Sunday, January 21, 2018

All I Want for Christmas... are Some Year Birds

Guess what, folks – New Year’s resolutions work. If they didn’t there’s little chance you’d be reading this. Back in August we took an epic road trip throughout California, and around the same time we bought our first house, so there’s been plenty to keep us busy over here in Hipsterland. We’ll tackle CA in due course, but recently we’ve been sorting through photos from our holiday circuit, which brought us over to Upstate NY to visit my parents, and then down to Houston to see Maureen’s family.

Black-capped Chickadee

(Slate-colored) Dark-eyed Junco

We usually don’t have a lot of time to bird when we fly to NY, but the one patch we visit reliably is Schodack Island State Park, which BirdLife International deems an Important Bird Area because of its status as a breeding ground for Cerulean Warblers. No chance of seeing them in December – someday we’ll have to make it up there in spring – but we can usually turn up an American Tree Sparrow or two. Or in this case, 30.

American Tree Sparrow

In Texas we stayed in Missouri City, a bit southwest of Houston-proper. The manmade ponds in the local neighborhood are a sure bet for scads of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and assorted herons. The herons are a special treat, since we don’t get to spend much time with Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, or Tricolored Herons these days – also herons are what got me into birding initially, given the diversity of the eastern varieties.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

Little Blue Heron

Snowy Egret

Bad hair day, or best hair day?

On our way out to the ponds, a pair of Black Vultures were picking over the remains of a roadkill squirrel. The vultures were crushed in turn by Maureen, who mercilessly slayed them with her lens. Circle of life. The vultures scarfed down their Sciurid lunch in the road, but scooted out of the way whenever a car passed. Seems like a crow would know better, and maybe remove the corpse to a sidewalk where it could enjoy its squirrel guts in peace. Vutures: they’re no crows.

Black Vulture

"Have Fun"

A stroll through Sienna Plantation is a major boon to our year lists and we can generally turn up birds we won't see anywhere else in our annual travels. Neotropic Cormorants are present in smaller numbers than the Double-cresteds, but we've been able to find them pretty reliably over our past few visits. As for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds -- I can't believe we used to live where we only had one species of hummingbird. As spoiled as we are to live out west now, I sure miss these guys. At least we still have a chance to find them now and again.

Neotropic Cormorant
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

One Houston park we’ve enjoyed in the past is Bear Creek Park where we visited last spring and picked up some good stuff, like Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler. When I was looking through eBird reports this time around, I saw there were recent sightings of Couch’s Kingbird, LeConte’s Sparrow, and, oh yeah… Greater Pewee! (Spoiler, we didn’t find any of those)

Pileated Woodpecker

Pine Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

But we did still manage to leave perfectly satisfied with ourselves after tracking down a female Vermilion Flycatcher. We saw our first and only Vermilions in 2014 during our cross-country move. We’d hoped to find some at Joshua Tree this summer without luck, so this was a bit of a redemption.

Next time we'll pick up with a day-trip to Brazos Bend State Park to finish off our Texas trip.

Northern Mockingbird with a cutworm of some kind. Maybe we should import some mockingbirds to our yard while we still have some grass left.

Northern Cardinal

Monday, July 24, 2017

Malheur 2017 - Day 1, Part 1

One thing we have done consistently over the past three years that we’ve lived in Oregon is go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I’m sure you all remember the occupation last year that threatened our beautiful piece of public land, but that was not enough to deter birders. We still went last year shortly after the refuge roads opened back up, although the headquarters was still closed for another year. However, this spring, the headquarters reopened with the great efforts of diligent workers and volunteers, and we were ready for another annual trip. 

White-Faced Ibis

Tree Swallow in a nest box

Desert Paintbrush

Upland Larkspur

This place is truly a natural wonder and unlike anything else. Each time we go, we are truly in awe of this place – its geology, the wildlife, the views, and, of course, the birds.

Sagebrush sea


Juvenile Sage Thrasher

Before we arrived to Malheur, we spent the night in Bend and birded that area our first morning. We hit up the sagebrush areas in search of Green-tailed Towhees, Sage Thrashers, and Sagebrush Sparrows. We got the first two, but dipped once again on the sparrows – a sagebrush nemesis of ours. We also picked up Gray Flycatcher, watching it dip its tail and give its distinctive “chibit” call.

Gray Flycatcher

Green-Tailed Towhee

Green-Tailed Towhee blowing in the wind

Next stop was the Sage Hen Rest Area – a seemingly regular rest stop, but definitely far from it. There are nesting Mountain Bluebirds all over as there are several nest boxes posted around the grassy areas. It's hard to find any bluer blue than Mountain Bluebirds. It's almost impossible to truly capture their vibrant color in a photo. 

Male Mountain Bluebird

Female Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

Juvenile Mountain Bluebird

This year, we were pleasantly surprised to find nesting Say’s Phoebes, too! There was a pair working hard to gather lots of grubs and bugs to feed three hungry nestlings. Their nest was perched atop the light fixture above the women’s restroom. They surely did not mind the comers and goers that passed through the rest stop. There were also quite a few of these huge and beautiful Columbia Silkmoths - they were a beautiful red velvet color with bold patterning. I couldn't believe the Phoebes hadn't snatched them all up to feed their chicks!

Say's Phoebe

Say's Pheobe with a butterfly snack
Sweet baby Say's Phoebe - look at that precious gape!

Say's Phoebe chicks snuggling

Columbia Silkmoth

Columbia Silkmoth - Ain't it a beauty!

In the back of the rest stop is a lovely little loop trail. It’s a nice hike to see some wildflowers, butterflies, and songbirds. We picked up Brewer’s Sparrow buzzily singing away. We were caught off guard when I heard this little nasaly call up in a tree. I know it sounded kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then out in front of our eyes popped a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher! We were used to seeing plenty of these guys in the Southeast, but this was an Oregon first for us.

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow

Nelson's Hairstreak

Anicia Checkerspot
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Macro shot of a flower

After our rest stop hike, we were ready for the big leagues and headed over to the headquarters of the refuge. It was great to see this place back in action – plenty of birds and birders mulling about. There did seem to be a lack of hummingbirds compared to when we came the same time of year two years ago. Bullock’s Orioles were enjoying the nectar feeders with fewer hummers to hoard them. 

A peaceful moment at the Malheur NWR HQ
Black-Chinned Hummingbird

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

Red Admiral

Lazuli Buntings and Tree Swallows dazzled us with bright shades of blue. There seemed to be more Lazuli Buntings this year than our past two visits. The little females were plentiful - muted in color but still cute as a button.

A vibrant Male Lazuli Bunting

Male Lazuli Bunting

Female Lazuli Bunting

Female Lazuli Bunting

Tree Swallow

Steel blue Tree Swallow

There were plenty of pops of yellow all around the refuge. Bright and cheery Yellow Warblers and Western Tanagers lined the trees. And the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were a lovely sight, although they sound like demons from hell – but still delightful.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Juba Skipper

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-Headed Blackbird - beautiful bird, haunting call

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

It was so great to be back at the Malheur NWR Headquarters. Although some tension lingers amongst the locals, I know the naturalists and the birders can all agree that it's great to have this treasure up and running again. 

Juba Skipper

Juba Skipper