Thursday, April 30, 2009

Texas hill country: three for three plus ...

I'm now in San Antonio for the Oncology Nursing Society Congress. This is a different blog entry entirely, but sticking with birds for the moment, I had a big day yesterday with three target birds planned for my Texas hill country visit.

My first stop was Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Hunt, Texas, about 100 miles northwest of San Antonio.  On road FM 1640 and almost to Kerr WMA, I finally found my Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus).  I had been told that this would be an easy and plentiful bird.
It was certainly easy; they're hard to miss perched on utility wires.  But, they were not plentiful. I saw only two during my long drive and much of it through perfect Scissor-tailed habitat.  I later met birders from Virginia who had driven to the hill country from the south.  They guesstimated having seen 50 to 75 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers along their drive.  Though the weather was not cooperative, the bird certainly was and I was happy with this life bird sighting.
I arrived at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area around 8:30 am.  The guys who work here had not begun their day yet and I spoke with a very nice and knowledgeable guy who told me exactly where to look for the Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapillus).  He was not a birder and he warned that the wet and overcast weather might harm my chances of seeing the bird.  It was warm and a light rain fell  continuously.  This kind of weather mirrored what I find to be very accommodating spring migration birding weather in Michigan so, despite his caution, I was not discouraged.   The Black-capped Vireo area happened to be very birdy.  I listened for a vireo song and the Black-capped was the second bird I put my bins on after Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus).  Other vireos here were the very common White-eyed (Vireo griseus) and Blue-headed (Vireo solitarius).  With the exception of its big red eye, the female Black-capped Vireo is superficially like the adult Blue-headed. The male Black-capped really stands out with its striking black head and, even in flight, is easy to identify.  Its voice has the tone and texture similar to White-eyed Vireo, but the song is more complex and disorganized.  
My pitiful Black-capped Vireo photo.  He was facing me and singing but before I could snap the shutter he turned and I got his shadowy back end instead.  This bird is completely cute and a pleasure to see.
Copied from XBAT, Extensible Bioacustic Tool, here's the Black-capped Vireo shown beautifully.

While I was seeing the Black-capped Vireo the area was enjoying a fallout of migrant birds, many on their way up north, but I had only this one day to bird and I needed to stay focused. One of the things about Texas is how distant places are; places look close on the map, but the scale of Texas is so huge.  I did a lot of driving this day.
Golden-cheeked Warblers (Dendroica chrysoparia) are also found in the Kerr WMA and this is their best spot.  Almost immediately I heard one bird sing once from well back in the trees. After approximately one half hour, I decided to give up here and head off to my next Golden-cheeked Warbler spot. 
At the intersection of 39 and 187 and under low, gray skies, this sign points the way to the Golden-Cheeked Warblers.
After so much driving, I was grateful that my search for the Golden-cheeked Warbler required walking - about a mile - to an area called "the ponds."  Here, too, it was easy to get distracted, but I tried to stay focused.  I arrived at "the ponds" around 2:00 pm and it was hot; not a great time of day to find a special bird.  The birding couple from Virginia, the Thornhills, arrived shortly after I did and we birded together for the Golden-cheeked.  Finally, I heard one bird sing - but it was across the river and seemed to be quite deep in the trees.  We continued to walk along the river and about a half-hour later I heard another bird sing - also across the river.  However, the river was not as wide here and this bird sounded close.  Mr. Thornhill was the first to see the singing male bird and he got his wife and me on the bird as well.  Our looks were not long, but they were complete.  We finally left very satisfied.
Golden-cheeked Warbler photo by Steve Maslowski, FWS and copied from the Audubon: State of the Birds Watchlist website.  On this website, you can also listen to the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler vocalizations.  Our bird was foraging in an oak tree and would pop out of the leaves just long enough for us to get our quick looks.
While at the ponds, I was able to get a couple of decent photos of non-target birds, but those I was still happy to see.
I was looking for a yellow and black bird, so when I glanced at this red-orange bird I wrote him off as a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).  Only on second glance did I realize that this was a posing Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra).  I also saw several while at Kerr WMA.
After reading my blog, a Michigan birding friend corrected my ID of this bird.  It is not a singing Olive Sparrow (Arremonops rufivigatus) as I originally wrote here.  Rather, he is a singing Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophilia ruficeps) and was still a pleasure to see.  The Olive Sparrow at Estero Grande State Park in Westlaco last January remains, secondary to this missed ID, still the only one I've ever seen.
I wrote about Red-eared Slider turtles in an earlier blog entry - see my post Sparrows and sunbathers dated April 18,2009 .  Texas is their natural range and I saw many at Lost Maples sunbathing on rocks. The water here is very clear and this turtle came swimming down the middle of the river - nice to see this way.
Prior to this trip to Texas I had only seen Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) twice - a female bird in Ontario in my early birding career was my life bird.  In February, 2008 I saw my first male Painted Bunting on my Florida trip with Don Chalfant and friends.  This trip I saw many at Lost Maples.  Extraordinary bird!  This bird was photographed at the Lost Maples feeder station while we waited for a hoped for Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor) that had been seen the day before. Unfortunately, the Varied Bunting did not show for us. There were a lot of other good birds at the feeders, but ... c'est la vie.

Finally, I'll add this dramatic-looking Texas wildflower.  Antelope Horn (Asclepias asperula) is in the milkweed family.  I saw it in many places.  The plant is considered to be poisonous but many medicinal herbs are made from it.
Yet to bloom
For comparison, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) most familiar to me and our Monarch butterflies.  This photo was taken at Crosswinds Marsh, Wayne County, Michigan on July 4, 2009.  You can enlarge this photo by clicking on it.  The milkweed plant is very different, but can see small similarities in the flower.  


ellen abbott said...

I drove between Wharton and Houston today and saw several of the scissor tail fly catchers perched on the wire fences.

Jerry Jourdan said...

Congratulations, Cathy! I'm glad to hear you got your lifers.