Big Country Audubon Society

Big Country Blog

Fall Surprises, Mid September

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It sure is hard to stay focused on the birds of the Big Country when such a celebrity is in town. We knew you’d like more pictures of this flycatcher so we’ve put up a few more. Under each picture is information about this bird, its ecology, where it “normally” lives, and a theory as to why it has a black mask.

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Another rare visitor to the Big Country surprised us, a Mottled Duck (a resident of coastal marshes). Matt White was birding Lake Fort Phantom where he captured the above photo.

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And a few more mid-September birding surprises await your viewing in our Fall Surprises gallery. Do you know what this strange bird is?

First Pictures of Kiskadee

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At last! Pictures! Four of us waited patiently this morning for the kiskadee. After about 2 hours of no luck the brains of the group (Matt White) stated the kiskadee would probably answer a tape if anyone had its call. The Most Knowledgeable Individual Around (inside joke) ran back home, got her iPod, played the kiskadee call, and within 5 minutes the real kiskadee answered back. Not only did he answer The Call, but he posed nicely for John’s camera.

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Way to go, John! I know the light was pathetic and you had to use a high ISO, but we now have diagnostic pictures. No mistaking this bird’s identity. As I’m writing this the temperature outside has dropped to the low 60s; our first front of the season. Will the kiskadee ride out with it or will it be there tomorrow? Stay tuned and in the meantime, enjoy the kiskadee pictures.

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(All photos by John English)

Great Kiskadee in Abilene

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If you’ve been following the Sightings section, you know we’ve been seeing and hearing a very rare bird for this area. It is the Great Kiskadee. A bird of the Valley, you know the Valley in far South Texas where Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and other Valley cities are. Whenever we get a photograph of this bird, we’ll be sure to post it for all to see. In the meantime, the link above will take you to a site with pictures and the bird’s call. I was the first to hear the bird while out birding the Cedar Creek area in NE Abilene on Thursday, Sept. 14. Then the bird put in an appearance and as soon as I could get my lower jaw off the ground I started calling my birding friends to come verify what I saw. A couple of others have been to the area and heard the bird but not seen it until Saturday morning when John English and I went back to the creek. John used to live in the Valley (he actually grew up there) so he is very familiar with kiskadees. The bird put in an appearance so he no longer thinks I’m crazy. The kiskadee was not cooperative for a mug shot but tomorrow morning is a few hours away.

Then I noticed the neighbor (whose house backs up to the creek) in his backyard so I went to visit him about the bird. What he told me is unbelievable but I’ll let the experts evaluate his story.

According to this man, this bird has been coming to his house for many years. When pressed to give a number, he said ten years. The bird comes and drinks his hummingbird nectar. He thought it was an oriole of some type. This man thoroughly enjoys the outdoors so he’s got pretty good observation skills. When I asked him to describe the bird (my only prompt was that it had a lot of yellow on it) he proceeded to describe it with a black and white striped head. What kind of call have you heard it make? He said, a “weeee” type of call. When I asked him if he had ever heard it say, “kis-ka-dee” he had not.

What’s odd, I remember a couple of years ago talking to this man and he was telling me he had a very colorful bird that came to his house with a big black eye line and black on the head, a rusty and yellow-colored bird; could I tell him what it was. I remember being totally baffled because I was thinking of the local birds, not something from the Valley. (sorry for the aside)

He further stated the bird shows up “some time in the spring.” But he’s uncertain if it leaves in the fall or hangs around during the winter. And he said the bird doesn’t come every year to feed off his nectar. But you know, if you’re not really watching for this, you may miss some of the action.

I found a large grassy nest in a huge magnolia tree. (West Texas, yeah, right.) The kiskadee was in this tree this morning, skulking around in it. We watched it fly from this big lone tree back to the riparian area about fifty yards away.

If what this gentleman says is true (and I have no reason to doubt him) this bird has been in Abilene, probably breeding because I don’t think kiskadees live as long as 10 years. The length of time would indicate the kiskadee is migratory and has been imprinting Abilene’s location on their young because why else would the sightings continue this long? When I asked him if he ever saw it feeding young or bringing young to his hummingbird feeder he said no. The bird I saw a couple of days ago was definitely an adult; it had a large yellow crown patch with flecks of black in it. I’ve been reading that juveniles lack the yellow crown patch (Birds of North America Online). When I asked him if he had ever seen more than one bird at a time, he said no. Just seeing one bird at a time.

I definitely plan to monitor this bird/location to discover what is going on. Any advice or comments will be greatly appreciated. This man was thrilled that someone was taking an interest in this bird. Unbelievable or Fascinating?

And birding in Abilene this week? Forget about it until the next post. We’ve got a kiskadee to photograph!

Are We There Yet? (Early September)

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Pick a rainy, drizzly day to go birding and you will be rewarded! This shorebird called a Sanderling was found last week at Lake Fort Phantom grounded by the rain. You remember, our Labor Day that was rained out? Although found worldwide, Sanderlings are very rare inland. They breed in the high arctic tundra and migrate along the Pacific or Atlantic coastlines. This juvenile could winter as far south as Chile or it might stay on the gulf coast.

This week’s group of pictures focuses on migration again. Baird’s and Stilt Sandpipers showed up at Waste Water along with some other shorebirds; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are sipping nectar voraciously at feeders; and a few winter residents are beginning to show up (such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels and ducks). If you’re interested in following the most recent sightings, check out our newly created Sightings section. It’ll give you a good idea of what is currently in the area.

As for the Sanderling I imagine his parents were tired of answering the question, “are we there yet?” And they secretly flew south when junior wasn’t looking, leaving junior on his own to figure out this thing called migration.

