Thursday, June 30, 2011

El Paso Day 1: Franklin Mountains State Park

Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, Texas
Armed with a printout of El Paso birding spots downloaded from the local Audubon chapter, I drove my little rental car straight to Franklin Mountains State Park, a hat and a bottle of water in my hand, ready to face the 103 degree afternoon heat. In a genuine desert, the Chihuahuan.

I was greeted at the entrance by a giant grasshopper.
This was going to be great.

The Tom Mays unit, not far from Rte 10, includes a very mild nature trail complete with a bird blind/feeder set up. It felt a little like cheating but I spent most of my time there. Actually it was paradise.

What is it about new birds? I cannot deny the "listing" rush, the vision--with the bird right in front of you--of yourself back in a dark hotel room checking off an empty box in that forever open birding project. But that's just the start, a way of getting oriented. Who are the main characters in this story? Who will flit in, make an appearance and leave and who will become a constant companion?

The anchor birds for me were the ubiquitous chirping house finch, the mourning dove, and the white-winged dove, which I had seen quite a lot of in Costa Rica.
White-winged dove, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX.
 Everything else was new. The black-throated sparrow, a friendly little bird with a lovely song.
Black-throated Sparrow, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX

The black-chinned hummingbird, the so-called southwest counterpart of the ruby-throated hummingbird, but much more common, zooming everywhere.
Black-chinned hummingbird, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
The top-heavy ash-throated flycatcher, a pair of which flew right up to me as if to voice a complaint.
Ash-throated Flycatcher, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
Ash-throated Flycatcher, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
The somewhat more elegant brown-crested flycatcher (I think--I really have no business ID-ing unfamiliar flycatchers).
The nearly invisible canyon towhee.
Canyon Towhee, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
The gigantic cactus wren, making itself comfortable at the feeder
White-winged Doves and Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
and at the shallow desert-style bird bath.
Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX

But the most striking birds were the quails. When I first read that quails were considered common, even abundant, in areas of El Paso, I couldn't quite believe it. I live in such a quail impoverished region, lucky to see or hear a bob white once a year. But here they were among the doves and finches at the feeder. The stunning Gambel's quail
Gambel's Quail and House Finch, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
Gambel's Quail and House Finch, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
Gambel's Quail and White-winged Dove, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
and the equally lovely scaled quail.
Scaled Quail, Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX
I would see a lot more of these quails, mostly running away from me, kicking up trail dust. The scaled quails in particular have a comical running style--completely erect with their necks extended and often turned back to look at you, their topknots bouncing.

There is life in this desert, which caused a little pain, even as an outsider, when I viewed the way El Paso seems to take the land outside of the park as empty space, prime for another outlet mall.
I'll end this post by setting up a little narrative suspense. Here's the coyote.
Coyote, Frankin Mountains State Park, El Paso, TX

Would I see the roadrunner?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

El Paso

Burrowing Owl, Rio Bosque Wetlands, El Paso, TX
Coming soon: A series of posts about my trip to El Paso.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Powisset Farm Bobolinks

Skipper on Daisy, Powisset Farm, Dover, MA
I volunteered to do some grassland bird monitoring at Powisset Farm in Dover (I'm also doing it at the Charles River Peninsula), so there I was early this morning standing out in the middle of a hay field listening for birds.

Powisset's got bobolinks. Not huge numbers but enough to be visible as you walk through the property.
 And they are out in the hay fields breeding.
Most of the birds I saw this morning were carrying bugs in their mouths, a clear sign of young ones about.
And reinforcing the importance of grassland bird monitoring, I saw this distressed female bobolink circling around a hayfield that had just been mowed.
She was carrying a nice fat insect but didn't seem to be able to find any children to feed,
fluttering her wings constantly
and perching on the few long stems remaining.

[By the way, bobolinks are skilled decoy artists so I may have been duped, but I watched from far away and she was doing the same thing.]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Roof turkeys

Wild Turkey on neighbor's roof, Needham, MA
I was in my home office and heard a loud WHOOSH outside my window. What the...? I look outside and there is a turkey on my neighbor's roof.

It soon lifted off again and settled into the upper branches of a nearby tree.

And it roosted there, right outside my bedroom window, all night. A couple of weeks ago I was woken up at 4 a.m. by loud turkey gobbling; it would appear the turkey had been closer than I realized.

I showed my daughter the roosting turkey and she turned and showed me another turkey on my other neighbor's roof. Hey turkeys, what's wrong with MY roof?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Great Egret at the Charles River Peninsula

Great Egret, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Ordinarily not a bird to get super excited about. But although I've seen great egrets downstream on the Charles in Newton, I've never ever seen one at the CRP. (This is what I guess you might call "patch excitement.")

