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Monday, February 24, 2014

Happy birding to you!

For the past few years, I have maintained three - count 'em, three! - blogs. This one devoted to birding, Gardening With Nature devoted to habitat gardening, and The Nature of Things, an eclectic blog devoted to... well, a little bit of everything. I have greatly enjoyed doing all three blogs but none more so than this one.

Backyard Birder was my first attempt at blogging. I started it for The Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2006, so it has been going continuously now for almost eight years. In the world of blogging, that is a very long time indeed.  

In August, 2011, after the Chronicle had changed its online format for reader blogs, I decided to post Backyard Birder on Blogger instead and I've been happily publishing here ever since. So, it has been particularly wrenching for me to make the decision to discontinue posting to this particular blog. I have reluctantly concluded that I simply do not have the time and energy - and maybe the ideas - to maintain three separate, though related, blogs.

Looking at the traffic on the three blogs, it is clear that The Nature of Things receives about twice as many visitors on average as the other two blogs combined. Consequently, my choice was made obvious. I will continue with The Nature of Things and in addition to all the other topics that I write about there, I will now be including birds and gardening. (I will also soon suspend writing Gardening With Nature.)

I want to thank those of you who have faithfully followed this blog over the years. It has been my great pleasure to share my enthusiasm for birds - especially our ordinary, everyday, overlooked backyard birds - with you. I invite you to follow me to The Nature of Things where my first post about the birds of my backyard will be appearing tomorrow. But whether you do or not and whatever else you do, keep watching those birds!

Happy birding to you all.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell: A review

(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers might at first be misled by the title of this book. Rare Birds of North America is not, in fact, about the endangered and rare species of endemic birds of this continent. Rather, it is a comprehensive illustrated guide to the birds that don't belong here but manage to find their way here anyway. 

These are the birds that are referred to as vagrants. They are native to some other part of the world - East Asia, Western Eurasia, Africa, the Southern Hemisphere, islands - but, for some reason, they have turned up on this continent.

The book explains how and why these vagrants arrive here. 

The "how" is simple enough. Birds have wings and they tend to use them to fly to different places. Though they generally follow fairly well-defined routes in migration and in their wanderings about the planet, sometimes when they are in flight something might happen to steer them in a different direction. Most often this is probably related to weather, but other factors may play a role as well, and the authors explore some of the means of dispersal of species.

But why do birds end up in places where they shouldn't be? Again, this is probably most often related to weather conditions, but sometimes birds might simply overshoot their mark. Or, as the population of a particular species increases in one place, they may begin to expand their range and disperse into other areas. This is how many Central and South American species have come to find their way into the states along the southern U.S. border and some have moved even farther north. There is also the possibility that disorientation or misorientation might play a role in the dispersal of species to new areas.

However the vagrants manage to find their way here, when a birder spots one of them and gets the word out, other birders race to the scene, eager to add that bird to their life list. We love watching and documenting the everyday and familiar birds of our region, but the possibility of seeing something exotic from a whole  different part of the world is an opportunity that no self-respecting birder would care to miss. And now we have an illustrated guide to help us identify and learn more about these unexpected visitors.

The authors define rare vagrants as those which have had five or fewer individuals reported annually in North America since about 1950. They include species accounts of 262 such birds. These accounts give identification field marks and also discuss the patterns of vagrancy and where the bird might be most likely to be found.  The text is accompanied by 275 informative color plates by Ian Lewington.   

The book includes helpful appendices which provide a list of birds that are new to North America from 1950 to 2011 and also explanations of why some birds that have hypothetically occurred on the continent are not included in this book. 

Overall, I think this book should be a valuable resource for any birder interested in the "birds that shouldn't be here but are." And that, I believe, includes most birders.

(Note: A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review of it. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own. )

Monday, February 17, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

How did you spend your Presidents' Day weekend? I spent mine counting birds.

Yes, this was the weekend for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an activity that has now gone global. Beginning last year, the Count started accepting reports not just from North America but from all around the world. When I last checked the website, reports had been received this year from every continent except Antarctica. Participants count birds in their own yards or other designated places.

This year, I counted birds in my yard as I always do, and on Saturday I also did a count at Brazos Bend State Park. We had a family cookout there to celebrate our older daughter's birthday, and, of course, I insisted that we go on a bird walk after lunch.

