Bella Vista Creek

Welcome to Bird of the Day!

You might notice some recent changes to the blog. For one, the banner image above has changed from Mustang Island on the Gulf coast to a picture of a local birding spot near my house. Likewise, I plan to focus many of the upcoming posts on birding that area. On the right hand side of the page you will also see the addition of a new gadget that lists what birds have been seen in that area in the last 30 days. Further below, there is a link to ebird for more historic information about the birds seen at Bella Vista Creek. Feel free and contact me on the blog about what you think. Click on images to enlarge. (All photos by gbmcclure)

Dec 27, 2010

On the Island

For a change this Winter we headed south to Port Aransas and Corpus Christi. Usually hurricanes come from the other direction but in this case it arrived from the north in a minivan and a full-sized truck. Although the main purpose was to celebrate Christmas with the family and get the kids to the beach, but a tertiary objective was to do a little birding. Christmas Eve morning we went to Charlie's Pasture and the day after Christmas we went to the Leona Turnbull Birding Center. We also saw quite a few birds all along the island.

Most noticeably, the gulls and terns plumage around the head had drastically changed (see the posts from this summer) and made identifying species a little more difficult. I also had not had a lot of time recently to study the field guides and brush up on key field marks. This picture below is of a "winterized" Laughing Gull. In Summer their head would be almost completely black.

laughing gull

Another gull in varying plumage was this young Herring Gull.

young herring gull

Here's a picture of an adult version in winter next to a Brown Pelican. It might not look like it next to the pelican but the Herring is one of the bigger gull species.

bown pelican and herring gull

Many of the other birds had also broke out their winter clothes, and for the last few days we were there they needed it as the temperature dropped into the 40's with 30 mph winds. In the picture below is a Black-bellied Plover. In breeding season the adults of this species look much more like their names would suggest.

black-bellied plover

The breeding vs. nonbreeding plumage on the Willet (below) is not as drastically different, other than the former will have more markings and be more buffy in color.


The Sanderling below, of which there were quite a few along the beach, would show more rufous color around he head, neck, and breast in the Spring and Summer. You would most likely only see this in Canada or much further north.


At the Birding Center and Hans-Suter park I also saw a few birds away from the water. I particularly like this Orange-crowned Warbler in mid leap and the White-tailed Hawk on a power line.

orange-crowned warbler mid-jump

white-tailed hawk

Dec 19, 2010

Back to the Same Spot

Another chilly morning (for Central Texas) and I went back to the same field a few miles from my house to find another type of sparrow and maybe a towhee. Although the Towhee could not be coaxed out--I do believe I heard it though--I was able to get a nice picture of this Field Sparrow. These guys are often told apart from other sparrows by their pink beaks, eye-rings, and baby-faces. I thing many of the smaller birds have this last trait though.

Field Sparrow

Dec 14, 2010

Hidden Crowns

The last tow days I have been attending a conference for work on the east side of town, which gives me the opportunity to run over to Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory during lunch. A pretty good deal if you don't mind eating with the flies or among the smell of a waste-water treatment facility. This area is bordered on the south by the Colorado river and goes through a section of woods and different levels and sizes of ponds before ending up in fields on the northern side. So on any given day you can see a large number and variety of bird species. Unfortunately, in the hour or so I had for lunch I could not cover each area, but still managed to see a quite a few cool birds. Perhaps the best bird I saw was one I could not get a picture of--the Common Snipe. I also saw Red-tailed Hawks to Meadowlarks, neither of which wanted their photo taken.

On the ponds I did see this Spotted Sandpiper and this male Northern Pintail.

spotted sandpiper

northern pintail

As you can tell, by the time I got out of the car and took the photo of the pintail he was well into his retreat posture and I did not have time to pretend to be aloof in order to get a better shot.

On the road leading around the ponds there were as usual a bunch of American Pipits wagging their tails up and down. I particularly like this little guy's shadow.

american pipit

Finally, as I drove down the dirt road between the southern most pond and the woods, I saw both a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and an Orange-crowned Warbler. Interestingly enough, both of these birds rarely exhibit the field marks for which they are named. The kinglets are fun because of their un-bird-like bravado in the face of strange men with cameras.

ruby-crowned kinglet

orange-crowned warbler

Dec 11, 2010


This morning I went back to the same place I went last week looking for more sparrows. Interestingly, where Song Sparrows seemed to dominate the landscape a week ago, today it was the Lincoln's Sparrow. In the bush I chose to focus on there were at least 10 and I was able to capture the following shots.

lincoln's sparrow

lincoln's sparrow

AS sparrows can tend to look very similar, what I find diagnostic about these guys is the finer streaks in the chest with a buffy color between them. If you look at the pictures of the Song Sparrow from the last post you can see the difference.

While I was studying the bush I heard the distinctive song of a White-throated Sparrow. Jumping from Lincoln's Sparrow to Lincoln's Sparrow I was lucky to land on him before he disappeared. This is one of my favorite birds.

white-throated sparrow

On my way back to the truck I also came across a small flock of Chipping Sparrows and quite a few Northern Cardinals. This female posed for me, which has not happened lately with this type of bird.

female cardinal

Nov 28, 2010

Cold Weather Birding

Yesterday morning when I woke up the thermometer (OK, weather APP on the googimophone) read a chilly 34 degrees. Perfect birding weather if you ask me! I decided to not o far and drove just a few miles to Cypress Creek Park on the edge of Lake Travis. The sun was out but hiding behind one of the last big hills to the east. The long grass was covered in frozen dew which collected on my shoes as I made my way down to the creek and lake. As I reached a large pool of water the creek slows, I saw my first bird, this Belted Kingfisher. I took a photo and then approached a little further and took this photo.

belted kingfisher

Amazingly, this very skittish species let me advance even closer, but as often happens flew away before I could snap another shot. The only other birds near the water were a single GBH and a small group of mallards.

I walked back up the creek toward toward a field that in the summer is good for Painted Buntings and where I imagine would be a popular site for sparrows in the winter. Sure enough, I began to see the foliage move and LBJs slip from bush to bush. After a moment of "pishing" I was able to coax this Song Sparrow out into the open long enough for a picture.

song sparrow

Even though it was work tramping through the tall grass and brush, the movement in the tress on the far side of the small meadow made it seem worth the effort. At the other end, this inquisitive Northern Mockingbird, who much have been watching me coming the whole time, was intently staring me down.

n. mockingbird

Close to my right there was a small ridge with tall grass growing on it and it appeared to be a good spot to hide out and see if any birds came out into the open. Sure enough this Orange-crowned Warbler came bopping through oak and juniper pausing briefly near the top of this tree.

orange-crowned warbler

And among the cardinals and chickadees a small group of Black-crested Titmice bounced around, one of which I got a couple real nice pictures of at a fairly close distance.

black0crested titmouse

black-crested titmouse

As I got back to the parking lot I noticed some real jumpy movement in a Live Oak just to my left. It had the hyperactivity of what I initially thought was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but when I focused my lens on the little gal I noticed the distinctive facial markings and yellow stripe of what was actually a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

golden-crowned kinglet

On my Flikr page there is a picture of this same girl from the front. The photo quality is less but you can really see the golden crown. There is also another photo of the mockingbird (I believe) tossing his food to himself.

Oct 29, 2010

The Sandias

On the last full day I was in Albuquerque, we decide to drive up the backside of the Sandia mountains to the top of the crest. In addition to birding I thought I might also get a good view of the changing fall leaves and some neat landscape photos of the Burque and the valley from the top. The following are some of my favorite.

Going Up

South from Sandia Crest

Southwest from Sandia Crest

These last two photos were taken from the deck on the backside of the restaurant and gift shop @10,500ft. To me, it feels like it hangs over the edge of the mountain. One of the neatest things that takes place on this deck is the banding of Rosy Finches. Unfortunately, I was about a week early; however, in a pine tree just next to the deck were a large group of Pine Siskins and a nearly ten Red Crossbills. Both species were more than happy to let me shoot as many photos as I wanted and the Pine Siskins even came within an arm's reach. So close that I had to back down on the zoom lens--a rarity in the bird photography world! Her are a two of the better pics, species should be obvious.

Pine Siskin

Red Crossbill (male)

Interestingly enough, the female Red Crossbill is yellow. I caught this girl in the middle of her lunch.

