Blog stats

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pythons upsetting ecological balance in Florida

There are several stories in the news today about a recently released scientific study on the impact of an invasive species, the Burmese python, on Florida's wildlife. The study focuses on the Everglades and on the devastation of the small mammal population there. There are areas where raccoons, o'possums, rabbits, foxes, even bobcats, and other small mammals have virtually disappeared as a result of the introduction of these big snakes. The snakes also prey on reptiles and, to some extent, birds, but their preferred prey is mammals.

Pythons probably first got into the wild after being released by pet owners when the snakes got too big for them to deal with, but natural disasters such as hurricanes have also played a part when pet stores that had sold the snakes were destroyed and animals escaped. Because of the year-round warmth of the Florida climate and the abundance of prey animals, including domestic cats and dogs, the animals had no trouble surviving. The last two winters had brought cold weather to the state which had knocked the snakes back a bit and killed many of them, but this winter's mildness has been a boon to them, and it seems likely that they are on the march - or on the crawl - again and expanding their range. There is a fear that the warming climate will allow them to move into other areas, particularly across the Gulf states and even into South Texas, where their presence could create havoc in the ecology of the region.

While it is true that the bigger snakes mainly prey on mammals, the smaller ones do take birds as well as bird eggs and chicks during nesting season, but even if they never preyed on birds, upsetting the balance of Nature affects all the animals in it and, generally, the effect is not benevolent. Florida's wildlife officials, along with conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy, are, of course, well aware of this and they are waging war on the python. They kill or remove from the wild as many of the snakes as they can find and they destroy nests when they locate them.

This picture, taken by Mike Rochford of the U.S. Geological Survey, shows the size that these creatures can reach. This one weighed in at 163 pounds.

But how do we stop an invasive, highly adaptable and fertile species? Is it even possible? Unless we get an assist from Mother Nature, in the form of colder winters, it seems likely that these snakes will continue to expand their range, despite our best efforts. Will the day come when I find one crawling in my Southeast Texas backyard?

Friday, January 27, 2012

This week in birds - #7

Here is the round-up of this week's news about birds and the worlds of Nature and science. Follow the highlighted links to read the full story.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has posted (via YouTube) some wonderful pictures, along with commentary, of Snowy Owls in honor of this winter's irruption by the Arctic birds. 


I hope you are planning to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count which is coming up in less than a month now on Presidents' Day weekend. In Great Britain, their similar citizen science project is called the Big Garden Birdwatch and it is taking place this weekend.


Songbirds that prey on caterpillars learn to focus their hunts on the species of  trees where the butterflies and moths lay their eggs.


Since 1990, at lease 87 species of marine mammals have been served as food in 114 countries around the world. This is true in spite of greater environmental awareness of the importance and the intelligence of these mammals. In fact, the use of marine mammals for food has been growing in recent years.  


The biggest trees in the world are declining due to human use of forests, pollution, and habitat invasion. Now they are under new threat as a result of global warming.


A new forest management plan has been released by the Obama administration. It is designed to accept increased input from non-governmental sources and it is hoped that it will reduce litigation. Several conservation groups have praised the new rules.


For the second year in a row, a pair of endangered Short-tailed Albatrosses have produced a chick on American soil on the island of Midway. Environmentalists are delighted and hope this means that the pair will continue to return to the island to breed each year.


Scientists have discovered new strongholds and populations for another endangered seabird, the Japanese Murrelet.


Another record "Big Year" has been reported for 2011, this time for the Washington, D.C. area. The new record-holder  is Jason Berry, a researcher for the American Bird Conservancy, and he recorded 218 bird species, beating the previous record of 214.


Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which blew out in the Gulf of Mexico nearly two years ago, is not liable for some of the pollution claims arising from the fatal accident, a federal judge in Louisiana ruled on Thursday.  However, the judge further ruled that Transocean  would be subject to any pollution fines levied under the federal Clean Water Act, and its share of punitive damages, if any were assessed. Such costs could run into the billions of dollars.


Archaeopteryx, the prehistoric flying dinosaur, had black wing feathers, a new study shows.


