Thursday, May 26, 2016

First Martin Visitation

Within the first week of putting up the purple martin house, I trapped and removed three house sparrows from the colony using a spring-loaded trapdoor device. The starlings proved not to be a problem. Unable to enter though the starling-resistant holes, they soon gave up and left. This past week, I have been wrestling with a pair of sparrows that keeps building nests but is aware of and avoids the spring door. This morning, I was excited to see that a pair of adult martins was checking out the gourds. I went out, lowered the house, and disarmed the trap. When I put the house back up, the martins came right back. However, I was shortly dismayed to see the male house sparrow dive bomb the female martin and harass her towards the ground. I am not sure what my next step is to remove the sparrow which seems to have mentally claimed the whole colony.

Update May 28 - Looks like this pair did not stay over last night. I have to assume the neighbors were not to their liking.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Mars Opposition 2016

An opposition of Mars is when the planet is on the opposite side of earth from the sun. This makes the planet shine brighter as we are seeing it fully illuminated. This also coincides with the point of closest approach of Mars to earth, making it appear larger.

Though the true opposition of Mars is supposed to be on Sunday evening, tonight was likely my only chance at a clear night.  I set up a Canon 60Da with a 5x Televue barlow on a TMB-130ss 5 inch refractor for this shot. I had some difficulty getting good seeing due to a combination of the early evening and limited time for the dome to equalize in temperature. I grabbed a few 2 minute movies at 60 fps in the special 640x480 video crop mode offered in the 60Da and selected the best of these. I used Registax v6 to align, stack, and sharpen the movie frames into a single still image. I made additional tweaks to the alignment of color channels, as well as contrast and brightness in Photoshop.

Despite the poor seeing, the image certainly has recognizable features. You can discern Syrtis Major Planum as the dark projection on the west side of the image. The dark region near the north pole is Utopia Planitia. The light patch in the northeast is in the region of Elysium Mons, perhaps due to clouds or a dust storm. Both the north and south polar caps are visible with the southern cap appearing larger to me. This is consistent with the fact that season in the northern hemisphere of Mars is currently late summer.

Now, back to the regularly scheduled El Nino rains and clouds here in Texas.

Vireo Gallery 2016

This spring, Danielle and I made two trips to Port Aransas, TX in order to see migratory warblers. My previous post describes the warblers we saw. In addition, we saw several vireo species including two we had not seen before. At first glance, these vireos can be confused for warblers. However, the thick bill with hooked end, much like a shrike, gives them away. The vireos also forage in a less frenetic manner. There are two groups, one has double wing-bars and eye-rings, the other has unmarked wings and eye-lines. 

Blue-headed Vireo - This striking bird has a green back, dark wings with strong wing bars and white underparts with yellow wash on the sides. The throat is bright white and strongly contrasting with a blue-gray head. The face has a very bold white spectacles, its most distinctive feature. I reported two fleeting views of this species on our May trip but did not manage to get a picture. The image shown is one I took in Central Texas in the fall.
Philadelphia Vireo - This was the smallest of the vireos we saw. A more compact or "chunky" looking bird that the others, this one has plain olive upper parts and pale, yellow-washed underparts. The throat is richer yellow with color concentrated towards the center. This field mark best differentiates it from the similar Warbling Vireo. The eye-line is also tighter than that of the Warbling but much less contrasting than that of the Red-eyed. We only saw these in May - they effectively took over the niche held by the Warbling in April.
Red-eyed Vireo - Compared to the other vireos, this one has a richer green-olive back and more contrasting gray crown. This is the largest of the vireos we observed. The red eye is very distinct but can only been seen close and with adequate lighting - flash brings it out nicely. As with the Warbling, we saw these mostly in April.
Warbling Vireo - Similar to the Philadelphia Vireo but larger and more elongated. The face looks more "open" with a broader eyebrow and paler eye-line. The throat, though often washed in some yellow, is uniform and paler. We saw these primarily in April and one straggler in May.

