Snowy Egret

At first I thought this was a great egret in Houston’s Hermann Park in March. Eventually I realised that it is actually a snowy egret, which is somewhat smaller.

 

The way the wind has whipped up the neck and tail feathers makes for an interesting effect (click to enlarge).

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, snowy egrets have a black bill and yellow feet, whereas great egrets have a yellow bill and black feet. Hopefully I’ll remember that for next time!

Blue Jay

Almost everywhere we go in Houston, particularly when near Buffalo Bayou, we can hear the raucus cry of the blue jay. Occasionally you get to see these beautiful birds and that brilliant flash of blue. But they do seem to be camera shy. What a nice surprise when this one posed on a car park near the bayou.

 

Being not far from the sea, this is probably the ‘coastal’ variant mentioned by Wikipedia, as opposed to the ‘interior’ or ‘northern’ variants.

American Sparrow

Still sorting through my photographs from Houston, I was trying to identify these birds that were feeding on the grass at Paul D Rushing Nature Reserve. Of course, they kept such a distance that a decent photograph was difficult, although you can see the key features from these.

To European eyes it looked like some sort of bunting or sparrow. Consulting Wikipedia, it seems that American Sparrows are not quite what I had thought.

Although they share the name sparrow, American sparrows are more closely related to Old World buntings than they are to the Old World sparrows (family Passeridae).[1][2] American sparrows are also similar in both appearance and habit to finches, with which they sometimes used to be classified.

So it’s some sort of American Sparrow, of which there is a huge proliferation, according to Wiki. A song sparrow is a likely possibility, as these certainly over-winter in Texas (it was March).

Northern Cardinal

The northern cardinal is very common in Houston and other parts of Texas we’ve visited. You can often hear it singing, see a flash of red go by, or see it perched on a high telephone wire (too far away for a good picture). It may be closer, on tree branch, but get the camera out, and it immediately hides behind the nearest twigs. They KNOW.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see this one at the magnificent Brazos Bend State Park, singing away in a tree and not rushing off. It had clearly seen us, but carried on regardless.

See also an earlier post from a couple of years ago.

Greater Yellowlegs

The larger of these two waders, seen recently at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy, clearly has yellow legs, which does suggest the identification. I tend to think it’s a Greater Yellowlegs, as opposed to a Lesser Yellowlegs, due to the length of the beak – around 1.5 times the head width (see how to tell them apart). The smaller bird is probably a female or juvenile?

yellowlegs

Yellowlegs are part of the Tringa genus of waders that includes sandpipers, redshanks and willets. These are shore birds and their breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, so this pair would have been either still overwintering or in the process of migrating north.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

I suddenly noticed an unfamiliar bird in one of the few bushes at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy. It turned out to be a scissor-tailed flycatcher, unmistakable with that long tail, patch of rust at the shoulder, grey head, and light front with salmony plumage on the flanks. When it eventually flew off, the tail separated to clearly exhibit the scissor-characteristic.

scissortailed flycatcher

According to Wikipedia, the habitat was just right: “open shrubby country with scattered trees in the south-central states”. This bird is also appropriately known as the “Texas Bird of Paradise”, although it is actually the state bird of Oklahoma.

Paul D Rushing Park

Leave Interstate I10 at Katy and go up the long straight Katy Hockley Road for nearly 10 miles, past lines of new housing developments mixed with the usual (for Houston) random industrial and commercial units, and eventually you arrive at Paul D Rushing Park. Amazingly, you are still in Katy (yes, the greater Houston area is just that big). We’d ‘discovered’ this park from the website of Houston Audubon, giving suitable places for birders.

Suspicions arose when there were zero cars in the car park. At first sight this looked like a sports facility with ball courts. But there must be birds somewhere! Past the ball courts and toilets there were several lakes, apparently surrounded by little vegetation other than grass. A few odd ducks were immediately apparent, but the area looked otherwise barren.

paul d rushing park

Well, we’d come to walk, so walk we did. There were lots of viewing platforms, blinds and walkways over the lake, but not a lot to view. Soon we saw a coypu in the water, then an amazing scissortailed flycatcher rested in one of the few bushes, then egrets on the boardwalk hand rails (featured image), chicks in the water, a black stilt in the distance, a little brown job – some sort of sparrow, then a yellowlegs wader, turtles,… So actually there was quite a lot going on in a park that at first looked so unpromising. But it still looked strangely lacking in vegetation to European eyes!

