Monday, May 26, 2014

Painted Buntings Along San Gabriel River

Painted Bunting season must be in full swing. We saw and heard a dozen today on our walk up to the lake, even along the portion of the trail following the river where I had not seen them before. Up at Overlook Park, I saw another immature male in song.

Canon SX-50 HS - 215mm, f/8, 1/360 sec, ISO-80
There were also many White-eyed Vireo singing and scolding ... I felt compelled to stop at each one and try to find it in the binoculars. I also caught sight of another Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the distance. I am learning to recognized the chocolate-brown back and spotted tail pattern which is evident in this picture.

Canon SX-50 HS - 215mm, f/5.6, 1/20 sec, ISO-800

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Carolina Wren Family

Last few weeks, we have been watching Carolina Wrens in the yard.  After a big rain storm, we watched parent wren followed around by fledglings.  Image taken about 40ft away from the birds.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L (Kenko) - 560mm, f/11,  1/40 sec, ISO-800

Memorial Day Weekend at the Sewage Plant

Late this morning, we drove down to the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant in Southeast Austin. This location is popular for area birders; it is also known as the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory which sounds a lot more palatable. We saw almost no water birds on the ponds this late in the season. The trails along the river had quite a bit of activity, but the migratory species have all passed through.

White-eyed Vireo - After our Lake Georgetown hike last weekend, where we thought we identified a White-eyed Vireo based on the call and a brief glimpse, this vireo has become our "bird of the week." All week, we have recognized the call along our evening walk along the San Gabriel River, but the birds are hard to find as they move fast and stay hidden in the brush. Yesterday, we positively identified a pair in the bushes along the trail, seeing the two white wing bars and the stunning white iris and yellow spectacles. Otherwise, a nondescript bird.

As soon as I heard them at Hornsby Bend, my mission was to get a recognizable picture -- and I succeeded! I still find the stark white iris hypnotizing.

White-eyed Vireo - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500sec, ISO-800
White-eyed Vireo - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/10, 1/80sec, ISO-800 ( Flash )
In all, we were able to identify the following birds:
  • EUST - European Starlings - several around the parking lot
  • STFC - Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - numerous perched on power lines
  • NOCA - Northern Cardinal - every-present and numerous
  • PABU - Painted Bunting - saw two females near bird observatory, heard one male near river
  • RBWO - Red-bellied Woodpecker - saw and heard several of these
  • CACH - Carolina Chickadee
  • BCTI - Black-crested Titmouse - chattering in the trees with the chickadees
  • EAPH - Eastern Phoebe - found two of these in the sultry Aquatic Greenhouse
  • RSHA - Red-shouldered Hawk - hanging around an the Aquatic Greenhouse and flew through once
  • YBCU - Yellow-billed Cuckoo - heard several times and saw one fly across the road.
  • TUVU - Turkey Vulture - only a one of these
  • BHCO - Brown-headed Cowbird - saw pair of females and, later, one male singing at top of tree.
  • BLJA - Blue Jay - followed the call and caught a glimpse in bushes
  • WEVI - White-eyed Vireo - hard to find in foliage
  • SUTA - Summer Tanager - probable identification of call but no visual
At noon, we took a break and had a picnic sandwich at the truck. After lunch, we braved the heat and made another pass along the trails. Except for the ever-present Cardinals, the bird life had quieted down.

Dragonflies - We ran into another photographer, Eric Isley, who introduced us to dragonflies, showing us on his camera some of the different species we might find and pointing out field marks. Just like birds ... only they pose better and don't disappear during the warmth of afternoon.

After we got home, we trolled the internet looking for reference materials on dragonflies.  We found a site called Odonata Central and searched for a list of species for Travis County. Though the site is very slow, it does have some good field notes on the various species.

The most common type we saw was the Widow Skimmer, which shows yellow stripes down the two sides of the abdomen joining on the thorax. These are obscured in mature males, which look powder blue. Males have white patches on the wings while females do not.  We think we have a picture of a female and an immature male.

Female Widow Skimmer - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/7.1, 1/400 sec, ISO-800
Female Widow Skimmer - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/7.1, 1/640sec, ISO-800
Male Widow Skimmer - Canon SX-50 HS - 215mm, f/6.5, 1/160 sec, ISO-250 (Danielle Plumer)

The  next dragonfly is, we think, a Royal River Cruiser based on the small break in the yellow band around the second segment. To quote a description at Austin Bug Collection:
To distinguish this species from others, note that the yellow ring at the base of the abdomen is broken at the top, the front shoulder stripes only reach partway up the thorax, and the abdominal spots are rather small.

