Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Musical Tribute to Turdus Migratorius; Identifying Birds By Their Funny Walks

I mean really, Turdus? Don't tell me someone wasn't snickering when they named that bird. Latin is such a cruel language.

When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along...

Funny - brings to mind a bird walk I went on many years ago with a park ranger in Yosemite. He took the "bird walk" bit literally, and demonstrated for us the distinctive walks of the different birds. Some bounce, some strut, some swagger, etc. Some, like swifts and hummingbirds, don't walk at all (at least when anyone is looking). Ducks waddle. Spotted Sandpipers teeter. Jays hop. Ravens amble. Pipits meander. Longspurs crouch and crawl. Robins take short runs ending in sudden halts, which I guess could be described as bob-bob-bobbin' along. That may even be the technical term.

I see a new frontier of bird identification waiting to be explored. Maybe someday you'll open an issue of Birding to see an article on high-stepping among the icteridae, or comparing the foot speed and relative bounciness of Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes. When you do remember you read it here first.

Monday, January 28, 2008

No Birds

No birds today. No birds over the weekend either. Being of a scientific mindset I consulted the magic eight ball, according to which the likelihood of any birds in the near future is very doubtful. Birds tomorrow? My sources say no. Wednesday? Don't count on it. Thursday? Outlook not so good. Friday? Ask again later. Big plans have been made for next weekend, so I'm assuming no birds then. Might as well hang up the bins, they'll just get dusty lying around.

Today an elderly gentleman who was trying to get to I-10 drove into our parking lot, crossed the railroad tracks into Riverfront Park, followed the footpath along the river, took his car down a short flight of stairs, managed to squeeze it through the narrow pedestrian underpass, and ended his journey of discovery in the little courtyard directly below our building - boldly parking where no man has ever parked before. The police were able to remove his car. As you may have guessed our building is nowhere near I-10.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Least Expected

Yesterday my not-so-big year (a.k.a the Smallest Twitch) finally passed the century mark. I had a few hours for birding in the afternoon, so I went to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. First stop was the Skillern Tract. It was there that I found this headless yet fully functioning Least Sandpiper. Probably due to its lack of eyes, ears, and brain I was able to get quite close for this photo. Ross's Geese used to be rare in Texas, but in recent years their breeding range has expanded eastward, and now they commonly winter along the Gulf Coast. Yesterday I made a rough count of about 60 Ross's mingling with Snow Geese in the Skillern Tract. Such large numbers are no longer considered unusual.

After that I birded the main entrance road and Shoveler Pond loop. Raptors and sparrows were disappointing. Best find was a Least Flycatcher along the path that parallels the little drainage between the refuge entrance kiosk and "the willows." Interestingly I had one in this same area in January of 2004. Managed to get some awful pictures, of which this one was least awful:Since the weather turned cold we've had a lot of activity at our feeders. Yesterday a Red-breasted Nuthatch paid us a brief visit, and today a female House Finch was #108 for the year. Lately there have been reports of Purple Finches across Texas, and with luck we might get some here. I'll be watching.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pine Siskin Invasion?

This morning I was surprised to find a couple of Pine Siskins at our feeders (#74 for the year list). We've had siskins here before, but that was during an invasion year. These are the first I've seen this winter, and I doubt they are part of any larger movement. If an irruption is going on it hasn't been very well publicized.

Temperatures continue to yo-yo. At the moment we are in a cooling trend, with lows expected to dip into the 30s - cold, but not exactly the icy death-grip of winter. Earlier this month it was warm enough that geckos were crawling over the outside of our house at night. Such is the extremely variable nature of Southeast Texas weather.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Wish They All Could Be California Gulls

Sorry. That pun was cruel and unusual.These western (interior breeding) Willets were photographed yesterday at Sea Rim State Park. Willets have two allopatric breeding populations, one along the eastern/gulf coast, and the other in the western interior. The eastern and western birds differ in behavior and morphology. How different are they? Even I can tell them apart. And that means I smell a split coming. The question isn't Willet happen, but when. Hear me now and believe me later, they will be split. Oh yes, they will. Look closely at the birds in the photo. They know.

The Smallest Twitch continues at breakneck speed. Yesterday I looked around our yard and added 5 more species - Wood Duck, Inca Dove, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Red-winged Blackbird. Nothing exceptional, although Wood Ducks are at best infrequent visitors to our pond.

After church MIchelle gave me leave to go birding in the afternoon. Since I had limited time I opted for Sabine Woods and Sea Rim State Park, which are reasonably close to home. On my way to Sabine Pass I picked up some easy ticks - Brown Pelican, Belted Kingfisher, etc. Sabine Woods was quiet, but I did get my first Anhingas, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and mosquito swarms of 2008. Even in winter Sabine Woods can be hopelessly buggy. Not that all the bugs were unpleasant; some were more decorative, like this Red Admiral that I photographed along one of the paths.I did better at Sea Rim State Park, which is still closed due to Hurricane Rita (apparently they can't reopen until they get the toilets fixed, which more than two years later still aren't working...there's such a fine line between government in action and government inaction). I'd been told that the beach at Sea Rim was a good place to look for scoters, and so I tried my luck. There were indeed scoters, in fact I got all 3 species in a single large flock (1 White-winged, about 15 Black, and approximately 40 Surf Scoters). I don't know if these are unusual numbers for the Upper Texas Coast, but considering that I had never seen any scoters in Texas before, they certainly seemed high to me. A male Greater Scaup bobbing offshore was also new for the year (and for my Texas list).

