Saturday, August 30, 2008

August 15/16 Report - South Llano River S.P.

Inca Dove, South Llano River State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller
Sorry for the delay on this one. Would have been much more helpful to get this out quicker, but life is what happens when you're making other plans. The species shift is quick this time of year so more timely would have been better, but...

Circumstances allowed me to get out to South Llano River State Park on August 15th & August 16.

The visit on Friday the 15th was late afternoon under challenging conditions. There was pretty solid cloud cover and not nearly the light I would have hoped for. With three possible blinds to choose from based on previous notes and with a limited amount of time, I went with Blind #1.

There wasn't a lot of traffic at blind #1. Probably the weather, likely also the lack of seed. 95% of what I saw was Northern Cardinal. I saw a Carolina Chickadee and another bird that I'm awaiting positive ID on. I think it was a female Western Tanager, but I'm going to let my friends who know more about this than I give me my grade on my bird identification test. (Update: The verdict is female Summer Tanager but possibly a young male who is starting to turn into it's telltale red)

The visit on Saturday was much more productive. I went to Blind #4, located in the powered camping area near Buck Lake. I had never been in that blind early in the morning--the last time I had been there it was towards mid-day and it wasn't overly productive. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great.

This visit, however, was very good. Sadly the adult male Painted Buntings had all ready moved on for parts south, but other species were in full bloom. The laundry list:

Bewicks Wren (Probably...maybe Carolina)
Black-Crested Titmice
Carolina Chickadee
House Finch
Inca Dove
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (immediately outside the blind)
Lark Sparrow (Adult & Juvenile)
Lesser Goldfinch
Northern Cardinal (Male, Female, & Juvenile)
Painted Bunting (Female, I think...)
Wild (Rio Grande) Turkey (Outside the blind)
White-winged Dove
Yellow-throated Warbler

The Yellow-throated Warbler is a life list entry for me and I managed to get a couple of good shots. I was able to add good images of Inca Doves, Carolina Chickadees, and Lark Sparrows to my photo library. I also got a shot of Lark Sparrow adults feeding their young. Very entertaining.

The visit also confirmed that this can be a very productive morning blind and I was very happy that I found my way down there.

Overall it was just an awesome morning in the blind.

Image: Inca Dove, South Llano River State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Preview of Coming Attractions...

Bronzed Cowbird, San Angelo State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller
Busy times in my neck of the woods lately. I have two reports coming, but I don't have the time to do them right over the next couple of days. I have a site report from South Llano River State Park from last weekend and a site report from San Angelo State Park from the last couple of days. I also have a quick blog entry running through my mind on equipment essentials.

So why am I being such a sloth? Two primary reasons.

First, and the biggest time sink of them all, I'm hurriedly getting ready for a 12 image show at Crockett National Bank in downtown San Angelo. And no, not of birds but of Icelandic Churches. For as much work as I've been doing on living things, it was nice to go back and look at images I shot over some extended visits to Iceland in the late 90's and early in this decade. Iceland's churches were my first love when it came to photographic subjects and the folks at the bank were nice enough to remind me that I've got some pretty darn good images sitting in the archives. The show begins on September 2nd and for reasons that I'd rather not explain, assembling the exhibition items was not as easy as I'd hoped.

Second reason is that last week was entirely too busy in the evening and this weekend, after getting some much needed photography in, was even busier with paint and other implements of home improvement.

I'm on the road again for part of this week, but where I'm staying has a good Internet hook-up so maybe if I'm lucky I can pound out the blind reports. If not, it may be early into next week before I have the time.

Image: Bronzed Cowbird, San Angelo State Park, © 2008 Jim Miller

Monday, August 18, 2008

Initial Description(s): Abilene S.P. Blind and Cedar Gap Farm

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to work a triangle day of shooting. The plan was to go up to Abilene State Park to visit the new blind that Big Country Audubon Society and Earth Share of Texas has constructed, and then go across to Cedar Gap Farm and check out that site. Rather than do the standard Initial Description post, I am going to give an abbreviated version.

Abilene State Park is located on Texas Highway 89, about half-way between US 287 and US 83/84. The nearest town is Buffalo Gap, and the park is about 20 miles from downtown Abilene.

As is the norm, the TPWD staff at Abilene S.P. were outstanding and provided very accurate directions. The blind is in the area that on the official map says "CLOSED AREA." There is a restroom near the trail head. Park there and walk down the trail. It is only a short walk from the paved road/trail head to the shelter.

I was warned by the president of Big Country Audubon that the facility is still a work in progress. She is right, but they're moving in the right direction. They are having problems with reflections off of the windows in the blind and their water feature is not getting enough juice from the solar panel to work the way that it is supposed to.

