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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The mockingbird says, "Happy New Year!"

All week I've been complaining about the absence of the Northern Mockingbird from my yard. I had missed seeing one when I was doing my survey on Tuesday and all week long I looked for one in vain. No more! Today, the bird showed up in my yard again.

And there he is just in time to wish us all a happy New Year.

My yard has its mockingbird back and all is right with the world! Happy 2012!

Friday, December 30, 2011

This week in birds - #3

Here's a round-up of stories about birds, Nature, and the world of science that were in the news this week. Click on the highlighted links to read the entire story.


A gray wolf that has entered California from Oregon is the first wolf recorded in that state since 1924. The wolf is two-and-a-half years old and is wearing a tracking collar. Scientists are monitoring its movements.


And speaking of gray wolves, since they were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, they have changed the ecology of the park. The elk and coyote populations in the park have declined while the beaver population has increased. Aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees also have benefited as the elk population has declined.


In every political season, which seems to encompass 365 days of the year every year nowadays, we can expect to see some anti-science politician issuing his list of research projects which he thinks are a waste of taxpayers' money. On the face of it, the projects certainly may sound wasteful, but a Scientific American blogger explains why a Japanese Quail research project deserves support and should not be made fun of by know-nothing politicians like Sen. Coburn of Oklahoma.   


The Red Knot, a small migratory shorebird, is in trouble in many areas. Scientists are now studying the population that winters on the Gulf Coast to determine if its numbers are stable.


The Bureau of Land Management is working on proposals for establishing "wind development zones" around wind farms in order to protect birds and bats.


A new study reveals that the centuries-old activities of beavers on the North American continent have had a major impact on shaping the landscape of the continent.


The Rufous Hummingbird is a wanderer and, as winters continue to get warmer across the continent, they are turning up as "accidental tourists" in many unexpected places during winter.


The California Fish and Game Commission recently voted to add the Black-backed Woodpecker to its list of species that need protection. The bird is threatened because of an ever-shrinking habitat due to logging of burned stands of timber in the Sierra Nevada.


It is well-known that butterflies sometimes mimic other species that have toxicity in order to gain protection from predators. What is less well-known perhaps is that their caterpillars do it, too


The Gambel's Quail is a lovely little quail that inhabits parts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. Scientists in Mexico are now studying patterns of hybridization between it and the Elegant Quail of Mexico.


Around my backyard: Since doing my unofficial Christmas Bird Count on Tuesday, I have recorded a few more of the birds that I missed on that date:

Red-tailed Hawk - 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet -1
Eastern Phoebe - 1
American Robin - 1 
Chipping Sparrow -1

Curiously, I still have not seen a Northern Mockingbird in my yard this week, but I did find a clump of feathers that might have come from a mockingbird. A predator of some kind had evidently captured the bird. Perhaps that explains the absence.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My personal CBC

Today was the day that I had planned to do my own unofficial Christmas Bird Count in my neighborhood. As it turned out I proved to be a very inept counter.

First, my day got off to a late start. After several rather hectic days, I slept soundly and long last night and did not set my alarm. The result was that I did not wake until around 9:30, so I missed some of the best hours for bird observations, the early morning hours when birds are active and feeding. Well, never mind. After I did manage to drag myself out of bed, I spent much of the rest of the day watching and counting birds. Here are some of the ones that I saw.

 American Goldfinch perched in the sycamore tree above my head.

A male Northern Cardinal, the iconic Christmas card bird,  fairly glows while sitting in the shrubbery waiting for his turn at the feeder

Meanwhile, his pretty mate feeds on the ground underneath the feeders.

She was joined by a Blue Jay who was checking out the seed selection on the ground. 

Just when I was thinking to myself that I had not seen a White-winged Dove all day, one flew in and perched on the cross-bars of the feeder system. 

At the end of the day, I had counted a paltry 17 species of birds in the yard or flying over it. I know that there are several other species that I could have added had I been a more diligent counter. I should have had at least 25, but here is the list of the ones that I did manage to tally:

Black Vulture (flying over) - 1
Turkey Vulture (flying over) - 2
Cooper's Hawk - 1
Eurasian Collared-dove - 1
White-winged Dove - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Blue Jay - 1
American Crow (flying over) - 1
Carolina Chickadee - 6
Tufted Titmouse - 1
Carolina Wren - 1
Cedar Waxwing - 10
Pine Warbler - 1
Northern Cardinal - 5
American Goldfinch - 12
House Sparrow - 10+

Others that I know are here but that I didn't see today include: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, White-throated Sparrow, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pileated Woodpecker, American Robin, House Finch, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Eastern Bluebird. Most curiously of all, I did not see or hear a Northern Mockingbird all day long! 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cedar Waxwings!

