Big Country Audubon Society

Big Country Blog

Oh My Deer!


Some one once asked me if we saw other wildlife (other than birds) when on field trips. Yes we do! Many of our members were in the field in November and some of you sent in photos of your encounters such as this beautiful doe seen in Callahan County by Jay Capra.


During the field trip to O.H. Ivie Reservoir, an eight-point buck stepped out of the brush intent on a mission. He thrilled those of us on this field trip by coming close to the vehicle. He hesitated long enough for a few shots.


And photos of the most unexpected deer encounter came from Kim Walton, Natural Resources Manager, at Dyess Air Force Base. To see the outcome of this encounter and all the other deer photos, go to Oh My Deer! in the photo gallery section.

So the next time you are looking for birds, pay attention to everything. You never know what’s hiding in the brush!

Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin at Wastewater; Red Crossbills in Buffalo Gap


Saturday, December 22, 2007, Heidi Trudell and Cole Wild found this Pectoral Sandpiper at Wastewater Treatment Plant. This is a very very late date for a Pectoral; and if you’re interested in what else they saw this cold and windy day, take a look at their Sightings!


Also, Mark Cranford from Midland reported a small flock of Red Crossbills in Buffalo Gap in pecan trees across the street from the Historic Village main gate. Lorie Black managed to get their photo on New Year’s Day (above). The last time we had crossbills in the Big Country was 1997 when a small flock of 17 was seen regularly at a NE Abilene resident from April through July (I’ll get those exact dates if anyone is interested).


Then on January 1, 2008, Cole Wild and Heidi Trudell stopped at Wastewater after work (anyone else work on New Year’s?) and found this Dunlin. Dunlins are very rare inland according to the TOS Handbook of Texas Birds. The bird on the right is a Least Sandpiper, to give you a size comparison and below is a closeup of the Dunlin. So congrats to them for spotting this cool sighting.


Thanks to all for reporting your sightings!

Dark Raptor and After Dark Wildlife


I want to share some photos others sent in. These photos and sightings have added another level of understanding about the birds and wildlife in the Big Country. Diane Longenecker, Bird Supervisor from the Abilene Zoo, sent me two photos of an injured dark raptor, the face of which you see here. The photo gallery explains what it is.


Kim Walton, Natural Resources Manager from Dyess AFB, sent a couple of photos of cavorting after-dark wildlife captured on a digital field camera. Racoons weren’t the only mammals that showed up in the images.


Heidi Trudell, birder-at-large, sent a couple of photos of Lake Kirby’s not-so-wildlife (above);


and I included a couple of contrasting Red-tailed Hawk pictures to illustrate just how variable their plumage is. You can see all these pictures at November’s Wildlife Gallery.

And if you’re interested in what’s happening to the jaeger, here’s Heidi’s report from Lake Kirby at the end of November:

I made it out to Kirby for about an hour today, (11-28) not particularly in the name of birding, but the results were about the same. I did not relocate the jaeger but a fellow that I’ve seen every time I was out there said that “the huge brown gull” was around as recently as yesterday. He’s a local who spends most of his time fishing and what impressed me most about his remarks was that he actually told the other folks out there to keep an eye out for the bird after he found out that a lot of us were interested in it. Apparently over the weekend he and his friend were fishing on the SW corner of the lake and while they were tossing bait scraps (or some equally delicious fare) into the lake, the jaeger swooped down and grabbed at the bits – getting tangled in the line in the process. At this point the details of the story get blurry and the jaeger’s size increases to a wing span THIS big and the toes turn into claw/talons like a lion and it apparently took gloves, 2 people and a lot of untangling to get the bird free again. Good to know they’re looking out for the wildlife.

Thanks to all for sending in your photos and stories!

Bobcat In Nature


The last time I reported on bobcats at Dyess AFB was over a year ago. Yesterday I had the unique opportunity to witness the personal grooming habits of a bobcat hidden in dense riparian habitat. With snow still covering most of the area at Dyess, the ground was well saturated as I walked into a thick stand of trees and underbrush. I wasn’t trying to be particularly quiet; as I pushed through some brambles and branches, a movement caught my attention. Like a camera lens, my eyes were focusing in the direction where movement occurred, and it took me a couple of seconds to realize the movement I saw was close and that it was a bobcat! The bobcat was in the middle of taking care of the call of nature, so it was immobilized. I was probably about 20 feet away from the cat and froze (heart rate shot up, body tensed, brain said “get out.”). Another side of the brain said, “GET A PICTURE!”


By now the cat had finished its business and stared at me. It looked as if it was trying to figure out if it should stay and call my bluff, turn and run, or step forward and terrorize me. For a second or two, the cat leaned forward as if to come my way. I brought the camera up to my face, focused and slowly squeezed the shutter button thinking if I had too, I’d throw the camera at the charging cat. I had multiple layers on; false sense of security, huh?