Those things aside, they've done some very good things to get the blind running. Birds are certainly coming, though at this point the variety band of species in the blind was very narrow based on the morning I visited. I counted Northern Cardinals, Black-Crested Titmice (Adults and Juveniles), Carolina Chickadees, and Hummingbirds of an unidentified species (I believe they were Black Chinned but my images did not turn out well). Add a couple of squirrels and a fox, and that was the full listed of vertebrate species.

There are ample feeding stations in the blind, both seed food and hummingbird friendly. While the water feeder may not have been working correctly, the water that was there was being consumed dutifully.

I think with the adding of some tree stumps in such a way that they're close enough to be stopping points for birds but far enough away from the feeders to deter squirrels will increase it's usefulness for photography.

The biggest detriment to photography is the way that they are trying to discourage bird collisions with the plate glass windows in the blind--strips of tape run vertically down the front of the window. It may be a good stop-gap way to protect the birds (and I'm 110% in favor of protecting the birds from human-made obstacles), but it kills all of the photographic angles from the normal sitting areas. I hope that the more permanent solution will take both the birds and photographers into account.

There is a single open window and I found it to be workable, though not ideal. The Rolling Stones were right when they said you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

This blind has the makings of a good blind for photography, but it's going to take some time. Based on the angle of the light, I'd say late afternoon is going to give the best photographic light. I'll try again in the spring.

I then wandered down the road to Cedar Gap Farm. Cedar Gap Farm is located off of US Highway 83/84 near Abilene. If headed towards Abilene from the south, make a right hand turn at County Road 150, and then a left hand turn onto County Road 563. Follow the signs and it will be difficult (though not impossible) to miss it.

Cedar Gap Farm is a great place for sitting in a large air conditioned room and watching birds. Huge numbers of Northern Cardinals (Adult and Juvenile), Titmice, Painted Buntings, Sparrows, and a number of other species (lost my notes from the trip). In addition to the bird watching room, there is a nature trail and a wildflower garden.

I cannot fully judge how good the photography is going to be there. I got there near high noon and did not have the patience to stick around for better light in the afternoon. But given that one of the photographer from the Abilene area that I admire greatly has done some outstanding work there, I'd say that the photographic possibilities are good. This again will likely be an early May '09 trip as by this point in the season it is likely that the prime reason for me to go up (the Painted Buntings) will have made their migration south. But I may go up just to drop a couple of dollars in the donation box and scout the light for future trips.

This is an interesting place and I had the good fortune to talk for a spell with Earlene Hutto who keeps the place going. It finished up a good morning of photography.

Both places deserve and will get a full write-up next spring.

August 16th/17th Report - San Angelo S.P.

No report for this weekend--Mother Nature has been kind in dropping some much needed rain on the Concho Valley. Two-thirds of an inch on Saturday and over another half inch on Sunday made it for not so favorable bird watching/photographing weather. Too much liquid sunshine for me.

Outlook for the week from the National Weather Service has some degree of rain through Thursday. Depending on how things are going I'll likely go out sometime during the week just to see how the species are starting to shift.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 10th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Canyon Towhee, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim MillerInteresting morning in the blind. With the cowbird mystery solved, it was interesting that the first bird of the morning was a Brown-Headed Cowbird.

Good morning for a couple of reasons. First was that we filled the front row of the blind with 3 photographers. A very unusual circumstance indeed.

Second, the bird mix was very interesting with a new life list entry for me, though I didn't get a very good picture.

I had a laundry list written, but of course I lost it on the way home--didn't bring out my notebook like I usually do and my scrap of paper blew away.

My big highlight was seeing my first Orchard Oriole. Didn't get a great shot of him, but good enough to confirm what I saw. A mating pair of both of Canyon Towhees and Cactus Wren were in the blind area as well.

Northern Cardinals continue to spend time in the blind area, both mating pairs, singles, and juveniles. Pyrrhuloxia came through as well. Red-Winged Blackbird numbers are down, and what are around appear to be this year's crop of juveniles with glimpses of yellow still at the leading edges of their feathers.

Most of the other usual suspects were also around. House Finches and House Sparrows, Curved-Bill Thrashers, and both the Golden-Fronted and Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers were visitors.

The light could have been better, but I came away with about 2 dozen usable shots.

Image: Canyon Towhee, San Angelo S.P., ©2008 Jim Miller

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Outstanding Birding Resource: Birds of Texas

I rely heavily on the Internet for bird identification. This is mostly because I've yet to find a good comprehensive guide to Texas birds. There are some good general bird books, but I hate wasting my time thumbing through them when most of what I am finding is not what's in the area. I have 2 or 3 guides that concentrate on Texas, but each of them have significant weaknesses that make me reach for Google before I reach for them.

