Monday, January 29, 2007

A Correction

In a previous post (dated 1-26-07) I mentioned that I had measured the bill of our deceased hummingbird, and wrote that "at 15mm its culmen was outside the range of Black-chinned." I was incorrect. In email I received the following comment from Allen Chartier:

"The bill length is one of the less reliable characteristics for separating Black-chinned from Ruby-throated, as there is quite a bit of overlap. Your measurement of 15mm would suggest a male of either species."

So bill length is not diagnostic in this instance. I still conclude that it's a Ruby-throated based upon a combination of features (primary shape, coloration, behavior).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Hummingbird Saga Continues

Yesterday we were saddened to find our wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbird dead on our front porch. Today it was replaced at the feeder that it used to frequent by another Archilochus hummingbird, thus confirming the "two bird theory." That another bird immediately lay claim to the vacated feeder has me wondering if foul play wasn't involved in the death of our little friend. This second bird had motive (limited food supply) and a ready weapon (long jabby bill). Leaving the corpse on the porch by a window would provide the perfect cover for the crime. Perhaps we are dealing with a case of hummercide!

I'm not entirely kidding. There is what appears to be a wound on the throat of the dead bird, and hummingbirds have been known to collide with fatal results.

Back on December 9th I posted some hummingbird photos taken at one of our feeders. At the time I thought that all of my Archilochus hummingbird photos were of the same bird, with differences in appearance due to changes in posture and lighting. I posted a request for help in identifying the bird(s) on Frontiers of Field Identification (which incidentally happens to be a great place to get expert assistance with tough ID problems). Allen Chartier responded, writing that "the bottom two of your four photos clearly show the blunt-tipped and curved shape of the tenth primary (p10) that is diagnostic for Black-chinned Hummingbird." Case solved. Well, not quite.

I later had better views of the bird in the top two photos, and became convinced that it was a Ruby-throated. I also got additional photos in which the 10th primary appeared to be more sharply pointed. Plumage and behavior provided additional clues. The bill was short and straight, indicative of Ruby-throated. The back was brilliant green and the underparts were cleanly white, not as dingy as one would expect of a Black-chinned. Our bird didn't pump its tail while feeding - a trait characteristic of Black-chinned Hummingbird, but not typical of Ruby-throated. A couple of times I had brief observations of a hummingbird that appeared to be different - longer billed, grayer. The weight of evidence shifted toward a "two bird theory" (most commonly employed in birding circles to explain a bad call, as in "yes, that one is a Horned Lark, but there was a second bird, and that was the longspur - must have just flown away").

The Archilochus hummingbird in our yard today had a long slightly decurved bill, dingy whitish underparts, and pumped its tail constantly while feeding. Based on my observations I'm confident that it's a Black-chinned Hummingbird (#122 for the yard list), and probably a female. I didn't get any photos - unlike our Ruby-throated, which tended to perch in shrubs near the feeder and guard it jealously, this bird disappeared between feedings. Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are both rare in Southeast Texas in winter, but Black-chinned is the one more likely to occur at this time of year.

We had another unusual visitor at our feeders today - a Dark-eyed Junco. Regular Slate-colored type. Not a rarity, but it's only the second one I've seen hereabouts, and the first one that's actually been IN our yard. So in a sense it is rare, at least to an underachieving yardlister who doesn't get out much. In recent years juncos have apparently become less common in Southeast Texas, possibly a consequence of global warming.Here's our junco, boldly preparing to cross the lawn and nibble seeds under our feeder.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Requiem for a Hummingbird

This winter our yard has been blessed with two hummingbirds. One is a male Rufous. Lately his back color has changed from mostly green to mostly cinnamon, and large copper spangles now frame his little throat. Our other bird was greeny and harder to ID, but my observations and photos indicated it was a Ruby-throated.

Sadly, today I found our Ruby-throated lying dead on the porch (cause unknown, possibly a window kill). With bird in hand I was able to measure it's bill, confirming that it was a male Ruby-throated (at 15mm its culmen was outside the range of Black-chinned, and female Ruby-throats have longer bills than males).

