Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Crazy Little Rodents

Damn squirrels.

Doo, Doo, Doo, Lookin' Out My Backdoor

Just walked outside in time to see a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk fly over. I was alerted by its strident shrieking. Blue Jays can do some very convincing imitations of this call (as do the Steller's Jays back in California), and when I take the time to look that's what I usually find - the jay, not the hawk. There are plenty of jays in our neighborhood, and after the Red-shoulder had gone they were again trying to fool me with their phony hawk calls.

I also saw a Mississippi Kite fly over. According to the TOS Handbook of Texas Birds we are far to the south of the kite's normal breeding range, although isolated populations exist along the Gulf Coast. Spring migration is over, and considering that I've had previous summer sightings here, I wonder if they might breed locally.

Other birds seen while walking around my yard included a Red-headed Woodpecker throttling a big bug, a female Summer Tanager, a Brown Thrasher, and a newly fledged Northern Cardinal. A Carolina Wren was lurking in the undergrowth along the driveway. This is one of my favorite backyard birds, small in size but loaded with personality. They have a wide repertoire of vocalizations (and I used to think Bewick's Wrens were versatile!). Inquisitive best describes their character. They like to investigate rubbish piles, open containers, old sheds, etc. Every now and then I'm surprised when one suddenly dashes out of some confined space it's managed to sneak into.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Recent Birds, Thoughts On The IBW

It's the middle of a hot summer day in Southeast Texas, with temps in the 90s and scarcely a breeze. Texans constantly complain about the heat & humidity, but I'm acclimatized and it feels cozy to me. Hell, I've birded the Salton Sea in August, with the mercury rising to 112 degrees and not even a tree for shade. This ain't nuthin'.

Middle of a hot summer day in Southeast Texas. In theory this is the worst possible time and place for birding, but not so. As I sit here writing I can hear a Broad-winged Hawk whistling outside. Earlier I observed dueling Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a female Summer Tanager flycatching in the backyard, and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers taking refuge from the heat in the big live oak next to the kitchen. When I approached the tree they didn't spook as I expected, but instead froze in position, pressed against the branches they were on. I was able to approach within 25 feet of them without either bird taking flight. It was surprising to me that such large (and normally shy) birds would allow me to get so close, but this strategy of concealment may not be so unusual. Had I not already known they were in that tree I could easily have walked right under them unaware. A Downy Woodpecker was also hopping around in the oak, and the size difference was striking. In comparison to the Pileated the Downy was absolutely puny.

Pileated Logic: If I Don't Move He Can't See Me 

I've been having a problem with carpenter bees burrowing into the facia of my garage (which is located too far from the house to be much use as a garage, so I just keep my mower and some junk there). Carpenter bees are big - about an inch long - and look like bumblebees. The holes they excavate are perfectly round and about a half-inch in diameter. They tunnel through the wood, and each of their tunnels (which may be several feet in length) leads to a nursery chamber in which they raise the next generation of carpenter bees. My garage has probably been infested for quite a while, because there are numerous holes in the facia on all four sides of the building.

Well, my neighbor Tim complained that the bees had been getting aggressive, and that I needed to do something about it. According to my research the big male bees don't have stingers, it's the smaller females that you have to worry about. On warm days the males stand guard, hovering close to their nest holes. They buzz around and try to intimidate interlopers, but the females stay inside their tunnels unless there is a real problem. One night, when the bees were all fast asleep in their beds, Michelle and I went around the garage spraying each of their holes with insecticide. I think we got most of them.

Since then something has been ripping gouges in the facia, tearing into the tunnels that run through the wood. I recently saw a Pileated Woodpecker perch on the edge of my garage, and I think I may have identified the culprit. My theory is that killing the bees that guarded the nest chambers made it possible for woodpeckers to go after the larva inside without fear of reprisal.

Another interesting tidbit. A few years ago you may remember there was an organized effort to find Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Bottoms of Southeastern Louisiana. IBWs are known to knock the bark off trees to get at the goodies underneath, and signs of bark stripping were found by the search team. I recall an assertion was made at the time that this was an identifying behavior of the IBW, and that Pileated Woodpeckers do not knock the bark off trees in similar fashion. Well, the evidence that I've found piled under the pecan tree in my backyard indicates otherwise. Pileated Woodpeckers do indeed strip bark, and sometimes do so in an annoyingly messy way.

Earlier today I drove up to Silsbee where Michelle works. While driving back I saw two Red-headed Woodpeckers at two different (yet strangely similar) locations. One was just south of Silsbee, and happened to be in the same general area in which Michelle and I had seen one while driving up to Boykin Springs on the 29th of May. The other was across the road from the Walgreens in Lumberton. Both were seen flying to or from poles in open grassy areas. Even driving at highway speeds it's easy to identify a Red-headed Woodpecker in flight; the wing pattern is a lot like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker's.