Royal River Cruiser - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 210mm, f/7.1, 1/320 sec, ISO-800

This final dragonfly is unquestionably a Comet Darner, showing the green thorax and brick red abdomen. It is quite a sight and, apparently, not very common. Many thanks to Eric for pointing this out to us!

Comet Darner - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO-800

Comet Darner - Canon SX-50 HS - 215mm, f/6.5, 1/160 sec, ISO-200 (Danielle Plumer)
Update 2014-06-08 - Have seen a few of what I think are juvenile WEVI on our evening walk.  Identical to adults photographed above but the iris is still black.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Blue Grosbeak at Lake Georgetown

This afternoon, we went hiking along the section of the Goodwater Trail around Lake Georgetown from Jim Hogg Park to Russell Park. The water level has been consistently low for several years and we were able to walk down onto a meadow that used to be completely underwater. There, we found a half dozen Northern Mockingbirds displaying from stubby tree tops. In the water remaining in the inlet, we found a Great Blue Heron and Great Egret feeding as well as a lone American Coot. A couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and Killdeer were also calling near the water.  Later, alerted by strange duck-like noises coming from the somewhere off the trail near Liz Ln, we found an egret nest, high in the branches of a deciduous tree. After Murphy Park yesterday, seeing a single egret nesting in isolation seemed pretty odd. At various places along the hike, we heard a very distinctive song which I am fairly sure is a White-eyed Vireo, especially at the creek crossing at the apex of the inlet. We have yet to see it.

The highlight of our foray into the meadow was finding a Blue Grosbeak, only the third one we have seen this year.

Canon SX-50 HS - 215mm, f/6.5, 1/320 sec, ISO-400

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cattle Egrets Nesting at Murphy Park

Whereas the Great Egrets started nest building earlier in the year and are now caring for chicks, the Cattle Egrets still appear to be building their nests and beginning to incubate eggs. They are certainly now in full breeding plumage including the red-orange bills.  As we observed earlier in the year, the Cattle Egrets stake our the lower branches of the trees as well as much of the cane.

Canon SX-50 HS - f/6.5, 1/400sec, ISO-200
Large flocks of them also settle on the east shore of the pond, where there are less people.

Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L - 400mm,  f/9, 1/1000 sec, ISO-800
Much of the group activity on shore seems to be stick hunting. I saw several egrets pulling on the twigs poking out from the ground cover. Others were able to find a quiet perch in the bare tree branches for some preening.

Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/9, 1/1000 sec, ISO-400

Not sure if this egret is looking for food or the perfect stick but it looks pretty intense. I did not see any cattle egret fishing in the pond but did see them drinking at the water's edge. Unlike the Great Egrets, I believe that these mostly eat insects they gather on pasture land.

Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L - 400mm, f/9, 1/1000 sec, ISO-400, EC -0.3
Occasionally one of the twigs comes free and the lucky bird flys back to the island with its prize.

Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L - 250mm, f/9, 1/3200 sec, ISO-800, EC -0.3

Great Egret Nestlings at Murphy Park

Another trip to Murphy Park in Taylor, TX this afternoon. The nest building is mostly done for the Great Egrets, though some are still bringing in branches and twigs. Many of the nests have two or three chicks in them. This still photograph shows two of the chicks in this nest getting fed and a third off the side.

Great Egret chicks - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, Kenko 1.4x - 560mm, f/9, 1/1000 sec, ISO-320
It was fascinating to see how the parents actually feed the chicks. Rather than the parent shoving food into the chicks mouth like most songbirds, or the chick reaching into the parent's crop like a pelican, the chicks grab across the parent's partially open bill. You can see the regurgitated fish in the shot below. Still not sure how the chicks get it down their throats.

Close up of fish transfer to chicks - Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, Kenko 1.4x - 560mm, f/9, 1/1000 sec, ISO-320

Danielle posted a montage of the various nests on YouTube.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bird in the Hand - Bird in the Bush

The ancient proverb says that "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" ... well, maybe not.

A few nights ago, while walking up the trail along the San Gabriel River, we spotted a nice Yellow-billed Cuckoo as it flew into the tree overhead.  We have heard them a number of times before, but this was our first clear view of one ... and we got a recognizable photograph to boot.

