Tuesday 29 January 2013

The Wagtails are back

The recent chilly blast has brought the Pied Wagtails back to Heathrow’s Terminal 5. I guess that they have been warm enough in their usual roosts until now, but shelter on four sides has drawn them back despite the bird-proofed trees. The trees were specially selected to deter birds from roosting here. Their lack of horizontal branches do not offer a comfortable place to sit out the night, but when survival out ranks comfort, the birds arrive in numbers.

The Christmas lights have been left in the trees and continue to shine as we approach the end of January. I hope that the airport’s authorities are not hoping to make the birds even more uncomfortable than they already are. Mind you, each little bulb will give off a few Watts of heat and may be keeping the birds warm. Perhaps I do the authorities an injustice.

Now that they are here, it is possible that they will return each evening for the rest of the winter. This morning, the temperature had risen to a balmy 15 degrees, but the flock continued to seek the shelter offered by the terminal buildings. I suspect that the flock may be made up of a few smaller flocks that amalgamate to share the extra warmth.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Lagos, Nigeria, Jan 2013

“Beer makes everything better”.
I have lived by this philosophy for many years, but now find that there is a notable exception; Star Beer from Nigeria. While the alcohol offers a temporary relief from back pain, it also leaves the erstwhile sufferer open to suggestion. Well, I don’t actually remember swinging from the chandeliers in an attempt to straighten out my spine, but in the morning……

Thus it was that the golden hours of early morning and the heat of midday were lost to hangover and an inability to stand upright. Eventually, I managed to drag myself around the small gardens at the hotel in Lagos, Nigeria. The chain link fence that used to lead down to the garden is no more.
Where once there were vines and creepers climbing through the fence and creating a haven for manikins and fire-finches, there is now an ugly wire-topped wall. The Agama Lizards are the lucky ones here, finding superb protection from the Yellow-billed Kites, Common Kestrel and Shikra, that are commonly seen here.
Red-eyed Doves could be heard above the sound of the generator sheds, but from the Laughing Doves there was no sound, not even a chuckle. I have entered a year list for 10,000 Birds that depends on birds being identified by sound. The Laughing Doves should have been a gimme, but for the first time that I recall, they were silent.
The specialty bird in the gardens is the Western Plantain-eater. It is a common bird of West Africa and its call is familiar to anyone who spends any time there, but this is the only place that I visit that I am likely to get a chance to see one, so I was pleased to hear their resonant, warbling call. They lean forward to deliver the call and inflate the neck to give each syllable of sound. Since I will be concentrating more on sound this year, I will also be embedding the calls as links in the text.  These recordings are very kindly shared by  www.xeno-canto.org. Click this link to hear the Western Plantain-eater chuckling.
Another call, reminiscent of the Downy Woodpecker from North America, started with a hard note and rattled down the scale (if you took the time to listen to the Red-eyed Dove recording linked above, you will recognise it in the background). I thought this to be a Woodland Kingfisher, but could not find the bird. One of the conditions of qualification for the 10,000 Birds Year List is that the bird should also be seen. My aural powers are weak so the bird must be first identified by sound and then confirmed by sight. Failing to see the bird, or using the sighting to aid identification, means that the bird will not count, but using new found skills to identify a subsequent bird later in the day is OK. Oh, and a lucky guess counts just as well as a hard learned hit. The Woodland Kingfisher was eventually found and seen calling to confirm my initial thoughts.
Splendid Glossy-starlings were as common today as I have seen them here and Mottled Spinetails flew in a small flock overhead. The lucky sighting of the day was a Barn Owl that flew over the bus on our way to the airport for the homebound sector.
Birds seen; 16
Cattle Egret 6, Yellow-billed Kite 20, Shikra 1, Common Kestrel 1, Red-eyed Dove 10, Laughing Dove 6, Rose-ringed Parakeet 1, Western Plantain-eater 3, Barn Owl 1, Mottled Spinetail 5, Woodland Kingfisher 1, Little Bee-eater 1, Pied Crow 1, Common Bulbul 15, African Thrush 3, Splendid Glossy-starling 12.

Saturday 19 January 2013

White Rock Creek, Dallas, Jan 2013

My original plan for today involved Sandy Lake, but a well placed concierge advised me that Sandy Lake was in fact an amusement park and that despite having its own entry on eBird, would be closed to all-comers on a cold Monday morning in January. So I changed to my fall back plan with a gentle ride to White Rock Creek.

On the small lake at Winwood Park (Google Earth ref; 32°57'12.92"N 96°48'40.21"W) were a few Gadwall and a couple of Mallard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew in and began tapping on the far side. An Eastern Phoebe perched on a reed, hoping that some insects might show themselves on such a cold morning.
Blue Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were making quite a din by one of the houses across the lake. Lots of holes and loose ivy high in an oak tree made me hopeful that an owl might be hiding there, but I couldn’t see one.

Plenty of smaller birds were feeding along the fence line of the other house that borders the park. Dark-eyed Junco, and Carolina Wren were feeding low down with Yellow-rumped Warbler and Golden-crowned Kinglet higher up.
The path drops down from the main road onto the riverside where a Downy Woodpecker whinnied a couple of times before I saw it.

In a berry tree, feeding American Robins were joined by a couple of Cedar Waxwings. A small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds were also in the berry tree, but I couldn’t see if they were feeding on the fruit.

The large total of Great-tailed Grackles was estimated from a big flock that flew over. I was using my press and point camera today which takes a while to warm up. The flock had been flying over for about 10-15 seconds before the camera was ready.

Birds seen;
Gadwall 7, Mallard 8, Double-crested Cormorant 3, White-winged Dove 3, Red-bellied Woodpecker 6, Yellow-bellied Woodpecker 1, Downy Woodpecker 1, Northern Flicker 1, Eastern Phoebe 1, Blue-Jay 16, American Crow 1, Carolina Chickadee 2, Tufted Titmouse 2, Red-breasted Nuthatch 1, Carolina Wren 4, Golden-crowned Kinglet 1, American Robin 8, Northern Mockingbird 2, Cedar Waxwing 2, Yellow-rumped Warbler 12, Dark-eyed Junco 4, Northern Cardinal 2, Red-winged Blackbird 8, Great-tailed Grackle 3015.

White Rock Trail runs as far South as White Rock Lake, but is fractured in places and detours through housing developments. A map may be needed to follow it easily.This section is about 1km long and can be accessed by continuing past Winwood Lake for a further 100m.

Follow the links below for previous posts from White Rock Creek;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from Houston including; White Rock Lake

Friday 18 January 2013

Addicks Reservoir, dam wall, Houston, Jan 2013

The afternoon in Houston was spent trying to find a way up onto the dam wall trail overlooking Addicks Reservoir.

To cut a long story short, there is an access point at Google Earth ref; 29°47'26.37"N 95°38'40.46"W and the trail disappears into the distance east or west. Being unfamiliar with the area and with a sketchy mental map, I missed the entrance and cycled 2 miles along Park Row as far as the Childrens’ Hospital (Google Earth ref;  29°47'17.83"N 95°41'42.08"W).

An artificial lake here held Wilson’s Snipe, Killdeer and Savannah Sparrow. I found a way onto the dam wall at Google Earth ref; and was treated to a close quarter fly-by of a Red-winged Hawk.

The dam wall slopes down on either side from the path, covered with rough grass and low vegetation. At the base of the slope on each side is a line of trees. To the south are light industrial or residential units. Woods and dried marsh stretch away to the north. The trail runs straight and flat along the top of the wall giving a great view all round.

Loggerhead Shrike and Eastern Phoebe were seen easily on the wires to the south. A Red-tailed Hawk wouldn’t tolerate being at the top of a tree, but still below me, so it flew off into the fading evening. Most exciting of all were some tiny sparrows that flushed from the short growth on the slope to the north of the path. They were very secretive and I did not see any of them before they flew. I think that they were different birds each time and there were 3 flushes making five birds altogether. I felt sure that they were small Ammodramus sparrows, but had to check in the guide to find Le Conte’s Sparrow. I am a little wary about taking them as I didn’t really get a good look and they were identified by elimination more than a positive characteristic.
Now I know how to get there, I can go again and give them a proper tick. My mental map had let me down today and I had not reached the water that I was looking for. So next time I will be better prepared with two targets.

