Friday, November 29, 2013

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A New Yardbird

Tuesday I rushed home for a quick lunch. It was very cold and the feeders (and seed on the fence) in our backyard were really drawing a lot of birds.

It was no surprise to see a couple of Blue Jays, because these beautiful birds have returned to being regular visitors over the past few months.

This Northern Mockingbird is also one of our most regular visitors.

I was a little surprised to see a Red-bellied Woodpecker at the peanut feeder in our backyard because she normally uses only the feeders in front of our house.

The real surprise, though, was to see this small bird snacking on safflower seeds on our fence.

At first glance I thought it was a Chipping Sparrow, a species we usually get in our area from November onward. Then I took a proper look. Streaky breast with a central dark spot. So certainly not a Chipping. Striped head. Song Sparrow? No. There is yellow in front of the eye - which makes it a Savannah Sparrow. That's a very common winter bird in our area but this is the first one I've ever seen in our yards.

Heading South
By the time you read this, we'll be on our way down to the Rio Grande Valley for three days of birding. The big excitement in that area recently has been the presence of an Amazon Kingfisher, only the second ever seen in the USA. It would be a cool bird to see, if it's still there, but my real targets are two resident Kingfishers (Green and Ringed) plus the Common Pauraque. All three would be new birds for me and the Green Kingfisher has been at the top of my must-see list for several years. Wish me luck!    

Monday, November 25, 2013

Busy in Our Backyard

The cold and wet weather over the weekend brought quite a lot of birds to our backyard feeders. This is my list for an hour on Saturday afternoon:
20 House Sparrows
5 Northern Cardinals
3 Carolina Chickadees
3 Tufted Titmice
2 Carolina Wrens
2 Blue Jays
2 White-winged Doves
1 Orange-crowned Warbler
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
1 Northern Mockingbird
1 House Finch.

I was pleased to see that our one-legged male Northern Cardinal continued to thrive and was fit enough to chase away three other male Cardinals. Our solitary female Cardinal showed no interest in any of the males.

I'm not sure how many Carolina Chickadees we had but it was rare for a minute to go by without one on either the feeders, the fence or the birdbath.

I had a problem counting Tufted Titmice, too, since they tend to visit the feeders, fence and birdbath one at a time.  

A major cold front is currently passing through our area and I'm hoping that it brings in some more of our winter residents. So far the only ones who have turned up are Orange-crowned Warbler, Pine Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler (below).

It's probably too early for Cedar Waxwings and American Goldfinch but Chipping Sparrows should be here by now. And, of course, I'm still hoping against hope that our Ruby-crowned Kinglet turns up.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Our Saturday trip to Attwater NWR wasn't as productive as we'd hoped, probably partly because the weather was windy and overcast. It was only after we left that I realized we hadn't seen a single wading bird during our 2+ hours at the refuge. I think that's the first time this has happened to us in over 10 years of birding NWRs in Texas.

Our first sighting was of an American Bittern, which crossed the entrance road before we had time to react.

Most of the birds we saw on the refuge were sparrows. Most of these were Savannah and White-crowned, but there were also several Vesper (below), Grasshopper and Song Sparrows.

Northern Harriers, Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures (below) were everywhere and they seemed to be enjoying the windy conditions.

Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and Loggerhead Shrikes (below) were also common.

It is now possible to access, on foot, a stretch of land across the old bridge.

The wetland area there had an alligator, the first we've ever seen at Attwater.

Nearby we had good looks at a House Wren and an Eastern Phoebe.

Although we never saw a duck, plenty of Greater White-fronted Geese and Snow Geese passed noisily overhead, as did 15 Sandhill Cranes (below).

As usual, the road between Sealy and the refuge had a good number of raptors: Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Ospreys and a White-tailed Hawk.

Although Attwater had many fewer birds than we had anticipated, we both felt the trip was worthwhile. The landscape there is beautiful and the fact that we were the only visitors was a bonus.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hosting Monarchs

Last year our passionflower plants attracted numerous egg-laying Gulf Fritillary butterflies. The resulting caterpillars proceeded to eat literally every single leaf on the plants. (BTW, the plants came back better than ever a little while later.) Then we had chrysalises hanging from our outside walls and window ledges and from parts of our deck roof. By the time they had hatched out, our little yard had seen the birth of around 100 butterflies.

Several Gulf Fritillaries visited us again this year but they didn't lay any eggs. This doesn't mean we haven't seen any butterfly reproduction activity, though. On a spring visit to the Audubon site in High Island we bought a milkweed plant, thinking this might attract Monarch butterflies. Sure enough Monarchs have been laying eggs on the plant. A couple of weeks ago, we were thrilled to see a chrysalis hanging from a leaf.

