Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bulletin 196 - spring migration April 18 - 20

My friend Martin Jackson, from NYC, and his son Tom, from Los Angeles, visited last weekend to see the migration of birds to the upper Texas coast. We  had a great weekend and saw 110 species of birds. Here are some photos from the weekend.

One of my target birds is the molting first year male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra). These male are yellow-green over winter and then start getting their red feathers in spring. They can have all sorts of combinations of color. This first one has a partially red face but green rump.

Summer Tanager - 1st year male
The next one has a little more red. His head is all red as well as his rump.

Summer Tanager - 1st year male

This last one is all red except for a patch on the nape of his neck and the wing edges.

Summer Tanager - 1st year male
The male Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) was very numerous on Saturday. In fact, I saw more of them that day than ever before. The guide books state that they come in an orange variant, but they tend towards orange-red rather than orange like an oriole. On one occasion, we had 3 birds together, one was scarlet, one was the orange variant, and the third was an in-between shade of red. Here is a red one.

Scarlet Tanager - breeding male

 And here is an orange variant male.

Scarlet Tanager - breeding male

The Blue Grosbeak (Guiraca caerula) is much less common here than the Indigo Bunting, so I was pleased to see 3 birds and all had different plumages.The breeding male is royal blue with a rufous wing patch. The wing patch is the important field mark.

Blue Grosbeak - male
The juvenile birds are rufous brown  and then molt in next spring. The first year male has a blue face and rump and tail, with the rufous back of head.

Blue Grosbeak - 1st year male

The adult females are a dull gray brown, but this female has the bright rufous on her head, so I would assume that she is a first year female.

Blue Grosbeak - 1st year female
There was a scarcity of warblers, but a male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) did put on a show at the drip at LaFitte's Cove. This bird is an easy ID with his black mask.

Common Yellowthroat - male
The reason spring migration is so awesome along the coast, is that many neotropical migrants fly across the gulf from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The distance is 600 miles. A few of the birds don't make it and fall into the sea. Most continue inland, but a lot of them stop at the 'migrant traps' on the coast to rest, feed and bathe. The locations include High Island, Galveston, and Quintana on the upper Texas coast. However an occasiona bird just makes it to shore and collapses, totally spent and can't fly. We found one such bird on the Bolivar peninsula. It was a female Scarlet Tanager and she landed on a mud flat 50 yards inland from the ocean. She couldn't fly and there was nothing for her to eat at that location. It was a cold foggy morning and she would have died form hypothermia. I picked her up, wrapped her in my jacket, and took her to High Island. She had warmed up and recovered and flew to a mulberry tree to feast. Here I am holding her. Thanks to Tom Jackson for the photo.

David McDonald holding Scarlet Tanager
Photo by Tom Jackson

As we were leaving Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, there was a 6 foot alligator lying on the road.
Several cars had stopped to watch it. Of course, we got out to see it as well. As all photographers know, the ideal way to photograph a person, animal, bird etc is to be a eye level. So of course I got down on the road to get these photos up close and personal with a gator.

Alligator on road - Brazoria NWR
And another showing his acute need of dental work and a cleaning.

Alligator on road - Brazoria NWR
A short time later, he got up and walked off into the grass.

Alligator on road - Brazoria NWR

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2014 David McDonald

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Bulletin 195 - early migrants

I need to take a break from Panama as spring migration is underway along the Texas coast.

In the latter half of March, I had a new hummingbird species in my yard, and not one but 2 individuals, as the plumages were different. The Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope) at 3.25 inches in length is the smallest bird in North America. Both birds were juvenile males starting to molt to adult plumage. The first one had a long single red feather on the left side of his throat. Notice that the wings project beyond the tail. This is the fifth species of hummer in my yard!

Calliope Hummingbird - juvenile male
He stayed around for about 10 days and was replaced by a second bird. Notice he has a few central feathers sprouting, but nothing on the left side of his throat.

Calliope Hummingbird - juvenile male
I spent some time on the coast the last 2 weekends and picked up some migrants. The Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) is very common. The male has the black hood and yellow face. 
Hooded Warbler - male

The female has just the outline of the black hood, but is still easy to identify.

Hooded Warbler - female
A perennial nemesis bird for me was the Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica). It took several years before I saw one after starting photography, but this year, I have seen 2 already. Again, this black and white bird with bright yellow throat is an easy ID. The sexes are similar.

Yellow-throated Warbler

The Prothonotary Warbler (Prothonotaria citrea) is another favorite of mine. This bright yellow bird with a long bill and blue-gray wings is an easy ID. The sexes are similar, but the female is duller and has a more olive crown. This is the first one I am convinced is a male. This guy also gave us 10 minutes of photo enjoyment as he hung out at the drip at LaFitte's Cove.

Prothonotary Warbler - male
I also had my first beautiful male Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra).

Summer Tanager - male
I went to Bolivar Island twice last weekend attempting to see and photo a rare gull. I missed that gull both times, but did get some interesting photos of other birds. The most amazing was a pink plumaged gull. This is the Franklin's Gull (Larus pipixcan) in breeding plumage. Sibley's describes this bird as having a 'pink tinge'. Well this bird is not tinged, it is pink! The other ID mark is the white spots on wing tips.

Franklin's Gull - breeding

Here is one of the pair with Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls to show the contrast.

Franklin's Gull

The Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) at 9" long is the smallest tern. It is IDed by the yellow bill and white forehead.

Least Tern - breeding

On Bolivar Flats, the famous Houston Audubon shorebird location, I got photos of 2 small plovers. The Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) is smaller at 6.25" in length.  It is IDed by the dark legs, thin bill, and black on forehead, behind eye and incomplete breastband. I had not noted the beige crown on this bird previously and it caught my eye in the field.

Snowy Plover - breeding

The slightly larger (7.25") Piping Plover (Charadrius melodius) has orange legs and bill. It has the black forehead and an almost complete breast band. However, the face is plain.

Piping Plover - breeding

An unusual sighting was an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) sitting on the ground. It was a very windy day and he might have been trying to get out of the elements.


Lastly, some of you may know that Galveston Bay had an oil spill about a month ago when a ship collided with a barge in the fog. There were some oiled birds rescued and cleaned, but this White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) must have not been senn or escaped capture to clean him. He was at the Bolivar ferry landing.

White Pelican - oiled

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2014 David McDonald

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