Sunday, March 29, 2015

Singing Spotted Towhee

This morning on Lake Creek Trail I was excited to encounter a singing male Spotted Towhee not too far from the Braes Valley parking lot. I have never heard one sing before. Spotted Towhee is an unusually colorful member of the sparrow family, and like most sparrows it only lives in central Texas during the winter. In the winter, most birds don't sing. Singing is associated with breeding activities, and winter isn't breeding season. So to sing in the winter is a waste of energy.

But in the spring there is a window, right now, when we central Texans sometimes get to hear winter birds like Spotted Towhees singing. The birds start to exhibit some breeding-related behaviors (like singing) before they leave for their northern breeding grounds.

Here's the Spotted Towhee I got to hear singing:

Spotted Towhee

You can listen to it's song isolated from others here:

And here's the recording I made with my iPhone of the bird this morning. (It's mixed with several other bird songs and calls.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

American Goldfinches in the Cedar Elms

I took a leisurely stroll on the streets of our neighborhood this morning and enjoyed a few very active mixed-species foraging flocks of birds like Black-crested Titmouse, Yellow-rumed Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a few others. The most numerous species, sometimes appearing in these groups and sometimes in groups of its own, was American Goldfinch. This is a winter resident species that usually occurs in groups and feeds mostly on seeds.

I also noticed now and then small bits of debris drifting down from some of the trees. It reminded me of wind-dispersed Cottonwood seeds. I realized that when I saw this debris in the air I was standing near a Cedar Elm tree, and that tree had American Goldfinches in it. One of the pieces drifted down and landed on me and I recognized it as an empty Cedar Elm seed packet. There was a hole right in the center. I looked more closely at the Goldfinches and saw that this was their doing. They'd pull a seed packet off the tree, eat the seed out of it, and discard it. There were enough birds doing this to create the drifting debris of empty seed packets in the air.

Here's a photo of the seed packet that landed on me.

Cedar Elm Seed Packet

And here's an American Goldfinch I photographed last year in my backyard. Coincidentally, it's in a Cedar Elm tree and you can see a blurry seed packet that it just discarded.

American Goldfinch

Here's my complete bird list.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

Last Sunday morning, 11 folks met me at the Braes Valley parking lot of Lake Creek Trail for my monthly neighborhood bird walk. We enjoyed an absolutely beautiful morning on the trail and found over 30 species of birds. The most numerous songbirds were Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Northern Cardinals. Here are a female Yellow-rumped Warbler and a female Northern Cardinal, both photographed by the footbridge with the amazing morning light behind us:

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Northern Cardinal

On our way back from the footbridge someone pointed out the opaque berries of Chinaberry tree on the trail and remarked that berries from the exotic Chinaberry tree are opaque, but similar berries from the native Soapberry tree are partially translucent. I realized there were some Soapberry trees nearby and so  I took these photos to compare them.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Eurasian Wigeon

Last weekend I spent Sunday morning birding Lake Creek Trail. I ran into Barry Noret and we had a banner morning totaling 61 species of birds! The most exciting by far was a new bird for Lake Creek Trail, Williamson County, and a lifer (a species we've never seen before) for us both. At about 11:30 we were scanning the creek upstream from the last dam when I saw a duck with a red head. Initially I thought it was a Redhead, a common winter-resident duck on the Texas coast and a little less common inland. But as it turned towards me I could see that its forehead and crown were bright light yellow, like an American Wigeon's white forehead and crown. I also saw that the tail and feathers in front of the tail were black, followed by white a little further up the body, exactly like an American Wigeon. Barry looked it up and realized it was a Eurasian Wigeon! This is the American Wigeon's counterpart in the other hemisphere. They show up occasionally on the east and west coasts of the Americas, but they show up in Texas much less often. I got this distant photo, and we decided to refrain from getting closer and risk scaring the bird away.