In fact, the highlight of my weekend counting came on that walk. It was around 3:00 in the afternoon and we were walking around Forty-Acre Lake when we heard two Barred Owls calling to each other in the woods nearby.  Since I do my bird counting during daylight hours, it isn't often that I get to list an owl species, but Barred Owls frequently become active in mid to late afternoon hours and, fortunately for me, these two certainly were!

I ended my day with 31 species counted at the park. With more time and effort, I could have probably doubled that, but, after all, birding was my secondary activity on this particular day.

On the other three days of the four-day holiday weekend, I observed and counted birds in my yard. My goal for the weekend was 40 species, but I ended with only 34. As always when I do an official count of birds in my yard, I was frustrated by the no-shows, the birds that I know are there but that just didn't turn up during my count period.

Where was that Pileated Woodpecker that has been so active in the area in recent weeks? Where are the Eastern Phoebes? I haven't seen one in my yard all winter. Where was the Red-tailed Hawk that flies over my yard every day - except for this weekend? That Killdeer that flies over and calls noisily on occasion - where was it this weekend?

And on most days I can count on flyovers in the late afternoon from a number of waterbirds and waders, but this weekend? Nary a one showed a feather.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, the tiny Brown-headed Nuthatch did not make an appearance. I didn't even hear it calling during the time that I was counting.

For most of the weekend, I thought I would have to include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on my list of no-shows, but just at about 6:00 this afternoon as the light was fading and I was about to call it a count and head indoors, I heard the sapsucker calling in the big pine tree just across the fence in my neighbor's yard. I looked up and finally was able to find it far, far up the 100+ foot tree.

 It was really too dark for this picture, but I had to give it a try after waiting so long for him.

Encouraged, I decided to wait just a few more minutes to see if something wonderful might turn up. Nothing did. My last bird of the day, the last bird of my count was that Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.


Here are the 34 species that did deign to show themselves for my yard count.

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Eurasian Collared-Dove
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove 
Inca Dove
Rufous Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin 
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-Winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird 
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


And here is the species list from Brazos Bend.

Blue-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
White Ibis
Glossy/White-faced Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Crested Caracara
Loggerhead Shrike
American Crow
Tree Swallow 
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Backyard predators

(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)

This is a busy time at the backyard bird feeders. When I step out into the yard, it is common to see a hundred or more songbirds at the feeders and on the ground around the feeders. It is no accident that February is designated as National Bird Feeding Month and that the Great Backyard Bird Count which surveys where birds are in mid-winter takes place on this coming weekend. This is the month when birds are most visible in our yards.

And where the little birds gather, the larger birds that prey on them soon follow. In my yard, this means the two Accipiters, Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

The larger of the two is the Cooper's Hawk, which is a permanent resident in our area, and I do see him around the yard throughout the year, chasing the birds that come to my feeders. Seldom do I see him actually catch one. There is plenty of cover in the yard and at the first warning cry from a Blue Jay, all the birds scramble for it.

In the field, it is very hard to discern the difference between the Cooper's and the Sharp-shinned. They are very similar in appearance. The Cooper's Hawk is bigger, but there is a difference in size between the sexes among these raptors; the females are quite a bit larger and so it is that a female Sharp-shinned might be as large as a male Cooper's. The most reliable field mark, I find, is the shape of the tail - if you can see it. I think you can tell from this picture that the end of the bird's tail is rather rounded. That is a trait of the Cooper's.

The Sharp-shinned, on the other hand, has a squared-off end of the tail. This bird, half hidden among the leaves of a tree, has that squared tail which marks him as a Sharp-shinned. The Sharp-shinned is a winter visitor to our area and, at this time of year, I see this bird almost daily when I am outside. 

Both of these raptors are magnificent birds and it is a great honor to have them as a part of my backyard ecosystem. Some bird lovers who maintain bird feeders for songbirds hate the birds that prey on them and try to discourage them, but I see them as an essential part of the habitat.

They are beautiful birds and, after all, they have to eat, too. Nature made them to eat other birds and we can hardly fault them for fulfilling that function.  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

This week in birds - #99

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

Blue-winged Teal are just one of the many species of ducks that visit our area in winter. The ponds and wetlands are teeming with water birds of all kinds at this time of year.


