Friday, May 20, 2011

A Fun Morning on the Trail

I've been too busy to bird the neighborhood for too long, so I took today off from work and spent the morning on Lake Creek Trail. It was a great morning! I started at the Braes Valley parking lot, and the woods along the creek between there and the footbridge was full of birds. Between the parking lot and the creek I've been seeing and hearing at least one Cooper's Hawk on and off through the spring. I saw it again this morning and watched it carry a stick into the top of a dense patch of Hackberry trees. Cooper's Hawks are mostly winter birds in our neighborhood, but in the Austin area they do occur in smaller numbers all year long. I wonder if we have a nesting pair.

I soon realized that most of the birds in the woods along the creek were in the flycatcher family...

I estimated 5 Eastern Wood-Pewees and about 15 birds in the Empidonax genus (commonly called "empids"). There are about 11 empids that can be found in the United States, and most of them are very difficult to distinguish visually. 5 empids move through the Austin area during spring and fall migration. The most common is the Least Flycatcher, which is the only one I can usually identify by sight, via its bold eye-ring and big-headed no-neck appearance. I saw at least one of these this morning. Sound is the best way to identify empids to species, and late May is the only time of year we have the opportunity to hear them in the neighborhood. I heard 2 species vocalize this morning: a single Willow Flycatcher, and 2 Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. I was excited to see one of the Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and watch it as it made its pewee-like tuwee call. This was a new species for my neighborhood list, #207! Here's a photo I got from the footbridge of one of the empids that remained silent, so I couldn't identify it.

Empidonax Sp.

The most numerous migrating warbler of the morning was the Common Yellowthroat. I estimated finding at least 10 in the tall grass and low brush along the creek. I was also excited to find at least 3 Mourning Warblers, another low-foraging warbler that makes its way through the Austin area mostly in mid and late May. And there were still a few Painted Buntings and Indigo Buntings feeding on seeds in the tall grass.

I usually don't go birding with target birds in mind, but in late May I always hope I'll see a few White-rumped Sandpipers on our creek. These small birds migrate north every spring from their winter range in southern South America to the Canadian arctic to breed. This is one of the longest migrations in our hemisphere and I'm always thrilled to find a few of these birds recuperating on our neighborhood creek. I found 3 today, just past the eastern edge of the playing fields. Here's a photo. (The White-rumpeds are on the left, and a Pectoral Sandpiper is on the right.)

White-rumped Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpiper

On my way back I went into the woods hoping to find and hear more empids. I didn't find any new ones, but I did find a Chestnut-sided Warbler, the first I've seen this year. A couple times I thought I heard a Red-eyed Vireo, a pretty common spring migrant, but I could never find it. Then when I emerged from the woods back onto the trail I saw a vireo that turned out to be a Philadelphia Vireo. They sound similar to Red-eyed, and look very similar too. But their face pattern isn't as pronounced, and they have a yellowish throat. This was only the second time I've found this species in the neighborhood. And I was excited to actually watch it sing a bit (something I've never seen before). Here's a mediocre photo I got.

Philadelphia Vireo - 2

I found 56 species of birds this morning, which was a blast. But I was discouraged to see at least 3 loose cats along the trail, one of them collared. Many of the birds I saw this morning forage near or on the ground, and many are passing through unfamiliar areas trying to find little patches of their favorite habitat where they can find food on their way north. The last thing they need is pet cats hunting them for fun. If you own a cat please keep it indoors. It's safer for the cat too.


Mikael Behrens said...

I went back to the trail for an hour at about 7:30 PM. I heard Alder Flycatcher and Acadian Flycatcher. So I observed all 5 Empidonax species that pass through the Austin area on our neighborhood trail today!

James said...

Sounds like a great morning. I'm seeing cats more regularly on our neighborhood trails too. Really irritating.