Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Break - March 17th Birds

Be forewarned, I wrote this blog to remind myself of March 17th birding memories on the fourth day of the Texas Road Trip. Amazingly I only planned to bird a small portion of the day, the rest of the day fortuitously fell into place. With this information in mind I can almost guarantee that I ramble on and add more information than is ever going to be desired by even my closest of birding friends and family in this blog post.

Double Bayou Park

During our first night camping my inflatable mattresses did not hold air very well and I was up often throughout the night falling out of bed. When I was awake hearing a couple of owls (eBird list) was a nice consolation prize for the lack of sleep. With heavy fog present when I awoke I didn't feel a rush to get to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge; instead the girls slept in and I had a nice walk around the water soaked city park. The white-eyed vireos (eBird list) could be heard singing at first light and it was wonderful seeing them up close during my morning walk.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

As we left camp the fog was so heavy I only felt safe driving 10 miles per hour, but fortunately it thinned a bit right before we completed the 5 mile drive to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

We stopped at the main entrance's visitor center and I spotted the first surprise and lifer of the day....a VERMILION FLYCATCHER! This species summers in the South-West and is found in eastern Texas during its wintering range.

We walked around the Willows boardwalk and found more spider webs than birds. We did see a bullfrog, northern mockingbirds, and few others (eBird checklist is here). The surprise of this walk was getting my first view of  a VIRGINIA RAIL. Danielle wanted to see what I stopped to look at and hoped on top of my shoulders. She was able to see this beautiful little marsh bird at less than 10 feet. I couldn't manage a sharp photo with the heavy fog and slow shutter speed, but the photo to the right is the best I've got so far. 

We considered heading to the coast due to the heavy fog and returning early the next day for birding, but decided to check out the Shoveler Pond drive since we were there. The girls loved seeing a raccoon lumber down the road as we turned the corner and we stopped to reposition the van's inside when we saw the first alligator. With cameras in hand and a repositioned front of the van the girls could stand and look through the windows. While we were stopped a group of lifer Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flew over and we soon saw my lifer Mottled Ducks. The later is a species quite similar in appearance to Mallards, but is most regularly found in Texas and Florida.

We didn't very close to either of these species and a 300mm lens leaves a lot to be desired.
While scanning a mudflat for shorebirds I struck up a conversation with Mike from Buffalo, later referred to as Buffalo Mike in this post. He was visiting his girlfriend in Houston but she was unexpectedly called away for work and left him to bird three days around the coast by himself. Mike didn't use eBird nor did he keep an online life list (mentioning why should I spend time on a mobile device rather than looking at birds), but recalled many birds traveling the world the past 20 years. He was knowledgeable both of the area and birds, shared my passion for looking at birds, and seemed to care less about listing totals than just enjoying the moment. I shared my scope and I pointed out semipalmated and pectoral sandpipers, two species he had not seen the previous days with only binoculars.

Overcast skies, rain, and fog made obtaining "good" photos a challenge.
We started chatting about  target species see and I mentioned how Ruddy Turnstones has eluded me for nearly 7 years. Buffalo Mike urged me to check out Bolivar Flats. I listened intently as his recommendation mirrored Mike Stewart's (another wonderful birder I only briefly met in Kansas). We already had plans for the next three days but I filed the information as we parted ways. Along the rest of the drive we saw White Ibis and Common Gallinule completing the eBird list.

Leaving the Wildlife Refuge we saw our first White-tailed Kite....adding four lifers to my bird list while at Anahuac. The drive around Shoveler Pond was amazing in itself without the birds and was one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. Christine stood between the seats taking pictures through the van's moon-roof, the girls alternated between the windows of the front passenger and middle seats, and seemingly all three of them pointed out every bird and animal with genuine smiles.

Smith Oaks Sanctuary and Rookery

It was lunch time when we left Anahuac so we only stopped at Smith Oaks Sanctuary briefly to check it out.  I grabbed a single camera while we left the others behind and was lucky enough to get the photo of a Neotropic Cormorant below. Heavy fog was still present however and we decided to head toward the beach after a short walk. I contemplated whether to ask Christine to create an eBird list or not, but with limited species at this highly visited location I decided against it on our drive out. I turned the corner and I saw Buffalo Mike turn toward the Rookery; we gave each other a quick wave and I smirked thinking that my decision not to enter an eBird list was influenced by Mike's position on the topic. We were off to find the ocean.

Neotropic Cormorant
This is my third favorite bird photo from the trip!  The first was in the last post and second is yet to come.

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

Royal Tern
Royal Terns are so neat. 
Four miles from Smith Oaks Sanctuary to the gulf seemed to fly by and before we knew it the road turned east and we were at the ocean. Unfortunately the fog was still so heavy we could not see the water 100 yards away. The girls were watching a movie, Christine had food in her belly, and I received the go ahead to find a location on the ocean I wanted to the girls would be able to go swimming anywhere (or at least we thought). We check BirdLog for hotspots and decided to check out any hotspot heading west toward Bolivar Flats, but with heavy fog at each location there seemed to be no reason to turn away from fate and we continued on toward the Houston Audubon Society bird sanctuary. 

With no other locations to check we parked at the end of the service road on the beach and decided to take a bike ride. I grabbed binoculars and scanned a flock of gulls/terns (eBird list), quickly picking out lifer Royal and gull-billed terns. 2 more lifers and 6 for the day!

I tried to ride bike with binoculars, tripod, and backpack....but quickly rectified my hubris and turned back. I grabbed the Van and drove to the end of the beach, where the Sanctuary began while the girls went for a bike ride.
Wilson's Plover have thicker bills than other US plovers.
Unfortunately biking on the beach sounded better in our minds than reality and the bikes soon were back on the trailer. After some indecision I chose to walk the sanctuary and the girls chose to swim.

Within feet of telephone pole barricade (the sanctuary was open to foot traffic but no motorized vehicles), I picked out yet another lifer with a Wilson's Plover. The heavy fog had persisted all day and makes the photo to the right appear gray.

For some reason the girls wanted to walk along rather than swim after a couple of minutes, so we slowly made our way along the shoreline.  Shorebirds appeared to materialize out of the fog. It was at this time I was extremely grateful for studying the O'Brien Shorebird guide and focusing on shorebird body structure rather than color or fieldmarks. After a short while the girls decided to swim again and who should I see walking down the beach but Buffalo Mike. We were both surprised to see each other yet again, and hiked part of the sanctuary as if we were old birding pals. We bounced identifications off of one another and discussed varying opinions, working through the shapes to identify as many as possible.  The entire eBird list detailing lifer Long-billed Curlew, Red Knot, and Ruddy Turnstone seems to miss most of amazing feeling of the fogging shoreline!! These three shorebird lifers brought the daily tally up to 10!

Long-billed Curlew Ruddy Turnstone
Long-billed curlew (TL) and Ruddy Trunstone (TR) were lifers, snowy plover (BL) and sanderling (BR) are just cool.
Snowy Plover Sanderling
We decided to head back toward camp, hoping to find anywhere away from fog. Within half a mile of the beach the sun almost popped through the clouds. A perched Osprey caught my eye and I parked the car underneath it as I urged Christine to take a few photos. I'm glad she did as she snapped the photo below.

My second favorite bird photo from the trip. Depending on the I often think this is the best of the entire trip!!

Back to Camp

The hour and half drive from camp to Bolivar Flats was too long in the car and we all needed something more relaxing in the coming days than what we had previously planned. Christine and I discussed a bunch of ideas while the girls watch a movie. This was the first time in two days we had allowed them to watch TV and we slowly pulled onto the paved road heading back toward camp as Christine mentioned the idea of Pleasure Pier and hotel in Galveston.

For whatever reason I remembered at that precise moment we had left something on the bike trailer and pulled the van over. As I jumped out of the pulled-over van I looked north onto a small pond and saw lifer Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (eBird list).

I hoped in the car with a big smile and shared the sighting with Christine, taking it as a sign that we should definitely pursue her wonderful idea and ditch our previous plans of visiting museums in Houston. This decision worked out quite well as the 18th turned out to be the favorite day for everyone. The sun finally poked through the fog and we had sunshine for the first time at 5 pm. We made plans to stop at the Rookery again on our way back to camp but then Christine asked the question. "Did you see everything you wanted to at the Sanctuary?"

