Sunday, April 12, 2020

Behrens Manor Big Sit

By the first week of April, in an effort to "flatten the curve" of coronavirus infection Austin had already been living under the March 24 "Stay Home - Work Safe Order" for about a week. I've never experienced anything like this and was having a hard time with stress and anxiety at home by myself. Out in the Davis Mountains of west Texas, my friend DD Currie was about to experience a similar order starting on Saturday April 4. So she decided to comply with the order by doing a Big Sit in her yard and invited anyone in Texas to join her in their yards either on Saturday or Sunday. (A Big Sit is a birding game played by seeing how many species of bird you can see or hear from one spot in one day.) She would gather species lists from everyone who participated, and she called it the Texas Quarantine Party.

Desperately needing a distraction, I decided to participate. To make it a little more social, I called it the Behrens Manor Big Sit (jokingly referring to my very average-sized suburban house and yard). I created a Skype meeting that I'd keep open all day on my laptop so people could virtually drop in to say hi and follow my progress. On Saturday I got all my weekend chores done, and on Sunday April 5 I was free to bird all day in my yard.

I got started on Sunday morning a little before 5:45 AM in order to try and hear night birds or birds migrating at night. Just a minute or two after I started I heard two Eastern Screech-Owls in my neighbor's yard behind mine. One was doing its "whinny" song and the other the monotonic trill. With these two creepy sounds, the count had started!

It took 45 minutes before I recorded my next bird, a White-winged Dove that started singing at around 6:30. 15 minutes later a birding phenomenon called the dawn chorus started and most of the expected species started to sing and call. The first birds I actually saw were a few Great-tailed Grackles that flew over my yard just after 7 AM when it was finally getting light enough to see clearly. (It was overcast and cold all morning, and I had to move around and drink lots of coffee to stay comfortable.) By 7:15 I had recorded 14 species of birds.

The first really exciting moment was at 7:41 AM. I was standing under the trees over my driveway watching some songbirds when I heard the flight call of an Upland Sandpiper for the second time that morning. (The first time I heard it was at 6:45 but it was a single call, heard-only.) The call repeated a couple times and I came out from under the trees just in time to see about 40 Upland Sandpipers flying in V formation heading east. In our neighborhood we usually only get to hear this species during spring and fall migration during the night or early in the morning. It was amazing to see this group fly past!

At 8:54 I heard an odd squeally call and then watched 2 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks fly low over my yard from the west, circle overhead, and return in the direction they'd come from. I only have a handful of observations of this species in my yard, so this was a real treat. These large exotically plumaged ducks are year-round residents that have been expanding their range north from south Texas over the last few decades.

A little after 10 AM an interesting woodpecker showed up. Initially I thought it was a female Red-bellied Woodpecker but there were a few strange things about it. The nape was orangish red instead of pure red, and its cere was yellow. There were not many dark bands on its central tail feathers, and when I got glimpses of the belly, it was yellowish instead of reddish. It turns out this was a hybrid between Red-bellied Woodpecker and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. One of the cool things about birding in central Texas is that we have several pairs of similar species, one eastern and one western, whose ranges overlap here. One such pair is Red-bellied Woodpecker (eastern) and Golden-fronted Woodpecker (southwestern). In west Austin you can find both, and sometimes they interbreed! Here are a couple photos:

Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1 - 3

Red-bellied Woodpecker - 1 - 5

Throughout the day there was a mixed-species foraging flock of songbirds that cycled through my yard half a dozen times. (Many songbirds form these flocks in the winter since they are not split up on separate breeding territories like they are in the summer. They all watch for danger and listen to each other's contact and alarm calls.) When the flock arrived the trees were became alive with movement and it was so fun to try and identify all the species that were in it. Near as I could tell, this flock was composed of a few Carolina Chickadees and Black-crested Titmice (which usually make up the core of these kinds of flocks), about 10 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (a north-bound midrange), a few Yellow-rumped Warbers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Chipping Sparrows and an Orange-crowned Warbler (all winter residents), and one or two bright yellow Nashville Warblers (a north-bound migrant). Here are a few photos I got of some of these birds throughout the day:

Black-crested Titmouse:
Black-crested Titmouse

Yellow-rumped Warbler:
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Carolina Chickadee:
Carolina Chickadee

Chipping Sparrow:
Chipping Sparrow

Nashville Warbler:
Nashville Warbler

As expected, during middle morning the rate of observing new species slowed way down. At 10:00 AM I had 30 species. After 11 AM it got a little warmer and conditions finally started favoring species that like the open sky. I saw Black Vultures, Turkey Vulture, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and two Broad-winged Hawks. Here's the Red-shouldered Hawk. It was too dark to see any of the orange barring on its breast, but you can see the light crescents in the wingtips that are a good field mark for this species:

