Monday, December 24, 2012

Avenue A - Dec. 24, 2102

It was too perfect a day to just sit around, so we decided to take a morning birding walk along River Road and Avenue A here in San Antonio.

The area was the birdiest it's been in recent memory, giving us 27 species of birds. They were all in pockets of mixed flocks, and mostly where there was an abundance of berries and seed grasses.

I think our favorite birds of the day were a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches foraging near each other. There seems to be a larger number of these in the area this winter and I'm enjoying every encounter.

Also delightful was seeing a White-eyed Vireo and a Blue-headed Vireo. They're both very pretty birds and it's always a treat to see the former.

I took a few photographs by the levee area and am posting them below, followed by the day's list. (I know I took some photos of a Great Egret, but they seem to have disappeared sigh!) Enjoy!

Red-tailed Hawk in flight.

Red-tailed Hawk perched before being mobbed by Mockingbirds and Blue Jays.

Couch's Kingbird

Couch's Kingbird
The list:

Choke Canyon - Dec. 23, 2012

With a long weekend and beautiful weather, we decided it was time to take a trip down to Choke Canyon State Park. Our friends from New Jersey, Gordon and Nancy joined us.

It being the Sunday before Xmas, FM 99, usually busy with large semi trucks from the Eagle Ford oil projects, was empty enough to allow us some "old time" birding. Though not as birdy as in the past, it still gave us a good start to the day.

Disappointment hit when we reached the Choke Canyon reservoir areas near the intersection of 99 and 72. They are virtually dried up, with virtually no habitat for the usual ducks, shorebirds, kingfishers, cormorants, anhinga, etc.

However, the area wasn't totally devoid of interest. We saw a bird of prey in the distance, which I desperately wanted to turn into a Bat Falcon because of its bright coloration. It turned out to be a magnificently colored juvenile Northern Harrier, which became apparent when we saw its owl-like facial disks through the scope.

I also managed to get a great shot of a Double-crested Cormorant, certainly not an unusual bird for the area, but posed perfectly for me to use for one of my bird mugs at a future date. (Advertisement: You can find my pottery here.)

Birding in the park was good. The parking lot by the old swimming pool had a Vermilion Flycatcher on every tree, most of them fully feathered males.

The nearby Bird Trail was also active, with mixed flocks of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-crested Titmouse, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. At the back end of the trail, by the water pumping area, we had our "difficult" bird of the day. (You need at least one or your trip hasn't been worthwhile, say I.)

It was a Kingbird, but was much too light for it to easily be counted as a Couch's Kingbird, the most likely in the park this time of year. The three of us who saw it all agreed it was right for a Western Kingbird; but they aren't supposed to be there in December. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to photograph it, so it might well remain a conundrum, unless someone refinds the bird.

Once again, as in our past several visits, Olive Sparrows were nowhere to be seen. I wonder if the prolonged drought has affected their habitat that much?

As usual, butterflies caught our eye and I managed to get photos of two different species: 


I'm not sure what type of butterfly this is.
From there, we drove over to 75 Acre Lake, where there were interesting birds -- just on the opposite shores. However, with the scope, we were able to see well enough through the late morning heat shimmer to identify a good number of ducks, shorebirds, and a couple of Harris's Hawks.

The interesting birds here were four Black-winged Stilts past their season (though not as unlikely as that Kingbird!).

We also saw the good-sized Alligator that tends to inhabit this body of water.

After a quick drive through the RV area, with nothing of interest, we drove to the exit of the park and came upon about six Northern Bobwhite by the side of the road. Three flew off as we approached. The remaining three seems unbothered by my photographic efforts, the best of which I share below.

And, before the day's list, I leave you with one of the park's mammals, reaching young adulthood.

The list:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

SA Audubon Field Trip to Choke Canyon

Unfortunately, I forgot the camera today. Of course, there were a couple of great videos I missed. But, such is life.

Since I have no accompanying "illustrations", I'm going to keep this short and sweet. Birding was patchy, with areas of good birding interspersed with long periods of time with no apparent birds or birds giving chip calls, but not allowing us to see them.