White-eyed Vireo - This is a bird I am familiar with in Austin during the summer. Two years ago I spent many days trying to track birds I was hearing to see and identify it for the first time. I remember its distinctive call with the mnemonic "quick with the beer check, eh". It has an grayish-brown back, crown, and wings with two distinct wing bars. The nape is a contrasting gray color. The underparts are pale gray with yellow wash on the sides. The face has bright yellow spectacles but not as broad as those of the Blue-headed. In the spring, the iris turns a pale gray and gives the bird a very striking appearance when seen closely. The bird responds to pishing and often landed close by to turn and stare with one of its glowing eyes. Unlike at home, we did not hear it sing in Port Aransas. We only saw these in April, especially early in the trip before having seen any Warbling Vireos.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Warbler Gallery 2016

This spring, Danielle and I made two trips to Port Aransas, TX in order to see migratory warblers. The first was in the middle of April (9-16) and the second during the first week of May (1-6). The hope was to see a mix of species and, with luck, some new warblers. Most of our observing was at two main locations: the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center (the sewage treatment plant) and at Paradise Pond (a small lot-sized preserve). We also observed several times at the copse of trees in front of the Seagull condos which local birders call The Willows as well as making several trips into Corpus Christi to wander the grounds of the Rosehill Cemetery and Bluecher Park.

At the beginning of our May trip, the prevailing winds from the north and a storm system just off the coast our our south drove many birds down onto Mustang Island - something like a mini fallout. May 2 was the peak of this event and waves of warblers passed through the birding center. Not a large number of species, just a large number. By May 4, the winds had shifted and most of the birds had moved on. It was quite a contrast between several dozen warblers in the grove to only a couple.

Below is a gallery of representative images for 26 species we were fortunate enough to photograph. This also includes several species that, although not named "warbler," are commonly listed with them. Description of key field marks helped by our two favorite guides: the Sibley Guide to Birds, D. Sibley and The Warbler Guide, T. Stephenson and S. Whittle.

American Redstart (M) - The adult male in all seasons is identified by the black head and throat, orange sides, and orange patches on the base of the outer tail feathers. Its behavior is also very distinctive. It is very active, landing on a branch, fanning its tail, spinning from side to side and then sallying out to catch a bug. in April, we were thrilled to see one at the Willows and spent an hour trying to get a picture of it. These migrate later in the spring and, in May, we saw many of them, especially around May 2 when they arrived en masse - we were seeing a dozen or more foraging in a single tree. I had seen the female previously but this was my first sighting of the male.

American Redstart (F) - The female has a very similar pattern but with a different color palette. The head is grey and the back and wings are olive-brown. The color patches are yellow or apricot colored. Young males have the same coloration with possible black showing on tail, lores, and throat. The foraging behavior of the female is identical. As with the male, these were so active that it was difficult to catch them stationary to take a picture. Though we did not see any in April, we saw these in equal number to the males in May.

Bay-breasted Warbler (M) - The breeding male plumage is distinctive. It has a black face with chestnut crown, throat and sides. There is a large buffy patch on the side of the neck. The back is gray-black with strong striping. The belly is white. There are two contrasting white wing bars present in all seasons. We saw these foraging methodically both along outer branches and in the grass. The bird in the photo was picking bugs out of a spider web on the fence. We only observed these during the May visit. This was our first observation of the Bay-breasted in any season.

Bay-breasted Warbler (F) - It takes some careful observation to note the similarities between the female (or fall male) and the breeding male. It has buffy undersides and olive head and uppers. The bold wing bars and the broad back striping are similar. This female has a pale chestnut wash on the sides and collar. It also has a similar pale neck patch. It shares the same chunky looks with short tail. Foraging was similar though I more often saw these in the grass than the male. We saw male and female in roughly equal numbers, perhaps a couple per day.

Black-and-white Warbler (M) - Both male and female in all seasons are striped all in black and white. The black and white striping in the crown is diagnostic. The female has white cheeks and the male has gray or black cheek patches. This one is fairly pale. The foraging behavior is very distinctive as it creeps up and down on the trunk of a tree like a nuthatch. We saw these regularly on both trips. We also see these in the Balcones during the spring as they breed in Central Texas.

