Sunday, November 26, 2006

High Island, Hummingbirds, Impending Parenthood, and a Green Treefrog, Too

Lured by tales of Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and late season warblers I made a dash down to High Island this afternoon. Didn't leave home until about 3pm, so by the time I arrived at the Boy Scout Woods I only had about an hour of good light in which to do some birding.

Most birders visit High Island in spring, when the trees are leafy and (sometimes) full of colorful neotropical migrants. On April weekends it can be hard to find parking, and crowd control becomes an issue. In fall it's a very different situation. Most of the leaves and all of the birders are gone. Even on a weekend you could have the woods entirely to yourself, as I did this afternoon.Boy Scout Woods at High Island...where are all the birders?

The first hummingbird I saw was a Selasphorus type that had staked out a patch of shrimp plant in the northwest corner of the sanctuary (see photo below). As with most of its ilk, it presented a difficult identification problem. Insolveable, really. Utterly hopeless. It's either Rufous or Allen's, but that's the best I can do. Odds are it's a Rufous.Shortly afterward I found the two Buff-bellied Hummingbirds lurking in the thicket just past the review stands. They were chipping constantly, which made locating them easy. Unfortunately they were nervous and camera-shy, and I failed to get a photo. At one point I had both chipping simultaneously to either side of me.

A little further on I had a nice look at an Ovenbird (migratory laggard!) that was in an aggitated snit over all my pishing and crunching around. Other birds...let's see...there was a Brown Creeper, loads of Hermit Thrushes chupping here and there, a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, etc.

While I was finding the birds the mosquitoes were finding me. From the itching I'd say they really liked my hands.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Michelle is on bed rest by doctor's orders. Turns out we aren't having a baby, but babies. Yes, I said babies, as in twins! And I was just getting used to the idea of having one child. The danger of miscarriage is highest during the first trimester, and her doctor wants her to play it safe. So Michelle is off work, and I've taken on the role of faithful manservant - fetch this, tote that, etc. Michelle likes to stay busy, and is not enjoying this period of enforced inactivity. Hopefully she'll be able to go back to work soon.

Chilly as the weather has been it still isn't too cold for little crawlies. Found this Green Treefrog clinging to our front door when I got home. Like geckos they climb walls, doors, and windows where light attracts insects. To get this picture I moved it to a more photogenic perch on a nearby cast iron plant.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Usual

I think I'll start boldfacing bird names, that way non-birders can skip over the tedious bird chatter and birders can skip the whole thing when they see that once again no real rarities are mentioned.

This morning I looked out the kitchen window to see a pair of House Finches at the hummingbird feeder. House Finches used to be southwestern birds, but underwent a major range expansion in the past century and are now found across much of North America. They are still most abundant in the southwest, and here in Southeast Texas are definitely uncommon - in fact the occasional sightings in my yard are the only ones I've had in this corner of the state. Maybe I just don't get out enough.

Afterward I took a little walk around the yard, which turned out to be a target rich environment. Checking the live oak by the kitchen I found a female Archilochus hummingbird (probably Ruby-throated), an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a pair of Blue-headed Vireos. A Pine Warbler was visiting the seed feeders. Most of the regulars were present - Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, etc. Watched a big kettle of Black Vultures form over the pond. There were about 20, possibly the largest grouping I've ever seen here.

We've had a few weak cold fronts lately, and I'm hoping the change in climate will deliver something new. A Brown Creeper or Red-breasted Nuthatch would be nice.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New Herp!

Today as I was leaving for work I found this baby Speckled Kingsnake on our front porch. A very pretty little serpent. Note the coin in the lower left for size comparison.

Michelle asked me if it was venomous. No, it's not. Then she asked me why I didn't catch it, since it wasn't dangerous. Because I'm not the friggin' Crocodile Hunter, that's why! I've never understood the compulsion to grab and manhandle innocent reptiles. I prefer to enjoy them at a respectful distance. Also because it might bite. Just because it's non-venomous doesn't mean I'm eager to have its tiny needle-like teeth imbedded in my skin.

Speaking of snakebites, I recently saw a TV program that featured a dramatization of a near-deadly snakebite that occurred in California. Seems these two jackasses were driving in the mountains when they noticed a rattlesnake stretched out on the road. They stopped for a closer look, and not content with viewing from a safe distance, one of them reached out and grabbed it. Of course he was promptly bitten. Savagely bitten, in fact. There is a point where stupid and suicidal become indistinguishable, and this clown found it. It took mega-doses of anti-venom, but death was narrowly averted. Had he not survived he would have made a sterling candidate for the Darwin Awards.

I've been living in my beloved hovel in the swamp for almost four years now (amazing...has it really been that long?) and yet I'm still finding new critters here. Biodiversity is a wonderful thing. The addition of Speckled Kingsnake brings to 18 the number of reptile/amphibian species I've found on the property.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Weekend Off, Upper Texas Coast Birding

Enjoyed a rare weekend off. A cold front rolled in early Saturday morning, perfectly timed to coincide with our yard sale, which started at 7am. Brrrrr! Heard a Killdeer fly over at dawn. Killdeer are parking lot birds, but even the most commonplace species is rare somewhere...and that somewhere is my backyard. I’ve only had Killdeer here once prior, and that was also an unseen fly over.

While Michelle was busy disposing of our unwanted possessions I snuck off with binoculars to see what I could find. Most of the action was around the pond, where I saw a White-throated Sparrow (my first of the season) and a Golden-crowned Kinglet (as with the Killdeer, not so unusual, except that it's only the second one I've spotted here). Michelle soon realized that I'd escaped and called me back from my brief birding reverie.

