Friday, May 27, 2011

Winter and Migration Birding, 2011

Orchard Oriole (female)

Orchard Oriole (female)

As much as I may not like to admit it sometimes, I spend an appreciable amount of my time between late March and mid Mayi doing what any other reasonable person might call “birding”. I've written before about my take on hard core birding, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say, if I am a birder, rather than a wildlife generalistii, I am an exceedingly casual one. But as wildlife goes, the upper Gulf Coast of Texas is one of the premier birding areas of the countryiii, and a fairly good sized piece of the coast is set aside as National Wildlife Refuges or other sanctuaryiv. We are smack dab in the flight path of the Central Migratory Flyway, meaning when Spring migration comes, we are the first rest stop after a grueling flight across the Gulf from the Yucatan for millions upon millions of birds. And almost as many birders on a busy day in April. So, if you're going to watch wildlife here, it's all about the birds.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Starting in 2008/2009, I had the privilege of meetingv and getting to hang out with two enthusiastic naturalists from Brazos Bend State Park where I (now) volunteervi. Bill Godly is the epitome of the naturalist's naturalist. He is never without a story, has a wealth of information inside his head, and is about as welcoming and enthusiastic as you can hope for. David Heinecke is a Ranger at the Park, and is patient, with an extraordinary depth of knowledge and a seemingly unflappable good humor. Had I been exposed early on to some of the more nefarious types of birders, I'm not sure I would have been much interested. Luckily I had some excellent “mentors” in these two larger than life gentlemen.

David and BillThe Naturalist (B&W)Simple Christmas - Ranger with Kestrel

Bill and David Leading a Bird Hike, Bill the Naturalist, David with Kestrel.

In the ensuing years, I've gained an appreciation of birdwatching/birdingvii as I've written about here in 2009 and 2010. While I'm still not the sort to chase reports of rare birds halfway across the stateviii, I have kept track of species I've seenix. Even though I still like to call it dinosaur viewing now and again, with a tip of my hat to the phylogenetic/cladistics crowd, I think I've gotten comfortable with, well, knowing a little bit about birds. Come Spring, if you put a bird on it (Portlandia notwithstanding) I'm likely to be there. A good part of my involvement is photography, and the two interests meld fairly wellx.

Red-tailed Hawk in Flight

A rare (for me) catch of a common bird – Red-Tailed Hawk in Flight, Quintana, TX. (once in a while even a bad photo setup can luck out)

While most birders make their concurrent migrationxi during the big Spring event, the “hard-core” birding community gets an early start on things with the Christmas Bird Count. The CBC is an annual event held internationally in the December-January time frame, in which the volunteers spend a whole day, well...counting birds. There are set “count circles” of 15 mile diameters, including quite a few in the Houston area. I went to my first one last year, at the Brazos Bend State Park- run countxii. This year, I was a co-coordinator for the Count, which has the potential of being the same logistical mess as any volunteer run large public event, but thanks to the seasoned Mr. Godley, everything ran to a tee. It's sort of a social event for the local birding community, complete with a Count dinner, a ceremonial reading of the results, and even a trophy for “Best Bird” (which my team won last year, just sayin'.). I lead a team to a property I hadn't been to before, so it was a bit of an adventure, even a much of a stretch as that word may be in relation to birdwatching. We had a banner year with record attendance and record numbers of species. All in all a good, early start to the “birding seasonxiii”. We spent the next couple months sporadically hiking here and there, catching some of our winter birdsxiv in anticipation of the spring rush.

Winter Birds and Birders


Team Paw PawRuby-crowned Kinglet

Barred Owl on BranchRed-headed Woodpecker

American BitternRusty Blackbird (male)

Ring-necked Ducks

Red-winged BlackbirdGreat-tailed Grackle

Blue-Grey GnatcatcherVermilion Flycatcher (male)

Snow and ? Geese in flight

Merlin, CBC Volunteers Counting Birds, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, American Bittern, Ring-necked Ducks, Red-winged Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Vermillion Flycatcher, Rusty Blackbird (male), Snow Geese over Brazoria NWR.

