Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Behrens Manor Big Sit #2 and City Nature Challenge

April 24 through April 27 was the iNaturalist worldwide City Nature Challenge. iNaturalist encourages different metropolitan areas around the world to try and submit as many nature observations of as many different species as possible, and promotes a friendly competition between them. This year the focus was less on the competition and more on the joy of finding nature close to home. As part of the challenge I decided to do another Big Sit in my yard (a birding game to see how many species you can hear or see in one spot in one day). I also promoted it a little bit on FaceBook, to try and see if anyone else around the state would be interested in doing one during the same time window. I did the big sit on Saturday, April 25 and here are some highlights.

I got started at about 5:45 AM and took this selfie at about 6:15 when there was finally enough light for my iPhone's camera to work. There were still a few stars in the sky:

Early Morning Big Sit Selfie

Unfortunately I did not hear any owls or other night birds in the predawn dark. Purple Martins were the first birds I recorded. They were already up in the sky hunting and singing at 5:53 AM. From then until 6:45 AM I heard most of the expected year-round resident songbirds start to sing and got up to 11 species.

Then it was light enough for more birds to start flying and I started getting some interesting flyovers. Summer resident Chimney Swifts twittered and flew back and forth. I was able to get this photo of one:

Chimney Swift

Small groups of lingering winter-resident Cedar Waxwings and north-bound migrant Dickcissels flew over for the next hour or so. These are the only images I was able to capture. These Cedar Waxwings are just barely identifiable:

Cedar Waxwings

And you'll just have to trust me that this was a Dickcissel, making its diagnostic flight call as it flew over my yard:


I was hoping for more migrating songbirds besides the Dickcissels, and at around 8:15 I got one. A lone Wilson's Warbler showed up and spent some time foraging in my backyard. Here's the best photo I could get of this north-bound migrant:

Wilson's Warbler

By 10:00 AM I was up to 39 birds when a mixed-species foraging flock of songbirds showed up in the backyard. Two Orange-crowned Warblers in this flock took me up to 40. Like last time, this mixed flock was making some kind of circuit and visited my yard 2 or 3 times over the next couple hours. Each time it visited I tried my best to find a new species of bird in it. I was able to pick out a couple Nashville Warblers on their way north, and this beautiful lingering Blue-headed Vireo that was singing as it foraged:

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireos are winter residents in central Texas, and we only get to hear their song briefly in the spring before they head north.

The last new species I was able to find in this flock was this first-year Black-throated Green Warbler. I found it at 11:24 AM and it brought my species list up to 42, tying my last big sit!

Black-throated Green Warbler - 1 - 2

Then I took a break for lunch and the new species stopped. Then afternoon was pleasant enough but mostly uneventful. I spent most of the time watching the open sky and thinking about how different birds use it. For many songbirds the open sky is dangerous. They're built for slow maneuvering in dense foliage, so in the open sky most songbirds are sitting ducks to falcons and accipiters. That's why many migratory songbirds migrate at night. For other birds the open sky is where they live most of their lives. Swallows and swifts fly all day long, catching insects out of the "aerial plankton." Vultures and hawks use the open sky to cover long distances while searching for prey on the ground. Some hawks and falcons and kites also hunt in the sky like the swallows and swifts. (The swallows and swifts are such deft fliers they don't worry too much about the hawks and falcons, and sometimes chase these much larger birds!)

While I was watching the sky two old friends checked in with me on Skype and it was nice catching up with them.

At 3:30 an accipiter soared over the yard. Even though my initial identification of it was Cooper's Hawk, I took a bunch of photos since nothing else much of interest had happened lately. A few days later, looking at these photos I honestly didn't know if this bird was a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Here's the best of my poor photos of this high-flying bird:

Accipiter - 2 - 5

Opinions on iNaturalist are mixed. If this bird was a Sharp-shinned, then my bird list would have 43 species on it! If it's a Cooper's Hawk it would stay at 42, tying my previous effort.

My Big Sit only lasted about another hour. Shortly after this accipiter flew by, neighbors' leaf blowers, lawn mowers, weed whackers, and a circular saw finally drove me inside where I rested my eyes and later had a nice dinner.

Here's my final bird list for the day:

1Purple Martin - could it be flying already?5:53 AM
2White-winged Dove5:58 AM
3Blue Jay6:19 AM
4Carolina Wren6:20 AM
5Northern Cardinal6:22 AM
6Carolina Chickadee6:28 AM
7Black-crested Titmouse6:29 AM
8Common Grackle6:35 AM
9Bewick’s Wren6:39 AM
10American Crow6:40 AM
11Great-tailed Grackle6:42 AM
12Chimney Swift6:46 AM
13Cedar Waxwing6:48 AM
14Northern Mockingbird6:51 AM
15Great Crested Flycatcher6:52 AM
16American Robin6:53 AM
17Yellow-crowned Night-Heron6:56 AM
18Dickcissel6:57 AM
19House Finch7:01 AM
20Yellow-rumped Warbler7:07 AM
21European Starling7:10 AM
22Red-shouldered Hawk7:16 AM
23Blue-headed Vireo7:20 AM
24Broad-winged Hawk7:25 AM
25Barn Swallow7:36 AM
26Red-winged Blackbird7:40 AM
27Cooper’s Hawk7:44 AM
28Ruby-crowned Kinglet7:50 AM
29Red-bellied Woodpecker7:53 AM
30Mississippi Kite8:10 AM
31Wilson’s Warbler8:15 AM
32hummingbird sp.8:23 AM
33Turkey Vulture8:25 AM
34Mourning Dove8:28 AM
35Cliff Swallow8:40 AM
36Ladder-backed Woodpecker8:43 AM
37Lesser Goldfinch9:18 AM
38Black Vulture9:25 AM
39Swainson’s Hawk9:42 AM
40Orange-crowned Warbler10:20 AM
41Nashville Warbler10:24 AM
42Black-throated Green Warbler11:24 AM
43Sharp-shinned Hawk (possible)3:30 PM

Photos from my Big Sit and the whole City Nature Challenge weekend are on Flickr here.

Not a bad way to spend a day!


Unknown said...

I don't consider myself a birder but I love birds. I enjoyed reading your short essay on the open skies. I've never put that much thought into it. It's amazing what we don't think about until someone points it out. Thanks.
Jeannie Cheung

cricket said...

Thank you! Was looking forward to your report and am not disappointed. Very nice to see the spottings on a time line. Right now in central Austin three nighthawks are loudly dipping and swaying over West 6th street. Sad that the spring migrations are over, I guess, but still so much activity beyond the usual jays, grackles, mockingbirds, and English sparrows.

KIm said...

A wonderful writeup! Thanks for sharing your observations and your expertise. I always learn something from you, Mikael! I don't always remember it, but I try my best : )

We have been doing SO MUCH backyard birding since the stay in place order, and we're so, so fortunate to have a creek and forest to enjoy as well as a big back yard with lots of native plants. The warblers are a challenge but what triumph when we spot one!

Kim Carter

Mikael Behrens said...

Thanks for the kind words Jeannie and cricket and Kim!

Spring migration is definitely not over. We are in the peak right now, but it will last through the end of May.