The eyes of the world (not including my own) will be on Sochi for the Olympics for the next couple of weeks. Russia pulled out all the stops to try and get ready to host the world for these Olympics. Unfortunately, their all-out effort was very destructive to the environment, including a wetland where 65 species of birds, including some that are endangered, used to make their home. The Russians have replaced the wetland with a manicured and manufactured "ornithological park," but there isn't a bird in sight. (*Update below.)


The debacle in Atlanta during the recent snow event there simply reinforced how ill-prepared some, perhaps most, American cities are to deal with even minor climate-caused emergencies.


Meanwhile, summer in Australia has meant that that country has had to deal with a different kind of climate emergency - bushfires. These fires have threatened some of Australia's rare bird species.


Painted Buntings are gorgeous birds. Many would say that they are the most beautiful of North American birds. Their beauty may possibly bring about the devastation of the species, however. There is a flourishing trade among disreputable people who trap the birds to sell as caged birds. The thought of one of these wild birds being doomed to live out its life in a cage is enough to break my heart.


New studies of sediments from the Ice Age indicate that wooly mammoths and other large mammals probably became extinct because of changes in vegetation that were brought about by climate change.


One of our oldest animal protection laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed 96 years ago, makes is unlawful to hunt, kill, or harm in any way some 800 listed species of birds. However, some conservationists complain that the law is not being enforced uniformly or in a transparent way.


Two Pink-footed Geese from Iceland have turned up in a field near Baltimore, delighting birders in the area. The geese normally winter in Europe, so they are just about 3,000 miles off-course.


California is suffering a severe drought which is drying up rivers and streams all over the state.  As a result, the state Fish and Game Commission has closed many areas to fishing in an attempt to save threatened salmon and trout. There is fear that the drought may be pushing the coho salmon into extinction.


Snowy Owls can operate as either diurnal or nocturnal hunters, depending on the circumstances. A research project is attempting to discover which is their preference - which will they choose when both options are available.


Loss of habitat, use of chemical fertilizers, and human encroachment is causing Nepal to lose its bird population. As of 2011, the country had 149 species on the threatened list.


While most of the attention has been on the extremely cold temperatures suffered in much of the country, Alaska has been having to cope with an unusually warm winter. In fact, most of the Arctic area is having an exceptionally warm winter.


Many bird species gather in large flocks to roost in winter. The blackbird family is especially known for this, but the flocks are especially dramatic when they are composed of large birds like crows and this can sometimes be disconcerting to some onlookers.


Around the backyard:

I'm refilling the bird feeders every day now, trying to keep my hungry horde of backyard birds fed.

One bird that hasn't been emptying my feeders so far this winter is the neatly dressed little White-throated Sparrow. I usually have at least of few of them in my yard at this time of year, but I haven't seen a single one here this winter.

Another absentee this winter has been the handsome iridescent Common Grackle. This one was a visitor last winter, but although their cousins the Red-winged Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird have both been present, I've yet to see any grackles in the yard.

Only one more week until the Great Backyard Bird Count. Maybe some of my absentees will show up then.

*Update 02/09/14: For more on the destruction of the environment around Sochi, see this story in today.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

FeederWatching - Week #12

Action at the feeders stayed fast and furious this past weekend for week #12 of my Project FeederWatch, as the cold weather continues and the birds are looking for a quick and easy meal - one on which they are not required to expend a lot of energy. Keeping the feeders stocked with the foods that they like has become a daily occupation of mine, as they empty as if by magic.

I did not note any new species in the yard this week, just more of the usual ones. There was a total of 29 species checked on my list by the time the weekend ended.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Red-shouldered Hawk - 1
Eurasian Collared-dove - 1
White-winged Dove - 3
Mourning Dove - 1
Rufous Hummingbird - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Pileated Woodpecker - 1
Blue Jay - 3
American Crow - 1
Carolina Chickadee - 2
Tufted Titmouse - 4
Carolina Wren -2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 1
Eastern Bluebird - 2
American Robin - 2
Northern Mockingbird - 1
Cedar Waxwing - 5
Orange-crowned Warbler - 1
Pine Warbler - 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 1
Chipping Sparrow - 2
Northern Cardinal - 6
Red-winged Blackbird - 4   
Brown-headed Cowbird - 14
House Finch - 1
American Goldfinch - 60
House Sparrow - 7

It was nice to see the Pileated Woodpecker put in an appearance once again. They seem to have been more active in the area in recent weeks and it is always fun to see them working their way up the trunks of the big pine trees in the area.