I've put a lot of work into making our garden hummingbird-friendly, planting flowering shrubs and maintaining feeders. From the beginning the goal was to make our yard the sort of place where hummingbirds would want to spend the winter, and in the last two years all that work has started to pay off (we had our first winterers in 2005-2006, an unidentified Selasphorus and a Broad-tailed Hummingbird). In Southeast Texas wintering hummingbirds are most often western species. Rufous is the most "common" winterer, and Ruby-throated is actually quite rare. After November any hummingbird is a sight to be cherished. That's part of why I feel so sad at the loss of this bird. Also I had time to get to know him and his habits. After feeding and watching him for so long it's like losing a pet.

In the above photo you can see the bill measurement and basic size. Below is a picture of him the way I'd rather remember him, vibrant and full of life. Goodbye, little fella. I'll miss ya.I still suspect that there may be another Archilochus hummingbird (possible Black-chinned) wintering here. If so it's been a very infrequent visitor to our feeders.

But all is not grief and mourning. In happier news, Michelle had an ultrasound on Thursday, and not only are the babies doing fine, we found out that we are having a boy and a girl! Their names are Bryce and Lucy, and we are expecting them to make their debut sometime in May or June (hard to tell exactly when, since twins tend to come early). Michelle is back at work but taking it easier now.

A Hooter's just opened in Beaumont, and we had dinner there this evening. It was Michelle's idea. No really, it was her idea. She totally had to drag me along. We'd never been to one before, so there was the curiousity factor. And the owl theme, of course. The T & A was blatant and went way beyond my expectations (I mean really, the hula hoop act was a bit over the top), but the food and service were surprisingly good. Michelle didn't mind my sneaky gawking, and we even talked about taking her niece and nephew there sometime (sure...maybe afterward we can get them tatoos and a massage).

Twice today I spooked a pair of Wood Ducks down at the pond (I've only had one previous sighting there). A Hermit Thrush hopping on a neighbor's lawn was #130 for my year list.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

One Tough Duck

From Tallahasee, FL, we get one for the weird files...

After a duck has been shot, bagged, and spent two days in a refrigerator, you would expect it to be dead. But when the wife of the hunter who shot it opened the fridge, the duck lifted it's head. The woman freaked out. Apparently the experience took away her appetite for duck, because instead of bashing it over the head she sought medical attention for it. The duck (a female Ring-necked) ended up at Goose Creek Wildlife Santuary, where a veterinarian gave it a 75% chance of survival, although it probably won't ever return to the wild. You can read the full story here.

In other news... Somehow we managed to survive Ice Storm 2007, and Michelle and I celebrated our wedding anniversary on the 21st at Carlo's Restaurant in Beaumont, the place where we first met, two years ago to the day. Only new addition to the year list is Brown-headed Nuthatch (seen in pines around the pond on the 21st). Birds continue to crowd our feeders and devour large quantities of seed. Michelle put out some biscuits and orange slices. They ate that too.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Ice Storm 2007 continues its rampage of destruction. In case you're concerned, Michelle and I are fine and in good spirits despite the grim hardships we've endured. I mean, it is sort of cold. Not real cold, not Minnesota cold, but certainly a bit chilly. Troy tells me conditions are icy at his home in Spring (near Houston), but at our house we still haven't had a freeze. There are even signs of spring - our Carolina jessamine is covered with fresh yellow buds, and I was surprised to see coral honeysuckle blooming in the nursery at Lowe's.

Found a dead Hermit Thrush in the driveway this morning, cause of death unknown. Perhaps a cat got it, or maybe it was crushed under one of our tires...or could it be a casualty of ICE STORM 2007? Had I seen it alive it would have been #128 for my year list.

Activity at our feeders remains high, with upwards of 40 birds at a time. The majority are Chipping Sparrows (see photo above). Below I've posted a few additional photos from Wednesday (Red-bellied Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, and White-throated Sparrow).

Monday, January 15, 2007

Boring New Addition to the Yard List - Nothing Interesting Here

During the night it started to rain, and the temperature did indeed take a dive. This may well explain the frenzied activity around our feeders this morning. Just looked out the window to see a ravenous mob of House Finches, American Goldfinches, Pine Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals all fighting for a place at the table. If this keeps up I'm gonna need more bird seed.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been making frequent visits to the feeder by our bedroom window. Other birds seen from the comfort of our bedroom this morning include Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Orange-crowned Warbler, and White-throated Sparrow. The White-throated Sparrows prefer to feed on the the waste that falls to the ground. Goldfinches are picky eaters, and flick away about as many seeds as they consume, so there's always plenty of waste. Chipping Sparrows and Northern Cardinals also dine on the fallen kernels, and this morning we had a special guest - a Song Sparrow. I know, it's a common bird, totally lacking in flare and charisma. No stage presence at all. But it's a first for the yard list, so I can get excited about it in a tepid sort of way.Here's a photo, so you can see the dull little thing for yourself. With the addition of Song Sparrow my yard list now stands at 121 species.

