Monday, January 26, 2009

Historical Bird Counts

I received a email from Terry McKee concerning old CBC reports mentioned on OKBIRDS list, mentioning Texas wrens and White-rumped shrikes. So I did a little research. It would appear the Texas wren is the Bewick's wren and the white-rumped shrike a subspecies of the Loggerhead shrike. It can be confusing when names change over time. But no worse than the lumping a splitting of species that happens every year.

Good birding!

More Harbingers of Spring

A post on TEXBIRDS a couple of days ago indicated a purple martin scout in Laredo, so the martins are beginning to move back. They should begin showing up in our area in a few weeks, so if you have a martin house, you might want to put your spring cleaning on the schedule.

If the scouts were watching the weather, they would delay their trip a little, I think. It is supposed to be nasty here with a winter ice storm later today.

It looks like the Turkey Vultures have held up in Montague County. I took another trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex on Saturday, again seeing plenty of turkey vultures, but not north of Montague County. As cold as it was, it is a wonder they weren't staging a retreat.

Good birding!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Talking About Turkey Vultures

I wrote a post a couple of days ago about black vultures. One of the comments was that turkey vultures aren't here in Wichita Falls in the winter.

But what is winter in Wichita Falls? I was brought up in Indiana and although I haven't lived there in 30 years, I still tend to have winter in my brain as November - February and for birds, winter is more like Sep/Oct - Mar/Apr. However, winter is more truncated here. The birds start moving south in the fall and meander through Texas later (sometimes weeks later) than their northern departure. In the spring, they again pass through Texas moving northward earlier than they arrive up north.

Today I was driving home after dropping my daughter at the DFW airport and guess what? Turkey vultures! I had been to Plano (between Dallas and Ft Worth, to the north) on the 16th and did not see any TV's the entire trip. Today, I saw large flocks in Denton County, some in Wise County, and one or two birds in Montague. None in Clay or Wichita, but the birds appear to be moving this way--I expect they'll be coming in within the next day or two.

So I had to check the North Texas Bird and Wildlife Club checklist for our area. It is not just Wichita County, but close enough. It shows the TV common and abundant most of the year and uncommon over the winter. So I guess occasionally the birds do hang out here over the winter and I just haven't noticed them previously. But regardless, they seem to be moving this way as we speak, so spring appears to be closer than I think (I don't think of January as spring--but then the buds are swelling on the Bradford pear tree next door, so what do I know?)

Good birding!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

TOS Meetings

One of the reasons for joining a birding organization like the Texas Ornithological Society is to go to meetings and participate in field trips to learn more about birds. The TOS recently held its winter meeting in Bay City. I wasn't able to go and reading the meeting report from Ron Weeks, TOS President on TEXBIRDS was enough to make me regret the fact that I had other commitments. For those interested in what you may have missed, the full report is at

The next meeting is scheduled for April 23 - 25 in Austin. Of course, I am supposed to be teaching a class on the 25th, so I won't be able to make that meeting either. Sigh....

Mark your calendar now--the field trips are always fun and there are some excellent birders who can help you improve your birding skills.

Good Birding!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A New Blog of Interest

If you are interested in bird conservation issues, take a look at a new blog, Texas Bird Conservation Alliance.

Good birding!

Do You Bird Around Jacksboro, TX?

A friend of mine, Terry McKee, is compiling a checklist for Fort Richardson State Park and the Lost Lake area near Jacksboro, Texas. If you have sitings from this site, please send to her at

Good Birding!

It Just Takes One Thing

I have been birding for many years, and am still learning. Thankfully, there will never come a day when I know everything there is to know about birds. What fun would there be in that?

I find that you can struggle with identifying a bird for years and then one thing will strike me and afterwards I'll be able to identify the bird on sight. Sometimes, these identification hints come from another birder, a magazine article, a blog post, or a field guide (that's why most birders have multiple field guides--the identification information varies).

I used to struggle with the black vulture on the wing. I don't know why as their shape is quite different from the turkey vulture, but there you have it. But then somewhere I read about a triangular "window" at the wing tips, and I haven't had a problem since. And with that key ID information, I have been able to spend more time looking at the bird, just to watch. Even more differences then become apparent when you're not so focused on trying to compare ID points.

