September 16, 2017

Nalle Bunny Run Group Walk 2017-09-16

Only 2 people joined me this morning at 8:00 for the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve in west Austin. In about 2.5 hours we covered 1.1 miles, making a rough circuit of the property, looking and listening for birds and other wildlife. Here are some highlights.

It was an overcast, warm, and quiet morning. Birds were very quiet until about 9:00, so during the first part of the walk we did not see many. But at the start of the trail to the spring I was excited to find an interesting insect. We found this Robber Fly hanging by its two front legs while it used its others to hold a small wasp it had caught. Robber Flies that hang like this are in genus Diogmites and are called "Hanging Thieves." This was the first time I've seen one on the preserve.

Hanging Thief Robber Fly with Wasp - 2

Look at those green eyes!

It turned out this was one of three first observations on the preserve for me this morning. Down on the sandy prairie by the lake we found a Loggerhead Shrike, which is the 169th species of bird I've observed here. And later we found a perched Twelve-spotted Skimmer, a dramatically patterned dragonfly I hadn't seen here before. Here's the dragonfly:

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

The air over the sandy prairie was full of dragonflies, mostly Saddlebags (genus Tramea), Wandering Gliders, and Common Green Darners. Most of them stayed in the air where it's hard to get good looks at one, but I was happy that we found one Wandering Glider "hanging" on a grape vine:

Wandering Glider

Some other fun things we saw were a possible distant soaring Osprey, a probable Cooper's Hawk chasing another bird right over our heads and then east over the sandy prairie, many Painted Lady butterflies, and these interesting tracks in the sand:

Rodent Track - 1

I think they were from a Hispid Cotton Rat.

Here's our complete bird list.

And here a few more photos on Flickr.

Attached are the same photos as iNat observations.

Posted on September 16, 2017 10:46 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 9 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 21, 2017

Eclipse Birding 2017-08-21

Here's what the solar eclipse was like in Austin today (courtesy of

Local Type: Partial Solar Eclipse, in Austin
Begins: Mon, Aug 21, 2017 at 11:41 am
Maximum: Mon, Aug 21, 2017 at 1:10 pm 0.72 Magnitude
Ends: Mon, Aug 21, 2017 at 2:39 pm
Duration: 2 hours, 58 minutes

As suggested by eBird, I recorded a few stationary bird checklists during this time as I watched the progress of the eclipse:

Since we didn't get total eclipse coverage in Austin, I did not observe any obvious reactions by the birds to the event. I think they only thing that might have been relevant was that it was a little cooler as more of the sun was covered.

But a few fun bird observations included south-bound swallows (a few I was able to recognize as Cliff Swallows but others were too high and fast for me to identify), a single Mississippi Kite soaring and drifting north, and two Yellow Warblers in my neighbor's live oak tree.

Eclipse 2017 - 2

Posted on August 21, 2017 09:29 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 1 comments | Leave a comment

August 19, 2017

Nalle Bunny Run 2017-08-19

7 people joined me this morning at 8:00 for the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve in west Austin. In a little over 2 hours we covered about 1.1 miles, making a rough circuit of the property, looking and listening for birds and other wildlife. Here are some highlights.

The first and biggest highlight was finding this juvenile Great Horned Owl shortly after turning east onto the trail towards the spring. There are often owls in this section of the preserve, but I can only remember one other time when I spotted an owl before it spotted us and flew away. This one tolerated our watching it for a few minutes before flying across the trail and into the woods to the north. Look at those huge feet and talons!

Great Horned Owl

Down the hill in the oak-juniper woods we got to observe the presence of a mixed-species foraging flock of songbirds, mostly Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and Black-crested Titmice. They were hard to see in the dense woods, but if you listened carefully you could hear their contact calls all around us. I talked a bit about Bird Language, and how we were experiencing base-line behavior of the birds quietly foraging while staying in ear-shot of each other.

