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Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Homecomings and Homebuilding

I was almost right about the Hooded Oriole's return.  He came "home"  just one day later than last year.  Here he is in one of the palm trees in the backyard, not far from where a pair of the birds nested last summer.  Actually several pairs nested last year, as every year, in our palms and those of yards nearby.  Their small beautiful nests are made of long palm fibers, like little golden purses, that are usually nestled under a palm frond. So far this spring I've seen only one male at a time and no females.  It appeared first late in the day at a front yard bath, just as it did last year, and was in the Bottlebrush tree early the next morning.

Below is a photo of a similarly-colored  Altamira Oriole in the Bottlebrush.  Here in Texas, Hooded Orioles are orange like the Altamiras, though I think they are more yellow or gold in other locations.   The two species are sometimes confused by casual observers. Note the difference in the shape of the black on the head--more like a mask on the Altamira Oriole and coming straight down just behind the eye of the Hooded, forming the orange "hood." In addition, the Altamira Oriole has an orange wing patch high on the shoulder and the Hooded does not.

When the male Hooded Orioles arrive home, they seem most interested at first in bathing and eating.  When the females follow in a few days (this is the usual pattern), oriole-watching gets more interesting as the males crisscross the yard and show off from every tree. Home-building quickly follows their homecoming as they pair up and start finding nesting sites.

 My favorite oriole photo from last spring is this one in which a male is spreading his tail almost as if imitating the palm frond on which he's perched (and where his mate will build a nest after his antics successfully get her attention).

Tail-fanning seems to be a popular way of attracting attention in the bird world.  Here's a photo of a Long-billed Thrasher showing off to his mate a few weeks ago.  I had taken a picture of what I thought was just one thrasher in the Bottlebrush tree.  I hadn't even seen the dancer with the fancy tail, but there it was when I reviewed the photo.  I love photos I just shoot randomly that turn out later to be really interesting.

Long-billed Thrashers

Curve-billed Thrasher
We have two species of thrashers that live year-round in the yard,  both virtuoso singers.  Long-billed thrashers are more musical, their phrases a little slower,  but I find the Curve-billed Thrasher's song extremely interesting.  The male that lives in our yard all year began singing in January, very quietly but constantly as though practicing for the "real" full-throated singing that began in February.  I've written about this "whisper song" before.  (I've also written about Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Altamira Orioles singing so quietly you have to be very close to hear them.) When the thrasher sings his quiet song, he doesn't open his beak much, if at all, but his throat moves. I'll hear a song that sounds as if a singing bird is far away, and then find the persistent singer in a nearby Hackberry tree. His usual song is like the whisper song in quality and phrasing but is very much louder.

Curve-billed Thrashers seem always to be doing something interesting.  

Here one is taking a sun bath on a  sun-warmed stepping stone.

Here one bends low to sip water spraying from a dripper hose.

And here he looks especially distinctive perched on a post.  

Curved-bill thrashers have more rounded markings on their breasts than Long-billed, and of course their color is a more muted brown.  Both have a distinctive long, dark bill,  and orange eyes.  Our yard, a messy one with unraked leaves and brushy unkempt tangles of native shrubs, is a perfect place for them to thrash around in, throwing leaf litter and dirt all around. 

Yesterday I thought perhaps a Brown Thrasher had stopped by our yard.  Once one spent a whole winter with us.  Yesterday's bird appeared redder than the usual dark brown of the very similar Long-billed.   But closer looks showed me the gray face and darker bill of the Long-billed after all,  looking especially bright and reddish in the sun. 

Both pairs of thrashers are beginning nest-building activities,  though neither has settled on a specific location.   I think the Long-billed pair will nest in a Cedar Elm in the front yard and the Curved-billed couple are experimenting by sticking  thorny twigs  in various locations in the back.  Curve-billed Thrashers seem to not need such brushy locations.  They have built in past years in just about every medium sized tree in the yard.  Last year their first nest was in a Yucca and the second in a Brasil.  One year they even built a nest in a Purple Martin house that the martins no longer liked because trees had grown too near it. 

Starlings are already nesting in a cavity in the dead cottonwood.  I don't begrudge these invaders a spot since there are about a half-dozen other cavities for the woodpeckers and titmice to choose from.   A Screech-owl is at least roosting if not nesting in a new owl box by the drive.  We put the box up just a couple of weeks ago to replace one bees had taken over last summer.  It's probably too late for this guy to nest, but he sure likes sitting in the box. 

He doesn't, however, like me to walk past his door.  That's what my granddaughters call the stink eye.  

I've added to the year's bird list (see sidebar) but I'm not sure it's accurate yet. I'm still tweeting new year birds on Twitter, but I don't always remember to tweet every one.  I'll work on my list tomorrow and then keep adding more as migrants return home or pass through.  I think the list is a little behind last year's at this time.

 Two days ago I was very excited to see an Aplamado Falcon fly over the house. Typically, I didn't have my camera with me.   This is only the second time I've seen the falcon in (or over) the yard.  The first time was about ten years ago when two perched on an electric pole in September.  (We live not too far from Laguna Atascosa NWR where several pairs have nested successfully after a reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund.)

Spring arrived officially a few days ago.   The moon over the arroyo on the first night of spring was a Supermoon, named because it was nearer the earth than it had been in 18 years.  A moon rising over the water is always breathtaking, but this one was especially ... well, super.  I wish I could have captured a picture of the Great Blue Heron that flew along the river across the moon's light.  

I'll try to blog often to report on our  homecomings and nest-building.   Spring is super everyday in the Rio Grande Valley. 


eileeninmd said...

Great bird and post. I love all the photos. The Orioles are beautiful and how cool to see the owl in your box.

KaHolly said...

"The Stink Eye" - I love it!! And it is an accurate description of the look you were getting from that owl!!

texwisgirl said...

You've got some gloriously different birds than those we get in NE Texas! Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment so I could follow you back here! Will enjoy seeing your lovely photos!