I've been trapped indoors these last few days, first by inclement weather and then by feeding and entertaining our family who visited us for the holidays. It was a wonderful experience and I wouldn't have changed anything - including the rain - but it didn't leave me any time to spend with my backyard feathered friends. The last of the holiday visitors were on their way by mid-day today, and I rushed outside to refill all the bird feeders and check on what was happening there. What a wonderful surprise was waiting for me!

Sometime over the weekend - maybe they arrived on Santa's sleigh - the Cedar Waxwings  had checked into the Backyard Birder's guest quarters.  When I went outside to fill the feeders today, the first voices I heard were the trilled sreee coming from a big flock of the birds that had settled into the trees around the yard. It was a most welcome sound that brought a smile to my face, for Cedar Waxwings are among my favorite winter visitors. (And yes, I know I say that about all of them!)

Waxwings really are special though. They are such dapper birds, always perfectly coiffed with every feather in place. I love to watch them as they sit in the trees, talking softly to each other and sometimes passing a berry or some other morsel of food back and forth as they sit in a line on a limb.

They are late-arriving visitors, usually turning up around Christmas, but sometimes even later. They are just about on schedule this year and they'll be with us for several months. They are among the last winter migrants to show up but they are also among the last to leave. They are usually in my yard well into spring.

It's still a cold and drizzly day outside, not really conducive to sitting outside and enjoying the birds, but I hope to get out a bit later to try to assess if anybody else checked into my yard when I wasn't looking. For now though, I'm just very happy that the silky brown birds with the distinctive crest, the yellow-tipped tail and black mask have come to visit once again. It would be a sad winter without them.

The blue sky will tell you this picture was not taken on this gray day. This waxwing was in one of my sycamore trees in February of this year. I find that the seeds of the sycamores are a favorite food for the birds that visit my yard.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy holidays

Blogging will be minimal or nonexistent this week as I get myself and my house ready for the holidays and my holiday guests. In any event, there is not a lot to write about these days as the yard continues to be fairly quiet. It seems unusually quiet for this time of year but then this has been an unusual year all the way around.

Nevertheless, my feeders are stocked and my birdbaths filled and I do find time to observe the birds each day. I hope you are enjoying the birds in your yard and that you are looking forward to a joyous holiday season. May 2012 be a happy, healthy and bird-filled year for you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

This week in birds - #2

Here's a round-up of this week's news stories about birds and the world of Nature and science. This will be a weekly feature of the blog. Follow the links to read the complete story.


Gulls love landfills. The residents of Monmouth County, New Jersey have learned that to their sorrow. Large numbers of the big birds have descended on the area recently, having been attracted by a nearby landfill. Big birds create big poop and lots of big birds can create an awful lot of big poop. That is the problem. Officials are trying to find a way to disperse the birds and move them along.   


In a truly bizarre and tragic accident this week in Utah, about 1500 Eared Grebes were killed when they crashed headlong into a parking lot during a storm. Apparently the waterbirds mistook the glistening asphalt of the parking lot for a body of water.


Birds with penises? Yes, indeed, many of the larger birds do have penises. Ostriches, Emus and other members of the ratite family, as well as many large water birds like geese, swans, and ducks, have such an organ. Researchers have established, however, that avian penises differ from mammalian ones in that they become erect when filled with lymphatic fluid rather than blood.


The Black-throated Robin is a rare bird of China. Although it is a close relative of the European Robin, it looks a lot like North America's Black-throated Blue Warbler. There's good news about the endangered robin this week. New breeding sites have been found for the bird in northern China.


It's always exciting when science discovers new, previously unknown species. There have been a whole raft of such discoveries recently:
It's enough to make one wonder what may be lurking, undiscovered, in one's own backyard.


Ecotourism has become a money-making enterprise in many parts of the world and now Sierra Leone in Africa is hoping to add its name to the popular destinations for Nature-lovers. The bird-rich country wants to attract birders. The country which has been a war-torn area for many years has a new national park which has over 500 species of butterflies, 300 species of birds, and 45 species of mammals. This should be enough to pull the tourists in.


In parts of the world, egg collecting is still a popular hobby, even though for the most part it is illegal. In Britain recently, police arrested a notorious thief of rare bird eggs. He had taken eggs from birds' nests in the wild and at the time of his arrest, he had more than 700 eggs in his home


The American Bird Conservancy has petitioned the Department of the Interior to develop stringent regulations to protect birds and other animals in the vicinity of wind farms.


Researchers have established that sparrows that are stressed by the presence of predators produce smaller numbers of offspring than those that feel more secure.


Fossil feathers of a 1,000 year old Ibis on the Hawaiian island of Lanai have given clues to how the bird looked and behaved. It was a smallish flightless bird and had brown and white feathers indicating that it might have looked somewhat like a young White Ibis.

