Tag Archive | migratory birds

Postcards from Texas: Boy Scout Woods

Posted by Matthew Sim

Spring migration is starting to wind down here in Texas and I had still not been to the coast, thanks to a very busy schedule. This was made very painful a little over 2 weeks ago, when on Thursday, April 26th, a cold front grounded migrants and created a massive fallout of birds at coastal hotspots; what many locals were calling the best birding to be had in over 15 years. And I was stuck at school. Friday, there were still migrants everywhere. People were being told to try to avoid stepping on tired migrants that collapsed exhausted by the dozens on paths and lawns. And I was still stuck in school. Well surely I could get out on the weekend? Nope, weekend was already chock full of chores and commitments.

Finally though, on the Sunday I had the day off and I convinced my mom to chauffeur me down to High Island. She agreed (after a little while!) and we set off; though the weather forecast wasn’t going to create a fallout, I was still hoping for some good birds.

We arrived at Boy Scout Woods, a sanctuary run by the Houston Audubon at around 10:30 in the morning. The day got off to a great start when a very tame male Kentucky Warbler put on a show at one of the many small ponds and drips.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Things were looking good and as I walked through the woods I soon found my first Scarlet Tanagers and Black-and-white Warblers of the day.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

I carried on through the woods, seeing more thrushes, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, orioles and warblers, including a Worm-eating Warbler which scurried about in the undergrowth, giving me only fleeting glimpses. Things started to quiet down apart from dozens of catbirds and a very vocal Eastern Kingbird.

Eastern Kingbird

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Yellow throated Vireos were common throughout the woods.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

After an hour and a half, with fewer and fewer birds showing up, we decided to head over to another Houston Audubon run sanctuary, Smith Oaks, famous for its heron rookery. Before we left though, we stopped by at a house across from Boy Scout Woods whose front yard was covered in bottle brush and attracted many birds including Baltimore and Orchard Orioles; Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Female Orchard Oriole

Female Orchard Oriole

As we left this property, we spotted a Common Nighthawk perched on the street, content to just sit quietly. From there it was on to Smith Oaks! The trip to Smith Oaks will be posted tomorrow, stay tuned.

Postcards from Mexico – Calgary Birds on their wintering grounds

Posted by Dan Arndt

While on vacation, I had planned to look for some of our old favourites from Calgary who might also be down here enjoying the warm weather for the winter. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. I was a little surprised though at just what species I did find down here, and which ones I expected to find, and didn’t.

I do want to clarify too, that many of these birds spend all year long down here, but their range extends all the way back home to Calgary, which, as the crow flies, is about 4100 km. Quite staggering, when you consider that many of them make the migration from Calgary to this part of the world with very few stops for food or shelter.

Here are just a few of our fine feathered friends enjoying the sun, sand, and tequila down here in Mexico!

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

American Coot

American Coot

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

American Redstart

American Redstart

Sanderling

Sanderling

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

American White Pelican and Peeps

American White Pelican and Peeps (along with a couple cormorants and Brown Pelicans)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Migration at Hull’s Wood

Posted by Matthew Sim

Last week I rode my bike down to Hull’s Wood in Fish Creek P.P. twice to see how migration was coming along; I was not disappointed! As I rode through the woods both times, the chips of warblers and sparrows emanated from the trees and shrubs along the river. The woods were full of Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Least Flycatchers and Warbling Vireos (not all of these were migrants) while several American Redstarts, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes and Baltimore Orioles were also present. There was also a single male Wilson’s Warbler, a single Yellow-rumped Warbler and a single Connecticut Warbler.

Least Flycatcher

Connecticut Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

This was all quite exciting but by 10:30 a.m. both days things quieted down for warblers so I went to Lafarge Meadows to check out shorebirds. Both days I found 6 species of shorebirds in Lafarge Meadows along the Bow River; Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Migration is coming along well, so if you have the opportunity, get out there! There are lots of great spots in and around Calgary for migrating birds whether it be Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, Confederation Park, Weed Lake, Fish Creek P.P. or your own yard, find your favorite spot for migration and sit back and enjoy the show!

Wintering blackbirds in Texas

Winter leaps upon us in a flash. One minute, it seems, it is a very distant shape looming faintly on the horizon. Suddenly, before we know it, winter has struck, leaving us wondering where the summer went. In Texas, the same seems to happen with wintering birds. One day, only the year-round residents who call Texas home can be seen. The next day, countless wintering birds of all shapes and sizes are everywhere, confusing even the most attentive eye.

Countless blackbirds flock together during the winter

On a recent trip to Brazos Bend State Park here in Texas, about an hour southwest of Houston, we observed some spectacular flocking in action. Literally thousands upon thousands of blackbirds; Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings congregating on some farmer’s fields. They swarmed and swirled, seemingly in perfect coordination, lifting off and landing as a unit. And yet, this is not a sight you can readily behold on these bird wintering grounds. You don’t see flocks of thousands of these species doing this in the summer, so why do they do it in the winter???

