Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Common Yellowthroat at Balmorhea SP

This morning, while watching the coots and waiting to see if the merganser's would show up again, I caught a flash of yellow in the reeds and saw a male Common Yellowthroat with its black mask and heavy white line. Unlike the female which I observed and photographed at the sluice at Lake Balmorhea, this one did not take much effort to identify. Later, I found another male in a low mesquite bush next to one of the canals at the park.

Female COYE at Lake Balmorhea
Male COYE at Balmorhea SP

Monday, December 29, 2014

Quest for a Better Sora

During our Christmas vacation in 2013, while staying at Balmorhea State Park, I saw my first Sora. This sighting near dusk followed an initial hearing of its unique whinnying call and then a half-hour of trying to locate it as it rustled through the reeds bordering the cienega. By stationing myself beyond where I heard it moving and staying still, it came within a few feet of me. However, in the poor lighting and without a flash I only got this one blurry image

Canon SX-50HS at ISO-3200, 69mm, f/5.6, 1/20sec, No Flash

It was, however, enough to identify it when I got back to the camper. During this past year, every time I went to a marshy birding location, I have been looking for another Sora, both to get a better view and to take a clear photograph. I finally succeeded one year later during our Christmas 2014 stay at Lake Balmorhea. After a brief glimpse of a Virginia Rail diving into the reeds of the sluice feeding into the lake, I waited for an hour to find it again. Instead, I found this Sora and followed it in the viewfinder from a distance of about 20 feet. I finally managed to get some shots of it clear of the vegetation.

Canon 7DII, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-800, 400mm, f/8, 1/400sec, Flash

Rare Common Galinule

On this cold and misty morning, as Danielle was watching the coots in the San Solomon Cienega at Balmorhea SP, she saw this misfit near the inlet from the springs. It flew off, giving her a chance to observe its legs and feet, which were yellow-green and were not webbed. Late this afternoon, both of us saw it swimming in the marshy area near the inlet, further toward the motel. We got this picture.

The bird was coot-shaped and roughly the same size as a coot, with blue-grey head and underparts. It had a brownish-purple back and wing coverts, with distinct white patches along flank and white under tail. Heavy slightly down-curved bill with forehead shield, dark with yellowish tip. All but head is clearly an adult Common Galinule. The head does not show red bill and shield of breeding adult nor does throat show light patch of non-breeding adult.

Since this bird is rare in this part of Texas, Danielle reported the sighting to the TEXBIRDS Facebook group and was asked to submit the image to TexasBirdImages.com for their records. Here is the link to that record entry.

A Confusion of Grebes

Of the varied birds we observed today at Lake Balmorhea, the Western and Clark's Grebes have caused me some confusion. From my reading, these two species often intermix in flocks. However, it is not clear whether these two species interbreed successfully. The description of the Clark's Grebe in the Sibley Guide to Birds suggest that hybrids are possible. On the other hand, the entry for this species in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds website asserts that "Differences in face and bill color keep the two grebes from interbreeding."  A Flickr discussion group thread, though not scientifically based, argues for hybridization.

For my part, I was able to watch a family group very closely. Initially, I watched this adult and juvenile pair swimming together, along with another nearly identical juvenile not shown. The adult on the right has all of the characteristics of a Western Grebe: the dark surrounding the eye, the darker back, and the bill color. Although the plumage could still be that of a Clark's, as described by Sibley, the black lined yellow-olive bill with up-turned tip should mark this as a Western Grebe.

 The coloration of the juvenile, shown here in more detail, probably does not help. But oh, is it cute!

For a little more gratuitous cuteness, here is an unrelated juvenile paddling and squawking full steam as it chases after an adult. This sequence shows just how far back on the body the grebe's legs are attached as it kicks up a rooster tail of spray.

As I watched the first pair, a second adult swam into the little inlet. The juvenile gave a squawk of excitement and swam over to join the new adult and follow it around. This second adult, shown below, is unquestionably a Clark's Grebe. It has the white surrounding the eye, the lighter back, and most importantly the straight yellow-orange bill.

My questions now are: Do juvenile grebes follow any adult around or are these the two parents? Is this a mixed-species pair? Do both adults care for the young? From our reading, the answer to the last question would be yes.

Changing Vermilion Flycatchers

On our way out to New Mexico, we visited Lake Balmorhea late on the afternoon of  Dec 19. After a long and fruitless slog through the mud looking for a way to access the waterfront along the south part of the lake, I ran into a Vermilion Flycatcher hunting for insects near the lake side. It took me a while in the bird guide to figure out what it was as this was not the adult male plumage of red and black that I expected. This was my first good observation of this species, in any plumage.

It is not certain to me whether this bird is a female or juvenile male but I had assumed the later.