The once-abundant mountain yellow-legged frogs of the Sierra Nevada may now be deemed endangered. They have lost as much as 90% of their population due to a fungal disease. Amphibians all around the world are being attacked by fungal diseases and are losing ground rapidly in the battle for survival.


While restored wetlands may be better than no wetlands at all, they are not as successful in protecting and enhancing biodiversity in the environment. Just one more reason that we should fully protect the ones that are already in existence.


Around my backyard:  On one of our morning walks this week, I was delighted to encounter a large flock of American Robins (maybe 50 of the birds) along with an even larger flock of Cedar Waxwings. Both species were devouring juniper berries.

In some winters, we hardly see robins here, but this winter, on most days, I can find one or two of the birds in my yard.

An American Robin looks around for a snack.

I haven't actually had much of a chance to observe the birds in my yard this week, but this afternoon, after refilling all the feeders, I sat down to watch for a while.

I didn't have long to wait until a beautiful Pine Warbler showed up.

While I was watching the warbler, my attention was drawn to the nearby hummingbird feeder where my wintering Rufous Hummingbird was having a meal. But while I was watching the little bird, I heard a chittering sound off to my left and I looked at my bare-limbed redbud tree to find a second hummingbird there! I had thought that the sugar syrup was disappearing pretty rapidly. Now I know why. I believe this second bird is also a Rufous, but I hope to get a better look at it to confirm its identification tomorrow.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hedwig's cousins flood the country

In my weekly news recap a couple of weeks ago, I made note of the irruption of Snowy Owls particularly in the Northwest of the country. In fact, these birds of the near Arctic are pouring south this winter in record numbers. They are being seen all across the northern tier of states right into the Mid-West.

At least one of the birds even made it all the way to Hawaii! It turned up at an airport there and airport officials shot it because they were afraid it would interfere with air traffic. Honestly, the bird flew all the way from the Arctic region; couldn't they have trapped it instead of shooting it? The continuing ignorance of humans about the natural world is so profound as to be appalling.

Elsewhere, the birds are being met by joyous birders hoping for one glimpse of the beautiful white owls. White animals always seem to evoke special human interest, even among non-birders, perhaps because it's a somewhat unusual color in the wild. There is also the added interest among people of a certain age for Snowy Owls because of Hedwig, Harry Potter's owl.

Scientists, of course, are busily speculating and trying to figure out just what is causing this unusually large irruption. Apparently, the birds had a particularly good breeding season last year. Food was plentiful and more chicks than normal survived. Now, it may be difficult for all those birds to find food during the harsher winter weather and so they are having to disperse farther south.

So, keep your eyes peeled. If a Snowy Owl could make it all the way to Hawaii, surely one could make it to Southeast Texas. If it does, let us hope that it meets a kinder fate here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide by Steve N.G. Howell: A review

Trying to see and pick out the field marks on a tiny warbler hidden among the leafy canopy of a tree is one of the harder tasks to be undertaken by a birder. An even harder task though may be that of pelagic birding, trying to distinguish between the almost identical species of petrels, for example, while standing on a moving boat in the middle of the ocean.

Petrels, Storm-Petrels, and Albatrosses live their lives on the wing, over the oceans of the world, and those who would add them to their life lists must venture out upon the briny deep in order to see them. Moreover, these are birds that are all colored in shades of black, white, and gray, many with few distinctive field marks. They are mostly fast-flying and difficult to get a good look at even under ideal conditions, but conditions on a pelagic birding trip are often not ideal and birders need all the help they can get.

Along comes Steve N.G. Howell to provide some of that help. He is an acclaimed field ornithologist and writer and an international bird tour leader with WINGS. He obviously knows these seabirds, in the family known as tubenoses, very well indeed. He has written a book which should be very helpful, I think, to anyone planning a pelagic birding trip.

Now, I am a simple backyard birder and so I may not be the best person to review this book, but it seems very comprehensive to me. The author spends time explaining about ocean habitats and about the latest developments in taxonomy relating to these birds. He arranges his species accounts of birds into groups for comparison and contrasting in ways that should prove helpful for identification in the field. Key identification features such as plumage variations related to age and molt and the manner of the individual species' flight patterns are included as part of the detailed species accounts. Photographs of the birds in question help to illustrate key features.