...Speaking of which, I recently downloaded an article titled "A COMPILATION OF PUBLISHED RECORDS OF THE IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER IN TEXAS: VOUCHER SPECIMENS VERSUS SIGHT RECORDS" by Clifford E. Shackleford. It lists all of the Texas records that have appeared in literature, the most recent from 1976. The last fully documented U.S. sightings (prior to the recent discovery in Arkansas) were from the Singer Tract in 1942. So what to make of the continued sightings reported from Southeast Texas between 1956 and 1976? All erroneous? Possibly. Aside from noting that an audio recording made in 1969 had been disputed by James Tanner (who had studied the Singer Tract birds) the article offers no critique of the validity of these latter day records. Sightings of IBWs are frequently reported, but are discredited due to inexperience and poor documentation in most cases. I assume that these Texas records have at least some credibility or they wouldn't be cited. One of the observers, JV Dennis, was an ornithologist - someone unlikely to make such a novice mistake.

Here's what I think. The post-1940s Texas records are mainly from the Neches River Bottoms and its tributaries (a 1933 sighting occurred at the confluence of the Neches and Village Creek - that's only a few miles from my home!). I think that most likely a few IBWs survived in the remnant riverbottom forests north of Beaumont, perhaps as late as the 1970s. Since then the absence of records probably indicates a sad end to whatever tiny population had existed. Of course there's always the miniscule chance that one or more may still haunt the heart of the Big Thicket. We know that the IBW is a shy reclusive bird that can easily elude observation for years, especially if nobody is actively looking for it.

That's my hope anyway. The miraculous discovery of a verified living IBW in Arkansas has made the impossible seem possible, or at least a little less improbable. There are still places in the river bottoms north of here where an IBW might feel at home -somewhere deep in the timber, behind impenetrable undergrowth, far from any road or trail. Maybe, just maybe, there is still an Ivory-bill or two clinging to a tenuous existence in those remnant forests. Or are there only feathered ghosts to be found there? Guess I'll be looking for ghosts on my next trip into the swamp. The Big Thicket awaits...

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hill Country Weekend

Michelle and I just got back from a wonderful weekend in the hill country. We are having a bit of a drought here in the swamp, and it looks like the yard didn't get any rain while we were away. I've been running a sprinkler, which creates little puddles in the driveway. The water attracts quite a few birds, including our resident male Summer Tanager.

We got an early start on the weekend, and arrived in San Antonio on Thursday afternoon. San Antonio has one of the most attractive downtown areas I've ever seen, and I always enjoy going back. We had dinner along the Riverwalk (which incidentally happens to be a good place for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons). Tall bald cypresses shade the paved riverbanks, and there is some impressive tropical vegetation growing beside the paths. As an amateur gardener I suffered pangs of envy when we came upon a flowering hamelia that was taller than we were. Guess we need to use more Miracle Gro...

After dinner we had drinks at Pat O'Brien's, saw the Alamo by moonlight (it might be more accurate to say by floodlight), and wandered through the historic Menger Hotel, looking for ghosts and gawking at all the classy stuff, of which there was an abundance.

Michelle at the Alamo 

On Friday we arrived at Neal's Lodge on the Frio River. This would be our base for the rest of the weekend, and I would heartily recommend Neal's to anyone, whether birder or non-birder. Our little cabin was sweeeeeeeeeeeeet. We're talking luxurious. It had a refrigerator, AC, cable TV… after getting settled we had lunch at the cafe overlooking the river, and since it was the middle of the day and too hot for comfortable birding, we decided to go tubing.

Swanky accomodations at Neal's Lodge 

From its name, I expected the Frio River to be icy cold. Actually the water was pleasantly cool, perfect for swimming. But tubing on the river turned out to be less relaxing than we anticipated. With the recent lack of rain the river was running low, and the current took us over rocks, resulting in some scrapes and bruises. Some stretches were too shallow, and we had to walk. From the embarcation point it's supposed to be a three-hour trip back to the lodge, but it took us quite a bit longer. I wouldn't characterize it as a grueling ordeal, and I'd do it again, but relaxing it clearly wasn't. Considering how crowded the river was the next day, our decision to go on Friday turned out to be a fortuitous one.

