Tuesday, April 24, 2007

High Island, Photogenic Birds & Rats, Etc.

Swimming isn't recommended either.

Didn't have to work on Tuesday, so I went to High Island instead. If my employer didn't mind I'd do this EVERY day.

Made my first stop at the Boy Scout Woods. Checked the scoreboard by the registration desk and it didn't look good - it's a bad sign when at midday only a few warbler species had been reported. I figured I might be in for a dull time. At first the place seemed birdless, but it was really only moderately birdless. With a little searching I was able to pull out a few migrants, the best of which was a Golden-winged Warbler. I first saw the Golden-winged along one of the trails, deep in a thicket. Later it (or possibly a second bird) came to the drip in front of the review stands, where this photo was taken.The bird behind it is an Indigo Bunting.

Since there wasn't much action at High Island I decided to try my luck on the Bolivar Peninsula. Rollover Pass was disappointing - there were the usual Black Skimmers, but not much else (most of the habitat had been submerged by the rising tide).

If you turn right at the end of Retillon Road, toward Houston Audubon's Bolivar Flats Sanctuary, you are now required to show a parking permit. I don't have one, so I didn't go there. Instead I turned left and drove east on the beach. Found a few small flocks of shorebirds and terns there. New year birds included Piping Plover and Common Tern.

Visited Smith Oaks in the late afternoon. Considering that a strong south wind had been blowing all day I wasn't expecting much, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. Fruiting mulberries at the parking area were attracting large numbers of tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings, orioles, etc. Warblers were less numerous, but made up in quality what they lacked in quantity. I don't want to sound like Paris Hilton, but Blackburnian Warbler is hot - maybe not swimsuit supermodel hot, but hot nonetheless. The male Blackburnian at Smith Oaks this afternoon was like a visiting celebrity surrounded by adoring fans.This male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was also at Smith Oaks. Made a few more additions to my year list there - Acadian Flycatcher, Philadelphia Vireo, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia Warblers, and Dickcissel.

I carry my camera (a Canon Powershot) while birding in case opportunities present themselves. It's often frustrating, but sometimes a bird allows me to get close enough for a decent picture. Like this Red-eyed Vireo.Or this Ovenbird.Occasionally this strategy works with other critters too. Got a couple of cooperative Hispid Cotton Rats to pose for me. Rather cute and photogenic...for rats...Small rodents usually aren't so easily approachable. Next time I'll bring a big mallet.

Many of the nests in the rookery now contain young. Voracious, demanding, insatiable young. If this is what parenthood is like maybe I should be more worried...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Weekend at High Island

Went to High Island on Saturday, and had so much fun that I went back on Sunday. Given a choice I'd rather go mid-week and avoid the crowds, but I don't get to choose my days off, and any day spent birding is better than a day spent working.

It was very windy on Saturday, and the strong gusts blasting through the trees made it difficult to spot birds. I hadn't brought a jacket, and later I wished I had - by the end of the day my hands were numb from the cold. I thought the north wind might produce a fallout, which it didn't. Warblers were present but less numerous than on my previous visit. I did get a few additions to my year list at Smith Oaks - Western Kingbird, Nashville and Blackburnian Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Blue Grosbeak.

This cute little Hooded Warbler was photographed along a path at the Boy Scout Woods.There was one interesting migration event. At evening I witnessed a grounding (literally) of swallows at Smith Oaks. Just before dusk I had flocks of as many as six species (Tree, Barn, Cliff, Cave, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged) resting on the ground in the parking area. You can see five species in the group shot below. The birds were clearly exhausted, and I was able to get close enough to some of them for frame filling pictures.Sunday was warmer and sunnier, without the wind. I spent most of the afternoon at the Boy Scout Woods, sitting in the photo blind. There I endured hours of tedium to get just a few decent pictures. A drip next to the blind attracted Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, but not much else. Most of the birds that approached the water never came close enough to be photographed. I did get one lucky shot of an Ovenbird that ambled by. So patience paid off...more or less. I might have had more and better photo opportunities if I had instead spent the time walking trails.This male Bullock's Oriole was also at the Boy Scout Woods on Sunday. I think it's the first time I've ever seen this common western species in Southeast Texas.Shortly after seeing the oriole I had my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the season feeding on tent caterpillars at Purkey's Pond.On my way home I made a detour to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge to do some shorebirding. Highlights there included flocks of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a distant Hudsonian Godwit, an American Golden-Plover, and a Yellow-throated Warbler. Again I birded until dusk.

Spring migration is a special time, and Michelle has been very sweet and understanding in encouraging me to go both days. Thanks Honey!