This guide also includes information about seasonal occurrence patterns and migration routes, as well as distribution maps. The author offers useful tips on how to observe and identify birds at sea.

Reading passages of this book, one gets a sense that Howell has a real passion for these birds and that he wants to pass that passion along to others. It is obvious that he genuinely loves the ocean and its inhabitants and that he wants his readers to share that love. I think that anyone planning a pelagic adventure who picks up this book will find it very useful in getting to know these enigmatic birds and in making the most of their time on the ocean.

(A copy of this book was provided at no cost by Princeton University Press for the purposes of my review.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

This week in birds - #6

Here's a recap of the news stories of the week that were related to the worlds of birds, Nature, and science. Click on the highlighted links to read the entire story.


Do birds play? There is ample evidence that at least some do and the clearest examples of playfulness come from members of the crow family, certainly among the most intelligent of bird species. A video that gained popularity on YouTube this week provides the latest proof. It was recorded somewhere in Russia and features a Hooded Crow at play, snowboarding!


The biggest news in the world of conservation this week was the Obama administration's decision to deny a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Congressional Republicans had inserted a provision in the bill that extended the payroll tax reduction that insisted that a decision must be made on the pipeline within 60 days. The State Department could not perform the due diligence necessary to ensure the protection of the environment, most importantly the aquifer that supplies water to much of the Mid-West, within that time frame and so the permit was denied. Proponents of the pipeline will be reapplying for a permit and likely seeking another route for the pipeline, one that will entail less risk to the environment.


The warming climate is creating serious problems for European species of birds and butterflies. Their migration and breeding patterns are being upset. They are having difficulty adjusting their behavior to fit the new norm in temperatures.


One of the wonders of the natural world is the silent flight of owls on the hunt. They have evolved to hunt in darkness and their ability to move quietly through that dark world has long amazed scientists. A new study of Barn Owls seeks to explain how they are adapted to achieve that silent flight.


NASA has determined that 2011 was the ninth warmest year on record. They have an animation which shows the warming of the earth since 1880. Notice how the reds and yellows on the map increase dramatically beginning around 1980, until now almost all the areas are covered in red. Mesmerizing and worrying.


The native birds of Hawaii seem beset on every side as they struggle to survive in an island environment that has been radically changed over the last 100 or so years. Now comes word of another problem for forest-dwelling birds. They are having difficulty completing their annual molt which is a necessary event in the life-cycle of birds. The cause seems to be that they are unable to find enough food to sustain them through this energy-draining process.


On his blog this week, ornithologist David Sibley had a post about telling male goldfinches from female. When they are in their breeding feathers, the male American Goldfinch is one of the most distinctive of birds, but at this time of the year, male and female are virtually identical. No problem, of course, for the distinguished ornithologist, and no problem for me either. I'm just happy to recognize a goldfinch, whatever the sex!


How many different species are there on earth? The true answer is that no one knows for sure and probably never will, but scientists keep discovering new species all the time. In 2009, for example, over 19,000 new species were documented. Of that number, seven were birds and 9,738 were insects!


Migrating birds face so many obstacles along their route that it is a wonder to me that any of them ever arrive at their destination. Now we have evidence of a new barrier that they must get past. The lights on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a major migration route for North/South American migrants, create confusion in migrating birds which causes them to fly into the Gulf where they are winding up in the bellies of tiger sharks


White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has wiped out six million bats in the northeastern United States. It is a disease that attacks bats while they are hibernating, and it has been recognized for several years, but so far nothing has been able to stop the course of the disease. There is a good possibility that it could spread to other parts of the country and could have a devastating effect on our bat populations. This, in turn, could have devastating effects for humans because bats are major pollinators as well as consumers of vast quantities of flying insects.  


Around the backyard: I haven't had a lot of opportunity to observe the birds in my yard this week, but I can tell you that the goldfinches are very hungry. I've had to refill the feeders that they frequent a couple of times this week.

Hungry goldfinches!

