Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bulletin 260 - Spring Migration

After last years pretty dismal migration, this year was spectacular. I actually was at LaFitte's Cove in Galveston for 2 days when we had fall outs and the trees were teeming with birds. These were Monday April 18 and Saturday April 30. What fun! 

I still had 2 birds to photograph despite 10 years of spring migrations. These were a male Golden-winged Warbler, and an adult Black-billed Cuckoo.

Here are a few highlights from 1/2 dozen trips to the coast.

The Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a beautiful bright yellow with blue-gray wings. This is the only 1 I saw this year and it was on the 18th.

Prothonotary Warbler

A Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) was practically at my feet in the open. This is unusual for this normally shy bird. The bold spots on his breast can be seen to be individual feathers.

Wood Thrush

My friend Martin Jackson from New York and his son Thomas from LA flew in for a day of birding and they hit the jackpot on the 30th. Martin especially wanted to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Well as you know, that is a western species and is rare here. Well as luck would have it we found a pair at Anahuac NWR. I didn't get any photos, but Martin saw both the male and female!

There were a pair of King Rails (Rallus elegans) in the open at Anahuac as well.

King Rail
We headed to High Island after lunch and on the way to the famous rookery, I found my Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) right overhead. He is gray with gold wing patch, gold cap and black facial pattern.

Golden-winged Warbler - male
Next we went to LaFitte's Cove to see if there were any late afternoon arrivals as a strong front with rain had come through and that may bring in a fall out. Well it sure did. When we arrived, we were told that both golden-winged and the cuckoo were in the woods.

Martin spotted the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) in the canopy. It is IDed by the red eye, black bill, and long tail. This was the first one I had seen in the 10 years of doing photography.

Black-billed Cuckoo - adult
A short time later, another male Golden-winged Warbler flew into the drip. So 2 of them in one day. Most years, I don't see a single bird.

Golden-winged Warbler - male

At LaFitte's Cove on April 10th I had some interesting photos of a Great Egret hunting. This long legged wader can be found walking the trails in the woods and I always wondered what he was eating. Well that day I found out.

First he caught several lizards.

Great Egret with lizard
Later he tackled an 18" garter snake.

Great Egret with Garter Snake1
The snake wasn't excited about what the egret had in mind and he tried to grab onto a stick or anything when he was dropped. This stick however was broken and didn't help.

Great Egret with Garter Snake2
On a couple of occasions, the snake was able to get wrapped around the bill of the egret and he had to drop it once again.

Great Egret with Garter Snake3

Finally, the egret is making progress and gets the snakes head in his mouth and starts to swallow it, but the tail is flailing around and wraps around the neck of the egret and starts to choke him, so again he lets go and drops the snake.

Great Egret with Garter Snake4
After once more wrapping itself around the beak of the egret, the snake itself ends up tied up in knots, and the end is near as he can swallow it now.

Great Egret with Garter Snake5
And after more than 6 minutes, the egret completed the task.

Great Egret with Garter Snake6
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Bulletin 259 - Costa Rica #4 - Raptors and other large birds

I had been surprised that I had seen so few raptors on previous tropical trips, but this trip made up for it.

The adult 22" Common Black-Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) is an all black robust hawkwith a white band on the tail.

Common Black-Hawk - adult
The juvenile is brown and the breast heavily streaked.

Common Black-Hawk - juvenile
His opposite is the 23" White Hawk (Pseudaster albicollis). He is all white except a few black stripes on his wings and tail

White Hawk
The 15" Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) is a very common hawk in the Americas with a range from Mexico to Argentina. I was surprised that I had not a photo previously except a very distant one. This trip there was one beside the road and I took photos out the window of the car. The bird is IDed by the gray head and brown streaked chest and belly.

Roadside Hawk
The tiny 9" Pearl Kite (Gampsonyx swainsonii) has been expanding its range from Amazonia recently and was first reported in Costa Rica in the mid 1990s and now is into Nicaragua.

