Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Landscapes: Rocky Mountain National Park

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While I'm sorting out my notes and photos of wildlife from my trip to Colorado, here are some landscape photos taken on Sunday in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Upper Beaver Meadows
Driving up to the Meadows, you can't help but be impressed by the skyline on your left. This is dominated by Long's Peak (14,259 ft.).










Old Falls River Road
Most people who traveling up to the Alpine Visitor Center (11,796 ft.) drive up Trail Ridge Road, a well-surfaced modern road. However, I thought it would be more fun to head up via the Old Falls River Road, a 9-mile dirt road with innumerable hairpin bends and sections of washboard. And it was fun!








Alpine Visitor Center
There was still a little snow up near the Center.


The view was worth the drive.


Trail Ridge Road
I drove this road on the way down from the Alpine Visitor Center.










Horseshoe Park

This was the only section of the park where large numbers of aspen trees were really starting to change color.




Moraine Park
I was going to bird the campground here but it was absolutely crowded with people, cars and RVs. So instead I had a pleasant walk along the river bank.






The river was fairly slow-running and peaceful when I was there but obviously this isn't always the case.




P.S.
I entered the park at 6:45 a.m. and there weren't many other visitors around for the first couple of hours. However, by mid-morning it was much busier and it was already difficult to find a parking place at any of the major trailheads and viewing areas.

When I left, at around 1:00 p.m., the line of cars waiting to enter the park stretched several hundred yards. And this was in late September! (Although admittedly during a spell of glorious fall weather.) I imagine that most areas of the park must be quite unpleasantly crowded during the summer months.
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Wordless Wednesday

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Away Again

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I'm away from Houston until Tuesday on a brief trip to Denver, Colorado.

Monday is going to be spent visiting a teacher-training course at local language school. However, I'm going to have Sunday free and I'm planning to spend it in Rocky Mountain National Park. If I don't get struck down by altitude sickness (like I did in Utah in July), I should have a great time: beautiful landscapes and the possibility of seeing birds and perhaps even elk or moose.

While I'm in Denver, I'll also try to make a quick visit to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, in hopes of seeing Burrowing Owls. I missed them last time I visited, so wish me luck for this visit!

All being well, I'll start blogging about my trip on Wednesday morning.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Another New Birding Site

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On Thursday morning I was lucky enough to have time to make a brief visit to Joseph S. and Lucie H. Cullinan Park in Ft. Bend County. This park is located in Sugarland, on SH6 just south of Voss Road and north of US90.

The park is much bigger than I expected and has a large lake, currently ringed with lily pads and bull-rushes, reminiscent of the lakes at Brazos Bend State Park. An observation tower and boardwalks make it easy to watch birds on and around the water.


The lake area was quiet this morning but I did spot a Little Blue Heron, an Anhinga, a Great Blue Heron, a Western Kingbird, a Chimney Swift (Texas year bird #215), Wood Ducks and families of Common Moorhens.

Anhinga

I followed a rather overgrown path from the parking area through the woods in the hope of accessing the far side of the lake. I never managed to reach the water but my walk turned up lots of common birds: Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbird, Morning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Different species of wildflowers were drawing in Gulf Fritillary butterflies, while dragonflies were also abund
ant.




The only mammal I saw was an armadillo which, unfortunately, had come off worse in an encounter with a vehicle.


My visit was all too brief but I liked the park and so will certainly drive over there again before too long.

P.S.
This trip boosted my Ft. Bend County list to 95 by adding Wood Duck, Chimney Swift, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Western Kingbird. Perhaps a second visit later in the year will take the list to the 100 mark.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

When Will They Ever Learn

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When will people ever learn that the answer to most problems with animal or insect pests is NOT to import some other species of animal or insect? (Haven't they listened to "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly"?)

Like many urban areas, Brooklyn had quite a problem with rats. Then someone had the bright idea of bringing in and releasing possums. This was based on the theory that the possums would eat the rats. Great solution, right?

Wrong! The possums didn't eat the rats. Instead, they settled in right alongside them and joined them in feeding on garbage. and on fruit trees. So now Brooklyn has a problem with rats and possums.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Birder's Lament

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One of the most depressing things about living in the USA these past 20 years has been watching the destruction of so much wildlife habitat. By the time we left the San Francisco Bay Area, we had seen several previously beautiful stretches of land gobbled up by housing development. Then we moved to Texas, only to arrive during one of the busiest construction phases in Houston's history.

Six years ago we moved from Spring to Cypress, to an area that looked to be semi-rural. Guess what? Since then the area around our home has seen lots of development and is now truly suburban.

