Bird Notes from West Houston

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fallout!

On Saturday, April 29, conditions came together for a spectacular fallout event on the Upper Texas Coast. A cold front pushed offshore accompanied by thunderstorms on Saturday morning. As the birds migrate across the Gulf of Mexico, they encounter the northerly winds and rain and have to work harder to fly, which of course uses more energy. The birds are exhausted by the time they reach the Texas coast and will literally fall out of the sky into the nearest trees. There they will rest and find food to replenish their depleted energy. Fallouts can be great for birders. The birds are so focused on finding food that they abandon some of their natural habits. The birds will allow for close approaches by humans. Some birds that normally forage at the tops of tall trees will come closer to the ground. And then there is the sheer numbers of birds. I remember a fallout in April 1997 where the some of the trees at High Island looked as if they were alive because of all the birds moving in the branches. It was not a matter of finding a bird to look at, but a matter of deciding which bird I was going to look at. On Saturday the 29th, I had to work all day, but got off at 5:00. I got home around 6:00 and my wife and I went into the woods behind our house. We tallied thirteen species of warblers, many of which were the first time I had seen them for the year. Those warblers were:

Blue-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird

Other migrants were:

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Painted Bunting

My wife and I birded for 1 1/2 hours. There was more activity in that short amount of time than I had in my other excursions combined!

Unfortunately, as great as a fallout is for birdwatchers, it is not so good for birds. The birds have flown over 500 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula and hit the northerly winds and rain. They have been flying for 16 to 18 hours and are tired anyway. Many do not make it to the coast. They will just become too exhausted and fall into the Gulf and drown. Those that do make it to the coast often fall to predation by hawks, snakes and cats because they are so focused on finding food. Those that make it to the coast and do not fall prey to other animals are slowed on their migration because they have to replenish their bodies to continue the migration north.

On days in April and May when a cool front moves through, grab your binoculars and field guide and head to a wooded area. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you see!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Great Day Birding!

Glenn and I went birding on Sunday, 4/23. I've been telling him about my property in Chambers County, so he came over to see it. The birds just didn't cooperate with us. We did see a few pretty good migrants: Wood Thrush, Black-throated Green Warblers, Blue Grosbeak, a female Hooded Warbler, Indigo Buntings and the resident Northern Parula. We decided to run to High Island and see what was going on down there. We got to Boy Scout Woods just before 5:00 and before we got ten feet inside the gate, we had seen a Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blackpoll Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow Warblers and Baltimore Orioles. We made out way to the stands and there was quite a bit of activity around the water. There were Gray Catbirds, a Worm-eating Warbler, Scarlet Tanagers, a Kentucky Warbler, Indigo Buntings, Yellow Warblers and a Northern Waterthrush. We made a quick walk around the boardwalk and into the woods where I found a female American Redstart. Daylight was getting in short supply so we decided to go to Smith Oaks and brave the mosquitoes. We started off in the woods where we saw many of the same birds as Boy Scout Woods, but added a Gray-cheeked Thrush, Tennessee Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Orchard Oriole. The rookery was very active. We saw very clearly a Great Egret feeding three chicks. We also got to see alligators waiting below for the chance to grab a careless chick that might fall out of the nest. One of the more interesting things we saw was a turtle (I'm not sure what species) laying eggs on the levee at the rookery. On the way back, there was just enough light to see a Pileated Woodpecker fly across Hwy. 61 just south of Anahuac. In all, we counted 30 species at Boy Scout Woods, 40 species at Smith Oaks, 23 species on my property and 8 species driving to and from High Island.

This week and next week are the peak weeks for migration here. There are more species and higher numbers of each species, so this is a great time to get out and go birding! Wednesday looks especially promising with a cool front forecast to go offshore with rain accompanying it. Glad I'm off!

- Paul

Monday, April 17, 2006

Spring Migration Report

It seems that we are having a lower than average spring migration. People from all parts of the state are reporting fewer migrants this year. I have certainly found that to be true on my property. The number of species is significantly lower than it was this time last year. I'm not sure what the cause is, but strongly suspect it's a combination of the drought and the strong south winds we've been having. The birds come in and find fewer insects because of the drought and move on. Some of them take full advantage of the tail-wind and keep on going north and don't even stop here.

Listed below are the migrant sightings from my property and the date the first one was seen so far this year:

3/29 - Great Crested Flycatcher
4/5 - Eastern Kingbird
3/19 - Yellow-throated Vireo
3/29 - Red-eyed Vireo
4/12 - Tree Swallow
3/26 - Northern Rough-winged Swallow
3/19 - Barn Swallow
4/12 - Veery
4/12 - Gray-cheeked Thrush
4/12 - Swainson's Thrush
4/5 - Wood Thrush
3/15 - Orange-crowned Warbler
3/15 - Northern Parula
3/29 - Yellow-throated Warbler
3/29 - Black-and-white Warbler
3/29 - Louisiana Waterthrush
3/19 - Hooded Warbler
3/29 - Indigo Bunting

Mind you, I'm not complaining! I get concerned where there seems to be such a region-wide difference in bird populations. It may be nothing. Only time will tell.

- Paul

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rarity last week

On Monday, Apr. 3, a customer called the store and said he had an unusual bird coming to his finch feeder. As he described it, the only bird that matched the description was a Lesser Goldfinch, Carduelis psaltria. We told him how rare a Lesser Goldfinch is in Houston, so he came into the store to look at our field guides to make sure that he was actually seeing one. Upon examining the field guides, he was positive of his identification. After the store closed on Tuesday, I went to his house. After fighting traffic to get there, I stepped out on the backporch to see a bright yellow streak fly above my head. I'm sure that was him, but he never came back that evening. So, on Friday I went back at 5:30 armed with my camera. We sat on their back patio and about twenty minutes later he showed up! I got several shots of him. (I have to get the film developed before I can proclaim I got "good" shots!) About 6:30, he came in for one last meal and then left for the night. That was the last time anyone saw him. We're not sure why he left, but so far he hasn't come back to the feeder.

Check the birds at your feeders! Rarities show up in this area, probably more than we realize. If you see something that is unusual, look it up and let someone else know about it. Try to get photos of it to document the sighting. Video is even better. You never know when something rare will show up in your yard.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Migration numbers

I have been asked many times when the best time for birding is during spring migration in the Houston area. I have friends who live in other parts of the state who want to maximize their time here and see as many species as possible. So, they ask when to come. Until recently, I didn't know except to tell them that I always thought late April was the best time. Last night, I sat down with A Birder's Checklist of the Upper Texas Coast published by the Houston Outdoor Nature Club, Ornithology Group to answer that question. My criteria was to only consider migratory songbirds (from nightjars to orioles) that are listed as abundant (A), fairly common (FC) or uncommon (U). The dates I considered were the third week of March through the third week of May. Here are the results:

3rd week Mar.
Number of migrants - 22
A - 4
FC - 4
U - 14

4th week Mar.
Number of migrants - 32
A - 13
FC - 9
U - 10

1st week Apr.
Number of migrants - 45
A - 18
FC - 10
U - 17

2nd week Apr.
Number of migrants - 49
A - 29
FC - 13
U - 7

3rd week Apr.
Number of migrants - 65
A - 34
FC - 17
U - 14

4th week Apr.
Number of migrants - 69
A - 38
FC - 20
U - 11

1st week May
Number of migrants - 67
A - 37
FC - 18
U - 12

2nd week May
Number of migrants - 62
A - 23
FC - 25
U - 14

3rd week May
Number of migrants - 50
A - 10
FC - 23
U - 17

Migration is already going well. On Sunday, I saw Northern Parulas, a Yellow-throated Vireo and a Hooded Warbler in the woods on my property. I also watched Barn Swallows flying overhead. This morning, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow flew beside my car as I was stopped at a stopsign near my house. According to the numbers, it only gets more active in the coming weeks! Good birding!

- Paul

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Binoculars

With spring migration upon us, many will be interested in getting a pair of binoculars. Whether it is your first pair or a replacement for a well-worn pair, it is important to know a little about what you are shopping for.

Magnification
The first number in the binocular designation (i.e. 8x42) is the magnification. Most birders use 7x, 8x or 10x binoculars for regular birdwatching. The number represents how many times closer the binoculars will make an object appear. If you look through a pair of 8x binoculars, the object will appear to be eight times closer than it is with no magnification. Normally 10x is as high as you will want to go. While higher magnification binoculars magnify the birds even more than lower magnification, they will also magnify every little shake in your hands. For higher magnification than 10x, consider using a spotting scope with a tripod. Also, as the magnification increases, the light-gathering ability decreases.

Objective Lens
The second number in the binocular designation is the size in millimeters of the objective lens. A pair of 8x42 binoculars will have a 42 millimeter objective lens (the lens away from your eyes.) Typically the larger the objective lenses will allow more light into the binoculars giving you a brighter image. A 50 mm objective lens is usually the limit on birding binoculars because of the weight. On a bright, sunny day, the size of the objective lens will make little difference in light gathering. You will see the difference on very cloudy days, at dawn and at dusk.

Field of View
When you look through binoculars, the widest dimension that you can see will be the field of view. It is similar to peripheral vision. A wide field of view is helpful because the bird does not have to be in the center of your binoculars. You can put your binoculars in the general area and look for movement even if the bird is not in the center of the view. As the magnification increases, the field of view decreases.

Lens Coatings
The binoculars today are much different than binoculars thirty years ago. Many advancements have been made to improve the image and light-gathering abilities of binoculars. One of those advancements is lens coatings. Coatings help the light that enters the objective lens stay in one beam until it reaches your eyes. Binoculars with multi-coated lenses will provide better light-gathering than uncoated lenses with a larger objective lens.

Waterproofing and Fogproofing
Nine years ago, I had one of the most frustrating experiences of my birdwatching life. I had gone to High Island for migration and the weather was less than ideal. It was raining and cool. However, those less than ideal conditions created a spectacular fallout. The binoculars I carried were not waterproof or fogproof and fogged internally. I could not see anything. Fortunately a friend of mine had an extra pair of waterproof binoculars that she let me borrow and I could enjoy the birds. Having waterproof binoculars is great because you never know when you'll get caught in a rainstorm or be sprayed with surf at the ocean. Fogproof binoculars eliminate internal fogging from rain or from sudden temperature changes. Most roof prism binoculars are waterproof and many are fogproof as well.

These are some of the more important issues to consider when purchasing a pair of binoculars. Other issues such as eye relief, depth of field and exit pupil can be discussed when purchasing the optics. To make sure you are completely satisfied with your binocular purchase, go into a store with the optics and test them out. A good pair of binoculars is an investment. You wouldn't buy a car without test driving it first. You shouldn't buy binoculars without testing them first either. See how they feel in your hands. See how they fit your eyes. Compare the different kinds and find out which pair fits you best. Then enjoy them!

- Paul

Friday, March 10, 2006

Hummingbird Migration

Hummingbirds are starting to be seen at feeders around the Houston area. In the spring, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate through the Upper Texas Coast region to their breeding grounds further north. They will visit feeders a day or two before moving on. We usually see them from March to mid-May in spring migration. Our peak time for hummingbirds is in August, September and into mid-October. Click on the link to the right "Track Hummingbird Migration" to monitor the north-bound migration of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

The nectar solution is four parts water to one part sugar. No red food coloring is necessary. Most feeders have plenty of red on them to attract the hummingbird's attention. Change the nectar solution in your feeder twice a week to prevent fungus and mold from developing.