Sunday, April 27, 2014

Another Day at Balcones Canyonlands NWR

Today, while Danielle attended a conference, I went back to Balcones Canyonlands NWR, where we had participated in a tour yesterday. I was looking forward to some solo birding at my own, slower pace.

Doeskin Ranch - My first stop was to return to Doeskin Ranch where we had found so many different birds near the parking lot ... OK, the guides found them and I just said "where?"  I arrived at 10:00, a bit late for birding but just in time for the sun to peep out after a morning of light drizzle. My first bird was a Bewick's Wren singing solo from the top of a short tree near the parking lot. This is probably the same one I saw yesterday.

Bewick's Wren - ISO-400, 400mm, f/16, 1/250
A number of Lark Sparrows were also singing from low bushes in small groups and a trio of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers chased each other from tree to tree.

I wandered down to the large live oak tree behind the restrooms and spent a half hour trying to get a good view of this flycatcher and determine what it was. I did not hear the call to distinguish it, so, based on the very pale coloration, low contrast tertial edges, and whitish throat, I decided it was an Ash-throated Flycatcher instead of the more colorful Great Crested Flycatcher.

Ash-throated Flycatcher - ISO-400, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/800
After I finished lurking around the parking area, I headed down the trail and ran into this Lark Sparrow foraging along the side of the path in the late morning sun. With its head extended and its feather down flat, it looked much more emaciated than the ones I saw in the bushes earlier. I let it approach me within a few feet before it figured out I was there and flew away.

Lark Sparrow - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/2000
Past the creek, in the middle of a grassy field, I crossed through a copse of large live oak trees with a dense undercover of shin oak. The trees were alive with the sound of songbirds, but I could not identify them nor catch a glimpse of any birds at all. This is pretty much the theme of my birding ... I need to get better at recognizing bird song.

Continuing up the trail towards the ridge, I came upon this Rufous-crowned Sparrow perched alone low to the ground. It eyed me warily and flew off as I approached further. I assume that it is molting ... or else sporting a coquettish primary feather.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/400s (EC+0.3)
After climbing the switchbacks to the top of the ridge, I stopped at a bench and had some lunch. As I finished, I caught the notes of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. After yesterday's tour, my ears are now attuned to the buzz buzz buzz buzz laaazzzy song of that warbler. I grabbed the camera gear and went further up the trail. I could hear it in the trees below me but saw no sign of it. It stopped calling and then, a bit later, I heard it above me. I spent the next hour going up and down the trail, stopping at different spots hoping to see something, a bit like following a will-o'-the-wisp.

Up on the ridge, I saw some White-crowned Sparrows resting in the bushes and caught sight of a jay darting between the cedar trees. A Blue Jay, I believe, based on the call. The heat was too much up on the ridge, so I headed back down.

I stopped again at the copse of oak trees for a more thorough investigation of the birds therein. I saw and heard a Northern Cardinal but the other predominant song I did not recognize. There seems to be no good way to search a bird guide based on song patterns, unlike appearance. I caught a glimpse of an olive green bird and wondered if I was looking for a warbler. Later, as I was watching another Bewick's Wren, I caught a glimpse of a male Painted Bunting darting through the underbrush. I checked the song on my iBird app and found it to be the source of all of the bird songs I was hearing. Probably the olive green bird was a female Painted Bunting. Unfortunately, knowing what I was looking for did not help me see them, as they mostly darted around in the shin oak undergrowth. In all, I think I spent an hour in the copse.

Warbler Vista - At about 15:00, I gave up due to the heat. After a half-hour driving in the air-conditioned car, I felt better and decided to stop-in at the Warbler Vista area, the other main public trail system in Balcones Canyonlands NWR.

Walking down the Cactus Rocks trail, I soon started hearing more Golden-cheeked Warblers. The layout of the trail below the ridge made it much easier to spot them than it had been in at Doeskin Ranch, and I soon found one visually near trail marker 5 as it scampered about the branches foraging.

Golden-cheeked Warbler - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/2500s (EC+0.3)
Golden-cheeked Warbler - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/200s (EC+0.3)
At one point it popped back into view holding this big fat caterpillar in its beak. The guide yesterday mentioned that the new leaves on the live oak trees that come out in late April provide additional food for such insects. Seeing a bird with one put the importance of this food source into perspective.

Golden-cheeked Warbler - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500s (EC+1)
As I watched, I was astounded to see the warbler flip its head repeatedly, smacking the caterpillar on the branch, just like a Kingfisher. I guess the caterpillar was too big and wriggly to go down without a beating. This shot shows the caterpillar smacking in progress.

Golden-cheeked Warbler - ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500s (EC+1)
I continued down the trail and heard several more warblers, catching a glimpse of a second one around trail-marker 10.  As I followed it in the binoculars, it approached a nest located about 30 feet downhill from the trail. This was a stroke of luck, as I would never have noticed the nest myself, as it was hard to see clearly from the trail - I never found a spot with a clear camera view. Naturally, I did nothing so foolish as to leave the trail and try to approach the nest!

On the tour yesterday, our guide had described how the Golden-cheeked Warbler makes its nest from strips of Ashe Juniper bark that it binds together with spiderwebs. Here before me was the finished product in the crook between high branches of a live oak tree. It looked pretty sturdy.

Well, at this point, any thought of continuing the hike was forgotten and I sat down to watch the nest. Most of the time, one bird stayed in the nest rearranging twigs. I assume this was the female as our guide indicated that the female does all of the nest building. From my angle it was hard to be sure, but I thought that at one point the nest was left empty.

The highlight of the nest watching, captured below, was seeing the male bring back a small caterpillar for its mate. Though she appears to be anticipating a bite, I did not actually see her take the caterpillar. She ducked down and the male stuck its head into the nest out of view. No indication of chicks at this point though.

Golden-cheeked Warblers on Nest- ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/800s  (EC+0.3)
It was great to see the warblers again. I hope to finally see the Black-capped Vireo sometime this season as well.

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