Sunday, July 24, 2022

Big Sit 2022

I was very happy that this year I could once again lead the Birding on Broadmeade team to compete in the annual Great Texas Birding Classic birdwatching competition that Texas Parks and Wildlife organizes. Once again we competed in the Big Sit category, in the Heart of Texas East region. The day we picked to compete was Saturday, May 7, 2022. And our spot was the same as last year, the Braes Valley Lake Creek Trail trailhead where the sidewalk makes a circle that's just about the perfect size, and offers both views of the open sky and dense woods. Early May is about the peak of spring bird migration through central Texas, but it takes a weather event like a thunderstorm or shift in prevailing winds to cause traveling birds to accumulate in patches of good habitat where they wait out and recover from challenging flight conditions.

Last year we got lucky with the weather and had an amazing day. But this year's spring was the driest and windiest in several years. Sustained southeast winds gave north-bound birds a tailwind, and they were less likely to stop and give birdwatchers a chance to see or hear them. May 7 was no exception to the hot and breezy conditions we'd had for weeks before. But there were still some birds around and here are some highlights of what we saw and heard.

We started at about 6 AM when Purple Martins and Cardinals were already singing. At 6:25 when it was still too dark to see very well, we heard a loud squeaky call in a nearby tree that we were able to identify as a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Around 8 AM we counted our 40th species, a Mississippi Kite. And we continued to see at least one and often more kites in the sky all day long. This species has made an amazing shift over the past few years to use our neighborhood has breeding habitat. They are now a common neighborhood summer bird.

We were hoping to see more migrating hawks and falcons in the open sky, but the only one we saw was a lone Swainson's Hawk at 1:28 PM. As the hot afternoon crept on we moved our chairs into the shrinking patch of shade at the edge of the circle. Like the kites, Broad-winged Hawks have started breeding in our neighborhood more and more, but we kept remarking to each other that we hadn't seen or heard one all day. Finally at 4:38 we spotted one flying towards us from Braes Valley. As we watched, it got closer and lower, until it folded its wings and almost dove right in front of us and zoomed low into the woods. This was our first new species in over 2 hours, and it was worth the wait!

We held out until about 6:15 PM and ended up with 63 species, about 10 fewer than last year. But conditions were more difficult this year for all the teams, and our 63 species was enough to put us in first place again! As a winning team, we got to select a conservation project (from a list of those that had applied) to receive a $1,000 grant from TPWD. This year we selected the same project as last year, improvement of Ecology Action of Texas' Circle Acres Nature Preserve in southeast Austin. We were happy to support this local preserve again.

Here's most of this year's team (minus Rich Kostecke who could only be there in the morning):

Team Birding on Broadmeade - 2

Left-to-right: Barry Noret, Helen Mastrangelo, Craig Browning, me, and Stephen McDonald
(A nice lady who was out picking dew berries nearby took the photo.)

And here we are in "action":

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Big Sit 2021

The annual Great Texas Birding Classic birdwatching competition was held this spring. And for the second year in a row, I organized team Birding on Broadmeade to participate in the Big Sit category, in the Heart of Texas East region. Last year TPWD delayed the competition until the fall because of the pandemic, but this year it returned to the spring and we were ready for it! The Big Sit category challenges teams to identify as many species of birds as they can from one spot (a 50 foot diameter circle) in one day.

Previous Big Sits we've done on Lake Creek Trail have been on the east end, at a nice spot on the trail right next to the creek. But spring is the time of migrating songbirds, and we have learned over the years that more migrating songbirds show up on the west end. So where was our spot this year? We thought long and hard about it and finally decided on the Braes Valley trail head. There's visibility into several patches of woods, there's open sky, and hey what do you know, there's already a circle that's just about the right size!

So how did it go? 

It was great! Despite a weather forecast of rain all day, the rain held off until about 2 PM and lasted until 5:30 or so. And we had a beautiful middle morning to early afternoon. Since most of the team lives in the neighborhood, we went home when the rain started and returned after it had passed.

And the birds cooperated. On Saturday, May 1st, we started at 5:15 AM and stopped about 14.5 hours later at 7:45 PM. We saw or heard 73 distinct species of birds. This smashed our previous record of 61 species in 2019! 23 of these species were north-bound migrants, and included 10 species of warblers. Moving our sit spot really paid off.

We won!

For the first time ever, Birding on Broadmeade got first place out of the 13 teams in the Heart of Texas East area. And the top three were all Austin teams!

The Great Texas Birding classic uses team registration fees and corporate sponsorships to fund conservation projects. As winners of our region, team Birding on Broadmeade gets to choose what project a $1000 conservation grant will fund out of a list of projects that applied. I hope there's a local one on the list!

The official results for all teams are posted here. Big thanks to team members Craig Browning, Matt Denton, Rich Kostecke, Helen Mastrangelo, Steven McDonald, and Barry Noret. I can't wait to do it again next year!

Video, Photos, and Species list

Here are some video highlights:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Winter Storm 2021-02

Broadmeade Sign with Icicles - 1

Between February 13th and 19th the state of Texas experienced a winter storm that brought it to its knees. Power and water went out all over the state, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents challenged to maintain basic necessities. We struggled to stay warm and supplied with food in temperatures that dipped into the single digits, and freezing rain and snow that made travel extremely dangerous. These conditions might not have been a big deal in northern states, but we learned the hard way that Texas infrastructure could not handle them.

