Saturday, January 31, 2015

Striped Sparrow Mania

Early this month, on January 11, Rich Kostecke discovered a Striped Sparrow along County Road 428 in eastern Williamson County. This is an incredible find as the species is native to Mexico and lives a sedentary life. There is some question as to how this rarity got to the United States and whether it will be "countable" by American Birding Association rules, but that doesn't matter to us. We just appreciate any excuse to go birding! Apparently we're not the only ones who feel that way, as over 120 birders have driven out to that remote spot in eastern Williamson County to date, even coming from as far away as Colorado just to see it. There is now a eBird "hotspot" dedicated to this single bird.

The sparrow has been spotted every few days this month, foraging at the same location along the road side. Local birders apparently are putting out seed for it. We have been to the site twice and saw it both times. On our first visit on Jan 18, we were in the company of 20 or so other birders. Despite the blind curve on a narrow county road (on which the locals drive pretty fast), many had their tripods set up in the middle of the road. A local we talked to on our second visit, January 24, mentioned seeing lawn chairs stationed across the road. I am sure the local residents are pretty perplexed by the crazy birders who have invaded.

In addition to the Striped Sparrow, we also saw several additional species of sparrow: Harris, White-Crowned, White-Throated, Lincoln, Swamp, Song, and Chipping. A rare Red-Headed Woodpecker has also been spotted repeatedly at the site. We, unfortunately, missed it both times, but we heard the Pileated Woodpecker that has also been seen, and we also saw Red-Bellied, Ladder-backed, and Downy Woodpeckers nearby.

Our pictures are of low resolution due the distance from which they were taken but clearly show the field marks on this small sparrow.

Winter Sparrows in Review

One of our birding accomplishments this year has been learning to identify and to find the sparrows that frequent Texas in the winter. Below is a summary of the species we were able find this past year. Some of the field marks I describe are paraphrased from Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd ed.

Small Sparrows 5" - 6"

Chipping Sparrow (CHSP) - We have seen this bird in most of the locations we have visited though it rarely makes a showing in our yard.  The face is dominated by a bold eye-stripe running though a broken white eye-ring to the lores. It has a streaked rufous crown and a weak dark mustache.With a pink bill and buffy tone, this is a non breeding adult seen at Doeskin Ranch.

Clay-Colored Sparrow (CCSP) - This bird was seen along the Limpia Trail in Davis Mountains SP. This is a species we are not confident of, especially as it is marked as migratory in DMSP. However, the park ranger reported a CCSP in the same area. It is described as having broad pale eye-ring and pale lores, strong broad dark mustache, buffy breast band, gray nape, brown edging on covert feathers. I am keen on getting alternate suggestions for this bird.

Field Sparrow (FISP) - Our first sighting of this bird was at Doeskin Ranch, and we have seen it at Tejas Camp and South Llano SP since. This bird has a pronounced full white eye-ring on a plain face with indistinct pale rufous crown and eye-stripe, and a buffy unmarked breast,

Black-Throated Sparrow (BTSP) - This bird, seen at South Llano SP, has been a regular sight every time we have visited that park. The only other place we have seen it is Seminole Canyon SP. Its habit is primarily arid desert scrub. It has a smooth gray crown and back transitioning to brown wing coverts and tail. A gray-black auricular patch and bold black black throat bib are separated by strong, wide white mustache stripe and supercilium. The eye has a white half-arc.

Savannah Sparrow (SASP) - The bird below was our first sighting. It was seen at the soil conservation dam west of Meadow Lake in Round Rock. It is similar to the Vesper Sparrow, with crisp streaks on breast and back and a distinct yellow patch on supralore.

Grasshopper Sparrow (GRSP) - This bird below, the only one we have seen, was at Doeskin Ranch. This bird has a complete, bold, white eye-ring. It has an open face pattern with small eye-line and a distinct orange supralore patch. The back has a complex pattern of rufous spots set off with white trim. Breast is buffy with indistinct striping on sides.

Lincoln's Sparrow (LISP) - We first recognized this bird at Davis Mountains SP and have now found it in many locations, typically alone and near water. It has a broad gray supercilium and nape with buffy malar patch and eye-ring, and a crisp, finely streaked breast and flanks. Upper breast and flanks have a buffy wash over cream base.

Swamp Sparrow (SWSP) - Recent bird for us, first seen at the "striped sparrow stakeout" and once again at Hornsby Bend.  Solid rufous wing coverts, tan flanks, bold tan and black strips on back, white belly, gray lightly streaked breast, gray supercilium and nape, rufous crown and eye-stripe. At quick glance, it gives the impression of gray on the front half and rufous/tan on the back half. Both observation have been in a marshy area or near a river bank.

Medium Sparrows 6"-7"

Rufous Crowned Sparrow (RCSP) - We first saw this bird in the Balcones Canyon Lands NWR during the late spring. We saw it again over Christmas along the Limpia trail in Davis Mountains SP. This bird has a pronounced white eyering, rufous crown with median stripe, pale malar with narrow dark lateral throat stripe, rufous eyestripe, and plain gray breast.