The best birding areas today:
  • The parking lot near the swimming pool, giving us Couch's Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Green Jays, Cooper's Hawk, and both listed Woodpeckers, among others.
  • The first part of the birding trail and then the second section (after the jog and just before where the wetlands used to be), with several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers.
  • 75 Acre Lake, especially scoping the far shores from the trail between the two bodies of water
 The non-birding highlights (which made me yearn for the camera) were:
  • Two Dung Beetles rolling their balls of dung. I love to watch these creatures using their rear legs, while doing their work head down.
  • We heard an unusual noise a bit down the trail. It was coming from a Cottontail Rabbit which had been nabbed by a large Indigo Snake. We watched with morbid fascination while the rabbit struggled and the snake worked against its struggle. I won't go into any more detail. The most interesting thing I saw during the struggle was the snake shaking its tail, as though it was a Rattlesnake. Avie has some video -- we just can't figure out how to get it off his phone.

All in all, not the best of days. But not too shabby either, with 47 species of birds.

Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Scaup sp.
Wild Turkey
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
White Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Harris's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Crested Caracara
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Couch's Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Green Jay
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Friday, October 26, 2012

Of Snowy Owls and Design Concepts

Inspiration can come from many places. In this case, it came from a PBS show in the Nature series. This particular one was about Snowy Owls -- my favorite bird, and one we were privileged to see on a birding trip to Amherst Island in Ontario, Canada one February, many years ago.

The Snowy Owl is one of the largest owls in the world. That, combined with their striking white feathers and incredibly golden yellow eyes.....well, you know!

So I've decided to make mugs, using those eyes and that coloring. I intend to keep the mug white and use yellow and black underglazes to paint in the eyes and beak. Then, if I feel it's appropriate, I'll add some light carving to accentuate the feathering around the beak.

I love living here in San Antonio. The only negative is we have little chance of getting a Snowy Owl down here -- even in the most irruptive of years.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Way Past Due: A Weekend Around St. Pete Beach, FL

I apologize for the time it's taken for me to report on this trip. But you know about the "best laid plans" and all those other homilies.......

Several weekends ago, Sept. 6 - 9, 2012 to be exact, Avie attended the Southern Sleep Conference at St. Pete Beach, FL, kindly taking me along. In addition to visiting with some old friends who had moved to the area years ago, I also took the opportunity to do a bit of birding on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Happily, it was during fall migration. Even better, the St. Pete Beach Audubon Society was having a field trip to John Chesnut Sr. Park. Located on the southeast corner of Lake Tarpon it is reputed to be a great migrant "trap". So, I hopped into our rental car and set out to join them.

Right out of the car, in the parking lot, there were Warblers galore. Unfortunately, the time spent in an air conditioned car caused my binoculars to fog up when I got out into Florida's humid weather. So, while everyone else was counting the Warblers, I was listening and straining with eyes naked.

The field trip took us to a couple of different parking lots, chasing mixed flocks. The most common birds were Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warbler. Of course, being Warblers, an my being more a birder than a photographer, I enjoyed seeing them and didn't make an attempt to photograph these ever-moving little birds.

However, a bit later in the trip, we took a trail where there were a couple of cooperative birds. One was an Eastern Wood-Peewee, perched in clear view.

But I'd have to say the best photo op and tied with a Prothonotary Warbler for best bird of the day was this cooperative Barred Owl. It sat very still, but refused to turn its head so I could get its face in the photos I took. No matter -- any birding day with an owl is a good birding day.

Shame on me for not saving my bird list from this day. But I will say, in spite of a lengthy downpour which limited our available time in the field, it was a worthwhile fall migration spot if you find yourself in the area.

Avie's conference ended on Saturday afternoon. So, Sunday morning we packed up, checked out of our hotel, and headed down to Fort DeSoto Park for a full morning of birding. It was raining when we drove down and it rained for a couple of hours after we got into the park. It put a little bit of a damper on things. But, dammit, we're birders! So we persevered.

Of course, most of the birds continued on in spite of the rain, as demonstrated by this Great Blue Heron, perusing the puddles in one of the parking lots for frogs.

On a stop into the ladies' room, I picked the lucky stall and saw this large Cuban Tree Frog literally hanging around. Since the restroom was deserted, I called Avie in and asked him to put his finger in the frame of the photo for size perspective. The frog didn't even balk.

As you know, birders are a friendly group of folk. While we were looking up into some pine trees, a car pulled over and asked if we had "seen anything good". We pointed out a Pine Warbler. The gentleman in the car recommended we go over to the "Ranger's House" and walk around the fence along the trail to the big tree in the back. We took his advice and saw the best mixed flock of the day.