Here are some videos I made of my experiences in Forest North Estates during this storm. The first is from Feb 13th in my yard and in the neighborhood:

The second from the 14th is mostly on Lake Creek Trail:

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Round Rock Christmas Bird Count 2020

The Round Rock Christmas Bird Count (CBC) happened on Monday, December 28. This is a new CBC that Andrew Dickinson started organizing a couple years ago, and I quickly volunteered to organize the Area 6 team because this area includes my neighborhood and Lake Creek Trail! CBCs are a big part of my year-end traditions, and in a normal year I'd participate in five or six. But this year because of the pandemic and family health issues, I was only able to participate in two: the Port Aransas CBC and this one.

Christmas Bird Counts were a little different this year. Normally half the fun of these counts is birding with other people on a small team, and getting together with all the other teams at the end of the day for dinner and a species tally. This year the birding was solo, and data was gathered submitted to the count compilers over the internet. It just wasn't the same, but our Area 6 team still did great. Big thanks to Helen Mastrangelo, Steven McDonald, Sue and Steve Whitmer, Twyla Grace, Craig Browning, and Arman Moreno for splitting up and counting birds all over our area. We ended up collectively finding 75 species of birds in Area 6. You can see all the species found by all the teams in Andrew Dickinson's shared Google Sheet document here. (Our Area 6 total shows 79 because it includes a few subspecies and hybrids, which don't contribute to the official species count.) And the entire 15 mile diameter circle with all the different areas labelled is here. As of this writing, all the teams collectively found 119 species of birds!

I spent most of my birding time on the streets of Forest North Estates. I accumulated a good bird list in the morning but the overcast conditions were terrible for photography. In the afternoon the sun started to come  out and conditions became beautiful. Here's a female Eastern Bluebird near Forest North Elementary:

Eastern Bluebird

And here's a Cooper's Hawk on Quilberry Drive that let me get incredibly close before flying into a nearby drainage:

Friday, October 16, 2020

Big Sit 2020

Last Sunday, October 11, four friends and I participated in our fourth Big Sit on Lake Creek Trail. The Big Sit is a friendly competition to see or hear as many bird species as possible from one spot in one day. This event was originally created by the New Haven Bird Club, but was organized by Bird Watcher's Digest magazine for several years. Now it is back with the New Haven Bird Club.

This year our Big Sit served double duty. In addition to being our New Haven Bird Club Big Sit, it was our entry into Texas Parks and Wildlife's Great Texas Birding Classic birding competition (in the Big Sit category, Heart of Texas East region.) This event is usually in the spring, but it was postponed until fall this year (with modified social distancing rules) due to the pandemic. Our team, Birding on Broadmeade, was made up of long-time Lake Creek Trail birders Craig Browning, me, Helen Mastrangelo, and Steven McDonald. We were joined for the first time this year by Rich Kostecke, whose decades of experience in field ornithology were a boon! We had an expanded circle this year that let us maintain appropriate social distantance from each other (even though the perspective in some of the photos doesn't look like it.)

We started our day at 6:00 AM, an hour and a half before sunrise at 7:30. All was quiet until we heard our first bird, a Killdeer, at 6:31. (This turned out to be our only shorebird of the day.) Then it was quiet again until 7:02 when it seemed like someone flipped a switch and turned all the birds on. We recorded over half of our birds, 33 species, between 7 and 8 AM. (This included a briefly seen Great Horned Owl, which we failed to hear an hour earlier.) Rich took this photo of me struggling to keep the list updated by the light of my iPhone:

Early Morning Birders - 1

And here's another pre-dawn shot of the team:

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dragonflies of August

The first cold front that came through on Wednesday (September 9). The break from the heat made it easier for me to look back on August as part of the recent past, and not just part of the unending pandemic-induced present. It finally got cooler! That means summer is finally passing, right? I wanted to make this post an overview of all my nature observations in August, but I soon realized there were more than enough dragonfly observations for a long post. So here they are, an overview of my August dragonfly observations on Lake Creek Trail in northwest Austin (Williamson County).

Dragonflies can be found year-round in small numbers in central Texas, but their numbers peak in the summer. They love the heat and their activity and detectability increase in middle morning as bird activity deceases. So it can come naturally for birders who get out early on an August morning to switch from watching birds to watching dragonflies as the morning progresses. Numbers and diversity of dragonflies on Lake Creek Trail seemed lower this summer, but here some favorites I found.

In early August Halloween Pennants were common, perched at the top of bare twigs or old cone flowers in the low grassland on the east end of the trail. You can see the bright red spots near the ends of the wings called pterostigmas on this male:

Halloween Pennant - 2

The dragonfly below is an Eastern Amberwing. It's the smallest dragonfly in north America, only a little over 1 inch long. It's superficially similar to the Halloween Pennant above but it's so much smaller. It was in the same grasslands area.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Migratory Hawks Nesting in the Neighborhood

I've been very fortunate to be able to work from home during the COVID-19 Pandemic. One side effect of this is that I'm paying much more attention to the birds closer to my house, not just the birds on Lake Creek Trail. One thing I've been able to track better is the good diversity of migratory hawks that continues to nest in our neighborhood, an increasing trend over the past 5-10 years. Here's a quick rundown of what I've seen and been able to photograph this spring and summer.

At Cedar Hurst and Broadmeade, a pair of Cooper's Hawks have a big nest that now has a couple of white fuzzy nestlings in it. Cooper's Hawks are a common winter resident in central Texas but they used to be rare or uncommon in the spring and summer. Over the last 10-15 years this has changed as they are increasingly learning how to use our neighborhoods as nesting habitat. Now they are much more common breeders here. Here's the nest on April 12:

Cooper's Hawks on Nest

And here it is on May 31: