Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: woodpeckers

Neighborhood Small Year 2009

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

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.

Ring-billed Gull

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.

Blotched Water Snake

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).

American Robin

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.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

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.

Ring-necked Ducks and Gadwalls

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:

  1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck *
  2. Gadwall
  3. American Wigeon *
  4. Blue-winged Teal *
  5. Northern Shoveler
  6. Northern Pintail *
  7. Ring-necked Duck *
  8. Pied-billed Grebe *
  9. Double-crested Cormorant
  10. Great Blue Heron
  11. Great Egret
  12. Little Blue Heron
  13. Green Heron
  14. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  15. Black Vulture
  16. Turkey Vulture
  17. Osprey
  18. Accipiter sp. *
  19. Red-shouldered Hawk
  20. American Coot
  21. Killdeer
  22. Ring-billed Gull
  23. White-winged Dove
  24. Mourning Dove
  25. Greater Roadrunner
  26. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  27. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  28. Belted Kingfisher *
  29. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  30. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  31. Downy Woodpecker
  32. Eastern Phoebe
  33. Ash-throated Flycatcher *
  34. Western Kingbird
  35. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  36. Blue Jay
  37. American Crow
  38. Purple Martin
  39. Barn Swallow
  40. swallow sp.
  41. Carolina Chickadee
  42. Black-crested Titmouse
  43. Carolina Wren
  44. Bewick’s Wren
  45. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  46. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  47. Eastern Bluebird
  48. American Robin
  49. Northern Mockingbird
  50. European Starling
  51. Cedar Waxwing
  52. Orange-crowned Warbler *
  53. Yellow-rumped Warbler *
  54. Black-and-white Warbler *
  55. Common Yellowthroat *
  56. Chipping Sparrow
  57. Song Sparrow *
  58. Northern Cardinal
  59. Red-winged Blackbird
  60. Common Grackle
  61. Great-tailed Grackle
  62. Brown-headed Cowbird *
  63. Baltimore Oriole *
  64. House Finch
  65. Lesser Goldfinch *
  66. American Goldfinch
  67. House Sparrow

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.

Update: This post was included in I and the Bird #118 at Ben Cruchan – Natural History.

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.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ever since I started birding I wanted to see a woodpecker, so I was quite happy when I saw a Ladder-backed Woodpecker in a tree in my yard in Oct 2007. Since then, I’ve learned how to see these little guys and now, I’m getting to where I can find them on the trail fairly easily.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Yesterday, while doing my GBBC count by the pond, I heard the drumming and so walked in its general direction, stopped and waited for my ears to guide my eyes. It turns out, he was right in front of me, tapping away on the lower trunk of a tree, which gave me a new appreciation for the effectiveness with which his striped back camouflages him.

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker hides in plain sight

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker hides in plain sight

Once they start pecking, woodpeckers seem to be pretty single-minded birds and so as I was not deemed a threat, he let me get pretty close for a few pictures.

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker lets me get close

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker lets me get close

I watched him for a while as he pecked and tapped at the tree searching for bugs. They have a tendency to spiral around a tree, but this one stayed in place and let me take pictures. I guess he knew the only real threat was that I wouldn’t get a decent shot and there was no way he was going to be out of focus. Eventually I stopped shooting and just watched him do his thing, which is really the whole reason for going out to look for birds in the first place. Eventually, this tree grew tiresome and he flew off to the high branches of another one.

The info about Ladder-backed Woodpeckers on All About Birds is interesting. They eat mostly insects and arthropods that they pry and tap out of trees. The page also describes their habitat as “desert and desert scrub” neither of which really describes my neighborhood, though this is the northeastern portion of their range. They are considered year-round residents, and according to All About birds are declining in Texas. Despite any declines, here at the edge of their range, they are the woodpeckers I see most frequently in the neighborhood. The others are Red-bellied, Golden-fronted, and Downy Woodpeckers.

Update 2.21.09: Be sure to check out I and the Bird #94 at The Birder’s Report as well as The Weekly Woodpecker Roundup at Picus Blog.

Great Backyard Bird Count – Day 4

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

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.

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker strikes a classic pose

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker strikes a classic pose

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.

Ring-necked Ducks and Gadwalls

Ring-necked Ducks and Gadwalls

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.

Gadwall

Gadwall

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:

  1. Turkey Vulture (2)
  2. American Crow (1)
  3. Lesser Goldfinch (1)
  4. Ring-necked Duck (20)
  5. Eastern Phoebe (1)
  6. Ladder-backed Woodpecker (1)
  7. Yellow-rumped Warbler (2)
  8. Gadwall (74)
  9. American Wigeon (3)
  10. Pied-billed Grebe (3)
  11. Carolina Chickadee (1)
  12. House Finch (1)

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.

Check out these other Great Backyard Bird Counters: Heather of the Hills and Austin birder Mikael at Birding on Broademead who got an awesome shot of an Osprey.

A Short Walk to the Pond

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

It was beautiful out yesterday, a good day for a quick bit of birding along the pond trail. Saw some goldfinches – American and Lesser high in a leafless tree feasting on seeds. I watched them until they flew in brilliant yellow streaks across the sharpest of blue skies.

