Monday, September 19, 2005


My yard continues to produce surprises. Yesterday I found this monstrosity creeping along the front walkway. The object in the foreground is a quarter; by comparison I would estimate this giant's length at well over 4 inches.

So there I was, confronted with a guacamole-green caterpillar the size of a goddamn hotdog and covered with nasty-looking black spines. Scary stuff. Very rarely do I encounter a creature that completely baffles me, but in this case my immediate reaction was "what the f**k is that thing?!" I did a little research and discovered that my mystery beast is known as a Hickory Horned Devil. It's the larval form of the Regal Moth (or should I say it's adult stage it's awfully big too). I also found out that despite it's fierce appearance and ominous name it's not the least bit dangerous. Shortly after I discovered this one Michelle spotted another under one of our azaleas. These are the first ones I've seen here in three years, and they were found within minutes of each other. Hopefully this isn't the onset of an invasion.

Hummingbird migration must be peaking. Each of our three feeders has been staked out by a different adult male Ruby-throat. The males stay close to their respective feeders and maintain a constant vigil, immediately attacking any other bird that tries to feed there. Lately I've been seeing aerial dogfights involving as many as four or five birds. Passerine migrants have been few, but on Sunday I got a brief look at a bright male Baltimore Oriole in my backyard.

Man, did I get sunburned today! From 10am to 4pm I was at the Smith Point Hawk Watch. In case you didn't know, the Texas coastal bend is a major conduit for southbound raptors during fall migration. Smith Point on Galveston Bay is perfectly situated for observing their passage, because the coastline tends to funnel birds toward the point, which forms a natural cul-de-sac. There's a lookout tower there from which volunteer hawk watchers count the passing birds. The tower is manned every day during the prime fall season.

Broad-winged Hawk taking a spin over Smith Point

So while I was getting sunburned I enjoyed the company of several other hawk watchers. Most of the raptors we saw were Broad-winged & Cooper's Hawks. Occasionally large kettles would form high in the stratosphere - so high up that the birds were often mere specks. In one such kettle we counted over 300 Broad-winged Hawks! Anhingas and Mississipi Kites often joined these swirling columns of birds. Cooper's Hawks were more often seen singly or in pairs, but one or more were almost always in sight. Not only were there large numbers of raptors, but a nice variety of species kept it interesting. The highlight was a first-year Bald Eagle that at one point flew directly over the lookout tower.

Here's my blurry photo of a young Bald Eagle flying away

Other raptors seen from the tower included Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed Hawks. A Magnificent Frigatebird was observed soaring high above the bay.

Hawk watchers tend to focus exclusively on raptors, paying little attention to other birds, so I find it interesting that while we were scanning the sky for birds of prey there were literally THOUSANDS of swallows hurrying by practically unnoticed, and hummingbird feeders below the tower were attracting mobs of Ruby-throats - I saw as many as ten at a time sipping from a single feeder! Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Orchard Oriole were among the passerine migrants in the nearby thickets.

How many do you see? I counted 29 hummingbirds in this picture!

With its panoramic view of bay, fields, and woodlands, the lookout tower at Smith Point would make a great platform from which to do a "big sit." The 13th Annual Big Sit is set for October 9th, and if I can get the day off I'd like to spend it there. The hawk watch volunteers thought this was a good idea. unfortunately, just as I was leaving they received some bad news - apparently the area is being evacuated - another big storm has moved into the gulf, and it appears to be coming this way.


At 10:49 AM, Blogger Sylvia said...

Hi there. I found your blog by clicking "next blog," and no, I'm not trying to sell you something! I'm a biologist, though strictly an amateur birder. That guacamole caterpillar is something else! I think I might move if I found that in my back yard. And I thought we had lots of hummingbirds. Not. Anyway, I hope you get our next shipment of Turkey Vultures--they should be ready in a few weeks. ;-)


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