Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: first sightings (page 1 of 2)

Morning at Hornsby Bend

Painted Bunting

I slammed on my brakes when I saw the painted bunting. I’ve never seen such a bird, but I knew what it was immediately, so unmistakeable are these little guys. After he flew into the brush along the road to the Pond 2 blind at Hornsby Bend, I could have easily convinced myself I hadn’t see him.

I stopped the car and scanned the brush with my binoculars and found him perched on a swaying branch. I remembered I had my camera and started shooting, wishing I had run my car through the wash since I didn’t want to open the window and spook him. I took a lot of blurry shots and two or three in which you can’t even discern a bird, but I think you can see Big Foot. Somehow, the one above came out.

I could have gone home then, full of one little bird wearing his beauty so casually, or stayed in that spot watching him until dark, but eventually he flew off and I continued down to the blind to see what was on the ponds.

Most of the winter waterfowl have left Hornsby, though I did see a pair of blue-winged teals a couple of northern shovelers still hanging around. The long-legged waders of summer hadn’t arrived so I decided to wander down the river trail.

Empress Louisa

The birds were a little more secretive than usual on the river trail, but where the birds were hiding, the butterflies were out like I’ve never seen. We had a cool, wet winter and early spring and thus our wildflowers have been spectacular beyond what I’m used to and I suspect that’s led to this explosion of butterflies. Walking along the trails, watching the ground to avoid surprising rattlesnakes, my peripheral vision filled with the flickering colors of butterflies giving me the impression I was being followed, which I was, in so far as butterflies follow people.

Summer is coming quickly and the temperature started creeping into the mid-nineties so I decided to head back up to the ponds and on to the rest of my day.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Across one of the ponds, I could see a lot of black-necked stilts in the mudflats, and closer in there were grackles, killdeer and this lesser yellowlegs; at least I’m pretty sure it’s a lesser and not a greater yellowlegs mainly because he was a little smaller than the killdeer who came around and stood next to him long enough for me to get a few lousy shots. The killdeer and the lesser yellowlegs are listed as the same size in my guidebooks so I’m guessing this is a lesser.

And then, it was time to go. On the way out, I saw bank, cliff and cave swallows, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and even a pair of eastern kingbirds, which with the painted bunting was my second life bird for the day.

I think I’ve seen at least one (usually more) life bird every time I’ve ever been to Hornsby Bend. It always amazes me how once I’ve seen a new bird I start seeing it more frequently. Perhaps, to see a new bird is to learn how to see it and so my eyes and mind are open to it in the future. Over time I see smaller, better, slower and more.

A pond at Hornsby Bend

Lesser Yellowlegs

Update: This post is included in I and the Bird #125 at Twin Cities Naturalist. Check it out.

Solstice Birding at Hornsby Bend

Trail at Hornsby Bend

River Trail leading to Pond 3 at Hornsby Bend

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.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

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.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

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.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

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:

  1. Gadwall
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Northern Shoveler
  4. Green-winged Teal
  5. Bufflehead
  6. Ruddy Duck
  7. Great Blue Heron
  8. Great Egret
  9. Red-shouldered Hawk
  10. American Coot
  11. Killdeer
  12. Least Sandpiper
  13. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  14. Eastern Phoebe
  15. American Crow
  16. Carolina Chickadee
  17. Tufted/Black-crested Titmouse
  18. Carolina Wren
  19. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  20. Northern Mockingbird
  21. European Starling
  22. Cedar Waxwing
  23. Orange-crowned Warbler
  24. Song Sparrow
  25. Northern Cardinal
  26. Red-winged Blackbird
  27. meadowlark sp.
  28. House Finch

Update: This post was included at I and the Bird #116 at Listening Earth Blog. Check out the rest of the birds there.

Project FeederWatch Week 13

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

For Week 13 of Project FeederWatch, the Lesser Goldfinches decided to come around, which was especially exciting because they were a life bird for me, and my 10th for 2009. Goldfinches (Lesser and American) are both new to me and so I spent most of my feeder watching time this weekend watching them.