Here are a couple more weekend photos from the Boy Scout Woods at High Island (Blue-headed Vireo and Summer Tanager).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Tuesday at High Island

Yesterday I went to High Island, and it was awesome. It isn't always awesome. It can be a bore, with scarcely a dribble of migrants. Sometimes it seems like there are more birders than birds in the woods. Everything depends on the weather, and bad weather generally means better birding. Not that the birds enjoy bad weather - fallouts are wonderful events for observing birds, but are stressful for the birds themselves. After a long arduous flight across the gulf they drop exhausted into the first welcoming patch of vegetation they can find (e.g. the woodlots at High Island). When a front moves in bringing strong headwinds it can be disasterous for them. Many undoubtedly weaken and die before they ever reach shore.

Anyway, yesterday morning the weather was wet and nasty, so I went to High Island, and it was awesome. By the time I got there the weather had cleared. First stop was the Boy Scout Woods. Before I even got to the review stands I stopped to photograph a Blue-winged Warbler that was flitting at eye-level ridiculously close to the path. Of course the f**k**g camera lens fogged, and kept fogging until the opportunity had passed. Still managed to get at least one good shot.It turned out to be a sign of things to come. I think I saw more Blue-winged Warblers yesterday than I've ever seen before in a single day. There were also LOTS of Kentucky Warblers. Oddly it seemed like I was the only one seeing them. Every time I mentioned them to other birders I found out they hadn't seen one yet. The trick is to watch for movement on the forest floor. Like Ovenbirds and Swainson's Warblers they tend to creep along at ground-level. Here's one that came out in the open to take a bath by the photo blind.And a Gray Catbird:It was also a great day for Cerulean Warbler, a species in decline, and one of the most prized parulids due to its beauty and scarcity. If you visit High Island in spring you have a fair chance of seeing one, and one is about as many as I expect to see per season. Yesterday I found two males at Boy Scout Woods and a third at Smith Oaks. That's definitely the most I've ever seen in a day. One at Boy Scout Woods allowed close approach, and lingered long enough for me to show it to several other people. And here he is.Tip to birders visiting High Island: Use your legs! Walk the paths. Get your shoes muddy. Feed the mosquitoes. You won't see nearly as many birds if you just sit on the bleachers and wait for them all to come to you- because they won't!

The action really picked up at Smith Oaks in the late afternoon. The woods were full - and I mean FULL - of migrants, mostly warblers. There were so many birds moving through the trees that I didn't know where to start. Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers were particularly numerous. Tried searching the dark thickets for Swainson's Warbler, another highly prized parulid. No luck finding Swainson's, but as I walked along I was constantly scattering thrushes and warblers.

There were lots of other goodies. In addition to the sixteen species of parulids I saw, I also had four species of vireos, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers (always crowd pleasers), Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, etc., etc. Lingering "winter birds" included a few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Hermit Thrush, and White-throated Sparrows.

Caught this messy squabble between Roseate Spoonbills at the rookery. Looks like one is trying to eat the other. Bad bird, bad! A large alligator had parked itself on the shore below the rookery. There were also some big Spiny Softshell Turtles sunning.Oh, and I also saw the Easter Bunny.Would have gone shorebirding, but in my haste I forgot to pack my scope and tripod, dammit. Did see a couple of Solitary Sandpipers along the roadsides on my way out of town.Recently I weeded the little garden patch behind our house. Michelle and I call it "the thicket," and that's more or less what it had become. During the winter it takes the full brunt of the north wind, and most of the plants either die or go dormant. This past winter was harsher than usual, with prolonged periods of low tempertures. Our plants suffered. So now I'm replanting with hardier shrubs that will benefit birds and butterflies. While removing dead stalks and unwanted vegetation I disturbed a tiny Brown Snake and a baby Three-toed Box Turtle, both of which I moved to safety.

Winter birds are gradually exiting as neotropical migrants arrive. Here are some of my first-of-season sightings with dates and locations:
Broad-winged Hawk, March 23rd (Silsbee)
Chimney Swift, March 29th (Lumberton)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, March 29th (Houston)
Yellow-throated Vireo, April 6th (Lumberton)
Purple Martin, April 9th (Beaumont)

Our wintering Rufous Hummingbird was last seen on March 19th.

My Lovely Michelle's belly continues it's rampant expansion. Remember Jiffy Pop? Do they still make that stuff? Anyway, if you are old enough to remember Jiffy Pop you'll understand the shape her belly is taking. Two babies on the way, a boy and a girl. Our lives will never be the same. I mean that in a good way - can't wait to meet Bryce and Lucy in person.