Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bird Bookends

Wednesday was a pleasant day at the college. 

As I drove across the campus, I spotted an Osprey grooming on top of a utility pylon.

We used to see Ospreys here only in the winter but now we have one who is a year-round resident. It spends part of the time on the campus and part in the Precinct 3 park on the other side of Barker Cypress Road.

Later in the day I was walking to the college cafeteria when a Blue-headed Vireo flew into a tree right beside me. It was a new year bird for me but unfortunately I wasn't carrying a camera.

At lunchtime I had a very quick walk around the nature trail boardwalk. All I could see and hear were House Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers - and, of course, Northern Mockingbirds (below).

Then I heard a mewing sound and up popped a Gray Catbird in the middle of a bush. I couldn't photograph this bird either because my camera wouldn't focus on it.

At the end of the day I drove across the parking lots and noticed a white blob on a lamppost. A Great Egret. Although I see at least one Great Egret at work virtually every day, I couldn't resist stopping to take a photo.

Any work day that starts with an Osprey and ends with a Great Egret can't be bad!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Weekend

I spent some time on the weekend watching out for birds in our yards. Unfortunately, we still aren't seeing many residents or visitors. Carolina Wrens and Carolina Chickadees are still present most days, and House Sparrows (below) flock to our feeders and birdbath.

The birdbath also attracts the occasional Yellow-rumped Warbler.

I took a quick drive up to the Longwood retention pond to see if the Bald Eagles were around. There was no sign of activity at the next but one of the pair of Eagles was perched nearby.

I also took a much longer drive, this time up to Lakeside Park in The Woodlands. I was hoping to see the juvenile Trumpeter Swan that had been hanging out there. It didn't take long to find the bird. It was a misty morning and the bird was at quite a distance from the bank, so I only managed to get a couple of record photos. Still, it was a great bird to see in our area!

Dee and I had only seen one Trumpeter Swan before, and that was back in the 1990s in British Columbia.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Early Morning Birding

Sunday morning I was up and out of the house well before dawn, heading for the Katy Prairie. I had four specific objectives:
1. Look for Short-eared Owls off Porter Road
2. See if Harris's Sparrows were back on Longenbaugh
3. Try to find an Inca Dove on Longenbaugh
4. Check out Meadowlarks at Warren Ranch Lake to see if any were the Western species.

As it happened, I had picked a bad morning for birding because the weather was cold and drizzly. I scanned the fields on both sides of Porter Road for 30 minutes but saw no sign of any owls.

I was luckier on Longenbaugh. As soon as I arrived at the Bear Creek bridge, I spotted four Harris's Sparrows hanging out with some White-crowned Sparrows around the north side of the bridge. (In my experience, this is the most reliable place to find Harris's in our area.)

I scanned the backs of the creek for Inca Doves for a while but had no luck. So I decided to move on. However, I'd only driven a few yards when I noticed a bird on the road ahead. My first Inca Dove in Harris County in 2014! 

By the time I got to Warren Ranch Lake the weather was slightly better and I had good views of a variety of ducks and 100+ American White Pelicans.

There were 7-8 Meadowlarks also. I examined and photographed all of them very carefully. Unfortunately, all of them turned out to be Eastern Meadowlarks.

On my way home I drove back along Longenbaugh and found that half-a-dozen Harris's Sparrows were busy feeding in a small tree several hundred yards east of the creek. Although the weather was still poor, it had improved enough for slightly better photos than the ones I had taken earlier.

So I had struck out on the owls and Western Meadowlarks but I had achieved my other two goals. 

BTW, for the past three years my Harris County list has topped 200 species each year. Sunday's Inca Dove took my 2014 county list to 196 species, which is not bad considering how little birding I've done this year. However, I'll certainly be trying to add at least another four species in the next three weeks. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Campus Birding

After months of almost no birds on the CyFair campus, a few are starting to show up. Yesterday the trees had lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, some White-throated Sparrows and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and an Eastern Phoebe. There was a flyover by a Northern Flicker, the second one I've seen in the past few weeks.

A small flock of American Robins flew in and argued with our resident Northern Mockingbirds over who had perching rights to which trees.

 A little pishing stirred up a pair of House Wrens, one of which stayed up just long enough for me to grab a photo.

The campus lakes haven't attracted any ducks or other water birds yet this year. I suspect that any birds that do fly over our area will now ignore our lakes in favor of the larger lake in the new Precinct 3 park just across Barker Cypress Road from the college. That lake continues to attract a nice range of water birds: Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Green-winged Teal etc. It also attracts Laughing Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls (below).

The other day the grass around the lake had a small flock of American Pipits, the first Pipits I've seen since last winter.


Friday, December 05, 2014

Here and Gone

The last week has twice seen my hopes for winter arrival birds raised only to be dashed.

The day after Thanksgiving, Dee and I looked out of our living-room window to see two Chipping Sparrows (below) on the back fence. They then moved down to the birdbath, where they were joined by two Yellow-rumped Warblers.

At last the rest of our winter residents seemed to be arriving to join the Orange-crowned Warbler (below) that has been in our backyard for weeks. 

