Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Review: Bird Brain--An Exploration of Avian Intelligence

Princeton University Press sent me another winner for review.  Nathan Emery's Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence is thoroughly enjoyable throughout.

Historically, when someone calls us a "birdbrain," they are not being complimentary. We may need to rethink that, at least for some birds.

This book is a fascinating exploration of how birds learn, think and feel. The book looks at the structure of the avian brain and the abilities it provides to our feathered neighbors. It does this without being stuffy or beyond the reach of the general public with an interest in birds. Short essays on each topic allow a person to explore the book in snippets or to skip around the book to read whatever catches your eye.

For me, the geek, I really enjoyed reading how the experiments were structured to give us insight on how birds "think." I might have liked a little more detail on that, but I can always look that up. For most people, what is presented is enough. Beautiful photography and interesting illustrations add to the overall appeal of the book.

Any bird lover would love to have this book in his/her library. $29.95 from Princeton University Press or $23.32 on Amazon.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Wichita Wingmen Take Flight May 2

L to R: Chuck and Dianne Theuson, Penny Miller, Sue and Warren King
The Wichita Wingmen will take flight on Monday, May 2, competing in the Great Texas Birding Classic. This competitive event raises money for Texas Parks and Wildlife Conservation Grants.

It's probably fairly obvious where the name came from. We wanted to acknowledge both Wichita Falls and Sheppard AFB, while sounding "birdy." Since this is a Texas event, we don't have to worry about people confusing us for Wichita, Kansas. I am not sure why the locals call Wichita Falls, "Wichita," but they do.

Here we are, at the Wichita Falls Regional Airport, in front of the Jenny. We also had a photo in front of the trainer aircraft from Sheppard AFB.

The area we are competing in is the Prairie and Pineywoods West. We have 24 hours to locate as many species of birds as possible, from midnight to midnight, May 2. We cannot possibly cover this entire region (bordered by Wilbarger county to the west, Grayson to the east and Fayette to the south) thoroughly in this 24 hours, so we have chosen some specific areas with a few alternates that we feel we can do in that time. We have tried to choose different habitat types in the attempt to get as many birds as possible. We'll be sticking primarily to the northern half of our region.

I'll be tweeting throughout the day. You can follow at @birdwithpenny or watch the Twitter feed on this blog. Posts will also filter to my personal Facebook page for those who are connected. If you want to get updates on all of the teams, search for #GTBC16 on Twitter. The competition runs a month. As always, our goal is 100 species. If the weather cooperates, we may be able to hit that number. It is migration season and since we are including Hagerman NWR in our day, there are some distinctly different species there than here. We're hoping for little to no wind, which is an iffy proposition in our area. But if the weather forecast holds, we should have a great day.

Good birding!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Help Out New Birdwatchers

The Rolling Plains Chapter Texas Master Naturalist is holding its spring training for new wannabe Master Naturalists or for those who just want to learn more about nature and the environment in our area. I have the opportunity to teach the class on birds and we also have a field trip to teach the fundamentals of bird identification and get to know some of the common birds in our area. This year, the field trip was held at Lake Arrowhead State Park. Terry McKee and Debra Halter also helped the class members identify birds. It's always good to have more eyes and more knowledge when trying to explain, "Why did you say that bird is a .....?"

We didn't have any exciting birds, but we had several of the common ones for our new birdwatchers to cut their teeth. Birds found Saturday morning included: American coot, pied-billed grebe, gadwall, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, Canada goose, killdeer, least sandpiper, ring-billed gull, ladder-backed woodpecker, barn swallow, Bewick's wren, northern mockingbird, northern cardinal. eastern phoebe, Carolina chickadee, savannah sparrow, song sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, brown-headed cowbird, red-winged blackbird, common grackle, great-tailed grackle, European starling, and house sparrow.

I enjoy working with new birdwatchers. It helps keep the fun in finding a common bird, but seeing it through the eyes of someone who never recognized the birds before.

Good birding!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Birding at 75+

I've been a road warrior for work lately. I've spent way too much time in the truck. As much as I like what I do, the miles on the road sometimes get to be a bit much.

