Saturday, August 28, 2004

More Bird Sightings At Home

Yesterday morning, as I was arriving home from work, I saw a Broad-winged Hawk fly into a tree along my driveway. I parked and watched it for a while. It eventually changed perches, then flew low over my car and away across the road. Lately I've been seeing Broad-winged Hawks in my neighborhood more frequently. Most likely they are early migrants. A Yellow-breasted Chat was again seen yesterday along my driveway, this time skulking among the azaleas.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Upset Blue Jays & Early Migrants

Blue Jays were squawking up a storm this morning, and had the other little birds worked up too. I couldn't see the cause of the disturbance, but it was most likely a hawk - I've seen several Broad-wings in the neighborhood lately. Scanning the sky from my back fence this morning produced 1 Anhinga, 1 Black Vulture, and 2 Broad-winged Hawks. Also had a couple of early passerine migrants along the driveway (a Red-eyed Vireo and and a briefly glimpsed Yellow-breasted Chat).

Monday, August 23, 2004


Observed in my backyard...a pair of Mississippi Kites soaring over the pond today, a possum scampering away in the dark as I drove in tonight.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Return Of Weather; Fires Burning; Dealing With Punks

It's lightly raining this morning, which means it's wet outside, but my front yard is not yet flooded. Just looked out the window and saw a box turtle sprinting (at the highest velocity that a box turtle can attain) through my garden. Sprinting may not be the right word. Maybe it would be more accurate to say moving with a definite sense of urgency or haste. When it rains the Carolina Wrens gather under my porch. Despite their choice of habitat (swampland) they apparently don't like to get wet.

Thursday evening I went to a meeting of the Golden Triangle Audubon Society. The membership in attendence formed an impressive fossil collection. I probably shouldn't be so mean, but I was much younger than most of the people there, and I'm no kid. The evening's presentation was about birds of special concern in Southeast Texas. I wished it was over long before it was. The speaker had a tendency to talk fast and repeat himself with occasional departures into incoherency. There were times when he teetered on the brink of hysteria, and I half expected him to collapse foaming at the mouth. Oh well, it's nice to know there are people who truly care about the plight of Sprague's Pipits and Bachman's Sparrows. I was surprised to see one of MY photographs used to illustrate his lecture (a picture of a Swainson's Warbler that I had posted on my web site). I don't recall giving permission for it's use, although my name did appear on the screen, so I got a photographer's credit.

I did pull one interesting factoid from his lecture; apparently the epicenter of trans-gulf bird migration is the coast between Galveston, TX, and Lake Charles, LA. Apparently most northbound migrants overshoot coastal sites like Sabine Woods and High Island, making landfall further inland, where they disperse into the great riverbottom forests. The Trinity, Neches, and Sabine Rivers provide excellent stopover habitat, so I suspect the heavier concentration of migrants in this section of the Texas coastal bend is not the result of convenient propinquity, but of evolutionary programming. Since I live near the center of the epicenter, on the edge of a riparian corridor, I'm in a pretty good position to enjoy bird migration in spring (the Yucatan express pulls into the station HERE!).

Yesterday I drove to Houston. Near Troy's house in Spring I saw a couple of Mississippi Kites flying over a residential area in the morning, and later saw 3 soaring over the same neighborhood in the afternoon. Looked like 2 adults and a juvenile bird - possibly part of a local breeding population?

If you were driving I-10 east of Houston yesterday, and looked north from atop the arch of the Trinity River bridge, you would have seen a tower of orange flame erupting into the sky. looked like someone had lit a huge candle. This pillar of fire was visible for miles, although forest sometimes obstructed the view. We've just been through a dry spell, and according to the news there have been some large marsh fires burning. One night when I was working in Port Arthur the scent of smoke was heavy in the air.

Had a couple of incidents involving shoplifters at work this past week. Caught and ejected one punk who tried to hide a Sony Walkman in his pants. Another kid came in wanting to return a marijuana test kid without receipt (one of our high theft items), and when I wouldn't do it he grabbed some Cds and dashed out of the store.

About justice, Texas style - yeah, if you want to commit first degree murder this is the wrong place to be. They execute murderers here. But when it comes to misdemeanors and petty crime, Texas is too lenient. There seems to be a complacent boys-will-be-boys attitude toward most public misbehavior. Take littering for example. There's a big ad campaign running here, with the slogan "Don't Mess With Texas!" It's all bluster and b*llsh*t. I see people throwing stuff out car windows all the time. And then there are the people pulling trailers with unsecured loads and stuff falling or blowing off - not just causing litter but real hazzards for the drivers behind them. In California there's a $1000. fine for littering from a vehicle. In Texas it's only $200., and nobody ever seems to get caught. It's pretty obvious which state you really don't want to mess with.

