Saturday, March 29, 2014

Murphy Park Rookery

This afternoon, we drove to Murphy Park in Taylor, TX.  This is 30 minutes from Georgetown. We had gotten a tip from another birder that there is a small lake in the park with an island that serves as a rookery for various egrets and herons.  Although it's early in the breeding season, we decided to check it out.

When we got there around 17:30 CDT, we saw a dozen egrets and a couple of cormorants perched in a few small trees. We were told that most of the birds came in near sunset. By the time we left at 19:30 CDT we counted approximately:
  • 100 Cattle Egret
  • 50 Double-Crested Cormorant, juvenile and adults
  • 40 Great Egret
  • 10 Little Blue Heron
  • 5 Snowy Egret
  • 5 American Coot
  • 1 Black-Crowned Night Heron
...and the birds were still arriving in bunches, especially the cattle egrets. I understand that at the peak of the season there are a thousand birds crowded here. Roaming the grounds were also a number of aggressive Swan Geese as well as Mallards ... a typical urban park.

After walking around, we decided that more birds were visible on the west side of the island. I set up a Canon SX-50 HS on a tripod and settled down. Danielle went hand-held with her Canon SX-50 HS. We were only able to get within 80 feet of the birds from the shore.

Initially, the majority of the birds were Great Egrets, almost all crowded near the tops of the three bare trees on the island. Most were in breeding plumage, sporting fluffy aigrettes (plumes on their backs used in the 19th century for trimming ladies' hats, until the species was hunted almost to extinction) and bright neon green lores. On our winter trips to the coast, they were much less showy. Note also the long delicate necks, yellow bill, and black legs and feet. Amazing how they perch like passerines despite those long wading legs.

Many of these egrets were busy constructing nests in the trees. Here is one placing a branch that it bought in earlier. It really does not seem that there is enough place in the trees for all of these birds to nest there.

A few were displaying their aigrettes like a peacock while standing on their nesting platform. This one was situated below the trees in the cane stalks. It stood there displaying like this for the two hours we were watching, occasionally reaching its bill down to rearrange a branch.

Ironically, we only saw a few egrets approach the water and only one went in. It did not seem to be actively hunting; I suppose it spends the day elsewhere doing that.

In the sunset glow, their plumage took on a golden cast adding another dimension to their beauty.

I had understood that Murphy Park was mostly a heron and egret rookery, and I see these birds from time to time in the rivers around here. Thus, the presence of cormorants was the surprise for me as I have never seen them around home. A quick check in the bird guide confirms that the ones we saw were all Double-Crested Cormorants, different from the Neotropic Cormorants we saw on the coast this winter.

The adults, in the first two images, are glossy black with orange skin both below the bill and in the lore patch.  The breeding adults show a pair of tufted plumes on either side of their head. These were only obvious on a couple of the birds we saw today. The juveniles, in the subsequent two images, have a paler skin patch and brown plumage with a mottled tan breast.

Unlike the egrets, we saw a number of the cormorants venture into the water. They are very inefficient when taking flight.  I saw a cormorant floating next to the island race furiously along the surface of the water gaining altitude very slowly. It needed two passes of the island to get enough height to settle in the low trees right next to where it started.

For the most part, the cormorants sunned themselves quietly. At one point a pair of juveniles squared off against each other as you can see in this short YouTube video:

The cormorants and great egrets were the largest birds on the island. However, there were many other species, as well. When we first got to the park, a Little Blue Heron had just arrived and ducked into the cane. Eventually, there were a dozen. These are quite small compared to the Great Blue Heron, which we see much more often. This rookery trip has been very useful to gauge relative sizes of these species; the Little Blue Heron is only about two thirds the size of a Great Egret, which is slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron. Note the blue body and contrasting maroon neck and head. Also notice the grey and blue bill which helps to distinguish it from the larger Reddish Egret.

Update - 2014-05-17 - We saw a juvenile Little Blue Heron. in May. I am posting the picture here for comparison. Note the similar blue on the beak, but not as bright.

Though there were no Cattle Egrets initially, they soon dominated the island. They are recognizable from their golden crests, breast and back plumage. They are slightly smaller even than the Little Blue Herons. We last saw Cattle Egrets in cow pastures down near the coast. I have never seen them in the Austin area but they must spend the day around here somewhere, perhaps in the farmland in the Taylor area.

