Sunday, February 24, 2008

Anniversary Weekend Birding Trip -- Day 3

The third and last day of our trip was spent at the King Ranch near Kingsville. We took the half-day birding tour -- with a great bunch of birders and our guide Jim. This tour was mostly driving and viewing birds from the van, but when a special bird was sighted, we would get out to get a closer look. "Closer" in this case was a somewhat relative term, and binoculars were much more effective than a camera. I was not able to get as many "good" pictures as I would like, due to the tinted windows and distances -- but maybe that's a good thing. ;-)

I'll try to list the birds somewhat in the order that we saw them, though I've grouped common types where I don't have a photo. I've left a few common (to us) birds off the list like Mockingbirds and Loggerhead Shrikes. Birds listed with an asterisk (*) are new birds for our life list.

One of the first birds we saw were Crested Caracara, and Red Tail Hawks, which I did not photograph due to distance. We started off in search of the Masked Duck*, which I was able to get a view of through the spotting scope, but unable to get a photo.

We then saw a Harris Hawk* (note the white tip on the tail). We later saw another pair of Harris Hawks as well. This was really exciting. I had seen Harris Hawks at hawk demonstration shows, but never in the wild. We had some great hawk sightings on the trip in addition to the Harris'. We also saw a White-tailed hawk (which I've previously listed in our life list, but it may have been a mistake), and we saw a Ferruginous Hawk* -- that was really exciting!

We saw lots and lots of ducks including Blue Winged Teal, Green Winged Teal*, Cinnamon Teal*, Redheads, a Ring-Necked Duck* (very similar to a Scaup), Ruddy Ducks, Shovelers, literally hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, a Fulvus Whistling Duck * (pictured along with a couple of American Coots), which was a new one for me, and Marc saw a Canvas-back, but I'm not sure I saw it myself.

We also saw several Grebes: Least*, Eared, and Pied-Bill (see previous posts for pictures of the Eared and Pied-bill), and a lot of the common wading birds, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Tri-Colored Heron, White-faced Ibis, juvenile White Ibis (without their parents), Neotropic Cormorants, Anhinga, and Black-Necked Stilts. I was able to get this great photo of a Green Heron. I also saw a juvenile Green Heron -- it was a very pale version of the adult!

We saw all sorts of Blackbirds. One interesting specimen was the Bronzed Cowbird*. This bird is distin- guished by its red eye (not very visible here), and the ruff of feathers across it's neck that makes its head look wider. We also added the Brewer's Blackbird* to our list. I looked for the Yellow-headed blackbird, but did not see one. But with all the wonderful sightings we did have, I won't complain!

We saw a lot of Sparrows: Savannah Sparrow* (pictured), Olive Sparrow* and Lincoln's Sparrow* -- all three new for our list! We also saw a Song Sparrow*. There was some question whether or not we saw any Vesper Sparrows -- they look a lot like Savannah Sparrows. I think the sparrow I photographed at Anahuac was a Vesper Sparrow.

We also saw a rare ground bird, the Spragues Pipit*. This bird is tiny and really blends in with it's sur- roundings (as you can see in the photo). Along with the Pipit, we saw several Least Sandpipers* on the ground, and Common Snipes* (all flying away).

Next, we saw one of the birds I was hoping to see, the Pyrrhuloxia*! Unfortunately, he was in the shade. I tried brightening and adding contrast, but it "blew out" the background. Then I tried doing some selective editing. The result is awful, but I think you can see the bird pretty well. They are very similar to their cousins the Northern Cardinal, but mostly gray with red at the tip of the crest, around the wings and around the yellow bill.

We drove a bit further on and saw a Juvenile Great Horned Owl. GHO's are always such awesome birds -- even the young ones. This one still has it's "baby feathers", but it will grow up to be a skilled and silent hunter. What an awesome bird!

And then we saw the bird that I had really wanted to see -- the Green Jay*! We saw a lot of them (especially after our guide put some seeds in a feeder), but I had a difficult time getting a good photo. Here are a couple. This first one is the clearer shot, but it's from behind!
This second shot is not quite as clear, but it shows the bird's colors -- green back and wings, a blue head and black throat and yellow under-sides! You can tell this is a tropical bird. Our guide told us that with the changing climate, a lot of the Southern birds are being seen further North. The Green Jay was counted in San Antonio for the Christmas Bird Count this past year.

At the feeders where we saw the Green Jays, we also saw a Black Crested Titmouse -- I didn't get a picture again!

At one point, we saw some Turkeys. Our guide explained that this is a variation of the turkey, and it was some place in Mexico, but I can't remember the name. These are certainly attractive birds -- too bad we couldn't get the tom to display for us (I think that's him on the right)!

Finally, I'll finish up with a couple of flycatchers, though I should mention we also saw a family of Barn Owls, but the photos didn't come out. One of the specialty birds for South Texas is the Great Kiskadee* -- one of the largest of the flycatchers. All the other shots of this bird were blocked by branches -- so you can't see the black band across the eyes.

The other flycatcher, was the Vermillion Flycatcher*. This is one bird that really stands out! But like many other flycatchers, it's a pretty small bird. This photo turned out a bit fuzzy through the tinting of the window, and excessive cropping -- but it's colors still show through dramatically!

