Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bulletin #100 – Misc birds of the Houston area

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
January 17, 2010

Bulletin #100 – Misc birds of the Houston area

Hello friends,

Well this certainly is a milestone for me - the 100th birding trip report sent to you loyal subscribers. I went looking back in the old documents to find when I began this endeavor, and #1 wasn't even numbered. That was May 12th 2007. I had sent some emails of photos to a couple of people I met a LaFitte's Cove in Galveston during spring migration a week or two before. They asked for more, and I started numbering the Bulletins then.

From the 2 original recipients, the list has grown to 150+. Thank you for the support and comments. I plan to continue to show you the beauty of nature and especially our birds, as well as hopefully educate you in bird identification.

One of my target birds for this winter is Sprague's Pipit (SPPI). This is a small (6.5") plain brown bird. According to the birding guide books, this bird winters across most of Texas and prefers short grassy fields. It is much less common than the American Pipit (AMPI). In fact, whenever a SPPI is found, it is listed on Texbirds while the AMPI is so common that it is seldom specifically listed.

I have never seen the SPPI, but when I asked experts how they tell them apart, it was leg color and voice. They said you mostly just flush the bird and hear it, as it flies away. There are a couple of National Wildlife Refuges south and west of Houston that do have SPPIs each winter, but I didn't think I would be able to find and ID this bird without hiring a guide.

I was at Anahuac NWR 2 weeks ago (not one of the 2 refuges above) and driving around the auto loop, in the flock of Savannah Sparrows, were 2 birds with extensive white in the tails, that I thought at first glance were Vesper Sparrows. When I looked closer though, they were pipits. I assumed that they were the common AMPI and drove on past them as I wasn't expecting to find a SPPI at Anahuac.

As I thought about these birds more, I thought they might be a SPPI s, so I got out the Sibley Field Guide and looked up SPPI. Sure enough, it said that they have extensive white on the tails, so I drove around the loop again and found the birds. I actually had to drive around the one-way loop several times to get these photos. I put them up on Texbirds and had the ID confirmed by the experts.
So here is my lifer Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii). It is IDed by the orange-pink legs and the striped markings on the back. It also has buffy unstreaked flanks.

I hire birding guides often, when travelling, so as to maximize my available time to locate birds that I want to photograph. If the guide finds and IDs a bird by voice, I don't always feel confident in being able to ID the bird myself in the future. However, I have found that if I can figure out the identification of a difficult bird like the SPPI above by myself, then I really know the bird and its field marks and won't have a problem the next time.

The next weekend, I went to Attwater NWR west of Houston which is one of the refuges that usually has the SPPI. Sure enough, I found about 5 more of these birds along their auto route. I got out of the car to photograph them but they always flushed, so the next time around, I stayed in the car and took photos out the window. I was able to get to within 15 feet of the birds.
Look at the beautiful feather detail of this little bird.

For comparison, here is a photo of an American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) also at Attwater NWR the same day. There was a flock of about 2 dozen of them on a muddy edge of a pond. Notice the dark colored legs and grayish unstreaked back.

At LaFitte's Cove in Galveston, I saw a Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) in the woods for the first time. I snapped a couple of photos before he flew off and was amazed with this macabre picture. He has a mammalian foot in his mouth.

At Anahuac NWR, as well as the Sprague's Pipit above, I found an adult King Rail (Rallus elegans) at the edge of the reeds. His face is more brown than his cousin the Clapper Rail (Bulletin 98). Also, the King Rail is found in fresh water marshes and the Clapper only in salt water marshes. Also note that the dark streaks on the back are black in the King Rail and dark brown in the Clapper Rail.

A bright male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) was also in the marsh and gave a refreshing hint of spring to an otherwise dull winter day.

High Island had a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). This is one of our prettiest winter birds.

On the way home from Anahuac NWR that afternoon, I passed a skunk on the shoulder of the road and stopped for some photos. This was the first skunk I have found since I started doing photography, so I was excited to get the photos. It is a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), the most common skunk species in eastern North America. This is despite the fact that it has no stripes along it back, just the white cap on its head.

Now some exciting news for all you birding/photography enthusiasts. I will be leading a 9 day bird photography tour to Costa Rica in conjunction with Lillian Scott-Baer of Baer Travel in March 2011. We have worked out an itinerary to visit La Selva Preserve, Savegre Lodge in the central mountains for Resplendant Quetzal and other montane species and Wilson Botanical Gardens (Las Cruces). We have also retained the services of local guide, Rudy Zamora, to accompany us and locate and ID the birds for us to photograph. We will also have beautiful flowers and hopefully some mammals - tamanduas, monkeys etc as well.

The price will be $1960 double to $2380 single. This includes hotels, all meals, guide, transportation in Costa Rica etc. The only other cost will be airfare to Costa Rica, items of a personal nature (alcoholic beverages, souvenirs etc), tips for guide and driver and $26 Costa Rica departure tax . Space is limited to 10 persons to maximize our opportunity to see and photograph the birds. I will have more details and the complete itinerary in February. I have birded in Costa Rica previously. It is a wonderful country to visit and the bird life is exceptional. I hope that you can join us.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2010 David McDonald

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