This "window" is very helpful when driving. Friday, I was driving down the highway at 70 mph and caught sight of a flock of black birds over a field. It's not a good idea to spend a long time scoping out the birds at that speed, but in this case, a fraction of a second was all that was required--the field mark was obvious. There are no turkey vultures in this area in the winter, but when I initially caught sight of the flock, I thought "crow." Size-wise that doesn't make much sense, but at a distance and at speed (and supposedly focused on traffic), it's easy to jump to the wrong conclusion.

To a birder experience with the black vulture, it might seem this was an easy ID, and it was. But I am often asked by new birders how I can ID birds so quickly. All I can tell them is practice, practice, practice. Every year another bird goes from my frustrating list to my familiar list. I'm not likely to live long enough to move all of the birds from one list to another, but I look forward to the process.

Good birding!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cotton is King in West Texas

I had a business trip to Hobbs, NM so found myself driving across west Texas on Sunday and again on Tuesday. It is cotton harvesting time--cotton balls everywhere. In some places near the fields, it looked like snow. Cotton is definitely king out west. I knew cotton was important, but I admit to being surprised about the peanuts! I'm still associating peanuts with Georgia (which just shows how much play you can get out of someone in the White House). In addition to bales and bales of cotton, there were several huge peanut processing plants.

But back to cotton....I saw thousands of sandhill cranes on the way back on Tuesday, all of which were in the recently harvested cotton fields. I wonder why that is. If anyone has a thought, I would be interested.

Good birding!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Like the Outdoors? Become a Texas Master Naturalist!

If you love the outdoors, consider participating in the upcoming Texas Master Naturalist spring training. There are several chapters throughout the state of Texas. All of them sponsor a training class in the spring.
In Wichita Falls, the Rolling Plains chapter is now recruiting for the class beginning late March through early May. When the class schedule is finalized, I will publish links to the schedule and the application, which will be posted to the chapter's website. If you want to see examples of some of the work the chapter does, here is a link to the chapter website,
You can take the class to learn more about the flora and fauna of the Rolling Plains and increase your enjoyment of the outdoors or you can take the plunge to become a certified Texas Master Naturalist and help spread the joy to others. I received my 1000 milestone award tonight at our chapter meeting, along with chapter President Lila Arnold. Many other members received awards and some members of the last class received their initial certification pins. It is really nice to have a group of people who understand how you can get excited by a bug or fascinated by horned lizard droppings (you'd have to see it to understand.) The great thing is the chapter does so many things, there is something to interest everyone. Regardless of your interest area, there is something for you.
Yours truly has taught the basic bird class the last couple of years. If they haven't found someone more qualified they can talk into doing it, I will probably be there again this year. I really enjoy helping people learn something about birds and the challenges they face.
Good birding!

Follow Up on Field Sparrows

I can always count on Terry McKee when it comes to having detailed information on sitings in this area. Anyway, her information follows concerning when the species has been observed in this area:

"Field Sparrow is a common winter resident from October 19 to April 10.Other records include May 19, 1991 -2 males singing in eastern part of Wichita County- McKees, June 17, 1982 Wichita County- Pulich"

Good birding!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Winter Sparrows

It's cold this morning. Near 70 yesterday and in the 20's this morning.

One of the special things about winter is the arrival of the winter sparrows. A few years ago I set myself the task of learning the LBJs and have become much better with my identification, although I am by no stretch an expert.

I consider the field sparrow one of my winter feeder favorites. A small sparrow, it has a wide-eyed look due to the distinctive eye ring. I usually have one or two that will come to the feeder each day; today I was excited to have three at one time searching the ground for the seed that I throw out each morning (not that there is much to search for--I am generous in the amount I throw on the ground.)

I decided to look up the species account for the field sparrow on Birds of North America online ( and my first surprise was the range map. It showed Wichita Falls in the year-around area of the map. I know I have never seen nor heard a field sparrow in this area during the summer. I have an email out to Terry McKee from the North Texas Bird and Wildlife Club for clarification. She and her sister Debra Halter keep records for this area and publish the bird checklist.

