Not because it was another first-of-season bird. But because to me the arrival of Yellow-rumped Warblers is always the sign that the summer is finally and definitely over. I can now be fairly confident that temperatures will be much more moderate for the next several months. More important, I can be pretty sure that winter residents will soon start returning to our yards. It has been a long wait and I'm excited that it's almost over.

Later in the Day

As I was leaving the campus late in the afternoon, I noticed a group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on one of the retention ponds. I turned around, parked and walked over to the pond. Not just some Whistling Ducks but a whole family of two adults and eight ducklings!

In previous years we've had several pairs of BBWD have raised families on our ponds but this year I hadn't seen any signs of breeding activity and I assumed the ducks had been scared off by all the construction work going on at the college. Well, one family isn't as many as we're used to but it's certainly better than I feared.

As a bonus, a Belted Kingfisher was sitting near our waterfall as I walked back to the car.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wrens, Wrens and More Wrens

Whenever I walk around the CyFair campus, I am verbally abused by N. Mockingbirds. They seem to think it's their job to alert all the other birds to my presence. Now that fall is definitely here, I now also have to put up with verbal abuse from Wrens, which scold me whenever I approach their territories!

We have a lot of Wrens on the campus. Surprisingly, though, none of them are Carolina Wrens, the species that is by far the most common in our area. We always have Carolinas in our yards at home but I haven't seen one at the college for at least a year. That's a shame because they're such perky little birds. Unlike most other Wrens, their call is easy to identify, too: The books give it as "tea kettle, tea kettle". (Two me it sounds more like "video, video" or sometimes "I see you, I see you".

The beginning of the campus nature trail always has Sedge Wrens during the winter and a couple have already taken up residence there this fall. I hear them every time that I pass by, although I rarely catch more than a brief glimpse of them. They may become less skittish once they've settled in. Last year they got comfortable enough with me to let me take photos.

A few yards further along the trail a House Wren seems to have moved in. The only photos I've managed of it so far this year have been terrible, and so here are photos of a couple of last year's birds.

Further down the trail there is now at least one Winter Wren. The smallest (and darkest) of all our Wrens, this one is also the most secretive. Every year I try to get a decent photo of a Winter Wren -  and every year I fail. So no photos, I'm afraid. I'll keep trying, though.

The only other Wren that we normally get in southeast Texas is the Marsh Wren. Unfortunately, we don't usually see these at the college. Given how dry the campus has become this year, I'm sure I won't see one there any time soon.

Other Wrens

In December we're heading over to Big Bend National Park for a few days. While we're there, I'm hoping to see three other Wren species: Cactus, Rock and Canyon. On our last visit to Big Bend we dipped on Canyon Wren but we saw plenty of the other two species.

 Rock Wren

Cactus Wren

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Past Few Days

I didn't get a chance to go outside much on Thursday or Friday, and then I spent all Saturday leading workshops at Houston Community College. So it was good to be able to spend a little time yesterday watching our yards. Unfortunately, they were very quiet and there were few birds around: N. Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, N. Mockingbird, Downy Woodpecker, White-winged Doves and House Finches. 

One reason for the lack of birds may be that a Cooper's Hawk has been lurking in a tree in our next door neighbor's yard. However, it may just be the time of year. Last week, I was complaining to Dee about the absence of winter arrivals and telling her that they should have made it to our yards by now. Then I checked my blog entry for October 25 last year. In it I complained that our winter birds were late and hadn't arrived in our yards yet. So I suppose I'm just being impatient. No doubt they'll start turning up soon.

In the meantime, the squirrels are driving me crazy with raiding the bird feeders. It's hard to be too cross with them, though, because they are very cute!

We've also had several anoles, including this one with an exceptionally long tail.


Bear Creek

Yesterday morning we drove over to have breakfast in Bear Creek Park, where other birders have been seeing some interesting species lately.

We weren't so lucky. The first couple of areas we checked out had only a handful of birds: a few Red-headed Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds.

The Tall Pine Trail was equally quiet, except for a pair of Red-tailed Hawks that circled briefly overhead, closely followed by a group of Turkey Vultures.

However, we still enjoyed walking the trail because it was really beautiful. 

The American Beautyberry bushes were absolutely covered in berries.

Clumps of Palmettos were thriving, too.

Although everything looked very dry, various types of fungi were still present.

A Broad-banded Water Snake disappeared too fast for me to grab a photo but I did slightly better with a couple of the many butterflies that were flitting around.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Let Us Now Praise Common Birds

The Northern Mockingbird is one of the few birds that almost all Texans know and can identify. This is hardly surprising, given how common the species is here. It probably also helps that the N. Mockingbird is the state bird of Texas - as it is of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee.

