Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bulletin #35 - UTC warblers, vireos

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
April 24, 2008

Bulletin #35 – Upper Texas Coast – warblers & vireos

Hello friends,

Thank you to all who emailed me their compliments on last weeks bulletin of the warblers. It is appreciated!

Here are a few more warblers from various locations this spring so far.

The Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrine) is a common warbler here in the spring and it nests locally and all across the southeast USA. It generally stays low to the ground in bushes.

The male is bright yellow with a contrasting black hood. The female is duller, but the hood is faint, but unmistakable. They also have white edges on the tail. Here are 2 photos of the male and 1 of the female. click 'next' twice

The Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)is a warbler of marshes. He also breeds locally. The male is the ‘masked bandit’ as I call him with his black face. The female is similar, but without the black mask. Here is a photo of the male.

Next is the Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea), one of only 2 blue warblers in the USA. The male is blue above with white breast with black streaks. The female is blue-green above with a bluish head. The underparts are white with mild streaking. This is a first year female, as her breast is washed in yellow. The 2 white wingbars help ID this species in any plumage. click 'next' once

The last warbler is the Northern Parula (Parula americana). This warbler is gray, with 2 white wing bars, green back and yellow breast. There may be some stripe across the breast. In addition, it has a broken white eye-ring. This eye-ring separates the species form its cousin the Tropical Parula.

Here is the male with reddish and black breast bands.

The female lacks the black breast band. I don’t have a photo of her, but I do have the 1st year female. She has clear yellow breast – no bands.

Vireos are a separate family of small birds. Beginning birders often get the two confused. Vireos have thicker bills, and the upper bill is hooked at the end.

The most commonly seen vireo here is the White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus). It is a gray green bird with white breast, 2 wing bars and yellow ‘spectacles’. The yellow around the eye and white throat is diagnostic. The white iris is sometimes visible at close range.

The Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) is the next most abundant vireo seen in migration. It has a grayish head and olive back – almost brown looking. It is often confused with the Tennessee Warbler. The red eye iris is seldom seen and this year I got the first photos to actually show the iris.

The Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) is a beautiful vireo with blue-gray head, white spectacles, green back, wing bars and a yellowish breast. For those of you who can’t find this bird in your older filed guide, it used to be called the Solitary Vireo. Solitary Vireo was split into 3 species several years ago. The Blue-headed form is the one we have in the eastern USA. It is also rather common and in fact winters on the Upper Texas Coast. I see them in my yard occasionally over the winter.

The vireo hooked beak is easily seen in this photo.

Lastly is the Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus). This is a relatively uncommon bird in migration compared to the 3 above. However, I managed to get one in the camera lens during the fall-out at LaFitte’s Cove on April 12th. This is a drab gray bird with a little yellow on the throat. But the most important distinguishing feature is the black spot in front of the eye.

Here are a couple of photos of this bird. click 'next' once

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bulletin #34 - Houston warblers

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
April 18, 2008

Bulletin #34 – Upper Texas Coast – warblers

Hello friends,

There was another error in ID on Bulletin #33 last week. My guide Rick Fournier reviewed the photo of the hybrid gull that he had identified as a Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull in the field. He now realizes that it is a Glaucous-winged x Western Gull hybrid like the second hybrid.

However upon further observation from your fine photograph, it suspiciously looks like another Western X Glaucous-winged. Light dusky smudging around the head and neck, bright orange bill with a steep gonyale angle and the dorsal portion doesn't seem light enough for Glaucous-winged. The eye does having some brown flicking but this too is common among Western Gulls.

Let's face it, it's not an exact science!


Spring is migration time through the upper Texas coast and we can have an abundance of birds of different species. But with a cold front accompanied by a north wind and/or rain, the birding can be spectacular. This phenomenon is called a ‘fall-out’ as the birds literally fall out of the sky as soon as they reach the coast after a 600 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. If you are fortunate to be here during a fall-out, there are birds everywhere.

We had a mild fall-out last weekend and great birding was reported from a number of locations. One group of birders in a 3-day period – Friday to Sunday found 192 species. This represents about 30% of all the birds in North America!

I was lucky to be in one of the places in Galveston (LaFitte’s Cove Sanctuary). There were large numbers of warblers (16 species reported in Saturday and Sunday) and large numbers of several of the species.

Of all the bird families, warblers are probably the most difficult to photograph as they move constantly, are small and eat only insects, so they can’t be attracted to bird feeders.

But with a fall-out, there are so many around, that you can have a number of different birds of the same species and finally achieve a photograph or two. This was the case last Saturday, when I was able to get my best photos ever of a number of species as well as 2 new warbler species.

So here are some of the warblers from the weekends fall-out.

First is the ‘bird of the weekend’. This is the Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothylpis swainsonii). This is probably the most difficult warbler for most birders to locate. It is a ground dwelling skulker and brown in color. I have seen it about a dozen times, but not in the last decade and nowhere but at High Island. On Sunday April 13th, I was looking in the underbrush for movement indicating a bird and heard some leaves rustling. Finally I saw the bird about 12 feet away and got some photos. He was so tame, I was able to get some other people also to see him. Normally, if you are fortunate enough to find one, he is 25-40 yards away. I never expected to get a photo without a guide and tape on his breeding grounds.

He is IDed by the rusty cap, and white eye-stripe. He also has a long bill for a warbler and flesh-colored legs. As you can see, he is drab for a warbler, but he is perfectly hidden on the forest floor among the leaves. click ‘next’ once

The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus) was a new species for me to photograph. He is a bright yellow bird with bluish wings with 2 white wing bars. He also has a black stripe through his eye. The adults are similar coloration. There were 20+ birds of this species and I was able to get good photos of several different birds. Here are a couple of photos. click ‘next’ once

The Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica) is a common bird in the southeast USA, but for some reason it seems to always elude me. I have seen it only 4-5 times. However, there was a single bird on Saturday that I found and he was a bare branch 25’ above me, but I was able to get the camera on him for some photos. This was also a new species for me to photograph.