Then our first new Monarch emerged. It hung from the chrysalis casing for a couple of hours until blood had fully inflated its wings and it could fly off.

Ten days ago we noticed that eight other Monarch caterpillars were munching their way around the plant and had almost devoured all its leaves. 

Not wanting the caterpillars to run out of food, we rushed over to the Arbor Gate nursery in Tomball and bought another milkweed.

Yesterday we noticed that almost all the leaves had disappeared from the second plant, which was now at least hosting 14 Monarch caterpillars. The caterpillars range in length from less than 0.25 inch to over 2.5 inches.

One is hanging from the rim of a pot, preparing to change into a chrysalis. Meanwhile other caterpillars crawl across it as they wander about looking for fresh leaves.

A couple have already changed into chrysalises. This one has changed from green to brown, which should mean the butterfly is almost ready to emerge.

Later today I'm heading back up to Arbor Gate. I think I'll buy two more plants on this visit - just in case!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lunch with the Birds

On Wednesday I didn't head home for lunch. Instead I drove up to Longenbaugh Road to see if the recent cold front had brought down lots of sparrows.

The most common birds I saw were Red-tailed Hawks. There seemed to be one perched every couple of hundred yards.

I wasn't able to stop to take a photo of a White-tailed Hawk, but I was able to pull over to grab a quick shot of a male American Kestrel, one of the first I've seen this fall.

A little later I also had good looks at a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Loggerhead Shrikes and Northern Mockingbirds (below) were everywhere.

My 30 minutes of birding were almost over and I still hadn't seen a single sparrow. So I drove over to the Bear Creek bridge on Longenbaugh, my go-to spot for White-crowned Sparrows. Sure enough, when I pulled up, a male White-crowned was serenading a couple of females.

I'm hoping that I'll have better luck with sparrows on Saturday, when we're planning to visit the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. After that, sparrows should start turning up in greater numbers following another front projected for midweek.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Birding at Work

One reason why I like working at LSC-CyFair is that I often get to see birds there, which makes going to work more enjoyable than it might otherwise be. Although the past few months have been unusually quiet on the campus, it seems I still see several birds every working day. For example, when I reached the campus on Friday morning, two Great Egrets were standing on light standards in the parking lots.

As I drove in this morning, I spotted an Eastern Phoebe fly-catching from the top of a tree.

A couple of minutes later, I came across the Osprey that has been hanging about on or near the campus for a year. I was lucky enough to get to watch it carrying out its morning grooming routine.

I can certainly think of many worse ways to start off a working day than by watching an Osprey!

Friday, November 08, 2013

Looking for a Rare Bird

On Sunday morning I left home early to drive down to the San Jacinto Monument Park,  hoping to see the Surf Scoter that has been hanging out there. We saw Surf Scoters all the time in San Francisco but it's a very rare bird for southeast Texas. Unfortunately, when I reached the park at 7:30, I discovered it didn't open until 9:00. So I drove the short distance to the Lynchburg Ferry landing to see what birds were hanging out near there.

Eastern Phoebes were all over the place and some let me have good looks at them.

A Loggerhead Shrike was equally obliging.

I wasn't surprised to see that the roadside utility wires had a Belted Kingfisher. I knew that, in typical Kingfisher fashion, the bird would fly off if I approached it. So I used the enormous zoom on my new camera to grab a photo from far away.

When I was finally able to enter the park, I stopped to take photos of a group of Black Vultures on the road. It was interesting to compare the gray, heavily wattled heads of the adults with the blacker, more feathered heads of the juveniles.

Down on the water a number of White Pelicans were fishing as a group.

There was a steady stream of other White Pelicans overhead.

The Surf Scoter had previously been seen mainly with a raft of Ruddy Ducks, and so I scanned the several groups of Ruddy Ducks in hopes of spotting it. No luck! The water was choppy and the only ducks were far away from the shore.

Disappointed, I wandered over to the boardwalk, where I was surrounded by Marsh Wrens.

Then I headed to the reflection pool, the side of which was crowded with Neotropic and (much larger) Double-crested Cormorants, along with a few Great and Snowy Egrets. 

A flash of red on a chain-link fence caught my eye. A Northern Cardinal? No, it was a magnificent male Vermilion Flycatcher. I imagine it was the same bird that spent last winter at the park.

Before leaving, I decided to spend five more minutes looking for the Scoter. As it happened, I didn't need five minutes because the Scoter popped up immediately in the middle of a group of Ruddy Ducks. It was difficult to see the bird clearly but there was no mistaking the vertical white lines on its face. 

So, mission accomplished.