Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Yardwatch 2007!

I finally got a day off, so naturally it was spoiled by rain. Not that I would have been able to enjoy the outdoors much anyway. Michelle had a doctor's appointment in the morning, but she wasn't feeling well, so I took her to the emergency room instead.

Once we got there they took her upstairs and wired her up to the fetal heartbeat gizmo to check on the babies. The machine indicated that they were still in her belly. Since Michelle was complaining of pain and chills they took her temperature, which was indeed a bit elevated. Then they decided to insert a capheter (shudder) to get a urine sample the painful way. Diagnosis: bladder infection. Eventually her fever subsided and I brought her home. I left her resting comfortably for a while, then came back to find her having a relapse with chills and nausea. But about the birds...

While Michelle was resting between bouts of fever I wasted some time watching the sky for avian traffic. Storms seem to stir things up, and after a rain is when I get some of the best fly-over action. There's always the hope of seeing something new for the yard list, maybe a wayward Roseate Spoonbill or White-faced Ibis. Instead this evening I was left to ponder why there are so many black birds in Southeast Texas. When I say blackbirds I don't mean of the strictly icterid type (Red-winged, Brewer's, etc.), but birds that are basically black or darkish. Fish Crow. Purple Martin. Chimney Swift. Flocks of European Starlings and Common Grackles. All these black things going by. How much blacker could the birds be? In the words of Spinal Tap, "the answer is none, none blacker."

All was not blackness, however. A pair of Brown Thrashers were making themselves particularly obvious, what with all the singing and chasing each other and flying back and forth to collect nesting material. And a family of Eastern Bluebirds is still frequenting our backyard. The spotty juvenile birds are probably the same ones that fledged from one of our nest boxes earlier this spring.

With the prospect of babies and fatherhood impending I don't expect to do much serious birding in the months ahead. I doubt I'll have any opportunities to travel, and whatever time I have for birding will probably be spent close to home. No ambitious year listing goals for me. But Yardwatch 2007 will continue, with more tedious tedium and thrilling thrills to come.

Monday, May 21, 2007

White-rumped Sandpiper Bonanza, Gator Encounter, Snake Orgy, and a Wreck

My mother-in-law (Nicki) is staying with us for a few days. On Saturday we took her to Tyrrell Park in Beaumont. It's like a swampy southern version of New York's Central Park, except that it's not central. More like out in the boondocks. Closer to the municipal landfill than downtown. But it's a big park with botanical gardens, golf course, stables, picnic grounds, and a wetalnd area (Cattail Marsh).

We took Nicki to the arboretum. The botanical gardens are purty, but my favorite place is the muddy slough at the back. It's the best local spot I know of to see watersnakes. Lots of turtles, too. Sure enough we saw snakes. Also a Prothonotary Warbler that was singing from trees along the water's edge.

On Sunday I went back to Tyrrell Park alone to try and get some snake photos. Of course this time there was nary a snake to be seen. No Prothonotary Warbler either.Green Heron at Tyrrell Park.

A Painted Bunting was singing along the edge of the golf course behind the slough. Took a while to find the bird, and when I did it wasn't what I expected. Instead of a male in red, blue, and green plumage it had a yellowish belly and the rest was greenish. Looked like a female - but it was singing. When I got home I did a little research, and sure enough young male Painted Buntings continue to look like females into their first breeding season. So I learned something new. Later I saw a male Painted Bunting in proper attire singing from high in a pine at Cattail Marsh.Here's a view of Cattail Marsh, in all it's wet mucky glory.

At Cattail Marsh I had a flock of about 15 Black Terns flying over the big pond near the entry point. The drying ponds to the north were good for waders and shorebirds. In one of the northernmost ponds I had a big flock of Calidris sandpipers, mostly White-rumped and Semipalmated. An accurate count wasn't possible, because they kept moving around, but there were at least 200-300 White-rumped Sandpipers, probably the most I've ever seen at any one time. Also had 1-2 Baird's Sandpipers with them. The white rump can actually be seen on the bird that's preening.

