Friday, January 22, 2010

Bernheim Eagle Watch

When we put in our creek in the backyard, the salesman said it wouldn't freeze because the current is too fast. The flat parts did not freeze, but the waterfalls at the top froze over, creating a cap of ice over the still flowing water. The snow is all melted now, but I couldn't resist this picture of the frozen falls lighted at night. What's that you say? Is that an owl sitting here? It's an owl all right, but unfortunately, it's a plastic owl. Looks pretty cool though, doesn't it?
In the winter, Bernheim Forest plays host to several Golden Eagles. Brainard Palmer-Ball, our #1 birding expert, led the Beckham Bird club to Bernheim's backside to watch for eagles last weekend. Bernheim puts roadkill deer back there for the birds and other animals. As we pulled in, we found a Golden Eagle and a Bald Eagle at the same time!
Brainard says these Goldens probably come down from Canada. I always associated them with the western states. We saw two Goldens and two Bald Eagles during our stay. Sometimes there have been as many as seven Golden Eagles. One came over the hilltop, took a look at those strange creatures down by the creek and headed in the other direction again.
It's not often that I can photograph two eagles in the air at once! The first weekend in February we plan to go to Eagle Weekend at Lake Monroe, near Bloomington, IN. Hope I get some closer photos then. This Red Tailed Hawk didn't watch in our direction. When nothing interesting showed up, he took off for more productive hunting grounds.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Adios Texas

With a mid-afternoon flight from Harlingen, we wanted to spend a little more time birding before arriving at the airport. We tried the Los Fresnos water treatment plant, but it was closed, so we ended up at the Ramsey Nature Park in Harlingen along the Arroyo Colorado, the first place we birded last week. Sunday morning was perfect. Perfect weather, sunshine, and very few other visitors or dog walkers.
We were greeted by a Harris Hawk perched on a light post, and "serenaded" by some squawking Kiskadees which posed for us much closer to the trail than the others we've seen this week. A small Kingfisher darted into the brush around the resaca (a small pond). It was small enough to be the Green Kingfisher, but I didn't get enough of a look to verify, so we'll hold that life bird for another trip.
Lots of small birds hopped in the branches, including this pair of Lesser Goldfinches. One little sparrow let us look at it for quite a while, but wouldn't hold still enough for a photo. After looking at the field guide at the airport, we think it might have been a Lincoln's Sparrow.
Curve-Billed Thrashers love grapefruit apparently, since this guy sampled several where they are nailed to the branches. He looks like he suspects we might steal his treat. The Green Jays liked grapefruit too.
OK, here's the challenge of the morning. I hoped it was an Olive Sparrow, which would have added to our life list, but it just doesn't have that brown eye stripe, no matter how much I adjust the lighting in Photoshop. However, the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet also lives the same habitat in Southern Texas. What do you think? That would give us a total of 30 to add to our life list, and a grand total of 92 species for the week. Woo-hoo! All the bird feeders in the back yard were empty, so my first task at home was to fill them again, and find the heater for the bird bath. The small birds don't like the creek we built - it's too deep and fast for them. The pond company said the creek would not freeze in winter, and they were kind of right. The stream is flowing, but the waterfalls at the top are covered in ice.
The icy pattern as the water flows out resembles feathers made of ice, and is truly beautiful. It's good to be home again.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sunny Saturday on South Padre Island

The wind continues to blow at 20 to 30 mph, and it is 39 degrees, but the sun is shining, without cloud cover, for the first time all week, and we look forward to a final full day of birding on South Padre Island. The Birding Center advertised two bird hikes led by a volunteer birder, so we bundle up to join the hike led by Tim, a Texas Master Naturalist who spends most weekends at the center it seems. Only one other couple is brave enough to start with, and only Dick and I actually stick it out. Are we real birders or what!

Small fish at the center died in the freeze last night, and the Caspian Terns and Pelicans chow down. Did you know that a Pelican in the water will spread its wings to lunge and catch a fish? Then as it swallows, it clacks its huge beak with satisfaction. Yum! A juvenile Harrier swoops low over the mangrove and reeds trying to flush small birds. I hope he caught something when he didn't come back out of the bushes. A Merlin perches quietly in the top of a mangrove bush, while one of the the resident Peregrine Falcons watches everything from the top of the city water tower. Tim helped us identify the Western Sandpipers probing the mudflats with Dunlin, while Lesser Yellow Legs and Willet explored the grasses. We saw a Least Sandpiper although I did not get a photo of it. It was so easy to identify the birds when he described them, but I may not have some of the names right here, so let me know if I've gotten confused. We learned to recognize Mottled Ducks by their bright orange legs and Mexican Mallards, which have darker green heads and no white band on their necks) paddling in the freshwater pond. A few Skimmers huddled with some Laughing Gulls in the shallow water. Try as we might, we did not find an Oyster Catcher.
We don't often think of the color of a bird's eye, but some of them are outstanding. Look at the blue eye on this Ibis and the red eye of the Spoonbill.
We looked for Rails and Sora which usually come out of the grass in late afternoon, but no luck today. We did, however, find the White Faced Goose which has been at the center for about a week now. Tim called the Texas Bird List to report its presence.
The center has lots of Reddish Egrets and one of the white morphs. We got to see both of them standing together and it made the comparison very easy.
As the sun sets (for the first time this week) over Port Isabel, we plan for a short expedition tomorrow morning before bidding goodbye to South Texas to fly North again.
Final additions to life birds:White Fronted Goose, Mottled Duck, Mexican Mallard Duck, Least Sandpiper, White Tailed Hawk, Western Sandpiper. Grand Total - 28 Lifers this week!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Oh, the Weather Outside Is...

Oh, the weather outside is...





Not conducive to good birding

When we went out to the car this morning, the low tire pressure light came on. By the time we found an air pump and filled all the tires, we decided there was no point in trying to go birding today at all. Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies played marathon Elvis movies all day, so there was something besides soaps and talk shows. We saw Snow Geese at Laguna Atascosa NWR, but I didn't think they would bring weather this cold when they migrated!

I couldn't resist a picture of this sign. Most people just find chaos. I never knew you had to buy it! It's supposed to be even colder tomorrow morning, but should warm up into the 50's by afternoon. I hope!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Birding at the Landfill

We are always enthusiastic about birding at water treatment plants. We find great birds there, no matter how sparse birds may be at fancier places. The Texas Coastal Birding Trail guide took us to the Brownsville Landfill today, and it was really an experience, let me tell you! Just be glad that I don't have a Smell-o-Camera! The aroma was truly something we wanted to escape quickly. The guide suggested that we watch for unusual gulls, and the gulls were there in the hundreds of thousands, but I couldn't pick out any that looked unfamiliar. It almost looked like the snow falling in Louisville.
The Vultures and Gulls soared around, squawking and fighting over choice bits of garbage. The Caracara was too dignified to squawk. The scene looked like something from Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds." I kept a sharp eye out for speeding garbage trucks as we pulled to the side of the road on the trash hill - the highest spot in the county, probably.
The star bird was the White Tailed Hawk - the sole lifer for today. We spotted a dark bird with white breast that we couldn't identify. Notice the band on his leg - someone caught him sometime. At the landfill, we saw two more birds with white bellies, dark heads and wings and when they flew the brilliant white tail became visible. Clearly, we had found juvenile and adult White Tailed Hawks. Aren't they beautiful!
When we left South Padre Island around 9:00, the temperature was 64 degrees, but the Weather Channel had dire warnings for the Arctic blast due to arrive in South Texas today. A few Ruddy Turnstones ate a late breakfast in the rocks, while a pair of Harris Hawks perched on the yucca.
It started to rain at the landfill, so we got back in the car for the next stop, but the Audubon Society's Sabal Palm refuge was locked up when we arrived. By now, the rain was steadier, and the wind fiercer as we drove down to Boca Chica Beach where the road ends at the Gulf. We were due south of South Padre Island, reachable from the island only by boat. The wind driven sand blew across the road and I wisely did not try to open my door (if I could have in any event). The few brave (or foolhardy) birds in the air appeared to fly backwards. A few little Sanderlings and Piping Plovers actually slid backwards or sideways as they tried to feed in the mudflats. I felt so sorry for them.
We decided to end the day early and just head back to the room. By 2:30 the temperature was 47, and the wind speed is now about 30 mph. The wind pours in around our door, in fact we had trouble getting to close at all with the wind blowing so hard, but we have no plans to go out again in this weather. Everyone we meet here just smiles and says, "At least it isn't as bad as home!"

