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)

Nov 20, 2012

Red-breasted Nuthatch

His face reads, "I'm caught!" The Nuthatch ceases his probing, Hanging upside-down.

American Bittern

Each step is silent. Near, a crayfish is spotted-- The Bittern lunges.

Jun 14, 2012

Patience is a Virtue...

For those of you that use eBird, you already know what an incredible resource it can be for birders. If you have never used it, there is a link on the right side of this page that will take you there. In fact, many of the gadgets that list sightings on this page are using eBird data. Birders can use this site to look up what birds they might see at different locations at different times. The data is there because birders enter in details of species seen when they are out in the field. There is so much data provided by this site that almost every time I log in I find something new and interesting. The following link will take you to a chart describing when and where the first of each species was spotted in Travis county for this year. Travis County Arrivals Looking at this data, you'll see that the first Golden-cheeked Warbler was spotted in Travis Co. on March, 6th. Along Bella Vista creek I expected to see one perhaps as early as April; knowing the habitat was good for this endangered species which spend their Summer here in Central Texas along hillsides with a mix of Ashe Juniper and Oak. I had been keeping a look out each time I birded the area hoping to see my first in this location. As the days have been getting hotter, I have been out less. Having just a few minutes this morning on my way to work, I decided to stop by and try my luck. Sure enough one Golden-cheeked Warbler diligently made its way through a clump of trees, rewarding my patience.

Jun 13, 2012

Summer Sparrows

For the most part, I think of sparrows as being Winter birds in central Texas. From late Fall through early Spring it is possible, if not easy to find seven species in a day. On a good day, one might see 10 or more. During the summer the number of Sparrows available decreases. Lark Sparrows are fairly common, and of course House Sparrows are always around. But there are a couple other year-round Emberizidae to be found during the dog days of birding if you are lucky. The Rufous-crowned Sparrow is one of these, though I do not seem to encounter them that often. This morning, I was lucky to find this one singing near by. Rufous-crowned sparrow at The Creek By Bella Vista by Gideon McClure

Jun 7, 2012

The Right Tools

There's a truism that states something to the effect that part of doing something well requires having the right tools. In regards to birding, quality binoculars is a must. For the past few weeks, I have also been trying to focus my efforts on recording bird songs and calls. This requires not only the right recording equipment but also knowledge of technology in order to share it with the public through this blog. From learning code to having the right software, it has been a real trial and error process--sometimes frustrating and sometimes rewarding. You can see the evolution through the last five posts or so. In this post I am going to try a new way of embedding the sound clip, and if things go as planned I hope it will be the final solution. Let me know what has worked for you. Below is a clip from an apartment parking lot in an urban setting. One bonus to this, city birds like their environment are noisy, so the sound should be strong. City birds at La Taza Coffee Shop by Gideon McClure

Jun 5, 2012

Bird Talk

I could probably count on two hands the times I was really close to a bird. A couple years ago a Great Blue Heron let me get to within about 5 feet. I was able to take this photo--even though he had moved away a little by then--with a 60mm macro lens that I had on the camera to shoot butterflies. great blue heron with macro lens Earlier in May of this year, I had a close encounter with a Chestnut-sided Warbler. He was confident enough to come within a foot of my outstretched hand while foraging in the low hanging branches. But while these instances can be exhilarating, (what I've heard said, "moments that make birders out of non-birders"), they are hardly the norm. Most of the time it feels that birds operate at the edge of a frustrating perimeter where you are just able to get a brief look or catch a clear field mark. When one sits in the open for just a second or two, we say we got a "good look!" I imagine that our brain often fills in what we don't actually clearly see when we spot a bird. In the initial flash, we get a good deal of information about relative size, shape, color and maybe a field mark. Then, based on knowledge from reading field guides, listening to more experienced birders, etc., our brain adds detail and tells us what we saw (or at least what we think we saw). This theory is similar to how we process language. Experienced listeners hear about every 3 words that are spoken but are able to use context and history to fill in the gaps. This is why people speaking other languages appear to be speaking at such a fast rate. But is this unique to the spoken word? Once I heard an interview with a music historian talking about the intricacy of the music of Miles Davis. Miles Davis (from Legacy Recordings on flickr) He demonstrated this complexity by slowing down the music and playing much smaller segments of the songs within the songs, and the notes we do not even hear him playing. Instead, what we hear when we listen is the big picture of the song. Is our brain able to fill in notes even if we don't play music? My guess is yes. I imagine we do the same when we listen to birds singing. At first, we hardly notice the different "languages" being spoken around us. Maybe one day, we start to listen but think how impossible it would be to learn. Eventually, with lots of practice we get good enough to recognize maybe a hundred words (though good luck ever trying to speak it). Of course by this point I am completely off from where I started and where I intended to go with this post. Originally, I wanted to share a sound recording from this past weekend. There are a number of different sounds going on in this clip, but I wanted to point out two in particular. Two species of songbirds, the Carolina Chickadee and the Painted Bunting, are producing calls. Listen to the short clip below. (I tried new software which attached a second-long clip over it, but just try to ignore it.) You may or may not be able to pick them out depending on your knowledge of these birds. If you can't, try thinking of the calls described as phonetic text: the almost repeated "Chicka-dee-dee-dee" and for the Painted Bunting, a consistent but less frequent "tsick". Were you able to hear each one?

