Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yippee! Two Days of Actual Birding!

The Texas Ornithological Society had its fall meeting this weekend at White Memorial Park, located between Houston and Beaumont. Michelle graciously allowed me to attend and go on the Friday and Saturday field trips.

On Friday I went on the trip to High Island. In case you haven't heard, Hurricane Humberto devastated the sanctuaries there. The Boy Scout Woods appear to have suffered the worst damage. Many of the larger trees were toppled. Remember the cathedral? If so, at least you have your memories. The canopy is gone. Many of the mulberry trees (which attract large numbers of neotropical migrants in spring) were lost. At least the buildings survived. A big mulberry uprooted and fell next to the kiosk, missing it by only a few feet.

Winnie Burkett was busy removing debris when we arrived. Later we crossed paths with her again at Smith Oaks, where she was working to reroute a path around a huge fallen tree (see photo below). The woods there are also in sad shape, and the rookery island has lost at least half of its vegetation.We had to work for our neotropical migrants. Birds were sparse, and we spent most of the day scouring the woods. I had about a half dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, 1 Eastern Kingbird, 3 Eastern Wood-Pewees, 1 Great Crested Flycatcher, 1 Empidonax sp., 1 Warbling Vireo, 1 White-eyed Vireo, 2-3 Yellow Warblers, 3 Black-and-white Warblers, 1 Nashville Warbler, 1 Black-throated Green Warbler, 2 Northern Parulas, 1 American Redstart, 1 Scarlet Tanager, 3-? Indigo Buntings, 1 Painted Bunting, and 3-4 Baltimore Orioles.

Our best bird of the day was a Red-breasted Nuthatch found at Hooks Woods in the morning. There have been other recent sightings across Texas, so it could be the harbinger of an invasion. If so maybe I'll finally get one for the yard list. We have plenty of pines in our neighborhood, so the habitat is right.

There's a tall observation tower being constructed across the road from the entrance to the Boy Scout Woods. Apparently a private company is building it to promote its tropical birding tours. Not sure how that is gonna work out for them. Strikes me as either a brilliant idea or not so very. I'm also unsure why anyone would want to put a tower there. It's poorly positioned for viewing wetland birds, and High Island isn't a particulaly good place for hawk watching. Maybe they just want to have a world class yard list...

On Saturday I went on the field trip to Bolivar Flats with Cin-Ty Lee. He's an expert at shorebird identification, and frequently posts reports on the birds at Bolivar Flats (probably the best shorebird spot on the Upper Texas Coast). He's also from California (Riverside), and moved to Texas about the same time I did. While driving from site to site we reminisced about rarities we'd seen in California, and lamented the ones we've missed since moving to Texas.

At Bolivar Flats we had about 20 species of shorebirds. Didn't find anything out of the ordinary, but I've never seen so many Piping Plovers. Numbers of wading birds were impressive, but for me the real highlight was seeing adult and juvenile Seaside Sparrows popping up in the cordgrass.Reddish Egret ballet at Bolivar Flats.After doing Bolivar Flats we went to High Island, where there were even fewer migrants than we'd had the previous day. Only new species I saw there was a Wilson's Warbler at Smith Oaks.

On our way back we made a final stop at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. There was a large concentration of ducks and wading birds in a flooded basin near the headquarters. They included several hundred Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, a few Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, and plenty of Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal.

We got back to White Memorial Park in the evening with about 100 species for the day. I stayed for the keynote address, which was delivered by Bill Clark on the subject of Harlan's Hawk. It was fascinating stuff, the gist of which was that Harlan's Hawk exhibits an amazing range of variation in tail patterns, and is probably a good species. We were shown a confusingly large array of Harlan's Hawk tails, some of which are as red as those of typical Red-tailed Hawks. Makes me wonder how many Harlan's have gone unrecognized as such by birders, myself included.

Next TOS meeting is gonna be at Alpine in May, with field trips to the Davis Mountains...can't wait!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Weekend Birds

On Saturday I found a Wilson's Warbler working the thicket beside our driveway. Fruiting trees along the edge of our yard are attracting Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos. Watched a White-eyed Vireo pluck the red fruit from a magnolia. For some reason we get more vireos than warblers here during migration.

On Sunday I had 4 Summer Tanagers sitting in a row along a wire at the end of our backyard (that's more kingbird or bluebird style, not the way you typically see tanagers). There were also a couple in the trees. I don't know whether these are migrants, or locally breeding birds, or some combination. I know that Summer Tanagers linger well into September in California, and probably do the same here, since they seem to be continuously present from April to October.

We still have lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fighting over the feeders. Other birds seen around our yard this weekend included Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren, Pine Warbler, and Northern Cardinal.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pave Paradise, Put in a...You Know

Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of the Golden Triangle Audubon Society in Tyrrell Park (subject: duck identification). Since I got there early I figured I'd go have a look at the swampy slough behind the arboretum. It's been a favorite spot of mine, and a particularly good place to see watersnakes.

But the swamp was gone! The entire area has been drained and bulldozed. All of the wonderful vegetation had been removed, and a small basin had been dug in the middle. At the bottom was an unwholesome looking pool of greenish water with a few turtles swimming in it. What had once been a charming little spot now looked absolutely sterile. The only bird present was a Solitary Sandpiper – a good find, but slight consolation.

I asked a couple of people at the meeting if they knew why it was done, but they didn’t know. I guess someone thought the area needed to be “improved.”

Michelle told me that one of our neighbors had a lot of hummingbirds coming to their feeders, so this morning I went over to see for myself. They did. At one point there were as many as 12 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds simultaneously in view! While watching their feeders I noticed a male Baltimore Oriole in the crown of an adjacent tree. Found out my neighbor has also been photographing the birds around his yard, and has some nice shots of Mississippi Kites, Chipping Sparrows, etc.

Maybe in some way it all balances out. While the City of Beaumont destroys bird habitat there are many private citizens creating havens for wildlife in their backyards, putting up feeders and welcoming their feathered visitors.

A White-eyed Vireo was singing in the thicket (which needs no improvement) along our driveway as I walked back to the house.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Recent Birds & Bug Photos

Tuesday morning I walked outside to see a Pileated Woodpecker perched on a pole along the edge of our backyard.

On Monday there was some raptor migration over our neighborhood. Counted about 45 Broad-winged Hawks, most of which were in two kettles. Soaring amid the hawks were 7 Anhinga and 4 Black Vultures. I also had an Anhinga and flock of 7 White Ibis flying east. A single Red-tailed Hawk was the only other raptor seen.

Watching for migrating raptors requires patience. Most of the time it's a bore, but it has its moments. Kettles appear suddenly, and just as quickly vanish. Numbers build, gain altitude, and stream southward. They tend to travel at great heights, and unless you are continually scanning the horizon for distant specks they are easily missed. Between kettles there are long lulls in the action, and most of the time I'm looking at nothing but sky.

We occasionally get big kettles here - by big I mean several hundred hawks converging on a single thermal. The vast majority are Broad-winged. I'm not sure why, but we just don't get migrating accipiters. This is strange, because the Smith Point Hawk Watch isn't that far away, and they get plenty there. Cooper's Hawk is common at Smith Point, but amazingly I still don't have one for our yard list. Swainson's Hawk is also long overdue.For a master of camouflage this praying mantis was certainly easy to spot against a white window frame. Must have missed class the day they gave lessons in how not to be seen.This is a Gulf Fritillary, one of our more common and attractive butterflies. Kinda like a Monarch, but different.If only birds were as easy to photograph as dragonflies. This Black Saddlebags posed for me on a stick atop our burnpile.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Bring Out Your Dead

The difference between a category 1 hurricane and a category 4 is enormous. It only took me only about an hour to clean up the yard after Hurricane Humberto, but it took months for Michelle and I to remove and dispose of all the debris after Hurricane Rita.

While I was picking up fallen twigs and branches I mistakenly grabbed this stick-like thing. Yeck. It's actually a very slimy mostly decomposed eastern gray squirrel. Hurricane fatality?I don't come across many mammal corpses. Nature deals with carrion very efficiently here, also I don't put much effort into finding them. And as the above incident illustrates, even when one is right in front of me I might not recognize it.

Martin Collinson, who presides over George Bristow's Secret Freezer, is much more talented than I at finding dead things. He's constantly posting photos of deceased shrews and mice and such...and usually in much fresher condition than my squirrel skinbag. In fact it's a bit suspicious. I think he may have the psychic ability to will them to die.

No real birding this weekend, in keeping with the current trend. Managed to sneak away this afternoon for a brief look around the yard. I had a few neotropical passerines - 1 Yellow-throated Vireo, 1 Red-eyed Vireo, and 1-2 Summer Tanagers. A single Broad-winged Hawk and an eastbound adult Little Blue Heron were the only interesting air traffic.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Aftermath of Humberto

I must say, the older I get the more I believe in God. Not the loving savior who cares about our suffering and answers our prayers, I mean the angry old testament God, the impersonal bringer of destruction who f**ks with us just because he can.

As hurricanes go, Humberto was limp-wristed and a tad swishy - more of a climatic hissy fit than a catastrophe. Some of our plants were blown down, and there are a lot of fallen branches to clean up, but this time we didn't lose any trees and our home wasn't damaged. Of course, since Hurricane Rita we don't have as many trees to lose. Now that was a catastrophe.

Humberto is the first hurricane to make landfall on the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in 2005. Prior to Wilma the last hurricane to strike the U.S. was Rita. So two out of three of the most recent hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. hit Southeast Texas. Such a gross violation of the law of averages should raise the odds against another hurricane landing here anytime soon...unless God just wants to f**k with us.

Blogging From Inside Hurricane Humberto

RIGHT NOW we are in the midst of a hurricane. That's right - A HURRICANE. Not a supersized mas grande category 5 deathstorm, but a hurricane nonetheless. As I write I can hear the wind roaring outside, and the occasional cracking and thumping of things falling down. Nature is flexing her muscles tonight. It's kinda cool.

