Tuesday, January 31, 2012


As regular readers know, I have a soft spot for vultures. Apart from the fact that they prevent our being ankle-deep in roadkill, I think their flying abilities are simply amazing.

Turkey Vultures are particularly elegant fliers and most days they seem to drift endlessly around the sky without ever flapping their wings. I tend to think that if angels existed, they would fly like Turkey Vultures.

Black Vultures are not quite such masters of the air. In fact, one way to tell them from Turkey Vultures is the way they flap their wings fairly frequently. However, they still make impressive use of wind and air currents to stay afloat with the minimum of effort.

Of course, neither species is as impressive when on the ground. The photo below was taken on Longenbaugh Road last week when I came across a bunch of Black Vultures feeding on the carcass of a dead calf.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Katy Prairie

I didn't have much time to visit the Katy Prairie last week but I did manage a quick drive along Longenbaugh and Sharp Road and a drop-in at Paul Rushing Park.

Longenbaugh was busy with Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and there were also a few Brewer's Blackbirds.

Savannah and Vesper Sparrows appeared as expected but a White-tailed Hawk was a pleasant surprise.

Sharp Road had more Savannah and Vesper Sparrows plus a couple of Clay-colored Sparrows, an uncommon bird in our area.

The grass around the easternmost parking lot in Paul Rushing Park was full of birds, of which Eastern Meadowlarks were the most common.


More than a dozen American Pipits were grazing and several came within feet of my car.


I always feel a visit to Paul Rushing is worthwhile if I see some Horned Larks, because they are such pretty little birds. On this visit I counted seven. Unfortunately, though, they tend to be wary of cars and people and so I ended up with mediocre photos of them.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

New Yard Bird?

Last week Dee and I put up a hummingbird feeder. We don't usually put up hummer feeders in the winter but decided to experiment this year, because many other loval birders have been attracting a range of hummingbirds.

Within a day of the feeder going up we had our first visitor, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get a sharp photo of the bird and so today I sat in our front yard to try again. Sure enough, a hummingbird appeared. However, it wasn't the Ruby-throated  that I was expecting. It was an Allen's Hummingbird.

I saw an Allen's last year in another yard in Harris County but this was the first time I've seen one in our yards. It was also a new year bird, #141 for 2012.

Oops! I checked with a local expert birder, Jim Hinson, and he IDed the bird as a Rufous, because the tail isn't pointed enough for an Allen's. So a nice bird but not a new one.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bathing Beauty

The other day Dee pointed out that the birdbath in our backyard was empty of water and covered in dirt and mold. So I went out, scrubbed it down and filled it with water.  My presence scared off several birds - including an Orange-crowned Warbler - that been hanging out in a wisteria behind the birdbath. 

A few minutes later I looked out of the window just as the Warbler flew down to the birdbath and started bathing, while a House Sparrow and an American Goldfinch perched on the edge of the bath and looked on.

After a little while, the Warbler seemed to have finished. But then it clearly decided that it needed a much more thorough soaking and back into the water it went.

Dee was delighted when this bird's orange crown became visible during its bath, because she has often complained that you never actually see any orange on the head of Orange-crowned Warblers. By contrast, Ruby-crowned Kinglets frequently raise their ruby crowns when agitated.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Attwater National Wildlife Refuge

Sunday morning was warm but extremely windy at Attwater and so conditions were far from ideal for birding. However, even though we saw comparatively few species, we both enjoyed the prairie landscape and the birds that we did manage to see.

As always at Attwater, Crested Caracaras appeared in several areas of the refuge.

Their white wingtips are distinctive even when seen from behind.

We didn't see the Prairie Falcon that someone had reported recently but we did see plenty of other raptors: Northern Harriers, White-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels and, of course, Red-tailed Hawks.

Wet areas of the refuge had large numbers of American Coots and Northern Pintails - unfortunately well away from the road - while there were flyovers by Snow, Ross's and Greater White-fronted Geese.

A dozen Sandhill Cranes were a pleasant surprise.

The strong wind meant that sparrows were generally hunkering down out of view. However, we did see several Savannah Sparrows and a surprising number of Vesper Sparrows, the latter's tails clearly edged in white.  

At one point, a Song Sparrow popped up and checked us out.