May 25, 2012

Hanging in the Balance

So far,birding along what I am calling Bella Vista creek, there are a handful of birds dominating the aural landscape. Two of these birds are Vireos, the White-eyed and the Red-eyed species. I have written about the former in previous posts, but not so much about the latter. It's common name suggests a key field mark for identification, but I have found the eye color not all that evident depending on lighting conditions and other factors. On the other hand, you can also go by the distinctive markings of its supercilium. In addition to both these unique characteristics, the Red-eyed Vireo is also true to its Latin name, Vireo olivaceus. A good look at this little bird and I think you will appreciate its rich olive upper parts. But sight is not the only way to appreciate the Red-eyed Vireo. In truth, you often hear it long before you see it, much like the closely related White-eyed Vireo. Here is a recording of its song I captured the other day (hopefully the wind is not too interfering). Red-eyed Vireo Song After listening to this little feller for a little bit, I happened to catch a glimpse of him moving. I followed him up the path for about 50 feet and found him at a nest. As his nest looked fully formed, (can you see it in the photo below?), I am guessing he may have been bringing food for either an incubating mom or hatched little ones. If all goes well we should hear 3-5 more Red-eyed Vireos along the creek soon!

May 22, 2012

Quick-with-the-Beer, Chick!

This past weekend I was intending on being at a birding workshop at a place called Bamberger Ranch. Due to lack of interest, however, it was cancelled. Instead, I took the opportunity to take my 8-year-old son, OK birding. He was a little skeptical at first. Even though he has been out with me before, for short periods (followed by a stop for donuts), this would be more of a commitment. Seeing dad come home with chiggers two weeks ago only added to his anxiety. When we got to the ranch he was still quiet but his mood was improved with some root beer while I unpacked and got us set up. After that he was willing to explore the trails along the creek, and we set out with our binoculars around our necks. I'm glad we got there in time to go out the first evening, because I had a real close encounter with a male Golden-cheeked Warbler. This endangered songbird is famous in the Texas Hill Country, as it's the only small area left that it breeds in every summer. It spends most of the year down in Central America. I do not know why it chooses to come to TEXAS for the Summer, but I'm glad it does. My son, unfortunately, missed the bird as he was messing around with water spiders along the creek. The Lesser Goldfinches and Eastern Phoebes were out in great numbers. And we were really excited to see an Ash-throated Flycatcher guard its nest--at one point fanning its tail in a nice display. One of the noisiest birds of the day was the one I recorded for Quiz #3. No matter where we went these guys seemed to be singing. Even driving the property on our way out we would here the bird every time we stopped the car. At one point we stopped to watch a group of Wild Turkeys move up a hill, and my son said listen that's the...A proud dad, indeed! As a final note, the bird app iBIRD, gives the clue that this bird's song has a phonetic description of "Quick-with-the-Beer, Check!" I think it makes more sense, even if more misogynistic, as, "Quick-with-the-beer, chick!"