Birds seen; 12

Mallard 22, Black Vulture 15, Turkey Vulture 1, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-shouldered Hawk 2, Red-tailed Hawk 1, Downy Woodpecker 1, Eastern Phoebe 3, Loggerhead Shrike 3, Northern Mockingbird 1, Northern Cardinal 1, Brown-headed Cowbird 1.

Bus 82 Runs up and down Westheimer. 
At Eldridge Rd, the 52 crosses Westheimer (Google Earth ref; . Take 52 northbound to the terminus at Addicks Park and ride(Google Earth ref; 29°47'16.33"N  95°38'21.73"W).  An extension to the Terry Hershey Bike and Hike Trail will soon give access to the dam wall directly opposite the Park and Ride. For the moment, access can be found by turning west onto Park Row from the Park and Ride. Turn right (north) onto the access road (with sidewalk) of Highway 6 N (.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

George Bush Park, Houston, Jan 2012

I was on my way to George Bush Park this morning when I saw a Cooper’s Hawk in a tree and jumped from the bus to get a picture. The spot on Westheimer (Google Earth ref; 29°44'11.50"N 95°37'11.81"W) proved to be quite productive with Red-tailed Hawk, Eastern Phoebe and Yellow-rumped Warblers seen.

George Bush Park in Houston is a large area to the west of town. I think it may have been a reservoir at some time in its life. A large man-made bank surrounds it with a trail along the top. Inside the raised earthwork is a forest of small trees and remnants of ponds and marsh. The Westheimer Parkway passes through the lower part of the park and is characterised by short grass either side of the road.

Just inside the eastern entrance to the park is a small lake (Google Earth ref; 29°44'4.04"N 95°39'35.46"W). A small flock of Long-billed Dowitchers were feeding here until a couple of trout fisherman flushed them. White Ibis fed around the edges and in the wet grass behind. I decided to stay with the road and flushed a Wilson’s Snipe from the wet ditch alongside. Another was found further along and seen before it flew.

A short way up from the Lake is a fenced dog-walking area. The line of trees around the back was quite productive with Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Northern Cardinal.

Across the road are the shooting ranges. The amount of land given over to shooting indicates its popularity here. On the lawns were plenty of Killdeer and a flock of Western Meadowlarks. I spent some time trying to turn them into Eastern Meadowlarks, but to no avail.

Back on the southern side of the parkway another small lake allows for dogs to be unleashed for training (Google Earth ref; 29°43'22.23"N 95°40'23.64"W). This proved to be another productive spot. Eastern Bluebirds and a Loggerhead Shrike were seen in the trees by the lake while Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Field Sparrow and more Yellow-rumped Warblers were seen along the line of trees at the back. 

There was a surprising lack of any waterbirds. The herons and egrets were seen in the ditch at the bottom of the dam wall, just before the entrance

On the return journey a flock of American Pipits were spotted from the road and stalked across the wet ground to the south. A second larger flock brought quite a large pipit number for the day.

Birds seen; 31

Great Blue Heron 3, Great Egret 1, Snowy Egret 1, White Ibis 24, Black Vulture 22, Turkey Vulture 2, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Red-tailed Hawk 3, American Kestrel 1, Killdeer 55, Long-billed Dowitcher 7, Wilson’s Snipe 2, White-winged Dove 20, Mourning Dove 17, Downy Woodpecker 2, Eastern Phoebe 6, Loggerhead Shrike 2, Blue Jay 5, American Crow 7, Tree Swallow 2, Carolina Chickadee 6, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2, Eastern Bluebird 2, Northern Mockingbird 7, European Starling 120, American Pipit 65, Yellow-rumped Warbler 55, Field Sparrow 5, Song Sparrow 1, Northern Cardinal 2, Western Meadowlark 25.

For more posts from Houston, Follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from Texas including White Rock Lake, Dallas.

