Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Worst Fears Realized - Yellowjacket Attack!

I have always had an intense fear of bees and wasps (a psychological condition known as apiphobia). People who know me say that I would jump off a cliff to escape a bee. Birding has helped me overcome my phobia to some extent, but I still have an irrational fear that has always been disproportionate to the actual threat. Well it was irrational...until yesterday, that is.

Tuesday afternoon I had just finished mowing the lawn and was using a line trimmer to cut weeds when I disturbed a yellowjacket nest by our front fence. It was underground, and I had no idea that it was even there until I felt the stinging. By the time I realized what was happening they were swarming all around me. I dropped the trimmer and ran. Luckily most of their fury was directed at the trimmer, which was still running, and I got away with only a few stings. It could have been a lot worse. I had already ridden over the nest with the mower, and I'm just surprised that I wasn't attacked sooner.

From an Ohio State University fact sheet on yellowjackets:
"Be careful not to cut weeds or run the lawnmower over a ground nest nor disturb a nest in a tree or eaves of the home. Any noise and disturbance will sometimes infuriate and provoke painful stinging."

Had I known about the nest that advise would have been more useful. Next time I'll try to be more observant. After the attack I went back and sprayed poison into the nest, but future infestations are to be expected. A couple of years ago I found and exterminated another colony only a few yards from this one.

In bird news...

Earlier on Tuesday I heard a strange whistled call coming from pines across the road. When I went to investigate I found 3 Mississippi Kites there - two adults and a juvenile. Once again I've got good evidence that they've nested somewhere in the neighborhood.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Anahuac Photos

I had Friday off, and by some miracle I was able to escape my parental duties for a few hours of actual birding. I went to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Nobody goes there in the middle of summer. It's too hot and buggy and there aren't any birds. Everybody knows that. But contrary to popular wisdom it was overcast and cool, the bugs were hardly a bother, and there were birds. Lots of them. Bunches even. I had to practically kick Least Bitterns and Purple Gallinules out of my way. I took some pictures. And here they are...A Four-Spotted Pennant, methinks. I'm not so good at dragonflies.This watchful Raccoon was leading two cubs through the shrubbery.Found this Least Bittern perched out in the open, looking down its beak at me. Dime a dozen on the loop around Shoveler Pond.See - here's another one.Pretty Purple Gallinules too...Eastern Meadowlark - slow to a stop, roll down the car window, point camera and click...Eastern Kingbird - another drive-by shooting.Wouldn't be Anahuac without a few of these.


Rob of Birdchaser tagged me for the Eight Random Facts Meme. The rules:
- Players write a post with eight random facts about themselves.
- They then “tag” eight bloggers to write similar posts, including the rules.
- The players then leave comments on the blogs they've tagged to tell them about the meme.

Friends are constantly forwarding me the same old questionnaires, sharing personal tidbits and asking me to reply in kind. The first couple were fun, but after a dozen or so, all pretty much identical, I went into ignore mode and started hitting the delete button. This meme is a little different, so I'll play along - except for the part about tagging eight other bloggers. Like Rob's blog, mine is about birding in a general way, so I'll keep the facts more or less on topic.

1) My "First Bird"
As a kid I was obsessed with herps, mammals, and arachnids. Kept all kinds of critters in bottles, tanks, and cages. Had a Havahart trap and used it to catch everything from rats to Gray Foxes. Then one day I noticed a bird at our barn door that appeared to be wearing a black tux. I was curious enough that the next time I went to the library I thumbed through the field guides (this was back in the 1970s, and they weren't nearly as good as the ones we have now) until I found a match - Black Phoebe. That started me looking at other birds, and soon I had my own books, decent bins, and was keeping lists...

2) My Earliest Birding Experiences
In my teens I didn't know any other birders. As far as I knew I was unique in my freakishness. Nondescript species like Brown Towhee - as it was then known - completely baffled me. If there had been someone around to share their birding wisdom with me it would have really helped. Hell, I didn't even know how to use my bins properly! Back then all my identifications were tinged with uncertainty. I birded alone, and since I couldn't drive yet I used my bike to get around. I remember riding my bicycle all the way from our home in south San Jose to Alviso and back just to see wetland birds - in retrospect an astonishingly long solo trip for such a young kid. Another time, while visiting Woodside with my parents, I wandered off on my own and got lost in the hills. Hours later my parents found me along the highway looking at my first Acorn Woodpeckers. It wasn't until I started college in the early 1980s that I met other people with similar interests.

