Three Gray Birds Outside My Window

I’ve mentioned that I’m spending a couple of weeks quarantined in the Hermits’ Rest house, working from my little den (which is lovely, other than poor connectivity). A real highlight has been looking out the window, where I can see a long fence that leads to the woods.

The view out my window, bordered by the computer monitors I try my best to focus on. Notice that the window also tells me how to not be a better conversationalist.

The main thing I regret about my window is that there’s a window screen. Otherwise, I’d be getting some really good photos of gray birds. Gray birds just love that fence. It’s apparently an ideal insect-hunting platform. Let me introduce you to the friends I see every day.

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

Like most of you in North America, I’ve lived around mockingbirds my whole life. They are the state bird of Florida, where I grew up, so I’ve known them my whole life. When I was a kid, I thought they were a boring bird. I have changed my mind!

Northern mockingbird. Photo copyright BJ Stanley (CC)

Through the years, I grew to love the birds that sat on the streetlight outside my house in Brushy Creek, Texas. They would sing so many songs, and occasionally emit the sound of a car alarm or cell phone. They are amazing singers.

Now that I’m at the ranch and working in Cameron, I watch mockingbirds every day. They’re big and bold, and very hungry. I love watching them catching bugs and finding food on the ground. The flash of white you see when one of these guys takes off means something interesting’s about to happen. I always know them on the fence by their long tails that are quite mobile.

Over at my fence, the mockingbirds are pretty bossy. They often make all the other birds move, so they get the best observation spot. They are fearless.

Here, the mockingbird chased off one phoebe, and moved the other one out of the prime viewing area.

Now, the mockingbirds don’t only hunt out in the open. I often see them flying into the woods, and singing from the tip-tops of the trees (when crows aren’t using those spots!). So, I salute these fascinating creatures, my first gray bird friends.

Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

I had never run into phoebes until I got to the ranch here. Since then, I’ve heard and seen them often in my house in Austin. I guess there just weren’t any at my first Texas house.

These may be gray, but they’re striking. Their heads are founded, and they have lovely light breasts. Photo copyright Pedro Alanis (CC).

Here, you can’t miss the little darlings. They have been nesting and raising babies in our porches, and sitting on the porches announcing their presence. They conveniently announce who they are by strongly shouting, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” You can’t miss them.

When they’re out on the fence among the other gray birds, the easiest way to distinguish phoebes from the others is the shape of their heads. They have some feathers at the top of their heads that makes it look bigger or more rounded than other birds. It makes them look sort of “husky.” They also have much shorter tails than the mockingbirds.

This photo by Benjamin Schwartz shows the little crest on its head.

Phoebes are flycatchers (actually tyrant flycatchers), so it’s no wonder they are out there every day going after insects. It’s their job. They’re so acrobatic, too, making loops and circles before heading back to the fence to chew and spot the next bug.

Right now I have at least a pair of them hanging around (the males are slightly darker), so I often get to enjoy two at a time. I’m so glad to share my home with them!

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus

I’ve written about these birds before, but they are the third gray bird I keep seeing on my fence. I feel honored to have a rare bird on the property.

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus along FM 2810 SW of Marfa, Presidio Co., Texas 12 September 2005. Photo copyright Greg Lasley (CC) – he’s one of the guys I looked at shrikes with before.

These are incredibly beautiful birds. I was just out back looking at a flock of American robins (they were eating smilax berries so loudly I could find them by ear), when I saw one of our shrikes in a tree by the pond. Their black-and white feathers are really striking from behind.

This beautiful photo by Jonathan Eisen (CC) of a parent and baby shows how easy it is to ID them from the back.

When I try to look at the gray birds out my window, the phoebe and the loggerhead shrike are initially hard to tell apart, thanks to the darned window screen, since they are both grayish birds with pale breasts.

That IS the shrike, however.

But, the phoebe is a more brownish gray, and has an entirely dark head, while the shrike has that cool “bandit mask” through its eyes. And of course, their behavior is different. I really enjoy running across the kills made by the shrikes, who impale them on our fences.

Here’s a photo I took last September of a bug caught by a shrike. You don’t even have to see them to know they were here!

As you can imagine, I keep seeing movement in my peripheral vision and feel compelled to check it out. Usually it’s one of these gray birds, but that’s not all I see. Right now I see a male cardinal (who I’d been hearing in the woods when I was looking at the robins), a mockingbird and the female phoebe. A few minutes ago, a troop of eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) came marching by in their quest for bugs on the ground.

Oh, and three large duck-shaped birds with rings around their necks flew over, and I had no idea what they were until I checked Merlin Bird ID and realized they were wood ducks! I sure wish I’d seen them in the water, since they are so beautiful

Winter is a FUN season for bird watching around here!

What can you see at your house?

PS: I looked out just now and saw another gray bird, but I easily identified it as Gertie, our guinea fowl.

Mockingbird Family Matters

Let’s just have a little nature story, shall we? Why not?

The past month or so we’ve had a family of mockingbirds working on raising a family. Every time we went in or out of the Hermit Haus office, an angry bird or two would fly by and make that mockingbird screech of warning. I never found the nest, but I know it was really nearby and that they spent a LOT of time in the lantana bed.

I can fly! Just not very far, so please bring me a bug.

I also got to watch one of the adult birds using the pipe where the air conditioning condensation comes out as a water dispenser. I wish I’d gotten a picture! I should put a bird bath under there or something.

