Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lake Buchanan Birding and The Arrival of Winter Birds: October 16-22

Sunday October 16th yielded much excitement: My first inland pelagic, and hopes for a rare migrant such as a Sabine's Gull. Birds of this magnitude have been found on Lake Buchanan before. As I arrived at the boat docks, I was excited. We finally boarded the boat at 10:00, and departed soon afterwards. We ventured out of the cove, and into the little remaining waters of Lake Buchanan. For such a large lake, the largest in texas at that, Buchanan is a very shallow lake. Being the highest dammed portion of the Colorado River became apparent: old trees from the river valley stuck out of the water like spindly skeletons. These served as perches for Belted Kingfishers, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. Even Spotted Sandpipers bobbed up and down on some of the horizontal and diagonal trunks.

Lake Buchanan has suffered drastically from the drought that has ravaged Central Texas, with the water level being 18 feet below the normal level. But some creatures have enjoyed this. Ospreys have enjoyed the concentration, which became apparent by their shear numbers.
As we traveled farther out into the lake, Ring-billed Gulls became very common.
Ring-billed Gull

Ring-biled Gull

Ring-billed Gull, a nice 1st cycle bird
The highlight of the trip was a Laughing Gull, which is quite a rare bird in central Texas. Not quite what i was hoping for, but it was appreciated.
Laughing Gull
As we pulled into shore, we had the treat of docking on an island and releasing three rehabilitated raptors: two Red-tailed Hawks and and a Great Horned Owl. The Great Horned Owl briefly fell asleep on top of the pet carrier, but then flew to the safety of a thicket of Hackberry trees. The Red-tailed Hawks both flew off right over my head and offered a nice photo op.
Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk
I had a wonderful time on the inland not so pelagic with my grandmother. Despite a false alarm shout of "JAEGER" being called several times for Ospreys or Ring-billed Gulls, I would consider the trip a success. 

As I was browsing TEXBIRDS on Wednesday night when i should have been studying for my massive Art History Text, I saw a post by Chuck Sexton that caught my eye: Sprauge's Pipit at Lake Buchanan. Sweet! And I had a day off Friday!!! Perfect. Despite being a tricky bird, it seems that every Austin Area birder has Sprauge's Pipit. Except me. Nemesis in the making. I wasn't gonna let this one get away. Now all I needed was a ride. I contemplated my options while I studied The Delivery of the Keys by Perugino. So I called my grandmother, and we made a plan to go out to Lake Buchanan again on Friday the 21st.

Friday came, and we headed out to Lake Buchanan, this time we would be birding the Llano County Side. Our first stop was a Tow, where parked at the Post Office and walked out onto a sand spit where the Sprauge's Pipits had been seen. As we walked along the sandpit through the dense rattle bean forests that have grown up on the higher areas of exposed lake bed, the number of sparrows were mind blowing. The first sparrows that caught my attention were two Clay-colored Sparrows and several Field Sparrows perched up in the rattle bean that immediately bordered the path. Savannah Sparrows were the most numerous species, with over 30 total. Lincoln's Sparrows dashed in and out of the rattle bean, and several White-crowned and one Harris's Sparrow foraged on the path, but were spooked quickly and retreated into the rattle bean. Farther out onto the spit the ground opened up. More Savannah and Field Sparrow where out here, as well as several Grasshopper Sparrows. A Vesper Sparrow proved to be the only Sparrow that offered me good looks and photos.
Vesper Sparrow
Another treat was a juvenile Northern Harrier flying over the marsh and rattle bean, looking for an early morning snack.
Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier
As we reached the end of the sand spit, the harrier spooked a mixed flock of ducks. I picked out Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Gadwall. 

At the end of the spit, we scoped out the far away ducks. I found the previously mentioned species, with the additions of Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, American Coot, Lesser Scaup, and a few wild Mallards. To our south, a large flock of Sandhill Cranes landed on the exposed lake bed. In the reeds and rattle bean surrounding the sand spit, some Lincoln's and Savannah Sparrows moved around. A few Common Yellowthroats showed themselves briefly, and three very cooperative Marsh Wrens foraged in the weeds.
Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren 
After walking around the low grassy patches of the sand spit yielded no Sprauge's Pipits, it was off to Cedar Point Park.