Pearl Kite
This 16" Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima) was sitting in the road and just flew up to a fence post beside the road. I took this photo out the window and just got a head shot as I was so close. 

Yellow-headed Caracara
I got 1 new toucan on this trip, the 17" Fiery-billed Aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii). The red and black bill IDs this bird.

Fiery-billed Aracari
A pair of 22" Black-mandibled Toucans (Ramphastos ambiguus) were in a tree and decided to get into a disagreement and locked bills in the dispute.

Black-mandibled Toucans
And another photo

Black-mandibled Toucans
I got better photos of 2 cracids this trip as well. The 24" Black Guan (Chamaepetes unicolor) came to the feeder at the first lodge.

Black Guan
The 20" Gray-headed Chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps) also showed up at a feeder at another location. It is brown with a gray head and neck and rufous on the wings.

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bulletin 258 - Costa Rica #3 - Boat trip in mangroves

The mangroves on the coasts provide protection from erosion of beaches and shorelines. They also provide a unique ecosystem and habitat. There are several Costa Rica birds that use the mangrove habitat and many of them are named for it.

One morning the guide and I took a boat trip on a river on the Pacific coast to look for some of these species.

I had previously photographed the 5" Mangrove Swallow (Tachycineta albalinea) at quite a distance. This time a pair landed on the roof of the boat, so I was 12 feet from the bird! It is a beautiful swallow with snow white underparts, and a blue back. It has a distinctive white rump. Notice the small white line above the eye which gives the bird its scientific name.

Mangrove Swallow
Next is the 5" Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia) has been split from Yellow Warbler by the IOU but the AOU still considers it a subspecies. However, the song is different and the rufous head is really neat. The male has the red streaks on the underparts.

Mangrove Warbler - male
The 4" Mangrove Hummingbird (Amazilia boucardi) is endemic to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. I only saw the female. the male would have a green throat.

Mangrove Hummingbird - female

Of course we saw some Kingfishers along the river as well. The 16" Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) is the largest of the kingfishers in the Americas. It has a blue back and head with a bushy crest. The male has rufous underparts.

Ringed Kingfisher - male
The female has a blue chest band.

Ringed Kingfisher - female

The 5" American Pygmy Kingfisher (Chlorceryle aenea) is the smallest kingfisher in the Americas. It is green with rufous underparts. The female here has a green chest band. The male would be all rufous underneath. The white belly is another field mark of this tiny kingfisher.

American Pygmy Kingfisher - female

The 9" Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) is brown bodied with a black head and neck and yellow bill and a yellow cap. It has long legs and long toes for walking on aquatic vegetation on the waters surface.

Northern Jacana
The Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) is dark with a white wing patch. The male is huge at 33" while the female is 25" long. They have that red knobly beak

Muscovy Duck
The last bird is the 30" Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum). The adult is gray bodied with a striped neck and a yellow throat.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron - adult
The juvenile has a brown body and wings.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron - juvenile
Lastly is the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). It certainly needs no description to ID it.

American Crocodile
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bulletin 257 - Costa Rica #2 - Thrushes, Blackbirds, Silky-flycatcher

I photographed 2 species of thrush on this trip. The first was the 6" Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus frantzii). This brown backed thrush has a ruddy crown. I had photographed him on the previous trip, but this time he was on a feeder and the photos were better.

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
 His cousin the 6" Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus aurantiirostris) is very similar coloration but has an orange bill and orange eye ring and legs. I was pleased to get this photo as this bird is really secretive. I had spent about an hour each in my first Costa Rica trip and again in Guatemala and never saw the bird, only the bushes moving so never even got any photo. At one of the lodges, the bird comes to the bird bath every night at 5:30 and sure enough he showed up. It is so easy in the right location. Here he is on the lip of the bird bath. Interestingly, the northern birds have a brownish crown and the southern birds like this one have a gray crown.

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush
I also got the last 2 orioles I was missing for Costa Rica. The first is the 8" Black-cowled Oriole (Icterus prosthemelas). It is a yellow oriole with black head, back, tail and chest.

