Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bulletin 175 - odds and ends from the spring

There were a couple of interesting and rare birds  at the end of migration.

The first I saw with my buddy from NYC on Sunday April 28th at the Texas A&M woodlot on Galveston Island. It was a nightjar that flushed up from close to the ground and landed on a dead fallen tree. We observed it closely for about 20 minutes as it flew back and forth between perches. The 3 nightjars here in Galveston, are the Common Nighthawk, Whip-poor-will (WPW) , and Chuck-will's-widow (CWW). I had been hoping to find a Whip-poor-will to photograph. The Common Nighthawk has very long wings that extend beyond the tail. The other 2 have shorter wings and the tail extends to or beyond the wings. This bird became an ID challenge.

Here are my first 2 photos of the bird perched, both showing the tail as longer than the wings.

Also, we clearly saw that when it flew, it had a buffy stripe across the wing near the tip. I knew that Common Nighthawks of both sexes, have a white stripe across the wing. So both of these marks, the shorter wings and no white wing bar, led me to believe it wasn't a Common Nighthawk. I have photographed several CWWs and they have a very dark brown throat. Obviously not our bird. So by default, I was left with an ID of a Whip-poor-will. I have never seen them flying, so I didn't know what they looked like aloft.

I posted the images to Texbirds, and had a few responses, but the important one was that this bird is a Nighthawk. Only in Sibley can you find the field mark shown of the white feathers under the edge of the wing at the shoulder when perched. This bird clearly had those white feathers at the shoulder. This IDs the bird as a nighthawk.

So I was disappointed that I didn't have a WPW photo, but what was this bird? I want back to the same place after work the next day on Monday 29th and fortunately, he was still there and I had a chance to look at it again. Definitely, it had a buffy wing bar. The only other nighthawk possible is a Lesser Nighthawk. This bird is a bird of the south Texas to south Arizona. It is listed as an occasional vagrant here, but I can only recall a couple of mentions in my 20+ years birding here. The female Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis) does have a buffy wing stripe and the male has a white one. Bingo! Also, the Lesser Nighthawk has a tail as long or longer than the wing tips.

The other interesting thing was that a Lesser Nighthawk had been reported at the west end of Galveston Island 2 weeks before. The next week, one was positively IDed at LaFitte's Cove in the center of the island. Then I had this bird at the extreme east end. The following week, a Lesser was found at High Island, a further 40 miles east along the coast. It appears that this bird was moving slowly up the coast.

The other important field mark is small buffy spots on the primary wing feathers of a Lesser. This can be seen in this photo.

Lesser Nighthawk - female
Here is a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) for comparison. Notice the white patch on the primary feathers, but there are no buffy spots at all.

Common Nighthawk
So this was a great find. I have never seen a Lesser Nighthawk perched before as they normally roost on the ground. I only had a couple of photos in the air.

The other rare bird was the European subspecies of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) found by an astute birder on Bolivar. This distinct subspecies (N. phaeopus phaeopus) has a white back, rump and tail. The local subspecies (N. phaeopus hudsonicus) is all brownish. This subspecies is a rare visitor to the Atlantic states (perhaps 6 records). There is also a Siberian subspecies that has a few records for Alaska and also has the white back and rump. This is the first Texas record of this subspecies.

The Whimbrel has already been proposed to be split into 2 species, Hudsonian Whimbrel and Eurasian Whimbrel. The British Ornithology society as well as the International Ornithologists' Union are both considering this split. So it is neat to have the bird already recorded prior to the split.

Here is an article I found discussing the proposed split and why some of these similar species in North America and Eurasia eventually drift apart genetically.

So here is the bird. The curved bill and striped head indicate the Whimbrel. The white back, rump and tail are obvious.

Eurasian Whimbrel
Large owls often eat small rodents and as they eat them whole, they regurgitate the fur and bones in a lump called a 'pellet' after the digestive process. I found a pile of these pellets at a spot in LaFitte's Cove. They appeared like a glob of mud. However, a close up shows it is mostly fur.

Owl pellet
I pulled it apart and sure enough, there were numerous small bones.

Owl pellet
Lastly, we had a pleasant surprise at home when we first unfurled the umbrella over the table on our patio in mid April. A tiny bat was found roosting inside the umbrella. It flew off with the commotion of the party and being exposed, but he returned the next morning. He has been present ever since, now going on 6 weeks. I have named him Mr. Ding.

I dug out my mammal book to try and ID the species and also looked up to see what species were recorded in the Houston area (11 species). I measured him while he was asleep and found him to be only 2" long. I took some photos, as one of the important features that help in bat ID is the shape and size of the ears. My diagnosis was Tricolored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus). It was formerly known as the Eastern Pipistrelle. It is named for the fur which is black at the root, lighter brown in the middle and dark at the tip. I sent the photos to Bat Conservation International in Austin and my ID was confirmed.

So here are 3 photos of Mr. Ding.

Tricolored Bat

Tricolored Bat
And lastly, a face on photo to show his ears clearly. The ears are rounded. The tragus (the small cartilaginous flap in front of the ear canal) is short and rounded.

Tricolored Bat

Male Tricolored Bats are solitary in the summer, while the females roost together in small colonies of 10-30 animals to raise their pups. It will be fun to see how long he stays with us and whether he returns next year, as the life span is up to 15 years.

