Sunday, March 26, 2006

Louisiana Waterthrush...Pond Problems...And Why Go To High Island When All The Birds Are In My Backyard?

Got another new species for the yard list today. While walking down by the pond I heard a loud "chak chak" call and saw a medium-sized passerine fly across the water into a live oak. I immediately recognized the bird as a waterthrush, and on closer scrutiny identified it as a Louisiana Waterthrush.

It flew down to the edge of the pond by our back gate, and I followed it with binoculars as it crept along the water's edge bobbing its butt. The pond behind our house is the sort of place where you would expect to find waterthrushes during migration. Northern Waterthrush is also a common spring migrant, but tends to arrive later in the season. Both species are long overdue, and the only surprising thing about this first sighting is that it didn't happen sooner.

The pond is receding and gradually filling with sediment, a natural process that Hurricane Rita has probably hastened. When I first moved here the water level was higher, and aquatic vegetation was minimal. Now the pond is choked with plants and algae, with new vegetation emerging from the mud and shallows along its margins.

Part of the problem is the row of tall pines on the west side of the pond. Water follows their roots, creating leaks in the levee. These leaks are draining the pond faster than it can be replenished by our infrequent rainstorms. A couple of my neighbors and I recently paid to have a backhoe go in and repair the levee, but it was only a temporary fix. A new leak soon appeared.

Unfortunately, most of the people who live around the pond will not contribute toward its maintenance, so unless a few of us take action it will eventually become an overgrown marshy basin full of reeds & weeds. As a birder I really wouldn't mind if that happened - it would probably attract some new and interesting birds. But I don't think my neighbors would appreciate the habitat change as much as I would.

Today I visited High Island for the first time since Hurricane Rita. The storm really tore up the woods, and many of the larger trees were lost. From what I've been told the wind damage at Sabine Woods was even more severe. Weather was pleasant today, with clear skies and a strong breeze from the south. Not the sort of conditions that are apt to produce a fallout, and it's still early in the season, so I had low expectations. Sure enough, neotropical migrants were scarce. I had a flock of 5 Eastern Kingbirds, a few swallows, a single Prothonotary Warbler, and a heard-only Northern Parula. That's all.

But I really went to see the large rookery of wading birds at Smith Oaks. Breeding activity has already begun, and I stopped at one of the viewing platforms to shoot some pictures of nesting Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills. I saw many birds fly in with nesting material, but there didn't appear to be any nestlings present yet. Here's one of the Roseate Spoonbills. Saw plenty of alligators in the ponds at Smith Oaks too.
On days like today, when the weather is not indicative of a potential fallout, I might as well just stay at home. Chances are my luck would be as good, if not better, birding in my own backyard.

Today was a case in point. Except for the rookery area, the woods at High Island were rather quiet, and bird activity was sparse. But birdlife was plentiful at our home in Artesian Acres. I observed more warblers (mostly Yellow-rumped, but I also had a singing Northern Parula and the previously mentioned Louisiana Waterthrush) around my suburban yard than I did walking woodland trails at High Island. A Selasphorus hummingbird (unidentifiable to species) and a pair of House Finches (unusual) visited our feeders, and a Little Blue Heron flew over. There's always something to see here.

Yard Sale, Early Birds

Ms. Burrow, one of the managers where I work, will soon be moving to the Austin area. On Friday evening Michelle and I attended a goodbye party for her at a local Mexican restaurant, and afterward we all went to Dixie Dancehall. Once again I attempted to dance. Ms. Burrow tried to show me how to two-step, with limited success. At least nobody got hurt. I guess the older I get the less I worry about embarrassing myself in public - particularly after two margaritas, a shot of tequila, and a couple of beers.

We were out late but had to be up early the next morning because Michelle and I were having a yard sale. People around here take yard sales very seriously, and they came in droves. We even had a minor traffic accident on the street in front when one driver backed into another. Our signs said "Saturday Only," but eager shoppers were already arriving on Friday afternoon. Speaking of early arrivals, during the yard sale on Saturday I again heard a Northern Parula singing, and saw my first Yellow-throated Vireo of the season.

We were lucky to have chosen a perfect day to be outside, dry and pleasantly cool with clear skies. By noon most of the good stuff had been sold, and we were able to call it quits. Afterward we did a little shopping ourselves - I got a new drip line for the birdbath, which hopefully will attract more birds to the yard. Breeding activity has already begun. Eastern Bluebirds appear to be using one of the 3 nest boxes I've put up, and starlings and House Sparrows (a.k.a. K-Martins & Burger Kinglets) have been showing interest in our martin house. Unfortunately their presence may discourage any actual martins from nesting there.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

First Of Spring

Yesterday as I was leaving the house I heard a Northern Parula's buzzy song for the first time this spring. This morning I again heard a Northern Parula singing, and then in the afternoon Michelle and I saw one perched high in the leafless pecan tree in our backyard. There were also numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees, some molting into summer atire, others not so much.

