Foam Lake Birding No. 80

No. 80
The weather has finally gotten hot with temperatures in the 30sC. To that end my wife and I decided to take advantage of the summer-like conditions and go to the Onion Festival right here in Weslaco. It was well attended. Overall, it is comparable to the fairs or exhibitions that are held in smaller centres in Saskatchewan. However, there are two food items that are not served back home that I just have to mention – roasted turkey drumsticks and deep fried onion flowers. The drumsticks do not need any further description, except that I found it amusing to see 110 lb. teenage girls gnawing on these giant delicacies. The drumsticks were popular but the onions were a very hot item, indeed. Three booths were selling them and each booth had a double line about 30 metres long. This continued all day long. An onion about the size of a softball is sliced cross wise from the stem side down to the rootlets, but not all the way through. This causes the onion to open up like a large round brush or a “flower”. It is then dipped in batter and deep fried. The locals love it. To top off an idyllic day, the mockingbirds were singing all over the fair grounds. Down here they take the place of the robins back home.
No, this week’s featured bird is not the mockingbird but the Great Tailed Grackle. As mentioned in Article No. 5, this bird of the American southwest and most of Mexico is one of three species of grackles that occur in North America. In a nutshell, it is very similar to the Common (Bronzed) Grackle back home but with some significant differences.
First, at close range the Great Tailed is much larger. Second, as its name implies, it has a very long tail. In flight, it looks like an all black magpie. Third, when a big male flies by his wings make a loud flapping noise. Fourth, during courting season (now) the male picks a conspicuous perch and performs for the ladies by fanning out his tail feathers, spreading his wings and making all sorts of weird sounds. The songs are so variable that at times it is hard to determine what bird is making the sound until it is actually seen. Fifth, during the non breeding season they congregate in large flocks to roost for the night. One of their favourite roosting spots is overhead power lines. It is interesting to be stopped at a red light only to be serenaded by a flock of roosting grackles twittering. It is even more interesting to unwittingly park under such a line. The next morning finds one at the car wash. Been there; done that.
This week’s picture was taken at a water feature at the Frontera Audubon Preserve in Weslaco. There is not much more that can be said because a grackle is a grackle is a grackle.

Foam Lake Birding No. 79

No. 79
I woke up on the 21st of March to find the temperature to be 6C. Even so, the Purple Martins are back from Brazil and are taking possession of multiple room bird houses in our park. The martins that nest in the southern US are a different race or subspecies from the ones that nest in Canada. Apparently there are some minor differences but none that I could detect in the real world. Anyway, they look and sound exactly like the ones at home which is nice.
So much for the nostalgia. This week I want to cover a bird that is rare even down here. Why cover a rare bird? Because the human psyche is such that it cherishes rare things like works of art, antiques, the hockey puck that Sydney Crosby scored with in overtime to win the gold medal in the winter Olympics, and so on. Birders, including myself, enjoy watching all kinds of birds but we really get a thrill of spotting the rare one. It is simply in our nature to “collect” rare or unusual things.
This week’s rarity is the Muscovy Duck which can be seen only once in a while every few years along the Rio Grande River (Rio Bravo to Mexicans) near the Falcon Dam or at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. I happened to see one, along with a White Ibis, at the zoo in 2006 where I took this week’s picture. In case anybody is wondering, this duck was not a captive. Actually, many wild birds can be found in parks and zoos. The environment is very favourable, and in all likelihood the birds sense they are safe here.
As mentioned in Article No.10, all domestic ducks are descended from the Mallard save one – the Muscovy. The name is somewhat confusing because it does seem to imply that the duck originated in Russia or thereabouts. In reality the Muscovy is a tropical duck native to Mexico and Central America. The name, Muscovy, is derived from the word, musk, because this duck produces a musky smell from its oil glands. In spite of its smell the flesh must be quite palatable or else it would not have been domesticated. (The Sage Grouse, a large almost turkey sized bird of southern Saskatchewan, was not domesticated or even hunted because its flesh was unpalatable). Another good reason for domesticating the Muscovy is that it is much larger than a Mallard and provides more meat.
I have seen only one domesticated Muscovy Duck and that was in Ukraine in 2007. The duck looked just like the one in the picture except it was goose sized – huge. The Muscovy is easy to distinguish from all other ducks by its sheer size and the shape of its bill. Whereas all domestic ducks and most wild ones have the typical flat “duck” bill, the Muscovy has a rather pointed bill like that of a merganser (fish eating duck). In addition, the bill has a noticeable fleshy knob on top at the base framed by a bare red face reminiscent of a turkey. Most of you will not get a chance to see a wild Muscovy, but the domesticated ones are very similar and just as interesting. Wild Muscovies are almost all black; domesticated ones are much larger and, through selective breeding, come in a variety of colours much like feral pigeons or domesticated Mallards.
So, if any readers hear of domesticated Muscovy Ducks nearby, take a drive and go see them. The bird is interesting and definitely worth making the trip.