3) My First Rare Bird Chase
It was January of 1982, and I had just returned from my first out-of-state birding trip (to Texas of all places) when I somehow found out that a male Smew was wintering at Leo J. Ryan Memorial Park in Foster City. This was my first real rarity chase, complicated by the fact that I didn’t even know what I was looking for! The bird was so rare that it wasn’t pictured in any of my field guides. Luckily there were some other birders present when I arrived, and they were able to describe the bird to me. There really isn’t anything else that looks much like a male Smew, so when I finally saw it I knew it had to be something new...something Smew.

4) Places I've Birded
I've lived most of my life in California (Santa Clara and Siskiyou Counties), and have travelled all over the Golden State in search of birds. I would probably still be there if it wasn't so damn expensive. In 2003 I moved to Southeast Texas and started this blog. In the early 1990s I spent two summers working in Maine (Acadia National Park), and I've been in every state in the U.S. except Vermont, Kentucky, and South Carolina. Outside the U.S. I've birded Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Trinidad & Tobago. Odd factoid: I've never set foot on Europe or Asia, but I have seen the coast of Russia from the shore of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait.

5) Things I Used To Do
I used to live in San Jose, CA, where I taught birding classes and was compiler of the Calero-Morgan Hill Christmas Bird Count for a few years. Also I occasionally led field trips for Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. In the past I chased rarities more than I do now. I've done a few big days, and back in 1985 I attempted a California big year and got 430 species (the total would be higher now with all the splits since then). These days I'm focused on caring for my home and babies. I keep a yard list and go birding when I can.

6) My Most Wanted Bird
Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It's the freak factor. The male looks like it might have been designed by Dr. Seuss. I've been to Costa Rica three times, and have yet to see one. This past spring I was planning to go back and look for it again, but fate intervened and I had to cancel. Someday, someday...

7) Close, But No Cigar
I've had my share of misses, but this one was probably the worst. In the fall of 1991 I was making a cross-country trip from Maine back to California when I learned that a pair of Eared Quetzals (then called Eared Trogons) were nesting above Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of Southeastern Arizona. I decided to make a long detour to see them - since there was a nest staked out it would be a sure thing, right? But I arrived a day too late. A winter storm had settled in and caused the birds to abandon their nest. I waited near the nest site, shivering in the cold, but they never returned. I think I heard one of them chuckling demonically as I hiked out in defeat.

Another time – coincidentally, also in Southeastern Arizona - I missed an Aztec Thrush by mere seconds. I was searching for a Rufous-capped Warbler at the time (which I later did see), and had climbed a rocky hillside, leaving a small group of birders below. While I was away from the group the thrush made its brief appearance. As I hurried back down the hill I heard someone say “Aztec Thrush!” But by the time I rejoined the group the bird was gone.

8) Birding Mishaps
I once fell asleep at the wheel and hit a fence while driving back from the Los Banos Christmas Bird Count – no serious injuries and the car survived. Dinged up another car in New Zealand, again no injuries (did you know they drive on the other side of the road there?). One time I had an irate Barred Owl grab a hat right off my head in a palm hammock down in Florida. I managed to get the hat back after the owl spitefully dropped it into the swamp. If not for that hat I might have become a regular customer of the Hair Club For Men.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Probable Swallow-tailed Kite in Beaumont and a Couple of Herps

Sorry, I have no birds worth mentioning. Well maybe one. I was recently lunching in the parking lot by the Jack-in-the-Box on Eastex Freeway when an odd raptorish bird caught my attention. Sure looked like a Swallow-tailed Kite. It was a distant view without bins so I could have been wrong, but I probably wasn't. Swallow-tailed Kite is a hard bird to be mistaken about. Not that I couldn't be. So put that down as a confirmed maybe. Hey, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been identified with poorer views than I had. A good find, if that's what it was. And in the heart of Beaumont, of all places.

Aside from the almost-certain-but-not-quite-definite kite there's scant news. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is apparently extinct again, my job is as aggravating as ever, and the babies are doing fine. When I'm not working (which is half the time) and not sleeping (which is almost always) I'm busy helping Michelle with the twins. Or trying to help, anyway. How much help I actually render is debatable.

We've had some torrential storms in the last two weeks (fortunately we've been spared the kind of serious flooding suffered in other parts of the state). After one such deluge I was out cleaning up the cedar mulch that washed out of our garden beds - the kind that isn't supposed to wash away - when I found this little Texas Brown Snake, only about three inches long. Seems to be the most common snake species in our yard. Completely harmless. Found this large Red-eared Slider on a road in our neighborhood. Didn't want to see it splatted by a truck so I did my good Samaritan bit and released it down at the pond. One more turtle to keep the fish population down.