This weekend the luck changed. I wholeheartedly recommend Birds of Texas by Dr. Keith A. Arnold and Gregory Kennedy, published by Lone Pine Publishing (ISBN: 9768200189). Nearly 400 separate species are covered in detail with a single page for each. Outstanding detail on each of the species, as well as a description of similar species to help with identifications. Another 80 species or so are noted in pictures. There's also a 6 page checklist with just about every bird that can be found within the borders of the great state of Texas.

Why this book beyond others? The thoroughness of species is mind-boggling. Sparrows, as an example: There are 24 pages of sparrows. Another book on my shelf (which will likely now gather dust or become a donation) has only 6.

The only weakness: Hummingbirds. There are only 5 listed in great detail.

List price is $21.95, though Amazon has it cheaper. I got my copy at Waldenbooks in San Angelo and with my Borders Rewards semi-regularly distributed 25% off coupon, I got it with tax under $18.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

San Angelo S.P. Cowbird Mystery Solved

Brown-Headed Cowbird, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller
Okay, maybe that's a hair over-dramatic. But as noted in previous posts the number of Brown-Headed Cowbirds have been almost zero over the last couple of weeks. As also noted, I'm not complaining. I have a significant level of contempt for Brown-Headed Cowbirds. They are parasitic breeders--they lay their eggs in other bird's nests getting those birds to raise the young cowbirds, often causing the death of the host fledglings. And since each female can have up to 10 broods a year of 4-5 eggs each, their potential for havoc is enormous.

Walking into the bird blind this morning, a large sign was up from Texas Parks & Wildlife Division explaining the presence of cages on the grounds of the park that effectively act as traps for cowbirds. Once captured, the Brown-Headed Cowbirds are put down humanely. This thins the numbers in the area, allowing other species to recover.

My only complaint would be that this would have been best done in early spring rather than late summer so as to stop the cascading effect of cowbirds being raised during the summer. But it is at least a start. Fingers crossed that this will help restore some order in the ecosystem for native species.

Image: Brown-Headed Cowbird, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Thursday, August 7, 2008

August 7th/8th Report - San Angelo S.P.

Northern Bobwhite Quail (Male), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller
Good couple of mornings in the blind. After having me home for a few days taking care of some family business, my spouse finally told me that I needed to get out of the house for a few hours. So I obliged her on Wednesday and Thursday.

Overcast skies on Wednesday made for ideal conditions though bird population was slow. Partly cloudy skies on Thursday made the light more difficult but upped the number of birds and there were enough opportunities where the light diffused out behind the clouds that I was happy.

Noticeably missing again were all species of cowbirds. Based on my images from last year, we had Brown-Headed Cowbirds as late as September last year, so I'm at a loss to explain why they have disappeared so quickly this year. I'm not necessarily complaining, I'm just reporting the news.

I will again not give the laundry list. Except for the cowbirds, all the other usual suspects were around.
  • Sparrow traffic seems to be picking up.
  • White-Winged Doves still outnumber Mourning Doves in the AM hours.
  • No wrens and no Ladder-Backed Woodpecker.
  • Saw a Golden-Fronted Woodpecker on Thursday.
  • Northern Bobwhite Quails were out both days, with a single Male out on Wednesday and a mating pair on Thursday. Thursday's birds were very good photo subjects.
  • A Greater Roadrunner made multiple trips into the blind, both before I arrived and a couple of times while I was present.
Image: Northern Bobwhite Quail (Male), San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August 3rd Report - San Angelo S.P.

A truly miserable day in the blind. Really, it's been a long week. Was in North Texas earlier in the week attending to some family medical issues (all went well, but still...). Got back late Friday and had a lengthy honey-do to knock out Saturday morning. Light couldn't have been better, but obligations are obligations.

Sunday morning, however, stunk for light. No clouds and very bright sunshine. I shot a couple hundred images over three hours, but when I got them home I found I had about 10 that were worth looking at further, and at that it will be an extensive amount of time in Photoshop to make them right.

No laundry list, but some basic impressions: Species count was way down. No woodpeckers of any type. 2 or 3 Cowbirds (and no Bronzed). Hummingbird activity is still good and I saw my first Rufous Hummingbird (though my image is pretty bad--wrong side of the light). A single Northern Bobwhite Quail made it in. The baby Titmice seem to have either grown up or gone elsewhere because all I saw were adult-looking and -behaving birds. Good mix of Mourning and White-Winged Doves and there were a few cooperative Red-Winged Blackbirds.

A bad day shooting is better than a good day doing just about anything else, but I'd rather have a good day of shooting than a bad one...

Image: White-Winged Dove, San Angelo S.P., (c) 2008 Jim Miller