Monday, December 15, 2008

Caption Contest

I am inviting all Bill of the Birds readers to write a funny caption for this photograph. I took this image in November on a birding field trip to The King Ranch in southern Texas.

Please submit your entry via the Comments posting option below. I will select a winner on Friday, December 19, 2008. Employees of BWD and members of my immediate family are only eligible if they submit their captions in person, written in Sharpie on the back of a $50 bill.

The winner will get a free one-year subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest (that's a $20 value!) for themselves, or to use as a gift for a fellow birder. Comments by Anonymous will have a hard time collecting the prize.

Good luck!


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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Birds I Am NOT Seeing

Of all the species of birds I am not seeing today on my snow-covered farm in southeastern Ohio, perhaps none has a more interesting hunting strategy than the Harris' hawk.

Did you know that Harris' hawks hunt cooperatively in packs composed of family members? It's true. The hunting groups may number as many as a half-dozen birds and they fly in one or two groups until potential prey is flushed, then all pursue it. When prey is captured and killed, it is shared. This type of cooperation is very rare in birds of prey.

Today I am thinking about the Harris' hawk—yet another bird I am not seeing right this very moment. I have seen them recently, however. This distant one (above) I photographed at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For A Grackle Eating Dog Food

Black shine yellow eye
Great-tailed grackle eats dog food

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Young Birders in Texas

I was glad to have my spotting scope along. I kept it set on midget and the kids dug the great bird looks. Photo by Liz Gordon.

During the recently completed Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I gave a presentation my most recent book, The Young Birder's Guide and discussed how we adults can help to get more kids into birds and nature. And that was fun and seemed to be well-received.

What was even better was getting to take two groups of local kids out birding in the park across the street from the festival headquarters. All told we took out about 35 youngsters and a dozen or so accompanying adults. The bird list was not exceptionally long, but we had big fun. Helping me herd the kids, spot birds, and impersonate sun-bathing Inca doves was Liz Gordon. Liz is a natural with kids, due in large measure to her own forever-young outlook on life. (Thanks again Liz of the Cosmos!)

We gathered 'round the field guide after each new species was sighted. Photo by Liz Gordon.

Susan Hoehne was the festival's coordinator for kids activities and she graciously arranged for us to borrow 15 pairs of compact Brunton binoculars from the Valley Nature Center. These came in very handy (as did the binocs loaned to us by our friends at Eagle Optics)—each kid got to have his or her own pair to use on the field trip.
Small binoculars work best for small hands and close-set eyes. Photo by Liz Gordon.

After a few quick lessons on using the binocs we crossed the street to Lon C. Hill Park seeking birds. The afternoon prior I had scouted around the auditorium and park to see if there were any stake-out species I could rely on. There were no birds in the afternoon heat. ¡Campo sin pajaros!

I felt better on Saturday morning when I showed up an hour before the first kids bird walk and found lots of bird activity. A pair of red-crowned parrots low in one of the park's trees were the best of the early birds. Alas they did not stay around for the kids to see.

Our total bird list was as follows:
  1. great-tailed grackle
  2. Brewer's blackbird
  3. golden-fronted woodpecker
  4. yellow-bellied sapsucker
  5. house sparrow
  6. rock pigeon
  7. Inca dove
  8. Eurasian collared dove
  9. European starling
  10. Couch's kingbird
  11. turkey vulture
  12. Lincoln's sparrow
  13. northern mockingbird
  14. laughing gull
  15. orange-crowned warbler
I gave away copies of the Young Birder's Guide to a few very interested youngsters and sold a few others to their thoughtful and generous adults.

The thing I was most pleased about was that Liz and I opened the eyes of these three dozen or so young south Texans to the avian wonders of their part of the world. They knew about the local parrots and chachalacas, but the mockingbird, golden-fronted woodpecker, Inca doves, and Couch's kingbird had them saying "Awesome!" and "Cool!" and "Oh WOW!"
Watching two very active golden-fronted woodpeckers. Photo by Liz Gordon.

I have to say, I am pretty sure that's why I was put here on Earth—to show people (of all ages, but especially kids) awesome and cool birds!

The second field trip of the morning. That's me in the green shirt with the littlest birder. At far left: Liz Gordon, my co-leader.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Una Paloma

Even though it's a non-native invader of our fair land, I have to admit that the Eurasian collared-dove is a good-looking bird.

