Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Mailbox Bonanza

I haven't had much of an opportunity to get out to watch birds lately, so I am suffering from withdrawal. Sometimes I have to get my birding fix some other way. Yesterday was a bonanza in the mailbox.

First, TOS is running a special by sending extra copies of old annuals to members. I asked for copies. They arrived yesterday, so I spent the evening reading old articles. I also got my Project Feederwatch materials from Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology. I have been a feederwatcher for several years and always get excited when the materials come. Project Feederwatch is one of several citizen science projects sponsored by Cornell. The data helps researchers learn more about bird populations and ranges in the United States. I'm ready to do my part.

In Project Feederwatch, people watch birds during 2-day periods between mid-November and March, and record the numbers of birds of different species that come to their feeders. There are some birds which do not come to feeders, so not all birds are covered in this study. But it does include birds that prey on birds at the feeders, such as roadrunners, merlins, and sharp-shinned hawks.

Good birding!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chimney Swifts

This morning I stopped by Wild Bird Rescue on the way to work and was on the porch with Bob, the Executive Director, before leaving, watching the sun come up. The chimney swifts started coming out of the chimney swift tower.

Chimney swifts are some of my favorite birds and I lobbied hard to get a chimney swift tower built. Chimney swifts are declining in numbers across most of their range, probably because people now cap their chimneys. Although chimneys are not the only place these birds nest, they are an important nesting site. Chimney swifts also nest in hollow trees, cisterns, silos, and barns. Chimney swifts fly at all times they are not roosting. Once they leave the tower in the morning, they fly all day, capturing and eating insects on the wing.

Chimney swifts build a nest out of small twigs and saliva, which is the glue that holds the nest together and attaches the nest to the wall of the structure. Each tower has one nesting pair, although several birds may share the tower. The other birds that roost in the tower are unmated birds. It appears the unmated birds assist in the raising of the brood in the one nest. The young birds may cling to the side of the tower and exercise their wings. Once they fly out of the roost, the parents will not feed them again, although the young will continue to return to the roost at night.

The chimney swifts will be leaving soon for the Amazon Basin and I will be listening for their chittering call in the spring.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Recycling the Neighborhood

Out near the Lake Wichita Spillway there is an overpass that houses a lot of pigeons underneath year around and in the summer, hundreds of cliff swallows along the outside, under the overhang of the road. The cliff swallows have headed south, abandoning their nests for the year. As soon as the cliff swallows leave, the house sparrows move in. Last winter, almost every nest had house sparrows. So far this year, it appears to be about half. I am sure the nests provide better shelter than most of the places the house sparrows nested. The openings point down, which would keep the rain off and help make the shelter less accessible to predators. However, I do note that it appears the house sparrows gravitate toward nests that have some damage (and therefore, a wider opening)--at least at first.

I originally intended to check out the tank to see if any ducks were coming yet, but youth football season has started and the park was packed, so I headed toward the spillway. In a short walk along the biking/walking trail between the spillway and Southwest Parkway, I saw a great blue heron, American phoebe, killdeer, blue jays, mourning dove, Eurasian collared dove, white-winged dove, starlings, barn swallows, chimney swifts, pigeons, house sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, and an immature red-bellied woodpecker. There was also an Empodonax flycatcher I was unable to clearly identify. As usual. I also heard a belted kingfisher, but did not find him. So nothing spectacular, but the weather was beautiful and since I only had 45 minutes to spend before I had to get back to Wild Bird Rescue, it was good.

Later in the morning, I did see a green heron at Wild Bird Rescue.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hurray for Bird Clubs

I first went to a meeting of bird watchers when I lived in Virginia. It was a relatively large group (20 - 30) people. There I found people who shared my passion for birds--I could rhapsodize about a bird with people who actually understood. Most importantly, there were people who knew a lot more than me. I went on trips with them, and they helped me improve my identification skills. They showed me the good places to see birds. I had my first experience with bird banding. Birders generally are very helpful to amateurs, remembering that we have all been (and many remain) novices.

