Friday, November 17, 2017

Texas Dreamin' for Two Californians


Ara and Don were two birders from California who were just excited about whatever they could see, and had already explored Santa Ana and Estero Llano Grande on their own the day before I took them out, but they had mentioned that they were curious about Bentsen SP, so I thought heading over there the back way might be prudent (to avoid rush hour traffic) and we could hit some birding hotspots on the way!

Monk Parakeet was new for them, so our first stop was the little community of Hidalgo.  We were on our way to the traditional nest site on 5th and Gardenia when we didn’t get very far after turning off Bridge:  there was one right on the wire!  So we all piled out and enjoyed him, and then parked in a city building’s parking lot to go chase a tittering Tropical Kingbird!  During that foray we saw more parakeets, a Kiskadee, some Collared and Mourning Doves, and a cooperative Orange-crowned Warbler (which begged the obvious question, “Where’s the orange crown??” J)!  After viewing the (apparently) unoccupied nests on 5th, we headed towards Anzalduas County Park, but not before picking up a nice Bronzed Cowbird on a wire!

Sleepy Collared Doves

Ara checks out one of the Monk Parakeet nests in Hidalgo

Monk Parakeet

Rolling down the entrance road to Anzalduas we encountered a friendly (!) American Kestrel and enjoyed looking north into Mexico from the levee!  This time of year, the first thing usually on most everyone’s agenda is getting the Sprague’s Pipit, so after playing the flight call so they’d know what to listen for, we dutifully trudged across the field, and sure enough, we shortly flushed a dumpy, buffy little bird that said Pike!, and although he didn’t land where we could get scope views, he did circle around several times and gave all of us great looks, including of his white outer tail feathers!  A buffy bird on the ground gave us an adrenalin rush until we realized it was a Savannah Sparrow J, but even he was uncharacteristically cooperative for scope views!  Western Meadowlarks also flocked around, giving their wheep calls.

Savannah Sparrow

American Kestrel

But the excitement wasn’t over yet: as we made the circle (backwards from how I usually do it), we added Black Phoebe at the restroom, and I heard a Beardless Tyrannulet that we never were able to pin down.  Cave Swallows jabbered overhead, several brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers showed off, but the real prize was a pair of Ringed Kingfishers having a spat and giving great views!  We were rolling towards the 4-way stop when I thought I heard warblers in the grove, so we pulled over and headed in, when a pale raptor blasted in:  a Gray Hawk!  (We were kind of expecting him as the Constable told us he was hanging out in this area…)  But one of the guys noticed a second dark raptor in the same tree, and as we zoomed in on him (the light wasn’t the greatest), I strongly suspected Zone-tailed Hawk!  We circled around to try to get a better view, and at that point he took off with his prey, showing his Turkey Vulture-like wing pattern and banded tail very nicely!  Unfortunately after he landed he lost his footing on his lunch, which turned out to be a pigeon (and we all commented that he had plenty of food around if that was the case)!  We retreated so he could retrieve his prize, as he was looking longingly down at it …  During all this Don spotted a distant White-tailed Kite, but Ara was too intent on the Zonie… J  On the way out I did hear a House Finch singing, but forgot to enter it into EBird as it doesn’t come up on their “expected” list (although it’s very expected there at Anzalduas J)!

Vermilion Flycatcher

Ara after shooting the flycatcher (white circle)

Checking out the trees

Zone-tailed Hawk with lunch

After he dropped it...

"Thanks a heap, guys!"

 From there we cruised down the levee towards Bentsen, which turned out to be rather quiet except for a small flock of “cormorants” that morphed into Greater White-fronted Geese!  Close to Chimney Park some glistening spots turned out to be a ballet of circling White Pelicans!  An Osprey flew at us over the canal, then suddenly dove into the water and came up with a big fish, right next to the car!  Where you cross the canal and turn off the levee to head towards Bentsen, Don (I think it was) spotted a “bright orange bird” on top of the telephone pole, and sure enough, there was the coveted Altamira Oriole!  (Weird place for one… J)

At Bentsen we had nice looks at the Green Jays and Chachalacas coming in to the feeders, but no Clay-colored Thrush showed up, which was really what we were hoping for (a Long-billed Thrasher was a nice consolation prize).  While we were watching, the volunteer on duty said, “I hope you’re not bothered by snakes over your head!”  Turns out a little Rat Snake had just had lunch and was contentedly snuggled in a crack in the wall over the light! 