These blackbirds have quite a few reasons for doing this in the winter but these flocking habits also have numerous downsides. First of all, on the positive side, foraging is greatly improved by the large flock as opposed to a single bird or a small group. The more eyes you have working together, the easier it is to find food! More eyes can also mean more safety from would-be predators, and trust me, there are a lot of them!

This brings us to one of the downsides of wintering flocks. Predators. Lots of them. Where there is food, there are consumers, waiting to, well, consume the food. Raptors see these blackbirds as one huge buffet just waiting to be sampled. In a small farmer’s field, we counted up to 20 raptors: about 10 Caracaras, many Red-tailed Hawks, several White-tailed Hawks, a Turkey Vulture and a couple of Northern Harriers, all exploring the delightful opportunity of a full stomach all winter long. If these hawks were to stick with the group of blackbirds, they could potentially always find one or two to pick off from the pack. The more birds in a flock, the more noise and commotion they make, rendering them easily visible targets.

Large concentrations of any living thing invariably bring with them two other depreciating factors; disease and competition. Avian diseases can be spread very quickly in such large flocks and may sometimes ravage a great portion of the local species. More birds might find better food sources but if there isn’t enough to go around, there simply isn’t enough. Weaker, slower and sick birds often will be the first to go hungry as they cannot compete with the healthier individuals.

It was definitely a neat sight to behold, especially when a raptor would plunge into the center of the throng, sending up explosions of blackbirds. One of the White-tailed Hawks that we spotted, an immature, had a very full crop (a muscular pouch near the throat used to store food), showing us that it had been eating well recently.

In the end, the advantages of these congregations greatly outweigh the disadvantages and it is a bewildering sight that will continue to captivate many a fortunate observer.

Posted by Matthew Sim

Willet (or won’t it)

As colder weather begins to descend upon Calgary, it can be nice to reflect a little bit on some birds that we were familiar with during the summer months.

Many species of birds vary greatly from region to region. The Willet is one of these birds that are highly variable with two distinct subspecies, the eastern semipalmata darker, browner and thicker-billed than the western subspecies inornata that we see both in Calgary, and down here on the Gulf Coast.

A western inornata Willet

A large shorebird with a flashy black-and-white wing pattern seen in flight,  the willet was given its name thanks to its territorial call: pill-will-willet. A very vocal bird, the Willet, as biologist William Vogt wrote many years ago, has another call, a ringing kaaaty. When William Vogt studied a breeding pair of Willets back in 1938  he couldn’t help but call them Will and Kate, thanks to their calls.

Another western Willet

Several years ago, before I was a big birder, I traveled out east for vacation. I observed my first Willet out there and now I have the chance to compare photographs of eastern and western Willets.

While the shots of the Western Willets are winter plumaged birds, you can still see the smaller size, darker color and stouter bill in the eastern Willet pictured above.

I always find regional variations in birds intriguing and the Willet is a bird with an easily visible difference, making it a good subject to view and compare from the east to the west.

Posted by Matthew Sim

Fall Migration; Warbler Season!

As with the warblers that have now joined the southbound shorebirds, I too have migrated south; all the way down to Houston, Texas for the school year. I will be able to report on some of the birds that call Calgary home in the summer, such as robins, warblers and waterfowl, as they fly to warmer climates for the winter and then I will be able to announce their return trip to Calgary and the remainder of Canada as they return north next spring.

There are several different species of warblers you might be seeing in Calgary this fall; some will have assumed a drab winter plumage, making the identification of several species difficult; this identification can be made even harder due to the habit warblers have of flitting in trees and in bushes as they hunt for insects, rarely pausing for good views. Here are some of the warblers you are most likely to see in Calgary this fall.

Wilson’s Warbler: Usually feeding within 3 meters (10 feet) off the ground, these small, active and energetic birds are bright yellow; the males have a round black cap while females and immatures show only traces of this cap. When identifying these warblers, remember that they are olive above, bright yellow below and lack both streaks and wing-bars.

American Redstart: Described by Roger Tory Peterson (one of the world’s most famous birders) as “a butterfly-like bird, constantly flitting, drooping wings and spreading tail”, the American Redstart does just that as they act like a flycatcher, darting between perches to snatch up flying insects.

Black-and-white Warbler: Living up to it’s name, the Black-and-white warbler is striped black-and-white above and has a white belly. This pretty bird has an unusual habit for warblers; thanks to long claws, it can move along branches and trunks like a nuthatch, searching cracks and crevices for insects.

Orange-crowned Warbler: A drab warbler with olive-green upperparts and grey-yellow underparts, most Orange-crowned Warblers seen in fall and winter are very grey. Most Orange-crowned Warblers do not come through southern Alberta until the last two weeks of September and are sometimes accompanied by our next warbler, the Yellow-rumped.

Yellow-rumped Warbler: Brown above, streaked white below, the Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter plumage is best identified by it’s namesake yellow rump.

Other warblers that you might see this fall are the Ovenbird, the Blackpoll Warbler (in winter plumage), the Tennessee Warbler or even some more uncommon ones such as the Black-throated Green Warbler or a Townsend’s Warbler. Fall migration can prove to challenge every birdwatcher with identification, but this challenge can make birding a lot more fun!

Posted by Matthew Sim (In Texas)