In spite of it's vigorous application of the death penalty, Texas maintains a pretty high crime rate. I have a theory about this - maybe if there were stiffer penalties for lesser offences, fewer criminals would rise to the level of more serious crimes, like first degree murder. Just a thought...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Catastrophically Mild Weather

The weather here has been peculiarly pleasant lately, without any of the usual tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and devastating floods. Humidity has been comfortably low, with temperatures in the 70s. Could this really be Texas in August? Since Wednesday I've been working another series of long graveyard shifts, and haven't had much opportunity to get out and enjoy this rare break from the summer heat.

This morning I watched a Pileated Woodpecker work its way through the trees around the pond. Pileated Woodpeckers are big birds, I mean BIG, and it looked a bit awkward straddling such puny tree trunks. I also saw a Broad-winged Hawk and Mississippi Kite circling high above - locally breeding birds? Early migrants? Who knows.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Going Too Pharr For A Bird

Since late May a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush has been hanging out in a backyard in Pharr, TX. The nightingale-thrush is normally found in the tropical forests of Central America, and this is the first US record (I’ve seen it in Costa Rica, where it is more expected). Pharr (pronounced far) is down in the Rio Grande Valley, just this side of the Mexican border, and at least a 7 hour drive from my east Texas home.

All summer I’ve more or less ignored news of this wondrous discovery, along with reports of two or three other potential lifers in the Rio Grande Valley. But I had no plans for the weekend, and the idea of sitting around my house for three days was a bit unappealing, so I decided to go for it. Reports of a Greater Flamingo near Brownsville gave me all the extra incentive I needed.

Now conventional wisdom would suggest that August is not the best time for a birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley. It’s hot. Hot and humid. The temperature rises fast in the morning, and you usually don’t get a cool breeze. The air is heavy and still, only disturbed by the loud whine of cicadas. The birds have already nested, and most aren’t singing much at this point. During the middle of the day they become even less active, taking refuge in the shade of dense thorny thickets. Considering all the negatives, my good luck with the birds on this trip was a bit surprising (and even the discomfort wasn’t quite as bad as I anticipated).

I left the house Saturday morning at about 10:15am, followed the arc of the Texas Gulf Coast south, and arrived at the Whatabuger in Pharr at about 5:30pm. As it turned out, the Whataburger was less than a mile from the William’s residence, recent home of the famous nightingale-thrush. By the way, the first Whataburger was in Corpus Christi, TX. Now you know.

The William’s have landscaped their acreage with native plants, creating a small island of "natural" habitat. In the middle of their backyard, in a shady thicket, there is a birdbath with double rows of seats facing it. A constant drip attracts birds. This is where the nightingale-thrush is supposed to make it’s daily appearance, usually in the evening around 8pm.

While I sat there waiting for the bird to make its regular appearance a few other birders arrived. One guy had just come from Houston, had driven almost as far as I, and had forgotten to bring his binoculars! If no other birders had been there this would have spelled disaster, but I told him I’d let him borrow mine if the bird ever showed up. As it turned out, he was the first to see it. While searching the brush with my binoculars he spotted the thrush moving around in the thicket to our right. It was a little after 7:30pm. We both got good views, and later saw it a couple more times, although it never came to the birdbath while we were there. John Odgers, who had emailed me directions to the place, was also present, and gave me directions on where to go for Green Parakeets and Red-crowned Parrots.

Other valley specialties seen in the William’s yard included Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Red-crowned Parrot (a few screeching overhead on their way to somewhere else), Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Olive Sparrow. There was an empid that defied identification, and which I alone seemed to take an interest in (the other people there were completely focused on the one celebrity bird). As the sun went down the cicadas started up, raising an ear-shattering racket. I observed one that was definitely a source of this whining noise, but it didn’t appear to move. I always assumed they produced the sound with their wings, but its wings were resting motionless. So how do they do it? Hmmm...

The next morning (Sunday) I went to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. At the resaca I managed to achieve a kingfisher slam – all 3 North American species (Ringed, Belted, and Green) visible simultaneously in the same line of sight! At one point I was startled to see the big Ringed Kingfisher fly right up to me, chatter in alarm, and do an abrupt turn. Along the trailer loop (which will need a new name, since it’s now closed to trailers) I saw a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, a Bobcat, and a Javelina. Of course I also got many of the usual valley specialties, like Groove-billed Ani, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Oriole.

At Anzalduas County Park I missed the Gray Hawks that nested there this season, but took consolation in finding a Least Grebe along the entrance road. After that I tried searching for the Greater Flamingo along Highway 48 between Brownsville and Port Isabel. No luck. It was a long drive, but at least it wasn't a total waste of time - At Laguna Vista I stopped to scope the Laguna Madre, and saw Redddish Egret and Harris's Hawk, among other things. After that I went back to the William’s residence, and again saw the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush in their backyard at about 7pm. This time I was the only observer, although I met John Odgers again on my way out.

I had planned to try for Green Parakeet in the evening. Following the directions that John Odgers had given me, I visited a nearby residential area in McAllen, and easily found a few Green Parakeets sitting in palms along a quiet street. Toward sunset more parakeets and a few Red-crowned Parrots began to arrive. Even in this suburban environment I found valley specialties such as Plain Chachalaca, Couch’s Kingbird, and Great Kiskadee. Also there must have been a large roost of Purple Martins somewhere in the vicinity – 50-100 were seen flying over the neighborhood.

When In Roma…
Monday morning I got stopped for speeding in Roma, a sleepy little town on Highway 83 west of McAllen. The officer let me off with a warning, which surprised me, since the towns in that area are notorious speed traps, and probably get most of their revenue from issuing tickets (the speed limit suddenly dips to 30 mph in certain stretches!). I was on my way to Salineno to try for Muscovy Duck, which turned out to be another miss. The Rio Grande was running high, which didn’t seem to bother the Belted, Ringed, and Green Kingfishers that were patrolling the river channel. Farther upstream at Chapeno I made a last-ditch effort to find a Muscovy, and although I missed the duck (and got my feet wet for my trouble) I did get another consolation prize, a fly-by Red-billed Pigeon.

Monday afternoon on my way home I got stopped again. I was birding by car along Highway 77, where it cuts through the famous King Ranch. I doubled back a couple of times near the first rest stop south of Sarita (well known to birders for sometimes hosting Tropical Parulas) to check out raptors perched along the highway. One of the birds I stopped for turned out to be an adult White-tailed Hawk (cool!). But in circling around I repeatedly passed a white SUV parked at crossover points. Wherever I went, there was that white SUV, and I was beginning to feel like I was being followed…

Well then I was headed north again, and several miles up the road there was that white SUV, and then two Border Patrol vehicles pulled onto the highway, and their lights came on, and I was being stopped. The guy from the unmarked white SUV walked over and told me to keep my hands up where he could see them…Well I knew that they were making a mistake, so I wasn’t that worried. Apparently there's a lot of traffic in illegal aliens in the area where I had been birding, and my behavior led them to believe I was acting as a mule or something. The binoculars around my neck and all the birding stuff in my car cleared things up pretty quick, and soon I was on my way again. Feel kind of bad about wasting their time.

I got back home late Monday evening, and now I’m starting another string of graveyard shifts. Here is the bird list from my three-day trip to South Texas:

Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Pelican, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Harris's Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Crested Caracara, Plain Chachalaca, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Rock Pigeon, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Red-crowned Parrot, Green Parakeet, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Greater Roadrunner, Groove-billed Ani, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ringed Kingfisher, Belted Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Couch's Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Cave Swallow, Barn Swallow, Green Jay, Chihuahuan Raven, Black-crested Titmouse, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Bewick's Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (!), Northern Mockingbird, Long-billed Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Olive Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Altamira Oriole, House Sparrow.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Backyard News

Friday, while mowing the backyard, I saw a grasshopper fly ahead of me and drop onto the lawn. As I drove the mower closer to the spot where it landed, a Summer Tanager flew into the yard. A moment later I flushed the grasshopper, and the tanager followed in fast pursuit, catching it in mid-air. I've seen Cattle Egrets following mowers, but this is the first time I've seen a songbird get an assist from one.

Exterminating fire ants is like playing whack-a-mole. Elliminate one mound, and another pops up somewhere else. Spectracide works, but it's a short term fix. Got a few ant bites the other day while pulling weeds - I disturbed a colony and didn't notice until they were biting my hand.

Been doing some birding and oding (dragonflying) within the limited universe of my backyard. On July 30th I saw 3 Anhingas and a Great Blue Skimmer (the latter is a new one for my od list). Eastern Pondhawk is the most abundant of the dragonfly species that I see around our little pond. This summer the water's surface is green with waterlilies and algae; lately a Great Egret has been prowling the edge. Only other recent bird of note is Brown-headed Nuthatch, seen here on July 30 & 31.