Last week the little ones fledged, and they certainly are not afraid of us humans who they’ve grown up with. I had the best time last week watching one of them on its first day out, still with a little topknot of baby feathers.

I love these flowers.

Today I came in to work for the first time in a few days, and heard all sorts of peeping, even from inside the building. A while later I had to take a phone call in the driveway. When I went out, there, peeping continued. I watched an adolescent bird flail away and make it on top of one of the air conditioner units. Then it gathered ALL its courage and jumped to the OTHER one! It seemed proud.

I can see farther thanks to these convenient steps.

After a little flapping it calmed down and opened its mouth. In flew one of the parents, who stuffed some kind of bug down its little gullet. When I looked over by the lantana bed, I saw the rest of the family had gathered. There were both parents and three babies, who are just about the same size as the parents, but still have little streaks on their chests.

The parents are on the left, and the babies are on the right.

I sure enjoyed their antics as they munched on berries and flopped around. I’m hoping that the house finches who have built another nest in the carport area manage to get babies this time. Between these guys and the swallows at the Pope house, I have had a great baby bird year.

Getting ready to chow down on lantana.

Tell you what, watching birds raise their young is a wonderful way to remember that you are part of a much larger world of nature that doesn’t give a darn about what country they are in or what diseases are afflicting humans.

Birds and Bees, and a Weird Morning

It’s not even noon, but it’s already been a weird day. I got to the Hermit Haus for work, and was just making my coffee when the lights went out. Well, most of them did. For some reason, my red lamp and the light over the kitchen sink kept glowing, eerily.

It was just barely glowing when the power was out. Wonder why.

So, Kathleen and I went outside, and saw Chris talking to the neighbor (at way over 6 feet away) about the power being out. We got a text from Mandi saying Oncor (power folks) knew about it and would get the power back on in a couple of hours. Great. I had a couple of things I’d wanted to get done immediately.

Grr.

After standing around and thinking for a while, we each went back to our respective areas to do work that could be done on the phone. Kathleen made phone calls, I did weekly employee reviews, Chris painted trim.

We opened the doors in our office for more light, and Chris did the same at the Pope house. A mistake? Maybe.

That’s when the invasions occurred. Chris heard noises and saw that he had a new coworker, but one that just banged on things randomly. This poor mockingbird was not helpful at all.

Hey, you’re not paying me enough to work in here!

At the same time, all the honey bees that have been out enjoying our wildflower meadow (the one with all the yellow flowers) decided to check out our basement. At the time it was no problem.

Then at 10 am, the power came back. Yay. The bees were still in the building. They decided to visit my office, with its bright lights. At first they checked out the monitor, but then I realized at least three of them were on my light fixture. Kathleen could hear them all buzzing away.

This moon is beautiful!

Finally I couldn’t concentrate on my work, so I turned the light off. Hooray, the bees went out. And we shut the doors, so no more can come in. We’ll shoo them back out at some point today, since there’s not much nectar down here.

I’m glad the June bugs are only at the ranch. I don’t think I could take them all bouncing around down here. Back to work.

Urban Hawk Update

hawk6
One of two angry birds that was encouraging this young hawk to go away (note its shadow on the building). Fuzzy iPhone picture!

A while back, I shared photos of a big hawk nest on the building next to my Austin work, and later I found another nest in a large oak tree in front of the building.

I thought you might like to see how those babies are doing. I guess at least one clutch of them hasn’t completely fledged yet, since I keep seeing small hawks flying around the building.

The resident birds are not happy, especially the mockingbirds, who, as we know, are busy raising their babes right now. There were actually two birds going after this poor youth.

I’ve seen at least two others flying around in the past week. I’m pretty sure these are the ones from the big tree, and the ones from the building have long since flown off to establish their own territories. (I do see birds by the nest still, but apparently they usually have just one clutch a year).

Nature sure helps when there’s chaos around you. I’m really glad to have birds and trees and random animals to enjoy wherever I am. We even have some wrens and tufted titmice coming to our bird bath at the Bobcat Lair house in Austin (I will try to get some photos). Remember, when times are tough, breathe, and notice what’s around you. It helps to see the big picture.

Tomorrow I’ll write about picking wild grapes. Adventures in foraging!

New Avian Friends?

nest2
Hmm, why was this nest so easy to see?

Hi folks. Sorry for the inadvertent hiatus; I had some technical and scheduling difficulties, but I am back now. I’ve been thinking a lot about birds, so I’ll just share a bit about what’s going on with them here, and write more later! More posts! Yay!

Nests, Part 1

This week I came across more bird nests, including the one in the photo above. It’s a very small nest, though you can’t tell that in the photo, with such pretty little eggs in it. I spotted it while riding my horse, Apache, around a hay pasture we usually don’t ride in.

It was really easy to see the nest, which had me confused. Don’t birds who nest on the ground usually hide the nests? As “Patchy” plodded around the field one more time, I realized what had happened: our ranch helper had mowed a path around the edges of the pasture so my neighbor and I could ride. The mower probably went over the nest, didn’t harm it, but DID reveal it. The rest of the pasture has lush grass about a foot high.

Anyway, I am sad that these eggs probably won’t make it, but I know we have plenty of sparrows here, so plenty of nests. By the way, I’m pretty sure these are lark sparrow eggs. We have plenty of those, plus savannah sparrows, and house sparrows (around the houses).

Continue reading “New Avian Friends?”