Friday, January 13, 2017

My Views on Birding Apps

I've been an Apple user since my Blackberry failed it's swimming test when out birding around the time they came out with the third iPhone.  Until recently I was a confirmed Apple addict, now not so much.  Is it just me or has Apple become overtly money grabbing, it seems that these days they always have their hands in my pocket, and not offering much in the way of innovation for the last couple of phones.  They used to "just work" now the operating system has become more and more complex, so I find myself not bothering with all the more burdensome features. However, one area I do use a lot are the Nature apps and more specifically birding apps.

I currently use a Windows 10 PC, an iPhone 6Plus and an iPad Pro both in 128Gb.  In as much as possible all my nature apps are set up the same on both devices, and the PC is used to hold all the master records and photos.  The phone goes birding with me and the iPad is used much like a laptop, and the PC is the huge screen on my desk that the kids occasionally let me use.

I feel birding apps into one of three categories with some overlap possible, though most only do one of the three categories well.  The categories are:

Bird listing and recording

Bird finding

Bird Identification


So starting with Bird Listing and Recording apps.  I think the choice for decent apps is very small depending on what the end product is going to be.  Do you want a detailed list, is it purely for your own use or will your sightings also be used by a citizen science database.  Are you recording a straightforward list of birds seen and possibly the number, or are you accurately recording precise locations, age, sex, etc etc.

Living in the US (Texas), I report practically every outing  and sighting in eBird and have been doing so since Jan 2004, and I do the same for my visits to U.K. though my first records only started in 2009. I also maintain my own list of sightings so compatibility is a big deal if I want to keep two sets of essentially the same data. Why would I want to do that?  What happens if my database dies or the company goes out of business, or what happens if eBird ceases to exist. All those records gone, would I have the motivation to start again?

There are only two apps that I fulfill my requirements for use in the field and they are Bird Journal and eBird.

Bird Journal

I believe that this is the complete integrated solution or close to it.  Bird Journal is an app that runs on PCs, iPads, iPhones and Android equivalents. But it is more than just an App, when it's installed on the PC it's a powerful database containing all my sightings, mapping software, 1,000s of my photographs and other related data.  It can be configured to also and simultaneously hold mammal, butterfly and plant data. Special mention should be made of the reporting and filtering capabilities that have been built into the PC version, it truly is outstanding and intuitive. You can cut and dice your data any way you choose with drop down menus by just about any criteria you can think of. When it's installed on the phone the software records in eBird exportable format and any additional custom fields that you choose.  There are checklists for just about every country and region from Afghanistan, to Antarctica to Anglesey.  All the data input whilst in the field is automatically backed up on the Bird Journal servers and magically appears on the iPad and PC as soon as the list is submitted.  It's also robust, bug free and fast.  Entry is intuitive and the whole app is easy to use.  The iPad version is optimized for the iPad and is a close copy to what is on the phone.  To be balanced, if I were to criticize, it would be that I would prefer the iPad version to be the same as the PC version.  However, and in fairness, I have enough stored photos in the PC version to fill my iPad several times over.  The company would need to come up with some kind of photo compression and also have the server speed and space required to run everything at the speed we have become accustomed to.  This is a solid 9.5 / 10 piece of software.


As the name suggests this is the eBird designed data entry app and it that respect, if you enter data in eBird, it is the best there is.     Download it, turn it on, log in, and hit start. It doesn't get more simple than that, yet this is no simple app. When you are in the field you can choose your current location, an eBird 'Hotspot" or create a personal location. Some thought should be given to your selection as what you choose will impact where your data is recorded and how it is retrieved.   For example, if you are in a State Park and it's an existing hotspot, setting up a personal location could mean that your sighting will not be recorded to the tally for the State Park, which makes data retrieval for an all encompassing report more complex than it would need to be. Once you have selected your location, the app automatically creates a checklist of likely birds.  If you have big fat fingers like me and hit albatross rather than anhinga the App will notify you that this is a RARE species for the area and you will be invited to add comments and confirm your sighting.  As this App updates eBird you can see the fruits of your endeavors online.  Although the App does not have the ability to upload photographs, once you are back at home, you can download any photos to your PC then upload to your eBird sighting at your convenience.