Monday 14 January 2013

Terry Hershey, Houston, Jan 2013

The evening was already drawing in as we arrived into Houston, Tx. We were staying at a new hotel, so I had to find my bearings before heading out. The concierge suggested a riverside trail called Terry Hershey Park, Hike and Bike Trail. It runs  along Buffalo Bayou, heading upstream from Texas Hwy 8 at Briar Hill Drive (Google Earth ref; 29°45'45.99"N 95°33'26.42"W).
I rode for about 2 miles upstream along the paved trail, reaching an open meadow just as the light faded. I stopped and watched, hoping that an owl might show and trying to get a hand-held picture of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. 

From the top, they are Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa. At bottom left, the red star is Aldebaran and the red dot to the right of Jupiter is a patch of hot pixels on my sensor.

On the ride home I scanned the trees with my head torch, still hoping to pick up some eyeshine from an owl. I was fooled on a couple of occasions by Aldebaran, the red eye of the bull, Taurus. The star was shining out so brightly that it showed clearly through the branches of the trees.

Just after passing under a road bridge, I came up onto a meadow and heard a soft hooting. I stopped and cast the torch around, but couldn’t see anything. The hooting continued and I tracked it to the top of a pylon as a large dark shape came into land. Another dark shape was already perched on the pylon and 4 eyes reflected my torch back at me in red. They stopped momentarily before flying on and out of sight.

Terry Hershey Park, Hike and cycle trail has many access points along its length. It begins 1.7 miles from Westheimer, north along the access road from the Texas Hwy 8. Approximately 5 miles upstream, a footbridge crosses the bayou at N Eldridge Parkway. Cross here and continue along the other bank to access the cycle trail at George Bush Park.

Birds seen;

Northern Flicker 1, Great Horned Owl 2, Chestnut-backed Chickadee 3.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Jan 2013

Happy New Year! Sorry I am running a bit late I will catch up soon, honest.
January 1st found me in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. There was only time for a quick visit, so I concentrated my efforts around Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill.

Bus number 71 runs along Market, through Haight, to the park. The walk from the 9th St stop was quick and easy with Western Scrub-jay, House Finch, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Anna’s Hummingbird seen on the way.

Just beyond the Japanese Garden, a path cuts up to the northeast end of Stow Lake. A Black Phoebe sat out well here and some Fox Sparrows fed from thrown seeds.
The lake is usually covered with Mallard and gulls, but today it looked very quiet with only the ripples from a Pied-billed Grebe disturbing the surface.

White-crowned Sparrows and Golden-crowned Sparrows were seen along the path by the water’s edge and a Steller’s Jay found the loose peanuts irresistible.

I took the bridge across to the south side of the Island and climbed to the small waterfall at the top of Strawberry Hill. A Hermit Thrush distracted me on the way, but I was targeting the waterfall as it is often very productive. A Townsend’s Warbler came very close today, but I was still unable to track down the Great Horned Owls that are said to roost in the pines here.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawks was interacting above my head. I like to think that I may have brought them slightly closer together through the power of Photoshop. They flew, talons extended, inverted in flight, or stooped down into the pines on the west side of the island.
This is where I found all the gulls and Mallard that I had been expecting. In the shelter of an overhanging bush, an American Wigeon was being very coy.

The Black Phoebes were being very confiding today. This was the third one that allowed me to approach close enough to see the colour of its eyes.  

 Birds seen;

American Wigeon 1, Mallard 150, Pied-billed Grebe 8, Great Blue Heron 2, Red-tailed Hawk 3, American Coot 100, Mew Gull 60, Glaucous-winged Gull 15, Anna’s Hummingbird 8, Black Phoebe 4, Steller’s Jay 7, Common Raven 3, Chestnut-backed Chickadee 4, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2, Hermit Thrush 3, Orange-crowned Warbler 1, Yellow-rumped Warbler 9, Townsend’s Warbler 3, Fox Sparrow 4, White-crowned Sparrow 16, Golden-crowned Sparrow 6, Dar-eyed Junco 2, House Finch 4, American Goldfinch 2.

For previous posts from Golden Gate Park, follow the links below;


Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more from San Francisco, including; The Palace of Fine Arts and Dipper.

Sutro Baths, San Francisco, December 2012

Apologies if you are following this in real time. I will get to 2013 as soon as I can catch up. The trip to Point Lobos (Also known as Lincoln Point, Lands End or Sutro Baths)was planned to add a few late ticks to the 2012 Year List, but ended up as an Otter love-in. It is seldom that one is privileged to share in the intimate moments in the life of a shy creature such as a River Otter, but Sutro Sam has quickly become acclimatised to people since his arrival at the baths in late September and appears almost oblivious to his many admirers.