The situation over on the Katy Prairie is similar. Large chunks of farmland have been converted into houses, schools and shopping malls. Barker Cypress Road -which I drive to work - was a 2-lane road lined mainly with fields in 2005. Now there is hardly a field left standing along this road between 290 and West Road.

For a while the LSC-CyFair campus where I work was an oasis in the midst of all this development.
Unfortunately, a huge increase in our student numbers has led to the need for more buildings. The spring and summer saw large areas of the campus being turned into parking lots, while new buildings are currently going up on other areas that used to provide wildlife habitat. To make matters worse, earlier in the year the eastern edge of both retention ponds had to be removed and then replaced, presumably to prevent erosion.

So what has gone and what is left at CyFair?

The biggest loss has been the soccer pitches. Every winter the short grass on these attracted flocks of Savannah Sparrows (with Field Sparrows mixed in), Vesper Sparrows and American Pipits. It was also a magnet for Killdeer, Mourning Doves, Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds. No doubt some of these birds will adapt and move to other parts of the campus, but I am sure that they will not stay or reappear in the numbers I used to see.

Elsewhere, although significant areas of trees, bushes and long grass have been cleared or built on, enough probably remain to insure that we keep a healthy population of White-winged Doves, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbirds and other common residents. European Starlings and both Common and Great-tailed Grackles will no doubt cope, too. I'm glad to see that our Loggerhead Shrikes are still with us, but I'm not sure whether our resident Red-tailed Hawks have stayed or have relocated.

Our Purple Martin houses should continue to bring in nesting birds each spring and hopefully our pairs of Western Kingbirds will keep returning every summer to nest above the basketball court and on lightstands in the parking lots. I hope the winter will bring our usual flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, too.

The college Nature Trail has been greatly shortened but the first section - with two small wetland areas - has been left untouched. So this winter may see the return of Hermit Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Warblers and Vesper Sparrows. With luck, future years should continue to bring warblers, Indigo Buntings and other spring migrants to this part of the campus.

Because of the work along the water's edge, the retention ponds this summer didn't see the usual four or five families of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks nest and raise their young, as they did in prior years. However, perhaps they will return to nest next year. In the meantime, perhaps other ducks will move in during the winter, as they did last year. As it is, the ponds get the occasional visit from a few Black-bellied Whistling Duck - and we still have our resident Great and Snowy Egrets and Green Herons.

So we have lost a lot of habitat and will no doubt see fewer bird species in future years. However, I hope that the remaining areas of undeveloped land will continue to provide suitable habitat for a good number of birds - at least until such time as the college decides it needs more buildings and parking lots!
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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Still in Chambers County

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As we drove down to Smith Point, we were a little dismayed to see that the day was turning cloudy and wet.

The observation tower was surprisingly busy with birders hoping that the clouds would clear and reveal flights of migrating hawks. A dozen Brown Pelicans were patrolling the
edge of the sea while feeders around the tower were busy with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.


I walked over to a nearby wooded area, where I managed to spot several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a Broad-winged Hawk before I was driven away by hordes of mosquitoes.

It was now noon and we were getting hungry, but the Point didn't seem like the best place for a picnic. So we opted to drive over to Anahuac NWR to eat lunch and to see
what progress the refuge was making in its recovery from Hurricane Ike. On the way we added a few more birds o our day list: Great-tailed Grackle, Roseate Spoonbill, Eurasian Collared Dove and Red-shouldered Hawk.

At Anahuac we picnicked in the ruins of the old Visitor Center, while a hundred swallows swooped overhead and many more than a hundred dragonflies kept them company. Most of the swallows were Tree Swallows but I did see a couple of Cliff Swallows mixed in with them.

Tree Swallows preening

Cliff Swallow

After lunch we spent some time browsing through the gift shop in the temporary Visitor Center, which we found had (as usual) a very good selection of T-shirts and coffee mugs. Then, $75 lighter, we drove to the Willows and around Shoveler Pond.

The Willows showed few signs of recovery from Ike and will probably not attract birds again until new trees have been planted.

The drive around Shoveler Pond was disappointing, too. There was very little water in the pond and we spotted very few birds. We didn't even spot a single alligator! In 45 minutes we saw only 5 Tricolored Herons, 1 Great Blue Heron, 2 White Ibis, 3 Great and 1 Snowy Egret, 3 Black-necked Stilts and a dozen Blue-winged Teal. Certainly not much of a haul for what used to be one of the best birding sites in our area.

