Monday, March 30, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Pied-billed Grebe

More shots from my recent trip to San Bernard NWR. I've really got to finish weeding through the 350+ pictures I took on that trip. At this point, I'm still only a little over halfway through them.

Pied-billed Grebe - 3/16/2009
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Pied-billed Grebe - 3/16/2009
(Click on any image to see the full-size version)

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #31.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Happy Birthday, Cowboy!

I just got back from having lunch at the school with Cowboy and 49 other screaming second graders. Those teachers will probably hate me forever for introducing sugar into their maniacal little bloodstreams with half a day of school still to go, but you just can't beat the feeling of delivering a sheet-cake-sized birthday cookie to a lunchroom full of seven- and eight-year-olds. You'd think I was Superman or something!

I'll post more after the weekend birthday celebrations have taken place ... assuming we all survive the experience. For now, I'll just post this nice shot I got at the rodeo a couple of weeks ago:

Cowboy - 3/14/2009

Happy Birthday, Cowboy!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: American Bitterns

One of the birds I was especially looking for on my trip down to San Bernard National Wildlife Reserve last week was the bitterns. We had missed them on my first visit to San Bernard and I was a little unsure of just how and where to find them.

As luck would have it, I came across not one but two bitterns foraging along the edges of Moccasin Pond. The first one was found about a quarter mile into the loop. It was idly wandering around the long grass at the water's edge, seemingly much more interested in a big yellow butterfly that kept flittering nearby than it was in my truck moving slowly down the road.

American Bittern - click to view full-size image on Flickr
American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

American Bittern - click to view full-size image on Flickr
(Click any image to view full-size version)


The second bittern was a bit harder to spot, located among the reeds and grasses at the far end of the pond. He was standing stock-still, having just completed a successful hunting venture.

American Bittern - click to view full-size image on Flickr

After grabbing a few nice shots of this fierce-eyed hunter with his bloody prey dangling from his open bill, I moved slowly along so as not to frighten or disturb him without cause. He must have taken his prize and moved back into the cover of the reeds soon after I left, because none of the folks I talked to later in the morning had spotted this second bird. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time!

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #30.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #36

After four days of much-needed rain, the heavens over southeast Texas have turned a brilliant blue once again. And while we have awoken over the past several mornings to some of the thickest fog we've seen in months, once the mists burn off we are enjoying beautiful spring weather and cloudless skies.

To celebrate the gorgeous weather, I took off from work one morning and headed back down toward the coast on a solo outing to San Bernard NWR. Just as I arrived in the reserve, the sun burned through the last patches of fog to reveal a glorious blue sky. And while there weren't any interesting cloud formations at which to gaze, there was plenty to garner my SkyWatching attention as herons, hawks, ibises, gulls and more filled the skies.

White-faced Ibises - 3/16/2009
(Click on any image to view the full-sized version)

White Ibises - 3/16/2009

Anhinga - 3/16/2009

I'll post more pictures from the trip as soon as I can finish weeding through them all.

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

SkyWatch Friday

I and the Bird #96

The newest edition of the I and the Birds blog carnival is ready for consumption over at Rob Fergus's site, The Birdchaser.

I and the Bird is an extraordinary collection of bird blog posts from around the world, and Rob's take on this month's carnival is a fun one. "Imagine that you're an oystercatcher and the world of birds is your oyster..." You'll just have to visit and join in the fun.

To find out more about the I and the Birds carnival or to enter a post for the next edition, check out the host site at 10,000 Birds.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #35

The rainclouds are (thankfully) darkening the Houston skies this week, offering hope for an end to — or at least some temporary relief from — the severe drought the region has been experiencing. So I'm remembering the beautiful skies we enjoyed on our last trip through central Texas:

Blue sky and windmill
(Click the image to view the full-sized version on Flickr)

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

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SWISS and a Spring Warbler Primer

As a pretty new birding enthusiast, I must admit to some slight trepidation at the onset of spring migration. Sure, I can handle the cardinals, mockingbirds, egrets and woodpeckers that make up the bulk of my birding experience to date. And I am getting a little more comfortable with identifying some of the various raptors and waterfowl that are found around here.

But as March progresses and the listservs begin to report the leading edges of migratory passerines, I have begun to feel a debilitating case of SWISS* coming on. I mean, just a glimpse of something grayish green or [gasp] yellow moving through the trees is enough to make my knees quiver and my brain, such as it is, lock up.