This species first came to our hemisphere via the Bahamas in the 1970s. Now it's found throughout the South and great flocks can be found around town grain elevators in the Great Plains. It is universally considered one of the most successful colonisers of all birds—easily spreading itself across Europe, Asia, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And it is non-migratory, so you know it's one tough bird!

I found a small flock of EC doves in Lon C. Hill Park across the street from the Harlingen, Texas community auditorium where the Rio Grande Birding Festival was being held. When I first started taking birding trips to South Texas, the Eurasian collared-dove was not present. Now they are fairly easy to add to the day's bird list in any of the Rio Grande Valley's towns.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Gray feathers with buffy edges and tips help the pauraque blend in to its habitat.

OK Blogsters. Here's the answer to the mystery photo from yesterday, which several of you have already sussed out.

It's a pauraque (paw-RAH-kee; sometimes called common pauraque, often mis-spelled paraque or parauque). This member of the caprimulgid family (nighthawks, whippoorwill, poorwill, etc) makes it across the border from Mexico only in southernmost Texas. Like its relatives in the Caprimulgidae it catches insect at night by flying around low to the ground. Its large eyes provide the necessary vision and the stiff rictal bristles surround its mouth help to funnel moths and other prey into its huge gape. For more about the life history of this species, along with photographs of this same individual bird, see the new Cornell Lab blog, Round Robin, written by Hugh Powell.

During the day the pauraque roosts on the ground, blending in perfectly with the duff-browns and grays of the scrub forest floor. Our bird was spotted by a sharp-eyed birder and dozens of eager bird watchers followed the directions out the Alligator Pond trail at Estero Llano Grande State Park to see it. I saw it twice—once on Friday and once on Sunday. Both times the pauraque was right where it was supposed to be. Both times, even though we knew right where it was, it was still difficult to pick out its shape—especially when its eyes were closed.

Cryptic coloration makes it hard to determine where the edge of the bird meets the ground.

This was my best look ever at a pauraque. My other looks have been of birds flying up off the roadside at night, or spooked into flying, like a giant tan moth, from the forest floor during the day, only to disappear in the thick brushy woods.

How did the pauraque get its name? It's named for a very loose interpretation of the bird's call, which is usually rendered in field guides as purr-WHEE-rrr. Navigate your ears here to hear a pauraque not say its name.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is It?

"You can't tell me there is no mystery"—Bruce Cockburn.

I am taking guesses as to what this is in this photograph. It is a shot that I digiscoped on Sunday, November 9, at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Answer and story tomorrow. Good night and good luck!

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Deer Prudence

While birding the King Ranch a few days ago, we encountered these curious white-tailed deer bucks. They were wondering where the food was. On this huge Texas ranch, the wildlife managers sometimes scatter deer feed along the roads, so I'm sure these guys mistook a bunch of birders for the chow wagon.

The bucks we saw had small bodies compared to our Ohio white-taileds, but the antler racks on these Texas animals are huge! Aside from cattle ranching and a little bit of tourism, the King Ranch also sells hunting leases. I found myself wondering if these deer were a little too curious for their own long-term good.

The birding on the King Ranch was really great—this was my first visit. More on birding the ranch in the near future.

I am down here in south Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, one of the best and biggest in the country. This morning I'll be taking a couple of groups of elementary school kids out birding on the festival grounds. The weather looks good, the wind is low, and I'm counting on a few great-tailed grackles, great kiskadees, and Couch's kingbirds to make an appearance.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Unheavy Friday

Black-bellied whistling-ducks at rest at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

I spent yesterday afternoon with a handful of friends, walking the trails at Estero Llano Grande and doing some casual birding and some even more casual bird photography. ELG is one of the World Birding Center sites in south Texas.

It's been a long, heavy-duty week, month, year. Time to kick back and have an Un-heavy Friday to start the weekend. And I wish that very thing for you.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Texas Big Sit Highlights

Here are some other avian highlights. I'll be brief today since Blogger is still playing a tattoo on my ability to upload photos (or fix typos). Besides, isn't it wordless Wednesday?

On South Padre Island in spring you see lot of trees and shrubs with several birds in them. This tepeguaje has three orioles in it—at least.

The indigo buntings were dropping into the bushes in twos and threes.

Hundreds of dickcissels passed through during the night and day. These three paused for a photo.

