July 13, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run Virtual Tour 2020-07-12

Hill Country Conservancy staffers Sarah Dean and Carolyn Stephens met me on their Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve Sunday morning to record our fifth virtual tour of the property. Here are some highlights from this very warm and humid morning. (I'll update this post when the video is posted.)

Near the gate we heard a Painted Bunting singing. We waited a bit and the bird flew into view, and then a second Painted Bunting joined it. This was surprising because both were mature males, who normally would be chasing each other off each other's territories. But they seemed to coexist just find and even flew away still loosely associated and going in the same direction. Maybe it's late enough in the season that they've stopped being territorial until next year? Here's one of them:

Painted Bunting - 1 - 2

On the sandy prairie near the northeast corner of the preserve, we had just finished photographing a Neon Skimmer dragonfly when another large insect flew in and landed on a grape vine. While it flew we were stunned by its metallic green and blue colors. After it landed we saw it also had orange legs and incredibly long antennae. It looked like a member of the Long-horned Beetle family (Cerambycidae) but I had never seen one like this! It turned out to be a Bumelia Borer and I can't wait to learn more about this dazzling animal. Here's one of my photos:

Bumelia Borer - 1 - 4

One of the prevalent plants on the sandy prairie area is croton, and it was in bloom and being pollinated by a variety of insects including bees, flies, and wasps. Many people don't realize that many wasps feed on nectar and pollen as adults, and thus are important pollinators. Here's one I photographed that the iNaturalist community has tentatively identified as a Five-banded Thynnid Wasp:

Wasp on Croton - 2

The most exciting part of the morning came on the west side of the preserve in the deciduous woods habitat area. Carolyn and I were looking at an empty cicada shell when Sarah spotted a large bird flying through the woods. I was too late to see it but then we all saw a second bird fly in the same direction. It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl. We went into the woods to see if we could find these birds and we were lucky to find one, awkwardly perched on a tree trunk and nervously watching us. In the middle of the photo, you can just barely see one of its massive talons!

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls are amazingly adaptable birds of prey that can live in urban and suburban habitats as well as more natural areas. Juvenile birds are seen more often because they haven't learned how to be as sneaky and wary of people yet.

In addition to the owls, I ended up recording 27 species of birds.
Here's our complete list on eBird.

Here are these photos and more from the morning posted on Flickr.

And attached are most of these same photos as iNaturalist observations.

Update 2020/07/17: Here's the video:

Posted on July 13, 2020 20:27 by mikaelb mikaelb | 18 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 09, 2020

Walburg BBS 2020-06-07

Among many other much greater disappointments and concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the USGS Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) was officially cancelled for 2020. At the time (April 10), USGS staff could not enter their offices and most of the country was shut down. But by late May the world had learned a little more about the virus, and we all had learned more about how to do things safely. I started thinking about running my BBS route anyway. This would be the fourth time running this route, which is northeast of Austin on 25 miles of back roads south of Granger Lake.

On May 30 Joanna Rabiger and I scouted the route, and on June 7 I did the survey according to protocol. (The protocol is to drive the 25 mile route and stop at 50 specific points. At each point record all the birds you see or hear for 3 minutes.) Here are some highlights from the survey, starting with this moonlit agricultural field at the first point just before 6 AM. The lights of Weir, TX are in the background. (Where? Weir!)

Moon from Survey Point 1

For the fourth year in a row, at point 3 a local guineafowl confronted me and expressed its disapproval. This time I captured it on video. Click to watch:

Guinea Fowl at Point 3

Here are some species that I don't usually see in my neighborhood in Austin, but that breed out here in the more open habitat. Most are in decline, especially Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Meadowlark, and Loggerhead Shrike. I included how many points I detected at least one:

Northern Bobwhite: 1 (at point 11)
Horned Lark: 1
Eastern Meadowlark: 3
Dickcissel: 14
Lark Sparrow: 7
Yellow-billed Cuckoo: 9
Painted Bunting: 13
Loggerhead Shrike: 2

The bobwhite, Horned Lark, and meadowlarks were heard-only during the survey. But a week earlier Joanna and I were treated to this view of a Horned Lark. Maybe it was the same one I heard on the survey!

Horned Lark - 1 - 3

For each point, there's a box you can check on the survey form if some kind of "excessive noise" affected your ability to hear birds. I had to check this box for point 36 because this contraption was circling above me:

Helicopter at Point 36 - 1 - 2

A few points later I parked on the shoulder of the road in tall grass, which is often necessary during this survey. When I drove back onto the road, I heard a rubbing sound and felt resistance. When I got out of the car to inspect, I saw a partially folded tire sticking out of my right front wheel well. I briefly panicked thinking it was a catastrophic flat tire! But when I looked closer I realized that my tire was still on the rim and just fine. I had driven over an abandoned tire hidden in the tall grass, and it had rotated up into the top of the wheel well where it was crammed between the top of my tire and the fender. It was stuck in there good, but I tried slowly backing up, and the old tire came right back out the way it had gone in. I briefly thought about tossing it back in the tall grass, but I threw it into the back of my Subaru instead. I didn't know how I was going to dispose of it yet but I'd figure something out.

The rest of the survey was uneventful. I finished point 50 at about 11:30 and had a picnic lunch on the side of the gravel road. I took this selfie:

Survey Point 50 Selfie

On my way home I stopped at a big tire store on the highway and they accepted the old tire I'd found to dispose of it properly.

I don't know if the USGS will accept my data this year, but it's here if they want it. I could also enter it into eBird if I feel ambitious enough to create 50 eBird locations. Regardless, I considered it a morning well-spent. The beautiful views, the ritual of the survey protocol, and the nature connection temporarily overcame my pandemic worry.

Attached are observations from both the scouting day and the survey day.

Posted on July 09, 2020 23:05 by mikaelb mikaelb | 13 observations | 4 comments | Leave a comment

June 23, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run Virtual Tour 2020-06-21

On Sunday morning Joanna Rabiger and I met with HCC staff member Sarah Dean on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve to create another virtual tour. I'll update this post with a link to the video when it is available.

A highlight of the morning was a brief sighting of a silent Golden-cheeked Warbler that Joanna spotted at the beginning of the trail to the spring, at the edge of oak-juniper habitat. I was unable to photograph this bird but it was exciting to see. We don't get many observations of this species on the preserve, even though the preserve is managed for Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat. We think the habitat is a bit too small and isolated to attract a breeding pair. This might have been a post-breeding wandering bird, or even a bird already on its way south.

Attached are some other observations.

Here are the same photos on Flickr:

And here is our complete bird list on eBird:

Update 6/30/2020. Here's the video:

Posted on June 23, 2020 13:11 by mikaelb mikaelb | 9 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

June 20, 2020

Blue Jay Croaks as Alarm Sounds

639 - BLUE JAY (2-8-2016) tradwinds park, broward co, fl -01

(Above is a beautiful public domain photo of a Blue Jay vocalizing that I found on Flickr. Click on it to go to the photographer's photo stream.)

I've been interested in a body of knowledge call "Bird Language" ever since Jon Young wrote the book "What the Robin Knows" in 2013. It describes and organizes patterns of bird behavior and sounds around perceived danger that he calls "alarms." If you can recognize when birds are exhibiting alarm behavior, you can sometimes determine what the source of that alarm is. I've found snakes in trees by first recognizing songbirds alarming around a particular area in the canopy. And I've gotten to see a few more Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks over the years by recognizing other birds' alarms that the hawks trigger.

Blue Jays have always been difficult to interpret in this context. Sometimes you see them mobbing a hawk while making their "jeer" calls. But it seems like just as often, maybe even more often, they get together and jeer and jeer and jeer for no apparent reason.

But recently I made a discovery about Blue Jay alarms. Back in November one morning on Lake Creek Trail, I heard a nearby Blue Jay making jeer calls. And then I heard a low croak from the same direction. I found the Blue Jay and saw it make a few more croaks as it concentrated on a small area of low dense brush. Looking into this brush I was excited to see a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl!

Since then, I've been listening for these croaks from Blue Jays. And when I hear them, I can usually find both the Blue Jay and a hawk that it's harassing. The croaks seem to be a pretty reliable indicator that a Blue Jay is actively confronting some kind of predator. Much more reliable then the jeers.

A couple days ago I was able to record one of these croaks. A Broad-winged Hawk was perched in my neighbor's backyard and a Blue Jay flew in to harass it. I started recording audio on my phone hoping to record a croak, and I did! See the attached audio observation of Blue Jay. The audio clip starts out with some jeer calls, and then at about 10 seconds there is one croak. The Blue Jay made this croak as it dove at the hawk. It's the last Blue Jay sound on the clip.

I also attached the Eastern Screech-Owl observation from November when I first noticed this croak and wondered what it was.

Posted on June 20, 2020 19:04 by mikaelb mikaelb | 2 observations | 3 comments | Leave a comment

May 23, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run Virtual Tour 2020-05-23

Hill Country Conservancy staffers Sarah and Carolyn met me this morning to create another virtual tour of their Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve.

My complete eBird list is here.

Here are my photos on Flickr.

The same photos are also attached as observations.

Will update when the virtual tour is posted on YouTube.

Updated 2020-06-04 with YouTube virtual tour:

Posted on May 23, 2020 23:52 by mikaelb mikaelb | 9 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

May 21, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run 2020-05-16

Saturday May 16, 2020 would have been when I led the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve. But thanks to the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic, it was just me. I would rather have been leading a group, but I also appreciated the opportunity to spend a morning on the Bunny Run by myself. Heavy rain the night before increased the possibility of seeing spring migrating birds, and we don't have many records of migrants on the preserve so I was excited for the possibilities. It turned out to be a fantastic morning and here are some highlights.

