Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Campus Retention Ponds

I used to enjoy walking down to the campus retention ponds in the winter because they were often crowded with birds. Hundreds of ducks of several species would share the ponds with scores of Cormorants, while the banks would be lined with Great and Snowy Egrets. Then a new park (Horsepen Creek Park) opened up directly across Barker Cypress Road. As this park includes a huge pond, it is a more attractive option for ducks and other birds that live on or by the water. So the campus ponds no longer host many birds and I rarely visit them any more.

However, every now and then the situation changes and birds move back from Horsepen Creek Park to the campus ponds. This is what happened today.

At lunchtime on Tuesday, when I was leaving work, I noticed that there was a lot of activity on the college's southern pond. Several dozen Laughing Gulls floating on the surface were too distant for me to photograph; so, too, were a couple of Pied-billed Grebes. Two American White Pelicans were rather closer. As is often the case, they were being shadowed by a group of Cormorants.

The western edge of the pond was lined with Great Egrets.

I counted ten - and then another flew in.

The northern edge was even busier, but this time with Snowy Egrets.

They looked really beautiful silhouetted against the sun.

When I was leaving, I noticed that a group of 20+ Cormorants had rushed over to the northern edge and were standing in the shallows in front of the Snowy Egrets. They were holding their wings out to dry. It looked for all the world as if they were begging from the Egrets.

I decided I would keep an eye on the ponds for the rest of the week to see whether all these birds lingered there or whether they would fly back across to Horsepen Creek Park.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Finally a Birdy Day at Home

In the second half of last year the number of visitors to our yards dropped dramatically, with a typical day seeing only a handful of species. Even our most reliable residents more or less vanished: Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and Downy Woodpeckers.

The final weeks of 2014 and the first three weeks of this year weren't a lot better - perhaps because of bad weather - although we did see the arrival of a few winter residents. 

Then on Saturday everything changed.

Our Red-bellied Woodpeckers were back.

Our resident Downy Woodpeckers returned, too. The female showed up first.

Then the male arrived.

Two Orange-crowned Warblers pottered about, occasionally chasing off our Ruby-crowned Kinglet (below).

The most numerous birds were Chipping Sparrows, with ten or more appearing together at times.

A small group of American Goldfinches came to feed several times during the day.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds checked out our birdhouse, as they did last year. Unfortunately, they again seemed to be unimpressed.

Two Yellow-rumped Warblers kept looking at the birdbath.

A Pine Warbler popped in but stayed only a couple of minutes.

A moment later I was thrilled to see a Blue-headed Vireo, a new bird for our yard.

Here is my list for the day:
2 N. Mockingbirds
2 N. Cardinals
2 E Bluebirds
1 Blue Jay
5 White-winged Doves
5 House Sparrows
10 Chipping Sparrows
8 American Goldfinch
2 Orange-crowned Warblers
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
2 Red-bellied Woodpeckers
2 Downy Woodpeckers
1 American Robin
1 Carolina Wren
2 Carolina Chickadees
2 Yellow-rumped Warblers
1 Pine Warbler
1 Blue-headed Vireo.
There were four flyovers:
2 Black Vultures
1 Great Egret
1 Great Blue Heron
1 Red-shouldered Hawk.

Now I'm wondering whether our yards will continue to be busy or whether Saturday's activity was just a fluke occurrence. Time will tell.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

San Jacinto Monument Park

Sunday morning we decided to take advantage of the long-wished-for good weather and so headed over to the San Jacinto Monument, where I was hoping to add some birds to my 2015 Harris County list.

There were plenty of birds around but most of them were either too distant or too skittish for me to get photos.

The most cooperative were Turkey and Black Vultures, which were mainly clustered around an area where the park staff dump the carcasses of dead animals.

Several Black Vultures were showing off their wings.

Then one of the Turkey Vultures put them in their place by displaying its magnificent wings.

I was pleased to see a small flock of Roseate Spoonbills fly into view. However, only one of them came anything like near enough for my camera to handle.

Before leaving, I looked around the area at the head of the reflection pool, hoping to see the female Vermilion Flycatcher that has been hanging out there for weeks. It wasn't long before she turned up and posed for pictures.

Although the visit didn't produce many photos, it turned up some interesting birds and added ten species to my year list.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

MLK Day Birding

I took advantage of the MLK holiday to spend a couple of hours at Kleb Woods.