While creeping up on a flock of peeps to get some photos I disturbed a medium-sized alligator that had been resting unnoticed on the shore. He took to the water but stayed close, watching me with his cat eyes. This is the first time I've seen an alligator in the marsh. Pretty cool - a city park with cottonmouths and alligators!On my way out of the park I stopped to check the slough at the back of the botanical gardens, again hoping to photograph some snakes. This time I found four Diamond-backed Watersnakes engaged in some bizarre group mating ritual. Snake orgy!Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are common in the park. You can often see them in the middle of the day along roadside ditches, like this one at the entrance to the botanical gardens.Afterward I went to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Around Shoveler Pond there were plenty of Purple Gallinules (see photo at top). On the way back I came upon this wreck, which hadn't been there when I drove by less than an hour before. I got out and carefully checked the accident scene, but didn't see any people. Didn't pass anyone on foot either. On my way out I found a refuge employee and let him know about it. Hope all the passengers were all right!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Northern Cardinal Nest, Cutesy Baby Bird Photos

Sunday afternoon I was puttering in the yard when a very agitated pair of Northern Cardinals caught my attention. They were clearly upset by my presence, but didn’t fly off. They stayed close, chipping excitedly and hopping about. This could only mean that they had a nest nearby. Took me no time to find the object of their concern, which was semi-hidden in a tangle of honeysuckle vines.

The parent birds were trying to distract me with their nervous behavior, but the ruckus they made actually led me to their nest. It’s a diversion tactic that might work with cats, but doesn’t fool a bipedal primate such as myself. Fortunately for the birds I only wanted to photograph their young, not eat them. The two large nestlings were almost fully feathered, and even had scruffy little crests.Monday as I was walking around the yard I again saw the parental pair, now followed by at least one gangly tailless fledgling. The baby bird was already able to make short fluttery flights – impressive, considering that it had probably been out of the nest for only a few hours. Doubly impressive when I consider that my wife and I are expecting to have human babies in our lives soon, and it’ll be months before they are even able to walk.

Apparently our Eastern Bluebird nestlings have also fledged. Haven't seen any activity around the box for a while, and when I looked inside I found the nest to be empty.

Lately I've been hearing Great Crested Flycatcher and Summer Tanager around our little bungalow in the swamp. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are still draining our feeders, which have also been attracting a male Orchard Oriole. On May 9th a wandering Yellow-billed Cuckoo briefly visited our yard, and on the evening of the 15th I heard a Common Nighthawk calling.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Stunning Revelations and Shocking Photos

Sorry, the title of this entry is a complete lie. I have no news and the pictures are mildly interesting at best. Tuesday I worked and came home and napped and did some gardening and played with the dog and watched a couple of programs on child developement with Michelle. Now it's after midnight and I should be in bed. What's all this got to do with birding? Nothing.

Michelle's rampant belly expansion continues as her pregnancy progresses inexorably toward the launching of babies Bryce and Lucy. The stork (Wood, I presume) is scheduled to arrive on June 15th. That is unless the twins are impatient and decide to make it sooner.

Monday night we had dinner at the Olive Garden in Beaumont. As we made our way to our table we passed a family of local idiots who exclaimed "oh my God" as we walked by, and stared at Michelle slack-jawed as if they had never seen a pregnant woman before. It made her uncomfortable, and I don't think we'll be dining out again until after the babies are born (and probably not even then...maybe in another decade or two). Unfortunately I'm sure the same f**king 'tards will be seated next to us...

Below are a couple of photos from a recent trip to Houston. The first is further evidence that we live in a post-literate society. Gangsta could use a spellchecka!At a theater in The Woodlands I got to meet some celebrities who were in town to promote their new movie -Now back to the birds. Check out these cool video clips of a Swainson's Warbler found in San Antonio on May 6th (the location is only two miles from the Alamo!). In the clips you can see some typical foraging behavior. This is one of my favorite birds - I have a soft spot for the drab little skulkers. Swainson's Warbler is an uncommon breeder here in Southeast Texas, where it likes swampy bottomland forests. In Central Texas, where this video was made, it is quite rare.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Cuckoo Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, High Island

Warm weather is back, with temps in the upper 80s. Now that's the kind of Texas weather we know and love! The bugs are back too. I don't mind the mosquitoes so much, but deer flies are insufferable. Hardly had I stepped out of the car today at Sabine Woods when they began to swarm over me. Sometimes cowardice is the better part of valor, and this was one of those times. I beat a hasty retreat. Probably no birds there anyway.