Black-cowled Oriole
The other was the 8" Streak-backed Oriole (Icterus pectoralis). This is an orange oriole with orange back streaked with black. This species showed up one time in the Houston area about a decade ago.

Streak-backed Oriole
I also got better photos of the huge Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma). The males are 20" long and the females 16". The birds have brown bodies, yellow tails, black heads with colorful bare spots on the face.

Montezuma Oropendola
The 10" all black Melodius Blackbird (Dives dives) is a recent colonizer of Coast Rica having expanded south from Nicaragua. It was first reported in Costa Rica in 1987 and is now found throughout the country.

Melodius Blackbird
The 8" Black-and-Yellow Silky-flycatcher (Phainoptila melanoxantha) is the last member of this small (4 species) family of birds that I needed to photograph. The male shown here has a black head, the female is duller with a gray head

Black-and-Yellow Silky-flycatcher - male
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bulletin 256 - Costa Rica 2016 #1 - Parrots and Cuckoos

I made a return trip to Costa Rica in March to try for some birds I missed last year. I had a new guide, Johan Fernandez and we went to several new locales.

There are 2 macaw species in Costa Rica. I found one last year, and found the other, the 35" Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) this year.

Scarlet Macaw
The 9" Orange-fronted Parakeet (Eupsittula canicularis) is green with a tan throat and an orange forehead.

Orange-fronted Parakeet
The 10" White-fronted Amazon (Amazona albifrons) is green with a white forehead and red around the eye.

White-fronted Amazon
The 14" Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata) is green with a yellow patch on the back of his neck. This one has his head out of the nest hole.

Yellow-naped Amazon
The 18" Squirrel Cuckoo (Piaya cayana) is probably the most commonly seen cuckoo in the tropics. I think I have seen it on every trip. It has a rufous back and head, gray underparts and a long black and white tail.

Squirrel Cuckoo
The next 2 were both lifers for me. The 10" Lesser Ground Cuckoo (Morococcyx erythropygus) was only 15 feet away walking along the ground. It has amazing facial coloration. The bluish on the wings and tail does not show in the illustrations in the bird guide.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo
The 12" Striped Cuckoo (Tapera naevia) is brown with a plain breast and striped head. He has a rufous crest which I saw erected, but did not get in the photo.

Striped Cuckoo
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bulletin 255 - 100 Birds to see before you die - #1

I discovered this book "100 Birds to See Before you Die" by 2 Brits David Chandler and Dominic Couzens about 7 years ago while browsing in a bookstore on vacation. The sub title is "The Ultimate Wish List for Birders Everywhere". It sort of peaked my interest as a 'bucket list' of the rarest and most unusual birds in the world, according to the 2 authors.

It has the smallest (Bee Hummingbird)  and largest (Ostrich) birds, some of the most beautiful (Birds of Paradise) and some quite ugly (Shoebill) and strange (Hoatzin). There are birds on all the continents as well as Arctic and Antarctic regions. 

There are also a number of island endemics. In the south Pacific, there are entries for Hawaii (1), New Caledonia (2) , New Guinea (3), Sulawesi (1), Mindanao (1), and New Zealand (2). The Galapagos has 1 entry.  Madagascar has 3. The Caribbean is well represented with Cuba (1), Hispaniola (2) and Montserrat (1).

There are about 240 families of birds, so obviously they are not all represented on this list. There are 3 each of Birds-of-Paradise, Gulls and Terns, Cotingas, and Tyrant Flycatchers. There are several unique birds that are sole members of their family. These are the Hoatzin, Kagu, Oilbird, Crab Plover, Ibisbill, Wallcreeper and Shoebill, For those of us in North America, not a single New World Warbler is on the list.

Each entry has a full page photograph and facing page article of what makes the bird rare, unusual or interesting to warrant its inclusion.

I have photographed 20+ already and saw several others before I started doing photography. Interestingly I have seen 9 of them within 50 miles of Houston. This may be the most that could be seen in any location in North America, if not the world.

As most of my subscribers are in Texas, I will start with those 9 and 1 more to make an even 10 for a bulletin and do them in order from 100 to 1.

Number 99 is the Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis). This large (25") grebe is included for its mating dance, where several birds rush across the surface of the water. It breeds on large lakes in the western USA and Canada and winters on the Pacific coast and some lakes in Texas and the Gulf coast. I have only seen it once locally. There was one last winter in Galveston Bay that I saw. The authors say it is not particularly beautiful, but in the sunlight I think it is a handsome bird. 

Western Grebe
Number 96 is the Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). The male of this 6" tyrant flycatcher is unmistakable with his red head and underparts and brown back, wings and tail and stripe through the face. It has an extensive range from the southern USA through Central America and much of South America. The authors included this bird for its color. Houston is east of its summer range, but in the winter. a few birds can be found at Anahuac NWR and Brazos Bend SP.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Number 94 is the Magnificent Frigatebird (Frigata magnificens). At 40" in length, it is the largest of the 5 species of frigatebirds. The males are black with an inflatable red throat pouch. They all have long forked tails and long thin wings.The wingspan in 8.5 feet. Females are black with a white chest and juveniles have a white head and chest. Their range is tropical seas off American Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The breed on the Mexican coast of the Gulf, and post breeding, they migrate northwards. They can be readily found soaring high over Galveston in the summer. A good spot to watch for them is when crossing on the Bolivar ferry.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Number 91 is the Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja). This is one of 6 species spoonbills in the world and is included because of its beautiful color. The rest are almost totally white. It is easy to ID by color and the unique long wide bill. It is common on the upper Texas coast and readily found near water. Also there is a rookery at High Island where one can find dozens in the spring on their nest and tending to babies.

Roseate Spoonbill

Number 83 is the Ruff (Philomachus pugnax). This is a Eurasian sandpiper that occasionally shows up in North America. I have seen the plain female about 6 times in the Houston area, but never the male. The male in breeding plumage has a ruff on his neck and ear tufts that he displays to attract a mate. 


Number 79 is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus). This is another beautiful tyrant flycatcher that anyone can ID because of its pearly gray color and very long tail. This bird is easy to find in the summer as it breeds in grasslands from Texas to Kansas .

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Number 70 is the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus). This 20" member of the cuckoo family is a resident of south central and southwestern US and northern Mexico. It is famous from the cartoons where it always outwits the coyote. The authors have included it because of its speed running as it can sustain 18 mph. This is the fastest runner of any bird capable of flight.

Greater Roadrunner

Number 60 is the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). This 6.5" finch has a specialized beak for prying open cones to get at the seeds. This is the one I didn't see in Houston, although it has been recorded here ( last time 1964). The photos were taken in New Mexico. The bird has an extensive range all across North America and Eurasia. There is some question about whether it may be made up of several species as the flight calls are different in different regions as is the preference of types of cones.

Red Crossbill - male

Number 49 is the Smith's Longspur (Calcarius pictus). This 6" bird was formerly in the New World Sparrows and buntings, but recently DNA study shows that they are not closely related and they along with the Snow Buntings of the Arctic were placed in their own family. This bird summers on the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada. It winters in Arkansas, east Texas and Oklahoma. I saw this bird just north of Houston in 2011.

Smith's Longspur
Number 43 is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis). This critically endangered 8" woodpecker of the southeast USA nests in 100 year old living pine trees that are infected with a fungus 'red heart rot' that causes the inside to soften and easier to chisel out a cavity. Small family groups live in 'clans'. There are an estimated 12,500 birds of this species left in widely scattered areas due to the nest requirements. This represents 1% of the original population. They also require a fairly open under story caused by forest fires. There is a preserve north of Houston Intercontinental Airport called Jones State Forest where these birds were photographed and can be seen. If you are going, get there right at dawn, as the birds hang around the nest holes for a while, and then fly away for the day to feed.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.