This great-tailed grackle gave me the creeps. Wonder why?

The oranges we put out proved irresistible to this male Baltimore oriole.

Looking out onto the bay we saw an ever-changing cast of birds.

I can never resist the chance to take photos of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Warblers of South Padre

A curious Cape May warbler peers at me from a mesquite.

Because of its location along the Texas Gulf Coast, South Padre Island attracts certain creatures: spring break revelers from college, surf fishermen, boogie board addicts, sun worshipers, and migrant songbirds, and the birders that chase them.

Among the birds that pile up on South Padre in the spring, no group gets as much attention as the warblers. The convention center on the northern reaches of South Padre has a brackish marsh and several lines of trees. These are the first land-based features that migrant warblers see when the come across the gulf from Mexico on their all-night flights headed northward. So the birds drop out of the sky seeking refuge and head for the biggest clump of trees in sight.

Waiting for them are the birders and photographers. On a good day you might be able to catch 30 warbler species there. The trouble is that a good day for the birders is when the winds howl out of the North, forcing the birds to fight all night across the gulf. Many of them reach land just barely, dropping exhausted into the trees, onto the beaches, sometimes lacking the energy to begin foraging right away. So a good day for birders is often a bad day for the warblers.

While doing our Big Sit from midnight to midnight last Sunday on the back side of the South Padre Convention Center we heard rumors of a north wind bringing a storm front across Texas. This would be good for birds if it arrived at the right time. Well lucky for the birds, it arrived too late to inhibit migration. Unluckily for us we did not get the huge fallout of warblers that the Texas Coast is famous for having.

Still The Groovy-billed Anis (our Big Sit team) eked out a respectable 17 warbler species, the last two (a bay-breasted and a magnolia) right at dusk in pounding rain. More on the rain in a future post.

Here are some of the visual highlights, warbler-wise, that I was able to capture in between bouts of Big Sitting. I should note that these images are barely cropped if at all. The birds were VERY close, coming in for sips of water and for the insects sheltering in the trees. Tired migrant birds are less spooky and wary which explains why there were at least a dozen photographers there with their big rigs, shooting warblers.

Tennessee warbler reaching for a tasty morsel.


Yellow warbler looking happy to be on land again.

Cape May warbler.

Chestnut-sided warbler about to nail the insect above it (look closely).

This blackpoll warbler looks like he's moonwalking.

Wilson's warbler.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Texas Sits Are Bigger

Participants in the 2007 Big Sit at Indigo Hill.

This weekend I'll be participating in The Big Sit category of The Great Texas Birding Classic on a team composed of some birding pals from hither and yon. Bird Watcher's Digest and Eagle Optics are the sponsors of our team, which is named The Groovy-Billed Anis.

We'll be sitting near the convention center on the northern end of South Padre Island. It's a great spot with brackish marsh nearby and the Gulf of Mexico too, plus a line of trees surrounded by sand, making them into a veritable oasis for migrants coming off the gulf. Last year the winning Big Sit category team had 124 species from this very spot. We're hoping to beat that this year, if the birding gods be with us.

I've done one other Big Sit in Texas (where everything is bigger) also during the GTBC way back in 2003. Our team, The Couchless Kingbirds, had 92 species and finished in the middle of the category pack. Team members for that year were Jeff Gordon, Liz DeLuna, Jim McCormac, and yours truly. We chose the dike wall outside of Bentsen State Park as our circle location—something that baffled the Border Patrol officers who drove past during the night.

It will be fun to have nothing else to do for an entire day except watch birds. I'll try to offer some updates here at BOTB if I can get Internet access. We'll start Saturday night, April 26, at midnight and we'll end sometime late on Sunday night. The competition ends at midnight.

The really cool thing about the Great Texas Birding Classic is that each team that wins a category, gets prize money to donate to a conservation cause of their choice. That concept, and the fact that we're sitting—not racing all over in an SUV trying to find birds—makes The Big Sit category of the GTBC a fairly green option among all the competitive birding events that are held each year.

Comprising the Groovy-billed Anis, you will find the following people: Jeff Gordon, Liz Gordon, Ben Lizdas (Eagle Optics), Marci and Terry Fuller, and moi (Bird Watcher's Digest).

I'm hoping the skies are full of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and painted buntings! Wish us luck!

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