Cassin's Sparrow (RCSP) - This bird we only saw once at Seminole Canyon SP, perched as shown on some brush in the scrub desert. I am still not positive of the identification but the habitat is correct and the song I recorded for this bird matches closely the TX song in the Sibley iPhone app. Described as having a pale eye-ring, finely streaked crown, distinct narrow lateral throat-stripe, indistinct supercilium, fine streaks on flanks, sides, and breast, speckled on back.

Vesper Sparrow (VESP) - We have seen this bird once, at Tejas Camp in Georgetown. This bird has a solid white eye-ring. It has a streaked chest and back, broad cream malar with dark mustache and lateral throat stripe.

Lark Sparrow (LASP) - This bird below was seen Doeskin Ranch on a very hot afternoon so it has extended itself out and looks emaciated. The face has a very distinct pattern with a brownish burgundy crown and auricular patch, strong thin black lateral throat stripe, mustache stripe, and eye-line are set off with white throat, malar, and supercilium as well as patch under the eye. The effect is a Harlequin pattern.

Song Sparrow (SOSP) - We first identified this bird at Seminole Caynon SP. This one is a more recent sighting at Balmorhea SP. There is a large degree of color variation in this species. Most have boldly streaked breast and flanks with a convergence in central breast.Typically a thick triangular lateral throat stripe.

White-Throated Sparrow (WTSP) - First identified at Limpia Trail, shown below; we have now seen it once in our backyard and elsewhere. This adult is hard to mistake. It has a small white throat patch and malar framed by the gray breast and auriculars, broad light colored supercilium and black or brown crown. The most notable feature is the striking broad, yellow supralore. Looks like it has bushy yellow eyebrows.

Large Sparrows 7"-8"

Fox Sparrow (FOSP) - We first saw this bird at South Llano SP. This one is from a recent visit to Tejas Camp. This species has several color variations; this one is the Red (Taiga) variety. It has a yellow bill with dark upper surface. The head and nape are gray with light supralore. Crown, auriculars, and broad lateral throat stripe are rufous. Eye has white, split eye-ring. The back has rufous stripes on gray background whereas the breast has distinct rufous stripes and spots on a white background. At first glance, I have several times thought this was a hermit thrush.

Harris's Sparrow (HASP) -  First seen at Tejas Camp, shown here, and then again at the "striped sparrow stakeout". This non-breeding adult has orange bill, black mottled crown, forehead, and throat bib. Remainder of face is a more plain tan. Breast is white with some spotting on the sides. Back  and coverts tan and black striped with white wing bars. The coloration on the head reminds me of an executioner's mask.

White-Crowned Sparrow (WCSP) - First seen at South Llano SP. This bird from Tejas Camp. Adult shown has orange pink bill, black crown with broad white median stripe, broad white supercillium and finer black eye-line. Juvenile is similarly patterned but with rufous/brown crown and eye-line and tan median stripe and supercilium. The juvenile, shown in the second picture, can be difficult to distinguish from a chipping sparrow in isolation. Breast is plain gray, transitioning to tan flanks. Head striping of adult looks like a chain-gang hat.

Hovering Butter Butts

Since we have been putting out Jim's Birdacious Bark Butter regularly, we have had regular visits by Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Orange-Crowned Warblers, and these Yellow-Rumped Warblers. We stuff the bark butter into the holes in this log. Despite the fact that the warblers are able to cling to the side of the log, they seem to prefer to peck at the food while hovering like a hummingbird. We found out today that Wild Birds Unlimited has discontinued the Bugs and Berries version. Hopefully the "plain" version will continue to attract the warblers for the rest of the Winter season.

All images Canon 7DII, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, ISO-1600, 400mm, 1/500sec - 1/1000sec, f/5.6, Flash 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jupiter Triple Transit

Last night was the publicized "triple transit" where the shadow of three Galilean moons were visible simultaneously on the surface of Jupiter. In this case, Io and Callisto crossed first and finally Europa. What a stroke of fortune that all of the recent rain and overcast skies cleared for the show ... today it is overcast once again. As usual, seeing was not very good at my site but did improve between first test shots at 23:00 and beginning of the triple at 00:28.

I created the image using a movie with about 2000 frames taken on 2015-01-24 at 00:38 CST. The movie was captured on a Canon 60Da using its handy VGA Movie Crop mode that gives a 1:1 pixel ratio image (no compression, no downsampling) at 60 fps. I connected the camera through a Televue 5x Barlow to a TMB-130ss refactor giving an effective focal length of 4550mm. Since the camera generated a MOV file, I extracted the individual frames to BMP images using IrfanView 4.36 and then imported them into RegiStax 6 for alignment, stacking, wavelet sharpening and color alignment. I imported this processed image into Photoshop CS6 and further tweaked the saturation, contrast, and brightness as well as adding labels. The moon and shadow positions shown were identified from a simulated view in SkyTools 3.