The ancient Ibis might have looked somewhat like these two juvenile White Ibises feeding at Brazos Bend State Park. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Bird Count begins

Tomorrow, December 14, will be the first day of this winter's Christmas Bird Count. The count will run through January 5.

The Christmas Bird Count is the oldest of the citizen science projects that were devised to help people express their interest in and care for birds in ways that actually benefit the birds. The idea for the count came from ornithologist Frank Chapman who was an officer in the newly formed Audubon Society at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, there was a Christmas tradition known as the "side hunt" where Christmas revelers in groups would fan out into the countryside to see how many birds they could kill. The group that had the biggest pile of dead birds at the end of the day "won." In 1900, Chapman sought to substitute a new Christmas tradition, the Christmas Bird Census, for the appalling practice of the side hunt. Groups would count birds instead of shooting them.

Chapman and his dedicated birding friends held twenty-five bird counts on that first Christmas and they tallied around 90 species of birds. I don't think Chapman could have had any idea of how his new tradition would catch on and grow. Today, 111 years later, thousands of bird counts are conducted all over the continent during the three week period that it is held and the total number of species found will most likely top 700. At the end of it all, ornithologists (and all of us) will have a much better idea of where the birds are and what their numbers are here at the beginning of winter, even as the Great Backyard Bird Count in the middle of February gives us similar information about the birds in late winter.

In the Houston and Gulf Coast area, the Houston Audubon Society sponsors many local counts.  There may even be one in your neighborhood and it's not too late to join the fun if you are interested. For example, in my area, the Spring Creek count is held on December 17 and the Cypress (Katy Prairie) count will be held on January 1. As it happens, I will be otherwise occupied on both days, but I'll be doing my own strictly unofficial counts.

On December 27, after all my holiday guests are gone, I'm doing a count in my neighborhood and on January 1, my family and I will be making our annual New Year's Day trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge to survey the birds there.

You can find a list of all the local official counts at the Houston Audubon Society website (link above), along with the contact information if you are interested in taking part.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Project FeederWatch: Weekend #5

I've just been outside making some observations for my Project FeederWatch report. It's a beautiful day. The sun is out and the temperature is moderate and the winds are quiet for the moment, but things are still pretty slow at the feeders. The usual suspects have shown up but nothing unexpected today. The most unexpected visitors I've had this fall so far have been the Dickcissel of a few weeks back and the White-throated Sparrow. The Dickcissel is long gone but the sparrow is still hanging around. I saw him yesterday but not so far today.

Even when there is nothing other than my everyday backyard visitors showing up, it is always fun to watch the interactions of the birds. They never fail to entertain me.

I know that there are some unusual visitors in the area. I'm not that far away from Katy Prairie where Pyrrhuloxias, Green-tailed Towhees, Spotted Towhees, Eastern Towhees (!) and many, many kinds of sparrows have been reported this fall. I can dream that some of these birds might wander into my yard, but I think if I really want a good chance to see them, I'm probably going to have to plan a trip to the Prairie. Maybe even this week. Meantime, I'll try to be content with my chickadees, cardinals, mockingbirds, wrens, and doves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hungry finches

The weather has turned wintry and our favorite winter finches, the American Goldfinches, have started visiting our bird feeders.

Five goldfinches at the front yard feeder this morning.

I had not yet put up my thistle sock feeders. I always wait for that until I see the finches visiting the feeders, otherwise the thistle (nyger) seeds can hang there in the weather and grow stale before the birds start eating them and I have learned to my chagrin that finches will not eat stale seeds. But now that the birds are eating the black oil sunflower seeds, it's time to buy some fresh thistle seeds and get out the socks and hang them.

Not only are the goldfinches visiting the feeders, other birds are hitting the seeds buffet regularly this week. The drop in the temperatures has made them seek additional calories to help keep up their energy and keep warm. It's important for those of us who feed birds in our yards to make sure that the feeders are kept clean and stocked now. It's a particularly good idea now to offer foods with a high fat content. Most birds like suet. Many also like peanuts or peanut butter. If you only offer one type of seed though, the best choice is probably the black oil sunflower seed. These seeds, too, are fairly high in fat content and they are liked by perhaps the greatest variety of backyard birds.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A grim winter ahead for Whooping Cranes?

The extreme drought in Texas and the way that the state manages its available water may have far-reaching effects on the future of the endangered Whooping Crane. The cranes that spend their winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast depend upon an ample population of blue crabs to sustain them through those months, but a reduced supply of water combined with an extreme bloom of red algae, has hampered the production of crabs this year. At the same time, the number of Whooping Cranes returning to the coast this autumn may actually set a new record since the time that the population of the birds dipped into the teens in the 1940s. There may be as many as 300 of the big birds at the refuge when all the migrants from Canada have made their way here. This will only serve to increase the pressure on the blue crabs.

