Friday, October 23, 2020

Not traveling, but still birding. Our amazing postage stamp yard.


I normally use my posts to tell about our birding travels, but all of that screeched to a halt in mid-March, when the Covid 19 pandemic hit Texas and the rest of the world. Today I was thinking about how this changed our birding for the year. I am not sure if it is of interest to anyone, but what else do I have to do?

We live in an apartment complex in the middle of the medical district in San Antonio, TX. We moved here a little over eight years ago. When the manager showed us this apartment we walked into the front door, saw through the sliding glass door to the backyard and said that we would take it, even before seeing the rest of the apartment.  The balcony of our second floor apartment sits in the canopy of a group of mature live oaks. Even though the yard it not much bigger than a basketball court we immediately saw the potential for birds. We knew it would be good, but we had no idea just how good it would be.

We started a "balcony list" as soon as we moved in. As it was July, there wasn't a lot of variety, but it was nice to see breeding birds, like Black-crested Titmice and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. As soon as fall migration kicked in we added quite a few new birds. We ticked along, adding winter residents and then spring migrants, particularly warblers. I was working full time, so my home birding was limited. By the end of the first year we had 56 species for the balcony. We continued to add birds. I switched to working from home about a year and a half after moving, which helped a lot. We finally got to 100 species in April of 2019. We had a number of extremely good birds, including a Broad-billed Hummingbird visiting my shrimp plant in January 2015. Spring migration was the most fun. We had accumulated an impressive list of warblers.

Then 2020 came along. I was furloughed from my job in corporate travel in March. We took covid very seriously, self-quarantine immediately.  Martin stopped doing his consulting work. There was very little to do other than sit on the balcony and look for birds. My time birding went from less than an hour a day to all freaking day long every day. OK, maybe not all day, but I was probably averaging five or six hours. Martin was spending a good bit of his time there, too. When we starting sheltering at home our list was at 106 species. We thought we wouldn't add much, but we were wrong. 

The first new bird I found was a Louisiana Waterthrush that literally dropped in on March 23. We have no water in the yard, other than a couple of clay plant saucers under the trees. I had never seen a Louisiana away from water before. We would go out close to dawn and scan the tree tops. Birds would come in and feed, then take off moving north. Some of the fly-over birds, like Upland Sandpiper, and Black-necked Stilt were surprising, to say the least. As I said, we had a great warbler list, 24 species before quarantine. We had repeats of almost all of them, including a couple of Golden-winged Warblers. In the past we had seen three or four Ovenbirds total; this past spring we had at least ten. Our "best" sighting was a female Cerulean Warbler on May 12, a new county bird for me! 


Even after Spring migration I continued birding every day, though not for as long a period. I can only stand so much Texas heat. I had some surprises in summer like a Eastern Wood-pewee in June and a female Painted Bunting in July who stayed just a minute before she took off.  A pair of Black-and-white Warblers, also in July, were a surprise.

Soon some fall migrants started arriving like empidonax flycatchers and Summer Tanagers. In early September I spotted an Eastern Kingbird and numerous Baltimore Orioles. I was lucky to find another new warbler species, a Mourning. I added balcony bird #131 a couple of days ago, a migrating Northern Harrier flying over,

As I said earlier we had 106 species for the back yard when the pandemic started. We now stand at 131. More surprising is our total list for the balcony just this year is 109 species! Considering it took almost seven years to get to 100 species, we were very pleased. This included 25 species of warblers, 12 species of flycatchers, and six species of vireos. Our all time warbler total is 27 species! 

As I said, the yard it tiny. The only under-story we have are two tiny clumps of ligustrum. We worked very hard this year. Other than a very few day trips to close areas we have stuck to birding the apartment complex. I believe many people could significantly increase their yard lists if they put in the time. We do have a bird feeder and the plant saucer "water features", but most of the sightings have been in the trees. We pay attention to weather patterns. We found that frontal passages would cause drop-ins. The Cerulean Warbler was here during a little rain shower. 

Here is a link to Martin's album of photos on Facebook from the balcony.-'s photos

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Fresh Water Pelagic?

Birding the large lakes of Texas can be challenging. Texas ranks 45th in the United States for the amount of public land, a miserly 4.5%. Most lake shore is taken up with private residences, agricultural land, or other privately held land.  There are usually boat ramps, and sometimes parks, but the viewing opportunities can be very limited. We do not trespass as a matter of conscience, and also because we don't want to get shot, but mostly conscience. So, what to do?

Last year, our friend, Willie Sekula brought up the idea of hiring a fishing guide with a boat to take us out on Lake Amistad, near Del Rio, which sits on the border with Mexico. We were in right away! He contacted someone that he knew of and we set it up. We went out and had a very good time, though we didn't find a lot that was rare. (The best bird was a Bald Eagle on the Mexico side.) We decided to do it again this year. Willie got in touch with the guy and set it up.

We left the East Diablo Boat Ramp at about 730AM. Besides Willie, Martin Reid, and myself, two other San Antonio birders joined us, John Karges and Christian Fernandez. We were really lucky with the weather. It was relatively clear with almost no wind. The lake was very calm. Unfortunately, it was also very cold, at least for Texans, about 37 degrees. Tearing around in a fast boat made it seem even colder. I was glad to have my heaviest coat on and gloves, scarf and hat. (My knitting pays off.)