Blackburnian Warbler (M) - The breeding male, shown here, has a fiery orange throat, face, supercilium, and crown patch. It has a distinctive triangular black cheek patch. The back is black with two white stripes and the underside is white with yellow-orange wash in the belly. The wings have a single broad white patch. The females and fall males have similar patterning but orange is replaced with pale yellow and black with pale gray. Seen foraging along branches and leaves in upper trees and in bushes. We first saw one of these last spring but only got a quick glance. This year, we got a good look at several of them, both male and female. We saw at most two individuals at one time.

Blackpoll (M) - The spring male has a heavy black cap with contrasting white cheeks. It has a distinctive black malar stripe with a white throat. It is boldly striped on the back and sides. The upper sides have brown and olive tones. The bill and legs are orange. The few times I found the male, it was foraging low and under cover near the water. We only saw the Blackpoll on our May trip.

Blackpoll  (F) - The female or fall male lacks the black patterning. At first glance it looks like a female yellow-rumped warbler. The overall color is olive brown. The breast is thinly streaked and back is boldly striped with two strong wing bars. The throat shows a yellow wash and there is a strong eyeline. The feet and legs were orange. That and the breast ticking provided me a quick distinction from the yellow-rumped. We saw about twice as many females at the birding center as males.

Black-throated Green Warbler (M) - The adult male has an olive back and crown with no streaking, a yellow face with olive markings, a black throat and breast, and a white belly and vent with muddled black streaking on the sides. It has two bold white wing bars. The face markings include an eye line and auriculars. At first glance they resemble the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler found in Central Texas but the face pattern is different and the crown is not black. These birds foraged actively, mostly in the low Huisache trees. We found them picking insects out of spiderwebs regularly. We began to see these on April 11. During our May visit they were plentiful, peaking at 20 in one day at the birding center.

Black-throated Green Warbler (F) - The female is very similar to the male but less bold. The throat is yellow or white rather than black and the breast has spottier, paler black markings. We saw approximately 1 female for every two males.

Blue-winged Warbler - The color blue is not the first thing I thought of when I saw this bird. Rather, the coloration was dominated by an olive back, clean yellow underside, and bright yellow-orange on the throat and front half of head. There is also a dark black eye line, strong through the lores and tapering off after the eye. The wings are a low-contrast blue-gray with white wing bars. At the birding center, this bird foraged in the Huisache trees similarly to the Black-throated Green. This species passed through quickly. I saw one of these at the birding center for several days at the beginning of our April visit. I then saw another straggler on April 12 at Bluecher Park. There were none during the May visit. Its place in the Huisache tree was taken over by the Black-throated Green.

Cape-May Warbler (M) - The breeding male shown has bright yellow head, collar, throat, and breast, transitioning to a white vent and tail. The head has a black cap and eye stripe and a chestnut cheek patch. The breast and sides are boldly streaked in black. The uppers are olive with striping. The wings have a large white patch. This species is a rarity in this location as it normally migrates further east. Danielle and I both got a good view of a male as it landed in the boggy area at the end of the boardwalk at Paradise Pond. We did not get a good picture of it so the image shown is of another Cape May that we saw last year at the birding center.

Cerulean Warbler (M) - The adult male is bright in all seasons. It has bright blue crown and back and grey blue uppers and chest band. The underparts are bright white with dark gray stripes on the sides. This bird foraged actively at various heights, both in the mid-range of the trees down into the low bushes. It poked around for insects under leaves. It readily approached humans and was not easily frightened away. This species is also uncommon here and is considered a threatened species. This lone bird drew much attention at the birding center. We saw it each day from April 9 to 13, after which it was not seen again.

Chestnut-sided Warbler (M) - The adult breeding male is shown. In the spring, this plumage is unmistakable. It is bright white below and in the neck and face. It has an olive-brown back and feathers with bold black stripes on the back. It has wide chestnut side stripes, a yellow crown patch, and a thick black malar stripe and eye line. In spring, the female is similar but has a shorter side stripe, less back striping and an olive tinged crown. In the fall, the plumage is much less colorful with chestnut and yellow all replaced with pale lime green. We actually saw one bird in May with this "basic plumage" giving rise to some discussions. We saw this foraging actively mostly in bushes and low trees. We got a brief glimpse of one last year at the Packery Channel so this was one of the species I most wanted to see this year. I got a distant view at Rosehill Cemetery in a group of warblers moving high in the trees in April. We saw a second in the undergrowth at Paradise Pond near the end of the April trip. Early in the May visit they were numerous. We listed 12 on May 2.

