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Monday, August 29, 2011

Rider of the storm

The Whimbrel is a medium-sized eastern shorebird that looks somewhat like the Long-billed Curlew that is a visitor to the Gulf Coast.  The Whimbrel nests and summers in the far northern reaches of the North American continent and then migrates along the eastern seaboard in late summer and fall, heading south to its winter home. The bird's migration often occurs at the height of the Atlantic hurricane season and this can be a challenge for a bird with a wingspan of 32 inches that weighs only 14 oz.  Often the birds perish in these storms.

These birds are good candidates for the radio transmitters that conservationists like to attach to birds to track their migrations.  During the past week, while Hurricane Irene was roaring her way up the eastern coast, scientists at The Center for Conservation Biology were anxiously tracking some of the birds to whom they had attached transmitters who had started their migration already.  In particular, they were tracking a bird they had named Chinquapin who appeared to by flying straight into the path of the huge storm.  There were some long anxious moments, but by Saturday, they were able to confirm that the bird had made it through and had apparently safely landed on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.

Whimbrel wearing transmitter.   Photo by Barry Switt of The Nature Conservancy.

It's hard to imagine how an animal of that size could make it safely through such winds and yet even smaller birds do manage to survive them, as well. Migration is a perilous time for birds, for many reasons, including the challenges of weather, finding sufficient food, avoiding predators, and, of course, for birds that migrate over land, there are those tall buildings, power lines, and wind farms to negotiate.  It's heartening to read of one such bird who has met the challenges so far.  After he rests and feeds for awhile in the Bahamas, Chinquapin may continue on as far as the southern coast of South America before he settles down for the winter.  Let us hope that for the rest of his journey, however long it might be, this rider of the storm has clear skies and balmy breezes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The hummingbird migration

Once again this year, the people at the Journey South project want us to send in our reports of migrating hummingbirds.  They are especially interested in reports of adult male hummingbirds since these are the first to migrate.  Personally, I've had male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrating through my yard for several weeks now and perhaps you have, too.  The migration seems to have started earlier than usual this year

If you choose to take part in this citizen science project this year - and I hope you will - it is very easy.  Just click on this link:  
You'll be able to sign up and sign in and begin your reporting.

The project likes reporters to send in their sightings at least once a week, but you can actually report as often as you see the birds, if you like.  They want us to report any species and any sex or age, but, as noted, they are particularly interested in the movements of adult males.

The site has maps which show what has been reported and show the progress of the birds across the continent.  It is fascinating to check in on these maps at least weekly to see what is going on.  There will be updates posted once a week during the migration season.

This is a free citizen science project and anyone can participate, so there is no excuse not to!  I hope you will.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The dinosaurs in your backyard

It seems to be pretty well settled science these days that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear of another paleological discovery of some ancient fossil of a dinosaur with feathers.  The relationship that was once hotly debated in the science world has found wide acceptance both among scientists and the general population.

To illustrate that fact LiveScience has put up a gallery of pictures of some of the ancient forerunners of birds.  There was a time during my memory when the only avian dinosaur ancestor that was widely known and acknowledged was Archaeopteryx.

Artist's rendering of Archaeopteryx.

Not any longer.  They are a dime a dozen these days.  Click on the link above and take a look at the gallery, and then compare what you've seen to those feathered creatures in your own backyard.  I'm betting you'll be able to see the relationship.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wildlife tragedy/Wildlife bonanza

When I drive from my house to nearby Tomball, south on State Highway 249, I pass a couple of nice-sized little ponds on the right.  If it is early morning, I will usually see one or two herons or egrets there, having their breakfast.

Yesterday, we were headed into Tomball in the early morning for our regular Monday breakfast date and I looked toward the ponds as I always do.  I blinked and looked again.  I couldn't believe my eyes!  There were hundreds of water birds there!

These ponds like most ponds in the area are drying up, stranding all the fish and other water-based life there.  The egrets had discovered this and had flown in by the scores, followed quickly by other kinds of water birds.

I didn't have my camera with me when I passed by yesterday, but I had to go back into town at mid-day today and decided to take my camera with me.  There were not nearly as many birds there at that time of day, but there were still well over a hundred, feeding in the two ponds, where normally there might have been one or two.

(I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures.  They were taken from the shoulder of the highway, a good distance away.)

  In this section of one of the ponds, you can see a good number of Great Egrets and smaller Snowy Egrets.

These egrets are standing on top of what was the bank of the pond.  You can see how little water there is left.

