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Monday, April 29, 2013

New bird in town

In my last post here, I mentioned that I was going to change out one of the feeders in my backyard feeder system. The platform feeder had proved just a bit too welcoming to the White-winged Doves. As soon as I filled it, they would descend on it and empty it within the hour, leaving nothing for the smaller birds. The platform feeder had to go, to be replaced by one that was more small-bird-friendly.

So, today, we went to Tractor Supply and picked up a new feeder. I removed the platform feeder and hung the new one in its place.

Birds are notoriously cautious about accepting anything new in their territory. They have to be. Their lives can depend on it. I wondered how long it would take for them to accept the new feeder and settled down to watch and find out.

It didn't take long for the White-wings to investigate, but though they could just manage to perch, they were not comfortable and didn't linger long.

Smaller birds like Pine Siskins and Northern Cardinals had no problems.

Soon, the Red-bellied Woodpecker showed up to inspect the new feeder as well.

While I was watching the interactions of the birds with the feeder, I had a wonderful surprise.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak settled in the blueberry bush behind the feeder! I had never seen one of these birds in my yard before. A few years ago, my next door neighbor had told me that she had one in her yard, but if it ever crossed the fence to my garden, I didn't see it. In fact, I've only seen a handful of these birds in my entire life. You can bet I was very excited to see this one!

 The bird soon flew to the feeder containing the black oil sunflower seed and began to feed.

He did not want to share the feeder with this female cardinal!

After a bit of squabbling, they each settled down on opposite sides of the feeder. Peace reigned.

I wondered if perhaps there was a female grosbeak in the area. The question had barely formed in my mind when...

There she was, settling down to join her mate.

The two spent several minutes amiably feeding together.

A dove which landed on the feeder seemed flummoxed at the sight of the bird with the big white beak.

These beautiful birds stayed in the yard all afternoon. I know they are just passing through and will not be here for long, but it sure would be nice if they would linger for a couple of days and give me a chance for more grosbeak watching.

Anyway, I'm really happy that I got to see them today and that I got to add number 107 to my yard bird list. They made my week!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

This week in birds - #65

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Long-billed Curlew walks the beach next to Galveston Bay.


Do American Crows suffer from stress? They are highly intelligent birds, so it seems likely that they would be aware of stress and that they would have mechanisms for coping with it. Researchers at Binghamton University think so anyway and they are attempting to determine how stress affects the birds' lives, in hopes that it might also teach us something about human stress.


There is a new guide to the most common species of ants in the southeastern United States and you can download it as a PDF document for free! Head over to this site for the link.


How did dinosaurs evolve into birds? It's a question that has fascinated scientists and ordinary bird lovers for years. There are new theories and discussions of how the whole thing happened, as well as a virtual representation of the evolution of dinosaurs to birds at the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog


How common is crossbreeding and resulting hybridization among birds? There are some 10,000 species of birds in the world and scientists believe that about 10% of them have mated with a different bird species.


The UK continues to suffer seabird losses due to a mysterious viscous substance in the waters off the southeastern coast. Current investigations are focusing on dumping of oil from tankers at sea.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to drop the gray wolf from the list of endangered species, but scientists and conservationists fear the move is premature. The animal faces extreme pressure from hunting in many areas of the West. 


Here is an interesting series of photos of a Brown Booby capturing flying fish in the air over the ocean.


A European songbird called the Great Tit has had its breeding cycle disrupted by the changing climate. So far, breeding success and family size seem not to have been affected, suggesting, perhaps, that birds may be able to adapt more readily than feared.


The E.P.A. has criticized the State Department's environmental impact study of the Keystone XL pipeline because it fails to take into account the effect of global climate change.


Malta is hell on Earth for migratory birds. They are shot indiscriminately as they attempt to make their way, spring and fall, between Africa and Europe. The BBC has a photo gallery of many of the birds shot.