Common Yellowthroat (M) - The adult male in all seasons is very distinctive. It is shaped like a wren with long legs and tail. The upper and crown is a low contrast olive-brown. The throat and breast are bright yellow. The forehead and cheeks are a dark black mask bordered above and behind with a pale grey band. We have always found this species skulking in the undergrowth around water sometimes coming out to perch on a branch or reed. This species can be found in the area most of the year except summer and we have seen them consistently, though not numerously, on all of our trips.

Common Yellowthroat (F) - The female and young males are much less striking. The shape and behavior is similar but plumage is drab. There is a small yellow throat patch and there is yellow in the under-tail coverts. I have seen the female much less frequently. Perhaps it does not come out as readily.

Golden-winged Warbler (F) - Both male and female in all seasons are pale gray on uppers and paler gray in the belly and vent. The throat, lores, and cheeks are darker, or black in the male. There is a broad white malar stripe. The front of the crown and forehead are bright yellow as are the two wing bars. There is also a wash of yellow on the breast. I only saw this bird in May. Once as a brief flash at Paradise Pond early in the week and again for a few seconds shown here on May 2. As such, I did not observe any behavior.

Hooded Warbler (M) - The adult male in all seasons has a low contrast olive back and wings. The breast, belly, vent, and under-tail coverts are yellow. Only the under-tail is white. The forehead and face are yellow bordered by a rich black hood and collar. This was a very small warbler. This was one of the species I had really hoped to see in April and it was the first bird I saw at the birding center! This male remained visible for several days. It was typically found low to the ground in the willow trees or in the tall grass near the water. We saw a few more at other sites including Rosehill.

Hooded Warbler (F) - The adult female is similar in pattern except that the hood is a slightly darker olive than the back. We saw one immature female at Rosehill in April and a trio of them in May at the Willows foraging for several days in the grass above the pond. Both the male and female were very low in numbers.

Kentucky Warbler (M) - The adult male in all seasons, as shown here, is a larger chunky upright warbler with long legs. It has a low-contrast olive back, yellow underside and distinctive yellow spectacles against a contrasting black cheek and neck patch. The crown is mottled black. This species is extremely skulky, never venturing out of the dark undergrowth. It is typically ground-dwelling. We only saw them on the May trip, first at Bluecher Park, once at the birding center and once behind the orange feeders at Paradise Pond. Always a quick glimpse when it came out of cover.

Louisiana Waterthrush - Both male and female are similar in all seasons. A larger upright warbler with low contrast brown upperside and streaked buffy to white underside. The face has a bold pale supercilium flaring toward the back.  It has long pink legs. We found it typically bobbing on the ground, always in boggy areas. This bird is very similar to the Northern Waterthrush in appearance and behavior and differentiation was the topic of many debates. I found these two markings most helpful: The throat on the Louisiana is mostly clear of spots or streaks. The supercilium of the Louisiana narrows and darkens in the lores. We only saw this species during the April trip as it migrates early in the season.

Magnolia Warbler (M) - The adult breeding male is a striking bird. It has bright yellow underparts from throat to vent with several bold back side stripes emanating from a black collar. Its uppers and crown are gray. The center of the back has bold streaking with a black nape. The wings have contrasting white edges on the flight feathers and a broad white wing patch merging in with wing bars. The face has a dark mask over cheeks and forehead. There is a white patch in the rear of the supercilium and a small white lower eye-arc that give the bird a "sad teddy-bear" look. These forage actively at all levels of the tree. We saw these regularly at the birding center and Paradise Pond all through our May visit.

Magnolia Warbler (F) - Overall the female or non-breeding male looks like a pale version of the male. The black mask is replaced with same gray as head. The white supercilium is less pronounced and the white lower eye-arc does not stand out as much. At first glance, the head looks like a Nashville with less pronounced eye-ring. However, the back and wings are much more contrasting in the Magnolia. Behavior and foraging are similar to the male. We saw fewer females than males.