Of the Bird finding Apps I find the best to be the "BirdsEye" family of Apps.  I currently have three of these installed on my phone.  The original Birdseye for worldwide sightings, BirdsEye NA and even the Birdseye Texas OS .  The premise and the execution of these Apps is straightforward, BirdsEye is linked to your eBird account.  It knows what birds you have seen at any given hotspot of point, County, State and Country.  Click on "Nearby" (as defined by you as a radius from your position), it will give you a list of all Nearby sighting, Recent sightings (number of days determined by you) and Needs (as determined from your eBird sightings).  You can also browse by Name or by Location, it also has a list of Notable birds and your year list (you set the Region).  So if it has been reported to eBird you can find it.  When you see a bird you want to chase or a location that you are interested in from the map, just press of the map pins and you have the chance to get directions to the site and the App will tell you how long ago the sighting took place.  You can review the whole eBird report on the Notable birds as it was submitted by the observer.  One other nice feature is the ability to click on some icons that will take you to a description of the bird, photos, Wikipedia etc.   These are incredibly well thought out and stable Apps.  Friday will often see me reviewing various places I like to visit to see what's been turning up recently, so that I can maximize my time on the weekend.  It doesn't guarantee good birds but it will put you right where they have been seen recently and give you the best chance.


Confession time, I currently have 14 Bird identification Apps on my phone.  Do I really need all of them? Hell No, I just like them.  How many do I use on a regular basis? Three............
and they are all versions of the respective books with audio (good audio) thrown in.

Sibley Birds
National Geographic

I use these because I use the books, I imagine every birder has two of the three, most probably have all three.  Between the three there's not much you can't identify, sure there are other good ID guides but these three have an already good reputation gained from their books, they won't risk that by producing poor quality and inaccurate Apps.  Second confession......I try not to use books or Apps in the field, I used to take notes and sketches now I just point the monster lens and shoot until it flies away or I cover all the angles I can.  I think it's much easier to identify anything on a large screen in the comfort of the house then finish off my sighting list followed by submitting photos.   Flicking through the pages of a book, looking through Binos, checking the pages again, can lead to snap judgments and even quicker to embarrassment. Of course, not everyone wants to lug 14lbs of camera gear with them, so that's where the Apps come in.  For those that don't have an ethical or legal reason, the audio can be used to lure in target birds, it's even easier now with Bluetooth speakers.  But it's even more crap to carry around with you.

There are a few more specialized Apps I use:

Collins Bird Guide (from the awesome book - great for European visitors)
Heads Up - North American Sparrow Guide
Warbler Guide from Princeton  (The bible for Warblers)
Peterson Warblers (the name says it all)

That's about it.  I'd be interested to know if you think I've missed anything worthwhile or you violently disagree with my opinions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Reflection on Fifty Years of Birding..............Part One

It dawned on me last week that I have been involved in birds, birdwatching  and birding at various levels of participation for almost exactly fifty years.  How can this be? How could it possibly be so long? What have I seen, and what have I learned during all this time?

And what brought about the revelation?  I rediscovered an old school book that I used as a kid as a birding journal.  I spent the entire evening sitting in the game room reading the entries and taking a long trip down memory lane aided by some splendid 18 year old single malt

I can still recall an early summer morning so long ago when my Grandfather called me to come inside while I was trying to catch sparrows that were eating loose spilt seed from his outdoor aviary.  He summoned me inside to give me a copy of "Our Bird Book" by Sidney Rogerson and Charles Tunnicliffe.

