Sunday, May 8, 2016

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

About 20 people joined me this Mother's Day morning for the monthly group bird walk on Lake Creek Trail. We started at the Braes Valley end of the trail at 7:30 and spent about two hours covering not even a mile of trail. The group was larger than usual probably because this is an exciting time to be birding in central Texas. Late April and early May is the peak of spring migration, so many species of birds are passing through the area that we only get to see now and in the fall. But the weather was against us. Most migrating birds have been taking advantage of the steady south winds to keep moving north, so not as many have been stopping to rest in patches of habitat like Lake Creek Trail. Still, we managed to find 39 species of birds and had a couple fun encounters.

Our best bird of the morning was one of the few migrants we saw -- an Olive-sided Flycatcher that posed for us on some wires over the creek near the footbridge. Everyone got good looks at this bird which is very similar to our year-round resident Eastern Phoebe. Two key differences Olive-sided Flycatcher has are a shorter tail that it doesn't pump, and distinct dark sides on its breast and belly which make it look like it's wearing a vest. My camera lens has been sent to Panasonic for repairs, so I couldn't take any photos, but here's an old photo of this species from Fall 2012, from almost the same spot. (Who knows, maybe it's the same bird!)

Olive-sided Flycatcher


Nearby on the footbridge we saw some fledgling Eastern Phoebes, so it was a great opportunity to compare.

A few other migrants we found were briefly seen Yellow Warblers, a heard-only Nashville Warbler, a high flying Great Blue Heron, and a heard-only Yellow-breasted Chat. The chat was in a dense patch of trees and brush near the footbridge. We enjoyed hearing it's song made of strange very different little phrases as it emanated from the bushes. I tried playing a recording back to it but it wouldn't come out to investigate. In the creek bed we enjoyed watching a hunting Snowy Egret. Unlike Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets which hunt while still or very slowly walking, Snowy Egrets actively walk and run chasing their prey. Sometimes it would use one of its feet to stir up the water and mud in front of it and watch for small animals that might emerge.

Despite the birds being slow it was a fun and pleasant morning. We won't have many more mornings this cool and comfortable before the summer! Here's our complete bird list.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

As I finally sit down to write this on Tuesday evening, I just heard a Broad-winged Hawk calling. This species is a newly returning summer resident in our neighborhood. Their distinctive Killdeer-like call is pretty easy to learn. And this species was one we were thrilled to see on the monthly group walk last Sunday morning. Sixteen people joined me at the Parmer Village end of the trail and we ended up recording 47 species of birds. Here are some highlights.

Barn Swallows were present over the pond and along the creek. We watched a few chase a hawk downstream when we first arrived at the last dam. One of them actually struck the hawk a couple times, something I've never seen before. (I've seen Barn Swallows chase hawks before, but never actually hit one.) At first we thought the hawk was a Cooper's Hawk, but later when we saw it again we realized it was a newly returned Broad-winged Hawk. Here are two photos of it from later in the morning, the first with a Barn Swallow in pursuit, and the second of it soaring alone.

Broad-winged Hawk and Barn Swallow


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Night-Heron and Merlin

Lake Creek Trail keeps surprising me. Yesterday morning I had two memorable experiences, one with a newly returning summer species and one with a soon-to-leave winter species.

I started at the Braes Valley trail head and when I finally made it to the footbridge I ran into three fellow local birders and Travis Audubon members, Stan VanSandt, George Kerr, and Virginia Rose. As we birded from the bridge two Yellow-crowned Night-Herons landed on some of the power lines the cross the creek. As we watched, one of them performed a breeding display for the other. These amazing birds nest in our neighborhood during the summer, and the males' breeding display is something that you'd expect to see only in a tropical jungle! I've never been able to photograph it before, so I was excited to get these so-so shots:

Displaying Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

16 folks met me this morning for the monthly group walk on Lake Creek Trail. It was cool and overcast when we met at 7:30 at the end of Braes Valley. By the time we finished two and a half hours later, the sun was peeking out and it was beautiful. Changing seasons were evident in bird behavior. Many more birds were singing, including two winter resident species that we rarely get to hear before they leave Texas for northern breeding grounds. Before everyone arrived a Spotted Towhee was singing from just east of the parking lot. (We later got to see probably this same bird from the side trail that goes to Briar Hollow Drive.) The other winter resident we got to hear was a Song Sparrow, singing from the creek bed a little further up the trail. Other species we got to hear singing were Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Cardinal, Bewick's Wren, Carolina Wren, and Carolina Chickadee. I briefly saw my first north-bound migrating bird of the season -- a fast flying Barn Swallow that was headed upstream over the creek bed.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cedar Waxwings were plentiful. I think waxwing numbers have been augmented by birds that wintered further south starting to head north. I estimated we saw at least 350 waxwings this morning.