I made a couple of interesting observations on my daily walk today. As I approached a neighbor's house, I counted seven Black Vultures in her front yard. Then I looked up and saw four more on her roof. What could attract eleven vultures to a suburban front yard? As we got closer I could see that it was a cat. It had probably been killed on the street and the birds had dragged it into the yard. The sight brought home two points to me: 
(1.) Cats should be kept inside or restrained in an area where they will not be prey to automobiles, dogs, coyotes, or the other deadly dangers that the world holds for them. I love cats, but they should not be allowed to roam, for their own good as well as for the health of small animals. The tragedy of this animal's death reinforces that belief. 
(2.) Vultures are amazing birds. We don't give them enough credit for the services they perform. Without them, our world would be a much smellier and more disease-ridden place. Moreover, they are intelligent birds. They make much of their living along our roadsides, but how often do you see a vulture as roadkill? I'm guessing probably never. Most often they will drag the animal (if it is small enough) from the roadway to the side of the road where it is safer to dine. They may not be the most handsome of birds, but if "handsome is as handsome does," then they are certainly among the most attractive birds around.

My second observation today was a much more pleasant one. One of our neighbors has three large eastern cedar trees in their front yard and they are loaded with their distinctive blue berries at this time of year. Today, they were also loaded with about a hundred Cedar Waxwings. I often see and hear flights of waxwings over my yard but they haven't spent much time in my yard this winter. Now I know where they are all going!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What to feed the birds

Putting out food for the birds is a very popular hobby among Americans, especially during the winter. There is a recognition that harsh winter weather can make it difficult for birds to find enough to eat, resulting in death by starvation for some birds. The difficulty in finding food is exacerbated by human development and occupation of much of the land and many humans feel a natural sense of responsibility for trying to assist the birds. And besides, feeding the birds and watching their activities at the feeders is just great fun, a sufficient reward for our efforts and sufficient reason to do it.

But what should we be feeding the birds? There are certainly plenty of different types of seed mixes to choose from, but what is best and which should be avoided?

First of all, what should be avoided are those mixes that are heavily milo or millet seed. They may be cheaper than some of the others but, if you are interested in attracting the most beautiful and interesting of the backyard birds, they are not a good choice. If you are interested in attracting House Sparrows or members of the blackbird family, then milo and millet will do very well.

I make no claim of expertise on bird nutrition, but I can tell you what I feed in my yard and I can recommend all of these foods for I know they work well and attract a wide variety of birds.

Black-oil sunflower seeds:  If I could only present one food to the birds in my yard, this would be it. It is a food that is high in fat and the other nutrients that seed-eating birds need and it is the seed that is most acceptable to the greatest number of species from woodpeckers to warblers to wrens.

Fruit and nut mix:  I used the Royal Wing brand that I get at Tractor Supply but there are other equally good brands out there. They all typically contain several types of nuts and dried fruits, as well as the big striped sunflower seeds. The mix is favored by fruit eating birds like the Northern Mockingbird and is also especially liked by Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but almost all the birds that visit my feeders will stop by the tray feeder where this mix is offered and will find something there to tempt their palate.

Mixed seed cakes: I use the Birdola brand, but again there are different brands that birds will like just as well. Woodpeckers particularly like these cakes, as do wrens. One of the big ones will last about a week to ten days in my yard at this time of year.

Nyger, or thistle seed:  This is, of course, a specialty seed utilized by finches, including American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and, sometimes, House Finches. At this time of the winter when the goldfinch numbers have reached their peak, these seeds disappear very fast.

Sunflower seed hearts; I've just recently started offering this food in one of my feeders and I find that the goldfinches like it very well indeed. In fact, I would say they like it about as well as the thistle seed. The Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are very fond of it, too.

Suet cakes: I offer these in various flavors and mixes, some with seeds imbedded, some with fruits or with insects. The birds seem to like them all. Except the one featuring green apples. For some reason, they don't care for that combination. They will leave it until last before finally eating it.

These are the foods that I routinely offer in my yard, and, of course, this winter, I've added sugar water for my little Rufous Hummingbird visitor. There are other foods which will attract birds - peanut butter or pieces of fruit, for example. Some swear by safflower seeds, although the birds in my yard tend to treat them the same way they do the suet cakes with green apples. You would do well to experiment a bit and find out what the birds in your yard prefer. After all, each bird is entitled to his/her opinion!

