Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bird Migration Season 2012

Red-eyed Vireo

In the past few years I’ve been on an extended dalliance with ornithologyi. My original goal was to “learn” birds in the sense of being able to identify most normal species, and build up some degree of knowledge/loreii about them. Part of this is my own curiosity, part my role as a volunteer naturalist, and probably some appreciable part is a frustrated inner biologist stuck working in a windowless cubicle on dry regulatory documents. Whatever the impetus, I’ve spent the last couple years learning what I’ve could from the local expertsiii. I’m a far cry from the seasoned birders here who can identify something from even the slightest glimpse based on the most esoteric detail, but I have gotten a pretty good grounding on all things feathered.

Spring is migration season here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast. Many of the birds who migrate annuals from South America and Mexico are funneled through our couple hundred miles of coast before dispersing across the rest of US and Canada along the juncture between the massive Central and Mississippi Flyways. That all adds up to a lot of birds (and a lot of birders) all convening in the same location at the same time.

Sometimes quite literally...

This year was pretty slow as seasons go. Warblers, the bellwether group for spring, were down in numbers it seemed, and the winds were good. And by good, I mean they were bad. Let me explain…good winds for the birds (southerly tailwinds helping their flight over the Gulf) are bad for coastal birders because they push the birds far inland and disperse them over large areas. Northerly headwinds cause “fallout” conditions in which exhausted birds crash on the first specks of land they find, and allows for better birdingiv. Personally, camera and lens issues, and poor timing on a few tripsv led to a less than stellar season for mevi. Here are a few sort of highlightsvii, regardless (many of which are not even migratory.)

Willet on the
Avocets in flightSandwich Terns
Tanager (female)Orchard or
Baltimore Oriole (female) ?
SoraRoyal Tern in
Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Clapper Rail, Great Egret with Chicks, Blackburnian Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, American Avocets in Flight, Sandwich Terns mating, Dickcissel, Canada Warbler, Painted Bunting, Blue-headed Vireo, Black Skimmer, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Sora, Royal Tern in flight, Green-tailed Towhee.

i Despite my emphatic insistence, the “birder” label is starting to creep into discussions about me. As I’ve pointed out, what I do is birding by default. I’m really excited about wildlife in general…and the preponderance of wildlife on the upper Texas Gulf Coast is avifauna.

ii Which are not always synonymous terms, in my experience.

iii Which, given the focal point of birding that is the Upper Texas Coast, are not hard to find here.

iv I secretly revel when people carp about bad winds, because it means it’s a good day for the birds, and bad day for the birders. Given the choice between the two, I’ll side with the former. It’s hard for me to make the ideological leap into being happy that birds will be falling out, just because it means I’ll have a better sightseeing experience.

v A large number of the folks involved in the birding passtime are of the retired set who can get out any day conditions are right. Those of us who work during the day often have to watch fantastic reports roll in during the week, only to be met with a virtual bird desert on weekend trips.

vi Nine new species, though only one was a warbler. Only 15 warblers total. 163 total species over 5 weeks. Given the usual bird density down here, this is not impressive.

viiWhile I included a picture of some Sandwich Terns mating, I would not consider this a highlight, per se. I had spent the better part of a half an hour slowly military-crawling up on wet sand, balancing a camer and binoculars, to a large mixed flock of terns and gulls. At about the same time, someone else on the beach spooked them, causing them to take off, and then resettle almost directly next to me on the beach. This was great for photography until several pairs of terns decided to get amorous right next to me. There is something deeply, deeply unsettling about being surrounded by squawking terns going at it.   

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