Thursday, April 6, 2017

Texas: Still in the South

Here's a random selection of photos that didn't make it into the last post. All are still from the Rio Grande Valley.

Greater Roadrunners weren't common, but I think we still saw them most days. The shape gives away that this a species of cuckoo, but its behaviour is very different from our skulky caterpillar-eating cuckoos in Ontario. Roadrunners eat various large insects, lizards and snakes. 



Clay-colored Thrush is basically a washed-out American Robin. Both are in the genus Turdus, a very succesful group. Most parts of the world have at least one species of Turdus that is one of the most common species of bird. Many parts of Europe and Asia have five or more species overlapping in slightly different niches. For example, Western Europe has Common Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare, Redwing and Ring Ouzel. Meanwhile in North America, American Robin can be found in every habitat from the deep south to the low arctic, and a couple of other species barely squeak in over the Mexican border.



The chachalacas, guans and currasows comprise a unique Neotropical group of gallinaceous birds. They are generally somewhat more arboreal than most of their relatives. The most northerly species, Plain Chachalaca, is quite common in southern Texas.



A variety of hummingbirds can be found wintering around feeders in southern Texas. The most common is Buff-bellied. 

  


We saw two other species of hummingbirds: this Ruby-throated and a Broad-billed.



I've seen Yellow-crowned Night-heron in Ontario, but that was a young bird, so it was nice to get good looks at a large group of roosting adults. We had around twenty in view at this spot, along with Black-crowned Night-herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and a Green Heron. Although I generally think of herons as fish-eaters, Yellow-crowned Night-herons eat mostly crabs and crayfish.




Common Pauraques were exceedingly abundant everywhere we stayed in the evening, and it was not uncommon to be able to hear four or more simultaneously. We also had several pointed out to us - the camouflage is incredible. Later in the trip we would also hear several Common Poorwill for our second species of nightjar.




Sprague's Pipit is an uncommon and secretive bird of the prairies. We visited a known site for them, but had to spend a lot of time to finally get decent looks at one. We probably worked harder for this bird than any other species on the trip. Well, at least for a bird that we did end up seeing! We wasted a lot of time looking unsuccesfully for Rose-throated Becard, Smith's, Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspur and Mountain Plover.




 Lark Sparrows can be surprisingly inconspicuous even when foraging on open lawns.



 I think this is a Texas Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus gularis).



One of many species that only barely make it into the United States in this part of Texas is Red-billed Pigeon. We saw this group of six two days in a row, but never got exceptionally good view. Red-billed Pigeon can be a hard bird to track down, but both days we pulled up to see this flock sitting in plain view. The smaller bird with them is a White-winged Dove.



Golden-fronted Woodpeckers replaced Red-bellieds as soon as we got much south of Houston. They didn't really seem to differ in any significant way except minor differences in plumage and voice.



One of the most common shrubs in drier areas is Mesquite (Prosopis). These plants are invasive in many parts of the world including in Texas where it is native. The flowers sure smelled nice though!



A species we only saw a few times was Common Ground-dove. This tiny species actually came into pishing on one occasion, something which I've never had any pigeon or dove do before!



 Northern Cardinals were everywhere, but in dry habitats they were joined by Pyrrhuloxias.



 One of my biggest highlights of the trip was seeing Collared Peccaries (known as Javelinas locally). Although somewhat pig-like, peccaries differ in fundamental ways and have been evolving separately for some forty million years!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Texas: Heading South

As you move into the extreme south of Texas, you come into range of a large suite of species that, north of the border, are only found in this small area (some species may also range into southern Arizona). As an example, the Aplomado Falcon, only present as a small reintroduction.

I thought this shot with wind turbines in the background was cool. I've never really understood how anyone could consider these striking structures an "eyesore".


Harris's Hawk was a common sight throughout the area. This species is unique among raptors in living and hunting in small groups, and it was pretty rare to see a lone individual.



Numbers of shorebirds were much lower once we left the coast, but there were still some to see, such as this Long-billed Curlew in an arid grassland.



We saw lots of lizards. This big one is a Texas Spiny Lizard.



In the same genus (Sceloporus) is Rose-bellied Lizard. We saw three members of this genus in all.



Red-eared Slider is the common turtle sold in pet shops, and is widely released in Ontario, but it was nice to see them in their original historic range. We also saw Rio Grande Cooters on the banks of their namesake river.



We spent lots of time right along the Rio Grande. Here we were scanning the Mexican shore for kingfishers, two species of which barely range north into this part of Texas.



One of these species is the tiny Green Kingfisher, about a quarter of the weight of a Belted.



Mistletoe (Phoradendron sp.) is a common sight in much of Texas. This parasitic plant obtains water and nutrients from its host tree, while still photosynthesizing for itself.



Yuccas were very common in many areas, but we only saw a few in flower like this. I'm not sure if we were out of season or if there's another explanation.




Here's a couple of habitat shots. This is a gorgeous semitropical thorn forest, home to abundant Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Great Kiskadee, and many other species.




And on the other end of the spectrum, a typical arid desert/shrubland type habitat (not sure exactly how this should be classified). Typical birds here include Verdin, Bewick's Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, and, like seemingly every other random point in Texas, abundant Northern Mockingbirds.




This old agricultural field is being restored to something like the habitat above.



Three species of oriole can be expected in the area in winter. Hooded is only present in very small numbers, and we only saw this single bird.




Audubon's Oriole is a little more common, but we still only saw this one, and only after deliberately going to see it.



Altamira Orioles are quite common on the other hand, especially around bird feeders.



This Great Kiskadee was photobombed by an Altamira.



 Oddly enough for a flycatcher, Great Kiskadees will eat fish, rodents and frogs, and as we found out peanut butter at bird feeders.