Friday, January 13, 2012

This week in birds - #5

Here is a recap of stories about birds, science, and Nature that were making news this week.  Follow the highlighted links to read the full stories.


An irruption is defined as an unusual winter appearance of a particular species of birds. Regularly, at this time of year, we may encounter large numbers of birds like Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, or Evening Grosbeaks in areas where they don't normally appear. This winter, the bird that is making the biggest stir among birders is the beautiful Snowy Owl which is irrupting in great numbers in the Northwest.


The damage done by the oil spewing from BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 was greatly lessened by the action of the Gulf currents which served to break up and disperse the oil over a large area.  


With a warming climate bringing less snow cover to the Arizona mountains, the elk that live there are staying higher in the mountains rather than moving to lower elevations in the winter. This means that they are overgrazing areas at higher elevations which is having a detrimental effect on the population of such songbirds as the Red-faced Warbler.


Another animal that had been thought to be extinct in the wild has been found in Myanmar. A wildlife camera captured a picture of a snub-nosed monkey, the first ever picture of the monkey that had been taken in the wild.


One animal that may actually be benefiting from a warming climate is the Wandering Albatross. Scientists have found that because of a warmer climate, nesting birds are able to make shorter flights to search for food for their nestlings. This appears to result in better-fed and healthier nestlings with higher survival rates.


Those concerned about the Grand Canyon and possible environmental degradation of the area around it were happy to hear that Interior Secretary Salazar had imposed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and hard-rock mining claims there.


The EPA has released its greenhouse emissions report for 2010. Users of the site can click on the map, enter a state name and get information about their individual state.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a proposal to regulate the killing of seabirds by vessels in the Hawaiian swordfish fishery. The action is important because it marks the firs time the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, America's foremost law protecting migratory bird species, has been invoked to protect seabirds in federal waters.


It seems that every week we read of another "world's smallest frog species" being located. Well, here's the story for this week. Several of these latest discovered frogs could sit on a dime at once!

Most birds, particularly songbirds, do not have a highly developed sense of smell, but now comes a study which seems to prove that the chicks of Zebra Finches, those tiny, busy finches that we sometimes see for sale in pet stores, do have a working sense of smell and that they use it to recognize their relatives by their scent. 


A booming population and resulting urban sprawl in Peru and Bolivia are threatening to overwhelm famed Lake Titicaca with sewage and other pollutants.


The National Park Service is waiving entrance fees to national parks this weekend in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are fourteen other dates in 2012 when the fees will be waived.


Around my backyard: The action has been fast and furious around the bird feeders this week. The number of songbirds visiting the feeders has increased considerably in the last few days and, as I reported yesterday, those birds have been harried by another hungry bird, a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As I was working in the yard today, I witnessed two strikes by the little hawk.

The first strike happened so quickly that I had no time to react at all. I was watching the feeders when the hawk seemingly came out of nowhere, like a flash, scattering the birds from their feeding. I couldn't even be sure whether or not he had caught a bird, but since he returned less than an hour later, I assume he didn't.

The second time, he came out of a tree to my right and I was able to watch as, again, he made a dash at the feeders, sending the birds scurrying for cover in the shrubbery. This time, after he missed catching his dinner, he flew to a limb less than twenty feet away from me and perched. I was afraid to move for fear I would scare him away, so I froze and just watched as he sat there for several seconds, swiveling his head from left to right, searching the yard for a likely meal. Finally, finding none, he flew up and circled the yard a few times before going higher and higher until he was just a speck against the sky and then flying off down the street over my neighbors' yard. Perhaps he was luckier there.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Sharpie is hungry

The weather has turned quite chilly again with temperatures in the 40s today and a cold, brisk wind that makes it feel a lot colder. The bird feeders are crowded, mostly with American Goldfinches. I counted two dozen at the feeders in the backyard this morning.

The House Finches that have been absent for a while have returned as well and my little Rufous Hummingbird visitor is still with me and making frequent visits to the sugar water feeder. All of the usual customers are well-represented at the feeders today, but they are all nervous and they rush for the shrubbery with every sudden sound or movement. That's because there is another bird hanging around the feeders. It is a Sharp-shinned Hawk and it is hungry.

