Atascosa Highlands CBC highlights - 2 January 2015

Once again, the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count was a blast!  Although the point of CBC's is to monitor wintering bird populations by conducting surveys in a repeatable manner each year, it basically just involves going out to a pre-designated area and birding.  And, just like any birding, it's always fun when you rack up a decent species list!  Our team ended up with 65 species for our section for the day.  The rarest, however, was our last species for the day, a hybrid Red-breasted x Red-naped Sapsucker!

Here you can see how extensive the red is throughout the face and throat, typical coloration for a Red-breasted Sapsucker.

On a slightly different angle through the branches, one can see a heavy red wash through the auriculars, but the face pattern of a Red-naped Sapsucker is still visible through that wash.  Also, while there isn't much black framing the throat, a bit of black feathering can be seen where the red from the throat runs into the upper breast, another sign that the bird is a hybrid rather than a pure Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Finally, the bird turned its head to show red color filling the entire back of the head and nape, rather than the more limited red in the nape that a Red-naped shows.

After the count, Deb Finch and I stopped by the Amado Wastewater Reclamation Facility (i.e. sewage effluent pond) hoping that a previously reported Pacific Loon was still there.  It was!  For a bonus, a fellow sea-dweller was hanging out with it: a female Red-breasted Merganser.

Pacific Loon on the left, showing the classic "chinstrap" pattern as well as rounded head, small bill, sharp contrast between dark hindneck and whitish foreneck.  Red-breasted Merganser on the right, showing the very thin-based bill typical of that species.

All-in-all, not bad for a winter day of birding in southeastern Arizona!

John Yerger
Adventure Birding Company

Reid Park 1/24/14

After my 6th attempt to locate the PINE WARBLER at Reid Park I was finally successful in seeing it for a while!  Though no pictures were obtained of that gem, I did manage a few of the waterfowl in the park.

Nictitating membrane on this Ring-necked Duck
Did you ever wonder how ducks can see their prey underwater, or perhaps how raptors protect their eyes from greedy chicks grasping for food?  I was able to catch a picture of this Ring-necked Duck that helps explain how.  

Unlike eyelids which open and close from the top and bottom of an eye, nictitating membranes like the one in this picture close from the front of the eye to the back of the eye.  It is also, in some cases, translucent allowing animals to see under water, through brush, and at high speeds.  Look closely at the eye and notice half is dark (with membrane) and half is light (no membrane).

This feature is also seen in sharks, reptiles, and some mammals such as your house cat! (keep them inside!)  Not all reptiles have these membranes.  If you have ever seen certain species of gecko lick their eyes they're simply 'licking the place' of an eyelid or nictitating membrane that would otherwise keep it moist and clean!

Neotropic Cormorants

There were also a few NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS hanging out around the edge of the south pond at Reid Park.  Yet another 'nictitating member' of the representatives there.

Male and Female Hooded Mergansers

Perhaps the star of the show was this pair of HOODED MERGANSERS.  This female was sharing her time between 2 dapper males.  How could she possibly choose between all those beautiful membranes?

Jake Mohlmann
Tucson, AZ

Sweetwater Wetlands - Black-and-white Warbler - 1/21/14

Black-and-white Warbler at Sweetwater Wetlands foraging just like a nuthatch.

Today (1/21/14) I found (one of) the continuing Black-and-white Warblers that frequent Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson this and every winter.  This individual is lacking prominent dark ear coverts and has buffy flanks.  Both attributes suggest the sex as female. 


Jake Mohlmann

The Thieving Lions of Luangwa

Jake Mohlmann and Corey Mitchell just returned from an amazing trip with Norman Carr Safaris in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

We were part of a group of ten friends, who also happen to be colleagues, which met up in one of Africa’s premier wildlife hotspots for a ten day safari. South Luangwa is infamous on the safari circuit for its high density of leopards. Although the group experienced spectacular leopard sightings (we spotted a remarkable ten leopards in ten days), it was the other big cats that really got our attention.

Norman Carr Safaris run multiple bush camps in the park. The camps are deliberately spread out just far enough that you can walk from one to the next in a few hours and they are strategically placed near water holes and river beds in different habitat types to maximize the number and variety of game that can be encountered. Our group spent six incredible nights in three of their bush camps: Liwi, Nsolo, and Kakuli.

As seasoned field biologists we have lived in various bush camps, in fact, we spent six months living in one in Western Uganda prior to our Zambia trip. Our Chimp Camp in Uganda was very basic but comfortable enough for our needs; we had solar power, an actual bed, a tent we could stand up in, a real showerhead (it was attached to a black bucket on top of a ladder), and we sure didn’t go hungry eating Ugandan sized portions of beans and matoke. Their bush camps were nothing like that. They were incredibly luxurious. We had steamy hot water at any hour, unbelievably comfortable beds, the most amazing meals perfectly tailored to all of our unique food restrictions, ice cold gin and tonics, hot towels waiting for us after game drives, and extraordinary service from genuine friendly people. They also had loads of game right in front of camp; Chimp Camp didn’t have that, in fact, we barely saw the chimps we were supposed to study.

