Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Martians Are Back! The Martians Are Back!

Years ago, while jogging on a trail near my home, a young woman came running toward me, shrieking "the martians are back, the martians are back!" Honestly, I did not expect to be confronted with Tim Burton's melon-headed green men. In fact, she even had the bird species wrong (the Barn Swallows had returned to nest under our bridge over our jogging trail; the Purple Martins had come back weeks before).

January is when we expect to see the first Purple Martins return to the Texas coast. These are the risk takers, the adult "scouts" who have forsaken the comforts of South America (such as Brazil) to risk a late cold snap here in Texas. The Purple Martin Conservation Association's scout arrival study has already received reports of 74 returning martins this 2009 season.

Interestingly, these early arriving "scouts" are not scouts at all. These are older adult males that have successfully nested in the past and are returning to the same nesting sites where they raised young the previous year. The scouts (unpaired birds without traditional nesting sites) will return weeks later.

The Purple Martin is a portal species, one that allows us easy entry into the natural world. Martins readily take to nest boxes (although martins in the west still primarily nest in natural cavities). Even Native Americans attracted martins to their habitations by providing empty gourds as nesting cavities. Once birds are attracted to a "martin house," people are able to watch and experience the entire breeding cycle of the birds from the comfort of their own yards. These Purple Martins become "their" Purple Martins.

Why do people go to such great lengths to attract martins to their yards? A new study from the University of Alberta reports that volunteers who take part in such conservation efforts (providing nesting habitat) may do it more for themselves than the wildlife they are trying to protect.

A study of purple martin landlords revealed that they were more motivated to take part in the conservation project for egoistic rather than altruistic reasons.

"Though there were areas of overlap, we found that common motivations for self-benefit included interaction with the birds, a sense of achievement, social interaction, personal stimulation and enjoyment," said Glen Hvenegaard, a co-author on the qualitative study and a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Alberta's Augustana campus in Canada.

Whatever the reason, ego or generosity, the martins are back!

Ted Eubanks

For more information about Purple Martins, consult the following websites:

The Purple Martin Conservation Society

The Purple Martin Society of North America

All About Birds (Purple Martin)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Jon McIntyre's Winter Swainson's Thrush

Today (15 Jan 2009) Jon McIntyre found and photographed a Swainson's Thrush at Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond in Port Aransas. To the best of our knowledge this is the first documented record of this migrant species in winter in our state. Although this species has been reported on a number of occasions in winter (such as from the CBCs), this is the first time that similar species (such as western Hermit) can be definitively ruled out. Also of interest was a Yellow Warbler seen by Jon at the Port Aransas Turnbull Birding Center.

Jon has given us permission to publish this photograph of the bird along with this note. Thanks, Jon, and congratulations on the great find!

Goose Island State Park January Activities

Mike Mullenweg, park interpreter at Goose Island State Park, sent the following description of activities for the park this January. An activities calendar is available on this website. Thanks, Mike!

Happy New Year!!! I hope everyone survived the holiday without gaining too much weight. Come on out to the park and join us for some interpretive hikes and walk off a few of those holiday pounds.

Every Wednesday through Saturday – Spend the morning with our birding experts as they lead a walk through the park identifying the birds of the Gulf Coastal Bend. Walks will take place in the Wooded Area or on the Bayfront. Bring your field glasses and comfortable shoes. Call for meeting locations.

On Saturday, January 3rd join us at 7 pm when volunteers from the Corpus Christi Astronomical Society will lead a tour of the night skies. Learn about the constellations and see the moon, planets, stars and galaxies through the telescope. Bring your lawn chairs and your binoculars and meets us at the Recreation Hall for an informative and fun night.

On Saturday, January 24th Doris Mager, founder of Save Our American Raptors (SOAR), will be making a presentation involving three live birds of prey including an American Kestrel, Great-horned Owl, and a Crested Caracara. Come join her as she relates her experiences of spending the last 35 years dedicated to the preservation of American birds of prey. Show starts at 7 pm in the Rec Hall.

On Saturday 10th, 17th and 31st join us at the Recreation Hall for an evening of learning about nature. Topics include birding, history, plant ID, astrology and more. Programs change weekly. Call to inquire about this week’s topic (361) 729-2858.