Given the quality of the raw movie frames, I am surprised that I was able to extract recognizable images of not only the shadows but also of the moons that caused them. The disk of Io was particularly challenging and shows up subtly as a yellower disk region. I was not able to see this disk in any single raw frame. The body of Callisto looks like another shadow as it is the darkest of the principal moons.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Backyard Visitor

Today, Danielle relayed an interesting experience. She was eating lunch when our Labrador suddenly started barking at the backyard window. She looked out and saw a bird take off which she first thought to be a large dove. Then, she looked in the tree and saw this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. It might be a second year immature bird based on the eye-color which is supposed to transition from yellow to red. She got a few quick shots with the Canon SX-50 before the hawk then flew down towards the window. She did not see it come back up, so in a few minutes, she went outside to see if it had gotten hurt or had caught something. She did not see the hawk but a few sparrows took advantage to fly out from behind the flower pots behind which they had been hiding.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Burrowing Owl Side Trip

Today, after finding the Striped Sparrow on County Road 428, we went in search of several Burrowing Owls seen in culverts around the north-eastern part of Williamson County. Apparently, the this was a popular side trip for birders that had come to find the Sparrow as we chatted with several other groups making the circuit. We saw this owl right off the side of County Road 352. It did not seem too phased by the attention. It was even reported by another group as having hopped up on a fence pole to get a better look at the birders.

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (Danielle)
This one we saw on County Road 356 guarding the entrance to its culvert. I don't know why this shot reminds me of "Old Brown" in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Comparison of Canon 400mm prime and 100-400mm zoom

The images below are from a test of our two birding lenses, the Canon 400mm f/5.6L USM prime lens and the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS USM (Mk I) zoom lens. The tests were shot from positions 2ft apart of a stationary target 20ft away. The log target has fine details similar to a bird.
Test images were taken with the same Canon 7D II camera set to fine resolution center AF and exposed at f/5.6, 1600sec, ISO-800. Both shots were taken on a tripod with a cable release but mirror lockup was disabled. IS was turned off on the zoom lens. The CR2 images were imported into Photoshop CS6 with the default conversion parameters. Same 100% crop was applied to both images but no further processing performed. Images were saved as a single highest resolution 8bit JPG at original resolution. Both contrast and resolution are clearly superior in the prime lens. Though this difference is not critical for frame-filling subjects, it is noticable on tight crops of small birds.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dipped out on Rustys

We took a trip to Hornsby Bend today to look for reported Rusty Blackbirds seen both in the bogs and near the entrance. When we first approached the boggy area west of the greenhouse, a group of blackbirds scattered into the cover. We did not get a positive identification on them.

Our stay netted a few other interesting species, however.  At the entrance we saw two Crested Caracara in the parking lot.

Driving to the greenhouse, we passed several small groups of water birds in the main ponds. Of interest were a couple of Eared Grebes and a lone Spotted Sandpiper.

Along the berm next to the boggy area behind the greenhouse, we found a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet which was flashing its hidden crown feathers.

We saw a single Blue-Headed Vireo in the tree branches along the berm near the greenhouse. We also saw a half dozen Blue Gray Gnatcatchers in low bushes along the berm-top path. This was a better view that I had gotten at Goose Island.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Comet C2014/Q2 Lovejoy

Terrible astronomy weather this week and for the foreseeable future. However, this evening, on the day of closest approach, I manged to get about an hour of viewing with sort of clear skies. I set up a 70-200mm f/4L lens at 200mm with a QSI-540 and took four 5min frames in each of RGB colors. I used the comet head as a guide-star for tracking. In retrospect, these frames were too long to get sharp stars in the star-aligned frame. A length of 120s would have been better.  I also had some difficulty getting a usual median-combine operation on the comet-aligned frames to eliminate the stars. I had to do a lot of manual cleaning but was still left with messy streaky noise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Northern Harriers at Friendship Park

Last year, we saw our first Northern Harriers in the Willis Creek Park at Lake Granger. Today, on our last birding day of the Christmas break, we went to Friendship Park on the north side of Lake Granger after failing in our attempt to located a reported Greater Scaup north of the lake. It was a cold and windy day with not much to be seen. However, we did see a pair of Northern Harriers hunting along the edge of the lake, east of the parking area.

I walked out through the low grasses as close to the water as I could get with getting mired in the mud and waited for the Harriers to make nearby passes. Their bright white rumps and low flight pattern made them easily recognizable at a distance. As they passed closer, I could see the owl-like facial disk. Unlike the adult female we saw at the Bosque del Apache NWR and at Willis Creek, these had the coffee breast color and minimal striping that marked them as first-year juveniles.

In contrast to these low swooping raptors, we also saw a Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk soaring overhead. Both hae much broader, rounded wings compared the the Harrier.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Whooping Crane in Williamson County

On a report of another rare bird in the county, we went in search of a lone Whooping Crane mixed with a flock of Sandhill Cranes. It was reported in north east Williamson County, in the area of County Road 420.  Fortunately, finding a flock of cranes is pretty easy once you get to the right spot. All told, we saw several hundren sandhills and, sure enough, found the lone adult whooper.

Christmas Trip to Davis Mountains

Slide show of bird images taken to our trip to Davis Mountains SP, Lake Balmorhea, and Balmorhea SP.