I responded "It was amazing. I found a ton of birds but didn't find a Sandwich tern."

As we crossed Rollover Bay pass I lamented how the gulls, terns, and pelicans appeared to call out to me and take their picture. They were sitting on top the pilings as people fished nearby and were the first birds I saw that day in sunlight. Christine told me to stop and we pulled into the parking lot. All intentions changed as we turned around a corner and saw the bay filled with shorebirds, gulls, terns, and pelicans.  Christine told me to go find a Sandwich Tern while the three of them relaxed in the van, photos would have to wait.

I scanned through the birds (eBird list) and yelled out there were lifer Black Skimmer and American Oystercatchers out there! This brought the tally of lifers up to 13 just for this one foggy day! By the time we got back to the rookery the fog had returned and we decided to head back to camp. As luck would have it we stopped at the Rookery the next morning in between rain showers and were able to take photos.

Daily Overview

The eBird website is free for everyone and keeps a running list of all species seen as well as the first date of observation for each of them. The list below is a screenshot from eBird and reveals the 13 lifers from March 17th. The software fails to convey the story behind them and thus this blog post. In addition to the lifers I saw species seen only days before for the first time as well as others never viewed before. I saw a total of 121 species on March 17th. 

In the eight years of birding, I've only added more than 13 lifers within one day twice. On April 5, 2008 when I added species #68 (Wood Duck) through #89 (Tree Swallow) and on May 13, 2008 when I added species #137 (chimney swift) through #156 (indigo bunting). A bit surprisingly I didn't add this many species in one single day during our trip west in 2010 when I cracked 300 lifers and added 51 lifers over two weeks.

The one that got away

Amazing as March 17th was for birds, there was one species that got away. Can you guess what species I am referring to? Look at the my photo below and try to identify all the species. Click on the photo to see what I found after returning home.

I was oh so close to having 14 lifers on the 17th. Instead I added 13 and this species is left off my list until next trip.  Yes I saw this species but I didn't identify it on that day. Everyone keeps their own list, but I know I'll get more enjoyment seeing it for the first time in the future if I can identify it in the field compared to checking it off my list by finding in a picture three weeks after getting home. 

Great Birding!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Spring Break - Birds

Malcolm started to notice birds 8 years ago after Michaela was born, and was actually paying attention to migration the following year. While we were still in Madison our hikes often consisted of Christine taking pictures and Malcolm trying to identify species with binoculars. Our girls were little and were either attached to our bellies with slings or in a backpack carrier. With toddlers everything seemed to change and hikes as a family were different. It was tougher to pay attention to birds and we branched out into anything that grabbed the girls attention. The girls are older and somehow the number and diversity of birds seemed to draw their attention back. So here are a few of the large and attention grabbing birds from our Spring Break Road Trip.

Northern Mockingbird

While common around Kansas City and further south, Northern Mockingbirds are actually not all that common up north. These beauties were all over in Texas and mimic other birds and animals.  They often put multiple sounds together and repeat each sound 3 to 5 times. To get the true experience of a Mockingbird you should watch the short video below.  Pictures of this species seemingly ignore their best and perhaps most annoying feature in their voice.

Great-tailed Grackle

The Great-Tailed Grackle is another species that is found around Kansas City, but tougher to find up north, and in some locations further south is the most common Blackbird.

 Great-tailed Grackle
Michaela took this picture of the female. The male has a larger tale and is black compared to the brown female.

Roseate Spoonbill

Without a doubt the BIRD of the trip was the Roseate Spoonbill. This was one of the first birds we picked out while driving near the coast with its bright pink coloration, large body size, and odd shaped bill. We stopped to look at these the very first marsh we encountered along the coast, but luckily were able to see them closer at the Smith Oaks Rookery. This species is only a rare visitor north of all southern states, and this trip was the first time seeing one for Malcolm. We took a bunch of pictures of the spoonbills, below are a few of our favorites.

Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill Roseate Spoonbill
Balancing on small sticks can appear quite challenging for these large birds.