A Selasphorus hummingbird (probably the same individual that has been present all winter) continues to guard the feeder by our kitchen window. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have returned, so now it has some real competition. Other birds seen today included a singing Brown Thrasher, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (checking out a nest box in our backyard), and a pair of House Finches (at a neighbor's feeder).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Winter Lingerers; Early Spring Arrivals

Michelle and I attended a Golden Triangle Audubon Society meeting this past Thursday evening. The guest speaker was ornithologist and artist John P. O'Neill, who was there to give a talk on the birds of Peru. He has been involved in field work throughout Peru for many years, and has the distinction of having found more new bird species (11) than any other person alive today.

He was also the primary illustrator of A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago, which we used on our recent trip. While autographing my copy he mentioned that a new edition was due out soon. Hopefully it will correct the deficiences in the older edition. It would be greatly improved by the addition of plates illustrating raptors in flight (the way they are most often seen). Even a few simple drawings would have been helpful.

Another of his projects that is nearing completion is a field guide to the birds of Peru. This is a herculean task involving over 1,800 species (Peru has one of the world's largest avifaunas), many of which will be represented by multiple illustrations (with all identifiable subspecies included!). Hope it has good binding, because that is gonna be one heavy book!

Michelle also enjoyed the presentation, and by the time it was over we were both ready to go to Peru. Well, maybe that trip will have to wait. We have a few other things to attend to first.

The weather here has been very cool lately, but has warmed sufficiently for new foliage to appear. Fresh leaves are budding on the trees, and the azaleas, Carolina jessamine, and honeysuckle are blooming again. It's that time of year when winter birds are still present and spring migrants are just beginning to arrive. A Selasphorus hummingbird (identification questionable, but probably Rufous) continues to guard the feeder by our kitchen window. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird has also been seen off and on since the 14th, and today I noticed my first Purple Martin of the season flying over our backyard.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Trinidad & Tobago Trip Report

More than a month has passed since Michelle and I got married and went on our honeymoon trip to Trinidad & Tobago. Since then I've been meaning to post a report with details of the places we went, birds we saw, etc. But time has been in short supply (the usual lament), and until now updating this blog has taken a backseat to more pressing concerns.

It was a great trip, and I would recommend Trinidad & Tobago to anyone. We spent the first few days at the famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, located in the mountains of Trinidad's Northern Range. At Asa Wright we learned why they call it "rainforest." It rained. It drizzled. It rained some more. While we waited for the weather to improve we watched birds from the veranda, which overlooks a row of very busy feeding stations. Not a bad place for a birder to be stuck on a rainy day. I practiced using my new digital camera (a Canon Powershot S2) on the multitudes of hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and tanagers that are attracted to the centre's feeders and flowers. The above photo of a White-necked Jacobin was shot from the veranda while we sought shelter from the rain. Below is a view from the veranda.January is normally within the dry season, but this past January was unusually wet, with relentless monsoons that caused flooding at lower elevations. Fortunately there were occasional breaks between the heavy downpours.

An absolute must for any birder who visits Asa Wright is the hike to Dunstan Cave to see the Oilbirds. Fortunately for us the rain abated on the morning that we went, meaning we only got slightly soaked. Our guide told us to be alert for snakes, and sure enough I spotted a baby fer-de-lance on the trail. Snakes are cool, and I like finding the venemous ones. Here's a picture of our fearsome serpent.
One of the things I love about travelling is those little encounters with the unexpected. Diurnal bats, for example. Prior to this trip I assumed that all bats were either nocturnal or crepuscular, so I was surprised to learn that some tropical species are active by day. It was mid-morning when we hiked to Dunstan Cave, but there were still bats flying around in the deep shade of the forest interior.

I wasn't able to get a decent photo of an Oilbird - to lessen disturbance of the birds no flash photography is allowed inside the grotto where they roost. A stream flows through the cave, and we had to wade through the torrent to see them. Good thing Michelle and I wore rubber boots! By flashlight we could see the Oilbirds resting on ledges in the darkness. Some birds are just plain weird. Oilbirds are weird. They are nocturnal frugivorous troglodytes, and look like a cross between an owl and a nightjar (although they are closely related to neither). Not only do they look strange, but they make the most hideous racket when disturbed. Sounds like someone screeching and gagging at the same time.