Eurasian Wigeon - 3

So far, this bird has not been seen again since early afternoon on that same day. But it certainly could still show up on the creek again. Here it is in front of a Northern Pintail:

Eurasian Wigeon - 2

This was species number 223 on my neighborhood list. Back in 2006 when I started keeping bird records in this neighborhood, I never imagined I'd reach 200. But Lake Creek Trail keeps surprising me. In fact, we found species 222 a little earlier that morning.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

Four folks joined me this morning for the first Birding on Broadmeade group walk of 2015. It was cold, clear, and windy! But the weather was easier to bear than I expected, and we spent a fun couple of hours finding 40 species of birds. Some wild ducks are back. We found Gadwall and Northern Shovelers on the Parmer Village Pond, and we found a group of about 30 American Wigeon on Lake Creek just upstream of the second dam. Here's a poor photo I got of some of the wigeons:

American Wigeons

Yellow-rumped Warblers were plentiful, and we found a couple Orange-crowned Warblers too. By the last dam we found an American Pipit and got a brief but exciting view of a Sharp-shinned Hawk diving into the woods. These two American Crows flew in and vocalized a bit while they watched over the creek and us:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

A week ago today (Sunday), six folks met me at the Braes Valley trail head for the monthly group bird walk. We spent about two hours on a cold and overcast morning finding 35 species of birds. Highlights started near the trail head when we heard a small group of Blue Jays suddenly start their alarm calls and then saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk fly past through the canopy. Later on a couple of us got a close look at a perched Cooper's Hawk (a very similar bird) in the Town and Country parking lot. And nearby we saw possibly the same Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring overhead. I got this poor photo of the soaring Sharp-shinned. From this angle two things that help distinguish it from a Cooper's are the small head and the more squared-off tail.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Through the whole walk we distantly heard and then finally saw a female Belted Kingfisher perched on a wire over the creek.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Birds of Prey

After a dark and rainy day yesterday, I was excited to spend some time on Lake Creek Trail in the sun this morning. I spent about two and a half hours on the trail between the Braes Valley parking lot and the playing fields just beyond the footbridge. The most interesting observations I made were related to birds of prey. Near the second bench on the trail I was standing still, watching and listening. (Lately I've been getting interested in bird alarm calls and how they relate to different disturbances the birds experience, like people walking by or the presence of a predator.) Very close by, I heard the distinctive call of a Cooper's Hawk in the narrow and dense strip of trees between the trail and the creek. I looked for the hawk but couldn't find it. All I could find was a Blue Jay. Then I realized it was the Blue Jay making the call, imitating a Cooper's Hawk. I've heard Blue Jays imitating Red-shouldered Hawks, but never a Cooper's Hawk. There has been a resident pair of Cooper's Hawks in this area for a couple years now, so I'm sure it had plenty opportunity to learn the call. I'll have to research why.

Later on the other side of the footbridge I was watching Song Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, and House Sparrows all in the same binocular view in the creek bed when another bird flew into the view. The sparrows all dove for cover as I saw the grey back of a Sharp-shinned Hawk dive at the bush they were in. The hawk continued up the tributary branch of the creek and flew out of view over the woods. A few minutes later I saw probably the same bird that had circled around and was approaching from the same direction. Watching it fly towards me with my binoculars, I saw another bird below it flying in the same direction. The second bird had pointier wings and I realized it was a falcon. It flew almost right over me and from its streaked breast I recognized it as a Merlin. It dove at one of about 40 Great Tailed Grackles that were in the field beside the trail, missed it, and continued out of view.

All three of these birds of prey specialize in hunting other birds. Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks have round wings and a long tail for chasing birds through the woods and brush. Merlins have narrow pointed wings and tail for fast flight in the open sky. I had seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk dive at birds in a bush on one side of the trail, then a Merlin dive at a bird in an open field on the other side of the trail, in the space of 10 minutes! Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks are winter residents here. A few Cooper's Hawks are here year-round, but more are here in the winter. So in central Texas, winter is a dangerous time for songbirds!

As I returned across the footbridge, this Red-tailed Hawk soared over me, looking for a much wider range of prey in the creek bed.

Red-tailed Hawk

Here's my complete bird list. What a fun morning!