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.
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). 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This clouded yellow butterfly kindly stopped by for a photograph as we were exploring an old film set at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. These are of the genus colias, of which there are many variants. They are apparently called ‘sulphurs’ in North America.
You can see the apparent shading on the wings, where the strong dark outer colouring on the top of the wings shows through. A web search shows that these butterflies are not often caught with their wings open to reveal the upper side. Here’s an example male (upper) and female from Wikipedia. We can infer that mine is a male.
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.
Llano is a good place to stop on the way to somewhere else in Texas. This small town was founded as a frontier trading centre on the Llano River in 1856. The river and the ‘old’ town provide the main focus of interest, plus one of the best BBQ restaurants around (delicious).
The bridge is rather functional and not particularly attractive, so I was quite surprised that my Panasonic ZX200 made it look quite attractive after nightfall (featured image).
More spectacular was the view of the evening sky from the bridge, over the weir.
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 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.
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.
Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another memorable and beautiful bird from last month’s visit to Brazos Bend Texas State Park was the Purple Gallinule, a member of the rail family. In my experience, the most commonly seen rails, in both US and UK, are the ubiquitous coots and moorhens. But these American gallinules, less often seen, are much more colourful – a superb gradation of shading from white to grey through greens and blues to the deepest shades, completed by the red-yellow beak and yellow legs.
As you can see from the top featured image, they have enormous feet (blurred) that enable standing on water plants and in mud.