When my husband is driving, it isn't too bad. He doesn't mind driving and I can look around. However, as a rule, he doesn't come with me on work trips, so I have to drive. My husband teases me when we are traveling together because I always have my binoculars at the ready and have my little notebook to record any birds I see while we are flying down the road. But he has gotten pretty good about paying attention and letting me know if we pass a county line. He thinks I am crazy to record birds by county and at high speeds, you can't really get a good look at the birds.

It was hard enough at 70 mph. Since Texas raised the speed limit to 75 (and in some places, 80 or 85), it is even more difficult, especially if you are the one driving. Nonetheless, I do try to keep an eye out for birds, while trying to be safe. I must admit my scribbles are nearly indecipherable, as I have to try to write without actually looking at my note pad.

Over the past few weeks I have put around 2000 miles on my truck, with more than that still to come over the next two weeks. I always say I am going to take time on these work trips to do a little recreational birding, but it never seems to happen that way. I am either driving there, doing my work, or driving back. I was in McAllen a couple of weeks ago and didn't bird at all--that is really sad. I have been in 28 counties over the past two weeks and expect to be several more before I wrap up at the beginning of April.

Open area and wooded lot behind the hotel in Conroe
When you are birding at a high rate of speed, you really only see the birds that are very big, very conspicuous or very common and sitting right in front of your face. If you compared my lists from one county to the next, certain birds would be on more than not. I don't think I have a single county without a turkey vulture, for example. American kestrels and mockingbirds are also on most county lists. Unfortunately, so are starlings.

Good spot for a ruby-crowned kinglet
Why keep lists by county? First, because it is a fairly small area when trying to determine a bird's range. So when you put your counts into eBird, it helps create the range maps all of us rely on. Also, the Texas Ornithological Society created the Texas Century Club some years ago to encourage people to bird some of the more remote counties and find out more about the birds found in our state. The idea was to challenge birders to find 100 birds in 100 different counties. There are some people who have managed to do that. They are more focused than I. I probably have birds in 100 counties, but no where near 100 in many of them. But I am inching my way along-it's a target to work on, but I am not competitive enough in my birding to push for it. I'll get there eventually.

Tonight I am in Conroe, TX, near the beautiful Sam Houston National Forest. I did manage a short walk near the hotel this evening, as much to stretch my legs as to look for birds, but I can multitask. The best bird was probably some eastern bluebirds, although the ruby-crowned kinglet was nice as well. I've put a couple of cell phone pictures in this post. Construction crews are busily cutting down the trees and clearing the lands for stores and hotels, so most of this will likely be gone by next year.

It just goes to show, you can enjoy birds anywhere!

Good birding!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Are Your Purple Martin Houses Ready for Occupancy?

Purple martin pair.
 Photo courtesy of Dori on Wikimedia Commons
Purple martins are back in Wichita Falls! If you haven't done so already, it is time to open up your martin houses. If you left them open over the winter, it is time to evict the starlings and house sparrows to make way for the martins.

From experience, you may have to evict the starlings and house sparrows more than once before the martins move in. It is amazing how quickly house sparrows can stuff a space full of grass for their nests.

Once pairs are setting up house, I don't bother the martin house any more. True, some starlings and sparrows will move back in, but the martins seem to do a decent job of protecting their apartments, once they claim them.

We've had enough rain that it should be a pretty good year for these noisy little birds.

Good birding!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Big Day for Wild Bird Rescue Wrap-Up

Sitting Ducks and Raven Lunatics run into one another at
the Chat Trail and compare notes.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hawley.
L to R: Joy, Penny, Chuck, Warren, Sue, and Janet.
Not pictured: Katherine and Elizabeth
Sunday, March 6 was the Big Day for Wild Bird Rescue. Three teams covered Wichita, Archer and Clay counties to find the highest numbers of species of birds for the day.

It's not just about the birds. Beautiful giant swallowtail seen
on the Chat Trail in Lake Wichita Park.
It started out a beautiful morning, but about 10 AM a front moved in with high winds, greatly increasing the difficulty of the task. However, in spite of that, we had a good day. This year, the Sitting Ducks took bragging rights with 75 species for the day. The Raven Lunatics had 74 and the Chickadees, 67 species. The combined total of species was 97.  We still can't quite break that 100 species total. It's possible, but not easy.