The horror continues for bats in the eastern part of the continent. The disease known as "white nose syndrome" is still killing the little creatures by the thousands. In one cave in Pennsylvania that once held over 10,000 bats, only 23 now remain alive.


Around the backyard:

I am being eaten out of house and garden by a voracious flock of White-winged Doves! I suppose it is my own fault really. I have a open platform feeder as part of my bird feeder system in the backyard. Many birds prefer this feeder, but when the doves descend, the food doesn't last long.

 Here's what I mean. The birds flock in by the tens. I fill the feeder and an hour later, it is empty!

 While one crew cleans up, a second wave waits its turn.

So, I've made my decision. The platform feeder has to go, to be replaced by something that is more small-bird friendly. I don't mind feeding the doves, but they can feed on the ground like the Eurasian Collared-doves, Mourning Doves, and, occasionally, the Inca Doves. There's always plenty of food there. 

The Cedar Waxwings are still here. They are usually the very last of my winter birds to leave. I typically see flocks of 50 to 100 of the birds socializing late in the day in the trees around my yard.

And, yes, the Pine Siskins and a few American Goldfinches are still here, too. They seem in no hurry to leave and I'm certainly in no hurry to see the go. 

I checked the Eastern Bluebirds' nest box yesterday. Five perfect blue eggs were nestled in the neat pine straw cup, just like with their first brood. And speaking of that first brood, I saw two of them in the yard late one afternoon this week. They were as large as their parents and their tails were long, not the stubby affairs of the new fledgling, but they still have their spots on the breast which mark them as thrush babies. They were flying strongly and I saw each of them capture insects. Very satisfying!

Also making their appearance in the yard this week was the young family of Carolina Wrens. And, really, is there anything cuter?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I'm back in the backyard

I apologize for my blog silence over the last several days. As sometimes happens, real life intervened on my "virtual" life and kept me away from the keyboard. Not unhappily, I hasten to add. It's just that I have been preoccupied with events which didn't leave me time for writing, or, for that matter, much time for observing the birds.

At this time of the year, if you miss a day of observations, then it seems that the backyard cast of avian characters changes completely. This week I'm hearing vireos calling every time I step outside. Both the White-eyed and the Red-eyed varieties seem to be in the neighborhood. I could have sworn that I heard a Yellow-breasted Chat, too, one of my favorite summer visitors. The bird was calling from among the shrubbery along the back fence, but I only heard a fragment of the call and the bird never came into view, so I couldn't be absolutely sure it was a chat. But it is time for that quirkiest member of the warbler family to be putting in an appearance, so I strongly suspect that's what it was.

In the backyard, the sound of baby birds urging their parents to bring food is heard constantly. There's a family of young Carolina Wrens behind the garden shed that seems almost ready to fly out into the world. There are other baby voices all around the yard, the identity of some of which I'm not sure, but it sounds like we'll be seeing a population explosion of fledglings very soon now.

And in the bluebird box, the Eastern Bluebirds are getting ready to start a new family.

Meanwhile, I keep running into winter birds that I thought were gone. I was sure all my warblers had left but then I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler a few days ago, and then yesterday, as I was sitting on my patio resting from my labors, a beautiful brightly colored Pine Warbler dropped into the little fountain there to get a drink of water.

The backyard birds can always surprise us, always keep us entertained.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Backyard notes

I thought all of our winter warblers had moved on, but today as I was working in the backyard, I heard a familiar "chipping" and looked up to see a Yellow-rumped Warbler dropping from the magnolia tree into the birdbath underneath to have a splash. A straggler, I'm sure.


I've noticed a lot of bluebird activity around the bird boxes recently. Today, I checked the box where the Eastern Bluebirds raised their first brood last month. The box contained a neat, new pine straw nest, so the pair is getting ready for a second go at family-raising.

I checked the other box on that side of the garden and it had a nest, too, but it was rather untidy and I'm pretty sure it wasn't a bluebird nest. The House Sparrows had built there earlier and I had removed their nest, but this one didn't quite look untidy enough to be a sparrow nest, so I left it alone. It could be a wren or perhaps even a particularly inept bluebird. In fact, the earlier bluebird nest from which the chicks were fledged was not an especially tidy affair.