One of the best things about the Lesser Goldfinch is that they are permanent residents around here and so hopefully, they’ll keep coming to the feeder even after the Americans leave in the spring.

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

The nyjer bag seems to be the big draw (thanks again to my sister and her family for giving it to me for Christmas) and so I hung the fancy nyjer feeder, which hasn’t drawn a single goldfinch in the 2 years I’ve had it, above the bag. The bag is still favored, but some of the American Goldfinches finally discovered it, and not a moment too soon as the nyjer bag was getting a bit crowded.

At one time I saw 4 American Goldfinches and 2 Lesser chowing down on the nyjer seed. A few House Finches even came by, but they were more interested in the nearby hummingbird feeder, which I put back out this weekend on the off chance of seeing an early hummer.

American and Lesser Goldfinch

American and Lesser Goldfinch

The goldfinches are especially fun to watch because of their acrobatic nature: they seem as happy eating upside down as rightside up. The feeders are close to the window too, which makes photography sort of easy, but upon seeing these shots, I’m thinking I ought to clean the windows.

Other than the goldfinches, all of the usual suspects made appearances, the doves finally showing up just before dark on Sunday evening. At 16 species, this was my best count period for variety, though I’ve had higher numbers of individuals.

Two observations: Blue Jays only seem to come on Sundays. It is the only day of the week I’ve seen them the past few weeks. Doves are much scarcer than I thought they’d be. I knew the white-wing numbers decrease in the winter, but I never realized by how much.

And, now, the count…

  • White-winged Dove (1)
  • Mourning Dove (2)
  • Blue Jay (2)
  • Carolina Chickadee (1)
  • Black-crested Titmouse (2)
  • Carolina Wren (2)
  • Bewick’s Wren (1)
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  • Northern Mockingbird (1)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  • Chipping Sparrow (11)
  • Northern Cardinal (2)
  • House Finch (2)
  • Lesser Goldfinch (2)
  • American Goldfinch (4)
  • House Sparrow (4)

Be sure to check out I and the Bird #93: The Compelling Nature of Birds at Vickie Henderson Art.

Lesser Goldfinch has left the blog post

Lesser Goldfinch has left the blog post

On Seeing New Birds

Starlings at Hornsby Bend

Starlings at Hornsby Bend

In the past few days, I’ve identified several new birds for my life list: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Greater Yellowlegs, and American Kestrel. I’ve also gotten my first look at an Eastern Screech Owl. Pretty good start for the new year, there.

When I ID a new bird, I like to learn a little bit about its behavior. I have two good books for this: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior and The Behavior of Texas Birds, both of which I recommend. I never seem to lose interest in these secret little lives going on all around.

The really funny thing about IDing a new bird is that once I’ve figured out the bird and how to see it, I start seeing it even more frequently. Sometimes it appears as though they are everywhere. Where were all these birds the last time I came here? I wonder.

They were there, of course. I just didn’t know to distinguish them, know how to see them. There is an aspect to birding that creates an awareness of any given moment that is easy to lose when thoughts center on other places and times than the here and now.

Seeing a new bird for the first time reminds me of that most important thought: be here now.

When I went down to the pond on New Year’s Day, I saw several Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting about in the trees. I doubt they just arrived. More likely than not, they’ve been there all along, at least at this time of year. The thing that’s different is that since seeing that one in the backyard, now I notice them instead of my brain just processing small grayish bird and moving on.

The more I learn the more I see.

I suspect most things in life are like that.

Four Good Walks, Four New Birds

Gadwall over the Pond

Gadwall flying over the pond

I usually go walking around the building at lunch. My classroom has no windows and it’s just good to get out, breathe real air for a few minutes. I try to look for new birds as I go, and I’ll often bring some small binoculars in case something catches my eye. I’ve seen a few life birds this way, but this has been a lucky week.

On Monday, I saw a White-crowned Sparrow. Yesterday, I saw an American Kestrel. Both of those are life birds for me. In addition to those two, I also saw the usual Eastern Meadowlarks, Killdeer, and Mockingbirds.