So you can imagine what a relief it was to open a TexBirds email this morning and find a link to local birder David McDonald's recent Warbler ID Primer post.

David has laid out his "primer" quite well, with simple descriptions and comparative photos of most all the various warblers that move through the upper Texas coastal region this time of year. And if you need to check the details a little closer, you can just click on any of David's images to see a full-size, full-detail version.

Thank you, David! I've got some studying to do, but now I feel like I can walk outside and enjoy the spring in peace and sanity. ...Well, in peace, anyways.

(* For the woefully non-clairvoyant among you who haven't yet learned to intuitively decipher my unique brand of idiocy, SWISS = "Spring Warbler Identification Stress Syndrome." I'm just sayin'...)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Double-crested Cormorants

I have written several times over the past months about a small neighborhood park near my office where I have taken quite a few quick but birdy lunch breaks. There are several things that make this location — which is only a few miles from the Galleria / "Uptown" area of Houston — ideal for birding.

While the neighborhood is only a few blocks off one of Houston's major freeways, the park itself is tucked into the farthest corner of that subdivision. Two edges of this small playground and shaded area are bordered by several acres of trees and heavy undergrowth, and the back side of the park runs up against White Oaks Bayou. Directly across the bayou from the park is another small wooded area where I have seen several hawks and kestrels roost from time to time. Next to this stand of trees and connected to the bayou is an enormous flood control area where, during rainier seasons, a large number of egrets can often be found; however, since the flood area is shallower than the bayou at this point, it does not hold standing water except after heavy rains.

I got a little more adventurous one day last week, and for the first walked down the bayou from the park for a half mile or so. Much to my surprise, I discovered a second flood control area hidden away back here, completely closed off from the surrounding roads and neighborhoods by small forested tracts. This section has a small standing "lake," complete with a small island and a number of large nesting trees right near the water's edge.

And while most of the Houston area is bone dry at the moment, this sheltered little paradise is thriving. I encountered a handful of Red-shouldered Hawks patrolling the surrounding trees, a Belted Kingfisher (who on three occasions moved from his cover in trees near the lake to soar down a long length of the adjacent bayou and back), several Snowy Egrets and — biggest surprise, to me anyways — four Double-crested Cormorants. I have never before seen cormorants this close to highly populated areas.

Double-crested Cormorant - 3/4/2009
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Double-crested Cormorants - 3/4/2009

Double-crested Cormorants - 3/4/2009

You can be sure that I will be returning to this hideaway habitat on a fairly regular basis, whenever the time allows.

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #28.

Bird Photography Weekly

Thursday, March 5, 2009

SkyWatch Friday #34

Yesterday's sunrise in Houston was almost completely obscured by the dense cloud cover, with only a few scattered rays peeking through the gray.

(Click any image to view full-sized)

But as the morning progressed, the sun let loose, scattering the clouds and clearing the Texas skies for a gorgeous near-spring day. Who could help but soar through the heavens when you've got such beautiful blues like this?

By sunset, only enough wisps of clouds lingered above to help paint the horizon with the golden fires of evening. What a perfect way to end the day!

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

SkyWatch Friday

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Bunch of Old Coots

I spent last Saturday morning down at the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge with a small group of Houston Audubon Society members. About a dozen or so of us were met outside the refuge office by our guides, Brad Lirette (current VP of the Texas Ornithological Society) and his four-year-old son Jason. Brad's knowledge of the area was remarkable, and young Jason bravely took on the responsibility of searching for man-eating alligators, poisonous snakes and sticks. (Fortunately, only the latter was encountered in any great numbers.)

click to read Bill Saulmon's trip report
Photo courtesy of Bill Saulmon

The day started out on an auspicious note, with two Sandhill Cranes (the first of several lifers of the day for me) and a small flock of White-fronted Geese standing in a field nearby, and a White-tailed Kite hunting overhead. Unfortunately, a cold front had moved through the night before, leaving heavily overcast skies and buffeting winds that blasted us throughout the morning. I'll blame the poor light and blustery weather for the uninspiring quality of my photos from the trip — that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

When all had arrived, we headed to Bobcat Woods to start our adventure. The walk through the trees shielded us from the wind, but it also kept all but a handful of cardinals, kinglets and warblers under cover.