This, of course, has not gone unnoticed by supporters of the birds, which include many businesses and residents of the Rockport area which benefit from the ecotourists who flock (pun intended) to the area from around the world to view the magnificent cranes in their natural surroundings. They are part of a suit that has been filed against the state of Texas to dispute the way that the state controls its water supply. The contention is that too much water is removed from the streams and rivers that flow into Aransas Bay, thus further endangering both the blue crabs and ultimately the Whooping Cranes. Not to mention the economy of the area that to some extent depends upon them. The case is being litigated this week and it will be very interesting to see the outcome.

The outcome of that case will not, however, help the cranes this winter. The food supply for the coming season is already set and we can only hope that we do not see a repeat of the winter a couple of years ago when 23 of the birds died as a result of starvation during the winter.

Meantime, the effort to establish another viable flock of the birds in Louisiana continues with the release this week of sixteen subadult birds to the area. This is the second release this year. The earlier release of ten birds has not fared well. Only three of the birds survive. Two of the birds were killed by predators and one was euthanized due to illness. Two are missing and unaccounted for, while two more were shot by two teenage hunters. It is hoped that the prosecution of the hunters and the publicity surrounding it may serve to offer some protection to the remaining birds.

And then there is the flock of juveniles that were hatched and raised in captivity in Wisconsin and are now being led by ultralight to their winter home in Florida. So far the migration has encountered many days of difficult weather in which they were unable to fly. They have made it as far as Kentucky during their two month flight, but they still have a long way to go.  

All of this just emphasizes how very difficult it is to pull an animal back from the brink of extinction and give it a reasonable chance at long-term survival. Much better to ensure that the animal doesn't get to that brink in the first place.

Friday, December 2, 2011

This week in birds

It has been a very interesting week for birding in my backyard. The weather has been pleasant which means that I've been outside working in my garden every day, trying to get it ready for winter. But whenever I'm outside, no matter what else I may be doing, I'm always watching the birds. This week there has been plenty to watch.

Going all the way back to Thanksgiving, just over a week ago, I was showing some of my guests around the garden that afternoon when I heard a most unexpected sound - the chirruping of a hummingbird!  It was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and it was visiting the blossoms of the Turk's cap, a favorite hummingbird plant. This was very late to be seeing a hummer in my yard, so I checked my records and found that the only later sighting I had had in the backyard was in 2006, when I saw one of the tiny birds on November 28. That stood as my latest recorded sighting. Until today!

This afternoon I was in my backyard taking a rest from my gardening activities while sitting in my favorite chair under the sycamore tree and watching my bird feeders. Suddenly a tiny body flashed across my field of vision and I refocused and realized it was a hummingbird. On the second of December! The bird was scouring the limbs of a crape myrtle and snapping up the small insects it found there. It was in shadow and I couldn't confirm which species it was. I assume it was a Ruby-throat just because all hummers seen in this area are presumed to be Ruby-throats until proved otherwise, but it could just as easily have been a Rufous. Rufous hummers have been wintering in this area in recent years, and even though I had taken down all of my nectar feeders and cleaned and stored them, I'm now thinking about putting one of them back out, just in case there are more stragglers coming through or maybe one that wants to spend the winter here.

Even before I saw the hummer, I had had another birding thrill today. As I was watching the birds visiting the feeders, my attention wandered to a flock of House Sparrows that were feeding under the shrubs and vines along the back fence, but then I realized that one of them was not a House Sparrow. It was much perkier and moved differently than the other sparrows. I grabbed my binoculars to take a look and found myself staring at a White-throated Sparrow, one of the prettiest of the native sparrows. I couldn't remember ever having seen a White-throated Sparrow in my yard before, so, again, I checked my records and - sure enough! - this was the very first White-throated Sparrow I had ever recorded in my yard. That's not to say, of course, that there may not have been whole squads of the birds passing through at times when I wasn't looking, but this was the first one that I had seen here.

I remember White-throated Sparrows well from my childhood when large flocks of them, mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos, would turn up around our farmhouse in late fall and winter. They were our "snowbirds," harbingers of the harder, colder days of winter to come. They were always busy and cheerful and I love watching and listening to them. I would love to see a flock of them here in my yard, but so far I've only seen the one.

Add to these sightings my "first in the yard" sighting of a Dickcissel earlier this week and a very unexpected Red-eyed Vireo that turned up here on Wednesday, not to mention the early arrival of American Goldfinches and you can begin to see that it really has been a banner week for backyard birding.