A few minutes later an accipiter flew overhead. He was almost gone before I even noticed him. Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned, I couldn’t tell and probably couldn’t even if I could have hit pause on life. Call him Stan. He was beautiful, quick and silent. He ducked and wove the air through the trees and was gone faster than a dream.

Probably heading to my house to eat the rest of the House Sparrows.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Not a great picture, but the best one so far of the golden-fronted woodpecker, a relative newcomer to the yard.

Downy Woodpecker

I saw this downy woodpecker banging away on a branch about ten feet above the trail yesterday. Everyone I passed on the trail was talking about the woodpecker. Did you see the woodpecker? Did you see him?

Loud as he was, he wasn’t hard to miss.

Birdz in the Hood

Last week’s Great Backyard Bird Count project got me thinking about long-term counts around the neighborhood. What species come and go over the course of a year? Which are the year-round residents in our neighborhood?

I know that the ducks like this lesser scaup only come to the pond in the winter.

But what of the others? On Saturday, while walking along the trail down to the pond and onward to the creek, I decided to try to take a weekly count of birds and other wildlife I happen to see. If I can maintain this for a year, perhaps I’ll really know my local wildlife. Who knows, maybe they’ll start inviting me to their nests for insects and seed.

Red-shouldered Hawk

The two red-shouldered hawks that circled and swooped over the pond were by far the highlight of Saturday’s walk. One of them even came close enough to let me take this fairly decent picture.

Farther down the trail, I heard a faint tapping up in a tree. I saw two ladder-backed woodpeckers, male and female. The male is the one with the red cap. The female’s is black.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Along the way, I heard great symphonies of bird song, but only saw these:

  • 1 Lesser scaup
  • 2 Red-shouldered hawks
  • 4 Blue Jays
  • 1 Turkey vulture
  • 4 Black vultures
  • 2 Ladder-backed woodpeckers
  • 1 American crow
  • 1 Killdeer
  • 2 Bewick’s wrens
  • 2 Chipping sparrows
  • 4 House sparrows

Other than birds, the only animals I saw were dozens of turtles on the pond including a few that decided to pile up and sun themselves.

Great Backyard Bird Count – Day 3

Yesterday, I decided to do my Great Backyard Bird Count counting along the trail in our neighborhood. I left at 3:15. The weather was early-spring perfect, and a welcome treat after the previous day’s drizzle and rain.

I spotted a few mockingbirds, including this one:

Northern Mockingbird

I love listening to them sing; it’s like having all the other birds wrapped up in one. I guess they’re like the ipod of birds, set on permanent shuffle.

Often, I’ll follow a bird’s song only to find a mockingbird, but this time, there was a little chickadee bouncing in the tree. The number of dee’s in their call gives their assessment of any threat. I only rated one dee.

Carolina Chickadee

As I walked down the trail, I saw both turkey and black vultures spiraling overhead. I saw two hawks, but even with the binoculars, I couldn’t ID them as they were too far away. I suspect they were red-tails, though, since most of the hawks around here are.

At the bottom of the hill, the trail opens up into a kind of grassy meadow along the creek. A crow sat on the highest tree calling out to anyone who would listen. While studying the trees around the meadow, I saw a great blue heron glide past, slowly flapping its great wings.

Walking back up the hill, I heard a number of other birds chirping in the trees. I caught glimpses of chipping sparrows and even a blue jay, the first one I’ve seen since August.

Up near the trailhead, I ventured into a meadow where a small creek runs narrow and quiet beneath thick undergrowth. Looking up, I noticed a woodpecker clinging to the tree and apparently feeding or depositing something in a hole. He was either a golden-fronted or a red-bellied woodpecker, but he hopped into the hole before I could get close enough (even with binoculars) to figure out what he was.

I did get this shot of his head, as he sat there surveying the woods around him.

Mystery Woodpecker

It’s not enough to ID him for sure, though.

And, here are my “official” counts for the birds I could ID:

  • 2 Northern mockingbirds
  • 2 Turkey Vultures
  • 1 Carolina chickadee
  • 1 American crow
  • 1 Great blue heron
  • 1 Black-crested titmouse
  • 3 Black vultures
  • 2 Chipping sparrows
  • 1 Blue jay

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Until Saturday, I had never seen a woodpecker. Heard ’em, but never seen one. Then, last Saturday morning while sitting out back with the pups, I heard a faint rustling high in a tree in the backyard. I looked up and saw an unfamiliar bird with a striped back climbing along the upper branches of the tree.

This isn’t a great picture, but he was moving quite a bit, and I was trying to get something (anything!) so I could ID him before he took off. Fortunately, I got this and by zooming in with Photoshop, I could figure out his species. (I’m pretty sure I’m right).

Later, I put a woodpecker block in one of the hanging feeders. Hopefully he’ll come back so I can get a better look at him (and hopefully a better picture of him, too).

Still, adding a new bird to my list made for a great start to a really nice weekend.

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