It wasn't hunting. Just perching and doing the normal egret-y things. I was surprised the red-winged blackbirds didn't come after it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


House Sparrow Egg
Researchers at Cornell University are asking people to submit photos of house sparrow eggs to help them better understand variations in egg spotting. Full details here.

This seems to be a good use of the eggs I've been pulling out of house sparrow nests. (And then Lily and I can do our own house sparrow egg experiments at home--like, "how long will an egg covered in grass last in our yard before a predator gets it.")

Revenge of the house sparrow
My recommendation, if you are going to do something like this: don't keep the house sparrow egg in your shirt pocket.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Black Swallow-wort

Black Swallow-wort flower, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Black Swallow-wort is a highly invasive plant that, unfortunately, is beginning to invade the fields of the Charles River Peninsula. Originally from Europe, it escaped into the New England environment in the mid-1800s. It is pernicious for a number of reasons. It spreads quickly via rhizomes and milkweed-like seed pods and may force out native milkweed and golden-rod, creating a monoculture that birds don't like to nest in. Monarch butterflies may also mistakenly lay eggs on swallow-wort plants and the caterpillars will die without their proper nourishment. Luckily, it seems that the infestation has been caught in time at the CRP and TTOR will be able to control it. But it is worth checking around to see if fields you frequent are harboring black swallow-wort.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Sundews, Ponkapoag Bog, Canton, MA
My first time on the Ponkapoag boardwalk in over a year.  One of my favorite places. (I must say the alien mood is hard to sustain when confronted by so many cheerful school children walking through).
The boardwalk is in even worse repair than I remember. You will get your feet wet, unless you are wearing rubber boots and then you risk slipping off the boardwalk entirely. My shoes and socks were soaked, almost from the start. But I didn't care.
Because the pitcher plants were in bloom!
What an extraordinarily beautiful blossom for what is, let's admit it, a fascinating but pretty loathsome looking plant.
Here's a distant look at the entire unit.
If you look closely at the base you will see the pitchers.
I wasn't there for the birds, though I was paying attention. Lots of flycatchers and a singing northern waterthrush (that one again!) added to the mood. My favorite bird moment was a stunner: I was listening to a nearby wood thrush sing and all of a sudden I heard a burst of pewee. WHAT? Did the wood thrush just sing over the pewee? It would seem, on the contrary, that the wood thrush has incorporated a little pewee into his own song. This is the first time I've ever heard this kind of thing. (By the way, that three note descending phrase in the background? An oriole, I think.)

I spotted the singer as he flew down to be with another bird, which I assume to be his mate. Looks like wood thrush breeding in Ponkapoag. Which is not good. This is a bad environment for them. Too close to the cowbirds. And indeed, I saw a poor phoebe trying to satisfy a giant screaming cowbird chick on the way back to my car.

Finally, it was nice to see this red-spotted purple (it was in attack mode but I waited around for it to land).
Lots of dragonflies today too, of all shapes and sizes. Some were flying in swarms so dense they would accidentally run into me. If you are a dragonfly lover, run don't walk, to Ponkapoag. And don't worry about getting your feet wet.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bluebirds and a baby robin

Eastern Bluebird female, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
I heard a commotion of bluebird songs from all over the CRP this morning. Could there be new bluebird fledglings?
I saw a small shape on the freshly mowed path. Aha! I thought. A closer look revealed a baby robin, fully feathered but unable to fly. This was the focus of bluebird attention.

There was no sign of bluebird fledglings (though they might have been hidden). So why all the fuss over a baby robin? My first impulse was to think that the bluebirds were being protective. As I approached the chick and the chick began to voice distress the bluebirds became more upset. (In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a mother bluebird in full scold mode before). Other birds flew in to see what was happening (in one beautiful scene--unphotographed--the female bluebird and a female orchard oriole perched next to each other on a wire).  Were the birds gathering together to defend this helpless little thing? (By the way, no sign of a parent robin anywhere).

Here's a video version

My other thought was that this was just a bluebird freak-out--an overwrought response to an unfamiliar being making noise close to their nesting box. This doesn't explain why they got more upset as I approached, though maybe they were simply responding to the intensified robin cheeps. The red-winged blackbirds, for example, are currently freaking out over anything that happens to get close to parts of the fields where their babies are hiding. (One was giving a male bluebird a particularly hard time).

By the way, here's why I didn't intervene to help the chick myself.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Great Meadows! (It's been a while)

Great Meadows NWR, Concord, MA
Carpool driver needed to Concord on a Saturday afternoon? I'm on it! An opportunity to visit Great Meadows for the first time this year.

A gorgeous sunny day tempered by a stiff breeze. The star photo subject today? The marsh wren. Great Meadows is stuffed with them and now is the time of year they stand atop the cat-tails and sing on the wing straight up in the air. Usually I only get behind-the-foliage shots like the one below.
But today they were coming right out into the open.
Even if sometimes they are closing their eyes in the photo...