Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bulletin #96 – November birds

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
November 25, 2009

Bulletin #96 – November birds

Hello friends,

Thank you to all those who attended my talks on "Winter Birds of the Houston area" at Webster Presbyterian Church and the Deer Park Garden Club earlier this month.

Many species of winter birds continue to arrive on the upper Texas coast.

I had my first sighting this fall, of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) at Brazos Bend State Park. This brown thrush with breast spots is IDed by the rufous tail. It is also the only brown thrush with spots that winters here.

West Galveston Island had some nice birds. I went to a salt marsh to look for sparrows, but the only bird I found was a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris). This bird is identified by the rufous color, long bill, eye-stripe and streaking on the back. These are the best photos I have taken of this secretive bird.

I also took this photo of a Black-Crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) on a dead tree. When I got home and developed the pictures, I saw that this bird had an unusual plumage. It has a brown back and just a few wing spots. Sibley call this a first summer bird.

This bird has an unusual Latin name in that the genus and species are the same. I am sure there are other birds with identical genus and species names. I know of one other in North America.

Quiz - do you know of any other birds with genus and species names the same? Email me if you find one and I'll give the answers next bulletin.

I next drove to another salt marsh area at Surfside Beach. Here I did find some sparrows, but just Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus maritimus). This is a large (6") dark gray sparrow with a large bill. The yellow spot in front of the eye and heavy breast streaking ID this bird.

The first photo is an adult with some caramel color on face and breast.

Here is a juvenile plumaged bird with much less color, but it still has that distinctive yellow spot.

At Brazoria NWR, I found an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) along the auto route, completely out in the open. These birds are normally shy and elusive. In an attempt to approach him closer, I took the photos from the car.

I drove closer and got right beside him, so I could just get his head in the photo.


I drove back around the one-way auto loop and he was still there. This time I got out of the car, but he took off while I was 30 yards away. Here he is flying. His yellow legs can be seen.

I also saw this unfortunate female Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) duck. She has her foot stuck in a branch and thus has to drag it around with her as she swims. I don't know how she will fly, as it seems to be jammed into her wing feathers as well.

I read some books about birds and birding, so I thought that I would give a brief review of a book that I just finished and enjoyed.

The book is "A Supremely Bad Idea" (3 Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All) by Luke Dempsey. It is about 3 birders from New York City and their trips to birding locations across the USA. They travel to Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Texas. As I have birded in AZ, FL and TX, I have been to most of the actual locations they went and saw the birds they found. So it brought back some great memories.

However, the book is hilarious as he describes the people they meet, the places they stay and situations that develop. I actually stayed in the same motel in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas (Alamo Inn) that they stayed at.

The book was extremely funny and I laughed so hard, it brought tears to my eyes. I recommend it highly as a fun light read.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonaldemail:

photos copyright 2009 David McDonald

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bulletin #95 – October/November birds

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
November 10, 2009

Bulletin #95 – October/November birds

Hello friends,

LaFitte's Cove (#68 on UTC Birding Trail) on west Galveston Island has at least 3 species of woodpeckers present. Besides the Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Bulletin #91 which is still present, there is a male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). This bird has a white back and a red occipital patch.

After I got home and looked at the photos, this one was amazing to me. He is working on this slender stick and has his head turned completely upside down! It gives me a crick in my neck just looking at him.

The other species of woodpecker was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA) (Sphyrapicus varius). There were at least 2 males, a juvenile and an adult. They seemed to be together, so maybe a family group. The juveniles must molt early in the autumn, as I have never seen a juvenile here without any red on his head. However, Sibley states that the juvenile plumage lasts from August to March. The juveniles have no red at all as seen in the bird in Maine in the first week of October from Bulletin #93.

By mid October, this juvenile bird had a few red feathers on his head and under the throat. All YBSAs have a red top of head. The male also has a red throat. He is eating holly berries on a native Youpon Holly tree.

Here is a full adult plumaged male YBSA. Notice the solid red on crown and throat.

And here they are together on the same tree. This is why I thought they might be a family group. I saw them together several times.

In my travels I found an oak tree that had been worked over by a sapsucker. They make a horizontal line of small holes in the bark to let the sap drip out. My interest was drawn to the tree by butterflies on the trunk.

Here is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) drinking the sap.

And another location on the same tree had another Red Admiral along with several species of flies and bugs enjoying the free meal. Notice the 6 horizontal holes with sap dripping out.

A Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) has appeared on Bolivar again this winter. It is the first in 2 years. I photographed one in Ft Travis Park in winter of 2007 and it is my all-times favorite photo.

Here is a photo of the current owl on Bolivar. Unfortunately, it is a field that has no entry, so it will be tough to get a close up like the one in 2007

American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) winter in huge numbers along the Texas coast, with flocks in the thousands on Bolivar flats just before spring migration. These long legged wading shorebirds are gray with a white wing bar in winter. I have found my first birds for the winter in the past 2 weeks. Interestingly, the thin black bills are different in the sexes with the males being straighter and the females more upcurved. I saw them feeding in a shallow pond and they upend like a dabbling duck.

Here is a male with just a slight upcurve to the tip of the bill along with a second bird upended.