Staying on the flycatcher theme, two species of nearly identical kingbird winter in this area. I expected Couch's and Tropical Kingbird to be very common, but we only saw a few of each. These are Tropical, although I only know that because they were calling.




No identification issues with the brilliant Vermilion Flycatcher! We saw lots of adult males like this, but only a single female (which are much duller). I assume they must winter further south.



Male Cinnamon Teal are brick red all over and easily identified. Females are almost identical to female Blue-winged Teal, but there are differences in head pattern and bill shape, and I had a lot of fun trying to separate them. These are Cinnamon Teal.


More to come!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Texas: the Central Coast

The first few days of our trip were spent on the coast from Houston south. A large variety of wading birds, shorebirds and other waterbirds can be found here. Most of the landbirds in this stretch are species common to states further east, and in most cases even in Ontario. It wouldn't be until we reached the extreme southern part of Texas that we'd see a large variety of unfamiliar landbirds.

Laughing Gulls are very abundant along the coast, but I don't think we saw a single one more than a couple of kilometres inland. Despite the large numbers of adults, we saw very few of the browner first-winter birds. Presumably these winter elsewhere. This is similar to some Ontario gulls - it is difficult to find a single immature Bonaparte's Gull on the Niagara River even when thousands of adults are present. I've also noticed that immatures comprise perhaps 1-2% of my local wintering Ring-billed Gulls, compared to 10-20% for Herring Gulls. There doesn't seem to be much research about this disparity, but likely its a combination of adults wintering as close to the breeding grounds as possible (in order to stake out territories in the spring), while inexperienced immature birds seek easy sources of food (e.g. garbage instead of fish).

Adult Laughing Gull

First-winter Laughing Gull


Wintering shorebirds are common along this coast, and we saw 22 species in these few days. The bulk are species that nest on the tundra and migrate through Ontario, but there are also a variety of prairie and coastal nesters that are seen rarely or not at all in Ontario. The highlight was at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, where large flocks of small plovers at close range included about 60 Piping, 40 Snowy, 30 Semipalmated and at least 3 Wilson's.

 These Ruddy Turnstones are picking food off what I believe is an oil pipeline.

Wilson's Plover is easily recognised by its long thick bill. Also visible here are Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, and the top of what is probably a Western Sandpiper's head.

How many plovers can you see? These are mostly Piping with a few Snowy.

The plovers allowed extended close views

Not the greatest photo of an American Oystercatcher, but its hard to mistake that bill!


In deeper water, the shorebirds are replaced by the larger wading birds: herons, egrets, ibis and spoonbills. The least common species was Reddish Egret. Most are dark like this one:


But we also saw the white morph below. Reddish Egrets have a ridiculous, acrobatic foraging method of chasing fish through shallow water. A super fun bird to watch!



Shocking pink Roseate Spoonbills are great to see, even if their bare heads are rather ugly close up.



Despite the difference in bill shape, ibis and spoonbill are closely related, and there are several recorded ibis x spoonbill hybrids! This is a White Ibis.



Although fairly similar in appearance to the wading birds, cranes are more closely related to rails and coots, and in ecology and behaviour are probably most similar to geese and swans. North America has two breeding cranes: the abundant and widespread Sandhill Crane and the endangered Whooping Crane. Much of the population of Whooping Crane winters around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and we were able to get reasonably good views of this pair and their chick (brownish head)




Pretty little Neotropic Cormorants were quite common, although Double-crested Cormorant was still the more abundant species.



Both North American Pelicans were quite common: the enormous American White Pelican and the merely large Brown Pelican. You shouldn't have any trouble figuring out which is which.




We saw a number of larger American Alligator at various points, but these babies were the only ones we noticed.



Of four snakes seen on the entire trip, only two stuck around to be identified, and this is the only one I managed to photograph. This is a young Eastern Hognose Snake - an endangered species in Ontario.



Lizards were much more cooperative. One of the common species was the introduced Brown Anole. Anoles are generally pretty dull coloured, but have large brightly-coloured expandable dewlaps on the throat. Several of the anoles we saw had their dewlaps expanded but I was never able to get a photo. We also saw the native Green Anole, including one inside a suburban house!



I was expecting to see many Nine-banded Armadillos, but we only saw a single animal. Luckily, it was incredibly cooperative!

The armadillo is under the brighter green bush in the centre right of this photo. At one point it was foraging in the car shadow!

Nine-banded Armadillos were absent (or at least very rare) in the United States prior to about 1850. For reasons that aren't totally clear (likely some combination of human introduction, a reduction in hunting pressure and a reduction in fires creating shrubbier habitats), they have expanded their range very rapidly, and are now found north to central Illinois! It seems very plausible that, with climate change, armadillos will colonise Southern Ontario eventually.

The armadillo spent it's time snuffling around in the leaf litter, and at one point dug a sizable hole. It was difficult to get photos with the face visible!





In Southern Texas the only tree squirrel is Eastern Fox Squirrel (present in Ontario only on Pelee Island where it is introduced). There are also Mexican Ground Squirrels, but I was only able to get brief views of single individual. Feeders made fox squirrels much more cooperative.



Large numbers of waterfowl can be found in many areas. In particular, 80% of the world Redhead population winters in Laguna Madre along the Texas Coast. Female Redhead seem very prone to abnormal white feathers, like the central bird in this photo.



Seeing Loggerhead Shrikes everywhere is a very nice change from Ontario!



The most common woodpecker in many areas was Ladder-backed. This species replaces Downy Woodpecker as you move south in Texas. Similarly, Golden-fronted replaces Red-bellied Woodpecker.



We found three species of owl on the trip: numerous Great Horned and Eastern Screech as well as this roosting Barred Owl.


Next up we headed south to a land where seemingly every bird is a new and unfamiliar species.