But the real “go-time” for the area is the Spring Migration with its flurry of neotropical birds of all shapes and sizes, including the vast array of warblers. While we have many warbler species that are common sites, the sheer volume and diversity of species that comes through in the Spring is what brings many of us out for viewing. Warblers are small, flitty little birds that are only here in select locations, and only for very short definition the absolute worst combination of elements for a photographer...small subject, evasive, time-sensitive, and needs to be shot from distances (usually). If there's one thing that drives a lot of the birding community, outside of a genuine appreciation for the outdoors and wildlife, it's novelty. We are awash in brilliantly red Northern Cardinals and steely Blue-gray gnatcatchers all winter long...we have elegant Great Egrets and regal Red-tailed Hawks along every ditch and highway. But these species hardly get a glance. But if a rare warbler shows up, well, let's just say less communication and mobilization took place to launch the Normandy invasion... Still, it's always a bit cool to see something you've never seen before, to figuratively touch another little piece of the huge mass of ecological systems constantly swirling around us.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonatary Warbler – a early sign of migration. (Just like the sun, it is advised not to look directly at the Prothonotary Warbler's overwhelming yellowness.)

And it's all in good fun. Any day out of the office with boots on the ground is by definition a good day. So I've spent a good part of the late-March-to-early-May time period this year tromping around all manner of park, wetland, back roads, prairie, etc. One of the redeeming features of the Houston area is just how many large public lands are within a 2-3 hour drive. On the map below, I visited each of these locations (with the exception of McFarland NWR and the National Forests) at least once in Winter and Spring 2011, with multiple regular visits to some of our usual haunts like Brazos Bend State Park and Quintana. It's amaizng the sheer variety of habitat that can be found in that stretch, from rolling prarie to coastal wetlands, to bottomland forests, to dense pineywood areas, and so on. Even on the minute level, a change of a few miles may mean a completely different habitat.


Birding Locations – Upper Gulf Coast, Texas

A lot of the trips were combinations of the bi-weekly bird hikes down at Brazos Bend with a complementary road trip down to to the tiny, coastal town of Quintana. There's not much in Quintana, but it's a fantastic place to see birds, as it's one of the first few pieces of wooded land that birds come to after a grueling flight over the Gulf. It's just a couple acres of scrub trees on a barrier island, but it draws the birds in droves. We'd usually tool down to Quintana with a couple other folks from the bird hikes, and spend a few hours in the woods, tidal marshes and beach. As I have every other friday off, I often set out on my own for some of our amazing National Wildlife Refuges in the area. Needless to say I put a lot of miles on my boots this Spring. All in all, I logged about 35 new species, and got some great shots and views of familiar ones. I found a couple great new public lands I hadn't visited before, and met a slew of interesting characters. Some of the places were beautiful (Attwater NWR), some were relatively ugly (Bollivar Peninsula) but each was an interesting look at a specific ecosystem. I still don't feel right calling myself a birder, per sexv, but I certainly have advanced my knowledge by a bit. One of the highlights of the season included seeing the greatly endangered Attwater's Prairie Chicken, which is only really findable one time a year when the refuge lets people into restricted areas. But enough talk, here's some of the product of this season's sojourning.


Black-throated Green Warbler

Bay-breasted WarblerBlackburnian Warbler

Northern Parula (female)Black and White Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler(male), Bay-breasted Warbler (male), Blackburnian Warbler (male), Northern Parula (female), Black and White Warbler, Yellow Warbler

Other Spring/Migratory birds

Indigo Bunting

Eastern KingbirdOrchard Oriole (Male)

Summer Tanagerfemale Painted Bunting

Dickcissel (female)Barn Swallows

Cliff Swallow with NestGray-Cheeked Thrush

Lark SparrowVeery

Laughing Gulls on the Ferry (B&W)

Indigo Bunting (male), Eastern Kingbird, Orchard Oriole (male), Summer Tanager, Painted Bunting (female), Dickcissel (female), Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallow on Nest, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Lark Sparrow, Veery, Laughing Gulls on the Ferry.