Sitting in my swing on the patio one afternoon recently, I was watching a flock of White-winged Doves around the feeders, when suddenly they exploded into the air, and one of the doves, with a hawk chasing it, headed straight toward me!

The swing has a cover over the top to provide shade and the dove managed to avoid that cover, but the hawk smacked right into it! It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk and it took a second for it to get its bearings and, in that second, its intended dinner escaped. The hawk flew up to a nearby crape myrtle tree to regain his equilibrium. A few seconds later, he rose into the air and continued his hunt, but, to add insult to injury, a pair of Barn Swallows who are nesting somewhere in my neighborhood chased him!

I see the swallows over my yard quite often, but they are not nesting in it. It's likely that they have a nest in my back fence neighbor's yard, but I haven't confirmed that.


The Pine Siskins are still here, but in significantly fewer numbers than before. Occasionally, I see an American Goldfinch with them, but those are almost all gone now.  


A few days ago, I saw my first female Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the yard. I don't think she tarried. I haven't seen her since, but I continue to see one or two males in the yard almost every day. I think, in most instances, they, too, are just passing through. I'm still hoping that the female that has nested here in recent years - or maybe one of her daughters - will show up and linger with me through the summer.

UPDATE (04/18/13): One more note - Outside this morning, I saw a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the redbud tree. He was taking a "bath" in the morning mist. Another winter bird that I thought was long gone.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

This week in birds - #64

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week this week is the highly endangered Ochre-fronted Antpitta, a bird endemic to the cloud forests of northern Peru. This plump, long-legged bird is less than five inches long, with an olive-brown back and black-streaked white underparts. Males have the ochre-buff forehead that gives this species its name.


Swallows are known for their preference for living and nesting close to human habitations. A group of researchers studying them has come up with the theory that the birds developed this habit as a way of protecting their nests from nest parasitizing birds like Cuckoos that do not like to be close to humans. 


A beautiful striped bat discovered in South Sudan in Africa has been identified as an entirely new genus.


We have a new Secretary of the Interior. Sally Jewell was confirmed by the Senate by a 87-11 vote this week.


Most penguins are affected negatively by global climate change, but scientists have discovered one colony of Adelie Penguins that may actually benefit from the warming climate.


In an average year, there are 250 oil pipeline accidents. The resulting spills have caused billions of dollars of property damage and cleanup costs. 


Migrant species of birds, known as vagrants, that enter a new environment are often aided by the presence of nature reserves, scientists in the UK have found. Undoubtedly, it is true here, also.


Eastern Bluebirds living in Bermuda are considered by some to be a subspecies called the Bermuda Bluebird. They've long been considered a native bird, but, in fact, they only came to the island some 400 years ago.


Is clean air important? Well, statistics show that seven million people died as a result of air pollution in 2010. Over a third of those deaths occurred in China.


The American Bird Conservancy lists ten ways that you can assist migrating and breeding birds this spring. Number one is to keep your cat indoors.


Tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive water leaked from a large underground storage pool at the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, and thousands more gallons could seep out before the faulty pool can be emptied, the plant’s operator said.


In February, scores of seabirds were injured and hundreds more killed by a sticky pollutant in the water along the south coast of England. Now it is happening again. More than thirty Guillemots have been rescued so far.


Around the backyard:

Project FeederWatch wrapped up for the season last week. My final reporting days were March 30-31. But there is still plenty of activity around the feeders this week, still primarily Pine Siskins. Following the front that came through in the middle of the week, most of the American Goldfinches have disappeared. I've seen only two or three at the feeders yesterday and again today. The siskins though show no signs so far of wanting to move on.