Then the cat s-l-o-w-l-y turned away from me (domestic cats move very slowly and deliberately when one breaks off from another in a showdown) and s-l-o-w-l-y walked away. It thought I was the aggressor. That’s when I squatted down and started taking more pictures. The first picture was taken at 12:51; the last picture (which you’ll see later) was taken at 13:16. This cat let me photograph it for over 25 minutes. This isn’t an exaggeration. My camera records the time on each photo.

The above photo was taken right after the cat finished its business and realized I was there. In good kitty fashion, he pawed at the wet leaves to cover his business. Then he slowly moseyed (redundant, I know) a little further from me. I thought he was outta there for sure. But to my amazement, he began to preen (uh, he’s not a bird…so I guess he groomed). I repositioned myself for a better angle and thus you see the Bobcat In Nature Gallery.

Black Phoebe Found at Willhair Park


This is a Black Phoebe! New member Dan found this bird at Willhair Park this past Saturday and posted to the web his findings. In fact, he found two Black Phoebes at the park! I followed up on his sighting, refound one bird, and managed a couple of diagnostic photos. (Sliding down a twenty-foot embankment without breaking me or the camera was a challenge.)


In all my years of birding, I’ve never seen a Black Phoebe in or around the Big Country. They’re found further south in the Hill Country and even further south into Mexico. Perhaps they’re expanding their winter range or maybe they’ve been here all along, tucked away behind resident houses along Cedar Creek. Or maybe they followed in the wingbeats of the Great Kiskadee which is again being seen and heard in the same areas as last fall. Whatever the reason, I’m excited to announce this great find. Look for the Black Phoebe along the creek perched low on overhanging branches.


As icing on this morning’s birding, a couple of Sharp-shinned Hawks were chasing each other among the elms and pecans. The female sat still long enough to say, “cheese.” If you want to know what else I saw, check out the 11-19-2007 Sightings. It’s amazing how much bird life is “out there.”

Lake Kirby in November, 2007

With the past excitement of the jaeger flying around at Kirby, we’ve been doing a little more birding at the lake and have found a few interesting birds we’d like to share with you.


With November’s warmer weather the egrets are hanging around in pretty good numbers, some gulls are showing off, and a few ducks are paddling around. Marsh Wrens seem to be singing everywhere, several Common Yellowthroats were hiding in the reeds, and a Merlin had his eye on a snipe. Go to the Lake Kirby in November, 2007 Gallery to see more birds hanging around Kirby. Better yet, go out to Lake Kirby and see what’s happening.

Kirby Jaeger Identified as Pomarine


For those of you who are following the discussions on Texbirds on the Kirby Lake Jaeger, Martin Reid posted his views regarding its identity. Below are his comments along with the photos submitted to highlight his conclusions. The full-sized photos can be found at Flickr. Lorie Black’s photo (above) is also used to highlight some of Martin’s points. The jaeger was at the lake again this Monday morning.

Dear all,
I’ve been asked to comment on the identity of the Kirby Lake Jaeger. I believe it is a Pomarine, and I list here the features that lead me to this conclusion (from most important/reliable to least important/reliable). It should be kept in mind that there is probably no one single 100% foolproof feature to separate an “average” intermediate/dark Pomarine (POJA) from a similar Parasitic (PAJA), and thus an ID based on a large number of features is likely to be more accurate. I need to disclose that my personal experience with jaegers is not huge: Since moving to Texas almost 17 years ago I’ve seen 50 – 60 POJAs, 25 – 30 PAJAs, and 3 LTJAs. In 2006 I was based on Alaska’s North Slope for six weeks in late August and September where I had daily encounters with numerous breeding (and a
few juvenile) POJAs and much smaller numbers of PAJAs. Back in my native Great Britain many years ago I did a lot of land-based seawatching and visited PAJA colonies that provided extensive experience with POJA and PAJA (hundreds of each;- maybe more than a thousand for PAJA). My conclusions and my comments below are based on my experience plus the content of the following references: “Field Identification of the smaller skuas (= jaegers)” By Klaus Malling Olsen and Lars Jonsson as published in BRITISH BIRDS Volme 82 number 4 (April 1989). “Skuas and Jaegers: A guide to the Skuas and Jaegers of the World” By K. M. Olsen and Hans Larsson. “Advanced Birding” by Kenn Kaufman. “The Sibley Guide to Birds” by David Sibley.