The next day, we went back to the lake but this time figured out how to get to the water front along the drive that approaches the lake from the northwest corner. The sluice draining into the lake is a great place to bird.

We saw several more flycatchers hunting in this location. Again, I don't know if this is a female or juvenile male; there seems to be quite a bit of breast mottling for a female.

On our way back from New Mexico, ten days later we stopped again. The flycatchers we saw this time had different plumage having much more red on the breast and very evident crown of red mottled feathers. These seem much more likely to be juvenile males molting into adult plumage. It gives further suggestion that some of the earlier birds were also juvenile males.

I am still puzzled by why we saw no adult male flycatchers.

Hooded Mergansers at Balmorhea SP

Today, while checking out the water birds on the small pond at the entrance to Balmorhea SP, I was excited to find a group of Hooded Mergansers. This is a new species for us. We missed out on an earlier attempt to chase a report of one at Meadow Lake in Round Rock. In all we saw three females and two males. They where much more timid than the resident coots and scaups, paddling over to far end of the pond and behind the island when I approached and taking flight the first time I watched them. I observed several interesting behavior including diving for crawfish and then shaking them to stun them and the male courtship display in which the males puffed out their hoods and bobbed their heads.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Using Image Stabilization on a Tripod

I had been taking lightly the recommendation that Image Stabilization (IS) be turned off on my Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lens when using on a tripod. After having many soft pictures, I did another side-by-side test on a real subject.

The images below were taken of a snowy egret at about 50ft with camera mounted on a tripod. In both cases, I used back-button focus in AI Servo mode. Before each shot, I unfocused the lens, let AF acquire focus on the feather detail, and let the IS settle for a second before taking the shot. The effect of using IS when "not needed" is pretty dramatic. What I am still uncertain of is what constitutes "not needed".  I have taken slow tripod shots where the IS slightly improved the shot. Is it "tripod and fast shutter" or "tripod or fast shutter" that requires turning off IS.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Another Trip to the Bosque

At the end of our visit in Las Cruces, Danielle and I took another trip to the Bosque del Apache. The trip started out cold and wet but the weather cleared out by the time we got to the NWR. It remained quite cold and we saw very few Sandhill Cranes and no Snow Geese.  I guess they were all back in Texas.

We spent some time watching Northern Harriers hunt along the southern loop. This adult female made an attempted snatch nearby but it looked like it missed.

We also went in search of a rare reported Lesser Yellowlegs.  We saw a promising candidate at the boardwalk trail.  Though still uncertain, I am now assuming this is actually the Greater Yellowlegs which is more common for the area. The bill length on this one is somewhere between being obviously less or greater.

During out lunch break at the park headquarters, we saw a large group of Gambel's Quail foraging. Once I got my camera out, I spent a considerable amount of time waiting for them to make an appearance where I could get a shot. It was interesting to listen to them calling to each other from various bushes. As the troop moved and had to cross a clearing, they each took a turn to quickly scamper across.

In the late afternoon, we stationed ourselves to view the cranes. Last year we watched from Willow Deck and saw many thousands of birds. This year, from the North Pond, we only saw 50 or so. We were quite surprised by the small showing. On the plus side, the arrival path came right over our heads offering a great view of  the cranes in flight.

Our sunset view this year was much colder and only offered a smattering of ducks in flight.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

American Kestrel Along the Rio Grande

The day before Christmas, while visiting in Las Cruces, we took a walk along the Rio Grande near the Bosque de Mesilla State Park. As we were leaving, we passed a Kestrel hunting next to the road. We watched and photographed it for a half hour and were even lucky enough to see it catch a small mouse. These small raptors spook easily. We have found that stopping the truck near a perched Kestrel has always caused it to fly off down the road. I was surprised that this one stayed put. Perhaps because the brush is was working from was 100 feet away from the roadside. In any case, we chose to remain right next to the truck while observing rather than trying to approach any closer.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (Danielle)
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L
Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (Danielle)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ravens Dancing in the Wind

We took another trip up Skyline Drive at the Davis Mountains State Park today to look for Montezuma Quail. No sign of quail, but we did enjoy watching a dozen Common Ravens playing in the stiff wind. The ravens hovered in the up-drafts and shot past us at high speed. We noticed several of them carrying twigs or other material in their beaks and were playing games with them. It reminded me of the dolphins we have seen playing keep-away with bits of flotsam.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (Danielle)

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Red-Shouldered Hawk Pair

As we prepping the trailer this morning, we head the cry of a hawk nearby. A Red-shouldered Hawk flew in over the house and perched on a dead tree across the road. As we watched and took pictures with our grab-and-go SX-50, a second hawk flew in an perched below. They stayed for a few minutes and then flew back over the yard towards the river again. I wonder if this is the same pair we saw mating here last year. We never did see the establishment of a nest.

Canon SX-50 - 215mm, f/7.1, 1/320 sec, ISO-100

I had not used this little camera in a while. Even at low ISO, I was amazed to see how grainy the images were. The color fringing against the backlit sky were also pronounced.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Yellow Rumped Warblers in Yard

Today, we saw Yellow Rumped Warblers in our yard for the first time. They did not use the feeders but did perch in the tree above, came down for a bath, and picked at loose seed on the patio. Update - After reading an article about the YRWA, we learned that this Myrtle sub-species can eat the berries of the Wax Myrtle bush, which we recently planted in our yard.

Canon 100-400mm, ISO 2000-5000, no flash

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thanksgiving Birding

This Thanksgiving weekend Danielle and I continued our search for new local birding spots.

Meadow Lake - Site 11 - On reports of a Hooded Merganser and a Western Grebe, we went to a residential park in Round Rock called Meadow Lake. No sign of either but we did see many waterfowl in the lake as well as some gulls and cormorants. Technically, this lake is listed as "Soil Conservation Service Site 14 Reservoir". Just to the west is a smaller "lake" listed as "Site 11" and which as no attached public park.

We spent an hour on Thursday and several hours on Friday exploring here. Initially, we saw a few sparrows flitting from one tree to another, evading us as we approached. At one point, I just parked myself in one spot and waited for the sparrows to drift back into view. This one below perched nearby and I noted the interesting yellow patch above the eye. I identified this as a Savannah Sparrow, a new species for us. All of the sparrows we observed closely were of this type.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 800, 400mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, Flash
I next parked myself in some tall grasses next to the boggy water's edge. The trees next to me were visited by a a half dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers such as this one below ...

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 800, 380mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, Flash
... a solitary Dark-eyed Junco ...

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 800, 380mm, f/6.3, 1/4000 sec, Flash
... as well as a hand full of female Red-winged Blackbirds. Later in the evening a flock of fifty or so blackbirds settled in the trees. I was surprised that we never saw or heard any with male coloration.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 800, 380mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, Flash
In the later afternoon sun, I found this Orange-crowned Warbler searching for insects in the brush. Here, it has picked one out of the spider webs.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 400, 400mm, f/8, 1/120 sec, Flash
Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 400, 400mm, f/8, 1/250 sec, Flash
As the sun was setting, we walked back to the car and practiced taking pictures of birds in flight as the ducks and cormorants circled the pond before settling in. I am not sure if these are Redheads or Lesser Scaups as the sun gave them all an orange hue.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 2500, 400mm, f/9, 1/1000 sec

Doeskin Ranch, Balcones Canyonlands NWR - On Saturday, we got up early and went to Doeskin Ranch at sunrise. Given previous experiences at this site, I was surprised by just how few birds we saw. Any birds we did see were clustered in the grassy meadows near the parking lots. Our hike up the Rim Rock Loop, yielded only a single mockingbird. Even the vultures did not make an appearance until late morning. Regardless of the bird life, the foliage was wonderful, though a bit past its peak.

As we walked along the upper trails, we saw sparrows flushing out from the grass as we approached and Phoebes hunting insects from their perches. Danielle managed to get a front view of one of the Eastern Phoebes whereas I seemed to be presented with only their back sides.

Canon 60Da, EF 400mm f/5.6L - ISO 400, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/2500 sec (Danielle)
Based on earlier success at Meadow Lake, I again parked myself low in the grass and waited for sparrows to find me. It took about 30 minutes for them to start ignoring me and returning to the perch in the scraggy brush you see around me.

This strategy netted me several new species. The first to appear were Field Sparrows such as the one below. These were small and fuzzy looking with very plain heads and a complete white eye ring.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 400, 360mm, f/8, 1/800 sec, Flash
The next species I identified in this spot was the Song Sparrow, which I first saw at Seminole Canyon SP. I got a much closer look here.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 500, 400mm, f/10, 1/500 sec, Flash
This next bird was a surprise identification that I made as I was triaging my pictures. Based on the white eye ring, I had thought it was a Field Sparrow.  However, seeing the complex spotting of the back and the orange stripe over the eye, I decided it was actually a Grasshopper Sparrow, yet another new species for us.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 400, 360mm, f/8, 1/400 sec, Flash
In the trees near the creek, I found this fourth sparrow species of the day a Chipping Sparrow with its bold eye line.

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 400, 400mm, f/10, 1/320 sec, Flash
Our hike around the Rim Rock Loop was not completely without excitement. As we returned down into the valley, this small American Kestrel soared overhead. I was not prepared to take birds-in-flight at the time. As I fumbled to get the camera off of the tripod and change the settings, I forgot to extend the telephoto lens. I kicked myself afterwards for having taken these images at the wide-angle setting of the lens and missing much of the detail!

Canon 7DII, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS - ISO 800, 160mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec (multiple combined frames)