I still have that book, and like me it's not in the best of condition and it's showing it's age a bit but the stories are good.  This book has wonderful illustrations and is written in a charming rambling narrative style rather than as a description of each bird.  For my money Charles Tunnicliffe is one of the very best illustrators, his art work is first class.  For that matter, and I'll digress a bit here; Basil Ede, AW Seaby, and Archibald Thorburn and Charles Tunnicliffe are all outstanding artists.  Each one of them has the knack of being able to add a piece of the birds environment with each illustration, giving it a more authentic look.  In fact Archibald Thorburn's paintings are incredibly detailed in the portrayal of the bird in its environment, its almost like you are looking at the bird through binoculars.  Each one of those now dead artists painted in what I like to think of as a Victorian style - highly detailed yet with some romanticism in the execution. One of the things that I find detracts from modern photography is the obsession with the background being totally out of focus and creamy blurred.   I appreciate the technology that makes this possible and the difficulty in achieving this look whilst in the field.  However, what you end up with is a sterile studio style portrait.  I much prefer to see and be able to identify the foliage  and the habitat in which the bird (or mammal) was situated.  I know that this flies in the face of the established ideal but it is what I prefer.  Whilst on that subject, it's interesting to note the same branch being used time after time on some photosites with different birds perched on it.  The back ground is nicely blurred as that was how the shot was planned, however, it's just using the backyard as a studio.  Each to his own I suppose, it's just not my definition of bird photography.  I believe that my bias stems from taking up photography when I gave up bird hunting.  So I prefer crawling through mud and briers and being exposed to the elements, then trying to portray some of that in my pictures.  

Getting back to the story,

Later that same morning, after giving me the book, we were walking across the fields behind his house in Sussex where my uncle was the farm manager.  That very first introduction had me hooked.  I was shown Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Yellowhammers, Swifts, House Martins, Swallows and even a Mallards nest in a field ditch.

For the next couple of years I must have read that book from cover to cover 3 or 4 times and memorized every illustration.  I taught myself to draw by copying those illustrations.  It was a great way for me to learn to identify each one of them.  Even today, when I see a lifer, I sketch it to help ingrain the memory. 

I used to spend a good part of the annual summer break from school with my grandparents in Sussex, although I grew up in Somerset and later in Cornwall.  When not competing in sports I was constantly outdoors in the woods or on the banks of rivers and lakes, and whilst I was more often fishing or rabbiting I still took delight in being able to identify all the local birds.

When I was around 11, I received a copy of Kirkman and Jourdains "British Birds", a copy of the Observers Book of Birds, and a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars as Christmas gifts  These three gifts were the introduction to, and the catalyst for the start of two life long passions.  Birdwatching (as it was known back then), and collecting bird books.  Beware:  One takes up all your time, the other all your money.

Armed with Binos, the Observers Book of Birds, notebook and a few sandwiches in an old second world war gas mask bag I would disappear all day listing all the birds I could find and making drawings of those that I couldn't readily identify.  The fact that none of my friends found this hobby as fascinating as me didn't bother me in the least.  I would walk the few miles to the coast, through the local Penrose Estate woods, ( I think I knew those woods as well as the gamekeepers), or along the River Cober looking for Dippers.  The fact that they were not likely to be seen, or there would be more chance of winning the lottery didn't ever deter me.  My parents never seemed to mind me disappearing all day as long as I was home not too long after it was dark.

After I left school, I went to college and still continued birdwatching.  I had traded the cliffs, trout streams, pools and small hilly fields of Cornwall for the wooded estates of the home counties, more specifically Surrey.  There were species that I had never seen before, Canada Geese, Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers, even Nightjars.  It has to be admitted that Birdwatching had some serious competition during those years in the shape of studies, Rugby and of course, Girls. After failed attempts to get a jobs with the BBC Natural History Unit and the Natural History Museum.  I decided to join the Army and enjoy some of their much advertised travel all around the world - all for free.

From a Birding perspective this was to prove to be a great decision.  Within a year I was halfway up Mount Kenya in the jungle seeing all manner of birds and mammals.  While in Kenya I also had the opportunity of go out into the Rift Valley for a couple of weeks on foot.  Birds galore!  I vividly remember creeping towards a troupe of baboons and stepping out from behind a tree to see a Secretarybird about 15 feet away.  Most of all I remember the Eagles and Vultures on those plains.  That's not to say that the other inhabitants weren't impressive, elephants, baboons, lions, giraffe and leopard. 