The Snowy Egret, of which we saw a number on Mustang Island, is about the same size as the Little Blue Heron. They have a black bill and legs but the lores and feet are both yellow. We only counted a few today.

A special treat was this Black Crowned Night Heron, a new confirmed species for us. We have a yellow-crowned pair nesting on the river near our house again this year, though we haven't yet gotten a photograph. This one stayed mostly hidden in the cane.

One last note. As we sat observing the birds on the island, a this bunch of Mallards flew out of the water and squabbled past our feet quacking loudly, only to land in a pile-up next to us.  All I can say is: it was a bad day to be Miss Mallard.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Clown Fish Finally Hosts Catalaphyllia

On Jan 6, 2014, I introduced this Catalaphyllia jardinei specimen into the reef tank with the intent of providing my clown fish with an alternative to the group of Bubble Tipped Anemones it has hosted for the past three years. The anemones were wrecking havoc with the hard corals but I had long hesitated to deprive the clown fish of its snuggly bed of tentacles.

When I introduced the C. jardinei, I left one anemone specimen in the tank to see what would happen. The clown fish showed no interest in adopting the coral. On Jan 26, 2014, I removed this last anemone from the main tank and parked it in the refugium. I subsequently traded it in to the "local fish store" on Mar 2, 2014. Still not much interest from the clown fish.

Over the past week, the clown had start poking its nose into the C. jardinei, a promising sign. This evening, I found it fully immersed in the coral, resting calmly. It took a full two months from the removal of the anemone begin hosting the coral.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Team Deanna

As my step-mom, Deanna, begins her fight against cancer, Danielle and I show our support and love with our nifty new "Team Deanna" shirts.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Waxwings at Lake Georgetown

Another day, another birding hike! We went to Lake Georgetown, hiking from the trail head off of West Lake Pkwy down towards Sawyer Park. Hoping to see some warblers.  The only reasonable photos we got were of Cedar Waxwings which are making their spring migration through Georgetown. Images with Canon SX-50 HS.

In addition to the waxwings, we saw of interest:

  • Blue Jay - Two seen at a distance in Juniper trees
  • White Pelican - Six flying overhead, circling in the updrafts in the company of a hawk. Migrating though, I assume. They all had keels on their bills for breeding season.
  • Spotted Towhee - A male and female in the tangled brush at Spring Hogg Hollow.
  • Orange-Crowned Warbler - In the juniper thicket up near the trail head
  • Cerulean Warbler (Probable) - In the green juniper trees near the lake at Spring Hogg Hollow. Not confident of this identification. Small warbler shaped bird with white belly, patterned grey and blue upper, did not confirm the neck band or side stripes. No chance of getting a photo. This bird was the highlight of the venture if for no other reason than the tantalizing prospect of seeing a migratory warbler.
A number of unidentified hawks as well as the ever-present vultures and cardinals. Still need to work on my recognition of bird song. There were many different songs and calls that I did not recognize.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Red Bellied Woodpecker at Berry Springs

At the home feeder, we see a pair of Downy Woodpeckers. At Berry Springs park today, we saw several different Red-Bellied Woodpeckers across the park. The first four pictures are males, the last is a female.

Eastern Phoebe at Berry Springs

Found perching the the brush and small tree limbs near the creek.  Periodically flying out. It appeared to be doing some tail wagging, but not as pronounced as I expected. Bill is dark, crown was not peaked. I did not hear it vocalize.

Friday, March 21, 2014

House Finch Conjunctivitis

This year, we have started to notice House Finches with conjunctivitis at our feeders. We clean the feeders regularly. Today, two different males are in distress, the one with the worst infection shown below just after it was chased off of the feeder to land on the fence.

In addition to not flying straight, often trying to hover in place while slowly drifting towards the ground, the infected birds repeatedly rub the sides of their heads as this one is doing.

Some more information about the condition provided by University of Cornell.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Owlets and Bluebirds at Berry Springs

On reports of Great Horned Owl chicks, we went to visit Berry Springs park, north east of Georgetown. Conditions today were cool, cloudy and very windy.

As we walked around the park, we first ran into several pairs of Eastern Bluebirds flitting from one bush to the next, dropping down into the grass between bushes. Interestingly, the last time we hiked in strong winds was at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center ... where we saw Western Bluebirds!  Danielle was able to get closer to the birds and got the clearer of the two shots below, all are of males.

