Monday, October 26, 2009

My Hornsby Bend list

I realized I didn't tell you the whole list of birds we saw at Hornsby, only the few lifers of which I got photos. Leaving it at that would be selling the place short; they had birds all over the place! Who knew that birds would like waste drain ponds and "solid waste" (ahem) drying areas? Here's the complete list of what we saw:
Red Phalarope--despite being listed as "very rare" for October, this guy posed for every birder there. Very cool.
American Avocet--LOVE.THEM.
Least Sandpiper--these are supposed to be abundant during October at HBBR; true to advertising, two flocks of 50 or more were in the drying areas, along with other sandpipers mixed in--but IDing the others was way too tough for me. Someone else ID'd these guys for me first.)
American White Pelican--two of them were lounging on the water like swans! They were beautiful.
Crested Caracara--these birds are AWESOME, a much anticipated lifer--they look like the kind of scary bird that would eat your eyes out in a horror movie.
White-faced Ibis--these were supposed to be plentiful as well, but I only saw one--he looked almost like a Glossy Ibis, but they're supposed to be rare here right now, so I felt confident calling this one a White-faced in winter plumage. I thought I'd gotten a photo, but I think Mary's the one who got it.
Least Grebe--I didn't see any Eared Grebes although the web site site they'd be common; I did, however, see this tiny little grebe, along with some other birds listed as "uncommon" during Octobers past, like the White Pelicans and the Crested Caracaras.
Loggerhead Shrike--wish this one had been closer; I was glad I at least had the scope to watch him for a bit in the distance; a birding guide who was leading a trip pointed him out to us.
Ruddy Duck--they're working hard to become my favorite duck because of their sassiness, but being in winter plumage didn't help them knock Wood Duck out of the top spot.
Killdeer--it was like being back in PA, listening to these guys calling constantly.
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Turkey Vulture
Eastern Phoebe
Belted Kingfisher
Blue Jay
American Crow
Cattle Egret
Carolina Wren
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Blue-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
American Coot
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Northern Cardinal
Mourning Dove
European Starling
Common Grackle

I saw a few unidentifiable birds too: some generic sandpiper/peeps that were mixed in with the tiny Least Sandpipers; a flycatcher of some sort (not vocalizing, so no chance of an ID from me); a warbler that might have been a Nashville, but I just didn't get a good enough look to make sure (people were saying there was one around); and one bird that looked like a small wren but had a crazy call that was unlike any wren I know of -- I haven't been able to ID him at all, but I do have a short video of his call so I'm still working on it.

HBBR is quite a place, with three huge ponds full of ducks and other birds, a wooded trail that has several cuts to the Colorado River and some good viewing outlooks, and a marshy area in one of the big ponds. There are also a lot of open fields around the facility where we saw the caracaras and the shrike. Mary and some other birders saw a coyote but I didn't.

It was pretty wild to see that Red Phalarope, and I'm so glad I got such a long look at him.

There were many birds I didn't see that were supposed to be abundant or common during October. I didn't see any Eared Grebes, Swainson's Hawks, Wilson's Snipes, American Pipits, Lincoln's Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, or Lesser Scaups. I was bummed that I didn't see the whistling duck; those guys are supposed to be all over central and southern Texas.

Listed as fairly common among the sandpipers were Baird's and Stilt Sandpipers--I just couldn't summon the patience or the closer view to ID the bigger pipers wandering among the little Least Sandpipers though. I thought I saw a Long-billed Dowitcher but he vanished during my flipping through the guide to make sure. Wilson's Phalarope was also supposed to be there but wasn't; same for the Vesper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Nashville Warbler (assuming I didn't see him that one time I mentioned above).

All in all, though, it was quite a day at the Reserve. My old friend Kris and I went back on Sunday but didn't stay long--we saw the avocets and some more caracaras, then we went for breakfast! Mary and I had spent all morning and all afternoon (with a short lunch break) there on Saturday, and I was just too tired to stay much longer than a couple of hours on Sunday. But we had a nice time; I hadn't seen Kris in years, and our friendship dates back to the early 1980s!

So my lifelist stands at 233, and I'm really looking forward to a quick weekend trip south. I really want to see some Green Jays and all the other RGV specialties. I might have to wait until spring, but even then it'll be a great trip. I might even get to see my old college town of Kingsville, my old hometown of Harlingen, and my birthplace of McAllen. It's funny; it feels like I've been away from Texas forever, even though it's only been seven years. But the old memories are still there, and my heart still swells with Texas pride when I think of bluebonnets, longhorn cattle, and huge open expanses of this state.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stinky birding, great birding

I went to Austin last weekend to visit my sister and her new husband, and on Saturday Mary and I went to the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. It was, in a word, aromatic, seeing as how the site is also a solid waste sewage treatment plant... but I saw some amazing birds!

Here's Mary, stylin' with my little scope:

Here are some of the birds we saw, starting off with the weird buggy eyes on this MODO:
I swore at first that it couldn't be a Mourning Dove--I mean, MODO eyes aren't that big and buggy and the eye ring is much smaller and more subdued! But I can't find any other dove it might be, based on all the other field markings. Is it possible that this dove has that House Finch eye disease? Look at how shaggy his head is. Poor little guy.

This poor American Kestrel was having a bad feather day:I don't think this pic captured it, but he looked like he was having a rough molt.

The butterfly migration is still in high gear, and I caught this beauty:
I love those silver spots on the wing undersides. I remember seeing lots of these when I was a kid in the Rio Grande Valley: Gulf Fritillary!

At one point, there was a huge dither among the many birders who were on the trails; someone had spotted a Red Phalarope in one of the big ponds, and the bird was posing for photos! Check out this rare lifer:

There was a guy there who went to every little crowd of birders gathered along the shore of the pond and said that this was "the bird of the year!" I don't know about that, but this bird is certainly a long way from his Arctic home and from his "southern oceans" wintering area. I would give anything to see one of these in breeding plumage. Apparently, the female phalaropes are the ones who do the searching for the mates, and they leave the males behind to take care of the nest--a matriarchy!

Later, I saw these Crested Caracaras, another lifer!

I have been able to really look at a lot of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers lately; they're everywhere down here:

Check out those salmony pink undercoverts. Even the tail feathers are that color, with black at the ends.

The butterflies were a constant presence:I kept seeing their movements and thinking, "BIRD!" and then it was just another butterfly. Monarchs, all kinds of Emperors (this one a Hackberry Emperor), and those American Snouts from my last post.

This swallowtail--Zebra Swallowtail?--put on quite a flying show:After watching him for a long time, I realized that his upper wing segments moved all the time, while the lower segments were more like rudders.

Look at this big fatty of a turtle; is it a Snapping Turtle?The ones in PA looked different.

Here's another lifer, an American Avocet:There were four of these guys, enjoying a marshy area at the head of one of the big ponds on the facility. It was a real thrill to see one of these, finally. I love that upturned bill.

Finally, there's this sparrow:I thought it was a Song Sparrow, but then I thought it wasn't because the center "hat-pin" spot isn't there, then I thought it couldn't be anything else -- finally, I realized I was probably over-thinking the whole thing. Is it a Song Sparrow or what?

Now that I'm working 8-5 during the week, it's harder to get birding trips in. I also don't really know if there are any birds around right now. I know the Gulf Coast is hopping, but I don't think I'm gonna get down there anytime soon. Still--I'd like to hit the Rockport/Aransas Wildlife Refuge area some weekend to see the wintering species. Of course, my shorebird ID skills are so lame that I don't know how much good it would do! I'd also love to head all the way down to Harlingen and look for those specialties that can only be found in the tip of the state. But there again, money and time and a problem. Maybe once I get regular paychecks, I'll be able to set aside a few bucks a week until I have enough for a winter trip.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Migration mania!

I heard a crazy bird sound outside my window earlier this afternoon (sort of a brrrrrzzzzzt -- like when you click the tines of a comb with your thumbnail -- and a few sharp chips), and I got inspired to do a little neighborhood birding today, and boy am I glad I went!

Mommy-the-birder and I went for a leisurely walk in the hot muggy afternoon, and I sweated about a gallon's worth. Birding down here is certainly going to be a lot harder than in the cool breezes of Pennsylvania and California!

We saw the usual squajillion White-winged Doves all over plus a couple of Inca Doves running away from us on the sidewalk:They didn't let me get very close. I really like these little guys, with their "scalloped"-looking feathers. They're everywhere down here. I keep trying to make one of them into a Common Ground Dove, but so far no luck. Apparently, the ground dove has black edging on the tail--these guys all have white.

We also saw this hummingbird of undetermined species (probably just a Ruby-throated) partaking of these beautiful orange-yellow flowers -- check out the blur of the wings:Speaking of hummers, that male Calliope Hummingbird--as well as all the other regular visitors to my mom's feeder--vanished. We've been watching every day, at all the usual times and whenever we pass that window, and nothing. Not even ruby-throats. I guess they've gone south.

As we walked back toward the house, Mom looked up and found these migrants!

I figured these were Snow Geese, but when I went home and checked the guides, I realized that the wings were wrong. I'm stumped and I need your help: What are these birds?

They looked to me almost like pelicans (Mommy-the-birder says I'm crazy), but pelicans don't fly in the wedge, do they? And do they even migrate down here? Still, looking at the guides, the black pattern on the wings matches American White Pelican... and my first general impression was that I was looking at a pelican--with the head drawn back, long bill, white with the black on the wings.... ? Look at them in isolation, cropped from the original two photos above (click all for huger):
These are not Snow Geese! Look at the black pattern on the wings.

Check out this guy in the upper right corner--crane? pelican?
What are these birds?

By the way, did you notice the little black specks in those photos? There were literally thousands of small butterflies in the air, headed for points south. I found a couple to photograph, one alive on a window screen and one, sadly, dead:
This guy wasn't too colorful, but look at this poor little half-gone specimen:
Everybody's migrating south -- even me, come to think of it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Calliope Hummingbird!

I just watched a male Calliope Hummingbird at my mom's backyard feeder! Lifer! I didn't have time to get the camera before he zoomed off, but you can bet I'll be watching for him from now on. I'd only seen a female before, and I couldn't tell whether it was a Ruby-Throated or a more exotic but just as likely Black-Chinned. According to the guides, both females look pretty much identical.

I've set up my spotting scope in the dining room, near a window from which my dad removed the screen for me, with the scope trained on the hummer feeder. My mom has been delighted with the results, watching the mostly female hummers visit at almost regular times during each day. She called me over from my pancakes this morning, saying that there was a new hummer feeding -- and sure enough, the long chin stripes confirmed the ID. It was too cloudy to see the red; they just looked like long thin dark streaks, but still -- woo-hoo!

I started re-reading Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway last night, and I was amused to find that I shared his attitude about traveling and moving around the country; he thought only about what new birds he'd be able to see in the new landscape, never about the difficulty of the transitions. That's pretty much what's been keeping my spirits up in this time of constant change and (so far, at least) disappointment.

What's also helped is the sweet and encouraging comments of all you bloggy pals. I sure hope to be able to deliver some good news on the job front soon.

Niblet's taken to hiding under the bed for most of the day, much to my disappointment. His grandma has been spoiling him something fierce, giving him carrots along with his usual veggies (cilantro, parsley, and broccoli stems). He'll come out, grab the carrot, and dash back under the bed. Some grandson he is; he won't even allow her to pet him! I fear he's been a little depressed without Matty's attentions, but he seems physically fine.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The road home...

...was long and beautiful but kinda monotonous. Needless to say, Niblet and I are pretty spent from the trip, but we're settling in here in San Antonio.

The first day, I drove us from Rohnert Park right past the posh areas of Palm Springs and Indian Wells to a run-down little town called Indio, CA. There were so many closed restaurants and businesses all around the motel, but there was a little strip mall closer to the center of town where Subway and Starbucks and Baskin-Robbins were apparently still in business.

The next morning, we started early and, with a speed limit most of the way set at 80mph, we pretty much flew across the desert of Arizona and New Mexico. I did manage to get some pretty terrible photos (both taken in the sunset light) of two lifers:

The pics are so terrible that it's hard to make out, but I feel confident that my ID of Cactus Wren (which was made with a much better view of the bird through my binocs) is correct. He definitely had the spotty sides and the much larger than other wrens. There were a couple of them flying around the Motel 6 parking lot with the House Sparrows, just flying casual like they were no big deal. I guess they're not in the desert southwest, but they were a big deal to me!

The second lifer I saw, at a rest area somewhere in Arizona, is, I believe, a Cassin's Kingbird:
I was pretty confident that it was a kingbird from the second I saw it, but I figured it was a Western Kingbird. Still, when I studied the field guide later, I realized that the darker breast and the lack of white-edged tailfeathers indicated a Cassin's Kingbird. Pretty cool bird! I listened to the vocalizations later, and I'm pretty sure that I was hearing a Cassin's Kingbird.

I also saw this other bird that I have no clue about -- look at how flat and elongated his posture is:
This bird made no vocalizations, and he refused to turn around and face me so I could get a better look at him. At first I thought it was just the Cassin's, but note the tiny beak, and that weird posture was not at all like the more upright Kingbird. Any clues?

By now, the sun was pretty much gone:but I still managed to drive us all the way into El Paso that second night. Again, the amazingly high speed limit was a big help.

I had a sleepless night thanks to a sore tooth (I think it's from clenching my jaws at night), so I finally gave up on sleep at about 5 a.m. when I saw that Niblet was in his cage using his litty. I slammed the door shut (much to his chagrin), loaded up, and left El Paso. The speed limit out west was still 80 so I made it to San Antonio late that afternoon, very much exhausted but glad to be off the road.

I had some great pics of the Texas Hill Country, but for some reason they didn't come off my camera in the download. I'm a little confused by this, not to mention worried. I somehow managed to damage the LCD screen on the camera, which was (I thought) safe in my bag but somehow got banged up or something. Still, I usually use the eye viewer to shoot pics anyway because my vision is so terrible up close. But now these disappearing pics -- hmmm.

- - - -
This post has taken a week to write and upload; it's now a full week since I got here. I'm still searching for a job, but I'm amazed at the number of good jobs there are here, many of which demand great writing and editing skills -- something I kinda have a lock on, considering my past jobs as a technical editor, a managing editor, and an English teacher. So I'm confident that something will come through. Meanwhile, keep those positive thoughts coming in a southerly direction, friends -- thanks a bunch!

I'll be going to Austin next weekend (my brother's coming into town to see my this weekend) and birding at the Hornsby Bend Birding Reserve, which is supposed to be amazing. I've already downloaded a list of birds commonly seen there in Octobers past, and I'm totally pumped about seeing "abundant" Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and all sorts of Sandpipers and other migrants. You can be sure that I'll be studying my field guides over the next week to prepare for all those great Texas birds.

You'll notice I changed the banner (again). It's kind-of strange to be "coming home" to Texas as a complete novice on Texas birds. But my hardcore days as a beginning birder didn't actually begin until I moved to Pennsylvania, a very birdy place in its own right. I've been studying the Peterson's Guide to Texas Birds that I got for my mom back in February, along with my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and my Peterson's Western Birds. My mother just laughs at me when she sees me, jumping from book to book, trying to get every possible look at potential lifers.

By the way, that National Geographic guide is actually pretty darned nice -- good illustrations across the page from the descriptions, range maps on the same page as the descriptions, and detailed descriptions of range and habitat -- I was pretty surprised. And I got it for only ten bucks at Your Friendly Neighborhood Corporate Overlord Bookstore That's Driving Many Independent Bookstores To Ruin, aka Barnes & Noble (I had a giftcard). Give it a look, if you're itching to get a guide for the whole USA.