This evening, leaving work, I found another Cuckoo on the walkway in front of our office building. With a sinking feeling I assumed that this was the latest victim of the building's "killer windows" which have claimed the lives of a Painted Bunting and Nashville Warbler in the past few weeks.

However, I was pleased to find that this latest victim was only stunned, not dead. As I picked it up to move it to safety, it fluttered its wings weakly and grasped my finger. I let it rest in a flower bed while I watched it and tried to find out what to do if it didn't recover quickly. It occasionally opened its eyes but did not seem to respond much to its surroundings. Finally, after 20 minutes, it started looking more alert. It finally noticed me move and flew up into a nearby tree. Yay!

I guess this isn't uncommon, as Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" site notes that "As long-distance, nocturnal migrants, Yellow-Billed Cuckoos are vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines, and other structures" ( This one, however, collided in broad daylight.

Despite the coolness of having a Cuckoo perched on my finger, I can definitely say that a bird in the bush is nicer than any number of birds in the hand.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bird Blind at Pedernales Falls State Park

After finishing at Warbler Vista in the morning, we decided to take the long way home and see the bird blind setup at Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hours drive south of Balcones looping out west through Marble Falls.  We got there near noon, not the best time for seeing birds.

In the trees around the parking lot were quite a few Bewick's Wren, some singing and some chattering at each other as they hopped frantically from branch to branch. Here is one looking for insects under the tree bark of this Ashe juniper.

Bewick's Wren
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/500s
Danielle created this animated sequence of one of the wrens attempting to wrangle a large caterpillar it had pulled out from the bark.

Bewick's Wren
SX-50 HS - 10 frame animation
The bird-blind itself was very elaborate. There were actually two blinds in the complex, each with enclosed viewing room, natural rock fountain, and various natural perches. Between the two blinds and around the complex were native flower plantings. Danielle took the first photograph outside of the blind complex and the second of one of the natural rock fountains

Initially, we saw only doves, cardinals, and house finches ... in other words, just like our backyard! We also noticed many wasps and bees on the water features and hummingbird feeders. We waited and watched for a couple of hours and our patience was rewarded with some interesting birds and a few good photographs.

This female Ladder-backed Woodpecker came periodically, stopping first at the fountain and then landing on a perch with holes stuffed with what looked like peanut butter. The male came once while we watched.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker Female
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/200s
I was even more surprised when a male Painted Bunting dropped onto the perch right in front of me. It visited several times, also serving itself to the contents of the peanut butter stuffed holes. I did not see it forage for any seeds on the ground. The images are much better than those taken last week at Doeskin Ranch, but these "studio" shots seem less rewarding.

Painted Bunting Male
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 170mm, f/6.5, 1/640s
Painted Bunting Male
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 170mm, f/6.3, 1/400
Painted Bunting Male
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/250s

A female Painted Bunting, presumably the mate, eventually made a brief appearance.Danielle took this picture while it hopped around the pool. It never came up onto any of the perches.

Painted Bunting Female
Canon SX-50 HS at ISO-100, 215mm, f/6.5, 1/160s
All told, our bird list for the day at the blind included:
  • BEWR - Bewick's Wren
  • RCSP - Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  • WESJ - Western Scrub Jay
  • PABU - Painted Bunting (M,F)
  • LBWO - Ladder-backed woodpecker (M,F)
  • BHCO - Brown-headed Cowbird (M)
  • BCHU - Black-chinned Hummingbird (M)
  • NOCA - Northern Cardinal (M,F)
  • HOFI - House Finch (M,F)
  • CACH - Carolina Chickadee
  • LASP - Lark Sparrow
  • WWDO -White-winged Dove
  • NOMO - Northern Mockingbird
  • GRRO - Greater Roadrunner - along the drive into the park
We were also visited by a group of three juvenile Armadillos rooting in the dirt and reaching up onto the lower water features for a drink. Reminded me of the three Javelina that visited the bird blind at Ft. Davis State Park.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L at ISO-400, 330mm, f/5.6, 1/500s

Another Trip to Warbler Vista

Early this morning, Danielle and I went back to the Warbler Vista section of Balcones Canyonlands NWR and hiked the Cactus Rock Trail looking for warblers. We heard a half dozen Golden-cheeked Warblers, several along the lower part of the loop and the rest on the upper part and along the dirt road. We only got a glimpse of one. They are still singing the tweez tweez tweez tweez laaaazzy song. We also heard several Black and White Warblers singing a repeated wee-see wee-see wee-see pattern. Though badly back-lit, we did get a photograph of one of them.