Field sparrows live in much of the eastern United States and don't migrate much. They vacate the very northern portion of their range and their southern range moves south somewhat. Their range is contained within North America--unlike many of our migratory birds, they do not move south into Central or South America.

According to BNA, the field sparrow normally doesn't frequent areas inhabited by humans and is uncommon in the suburbs. I suppose that is why it causes comment when I mention them at my feeders. But I have an unruly yard, next to an unkempt lot near open area. Perhaps that is why I am so lucky.

As is true of many sparrows, they eat primarily grass seed, supplemented by insects in the breeding season. Field sparrows build their nests in tall grasses within a few feet of shrubby vegetation or in the crotches of shrubs or saplings. They may nest multiple times in a season, building a new nest each time. Only the female broods the eggs.

One interesting item I noted in the species account was a record of the field sparrow feigning a wing injury when a predator approached a nest. We think of this in the killdeer--I wonder how many other species of bird demonstrate this behavior?

Another interesting note in the account was that cowbird parasitism was not very successful. Although cowbirds did parasitize field sparrow nests, few of the cowbirds fledged (unfortunately, neither did the baby field sparrows.) Makes you wonder why cowbirds continue to try, doesn't it? It would seem at some point, this behavior would stop. But perhaps the cowbird can't differentiate between one little bird and another.

Good birding!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Grasshoppers and Birds

A few days ago I mentioned I received the Fall 2008 copy of Wings from the Xerces Society. I did finally read the article on grasshoppers and noted several references to the importance of early emerging grasshopper species to plains birds, such as longspurs and burrowing owls.

"...more than 70 percent of the diet provided by longspurs to their nestlings was grasshoppers..." pg 10

"Juvenile burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) are fed small mammals by their parents, but when they leave their burrows they capture large numbers of insects. These include the red-shanked grasshopper..." pg 11

We put grasshoppers and crickets in net cages with insectivores and small raptors (kestrels and Mississippi Kites) at Wild Bird Rescue when we can catch enough and they do indeed love them.

Good birding!

El Despoblado

Yesterday I received my first copy of El Despoblado, the e-newsletter of the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, TX (see I had visited their website before, but this is the first time I read the newsletter. It is a collection of articles and pictures submitted by naturalists throughout the state. Pretty pictures and a variety of interesting information.

One of the articles was by a friend of mine, Paul Dowlearn, the owner of Wichita Valley Nursery in Wichita Falls. He suggested replacing the crepe mrytle with the Texas Mountain Laurel as the Texas state shrub. I agree that the crepe mrytle should be replaced. Although it is pretty and very common in Texas yards, it is not a Texas native. You would think the state anything would be native to the state.

Overall, I would recommend the newsletter to those interested in Texas natural history. I did not find a way to sign up for the newsletter on the webiste, but if you email Burr Williams, the Executive Director, at, I am sure he will sign you up.

Good birding!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

It's Not ALL About the Birds

Although I have a special passion for the birds, I am interested in all nature's creatures. Consequently, one of the groups I am a member of is the The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The Fall 2008 copy of Wings, the organization's magazine came yesterday. I very much enjoy the pictures and articles.

This month I was thrilled to see an article on freshwater mussels (I participate in the TPWD Nature Trackers Mussel Watch program) and one on grasshoppers, which I promised to learn more about in the coming year. The organization recently revamped its website, making it a wonderful resource for anyone interested in invertebrates. The website is Check it out. If you have any interest in these fascinating creatures, consider the $25 membership--it's worth the money.

Cool quote from Fall 2008 Wings article, "Small Animals That Pack a Big Punch:"

"Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord." Tom Eisner, former Xerces Society president.

Good birding!

Happy New Year!

I started 2009 on an up note. I got up a little late after playing taxi for my daughter last night (I am very grateful she has the sense to make arrangements for this.) I didn't get out to fill my bird feeders until a little after 8. A crisp, sunny morning.

My first bird of the new year was the cedar waxwing. I had been wondering where they have been. Some of my birding friends have been seeing and hearing them for weeks, but I have not been so lucky. But when I walked out my back door this morning, their call was the first thing I heard. There was a flock of about a dozen sitting in the top of my neighbor's tree.

Such a wonderful bird to start the new year--I am taking the experience as a good omen for 2009.

Good birding!