When I moved to Wichita Falls, I started looking for a bird club, worried there wouldn't be one in a smaller town. Wichita Falls does have its bird club, the North Texas Bird and Wildlife Club. This club is not exclusively birds, but that is the primary topic of discussion at meetings. The club is very small, which is unfortunate. All of the same good things happen here. People are friendly and helpful, regardless of experience. The members rotate preparing programs for the meetings and bringing snacks. Friendly people, interesting information, and food--what more could a person want in an organization?

I know we would love to have more people visit and take part. Meetings are the third Tuesday of each month at 7PM at the NALC building on Southwest Parkway (next door to Wichita Valley Nursery) in Wichita Falls.

I Love the Discovery Channel

I am not a big TV watcher overall; neither am I often able co-opt the remote control from my husband. But I did last night.

My husband and I watch football together. It is about the only thing we both like, so Monday Night Football is rather like "date night" for us. Anyway, last night the Cowboys were playing and neither of us is a Cowboy fan. I know that is sacriligious in Wichita Falls, but there it is. We root for whatever team is playing against them, if we watch them play at all. So my husband went back to the office to play on the computer and said he would check in periodically on the game. So I flipped over to the Discovery Channel.

A great show about cloning dinosaurs ala Jurassic Park. So what does that have to do with birds? Well, the discussion was that it would be easier to reverse engineer a bird than to piece together the small pieces of DNA available through fossils and other remnants of dinosaurs for cloning. They were showing the many similarities between birds and dinosaurs and how a modification to various control genes caused dinosaur characteristics to show in birds. Characteristics like longer tails and teeth. Overall, fascinating. You would think after watching the show for an hour I would have caught the name of the program, but I didn't.

We did end up watching most of the Cowboys/Eagles game. It was a very good game, although in the end, the wrong team won....

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cool Stuff About Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are fascinating. They are probably the bird I get the most questions about and the bird I am asked to give the most presentations about. Since hummers seem to be on everyone's mind since they are present in large numbers right now, I thought it would be a good time to post a few interesting things about them.
- In flight, a hummingbird's heart rate exceeds 1200 beats per minute
- Hummingbirds can enter a state of stupor to survive cold weather, and their heart rate may drop to 50 beats a minute and they may not breath for long periods of time
- Hummingbirds are the only birds which can fly backwards
- Many ruby-throated hummingbirds cross 500 - 600 miles of open water
- Hummingbirds are polygamous and dad does not contribute to raising his babies

If you love hummingbirds, you should love spiders. Not only are small spiders prey for hummingbirds, but hummingbirds will pick small insects out of a spider's web and use spider silk to build their nests. Some larger spiders can eat hummingbirds, however. Other hummingbird predators include cats, shrikes, roadrunners, and large frogs.

If you have ever had a humimngbird in hand, you would be absolutely amazed that a bird so tiny is so hardy and resilient. Truly a miracle.

Hummingbirds on the Move!

Beverly McClure posted a comment to the last blog about the wrens, commenting on the increased numbers of hummingbirds in her yard over the past several days. I also received an email from a fellow volunteer at Wild Bird Rescue that she had 10 - 12 hummingbirds at her feeders this past week. It's that time; the hummers are on the move to their winter homes.

Here in Wichita Falls, we normally have 2 species of hummingbirds in the summer--the ruby-throated and the black-chinned. However, during fall migration other species may show up. So keep your cameras handy.

It is important to leave up your feeders during this time and leave your flowering plants (don't cut them down) so these little guys can tank up. Many of them fly over the Gulf of Mexico for several hundred miles without a stop and need the extra calories.

Please post if you have any interesting sitings.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I have been told that wrens nesting in the yard is good luck. Anyone know the origin of that idea? Since I have a pair of Bewick's wrens nest in my yard every year, I am willing to believe the tale. We can all use a little more luck.

I enjoy watching these little birds. Talk about a Napoleonic complex--these guys have a lot of attitude crammed into a little body.

Although Carolina Wrens are common in this area, I have rarely heard them in my yard--I assumed because the Bewick's were keeping them out. I have occasionally had Carolina Wrens and Bewick's Wrens at the feeders in the winter, but most birds seem to get along better outside of breeding season. However, a couple of weeks ago, I started hearing Carolina Wrens when I went out back. I was hoping that did not mean they had run out the Bewicks. I worried for several days, but can now say I have seen and heard both types of wrens around the yard now, so apparently they can get along.

Other than the song, to me the best way to tell the two birds apart is the brighter color of the Carolina and the distinctive outside white feathers of the Bewick's. I don't know if it is an accurate observation, but it has also seemed to me that the Bewick's has a bit more of an attitude. Of course, all wrens display a lot of attitude, but it seems to me the little Bewick has it in spades.

There is some question whether the Carolina Wren and the Bewick's Wren may compete. If so, the Bewick's appears to be the one losing the competition as their numbers are in decline. There is documented impact of House Wrens on nesting of the Bewick's, but we don't have nesting House Wrens in our area, so is not an issue here.

I look forward to watching several more seasons of wrens fledging in the yard and giving me continuing good luck.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Tricky Warbler

Fall warblers are notoriously difficult. Of course, it doesn't help that the little birds are in constant motion.

I was walking across the Midwestern State University campus when I saw a far off flash of orange-brown. Thinking there might be an oriole, I headed toward the bird. It wasn't an oriole--too small. Instead it was a warbler. You would think being more orange than yellow would simplify things. It might once I have a chance to sit down with my books, but not immediately--color is rarely definitive.

The little guy was flitting from branch to branch, gleaning the foliage and ducking behind every leaf he could find. He was well up in the tree, so my neck was cranked back in an unnatural position, and my binoculars were in the truck (after all, I was supposed to be at work, not watching birds--darn it!) I got a couple of reasonable, 5-second looks before he flew off, but was unable to make a certain ID.

So what's the point of posting if I don't know what I saw? Well, the point of the study of birds is to learn, not to know. If we knew all there was to know, then it wouldn't be fun any more (but it would be a whole lot less frustrating, I am sure!)

If I figure out what I was seeing, I will post a follow up later.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Improved Membership Bennies from TOS

The Texas Ornithological Society (TOS) has been working hard to make membership more attractive. Brad Lirette, the Membership Committee chair, has been pulling out all the stops to improve the value of TOS membership (in the interests of disclosure, I am a life member of TOS).

Recently, it was announced that TOS members could get their subscription to Birds of North America for $25 a year instead of $42 (of course, that happened right after I renewed this year--but next year will come around quickly enough). Also TOS members can also get 30% off books published by the Texas A&M University Press (and we've already established that one cannot have too many bird books!)

Thanks, Brad and TOS!

Getting Out the Winter Duds

(Note: photo courtesy of Lila Arnold)

The European Starlings are molting into their winter attire. In the summer, they appear predominantly brown--I think because so many are young birds (they have a very high survival rate). Right now they are an odd combination of winter and summer with speckled breasts and brown backs and wings. Soon they will be a glossy black with spots all over them.

The starling is a very successful introduced species. Today some 200 million starlings make their home in the United States from an original release of about 100 individuals in New York's Central Park in 1890 and 1891. This is not a good thing for our native cavity-nesters as starlings are intensely competitive for these nesting sites.

Although I think of starlings as year-around residents, many starlings do migrate. They tend to be associated with urban areas and agricultural crop land--areas with short vegetation. They avoid large areas of woodland or desert. They will eat almost anything. Although invertebrates (especially those which live in the soil) are their favorite food, they eat fruits and berries, seeds, garbage, and livestock and pet food. Their diet is almost exclusively invertebrates in the summer and more plant foods in the winter.

I was reading the account on starlings in Cornell University's Birds of North America (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna) and found it interesting that the digestive system of the starling changes with the change in diet:"The digestive system of starlings can respond to changes in diet to make more efficient use of a seasonally variable food supply. After switching to plant food, the gut lengthens, the gizzard becomes larger, and the intestinal villi lengthen (in Feare 1984). The rate of food passage through the gut also increases (Levey and Karasov 1989)."

I am always amazed what information you can find on Birds of North America--I didn't know that starlings cannot digest sucrose or that they prefer green nesting materials.