Wading Birds and Shore Birdsxvi

Great Egret with Water Hyacinth

Least BitternSnowy Egret Hunting

Marbled GodwitPectoral Sandpiper (B&W)

Juvenile KildeerBlack-necked Stilt

Purple GallinuleLeast Sandpiper

Reddish EgretLong-billed Curlew

Glossy IbisAmerican Golden Plover

King RailYour Phalarope is No More, it has Ceased to Be.

Western Sandpiper (front)Upland Sandpiper

Great Egret with Water Hyacinth, Least Bittern, Snowy Egret Hunting, Marbled Godwit, Pectoral Sandpiper, Killdeer (juvenile), Black-necked Stilt, Purple Gallinule, Least Sandpiper, Reddish Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Glossy Ibis, American Golden Plover, Your Phalarope is No More – It has Ceased to Be, Western Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper.

Raptors and Other Cool Birdsxvii

Northern Harrier

Eastern Screech Owl (female)Common Nighthawk

Attwater's Prairie Chicken

Northern Harrier in Flight, Eastern Screech Owl, Common Nighthawk at Rest, Attwater's Prairie Chicken

iMigration season here on the upper Gulf Coast.

iiWhich in itself is an overly grandiose term for someone who just likes to wander around in the woods and check out stuff.

iiiOnly overshadowed regionally by the ludicrously diverse Rio Grande Valley during migration.

ivTo be fair, much of the coast is pure, unusable wetlands really only good for the occasional (thousand) oil wells, so the vast public holdings aren't really the outcome of public commitment to the environment. Of not much use to us, however they are fantastic habitat for all manner of birds.

vActually, meeting again....I'd met them numerous times on hikes at Brazos Bend SP, but didn't know them personally.

viMostly because after numerous bird hikes at Brazos Bend and jaunts down to the coats, Bill turned around in the car one time and said, you know, you really should volunteer....

viiGod forbid you use the wrong term at the wrong time with the wrong person. Bird watching is what you do at a feeder in your backyard. Birding is what you do with $2000 swarovski binoculars and a $20,0000 600mm f/2.8 telephoto lens. Or so one would assume from the typical birder on the coast. I actually like “bird-watching” better , because it implies one is watching the bird, not just checking it off a list or somehow making “bird” into a verb. But really, it's all the same.

viiiWhich is no small thing in a state like Texas

ixTo be fair, I do that for most major groups of Animalia, even recognizing how deeply, deeply geeky that sounds.

xNow that, that is a bald faced lie. To be a bird photographer is to be perpetually poor, or perpetually frustrated. The cost of gear used by top wildlife photographers is equivalent to first-car, or even first-home standards. $10,000 lenses, $4,000 cameras, expensive tripods, all manner of accoutrements. It's no game for the weak of heart. I have decent camera, but my lens selection is...well, atrocious. But that's the opportunity cost of staying solvent. Bird photography is inherently horribly because it involves very small subjects that don't stand still, often at very great distances. Still, even with my paltry setup, I luck out now and then.

xiWhile the birds migrate north from Mexico, etc, the birders migrate south to the coast, and into binocular and camera shops.

xiiWhich is not always considered a “serious” count, even though it turns in numbers that would drive most of the rest of the country eight shades of jealous. But it's a family oriented, beginners welcome, sort of count. Apparently some of the more coastal counts are a bit more snooty about their counting. Which, honestly, is HILLARIOUS. God forbid I'm not a hardcore enough BIRDER to be part of your special club. It's kind of like saying, “You may be pretty good with your home electronics, but we'd rather only have full on AV-club members at our party. “ …...Right.

xiiiWhich, to be honest, for many of these folks is year-round, 24/7, 365.

xivWinter is the time for waterfowl on the coast, with huge swarms of geese, ducks of almost innumerable species, and a handful of other wintering birds and raptors.

xvMostly because a horrible day birding is redeemed for me by seeing a new species of snake, etc. And I still think trash birds like Cardinals are pretty cool.

xviThese fellows aren't usually the draw for birders, and not all are migratory. However, Migration is the time of the year when woodland species and shorebirds are often in pretty close proximity, so where one goes looking for one, one is bound to find the other.

xviiNot all birds are created equal. Keep your warblers, I'll take a raptor any day.

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