Rat Snake hiding behind the light (check out that eyeball!)

The rest of him...

They were up for hiking down to the Resaca, during which we saw a couple of Javelina cross the road!  When the tram came by we bummed a ride down to Kiskadee Blind, which was disappointingly dead:  after 15 minutes of patient waiting a single Green Jay decided to come in right as my timer went off!  The guys were up to checking out the Resaca, so we poked over there, picking up a nice flock of White Pelicans floating to the west (probably the same flock we saw circling over the levee on the way there)!

Checking out the Acacia Loop

It was heating up and we were starting to drag, so we agreed on a road-birding excursion for the rest of the afternoon.  “Sparrow Road” was the closest, but thanks to several unmarked intersections and a map that wasn’t clear (my opinion, of course J), we ended up on a dead end dirt road, but the good news was that we bagged a female Pyrrhuloxia in the process!  We backtracked and found FM 2221 and headed west and then north on dirt Jara Chinas, what local birders dub “Sparrow Road” as, in the winter, the open scrubby habitat and ag fields can be a hotbed for sparrows!  But the best sighting along the south leg wasn’t even a bird: Ara spotted a Gray Fox curled up on a thick horizontal trunk!  We were all thrilled – although somewhat commonly seen in our native California, it was the first Gray Fox I had ever seen in Texas!  He was super cooperative for pictures, and from that point on the road was renamed “Fox Sparrow Road”! J

Gray Fox

Things were rather anticlimactic after that; we did have a nice White-tailed Hawk fly low overhead, and another little mammal, a Mexican Ground Squirrel, crawled up the bank and sat up cute-like!  Several Loggerhead Shrikes posed, and one had proudly impaled a Bird Grasshopper on a barbed wire fence (he eventually grabbed it and went elsewhere)!  Another non-avian phenomena was the “snowstorm” of Snouts along the road (along with other butterflies)!  Along 14 Mile Road we got great looks at a Cassin’s Sparrow, and not-so-great looks (due to the angle of the light) at a couple of Black-throated Sparrows and a Bewick’s Wren.  A nice family of Bobwhite revealed themselves on a utility road, and we dutifully scanned for Mountain Plovers, but only found Killdeer and Lark Sparrows instead.  When it was time to head back to Alamo we blasted up the rest of Jara China, and the guys got to see why I called this stretch of barren land Horned Lark Heaven as flock after flock crossed the road in front of us!  The presence of multiple wind turbines prompted much environmental dialogue during the slow times! J  A young Caracara in the field just south of FM 490 was a fitting end to the day.

A few of the numerous Snouts along the road

Mexican Ground Squirrel

One of many Loggerhead Shrikes

This one perches proudly next to his lunch!

Apparently not liking the way we're eyeing his prize, he shimmies over to it...

...and decides to take it elsewhere!

Lark Sparrow

Young Crested Caracara

Bird List:

  Greater White-fronted Goose
  Plain Chachalaca                    
  Northern Bobwhite                    
  Neotropic Cormorant                 
  American White Pelican            
  Great Egret                         
  Snowy Egret                          
  Tricolored Heron                     
  Turkey Vulture                       
  White-tailed Kite                    
  Sharp-shinned Hawk                   
  Cooper's Hawk                        
  Harris's Hawk                        
  White-tailed Hawk                    
  Gray Hawk                            
  Zone-tailed Hawk                     
  Red-tailed Hawk                      
  American Coot                       
  Spotted Sandpiper                    
  Rock Pigeon                          
  Eurasian Collared-Dove               
  White-winged Dove                    
  Mourning Dove                        
  Inca Dove                            
  Buff-bellied Hummingbird             
  Ringed Kingfisher                    
  Belted Kingfisher                    
  Golden-fronted Woodpecker            
  Ladder-backed Woodpecker             
  Crested Caracara                     
  American Kestrel                     
  Monk Parakeet                        
  Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet        
  Black Phoebe                        
  Eastern Phoebe                       
  Vermilion Flycatcher                 
  Great Kiskadee                       
  Tropical Kingbird                    
  Scissor-tailed Flycatcher            
  Loggerhead Shrike                    
  White-eyed Vireo                     
  Green Jay                            
  Horned Lark                          
  Cave Swallow                         
  Black-crested Titmouse               
  House Wren                           
  Bewick's Wren                        
  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
  Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 
  Long-billed Thrasher                 
  Northern Mockingbird                 
  European Starling                    
  Sprague's Pipit                      
  Orange-crowned Warbler              
  Cassin's Sparrow                     
  Lark Sparrow                         
  Black-throated Sparrow               
  Savannah Sparrow                     
  Lincoln's Sparrow                    
  Northern Cardinal                    
  Eastern Meadowlark                   
  Western Meadowlark                   
  Great-tailed Grackle                 
  Bronzed Cowbird                      
  Altamira Oriole                      
  House Finch                          
  Lesser Goldfinch                     
  House Sparrow                          