That Red-eyed Vireo is not an unusual bird for these parts but I normally see them here in spring and summer. I've never seen one here this late in the year. Something's happening here and although what it is is not exactly clear yet, I'm convinced it has to do with the changing climate. Birds are lingering later in their summer homes and migrating later in the fall and earlier in the spring. They are also expanding their home ranges by moving north and sometimes east or west. In a few years, the typical roll call of backyard birds could be quite different from what it is today. Red-eyed Vireos and hummingbirds may become common in December. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

New yard bird

The Dickcissel is a pretty little sparrow-like bird. It looks a bit like a more colorful House Sparrow, a bird with which it sometimes flocks and feeds. Spending time with the more common House Sparrow, along with its similarity in appearance, means that this bird is sometimes overlooked, but it is fairly common in appropriate habitat in our area in summer. Appropriate habitat for the bird is usually grassy fields and tallgrass prairies. Katy Prairie is prime Dickcissel habitat. It's not so often seen as a yardbird.

Imagine my surprise then when I looked out my library window today and saw a single bird at the feeder there, a bird which I at first thought was a House Sparrow until I noted the yellowish eye stripe and malar stripe (a stripe on the sides of the neck. In addition, the black on the breast was differentiated and formed a V-shape, very unlike a House Sparrow, more like an Eastern (or Western) Meadowlark. Dickcissel! A Dickcissel at my bird feeder.

I grabbed the camera, which of course had the wrong lens on it, and aimed it through my somewhat dirty window to try to record the visit. I snapped a few pictures and then ran to get a longer lens, but, naturally, by the time I had changed to the better lens, the bird had flown. It did not return while I was watching.

     This is just about the best of the pictures I got. At least you can see the V-shaped black patch on the throat/breast, even if the other field marks are really not visible.

I was very disappointed that I wasn't able to get a better picture of the bird. If it hangs around the neighborhood for a while, maybe I'll get a second chance at it. The Dickcissel, though, is a bird on the move at this time of year. The birds spend their winters in South America, so it may not tarry for long here. I was very lucky to be looking out my window at just the right moment today and so I get to add a new species to my yard list. I wonder how many birds I miss because I don't happen to be in the right place at the right time?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hooded Mergansers in my neighborhood

When I heard that there was a pair of Hooded Mergansers hanging out at the pond on the Tomball campus of Lone Star College which is less than two miles from where I live, of course I had to hurry right over there to see for myself. Mergansers are not ducks that I normally see in my neighborhood. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Mallards, Wood Ducks all are expected. Hooded Mergansers, not so much, so seeing them here would be quite a treat.

And sure enough, just as promised, there they were - a pair of the beautiful birds swimming around in the small pond.

Both the male and the female have the eponymous "hoods," but the male's is much more showy - a brilliant white against black feathers, all of which enhance the color of that gorgeous red eye. The bird also has the two black-on-white "spurs" below the neck on the breast, as seen here, which gives him an even more flamboyant appearance. When the crest, or hood, is raised all the way, the head looks round in silhouette, but he wasn't displaying it today. The hood stayed at half-staff during all the time that I watched.

The female merganser's hood is reddish brown, not so different from the color of her body and so not as noticeable, but she is a very pretty duck.

     A little Pied-billed Grebe was keeping company with the mergansers today. Both species dive for their food so they are right at home together.

Mergansers have long, thin bills, unlike the typical duckbill, that are made for feeding on fish, crustaceans and insects that they capture in the water. They are small and streamlined ducks, being only about 18 inches in length, and when they fly, they do so with very fast, shallow wingbeats. They are uncommon and typically appear in small flocks on sheltered ponds and bays. They winter in our area and all along the Gulf Coast.

These birds seem to have settled in at the pond, although they were a little skittish and didn't want me to get too close to them. There's not a lot of cover for them, so whenever I began to make them nervous, they would dive. If you want an easy birding experience with some lovely birds, head on over to Tomball's Lone Star College this weekend and walk down by the pond. Chances are you will see something special.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Turkey Day!

(Wild turkey picture and text from National Geographic website.)

The turkey was Benjamin Franklin's choice for the United States's national bird. The noble fowl was a favored food of Native Americans. When Europeans arrived, they made it one of only two domestic birds native to the Americas—the Muscovy duck shares the distinction.
Yet by the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat.
Wild turkeys typically forage on forest floors, but can also be found in grasslands and swamps. They feed on nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and salamanders.
Wild turkey reintroduction programs began in the 1940s, and the birds were relocated to areas where populations had been decimated but woodlands were recovering. Such efforts worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have occurred when Europeans first reached the Americas. Today, flocks are also found in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand.
Only male turkeys display the ruffled feathers, fanlike tail, bare head, and bright beard commonly associated with these birds. They also gobble with a distinctive sound that can be heard a mile (a kilometer and a half) away.
Females lay 4 to 17 eggs, and feed their chicks after they hatch—but only for a few days. Young turkeys quickly learn to fend for themselves as part of mother/child flocks that can include dozens of animals. Males take no role in the care of young turkeys.
Domestic turkeys have white-tipped tails because they are the descendants of a Mexican subspecies that was taken to Europe for domestication in the early 16th century. The feature distinguishes them from most modern wild turkeys, though captive diet, lifestyle, and breeding have caused other physical discrepancies.
All hail the Wild Turkey, native American bird and favorite of Benjamin Franklin. Would we have a different national character today if we had heeded Franklin's advice and chosen the turkey as our national emblem? It's an interesting thought to ponder as you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast.