First it needs to be aged, if possible; luckily this individual has all the hallmark features of a juvenile (fresh plumage with much pale edging/tipping on the upperparts, all feathers appearing the same age; legs (not feet) completely blue-gray; central tail feathers very short, etc.) To save repetition all the following comments (unless specified) refer only to juveniles:

Reasons why it is a POJA:


The primary tips have no pale markings at the tip. One image (IMG_5116 above) seems to show a tiny white dot on two of the right wing primaries – but on all other images including those that are closer and sharper than IMG_5116 there is no sign of any pale primary tips. PAJA differs from almost all POJAs (and LTJAs) in that the primary tips have obvious pale tips – usually formed by a pair of short, thickish, cleanly-demarcated pale lines on each side of the tip that almost meet at the very apex of the wing. The only time a PAJA would have the Kirby bird’s lack of pale markings to the primary tips is if it were extremely worn, and such wear would also be evident in reduced/absent pale tipping to the wing coverts. On this bird the pale tipping to the wing coverts is thick and fresh-looking, so it is hard to imagine that the primaries ever had similar pale tips.


The Central pair of tail feathers are very short – barely extending beyond the rest of the tail – and the right-side central tail feather (the left-side one looks damaged and unreliable concerning shape) appears to have a broad, shallowly-curving tip that does not end in a point. POJA has the shortest-looking central tail feathers at this age, often presenting a rather squared-off tail in all but the most ideal angles of view (and as shown in a number of the flight pics of this individual). Although hard to discern in many instances, PAJA should show a short but obvious fine point at the tip of these feathers.


The shape and pattern of the head: PAJA typically has a rather distinctive crown shape, with a high-point above or ahead of the eye that forms a domed look; in contrast POJA has a more-squared head shape, and if there is a peak it is a very gentle one behind the eye, creating a blocky look. The Kirby individual seems clearly to have this latter shape. POJA has a rather smooth head pattern without any longitudinal streaking in the nape (but sometimes with a suggestion of dark scaling) and throat, and with the darkest part of the head being on/above the loral area. PAJA invariably has some diffuse but obvious longitudinally-aligned streaking on the nape, plus finer but more distinct streaking on the throat, and with the darkest part of the head being the center of the crown, creating a capped effect that – on all but very palest-headed individuals – consistently creates a soft, capped look in flight accentuated by the contrastingly pale nape. I see no signs of this latter pattern in the Kirby bird (whose head does not paler than the body, at rest), instead I see a fairly classic POJA pattern, with no sign of streaking on the throat or nape.


NOTE: photo IMG_4939 does suggest a dark cap – but it is subject to strong low-angle lighting that I feel is presenting an inaccurate view – compare it to all the images taken the next day in neutral lighting.


Rump and uppertail covert pattern: PAJA typically have relatively low contrast in this area, as the paler elements are typically the same tone as that of the head (or slightly darker), and the pattern of darker and lighter bars does not line up to create fairly straight latitudinal barring. Only pale-headed PAJAs have a contrastingly pale rump/utc area. POJA typically has the pale elements in the rump/utcs lighter (sometimes strikingly-so) than the head, and has the marks line up to form latitudinal bars that are straightish or with a slight scalloping. The Kirby bird is slightly atypical of POJA in that the pale elements of the rump/utcs ar barely any lighter-toned than the head – but the pattern of this area is typical of POJA (and not of PAJA) in that the dark and pale marks are for the most part uniformly thick an aligned into almost-straight lines, with obvious contrast.


The outer lesser secondary coverts of the upper/leading edge of the wing: PAJAs of this color-type (i.e. not dark-morph, pale-morph, or “cold-gray”-morph) have very extensive pale rusty tipping to these feathers, forming a palish rusty band on the leading edge of the wing (often merging into the similar tipping/edging on the median secondary coverts). POJA does not have this strong pale tipping to the lesser secondary coverts, thus the leading edge of the upper wing is darkish. Some POJAs have quite extensive pale rusty-cream edging to the median coverts and on such birds, there is usually a contrast on the open wing between the darker outer lesser coverts and the paler medians (may include some of the lowermost lessers). The Kirby individual has well-edged median upperwing coverts with darker lesser coverts, as on POJA.


Pattern of upper median and greater wing coverts: PAJA typically has, in addition to the crisp pale marks at the tip of each of these feathers, one or more obvious pale marks either on the edge or internally about half-way back from the tip of the feather (sometimes there is a complete pale edge to the outer side of each feather). POJA typically lacks these marks, and at most has a very small number of such marks on the innermost greater coverts. The Kirby bird has three tiny such marks on the inner greater coverts and none elsewhere, better-matching POJA rather than PAJA (although some PAJA can be poorly-marked.)


Foot color: POJA differs from PAJA (and LTJA) in that, while the leg and “ankle” are pale blue-gray, almost the entire foot is black, while the smaller species have varying amounts of blue-gray extending from the ankle onto the sides of the foot at its base. The Kirby bird appears to have a virtually all-black foot with no pale gray at the base, either side of the “ankle”.