When I got home, still feeling fortunate, I took a walk down the trail towards the little pond down the street. On the trail, I saw Black-crested Titmice and Carolina Chickadees chirping in the trees. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet darted around in a stand of cedar, and an Orange-crowned Warbler flitted about in an oak. Those last two are relatively new for me so it’s exciting to see them.

I walked to the little footbridge over the creek and watched the birds from there when a flash of something red darted out of a hole in a dead tree towards a stumpy cedar. I waited to see if it would return, but I didn’t see anything. Getting cold in the shade, I decided to get back in the sun and walk down to the pond.

Just before the pond, a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers caught my attention as they drummed some avian beat poetry into a leafless tree. As if only waiting for the woodpeckers’ drumroll, a Great Egret swooped out of the reeds and away up the trail.

Around the pond, I saw a mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler, my third life bird for the week. I had seen the warbler before, but never got a look good enough for an ID until today.

On the pond, Gadwalls, Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Least Grebes swam patterns into the still water. The number of ducks surprised me. I didn’t count, but I would guess there were between 30-40.

I also saw a mystery sparrow (I think) on top of a tree. The light was as bad as my angle so I quit trying to ID, and with three new birds in two days, I didn’t want to get greedy.

Other than those, the only birds I saw on my walk were vultures, both Turkey and Black, circling endlessly over the pond.

Today, I took my usual lunch walk and saw the kestrel again in the same place at about the same time. Like me, he must a schedule that brings us together around noon. This time I got an even better look, and since I knew what he was, I was able to really watch him without the buzz of “whatbirdisthishwhatbirdisthis?” running through my mind. The knowing enables the seeing.

After work, wondering how well the pond birds keep a schedule and wanting another crack at that mystery sparrow, I went back to the pond. One of the ladder-backs was working the same tree as yesterday, keeping his appointments, obviously. I didn’t see the sparrow, but the rest of the birds from yesterday were there as were a few Northern Shovelers and an American Goldfinch. I got a better look at the Yellow-rumped Warbler, and I saw a fourth new bird, an American Wigeon, preening out on the pond.

This time I took a rough count of the Gadwalls and got 45. Then I just sat down in the cool blue evening and watched while the egret hunted along the far shore, his feathers glowing bright in the fading sun, while ducks swam through the shadows of the trees. Couting and keeping lists of birds in fun and, when entering the data into ebird, scientifically useful, but it’s just the sitting and watching them be birds that’s really magical.

It’s the birdwatching, more than the birding, that makes for the perfect end to a day.

Project FeederWatch Week 8

The first Project FeederWatch count for 2009 was a pretty good one. Two new birds entered my count, and both of them are also life birds for me.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet came by on New Year’s Eve. I had seen him the day before, but couldn’t get a good enough look at him for an ID. He came again on Wednesday. I was sitting on the porch when I noticed him at the suet feeder. They’re tiny birds, but I was close enough to see most of the field marks without binoculars.

I went inside and came back with my Sibley guide and some binocs and was able to study him long enough to ID him. Thus, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet became my last life bird for 2008.

He was good enough to come by the feeders again on both of my count days, but he didn’t bring any friends. He did venture over to the pinecone feeders for some peanut buttered seeds.

On Sunday another new bird showed up at the suet feeder and became my first life bird for 2009: the Orange-crowned Warbler.

At first sight I thought he was the kinglet again, but on closer inspection I saw that he had no wing bars and a yellowish breast. When he turned upside down to get at the suet, I got a good look at his rump, which was bright yellow.

He came back a few times and each time, I was able to use my guide books to narrow him down more and more until I was certain he was in fact an Orange-crowned Warbler, which is one of only a small number of warbler species that winters this far north.

Other than those two, the usual suspects all made an appearance, with the Chipping Sparrows hitting a high count and the House Sparrows still unusually low. Perhaps they’re still leery about the hawk we had last week.