May 18, 2012

Slow Day (with Quiz #2)

Unexpectedly, and unfortunately, the last time out birding turned out to be a slow day. It seems as though many of the migrating birds may have already passed through the area, or maybe the amount of sun was keeping a lot of them down. Either way, it was the 1st time in a month that I didn't see a single Warbler. On the plus side, I got great looks at both Red-eye and Warbling Vireos. I recorded a few of their "voices", some of which might appear in later quizzes, but not the one this week. Bird vocalizations can be roughly sorted into two groups, Songs and Calls. Songs are almost always done by males and usually are used to claim territory or find a mate. Calls serve other various functions. David Sibley's book, Birding Basics, will tell you everything you need to know about bird vocalizations--and about everything else birding too. Let me know what you think after you listen to Quiz #2.

May 16, 2012

Bird of the Day ID Audio Quiz #1

The sounds of Spring are certainly alive and one of the major contributors are birds. Adult birds that breed here in the summer use their voices to stake territory claims. Young birds might be asking for food. Others might be signaling other birds about possible predators (you know, all these strange guys pointing at them and holding objects up to their faces). Birding this week I was inspired by all these songs and calls. I thought of all the time we focus on capturing birds in photographs. We are impressed by their various shapes and colors, but rarely appreciate what their sounds do for our environment. I thought I might try to capture a little bit of what I heard the other day birding, and share it here on Bird of the Day. A couple of bugs may need to be worked out before it goes smoothly so be patient. Extra points go to the person who can identify what brand of leaf blower is providing the annoying background track. I think the bird still comes through, however. Click HERE and adjust the volume accordingly--probably up!)

May 13, 2012

Birding Locally

Local--it's all the rage right now, right. And for good reason. There are enormous benefits from living your life in as small a circle as possible. And whatever the activity is, the benefits are usually the same: protect the environment and create a better sense of community. This applies to birding as well, and it also follows the order to how one naturally learns to bird. You usually start with the birds in your backyard, then your neighborhood, your county, state, etc. The great thing is that as seasons change the birds in your neighborhood might change, and in varying years you might see species that were not there, or seen, the year before. Certainly, as your birding skills increase you will likely begin to notice all the variation "right outside the back door." I actually stumbled upon a great place in my area earlier this year when geocaching with my son. This is an area that you can not see from the window of your car, nor even if you were walking right next to it. From what I an tell there are about four entries into various sections along the creek, some less accessible than others. Once down along the creek the walking is relatively flat and easy, however. You could probably walk two miles total if you went up and down the whole length. There are a few small open areas, but mainly it is mostly narrow with mature trees: oaks, cottonwoods, chinaberry, cedar, etc. At one point the paved path elevates and you are almost canopy high on one side. There are a few spots up away from the creek where the ground dries out and becomes more arid scrub land. This variation is important because it also supports differing species. Like everywhere on earth these days there are people walking dogs off leash, but I long ago admitting to losing this battle. On Saturday, I went out and walked the length of the creek, mainly looking for migrating birds coming through, but trying to catalog all the birds I saw as well. A Downy Woodpecker, which is here year-round but a first on the creek for me, moved up and around a nearby tree. Lots of mothers on walks walked back and forth asking questions of what I was seeing. I told them about all the Warblers and Vireos and "Happy Mother's Day!" And it being that time of year, I saw adult Northern Cardinals feeding juveniles and other pairs of birds working on nests. This is a picture I took with my phone through my binoculars of the cavity nest being worked on by two Great Crested Flycatchers.
I saw a bunch of Summer resident birds including Summer Tanagers and Painted Buntings. The Bird of the Day, however, was a Yellow-throated Warbler that I saw high in the canopy where the path elevates. If it were not for this topography I don't think I would have seen this bird. If you are interested in know about the other birds I've see on the creek click on the link to the right that says "birds of bella vista". There is only a brief time left in migration, but still more Summer birds to see along the creek. Soon Winter will return a new wave of species will arrive. Hopefully, I'll see you on the creek. Gideon

May 6, 2012

It All Depends on the Day (within reason)