I don't care much for starlings, mostly because they are very aggressive in seeking cavities to nest and will evict many of our natve birds. Among them: wood ducks, buffleheads, woodpeckers, bluebirds, great crested flycatchers, purple martins, and tree swallows. Since there are many other small burds that use bluebird boxes to nest, I assume they would also interfere with them: wrens and chickadees for example. However, you have to admire their ability to be so successful in the scheme of things.

Unfortunately, there is not a good deterrent for starlings--they adapt fairly quickly. I don't often have any starlings in my yard, but I don't maintain a beautiful yard either. My neighbors have them; I see them as I drive by. But I rarely have any. Sometimes in the winter I will have one or two show at the feeder. But my yard has a lot of bushes, tall grass and trees and very little grass. There are good things about being the neighborhood yard pariah.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

It's All About the Birds

I used to think I was the only person who was distracted by bird sounds in the background of radio interviews and who nitpicked bird facts in movies. At least, my family and friends led me to think so. However, a few years ago, there was an article in one of the bird magazines where a well-known birder (I can't remember which one now) was relating how his family and friends didn't like watching certain movies with him because he would rant about the inaccuracies about birds. In this particular column, he was talking about Alfred Hitchcock's movie, The Birds. So now I know I'm normal.

I was listening to an interview on NPR in the truck this morning and it happened again. Obviously, the interview was taking place outside as a bird was singing in the background. It wasn't a bird I knew, so I was absorbed in trying to figure out what it was. However, the interview didn't include the location, and I didn't figure out the bird in the 30-second sound clip. Neither can I tell you who was being interviewed or what the discussion was about. It's all about the bird...

I also go nuts when there is incorrect information about birds given in movies. I was watching Charlie's Angels with my kids one evening and one of the clues was the song of a bird. We won't even go into how incorrect the information was. It wasn't a great movie to start with, but I was completely distracted by the fact they put bad bird facts in the movie. Heck, they would have someone who knew something check clothing, or historical facts, or hairdo's--why not a bird the plot of the movie depended upon? They could at least have used a real bird, with accurate information. One good thing though...at least the birder in the movie was one of the heroines, not a complete geek.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Road Trip

Today my husband and I drove to Dallas, TX to pick up my son's car. He moved to Chicago and they elected to take only his wife's car. Since he did not sell the car before he left, we went to get it, and I drove it back. It is my habit on road trips (when my husband is driving) to take my binoculars and bird. I forgot my binoculars, which is nearly unheard of, but did see some birds on the way. My husband gets a kick out of me writing down the birds I see, especially as I keep track of the county I am in.

The Texas Ornithological Society (TOS) has a Texas Century Club, where members try to log at least 100 species in each of 100 Texas counties. There are 254 counties in Texas, only a few of which have many records on file. The goal is to encourage more birding in under-birded counties. Although birding along a highway is not easy and tends to be monotonous as we don't stop, I have meticulously kept lists of birds I see in each county we pass through. My problem is that I don't update them in ebird, which is the official repository for the information. TOS has added a link to the Century Club section on its web site (http://www.texascenturyclub.org/.) It is easy to tell who the dedicated counters are.

Overall, I think this is a great idea. Now if I can just find someone to enter all of my lists.....

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Update on Green Pigeon

I really thought we would lose the green pigeon. He was losing weight daily. He wouldn't eat on his own and was throwing up a lot of what we were putting down his throat. He had terrible diarrhea. He acted as if he had been poisoned.

If he was dyed, it is possible the dye was the source of the poison. A local vet told us at Wild Bird Rescue that birds can absorb dye through the feathers. We couldn't find any trace of dye on the skin, so absorption through the feathers would be a source.

Yesterday I went by to check on him and he was starting to pick up some seed on his own and had gained a couple of grams from the day prior. This was great news as he had lost so much weight that he was in danger of having his internal organs shut down. He isn't out of the woods yet, but there is at least more hope.

Babies Are Flying the Coop!

I volunteer as a rehabilitator at Wild Bird Rescue. We recently released about 30 baby Mississippi Kites we have been backup feeding for the last week or so. They have been eating like little pigs. But we have also seen them catch and eat dragonflies in flight, which is what they are supposed to do. A couple of days ago, 20+ were coming in for breakfast. Yesterday, it was 4. The kites are moving out.