The most impressive birding area I got to visit on that deployment was Lake Naivasha.  I don't confess to know anything about the lake now, but back then in the mid to late 70's it must have been a birders paradise.  Without a guidebook I couldn't identify hardly any of the scores of different birds, apart from the UK birds that were wintering in the area.  I did make a whole book full of notes and drawings and spent some time on my return trying to put a name to some of them.  I wish I could find that book now that there are good field guides and reference books to aid identification.  What I wouldn't give to go back one more time armed to the teeth with long lenses and digital cameras.  If only they had been invented way back then.  At the end of the posting they asked for volunteers to stay behind for another 3 weeks, I nearly dislocated my shoulder raising my arm, only to see I was the only one volunteering.  That volunteering led to another lucky break, looking after military stores in Mombasa, I spent nearly all my spare time on the beach or just inland.  If gave me a chance to see Indian Ocean birds I had never seen before nor have I seen since. 

Mention must also be made of the many snakes that I was lucky enough to observe whilst in Kenya.  Filling a water bottle in a mountain stream and seeing a python up close, patrolling through secondary jungle and seeing a green mamba from three feet.  How about walking over to a weaverbird colony whilst out on the plains and seeing a black mamba in the tree.  Maybe it was just me, but that was one bad tempered dude, and man they are fast, I don't think I've ever seen a snake move that quick.  Although the memory has faded somewhat, if it still serves me correctly, I don't think I could have out ran it.  It reminded me of mercury, the way it seemed to flow through that acacia, all grey/silver and sinister.  I also recall walking up in my sleeping bag one morning with what I think was a puff adder about 6 feet away.  Let me tell you, that was about the fastest that sleeping bag zipper ever worked.

Shortly after the Kenya deployment came another outstanding birding opportunity.  Six months in Cyprus, followed by a further two year spell also in Cyprus.  Cyprus is tucked away in the North East corner of the Mediterranean Sea, close to Syria, Israel, Greece and Turkey.  Whilst the island is populated by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots who had a falling out followed by a Turkish invasion and subsequent United Nations peacekeeping force being deployed, the island is everything you can imagine a Greek island paradise to be.  Beautiful sandy beaches, turquoise water, inland scrub and seasonal streambeds, mountains and very old villages that don't appear to have changed since St Peter visited for a long weekend getaway.  But best of all Cyprus has Akrotiri salt lake.  There are Two birds will always be etched into my mind when remembering Cyprus, Griffon Vultures and Flamingoes.  Partly due to the fact those were the names of the two rugby teams I played for and partly because these are the more famous avian residents of the island.  Griffon Vultures are huge, imposing birds and at the time they were not uncommon.  I'm sure the status has deteriorated by now which is a shame as they are really cool birds.  I spent quite some time searching for a nest just so I could say I managed to find one, I eventually found one about 15 feet from the top of a three hundred foot crumbling limestone cliff.  Needless to say I didn't get a very close look.  Akrotiri Salt Lake used to hold a nice flock of Flamingoes that were always a joy to watch, mosquitos permitting.  Around the edge was a marsh that contained some of the tallest rushes/reeds I have ever seen.  During migration this area was like bird central as many European migrants pass through Cyprus when they return from Africa and this was, as far as I was aware, their number one stopover spot, in much the same way that High Island is on the Gulf Coast of Texas.  The list of birds is endless but the more memorable birds such as Hoopoes, Rollers, Bee Eaters, Night Herons, Warblers, Wildfowl, many species of birds of prey, but especially Honey Buzzards all bring back memories.  I can still remember the first time I saw each of these birds.  By this stage in my birding career I was carrying a copy of Peterson's Birds of Britain and Europe, as well as a copy of the Birds of Cyprus,  but I was still using the same Binos.  In fairness, it wasn't all sweetness and light, there were also some less positive memories.  The lime sticks and the mist nets used by scumbag poachers to trap songbirds.   I recall walking into a Greek restaurant and being offered some kind of stewed/grilled songbirds and getting into an argument with the staff.  This BS continues to this day, I understand that this is somewhat of a heritage thing but this is 2016 people, there is no need for it.  There is no excuse for decimating migratory songbirds, STOP IT!. 