Carolina Wren

This little wren was hopping about among the branches of a bush by the visitor centre at the Edith L. Moore Houston Audubon sanctuary. Typically wrens are very wary, so not usually so accommodating to being photographed.

carolina wren

A passing ranger identified this as a Carolina Wren, which is the state bird of South Carolina. The bird was probably on its annual migration northwards.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Well I think this is a Louisiana Waterthrush due to the pinkish legs, but it could be a Northern Waterthrush, which is very similar. These migratory birds spend the winter in Central America or West Indies, so we were lucky to catch this one on on his way through Houston at the Edith L. Moore sanctuary (Houston Audubon). Also lucky that this rather elusive bird was pointed out by a regular birder.

northern waterthrush

Although its breast looks very much like that of a thrush, this is not actually a thrush, but a warbler.

This was taken at a fair distance from the opposite side of the creek, so the result is not bad at maximum stretch on my travel zoom Panasonix TZ200.

Monarch butterfly

There seem to be a fair number of Monarch butterflies in Houston, probably on their way elsewhere in their annual migration. These are large butterflies with a wonderfully graceful flight.

The featured image shows one settled amid Texan blue bonnet flowers. The other below is settled on the ground, a somewhat faded specimen compared to the vibrancy of some, suggesting one that has survived the winter.

monarch

Osprey and Catfish

The osprey is quite rare in the UK, so it was great to see one of these great birds of prey  at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre. Signs by the lake implied that it contains quite large catfish, which was confirmed as the osprey flew overhead with a huge catfish in its talons. Even better, it then settled on a nearby telegraph pole to take a few bites. The only problem for photographs was that he was between the sun and us, so detail in the images is not great. But the silhouettes are impressive and really show the size of the fish taken by this huge bird.

 

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks are quite large, rather ugly, and somewhat ungainly ducks. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but have established themselves also in parts of the US, notably Texas where we they are quite common.

This one in Hermann Park, Houston shows an attractive iridescence in the feathers.

muscovy duck hermann park

The most remarkable feature of these ducks is the blackish or red knob seen at the bill base, with the bare skin of the face a similar colour.

muscovy duck head

Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.

Whistling Duck on Green

Sometimes you ‘see’ an image that is just a perfect colour combination. These black bellied whistling ducks were serenely progressing through the green covering on a lake in Terry Hershey Park, Houston, and almost immediately disappeared beneath the overhanging vegetation. I just managed to grab a couple of shots that weren’t too bad.

I particularly like this one, cropped, that I’ve included at higher resolution.

whistling duck on green

Common Grackle

Contrary to the pair in the featured image studiously ignoring each other, common grackles are gregarious birds, commonly seen in gangs scavenging at supermarket car parks and traffic lights in Houston and elsewhere. Much as are jackdaws in the UK, but more ubiquitous.

Much more apparent are the larger all-black males. However, the female is arguably the more attractive bird, such as in the following photos.

Both male and female coats show an iridescence in the right light.

American White Pelican

On previous visits to Texas, we’ve often seen pelicans when by the sea, for example at Galveston and Corpus Christi. This February we were surprised to come across a large number of American White Pelicans at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre.

There was quite a large number of these birds, mostly congregated together on a relatively tiny island in the large lake (featured image), along with a few cormorants. These pelicans are migratory, and the population on that small island was much reduced just a few weeks later.

In the solitary specimen below you can just see the black feathers underneath the wing, that only become really apparent when they are in flight.

pelican

This magnificent bird is second only (in the US) to the Californian Condor in terms of wingspan, so floats effortlessly over the water despite that large bill. My efforts to capture this were pretty unsuccessful.

pelican flying

Blue bonnets

blue bonnets
Blue bonnets by the bayou in Terry Hershey Park

You really know that spring is sprung in Houston when the blue bonnets appear, as they recently have. This is the state flower of Texas, frequently seen alongside country highways, especially since this was encouraged by ex-first-lady Lady Bird Johnson. Families are often seen out parked by the roadside, taking photographs to a backdrop of blue bonnets.