              Norman Carr's Nsolo Camp        vs.          Chimp Camp                                       
We happened to have our game camera along with us on the safari. Jake purchased it in the States and brought it to the study site in Uganda with the intention of setting it up along the chimp trails to catch some ape activity. It’s set off by motion and records minute long HD video clips during the day or nighttime, plus it’s waterproof. The camera survived multiple months in the equatorial forest, what could possibly happen to it in a few days at the bush camps?

At Liwi camp we had excellent luck placing the camera at the mouth of the garbage pit on two consecutive nights. We were rewarded with hilarious videos of a trio of honey badgers backing in and climbing out of the pit with their rewards over and over throughout the evening.

When we moved on to Nsolo Camp we passed on the option of more trash action and hoping for something more exciting, we placed it at the edge of the nearby water hole. The first evening there wasn’t much activity but we decided to take our chances and left it there for another night. When Jake went down the following morning to take down the camera with our guide, Innocent, and the Zambia Wildlife Authority scout, Patrick, they realized it was gone. On the ground next to the hole where the post holding the camera stood was a lion track. Jake ran back to where we were all having breakfast and preparing for our departure to Kakuli Camp yelling, “the lions stole our camera!” Everyone searched for the pilfered camera for a bit but we desperately needed to start our 15 km hike to Kakuli Camp so we left it up to the staff at Nsolo. The dry season had only just begun a month or two ago and the camp would operate until October. The chances were good that it would show up eventually. A few people were convinced it was at the bottom of the water hole and it would dry up over the next few months, hopefully unearthing our lost camera.

Are you the culprit?
On our final day with Norman Carr we received news that the camera had been found. There were very few details, only that they had it and someone would drop it off at Kapani Lodge that afternoon. When it was delivered we learned that it was found it in the dry river bed right next to Nsolo camp and it turns out the camera taped the whole thing. It managed to record the villains who stole it as well as the heroes who found it and its journey back to us.

Here is a short film we put together about the incredible incident. Enjoy!


Balcones Songbird Nature Festival - April 26-29, 2012 (guest blogger)

This sounds like a fun event! Wish I had time to go myself...

John Yerger
Adventure Birding Company

Texas Hill Country Spring Bird Watching and Songbird Festival
by guest blogger Tracey Louis

If you have time for a quick trip or know a Texas birding enthusiast, you’ll want to make note of the upcoming 13th Annual Songbird Nature Festival occurring April 26-29th. In addition to unique events and activities, there will be top birdwatchers from around the state guiding dozens of specialty tours to view some of the area’s most notable winged creatures.

These tours are held primarily within the federally protected Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, offering spectacular opportunities to hear and sight countless glorious songbirds including the endangered species of the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

Glimpse the Golden-Cheeked Warbler

This canyon and ravine-filled area is laden with Ashe juniper and live oaks that provide ideal shelter and nesting areas for this endangered species. It is intriguing to note that the Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only bird species with a breeding range limited to the Lonestar State. Many of the Songbird Festival’s journeys head out with intentions to sight this beauty in the wild and hear its melodic tune.

Black-capped Vireo photographed by John Yerger at Kerr WMA, April 2011

Black-capped Vireo Spotting

Listed as an endangered species since 1987, the Black-capped Vireo is a pleasure and a privilege to spot. April begins this species’ nesting period in Texas, though it extends through May. The Festival is timed to afford the best viewing opportunities during this season. The preservation of the Balcones Canyonlands staunchly protects this breeding ground for both of these at-risk species, and bird watchers at the Festival are highly likely to encounter them multiple times along treks.

Bird Watching Abounds at the Songbird Festival in Texas

Between premium, signature, and specialty birding tours, there’s likely a tour out there to satisfy all levels of birding enthusiasts from beginner to expert. The festival’s Signature Birding Tours are designed specifically for spotting these two endangered species along with other native migrant and breeding birds common to the area. Other events include a wine and stargazing event, several children’s activities, as well as educational courses in photography, breeding birds, song identification, and much more.

Attendees have ample camping options in the park, and there are plenty of comfortable accommodations in Marble Falls to meet your lodging needs during the festival. And, it’s wildflower season to boot!  Bluebonnets, paintbrushes, and other glorious blossoms have blanketed the area with a stunning array of colors.

As a former innkeeper at Lake Buchanan, Tracey Louis always enjoyed the spring time songs of the Central Texas birds, and frequently recommended hikes and parks for visitors to enjoy them in their natural habitats.