On return from Cyprus it was across to Germany.  There I got to see many European species that whilst common in Germany were rare to a kid that grew up in Cornwall.  I suppose the most impressive birds I remember from Germany were the Black Woodpecker and the Storks.  I also seem to remember that birds were pretty hard to find in the middle of the German winter.  For those of you that haven't experienced it, Germany can get real cold, but the weather in summer is I also seem to remember that the Germans were also much more possessive of their woodland than the Brits were.  There were several times I was putting in a "guest" appearance in one woodland or another when a Jaegermeister or Forstmeister would invite me to leave.   The birding then became a little bit sidelined as tours of duty to hot, dusty and dry places doing my small bit in looking for things that may or may not have existed intervened.  I always thought it somewhat ironic that the so called "Cradle of Civilization" was almost the end of it, and may well still prove to be.

After the long extended stay in the Army ended, I managed to get a position as a Gamekeeper on Salisbury Plain.  To many it is just a windswept grassy area that contains Stonehenge, or its a 90,000 acre Military Training Area that you try to avoid doing Exercises on.  To me though, it is one of the most inspiring places I have ever been to, the amount of history and prehistory is breathtaking.  From Mesolithic through Neolithic to Saxon to Roman its all there.  The wildlife, thanks to the military presence deterring the public, and minimizing farming, is also abundant.  In Deer, foxes, rabbits and even the Doormouse can be found.  The bird life was also interesting.  If and when we received permission to cultivate an acre or two for planting winter game bird food, Stone Curlews would appear and on several occasions nested successfully.  Getting permission to cultivate was not easy due to the chance of hitting unexploded ordinance or disturbing a site of archaeological importance.  Dealing with Military and Government rules and regulations is never easy, especially when you want something from them. 

In the spring Wheatears appear overnight like magic, so do Cuckoos, and then later come Nightjars.  Lapwings were always to be found on the fields not long after they were plowed and the winter wheat was growing strongly in the Spring.  Their four dark green eggs with the pointed ends toward the center were not hard to find.  There were just masses of Skylarks, it seemed that their singing was constantly to be heard.  Their nests were harder to find, usually located in a dried up cows footprint in medium length grass.  I can't believe that I read they are now becoming scarce due to changes in farming patterns.  I saw my first ever covey of Quail, flushed by my pointer, and many coveys of Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridge as well. In some years there were more partridge than other years, this I think was more to do with how wet and or cold the spring was rather than farming patterns. Cold and wet is not good for young game bird chicks in long grass and it also limits the availability of insects - their chief food.   By this time I had got to know a few birders and I would occasionally drive one of them out onto Salisbury Plain if there was something interesting to show them.  For instance, I once found a Hobby nest with eggs being incubated, or another time I recall showing a friend where Stone Curlews would roost and we counted them coming in.  In the winter, I knew where you could find Great Grey Shrike, Short eared, Barn and Tawny Owl, Harriers and my favorite, the Woodcock. There was one fenced off archaeological site covering about 2 acres that in the winter you could park up close to the fence and watch as Harriers came in to roost.  They would fly past a couple of times then circle round and plummet into long wiry grass as if on prey.  Pretty cool to watch.  I'm told that these Harriers are also becoming rare now.  I remember seeing my first ever Red Kite at very close range in the mid 90's and not believing what I was looking at even though I knew what it was.  I wasn't aware of the program to reintroduce them at the time and thought it must have been a stray from continental Europe or a Welsh bird doing some sightseeing.

I was still not using expensive equipment, the old Binos had died, to be replaced by some cheaper, but much better Nikon ones and an Opticron scope.  I was now also becoming dangerously aware of bird photography, wildlife filming and those beautiful long white lenses.  Indeed there were a couple of times that I bumped into TV people filming wildlife out on the Plain.  On one occasion in March they were filming Hares without much success, when I pointed out they were upwind of them and perhaps they should consider moving.  We managed to relocate their hide to an area at the bottom of a large wheat field where the wheat was about 6 inches high and they called me later to say that they managed to some good footage.  I was pleased for them but also a bit resentful in that that they got a job filming wildlife and I didn't, yet they weren't knowledgeable enough about wildlife to take wind into consideration and to position themselves in the right place.  To be fair, I didn't know hardly anything about cameras back then.  I was now starting to collect a lot of bird and natural history books.  Not least those by Richard Jefferies and "BB".  How those books have stood the test of time.  What gift it must be to have the ability to draw pictures so vivid with just words, to have the ability to transport someone to a different place and time so effortlessly.  I envy them.  After all this time I'm still not sure who I envied the most, those wonderful writes or the cameramen.  I'm guessing the writers, as the books will be around for ever, for each new generation to discover.  The way technology is changing so quickly, almost anyone with a reasonable budget today, can take bird photos that were practically impossible back then.

All good things come to an end, and one day the job was gone.  But then another opportunity arose in of all places, Texas.  Why not? I thought, and never one to miss a chance to try something different, I decided to take a chance, sell up everything and give it a go.  I didn't have the slightest clue that I would end up in arguably one of the best birding spots in North America.  That's to say close by to the Gulf Coast, High Island and Freeport.  Within a year of arriving, I was opening the gates of my own (small) ranch, most of which was Columbia bottomland.  Live Oaks, Water Oaks, Sugar Hackberry, Toothache Tree, Viburnams, Hawthorns everywhere, with creeks and a good sized pond .  In short, it was great habitat.  Of course I knew nothing of farming or ranching or of livestock.  I did know game and birds and set about improving the land with game and birds foremost.  In three years I got over 225 species of bird on piece of land as well as a bunch of snakes and mammals.  But I also got something much more important, I got first hand knowledge of the Texas Master Naturalist  Program.  I think I'll cover those remaining last 16 years in the next blog posting.  Texas is too special and big to be tacked on the end of this rambling entry.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Texas City Dike (UTC074) On a Windy Day

Down on the Gulf Coast of Texas most residents and especially us transplants from cooler climes, welcome the first real cold front of the autumn/fall.  It is a blessed relief from the heat and humidity of the summer and a excuse to wear a jacket - even if its only for the first two hours of daylight.

Usually when a cold front blows through the next day is cool, clear, sunny and still, sometimes it's all the first three with a near gale force wind blowing.  Well, guess what I had when I took a drive down to Texas City Dike.  Yep, WIND.  It was so windy that as I was setting up my tripod and camera it nearly nearly blew over.  I managed to grab one of the legs just in time, it was a good job I caught it as it was standing on a concrete parking area.  I thought that a nice smooth flat surface was the best place to set up my gear, which of course it is.  Though it should be noted that concrete has a very low bounce factor.  I tried a few test shots to make sure everything was working, but even using the truck as a wind block wasn't working as I had hoped.  It was a real challenge trying to get decent shots with the amount of buffeting and vibration the wind was causing, so I decided that most of the photography today was going to be of the vehicular variety. I keep a soft, over padded cushion in the truck to for just such times.
I have seen various bean bags and mounts that fit on the door or window that are designed to provide support when shooting from a vehicle window, and I have no doubt that many of them do what is expected of them.  However, I often raise my window a little to get everything at the height I want.  I'm not sure I want the additional weight of anything more bearing down of my window glass and the winding mechanism, the lens and camera are plenty heavy enough.  So a light pillow is my choice.

Just after dawn at the base of the dike on a really windy day:

Texas City Dike was built in 1935 from granite blocks, much like those on Bolivar.  It runs out into Galveston Bay Southeast about 5 miles from it's base in Texas City.  Designed to prevent sediment build up it has shallower water on one side and much deeper water on the other.  The shallower side has numerous sandy and rocky beaches along it's length whilst the deeper side is granite boulders all the way down.

In winter it is as close as you can get to a banker to see Loons and Mergansers.  Common Loons are by far the most numerous but there are occasional reports of Pacifics being seen.  Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers are frequently present though not in good numbers. 