On Sunday January 18th meet at the Rec Hall for “The C.C.C. in the Park”. The Recreation Hall at Goose Island was made by the Civilian Conservation Corps from the natural resources found nearby. Come join our park ranger as he talks about the role of the CCC in Texas State Parks and “shellcrete”, a type of concrete made from oyster shells.

Mike Mullenweg, Park Interpreter
Goose Island State Park
202 S. Palmetto (Lamar)
Rockport, TX 78382
361-729-2858 Office
361-729-1041 Fax

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Birding Association Continental Convention Comes To The Bend!

The recent buzz surrounding Choke Canyon State Park is but a taste of the spectacular birding that comes with spring in the Bend. Therefore it is no surprise that the American Birding Association (ABA) will convene its continental convention in Corpus Christi 27 April through 3 May 2009. There will be field trips to all of the area's hotspots (such as Choke Canyon), and a myriad of speakers (such as Kenn Kaufmann) and workshops about bird, birding, and the tools of the trade.

This year marks the ABA's 40th anniversary (founded in Texas, by the way), and what better a way to celebrate than to come home! Corpus Christi has been named "America's Birdiest City" many times over, and even the convention hotel, the Omni Corpus Christi Bayfront Tower, is within walking distance of one of America's best known migrant traps - Blucher Park. There will be daily fields trips to the breathtaking variety of sites (such as the Port Aransas Turnbull Birding Center) and habitats accessible in the Coastal Bend (coastal bays and marshes, thorn-scrub brushland, eastern woodlands, coastal prairies and mottes, to name a few). Conventioneers will likely see more species of birds at this event than any in ABA's storied past.

The ways in which birders can participate are flexible. The convention offers a full package (all field trips and events), a partial package for nonbirding companions, and even an ala carte package for those wanting to attend a single event. In other words, there is simply no excuse for not attending! Corpus Christi is within a few hour's drive of San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Houston. What a fantastic opportunity for Texas birders to gather and celebrate the remarkable birdlife of the great state!

To find out more about the convention, as well as to register, go to the ABA website. We at Bird the Bend look forward to seeing you this spring!

Birders Converge in Choke Canyon State Park

One inevitable result of the presence of a rare bird is the crowd that appears. Birders will converge on the least likely of spots as long as there is a rarity to be ticked off the list (think Brownsville Dump and the Mexican Crows). The possible Pine Flycatcher is no exception, and Bob Rasa generously shared this photo of the Pine Flycatcher watchers as they huddled in the park in early January.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pine Flycatcher - To Be Or Not To Be

The Continuing Saga
13 Jan 09

Ted Lee Eubanks

On 13 December (and later on 27 December) Willie Sekula reported a western-type Empidonax flycatcher at Choke Canyon State Park Calliham Unit. Birders (Martin Reid, Sheridan Coffey, Derek Muschalek, Willie Sekula) relocated the bird on New Year's Day, and began to suspect that the bird in question might be a Pine Flycatcher (Empidonax affinis). This species of Empidonax is native to the high mountain forests of Mexico and southwestern Guatemala, and had not been previously seen in the U.S.

With the public announcement of the bird's presence and possible identification posted to TEXBIRDS, the rush began. Birders from around the world converged on the park to see this rarity. Articles about this "dinky bird" were published as far afield as Great Britain.

As photos (this one by Carlton Collier) and recordings were posted to the web, experts began to offer their opinions about the identification. Doubts were expressed, and counter arguments were given. As of today the debate continues.

From our perspective, this incident demonstrates the degree to which technology has advanced birding over the past decade. Already there are numerous digital photographs of the bird available on the web, as well as digital recordings and spectrograms of its call. The fact that birders would even attempt to identify such a challenging species (the Empidonax are famously difficult) is evidence of how far field birding has progressed. It was not that long ago that most small flycatchers of this type were left unidentified. Our hats are off to those who have been willing to risk such an identification and to include the world in their efforts.

Where To Go

From San Antonio (north) or Corpus Christi (south) travel I-37 to Three Rivers. From Three Rivers continue north to the Calliham Unit of Choke Canyon State Park. According to Martin Reid, "after the entrance road take a left at the stop sign, going towards the boat ramp. After about 400 yards you will see a sign on the right pointing to the ball field, There is a service road with a vehicle barrier by the sign on the right side of the road. You can park opposite the sign in a parking lot and walk in along the service road about 70 yards where you will see some water on the road. There is a small water treatment plant on the left behind a fence. The bird frequents this area. It seems to prefer the two live oaks on the left side of the road."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Whooping Crane Report

Whooping Crane Winter Update

The following report is forwarded with permission from Tom Stehn, USFWS biologist and US Whooping Crane Coordinator.