This one really snuck up on us. I had been following the weather, hoping it would produce some good birding, but somehow I missed the part about a tropical storm spinning our way. I only found out when Troy called to warn us late yesterday afternoon. From the news reports it didn't look like such a big deal, and we decided not to panic. Heavy rain was predicted, but wind speeds then associated with the storm were less than alarming. During the night, while we were trying to sleep, the storm intensified, and Tropical Storm Humberto was upgraded to a category 1 hurricane.

Since we still have power we can watch local news and track the storm, which is now moving to the northeast. Most of Southeast Texas is presently without power. Actually I'm surprised that we haven't lost power yet. Of course that could change at any minute. It's still dark outside, so I can't see what's going on, but I'm hearing powerful wind gusts and some strange sounds...

I'm more concerned about the rain, which has been coming down heavily for hours. From local news we know there is street flooding in Beaumont. We live close to the bayou. Water's gonna rise. At least we are on high ground and have flood insurance (thanks to Michelle's powers of persuasion). Just heard more unpleasant cracking and bonking sounds from outside...

Well that's it for now. I'll post un update later, assuming we aren't washed away. This one really caught us off guard, and we aren't the only ones. I'm sure there are some sound sleepers out there who are gonna wake up this morning to discover that they just slept through a hurricane!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Move Along, Move Along, Nothing To See Here

There certainly wasn't much to see here today. I was hoping for some raptor migration, but only had one Red-shouldered Hawk and one Broad-winged Hawk, neither of which appeared to be on their way to anywhere else. This evening I wasted more time searching the sky over our backyard without seeing a single bird. Now that's not easy to do - seeing absolutely nothing takes special skill. Finally gave up when I got tired of being bitten by gnats and mosquitoes. Heard a few Summer Tanagers calling at dusk.

I've taken more photos of bugs and flowers - further proof of how dull the birding has become.This orb weaver has caught some "love bugs" in its web. Love bugs, like fire ants, are exotic pests that originated in South America. They don't bite, but their annual mating flights are a major nuisance. Some years are worse than others (this one being a prime example). They fly around aimlessly, bumping into people and things. Our car windshields are coated with their splattered corpses. Because they feed on nectar they are attracted to hummingbird feeders, which they crawl inside and clog.This is a view of our front yard, complete with feeders, birdbath, and flowering plants for the hummingbirds.

A cold front is expected to arrive tomorrow, and with it we might get some birds. John Arvin reported to the TEXBIRDS mailing list this evening that NEXRAD indicates a strong push of migrants occurring, the first such event this season. Rain is predicted, and it's likely that some migrants will be grounded. I have a job interview tomorrow afternoon, but I'm tempted to make an early run for the coast...

Breaking News...Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead

...And the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still extinct. Since the undiscovery in Arkansas over 11,600 messages have been posted over at Birdforum on the subject of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Everything that can be said on this topic has been said...repeatedly. Even Tom Nelson of the Ivory-bill Skeptic blog has gotten bored. Now he's on a crusade to debunk global warming alarmism. I sincerely hope he's right, because where I live it's already warmed up quite enough.

Reminds me of this bit of cartoon wisdom from "King of the Hill":

Dale: "I say let the world warm up. See what Boutros Boutros Ghali Ghali thinks about that! We'll grow oranges in Alaska."
Hank: "Dale, you giblet-head, we live in Texas. It's already 110 in the summer, and if it gets one degree hotter, I'm gonna kick your ass!"

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Babies in the Blog

Michelle has demanded that I post more baby pictures. She is quite adamant. So to appease my beloved shrew I have posted a few pictures of our little darlings, Bryce and Lucy (or as we affectionately call her, Lucyfer - if you were to see her go into one of her screaming meltdowns you would understand how she got that little nickname). Here is one of our methods for enforcing quiet in our home.And here you can see why restraints are sometimes required.Michelle is hovering nearby, and wants me to make it clear that we are not abusing our children. We've simply learned some helpful strategies (such as swaddling) for calming them down and keeping them from abusing us. Better this than locking them in a closet. Not that we would ever do that...I think.

Today, while waiting in line at the Taco Bell drive-thru in Lumberton, I observed a rattus of indeterminate species brazenly prowling the edge of the parking lot. This would be normal behavior for a squirrel, but it's unusual to see a rat foraging in the open at midday. Later, while rocking Lucy in our living room, I looked out our front window in time to see a Broad-winged Hawk drop on some unfortunate little creature and fly off, the victim clutched in its talons. Broad-winged Hawks have been a conspicuous presence in our neighborhood lately, and when I'm outside I frequently hear them whistling to each other. No doubt the squirrels are nervous.

One more obligatory baby picture. Damn they're cute.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Happy Labor Day!

Another gloomy day in paradise. Rained and drizzled, with more of the same predicted for tomorrow. Had babies to tend to, but between parenting and bouts of wet weather I still managed to do a little birding. Wasn't exactly action-packed. Saw a couple of Red-eyed Vireos in fruiting magnolias along the edge of our backyard. Tried scanning the sky for raptor migration...denied. A lone White Ibis was the only flyover worth mentioning. Mobs of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to spar over our feeders. Now where is that Green Violet-ear I've been waiting for?