From that list of states, it might seem that the N. Mockingbird is essentially a bird of the southern USA. Not at all. The species can be found all over the lower 48 states, as well as in Mexico and even southern Canada. The bird's presence over such a wide area is explained by its extraordinary ability to survive and indeed thrive in all kinds of habitat, from urban to agricultural, from desert to woodland, and from mountains to marshland.

Personally, I love N. Mockingbirds. For one thing, they're intensely curious: For example, whenever I make a psshing noise when birding the CyFair campus, I can be sure that at least one N. Mockingbird will hurry right over to check out what's happening.

Another trait that I admire is their fearlessness. I've often seen one chasing away a cat or a dog that has intruded on their territory. Of course, it's not just cats or dogs that they will take on; they are equally willing to swoop down and chase away people who stray too near their nests. And they will relentlessly harass any Red-tailed Hawk that they feel is trespassing. If the hawk is flying, they will buzz around it and sometimes bump it. If the hawk is perched, they will even bop it on the head over and over again until either they get exhausted or the hawk moves on.
More than anything, though, I like N. Mockingbirds because of their calls and their courtship behavior. 

As I'm sure you have noticed, they sing a lot. (The only time when they generally stop singing is during late summer, when they are molting.) And their songs often include cover versions of the songs and calls of other bird species. In many cases, their songs may also include impressively accurate renderings of other noises, such as car alarms or ambulance sirens. Males looking for a mate are particularly vocal and may sing all day and all night for weeks until they attract a female. 

In addition, males put on quite a courtship display: They perch on a chimney or pole or tree or mailbox, leap several feet into the air, and then flutter slowly back down to their perch.  

In case you're wondering why the bird is called the Northern Mockingbird, this is because there is another species - the Tropical Mockingbird - in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Campus Birds

As it's fall migration at present, I'm trying to fit in a quick walk around the CyFair campus most working days.

Although last week was fairly quiet for birds in general, it certainly wasn't for Northern Mockingbirds. They were singing, fluttering about and chasing each other around all over the campus. Most days I saw a dozen or so; on Friday I stopped counting at twenty!

I looked for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker again on Friday and was surprised to find out that we actually have a pair rather than just a single bird.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers and Common Yellowthroats were still around at the end of the week, and our several Sedge Wrens had been joined by Winter Wrens. At least one Eastern Phoebe had arrived, too.

Lincoln's Sparrows looked as if they'd decided to stay for the winter.

When I was trying to photograph the Lincoln's, a bird hopped up onto a branch. I didn't look closely - because I assumed it was another Lincoln's - but I grabbed a quick photo. When I got home and uploaded the photo, I realized it definitely wasn't a Lincoln's.

I puzzled and puzzled over which kind of sparrow it was but I couldn't think of any that have a plain face, large eye, huge beak and wing bars. So I posted the photo on and asked for help with the ID.

I felt very silly when a couple of birders immediately came back with "female Indigo Bunting". Of course that's what it was - and I should have realized it as soon as I looked at the photo. After all, I've seen several other female Indigos lately and have not had any difficulty recognizing them. This time, though, I had been watching sparrows when the bird appeared and so I had assumed it, too, was a sparrow. It just shows how, once you've made a subconscious decision, it's difficult to open your mind again and think logically.
(Hmm. Does this explain a lot of the nonsense that is being said during the current election cycle? I'm sure it does!)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sheldon Lake

As the weather is so beautiful at present, we arranged to meet up with friends at Sheldon Lake Environmental Center, just east of Houston.

The visit started off well for birds: The tree-tops around the parking area had Northen Mockingbirds, an Eastern Phoebe and a Brown Thrasher, while an Anhinga circled high overhead.

The largest pond had an Eastern Kingbird and a very friendly young alligator, which drifted lazily over to check us out.

The other ponds looked great ...

but had surprisingly few birds: an adult and a young Little Blue Heron, a Great Egret, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and another Brown Thrasher. None of these let me get photos.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker was more cooperative. He was perhaps the reddest Red-bellied that I've ever seen, with the color on his front stretching from his upper chest right down to his belly.

After that, the only bird we saw was a Cooper's Hawk, which zoomed by while we were having lunch.

If birds were scarce, butterflies were abundant. Bushy stands of Turk's Cap were a magnet for several types of butterfly including Gulf Fritillaries.

Gulf Fritillary

On the way back home, we stopped off at a fishing jetty on Fauna / Pineland Road (now signposted throughout as Pineland Rd.). Although the invasive water hyacinth seems to have been cleared away, the water level was low and the area was largely covered with brown grasses. The only bird I saw was another Anhinga.