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:

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:

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:

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Group Walks Suspended but Spring Continues

It's probably not a surprise to anyone that I will not be leading the monthly group walks until it becomes safe to gather again. As we all shelter in place from the corona virus pandemic, it's nice to see more people in the neighborhood spending time outside. And the recent beautiful weather and observing seasonal changes in wildlife make the underlying stress of the pandemic a tiny bit more bearable.

In no particular order, here are some exciting things I or others have observed in the neighborhood in the past week or two:
  • Helen Mastrangelo found a Louisiana Waterthrush on Lake Creek Trail on March 22. Steven McDonald posted a photograph of it here. We only have a handful of observations of this early migrating warbler on the trail during its narrow migration window.
  • Yesterday Steven McDonald found a female Vermilion Flycatcher on the trail, a southwestern species that uncommonly wanders into central Texas this time of year.
  • Craig Browning chased the Vermilion Flycatcher and found two Couch's Kingbirds on the trail, a south-Texas species that only rarely finds its way up to Austin.
  • Yesterday a returning summer resident Broad-winged Hawk soared low and vocalized over my backyard as I Skyped a couple friends.
  • Northbound migrating songbirds seen on the trail lately include Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Nashville Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler.
  • Returning summer resident birds seen on the trail lately include Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, White-eyed Vireo, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
It makes me so happy to think about the birding community we now have around Lake Creek Trail. We will never know all the birds that use the habitat along the trail, but the birding community does a remarkable job documenting many of them on eBird here. Check it now and then to see how many birds and people watching them are out there!

Today was an absolutely beautiful morning. I spent all of it on the east half of Lake Creek Trail and I was excited to find increasing numbers and diversity of dragonflies and damselflies! The highlight of the morning was finding this male Great Pondhawk in the woods near the last dam on the creek. It's a species I've only ever seen once before on the trail and that was back in 2014:

Great Pondhawk

Other dragonflies I was happy to find include this Blue Dasher:

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Birding on Broadmeade Walk

On Sunday morning about 20 folks joined me for the monthly group walk on Lake Creek Trail. We met at the west trail head at the end of Braes Valley at 8:00 AM and spent a little over 2 hours covering about 1 mile of the trail. We observed 39 species of birds and here are some highlights.

Before we left the parking lot a juvenile Cooper's Hawk flew low into view being chased by an American Crow. The birds were about the same size.

Northern Cardinals seemed to be everywhere, and we could almost always hear at least one singing. More species of birds are starting to sing again as we progress into Spring, and we also heard Carolina Wrens, Black-crested Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, and White-winged Doves as we progressed down the trail. We stopped to watch a group of Cedar Waxwings in a small group of hackberry trees eating the berries. A single Northern Mockingbird was lower in one of the trees also eating hackberries. I got this photo of it reaching for a berry:

Northern Mockingbird eating Hackberries - 1 - 2

Its eye looks dim because it was closing its nictitating membrane, a second semi-transparent eyelid that birds have, as it poked its face through the twigs to grab a berry.

When we got to the Town and Country playing fields, we stuck close to the creek banks and Terry Banks heard a Common Yellowthroat call note. There ended up being two male Common Yellowthroats in the creek bed which some of the group got brief looks at.

On our way back we got to see a pair of Eastern Bluebirds near the parking lot at the end of Meadowheath. Here's the male in a budding ash tree limb: