wing down to the pond
wing down to the pond
A few years back, I put my duck in a row. I have more ducks now, a somewhat unruly lot especially those pirate ducks who’d just as soon start a row as get in a row, but they still row up pretty well. And when it’s 108 in the shade, they’re about the only birds I feel like watching.
During the second week of January 2009, while walking along the trail that runs down to the little pond in our neighborhood, I decided to make it a point to come out at least once a week and count birds to try to get a sense of what birds are in the neighborhood, when they’re here and how many I could see.
I jokingly called it my Pond Trail Big Year, mainly because I didn’t expect to see all that many birds on our little stretch of trail. It turned out to be more of a medium or even small-sized year, but still worth every moment. Keeping counts and lists is cool, but for me it’s more of a memory tool since I’ve never been terribly competitive about such things.
I managed to keep my commitment to birding the trail at least once per week, expect for a week in May when we were in Missouri and a week in August when we were working at Camp Periwinkle. In all, I counted 61 species on the pond trail and if I also include the birds I saw at my house and the birds I saw on the regional trail (with which the pond trail connects) leading to the lake where Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls and Greater Roadrunners can be seen, the number jumps to 67 birds seen on foot, which is a decent number, I think, for someone still learning to find birds.
It wasn’t long before I started paying attention to more than just the birds. There are trees, wildflowers, rabbits, turtles, deer, butterflies, snakes, and frogs out there. I started to try to pay more attention to those things as well, and it wasn’t long before I went beyond just birding to a different kind of seeing that seemed more a witnessing the little patch of nature just beyond my yard.
Some of my most memorable days include the day after one of our hailstorms when I saw an Osprey and a Black-and-white Warbler on the same day; the day I discovered the Blotched Water Snakes that live under the bridge; or the time I watched a Yellow-crowned Night Heron catch and kill a crawfish (which made me realize that being boiled alive is probably the easy way out for a crawfish compared to the hard way administered by the night heron).
There were times, particularly during last summer’s especially brutal drought-ridden days of infernal heat, on which I had to force myself to get out, knowing I would see only grackles and vultures, but even that was fun since I really do like those birds quite a bit.
I learned a lot about the seasonal migration patterns of my local birds. Things like when the different duck species come and go from the pond, which ones just pass through and which ones stay. I learned where to look for different kinds of birds and what to listen for and how to let my ears guide my eyes when trying to find something.
In addition to learning a lot about birding, I realized some things about the kind of birder I am. I rarely drive to go birding and when I do, it’s usually just to go somewhere else in Austin like Hornsby Bend. There’s something immensely satisfying about walking out one’s door and seeing the birds that live nearby. Considering the toll taken on all wildlife by cars and roads, birding by foot just seems a bit greener, and getting to know an area inspires a deeper understanding of a place that goes beyond the superficial. I think I’d rather know every bird in my neighborhood than see every bird in the state (which isn’t to say I don’t try to see as many birds as I can; rather, I’m just not going to kill myself—or anything else—to do it).
Other people joined me on these walks: my wife (quite frequently), my parents, my father-in-law, various houseguests. It was fun to be able to share some of the discoveries I’ve made, and those were some of my favorite walks.
Here’s the final 2009 Neighborhood Small Year list with stars next to the ones that were life birds:
I’m looking forward to my next walk. I’ll probably keep walking the trail weekly since I did that anyway, but if I don’t feel like it, I won’t. It will also be nice to enjoy walking without listing and counting, though I’ll still list occasionally and continue posting those numbers to ebird for whatever scientific value it may serve.
This was a good exercise for me, but I’m glad to be able to just get back to walking and enjoying the birds, which is what it’s supposed to be about anyway.
I started winter (and Christmas vacation) with a morning at Hornsby Bend. I hadn’t been since July when I came to check on the swallows and long-legged waders that own the place in summer. In winter it’s all about ducks, and Monday was a perfect day for birding so I headed down.
As expected, I mostly saw American Coots, Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks, though I did see a few Buffleheads on Pond 1 East. I parked on the road between Pond 1 East and Pond 1 West and using the car as a blind, I was able to watch a flock of Least Sandpipers poke around the edges of 1 West while a few Killdeer hung around the periphery like avian shepherds, or perhaps overlords, watching their smaller kin.
Around the road to Pond 2, I saw more of the above-mentioned ducks, but as the road entered the woods, the Ruby-crowned Kinglets appeared, flitting across the road and sometimes stopping to have a look at me as I drove by. I stopped too.
On a winter branch,
a kinglet inclines his head,
shows his ruby crown.
I parked at the blind at Pond 2 where I watching the coots and ducks paddle around, forming great circular clusters (clusterducks?) in the pond, probably to conserve heat since unlike me, they were without coffee.
I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby, so I headed down the river trail to see if I could find him. I never saw him, and when I heard him again he was farther off down the Colorado, but the trees were singing with birds, shaking off the cold and starting up for the day. In addition to the kinglets, cardinals, Song Sparrows, chickadees and wrens were everywhere. Though I didn’t actually see a Carolina Wren, there was one singing loud nearby and he seemed to be following me along the trail.
From the upper island view blind, I saw a mixed flock of Gadwalls and American Wigeons floating on the slow-moving river. I hung out at the upper island view for a while, digging the beautiful crisp morning and waiting to see what presented itself.
That’s one of the great things about birding, that waiting. Even though I tend to list (and upload my lists to ebird for whatever value they may have to the ornithologists at the Cornell Lab of O) I don’t tend to go hunting with the mindset of I’ve-got-to-find-this-bird. Once in a while, but not often. It’s best to see what birds come along and just enjoy what nature serves up on any given day.
Soon, the ducks flew upriver and out of sight, but watching the river drift by is good too so I did that for a while before I started to hear my coffee calling from the car. I went back and drove along Pond 2 to the greenhouse and parked there to walk out to Pond 3.
As I approached the river trail a small flock of something darted out of the sky and into the treetops. I glassed (I don’t know if that word has been used by anyone other than Cormac McCarthy, but it’s a great verb for this kind of thing) the treetops and saw my first life bird of the day: Cedar Waxwing. They say they’re common here in winter, but I’ve been looking for three years now and Monday was the first time I’d seen one.
They were high in the tree, almost beyond the useful range of my telephoto lens, but for what it’s worth here’s a picture.
I watched the waxings for a while, admiring these lovely little birds that seemed content just to ride the slow waving branches at the tops of the trees. Soon enough, they departed and so did I, continuing along the trail to Pond 3 on which there were more Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks.
I did see a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in a tree. They seemed to be hollering at each other. Like the waxwings, they were almost beyond the reach of my camera gear, but for what it’s worth, here’s a picture.
Close to lunchtime, I headed back to the car and drove out along Pond 1 West, where I saw perhaps thousands more ducks poking around on the mud flats. Among the shovelers, I saw a few glimpses of something new to me. I parked and searched through the horde of ducks until I found life bird number 2 for the day: Green-winged Teal.
It never ceases to amaze me how many and what variety of birds can be seen at Hornsby Bend right here in the Austin city limits. Every time I’ve been, I’ve seen something I’ve never seen before. Amazing considering I never go there looking for anything.
Here’s the list:
Update: This post was included at I and the Bird #116 at Listening Earth Blog. Check out the rest of the birds there.
Yesterday was grey and cool, the sky wanting to rain, but I walked down to the pond anyway for Day 4 of The Great Backyard Bird Count and managed to avoid the intermittent rain. It’s not my backyard, but it doesn’t have to be. I also brought the camera this time and got some decent pictures including some of my best of this Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
The trail didn’t yield many birds. I searched for the bluebird and goldfinches I had seen on Friday, but they weren’t around, though I did get to watch a single Lesser Goldfinch sing from the top of a leafless tree. Most of the action was down on the pond.
I really enjoy watching the ducks paddle around the small pond. It’s especially amusing to watch the Gadwalls dabble like the one in the picture with his rear end in the air. They’ll bob like that for a short time before righting themselves.
I counted more Gadwalls than anything else, but I know I undercounted them. It’s hard to count ducks when they’re always moving around so I tend to err on the side of undercounting. Still, I didn’t realize how many there were.
Official GBBC Day 4 Tally:
All in all this was a good Great Backyard Bird Count for me. Hopefully next year I’ll be better at this and will see even more birds.
I’ve heard it said that you should write what you know. I think it’s just as useful to write what you want to learn. That’s part of why I enjoy writing about my birding experiences.
The day before Thanksgiving I walked to the pond down the street to see what kinds of ducks were around. Mostly Gadwalls and some Northern Shovelers. I saw a Lesser Scaup too, or so I thought. Had I looked closer I would have seen that it wasn’t a Scaup, but rather something new to me.
I posted some pictures and Ted commented and pointed out the error I had made. I consulted my Sibley guide and found that while Lesser Scaup and Ring-necks are similar, there are differences such as the white ring on the Ring-neck’s bill and the white spur on his side. Also the scaup has a grey back while the Ring-neck’s back is black.
I went back and compared pictures from a few weeks ago with a Lesser Scaup picture from last year and saw the difference.
Since I had never seen a Ring-necked Duck before (at least while knowing what it was) I walked back down today to see if there were any still there.
It’s a cold day today, but there were actually more ducks than usual. I didn’t count, but I suspect there were 20 or so Gadwalls and at least 10 Ring-necked Ducks.
I watched for awhile and tried a few pictures, but it was dark and so I had trouble getting a stable shot. Still, this one was passable and now that I know the field marks well enough to distinguish Ring-necks from Scaup, I’m confident in adding this new bird to my life list.