I often see a Cooper's Hawk in my yard throughout the year, but I only ever see a Sharpie in the winter. I first noticed this one last weekend when it swooped in on a flock of feeding birds and tried to nab one. I've seen him a few times since then and he's always moving very fast and chasing a songbird. I haven't seen him actually catch one, although I have found feathers in my backyard indicating that some predator has been successful.

It's hard to tell a Sharpie from a Cooper's in the wild and on the wing, but this bird is considerably smaller than the Cooper's that I usually see. His tail is squared off rather than rounded and, for me, that is one of the most reliable field marks. Because of his size, I think he probably is a male since male hawks are smaller than females. If  it were a female, she would be more of a size with the Cooper's and probably harder to distinguish.

It's always distressing to see one of these small bird-hawks actually catch one of my yard birds, but I have to remind myself that Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks are yard-birds, too. They live in my yard and they have to eat, and they play an important role in keeping the bird population strong and healthy. I mustn't begrudge them a meal now and then. And besides all that, that are beautiful, magnificent creatures and they always create excitement in the yard. The Backyard Birder's life is never dull when they are around.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

More over-wintering hummingbirds news

Maybe it's just because I have one in my yard, but it seems to me there has been a population explosion of hummingbirds here this winter, and not just the expected Rufous. A friend of mine reported that she had a Rufous and a Ruby-throated in her garden in Clear Lake. I've had other anecdotal reports from readers and "through the grapevine" about such birds. And yesterday, Gary Clark's Nature column in the Houston Chronicle was devoted to a report, with pictures, of a Calliope Hummingbird that is spending the winter at a suburban backyard in The Woodlands, just a few miles from where I live!

The Calliope is the smallest North American hummingbird at just 3.25 inches long. (The Ruby-throat and Rufous are each a half-inch longer which is a lot when you are talking about a bird this small.) It is a bird of the far Northwest in summer, but its migratory wanderings can bring it into our area. The one in The Woodlands, though, may be the first record for Montgomery County and they don't normally spend the winter here but in southern Mexico.

So far, we have had a very mild winter, with only two episodes of temperatures that got into the twenties. This is a stark contrast to our last two winters. The mild weather may account for some of the hummingbird lingerers, which brings up the question, how did they know it was going to be mild?

We have abundant evidence from around the world that birds are changing their ranges due to the warming global climate. Perhaps this is just another instance of that.

Friday, January 6, 2012

This week in birds - #4 (with hummingbird update)

Here is your weekly recap of stories about birds, Nature, and science that were in the news this week. Follow the highlighted links to read the full stories.


The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) is the organization that officially names birds in North America and occasionally splits species or moves a species from one family to another based on improved scientific information. For 2012, the organization is considering several changes, some involving hawks and sparrows. 


The group of juvenile Whooping Cranes that are led on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida by an ultra-light aircraft have been grounded in Franklin County, Alabama since December. There is a legal dispute over the operation of the ultra-light. An attorney for the crane project is hoping to have the issue resolved soon so that the birds can continue on their flight.


The latest scientific theory about what has caused Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees involves a parasitic fly that preys on the bees.


Remember Alfred Hitchcock's famous movie, The Birds? How could you forget if you've ever seen it and everybody has seen it, right? Anyway, it seems that the idea for the picture may have originated from an actual incident that happened in North Monterey Bay, California in August 1961. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of seabirds seemingly went crazy and started flying into objects and generally acting weird, often dying in the streets. The cause was believed to be a toxic algae bloom that had gotten into the food chain.


The idea of a fence along the border between Mexico and the United States is something that has been vigorously opposed by local residents and officials who live there, as well as being almost universally condemned by conservationists. Here is a photo gallery of a few of the animals and plants which would be affected by such a wall. 


The population of Snow Geese has bounced back after receiving protection and is now threatening to become over-abundant in some areas. This could be detrimental to other species of geese, such as the Greater White-fronted. We saw several large flocks of Snow Geese during our visit to Anahuac last weekend, but only one small flock of the Greater White-fronted Geese.