On our way back to the nature centre our guide showed us another odd nocturnal species, the Common Potoo. It was sitting at the end of a branch pretending to be part of the tree.A trip to Trinidad wouldn't be complete without visiting Caroni Swamp to see the evening flight of Scarlet Ibises. Michelle and I were really looking forward to it (and eager to get away from the constant rain that was keeping us indoors most of the time). So we were not happy when the tour group left without us. Another couple of birders also got left behind, and together we complained to the person at the front desk, who was able to arrange alternate transportation for us. Eventually we caught up with the rest of the group. Once we got into the swamp it started to rain again, and we took another drenching. But despite the snafu and deluge we did get to see the ibises and have our complimentary rum punch.The next day we went on a tour of Nariva Swamp, which is on the east side of the island. Finally a day without rain! Along the way we made stops to look at roadside raptors and a Yellow-rumped Cacique colony, visited the Aripo Agricultural Experiment Station to see grassland birds, and had a delicious picnic lunch at Manzanilla Beach. Our guide Rudal knew where to go and was very good at spotting birds for us. Before returning to Asa Wright we made a final stop at Wallerfield to see the Red-bellied Macaws return to their nightly roosts in the palms. Again there was the complimentary rum punch. We got back at about 8pm and were pleasantly surprised to find a late dinner still waiting for us. By the way, the food at Asa Wright is excellent.

Male Green Honeycreeper at Asa Wright Nature Centre. On the last morning of our stay at Asa Wright I had a magical birding experience. Michelle opted to sleep in, but I wanted to do some last-minute birding before our 9am departure for Tobago. I was up and ready to go at dawn. It wasn't raining for a change. Almost immediately I found a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling from a cecropia near our room. While I was watching it a second owl flew in and they briefly copulated, then flew off together. I went up to the veranda to check out the action at the feeders, and was lucky enough to see Cinnamon Woodpecker and a male Barred Antshrike, birds that we had missed on previous days. Then I hurried down the trail in a last-ditch effort to find the elusive Bearded Bellbird.

Bearded Bellbird is the kind of bizarre species that birders travel to very wet remote jungles to see. The "beard" is a mass of wattles that dangle from the male's throat, looking sort of like a clump of stringy black Spaghetti. The male's call is a loud BONK, which sounds more like a hammer striking an anvil than a bell. I'd been hearing them since our arrival, but had been frustrated in my attempts to see one. On our final morning at Asa Wright there were several males calling back and forth to each other in the dense forest below the nature centre, and I cautiously approached them hoping to catch a glimpse of one. Less than 30 minutes into my search I was looking at a male Bearded Bellbird. Now I can die happy.

From Trinidad we flew to its sister island of Tobago. There we stayed at the Blue Waters Inn, which is on its own small bay at the east end of the island. Our room was right on the beach, and Michelle counted fifty paces from our door to the surf. The atmosphere was more relaxed, and we really enjoyed our time there. Tobago has fewer species than Trinidad, but the birding was excellent. Rufous-vented Chachalacas strolled the grounds, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron had the beach staked out, and there were even birds inside the restaurant/bar – Ruddy Turnstones wandered around the tables looking for tidbits, and a Bananaquit kept trying to open the liquor bottles! There was also some good forest birding in the vicinity. This Rufous-tailed Jacamar sat for photographs along a nearby trail. But the real avian highlight was our trip across the bay to Little Tobago Island, where we were able to get within mere feet of nesting seabirds! Here's Michelle looking into a burrow at the butt end of an Audubon's Shearwater and its egg.I’ve gone on many pelagic trips off both coasts hoping to see a tropicbird, but have never been so fortunate (Michelle has; last year she saw one while vacationing in the Virgin Islands). On Little Tobago Island my luck with tropicbirds finally changed. Not only did we see many Red-billed Tropicbirds (some of them sitting almost at our feet), we also enjoyed excellent views of an adult White-tailed Tropicbird that repeatedly circled one of the island’s little coves. This has to be the most graceful and elegantly plumaged of all seabirds.

Below is a pair of Red-billed Tropicbirds at their nest on Little Tobago Island; note the downy chick nestled between them. The reefs near Blue Waters Inn offer excellent snorkeling, so we did a little fish watching too. On one of our snorkeling trips we had a close encounter with a Hawksbill Turtle (very cool!). We also had less pleasant encounters with what are commonly known as "sea lice", or as our boat pilot called them, "sea ants." Of course they are neither lice nor ants, but tiny larval jellyfish that cause sudden burning pain when they come in contact with skin. We couldn't see them but definitely felt them. Fortunately the burning sensation goes away quickly and leaves no marks, but their stings did detract a little from the otherwise wondrous underwater experience.

Feeders at Blue Waters Inn attracted hordes of Bananaquits by day and swarms of nectar-feeding bats by night. Using my digital camera and flash I managed to get some photographs of the bats as they flew in to slurp at the feeders. Here is one of my better bat shots.

My final tally for the trip was 137 species, not bad considering that this was really our honeymoon, and birding was supposed to be secondary (Michelle has been very understanding of my bird obsession - at least now she knows what she's gotten herself into).