In honor of James Aubudon‘s birthday, I wanted to tell readers about exciting birdingevents that have been going on around town the past month.  April is the month that sees the most birding traffic here in South Texas.  This is when migratory birds are at their peak.  To showcase this, several events go on at various places in the Gulf Coast region. We were lucky enough to have time to check out two of them.

The first was FeatherFest, a weekend of birding activities centered around Galveston.  We only checked out the festivities on the last afternoon, but there are a multitude of activities from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon of this festival, which is hosted out of a headquarters in the Strand District.  The event is free to the public, but almost all the activities have a fee associated with them – at least the activities that require leaving the headquarters location and going out to actually go find birds.  You can find more information here at

We wanted specifically to check out the Birds of Prey demonstration, since we are kind of like Birds of Prey groupies.  Each demonstration we have been to this year has been put on by a different group, which is good because we have gotten to see a greater variety of birds.  The Sky Kings were the hosts today, and they put on a nice show right outside the headquarters.  We also checked out the exhibits inside the building.  We left the event soon after because the little ones wanted to go to the beach, and we also wanted a chance to go geocaching and off road exploring in the San Luis Pass area, but next year we want to spend some more time, and possibly money, checking out what this festival has to offer.

The following weekend found us at San Bernard Wildlife Refuge for the Migration Celebration.  We had first heard about this event at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, and were most excited about the idea about exploring the refuge on the marsh buggy rides. However, all the spaces on the marsh buggies were taken by the time we got through the line on the Sunday afternoon that we went.  Instead, we took an auto van tour of Moccasin Pond, each of us equipped with binoculars, while a bird guide pointed out different species and passed back an Ipad with information looked up when we had questions.

Before the auto fan tour, J went on a nature photography workshop they offered, and my sons and I participated in the “Junior Naturalist Passport” program they had, where you got stamps in a booklet by doing different educational activities for children.  The kids sifted through a pond, petted snakes, learned about alligators, touched crabs and starfish, and netted insects then looked at them under a microscope.    We looked at the winners of the photo contest they have each year.  I can’t believe the amount of committed volunteers they had, and the wealth of information that was given out entirely free.  The commitment to outdoor education was strong here.

There was also a Birds of Prey demonstration here, put on by Earthquest.  I liked this one probably the best of all the ones we have seen this past year, because of the wealth of inspirational environmental information presented.  They are not there just to demonstrate their falconry, but rather as ambassadors and educators of an ethic they would like to impress upon all those they encounter.  J got some great photos of the very interesting birds they had with them for displays of flight and majesty, like the Eurasian Eagle Owl, the Andean Condor, and the Peregrine Falcon, whose speed in flight is unsurpassed.

Both of these events were only about an hour or two outside of Houston.  Other events were also being offered around the South Texas region, like in Corpus Christi the same weekend as the Migration Celebration.

It’s springtime in Texas, and birds are all around us, gathering up fuel for the winter journey, nesting and rearing their young, singing and eating and flashing wings through the forest.  Go find them!  And I hope next year you have a chance to check out these two events I mentioned.  We’ll be there!

Lake Jackson: Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and Wilderness Park

This past weekend, we attended a bird banding workshop at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory location in Lake Jackson.  These bird bandings are held every third Saturday from 8 am to noon and are open to the public.  I personally was interested in being able to identify more birds.  We were also interested in using his new binoculars to sight more birds, and hoping there might be a raptor or bird of prey being banded.

We showed up for the bird banding fairly late – ten am as opposed to eight, because we were having trouble getting up, but we still got to see quite a few birds.  This time of the year, there were primarily cardinals.  The cardinal is such a handsome bird, but apparently they are very fiesty.  The male volunteer who does the bird banding, Robert Lookingbill, was getting nipped several times by their beaks.  He also had a bit of bird magic about it, seeming to “hyptonize” the birds with a wag of his finger, to the delight of the onlookers who were trying to get pictures.

During the bird banding, this man would gently remove the birds from the sacks they were hanging in and check to see if they already had a band.  If they did, he read the number off to his “scribe”, his wife Kay.  They are both licensed bird banders and research associates at GCBO.  If the bird was not banded, he placed one on them.  I admire his dexterity because this is harder than it sounds.  Then he performed an examination of the animal, during which he verbalized his findings to Kay, who was logging them in a tablet.  They looked at the condition of the wings, measured them, blew a straw across the bird’s chest to get a visual assessment of body fat, and weighed the birds.  This gives them good data to look at migration patterns of birds relative to their body condition.  Bird banding has been going on at this location for five years now, so Kay and Robert have amassed a good deal of data for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that this workshop both supports and is supported by.

In the two hours we were there observing, we saw about ten different species of birds being banded.  Most of them were cardinals, but there were also several species of very small birds, some of which the crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed over, such as this Golden Crowned Kinglet. J an dI both got to hold a bird before setting it free after the banding, and I got to hold a tiny hummingbird in my hand before it took off.  We all took a walk over to see the mist screens they use to catch the birds before bagging them and bringing them over.

Towards the end of our visit, we ran into a very friendly volunteer, Claudia I think her name was, who showed us how to get to the observatory overlook by walking with us.  She taught us a lot about the history of this site, the work they do there, their conservation and fundraising efforts, and other great places to view birds.  She also told us about native plant species that you could plant in your yard to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  She walked us over to a location where some of these were planted and put some seed pods in my hand, as well as pointing out the different species, such as Katy Ruellia, Turks hat, yellow bells, and shrimp plants.  We walked a little further down a trail by the office headquarters and observed the screen nets.