Cedar Point Park is located just south of Tow. Upon arrival a mixed winter flock briefly moved through. The flock consisted of Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows, Black-crested Titmice, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a single Orange-crowned Warbler, and two Yellow-rumped Warblers. From the point you can see the expansive grass flat of a lake bed that used to be 15 feet underwater.
Lake Buchanan lake bed

I then processed onto the old lake bed, where short grass had begun to grow. There I was greeted by hundreds of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks. Among them where a few American Pipits and a single juvenile Horned Lark, a bird I have not seen in quite some time. All of these bird where very skittish. The previously mentioned Sandhill Cranes where about 400-500 yards out in the taller grass of the lake bed. They suddenly lifted off. It was quite a spectacle. About 30 cranes remained, but they soon followed. This left three grounded birds, which followed the others, but flew right over head. They all kettles high in the sky where they all joined in "V" formation. 
Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes in formation
Almost immediately after that five White-faced Ibis flew south along the lake's receded short line.
White-faced Ibis
We then decided to explore the other side of Cedar Point Park. I once again walked out onto the dry lake bed with the hopes of Sprauge's Pipit. However it was not Sprauge's, but American Pipits that dominated. With the American Pipits were three Horned Larks, once again skittish. Then a small, different looking bird hopped up onto a clod of mud: A Chestnut-collared Longspur!!! And posing!!! Right as dropped my binoculars and raised my camera, a Merlin came tearing through. This caused every single bird to take flight. Including the longspur. Shit. Even though I was easily able to find the flock again, I never did pick out the longspur.

As I walked back, I saw a small, streaked bird crouching in the grass. My heart raced. Was this a Sprauge's Pipit, the bird I came out here to see? Nope, Chuck Testa. For those of you who get that joke, good for you. But to answer my own question, the skulking bird in the grass was no pipit, but another Grasshopper Sparrow. 
The Grasshopper Sparrow that trolled the crap out of me
I then retreated to the highlands, where the shoreline normally is. There two surprise birds awaited me: a Verdin and a Black-throated Sparrow.


Verdin feeding off ball moss

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow
From here, we drove to Shaw Island Road, which yielded little bird activity. In a pond along the road, were several Blue-winged Teal, a Northern Shoveler, and a Greater Yellowlegs. A flock of Greater and a few Lesser Yellowlegs flew along the road, which runs along a narrow peninsula (when the lake is full) that juts out into the lake. Some peeps I could not identify (probably mostly Least Sandpipers by default) also flew down the shoreline. A late-flying Roseate Skimmer was a nice find in the Odonata category.
Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal feeding

Blue-winged Teal with Greater Yellowlegs

Roseate Skimmer
We made a final stop at Black Rock Park, which at the time we didn't know required an entrance fee. I had birded Black Rock before, when it hosted my lifer Glaucous Gull back in early April. We drove in the park and passed the seemingly empty entrance booth. Wrong. I got out of the car, and walked out onto the lake bed. An American Kestrel was perched on an exposed stump in perfect light. I wanted to get a picture (or twenty). Then out of no where, a golf cart come speeding down the shore. I kept walking. It was probably someone driving recreationally. Oh shit, its headed right for me. OH GOD. The cart made a skid mark that flung dried mud left and right as it came to an abrupt stop right in front of me, the front wheel 3 inches away from my left foot. "What da think yer doin' here" said the driver in a heavy Scottish accent.

"Ummm birding" I said.

"Well oh yah? Is that right?"

Yes. Yes it was.

"Yah know ya came speeding in the park way too fast?"

Well you're one to talk.

"Ya have ta pay the park entrance fee over at the booth, son. Four dollars per person."

"Well, can I go photograph that bird over there? I'll just take a second." I said.

"No you may not!!!!" The way he reacted, you would have though I had asked him if I could cut his arm off.
He then proceed to speed over to the Kestrel's perch, and scared the bird away as it flew across the lake.


I walked back to the car, where a man in a heavy Texas accent explained to us kindly how there IS a park entrance fee, but for such a short stay we didn't need to worry about it. He light up a cigarette and walked back to the booth, where he proceeded to eat his burger. What an eventful two minutes.