Foam Lake Birding No. 78

No. 78
It looks like spring really has arrived at last. The weather is summer-like in all aspects. To me, the most pleasant part is the arrival of summer birds from Mexico such as the Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher, and the departure to the north of wintering birds such as the White Pelican and most species of ducks.
Because mating season is well on its way down here, male birds are in full song staking out their breeding territories. One family, the mimics or mimids, really stand out in this respect. Down here that includes three species: the Mocking Bird and, this week’s featured birds, the Curved Billed and Long Billed Thrashers. Unlike the Mocking Birds, the Thrashers do not imitate anything to any extent; but, like the Mocking Birds, they are excellent songsters. All three are common down here.
Thrashers often feed on the forest floor by swinging their heads vigorously from side to side scattering fallen leaves and other debris with their bills thereby exposing insects and worms. This thrashing about on the ground and throwing litter about gives them their name of thrashers.
Both thrashers sing from treetops or other vantage points and can be approached quite closely. That is why I was able to get these pictures only minutes apart. Their songs are forceful and have a robin-like quality, but with a bit more of a warble to them.
The name, Curved Billed, is a bit misleading as all thrashers have curved bills and some species’ bills are more curved than that of the Curved Billed. Most thrashers’ songs are quite similar and it takes a bit of practice to tell them apart, but the Curved Billed has a unique two part whistle that is eerily similar to the “wolf” whistle that humans use to express their approval of an attractive person of the opposite sex. Among humans this practice has more or less stopped due to the pressures of political correctness. It is a good thing the Curved Billed Thrasher has not changed its vocalizations as its two part call is diagnostic in identifying it. It occurs in the American southwest from California to the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as southern Colorado.
On the other hand, the Long Billed Thrasher is a bird of the southern tip of Texas, only, where it is common in thickets and brush. Like the Curved Billed, its name is also a bit of a misnomer. All thrashers, but two, have long bills and some have bills that are longer than the Long Billed. Perhaps ornithologists ran out of common English names and filled the void with almost anything at all. It is a thought.
Even without vocalizations it is quite easy to tell the two apart. The Curved Billed’s grey breast is only lightly striped (appears faintly spotted) and the head, back and tail are brownish grey; the Long Billed’s white breast is heavily striped with black and its head, back and tail are a rich brown. Overall, the Curved Billed is quite drab in comparison to the Long Billed. Both have yellow to orange eyes.
This week’s photos show their characteristics quite clearly. The Curved Billed Thrashers have already paired off; the Long Billed is not quite so lucky, yet.

Foam Lake Birding No. 77

No. 77
March has arrived and, hopefully, with it spring. Down here that means summer-like weather, which will be a welcome change from the generally cold wet winter that we have been having. The locals claim that this is/was the worst winter ever, at least weather wise. I have no reason to doubt this. Anyway, weather forecasters are predicting warm and usually sunny days for the foreseeable future. I hope they are right as the trees are starting to leaf out and the flowering plants are starting to bloom. All we need is spring.
This week I want to cover a confiding little bird that, down here, replaces the Black Capped Chickadee back home – the Black Crested Titmouse. Older bird books list three species of titmice in North America, however, two of the species have been split and now we have five. Now that is inflation. The five species are: the Oak Titmouse of California, the Juniper Titmouse of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, (these two were formerly combined as Plain Titmouse); the Bridled Titmouse of southern Arizona; the Tufted Titmouse of the eastern half of North America including Southern Ontario, the Black Crested Titmouse of south and central Texas, (these three were formerly combined as Tufted Titmouse). (For a more detailed discussion of titmice see article No. 23). To date I have seen only two of them – the Bridled and the Black Crested.
As previously mentioned, the Black Crested Titmouse is the “chickadee” of southern Texas. It behaves like a chickadee because it belongs to the same family even making a kind of “chick-a-dee” sound. We have put out feeders in our yard and the Black Crested Titmice frequent them daily providing us with a really good look. It kind of reminds us of home.
Behavior-wise, the sparrow sized Black Crested Titmouse is much like a chickadee but, physically, there are marked differences. Rather than being plump, big headed and fluffy looking like a chickadee, the titmouse is long tailed and slender. The body is a light whitish grey overall with darker grey wings and tail which gives the bird a very nondescript appearance that, at first glance, makes it easy to overlook. Upon closer examination several distinct features stand out that do not require the use of binoculars to discern them. The most noticeable physical characteristic is the black crest and forehead. Add to that a sharp black little beak and large beady black eyes and the bird cannot be confused with anything else. Unlike a chickadee, it constantly makes a sharp little squeak when foraging that sounds much like that of a mouse. Maybe that is where it gets its name of titmouse?
Taking pictures of any member of the titmouse family is difficult, to say the least, as they are constantly flitting about in search of food. However, with patience and a little good luck I did get several good shots out of what must be “gazillions”. Thank heavens for digital cameras. This week’s photo shows off the prominent features of the Black Crested Titmouse – the black crest and forehead, sharp black beak and big beady black eye.

Foam Lake Birding No. 76

No. 76
Well, the weather has finally warmed up and we are doing more birding as a result. We have taken several people from back home on tours of some of our favourite haunts and they seemed to enjoy it. I know we certainly did.
One of the birds that we pointed out to our guests belongs to a family of birds that has not been covered in these articles before – the goatsuckers. Yes, goatsuckers. These birds have wide gaping mouths with which to catch insects in flight. In ancient times until quite recently, many people believed that these birds used their big mouths to suck the milk from their goats during the night. Thus a myth was born and a group of birds received a funny name. The family includes nighthawks and whippoorwills among others.
Once again, I have chosen a south Texas specialty – the Paraque. The Paraque
(pronounced “pah rah kay” with the accent on the rah) is a good sized bird a little larger than a robin. It is a bird of the night during which time it hunts insects and makes its loud “peer wurr” sound. (Last year one used to land on the pavement behind our trailer and called for what seemed forever). They are quite easy to find at night by following their calls and, then, shining a light at the sound. When the light falls on the bird its eyes light up.
In the daytime, the Paraque finds a secluded spot on the forest floor where it spends the day sleeping. Here, it can be approached quite closely before it flies away like a giant moth. This, in fact, this is just about the only way its roosting spot can be located. Because the Paraque will return to the same roosting spot day after day, unless it has been repeatedly flushed, it can be observed daily at one’s leisure. An interesting note is that a roosting Paraque will go into a kind of rocking motion when danger gets too close. At this time it is wise to back off a bit and not agitate the bird anymore.
The most interesting thing about goatsuckers, Paraques in particular, is that their camouflage is superb. Even when the bird’s location is known, it is still very difficult to find. The first time that we saw one was during a guided bird walk in the Llano Grande Nature Preserve down here in Weslaco. Even though the guide pointed out the bird’s location exactly and had a spotting scope trained right on it, I and several others still had the dickens of a time finding it with our naked eyes. Eventually, we managed to do it. At this time I took several photos followed by more photos later on when my wife and I were birding by ourselves. (The bird was still hard to spot).
Even in the photos, black and white or in colour, the Paraque is hard to make out because it blends in so well with its surroundings. Have fun looking at this one.