Nashville Warbler - In all seasons the male and female are a very low-contrast bird with olive back, wings and upper tail. The lower underside is yellow except around the vent where it is white. The head and nape are light gray. There is a very bold white eye-ring with no spectacles. Sometimes a reddish crown patch can be seen. These often foraged high in the trees or in especially leafy parts of the tree. They were constantly poking underneath leaves, often hanging upside-down. It was very difficult to get an unobstructed view of the bird. We saw them on both visits but never common or numerous. I found the Nashville to be one of the more frustrating photographic targets.

Northern Parula (M) - The spring male is shown and is very similar to the female. It has yellow throat and breast transitioning sharply to white belly, vent, and under-tail. The rest of the head, back and wings are blue-gray. There is a distinctive bright olive patch on the back and strong white wing bars. The face has black lores and forehead with two broken eye-arc above and below. The breast has a distinctive but diffuse rust colored band with black tinging above. The prominence of the band varied widely across individuals and is said to be more pronounced in males. The more southerly Tropical Parula is similar but has no white eye-arcs. The foraging behavior was very similar to the Nashville, very actively poking under and around leaves, hanging upside-down, and sallying out to grab insects from leaves in flight. We saw a number of these during the April visit but only one straggler at the end of the May visit. Ironically, the best photos were from the one May bird!

Northern Waterthrush - Both male and female are similar in all seasons. This bird is very similar to the Louisiana Waterthrush with same general appearance and behavior, but is much more common in this location. The most readily distinguishable feature the Northern's consistently broad supercilium with the same coloration in its lores. It also has streaking all of the way up into the throat. Other traditional field mark differences were less obvious to me. We saw this species on both of our trips.

Ovenbird - Male and female are similar in all seasons. It has a low-contrast olive-brown back, wings and head. The throat and lower parts are white with broad striping on breast and sides. The face has a bold complete white eye-ring and dark malar stripes. The head has a distinctive orange crown stripe bordered by black stripes. Observed bobbing along on the ground in the undergrowth. Scurried back out of sight when startled. Never saw it fly. Bird shown here, seen at Willows, was more cooperative and came out on lawn. We only saw these during out May trip.

Prairie Warbler (M) - The adult male or female has bright yellow underparts. It has olive crown, back, and wings. The wings have low contrast wing bars. It has a rufous, streaked back patch. The sides have bold black streaking. The face has a dark eye-line joined to a distinctive dark semi-circle under the eye. This individual was agreed to be an immature male. It has a more subtle orange back patch and olive striping and face patterning. I first saw a Prairie in full adult coloration in December at the Aransas NWR, but that was only a brief glimpse. This one remained throughout our May visit at Paradise Pond where we saw it once along the front sidewalk and once along the back boardwalk. Both sightings were reported as rarities.

Tennessee Warbler (M) - The male in spring is shown. It has a low-contrast green back, white throat and underside, and a pale gray head. The bill is small and sharp. The face has a thin, strong black eye-line bordered above by a thin white supercilium and below by a white eye-arc. The head in the male has no yellow making the gray stand out. This made the male easier to identify than the female. We observed these feeding actively, especially in the willow trees. We saw a few in April and they were the most numerous warbler in May.

Tennessee Warbler (F) - The female is similar in shape and patterning to the male but drabber overall with yellow wash in the sides and head. The gray of the head is much less pronounced. As such, these drab birds were my most repeatedly misidentified birds of the trip. At a quick glance they looked variously like an Orange-crowned Warbler (out of season) or a Philadelphia, Warbling, or Red-eyed Vireo (all in season). We observed these in about equal proportion to the males.

Wilson's Warbler (M) - The adult male is a small warbler with bright yellow underparts and olive upperparts. The wings are low contrast with no apparent wing bars. The male has a dark black crown like a beret. The cheeks are slightly darker giving the effect of a bright yellow supercilium. We observed this species foraging actively though rarely in the open or on the outer edges of the bushes.We saw a few in winter and in April but only two in May. We saw no females, which lack the dark black cap, this spring.

