Thursday, February 26, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #33

Storms clouds rolled into Houston yesterday, and while they didn't bring much rain (yet) they did bring some nice sky-watching opportunities.

Storm clouds rolling into Houston
(Click to view full-sized image)

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, please visit the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reflections of a Friend

Meet Crockett — as in Davy and his Coon-skin cap — one of the more furry members of our family.

Reflections of Crockett

It's just a Maine Coon kind of day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Tail of Three Rumps

Yesterday was another one of those days when I just couldn't stay cooped up inside any longer than I had to, so I snuck out at lunch and headed for my favorite near-the-office neighborhood park.

I had hoped to spot the local Downy Woodpecker around the nest, but alas the park really wasn't very birdy at all until I crossed over to the opposite side of the bayou.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - 2/23/2009
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)

I did finally encounter a small group of Yellow-rumped Warblers right at the treeline, and watched them flit around scolding each other (or me?) for a bit. But when I got back and took a look at the handful of pictures I had snapped, I noticed something interesting.

Of the three warblers that I happened to get underside shots of, the markings of each were very distinguishable. (I'm sure that's nothing new to most of you, but this is a new insight to me.)

(Click any image to enlarge)

I have no idea whether the tail markings or the amount of yellow or streaking on the breast identifies either gender or age, but I was just intrigued by the amount of difference between birds. Next step: start reading and see what the various markings can tell me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Little Blue Heron

These were taken last month on the Houston Audubon Society field trip to the Greens Bayou Wetlands Mitigation Bank in northwest Harris County.

Little Blue Heron - 1/24/2009
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

Little Blue Heron - 1/24/2009

After that excellent outing, I am really looking forward to this weekend's trip down to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. Especially after reading BirdingBev's San Bernard NWR report from her recent visit to the Houston area!

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #26.

Bird Photography Weekly

Saturday, February 21, 2009

100th Post ... and I Missed It!

I noticed yesterday that brothers Rob and Eric Ripma, perhaps better known as the Nutty Birders, were celebrating their 100th blog post. So I got to wondering how far I was from that same milestone.

And do you know what? I already hit it! Earlier this week, in fact. My 100th mind-wandering post was Monday's Red-headed Woodpecker entry to the Bird Photography Weekly meme.

And I missed it!

I guess that'll teach me to let my mind wander like that.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ick. Ack. Ugh. Oh, and Valentine's...

Well, after fighting it since last weekend, I finally succumbed to the crud that's been going around. I'm back at work today, but really wishing I weren't.

Feeling the way I have been, I haven't had a chance to do either birding or SkyWatch photography this week. Heck, I've barely been able to keep up with what's going on at home, for that matter. But seeing how it's been a while since I've posted a family update, I figured it was about time to let everyone else catch up on what's been happening in our neck of the woods lately.

We had a somewhat nontraditional Valentine's Day last Saturday. Instead of trying to battle the masses dragging tired kids to a packed restaurant that evening, we opted to meet one of Tiffany's friends from work for a fun breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, then spent the rest of the morning running errands and such. To really celebrate the day, we then surprised the kids with homemade Valentine pizzas at home that night. Okay, so I'm no Papa John, but at least they looked good!

I also spent half the day Saturday with Mom, catching up on a little paperwork and just spending some time visiting.

Mom is doing pretty well physically. The weeks since the holidays have seemed to be filled with more confusion (and the frustration that comes with it) than was the normal last fall, but the depression that has flared up over the past few winters has still not been evident this year. I am finding that I have to write out for her more and more instructions for using once-routine things like the microwave, TV remote, and the washer and dryer.

Mom went to the doctor yesterday for a regular check-up and prescription review, and the doctor seemed to be pleased with both her awareness and her physical state. She has actually gained some weight for a change, for which I have to thank her current caregiver. Annette (or Joanne or Rebecca, depending on what Mom decides to call her on any given day) has made it a point to take Mom out to eat at least once per week, sometimes twice. I believe their normal hangout is Luby's, although they also hit McDonald's or Wendy's for a cheeseburger from time to time.

This week has been a fun one for the kids. Cat's class has been studying the Middle Ages, and she spent part of last weekend researching medieval education and collecting toilet paper rolls, small boxes and other items for the construction of a castle. She discovered there are a handful of modern universities that were originally founded back in the Middle Ages, something that I never knew. Her class also took a history field trip this week to the Texas History museums at the Taste of Texas (where they also got to have lunch, the lucky dogs!) and the San Jacinto Monument and Battlegrounds.

Cowboy is hard at work learning a poem for a speech meet, acing his weekly spelling tests and reading up a storm. He met his second grade class's monthly goal of reading 180 minutes in the first week of February, and quickly decided to try to double or even triple that goal for the month. His big sister has gotten him interested in a line of "classics for kids" books that we got for them a few years back, and he has just recently finished King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, among others.

Tiffany is, as always, the one that holds us together and keeps us going. I still can't believe she ever agreed to marry me and has put up with all of my shenanigans for all this time. Last Saturday was the twenty-first Valentine's Day we have celebrated together, and while I regretfully must admit that I don't spoil or romance her nearly as much as I once did (or as much as she deserves), she is still in every way the love of my life. I pray that some day (not any time soon, though!) both of our kids will find the perfect someone to love and cherish like I did.