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Laguna Atascosa NWR

Along the country roads leading to Laguna Atascosa NWR,raptors perch on all the power lines and poles. Kestrels seem to be the most common, dropping swiftly to the grass for a mouse. Larger birds can take a bit more examination to identify. If it's dark all over, except for the rump, it's a Harris Hawk. Red Tail Hawks join them, and Harriers swoop low over the fields. Is it an adult male? Female? Juvenile? Maybe, gasp, could it be the Aplomado Falcon, which is being reintroduced in the area? We thought we saw a falcon twice, but still aren't sure, just hopeful.
The Caracara is larger and distinctively colored. No guessing there! We are getting good at finding White Tailed Kites too, although we can't always persuade them to look into the camera.
Raptors seem to prefer perching on power lines and poles in flat country such as Texas and Arizona. What did they do before there were any power lines and poles? Today we found them on short mesquite trees, atop yucca plants and one Osprey perched on a tire stuck in the mud of the bay!
At the Visitor's Center, a feeding station tempted a flock of Green Jays with grapefruit. Yummy! The 88,000 + acres of the Refuge hosts over 413 species of birds, including residents and migrants, as a Globally Important Bird Area. They also have the majority of remaining ocelots in the country and Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles, along with Aplomado Falcons. We didn't see any of these animals, but we did find two different groups of Javelinas - a collared peccary that looks much like a pig. The alligator we found was as big around as a large tree trunk. Dick wanted to take one of the walking trails after completing the 15 mile driving loop, and I did so unwillingly. But a short time into the trail, he touched my shoulder and pointed down the path. A Bobcat silently crossed the trail before us!
Yesterday we saw a Long Billed Curlew for the first time. As usual, when you find a bird or plant once, they turn up all over the place! We saw them in the Laguna, as expected, but also in the fields munching on insects. My question is, how do they manage those long bills while still in the egg? Do they grow after hatching? Are they long but soft, and get hard after hatching? The sky looks blue, but is really dark storm clouds behind sunshine in the foreground. The landscape in the Refuge varies from marshy along the hypersaline Laguna, to thorn thickets, to prairie. The animals all call it home.

Reddish Egret fished in the bay. Well, it's more like running the fish down to catch them! See how fast this guy is chasing his lunch around the bay!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

South Padre Island on a Boardwalk

Today we woke with the sun for a beach walk, enjoying the Pelicans as they stood hovered in the air, kiting in the strong wind. The sun rose on one side, while the moon hung in the sky in the other direction. Sea foam surfed across the sand, blown by the wind. A gull danced a cha-cha in the surf to dislodge some breakfast morsel.
I love watching Pelicans. They look like Pteradactyls! The causeway to Padre Island has a sign warning drivers to watch for Pelicans. Apparently they get caught on the bridge and can't take off in the wind sometimes, so they get hit by cars.
The Bird and Nature Center in Padre Island opened their new building last spring, and it will be truly wonderful when the vegetation gets going. Almost a mile of boardwalk lead over the marshes and out into Laguna Madre. The bay is huge, and rafts of Red Headed Ducks, American Wigeon and Pintails drift there, along with a single female Hooded Merganser (I think). Then a Reddish Egret landed, and the water didn't even come up to its first leg joint. The Laguna's deepest point is only about 3 feet, so many of the wading birds stand right next to the ducks. All the birds were actively feeding all day.
Shorebirds are always a challenge, and finding them in winter is even worse! As always, other birds on the boardwalk helped us identify the birds which looked so similar to me. Our sure species count for today is 38, with 5 lifers, but I think we saw more species we simply did not recognize! We indentified this Black Bellied Plover, a Solitary Sandpiper and Marbled Godwit. A fellow birder pointed out a Long Billed Curlew - all firsts for us.
Padre Island has one alligator, which dozed in the sun. Ducks, Ibis, Roaseate Spoonbills, Moorhens and a turtle shared his pond. I think this Great Egret was tiptoeing past him, carefully watching the water's edge.
Of course, I like identifying old "friends" of the marshes, such as this Moorhen, Tri-colored Heron, and White Ibis. An Osprey kited in the wind and a Harrier strafed the marsh repeatedly. Life Species today: Long Billed Curlew, Spotted Sandpiper, Reddish Egret - White Morph, Marbled Godwit, Solitary Sandpiper.
Did I mention that this condo resort only has Internet in the Lobby? I prepare my photos and text in our room, then haul everything down to the Lobby to upload and check our email. There are five chairs and two wobbly tables for this purpose. I better finish before my battery dies!