Worm-eating Warbler - The adult birds are all similar with no sex or season differences. It has a very plain olive-gray back and wings and buffy underparts. The head is caramel colored with two broad, black crown strips and two narrow eye-line stripes. Sibleys describes it as "specializing in picking insects from hanging dead leaves." We, however, found it forging under dead leaves on the ground, peeking under them like a wren. Along with the Hooded Warbler, this was one of the first warblers we saw in our April trip.  By the middle of that week, they had moved on. In total, we only saw a few individual birds at different locations.

Yellow Warbler (M) - The adult male shown is yellow throughout with olive tinging on back and wings. The flight feathers have yellow edging to them and, diagnostically, the under-tail coverts and tail are both yellow. The face looks very plain and open with a bold black eye bordered by a yellow eye-ring. Different individuals show differing amounts of red streaking in the breast and sides. Females have very pale streaking with little contrast to the body. This was another active, high tree forager. We only saw these during the May trip and saw mostly males.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Audubon's (M) - The Yellow-rumped warbler is a bird we have in abundance in Austin during the winter season. We also saw many in winter at the birding center. In that season, it is brown and buffy with the characteristic rump and side yellow patches. The bird shown is a male transitioning into breeding plumage and is of the "Audubon's" sub-species as indicated by the yellow throat patch. It has deep blue-gray uppers and breast and a contrasting white belly and vent with side streaking. The yellow rump and side patches are present as is a yellow crown stripe and throat. The face has dark lores and a pronounced white eye under-arc. We only saw one of these transitional males at the birding center during the April trip. It remained mostly undercover. Unlike other species migrating through Port Aransas, this one is likely migrating from the area.

Yellow-throated Warbler - Last but not least is the Yellow-throated. Prior to our trips, we had repeatedly chased a report of this species in the Austin area, finally getting a view. During our April trip they were numerous giving us much easier photographic pickings. This bird is very distinctive in all seasons and both sexes. It has a silver gray back and crown, white belly, vent, and under-tail, and a bright yellow throat and upper breast, bordered by rich black cheek patches, lores, and eye-stripe. The face also has a long white supercilium stripe and white neck patch. The bird also has an elongated body with very long bill. We did not see this as an active feeder but rather more methodical in foraging along branches.

Over the two trips, I listed 147 species including 21 new entries on my "life list."

Monday, May 9, 2016

Transit of Mercury 2016

As expected from the weather forecast, we were clouded in for the transit this morning. Based on the conditions, I did not set up any of the fancy equipment but I did assemble a DLSR (500mm, f/5.6, 1/200sec, ISO-100) and attached a Kendricks solar filter to the objective and kept it handy.

For most of the morning, this is what my pictures looked like:

There were a few gaps in the heavy cloud cover allowing me to get a few shots. The first was taken from home before leaving work, the second from the roof of the parking garage at work. In both, Mercury is the very small disk in the bottom half of the image moving up and towards the right. This size is impressive when you think that the sun is half again as far from us as Mercury. You can see that over the course of 80 minutes it has moved noticeably. The smudges near the center and towards the upper-left are sunspots; there was not much solar activity. The dark fluff is cloud cover obscuring the view; there was plenty of that.

My brother-in-law, Ross Cunniff had better weather and went for the full monty. Here is his post. For a few billion dollars more, you can get this jaw-dropping animation from the NASA SDO mission.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Port Aransas Spring 2016 - Part 2

We returned to Port Aransas on the first week of May to catch some of the later migrants. On Sunday and Monday and part of Tuesday, a storm front was grounding the birds and we saw a mini version of "fall out". By Wednesday, the winds had changed and we saw very few birds. We left early on Friday.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Very Small Owls

After evicting ants from the owl box last year ... and no owls, this year it has been colonized by bees. Not sure if these are Africanized or not. We were able to walk around underneath with no aggression, so perhaps we are just helping out the "good" bees. I am wondering if this bunch is from a swarming of the hives that the beekeeper down the street has. At this, point it is already past were I could do anything about it anyways.