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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.