When I arrived, the air was absolutely filled with the calls and songs of common residents, such as Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Cardinals (below).

At the top of one tree, several Tufted Titmice were singing their hearts out. 

The many seed-feeders were attracting large numbers of American Goldfinches while in some places the ground was swarming with Chipping Sparrows (below).

I finally saw my very first Downy Woodpecker of 2015, a bird I usually see in our yards virtually every day of the year. Unfortunately, this one didn't hang around for a photograph. The same was true of a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias, another new year bird.

At Home

Back at home I was surprised to find that our yards were busy. I had thought the bad weather of the first two weeks of 2015 would have brought them to our feeders but very few turned up until this weekend's better weather.

The feeders were busy with Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Orange-crowned Warblers and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet while the birdbath brought in several Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Northern Mockingbird. Our solitary thistle sock-feeder finally caught the attention of a couple of American Goldfinches.

There weren't any American Robins or Cedar Waxwings around but an Eastern Bluebird certainly made a nice showing against the blue sky.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Thompson's Bait Camp

After the visit to Baytown Nature Center described in my previous post, I popped in at Thompson's Bait Camp to check out the birds there.

Unlike on my previous visit, this time there were no Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes or Horned Grebes.

There were Laughing Gulls a-plenty: Hundreds were floating on the bay or standing on jetty posts or bathing in the shallows.

There were also quite a few Ring-billed Gulls.

I'm not good with IDing gulls and I spent a few minutes trying to turn various young birds into Lesser-black-backed Gulls. Unfortunately, they all turned out to be young Ring-billed Gulls.

The jetty posts also had a few Neotropic Cormorants, busy preening.

As always at this site, there were several Brown Pelicans too.

My final sighting was of an American White Pelican that floated majestically past the bait camp.

I suppose I'll visit the bait camp again before too long in hopes of finding one of the more exotic gulls that other birds keep reporting there. Or maybe I'll just accept that I really am hopeless at identifying gull species!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Another Cold Morning by the Sea

Saturday morning I spent a couple of hours at Baytown Nature Center. For most of my time there the weather was miserably cold and gray, the kind of conditions that make photography difficult and that keep most sensible birds hunkered down out of sight.

Surprisingly, the birds that appeared in the largest numbers were Hooded Mergansers. I saw a total of 18 males and females.

One group of Mergansers was accompanied by a Common Goldeneye.

Several Blue-winged Teal, some Gadwalls and a Common Loon were all too distant for photos but one of two Horned Grebes came a little nearer to the shore.

Belted Kingfishers spook easily and I only got one mediocre photo of one of three Kingfishers I passed on my walk.

I was too slow to photograph two Northern Harriers that were out hunting. However, a third posed for a moment on a tree not too far from the path.

The weather brightened up as I was leaving and I stopped to admire a Snowy Egret that was pacing around in one of the ponds.

A Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron were hanging out at the edge of the same pond.

As my two hours of birding hadn't been too successful, I decided to head over to the Thompson Bait Camp to see if I could spot any of the interesting gulls that had been reported from there.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Brazos Bend in Late December

Just before the end of December we took our daughter and grandsons down to Brazos Bend State Park, mainly so that the kids would see alligators.

It was a cold, gray day and so we visited only 40 Acre Lake. Apart from some Cormorants and American Coots (below), there were no birds out on the water.

Worse still, there was only a single alligator in view, and it was far out from the path.

A Great Egret was munching on a crawdad but this, too, was so far away that the kids could hardly see it.

A Snowy Egret was rather closer.

A solitary White Ibis was grazing in the wetland area beside the path.

Nearby was a single White-faced Ibis.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was one of only a handful of songbirds that we saw.

As we neared the end of the trail around the lake, I was beginning to regret that we'd come to the park. However, a visit to Brazos Bend always turns up at least one exciting sighting and this visit was to be no exception. The kids were very excited when we came across a large alligator resting on the edge of the path. 

They were even more excited when the gator stood up and walked slowly across the path and slid into the lake.

After our lakeside walk and a picnic lunch, we went to the Visitor Center. The volunteer staff there are always great with kids and this time they let our grandsons handle two baby alligators and a large Speckled Kingsnake. This more than made up for the comparative lack of wildlife around 40 Acre Lake.