I had packed a picnic lunch for after, and loaded waypoints for nearby geocaches into the GPS unit.  We met his parents beforehand and they followed us down here to watch the bird banding as well, and they were still game for enjoying some time outdoors when the workshop was over, so we all went next door to the Wilderness Park.  This is 300 acres of pristine woodlands located on the other side of the Brazos River.  We went for about a three mile round trip hike there and picked up ten new geocache finds.  His parents were with us for about half of the caches before turning back; after they left, we picked more rugged routes and faster tempos, although we still were strolling leisurely enough to enjoy the vistas and take photos of our favorite views.  I highly recommend this place as a good location to escape into nature, although as with most natural adventures, use your sense of caution – we saw a huge snake entering our path as we were on our way out of the path.  We didn’t see other wild animals but we saw plenty of sign of them, animal prints in the mud and scat indicating the presence of feral hogs, deer, raccoon, possum, and possibly bobcat and alligator.

Later, I will go into more detail about the conservation efforts of GCBO and the different birds we learned about.  Mostly I wanted to share our experience of this area in hopes it might inspire you to take a trip out there and experience it as well.  This is a place where nature reigns supreme in the midst of an urban environment, and I hope to find more places like this to share with you.

Katy Prairie Conservancy

On an unusually cold Saturday morning, we went out for a drive along Katy’s back roads to explore the Katy Prairie Conservancy sites.  Our primary mission was birding related.  He had just gotten a new pair of nice binoculars for his birthday, and lately we’ve become more interested in the birds.

Well, he’s always been interested in the birds, since I have known him, but mostly his interest was in hawks and falcons.  Today, his objective was to see an eagle.  I, though, have never been interested in birds before him.  In fact, I rarely even noticed them.  I feel like I must have spent my life looking at the ground, or panning in front of me, but never really looked to the sky.  Oh, what I had been missing!  Now I am all excited and enthusiastic about learning the names of all these creatures.  And what a difference the binoculars make!

I had first learned about the Katy Prairie Conservancy during the Outdoor Fest at Discovery Green last fall that I have mentioned here before.  I had held on to a pamphlet about their mission with the intention of venturing out here someday.  Then he suggested we check it out early one morning, try to get there around sunrise to catch some birds, find some geocaches, take some waypoints of places to see birds at, and so off we went.

The Katy Prairie itself used to stretch from downtown Houston to the Brazos River.  As the Houston metropolitan area spread, and the west side of town was developed more rapidly, the prairie has begun to disappear.  However, this land was home to 300 species of birds, 300 species of wildflowers and other plants, and around 100 species of other kinds of wildlife.  Without a plan for protection, all of this would soon disappear, and the Katy Prairie would be swallowed up into oblivion.  In 1992, the Katy Prairie Conservancy was formed as a nonprofit entity intent on saving this bit of wilderness in our urban environment.  Their mission is to preserve 50,000 contiguous acres on the prairie,  To date, they have protected 18,000 acres towards this goal.

This day, we stopped at three sites along the map provided by the website: the Wildlife Viewing Platform, Barn Owl Woods/Nelson Farms, and Warren Ranch South.  These sites are marked on the map you can find here.  These locations, as you can see from the map, are right next to each other along the same road.  If you want to explore this yourself, you will have to approach from the west end of Sharp, as there is some construction going on right where the Cypress Creek crosses Sharp Rd, and the road is not only closed right now, but there is a gaping crevasse in it.

We didn’t see our eagle this morning, but we did find some geocaches along these roads, including one right at the platform, and we had a good time looking at the birds through the binoculars and trying to identify them. I was watching one for a while that we spent all day trying to identify from various sources, unable to come to agreement until we realized we were talking about two different birds we had seen that morning.  I was able to find out what it was, I think, by a nudge from another geocacher that I contacted who is an experienced birder and pointed me to this list the Katy Prairie Conservancy has up on its website.  From there I was able to narrow the choices by comparing pictures and migration habits.  I am currently convinced the bird I was looking at was an ash-throated flycatcher.

We plan on going back out to mark coordinates of places along this area to view birds and sharpen our skills at identifying them.  Next time we go out, I am bringing a sketch pad and map pencils so it is easier to remember exactly what I saw for later remembering, until we get a really good field guide.  I am excited about our new interest in birding, and thankful that this town has an organization like KPC actively preserving our wilderness so that future generations, both human and bird alike, can continue to enjoy it.

Birding in The Burbs

After flipping through a birding field guide we got for a family member, one of us had some present envy and/or technology curiousity, and discovered an app for smartphones called iBirdPro.  The advantage of this app over a field guide is that in addtion to pictures and information about the birds, the app plays their calls as well.

This day, the same one of us was playing with our four dogs out in a neighboring field, where we often see some bird action.  When the dogs jumped out of the truck, they startled a hawk.  The hawk flew to the other side of the field, stopped for a moment, then flew overhead, calling, and headed south.  Using the iBirdPro app, the hawk was able to be identified as a Swainson’s Hawk.

A bit of research later yielded some interesting information about this hawk.  Being that it is winter in Texas, and these birds usually spend the winter in South America, it is suspected that this particular hawk might have missed the party, and the flight path, and was unable to find its way south of the Gulf of Mexico.  This particular species was blue -listed (at risk, but not endangered or threatened) in the late seventies and early eighties, and made it on to the National Audubon’s List of Special Concern in 1986.  Currently, it is listed as a threatened species by California, but numbers elsewhere suggest the bird is more abundant than previously thought.

The National Audubon Society uses their Christmas Bird Counts as a way to keep track of what species are thriving and which ones are declining.  The Christmas Bird Counts run from Dec 14-Jan 5.  You have to become a member and pay a small fee to participate, but learning how to identify the birds is a first step in being able to participate in this activity.  Here is the website of the Audubon Society to learn more information.