Monday, November 21, 2011


During my weekend bird observations, I heard a familiar flight song in the skies over my yard, albeit one that I hadn't heard in about eight months, and I looked up to see two small birds passing overhead.  It's a little early, but I can definitely confirm that the American Goldfinches have arrived in our area.

American Goldfinch in drab winter dress.

Goldfinches, of course, are the iconic winter bird for bird-lovers here who put out food in winter. During the coldest parts of winter, hordes of the little birds can descend on a bird feeder and empty it in a few hours.

They are fond of thistle (or nyger) seed and that is the food that is most advertised for finches, but, in my yard, I find that they are just as fond of the black oil sunflower seed and that they take both kinds of seeds in just about equal measure.  Typically though, they do not start visiting my feeders until a little later. They tend to exhaust the wild food supply before they start depending on the feeders.

One of their favorite wild foods in Southeast Texas is the seed of the crape myrtle. That's a crape myrtle tree in which the goldfinch in the picture above is sitting. Flocks of the little birds will sit in the crape myrtle trees all day long picking out the tiny seeds and trilling their winter songs.That's a fun event for backyard birders to observe. Those who make the mistake of pruning their crape myrtle trees or shrubs before the seeds have a chance to mature miss out on this spectacle. 

In some years, goldfinches are accompanied in their migration to our area by the slightly smaller and much more argumentative finches, the Pine Siskins. These feisty little birds always create a lot of commotion and excitement at the feeders. They have often been present in my yard in recent winters.

 Pine Siskin shelling a seed at the feeder.

It'll be interesting see whether the Pine Siskins turn up again this year, but one thing is certain: There will be goldfinches!

Monday, November 14, 2011

FeederWatch follow-up

As I reported yesterday, my first weekend of FeederWatching was fairly quiet.  First of all, I wasn't able to devote a lot of time to it and, secondly, during the times that I did spend observing, not much was going on in the yard.  But I made my report and then I looked back over my previous years' reports and found that my first weekend of observations was very much in line with all of those years with much the same cast of characters.

This is the eighth season that I have been a FeederWatcher, although that first season, 2004-2005, I didn't get started until later in the year.  During those years, the highest number of species that I have reported for my first observation in November was 14 in 2009.  The lowest was 8 in 2008.  This year I had 12 species on my list.
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk (Krider's)
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Cardinal
House Sparrow 
I know there are several other species of birds in the yard.  Just within the last week, for example, I had seen Orange-crowned Warblers, Pine Warblers, and Chipping Sparrows there, but, frustratingly, none of these winter birds nor several other of the permanent resident birds showed up while I was watching.  Maybe next weekend.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A quiet weekend for FeederWatching

I've just been outside doing some observations for my first weekend of FeederWatching, but, honestly, there is not a lot to watch.  The songbirds are mostly lying low because there is a Cooper's Hawk lurking about.  The Blue Jays are on the alert, frequently calling out warnings as the hawk moves around the yard. It must be very frustrating to be a hawk just trying to have dinner in peace with those noisy jays constantly on your tail.

I did have one notable observation, but it wasn't at the feeder.  It was another hawk.  I heard the distinctive cry of the Red-tailed Hawk overhead and looked up to see this magnificent creature just hanging over my yard.  He was being buffeted by the wind and was essentially hovering right above my head - well, a few hundred feet above my head.  But he was low enough and he stayed there long enough for me to get a very good look.

He was one of that subspecies of Red-tails called Krider's Red-tail.  These beautiful hawks are marked by extremely pale underparts with virtually none of the dark streaks that mark other Red-tails. Moreover, the tail and the head are whitish.  The tail does have the eponymous reddish cast which all these hawks carry, but even that is paler than many of the other subspecies.

He was truly a gorgeous bird. He was turning his head back and forth obviously looking for something that he could have for lunch, but he was out of luck with my yard since everything was in hiding because of the Cooper's Hawk.  I watched him with my binoculars for as long as he stayed in sight.  For much of that time, I could even see his fierce eye as he searched the ground below.

After several minutes, he did move on beyond my sight.  I hope he found something tasty there.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans Day

Ever-vigilant so that we may be safe and free.  
Today we honor the sacrifice of all those who have served and who are still serving, as well as the sacrifice of their families.
Happy Veterans Day. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Phoebe's back in town

The first bird voice I heard when I went outside this morning was the Eastern Phoebe, one of my very favorite winter residents.  These are unassuming little birds, like many of the flycatcher family, without flashy colors that would make you remember them, but I have fond memories of the birds from my childhood when they used to nest above the window casings of our living room.