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review - Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America (by Stephen A. Shunk)

Note:  Photos below are NOT from the book - they're my own, just for the sake of including pictures!  Those in the book are MUCH better!!!

Woodpeckers have always caught the human fancy, and there are even birders out there whose sole goal in their birding life is to see every species of woodpecker that they can!  And for woodpecker-lovers in North America, Shunk’s seminal work on this family is a must-have.  Chock full of beautiful photographs, informative charts, and exhaustive species accounts, this is a book that you’ll come back to again and again for reference.

The book opens with general information about the family:  anatomy, feather structure, behavior, and ecology.  The detailed species accounts cover distribution, habitat, detection (which covers vocalizations and drumming), identification (which also covers aberrant plumages and hybridization), behavior, and conservation, along with some interesting factoids about each species.  It’s not necessarily a book you’ll want to read from cover to cover (as it’s primarily a reference book), but I did so, and discovered some interesting things I never knew about woodpeckers:

·         In general, woodpeckers are a keystone organism, providing cavities for other animals, and hummingbirds have even been known to follow sapsuckers in migration to feed on their sap holes! 

·         Fires are important to their survival, and many species are specialists when it comes to burned-out forests!

Here are some interesting nuggets about some of the species covered:

·         The Red-headed Woodpecker nests on golf courses (and I can certainly attest to this as the highlight of accompanying my father on his golf games was to see the “redheads”)!  And although intra-species aggression is not uncommon, Red-headeds will even bully a Pileated Woodpecker!

Red-headed Woodpecker (Tulsa, OK)

·         The Acorn Woodpecker also makes sap wells like a sapsucker, and the Anna’s Hummingbird will visit their sap wells only when the coast is clear!

Acorn Woodpecker (Cleveland NF, CA)

·         Gila Woodpeckers have been known to bang on windows if the feeders haven’t been filled yet!

Gila Woodpecker (San Pedro Riparian Area, AZ)

·         In the early 20th century, the powers that be were considering lifting federal protection of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker due to the damage they were causing to telephone poles, until it was discovered that Ladderbacks were the culprits!

Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Bentsen Rio Grande SP, TX)

·         The Red-bellied Woodpecker has been observed both feeding the fledglings of other birds and eating their nestlings and eggs!  And even though other woodpeckers are in zoo collections, apparently this is the only species to have successfully bred in captivity.

·         Unmated male Williamson’s Sapsuckers will play stepdad to kids whose father abandons them before fledgling!

·         The Red-naped Sapsucker is apparently the only sapsucker that is monogamous, and they’ve been observed feeding their kids bone fragments!

Red-naped Sapsucker (Rocky Mountain NP, CO)

·         The Downy Woodpecker is also monogamous, and may escort his wife away from the scene before a fight with an intruder!

Female Downy Woodpecker (Merritt Island NWR, FL)

·         The Hairy Woodpecker will tap in order to find a resonant tunnel, signaling the presence of beetle larvae!  It will also use its wings to catch dropped food!

Female Hairy Woodpecker (Lassen NP, CA)

·         The Arizona Woodpecker is considered the rarest North American woodpecker, even more so than the Red-cockaded!  (Perhaps this is due to its limited range?)

Arizona Woodpecker (Miller Canyon, AZ)

·         The Northern Flicker eats more ants than any North American bird, and also tends to have more than its fair share of deformed bills!  This could be due to lack of “trimming” by feeding by excavation.

"Red-shafted" race of the Northern Flicker (San Pedro NF, AZ)

·         And last but not least:  both pronunciations of “Pileated” are correct!

This is a book that every woodpecker-lover will want in their library, one that the professional and layman alike will enjoy, both for the wealth of information therein and the photographic “eye candy”!