After my abortive visit to Sabine Woods I drove to High Island, where the bug situation was more tolerable. Hardly any deer flies at all. Hardly any birders either. When I first arrived at the Boy Scout Woods there was only one other car parked there. If the birders were absent the birds didn't seem to care. Fruiting mulberries were still attracting a good variety of migrants, including numerous Red-eyed Vireos and Gray Catbirds, a flock of Cedar Waxwings, and for added color a few Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

During spring migration the relative abundance of different bird species changes from day to day and week to week. Every trip is different, and the unpredictability is part of the fun. One day you might find Hooded Warblers seemingly everywhere; go back a week later and the bird du jour may be Black-throated Green Warbler. Some days the woods are full of thrushes and catbirds, some days...not so much. On trips I made earlier in the season I had more tanagers, buntings, and orioles; today I found cuckoos and Red-eyed Vireos to be particularly abundant.

Most of the cuckoos were Yellow-billed, but I was also fortunate enough to see two Black-billed Cuckoos. The first was at the Boy Scout Woods, where I got a conclusive but unsatisfyingly brief view. Efforts to refind it failed. Then later in the afternoon I saw another at Smith Oaks - this time I got the nice long unobstructed look I wanted. To say that I don't encounter this species very often would be a gross understatement - the last time I saw one was back in 1987 (also at High Island in spring). Based on my experience I think it must be one of the scarcest and hardest to find of our neotropical migrants.

Parulids seen while wandering trails at High Island included Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, and Bay-breasted Warblers; American Redstart; and Ovenbird. Was hoping for some Empidonax action, but Eastern Kingbirds and Eastern Wood-Pewees were the only flycatchers seen.

When I got back home this afternoon I spotted a Mississippi Kite circling off to the north - first one I've seen this year.

More Fun in the Ghetto, Another IBWO Rant

On Saturday we had a whore working our parking lot. Called the police, but a customer tipped her off and she hoofed it. We've had thieves, drug dealers, shootings...and now a hooker. At least she wasn't an ugly hooker.

Sunday a large overwrought black woman called me to the front of the store to have a look at something. I went outside with her, and she told me that she had just seen a big rattlesnake. I knew there was no way it could be a rattler, but I was curious. I asked her where it was, and after some overly dramatic and uninformative blather she finally pointed me toward the street. I walked across the lot and found the snake lying in the road, either dead or nearly so. Even if it had been a rattlesnake (which it wasn't) it was in no condition to harm anyone.

It was just a large watersnake. The lady who told me about it had driven over it with her car. Don't know why she should be so terrified of it - the snake had more reason to be afraid of HER, and would have been, if she hadn't already killed it.

...which brings me to the twin subjects of ignorance and stupidity, and leads by a circuitous route to the related topic of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A harmless watersnake became a big dangerous rattlesnake that needed to be dealt with, and I'll tell you why: idiots love drama. A rattlesnake is dramatic, a harmless watersnake isn't. To an ignorant woman who has little contact with wild nature and is afraid of snakes an encounter like this is scary. To validate her fear and excitement she dramatizes the event, and the snake becomes a threatening monster in the retelling.

This is yet another reason why reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from non-birders are not to be trusted - particularly when reported by those unfamiliar with Pileated Woodpecker. Even a hunter who spends a good deal of time outdoors in places where Pileated Woodpeckers are common could be unaware of their presence. Large woodpeckers are generally wary and maintain their distance, and hunters tend to focus their attention on game species. Still, close encounters occur every once in a while, and a Pileated Woodpecker at close range is an impressive sight. It's a big bird. It looks like something rare.

...So let's say a Pileated Woodpecker lands right in front of a hypothetical hunter. Maybe he's heard of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, maybe he hasn't. All he knows is this is the biggest damn woodpecker he's ever seen. Afterward he thumbs through a field guide and finds the illustrations of Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. He's already inclined to think it's something rare - it's unlike any bird he's seen before, anyway - and then he reads that the Ivory-billed is believed to be extinct. Of course he didn't take any notes at the time of the sighting, and is unlikely to accurately remember plumage details, but book illustrations help fill the gaps in his memory.

He soon convinces himself that he really saw the rarer species, and has made an important discovery! And making an important discovery makes him feel more important. With the passage of time his "memory" becomes more detailed. If his claim is challenged he professes absolute certainty. Ego and personal credibility are now involved. Who cares what some dirty doubting skeptics say - he KNOWS what he saw! Does any of this sound familiar?

Aside from an occasional walk around our yard I haven't been birding much since my last trip to High Island. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds are using one of our nest boxes. Summer Tanagers have been conspicuous around here lately, and on May 3rd I saw a small flock of Indigo Buntings (two males, three females) in a neighbor's yard. Otherwise neotropical migrants have been scarce, and there's not much else to report.