They build mud nests, not unlike many of the swallows, and attach the nests to a vertical surface, preferably one with a ledge on which to anchor the nest.  Our window casing made the perfect site from the birds' point of view.  It was an opinion that my mother didn't share but she always tolerated their mess until their families were raised and fledged, and, consequently,  I was able to spend many happy hours observing them up close and personal.  They were one of the first birds that I learned to identify by its proper name. Not hard since the bird tells you its name every time it opens its beak to sing - "feebee, feebee."

Eastern Phoebe keeping an eye open for flying insects it can scoop up. 

For the last few years, I've had a phoebe resident in my yard for the entire winter and I assume that the one of the ones that I heard this morning is that same bird.  There were actually two of the birds present today.

The little flycatchers abandon my yard in late spring, heading farther north to breed and raise their families, but I always look forward to their return in the fall and to the first time I hear that "feebee, feebee" that I remember so well from my childhood.  I will duly note in my eBird report that this year the birds announced their return on November 7.

Friday, November 4, 2011

More feeder watchers needed!

Project FeederWatch starts in just one week and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has issued a call for more people to sign up and participate.  Here is their October press release:

More FeederWatchers Needed to Track Generations of BirdsCornell Lab of Ornithology citizen-science project celebrates 25 years
Ithaca, NY—When thousands of Americans begin tallying birds at their backyard feeders next month for Project FeederWatch, they will launch the 25th season for this popular citizen-science program. The information reported online from across the continent helps scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology track changes in the numbers of birds and the distribution of species. Anyone with an interest in birds and nature is invited to learn more about the project and become a “citizen scientist.” The new season of FeederWatch begins November 12, but participants can come on board at any time at 
Because most birds reproduce yearly, FeederWatch data cover nearly 25 generations of birds. Keeping tabs on 25 human generations would mean covering about 500 years! Many mysteries and surprises have been revealed since the program began in 1987. Some species, like Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, are expanding their ranges to the north, probably the result of a changing climate and the alteration of habitat. The Evening Grosbeak, once a familiar feeder bird in winter, has disappeared from much of its former range. Meanwhile, an invasive species, the Eurasian Collared-Dove, has spread from Florida to Alaska in less than a decade and is quickly becoming one of the more familiar birds at feeders across the country.
“None of these important changes in the distribution and abundance of birds would be understood without the help of our dedicated FeederWatchers,” said project leader David Bonter. “By watching and keeping track of the birds in your own neighborhood, you really can make a difference.” More than 50,000 people have participated in FeederWatch, and new participants are welcome to join at any time. “The more people watching, the more we can learn about the birds that brighten the winter landscape,” said Bonter.
To learn more about joining Project FeederWatch and to sign up, visit or call the Cornell Lab toll-free at (866) 989-2473. In return for the $15 fee ($12 for Cornell Lab members) participants receive the FeederWatcher’s Handbook with tips on how to successfully attract birds, an identification poster of the most common feeder birds, a calendar, complete instructions, and Winter Bird Highlights, an annual summary of FeederWatch findings.
Project FeederWatch is a joint research and education project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.
As noted in the press release, you can actually become a FeederWatcher at any time during the season which runs until the first week of April, but why wouldn't you want to get in at the beginning?  Our yards are very dynamic just now.  The cast of characters changes almost daily and birds seem to be coming to the feeders earlier in the season than usual.  That may reflect the fact that wild food is not available in its usual abundance. It promises to be an exciting fall and winter of feeder watching.  If you haven't signed up already, now's the time!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Checking on the backyard birds

Traveling in Colorado certainly reminded me of just what a birdy place Southeast Texas is and what a birdy place my backyard is.  In the first few hours after returning home, I saw more birds in numbers as well as in diversity of species in my own yard than I did on my trip.  The bird feeders are busy and the shrubbery is full of birds here in the first week in November.

I had expected that by the time we returned all the hummingbirds would have moved on, but as I was sitting in the backyard yesterday I noticed that at least one of the little guys is still hanging on.  I happened to be looking in the direction of my Cape honeysuckle which is full of red-orange tubular blooms just now and I saw the hummer feeding from those blooms.  In fact, there are still plenty of blooms in the yard to support any late arrivals that are passing through and it is possible that a few more will.

One of the Austin bloggers that I follow reported yesterday that she had seen the first Chipping Sparrow of the season in her yard.  I haven't seen any of those favorites of mine yet and they usually are a little later in arriving in my yard.  But another winter resident that I always look forward to seeing has arrived - the little Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

These tiny birds are always such a treat to have around.  They visit the feeders for seeds and especially for suet all winter long.

One can also often see them scouring the ground under the feeders not only for seeds but for the tiny insects that proliferate there and that are the kinglet's favorite source of nourishment.