Red Crossbill (female) 2

Later from the same deck, a pair of Steller's Jays joined the group.This guy landed on a branch just below me and I couldn't pass up the chance to film a bird from above. I usually only get this view of sparrows!

Steller's Jay

The Birdwatcher's Companion has more information on Steller, if you are interested.

After leavin the deck we walked down a trail that follows the top of the mountain to the south. Along the path, we continuously flushed this Hermit Thrush down the trail. He was pretty content to look for food and stay about 30 yards ahead of us. Occasionally we would all stop and I would take a picture. This is about the closest and best one I got.

Hermit Thrush

By this time my legs were pretty sore from the race the day before and every step down in elevation felt pretty bad so we got back in the car and headed back to down. THe rest of the ride was pretty uneventful, yet beautiful, until the very bottom of the mountain when we got this very good look at a Western Scrub-Jay. This bird is the country relative of the Blue Jay we tend to see in town here in Texas.

Western Scrub-Jay

Oct 27, 2010

Close to Home

After the race on Sunday morning all I really wanted to do was eat a gigantic breakfast burrito smothered in red and green chile (Christmas style)and lay down on the couch. But later in the afternoon my dad said he was going for a walk along the irrigation ditch that parallels the Rio Grande, and I thought it might do my legs a bit of good to stretch out--not to mention check out some of the birds that might be hanging around in the neighborhood.

We had only gone a half-mile or so before we noticed quite a bit of activity across the ditch. In front of us was the ditch filled with water, the a yard or so thick of tall grass and brush, and beyond that some cottonwoods. At first I noticed the sounds of the nuthatches I had been listening to in my parents backyard all weekend, and then I noticed the obvious behavior of what I thought was a Western Kingbird. When I looked at the photo I took later on I realized it was a Say's Phoebe. You can really see the rusty sides in the photo, even from this far away distance.

Say's Phoebe

Oct 22, 2010

Piedras Marcadas

This past weekend I took a well-needed break from work and went back to Albuquerque, NM, to do four things: see my family, eat green chile, run the Duke City half-marathon, and bird.

The first place I went (to bird that is, as I had already stopped off with my mom to eat at El Patio) was the Petroglyph National Monument. Because of development this amazing space is now seemingly in the middle of town, but from certain spaces you feel like you're on the moon. Below is a picture I took of looking across the valley to the Sandia mountains on the other side of town.

Sandias from Piedras Marcadas

By the time I got there it was at least 10:00 AM and it appeared to be very quiet, but as I crested the top of the mesa the boulders and bushes came alive. Roadrunners and cottontails darted out of sight. Luckily, others were less concerned by my presence. Canyon Wrens and Towhees hopped between the rocks looking for food and occasionally took moments to jump to the top of a nearby bush and belt out a song like this guy.

Caynon Wren

Though not quite as bold this Curve-billed Thrasher came out from between the rocks more than once to check things out.

Curve-billed Thrasher

Perhaps my two favorite birds of the day, however, were birds I also see regularly in Texas. Their colors combined with the distinct colors of the New Mexico backdrop just really made them stand out.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

House Finch
House Finch

Because the monument and the birds were so beautiful I would have loved to stay longer, but forgetting I was no longer in Texas I failed to apply sunscreen and couldn't risk the dehydration race day eve!

Sep 20, 2010

Baker Sanctuary

After a long, hot, slow month off from birding, I finally went back out on Sunday with a group of very knowledgeable, and passionate birders. This particular group was surveying the species and number of birds within the Baker Sanctuary on the Northwest side of Austin. You can read more about it at the link, but basically, Baker Sanctuary is roughly 700 acres dedicated to the protection of the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

Here is a picture of the Baker Cabin on the property.

baker cabin

All the Golden-cheeked Warblers begin migration activities in mid-July, so unfortunately none of those were spotted. Likewise, looking for birds of all types was challenging along the roads covered an both sides by cedar and oak. Once out in a small clearing and able to look up at the sky, we saw Mississippi Kites, Broad-winged Hawks, and 14 White-faced Ibis. I believe the picture below is one of the Broad-winged hawks. I used a slower shutter speed hoping to capture it's movement through the air.

broad-wing rising

Aug 22, 2010

The Guessing Game

This past Friday I went birding with a group of friends from work and the topic of GISS (general impression of size and shape) came up. After careful field guide study of what birds may be present in an area at certain times of year, the next best method to identifying birds is GISS. By using this method you can quickly narrow the possibilities. Many species of birds are unique enough in appearance that they can be identified right off the bat, but others are more confusing. If you're lucky the bird may sit in the open long enough for in depth study through binoculars, but this still may not be enough. Given changing conditions of age, sex, and molt, bird identification can still be difficult to impossible even with photographs. At some point all you can do is guess.