Near the northeast corner of the preserve, right where the sandy prairie meets the oak-juniper woods, I spotted a dragonfly with green eyes and yellow stripes flying around. I've seen these flying around this area before, but I've never been able to photograph or identify one because they never landed for me. Today, this one landed! I was just as excited about this as I was about the owl! I'm 99% sure it's a Royal River Cruiser, a species I've never found before:

Royal River Cruiser - 1

On the sandy prairie area we found two more cool insects, first this orange and black velvet ant, a kind of flightless wasp. It was running around on the sand, digging little exploratory holes:

Velvet Ant - 1

And we found another dragonfly, this female Eastern Amberwing. It's the smallest dragonfly species in Texas, only about 1 inch long:

Eastern Amberwing

We only saw two south-bound migrating birds this morning, both female Orchard Orioles. Here's a distant photo I got of one of them. Orioles are in the blackbird family, and you can see this one's typical blackbird-like pointy bill:

Orchard Oriole

We ended up finding 24 species of birds. Here's our complete bird list on eBird.

And here are the same photos on Flickr.

Posted on August 19, 2017 09:20 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 5 observations | 3 comments | Leave a comment

August 11, 2017

Port Aransas Charlie's Pasture 2017-08-11

This morning I birded the Port Aransas Nature Preserve at Charlie's Pasture North with preserve manager Colleen Simpson. Before Colleen arrived I walked the short Pioneer Trail and was impressed by how many Silver-leaf Sunflower plants have grown up in the recently burned areas since last time I was here back in May. They were full of Red-winged Blackbirds. Here's my eBird list from that trail:

And a short stationary eBird list from the pavilion:

Colleen and I walked the main boardwalk trail starting at the pavilion all the way out to the small loop with the observation tower on Salt Island. On the way there we saw a few Snowy Plovers, including on adult and chick running across the mud flats. This was the first time I've ever seen a chick! It was fun to watch but too distant and moving too fast for photos.

From the observation tower we were impressed by sheer numbers of mostly wading birds in the pond to the south and mudflats to the southwest. Hundreds of birds included most herons and egrets encountered here, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and over 500 Black Terns.

Here's our eBird list:

And attached are a few iNaturalist observations.

Posted on August 11, 2017 08:52 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 4 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 29, 2017

Northwest Austin Backyard 2017-07-29 - Migrations

This morning I spent about 30 minutes sitting in my backyard, starting at 7:50. Twice previously this week while out on jogs in the neighborhood I'd noticed dragonflies flying south, and there were more this morning. I counted 183 dragonflies, all flying south over my backyard. I reported this as a migration event on The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership web site. I think they were 99% Spot-winged Gliders with just a few saddlebags mixed in. Keep your eyes open for dragonfly movements like this. They can be much more numerous and dramatic, and only seem to happen in the fall. We don't know much about where and when dragonflies migrate yet, but both The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership and Pond Watch have simple protocols people can follow to collect data and help us learn more.

Interesting bird observations included a heard-only Upland Sandpiper flying high overhead somewhere, also on its way south. There was a small bird in the live oaks I couldn't get a good look at but I suspect it was a Least Flycatcher. A bird with a red breast and belly and dark head flew over low, heading south. I think it was a Painted Bunting but I wasn't sure. And after I'd already ended my eBird checklist I heard a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Here's my eBird checklist.

Afterwards I swept my patio and found a tiny tail feather from a Carolina Chickadee. (See the attached observation.)

These days we are experiencing triple digit temperatures in Austin, but that early in the morning it was quite pleasant sitting out back with my cup of coffee, observing birds and dragonflies and whatever else I could see and hear. This short thirty minutes of nature connection got me through spending the rest of the day indoors just fine.

Posted on July 29, 2017 10:27 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 1 observations | 3 comments | Leave a comment

July 22, 2017

Nalle Bunny Run 2017-07-22

Three people joined me this morning for the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve. When I arrived at the preserve at about 7:30 AM as soon as I got out of my car I saw and heard a large group of mostly Blue-gray Gnatcatchers making alarm calls in a small area in a cedar elm tree. I estimated there were ten gnatcatchers, more than I've ever seen together before. Other species of birds including Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and even a hummingbird were all in the same small area watching very intently.

This is a defensive behavior small songbirds have when they find some kind of predator. The mobbing and scolding behavior is mostly to warn other birds and animals of the predator's presence, and also to try and drive the predator away. I carefully searched the area up in the tree where the birds were most concentrated. Often the gnatcatchers would hover in the air as well as perch on nearby twigs and branches. After several minutes of searching, and starting to wonder if there really was anything there for the birds to be worried about, I finally spotted this snake laying across the branches with its head hanging low:

Texas Rat Snake

The snake was a Western Rat Snake, a nonvenomous common and beneficial animal in the Austin area. This one was about two feet long. As I watched it, the original group of birds left, but periodically new birds would arrive and start the scolding and mobbing again. I was happy that the snake stayed there long enough for all the hikers to arrive. Everyone got the see the snake and the birds' alarm behavior around it. One of the birds that showed up was this almost completely bald Northern Cardinal:

Northern Cardinal

This time of year lots of songbirds are finished raising their broods and can now spend energy replacing their feathers (molting). It's common to see Northern Cardinals like this that lose all of their head feathers at once. They're appearance is quite alarming before their new feathers grow in. But most birds just look messy or disheveled while they're molting, as they lose and replace feathers at different times. This Carolina Wren that was also keeping an eye on the snake had this more common molting appearance:

Carolina Wren

Other highlights of the morning included this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk which we hard calling from near the spring long before we finally got this clear look at it from the northeast corner of the preserve:

Red-tailed Hawk

The hawk flew off shortly after I took this photo, but later on after we'd left this area it returned to this tree with a dramatic partial diving arial maneuver with half-folded up wings, right over our heads!

We briefly watched this large wasp digging in the sand. I thought it might be an Eastern Cicada Killer but I look forward to getting some help from the iNaturalist community to know for sure:

Digging Wasp - 1

Sometimes the air was full of dragonflies, mostly kinds that hunt on the wing like Wandering Gliders, Spot-winged Gliders, and Red Saddlebags. But we also found a Roseate Skimmer, a Neon Skimmer, and two Halloween Pennants (one male and one female). Here's the male:

Halloween Pennant - 2

We found 28 species of birds, and here's our complete list on eBird.

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

And attached below are the photos as iNaturalist observations.

Posted on July 22, 2017 09:51 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 10 observations | 3 comments | Leave a comment

June 21, 2017

Walburg BBS 2017-06-03

On June 3, 2017 I ran my first USGS Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The US Geological Survey started these bird surveys in 1966 and they make up one of the most valuable data sets we have for North American bird conservation. The surveys are hundreds of 25 mile routes on back roads all over the United States, and some in Canada and Mexico. The routes are surveyed once per year in bird breeding season (usually June). They are traversed by car, stopping every half-mile to record every species of bird seen or heard for 3 minutes. Most are run by volunteers. Last winter I discovered that no one was surveying the Walburg route, and since it's close to Austin I signed up for it. This route starts in the small community of Walburg northeast of Austin and runs east. It passes south of Granger Lake and most of it is within the Granger Christmas Bird Count circle. It was a Saturday morning at 6:00 AM when I started this survey route.

Most of my route was through agricultural fields (mostly corn), with some stops in rural neighborhood areas, and a few stops near creeks with some riparian woods. I estimate that the most common species I recorded were Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, Dickcissel, Red-winged Blackbird, American Crow, Northern Mockingbird, Painted Bunting, Common Nighthawk, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Killdeer, and Lark Sparrow.

The Walburg route was first run in 1980 and has only been skipped 5 times since then. While looking through the historical data for this route, it broke my heart to see how two species in particular have declined. In 1980, 55 Northern Bobwhite and 128 Eastern Meadowlarks were recorded. I only observed 2 bobwhite and 7 meadowlarks. Interestingly, 2 other grassland species, Dickcissel and Lark Sparrow, seem to be holding steady on this route. And Red-winged Blackbirds seemed to be using the corn fields more than the Dickcissels. A single male Orchard Oriole, singing while it flew by, was probably the most interesting bird I recorded.

A few stops were on busy roads, but most were a real treat to experience, quiet with long views in all directions. Hearing the meadowlarks reminded me of my youth on the Texas coast. And at two stops Common Nighthawks were diving close enough for me to hear their wings rip the air as they pulled up. (See my two attached audio observations.) I ended the survey at 11:25 at a pretty spot on top of a hill and I felt it was a morning well spent.

Walburg BBS Roadside - 4

Here are a few more photos on Flickr.

Posted on June 21, 2017 01:16 AM by mikaelb mikaelb | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 17, 2017

Nalle Bunny Run 2017-06-17

Only two people joined me on the monthly group walk on Hill Country Conservancy's Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve this morning. Starting at 8:00, we spent about 2.5 hours covering a little over a mile and finding 31 species of birds. Here are some highlights.