The next few days will be tough on our avian friends, so I'll be keeping the feeders well stocked. Ice Storm 2007 is coming!


That's right, the end is at hand. You see, a devastating cold front is fast descending on Southeast Texas. Nighttime temperatures are expected to plummet - are you ready for this - to a terrifying low of 30 degrees. By Tuesday we may all be dead from extreme discomfort.

News of the impending disaster made the front page of the Beaumont Enterprise on Sunday, leading to immediate mass hysteria. As late as Sunday evening the weather was still deceptively warm, one might even say a bit muggy, but we knew that by Monday morning we could expect freezing rain, perhaps even snow. Snow! You can forget about all that global warming stuff. Local cooling is gonna get us first.

Most people around here aren't accustomed to cold weather, and overreact when it happens. To give you some idea of how temperate our climate is, the coldest day ever recorded in Beaumont was in January of 1930, when the mercury fell to 11 degrees. That's not very impressive for a record low. Snowfall is rare in Southeast Texas, occurring at intervals of more than a decade - most recently on Christmas Eve, 2004, when we received a light sprinkle. Prior to that, the last time it snowed here was back in 1989, when the paper reports that "less than an inch caused dozens of traffic accidents."
This Orange-crowned Warbler was photographed at our seed feeders of all places. As I've noted before, some of our small insectivores are exhibiting a perverse and unnatural appetite for sunflower seeds. Very odd. Hopefully this cold front will bring some interesting birds our way. In the last few days I've seen Inca Dove and Gray Catbird in our yard, and the addition of Cedar Waxwing on Sunday brings my year list to 127 species.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Here We Go Again...IBWO News, More Birding At Anahuac NWR

The saga of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery (and re-rediscovery) continues. In the most recent update on the Choctawhatchee River Ivory-billed Woodpecker search it was reported that Tyler Hicks, a member of the search team, had an "outstanding look" at an IBWO on Christmas Eve. Several aspects of this sighting are unusual and noteworthy. First of all, it is claimed that he saw the bird perched at close range (40 feet). This is important, because subsequent to Gene Sparling's inital (tentative) sighting in Arkansas all documented IBWO observations (or at least all of those that I am aware of) have been brief views of birds in flight.

He is also reported to have seen several key field marks, including the black crest indicative of a female, the white lower back on the bird when perched, the white trailing edge to the wings in flight, and the “ivory-white” bill - the latter a feature that should be conspicuous, but in recent years has been missing from most alleged sightings. Sadly at the moment of opportunity his camera failed, so no photos were obtained.

Once again we have tantalizing details but no conclusive proof. Knocking sounds and glimpses of winged ghosts. How long can they maintain the suspense before the whole thing becomes tedious? How long can the true believers maintain their faith? Must be terribly frustrating for the search team. Hell, I'm frustrated just reading about it. If there are any IBWOs in Florida I hope they get some definite proof SOON. If they can't produce a photo by the end of the 2007 nesting season it'll just be a repeat of the Arkansas experience.

Coincidentally, Michelle just received an invitation to the "Inaugural Fund-raising Gala" for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Foundation (emphasis on the fund-raising part). Guess she got on some mailing list when she ordered an IBWO T-shirt for me last year. Reading the invitation it looks like it's mainly an invitation to donate $$ to the Foundation. Tickets to the Gala, which include program and dinner, range from $35 up to $250 for the better seats. If you donate at or above the "Enthusiast" level ($500 to $10,000+) you'll be glad to know your Gala tickets are included. You'll also be relieved to know that if you can't attend the Gala you can still donate, and if you do attend you can make your donation there.

Of course they've got an all-star lineup. Bobby Harrison and Tim Gallagher will deliver the keynote address, and Mary Scott (of "Ivory-bill Whisperer" fame) is listed as one of the guest speakers. The big event will take place on Feb 24th in Huntsville, AL (guess the convention center in Brinkley wasn't available that weekend).

Today I revisited Anahuac NWR. Again I spent some time scoping overgrazed pastures along FM 1985, searching for Sprague's Pipit. Again no luck. But I was surprised to find a small flock of Brewer's Blackbirds, the first I've ever seen on the Upper Texas Coast. Then I drove to Smith Point on Galveston Bay, where I scoped shorebirds and diving ducks (Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser were new for the year list). Checked more fields on my way back, but aside from Eurasian Collared-Dove and zebras (I'm not kidding - zebras) I didn't see anything new. Took these photos of American Pipit and Savannah Sparrow around the shell mounds at Smith Point.
For the third time in as many trips I photographed a Merlin along the main entrance to Anahuac NWR (same bird, same location). This time the lighting was favorable, and I got some nice shots at close range.Also got more and better photos of the Krider's Red-tailed Hawk, which was still along the road past the entrance station.Only new bird was a Golden-crowned Kinglet near the willows. After a quick drive around Shoveler Pond I headed for home. On my way back the sun was setting, and there were long broken black strings of ibis weaving across the sky - very cool.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Hummingbird Photos

Below I've posted some photos of an Archilochus hummingbird that is wintering at our feeders. All photos were taken on January 5th. Based on coloration, bill length, and wing features I think it's most likely a Ruby-throated, but this is a difficult identification and I welcome any comments or opinions.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

More Birding, January 5-6

Michelle got me out of bed on Friday morning to see a Swamp Rabbit out the kitchen window. Aside from the squirrels we rarely see any wild mammal in our yard - too many dogs roaming the neighborhood for that. I think the last time I saw a bunny here was back before I knew Michelle.

On Friday morning I also took a series of photos of an Archilochus hummngbird that has been frequenting our feeders. I've got it pegged as a Ruby-throated, based on coloration, bill length, and its sharply pointed 10th primary. Still have some nagging doubts. Today I again saw an Archilochus hummingbird at our feeders, but this time the bill appeared to be longer and slightly decurved. That and the constant tail-pumping seemed to point toward Black-chinned. So we might have a second wintering Archilochus (or my identification of the Ruby-throated is incorrect), but I'll need more photos for confirmation of the "two bird theory."

Friday afternoon I did the long walk around Cattail Marsh in Beaumont. An adult Bald Eagle and a Palm Warbler were the highlights. Savannah Sparrows were annoyingly abundant along the levees. Saw fewer ducks (and less variety of species) than were present in early January of 2006. Lower numbers of waterfowl in Southeast Texas this winter could be due to mild weather up north.

After Cattail Marsh I walked around the Beaumont Botanical Gardens. The last time I was there was a few months after Hurricane Rita, and the gardens had been utterly devastated. Looks much better now. The bayou at the back is a good place for watersnakes when it's warm. Didn't see any this time, but did get Eastern Bluebird, Brown Creeper, and Common Grackle for my new year list.

I still had a couple of hours of daylight, so I drove to Pleasure Island (City of Port Arthur) to see what I could see. Pleasure Island is a strip of land between the Intercoastal Waterway and Sabine Lake. It was created by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers when they dredged the waterway. The geography is a bit puzzling to me - turn left when you come off the bridge and you might somehow wind up in Louisiana. Best find was a couple of Common Loons in a little channel. Also got Osprey and Bufflehead for my year list.

At about 2am last night, while sitting at the computer, I thought I heard a Barred Owl calling outside. Opened the back door to listen, and sure enough, there was a Barred Owl hooting out in the rainy darkness. Sounded like it was near the end of our backyard.

Saturday afternoon I drove to Anahuac NWR. Hoping for Sprague's Pipit I stopped to scan pastures along FM 1985. No luck. It's all privately owned ranchland, so I had to confine my search to scoping from the roadway. In the Skillern Tract I had a male Vermilion Flycatcher along the bayou at the end of the road, same place where one was present last winter. Tried to kick up some sparrows in the marsh there, and got a few Swamp Sparrows and a Lincoln's for my trouble. Also spooked an American Bittern.

Along the main entrance to the refuge I again had a Merlin, probably the same bird Michelle and I saw on the 1st. Near the refuge headquarters I had a very pale Krider's-type Red-tailed Hawk (see photo below), and further on a Crested Caracara. The flooded basin just past the buildings was good for ducks, waders, and shorebirds, which included flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers, a few Lesser Yellowlegs and a couple of Stilt Sandpipers.I love Anahuac in winter! It's one of those places where you not only see a lot of birds, but you see a lot of birds really well. Of course they aren't all so accommodating. Some of the sparrows are difficult little skulkers, and Sedge Wrens are complete bastards. My advice to you if you want a good look at a Sedge Wren - don't even bother. Enjoy the nice field guide illustrations. Just accept that in life they can only be viewed from behind, in flight, just as they disappear into the grass.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year! (From the Soggy Bottom of Southeast Texas)

Photographed this Neotropic Cormorant at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. based on my observations I'd say that Neotropic Cormorant is much more common there in winter than is Double-crested.