Again, Blackburnian and Yellow-throated Warblers were the most common birds. But we were also greeted with many other migratory songbirds. Additionally, there was an amazing migration of Common Nighthawks overhead, with thousands flying in a never-ending stream.

A Cuban Anole sat on a nearby tree, sunning.

On our way out of the park we stopped at an area which was supposed to be good for shorebirds (GROAN!). We fought against working with these tricky birds for over twenty-five years. But we've decided, with our new 80mm Swarovski Scope, it's about time we try to tackle them. Tackle them we did -- juvenile/fall plumage and all.

So, what follows are our best attempts at identification. If you find any issues, please let me know in the comments.

Here's a non-breeding Willet:

Short-billed Dowitcher:


Too much obstructive greenery for many of them. But there's a lovely "coming into plumage" Black-bellied Plover to the right.

Just a nice shot of a Great Egret behind a Black-bellied Plover:

Okay -- My brain is starting to hurt, so I'll let you identify the rest. I will tell you these are the shorebirds we know we saw:
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher

We also saw this Wood Stork, looking very much like a coquettish dancer in the water.

I'm not sure when we'll be returning to the Gulf Coast area of Florida. But, compared to our subsequent weekend on the Atlantic Coast, I would say fall birding is far superior on the West side of the peninsula!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hollywood, FL Area

Last weekend we were in St. Pete Beach, FL, on the Gulf Coast. But that post will have to come second, even though this is really the second weekend in a row we’re visiting Florida.

This visit is really to see our daughter’s new apartment in Hollywood Beach (and it is GORGEOUS!). But, as usual, we had to mix in a bit of birding.

I DO have to say we found the fall migration much more evident on the Gulf Coast. In fact, after visiting several parks in the Hollywood area, we’re coming a way a bit disappointed. Birds were few and far between, and the best birding park was the one which only recommended a single species of bird to its name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since my daughter was working today, we rented a car from Enterprise. They picked us up, we signed some papers, and off we went.

Our first stop was John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. It was recommended in A Birder’s Guide to Florida by Bill Pranty, as well as by an area contact on We paid our $6 fee and slowly drove around the area, looking and listening. SILENCE!

To be fair, it wasn’t completely devoid of birds. We came across a lovely flock of graceful White Ibises bathing and preening in the water from last night’s rains.


Checking the beach, we saw a couple of juvenile Sanderlings – very striking with their lovely black and white patterning.


The only other bird we heard was a busy Northern Mockingbird.

Our next stop was the northern portion of West Lake Park. Again we drove. Again we were greeted with silence and no visible movement. We began to wonder if the East Coast of South Florida had overdeveloped to the point of depleting the necessary requirements of migrating songbirds. Of course, it could also just be a case of wrong place, wrong time.

We decided to try for a “sure thing” and continued driving along Sheridan St. to the Brian Piccolo Park. We heard there were several Burrowing Owls there, their burrows being marked with wooden stakes and flagging tape. As we entered the park we saw the roped off areas. The burrows are marked with wooden stakes. However, instead of the flagging tape, they’re now using yellow rope.

We checked a few burrows; but many of the owls were tucked deep down with grass and weeds growing over the opening, obscuring our view.

Finally, we came on one burrow with a clear opening and one of the “cute” Burrowing Owls near the entrance.

P1020409 P1020410

The park also holds several communal Monk Parakeet nests by the electric lines.


We were lucky enough to hear the Parakeets up in nearby trees, since they’re extremely difficult to see, blending in so well. So I took the opportunity to get a few shots of them up close and personal.

P1020419 P1020422
We also saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (FINALLY, a migrating songbird!).

Our final stop was the south side of West Lake Park. Another nice flock of White Ibises and a Tricolored Heron greeted us as we drove in.


Again, the park was quiet. We stopped at the boating ramp and added a Great Blue Heron and a Spotted Sandpiper to our day list, which wasn’t very extensive. I tried for a better photo of the Sandpiper. But it was off in the distance, so this is the best I could do.

All in all, not a superior day of birding. But any birding makes for a superior day. Right?

Monday, September 3, 2012

What We Did on Labor Day Weekend

No picnics. No beach. Avie and I spent yesterday and today mostly communing with nature, with a little Ethiopian food and dining nook/bird viewing spot updating.

The morning was spent at Warbler Woods, a nearby sanctuary in the middle of suburban development. It's always a great stop for birding because Don and Susan Schaezler have created a haven for both resident and migrating birds.