This is the first bat species I have been able to photograph, as well as being a life mammal.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2013 David McDonald

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bulletin 174 - more end of migration birds

A formerly nemesis bird for me was the American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica). I first saw this bird on the Texas coast in 2010. Now I see it annually. This was my first time to find them on Galveston Island, on Settegast Road, very close to my favorite haunt at LaFitte's Cove. I actually saw about 5 birds over 2 weekends there. This is a beautiful bird in breeding plumage, but unfortunately, it doesn't molt to breeding plumage until it reaches breeding grounds in the Arctic.

American Golden-Plover - non-breeding

The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) is a sparrow like bird with its brown back. However, as can be seen by the large beak, it actually is in the cardinal family. The large beak, yellow breast and black throat actually make it look like a small meadowlark. This is a male. The female lacks the color on the underparts. It is named for its call (like the Killdeer and Chickadee). The rufous ahoulder patches are distinctive in both sexes.

Dickcissel - male


Dickcissel - male

My most exciting photos were finally getting some of the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), This is one of the rarer birds in Texas during migration. I started doing photography in 2006, and finally got a glimpse of one last year but didn't get a photo. this year I saw 3 of them. It was a great year for Golden-wingeds on the coast. This bird is overall gray with a bright gold wing patch. It has a yellow cap. The female has a plain face.

Golden-winged Warbler - female
The male has 2 black marks on his face. This photo from behind shows some black. These aren't the best photos, but I was ecstatic to finally get any photos of this tough bird.

Golden-winged Warbler - male
The Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) is the later of the 2 waterthrushes to migrate. It is brown with breast streaks and a buffy eye stripe. The sexes are similar.

Northern Waterthrush
Magnolia Warblers (Setophaga magnolia) especially the male are dramatic with dark backs, wing bars, bright yellow breasts and black streaking on the breast. Here is one bathing in the drip puddle.

Magnolia Warbler
A tough to photo bird is the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens). This large  (7.5") bird was once in the warbler family, but now is in a family by itself as ornithologists try to resolve where it belongs. It is normally secretive and stays well hidden. However, I got lucky and this bird popped out onto a bare branch. The bright yellow breast, olive brown back and black and white facial markings ID this bird. The sexes are similar.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Everyone's favorite is the male Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). I only saw 2 of them this spring, but this greenish female came to the drip.

Painted Bunting - female
I got another photo of a male Scarlet Tanager (Piranda olivacea) with a green hackberry seed in his mouth.

Scarlet Tanager - male
The 1st year male Summer Tanagers (Pirangra rubra) are greenish and molt into their all red color in the spring. Sometimes they have some weird patterns. Sibley says that the amount of each color can be quite variable. here is one that is almost all red, with just some green on the belly.

Summer Tanager - 1st year male
This one is really peculiar looking. He sort of looks like a green bird with a sunburn on his face.

Summer Tanager - 1st year male

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2013 David McDonald

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bulletin 173 - end of migration birds

I had a birding buddy from the Big Apple and his son from LA visiting on the weekend of April 27th for migration. We had a grand time and saw an incredible variety of migrants, both songbirds and shorebirds.

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on the coast by Freeport was absolutely inundated with birds including as estimated 400 - 500 Wilson's Phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor). Phalaropes are shorebirds that also swim. They pick food off the waters surface with their dainty thin beaks. They are unusual among birds in that the female is the brighter color. Three species of phalaropes exist in the world and this is the only one that occurs regularly on the upper Texas coast. The other two can be seen along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Here is a female in breeding plumage with bright red, gray and black markings.

Wilson's Phalarope - breeding female
The male in breeding plumage is gray with just a faint rusty wash on his neck.

Wilson's Phalarope - breeding male
A single breeding plumaged American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) was also found at Brazoria. These long-legged birds have rusty heads and necks, white bodies, black wings with a wide white stripe and upcurved beaks. The sexes are similarly plumaged, but the female has a more curved beak than the male. This is a male.

American Avocet - breeding male

There are 3 Ibis species in the USA, 1 white and 2 dark. Ibises are heron sized wading birds with long curved beaks. The usual dark ibis in Texas is the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi). In breeding season, it has a white V behind the eye on the face. The rest of the year, the white is gone and it can be difficult to differentiate the 2 species as the only specific mark is the color of the iris of the eye and the bare facial skin. This bird was right beside the road at Brazoria and allowed a close up of his face to show the field marks. The white feathers can be seen on the face, as well as the red facial skin and iris. usually one is not lucky enough to get this close to a bird.

White-faced Ibis - breeding
The late migration brings in the thrush species. The Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) is ID by his reddish head, brown back and tail and large dark breast spots.

Wood Thrush
The Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) is very similar to the Swainson's Thrush in the previous bulletin, but it lacks the eye ring. It has a uniform dull brown head, back and tail and spotted breast.

Gray-cheeked Thrush
The Veery (Catharus fuscens) has been a tough bird for me to find and photograph, but this spring, I had several. It is IDed be the uniform reddish-brown head back and tail, as well as a sparsely spotted breast.

The orioles always are a hit with birders due to their bright colors. The male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is bright orange with a black head and wings.

Baltimore Oriole - male
The female is duller.

Baltimore Oriole - female
The Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) is chocolate brown where the Baltimore has orange, but the first year male is yellowish with a black throat and often confuses novice birders. I showed one of these in an earlier bulletin this year, but this is the best photo I have ever obtained of this plumage.

Orchard Oriole - 1st year male
Lastly, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) perched against the sky for a portrait.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - male

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2013 David McDonald

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