Troy and Elizabeth arrived as the yard sale fizzled out. The bathroom tile was grouted on Friday, so Troy was able to install the last of the shower fixtures and make some final touches to the new bathroom - which is now basically finished. Hurrah! We got a lot of work done on Saturday, and still had time for dinner and a movie.

Lately Michelle and I have spent almost all our time together remodeling and doing household chores. On Sunday we celebrated an end to bathroom remodeling by going on a little birding trip, something we haven't done in months. Brought Pipa with us. There was some trepidation concerning the mosquito threat, but the cold weather more or less took care of that problem.

En route to Winnie we stopped to check rice fields along I-10. There were big flocks of grackles and ibises (White and White-faced for sure, and we probably could have found a Glossy had we tried). Saw our first Snow Geese of the season flying south in long honking V's.Made a brief stop at High Island mainly to use the restrooms at the sanctuary. While waiting for Michelle I noticed some activity in the woods. Neotropical migration is ending, but there were plenty of winter birds, including Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Winter Wren, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and White-throated Sparrow. A female hummingbird that buzzed the flowers by the restrooms defied easy identification, as usual.

After that we drove to Bolivar Flats. I wandered off to photograph shorebirds while Michelle walked the dog and collected seashells. Got some decent pictures and Michelle had a good time with Pipa, who was uncharacteristically well behaved. I was surprised to see him dash into the surf at one point, since he usually has a cat-like aversion to water – perhaps due to all those cold baths he’s been subjected to. He actually followed commands and resisted the evil urge to chase shorebirds. No dogs are allowed in the sanctuary, and we didn’t take him into the posted area where most of the birds gather. Next time we’ll probably leave him behind so we can do more birding.Couldn't resist - Piping Plovers are just too cute.

On our way back we stopped in Winnie for “Trade Days,” a monthly flea market. Michelle can only handle so much birding, and I owed her some shopping. By the time we were done we were completely exhausted. Pipa slept most of the way home.This is my lovely pregnant wife and our hairy bastard child (just before he plunged into the filthy brown water behind).

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Don't Read This If You Love Cats

From the Houston Chronicle - Nov. 9, 2006:


GALVESTON — A well-known birder and founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society has been charged with animal cruelty, accused of shooting a stray cat with a .22-caliber rifle.
A toll bridge attendant told police that Jim Stevenson was in a white van from which two shots were fired. John Newland said he was on duty at the San Luis Pass Bridge on west Galveston Island Wednesday morning when he heard shots.
Newland said he pursued Stevenson on FM 3005. He said Stevenson stopped, then backed into Newland's truck and fled.
Newland said the cat that died Wednesday had been shot in the foot earlier in the week. He said 10 cats have been killed in the past year, four in the past week.
Newland said he and the bridge workers think of the cats as pets. "They all have names," he said.
Stevenson, 53, is charged with one count of animal cruelty. He was in the Galveston County Jail late Wednesday.

Animal cruelty? No, what's really cruel here is that a bunch of a**holes are feeding cats and allowing a feral population to thrive in a an area that provides habitat for endangered shorebirds. If they really think of the cats as pets they would take the bloodthirsty little vermin home with them, have them properly spayed and neutered, give them a nice home to crap in, and take responsibility for the havoc they inflict on other creatures.

Jim Stevenson has since told his side of the story, which can be found at Birding is NOT a crime!!!!

For firing the fatal shot and paying the price, Jim Stevenson is my new hero - in fact I proclaim him a Hero of the Birding Revolution 1st Class, as Martin Collinson would say (not to imply that Mr. Collinson condones murdering cats). Now if someone would be similarly attentive to the packs of dogs that are allowed to roam our neighborhood...

By the way, since I brought up Martin, check out his blog - George Bristow's Secret Freezer. Very well written and funny, with not a trace of cat killing in it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tuesday Birds As Usual, Mosquito Rampage

Neotropical migration seems to be more or less over at this point. Had one of those large mixed species assemblages here this afternoon. For a while little birds were flitting this way and that, but all the ones I saw were winterers and residents. The majority were Yellow-rumps. A few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also appeared to be associating with this "flock." It's been a good fall for sapsuckers, with more of them around the yard than in past years. There are also ungodly numbers of squirrels everywhere, so we could use some raptor assistance. Pipa chases them but lacks skills.

I had a female-type hummingbird buzz by, and got a decent look, not that it helped much. Wasn't a Selasphorus. Could have been a Ruby-throated or Black-chinned or even a Costa's, I dunno. I'm hoping we get more wintering hummers this year. Might try adding more feeders and flowering shrubs. If we get enough birds I might actually be able to identify one or two of them.

The flooding has subsided, but all that standing water has caused a mosquito population explosion across Southeast Texas. When I first moved here I was a bit apprehensive about the mosquitos, because I knew how bad they can be at some of the prime birding sites nearby (like High Island). Fortunately we don't usually have a mosquito problem here - which seems odd, considering that we live on the edge of a swamp. Last time they became a major nuisance was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Rita. Since the recent deluge we've again had to deal with bitey swarms. If they are this numerous here they must be absolutely nightmarish in wet coastal areas. Places like Sabine Woods and High Island are probably best avoided at this time. Lately I've noticed fewer reports from birders visiting the Upper Texas Coast, probably in part due to the mosquito factor.

In other news...I've been transferred to a store in Beaumont and now my job truly sucks (not that it was ever so dreamy to begin with). I'm seriously intent on finding employment elsewhere, but the local job market is a bit limited and it might take a while. Work on the bathroom is almost completed. Tiling the shower and vanity should be finished soon, assuming no further delays. Next big project is remodeling the kitchen/dining room, but we're not quite ready to start on that one yet.