Monday, September 30, 2013

Houston Area Woodpeckers

I probably get more questions from non-birder friends and acquaintances about woodpeckers than about any other type of birds. So let me give a quick overview of the woodpecker species that people are likely to see around the Houston area.

Year-round we have five species of woodpeckers in our area. Two of these are very common residents in our woods, parks and yards: the Downy and the Red-bellied.

Downy Woodpeckers are small (c. 6.75") black-and-white birds. The male and female are very similar in appearance, except that the male has a little patch of red feathers on the back of his head. I would be surprised if a day ever went by without a Downy visiting the suet feeders in our yards. 

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is much larger (c. 9.25") and much noisier. The female has red on the back of her head and neck while the male has red from above its bill to the back of its neck. Because of this red, most non-birders mistakenly call it the “red-headed woodpecker”.

So why is it called “Red-bellied”? Well, if you look carefully, you will see that it has a red/pink patch of feathers on its belly.

About the same size as the Red-bellied Woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker. This is a much less common visitor to yards, although it can be seen fairly easily in most of our area parks. As you can see from the photo below, it certainly deserves its name.

The fourth of our residents is the Pileated Woodpecker, which generally lives in more mature woods. At over 16” tall it is almost twice as big as its Red-bellied and Red-headed cousins. Its call is distinctive, being similar to the laughing call produced by Woody Woodpecker.

The fifth resident woodpecker in our area is the rarest of all: the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This endangered species is found only in mature pine forests, such as W G Jones State Forest near the Woodlands. Its nest cavities are in live pines and they are surrounded by sap, which the birds keep flowing in order to protect the nest from the attention of snakes and other predators.

In addition to our five resident species, two other woodpecker species appear all over our area every winter.

One is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which spends the winter months in our parks and yards.

The other common winter woodpecker is the Northern Flicker, a very handsome bird that frequents many of our parks. Unlike other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers can often be seen on the ground, where they hunt for and eat ants.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

We had lunch in the old visitor center building. The Barn Swallows that spend the summer here had all left but their bowl-shaped nests remained.

I was surprised to see, though, that Cliff Swallows had also nested here, as evidenced by the gourd-shaped nests they had left behind.

The butterfly garden was busy with Gulf Fritillaries feeding on Turk's Cap.

The Turk's Cap was drawing in numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, too.

Here as elsewhere on the refuge there were many dragonflies.

Shoveler's Pond was looking beautiful, partly because of the presence of water lilies.

As usual, Great Blue Herons were fishing at the edge of the pond.

So, too, were Tricolored Herons and Great Egrets.

I initially took this to be a Great Egret. Then I realized it was a Cattle Egret.

The most numerous birds on the water were Common Gallinules. Many of them were in family groups.

Earthen berms further back in the pond were covered in scores of resting Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. I was disappointed not to see any Fulvous Whistling Ducks among them - until I noticed several swimming among the lilies, much nearer to hand.   

Although I was too slow to get a photo of an adult Purple Gallinule, several juveniles were less secretive.

On our circuit of Shoveler's Pond we were surprised to see only a couple of alligators, compared to the twenty or so that we had seen on both of our previous recent visits to Anahuac.

Our final sightings were of Forster's Terns fishing the edges of the pond and of a Laughing Gull (below) resting by the side of the road.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hawk-watching? Not as such.


Sunday morning we drove down to Smith Point, intending to watch migrating hawks there. On the way we stopped to use the facilities at the Anahuac NWR visitor center on FM563. As we were leaving, we had good views of an adult Bald Eagle and a juvenile Mississippi Kite.

There was quite a crowd at the Smith Point hawk-watch tower. We stayed for a while but didn't see any hawks, so we decided to drive to a nearby site we'd never visited: Smith Point - James H. Robbins Park. 

Brown Pelicans and Forster's Terns were busy fishing while Laughing Gulls (below) seemed content to watch.

Although I was too slow to get a photo of a Black-bellied Plover that was strolling through the parking area, I managed a quick shot of a Willet.

Several Ruddy Turnstones were wandering along some pipes that appeared to have been placed as breakwaters.

However, the most striking birds were a couple of American Oystercatchers, looking rather comical with their over-sized orange bills.

After a few minutes we decided to head over to Anahuac NWR to do some more birding and to have lunch. It had been some months since we had visited Anahuac, which is one of our favorite wildlife sites in Texas. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Fotos

Last weekend I spent time at Kleb Woods trying to photograph male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I wanted photos that (a) showed the birds not at feeders and (b) made their ruby gorgets visible. From most angles the gorget appears totally or mainly black.

It took me a while.

Also at Kleb, I got to see a disabled, captive Mississippi Kite.

I was surprised to see what small birds these are. They look much larger through binoculars!

I see two Great Egrets every morning when I get to the CyFair campus. One usually perches on a tree.

The other always perches on a lamppost. 

While I was photographing the second one the other day, it had to struggle to avoid being blown off its perch by a sudden gust of wind.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bits and Pieces

Some time ago I mentioned that we'd moved one of our birdbaths and that the birds had stopped using it. Well, I'm glad to say that they're now starting to get used to it again. The first bird to venture near it was a young House Finch.

Our Carolina Wrens never seem to use our birdbaths - but they sometimes look down from the shed to see who is taking a bath.

Dee and I have both been glad to see that our one-footed male Northern Cardinal is still managing to survive. Although we put seed on the ground for him, he now seems to have mastered perching on our new ceramic feeder. 

Last year we had probably 100+ Gulf Fritillary butterflies hatch out in our backyard. So far this year we've seen very little butterfly action, although Monarchs occasionally drift through and at least one emerged from a chrysalis on our milkweed. We occasionally get Giant Swallowtails also.