Birding was a bit slow during our time there. But it's always worthwhile when you can sit comfortably and see a Blue-headed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Great-crested Flycatcher, and Yellow-breasted Chat, along with other, more common birds mixed in.

Today we spent the morning at the San Antonio Botanical Garden perusing South Texas native plantings. We want to revamp our landscaping at three levels: xeriscaping, wildscaping, mostly native plantings. Here are a few photos of what our front currently looks like during our ongoing drought.

Between St. Augustine grass, a sprinkler-based irrigation system, and that expanse of lawn, I think we can do much better while providing food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and bees, and color and textural interest for ourselves.

We've already selected a landscaping company, Lafield Landscaping. Terri and Rick are excited about working with us and seem to understand what we want, but willing to go outside our desire to eliminate the lawn completely, and give us a more welcoming front with very limited grass (Zoysia rather than St. Augustine).

I took lots of photos at the Botanical Gardens. I tried to stick with native Texas plants. But some non-natives begged to be included in my photos. I'll provide commentary along the way.

This is Yucca nana, but was unmarked in the gardens. I really like it and would like to see if we can work this into the landscape if it meets enough of our criteria. It's not too large and offers some interesting texture.  

 This photo is one species of Zoysia, Zoysia japonica. It's a much softer grass than St. Augustine and requires less water. Terie Lafield insists we need some grass to keep our front from being too hard and unwelcoming. After looking at other people's landscapes, Avie and I have come around to understanding she's correct.

 Next is an Anacacho Orchid Tree (Bauhinia congesta). Apparently, this is one of the best small ornamental trees for the Central and Southern regions of the state. 
Anacacho Orchid Tree is moderately fast growing if given regular watering but is also tough enough to withstand extreme drought. Seems like it fits most of our criteria. Just need to check what it offers wildlife.

This silvery low-growing shrub was unmarked throughout the gardens. But it was quite pretty up against greener landscaping as a border planting.

The landscapers intend to use Purple Trailing Lantana in our garden. I know for a fact it's an incredible butterfly magnet, since we already have some.

 What could be more Texas than grasses? Luckily, there are all types available to see at the Gardens. This first one is adorable and I love it -- but I don't think it's native. Rather, I believe it's from the sub-Sahara in Africa. Bummer!

However, Lindheimer's Muhly Grass, which can grow over six feet tall, is native to the Edwards Plateau, exactly where we live! It was all over the Botanical Gardens, so we were able to see it in all different kinds of settings.

Butterfly break!!!!! (Gulf Fritillary)

Something I would love to do, and I'm debating it with the landscapers, is yank out the ugly hedges in the front of the house and replace them with a mixed hedge we can allow to grow a bit more organically. Suncatcher (with the yellow flowers) is one of the plants I like for that purpose.

I also love the non-native, but very drought resistant and berry producing Dwarf Barbados Cherry, a plant we already have growing as a natural "weed" in our backyard. It's something I'm hoping we could relocate to the front.

Look how pretty the flowers are close up!

Then there are the Yuccas. They'll add both texture, shelter, and flowers for hummingbirds to the garden. The one we see most often around San Antonio is the Red Yucca, with its pink-red flowers on a high stalk.

The Botanical Gardens also had a Twist-Leaf Yucca, native to the Edward Plateau and indicated for limestone hillsides, exactly where we live.

How about a bush growing chiles (Chili Peqin or Capsicum annuum)? Food for both bird and human!

Avie and I have also discussed a type of native grass called Sideoats Grama. We didn't see any at the Botanical Gardens. But they did have Inland Sea Oats, which they indicated was native to Texas. It had seed heads hanging off each plant. They'd be great food for birds and would be very pretty swaying in a breeze.

Bat-faced Cuphea (Cuphea llavea) is another plant our landscaper wants to put around the gardens. It's a very pretty bush with striking bright red and deep purple flowers which resemble a bat's face.

One final plant is Silver Ponyfoot. We're thinking it might look nice as a full-sun border plant along the driveway. It also hangs over rocks nicely, in case we decide to do something like that with raised beds. This photo isn't from the Gardens, but from a Native Plant Center in New Braunfels.

 All in all, the visit to the Gardens made for a great day. We even had a chance to see some birds, such as this juvenile American Robin scratching around the leaf litter for food.