We left Buchanan, and headed back to Austin. Disappointed in missing my quarry, but you win some, you lose some. Several good birds made up for it. A successful half day of birding.

I decided to go birding Saturday, and it appears Lake Buchanan followed me home. I was greatly surprised to find three new neighborhood birds in the field in front of the water treatment plant in my neighborhood: 7 Western Meadowlarks, 2 Eastern Meadowlarks, and 3 American Pipits. A Vesper Sparrow was also a nice bird.
Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Vesper Sparrow

Eastern Meadowlark. note the darker, more rufous back and the yellow lores

Eastern Meadowlark
I then continued down to Laguna Gloria, where a Spotted Towhee was the really only bird worth noting. The group of Belted Kingfisher is still in the lagoon.

After a relaxing afternoon, time for dinner. We ate at Central Market, on Lamar Blvd. Behind Central Market are a nice set of ponds with a granite gravel trail leading around them. Several Lincoln's Sparrows moved around in the reeds, as did a Common Yellowthroat. Two Orange-crowned Warblers settled down to roost on in a small ragweed patch. Wood Ducks and domesticated Mallards swam around.

As I sitting on a rock in between two of the ponds, a little adult Sora stepped out of the reeds. He didn't mind me at all, and allowed me to get very close and get some good shots. It was very dark, so I used flash, which didn't phase him in the least. Then, a kid threw a soccer ball at the bird, which landed in the water near the bird. The Sora ran back into the reeds where I assume it roosted. Whether the kid was trying to hit me or the bird, I haven't the slightest clue. But either way, it pissed me off.



My buddy the Sora. I will avenge you. 

A great birding week, hopefully my Sprauge's Pipit curse will wear off soon. And to the kid who threw the ball at Roger the Sora, (so I named him. Don't judge.) I'd learn to sleep with one eye open. Just in case.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fall Migration Recap 2011

No year of fall migration in central Texas has been memorable. This year, however has been an exception

I first noticed fall migrants in late August, which is earlier than i can ever recall. Wilson Warbler's were the first bird i noticed, and saw a pair in my yard. Seeing the early arrival of warblers, i decided to go down to my local birding hotspot, Laguna Gloria. Over the years I have seen an astonishing 184 species of birds at Laguna, and 30 species of warbler. My first week of fall birding was relatively show, with Wilson's, Yellow, Mourning, and Black-and-White Warblers.

Wilson's Warbler

The second week i birded during fall migration was much more eventful. Highlights were two new birds for Laguna, Ringed Kingfisher and MacGillavry's Warbler. The MacGillavry's Warbler was a juvenile bird that stuck around for a few days, where as the Ringed Kingfisher showed itself sporadically for the whole month of September. Another good bird for fall was an Olive-sided Flycatcher.
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Baltimore Orioles also moved in in strong numbers, and Wilson's and Yellow Warblers were present by the dozens every day. Other warblers were Mourning, MacGillavry's, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, Northern Parula, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart

The week of 11-17 was my most exciting week, the most exciting birds being the continuing Ringed Kingfisher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush.

On Monday the 12th, the Prothonotary Warbler showed himself, along with a Northern Waterthrush.
Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Northern Waterthrush
Other birds of the week were several "Traill's Flycatchers" (unidentified Willow or Alder), one confirmed Willow, and a Least Flycatcher. Warbler included Yellow, Wilson's, Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Mourning, Canada, and Magnolia.

On Thursday the 15th, while in English class, I was going back and forth between Facebook and Texbirds. As my teacher was explaining the symbolism in Things Fall Apart, I was browsing Texabirds. Then I saw it: Red-neck Phalarope at Hornsby Bend. YESSSS!!!! Four times I've chased a Red-necked Phalarope and four times I failed. But this time I wasn't going to let that happen. I excused my self to the restroom, where I texted my mom.  She said she could take me Friday morning. Thank God for Faculty In-Service Days.
We got up early the next morning and drove out to Hornsby. I wanted to make it back with enough time to make it to Austin City Limits Music Festival, so we drove past Ponds 1E and 1W. We stopped on the dike road, bordering Pond 2 and Ponds 1 E and W where the phalarope was originally seen. No phalarope, but Yellow Warblers covered the willow and Palo Verde trees along the dike, I estimated 150. (other birders estimated into the 300s!). Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers and Wilson's Warblers were present in smaller numbers as well.
Yellow Warbler