I've been thinking about the birds that I'm missing on my counts and wondering if they are here and I'm just not seeing them or if they are absent this winter. Normally, I would be seeing White-throated Sparrows, Eastern Phoebes, and Common Grackles among others, but so far none of these have appeared this winter. At least not while I've been looking.

Next weekend will be the last count before the big Great Backyard Bird Count weekend and it will be a tune-up for that count. It should give me a good idea of how many species I might expect for the GBBC. Of course, for that project, we can also count birds flying over the yard like Black and Turkey Vultures, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and the occasional heron and egret. I hope to tally around 40 species for that weekend.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

This week in birds - #98

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

One benefit of the exceptionally cold weather that has been experienced in some parts of the country this winter is that it may have helped to kill off some persistent insect pests. In particular, scientists are hoping that the cold will be an ally in their fight against the Southern pine beetle. Effects of the winter cold are being monitored in the New Jersey pinelands to ascertain its impact on the beetle population.


Mute Swans are large and beautiful birds. Pairs of them are often used by artists to portray a symbol of love, but as we approach Valentine's Day, there is little love for the big birds in New York. The state is attempting to eradicate at least 2,000 of them in the wild. The problem is that the birds are not native; they are an introduced species, and they wreak havoc on the environment, often making it unusable for other water birds. Moreover, these very big birds are also very aggressive in protecting their territory. They do not hesitate to attack humans who come too close, as well as other birds. They also pose an extreme threat to any aircraft that ventures into their flight path. So, the state has decided that they have to go unless they are on private lands and/or their wings can be clipped so that they cannot fly.  


Eastern Bluebirds seem to face severe challenges to their survival throughout their range. This extends also to the island of Bermuda, where the population of the birds is in decline.


The migratory Monarch butterfly population continues to decline. The butterflies that reached Mexico for the winter are covering the smallest area of land since this has been tracked. It is true that the population can fluctuate a great deal from year to year, but from a high of 20.97 hectares in the winter of 1996-97, the population this winter is down to 0.67 hectares. The primary cause of this decline appears to be the use of pesticides and herbicides in farming, particularly the profligate use of the herbicide Round Up which has killed off much of the milkweed stands in the Midwest that the butterflies depended upon.


A lawsuit by conservation groups over a planned wind farm along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie has stopped construction of the wind farm at least for the time being. The wind turbines would be in the flight path of many migratory birds including the most endangered songbird of North America, the Kirtland's Warbler.


A rare and endangered Philippine Eagle was killed at a conservation group's breeding compound on the island of Mindanao when it was hit by a falling branch.


Contrary to what you often hear from certain right-wing politicians, the use of solar power is actually booming in the United States. The biggest threat to its use seems to be those same politicians, who are generally allied with big oil and big coal and who apparently try to do everything in their power to impede the growth of solar energy.


The Ecuadoran government has set aside 7,000 acres of prime habitat as a preserve for the protection of the Andean Condor.


The most famous and, to our knowledge, the best-traveled Red Knot in the world has been sighted on Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America this winter. The bird, designated as Moonbird B95, is also the longest-lived Red Knot on record at 20 years. He was originally banded on February 20, 1995.


It's not just Monarch butterflies whose existence is threatened. In Europe, almost a third of the butterfly species are in decline and fully one-tenth of them are in danger of extinction.


Researchers have found that, on Chesapeake Bay, Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles often nest in the same trees. Although the observation is confirmed, they can't really explain why it happens.


Penguins are joining polar bears as poster animals to illustrate the dangers of global climate change. The existence of Adelie and Magellanic Penguins in particular is threatened by changing climatic conditions at the bottom of the planet.


Around the backyard:

I was reminded once again this afternoon of the vital role that Blue Jays play in the backyard avian ecosystem. I was idly watching the backyard feeders where at least a hundred little birds, mostly American goldfinches, were busily feeding when suddenly a Blue Jay in a tree at the southwest corner of the yard gave an urgent warning screech. Sometimes the birds will ignore the jay's calls I've noticed, but something must have been different today and they didn't hesitate. Every single one of them, even the Chipping Sparrows, made a dive for the shrubbery. A few seconds later, a Sharp-shinned Hawk streaked through the yard, but he didn't find a meal this time. Thanks to that backyard sentinel, the loud and obnoxious Blue Jay.