Monday, February 28, 2011

Sheldon Lake

As I haven't had time for birding this month, my 2011 bird list has been stagnating. So a week ago I popped over to Sheldon Lake in hopes of seeing some new year species. I was pretty sure that the environmental center ponds would have Yellow-crowned Herons and perhaps an American Bittern, while the wetland area behind is normally good for Snow Geese in the winter and the lake itself should have Northern Pintail.

My first stop was at the (currently closed) parking area on Garrett Road. I struck out on Northern Pintail but was surprised to see more than a dozen Black-crowned Night Herons perching in the cypress trees. Unfortunately, they were too far away to photograph in the dim morning light.

My next stop was at a fishing pier halfway down Pineland Road. I was pleased to see that the surface of the water was clear of water hyacinth for the first time in years. I don't know whether the park authorities have been clearing away this very invasive plant or whether it was zapped by this winter's hard frosts.

The area had plenty of American Coots and Common Moorhens, as well as several Anhingas. The bushes along the side of the lake were busy with Red-winged Blackbirds, who were filling the air with their wonderful calls.

Down at the environmental center, the grassy areas were covered with American Robins but the ponds were empty of birds except for some White Ibis doing their morning grooming.

As I drove out to the wetlands area, a Savannah Sparrow jumped up to check me out.

I was so busy taking a photo of the sparrow that I missed a chance to ID several hundred ducks that suddenly took flight from a patch of water in the distance. Pity! I bet there were Northern Pintails among the birds that flew!

All was not lost, though. Another patch of water had a few dozen Snow Geese as well as a couple of Ross's Geese. They didn't flee at my approach and so I was able to examine them through binoculars. Most of the Snow Geese were white adults but there were also some dark adults (with their white heads and upper necks) and a handful of dark juveniles (all black or dark gray).

So my trip hadn't produced all the species I was looking for but it did turn up others I hadn't expected. That's often what happens when you go birding with specific birds in mind. My 2011 list has now reached 138 species, which is much better than I achieved in any previous year. I'd still like to see a Northern Pintail before the winter ends, though. They're such beautiful birds.   

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Around the Campus

Unfortunately, I haven't had much time for birding on the CyFair campus lately. However, I have noticed that we seem to have scores (hundreds?) of American Robins flying about and making an impressive amount of noise.

Spring must be coming because male Northern Mockingbirds are singing and doing their displays on top of the lights in the parking area. One of them that I saw this morning way leaping a good 10 feet up from its perch before fluttering back down.

Most of the ducks have left the retention ponds but the latter are still hosting a few Ring-necked Ducks.

The ponds normally have one Great Egret and one Snowy Egret. However, on my drive past the ponds in the mornings I notice that now there are often several Great and a dozen or more Snowy Egrets lined up at the water's edge.

One of my colleague tells me that we've had our first Purple Martin of the year. No doubt more will be arriving soon.

We haven't seen any of our Western Kingbirds yet. We're hoping that at least a couple of pairs will return and nest on the campus, as they have done for the past several years. If things go true to form, one pair will gain nest in the roof of the basketball court.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Brazos Bend: Elm Lake

After leaving 40 Acre, I dropped in Creekfield Lake but there was little activity there, except for numerous Coots and Moorhens.

A quick visit to Hale Lake was even less productive : I didn't see or hear a single bird!

So then it was on to Elm Lake, where I came upon Savannah Sparrows and an American Pipit before I'd even gotten out of the car.

 American Pipit

Several American Crows were a few yards further away.

I walked over to the northwest corner of the lake to look at a Great Egret hunting in the shallows.

I had seen only a handful of alligators at 40 Acre but I soon realized that Elm Lake was going to be a different story. Just behind the Egret there were six mainly young alligators lying head to tail in a line. Some were resting on the alligator in front of them.
One seemed to be a youngster cuddling up on its mom's back.

As I scanned the surrounding area, I counted ten more alligators, most of them large adults. Another juvenile was sharing a log with a Snowy Egret.

I spent my final few minutes in the park walking along the west edge of the lake.

There were plenty of Coots, Moorhens and Blue-winged Teal, as well as a group of thirty or so Ring-necked Ducks. The male Ring-necked look rather impressive from the side ...

... but rather comical from the front.

White Ibis were in the trees ...

... while a juvenile White-faced was patrolling with a bunch of adult Whites.


The White-faced soon flew off.

One of several Great Egrets let me get unusually close - I find they are normally very intolerant of onlookers - and I watched as it caught and ate a small fish.

My final view was of a Snowy Egret, its plumes streaming out behind its head. Always a lovely sight!

My time up, I headed back to the car. I hadn't seen any of my target birds, although I had spotted a pair of Tree Swallows, my year bird #134. However, I had enjoyed seeing numerous alligators and 36 bird species. So it was certainly a worthwhile trip. In fact, I've never made a trip to Brazos Bend that wasn't worthwhile, which is why it's my favorite park in southeast Texas.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Brazos Bend: 40 Acre Lake

The other morning I managed to fit in a quick visit to Brazos Bend State Park, a site I never tire of visiting. I was hoping to see some new year birds - American Bittern, Northern Pintail and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. As it turned out, I didn't see any of these species but there were plenty of other birds around to keep me occupied during my visit.