Many thanks to Dianne and Chuck Thueson for hosting a post-count dinner at their home so the teams could compare lists and relate the day's happenings. Our team, the Raven Lunatics, logged over 150 miles driving and over 20,000 steps walking. Good exercise, birding.

I haven't heard the final fundraising totals. It isn't too late to donate--the baby birds will be coming into Wild Bird Rescue all too soon, so your support is important. You can mail a contribution to them at 4611 Lake Shore Drive, Wichita Falls, TX 76310 (be sure to put "Big Day" on the memo line.) You can also donate on line at their website. Again, please put "Big Day" in the comments. If you really want to make my day, you can add: "Raven Lunatics." But in the end, the important thing is the donation. All of the teams worked hard.

Here is a consolidated list of birds from all three teams.

American coot
American goldfinch
American kestrel
American robin
Bald eagle
Belted kingfisher
Bewick's wren
Black vulture
Blue jay
Blue gray gnatcatcher
Blue-winged teal
Bonaparte's gull
Brewer’s blackbird
Brown thrasher
Brown-headed cowbird
Canada goose
Carolina chickadee
Carolina wren
Cedar waxwing
Chipping sparrow
Clay-colored sparrow
Common grackle
Dark-eyed junco
Double-crested cormorant
Downy woodpecker
Eastern bluebird
Eastern meadowlark
Eastern phoebe
Eurasian collared dove
European starling
Ferruginous hawk
Field sparrow
Golden-fronted woodpecker
Great blue heron
Great egret
Great horned owl
Greater scaup
Greater roadrunner
Greater yellowlegs
Greater white-fronted goose
Great-tailed grackle
Green-winged teal
Harris' sparrow
Herring gull
Hooded merganser
House finch
House sparrow
Inca dove
Ladder-backed woodpecker
Least sandpiper
Lesser scaup
Lesser yellowlegs
Lincoln's sparrow
Loggerhead shrike
Mourning dove
Northern cardinal
Northern flicker
Northern harrier
Northern mockingbird
Northern shoveler
Orange-crowned warbler
Pied-billed grebe
Pine siskin
Purple martin
Red-bellied woodpecker
Red-shouldered hawk
Red-tailed hawk
Red-winged blackbird
Ring-billed gull
Ring-necked duck
Rock pigeon
Ruby-crowned kinglet
Ruddy duck
Sandhill crane
Savannah sparrow
Sharp-shinned hawk
Song sparrow
Spotted towhee
Swainson’s hawk
Tufted titmouse
Turkey vulture
Vesper sparrow
Western meadowlark
White pelican
White-crowned sparrow
White-faced ibis
White-winged dove
Wild turkey
Wilson's snipe
Yellow-rumped warbler

All I have to say it, "Wait Until Next Year!"

Good Birding!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Great Backyard Bird Count Was "Great!"

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was Feb 12 - 15. I have finished updating my checklists, so thought I would give you a summary of four great mornings of birding. Four days worth of birding makes for a long post, but some good birds.

I am not going to provide the number of each species as those are in the eBird checklists I turned in. You can either pull them from eBird or email me at and I can forward them to you.

Fires in Lucy Park
On Friday, I started the GBBC in Lucy Park. It just makes me want to cry to go to Lucy Park any more. On the advice of hydrological engineers, the city of Wichita Falls has been cutting down many of the old trees in the park, clearing all of the understory and clearing and burning pretty much all of the branches and leaves on the ground. This is intended to reduce the potential for flooding. I know the City Council isn't going to weigh bird habitat heavily against potential property loss among their constituents, but it still makes my heart hurt. This used to be a premier place to bird. Lucy Park still has relatively decent birding, at least for woodpeckers, as there are still many old trees with cavities still in the park. However, as the understory is removed, the habitat is likely to be more favorable to starlings. The birding has steadily declined over the past 2 years. I don't know if Lucy Park will be worth the effort next year. I was joined on this count by Ray and Sharon, fellow Texas Master Naturalist.