On the other side of the road in pond 1W were some close peeps. Most were Least Sandpipers, but I managed to pick out a western. Scanning with the scope yielded two Pectoral Sandpipers, a Baird's, and several Semipalmated Sandpipers, but the distance was to far for any pictures
From left to right: Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpipers and Kildeer (largest, brown bird)

Western Sandpiper (lowest) and Least Sandpiper (upper)

We drove down the road to the northwest corner of Pond 2, and found a very reassuring sight: other birders. After asking around, they has seen the bird, but haven't seen it in 30 minutes. Great. Repeat of last time. Walking down the road i saw 4 phalarope feeding. Good! The Red-necked had been seen with three Wilson's. "Got it!" One birder shouted. I then saw the smaller, stockier bird with a needle like bill and a black eye patch. Bingo. Lifer, ABA and World 502. Cha-ching!!! The group came closer to shore, and I got some photos. They really don't do justice of how great of looks the bird generously offered us.
Red-necked Phalarope (center) and Wilson's Phalarope

Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes

Wilson's and Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked (center) and Wilson's Phalarope

What a phenomenal bird! Just in time for ACL too. A life bird and live music, now that's what I call a damn good day! As we drove out, a Cave Swallows was a nice treat.
Cave Swallow (on wire) and Barn Swallow

The week of September 18th-24th yield more excitement, with one 12 warbler species day. Of course this is the day my camera runs out of battery. I'm sure the rage that followed scared off some birds as well.
My twelve warble day consisted of:
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Mourning Warbler
Canada Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
American Redstart
This is the one shot I was able to snap of a Mourning Warbler before my camera lost power.
Mourning Warbler 

Empids (Least, Willow, Yellow-bellied, and one calling Alder) were nice treat. Of course, most of the empids were unidentifiable.

The week of the 25th-31st yielded more of the same, sans the invasion of Clay-colored Sparrows upon Austin. But some how I didn't get a good shot of one. Go figure. Least Flycatchers outnumbered any other Empid. Another bird that descended in huge numbers into the Austin area where House Wrens.

House Wren

Some interesting reptile showed themselves at Laguna Gloria as well, including a Gulf Coast Toad, Blotched Water Snake, and a Texas Spiny Lizard.
Gulf Coast Toad, Anaxyrus nebulifer

Blotched Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster

Texas Spiny Lizard, Sceloporus olivaceous

Several Least Flycatcher's continued moving through.
Least Flycatcher

With fall migration slowly winding down, I decided against my normal daily birding at Laguna Gloria, and instead went to the Sunset Valley Retention Ponds. Quite a fancy name for two ponds behind a Petsmart. But this is a great spot, hosting two southern birds as nesters: Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Least Grebe. Both showed very well. 
Black-bellied Whistling Duck with chicks

Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Least Grebes

Juvenile Least Grebes

adult Least Grebe

juvenile Least Grebes

Black-bellied Whistling Duck 

adult Least Grebe

Least Grebe

Also, two fantastic dragonflies were at the ponds, a Blue-eyed Darner (rare in the Austin area) and a Thornbush Dasher
Blue-eyed Darner

Thornbush Dasher

October always represents the wind up of fall migration. Strong numbers of Common Grackles provided a nice relief from the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles. A Bewick's Wren at Laguna Gloria was a surprising find, as was a Sora. Nashville Warblers became the most prevalent, but a few lagging Mourning Warblers stuck around.  A linger Great-crested Flycatcher was also hanging out at Laguna. A Vesper's Sparrow and a kettle of Swainson's Hawks made for more October treats. 

Common Grackle

Bewick's Wren

Common Grackle

Great-crested Flycatcher


Vesper Sparrow

kettle of Swainson's Hawks

Nashville Warbler
Winter birding is coming up, and I can't wait to see what winter 2011-2012 holds in store!