That's what's going on in our lives this week. Drop me a line and let me know how life is in your part of the country.

Have a great weekend, all!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Red-headed Woodpecker

Here are a few more pictures of the juvenile (immature?) Red-headed Woodpecker I saw at Bear Creek Park last week.

(You can see larger versions of each photo on my Flickr photostream by simply clicking on the image, then on the "All Sizes" button above the image on Flickr.)

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009
Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009

Thanks to Larry, who pointed out that this is properly labeled a "juvenile" bird. Which brings me to a question I've often wondered about: what is the difference between "juvenile" and "immature" when labeling a young bird? I have seen both terms used in different field guides and on bird sites, often times seemingly pointing to the same features to mark the birds as one or the other.

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009
The woodpecker's lunch time coincided nicely with my own this day. About every two or three minutes he would launch himself either down to the ground or toward a nearby trunk and return quickly nearly every time with some sort of tasty morsel: grubs, flies and who knows what else.

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009
This young Red-headed Woodpecker's still brown head was just beginning to show hints of the brilliant red hood it will eventually flaunt.

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #25.

Bird Photography Weekly

Notes from the Coast (Update)

Following up on Friday's post regarding the post-Ike status of bird sanctuaries on Bolivar Peninsula.

There was a new (and much more optimistic) report this morning on the TexBirds listserv from the Houston Audubon Society's Sanctuary Manager, Winnie Burkett:
Bolivar Flats has been absolutely spectacular the last couple of days. Thousands of avocets and peeps — with hundreds of willets, snowys, White Pelicans and Marbled Godwits make for a nice show. There are nice numbers of other birds too, but no dowichers. I haven't seen dowichers there since Ike and wonder what food they like has disappeared. Birds are still best viewed from the North Jetty, you also might have an opportunity to see the 2 Peregrines who sit on the Coast Guard tower, a block north of the jetty, they were screeching at each other on Thursday and whenever they rearranged where they were sitting all the shorebirds would get up to.

There were Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings and 14 Knots on the beach north of Rettilon Rd. This is progress as it has been a while since there were any birds feeding on the beach. The flock of scaup just off the beach has grown and may include other things but I didn't have time to scope it out.

There are now a couple of restaurants open on the Bolivar Peninsula. La Playita in Port Bolivar has reopened and there is a new restaurant Coconuts in Crystal Beach I hear that Stingaree is also open too. The Grocery Store in Crystal Beach opened last week.

Yesterday Claybottom Pond at High Island was full of birds . 130 Spoonbills, 30 Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowys, Great Egrets and several hundred White Ibis all just roosting on the north side of the pond out of the wind. We counted 35 alligators including some pretty big ones. Previously the most gators I have counted at one time was 15, but with fresh water in such a short supply I guess others have moved in.

50+ volunteers worked on the woods this weekend and it definitely getting easier to see birds on the ground. They were also removing Chinese privet and replacing it with native trees and shrubs. Wayne Nicholas and family worked on the photo blind in Boy Scout Woods, which definitely needed work. What would we do without volunteers????
Thanks for the update, Winnie!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Lyrebird of Australia

And I thought parrots were good mimics. Get a load of this amazing bird from Australia!


Okay, so maybe that's stretching it just a bit, but the original version of that story from the BBC's David Attenborough is every bit as amazing. Just not quite as funny.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Coastal Texas Recovery Update

So it's been right at five months since Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, and with spring migrations just around the corner I've been wondering about how things are looking at the hard-hit bird sanctuaries on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

And as often happens, the answer came along before I even have a chance to voice the question. Last weekend, two members of the TexBirds listserv posted their recent observations from the Bolivar Flats area.

First came this report from Winnie Burkett (who is the Sanctuary Manager for the Houston Audubon Society):
We have been working at Bolivar Flats a lot lately, getting the last run on debris, (no we haven't got it all just all that we will get) getting some of the fences rebuilt and starting to rebuild the vehicular barrier. There have been very few birds on the beach and that started me thinking about why. I looked at the vehicular barrier poles that are left and it hit me "the sand is gone". Over 4 feet of sand was pushed inland and I think all the invertebrates that the birds ate were in that sand. The larva of most coastal invertebrates are mobile so I am sure they will get reestablished it will be interesting to see how long it takes. The birds are still out there but hard to see as they are WAY out there.
Read the rest of Winnie's report...
This post was quickly followed up by some even more detailed observations from Joseph Kennedy. He not only gave a good report on what birds can currently be seen in the area, but also delved into some of the related effects from the storm on native trees, plant fertilization and the local honey bee population.
Winnie's observations closely agree with mine. I have been out there twice now trying to count the evidence of worm/clam availability for the birds. By coincidence, I had taken many pictures of the worm and clam mounds etc just before Ike and have a baseline. I was really unable to find enough evidence of life to take any pictures. Creature holes are far apart. Shorebirds mainly eat little things but if there are no things a little bigger there [are] probably no little things too.