We got to see two species of hawks this morning. Near the trailhead we saw one of the nesting Red-shouldered Hawks and its nest in the willow trees right by the creek. This pair has nested here for the past few summers. We saw another Red-shouldered Hawk by the footbridge. It was a juvenile hunting from one of the wires over the creek bed. We got to see it fly down and come up with what I guessed was a mouse in its claws. here's a distant photo of it perched:

Red-shouldered Hawk


The other species of hawk we got to see was Sharp-shinned Hawk that was hunting on the Town and Country playing fields. It briefly perched near the top of the cottonwood next to the Meadowheath parking lot before continuing its low hunting flight that scared up many grackles and starlings and doves in its path.

Other highlights included close looks at an Eastern Phoebe from the footbridge, a beautiful Great Egret and several Killdeers both in the creek bed, and two female Ladder-backed Woodpeckers chasing each other right in front of us. Here are a few more photos:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Spring Behavior and an Alarm

The first bird I heard today was while I was still lying in bed: a White-winged Dove started singing a little before dawn. (As I write this at about 9:30 I am still hearing singing doves through my windows.) I spent about 40 minutes watching birds in my yard this morning, starting at about 8:20. Besides doves, American Robins, Carolina Wrens, a Bewick's Wren, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and Black-crested Titmice were also singing. I watched a Blue Jay hop around in the dead tree over my driveway and tug at twigs with its bill. Was it trying to find dead twigs that would easily snap off for a nest?

Bird Language observations were mostly baseline: singing, foraging, contact calls, even some wing vibrating by one of a pair of White-winged Doves which I think is part of mating behavior. But near the end of my 40 minutes of observation to the northwest I simultaneously heard an explosion of dove wing beats (including some clapping of wings together) and several quick and more urgent-sounding Blue Jay calls. Doves fled the area and I watched small mixed groups of Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings in tight flights circle around and land up high in the trees. Birdsong temporarily stopped.

I did not see what caused the alarm, and I couldn't go investigate since it was in a neighbor's yard. But I'm sure there was something that upset these birds.

Here's my eBird list.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Highs and Lows

I spent about an hour and a half hanging around the pond at the last dam on Lake Creek Trail this afternoon. My goal was to find some of the migratory dragonflies that Pond Watch tracks and report them. (One of Pond Watch's founders said the greatest value of this project in central Texas was to track initial arrival of migratory dragonflies in the late winter and early spring.) Here are some quick high points and low points I experienced.

High Points:
  • I succeeded in my Pond Watch goal and found a single male Common Green Darner patrolling over the pond.
  • I found a few more odonates including a nice male Ramburs Forktail damselfly, a female Common Whitetail dragonfly (photo below), and possibly a basket-tail or club-skimmer dragonfly that never landed for me.
  • After weeks of only Gadwalls and American Wigeons on the pond, I found three more duck species: Northern Shoveler, Redhead, and a pair of Northern Pintails. I've only observed pintails on our creek a handful of times!
Low Points:
  • Someone continues to leave cleaned fish carcasses in the creek in the flow that goes under the railings.
  • Two guys appeared on the trail driving a golf cart. It turned out they were maintenance workers for a nearby apartment complex and they were looking for another golf cart that had disappeared. One of them walked into the woods along the creek and scared away all the ducks.
  • Later, I watched three small groups of ducks fly in, circle the creek, and leave since they didn't see any other ducks there (scared away by the golf cart guy).
Here's the Common Whitetail:

Common Whitetail

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Great Backyard Bird Count!

This weekend (February 12-15) is the Great Backyard Bird Count! So I decided to do something I haven't done in awhile: bird the entire length of Lake Creek Trail. I started a little after 8:00 this morning at the Braes Valley end and spent over 4 hours covering the 2.5 miles of trail and some surrounding off-trail areas. It was one of those fun cloudy days when the bird activity seemed to continue all morning instead of slow down by 10:00 AM. I don't know why this sometimes happens on cloudy days. (Maybe it's because the insects that the birds are catching don't speed up as much since the sun isn't out?) I ended up finding 52 species of birds, a great count for our trail.

I was most excited to find a Merlin that briefly perched alongside the creek in the middle of the T&C playing fields. These falcons are uncommon winter residents in central Texas and I think it has been at least two years since I've seen one in our neighborhood!

Merlin


There was also an Osprey hunting over the dammed up areas of the creek that I managed to get a photo of. This winter resident hawk that specializes in hunting fish was also a species I haven't seen in the neighborhood for a couple years.

Osprey


I was pleased to find a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks starting to build a nest in the willow trees near the Braes Valley trail head. This is the spot they nested in last year too.

Here's my complete bird list from this morning.