Breeding Birds

Summer- and year-round-resident birds were singing and reproducing! I heard songs of Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, three different Northern Parulas, and a Painted Bunting. Two juvenile Canyon Wrens came right up to me as I was trying to photograph another bird. When I realized how close they were I got this photo:

Juvenile Canyon Wren - 2 - 1

This Red-eyed Vireo was carrying a small twig to add to a nest somewhere:

Red-eyed Vireo - 1 - 4

And this pair of Eastern Bluebirds was perched on one of the Purple Martin nesting cavity installations. I suspect they were using one to nest, but I could not verify it.

Eastern Bluebird Pair - 1 - 1

Migrating Birds

There weren't many, but I did manage to find and photograph a few birds that were on their way further north. Down by the lake this Least Flycatcher was hunting in shrubs in front of the cypress trees:

Least Flycatcher

There were two Magnolia Warblers in the deciduous woods habitat west of the driveway. Both were stunning males and here's one of them:

Magnolia Warbler - 2

I was most excited to finally photographed this Chestnut-sided Warbler. I first heard it in the same area as the Magnolia Warblers, and I saw it but never got close enough for a good photo. Finally near the end of the morning I found it foraging with the Magnolia Warblers and got a few decent photos. Here's one:

Chestnut-sided Warbler - 1 - 4

Other Highlights

While standing on the dock by the boat ramp, a Spotted Sandpiper flew in and landed on the ramp. We don't have many shorebird records for the preserve so I tried to get a photo but the bird saw my movement and took off. At that same moment I heard a loud repeated call and saw a Ringed Kingfisher flying west over the lake. These huge kingfishers have been expanding their range north from south Texas over the last few decades. I've only seen them a handful of times on the Bunny Run and I was happy to at least get a poor photo of this female bird as it flew past:

Ringed Kingfisher - 1 - 1

Rains the night before had left the pond in the northeast corner of the preserve full. As I walked by it I thought I heard something different and went closer to investigate. Sure enough, as I approached I heard several Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toads calling from the edge of the pond. This was the first time I've observed this species here, and while I could never spot one floating in all the debris at the pond's edge, I made an audio recording and saved it as an iNat observation here.

On my way back up the hill I checked out the drainage feeding this pond and enjoyed seeing lots of water flowing over the limestone:

Waterfall Flowing

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

Here is my complete eBird list.

And attached are a few iNaturalist observations.

Posted on May 21, 2020 00:12 by mikaelb mikaelb | 20 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 20, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run Virtual Tour 2020-04-18

On Saturday April 18, 2020 I met a couple Hill Country Conservancy staff members at their Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve for the second virtual tour. (The first tour has not yet been edited or posted anywhere besides as ephemeral "stories" on Instagram.) I hope to update this post and my previous post when these videos are edited and online.

It was a fun morning! We spent about 3 hours covering just 1.25 miles of trail on the preserve. When I first arrived I was excited to find a few patches of Antelope Horns milkweed, and one of them had two Monarch butterfly caterpillars on it!

Antelope Horns Milkweed with Monarch Caterpillars - 1 - 3

Antelope Horns Milkweed with Monarch Caterpillars - 1 - 5

Throughout the morning we got to hear several bird songs and calls that we recorded little segments about.

It was remarkable to find two different White-tailed Deer antler sheds. One was pretty fresh and the other was old. The old one showed lots of gnaw marks from rodents supplementing their diet with minerals from the old antler:

White-tailed Deer Antler with chew marks

We left both antlers where we found them for future gnawings!

We ended the walk locating a Catalpa tree that I first found when it was just 4 feet tall back in 2013. Now it's 15 feet tall and it was covered in white flowers!

Catalpa Tree - 1 - 1

Catalpa Tree - 1 - 3

We found 24 species of birds on this morning. Here's my complete eBird list.

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

Attached are the same photos as iNat observations.

And here's a video summary of the walk that HCC posted on Instagram.

Update 4/28/2020

HCC posted the edited video on YouTube. I'm embedding it here:

Posted on April 20, 2020 22:32 by mikaelb mikaelb | 9 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

March 21, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run Virtual Tour 2020-03-21

This morning would have been the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run. But like so many other group actives, HCC wisely (but sadly) cancelled it to help "flatten the curve" of the infection rate of the new corona virus pandemic. Wow, what a strange time we are in! Instead of the group walk, a couple HCC staff members took video and photos while I walked around and did more-or-less my usual tour. The result isn't posted yet, but when it is I'll update this journal entry.

It was a cool overcast morning, but the forecasted rain held off until the afternoon and the Bunny Run was birdy! It's a fun time of year. In the early spring we have a mix of our year-round resident birds, most of our winter-resident birds that haven't migrated north yet, and a few summer-resident birds who have already started migrating north from further south. And many birds are singing and figuring out their breeding territories!

One of the few photos I took was of this male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, an early returning summer-resident species that nests on the Bunny Run. It briefly foraged low beside a large kidney wood bush while we watched nearby:

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I was happy to find Red Buckeye in bloom, a beautiful native plant also known as Firecracker plant:

Red Buckeye - 1 - 1

Here's our complete eBird list:

And here are a few more photos on Flickr:

Posted on March 21, 2020 22:08 by mikaelb mikaelb | 3 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

February 18, 2020

Nalle Bunny Run 2020-02-15

On Saturday February 15, 2020 eight people joined me for the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run wildlife preserve. I was happy to see so many people on the walk; we haven't had this many people in a long time. We spent a little over 2 hours walking around the preserve and here are a few highlights.

Except for Northern Cardinals, the birds were few and far between. We could almost always hear a cardinal singing, and it wasn't too hard to see one if we tried. I estimated we heard or saw at least 20 individuals. On the sandy prairie area down by the water we got to see an American Kestrel twice, once when it landed in the top of a cypress tree near us, and later when it called repeatedly and seemed to catch up with us to land nearby and give us another look. Here it is on the cypress tree:

American Kestrel

Shortly after when we started back up the hill we got to see an Orange-crowned Warbler and two Ruby-crowned Kinglets foraging in low bushes next to the driveway. Most of the other birds we recorded were either heard-only or only briefly seen.

Probably the two most common shrubs on the property are Yaupon Holly and Agarita. Some of the female Yaupon Holly bushes were just beautiful with their bright red berries and here's one we encountered on the west half of the preserve in the parkland habitat type:

Yaupon Holly

We are having an early spring this year, and I noticed a couple Agarita bushes were starting to bloom. But I was surprised when we found one bush covered in open yellow flowers. I was happy the group got to see this event that usually only happens for a week or two in March. And look, you can just see the Penneybacker Bridge in the background:

Blooming Agarita - 1 - 2

Here's our complete eBird list.

And here are the same photos on Flickr.

Posted on February 18, 2020 21:17 by mikaelb mikaelb | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 16, 2020

White Wagtail in Austin 2020-02-09

On Saturday, 2/8/2020, Janet Davis and Jeff Osborne found a White Wagtail on the Colorado river in Roy Guerrero Park in southeast Austin. This species had never been found in Texas before, and as the word got out to the birding community, birders raced to the location to try and see the wagtail for themselves.

I was able to chase this bird late Saturday afternoon 2/9/2020. Almost as exciting as seeing the bird was experiencing the camaraderie of fellow birders also trying to see it. Figuring out where to park was easy: an area along the trail was full of cars with a few people standing around with binoculars, cameras, and tripods. They told me the bird was being seen from a spot about a mile down the trail, so I set off at a fast pace in the direction they indicated. It was a little after 4 PM on a wet and unseasonably warm overcast day. Luckily rain had subsided for the afternoon.

As I walked I met a couple people on their way back who reassured me I was on the right path. A little before 4:30 I found the group watching the bird. I smiled and took a couple iPhone photos:

Group watching White Wagtail

Group watching White Wagtail

I joined them and within 3 or 4 minutes I was seeing a White Wagtail in my spotting scope. A lifer without having to leave Austin! To me, the bird looked like and acted like a big fancy American Pipit, bobbing its longer black and white tail as it walked around on a rocky island in the riverbed. Indeed, this species is related to our local pipits and two were foraging with it on the rocks. It was so far away and blended in with the rocks so well that finding the bird was difficult. We were constantly helping each other locate it via describing land marks. And those with spotting scopes shared them often.

A tall, lean, heavily bearded young man called me by name and introduced himself as Christian Walker, a fellow central Texas birder I hadn't seen since he was a teenager. Now he was in his late 20s! After watching the bird and enjoying the group of birders for about 30 minutes I started preparing to leave when Austin-area birder Wendy Harte showed up. I started trying to find the wagtail for her when Christian almost casually mentioned it had left with the two pipits. We first thought he was joking but Christian was the only one alert enough to observe the wagtail and two pipits fly off downriver. He even heard their flight call notes. I started the walk back to my car, and Christian and Wendy went off to try and find the wagtail again.

Because of the long distance to the bird and poor light that day, my photos were terrible. The best turned out to be this digiscoped photo taken with my iPhone through my spotting scope:

White Wagtail - 1 - 2

You can at least see its black bib.

Attached is my iNaturalist observation with a couple more equally poor photos, and my eBird list is here.

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

Posted on February 16, 2020 18:05 by mikaelb mikaelb | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment