Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mississippi Kite

One of my favorite birds is the Mississippi Kite. They are in the same family as hawks, eagles, harriers, ospreys, etc. Mississippi Kites are raptors - predators - and feed mainly on larger insects like grasshoppers and dragonflies. They can also occasionally take larger prey such as bats, swifts, and swallows. The Mississippi Kite is likely the one raptor that will casually eat in flight. The first thing you may notice is their black "mask" against a light gray head and body.

The panhandle is part of the Mississippi Kite's breeding grounds. Many people have complained about them "attacking" them while walking down a sidewalk. They are not aggressive towards humans. When nesting, the Mississippi Kite can be very defensive and territorial, and will attempt to urge people, dogs, etc., to move away from their nest or the tree it's in. I have personally been "buzzed" repeatedly by them while working on rooftops. Should you ever encounter them in this way, don't be afraid. Simply move along if you get concerned. They have no malice towards you. They don't want to harm or eat you. They just want you to go away. If they had a problem with human activity, they wouldn't nest amongst us. When I have been buzzed by them, I have never had them close enough to even reach out and touch them - or them, me. Rooftops are much closer to their nests than you would be by walking down the sidewalk.

Kites generally winter over in South America and return to Texas in May. While thought of as a southern raptor, they have been seen as far north as New England.

American Robin

Everybody knows the American Robin. It's squeaky chirp and warbling song signals that spring is here.

Dining on adult insects and larvae, earthworms (night crawlers), other invertebrates and berries, the sight of the American Robin foraging in our yards and gardens is a form of "comfort food" for our psyches.

He appears to be listening for prey when he tilts his head as he forages, but in reality his keen eyes are looking for movement on the ground. His eyes are more on the sides of his head than other species, so he has to tilt his head to see the ground under him.

The panhandle is among the Robin's breeding and summer grounds, but it also winters throughout Texas to the south.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Eurasian Collared Dove

This dove's call is the typically soothing, "coo-COO-coo!" It is characterized by the pale gray overall color and distinct black collar around the back of its neck. They can breed up to six times a year in warmer climates. Eurasian Collared Doves dine on grain and seeds, and are common feeder visitors. See also this blog post.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

American Kestrel

This is something you don't see every day, and something that doesn't get photographed every day: Two American Kestrels mating.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers will likely visit bird feeders stocked with peanut butter and peanut hearts. They get along well around human activity, and visit feeders more often than their look-alikes, the Hairy Woodpecker. Downy Woodpeckers are smaller than the Hairy Woodpecker, and have a shorter bill. They eat insects, seeds and nuts, and will visit suet feeders. The Downy Woodpeckers in these photos appear to be starting their courtship ritual.

Female (Left) and Male (Right).



Friday, March 20, 2009

Spotted Towhee

The Spotted Towhee makes a lot of noise rustling around in dense underbrush, digging through leaves and twigs to find seeds, berries, and insects on the ground. They spend most of their time in thick underbrush, except for their mating ritual. Living in the Trans-Pecos Mountains during breeding season, they winter throughout Texas. At first glance the elusive Spotted Towhee can be mistaken for a Robin, but closer examination will reveal the obvious differences. Females are somewhat more drab and pale than the males. We saw this guy down in Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle.

Male Spotted Towhee

Cedar Waxwing

This Cedar Waxwing was flitting around a picnic area of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, East of Canyon, TX. They are not uncommon in the panhandle. The first thing you'll notice is its prominent black mask. They were named for their red wing tips, because they look like they were dipped in red candle wax.

This is a social bird, and when his crop is full and he can't eat any more, he'll pick fruit and pass it on down the line to others who will continue eating. Mulberries, Juniper, or Yaupon will attract them. Cedar Waxwings do not nest in Texas, but winter throughout the state. Waxwing flocks drift around like gypsies, so numbers can vary greatly in any given area.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Red-Winged Blackbird

If you have a cattail marsh, wet meadow, shoreline scrub, etc., you will most likely have these blackbirds in abundance. Their red shoulder patch is edged in yellow, with the yellow edge sometimes hidden from view. They nest in colonies, along shorelines or among cattails. Some of their favorite food sources are seeds and grains, insects, and invertebrates. Red-winged blackbirds also visit feeders.

Male Red-Winged Blackbird.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

House Sparrow

This is the common House Sparrow. They are native to Europe and northern Africa. Introduced in Brooklyn in the 1850's to combat insect pests that were damaging grain and cereal crops, they had little effect. House Sparrows are primarily vegetarian and eat mostly seeds, fruit, and some insects. They visit feeders quite often.

House Sparrows were introduced in Galveston, TX in the 1860's. By 1905, they could be found statewide.

This is a male.

Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier cruises low over fields using surprise attacks to capture its prey. They winter in Texas, but very rarely breed in the panhandle. On their menu are rats, snakes, small rabbits, and birds such as red-winged blackbirds. The Royal Air Force was so impressed with the Harrier's maneuverability that they named one of their aircraft after it - the Harrier "Jump Jet".

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Red-Tailed Hawk

This is an immature/juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk. It was hunting jack rabbits on the south edge of town when he flew by us. He had just missed a jack. They ride thermals as they soar overhead looking for prey, sometimes soaring for miles before flapping their wings once. His call is an unmistakable descending scream that virtually everybody has heard. Red Tails usually eat rodents, but will take a rabbit or other small animal.

Downy Woodpecker

While I was watching the sparrows one day, this Downy Woodpecker made a brief appearance.

Male Downy Woodpecker.

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon breeds in Canada and Alaska, and winters over on both coasts, in the West Indies, and into Central America. Here in the panhandle they make use of wetlands, lakes, ponds, and estuaries - and occasionally grazes in agricultural fields. They eat mostly aquatic plants, but will eat small invertebrates. The American Wigeon nests further north than any other duck with the exception of the northern pintail.

American Wigeon Male.

Northern Cardinal

Everybody knows the Northern Cardinal. Did you know it got its name because the male's color resembles the robes of Roman Catholic Cardinals? Pairs of cardinals are among the most faithful of birds. They keep close contact with each other throughout the year. They eat seeds, insects, and berries - and they will readily patronize feeders.




The Western Meadowlark has one of the most pleasant and melodic songs of any bird. Meadowlarks are a member of the blackbird family. They are one of the most abundant and widespread birds in the western US. They eat insects, grubs, worms, and seeds.

This Western Meadowlark seems to be watching the sun set.

I'm not sure, but this one appears to be an Eastern Meadowlark. Let me know if I'm wrong.

White Winged Dove

This is the White Winged Dove. Characteristic are the white edge of the wings, red eyes, and azure blue skin surrounding the eyes. This dove is considered to be a central/southern Texas bird, but its range is expanding rapidly northward. It is becoming very common in the panhandle.

The mourning dove is very similar but it doesn't have the white wings, and does have dark patches on its wings. The White Winged Dove has the soothing voice characteristic of doves, "Who-cooks-for-you?"

Monday, March 16, 2009

White-Crowned Sparrow

The white-crowned sparrow is much like the "typical" sparrow, but is easily distinguished by his black-and-white striped cap. It might bring to mind thoughts of a bicycle helmet. His crown will not go unnoticed, even when he's flitting around in heavy brush. He eats seeds and insects that he scratches from the ground, berries, buds, mosscaps, and will also eat from feeders. The White-Crowned Sparrow does not nest in Texas, but does winter over here.

The White-Throated Sparrow is similar in that he also has the stripes on his crown, but has a clearly visible white throat.

House Finch

House Finches are one of the few species that will nest in urban areas. You can find them in cities, towns, and rural areas. They are about the size of a sparrow and feed on seeds, berries, flower parts. House Finches will also pig out at feeders.

Female House Finch on the left, male on the right.

Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret is very similar to the Great Egret (below), but the Snowy is much smaller. It also has a black bill, whereas the Great Egret has a yellow bill. The Snowy Egret has a yellow or reddish patch between the eye and bill (called "lores"), where the Great Egret doesn't. Both are waders and have the same "stand-and-wait" fishing method.

Great Egret

This one is sometimes mistakenly called a "snowy egret". The snowy egret is a smaller bird, albeit similar in appearance. While both are white and members of the heron family, the Great Egret has a yellow bill and is much larger than the black-billed Snowy Egret. The Great Egret is the symbol of the Audubon Society and is a permanent resident of gulf coastal areas. They also inhabit inland bodies of water, particularly during warmer months in the panhandle.

Golden Fronted Woodpecker

This woodpecker is sometimes confused with the Northern Flicker. The Golden-Fronted Woodpecker is an inhabitant of the mesquite brushlands and dry woodlands of central and southern Texas. However, I took these shots in the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, so they are obviously coming into the panhandle. They don't usually drill into wood like most woodpeckers. Instead, they catch insects in flight or feed on fruit and nuts.

The one shown here is the female.

This one is the male.

The Golden-Fronted Woodpecker is related to the Red-bellied Woodpecker in the Eastern US, and they sometimes cross-breed.
(Female Golden-Fronted Woodpecker)


American Kestrel

This is likely the most colorful falcon in the world. Her handler told us that she dines on large insects, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and small birds like female grackles (not males). Her name is "Hanna Banana", and for a very interesting reason. When she kills a grackle, she preludes dining on her by grabbing the back of its neck and peeling her back - like a banana.

Although kestrels are known to live in open or semi-wooded country, they are not intimidated by human activity. As a result, they are very adaptable to other environments. The panhandle is considered to be in its breeding and summer grounds.

A half block down the road, this kestrel picked a high perch to scope the area out for a meal. This one is not Hanna Banana. The following two photos are of the first American Kestrel I've photographed in the "wild". They were taken in a residential section of Amarillo.

I don't know if this one was going after a meal, or just moving on to other "restaurants", but I was able to catch it in flight as it left the antenna.