There was a large gull flock stretched along the shoreline, and I sifted through them hoping to find something other than the usual Laughing, Ring-billed , and Herring Gulls. I had Lesser Black-backed in mind, since they seem to be on the increase. Instead I was surprised to find an adult California Gull. For a California Gull its mantle was relatively pale, and it had just a little gray mottling on its nape, so it was probably from the Northern Great Plains population. I tried to get closer for a photo, but it wouldn't wait around for that.

Not only was California Gull new for the year, it was my fifth state bird of the day! Actually my fifth state bird in less than an hour - that doesn't happen very often.

Of course there were the usual gulls, terns, and shorebirds, including a Ruddy Turnstone and a few Snowy Plovers. On the drive home I added Osprey to the list.

This morning, while lying in the dentist's office having my teeth cleaned, I watched a House Wren (species #73 for the year) popping in and out of the front wheel of a Mini Cooper in the parking lot. I get 'em wherever I can.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Smallest Twitch...It's ON!

I love birding games, particularly anything with the word big in it - big days, big sits, big years. These days I don't have enough time or money to do birding in a big way, but I enjoy following the exploits of those who do.

A British couple, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, are presently attempting to set the record for a world big year. Best of luck to them! To do so they will have to see over 3,662 species in 2008. You can wait for the book (I'm assuming there will be a book because there always is) or track their progress at www.thebiggesttwitch.com.

They started the year in southern Arizona, which I find slightly puzzling. It wouldn't have been my choice - I've never thought of Arizona as a prime winter destination. To me it's always been more of a summer place (in fact Michelle and I have been talking about possibly making a trip there in June). But their decision to go in winter appears to be an example of brilliant strategery, as George Bush would say. Considering all the neat birds they saw it looks like it paid off for them. Well played, well played indeed!

I'm also setting a birding goal for myself in 2008. I've decided to do a North American big year. What the hell, let's call it a world big year (I've got a passport I probably won't get to use, but it's there just in case...). My expectations are modest. Minimalist, actually. I have a full-time job, no money, and twins under one year old to care for, so the word "big" doesn't properly apply to my big year. Serious chasing is out of the question, and even on weekends I'll have little opportunity to travel. I'll have to do most of my birding at home, while commuting to and from work, and in those rare moments when Michelle doesn't know what I'm up to.

But like a paraplegic mountain climber or legless marathon runner, I won't allow obvious handicaps to prevent me from attempting the futile. No matter how few species I see this year I plan to declare victory and celebrate my accomplishment, as miniscule as it may be.

I'm gonna call my quest the Smallest Twitch, and you can follow my progress (or lack thereof) in this blog. I've already tallied a staggering 34 species in the first week. A Great Egret seen yesterday at Riverfront Park was #35, and proved once again that even the foulest pollution and noise won't keep ALL the birds away. So let the competition begin. Sandy Komito, you are on notice. Alan Davies and Ruth Miller - you have been served!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008: Taking Out the Trash and Starting Anew

Jean-Paul Sarte once wrote that "hell is other people" (actually what he wrote was "L'enfer, c'est les autres," but I don't read French). I also don't usually quote beret-wearing existentialists, but he really hit the nail on the head, even if he did it in the wrong language.

We just returned from a disasterous family trip to California. When I say disasterous I mean like the Hindenburg. The Titanic. Star Wars Episode I. It was that bad. Michelle likened it to Dante's third circle of hell - the one with the eternal rain, stinky mud, mean three-headed dog, and the whole family waiting for you there.

The babies did splendidly, which quite surprised me. I had assumed they would be difficult and make us miserable. But we had adults for that. Imagine a sack full of neurotic badgers with their tails tied together and you have a good picture of what Christmas with the family was like. Live and learn - next time (assuming we are ever foolhardy enough to visit family during the holidays) we'll definitely be staying at a motel.

Everyone survived (barely). We did have a few peaceful moments. Our trip to Monterey and Big Sur was pleasant enough. It was mainly sightseeing, but I managed to see a few birds, the best of which was this pair of Harlequin Ducks on the rocks in Monterey Harbor.The bird in the crummy photo below was also inside Monterey Harbor. Can you identify it by silhouette? Hint: think of a large cantankerous African herbivore with poor vision.Later we made stops along the Pacific Grove Shoreline and 17-Mile Drive to admire the coastal scenery...which gave me a convenient excuse to look for rocky shore specialists such as Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, and Black Oystercatchers.

I did get to enjoy one full day of birding. On the 29th Ann Verdi and I covered Calero and Chesbro Reservoirs for the Calero-Morgan Hill CBC. Water levels were low (Chesbro was a mere puddle). Our best birds were at Calero, where we had three species usually associated with saltwater - Red-throated Loon, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser. The first two were stakeouts; the merganser was unexpected and a first both for the reservoir and the count.

Unfortunately the resident Bald Eagle failed to make an appearance. Ann had seen it the day before, but on count day it was a no-show.

These are my best photos from the count:Immature Sharp-shinned HawkWestern Scrub-Jay

We got over 80 species in our section of the count circle. So aside from alienating half of my family and coming perilously close to divorce it wasn't that bad a trip.

I ended 2007 with 313 species, so unless there is a special category for underachieving fathers of twins I don't expect any calls from the folks at Guinness World Records. My first bird of 2008 was a male Rufous Hummingbird seen from our kitchen window. My second bird was a goddamned European Starling, so I'm glad I saw the hummingbird first. I just couldn't stomach the idea of starting the new year with a f**k**g starling.