The birds seemed to be constantly moving. Here is a short video of two spoonbills on one of the man-made nesting platforms. Luckily the platform and rookery was close to the viewing platform, allowing for these photos to be taken with our shorter focal-length 300mm lens.

Malcolm's favorite photo from the trip is that of the flying spoonbill below.

Roseate Spoonbill

Great Egret

The large white bird in the above video is a Great Egret. This species can be found as far north as Canada and is one we have seen early in the spring on its way north to breeding grounds, but unfortunately not too often in full breeding plumage or in courting behavior.  

Great Egret
I can just imagine a cheesy pick-up line,"Hey there pretty lady look at the stick I have for you!!"

Laughing Gull

The Laughing Gull is similar to other gulls with black heads seen in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Kansas but is larger and found mostly around the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast, southern waterways in the United States. We saw these Gulls many places, but the gulls were accustomed to being fed by passengers on the ferry between Galveston and Port Bolivar.  The swarming mass of gulls offered us a 10 minute window to take pictures.  Luckily the sun popped out for part of it on our second ferry ride. 

Laughing Gull 
 Laughing Gull
The reddish bill color of the top right bird appears in breeding season for adult birds. We were a bit early for bright bills.

Danielle took many photos, two are on the right side below and could be reminiscent of a horror movie on birds! The top one looks fine and dandy until you look closely, who knew Gulls could look so scary!

Run little boy that gull is as big as you!!!

Always great to see these species again

Many of the bird seen during this trip were ones seen before, but they offered better photo opportunities.  Such was the case with the Snowy Egret, Brown Pelicans, and Common Tern as well as the Little Blue Heron below.

Little Blue Heron
This adult Little Blue Heron didn't like us at all and stayed quite a ways back at Anahuac NWR.

Other Life Birds

Throughout the trip Malcolm kept entering bird sightings into eBird.  He tries to enter the data as accurately as possible for research purposes. At the same time the website maintains a list of all bird species he has seen. During this trip Malcolm passed the 400 life bird plateau on March 17th and saw these species below for the first time. 

White-winged Dove
White-winged Doves were throughout Austin.
Lifer Crested Caracara thanks to others looking through binoculars and later in the week we happened upon this one.
The largest bird in the center of this picture is a Reddish Egret.

An account of March 17th is coming in the next blog post, where Malcolm added 13 lifers in one day!

Spring Break - Wildlife

Like many others, we face the challenge of transferring pictures from camera to computer and sharing pictures quickly. I'm amazed how some individuals are able to edit photos (or more likely just take them correctly in camera) and/or share instantly.  We don't have that skillset nor the equipment to do so, and now almost four weeks after returning from our Texas Spring Break road trip you get to see edited DSLR photos. This is the first post on this topic of three, the two posts coming are one on birds from the overall trip and a post on birds from March 17th...a day that exceeded all or Malcolm's birding expectations. 


Many of the animals we saw were during one morning at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. A lumbering raccoon ran down the road in front of us before we saw the species below.

This American Bullfrog was massive and was the size of a grapefruit. Surrounding grass shook when it moved.
We saw a number of American Alligator's along the Shoveler Pond drive.

We also saw plenty at Houston Audubon's Smith Oaks Sanctuary in High Island. Two visits allowed us to not only see nest building birds but also lizards and a swamp rabbit. 

Swamp Rabbit
The swamp rabbit is closely related to the eastern cottontail.
We could have spent more time exploring here, but the beach was calling to us.

We took the ferry ride between Galveston and Bolivar twice and saw dolphins both times.

It's okay to take pictures of Dolphins, just not the ferry equipment I guess!
We kept looking for wildlife while driving but only found cows, horses, and two amazing metal chickens.  One was in a person's yard and we didn't stop, but the other was in a more public setting at a Cafe.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter

We hope everyone enjoyed this wonderful holiday.

This past week the girls searched for eggs on campus.
Today we tried a different trail. We had to convince the girls it was okay to enjoy a bike ride, and we found a couple of small hills even. The girls are still getting used to the larger bikes, shifting on hills, speed, and finding the muscles to pedal aren't very strong yet.