Foam Lake Birding No. 41

No. 41
As of this writing we are in the latter half of March – officially spring. All the ponds and waterways around here used to be filled with waterfowl on their wintering grounds, but in the last few days, their numbers have dropped dramatically. A few Blue Winged Teals, Shovelers and Gadwalls are still around, but everything else is heading north – as we will be in less than two weeks!
However, another tropical duck has returned to this area of the Rio Grande after wintering still further south. This particular bird is called the Black Bellied Whistling Duck. Older bird books refer to it as a rare visitor, but at present it is very common. In North America it is unique in that it commonly perches in trees, on buildings and power poles.
I should mention that Whistling Ducks are not ducks; they just look like ducks. Because Whistling Ducks occur only in the New World, early European pioneers were lost for a name. There was no “ready made” name for them, so they called them “Tree” Ducks. However, only one species, the Black Bellied, actually landed in trees, so ornithologists changed the name to Whistling Ducks because of the strange whistling sound they make (not at all ‘duckie’). Whistling Ducks are more closely related to geese than anything else.
When viewed through binoculars, the Black Bellied Whistling Duck is quite striking with its coral red bill, pink legs, black belly, grey head, rich brown body with conspicuous white wing patches. It also has an obvious white eye ring which gives it a strange bug- eyed look. Another characteristic that makes it quite easy to identify, even before its colours are visible, is its habit of standing on one leg. Many other birds do this also, but not to the extent of the Whistling Duck.
Unlike “regular” ducks, male and female Black Bellies are identical. Also, unlike “regular” ducks, both parent Black Bellies share in parenting duties. Both characteristics are those of geese and not ducks.
This week’s photo shows a pair of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks roosting on a power line. I could not get any good colour detail as it was getting quite dark. I do have good colour photos, but I thought you would enjoy this more. For full colour pictures consult a bird book or my web site. Enjoy. In the meantime, I have to decide what bird to write about next week.

Foam Lake Birding No. 40

No. 40
This week I will be writing about a family of birds that I have written about before – the blackbirds. There is one big difference, however. The birds that I will be writing about this week are predominantly orange. They are the orioles (named after a similar looking, but unrelated European bird). Because orioles and their cousins, the meadow larks, do not really look like blackbirds, birders usually call them by the Anglicized form of their Latin name – the Icterids. As I have mentioned previously, I do not like to use scientific names, but this is one that I feel is somewhat necessary.
This week’s featured bird is the Altimira Oriole. In Spanish, the word, Altimira, means “look up”. This oriole is so named because of its habit of sitting high up in trees. It is a common and permanent resident of the very southern part of Texas. Like other orioles it has a sweet tooth that attracts them to feeders where fresh fruit and grape jelly are provided.
The Altimira Oriole looks much like the common Baltimore Oriole back home. It is basically orange with black trim and white wing bars. There are noticeable differences though. The Altimira is much larger (robin-sized) as compared to the Baltimore which is about halfway between a sparrow and robin in size. The Altimira’s head is orange with a black bib, whereas the Baltimore’s head is all black. The only oriole it could be confused with down here is the nearly identical, Baltimore-sized, Hooded Oriole. The only obvious visual difference is the pattern of the wing bars. The Altimira has an orange shoulder patch; the Hooded does not. Males and females are different.
Spanish moss grows naturally around here and is a favourite hangout for the Altimira Oriole. This moss is whitish gray in colour and grows in trees much like mistletoe, except that mistletoe is a parasite and Spanish moss is not. Spanish moss is not Spanish nor is it a moss; it is a native of tropical America and related to the pineapple, and is distributed widely to flower shops in Canada and elsewhere as ground cover for potted plants. A forest of Spanish moss looks as if the area had been flooded and after the waters receded, a lot of dried out pond weed was left hanging from the trees. The Altimira Oriole builds its nest out of Spanish moss in trees among the Spanish moss, thus making it extremely difficult to find. I am sure the orioles prefer it this way. The nest looks like a two foot long grey sock with a softball in the bottom of it.
There is one more oriole that is unique to the Valley, the Audubon’s Oriole. In addition, there are four transients that come here every fall and spring in their migration to and from the tropics respectively. I hope to see some of these orioles before we head for home. If not, I should see the Baltimore at home.

Foam Lake Birding No. 39


As I indicated last week, I will be writing about another Rio Grande specialty – the Green Jays. They are very common around here, and as the picture shows, they readily come to feeders. As with all jays, males and females are identical.
There actually are two specialty jays in the valley. The much less common Brown Jay occurs sporadically only along the Rio Grande River itself. It is quite large and looks a lot like our Magpie back home, except that it is brown and white and not black and white. Of all jays, this one is particularly noisy. I have not seen this jay in the US, but I have seen several in Mexico.
In good light and at close range, the Green Jay is simply stunning. The head and neck are black; the top of the head and face are a dark but clear blue; the back and central tail feathers are green; the breast and belly are greenish yellow, and outer tail feathers are yellow. Even a full colour picture in a good bird book does not do the bird justice. It is much more striking than that. Only a digital picture on a computer screen shows off its real beauty. Birders who see it for the first time are amazed at the varied and vivid colours.
In general jays live and travel in groups – usually, as family units. In some species, one year olds help their parents rear their younger brothers and sisters. I have not seen the Green Jays go to this extreme. In the non-breeding season they are usually seen in pairs.
As gaudy as the Green Jay is, it is almost impossible to spot it sitting in the trees. Its colours allow it to blend into the foliage perfectly. Fortunately for us birders, the Green Jay, like the Kiskadee, likes to announce its presence by squawking – though not as brashly as the latter. As a result, birders who go out looking for a Green Jay are seldom disappointed.
That is a wrap for this week. Next week I hope to cover the Altimira Oriole. Until then, adios from the Valley.

Foam Lake Birding No. 38

No. 38
Hello again from Texas, where the weather is very nice and the birding is terrific. Already we have seen seven “lifers” (birds that we have never seen before). Four of them, The Tropical Kingbird, the Crimson Collared Grosbeak, the Black Throated Magpie Jay and the Rose Throated Becard are rarities from Mexico. The jay is believed to be an escapee. Considering that we have spent two winters in this area before, seven lifers is a very good record.
For this week’s article, I will be reverting to a bird that is very common in the Rio Grande Valley and nowhere else. (Actually, the word “valley” is a bit of a misnomer as the area is as flat as a pancake – like the Regina Plains). The brash and noisy Great Kiskadee is this week’s featured bird. A quick glance at a range map shows that the Kiskadee occurs only in the extreme southern end of Texas – where we are. Here, it is as common as the Robin back home in the summer time.
The Kiskadee is a Robin-sized bird with a large head and beak. It actually looks more like a Belted Kingfisher than anything else. The colour patterns are quite striking. The back, wings and tail are a rusty brown colour that is very noticeable when the bird is in flight; the belly is a bright yellow; the head is boldly striped in black and white; the cap is black with a bright yellow median stripe. In the picture, the head looks white with a bold black mask across the eyes much like a raccoon. In real life the head looks more “stripy” than the picture indicates.
As colourful as it is, it hides in trees extremely well and is very difficult to spot – except that it makes its presence known with its noisy nature. It almost seems to say, “here I am”. When one starts to vocalize others nearby join in. In some ways, they remind me of the habits of the Chachalacas. The Kiskadee makes several sounds, but the one that gives the bird its name is a nasal, but clearly enunciated kiss-kah-dee. In this respect, it is very much like our Chickadee which also is named after its call.
The Kiskadee is a member of the flycatcher family, and as such, flies out to snatch insects out of the air. However, it is much more opportunistic than that. It eats berries, and on occasion, dives into water to catch small minnows much like a kingfisher!
There is one other very common bird that is restricted in range to the Rio Grande Valley that I hope to write about nest week – the Green Jay. Meanwhile, adios from the deep south.