Moving out of the forested area, we were assaulted full-force by the cold winds as we stopped at the Wolfweed Reservoir. The few scopes that were brought out were shaking so hard that they were only minimally effective, but we did manage to spot a few ducks, cormorants and dowitchers.

Oh, and for the record, the title of the post does not refer to the wonderful group of birders that attended this trip. Rather, it's a tip of the hat to these hardy fellows who alone did not seem to mind the wind and weather one bit:

American Coots - 2/28/2009
American Coot (Fulica americana)

There were literally hundreds of American Coots dotting the wetland areas we visited, easily outnumbering any other species we saw.

There were a few interesting sights to be seen at Wolfweed. A lone juvenile Little Blue Heron made its slow way along the water's edge, off to one side of us. Everyone perked up at the sight of an immature Bald Eagle in the distance; I believe the consensus of the group put him down as a third year bird. We also had near flyovers of several White Ibis, Turkey Vultures and a lone Crested Caracara.

White Ibis - 2/28/2009
White Ibis (Eudocimus albus)

Retreating to the refuge of our vehicles, we made our way to the drive around Moccasin Pond. This, finally, was where most of the birds had taken shelter, hunkered down among the reeds and small islands that littered the area. Here were more coots, candy-corn billed moorhens, Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. Here, too, were spoonbills, ibises, night-herons and egrets.

Great Egret - 2/28/2009
Great Egret (Ardea alba)

There were also ducks aplenty, including Shovelers, Pintails, Gadwalls, and both Blue- and Green-winged Teal. One of the highlights (and another lifer for me) was a small group of twenty or so Fulvous Whistling-Ducks huddled together near a floating gator.

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks - 2/28/2009
Fulvous Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna bicolor)

Another bit of excitement came when we spotted a Peregrine Falcon actively hunting, diving in an attempt to stir up the ducks on the surface of the lake. Not far away, one of several Northern Harriers that we saw throughout the morning was also hunting, and it almost seemed for a short time that the two were working together to herd the waterfowl between them.

We did see a few shorebirds, although not as many as we expected. There were a handful of Yellowlegs (both species) running across the mudflats, and a small flock of Black-necked Stilts.

Black-necked Stilts - 2/28/2009
Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus)

We also found two more lifers for me, a pair of Grebes. There actually were quite a few Pied-billed Grebes swimming along, not far from the roadside bank of the pond.

Pied-billed Grebe - 2/28/2009
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

But the bird that many in the group were hoping to see was the Least Grebe that had been reported several times recently at the refuge. To everyone's delight, we finally found the grebe near the opposite end of the loop. Unfortunately, he was actively diving and moving quickly away from us, and between his constant motion and small size and the choppiness of the water, I was unable to get a decent picture of this tiny water bird. (See BirdingBev's recent post for a great capture of the Least Grebe from her visit to San Bernard NWR.)

Although I was very disappointed with the majority of the photos I came away with, I can't complain about any other aspect of this trip. The weather could have been a little more cooperative, but all in all it was an outstanding excursion. I came away with several new additions to my life list, and a total of somewhere around sixty species overall. You can bet that I will gladly go back to San Bernard NWR at the earliest opportunity.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly: Red-bellied Woodpecker

I was back at the park last week, looking for the local resident woodpeckers, and they did not disappoint. After waiting only a few minutes, this little lady put in an appearance.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

She quickly began putting on a show, flitting from one tree to another and energetically bouncing along the branches, enjoying the sunshine and cool breezes of the day.

When the woodpeck-pecker goes hop-hop-hopping along...

Suddenly I heard an explosion of activity and the sound of jays in the wooded area off to my left, quickly followed by the sharp call of a hawk. I glanced over to try to spot the goings on, but they were out of sight within the tree line.

When I turned back to follow the little red-bellied female, she was nowhere to be seen. She had been spooked — though whether by the commotion or by the hawk's call, I don't know — and had taken cover. It was several minutes before I finally spotted a small flash of red as she finally raised her head to warily look around.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - 2/23/2009

Hunkered down in the crook of the branches, she blended in with the bark so well that she was very well hidden until she began moving again.

Click on the last image above to see a nice close-up of the woodpecker in her hiding place. The deep ruby coloring of her eye is nothing short of gorgeous.

For more great bird photos from around the world, check out Bird Photography Weekly #27.

Bird Photography Weekly

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Kentucky's Gonna Fry Tonight

The trailer for Mel Gibson's newest controversial masterpiece:

This one might ruffle a few feathers...