Whooping Crane Census Flight
January 8, 2009

The fifth aerial census of the 2008-09 crane season was conducted January 8, 2009 in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas with USFWS observers Tom Stehn and Felipe Prieto. Weather conditions were excellent for the census. However, a complete census was not conducted due to smoke from a prescribed burn on San Jose Island and limitations on allowable flight time.

Whooping Crane Numbers

The estimated peak flock size remains at 232 adults + 38 juveniles = 270 total. One subadult crane has died at Aransas, and the South Sundown Island juvenile has been missing on two consecutive flights and is considered dead, leaving the flock at an estimated 268. With every crane sighted on the flight plus 33 cranes known to be wintering in a part of San Jose Island not flown, we tallied 267 cranes. However, eight cranes may have been counted twice due to movements. Numerous crane movements to upland areas and water holes made it very difficult to determine exact numbers. Future flights will continue to attempt to pin down the exact number of family groups wintering on Matagorda Island.

Sightings near Aransas

Whooping cranes are showing up in unusual places presumably related to food shortages and the need to seek fresh water to drink. On today's flight, 2 adults were in a former fish farm impoundment on the Bauer property south of Austwell along FM 774. The subadult and juvenile seen at that location on the December 29th flight were not located on today's flight and presumably were overlooked, but could possibly have been on Lamar in a group of 14 cranes. However, tourists reported the juvenile again in the farm fields on Jan. 10th.

Habitat use

With food shortages continuing in the salt marsh, crane use of uplands as well as a notable shift to open bay habitat has cranes staying off their territories. This makes it very difficult to determine the identity of pairs and family groups and leads to much uncertainty during the census count. Cranes on the flight included 27 observed at fresh water sources, 6 on burned uplands, 25 on unburned uplands including shell roads, and 79 in open bay habitat. On the flight, 6 whooping cranes were next to wild game feeders on the Lamar Peninsula. Food sources for whooping cranes continue to be very low this winter, primarily due to the summer drought. Although the Tour Boat Captains occasionally see cranes catching a crab, many of the birds have switched to eating razor clams in open bay habitat. The increased amount of crane use in open bay habitat on the flight (n=79) is indicative of the food stress the population is facing. Twenty-one of the 79 were foraging along the edges of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. On last week's flight, 24 were in open bay habitat. Although the whooping cranes will fill up on clams, previous research shows they are actually using up fat reserves when feeding on a food so low in protein.

Items of interest

On December 29th, Aransas staff sighted a solitary whooping crane juvenile at the refuge boat ramp. This single juvenile was photographed by tourists on the V3 burn on 1-31-08. It has continued to feed daily along the edge of the paved road as well as on the V3 burn and in the upper end of Redfish Slough. It is not afraid of cars and people can drive to within 15 yards of it. However, it is alert and flies normally. This is not the solitary juvenile that has been in the farm fields south of Austwell. It is also not the lone juvenile seen in migration in Nebraska since that juvenile would not know how to find Aransas. On the census flight, the Mustang Slough family was confirmed for the second flight in a row without their chick. One possibility is that the lone juvenile utilizing the refuge tour loop is the Mustang Slough juvenile.

On December 31st, a family group of 2 adults and 2 chicks was photographed on the refuge tour loop by a visitor. I have no explanation or confirmation of this potential second twin family at Aransas this winter. This grouping was not located on today's census flight. Did it arrive from migration in late December? If so, where was it on January 8th? Was it a twin family, or had the solitary juvenile on the refuge tour loop temporarily joined up with a family group?

The search area has been expanded this winter since the cranes are showing up in unusual places. A group of 12 adults and 2 juveniles was sighted in the interior of the Lamar Peninsula in a location I have never flown over before. The group was in a large clearing near a waterhole and windmill west of the Big Tree Marsh. This sighting put 4 chicks on the Lamar Peninsula instead of the usual distribution of 3. Where had this extra family come from? Could it be connected with the solitary juvenile that has been in the farm fields north of Aransas, or somehow related to the twin family group sighted January 31st? The total of 20 cranes observed on the Lamar peninsula set an all-time record.

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Aransas NWR