Here’s the count:

  • Black-crested Titmouse (1)
  • Carolina Wren (1)
  • White-winged Dove (6)
  • Carolina Chickadee (2)
  • Chipping Sparrow (9)
  • Bewick’s Wren (1)
  • Northern Cardinal (2)
  • House Sparrow (1)
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  • Northern Mockingbird (1)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler (1)

Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup

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.

Ring-necked Ducks in the pond down the street

Ring-necked Ducks in the pond down the street

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.

A White-tailed Deer checks me out

A White-tailed Deer checks me out

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.

A Morning at Hornsby Bend

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.

A clusterduck. Mostly Northern Shovelers.

A clusterduck, mostly Northern Shovelers

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.

Northern Shovelers

Northern Shovelers

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.

American Coots

American Coots

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.

River Trail

River Trail

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.

Tree at Hornsby Bend

Tree at Hornsby Bend

Another tree at Hornsby Bend

Another tree at Hornsby Bend

Yet another tree at Hornsby Bend

Yet another tree at Hornsby Ben

Closer to the previous tree

Closer to the previous tree

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.

Weekend Birds and Snake

The birds are singing a bit more and thus calling to be found. This mockingbird on one of the neighborhood trails especially so. He let me get pretty close before he took off, leaving me with perhaps my best mocker photo.

On Sunday R and I went to Hornsby Bend. On the river trail, we got a good look (and lousy shot) of this Crested Caracara perched high above the Colorado. We could hear, but not see, Blue Jays screeching at him from the nearby trees.

On the drive out, we had to stop for this Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, taking its time crossing the road.

After 20 years in Texas, this is the very first rattlesnake I’ve actually seen (heard lots of them, though). Strangely enough, the previous weekend, my brother was telling me he had just seen his first ever rattlesnake.

Halfway across the road, it stopped and started rattling. Not wanting to run over it and thus deprive the caracara or one of the many hawks swooping around the area of a tasty meal, I eased the car around it, but not before taking a few pictures.

Hopefully, it will be another 20 years before I see another one.

On the way out, with hawks screeching overhead, I spotted this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, one of my favorite birds. I took his picture, figuring this might be the last one I would see until April.

Of course, I’ve seen quite a few on the way to work the past few days, but they’ll be heading south soon.

Birds at Hornsby Bend

Every summer, I search for new places around Austin to hike and look at birds and other wildlife. This summer, I stumbled upon The Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory, located at the City of Austin’s Biosolids Management Plant/Center for Environmental Research.

It’s right on a bend in the Colorado, and the combination of river and the treatment ponds draws a huge variety of birdlife such as this Black-necked Stilt.

There are trails along the river, and a road that winds around the ponds so you can walk or drive, which can be nice for bird watching since your car can be used as a blind, which is useful for observing more skittish birds like this Snowy Egret.

I’ve visited three times over the past few weeks, and have seen the following birds (*’s by new ones):

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black vulture
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Barn Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Snowy Egret
  • American Coot
  • Spotted Sandpiper *
  • White-eyed Vireo *
  • Killdeer
  • Black-necked Stilt *
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Brown-headed Cowbird *
  • Mourning Dove
  • Green Heron

In addition to these, I saw a few “mystery ducks” that looked like Blue-winged Teal, but not quite, as well as a bunch of “peeps” (small sandpipers) that I was unable to distinguish, lacking as I do the birding chops to distinguish between the Semi-palmated, Least, and Western Sandpipers. Oh, well, I guess that gives me a reason to go back.

When my Dad and I went last week, we saw huge flocks of Red-wings and Swallows as well as large numbers of Egrets and Little Blues. I can’t wait to see the birds that show up once migration begins.

It’s not all pretty birds, of course. There are pretty spiders like this graden spider also.

The spiders are good as there are very large flocks of gnats, flies and other bugs around those ponds. When we got back in the car to leave, it was like sitting in a plague of insects. But closing the car up in the heat for an hour while we stopped for lunch cooked them pretty well.

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