"This week in birds" last week reported on the gray wolf that had wandered into California, the first of its species known to have been in that state since 1924. This week we have a picture of the animal. The wolf has now wandered more than 700 miles away from its original pack.


Seabird colonies in the United Kingdom have suffered severe declines in recent years. Now comes a report that the Kittiwake population has been particularly hard hit and has plummeted by more than 40% since 2000. The Arctic Skua population has suffered even greater losses, dropping by 57% during that same period. The culprit, according to scientists is the changing climate.


More antibiotics for livestock are being put on the restricted list by the FDA because of a growing threat to humans of drug resistant bacterial infections.


The state birding record for New Jersey was broken in 2011 by a 23-year-old birder from Cape May County named Tom Reed. Reed saw 362 bird species during the year, surpassing the old record of 337 that had been set almost a decade before. A very Big Year indeed!


Around the backyard: In my own backyard this week, the most exciting thing to happen has been the appearance of an over-wintering hummingbird, as I blogged about yesterday. Today I got a better look at the little critter and also managed to get some pictures. My bird appears to be a female Rufous Hummingbird

This was taken from a distance as she sat among a tangle of vines along the back fence, but even here you can see the rufous wash along the side of her chest.

 As she turns her back you can see the rufous feathers shining through the green there.

As she perched in a nearby tree, one could get a  better look at the rufous on the sides and tail.

Another view from the same angle.

Finally, she flew down to the feeder and I was able to get a closer look at her.

She drank long and deeply from the feeder.

I think she enjoyed her meal. Maybe she'll stick around for the rest of winter.

Here's wishing you a very "Big Year" of birding in 2012!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Over-wintering hummingbirds

One of my Facebook Friends reported recently that he had a hummingbird visiting his yard last week. I replied that the last one I had seen in my yard had been on December 2. My friend is located quite a bit farther south than me, so a hummingbird in late December is not all that unusual in his area and we know that more and more hummingbirds are over-wintering here. They've even been reported in the Magnolia area, not that far from where I live, but I certainly wouldn't EXPECT to see one in my yard at this time of year.

Surprise, surprise!

I was sitting in my backyard today, idly watching the birds feeding and planning my next chore in the garden when a tiny, tiny bird crossed my field of vision. I blinked and looked again. Sure enough - it was a hummingbird!

The bird was flitting around the shrubbery along my back fence. I did not have my binoculars on me and he was too far away for me to identify the species. My guess would be a Rufous since I did have a few visiting my yard in late summer and autumn and they are the most likely species to spend the winter here.

There are very few blooms in my garden to sustain a nectar sipper at the moment, so I immediately went inside and mixed up some sugar water and rehung one of my feeders in the backyard. It seems that I've spent the autumn taking these feeders in and putting them out again.

I haven't seen the little bird at the feeder since I put it out - or anywhere else in the yard, for that matter. But now that I know he's around, I'll be keeping an eye out for him. I'll keep the feeder out for him, too.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Day birding: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge - Part 2

On our way to the wildlife refuge on New Year's Day, we took the exit that announces "Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center." This beautiful new visitor center, built since the devastation of Hurricane Ike, is about two miles down the road from I-10E, on the right side and is several miles from the main entrance to the wildlife refuge. It is a state-of-the-art construction, impressive in design and concept and very user-friendly. It has a walking trail and small pond and it was on the grounds of the center that I recorded my first official Anahuac NWR bird of the day, the American Pipit. A flock of the birds was feeding among the grasses and shrubs that bordered the parking lot. They flew up, flashing their white outer tail feathers at me as we returned to our car.

The visitor center itself was actually closed on New Year's Day, but the restrooms were open and that was the most important thing! And information kiosks outside offered a number of informational pamphlets about both Anahuac NWR  and nearby McFaddin NWR. One of the pamphlets was a bird list for the refuge, always useful to have when birding.

After our brief stop at the visitor center, we headed on to the refuge, going first to the Skillern Tract as I mentioned yesterday. There we encountered large flocks of egrets and ibises.