So, I may have missed a few of the birds on the list -- but all I can say is this trip was amazing! It was really exciting to see so many birds in one trip and be able to add so many to our life list. I listed 53 birds on the list, and close to 30 are new! What a great trip!

Anniversary Weekend Birding Trip -- Day 2

By the time we settled for the night, everything was totally foggy. So, while the early morning was pretty gray, we were glad to see the fog was fairly light.

We started our Birding Boat Tour with Captain Tommy Moore on the Skimmer. And of course, one of the first birds we saw was a Great Blue Heron. If you see these birds on a pier or grass, you can see that they can be very colorful -- but in their natural environment along the shore, they blend right in.

Of course the goal of these birding tours, in the winter at least, are to see Whooping Cranes. These rare birds were down to something like 15 birds, before efforts were made to protect them. On this trip, we saw lots of Whoopers -- and some of them really up close!

This set of birds is a special family. The most obvious reason is that there are two chicks! (The juveniles are the two on the outer sides -- with a little brown still around their heads.) What makes this special is that Whooping Cranes rarely have more than one offspring, as the stronger chick will usually kill it's sibling, ensuring that it gets enough food to grow to adulthood. The second special thing about this family is that the male is the oldest known living Whooping Crane in the world. Pretty cool!

A bit further on, we encountered a pair of whoopers that were really close to the boat and did not seem to be worried by our presence. The male of this pair is a descendant of the pair discussed above. However, I believe this is the female.

We were close enough to these magnificent birds to get a decent portrait shot. Because these birds are looking in the water for food (especially blue crabs, their favorite!), every picture shows the water dripping from her bill!

Here you can see her making her way across this small pond. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall (almost as tall as me!). Their bodies are 52 inches long, with a wingspan of 87" (according to Sibley). They have black tips on their wings. Captain Tommy told us that the black feathers on their wingtips are stronger than the white feathers.

After a great day of viewing whoopers, this Long- Billed Curlew, walked right by us in the parking lot -- as if saying, "Take a picture of me too!"

Anniversary Weekend Birding Trip -- Day 1

We decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a birding trip. Since we were over our colds, ready to be over some daily challenges, and having a reason to celebrate, we decided to make this a bit more "planned" trip than some of our past trips.

Our planning included driving to Fulton (one of our favorite places), taking the boat tour which we have enjoyed in the past, then heading to Kingsville and taking the 1/2 day birding tour at King Ranch in hopes of seeing some of the South Texas specialties that we had yet to see.

Thursday was rainy and gray -- so were the few pictures we took when we arrived, however we did come up with a less than usual bird -- the Redish Egret.

I'll have to admit that most of our pictures came out gray as well, so a bit of lightening was required.

We saw several birds out on the pier grooming themselves, including these Brown Pelicans -- a juvenile and an adult. The juvenile has a dark neck -- though it looks more bare than dark. Maybe it moults, and then grows in the adult white feathers.

After our quick trip down Fulton Beach Road to Rockport and back, we decided to settle in and plan for our dinner at "The Boiling Pot" -- Cajun-style shrimp, crab and crayfish. Yum!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

High Island, Anahuac and San Jac

We made it to High Island on the second day of the trip. However, the sanctuaries apparently become active in March. We saw a few cormorants and a Tri-colored heron (but I didn't get a good picture). Then we decided to head over to the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, where we had more interesting sights.

When we arrived at the refuge, I discovered some sparrows in the grass. When I looked this one up, it appears to be a Vespers Sparrow, a new one for the life list!

This Great Blue Heron was standing among the reeds. I suppose it is some method of camouflage, but these birds are so big, I would think it would be difficult to hide!

Along the way, we saw hundreds of Coots, and along with the Coots, plenty of alligators. This one reminds me of an ancient dragon! (Especially in the reflection.)

Onthe back side of the marsh we saw several of these Pied-billed Greebs. These are small birds, but they can dive and stay under water for quite a while. With these little guys along with the coots, you can see why the alligator was smiling!

By the time we left the wildlife refuge, my cold was getting the better of me and I was ready to take I-10 straight home. However, Marc talked me into stopping by the San Jacinto Monument. We visited the museum, saw a video on the Battle of San Jacinto and the events leading up to it, and went up to the top of the monument. It was quite enjoyable, and I am glad we went.

This trip required another ferry crossing. The Lynchburg ferry crosses a much shorter distance than at Bolivar, and the boats are smaller. As we were waiting for the ferry to head back to I-10, I saw a lot of dusky little sparrows. I thought they were dirty! But, no, they are Seaside Sparrows. We have them marked in the life-list, but now I have pictures!

Bolivar Ferry

Last weekend we headed out for High Island. We took the long, indirect route down to Freeport and along the coast. We drove the entire length of Galveston Island to take the ferry across to Bolivar Peninsula. This has always been a favorite pastime of mine, since I was a child. Unfortunately, as we headed out, I started coming down with a cold. When we got on the ferry, I did not even get out of the car.

Here is the other ferry launching in a cloud of gulls.

At each end of the ferry, the flags are flying. In the previous picture, you see the US flag, and here is the Texas flag, with an attendant seagull.

While the overall trip was a little disap- pointing, both because of my cold, and because of the limited number of birds -- we actually did add several birds to our life list this trip. This one is the Red-breasted Merganser