River of No Return; the perilous Frio 

Even without binoculars I was able to do some birding as we floated downstream. Yellow-throated Warblers were singing and seemed to be fairly common in the bald cypresses along the river. Twice I saw Green Kingfishers, and toward the end of the trip Michelle and I got close views of a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher. The water was clear, and in the deeper pools we could see catfish swimming below us. Damselflies were mating, and frequently alighted on us and our tubes.

After a steak dinner and some recovery time, we spent most of Friday evening at the pecan grove near Neal's Lodge. Within this shady grove the lodge maintains feeders, and a faucet provides a constant drip to attract birds, but we had better luck walking along the entrance road. Michelle finally got her elusive Painted Bunting there (afterward we saw many more in other places, which is the way it usually works). We also saw more Vermilion Flycatchers, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Black-tailed Jackrabbit, and some very nervous White-tailed Deer. At sundown we waited in the pecan grove for the Chuck-will's-widows to wake up. Lightning bugs were flashing all around us, and as the dusk deepened a couple of Chuck-will's-widows finally started chirping their names - unfortunately they never came close enough to be viewed. An armadillo ambled out of the grass and came within a yard of where we were standing, then bolted back into the brush. I tried playing taped calls, hoping to lure in an Eastern Screech-Owl, but got no response. Later we had better luck back at the lodge, where I managed to spotlight one not far from our cabin.

Bird geek standing in a juniper thicket 

Most of Saturday was spent birding around Neal’s Lodge, but the real highlight was an evening trip to the Frio Bat Cave south of Concan. It’s estimated that about 17 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats inhabit the cave, and at sundown they all leave en masse. We got there well before dark, and had plenty of time to watch the Cave Swallows flying around while we waited for the bat exodus. All at once the bats began to emerge, and it was awesome standing near the mouth of the cavern as the bats swarmed around us. Red-tailed Hawks were waiting nearby, and we watched them repeatedly dive into the mass of bats trying to nab a furry snack. A couple of students were there doing research, catching a few of the bats with big butterfly nets and doing infrared analysis of the ones they caught. Apparently some of these bats travel as much as 40 miles from the cave, and the researchers were interested in how they use and conserve energy during their nightly commutes. We returned to the lodge at dusk, and ended the day with a moonlight swim in the river. The water felt great, and it was nice having the Frio all to ourselves!

Sunday we took a final early-morning walk behind the store at Neal’s Lodge, where we observed Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks on their way to somewhere else, a Greater Roadrunner cooing from a treetop, a couple of singing Bell’s Vireos, a gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak, and a Striped Skunk.

We packed up our stuff, said goodbye to Neal’s Lodge, and drove to Lost Maples State Natural Area, where we hiked the East Trail as far as the ponds. The terrain and vegetation of the Texas hill country often bears a striking resemblance to parts of California (with some obvious differences, like the juniper thickets and bald cypresses along the rivers). The path to the ponds follows a little creek through a rocky wooded canyon that reminded me of Alum Rock Park near San Jose. The two parks also share numerous bird species, and along the trail we saw Black Phoebe, Canyon & Bewick’s Wrens, Lesser Goldfinch, etc. Even the species that differ are somewhat analogous (Acadian Flycatcher instead of Pacific-slope Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo replacing Hutton’s Vireo). One of the butterflies we saw along the creek appeared to be a California Sister (!), a species that in my mind is always associated with the Santa Cruz Mountains back home. The whole time I was still searching for a couple of elusive hill country specialties – Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Neither was seen on this trip, nor could I turn any of the innumerable Turkey Vultures we saw into a Zone-tailed Hawk. Guess that just gives us a good excuse to go back…

About Michelle, I couldn't have asked for a better companion on a trip like this. She withstood relentless birding, my equally relentless bad jokes, sharp river rocks, and took it all in good cheer. In fact she actually enjoyed the non-stop birding, and seemed genuinely thrilled when we finally got a good look at a roadrunner. This trip again confirmed for me that this is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. Thanks, Michelle.

Bird list from our trip (16-19 June): Great Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk (heard only), Red-tailed Hawk, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (heard only), Greater Roadrunner, Eastern Screech-Owl, Chuck-will’s-widow (heard only), Black-chinned Hummingbird, Green Kingfisher, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Eastern Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Cave Swallow, Barn Swallow, Common Raven, Carolina Chickadee, Black-crested Titmouse, Canyon Wren, Carolina Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (found a nest containing two baby cowbirds!), Long-billed Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo, Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Summer Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow (heard only), Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, House Sparrow.

Michelle photographed this jackrabbit or possible chupacabra 

Mammals: Rock Squirrel, Fox Squirrel, Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Desert Cottontail, White-tailed Deer, an exotic antelope-type beast that defied identification, Nine-banded Armadillo (2), Striped Skunk, and a few Mexican Free-tailed Bats.