Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bulletin 169 - Winter birds

The Upper Texas Coast (UTC) never ceases to amaze me with the rarities that show up here. In the last few years, we have had Ruff twice, first ABA record of Tropical Mockingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and 3 birds usually found in the arctic and Alaska that I missed on my Alaska trip in 2010. The first was lifer Smith's Longspur at New Years 2012, then a lifer Black-tailed Godwit last June and last month a juvenile Rough-legged Hawk on Galveston Island for my second sighting of that species.

The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)  is a large (21") buteo of the high arctic tundra in Canada and Alaska. It is listed as occasional in the UTC. However, I cannot remember in my 20 years birding, another mention of one, and there was no photo of it on the Houston Audubon web site. The males have dark streaks on the underside, but the juveniles and females have a black belly. This bird was easily seen over several weeks, as it hunted in the same area and returned to sit on top of a telephone pole. It was IDed as a female with the black belly, but when I posted my photos on Texbirds, an expert who has banded these hawks in Montana, sads it was a juvenile as the dark band was not on the underside of the tail. Notice the small bill and feet, an adaptation for the cold tundra. The legs have feathers and these can be seen in this photo.

Rough-legged hawk - juvenile on Galveston Island
Many ducks are found here in winter. I haven't shown many photos in the past couple of years, so yesterday I went out and took some.

Here is a male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata). The green head and brown and white body along with the huge bill make this guy an easy ID. However, in the photo, I had never seen the blue-gray feathers before. I checked Sibley and these are the upper wing coverts that usually are hidden unless the bird is in the air. So I always learn something new.

Northern Shoveler - male
In the last Bulletin, I showed and talked about the Redhead (Aythya americana). I had never seen them in the ponds at LaFitte's Cove on Galveston, but yesterday, there were almost a dozen birds. This male had his head stretched upwards in an unusual pose.

Redhead - male
Now look at this pair, swimming towards the camera. They have really fat cheeks, reminding me of chipmunks! I don't know whether all ducks have this peculiarly shaped head. I will have to watch more closely in the future.

Redhead - male

 Here is a female Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). She is all brownish except for the white spots behind the bill. Notice the small black spot on the end of the bill. This is called the nail and is very narrow like this in the Lesser Scaup and wider in ther Greater Scaup. Although some overlap occurs, it can be a good field mark to separate these species. It also happened to be my first photo of a female of this species.

Lesser Scaup - female
The last duck is probably my favorite, the smallest North American duck, the Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola). The males have black back, white body, dark iridescent head with a large white occipital quadrant.

Bufflehead - male
One of my favorite photos of ducks is when they rise out of the water and flap their wings. Here are a couple of photos of this duck doing just that.

Bufflehead - male
And another. In this one, despite the overcast day, you can get a hint of the iridescent purple on his head.

Bufflehead - male

So how do you get these neat action photos? If you have ever watched ducks for any length of time, occasionally they will bathe by ducking their head repeatedly under the water. After several times, they will always rise up like this and flap their wings back and forth a couple of times to dry off. So if you see a duck bathing, get ready to take some of these action shots.

Lastly as spring is here in Houston, our waders are getting their breeding plumage. For herons, they often change the color of the bare skin around the eye, as well as the bill getting very bright.

Here is a Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) with a bright blue patch of bare skin, and very pink base of the bill.

Reddish Egret - breeding
I just noticed that I crossed the 50,000 hits mark on this blog.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2013 David McDonald

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