Although the day had produced comparatively few birds, my attempt to boost my Chambers County list had lead us to discover an interesting new site (White Memorial Park) as well as re-acquainting us with Smith Point. Also, the day had taken my Chambers County list to 106 species.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

A New Site

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On Saturday I decided to make a first attempt at improving my Chambers County bird list and so I persuaded Deanne to go with me on a day's birding trip to the area.

As my Chambers list consisted almost entirely of birds seen at Anahuac NWR, I thought the best way to increase it would be to visit some other sites, and preferably ones that offered different types of habitat from Anahuac. After doing some quick research, I settled on White Memorial Park, just south of the junction of I-10 and Highway 61. According to "Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail," the park is a good place to visit if you want to see woodland birds and the latter are just the kinds of species that my county list lacked.

When we got to White Memorial, we started by exploring the sides of the creek. However, we soon moved over to the wooded areas because, while beautiful, the creek was very quiet for birds and horrendously busy with mosquitoes.

The first birds we spotted were American Crows and Carolina Chickadees, soon followed by Eastern Bluebirds, a score or more of which were chasing each other through the treetops. An Eastern Wood-Pewee and a Yellow-throated Vireo put in a brief appearance, followed by several Eastern Kingbirds.


Eastern Kingbird

Trees along the main park road had Red-bellied Woodpeckers while the area near the lake had a Red-headed Woodpecker and a flock of Common Grackles.

The lake


It was still too early for lunch and so we opted to leave the park. While it had not been as birdy as we had hoped, it certainly had a lot of potential and we resolved to visit it again before too long. Oh, and it had taken my Chambers list from 93 to 101 species.

We decided we would drive down to have our picnic at the hawk watch area at Smith Point. We had been to the Point once before but had seen very few migrating hawks, partly because it had never stopped raining. Perhaps this time we would be luckier with the weather and would get to see some birds.
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Friday, September 17, 2010

Increasing Motivation

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I'm a big fan of e-bird. (If you don’t know the site, go to www.ebird.org and take a look.) It gives me a very easy way to keep track of all the birds I see and it even keeps a list for me of my sightings state by state. Also, by showing charts of which birds normally appear at which sites in each week of the year, it helps me to plan birding trips.

It has a lot of features that I've never used, though. For example, when I looked at my home page on the site yesterday, I noticed that there is a heading that says “County”. I clicked on this and, lo and behold, it produced totals and lists of all the species I’ve seen in the USA broken down into counties as well as states.

According to ebird, since I started using the site, I’ve seen 220 species in Harris County, 153 in Galveston County and 120 in Brazoria County. I’m close to the 100 species mark in two other Texas counties: 93 in Chambers and 91 in Fort Bend.

Now, I set myself birding goals each year. Not because I really care about how many different species I see, but because it’s one way to motivate me to get out and watch birds – even when I’m tired and even when it’s 94F and humid. My normal goals are to see more species than I did last year, and to add to my life list of US birds.

After looking at e-bird, I’m going to add another goal for this year: To take my Chambers and Fort Bend County lists to 100 species. This should give me an added incentive to get off my butt and go birding – and should also get me exploring sites that I don’t normally visit.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Woodpeckers

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I love woodpeckers and I never get tired of watching them. So it's a real joy that our yard rarely has a day without a visit by at least one species of woodpecker.


My favorite visiting woodpecker is the Downy and we have several. Among the most faithful of all the birds that visit our yards, they love our suet feeders.

As you can see below, female Downys are small birds with beautifully patterned black-and-white plumage.




Male Downys are almost identical in size and plumage, except that they have a red patch of feathers on the back of the head.



If the Downys are among our most loyal yard visitors, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are certainly our most assertive. These large birds fly in confidently, usually making loud squawks that warn all the other birds to move aside.

In this photo you can just see the edge of the red belly patch that gives the species its name.


Both males and females have bright red feathers on their heads, which is why many people here mistakenly call them Red-headed Woodpeckers. The red on the male's head stretches from above the beak right back to the top of the shoulders.



On the female, the red is restricted to a patch above the beak and a larger patch on the back of the head.



Note:
Since our Downys are much smaller than our Red-bellieds, they always have to give way to them at the feeders. However, they often wait until the last moment before moving aside!


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Brown Pelicans

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One of the great things about going to the Upper Texas Coast is that you can be sure of seeing Brown Pelicans. When we were staying in Surfside, flights of these magnificent birds constantly passed overhead from dawn until dusk every day.


In fact, we saw so many that grandson Danny thought that "pelican" meant "bird".




When we got to the bird sanctuary be
ach on Bolivar, we were able to watch Pelicans up close.


It quite a thrill to watch them taking off and I never fail to be impressed by their incredible wingspan.








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