Red-shouldered Hawk:
Red-shouldered Hawk - 1 - 2

Here's the similar Broad-winged Hawk that has broader tail bands and no light crescents in its wingtips:
Broad-winged Hawk - 1

When I stopped for lunch my list was at 39 species and I wondered what #40 would be in the afternoon. It turned out to be a couple Cliff Swallows in the open sky with the Chimney Swifts. At 1:10 PM a mixed flock of Great-tailed Grackles, Common Grackles, and European Starlings arrived in my front yard and foraged on the ground for awhile. Starling was species #41! One of the Common Grackles foraged pretty close to me and got this photo showing its blue-black head and shoulders, and bronze-black on the rest of its body:

Common Grackle - 1 - 3

At 1:30 I saw what would be my last species of the day, #42: a Barn Swallow in the open sky. I got this photo showing its forked tail:

Barn Swallow

The rest of the afternoon went by uneventfully. A few people joined the Skype meeting through the day and it was fun to chat with them. Twyla Grace was participating in her Cedar Park yard on the same day, and we compared notes as we added species to our lists. At about 4 PM I started winding down and building a fire in my charcoal grill. My cousin Eric Irrgang in Istanbul joined the Skype meeting at about 5 PM, which was 1 AM his time!

42 is a higher total than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised I got this high even with a few notable misses like Downy Woodpecker and House Sparrow. Across the state DD Currie and others participating in the Texas Quarantine Party found 190 species of birds! Here's DD's summary as a Google Sheet. (My count was included in the Central Prairie tab.)

Many thanks to DD Currie for creating this game. It took my mind off of our pandemic situation for most of the day, brought me closer to the local and state-wide birding community, and strengthened my connection to local nature. I started the following week in a much better mental state.

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

And here's my complete species list, along with the time each one was first observed:

1Eastern Screech-Owl (heard only, 2)5:43 AM
2White-winged Dove6:31 AM
3Upland Sandpiper (Initially heard only, then about 40 flew right over my head heading SE at 7:41 AM!6:45 AM
4House Finch (heard only)6:49 AM
5Blue Jay6:51 AM
6Northern Cardinal6:53 AM
7Carolina Wren6:55 AM
8American Crow6:56 AM
9Bewick’s Wren6:56 AM
10Great-tailed Grackle - first seen bird7:05 AM
11Black-crested Titmouse7:06 AM
12Carolina Chickadee7:06 AM
13Blue-gray Gnatcatcher7:08 AM
14Common Grackle7:10 AM
15Red-bellied Woodpecker7:17 AM
16Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 7:24 AM
17Ruby-crowned Kinglet7:29 AM
18Chipping Sparrow7:32 AM
19Cedar Waxwing7:35 AM
20Yellow-rumped Warbler7:45 AM
21Nashville Warbler7:47 AM
22Cooper’s Hawk7:48 AM
23American Robin (heard only, singing)8:21 AM
24Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Two flew right over my yard very low. Could they be nesting in a neighbor’s tree?)8:54 AM
25Northern Mockingbird (heard singing across the street in the distance)9:00 AM
26Black-chinned Hummingbird (Initially heard only, later female photographed at feeder.)9:06 AM
27Red-winged Blackbird (2 flying over, chucking)9:16 AM
28Ladder-backed Woodpecker (heard only)9:17 AM
29Eastern Phoebe9:36 AM
30Mourning Dove (2 flying over)9:50 AM
31Orange-crowned Warbler10:25 AM
32Lesser Goldfinch (heard only)11:12 AM
33Red-shouldered Hawk (soaring over)11:19 AM
34Turkey Vulture11:19 AM
35Chimney Swift11:23 AM
36Purple Martin11:23 AM
37Black Vulture (2)11:24 AM
38Broad-winged Hawk (soaring)11:45 AM
39Great Egret (flying over)11:48 AM
40Cliff Swallow12:40 PM
41European Starling (Two mixed in a flock of Great-tailed and Common Grackles in my front yard.)1:10 PM
42Barn Swallow1:30 PM


Unknown said...

This is awesome. Thank you!!

Martin said...

Thanks, you’ve inspired me to do the same! I always enjoy your posts and appreciate all you do to spread your love of birding!

Alasco López said...

What a beautiful pictures!
If you want to see more photos of birds, I share you my blog.