He is black and white, with a bright yellow throat. The sexes are similar. He is very distinctive and easy to ID if you find one. click ‘next’ once

The Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is my wife’s favorite. She birds with me occasionally and has seen this canary-like bird. I found a single bird on Saturday and he was at eye level, so I obtained my best photos ever of him. He is bright yellow with grayish wings. He somewhat resembles the Blue-winged Warbler above, but lacks the wing bars and black line through the eye. The sexes are similar coloration, but the male is a brighter yellow. click ‘next’ once

The Black-throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens) is a common bird. There were 20+ individuals on Saturday. The bird has a yellow face, green back, and black on throat and chest. This is a male bird. The female has a white chin. I don’t have a photo of her yet. click ‘next’ once

The Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina) is a drab bird with olive back, gray head and whitish breast. There were multiple birds present, but I got only 1 good photo. The sexes are similar in color.

Lastly is a common bird that is basic colored, but is one of my favorite warblers. The Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) has the unique feeding habit of climbing up and down the trunk and large branches of trees to pick insects from the bark. This is similar to the way nuthatches feed.

They have a striped head. The male in the first photo has a black cheek patch. The female in the second photo has white cheeks. click ‘next’ once

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bulletin #33 - Monterey CA gulls and Monarch Butterfly hibernation

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
April 8, 2008

Bulletin #33 – Monterey California #5 – gulls and Monarch Butterfly

Hello friends,

Gulls were a major target for me on this trip as the Austin Texas Audubon society was putting on a gull identification workshop and they needed some additional photos.

My guide, Rick Fournier, is an expert on all birds. He pointed out the confusing species to me as well as helped with other gulls pictures I took after my day with him.

The Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) is a large 26” pale mantled gull of the Pacific coast from Seattle to Alaska. They winter all down the coast to Baja California. I managed to get only a single photo of a bird from a rather long distance, but the pale mantle and primary wing tips being the same or lighter color are the things to look for.

In Bulletin #32, I showed the photos of a hybrid Hermit x Townsend’s warbler. Well, gulls also hybridize extensively, especially the large gulls. In Sibley’s field guide, the gull section starts with 4 hybrids. The Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull and Glaucous-winged x Western Gull, he states are relatively common.

Fortunately my guide, Rick Fournier, was able to identify these confusing birds for me. These hybrids just add to the confusion for birders trying to sort out the complex plumage variations of gulls.

Here is a Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull hybrid. The difference between this bird and the pure Glaucous-winged Gull above is subtle, but pertains to color of primary wing-tips being darker in the hybrid. I certainly would not know the difference in the field, but can see it in the photos.

The other hybrid is Glaucous-winged x Western Gull. I was actually able to get several detailed photos of a bird on Carmel River beach. In this bird, the wingtips are darker still and it also some black spots show on the wings indication the Western Gull parentage. Byron Stone of Austin pointed out the detailed differences of this bird and I’ll put his emailed analysis after the 4 photos. click ‘next’ 3 times

Hi David,

This bird is also a hybrid. It is a Glaucous-winged X Western Gull hybrid, which I believe is sometimes called an "Olympic Gull" because they are so common on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, making up half or more of Glaucous-winged-type gulls there.

Note on the spread-wing shot the dark trailing edge of the underwing. This in NOT a pure Glaucous-wing character. Note also how the dorsal surface of the wingtips are as dark as the rest of the upperwing. In pure GW Gull, the wingtips should be paler than the rest of the upperwing. Also notice several dark spots throughout the dorsal wing surface, evidence of Western Gull lineage.

Note also how large the bill is, with a very pronounced gonydeal angle. This also suggests Western Gull influence.

Finally, note how the head and nape of this gull has a lot of dark smudges. I believe that pure Western Gull winter adults tend to have an immaculate white head.
Very interesting bird, and one which we rarely have a chance to study here in Texas.

Byron Stone

With all these hybrids, it sometimes makes the definition of what is a separate species confusing. One definition of a ‘species’ is a distinct population that cannot interbreed without causing sterile offspring such as a horse mating with a donkey to produce a mule. Mules are sterile. These hybrid gulls can breed and produce offspring, so are these really separate species? I leave that to the experts. The rest of us just keep our lists.

For a change of pace, I will show you a couple of photos of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). As most of you know, the Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to Mexico in the winter. I’m sure you have all seen pictures of thousands of butterflies on trees in the mountains there.

However, what is not so well known is that the Monarchs west of the Rockies just migrate to the California coast in select locations from Marin County south. On the Monterey peninsula, there are 2 spots in the town of Pacific Grove, that are readily accessible to view this spectacular gathering of butterflies. In fact, Pacific Grove advertises itself as ‘Butterfly Town USA’

When we went there in February, it was a warm sunny day and the butterflies were starting to open their wings and flutter about.

The first photo shows several large clumps of butterflies on Spanish Moss hanging in a tree.

The second is a cropped version of the above.

Scientists are able to track the migration of these wonderful insects by attaching paper tags with adhesive to their wings.

Here is a close-up showing a butterfly with a red tag in the center of the picture.

If you go back to the first 2 photos and look closely, you can see white tags on several of the butterflies.

This remarkable gathering of butterflies is truly one of the wonders of nature. If you ever are in the Monterey area in the winter months, I encourage a visit Pacific Grove to see the ‘butterfly trees’.

For more information on the Monarch Butterflies in Monterey County, California, please visit the web site of the Ventana Wilderness Society.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald