Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sage Thrasher - the power of water requirement

Not all desert dwellers need to drink water. They often will quench that requirement through their forage choices.

However, some if given a chance to drink will take it.

Like this particular winter resident bird species:

Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus)

It was just below 30 degrees F this morning, so we had ice again. Atleast around our drip hose and certain surfaces.

Surfaces like the hood of Heidi's jeep.

This individual was drinking at early-morning ice melt in the psuedo-sun. We enjoyed observations much like the following....

It is a bit slippery.

Up to the roof:

Still slick up there.

Thirst quenched, it flew up to more comfy confines and that's where I left it.

Good morning, and Happy Holidays to all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gage Gardens morning bird survey

The Gage Gardens is around 30 acres in size, south of the RR tracks from the Gage Hotel here in Marathon. The Gage is working on this plot of land to attract birds and birders alike.

I needed to survey the place for avifauna this morning, and the place did not disappoint. Forty identified species! In late-December, even. Post Park would envy that this time of yr. The power of these two places combined make little ol' Marathon a great place to enjoy the birds.

Back to Gage Gardens this morning...

When I first got there, I spotted a roosting Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata).

Wilson's Snipe

Throughout the rest of the morning it was quickly apparent that there was a pair of snipes. With moist ground in many places thanks to the watering, that pair was seen several times.

Though, often in the shadows.

It really was Sparrow Day at the ballpark, scores of expected winter-resident species; two less than commonly expected.

The highlight this morning is a species I recall in the winters of Central TX. In the tran-Pecos, however, they are a rare bird.

Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula)

Not always seen in its normal, and narrow, range; this guy was a real treat to observe. They are a big sparrow, over 7 inches in length.

Harris's Sparrow

There were many sparrow species feeding under hanging seed feeders. Scratching around the mulch, seed, and leaf-litter. The Harris's Sparrow was generally on the ground scratching away, too. I just happened to photo him in the crown of this tree after an alarm call vocalization came and birds scattered momentarily.

Harris's Sparrow, look behind it.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

An uncommon species in far-West TX. There is a complex of geographical-color phases. I don't have time to get into it. It would be a nice thing to look up. Anyways, the last Fox Sparrow I remember seeing was on San Clemente Island, CA. That bird looked very little like the above. Pacific coastal Fox Sparrows are generally dark and sooty in color.

Anyhow, the two of them didn't get along. Both big sparrows; the Harris's generally won out on foraging square-inches.

The Fox Sparrow counters the Harris's Sparrow.

It was a great interaction to observe.

Also around the Gage Gardens were Lark Buntings (Calamospiza melanocorys). They come in the thousands in the Marathon Basin winter.

Just generally not in trees like this one.

Vermilion Flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus) are numerous in the summers in Marathon. However, they generally migrate down to the Rio Grande in south Brewster County in the winters.

This young male is cutting it close:

I saw an adult female, too. Maybe there's something to that.

What a beautiful day.... this weekend is supposed to get cold. Great day in Marathon and the Gage Gardens!

The following is a list generated by

40 species (+2 other taxa) total
1 Northern Harrier - adult male
1 Killdeer
2 Wilson's Snipe
2 Rock Pigeon
1 Eurasian Collared-Dove
10 White-winged Dove
5 Mourning Dove
2 hummingbird sp. - not Anna's. One only heard, other a flyby. Perhaps Selasphorus sp due to recent activity in area.
1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - female
1 Ladder-backed Woodpecker
2 Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)
2 Vermilion Flycatcher - one juvenile male, one female
1 Loggerhead Shrike
2 Common Raven - fly over.
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
20 American Robin
2 Northern Mockingbird
1 Brown Thrasher - don't always see them in north Brewster County, sometimes at the river in BBNP
1 European Starling
4 American Pipit
10 Cedar Waxwing
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
2 Field Sparrow
12 Vesper Sparrow
1000 Lark Bunting - that number may be conservative. Large grassland on SE half of prop held scores of this sp.
16 Savannah Sparrow
1 Fox Sparrow (Red)
6 Song Sparrow
3 Lincoln's Sparrow
1 Harris's Sparrow - my first Brewster Co. HASP
100 White-crowned Sparrow
4 Pyrrhuloxia
6 Red-winged Blackbird - only females seen.
2 Eastern Meadowlark - only two meadowlarks heard were eastern vocalizations
120 meadowlark sp. - grassland portion of property held many
40 Brewer's Blackbird
1 Great-tailed Grackle
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
5 House Finch
1 Lesser Goldfinch
5 House Sparrow

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Allen's Hummingbird continues here in Marathon

Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)

This bird was banded here at the house back on 8 December by Kelly Bryan.
That day there were two Selasphorus types. One was already banded, but on the left leg. Kelly bands all his hummingbird new-captures on the right leg. We really wanted that recap, because it wasn't local. Really, any recap is filled with goodness, but a bird not banded here...., oh well.

We got this kid. It is a hatch-year (HY) male Allen's. Late December and there is still this territorial sprite waiting for the sugar-water to thaw this morning. He'll also guard the drip and other portions of the back-40.

Well, in a week and a half from now we would have to celebrate his birthday. He'll have graduated to after-hatch-yr (AHY), we'll even know him to be a second-year Allen's. All that, if he sticks. Check the gorget, the sides are starting to show some shading..

Those who are interested in an Allen's Hummingbird for their life/year/state/county/town/block list are generally welcome to stop by. Just give us a shout or email to let us know you're coming. We can, in turn, let you know if we would've seen him that day.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Post Park bird walk schedule - Dec/Jan

Our regular 8:30-10:00 am bird walks at Post Park have taken a hit recently due to those pesky things known as 'holidays' and associated travel. This month is mostly "TBA" due to finals and work schedules being shifted, but on Dec. 18th we're hoping that everyone will participate in the Balmorhea CBC (check this post for details).

Dec. 4 - cancelled
Dec. 11 - TBA (edit: it was cold!)
Dec. 18 - cancelled for Balmorhea CBC
Dec. 25 - Yes, we'll be at Post Park! (barring disaster)

Jan. 1 - cancelled
Jan. 8 - resume normal schedule!

Apologies for the weird winter schedule, hopefully next winter won't be as scattered!

(yes, this was originally posted on Dec. 3!)

West Texas Christmas Bird Counts

(originally posted 11/29/11, reposted 12/11/11)

From Houston Audubon Society's compilation of statewide Christmas Bird Counts:

The details provided at the bottom are taken directly from the HAS website, but do let me know if there are any errors found! There stands a good chance that we will only be able to attend the Davis Mts,

By date:
Davis Mountains (TXDM) 12/17
Balmorhea (TXBA) 12/18

Comstock (TXCO) 12/26
Del Rio (TXDR) 12/27
Chisos Mountains (TXCM) 12/28
Big Bend NP (East) (TXBG) 12/29

Guadalupe Mountains (TXGM) 12/31

By location:
Balmorhea (TXBA) 12/18
Big Bend NP (East) (TXBG) 12/29
Chisos Mountains (TXCM) 12/28
Comstock (TXCO) 12/26
Davis Mountains (TXDM) 12/17
Del Rio (TXDR) 12/27
Guadalupe Mountains (TXGM) 12/31

Balmorhea: Sunday, December 18, 2011
The Balmorhea CBC traditionally falls on the day following the Davis Mountains. The count circle includes the state park, Phantom Springs, Balmorhea Lake, and wide open spaces around town. The count routinely records 100 species and, as with most rural counts, more observers are always welcome. If possible, please contact Mark Lockwood ahead of time of your interest in participating in the Balmorhea count. Meet at the Balmorhea State Park entry station at 07:30 AM CST. Compiler: Mark Lockwood (

Big Bend NP (East) - Rio Grande Village: Thursday, December 29, 2011
We will meet in front of the Rio Grande Village Campground Store at 7:15 AM. Birds of note seen during recent counts include: American Bittern, Sora, White-throated Swift, Green Kingfisher, Red-naped Sapsucker, Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Sage Thrasher, Crissal Thrasher & Green-tailed Towhee. Participants always appreciated and needed. Please contact Bryan Hale at (email preferred) or phone 512-474-5499 (h) 512-912-4412 (w) 512-426-6033 (cell) for further details. Mark Flippo will also be a contact person out there. He is a ranger at the park and his phone is 432-477-1110.

Chisos Mountains: Wednesday, December 28, 2011
We will meet in the Basin in front of the grocery store at 7:15 AM. Areas will be assigned. Birds of note seen during recent counts include: Golden Eagle, White-throated Swift, Anna's Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Plumbeous Vireo, Hutton's Vireo, Mexican Jay, Townsend's Solitaire, Sage Thrasher, Crissal Thrasher & Green-tailed Towhee. Participants always appreciated and needed. Please contact Bryan Hale at (email preferred) or phone 512-474-5499 (h) 512-912-4412 (w) 512-426-6033 (cell) for further details. Mark Flippo will also be a contact person out there. He is a ranger at the park and his phone is 432-477-1110.

Comstock: Monday, December 26, 2011
Located 45 miles west of Del Rio, the count circle includes parts of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers. Meet at the Visitor's Center in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park at 7 AM. Some routes on this count require a lot of walking. Should anyone wish to assist please contact compiler Sue Wiedenfeld at or phone 830-995-2300 to sign up and for further details.

Davis Mountains: Saturday, December 17, 2011
Help with the Davis Mountains Christmas Count is always welcome. Participants will be divided into small groups that will bird the prairies, canyons, and mountains of Jeff Davis County. The count day is followed by a super potluck supper and tallying of the count. Hope to see you all there. Some of the highlights of recent counts were Long-eared Owl, Violet-crowned and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Montezuma Quail and Grasshopper Sparrow. Compiler: Martha Hansen (

Del Rio: Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Open to all participants. Please preregister. Interested persons can e-mail compiler Karen Gleason at Please include your phone number in your email. Your participation is appreciated. Within the count circle there is Lake Amistad, Rio Grande River, San Felipe and Spring Creeks, Amistad Recreation Area, Laguna de Plata, and much of Del Rio. We will be meeting at Fisherman's Headquarters at 7 AM on count day.

Guadalupe Mountains: Saturday, December 31, 2011
We are always looking for enough people to cover the count circle. It would be great to have anyone from across the state to come out to far west Texas for the count. This is one of the few places in Texas you can find Steller's Jays. Other birds of note from recent counts include: Golden Eagle, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Townsend's Solitaire, Sage and Crissal Thrasher, Green-tailed Towhee, Sage Sparrow and a variety of Dark-eyed Junco ssp. Please contact the compiler before count day because coverage areas will be assigned before count day. Most areas require hiking. Participants will meet at 6:45 AM at the Pine Springs Cholla Chateau (call 915-828-3251 x2314 for directions) to be sure all areas are covered. Preliminary post-count tally will be at the Cholla at the end of the day. Some housing or RV space may be available for Friday and Saturday nights for $8.00 per person per night. Advance reservations required (phone number above). Contact Michael Haynie ( for more information about joining.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

American Crow; unexpected

This post is backdated to include photos taken by Ellen Baker -

Dec. 10th is the date that one American Crow was heard on the north side of Marathon in the early morning - two were found in a tree being alternately mobbed by Brewer's Blackbirds (see bottom photo) and a Northern Mockingbird. After nearly a week of constant presence, the birds were finally photographed. They didn't remain in the area much longer than two weeks. Photos show a clearly smaller-than-raven beak, round head and reasonable size.

For the curious over the fuss, American Crows are an irruptive species in West Texas... far West Texas.

Range map via - a good bit more accurate than some of the alternatives. The map shows the winter range extension, but nothing anywhere near Marathon. And that is why documentation so far out here is interesting!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Allen's Hummingbird - the Selasphorus Matrix

Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) vs. Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Most Rufous Hummingbirds have atleast some green flecks on their backs at some point of growing up. Some lose them by the time of adulthood. Some keep or gain more into a "green-backed" Rufous Hummingbird status.

It's this green-backed Rufous Hummingbird that is near identical to the adult Allen's Hummingbird, a bird that always has a green back.

Where ranges overlap, it can be difficult or impossible to separate the two other than having the bird in-the-hand. As time marches on, there are those who are learned enough in their bird observing, field-work and/or region they live in that can tell the difference between the two without it in-hand. Others atleast have experienced leanings toward one species ID or another. The advent of high-shutter speed digital photography has helped, too.

There was an effort today to capture two green-backed Selasphorus species hummingbird.

We caught one. One person in the party is long-timed permitted to do this.

Allen's Hummingbird , Marathon, Brewster Co., TX. A location where migration routes do overlap.
Some diagnostics:

One way out of the hand to get a strong hunch is this:

Hatch-year (HY), birds hatched this calender year (have a mixed audience reading), Allen's Hummingbird male develop their full gorget earlier than do Rufous.

This HY male Allen's is well on his way.

By the way, HY hummingbirds have corrugations or wrinkles/grooves running alongside their bills. After-HY birds typically lack them completely or they are almost gone.

That's what Kelly is looking at in the above pic.

This HY bird (and us for that matter) is all the way into the month of December. It's lost some its older feathers, though has some left.

Check out the primary feathers of one of his wings:

It has new secondary feathers. It also has new primary feathers except for the outer-most 3 (P7-9). More brown in color and certainly more worn on the edges. He's growing up.

Also, his tail still has some old pin feathers amidst newer adult tailfeathers.

Moving from age-characteristics of humming birds back to species specific characteristics making this an Allen's Hummingbird, and not a green-backed Rufous Hummingbird...

These two species have 10 tail-feathers or retrices. There are five on the left and five on the right. The innermost are both labeled tailfeather number 1 (or R1). So from the innermost two tail-feathers, our R-1's, we count outward; R-2, R-3, R-4, R-5.

In the above photo, those two thickest feathers by his index finger are the R-1 tail-feathers.

R-2 feathers on a Rufous Hummingbird has a notch in it.

R-2 feathers on an Allen's does not.
No notch here.

All the tail-feathers in each sex and age-class are narrower in Allen's compared to Rufous.

This become more acutely apparent in R-5. The outermost tail feathers. They are narrower in Allen's Hummingbirds.

Again, no notch in R-2, and check out the narrower outermost tail-feathers. Somewhere we can dig up a photo of the tail of both species side-by-side. I'll edit that in, in the future, perhaps.

Anyways, as is standard procedure in avian fieldword various physical measures were taken.

This is wing chord length:

Chord length is a measurement taken when a bird's wing is bent at around a 90 degree angle (sort of as if it were at rest). The length from the "wrist" to the longest primary wing tip is taken.
Check out his new band on his right leg. Tiny.
I've worked with band sizes from albatross, sulids, shearwaters, noddies, terns, warblers, vireos, shrikes, and others. The band size for a hummingbird is amazing!

Measuring tail length:

Width of the outer tail feather:

After various other morphological data taken, this HY male Allen's Hummingbird with a healthy weight was released ... with a bad auto-focus..

Another far-West Texas Allen's Hummingbird. This is the latest calender date that Kelly has banded an Allen's. Kelly's been doing this for a long time.

**He later banded an Allen's Hummingbird this afternoon at a friend's place in Alpine.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


They are diving ducks in the Aythya genus.

Heidi came home this morning with a member of this group. It was salvaged on Hwy 385, just southeast of town and the Hwy 90 - Hwy 385 intersection.

Likely powerline collision.

Redhead (Aythya americana), female.

This genus of diving ducks has legs set far back, and quite far apart. If you've ever seen it, you'd know it makes walking on land difficult for them. Many pelagic species are the same way.

However, on water and under it they are in their element.

Diving ducks aren't diving for algae. They generally eat small fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Check out that serrated bill. They have to be able to hold on to their prey item.

Beautiful underwing.

Not really sporting a speculum/wing patch, they do have an extensive gray wing stripe on the upperside of each wing.

Beautiful bird.

We certainly haven't salvaged any ducks out here before. There's a first for everything.

Good find, Heidi.


Edit - Q&A session:
For folks curious about the different sorts of dead bird findings, here are some of the commonly used terms and what they mean in the context of our freezer.

Collect/collected - a collection permit means one actively seeks and shoots/traps/kills for the purpose of study. If we 'collect' a bird, it's inadvertent and because our moving vehicle did the job for us - we do brake for birds, but sometimes 'collecting' in that context does happen. It really doesn't count as such, however, because it ends up as... salvage.

Salvage - it's already dead, but we'll do the best we can to make it useful for study. This is how we come upon 99.9% of our dead things. We find them already dead - by car, cat, window, emaciation and power line (in order of frequency for Brewster County so far).

Scavenge - this is what other animals do. A 'scavenger hunt' for people involves finding things intentionally; a scavenger is a creature that happens upon a delicious morsel that is already dead and 'scavenged' is the condition that you'd call a pile of feathers. Not enough left to salvage, generally.

To recap: Shooting a bird for study is collecting. Picking up a bird that was hit by a car is salvage. A pile of feathers below a window indicates that the bird was scavenged.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Longspurs, alive and well

"Marathon Prairie Dog Town" is located on Hwy 385 almost exactly 10 miles north of Hwy 90. (It's a hotspot on the ebird map, but there are no signs, no tables, no benches, no markers, just some big rocks and pulloffs on either side of the road... and prairie dog mounds... please be nice to ranchers, law enforcement, border patrol and anyone else who is concerned that you are on the side of the road! We look out for each other out here.)

Not to get anyone too excited: here's a Chestnut-collared Longspur. Rambly commentary, location clarification and details below the ebird list!

Kincaid Gate , Brewster County, Texas, US - just north of Prairie Dog town on Hwy 385
Fri Dec 02, 2011 03:50 PM
Duration: 1 hour(s), 20 minute(s)

1 Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus (adult male)
2 Ferruginous Hawk Buteo regalis
1 Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
1 Merlin Falco columbarius
1 Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
X American Pipit Anthus rubescens (flyovers)
2 Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus *
1 Chestnut-collared Longspur Calcarius ornatus (more heard as flyovers)

Species - 8 species total

* The male was a non-breeding male, the other... was not. Great looks at dark, uninterrupted auricular patches, rufous wing coverts and nice comparison next to the Chestnut-collared.


Now that we have had our only two Lapland Longspurs for the county (and state) as "dead on arrival" sightings (1 - cat) (2 - car), I opted to push my luck and check the prairie dog town north of Marathon for others. I arrived at about 3:45 and pulled up to find a lovely Ferruginous Hawk escorting a Golden Eagle away from the area. I watched the Golden Eagle head SW for a while and upon returning to the FEHA... it was gone. A scan turned up some distant lumps to the NW but I didn't think much of it (after Matt arrived at 4:45, we did relocate the lumps and determine them to be two Ferruginous Hawks after better looks).

Repeated scans in all directions were rather depressing - not even the prairie dogs were out (not that I blame them, with raptors around!) so I opted to drive a bit north of the prairie dog observation area (1/2 mile) to where the grass was taller and a nice shade of yellowy-orange and I could pretend that I'd kick up a LeConte's... I miss those grasses. Before I'd even made it to the bend in the road, a small Vesper-ish critter flushed from the shoulder and didn't go very far. So I parked at a handy gate nearby (the Kincaid folks are quite pleasant, please don't block their gate and as always, do not trespass on private property!) and walked back down the shoulder to see what critter I'd flushed. Chestnut-collared Longspur. Expected, but always a joy to see up close and alive. Very buffy in the face, but very cooperative for a few digi-bin photos (that didn't turn out too well). Excited to find any longspur at this point, I went back to the jeep to check my phone for reception (the prairie dog town doesn't have cell reception). I'm sure the one vehicle that passed thought I had lost it, standing on the door to get any signal at all... but in the process I noticed movement on the other side of the fence.

Two small lumps were obscured behind some grass, but the auricular patch on one head that I could see... was promising. As the bird emerged, a black breast smudge and rusty wing patches became visible. The bird next to it didn't ever show its front, but the wing patch and uninterrupted auricular outline were also decidedly Lapland. Moving Lapland. 3D Lapland. No zip-lock required!

Eventually Matt escaped work and was able to join me for another leisurely observation of the non-breeding male Lapland with the original Chestnut-collared nearby. We didn't refind the other Lapland, but were focused more on covering additional territory (finding the Horned Lark, Merlin, etc) and ran out of light. A smattering of Chestnut-collareds flew over and some distant 'flocks' of passerines were seen, but overall numbers were very low.

For folks heading to/from Big Bend National Park or Carolyn Ohl-Johnson's Violet-crowned Hummingbird, the prairie dog town is definitely worth a scan! Burrowing Owls in the summer and longspurs in the winter... and whatever raptors find prairie dogs delicious.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lapland Longspur, struck again!

The post would be "Lapland Longspur strikes again!" but unfortunately our luck with LALOs out here involves less them striking than actually being struck. Case in point: our March find was 'cat struck' (it could have been the last day of February also, though, based on estimated time of death being accurate, give or take 48 hrs). The November 30 creature, however, was car-struck approximately 12 miles west of Marathon and found in a reasonably fresh state.

Horrible puns aside, here's their range map, via -

Our local checklist shows them as "accidental" (having 1-3 records per DECADE).

The most recent fall/winter beauty:

While the top photo shows enough to be diagnostic, a bit of long-spur is always fascinating!
* Edit: one reader asked if all male birds have a longer 'spur' - this one is a female, and all 'long spurs' have it regardless of age/sex.

For comparison, Hwy 90 also coughed up a few Vesper Sparrows - LALO is on the left, VESP is on the right - size may be distorted due to the camera angle, but take a look:

* eyebrow/line is strong and buffy on LALO, VESP lacks it but has a white eye ring
* auricular (ear/cheek patch) patterns is pronounced on LALO, streaky on VESP
* throat/breast is blurred and buffy for LALO, everything is fine, crisp and contrasty for VESP

Next up, tails!
Apologies for the birds not being *exactly* side by side - roadkill doesn't always pose on command. This shot does compare back streaks nicely, and in case you ever need to ID VESP vs. LALO by tail only, you can make out the rounder tips of VESP (L) and compare them to the sharp points of the LALO (R) tail. How deeply they are forked seems pointless with this combination. Amount of white (and brightness of it) is kind of interesting, however.

And a shot from below the tail:

Finally, a wing comparison.

The longspur wing (R) blocks the VESP primaries a bit, but note how much longer the LALO primary flight feathers are (for non-bird people, that's the wing tips from the outermost feathers until the ones with rufous edging, for our current purposes) compared to the secondary flight feathers (the rufous-edged wing feathers along the outermost edge of the wing). Vesper, at left, has a much rounder looking wing because the primaries are only slightly longer than the secondaries.

Unfortunately none of these show a nice leg/foot sample for VESP, but trust us - they have pinkish legs and their 'spur' is not particularly jaw-dropping. But until next time...

Please remember that picking up dead birds requires state/federal permits. Ours are through Texas A&M University and we strongly suggest checking every roadkill, every time (if it's safe to do so!) You never know what's out there. If you don't have permits and find something interesting, pick it up first (and bag it, tag it with date/location/cause of death if known), freeze it and contact someone with permits second. Call around, e-mail your nearest academic collection (TAMU is interested in things state-wide), but please do so with discretion - and get the specimen to the permit holder ASAP.