In other finch news, there have been two pairs of beautiful House Finches hanging around the feeders this week. They are always welcome visitors.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan: A review

Roger Tory Peterson revolutionized birding in the 1930s with his innovative way of presenting images of birds in field guides. His drawings showed the birds in stylized poses that emphasized their most noticeable markings which helped to identify them. Arrows pointed to those marks, and texts named them to help even the most novice birders find identifying field marks and "name that bird." Peterson was godfather to generations of birders and was one of the prime movers in popularizing the hobby.

Since that time, most authors of bird guides have followed in Peterson's footsteps, using some variation of his methods. It was time for a new revolution. Enter Richard Crossley.

Crossley's ID guides, not field guides because they are not really meant to be taken into the field, utilize a radically different method of looking at and identifying birds. Crossley uses photographs of the birds, doing what birds do - perching, flying, eating, preening, catching prey, and, in the case of water birds, occasionally swimming. He takes multiple pictures of a bird species in differing poses and places those pictures against a background of a naturalistic setting for the bird. The effect is that we see the bird as it would appear in real life in its natural habitat. It is a brilliant innovation in the depiction of birds for identification.

His first guide using this method was The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, which I reviewed here.  Now he and his two co-authors add this new book which specifically deals with North American raptors.

The raptors, from the lowly vultures to the majestic eagles, are presented in all their beauty and uniqueness. In most instances, there are multiple pages of beautiful photographs of each species. The Red-tailed Hawk, for example, which has a daunting number of color phases and variations, has ten pages of photographs devoted to it.

Many raptors are maddeningly difficult to differentiate. Looking at them from the ground as they fly overhead, they can all appear to be big brown birds, or, sometimes, big brown blurs. Among the most difficult can be the Accipiters. The Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Northern Goshawk, where they appear together, can mostly be told apart on the wing by their size or the shape of the tail. But all things are relative. And confusing. In the case of these hawks, the authors have included pages of photographs of the birds side by side, again in naturalistic settings, so that the eye can more easily discern the differences. The same method is used for other similar and confusing species. Some such pages have tests for the reader to compare the pictures and try his/her eye at identifying the birds. Answers to the tests are presented in the back of the book

Though the emphasis is on the visual effect of the beautiful photographs in the book, the text is also comprehensive and extremely helpful, containing a wealth of information about each individual species, much more than one would find in a typical field guide. The range maps, as well, are clear and beautifully depicted, and must have been somewhat of a challenge with many species expanding their ranges in response to climate change. The Swallow-tailed Kite, for example, until recent years was very rarely seen in my area of Southeast Texas. Now it is fairly common in summer and has already appeared over my yard this spring. The range map in the book shows it just to the east of my area. The same could be said of the Harris's Hawk which appears increasingly here in summer and seems to be expanding its range from the west. The range map shows it just west and south of me.

This ID guide, like Crossley's earlier works, are ideal tools for the birder to use to familiarize him/herself with the shape and appearance of these fascinating raptors before going birding. Returning from a birding trip, they can be used again to review one's notes and confirm identifications. They are, in short, an essential addition to birding literature and may, in time, have the same kind of impact as the revered Peterson.

(A free advance copy of this soon-to-be published book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

This week in birds - #63

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Our smallest (and cutest) woodpecker is the Downy Woodpecker. It is easy to tell the sexes apart. The female, seen here, is all black and white.

The male, like all of our native male woodpeckers, has a red mark on his head. Both males and females love to visit suet feeders.


The big news in the environment this week was the rupture in Arkansas of a pipeline carrying tar sands crude oil from Canada. The leak spilled more than 200,000 gallons of the smelly, sticky stuff into the suburban neighborhood of Mayflower. The accident was a reminder of just what can happen when such pipelines rupture and cast further doubt on the wisdom of completing the Keystone XL pipeline which would carry similar crude oil through very sensitive water sources throughout the Midwest.


It is well known that mated pairs of cranes of all species "dance" as part of their courtship ritual. It is an activity that has been imitated by humans as far back as the Stone Age in their dancing. Sometimes, though, young, unmated cranes will dance also. Scientists are attempting to understand what triggers such behavior. It seems likely that it is merely a kind of play in which the birds engage.  