This morning, in the light rain extended from a pretty major electrical storm the night before, I attended a monthly bird hike in a nearby neighborhood. Locally, this a hotspot for birding within the city. It being early May, the peak of migration in Central Texas, I expected (hoped may be a better word) to see at least a few Warblers coming through the area. The overnight storm had interrupted some persistent southerly winds which increased our chances. Long story short, I was not disappointed. By the end of the morning we had tallied a Black-and-white, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia, Nashville, Tennessee, and Yellow Warblers. Add to this list a few Vireos, including a rare for the area Philadelphia Vireo, and it turned out to be a very productive morning. Two weeks ago, we were visiting family in Corpus Christ, and I drove up to Paradise Pond in Port Aransas, to see some migratory birds fresh in from their flights across the Gulf. Also expected, I saw some great Warblers there as well. (Canada and Northern Waterthrush not from the group above, and also a Veery, Swainson's and Grey-cheeked Thrush.) As great as all these birds were to see, the big migration story for me this year so far has to be yesterday morning in a neighborhood park not a mile from my house. I have only been to this location a few times and have lately though I might spend more time there cataloging what birds I see there through the year. I figured I needed to make sure I checked it out at least a few times during migration for sure. It wasn't long before I saw my first Yellow Warbler. With minutes the obvious black hat appeared on another and I had a Wilson's. Soon a Black-throated Green Warbler appeared in my binoculars and I was still in the spot I started. I thought about moving on but the birds seemed to be fine coming to me, so I just stayed put. A beautiful male Chestnut-sided Warbler flew into a tree to my left and after it a Male Magnolia. Some other birds flew into some nearby undergrowth and I gave chase, coming up with pant-leg caught on Dewberries, an great look at a White-eyed Vireo, and, errr, how do I put this, legs full of chiggers. The latter is the only thing I could have done without, obviously! (And I'll spare you the photos!) What's is your favorite Warbler? Any good birds this Migration? Let me know. Gideon

Jan 29, 2012

Old Stomping Grounds

Have you ever experienced the situation where after you buy something you start to notice the same thing everywhere around you? Suddenly, everybody seems to be driving the same car as you. The song you just learned the name to is now on the radio all the time. I'm sure there is a scientific explanation for this, and I am hoping so, because it will also explain how the same thing happens when birding. Once you find a bird in a location, you almost always see it there again and with even greater ease (rarities excluded of course).

When I first moved to the Austin area 2-3 years ago I found Cypress Creek park just about two miles from my house. This is an LCRA/county park that is on the tip of a small finger of the very east end of Lake Travis. On one side there is an entrance with a fee station and a boat ramp. On the other side you can park on the free side where people can fish when the water level is high enough. Early in the morning in January, it is usually empty. Two winters ago, I would come there often looking for sparrows and especially Spotted Towhees. The first winter I didn't see one the first few times I went looking there. Finally, towards the end of the season, I had one pretty much land in my lap. The next time I went back, sure enough, I saw one within thirty minutes. I went back a couple times in the summer--for different birds like the Summer Tanager and Yellow-billed Cuckoo--but I haven't really been back to Cypress Creek park since.

Over the last two or so years I have seen a bunch of towhees in areas scattered in almost every direction outside of Austin. This morning, with an outing planned for the Chinese New Year celebration across town, I figured a short birding trip was in order. Sure enough, Cypress Creek park was cool, sunny, empty, and full of Spotted Towhees! (Also, probably the largest collection of American Robins in a general area that I have experienced.)

Owl House

Jan 22, 2012

A New Challenge

These pictures aren't the greatest but under the conditions aren't bad either. The Nikon d90 I have let's me use just about every lens in auto focus and the program mode, which comes in handy when taking pictures of small, active birds like the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The problem is, without a pretty significant size telephoto lens, I have been experimenting with a digiscoping process of attaching my d90 to my 60X power scope. With a tripod it is easy enough to shoot slower moving ducks, waders, etc., at least once you have the knowledge to manually adjust shutter speed and aperture. Focusing, however, is a different challenge. Other than only being able to use manual focus, you also have to finely focus through a much larger range as the scope is set in the 60X setting. Furthermore, as you are forced to use a tripod, panning and searching for birds becomes a frustrating chore; you are really forced to pick a spot and wait. The great positive to this style of birding is that you can more easily enjoy a cup of coffee while you wait for birds to appear.