But first things first, the year list would close at 11.30 SFO time (I had started my year in Delhi, GMT -4.5), so I still had a couple of hours left to add to the total. From the terrace of the Cliff Restaurant, I could see some Black Turnstones on the shoreline rocks. The dumpier, lighter birds, I hoped were Surfbirds. The tide was coming in and each wave crashed further up the rocks, encroaching onto the birds feeding area. Short flights to avoid the spray revealed their respective distinct flight patterns. Eventually, they abandoned the shoreline in favour of the leeside of one of the bigger rocks slightly off shore.

Black Oystercatchers could also be seen on the big rocks and the southern chunk hosted a large roost of Brown Pelicans.
I wanted to get a better look at the Surfbirds and Black Turnstones roosting on a vertical rock-face and made my way down into Sutro Baths and the concrete wall that runs along the shoreline. 

Halfway down the steep slope, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a River Otter that had come up onto the bank of the pool. It marked its territory with ‘spraint’ before slipping back into the water to start fishing. 

There was a wide bank on the inland side of the pool so I moved quickly and found an unobtrusive spot back from the edge.  

There were other people around the pool, but the animal seemed to ignore them and it soon became clear that he was used to the attention. I moved to sit on a rock closer to the water’s edge and was stunned when the otter came up out of the water onto a floating plank less than 4 meters away from me.

It preened, scent-marked and inspected the remains of a previous meal before returning to the water.

There was a Great Blue Heron at the baths too. After a while, I noticed that the heron was following the otter. I didn’t see the heron catching any fish, nor did it even look very alert, but my best guess is that it was hoping that the otter activity would push small fish closer to the bank. 

The bird had also developed a very casual manner towards human visitors at the baths. On one occasion a gentleman with a dog had to step down from the seaward wall to go around the heron as it showed no intention of moving aside.

The otter however did not appear comfortable with dogs. It kept a very wary eye on one as the dog moved along the bank and it was the barking of a second dog that eventually made it seek cover in a drain.

During the two hours that I spent there, I met other otter watchers who knew the animal and had given him the name Sutro Sam. They surmised that he had probably swum across the entrance to the bay from the Marin Headlands. 

Otters there have been seen preying on large birds such as Brown Pelicans, so it was not surprising that the Ring-necked Ducks and Buffleheads on the pool were maintaining a respectful flight distance. They would have had good reason to be wary as what looked like the remains of a duck lay on the otter’s plank and were probably a previous meal.

Time was pressing and I reluctantly had to leave, but on looking back, saw Sam climbing up onto the concrete and over into the smaller adjacent pool. I couldn’t resist one more shot. Sam’s fish supply could soon be running out according to the Sutro otter watchers. 

It is only a small pool and he had already caught all the larger fish, leaving just small ones. He caught about a dozen during my stop and I wonder how long his supply will last at that rate. 

To maintain my credibility as a bird watcher, I should also make mention of the Yellow-rumped Warblers that were seen on the offshore and the shoreline rocks. An Anna’s Hummingbird was showing off his display flight with a series of steep ‘J’ shapes, before taking a rest on the steep slopes above the baths.

Birds seen; 18

Ring-necked Duck 10, Surf Scoter 150, Bufflehead 8, Western Grebe 15, Brandt’s Cormorant 10, Brown Pelican 120, Great Blue Heron 1, American Coot 8, Black Oystercatcher 2, Willet 6, Black Turnstone 6, Surfbird 25, Anna’s Hummingbird 3, Black Phoebe 2, Common Raven 4, Yellow-rumped Warbler 4, White-crowned Sparrow 2, Brewer’s Blackbird 4.

To reach Sutro Baths, Take the bus number 38 from anywhere on Geary, heading west. The bus sometimes stops a few blocks short at the hospital. Look for the bus headed for Lands End. It terminates on the slope above the baths.

A previous visit to Sutro Baths did not feature otters, but can be seen nonetheless at the link below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada Page for more posts from San Francisco including;