While I was still trying to get close, Danielle found the owl nest. I have circled its location in yellow on the Goggle satellite image below:

The nest is in a high fork of the tree and, I understand, was built by Red-Tail Hawks.

Two owlets were hunkered down in the nest and only peeked their heads up occasionally. No parents showed up all afternoon - clearly a different feeding schedule than the Bald Eagles.

With their downy feathers and bare eye patches, they reminded me of Ewoks in the movie Star Wars. We will have to return periodically to see if we can catch them with the parents present.

Update 2014-03-17 - Went back this evening since the light was better. Indeed, we had some golden light before sunset. I was also hoping to see an adult in the nest but that was not to be. With less wind, the owlets were poking up further.

I never saw the parent owls in the nest even though I waited until it was nearly dark. In the fading light, I briefly saw one of the adult owls perched across the creek on a tree stump, silhouetted in the evening sky.

Update 2014-03-22 - Back to the park this weekend. Danielle got this shot with the owlet opening its beak a bit. Still no wing flapping.

All images taken with Canon SX-50 HS, birds at full zoom.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Birding at Seminole Canyon State Park

Last Spring, we visited Seminole Canyon State Park to view comet C/2011 L4.  This year we returned and stayed for one day of hiking and birding along the new trail system. The Google map below shows the hike. We started in the campground mid morning with cool and misty weather, packing our binoculars and small small SX-50 cameras. We started down the original Rio Grande trail which follows the west boarder of the park as an old jeep road making for the scenic overlooks at the river which we missed last time. The fog cleared quickly around noon while we were at the end of the trail. On the way back, with the sun out, it was quite warm as we followed the new Canyon Rim trail which follows the contours of the Seminole Canyon. In all, a 9 mile hike.

The scenic overlooks were breath-taking. Unfortunately, our Labrador seemed to think he could get access to the "big swimming hole" so we had to keep him on a tight leash. The first view is looking down along the Seminole Canyon to the Rio Grande River. We were surprised to see so much water, especially after visiting Las Cruces and walking around in the Rio Grande basin where the water was about 2 inches deep. Nestled in the bend of the river at the left edge of the picture is the famous Panther Cave pictograph site. By tour only, no dogs allowed.

The second view is at the end of the trail looking upstream along the Rio Grande. We were able to see a number of water birds down in the shallow river as well as a small fishing boat.

We were pleasantly surprised by how many bird species we identified, without the use of any bird blinds or feeding stations. Below were the ones we got pictures of. All images taken with Canon SX-50 HS, most at full zoom.

Cactus Wren - A number of these were stationed in the area around the campground as well as the initial part of the hike. Seemed to be separated by 50 meters or so and positioned midway to top of tall bushes. Unmistakable sound of car starting with bad battery.

Western Meadowlark - Based on the song, more likely a western variety, both types might be found in Texas. Only saw one of these.

Northern Mockingbird - These were everywhere. Nice photo of one in the light of the setting sun.

Great Egret - Yellow bill, black legs ... this one is a great egret. Only saw one of these down in the reeds along the far side of the Rio Grande. It caught a few fish as we watched.

Female Bufflehead - Two of these swimming just upstream of Panther Cave. I was amazed that the water was transparent enough to see the movement of the feet underwater.

Black Phoebe - Perched on an Ocotillo overlooking the Rio Grande gorge below. Unlike at Balmorhea, this one did not show off its aerial hunting skills. We only saw one during our hike.

Canyon Towhee - Saw several in and around the campground at dusk. This was a challenging shot as I had to focus manually, a real pain using the Canon SX-50. The camera insisted on auto-focusing on the high-contrast bush in the far distance and not on the bird, despite setting the smallest AF point.

White-Crowned Sparrow - One of several sparrow species we identified in the park.  These were very numerous, especially in the campground. Here an adult and two immature birds foraged together behind the restrooms. This clinched our previous identification of the juvenile white-crowned.

Black-Throated Sparrow - Saw a few of these throughout the park but not nearly as numerous as the White-Crowned.

Possible Song Sparrow - Only photographed this species once and did not confirm the song.

Possible Cassin's Sparrow - This fluffed up sparrow caused us lots of consternation trying to identify it so not confident. We saw several and heard its song every 100 meters or so along the Rio Grande trail in the morning mist. I recorded a snippet of the song on my iPhone for later comparison. A whistle-like tee trrrrrrreh-ee  tee-tehhh tooo.  My tentative identification based mostly on this song pattern. However, we did not see any of these sparrows "skylarking" ... too early in the season?

Winter Lark Bunting - Saw several of these foraging in the distance. This bird stumped me for quite a bit. Initially assumed it was a sparrow and came up blank matching the wing bars and the heavy striping. Finally dawned on me that the bill was too heavy and tried buntings. Wing bar on the Lark Bunting was right but took some hunting to find a confirming illustration of a bird in winter plumage. This is a radical change in wardrobe!

House Finch - Numerous during the morning part of the hike. Moving in groups from the top of one bush to the next singing en-masse.  I like the shot on the yucca.

Say's Phoebe - I am now seeing this bird everywhere now that I have identified it once. This pair was particularly fun to watch. They were perched at the top of bushes and, in turn, they would fly up, hover, and then drop down. Almost looked like courtship but probably just finding bugs.  Interesting that they took turns, though.

Pyrrhuloxia - Finally, a real Pyrrhuloxia ... we saw two birds together. At Ft Davis SP, we saw a "strangely colored" cardinal which we had convinced ourselves might be a Pyrrhuloxia. Having seen this one, we think that what we had seen was an immature male cardinal in final molt. Only caught a few blurry shots of this one due to more camera focusing issues. However, the bright yellow, stubby bill is quite evident and clearly different from the narrower, orange-red cardinal bill.

Curve-Billed Thrasher - This was another birding highlight of this trip. I saw one of these in the fading light our first evening. I got a very blurry shot of it, enough to give me some confidence of the identification but really wanted to see it again more clearly. The next day, a fellow camper from the neighboring site approach me and explained his dilemma that a "bird with long curved bill" was repeatedly striking his trailer window and wondering why. I mentioned that I was hoping to see that very bird and joked that I would hang out at his trailer.

The next morning, as we were packing, he came by and said that the bird was back in action. He showed me a nice photo of it taken from inside the trailer. After waiting in vigil for a quarter hour, the bird came back. It was actually a pair of thrashers restoring a nest in the bush next to the trailer. After watching, I conjectured that the pecking was most likely the male fending off a phantom rival in the form of its own reflection. The photo shows the reflection but I should have taken a movie of its aggresive fencing moves! Many thanks to our neighbor for alerting us so we could get a closer look at this bird.

Barn Swallow - The area around the restrooms was grand central station for a dozen swallows, especially in morning and evening. I did not see evidence of nest building but the power lines above the restroom were a favorite perching point. The barn swallows were the most numerous.

This next video clip shows the swallow contorting itself to preen its feathers. Funny how stiff the wings remain during this operation.

Cave Swallow - I saw a couple of these mixed in, a bit smaller than the barn swallow and lacking the long forked tail.

Purple Martin - This was a surprise. A lone pair of purple martins that I only saw on one occasion at sunset. When I was a kid, my dad set up a purple martin house in our yard. One of those two-story aluminum condos with doors on both sides. The bird guide I had at that time indicated that purple martins were permanent residents in Las Cruces. However, we never saw a single martin, either in the bird house or anywhere else. Lots of house sparrows took up residence instead. My dad remembered that a roadrunner even tried to nest in it. In retrospect the thing was too low to the ground and too near the trees to have a hope of attracting martins. My current bird guide also indicates that Las Cruces has no purple martins anyway. To this day, my few sightings of purple martins have brought back memories of my anticipation that these birds would take up residence in our yard and delight us with their swooping about.

The second shot below of the male is rather humorous. It was not vocalizing at the time ... it looked like it was yawning ... do birds yawn? Maybe just waiting for the insects to fly into its mouth!  The picture does show how the seemingly small bill is really part of a big bug scoop. It almost looks like a frog's mouth.

In addition to the birds we were able to photograph, we also saw many Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures, a number of Common Ravens, a Great Blue Heron in the Rio Grande along with a half-dozen American Coot, and a flock of Sandhill Cranes traveling north along the Seminole Canyon.

The biggest surprise of this location ... no Kingfishers!