 This is just a small section of a flock of the birds that contained a hundred or more individuals. The egrets all appeared to be Great Egrets. There were also a number of White Ibises, the white birds with the long curved bills, three of which can be seen in the center of this photo. The dark birds are either Glossy Ibises or White-faced Ibises. They are often difficult to distinguish in the field, especially in winter, and these were a good distance away. The most likely choice would be White-faced Ibis which is more common here, but I just couldn't be sure.

No doubt about what this is! The red tail names it. This is a Red-tailed Hawk. They, along with Northern Harriers, were the most numerous hawks at the refuge on this day.

This Red-tailed Hawk had recently made a kill and was perched in the middle of a field plucking its dinner. It was a bird of some kind - I could see the feathers flying - but it was hidden among the grasses and I couldn't see what species it was.

Black-necked Stilts always look so fragile to me as they totter along on those long, skinny legs, but evidently they are quite hardy. There were certainly plenty of them around.

This little Snowy Egret was caught in the same strong winds that were blowing my hair every which way!

All the usual members of the blackbird family were represented today, including the Red-winged Blackbirds. There were also the largest flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks I had seen at the refuge as well as Common Grackles and Great-tailed Grackles.

This Eastern Phoebe called its name to us from across the way.

Savannah Sparrows were everywhere in the refuge this day.

The dark phase Snow Geese were much in evidence also. They stood out among the more dominant white phase birds.

Here an adult white Snow Goose feeds with a darker juvenile. In addition to the Snow Geese, we saw one large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese.

The most numerous shorebird that we saw was the Willet. They seemed to be flying up every few feet along the roads as we passed. This one posed nicely for me on a rock by the bay.

My favorite bird of the day, though, had to be this Vermilion Flycatcher we saw at the Skillern Tract.  At first I was in a quandary as to whether it was an female or a young male, but when I uploaded the pictures and was able to view the head better, I could see the red feathers peeking through there. So it is a first year male bird.

He's so beautiful, here's another look.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is always a great birding trip at any time of the year, but I do love visiting it on New Year's Day when it is relatively deserted and quiet. In spite of the fierce, unrelenting wind, this New Year's trip was one of the better days we have spent there.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's Day birding: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge - Part 1

The New Year's Day trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge has become a tradition in our family and it is one that we observed again this year. We got up before the sun and the birds in order to make the almost two-hour trip to the refuge. We wanted to get there while the birds were still in their early-morning active period. We managed to do that all right, but unfortunately, the wind was in its active period, too. It blew fiercely for the entire four-and-a-half hours that we spent at the refuge.

Flights of Snow Geese greeted us everywhere we went in the refuge. They seemed to be about two-thirds white phase geese and one-third dark, of the kind that used to be called "Blue Geese" - and still are by some.

Northern Shovelers, like this female, are common sights at the refuge.

This Lesser Yellowlegs probed for tasty morsels in a shallow pond.

Out on the bay, a small flock of Lesser Scaup floated on the sparkling waves.

Even farther out across the bay, a group of four White Pelicans, of which this was one, winged their way toward the Bolivar Peninsula.

A large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding very actively in the bay waters. Note the very long, thin bills typical of all mergansers.

The little Pied-billed Grebes are among my favorite water birds.

Most bodies of water of any size in Southeast Texas are likely to have some of these guys on them. American Coots are among our most common water birds.

The Forster's Tern is one of the most common terns along this stretch of the Gulf Coast and it was the only species of tern that I saw this day.

The Double-crested Cormorant is also ubiquitous here, although this was the only one that I saw during the time we were there.

This Ring-billed Gull was also the only one of its kind that I saw.

Long, skinny, yellow legs and a slightly upturned bill, along with a white "eyebrow" mark this as a Greater Yellowlegs. He cooperatively posed while standing on a rock.

We started our visit at the Skillern Tract section of the refuge. (If you've never been there, the entrance to it is on the right just about seven miles past the main refuge entrance.) It is a very birdy place and is where several of these pictures were taken, as well as more that I will show you in part 2 of my report tomorrow.

We ended our day with 46 species on our checklist and, as always, with regrets for the ones that got away. There were others that we could have had with a little more luck, less wind, better equipment, not to mention better birding skills. Still, 46 species is not a terrible way to start a new year of birding. I'll take it.