Early in the walk we heard and then saw a singing male Summer Tanager. As we watched it it moved closer, then was joined by a male Painted Bunting. They were almost in the same binocular view at one point. Here is probably the same Painted Bunting, photographed nearby before the walk started. And below it is the tanager.

Painted Bunting

Summer Tanager Male

On our way to the spring a juvenile Great Horned Owl flew downhill across the trail and into the woods. This time of year there are many new birds, recently out of their nests. Some other juvenile birds we saw were Northern Cardinals, Black-crested Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and this Eastern Phoebe by the pools just below the spring:

Eastern Phoebe Juvenile

In the open spaces of the sandy prairie area down by the lake, the air was full of insects and birds. Insects too small for us to see were being hunted by dragonflies, flycatchers, and swallows. Dragonflies included Wandering Gliders, Spot-winged Gliders, Red Saddlebags, Black Saddlebags, Prince Baskettails, and some kind of river cruisers. The swallows were mostly Cliff Swallows and Barn Swallows, with a couple Northern Rough-winged Swallows mixed in. The flycatchers were Western Kingbirds, and here's one perched on a blooming mesquite tree. Although my photo doesn't show it, the bird's yellow belly matched the yellow blooms on the tree:

Western Kingbird

Also on the sandy prairie area, in a habitat type I didn't expect, we saw two Rock Squirrels. Both disappeared into an open irrigation pipe, this one with something in its mouth that we couldn't identify:

Rock Squirrel - 1

Here's our complete bird list:

And here are a few more photos on Flickr:

Attached are the same photos as observations.

Posted on June 17, 2017 11:57 PM by mikaelb mikaelb | 6 observations | 1 comments | Leave a comment

June 14, 2017

Shield Ranch 2017-05-13

On May 13 and 14 I was fortunate to be able to join Hill Country Conservancy on their annual EPIC campout. This year it was at the Shield Ranch just southwest of Austin.

There was one remarkable wildlife observation I wanted to record here. On the afternoon of the 13th I was sitting with other campers under the trees by one of the El Ranchito camp sites when I heard a Common Nighthawk vocalize. I looked up and started seeing several Common Nighthawks flying roughly southwest over the trees. I thought there were at least 20, and another birder in the group jumped up and ran out from under the trees to estimate 37. Less than a minute later the same birds flew back over, northeast, seemingly back to where they came from. I only heard a single vocalization.

What happened? I've never seen this many Common Nighthawks in one group. My guess is that this was a group migrating north together. This species is mostly nocturnal and usually migrates at night, so they were all probably roosting somewhere nearby when something disturbed them. They all flew up, circled around, and returned to their roosting site or somewhere close by. That's the best I can come up with!

Some of the other common birds I saw or heard were Painted Buntings, Northern Cardinals, Dickcissels, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Golden-cheeked Warblers. Here's an eBird list from the morning of the 14th:

See the attached observations. Here are mostly the same photos on Flickr:

American Rubyspot

Posted on June 14, 2017 12:13 AM by mikaelb mikaelb | 16 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 11, 2017

Baker Sanctuary 2017-06-10

This morning I spent almost 4 hours covering a little over 3 miles on the northwest part of Travis Audubon's Baker Sanctuary. Like when I visited last month, I wanted to see an area of the preserve I hadn't been on before. So after parking I crossed Lime Creek Road and followed a trail west until I ran into the west fence line. On the way I found the old limestone quarry site which I've only seen once before:

Baker Sanctuary Old Quarry - 1

Then I followed the fence line north until I found an old truck trail a little to the east which also led north. At one point the trail opened up to this beautiful view to the north:

Looking North from Baker

Golden-cheeked Warblers are less detectable now since most of the males have mostly stopped singing. (I think I only heard one song while I was out.) Of the four I observed, two were juvenile males with a little bit of green on their crown and back. I'm not familiar with this plumage and at one point I thought I might be seeing a late migrating Black-throated Green Warbler.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Other highlights included finding an early Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly, having a family of Bewick's Wren come in to inspect me very closely while they were foraging, and lots of singing Field Sparrows and Painted Buntings. See my attached observations.

Here's my bird list:

And here are a few more photos on Flickr:

Posted on June 11, 2017 12:55 AM by mikaelb mikaelb | 12 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment
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