A clear example of this was a bird we saw toward the end of the outing on Friday.


Using GISS, my first thought when I saw this bird was a Yellow Warbler. I knew they ad been spotted recently in the area during their fall migration. At the time it seemed like the right size and color, but the ID did not sit easily. When looking at the (poor) picture later, and discussing it with other birders, a consensus could still not be reached. While some thought it might be a female Summer Tanager or Baltimore Oriole, I am guessing it was a female Orchard Oriole. What's your guess?

Aug 12, 2010

Beyond Birding

Clearly, the main attraction to birding is being out looking for, and seeing, birds. A very close second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.), however, is the field guide study before, and the identification and listing afterward. The process of listing is a big enough topic for a book, not a blog. In fact, an excellent book was written about the topic titled The Big Year. Unfortunately or not, they are about to release a movie adaptation of it starring Jennifer Aniston or some such nonsense. But I digress...

The point is that I recently came across a fantastic book called The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife, by Christopher Leahy. At just under 5 lbs. you won't find many people carrying it in the field, but its become one of my favorite books on the shelf.

For example, I was out birding Sunday morning, and although it was a very slow day, I did see this Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

yellow-billed cuckoo

This is a neat bird, but not rare or unexpected. Even so, it was Sunday's BOTD. Now here's the post-birding fun? I was talking about. The Birdwatcher's Companion tells us this under the entry for Cuckoo:

"The name, of course, comes from the song of the Common Cuckoo of Eurasia and first appears in English in the famous anonymous poem that begins: 'Summer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu.' It is the origin of the word 'cuckold' in reference to the species fame as a brood parasite, even though neither the male cuckoo nor the male of the host pair has been cuckolded."

It should be added that although cuckoos will lay eggs in another birds nest, they do not do this habitually.

Aug 1, 2010

Last Day of Summer (well vacation that is)!

As it was my last weekend before going back to work, I decided to go birding one last time. This doesn't really make that much sense because I birded weekends more often during periods when I was not on vacation.

I stopped first at the shallow ponds at Hornsby Bend for a look at the shore birds that might be present. Along with the Least and Spotted Sandpipers was this Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron on the wing

On the other side of the pond a juvenile LBH was poking around. Juvenile LBH's are distinct from their parents because they have white plumage. Easy, right! Except Snowy Egrets and Cattle Egrets are also white and about the same size. Hmmm. So next you go to the bill. Cattle Egrets have yellow bills so that helps, but from a distance both LBH and Snowies have similar, longer, darker bills. Luckily, Snowies have yellow feet--a dead giveaway. Here is a picture of a Snowy I took later that same morning (thankfully with his feet out of the water).

Snowy Egret 2

Another noticeable creature in the ponds was not a bird. This guy was poking through the water with a bunch of turtles.


I decided to leave the ponds and head for the safety of the woods. Before I got there this Green Heron flew into the tree right in front of the car. I was close enough to get this nice portrait. I even had to back down on the zoom a tad.

Green Heron portrait

As I was walking in the woods, I once again noticed the large amount of Orb Weavers that were present. As I was watching one, a giant grasshopper became tangled in its web. Quickly, the spider (about equal size to the grasshopper) began to let out more web from its spinnerets and wrap up the catch. Although the grasshopper kicked for a minute it soon lost the battle. Here is a picture with a good look at the spider using the webbing. Click here to see a series of these photos.

Orb Weaver vs. grasshopper 3

I saw quite a few birds in the woods, and in the field on the other side saw what I am calling a juvenile Dickcissel--though I'll listen to any arguments.


Happy Trails, now back to work!