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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.