Another shot showing the bank.  Normally, the water would reach up to the line of grass.

Just a few inches of water left where these Great Egrets are standing.

  In addition to the egrets, several Roseate Spoonbills had gathered to partake in the feast.

At the smaller of the two ponds, which is now almost entirely dry, it wasn't just water birds that had gathered. About a score of Black Vultures had flown in to help clean up the decay left by the receding waters.

A few White Ibises had also come to the banquet.

The drying ponds provide a brief bounty for these birds, but what will they do when the ponds are gone?  Meantime, in spite of the birds' good fortune, it is hard not to feel sad for all those little fish and other water critters trapped in their drying ponds with no possibility of escape.  Perhaps the best they can hope for is to become a quick meal for a hungry bird.  Better that than being left to gasp out one's last in the merciless sun.

Multiply these two ponds by the hundreds and probably thousands all over the state that will soon be only a memory in this worst-in-our-history drought and you can begin to imagine the dimensions of the wildlife holocaust that we are facing.  It is not only the birds, fish, and frogs that depend on these ponds.  They are life itself for deer, rabbits, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, o'possums, bobcats, and all manner of other animals.  Many have already died.  More will follow.  The vultures will continue to eat well. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

It's molting time

The usually sleek, every-feather-in-place backyard birds are looking decidedly raggedy these days.  Not only are feathers out of place, they are often missing.  It's not at all unusual to see a bald Northern Cardinal or Blue Jay settling in for a nosh at one of my feeders or for a cooling dip in one of the birdbaths.  And what better time of year to drop a few feathers than when the temperatures are in the triple-digits?

I sometimes get questions from readers concerned that something is wrong with the balding birds that they are seeing around their yards or around town, but, usually, nothing is amiss.  In fact, something is right.  The bird with the dodgy feathers has completed his or her duties as a parent, having flown him/herself ragged while providing food and protection for the next generation.  The old crop of feathers has been completely worn out in the process and it's time for the bird to drop them and grow some new and perfect ones.  Thus, you might see a Northern Cardinal that looks like this today:

   He does look a little shabby and down-at-heel, doesn't he?  But in a few weeks, he'll look like this:

 Sleek and beautiful once again.

And, as for the disheveled Northern Mockingbird that was perched just outside my office window this morning, don't feel sorry for him. 

He may look like this today, with his bare neck showing.

But give him a few weeks and he'll be back in top form again!

I do think it is very clever of Mother Nature to have scheduled the molt for a time when the birds surely need some relief from the heat.  There are few better insulation materials than down and feathers.  They help birds survive in some of the coldest climates on earth, but in August in Texas, it's time to shuck off every feather that you reasonably can.  It's molting time.


For several years, I have blogged about my experiences as a backyard birder in Southeast Texas, one of the birdiest places around, for The Houston Chronicle.  After much consideration, I've decided to take my blog to the wider Internet (joining my other two blogs there: The Nature of Things and Gardening with Nature) where it will be infinitely easier to post and more accessible to interested readers.

I am not an ornithologist. Nor am I a dedicated and competitive lister of birds that one often finds among the ranks of birders these days.  I do keep lists but, essentially, I am, as the title of my blog implies, a simple backyard birder who has a lifelong interest in and love of birds and who enjoys experiencing and learning about Nature through the observation of birds and other wildlife.

I am a suburbanite, living just northwest of Houston on a relatively large lot (close to 1/2 acre).  I am a habitat gardener and have planted my yard to attract and support wildlife, especially birds.  That has been particularly important during the now year-long drought that we have experienced in this area. Many more birds than usual crowd my yard on these late-summer days of unrelenting triple-digit temperatures looking for food and water.

While it is exciting to be able to experience all these birds "up close and personal," it does present some problems.  For one thing, it's hard to keep the bird feeders full, but, more seriously, dense concentrations of birds enhance the possibility of the spread of diseases like avian pox.  So far, my yard has been clear, but it's something for which I'm constantly on alert.  As I often remind readers of my blog, it's extremely important, especially in these conditions, to practice good hygiene around the feeders and birdbaths.  Cleaning them often with a solution of 10 percent bleach in water is helpful.

I am a dedicated citizen scientist and I participate in several of the projects sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and other such organizations.  If you follow my blog, you'll be reading lots about those projects in coming months.

I hope that you will follow my blog.  I look forward to sharing my passion for birds with you and I always look forward to comments from my readers.  It's where I learn a lot of interesting things!