As usual, I started off with a walk around 40 Acre Lake, where an Anhinga was silhouetted against the rather gloomy morning sky. Quite a contrast from the first time I ever saw an Anhinga, on a very hot and humid afternoon in the Everglades.

The lake was busy with American Coots.

Common Moorhens added a touch of color to the scene.

The only ducks were a few Blue-winged Teal, most of which were moving around in pairs.

I was disappointed not to see any Night Herons on the opposite side of the trail to the lake - there were plenty there when I visited in late December - but I enjoyed watching a Little Blue Heron prowling through the shallow water.


There were adult White Ibis everywhere.

Now and then I came across a juvenile White Ibis, too. This one walked ahead of me along the trail for several minutes.

Mixed in with the White Ibis was an occasional juvenile White-faced Ibis. The latter can be distinguished from the very similar juvenile Glossy Ibis by its red eye.

The trees along the path were fairly birdy also. Eastern Phoebes were busy flycatching and a Belted Kingfisher flew off protesting loudly at being disturbed by my approach. Northern Cardinals flitted back and forth, while male Red-winged Blackbirds perched on branches and reeds filled the air with their beautiful mating calls, a sound that I never tire of hearing and that always reminds me of our birding outings in California.

Small groups of Savannah Sparrows were picking through the short grass, the yellow above their eyes making them easy to identify.

The swampy areas had several solitary Swamp Sparrows, easily overlooked because of their superb camouflage.

As almost always happens when I visit Brazos Bend, I was so busy watching bird that I came within a couple of feet of stepping on the head of an alligator stretched out by the path. 

It was sound asleep and didn't notice me. Even if it had been awake, I doubt it would have reacted to my coming so close - alligators don't normally eat between about October and March.

After rounding the observation tower and heading back towards the parking area, I stopped to watch a male Downy Woodpecker working its way up a tree trunk.

While I was checking out the Downy to make sure it wasn't a Hairy, a sudden movement on the next tree caught my eye. A Golden-crowned Kinglet.  What a pretty little bird!


Most years we don't see many Golden-crowned Kinglets in our part of Texas but this winter they have been plentiful. I had already seen several in Bear Creek Park and on Galveston.

As I still had a little more time to spend in the park, I decided to drive over to Elm Lake, dropping in for a quick look at Creekfield Lake on the way. But now it's time to get out in our yards and refill the feeders, so I'll leave the rest of my report on Brazos until tomorrow or Monday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watching Hawks

Last year Dee and I had a lot of fun watching a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks raising two chicks in a nest in a tree on Louetta Road just a few hundred yards from our house. 

 The Parents
 The Chicks

Knowing that Red-shouldered Hawks re-use their nests, we drove past the tree on Sunday, hoping to see some signs of activity at the still-visible nest. Nothing.

On my way home on Tuesday, I drove past the tree again. No sign of the hawks. I parked nearby and started walking towards the tree. When I was only 10 yards from the car, I happened to glance over to my right. Well, what do you know! One of the hawks was on the ground maybe 15 yards away, giving me a good view of its front.

After scratching around in the grass for a while, it hopped up onto a fence and gave me a look at its profile. 

Finally it moved to a low-lying branch, this time letting me see its back.

I'll certainly be popping over to Louetta frequently over the coming weeks to see if the hawks are going to raise another family there. And that reminds me - we need to get over to Baytown some time soon to see if the Bald Eagles are nesting there again this year.

Last Year in Baytown

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Campus Birding

It's still very hectic at work but yesterday I managed to squeeze in a 15-minute walk down to the start of the campus nature trail.

I was pleased to see a pair of Mourning Doves preening and sunning themselves on the handrail of the footbridge.

A few years ago, we used to see a lot of Mourning Doves at the college and at home. However, they now seem to have been largely displaced by the more aggressive White-winged Doves from Mexico that are gradually colonizing the USA.

On the other side of the footbridge, there was a huge amount of bird noise and activity. Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be clicking away from almost every tree and large bush, while groups of American Robins kept flying in and then leaving again.

The tops of the trees held scores of Cedar Waxwings.

The Robins and the Waxwings were too skittish to let me get close. They aren't normally so disturbed by my presence but they haven't seen me much lately and so I suppose they're still afraid of me.

I had several glimpses of small birds scuttling around in the undergrowth. At least one of the them was a Sedge Wren. However, the only one I got a real look at was a White-throated Sparrow, which briefly hopped up into a tree.

By then it was time to head back to my office, running a gauntlet of half-a-dozen Northern Mockingbirds along the way.

I really wish I wasn't so busy at present, since I'd like to be able to spend some time around the retention ponds near the campus entrance. A local birder reported seeing a Bald Eagle hunting over the northern pond on the weekend. I love my work but I'd love to watch a Bald Eagle even more.