Red-breasted Merganser

Mixed flocks of Terns, Black Skimmers and Gulls can often be seen resting on the beaches.  This weekend there were several hundred resting from the wind in a dense flock.  Its a simple drive down on to the beach and the resting birds will allow moderately close driving to allow good looks.  Obviously it's wise not to push the envelope and see how close you can get.  The birds are resting for a reason they don't need to be continually disturbed by birders or photographers.  For that matter you can also add dog walkers.

Black Skimmers

Nice to see a Sandwich Tern today.  I was hoping to see one but without much optimism as they are not easy to find in the winter.  This one was by itself just a bit off from the large flock, alternately preening and standing half asleep.

Sandwich Tern

There were plenty of Royal Terns but no Caspians this time. 

Around the edges of the main flock of Black Skimmers were Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls in about equal numbers of around 75 of each.  These guys are not stupid, they were to the rear of the Skimmers and using the skimmers as a wind break.

A little further down the beach the smaller waders were much in evidence.  For the most part they kept a respectful distance from the much larger gulls and terns.  The difference is size is amazing, I certainly didn't fully appreciate the size difference until I was checking out this photo.  It seems that this first year Herring Gull could eat the Sanderling in one gulp.  They are probably well advised to keep their distance.

I was pleased to (at last), get some decent shots of some Snowy Plovers, one of which was ringed.

There were a good number of Black-bellied Plovers, one or two were on the beach, but mostly they were hanging out around the rocks.

Western Sandpipers were around but not in large numbers

Sanderlings were running around everywhere it was flat.

 After a couple of hours out there I was hoping that the weather would have settled down but if anything the wind was picking up so I decided to call it a day on the Dike and try one of the close by parks that had reports of Monk parakeets being seen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary

    After leaving Boddecker Road its only a short drive to the ferry terminal across to the Bolivar Peninsular.  As an added bonus the ferry crossing is free, unless you want to count paying your taxes that provides for this free service.  The crossing is brief, I'm thinking in the region on 15 to 20 mins in total.  There's a chance see gulls, terns, pelicans and possibly a Magnificent Frigatebird  from the ferry.  There's usually a good chance to photograph something, and this time did not disappoint..............

After disembarking its only another short drive to the 17th Street turn off and then it's down to the
jetty.  The jetty runs for more than a couple of miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.  The first part is a easy and wide concrete walkway but after that it's a jumble of large granite blocks and as you get further out they get less even and more slippery.  The creation of the jetty in the late 1800s has allowed silt and sediment to build up on the East side and has created about 1,000 acres of mudflats, saltmarsh and beach in a natural shallow lagoon much beloved by all kinds of shorebirds and waders.  At the right time of the year the sheer numbers of birds can be breath taking, vast flocks of American Avocets, Black Skimmers, Gulls, Dowitchers, Willets and other goodies allow for unbeatable photographic opportunities, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of birds make use of this sanctuary for resting, feeding and breeding annually.  Wilsons and Piping Plovers especially enjoy this habitat and the sanctuary is as good a place to see and photograph them that I know of.

The Sanctuary is currently owned and managed by the Houston Audubon Society.  It can get pretty busy on a weekend on the jetty in nice weather as local fisherman enjoy using it as well as birders and photographers.  The fisherman cast to the West into the deeper water, while for the most part the birders and photographers are busy looking East.  Having the fisherman around is not such a bad thing.  Naturally wary birds become relatively tame and unconcerned by human activity, this allows for closer looks than would otherwise be possible.  My only complaint is that some (not all), still leave their trash and discarded fishing line on the jetty when they leave.  Its not necessary, its dangerous to humans and wildlife, and not only is it disrespectful, it's downright inconsiderate.

On this visit the tide was just starting to drop as I arrived.  The whole area looked to be underwater at first glance but there were many birds out in the middle standing in shallow water.  There seemed to be Avocets everywhere.  I counted them in blocks of fifty and at a conservative estimate there had to be a minimum of three thousand and in all likelihood considerably more.