It's a new year, and that means a new year list. I'm already off to a decent start with 58 species. My North American total for 2006 was abysmal...even counting Trinidad & Tobago birds I only had 379 species. And considering that parenthood is in my near future it's unlikely that I'll set any records in 2007.

In case you were curious about what has been seen at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in recent days, here's what was posted on the message board at the entrance station today. In addition to the usual birds and gators there was a trout on the 31st, and a Claudia and a Teen were apparently present on the 26th.Colvin's birds are interesting because Little Egret is the Eurasian analog to our Snowy Egret. From this I might deduce, Sherlock Holmes-style, that Colvin is from the other side of the big pond, and may not be aware of the difference between the two species (an honest-to-goodness Little Egret would be quite a find here). This could also explain the "Marsh Harrier" Colvin reported. There is a European species that goes by that name, but we don't have any. We do have the Northern Harrier, which is found on both sides of the Atlantic (but in Europe is known as the Hen Harrier). American birders used to call it the Marsh Hawk (I'm old enough to remember those days), and maybe "Marsh Harrier" is the result of an understandable confusion between the old and new monikers. By the way, official bird names are determined by a secret committee that meets once a year, at midnight during the vernal equinox. New names are divined through occult rituals and the interpretation of goat innards.

My favorite bird on the message board is the Gay Gnatcatcher. I mean, how do you identify that one? An unusual swishiness of the tail?

Michelle and I did a driving tour of the refuge today (no long walks in her condition). True to the message board we saw a couple of big alligators. I had Michelle take this picture of one, much to her discomfort and disapproval, because that's part of me in the shot with it. They really aren't as dangerous as they look (I know, that's what Steve Irwin said just before he tried juggling stingrays).It was also a good day for birds. Along the entrance road we saw the first of two Merlins perched atop a leafless tree.Farther on we came upon a group of 5 Crested Caracaras, and I got a few distant shots of the one that didn't immediately fly away.It was a fine day for photography. There was more traffic than usual on the Shoveler Pond loop, but even so there were plenty of birds close to the road, and I was able to get some nice photos from the car windows (like that of the odd trio below).Weather was cool enough that mosquitoes didn't pester us, but warm enough that large numbers of turtles were basking in the sun. At the edge of the bay I had both pelicans and a Reddish Egret. Marsh sparrows were elusive, as I've come to expect.

First bird of 2007: Rufous Hummingbird. Same one that's been wintering at our feeders (see previously posted photos).

Play Auld Lang Syne, Goodbye 2006

Time to usher in a new year as I listen to barrage after barrage of firework artillery. Sounds like a war raging outside. If not for the God-awful racket I might be in a more reflective mood. It is New Year’s Eve, after all. Time to lay the old year in its grave, shovel dirt, and render a eulogy.

Goodbye 2006, you were certainly a year to remember. You started out well enough, bright-eyed and full of promise. We were just emerging from the wreckage of Hurricane Rita. There were still repairs to be done, but the worst was behind us. Then came the day we had long awaited. On January 21st Michelle and I were married in Mandeville amid the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Our wedding was a triumph of planning and perseverance over disaster and disruption. After all the hustle and bustle, pomp and circumstance, and a party of epic proportions, it was off to Trinidad & Tobago for a birding trip thinly disguised as a honeymoon.

Then it was back to Lumberton and work as usual. Spring came and went almost unnoticed. In June there was a trip to California for my Dad’s birthday and an excursion to Yosemite National Park. With Troy’s help we started a major remodeling project in August (turning a storage closet into a new bathroom). This kept us busy for the next few months and consumed most of my savings. Then in October came the happy news that Michelle was pregnant, followed by the discovery that she was carrying twins, and complications resulting in her being placed on bed rest through December.

It was an action-packed year that took off running and never slowed down. Most of my time and energy have gone into my job and making home improvements. There were some hurried moments spent birding in between, but it's all been a blur.

And that more or less sums up 2006, the year that was.