The kinglets were present in Colorado last week and I wondered at the time how long it would take them to reach my backyard.  I didn't have to wonder long!  They were here to greet me on my return.

UPDATE:  I posted this entry this morning (11/03) and no sooner had I written that I didn't have Chipping Sparrows yet than I went outside and guess what I saw at my feeder?  If you said Chipping Sparrow, you win the gold star!  Yep, they're here a little early this year.  While I was watching the sparrow, I also observed a pair of Pine Warblers at the feeders.  I think it's going to be an interesting fall and winter.

Chipping Sparrow - the cutest of the sparrows, I think. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Home again

The mountains of Colorado are spectacular.  A foot-and-a-half of snow only added to their beauty and mystery.  The state certainly lives up to its moniker "Colorful Colorado" and our ten-day visit there was almost everything that I could have hoped for.  Almost.  The one disappointment was the birds.  I hardly saw any!

I had hoped to add several new species to my life list.  In the end, I only got three, but one of those was  unexpected and amazing and it somewhat salved my disappointment over not seeing more.

It happened on Thursday, a couple of days after the big snowfall, when we were hiking some of the trails in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  We were in the Sprague Lake area and there was a lot of bird activity in the trees.  I was scanning the trees with my binoculars.  Most of the birds were chickadees and nuthatches, but then I saw a flash of red in a distant tree.  The birds were in a restoration area which I couldn't enter so it was not possible to get closer, but as I focused my binocs, my mouth fell open and my heart skipped a beat as I realized I was looking at a Red Crossbill!  I had never seen any of the crossbill species.

Because of the distance, I was not able to get a really good picture, but here is that wonderful bird.  You can get a sense of its uniquely shaped bill.

 There were at least five of the birds in the tree.  Here are two more of them, in profile, and again you can see a bit of those fantastic bills.  For me, these birds would have made the trip to Colorado worthwhile if I had seen nothing else!

But even though birds were scarce, I did manage to photograph a few others.  For example, there were two species of chickadees present.

This is the Black-capped Chickadee which could be easily mistaken for our own Carolina Chickadee.  They are close cousins.

This is the Mountain Chickadee which sports a white eyebrow and is a great lover of pine trees.

We didn't see many water birds at all, except for Canada Geese, but I did manage to photograph this juvenile duck feeding in one of the icy mountain streams at the national park.

When it turned to face me, I could see that it was a Northern Shoveler with a bill almost as wide as its head.

At Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, I photographed this red-shafted Northern Flicker clinging to one of the iconic red rocks of the park.   

There were plenty of the little snowbirds, Dark-eyed Juncos, around both before and after the snow.

Back at the Garden of the Gods, the Townsend's Solitaire, a member of the thrush family, sang its pretty song for us.

The corvid family was well represented by crows, jays, and ravens.  I believe this is a Common Raven which is walking along a snow-plowed street.

Another corvid, Clark's Nutcrackers were numerous.

Black-billed Magpies were the ubiquitous bird of the area, seen in parking lots as well as on mountain trails.

The Florida Scrub Jay is an endangered species, but I can report that its cousin, the Western Scrub Jay, is doing very well.  This was only one of many seen on the trip.

My vote for the cutest bird seen on the trip would have to go to the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Many of them were seen in a flock with chickadees in the national park at the Sprague Lake area.

Several times during the trip, I remarked (my husband would say "complained") about the quiet.  Not that I abhor quiet, but I am attuned to birdsong when I am outdoors and most of the time in Colorado I didn't hear any.  Sometimes I heard the bugling of elk, but seldom did I hear birdsong.  When we pulled into our driveway late yesterday afternoon and I opened my car door, the first thing I heard was a Carolina Wren song, followed closely by a Northern Cardinal and then a Blue Jay and then the whole backyard chorus came together.  Every tree held the rustling of wings.  The background music of my life.  Home again.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Snow day in Estes Park

We arrived in Estes Park, Colorado just in time for their first winter storm.  We had fourteen to sixteen inches of snow in the area overnight and today everything looked like a winter wonderland.

The limbs of all the evergreen trees were weighed down by the heavy load of snow.

A Clark's Nutcracker hunted for morsels amid the limbs of one such tree. 

Dark-eyed Juncos, the little birds that were the "snowbirds" that I knew as a child, were everywhere today.

A little Downy Woodpecker explored the trunk of a small tree.

Mountain Chickadees, the ones with the white eyebrows, are fairly common here.

So are these critters.  Elk wander around the town of Estes Park as well as Rocky Mountain National Park.  They are not very wary of humans.

This big bull elk led a small group of twelve cows.

It is very beautiful here and the snow makes it even more beautiful.  Tomorrow, I hope to visit the national park again, and, if I'm lucky, see some more birds.