While walking along the concrete path along the top of the jetty a single Least Sandpiper was flitting from one rock to the next and staying almost next to me.  As I was walking directly into the sun I was anxious to get in front of it and then to get some shots looking back towards it with the sun behind me.

The area at the end of the concrete pathway was where the closest exposed mud flats were located and waders were congregated there in good numbers and they were not shy.  They seemed totally at ease with the coming and goings of the fishermen less than 20 yards away and when plonked myself down on the rocks less than 15 yards away they just carried on resting, feeding and preening.

Further out flocks of White and Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, Terns and Ring-billed Gulls were resting on the now exposed mud flats.  Even further out along the edges of the reed beds were Roseate Spoonbills, Black-necked Stilts, both species of Yellowlegs and a whole bunch of peeps that were too far away to identify.

Close by to my feet were Dunlin

Western Sandpiper,

Lesser yellowlegs,

Black-necked Stilt,

Marbled Godwit,

American Avocets by the busload were everywhere

I still hadn't found a Reddish Egret.  I wandered further out along the jumble of rock boulders to an area of denser reed beds hoping to find one in a sheltered spot.  As I was moving along the boulders it occurred to me that one slip could be really expensive with either rock or water damage to the camera and lens.  It also entered my mind how easy it would be to break a leg or worse and be stuck out there.  Just then a fisherman who was coming towards me slipped and there was a horrendous cracking sound as he went down hard.  Fortunately, it was his fishing rod that snapped under his weight, but it goes to illustrates a point - be careful.  He was ok and escaped with a scrape and a few bruises but nothing too serious. There was a time I wouldn't have even have given safety out there a second thought, I guess that's what getting older and having responsibilities does to someone. I now find myself much more cautious than I used to be.  Alas after all that I still didn't find the Reddish Egret.  I made my way back to the parking lot stopping to chat to a few of the fishermen who all reported a very quiet day, when out in the middle mudflats all on it's own was the egret I wanted to find.  To be sure it was too far out even on a CMOS sensor and at 600mm, for anything other than an id confirming snap but at least I achieved one of my goals.  Next week I think I'll try one of my favorite winter coastal spots at Texas City Dyke - I hope its not going to be too windy.

Friday, November 4, 2016

George Bush Park - Part 2 (The History)

This is a follow up to the previous post and give a little more detail on the park.  George Bush Park used to be part of the LH7 ranch.  In it's heyday of the 20's and 30's the ranch used to occupy 33,000 acres.  This was one of the biggest and probably the last large ranch in the Houston area.  In the 1940's the Corps of Engineers purchased a large part of what remained of the ranch to create the Barker Reservoir as flood control for Buffalo Bayou and to prevent flooding issues downstream. 

There is an interesting article on the ranch and family that owned the land before the 1940's that can be found here:

There is also a delightful book on the history of the ranch and the surrounding area that I can totally recommend:

Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore, author of the 1991 book The LH7 Ranch: In Houston's Shadow.  I believe that the book is now available as a free ebook download.

Prior to settlers moving into the Katy area, the area was occupied by Orcoquiza Indians, who hunted buffalo in the area in the 1700s.  Apparently they were decimated by disease before settlers moved into the area.  Karankawa Indians may also have had a nomadic existence through the area.  They were documented to have been up to as far as 100 miles inland from the coast and there is evidence that shows they were found as far inland as Eagle Lake.

There are documented reports of Indian burial grounds, arrowheads and pottery being found by the Corps of Engineers Archaeologists before the reservoir was completed.  Apparently these were not made public in an attempt to prevent looting.  There are also references to Indian artifacts in the LH7 book.  I have found a couple of arrowheads within the park, but no pottery.

Nowadays the park has easy walking and bike trails, as well as some large drainage ditches.  These ditches are good for finding Herons and Egrets, Alligators and Snakes.  There are some large carp in the ditches but as yet I haven't found the time to go after them, it's one of those things that every time I see large carp, I say to myself, I must come and catch a few of those.  But I never seem to get around to it.

Some winter visitors:

Vesper Sparrow