Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas, Y'all!

Merry Christmas!

I had to work last night, and it was hellish. But I'm off today, so Michelle and I are celebrating our first Christmas together. That is if I ever get off the computer.

We have a Selasphorus-type hummingbird (Rufous or Allen's) wintering at our feeders. I've been trying to identify it to species, but it's a real challenge. Except for adult males, the only way to differentiate Rufous from Allen's is by the relative width and shape of certain tail feathers. With birds in the hand this might be easy, but it's next to impossible with a bird on the wing. Our hummer spends long periods perched in a bush near our feeders, and occasionally fans its tail, giving me split-second glimpses of the individual tail feathers. Based on probability (Allen's is much rarer in Texas) and a few of these quickie views I would say it's most likely Rufous.

On December 20th I visited Cattail Marsh, which is located adjacent to Tyrell Park in Beaumont. Cattail Marsh is a large area of manufactured wetlands, featuring a series of ponds separated by levees. Water levels vary. Some of the basins are appropriate for diving ducks, while others are choked with marsh vegetation. This is one of those places where you have to leave the car behind and do some serious walking - the layout reminds me of Palo Alto Baylands/Mountain View Shoreline Park. Best sightings on my trip were a Least Grebe in the northernmost pond (unusual, but a few have been observed here recently) and a male Vermilion Flycatcher. It's definitely a place I'd like to explore further.

Michelle and I took part in the Bolivar Peninsula Christmas Bird Count on Thursday, December 22nd. This was Michelle's first CBC experience, and apparently it wasn't that awful since she said she would bring warmer socks next time. I took that "next time" as a positive comment.

Our count area included parts of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. We had to do some bushwhacking and wet slogging in the morning, but we had rubber waders and at least it wasn't painfully cold like it was last year. Carrying a scope through the thickets along the bayou was a bit awkward, and I think I'll leave it behind next time - it's hard to be fast with the binoculars when you are encumbered with a heavy tripod. We had one minor mishap - Royce Pendergast, our leader, fell in a muddy wallow trying to cross the bayou, and got the back of her jacket coated in muck.

Our best bird was a Couch's/Tropical Kingbird found along one of the roads north of FM 1985. We were able to study it for quite a while at close range, but our attempts to identify it were frustrating. It refused to vocalize, and voice is the only sure way to separate the two species in the field.

At noon we met up with David Sarkozi and his group, and Michelle and I joined them for a rail buggy ride through the marshes at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

The rail buggy is a wagon pulled by an old tractor with big balloon tires, and it goes lurching and sloshing through the marsh grass, crushing vegetation and scaring up any rails that have the misfortune to be caught in its path. We did flush one Yellow Rail and a few Virginia Rails, also a Barn Owl and Sedge Wrens galore. High water on the refuge kept rail numbers low. To get from one expanse of marsh to another we sometimes had to cross canals, which is exciting (or nerve-wracking) when you can't tell how deep the water is. The tractor broke down on our way back, but fortuitously this happened on the road, within easy walking distance of our cars.

Odd coincidence - once again I had the count's only Cattle Egrets, a flock of 5, just like last year. Our last bird of the day was a male Vermilion Flycatcher seen along a bayou as the sun disappeared behind the trees.

Well we are having a VERY early Christmas dinner (more like brunch), and Michelle is calling me to come eat...


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