August Endings

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After the excitement the bobcat story generated, how can I go back to the mundane? But wait, did I just call birds and birding mundane? What was I thinking? There’s been some pretty interesting birding this past week. A little rain and a shift in the wind direction signaled the start of a journey for billions of birds (entire species) to start swarming over the globe. Some birds will travel to Mexico for the winter, others will travel as far south as Argentina, but some will stop here in the Big Country. For example, the Solitary Sandpiper (pictured above) will winter in the Amazon Basin. We have been out gathering pictures of the birds that pass through our area. To find out what we’ve been seeing and where they are going, check out our August Endings pictures.

Come to think of it, birding hasn’t been mundane; the phenomena known as migration is pretty exciting stuff.

Bobcats Behaving Badly

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Three little bobcat kittens were discovered in a tree next to the Dyess AFB Hospital in mid-August (one of them is pictured above). This story has its beginnings in the spring of 2005 when a bobcat who apparently had no natural fear of humans gave birth to two kittens in the hospital’s courtyard, out in the open, on the sidewalk. The mother was sedated and she and her kittens were relocated about three miles away in a secluded area on base. When the kittens were old enough to travel the mother brought them back to live in a hollow area under the foundation of the entrance to the pharmacy. Mothballs were used to discourage the cats; they left; and the entrance was plugged. They did not return.

This year, 2006, this same female gave birth to three kittens under a storage shed at the Outdoor Recreation Compound. When the kittens were old enough to leave the den, she took them to her old familiar den near the hospital. Apparently the kittens got spooked having never been that close to humans and went up the tree. The mother was not disturbed by the people but when a crowd gathered, she withdrew. Not wanting the kittens to loose their natural fear of humans, the decision was made to capture the young, put them in a cage to entice their mother’s return, capture her and then relocate all to the wild far from base.

Pictures of the kittens, those involved in their capture, and how the rest of the story unfolds can be viewed here
. While this story is exciting, it also didn’t have to happen. Because someone had probably fed the mother at some point in her life, she lost her natural fear of humans and her unnatural behavior put her kittens and herself at risk of loosing their lives. Now, who behaved badly?

August Doldrums

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Gone is the predawn chorus. No longer do birds defend territories by singing. Most of the neotropical breeders have moved south and migration has started. There’s a quiet stillness in the air. So what’s there to find when birding these days? Plenty! John and I bring you pictures of mid August birding, completed before the sun’s oppressive heat forced us inside. The Swainson’s Hawk parents are still hanging around on Dyess AFB (see how a summer of tending young wear the feathers away), Mississippi Kite young are still demanding food from parents, and shorebirds are showing up at the edges of our lakes and ponds. Lake Kirby produced Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, in basic (winter) plumage, and Common Moorhen this past week. There were a few Black Terns and Forster’s Terns also. And the Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds (since they’ve finished defending territories) are gathering in large flocks.

Enjoy the end of August and keep birding! You’ll never know what will fly by.

August Lessons

It’s been hot, folks. Duh! But the juvenile Swainson’s at Dyess are learning their lessons well. After all, it’s a matter of life or death.

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The adults initiate hunting lessons by calling to the young. Once the parents are satisfied the young will follow, they both rise into the air to soar overhead and look for prey. One of the young hawks came back with a rodent and John captured the dining experience. At other times the young hawks will run on the ground and catch their prey. After feasting on birds and mammals during the summer, Swainson’s Hawks will switch to eating insects as they migrate south. Yeah, road food never does taste as good as home cookin’.

August also signals migration and molt in birds. Dowitchers and Lesser Yellowlegs were seen in breeding plumage this past week. As the days grow shorter more shorebirds will stop over and refuel before heading south. Some birds molt before they migrate; others molt after reaching their wintering grounds. Painted Buntings are leaving now and they will molt when they reach Mexico.

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A Lesser Goldfinch (above) was photographed molting all at once. It better stay in the shade or risk a bad sunburn. The flycatchers (also fondly known as Empids: short ornithological word for can’t-the-heck-figure-out-what-the-bird is) are beginning to show up along with a few warblers. The best place to see fall migration is around water, either riparian habitat, ponds, or lakes. Check on your favorite spot from time to time and you may catch a glimpse of migration. It’ll only get better as the days get shorter and the wind shifts out of the north. In no time at all we’ll be wondering when it’s going to warm up. In the meantime, August Lessons are in session. Take a look!

BASH Those Rattlesnakes

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At the beginning of 2006 when we started this web site I thought I would have to scramble to find something to post on a weekly basis. I’ve been holding some stories back for a “rainy” day. Hmmm…that rainy day is nowhere on the horizon. So here’s an article created in April about how one of our members manages rattlesnakes and raptors on the job. Read the rest of this entry »

What Are All These Butterflies…

…all over the place?

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They are known as snout butterflies (photo: Bruce Marlin) because they have a prominent elongated mouthpart (labial palpi) which give the appearance of the petiole (stem) of a dead leaf.

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Wings are patterned on black-brown with white and orange markings. The fore wings have a distinctive squared off, hook-like (falcate) tip. Caterpillars appear humpbacked, having a small head, swollen first and second abdominal segments, and a last abdominal segment that is tapered and rounded. They are dark green with yellow stripes along the top and sides of the body, and have two black tubercles on the top of the thorax. Snout butterflies are known for their mass migrations which occur at irregular intervals when populations explode in the south and southwest. They may become so numerous as to darken the sky. One of these migrations was reported south of San Antonio in mid-September, 1996, where countless butterflies were observed flying northward.

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Now that’s a snout! And the scales look pretty cool, too.