I came into my office yesterday and looked up--there were 25 - 30 kites circling. There was a good wind yesterday--remnants of Hurricane Gustof. That made it a good day to start migration. I could still hear a few kites calling this morning, so not all of them are gone. But it won't be long now.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bird Watchers Protested at Republican National Convention

I was watching what little there was of the RNC Convention yesterday on Fox News, my husband's favorite source of news (and we won't get into that domestic controversy here).

On an obviously slow convention news day the Britt Hume reported on a group (Good Conduct Society) at the RNC protesting bird watchers. Supposedly, bird watchers have a more active sex life and some bird watchers have a voyeuristic need to watch birds mate for "vicarious sexual gratification." This seems to be a non sequitur; it would seem if one had such a great sex life, you would not need to watch birds' mating habits for gratification. Maybe I have been going at things all wrong.....

Personally, I think this is a group of people having a good time, hoping to make the national spotlight for their 15 minutes of fame. Looks like it worked. Birdchick.com thinks their sights are much higher--the Daily Show. In the meantime, check out their admittedly sparse website at StopBirdPorn.org. The discussion board is hilarious. You don't need to work today, do you?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Texoma Water Garden Society

Thursday I had the pleasure of speaking to the Texoma Water Garden Society. I have thought about joining this group several times. There are several people I know and like in the club, and I have wanted a pond for years. But at present a pond is not in the cards, and I need another meeting to attend like I need another animal in the house. But they asked me to come talk to them about birds, so of course I said yes.

Initially, Marjorie asked me to talk about hummingbirds. Then she asked if I could also share some information about the Mississippi Kite.

The group meets in the backyards of its members, so everyone can see their ponds. The hosts this month had a beautiful yard. Everyone brought food. The group was gracious and had a lot of questions. Many have hummingbird feeders in their yards and flowering plants to attract these beautiful little birds, so were already interested in the topic--sure makes it easier on a speaker that way.

All in all, a great time for me. I didn't notice anyone dozing, so I assume my presentation was at least short enough to keep them from nodding off.

It's Not a Warbler, But It Will Do

Saturday morning there was a fallish hint, so I decided to hit the Chat Trail in Lake Wichita Park. If there is any stretch of the city trail system likely to yield good birds, it's the Chat Trail. It is a short gravel pathway (about 1/4 mile) that runs between the parking lot of the youth football fields and meets up with the main trail coming off the Lake Wichita dam, near the barrow pit. There is plenty of water (most of the time), some marshy area, and a small patch of deciduous woods. It is a well-known spot for warblers during migration season.

Well, I saw some decent birds, but not many and no fall visitors. I did see a Sainson's Hawk, a Great Horned Owl, a wild turkey, mallards, various doves, blue jays, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles. Not horrible, but not what I was looking for. I was feeling a little bummed about it and decided to check the barrow pit for waders. No waders, but as I was scanning the shoreline, 4 deer came out of the mesquite brush in the far side to move down to the water for a drink. One was a fawn, more than half the size of the does he was with. He kept trying to get the others in the group to play, charging at them and then springing back and running in a circle. You could tell Mom and the others in the group were more interested in keeping an eye out for possible predators. I got to watch them for a few minutes, before two bikers came across the bridge, talking to one another loudly and the deer jumped back into the brush. The bikers didn't have a chance to see them.

It is amazing to me how an animal the size of a deer can appear so suddenly and disappear just as quickly, especially in fairly open scrub/mesquite. It is also a wonder how so much wildlife can exist so closely to a fairly populated area. In Lake Wichita park, there are deer, beaver and bobcat as well as the more common raccoon, possum, armadillo, etc. I haven't seen coyote in Lake Wichita Park, but they are not all that far away. I have seen them near my house in town and along the highways near the edge of town. And last year a friend of mine had a porcupine in his yard.

So I didn't see any fall warblers, but sometimes it's OK not to get what you expect. Little surprises like the deer make wonderful memories.