And then there’s the beauty of writing what you want to learn. I think I’ve learned a good bit about birds just from writing about what I’m seeing and experiencing in the field. Or in my backyard as the case may be. But, it’s easy to get overconfident and not notice what should be obvious (ie: that wasn’t a Lesser Scaup) and so the writing and posting what I think I know helps me nail down what I do know and still need to learn. I still have a lot to learn about ducks, for instance, which I’m discovering are kind of tricky.
Soon, the cold started to get to me and it was time to head home and feed the pups, but as I was going I noticed a buck nibbling the grass on the far side of the pond.
Amazing what else you can see when going out to look for birds. Of course, seeing deer around here isn’t that amazing. Had I been awake the other night I would have seen the one that came to our front porch to eat our plants.
For more bird blogging, be sure to check out I and the Bird #90.
But, not turkeys for which, I’m certain, these birds at least are thankful.
Yesterday, I walked down to the little pond at the end of our street to check out the ducks.
A Great Egret was hunting along the far shore and I saw at least 15 Gadwalls. You can see one in the above picture above the word ‘great’ in the caption.
I also saw one Ring-necked Duck. Lesser Scaup. I only ever saw one last winter so I wonder if it’s the same one.
A Great Blue Heron flew overhead out of the reeds behind me and I saw a few vultures, but that was it.
Update: Ted pointed out that the Ring-necked Duck had been mis-ID’d as a Lesser Scaup. I have corrected the post accordingly.
I left early this morning hoping that it wouldn’t be raining at Hornsby Bend, and despite a few quick showers on the toll road, it turned into a nice day with overcast skies and a steady cool breeze.
The egrets, herons and other waders I’d watched over the summer had all moved on, but the ponds were filled with ducks.
I saw hundreds of Northern Shovelers as well as a few Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks, and some Lesser Scaup. Along with the ducks, there were numerous American Coot and even a couple of Least Grebes.
I drove along the ponds, studying the ducks. The male Northern Shovelers are transitioning into their breeding plumage, which they do in November, so some of their breasts were a bit streaky.
Other than the ducks, I saw some flocks of some kind of sparrows (I think) that I couldn’t ID and a single Red-winged blackbird, which surprised me after the huge flocks of them I had seen over the summer.
Eventually, I decided to hike down the river trail to the lookout over the Colorado. I could hear Northern Cardinals and Carolina Chickadees, though I didn’t see either.
Walking along the trail, I spotted a few Carolina Wrens and a Northern Mockingbird as well as small brown birds that darted about, defying easy identification.
I watched the sky for hawks and eagles, but saw only vultures, both Turkey and Black. When I reached the river, a Double-crested Cormorant noisily flapped off away from the bank.
I didn’t see many more birds, but the trees looked especially good. There are three amazing trees that I always have to stop and look at and today, I had all my gear so I took a few pictures.
These are some of my favorite trees in Austin.
After taking this last picture, the wind picked up along with the kawing of a crow. I listened and a few more crows picked up the cry. I watched the sky and saw 3 American Crows hurrying towards a spot behind the tree I had been photographing.
Assuming they were mobbing, I looked around for a hawk and sure enough, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a hawk’s silhouette as he swooped out of the tree and towards the river.
By the time I got back to the car, the wind had picked up and it looked about to rain so I called it a morning and a good one at that.
I took my survey walk along the trail near the house on Saturday morning. The first thing that hit me when I walked outside was the sheer number of birds that were singing. It’s been a while since it was that loud. It was a beautiful spring day, and the birds knew it.
The pond held a few northern shovelers and a bunch of gadwalls (lousy over-enlarged picture above), a duck I hadn’t previously met in the neighborhood. I counted six of them in the pond with the two shovelers, but all the ducks flew away as one when a family walked up to the edge of the pond to skip rocks.
I got this shot of one of the gadwalls on the way out.
Along the way, I saw the usual suspects: mourning dove, carolina chickadee, northern mockingbird, American crow, killdeer, and lots of noisy blue jays.
The blue jays were a nice surprise. They’ve been lying low these past months, but with such a perfect spring day, they were out in substantial numbers. I heard far more than I saw, but I saw quite a few. They are also back in the yard for the first time since August.
The white-winged doves are back as well. Most of them left in November, leaving only a few stragglers behind. Saturday morning, I saw one of those clean-out-the-feeder-in-ten-minutes flocks that hasn’t been around in months.
So it’s spring, although a front came through today to give us one last bite of cold, and I’m curious to see when the ducks will leave for good and when the scissor-tails and swallows will return. I bet the swallows are here by next weekend.
One other thing I noticed on Saturday afternoon. I took the dogs out and the trees were erupting with chatters, screeches, cooing, twirls, and any other sound a backyard bird can make. The jays especially were having a fit. Then, silence as a hawk flew over. As soon as the raptor was gone, the singing resumed, but in a much less agitated manner. Nice of them to warn us.