We had a pretty decent morning with the following species seen: turkey vulture (unusual for this time of year), red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, mallard, Canada goose, Eurasian collared dove, white-winged dove, mourning dove, northern flicker, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, ladder-backed woodpecker, tufted titmouse, American robin, Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, blue jay, ruby-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing, northern mockingbird, song sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, great-tailed grackle, red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, house finch, American goldfinch, yellow-rumped warbler, and European starling,

Saturday was the regular bird walk at Lake Arrowhead State Park, which we also did as a GBBC count. Mike and June, two regulars for the Saturday walks, came.  For me, the highlight was the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a pretty winter visitor to our area. Our species for the morning included: double-crested cormorant, Canada goose, American coot, pied-billed grebe, mallard, gadwall, white pelican. ring-billed gull, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, mourning dove, white-winged dove, Eurasian collard dove, eastern bluebird, eastern phoebe, northern mockingbird, northern cardinal, blue jay, ruby-crowned kinglet, Bewick's wren, American pipit, eastern meadowlark, dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, Harris's sparrow, common grackle, great-tailed grackle, loggerhead shrike, orange-crowned warbler, and house sparrow. On my way home (still in Clay County) I saw a great blue heron, a couple of American kestrels, and a red-tailed hawk. A Cooper's hawk was sitting on a pole on Sisk Road (Archer County.) Altogether a nice outing.

Sunrise on Lake Wichita
Debra, Terry and James at the GBBC count behind Wild
Bird Rescue
People wonder why I like birding. One of the big reasons is that it is so quiet. Look at this picture of Lake Wichita at sunrise. Even with a cell phone photo, you can see just how peaceful it looks. It helps that this time of year, sunrise comes at a very reasonable 7:20 or so. This was right around 7:30. Several Texas Master Naturalist came out for this count--Terry, Debra, James, Tami. Katherine from Wild Birds Unlimited also came out. Both James and Katherine scored a lifer with the yellow-rumped warblers (Myrtle).  We had some momentary excitement when we heard a barred owl calling, but then we remembered where we were--Lindsay, one of the education birds at Wild Bird Rescue was the culprit.

This count was a stationary count behind Wild Bird Rescue, where we also host the Big Sit. Species seen included: white pelican, pied-billed grebe, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall, redhead, American coot, northern shoveler, bufflehead, Canada goose, double-crested cormorant, greater yellowlegs, killdeer, great blue heron, ring-billed gull, Eurasian collared dove, white-winged dove, yellow-shafted flicker, ladder-backed woodpecker. northern mockingbird, northern cardinal, blue jay, cedar waxwing, great-tailed grackle, red-winged blackbird, American robin, western meadowlark, American crow, European starling, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, yellow-rumped warbler (Myrtle's), orange-crowned warbler, house finch, and house sparrow.

Monday I was the lone birder for Lake Wichita Park. I limited the walk to the chat trail and the barrow pit--unfortunately, I do have to work sometime as I like to eat. The first bird I heard/saw when I got out of my truck in the parking lot was a belted kingfisher, one of my favorites. I had 11 species of birds before I got out of the parking lot, which boded well for the morning. But then, I came across this mess--can you believe the nerve of people?

Dumped trash at Lake Wichita Park
 Fortunately, some good birds helped my temper. Birds seen this morning included: Canada goose, white-fronted goose, mallard, norhtern shoverler, bufflehead, redhead, ruddy duck, American coot, gadwall, pied-billed grebe, northern pintail, ring-billed gulls (hundreds circling the water treatment pond), killdeer, Eurasian collared dove, white-winged dove, great horned owl,  great blue heron, belted kingfisher, northern flicker, red-bellied woodpecker, northern cardinal, blue jay, eastern bluebird, eastern phoebe, yellow-rumped warbler, Carolina chickadee, Bewick's wren, cedar waxwing, northern mockingbird, white-crowned sparrow, song sparrow, field sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, great-tailed grackle, European starling, American robin, and American goldfinch.

 Overall, a great GBBC.

Good birding!