But then the Chipping Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers flew off - and we haven't seen them again since.

A similar thing happened at work. I checked out the college nature trail at 7:15 on Monday morning and it was hopping. Three American Robins and an Eastern Phoebe were at the entrance, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere. Several White-throated Sparrows and a Song Sparrow flew off as I walked the trail. Within 5 minutes I'd also come across a Northern Cardinal, a Blue Jay, two White-winged Doves, several Northern Mockingbirds and 8 European Starlings. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me. I was better prepared on Tuesday, when I again got to the nature trail at 7:15. I needn't have bothered. There wasn't a single bird in view, not even a Mockingbird!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Snowy Egrets

I have to admit that I love all four species of Egrets that we get in our area: Great, Snowy, Cattle and Reddish. However, the one I most enjoy watching is the Snowy Egret.

While not as large as Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets seem to be fairly substantial birds - until they turn to face you and you see how thin their bodies and necks really are.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a Snowy Egrets is its bright yellow feet. The color is utilitarian rather than decorative, and it is an essential element in the bird's hunting process: Snowy Egrets hunt by walking through water, where their yellow feet scare up fish and other prey.

 Many years ago, Dee and I watched a Snowy Egret hunting in this way in Bolinas Lagoon, California. We were amazed to see that it was accompanied by three small sharks, which kept swimming around the bird and even between its legs. Presumably the sharks realized that they could grab small fish and other creatures that would be stirred up by the bird's feet.

Here are some photos I recently took of a Snowy Egret in hunting mode at Baytown.

Unfortunately, this bird didn't manage to catch anything, at least during the time when I was watching it.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

When Even a Bad Photo Is Good


I took the photos below at Baytown on Sunday. As you can see, they aren't very good to say the least. So why did I bother keeping rather than deleting them?

The reason is simple. The photos show a Common Ground Dove, a bird that is fairly rare in Harris County. As soon as I spotted this bird, I grabbed these photos, taken with my Canon SX50's lens set to its maximum length. They aren't very clear but they are clear enough to show some of the bird's distinctive features - its rosy breast, the red base of its bill, and the scaly plumage on its upper chest and head. 

After this, I waited around for 15 minutes in hopes that the bird would move closer and enable me to get a good photo. However, instead of moving to a better position, the bird gradually moved further and further back into the foliage.

So these photos may not be good but they are the only ones I managed to get - and at least they prove that the bird I saw really was a Common Ground Dove.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Back to Baytown

Sunday morning I drove down to the Baytown Nature Center. I have visited the site a lot this year, mainly because it's a good site for watching and photographing wading birds and shorebirds.

I didn't time this visit well, though, because the tide was high and very few of my target birds were present in the wetlands areas. In fact, the only birds I saw in the wetlands were a couple of Snowy Egrets and American Avocets (below).

Luckily, there were a few more birds in and around the site's various ponds and channels.

The only bird actually in the water was a Neotropic Cormorant.

The banks of the ponds and channels were more productive, having several each of Great Blue Heron, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers.

I was watching a male Downey Woodpecker climb to the top of a snag when an Eastern Phoebe decided to flycatch from a neighboring tree.

I think of Loggerhead Shrikes as solitary birds but all the ones I saw on Sunday seemed to be hanging out in pairs.

Surprisingly, all of the normally gregarious White-winged Doves that I saw were on their own.

As always at Baytown, Ospreys appeared at several points alog the trails.

A flock of 18 American White Pelicans circled overhead, too far above for me to get a photo. So I settled for taking a picture of one of the innumerable Brown Pelicans that I saw.

Towards the end of my walk I did see a much more interesting bird. But I'll leave that until my next post.

Monday, November 24, 2014

So Where Are the Birds?

By now our yards should be busy with our normal residents plus a variety of winter residents: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Rufous Hummingbird etc. But they aren't.

I have heard the occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet but the only winter resident to have moved in so far is an Orange-crowned Warbler.

Okay, perhaps there haven't been enough cold fronts to push a lot of birds down here from the northern states and Canada, and maybe more birds will arrive soon. However, that doesn't explain where our year-round residents have gone. I should point out that their disappearance isn't recent. We haven't see a Blue Jay in two months and have only had a couple of brief visits by Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbirds and Northern Cardinals in that time. Even the Carolina Wrens (below) and Carolina Chickadees that normally visit several times a day only seem to appear at widely-spaced intervals.

Luckily, our Downy Woodpeckers are still with us.

And for better or worse so are a few White-winged Doves. I thought doves were essentially seed eaters but our White-wingeds seem to have developed a taste for peanuts also.

Definitely for worse, the only birds that are visiting our yards in any numbers are House Sparrows. We somehow managed to avoid attracting them to our yards for years but now a large flock has discovered our feeders. The other day I counted 37 birds in our backyard.

There is a birdhouse on the wall of our garden shed, right opposite our main living-room window. The other day I was excited to catch a glimpse of movement in it. Had the house finally attracted the attention of Carolina Wrens or perhaps Brown-headed Nuthatches? We should be so lucky! Other people get birds in their birdhouses but we get rats.