The birds I have seen have been picking rather than probing. They are more nervous and spend much more time moving around looking for a feeding patch.
Read the rest of Joe's report...
If you are the least bit interested in one of the most important stopovers along the Gulf Coast for migrating shorebirds, I urge you to read these two posts. They give a good overview of the current situation in the area and on the affects the hurricane damage may have for the near future.

There are also a few more reports and observations on the status of Bolivar Peninsula from Audubon members on the January Bolivar Bird Count page.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #31

More of the beautiful blue skies over Tomball, Texas.

Cattle under the live oak
It just doesn't get much better than that.

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, check out the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Identification Milestone

I headed out to Bear Creek Park at lunch today for a little exercise and a quick bit of birding. I've been reading about the First Annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz, and thought I'd see if I could find the Rusty Blackbirds that have been reported at the park this week.

American Robin - 2/11/2009
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

The first thing I found was a whole horde of robins. They've been all over the Houston area for a week or more — a sure sign that spring is right around the corner. Several others made an appearance before a pair of the much sought after Rusty Blackbirds finally showed. Rounding out the small count for the half hour were an Eastern Bluebird, a few vultures and crows, and a pair of woodpeckers.

The first woodpecker I spotted was a Red-bellied Woodpecker. But soon after, my attention was drawn to a darker bird of similar size but much more aggression. It took me a little while to recognize what I was seeing.

Red-headed Woodpecker - 2/11/2009
Immature Red-headed Woodpecker
(Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

An immature Red-headed Woodpecker had staked its claim to a nearby tree and was busy venturing from trunk to ground and back catching bugs, grubs and tasty treats. Its brown head was just beginning to show hints of the bright red hood it will eventually flaunt.

Further evidence of its immaturity was demonstrated as it showed juvenile delinquent tendencies, repeatedly launching itself at its red-bellied cousin several trees away and finally driving the other woodpecker from the area.

But the highlight of my lunchtime excursion came from a pair of warblers that ventured down to the damp grass nearby, although it was not so much the sighting as the recognition of these two that got me so excited.

click image to enlarge
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronate)

I mean, sure, one of them was a "butterbutt." But I recognized it! First time I've ever been able to identify a warbler on my own, and in the field at that. Definitely a milestone worth celebrating!

The second one took a little more work and cross-checking between my Peterson and Sibley guides, but I'm pretty sure I nailed this one, too. If not, I trust someone will let me know and give me another lesson on warblers...

click image to enlarge
Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus)

I trust you will excuse the quality of these last two images, but I had to have some proof to share of my milestone.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Savannah Sparrows

Sparrows wintering on the Katy Prairie, just a few miles west of Houston:

Savannah Sparrow - 1/20/2009
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Savannah Sparrow - 1/20/2009
(Click any image to enlarge)

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #24.

Bird Photography Weekly

Friday, February 6, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #30

No matter what ol' Punxatawney Phil has to say, the prairie dawgs here in Texas have declared that Spring is just around the corner. And judging from the crisp mornings, warm afternoons and radiant blue skies we've been having all week, it's going to be a whopper of a season!

Enjoying the beautiful weather we've been having all week, I couldn't help but hear the nasally, twangy voice of Willie Nelson celebrating with me:

click image to enlarge
Blue skies smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see

click image to enlarge
Bluebirds singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds all day long

click image to enlarge
Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you're in love, my how they fly

click image to enlarge
Blue days, all of them gone
Nothing but blue skies from now on

Here's wishing you blue skies and bluebirds for the foreseeable future!

For more intriguing images of the skies above our world, check out the SkyWatch Friday home page.

SkyWatch Friday

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Drastic Rise in Crime

I got an email this morning from a friend in the UK about the brilliance of the media over there. Just had to share it:
BBC Radio has just reported that one Police Force in the UK has reported a dramatic increase in the number of reported incidents of children throwing snowballs at passing vehicles during the past 72 hours.


The snow only arrived 72 hours ago — it would have been difficult to have made a snowball prior to the snowfall!!!

And these are the people looking after our safety?

Sometimes you just have to wonder...

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Comparison of Kestrels

From a windy day out on the Katy Prairie, a big stretch of farmland due west of Houston.

After the torrential rains and destructive winds we received with a direct hit from Hurricane Ike last fall, the upper gulf coast of Texas has been experiencing a drought for the past few months. The farmers and landowners along the Katy Prairie normally flood many of their fields during the winter months, providing a nice haven for migrating waterfowl and waders that come our way. But the lack of water this year has made it hard to find many of these seasonal visitors.

Luckily, there are plenty of other beautiful things to watch in the area, even when many of them are hunkered down against a beating wind.

click image to enlarge
American Kestrel, female (Falco sparverius)

This female Kestrel was quite content to sit on her wire perch overhead. As I drove toward her, she turned to peer at me once or twice, but didn't seem to be bothered by my slow progression.

A quarter mile farther down the road, however, I spotted this slightly smaller, rufous-backed male that was not nearly so settled. He launched repeatedly from the metal cable, hovering over the fields for brief periods before battling his way against the wind to perch again in a new spot.

click image to enlarge
American Kestrel, male

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #23.

Bird Photography Weekly