Bill shape and size: Often hard to judge, one might argue that this individual is within the upper limit for PAJA, but only a small minority of PAJAs might appear like this, while it is typical for POJA. Also note the rather large hook for a bird of this age (where the bill may not yet be fully-grown).


Overall size: impossible to determine from all but one of the photos; the one pic with a yellowlegs close-by gives me the impression of a really large jaeger, and the observers saw it close to Ring-billed Gulls and said “this jaeger is easily the size of the Ring-bills that it was harassing”. Per Kaufman, POJA is about the size of a Ring-billed Gull or Heerman’s Gull, while PAJA is the size of a Laughing Gull.


The bases of the underwing greater primary coverts: The oft-touted pale bases of these feathers that is characteristic of POJA is somewhat variable. A minority of PAJAs can have a contrasting pale area that matches the typical pattern of POJA, while a minority of POJAs can lack strong contrast at this location. This is perhaps the only feature of the Kirby bird that could be viewed as being non-typical for POJA – but the pattern falls well within the limits for POJA.

Taking all the above into account, I feel that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of Pomarine… but I am open to a well-argued alternative analysis!


Jaeger Cruises Over Lake Kirby, November 8, 2007


Heidi Trudell found a dark bird flying with the Ring-billed Gulls Thursday, November 8, 2007, around 12:45 p.m. at Lake Kirby, Taylor County, TX. But without a field guide, a definite ID could not be made. I re-found the bird around 4:30 p.m. and managed some photos. We believe the jaeger is a juvenile Parasitic Jaeger. It was a warm brown color, small bill, and pale base to the primaries. We’d appreciate feedback from those that are more experienced with jaegers. More photos can be seen in the Rare Bird Gallery. Full-sized photos will be e-mailed upon request.

Blog Overload

Well, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve birded and taken so many pictures the past couple of weeks that I now have close to 200 pictures for show and tell. But because I’m a nice guy I’ll condense the collection to fifty. No, I don’t have time for that many either. So here’s the succinct bird blog of the past three weeks:

The fall migratory Osprey at Dyess AFB:


A short picture-story of nesting Canyon Towhees at the end of September:


A few pictures of little yellow birds seen in migration:


Another wren moves into the Big Country for the winter:


and a smattering of gluttonous birds pose for the camera:


Look interesting? The follow-up pictures are in Fall’s Gallery, 2007. Enjoy!

September’s Magic

It was that kind of morning; a dark foggy cool morning, just right for staying in bed and getting some extra shut-eye. But after the birding-side of my brain argued with the sleepy-side of my brain, I arrayed myself in birding attire, grabbed the binoculars, and headed out the door. A few minutes later I was at Dyess, sitting in the dark and waiting for the sun to come up. Then I heard “them.” The migrating birds. Overhead. Small barely audible little seeps and chips! Now I couldn’t wait for dawn; I needed some light to illuminate the sounds. But as dawn finally arrived, the earth around me became quiet. I saw nothing; heard nothing; so back to the truck I went. As I rounded the side of the truck, a little feather ball shot out from under the wheel well almost brushing next to my leg. Grabbing the binoculars I located a little bird in the trees bobbing up and down as if it was doing deep knee bends to ward off the early morning chill. Oh! I need to document this bird! Quick, grab the camera from the truck; turn it on; get the settings right; darn! there’s not enough light! When I focused the camera where the bird had perched, of course it was gone.

Then a little chip and a quietly uttered song told me the bird was up under my vehicle, no doubt taking advantage of the residual heat and the collection of bugs acquired during night-time driving. I walked around to the other side of the truck in an attempt to get its picture. Click! It hopped out on the tire and I got:


I looked at the image in the LCD window. Ugh, how can that picture be diagnostic? I tried again:


Since I don’t do Frustration well; I decided I’d do Patience and wait for the little feather ball to relocate to a more photogenic area. After a full ten minutes (my camera records the time on pictures) the little bird sailed out of its hiding place, perched on a lamp base out in the open, and showed off!


A Rock Wren! Three pictures later, it took off moving deeper into the Mesquite shrub, no doubt looking for more suitable winter habitat. Now I bet you’re thinking to yourself that this one incident doesn’t constitute “magic.” And I would agree with your assessment; but wait ’till you hear and see what happened next. During the morning’s birding, all those little unseen seeps and chips materialized: Clay-colored Sparrows, Pine Siskins, Nashville, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers, a Common Yellowthroat, a Blue Grosbeak, and Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. Dyess got its first-of-the-season Northern Harrier and maybe their last-of-the-season Painted Bunting (a gorgeous male; boy did I enjoy seeing that one). Then I saw:

a Common Nighthawk invisibly perched along a tree branch:


a couple of late-nesting Canyon Towhees bringing food to a nest:


and…but wait; I’ll leave the show stopper in the September’s Magic photo album. And once you see it; you’ll have to agree that it was a magical morning!