Black and White Warbler
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/250s (EC+0.3, FEC -2-2/3)
There were several other prominent songs we heard including that of a Black-crested Titmouse. We did not recognize any of the others.

We also passed by the Golden-cheeked Warbler nest that I reported on two weeks ago. During the quarter hour we look, we heard no nearby song and no birds were apparent in the nest. This leaves me wondering what I was seeing last time. A Texas Parks and Wildlife article on the species indicates that nesting occurs in April, eggs are incubated for 12 days and fledging occurs in about 8-12 days. Thereafter, the chick separate and follow one of the parent for up to 30 days. I can see three possibilities:
  1. The female was preparing her nest but abandoned it or the nest was pillaged. This would be pretty depressing and was my first thought.
  2. The bird I saw being fed was not the adult female but a fledgling from a nesting early in April. This seems unlikely as the both birds I saw looked like adults. 
  3. The eggs were being incubated or had just hatched on my last visit and the chicks have since fledged. The nest is no longer being used and parents and fledglings would be foraging elsewhere. There would have been just enough time for this.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fledgling Northern Cardinal

Several times this week, while walking along the San Gabriel Trail, I have been hearing a bird sound similar in quality to a cardinal's single-note call but repeated rapid fire two to four times. I had tried without success to pin down the source. Tonight, I heard one right next to the trail and, with a few minutes of searching with the binoculars, I found this little fledgling. I watched it until it fluttered awkwardly over to another bush were it was joined by an adult female. The picture is blurry since I had to focus manually and hand-hold the shot.

Fledgling Northern Cardinal
Canon SX-50 HS - ISO-800, full zoom, f/6.5, 1/5s

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Finding Painted Buntings at Doeskin Ranch

Having mostly heard Painted Buntings in the "oak copse" last weekend, I went back this morning at dawn to try to see them. They are indeed more active at that hour ... even if I am not. I arrived just before sunrise and spent the entire morning.

For reference, here is the location on Google Maps. The main road on the left is CR-1174 with the entrance and parking lot at the upper end. Follow the trail signs for Rim Rock Trail and take the right (south) branch at the fork near the creek. The left branch takes you along the jeep trail visible in the satellite view below. The copse is circled in yellow.

Here is a shot of the early morning sun through the live oak trees. Most of the light green undercover is shin oak. The main trail passes through the center and provides a number of views through the shin oak.

Live oak and shin oak copse at Doeskin Ranch - iPhone 5

This time, I use the Speedlite 430EX II and a Better Beamer flash extender to provide some fill flash for the birds which were often back-lit up in the trees.  I rigged a strap between my Camelback and my monopod to support everything without using a neck-strap.

Edward with camera support strap - iPhone 5

I practiced listening to the Painted Bunting song at home. The first bird I tracked down by the song was in a stand-alone tree between the main copse and the creek. When I finally found it visually, I was surprised because it was green like a female. I did not think that the females sing so I am assuming that this is an immature male. Is it just practicing its song for next year?

Update 2014-05-04 - Danielle posted a question about this on the Birds of Texas Facebook group. In reply, member Jim Peterson commented: "Female buntings, and some grosbeaks are known to sing occasionally. This one looks like a first year male, though."  Florence Haupt King also replied: "The females are green-backed and cream on the breast and abdomen. The 1st year males begin to show traces of the other colors. If you look close, you can see those in this photo." Thank you to both for the assistance.

Danielle found this article at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Neotropical Birds which goes into detail on the complexities of their plumage cycles. It states that Alternate-I males sometimes breed but only hold lower quality territories.  A good introduction to plumage cycles can be found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds site.

Immature Male Painted Bunting
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, EC +1.3, FEC -2-1/3

I did finally get some photographs of the mature males. This first shot would not have been possible without the fill-flash. Both are heavily cropped as the birds were still at some distance. I was interested to see that the red in the breast and belly were not as deeply saturated as other images I have seen.

Adult Male Painted Bunting
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, EC +1.3, FEC -2-1/3

Adult Male Painted Bunting
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L - ISO-800, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, EC +0.3

Update 2014-05-06 - This morning I saw what I am fairly certain was a female Painting Bunting in the backyard. I had not seen one before now. It would be pretty ironic if I got a photo of a male in the backyard a couple of days after this adventure!