Here is a female American Avocet who has a much more upcurved bill.

The winter hawks are arriving. I managed to photograph 2 of the 3 species of falcon we have here.

Here is a male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). The 2 vertical black lines on the head along with rufous back ID the bird. This male has gray wings. A female would have rufous wings.

Here is a 1st year Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). It has a brown back and pale top of head, but the distinctive black mustache is visible. This is only the second Peregrine that I have photographed. He was 50 yards away in a field. For those people who want all the details, it is the tundra race of this bird, as it has the large white patch on the side of the head.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonaldemail:

photos copyright 2009 David McDonaldTo have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask for subscribe.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bulletin #94 – October birds

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
November 1, 2009

Bulletin #94 – October birds

Hello friends,

Since back from my trip to Maine, I have gotten out to bird for at least a few hours each weekend. I am preparing for a talk on Winter Birds of the Houston area to be given at Webster Presbyterian Church on Nov 10th from 7-8:00 pm. This church is just of I-45 in the NASA/Clear Lake Area. If interested in attending , please call the church office at 281-332-1251.

As I talk about a number of birding locations, I am trying to visit most of them before the talk to see what winter birds have already arrived in the area.

Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP) had several interesting birds. It is the only place in the Houston area that regularly has Least Grebes (Tachybaptus dominicus). This tropical bird has been breeding in the park for only the past decade and always in the same small pond (Creekfield Lake) across from the visitor center, so they are easily found. Currently there are 2 adults and 2 juveniles in the family group. At only 9.5 inches, this cute bird is the smallest grebe in the world and reminds me of the rubber ducks we put in children's bathtubs.

Here is an adult covered with duckweed. The yellow eye and small size are an easy ID.

Here is a juvenile. It is distinguished by the striping across the face. He is really covered with the duckweed.

Another good bird at BBSP was a Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris). This was the first appearance of this tropical bird in the park in 5 or more years. It was also my first time to see it on the upper Texas coast. For those unfamiliar with this bird, it is a member of the cuckoo family and 'ani' is often used in crossword puzzles with the clue as cuckoo. It is a thin black bird (13.5" long) with large bill. The upper mandible had horizontal grooves. Sibley describes it as appearing disheveled. This one fits the description as it appears to need its breast feathers combed to smooth them.

A migrant in the park was this winter plumaged Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). It is browner in basic plumage than breeding plumage, but the spotted back, prominent eye-ring and yellow legs confirm the ID. It was my first encounter with this bird in this plumage

There are Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) everywhere now. This is the only winter resident flycatcher except for an occasional vagrant or straggler. They bob their tails and call incessantly, so are easy to confirm the ID. They have no eye-ring and no wing bars and have a dark head.

A problem for many birders and especially novices, is fall plumaged warblers. If you look at Peterson's Eastern Birds field guide, he has a page called 'confusing fall warblers'. He coined that term, and everyone seems to have picked up on it and many birders fell intimidated by it. I know I was initially.
However, when I got the Peterson's Advanced Birding field guide written by Ken Kaufman, it gave me hope that I would be able to ID warblers in fall migration. In it, he states that the warblers all molt just before heading south in fall migration, so have fresh plumages. But more importantly, many adult warblers look exactly the same as in spring. So that leaves just the juveniles that may look drab, but they mostly have a few of the adult ID marks to help sort out the ID problem.

So, here are some fall warblers I found at LaFitte's Cove (#68 on UTC Birding Trail) on west Galveston Island. Here is a Black-throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens). It is an easy ID as the yellow face, green back and some black on the throat are same as in the spring.

This Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora pinus) looks just the same as in the spring - bright yellow, bluish wings with white stripes and the black line eye-line to the beak. It isn't an ID problem.

Palm Warblers (Dendroica palmarum) are duller in the fall, but they still have yellow rumps and yellow undertail coverts. They have a bit of a brown cap with white eye-stripe on their head. They also bob their tails unlike most other warblers. Here are 2 different birds, one much paler than the other(may be light differences as well).

Here is the Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina). They are among the plainest warblers even in breeding plumage with gray heads, pale eye-stripe and greenish backs. In the fall, the adults look almost completely green on their head and back, but they still have the pale eye-stripe. Also, notice the bright white undertail coverts. This is another important ID mark.

I was fortunate to have an expert birder with me yesterday when I took these 3 photos of the Tennessee Warblers, as I had not seen them in fall plumage before and probably would not have known what they were.

Here is another confusing plumaged Tennessee Warbler. It is mostly yellow, but the eye-stripe is still present. In Sibley, he calls this a 1st winter female.

Lastly, is a tiny bird that is often confused with warblers. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) is only 4" long vs almost 5" for warblers. However, they are insect eaters, so they flit through the branches and may fly-catch just like warblers. It is a very common winter resident here. It is IDed by small size, olive color with wing bars and yellowish tinge on wing feather edges, and broken eye-ring. Kinglets also have the habit of flitting their wings continuously as they move through the trees

Like many birds, they are named for their most obscure field mark. These birds only raise their red feathers when excited. Here is an old photo with the ruby crown feathers displayed.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonaldemail:

photos copyright 2009 David McDonaldTo have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask for subscribe.