Petrochemical dream or nightmare?

So we took the grandchildren to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which we’d much enjoyed in previous years, particularly to see the new Wiess Energy Hall.

What a spectacular set of exhibits this provides, summarising all you might know or wish to know about the oil and petrochemical industries. Many working models and explanations keep young and old engaged and interested for hours. What a monument to the wonderful creative spirit that has engaged humanity for a century and mostly created the modern world, with its variety of fuels, chemicals, plastics…

If you want to know about different types of oil rigs, the fracking revolution, oil pipelines, and much more, this is the place to go. Maps show the incredible scales of operations in the US.

There are even sections on nuclear power and renewable energy sources, albeit at a lower level than the obviously dominant petrochemicals.

Sadly, there are things it does not tell you, issues it does not address – like how this petrochemical dream is running into the buffers.

It does not tell you about the global warming and climate change that is being caused, nor of the suppression of knowledge of this by those who first knew – the oil industry.

It does not tell you how the land and sea are becoming increasingly polluted with all those plastics, not to mention the regular oil spillages, escaping methane, frack-caused earthquakes,…

It does not tell you how the very soil we grow our crops on is being denatured by those chemical fertilisers.

It does not tell how insects, birds, vegetation, mammals, fish are all being depleted, species destroyed at an alarming rate as the chemicals and plastics spread around the environment and the industrial scale enabled destroys the intimate spaces of nature.

It does not tell how human populations have been subjugated and their politics subverted by the imperative for this energy.

It does not tell how the earth cries out at this painfully rapid change, and is harnessing its resources for survival, ensured by its wonderful yet frightful variability – the heatwaves, coldwaves, biblical rainfalls and fires and floods, hurricanes, typhoons, thunders and lightnings…

In short, like most human endeavours, this industry’s continued prevalence contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, which it resists to the death throes. But why would all those so-generous oil industry related sponsors of this exhibition in the oil capital wish to tell that story?

Featured image shows one of the exhibits: “Energy City,” a 2,500-square-foot 3-D landscape representing Houston, the surrounding Gulf coastal waters and the terrain of southeast and central Texas, aiming to bring to life the energy value chain.

Loggerhead Shrike

A pair of smallish birds that turned out to be loggerhead shrikes, also known as butcher birds, were sitting atop branches of the bare bushes as we walked around Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park in Houston. They seemed quite happy to be photographed.

Their hooked bill provides for disabling of prey, which they are also said to skewer on thorns or barbed wire.

Populations of this common American bird have been in steep decline since around the time of the introduction of chemical pesticides in the US.

 

Waxwing

waxwingsWalking by the bayou in Houston we often come across gangs of tens of small birds high up in the trees, silhouetted against the bright sky, even on a cloudy day. The initial reaction is that they’re impossible to successfully photograph with just a travel zoom (Panasonic TZ80). However, it’s amazing what you can do with maximum zoom, followed by a bit of image editing afterwards, mostly to crop and brighten up.

These are clearly waxwings, with characteristic crest and yellow-tipped tail – a very colourful perching bird, although you do not get much of an impression of that colour from the ground.

I even managed to get a reasonable crop of an individual bird showing more detail.

waxwing

Waxwings are also found in northern Europe, but not much in the UK.

Black Bellied Whistling Duck

There is usually a gang of about 50 or so whistling ducks hanging around in Terry Hershey Park when we visit Houston. They are quite notable for their whistling habit.

This particular variant is called the black bellied whistling duck, for obvious reasons, found all year round in South East Texas.

whistling ducks
Geronimo! Whistling duck landing to join the gang.

Wikipedia lists 8 variants of whistling duck, or tree duck, and suggests that they are not actually true ducks but “a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family”. They do look sort of intermediate between duck and goose.