We've had spring here in Southeast Texas since just about mid-February, but the season is just beginning to arrive in places like Illinois.


The subjects of pure scientific research can sometimes come in for ridicule from those who don't understand the value of such study. For example, reading that some scientist is studying duck genitalia might lend itself for inclusion in some late-night comedian's routine. In fact, there are serious reasons for such study and one of the scientists involved in it took time this week to explain what could be learned from such scientific research.


We were lucky enough to get two inches of rain this week, but the long term forecast is for continued drought here and throughout the central and western part of the country.


When you think of flamingos, the first place that comes to mind is probably not Mumbai, India, but, in fact, each year from January to May, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos flock to the mud flats around the busy city.


A pair of Ospreys had built a nest on a crane in the Port of San Francisco and Port workers removed and destroyed the nest. That is a big no-no. You are not allowed to mess with the nests of raptors during nesting season, under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Port's action is being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Dragonflies may appear to be delicate creatures but they are really deadly predators with something like a 95% success rate in capturing their prey, much higher than most other predators.

This dragonfly visited my garden last December.


Global warming will affect breeding birds of the Arctic in various ways. Some birds may actually benefit from its effects, but it is likely that more will be negatively affected.


Anyone who has read any of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin series of books about England's war against Napoleon would not be surprised by this story: One of Napoleon's generals, Pierre Dejean, was a naturalist and a great collector of beetles who sometimes collected the insects even in the midst of battles. Two Canadian scientists have now undertaken to update his extensive records and catalogs of his collections. Stephen Maturin would be proud!


Around the backyard:

I haven't seen or heard any Rufous Hummingbirds for a few days now and I think that my winter visitors must have finally moved on. Yesterday, however, I was surprised and delighted to observe a male Black-chinned Hummingbird at one of my feeders in the middle of the afternoon. It's not often that I see his kind in my yard.

Today, there was another male Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the yard. I have yet to see a female this spring.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Two new visitors

"Chik-a-purrrreeer-chik" sang the bird in my oak tree this morning. No doubt about his identity! The White-eyed Vireo was back in town and announcing his presence, while hidden among the green leaves. Soon, I heard an answering call from a neighbor's yard, so it wasn't just my  vireo who had arrived. Evidently, he had brought his gang with him.

This afternoon, while driving south on S.H. 249 in Tomball, I looked up to see another familiar shape. The bird on the utility wire had a very long tail. No doubt about his identity either - the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is here.

Vireos and Scissor-tails - it really must be spring!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Still here

I've had the sense recently that our winter birds seem to be staying with us longer this year than in the past. So, to check my memory, I looked back at my previous years' records on eBird to see what they showed. As often happens, I found that my memory was somewhat faulty.

My records show that my latest sighting of American Goldfinches in my yard was on April 9, 2011, so the fact that I still have some in my yard here at the first of April is not that unusual. But there do seem to be more of the birds that are making the transition to their spring feathers in my yard. Usually, we only see them in their gray-green winter clothes, but this year bright yellow and black birds are common in the yard.

This male American Goldfinch, in my yard over the weekend,  has changed about halfway into his spring clothes.

My latest yard sighting of Pine Siskins was on April 27, 2011, so they could potentially still be hanging around for another month.

The siskins are still the most numerous bird species in my yard and at my feeders as they were for most of the winter.

Now, I only have one year's previous experience with Rufous Hummingbirds, but last year, my first year to host the birds during the winter, they were last seen in my yard on March 27. So, already, they have stayed longer than their previous record and they are now outnumbered daily by the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds passing through. And still they linger.

There are plenty of blossoms for the birds to sip from now, but this little guy still likes to visit the feeder throughout the day.

On the other hand, our winter warblers do seem to have fled my yard and my Red-breasted Nuthatches are long gone, though other birders in the area have reported them throughout March. The season is definitely in transition. Who will be next to show up?