As the boat was being launched we scanned the tires used as a break-water. Willie had seen an Iceland Gull the day before. We were thrilled to see one, but it was a different bird than his! For there to be two birds as rare as this was very exciting. We also had a nice adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, along with a lot of Ring-bills and Herrings. The Iceland took off and headed east on the lake.

We originally planned to head west out into the more open water, but decided to go east instead to see if we could re-find the gull. Also, Willie had seen a Western Grebe on that end from another boat ramp. We had two Common Loons very close to the boat ramp. They are not rare, but not a bird we see a lot of. There were some Red-breasted Mergansers, Eared Grebes, and a lot of coots. We saw a few more loons and a few Horned Grebes. There is always the possibility of a rarer species of loon, so we were checking all of them very carefully.

A loon popped up that looked a little different, though it was quite distant. It seemed smaller and paler, but on the water looks can be deceiving. We got closer and could see that the bill was smaller and slightly upturned. We were thrilled when we realized it was a Red-throated Loon, which had never been recorded on this lake. Then we spotted a second one! We were able to get decent photos and were really chuffed, as Martin would say. The birds flew off and we pressed on. I spotted another loon in front of us, and was stunned to realize it was a third Red-throated. This was obviously a different bird, with first year plumage. There were several Common Loons near it, giving us a great opportunity to compare the two species.

We went under the Hwy.277 bridge, that crosses the east end of the lake. This was where Willie had seen the Western Grebe the day before. We didn't find it, but there were many ducks, including a gorgeous male Cinnamon Teal. About 300 Canvasbacks were mixed in with the other ducks. There were also fifty billion American Coots. OK, maybe not quite that many, but there were a lot. Martin saw a few Sandhill Cranes putting in at the back, but I missed them.

Since it was getting close to mid-morning we decided to head back west, with a stop at the boat ramp, where there are rest rooms, and then go out near the dam. When we got back to the boat ramp, there were four Lesser Black-backed Gulls, two adults and two young birds. There was another bird that looked somewhat like another Iceland Gull, but closer examination eliminated that species. After the brutal walk up the hill to the restrooms, we went back and boarded the boat and took off.

We went west to the dam, which has a busy border crossing on it. We were surprised to not have very many birds, other than a couple of Common Loons and gulls. We pressed further west. We went into a cove to check out another loon and a few other birds. I glanced up the lake and could seen an enormous raft of birds. I could see there were a lot of coots, but there were ducks mixed in. We headed that way, trying not to flush the birds, which boats often do. There were several thousand coots, but a lot of American Wigeon and Canvasbacks were mixed in. Then I briefly glimpsed a raptor flying by. It went behind the kind of cabin thing where the driver stood. (I am a real expert on boat terminology!) I called it out. Then Christian could see it from his side and he said "Bald Eagle!" These are pretty rare in the area of the lake, so we were really excited. It flew out into the open and we all got good looks. Then another one appeared!

We pressed further west to see Goodenough Springs, also known as Hinajosa Springs. This spring is located at the floor of the lake, which is about 100 feet deep there. The spring is so powerful you can see the water coming up on the surface. It was pretty impressive! Time was moving on, so we headed back east. A small falcon shot over the boat, which we identified as a Merlin. We were particularly lucky that it ended up on the Mexican side, so I was able to add it to my Mexico list.

We got back to the dam and started spotting more Common Loons, and lots more coots. As we were looking through the birds a Peregrine Falcon came roaring through and tried to grab a coot. The coot escaped, but I am sure his heart was racing. Then we heard one of the loons start to yodel. This is a sound that is hardly ever heard in Texas. The birds call up north when they are breeding, but rarely down here where they winter. That sound is so visceral. The birds were diving and staying under water until they popped up half was across the lake. It was a beautiful show.

We got back to the dock at about 4PM. We were still a bit chilled, even though the sun had been shining all day and the temperature was up to about 60. There were a few gulls hanging around, but nothing to write home about.We all were extremely happy with the trip and may do it again. I would like to do some of the other lakes in the state, particularly further west, like Red Bluff. There is so much to be discovered!

Here are a few photos from the day:

Here is the bird list:

Cinnamon Teal-1
American Wigeon-300
Mexican Duck-6
Green-winged Teal-1
Ring-necked Duck-3
Red-breasted Merganser-32
Ruddy Duck-2
Pied-billed Grebe-3
Horned Grebe-17
Eared Grebe-33
Greater Roadrunner-1
American Coot-6,900
Sandhill Crane-6
Spotted Sandpiper-3
Greater Yellowlegs-10
Ring-billed Gull-143
Herring Gull-41
Iceland Gull-1
Lesser Black-backed Gull-5
Forster's Tern-15
Red-throated Loon-3
Common Loon-34
Neotropic Cormorant-30
Double Crested Cormorant-58
American White Pelican-10
Great Blue Heron-3
Great Egret-4
Black Vulture-5
Turkey Vulture-1
Bald Eagle-2
Red-tailed Hawk-3
Crested Caracara-1
American Kestrel-2
Peregrine Falcon-1
Loggerhead Shrike-1
Rock Wren-1
House Finch-1
Great-tailed Grackle-8