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Friday, December 10, 2004

Bald Eagle Watching

A pair of Bald Eagles are making the news 80 miles NW of Austin near LLano, where they are nesting just off the highway. Folks are gathering there every morning and evening to watch the birds, and this afternoon I drove my kids out there to enjoy the show. We arrived at 4:30pm to an empty nest and one other car, but a few minutes later one eagle arrived and landed near the nest. It was immediately dive-bombed by an American Kestrel, which then flew off and landed 100 yards away. I got out my scope and got some good views. In the next half hour, six other cars showed up. Many were locals, and most had visited these birds before.

Everybody likes eagles, and it was great to see them. When it comes to our national bird, everyone's a bird lover.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Looking for Gulls

With one more species to go to make 200 for the year in Travis County, I headed out east of Austin to the municipal landfill to look for gulls. Unfortunately, the dump itself has been off limits to birders for several years, but often they are visible from roads north of the dump or loafing in neighboring fields. Unfortunately, today the landfill operation was on the west side, with no good visibility, and I was unable to find a Herring Gull. I did see several hundred Ring-billed Gulls and five Franklin's Gulls loafing on the parking lot of the Austin Country Flea Market on US HWY 290. Franklin's Gulls have become regular in Austin during the winter, with a few birds usually found here at the landfill while most of their species is wintering off the Pacific coast of South America.

While driving around the landfill one last time, I found three Brewer's Blackbirds (#200) in a horse pasture on Blue Goose Rd. These birds often hang around livestock pens in winter, and though a bit ignoble, I willingly took them as the milestone birds for this year. Hopefully I'll have time for a few more Travis County birds before moving to PA next week. But there are other birds I'd like to before heading north. I'm really itching to chase the Crimson-collared Grosbeaks that have been hanging out in the Rio Grande Valley this past month!

Pace Bend Park

Since I haven't spent much time in the western half of Travis County this year, I headed out for a couple hours of birding at Pace Bend park--one of only two known locations in the county for Cactus Wren, and good for several other western species. While I didn't find the Pyrrhuloxias reported there earlier this week, I did manage to find the Cactus Wren (#196), Spotted Towhee (#197), Canyon Towhee (#198), and the best bird of the day, a locally very rare Green-tailed Towhee (#199).

Very nice to be out in the mesquite and prickly pear. Lots of sparrows around, including hundreds of Field Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow, and dozens of Lark Sparrow. This park is a good place to look for Verdin, but didn't hear or see any today.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Quest For 200

A couple years ago, I started a contest to see how many people could find 200 species in any of the counties around Austin, Texas each year. In 2002, I set a new record, finding 305 species in Travis County. Last year, I didn't do as much birding, but managed over 200 pretty easily by summer. This year, with a new baby and being busy at school, I find myself at the end of the year a few birds shy of 200 for Travis County. And in just over a week, I will be moving to take a job with the National Audubon Society in Pennsylvania. So, the race is on. As of this morning, my 2004 Travis County list was at 192. Eight more birds to get to the magic number.

This afternoon, I took all three of my kids out to Webberville Park in far eastern Travis County. Picked up a couple nice year birds--a dozen Pine Warbler (#193), a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (#194), and the locally-rare-but-occasionally-found-here White-breasted Nuthatch (#195). I looked for but did not find the Winter Wren that Brush Freeman heard here earlier this morning, and didn't hear any Pileated Woodpeckers--my all-time-most-wanted-bird for Travis County, and one that has been reported off-and-on this park in the past two years. I did get a tantalizing glimpse of what very well could have been the woodpecker--but poorly seen through the trees across the river.

Did I say that I found all these birds while bouncing my six-month-old daughter on my hip while chasing my other two kids around the park? Not the easiest way to bird, but fun to play with the kids on the playground and get a few more year birds.

Earlier in the afternoon I stopped by Decker Lake, perhaps the most worthless lake in Travis County, hoping for a Bonaparte's Gull or Forster's Tern. No dice. Besides several dozen coots, a cormorant was the only other bird on the lake. A large American Pipit flock was along the road in the park, and several Eastern Bluebirds were nice to show the kids.

Denise is flying to Pennsylvania tomorrow, leaving me with the kids for the week. My goal--get to 200 species and pack up the house while she's gone. My quest for 200 begins in earnest tomorrow!

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Long-tailed Duck

After my owl workshop, I took my kids up to the ponds at Hornsby Bend to look for a possible Greater Scaup that had been reported there. I wasn’t convinced the scaup wasn’t the more common Lesser Scaup, but was able to see the Long-tailed Duck again—this rare arctic duck has been hanging out at the ponds for two weeks. There were other birders there, and I was able to find it for them from across the pond. Lots of more common ducks there—Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Buffleheads, and one locally uncommon stunning male Cinnamon Teal. Hornsby Bend is a great place for wintering waterfowl, and it was a joy to spend an hour just watching the various ducks.

Owls Again

This weekend I taught an owl workshop for the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory. Thirty participants joined me to learn about the ecology of the six species of owls normally found in the Austin area. I led two field trips last night…the first one I was able to call up a Barred Owl, but it was too far away to see. The second trip, we were actually able to see the Barred Owl perched about 30 yards away for over five minutes before flying off. I was pretty happy, as there are no guarantees that owls will cooperate when you try to show them to people, let alone large groups. A great evening.


Yesterday as I went to get the mail, an adult female Cooper’s Hawk, a locally uncommon bird, flew up into a large sycamore in my yard—the same tree that hosted a Red-tailed Hawk the day before. I was able to point the bird out to my neighbor, who looked at it through my binoculars, before it flew off towards the river. Earlier this morning, two Pine Siskin flew past with some American Goldfinches—the first time I’ve had siskins here in my seven years of living here. With the flock were half a dozen Lesser Goldfinches, which was surprising, because though they are fairly common a few miles west of here, this was only the second time I’ve ever seen these birds in my yard. Fun to live in Austin, Texas, where I can easily find 30 bird species anytime within a mile of my house.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Owl Prowl

This evening I headed out to Hornsby Bend with my two oldest kids. Wanted to scout out Platt Lane for some owls in advance of tomorrow's owl workshop. Unfortunately, the county sheriff's office was conducting training on the road, so we had to go off road. I did manage to see a Harris's Sparrow along a brushy fenceline...a bird I hadn't seen yet this winter. Down along the Colorado River, I was able to call up two Barred Owls. They called back, but stayed out of sight. Later, after spotlighting nine skunks around the CER building at Hornsby Bend, I managed to catch a Great Horned Owl on a powerline. It flew as I tried to move the car to where the kids could see the bird, and disappeared into the pecan trees.
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