Welcome to my world!

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!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Fling, Part Three

Because the afternoon was too hot today for sitting outside,  I stayed inside reading a book about bird migration instead.   Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds, by Miyoko Chu, mixes details from scientific research on bird migration over the last several decades with stories about birds and those who study them. It makes for especially interesting reading right now when migration over the Rio Grande Valley is at its height.

The author, Miyoko Chu, a writer and editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, weaves scientific data and  vivid description into a fascinating narrative. But  I felt a little uneasy about the birds I might be missing outside (more warblers?  rare migrants?) while I remained inside to read a book about birds.  My favorite reading place is under a shade tree, but even shade today provided little relief from heat, wind, and earth blowing off the dry cotton fields.

Ironically, a poem quoted by Chu echoed my uneasiness:

Why read a book when there are birds
Printing clear and breezy words
Upon the cloud's white pages? When
A busy robin and a wren 
Are syllables of ecstasy!
A line of swallows on a tree,
Or wire, is a sentence, long
And sweeping.  A flying flock's a strong
Paragraph, while in the air
Is quilled elaborately and rare
Illumined manuscript in gold
And green.  And say, what book can hold
More fascination and delight
Than birds in migratory flight?
(--Collete M. Burns, "Why Read a Book?")

True, few books "can hold more fascination and delight than birds in migratory flight"--or in our backyard--but Chu's is a fascinating book that I highly recommend.

 I'll take  a break from the book (which really is hard to put down),  and finish posting photos I took last week when we had  that "fallout" of migrants in the yard. (Check out the  previous two posts for all the buntings and warblers that came to the party.)

First up in my photos today are the thrushes, a group of species that  have been the subject of scientific study of migration over the years.  Last week  Veeries, Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and Swainson's Thrushes stopped over in our yard to rest and refuel.  It took me a while on Tuesday to realize I was seeing three different species, as one after another thrush came to the baths. (Maybe I had been inattentive, but after all, I was busy with the 18 species of warblers that had flown in!)

When I finally sorted out spots, colors, and eye-rings, I realized I was seeing several different birds and three different species.  Pictured at the top of this post and at left is the lovely Veery, not quite as spotted as the other thrushes, with a  warmer, almost reddish, tint and only the hint of an eye-ring.

Gray-cheeked Thrushes are slightly heavier and larger than Veeries.  Their eponymous gray cheeks were a little hard to distinguish as they moved around under the trees and shrubs, but in the sunlight this field mark helps separate them from the Swainson's.

Swainson's Thrushes have more spots, buffier cheeks, and more of an eye-ring that could in fact be called spectacles.

 Here a Swainson's perches on the brush pile alongside a Gray Catbird at the terra cotta saucer bath.  I wanted to get pictures of the different thrushes together, but they seemed to be playing a kind of tag, one flying off just as another arrived.

Orchard Oriole

The most noticeable migrants in the yard were probably the orioles.  The oranges I put out for our resident Altamira Orioles and summering Hooded Orioles were quickly eaten by migrating Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles.  We replenished the supply several times a day, and when we ran out of oranges, I put grape jelly in the empty orange peels.

Baltimore Orioles occasionally winter here.  Orchard Orioles historically nested in the area, but I  don't know of any recently.  A few years ago a Fuertes's  Oriole, sometimes considered a separate species and sometimes a distinctive subspecies of the Orchard, spent the summer in our yard, singing almost constantly.  It often interacted with the Hooded Orioles. If there was a female Fuertes's,  I couldn't tell it from the female Hoodeds.  The bird returned the next summer, also, but I haven't seen one since.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Although these last two orioles are both adult males, the one above is more orange.  Perhaps it's an older bird.  The one above is in more shadow than the lower one, however, and that may make it appear darker orange.  Whatever the exact shade of gold or orange, a Baltimore Oriole is a beautiful bird.  When they are in the yard to rest between legs of their long migratory journey, they adorn the trees, feeders, and baths with a richness of color than is almost unparalleled.

The smaller brick-red Orchard Oriole is also lovely.  Note the black tail that also distinguishes it from the Baltimore.

Absent from the yard last week were  Bullock's Orioles which we usually see in small numbers during migration.  A four-oriole day is a great one, however, so I won't complain that a Bullock's didn't appear with the others.

Scarlet Tanager
Two Tanager species also graced the yard last week. Brightly colored migratory birds, Tanagers are almost always among the birds that "fall out" on the coast following cold fronts in the spring.  The Scarlet Tanager is the brightest, its red color almost florescent and contrasting starkly with black wings and tail.

The Summer Tanager, which winters in Mexico,  does not migrate as far as the Scarlet which winters in South America.  In fact, we had a Summer Tanager that wintered here in our yard.  It was here before the January freeze and I was relieved to see it after the ice storm safe and sound.

Summer Tanager
The red of the Summer Tanager is a rosier red than that of the Scarlet Tanager.  Young males are yellow and become quite blotchy as they begin to get red in the spring.  This one has almost finished the molt that will make it completely red.

As I look at the photo of this Summer Tanager, I can't tell what is in its beak. They were eating berries of the fiddlewood much of the time they were here, but I know they also eat insects, especially bees, and since this picture was taken in an esperanza which does not fruit, I think the bird may be eating a bee.  Sometimes Summer Tanagers are called "beebirds" for their fondness of the insects.

This Summer Tanager is clearly eating a bee.  I took the photo in September when the bird was migrating back from the north.  As I sat on my upstairs deck the bird was literally snapping the bees with its heavy bill, producing a sound that from only about 8-10 feet away from me was surprisingly loud.

Although Orioles were quite numerous last week, even more abundant were the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. These bright, beautiful, but slightly comical-looking birds flocked around the feeders eating striped and black sunflower seeds as well as the fiddlewood berries that were ripening just behind our largest feeder. Sometimes berries or jelly stained their  large beaks dark purple.

The amount of red on each male's breast varied.  The one pictured above was distinctive because of the large patch of red on its breast and the additional red on the throat.  The one below is probably a younger male, its rose-breast not yet as extensive as it will later be.  Younger males also have brown feathers mixed in with the black on the back and wings. An older adult male's black is so black,  and its white so white, that it is a distinctively beautiful black, red, and black bird.

The brown striping of the female Rose-breasted Grosbeak can be seen in the photo below, the bird on the left.  She is sparrow-colored but all-grosbeak in size, shape, and beak.   When she flies you might see a flash of buffy yellow underwings.  (A female grosbeak in the winter here is likely to be a Black-headed rather than a Rose-breasted.  Females of the two species look similar,  though the male Black-headed is a handsome black and orange. A young male visited our feeders in late winter.)

I finally updated the list of yard birds I keep in the sidebar.  So far this year we have seen 155 species in the yard. Many of them were added in the last week. Not only did we have a good number of species, but we also had large numbers of single species.  At one time there were 13 grosbeaks on the small feeder by the upstairs backyard window while others dined at the front feeders.  At another time I counted 9 orioles on the front deck.  (Today it was obvious that migration is tapering when only a single grosbeak ate at the back feeder and only Hooded and Altamira Orioles, taking a break from nest-building, tore pulp from the orange halves.)

Orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, thrushes, buntings, warblers!  The highlight of spring migration is not a single bird, incredibly beautiful as many of them are;  it is the amalgamation of colors, shapes, and sometimes even the songs of these traveling winged wonders.  All year long we can enjoy the singular beauty of birds.  But during migration we celebrate their collective beauty, perseverance, and strength.


eileeninmd said...

Wonderful post and review on the book. It sounds like a book i would like. I love yoru bird photos, especially the last one. Have a great week and good birding.

Wanda..... said...

Your bird photos are amazing, Kay. Loved seeing them up close.

Kelly said...

Wow!!! You really do have it going on at your place! So many wonderful birds. We saw a thrush fallout last night too, and...strangely enough...last night before going to bed I picked up Songbird Journeys too! I've had the book for a while in a stack and last night it was up.

I loved all the birds in your previous posts too. What a location you have!!

Frank said...

Hi Kay. I am really enjoying all the wonderful and colourful birds arriving and migrating through YOUR top birding spot.

Had a little chuckle to myself when I read your words about 'confusing fall Warblers' .. my only birding trip to the US (Cape May and High Island) was in the Autumn so I really know how it feels to be confused .. lol.

Penny said...

Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog Kay, I love reading yours and seeing the quite beautiful birds that seem to wander through your garden and the lovely area you live in. Love to see so many of the places I see on blogs, but think in some ways by blogging we see more than if we just visited in person.

Suz said...

Oh lordie, I love your blog sweet kindred sister..the only thing we don't have in common is quilting..much to the dismay of my mother, I may add...But I love quilts ..does that count. Your photos are pure joy....pure joy
my birdloving heart is pumping away...and yes, natives plants...love them too.....

Kay said...

Loving quilts counts, Suz--in fact, that's all I do now. I learned to quilt when we were away from home for awhile with grandchildren. Now that I'm back here I am outside too much to quilt!
Glad you found my blog and I found yours!

Kay said...

Eileen, yes, the book is good. Informative and well-written. I recommend it --when the birds are not in the yard.

Kelly, I guess it's not surprising we are reading about migration at just this time of year. Her book is about 4 seasons, but spring is where it's really at!

Wanda, thanks for the comment about my pictures. I know they are not professional quality but to me the fun is the birds. If it's an amazing bird I count it amazing even underexposed and fuzzy.

Penny, you are so right! Blogging is a carefully detailed visit. I like following your blog so that I can click on new posts and visit your garden.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi Kay, Love the pictures and your thoughts on the book.... I too love the migrating season... We do see some 'different' birds at that time of year.

Love your birds. You have so many that are quite different from ours.. Thanks for much for sharing.

I have some Bluebird babies in the nestbox now... TOO CUTE.


Crafty Green Poet said...

wow, what a lot of birds! The orchard oriole is particularly beautiful (I've never even heard of that species before now!). We have several thrush species here too, but they seem to be easier to identify than yours do!

Chad said...

I love your site! I went to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time in late December of last year and fell in love with Green Jays. My favorite bird is the Blue Jay (Jays in general are great) but the Green Jay is no a close runner-up!

Phil said...

Hi Kay,Thanks for looking in my blog, just returning the complement and I will certainly visit again> Nice photos that bring back memories of Long Point.