When we arrived, the entrance road had lots of small, pale birds that  we weren't able to see well enough to ID. We had better looks at the same birds when we were leaving and we discovered that they were Lark Buntings. There is no mistaking that large, grey beak!


Sunday, January 22, 2012

At Home and at Work

I haven't had much time for birding at work this week but I have noticed that the retention ponds continue to be very busy. Every day for weeks now they have had at least 100 American Coots and often many more than that.

The ponds generally also have large numbers (i.e., 100-150) of Ring-necked Ducks also. The male Ring-necked is easy to recognize because of its bill.

The female is less striking but has distinctive eye markings.

As I mentioned the other day, the ponds are currently also attracting scores of Double-crested Cormorants and more than a few Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.

The campus nature trail has been surprisingly quiet for birds so far this year. Apart from a few residents, all I generally see is the occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Yellow-rumped Warbler.

At Home

At home our feeders continue to attract a never-ending stream of visitors. Half-a-dozen House Finches and as many House Sparrows now have to compete with ten or more American Goldfinches.

White-winged Dove numbers vary from a handful to 20+, depending largely on how much seed the other birds have spilled on the ground.

A typical day also sees visits by Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbirds, Orange-crowned Warblers, Downy Woodpeckers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one or more Chipping Sparrows and 2-3 Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I have been pleased to see a Red-bellied Woodpecker come to a suet feeder several times: In previous years a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were among the most frequent visitors to our yards but we hardly saw them at all in the second half of last year. Deee saw our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of 2012 the other day. I missed that but instead spotted our first American Robin of the year.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

An Iconic Texas Bird

When someone mentions Texas birds, the first species that always springs to my mind is the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. I know that they're not the most glamorous or exciting of our avian residents. And I realize that they're not specifically Texan birds - their range extends to other US states and to many Latin American countries. But they somehow seem to fit Texas so well. Perhaps it's because, like the state, they're big and bold and sometimes downright brassy.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are resident in southeast Texas but they seem much more common here in the summer than in the winter. At this time of year you can't go far in our area without seeing some either flying overhead or just standing around. 

In flight they are very easy to recognize by their size, their general shape and the white patches on their wings. (The white on the wings helps to distinguish them from Fulvous Whistling Ducks, summer visitors which have all-black wings.)

As they're more like geese than ducks, they spend much more time grazing in fields or on the shores of ponds and lakes than they do feeding on the water. 

They're easily identified by their combination of black belly, white wing stripe, orange bill, white eye ring and punk hairstyle.

Unlike other geese and ducks, they are often seen perching on fences, on trees and on utility poles. (At the college, their favorite perches are the tops of the tall lampposts in our parking lots.)

This perching ability is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. After all, they have webbed feet which can't curl around like those of most birds. So it constantly amazes me to see them, even on very windy days, standing on utility wires and presumably managing to do so purely by balance.

For four or five years in a row we had several pairs of Whistling Ducks raise families on the retention ponds at the CyFair campus. Unfortunately,  none nested here last year. Perhaps they'll return later this year, now that construction work at the college has stopped.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Monday Morning

Birding the LSC-CyFair campus has been a very mixed bag so far this year. The nature trail has been almost totally deserted except for a handful of residents and the occasional winter visitor. By contrast, the retention ponds beside Barker Cypress Road have been busier than I've ever known them. This is mainly because they now virtually always host 100+ American Coots and 50+ Ring-necked Ducks. On Monday morning the ponds were even busier than usual. 

The northern retention pond had its usual complement of American Coots and Ring-necked Ducks but these had been joined by a range of other birds. Most visible were Great and Snowy Egrets. I counted over 20 Greats around the pond.

Mixed in with the Egrets were a handful of White Ibis.

A dozen or more Laughing Gulls were circling overhead or floating on the water.

The biggest surprise was the number of Double-crested Cormorants. We often see one or two Cormorants on the campus but on Monday I counted about 70 on the northern pond.

The southern pond was much quieter and had only 40-50 American Coots. However, it also had a scattering of Snowy Egrets and another 20 Great Egrets.

I imagine that the new visitors to the ponds gathered there because of the weather that is moving in from the coast. So I wonder how long they will grace us with their presence.

Most of the birds were still there yesterday and they seemed to be unconcerned about a flyover by a juvenile Bald Eagle.