Saturday, February 2, 2008

Visit to Blue Bluff Road and Hornsby Bend

Today was our first chance in several weeks to spend an early Saturday morning birdwatching. ("Early" is a relative term; my guy set his alarm for 6:00, and asked if I was ready to roll out; I told him he'd have to wait until 7:00.) No coffee in the house, so we pulled into our neighborhood fast-food place to get our caffeine fix before we hit the road.

Blue Bluff Road runs by a prairie wilderness preserve, where a piece of the original wild-grass habitat of this area has been kept as it was before the arrival of plowed-field cropland in the 19th century. We didn't venture onto the preserve, but we did look at birds in a good-sized pond next to Bloore Road, just off of Blue Bluff Road.

A group of Northern Shoveler ducks (an assortment of males, females, and juveniles, we think) who were feeding in the water near the road decided to swim (in formation) to the other side of the pond as soon as we stopped the car to look at them.

The mothers and young gathered in a sheltered corner of the pond, half-screened behind leafless bushes, while the fathers patrolled the open waters in clear view of our car. After a few moments in which we did nothing scarier than peer through our binoculars, the birds were bold enough to begin diving for food again. We got some excellent views of the males, and had fun with the Texas Bird Book, figuring out an identification all on our own. (When Tom and Elizabeth were here, they figured out the identifications faster than we could focus the binoculars.)

The two black vultures hanging around, one in a tree and one on a telephone pole, were much easier to identify. Scrawny head, big body, looking like something out of a horror movie.

With that warm-up, we moved on to Hornsby Bend, the wastewater processing facility that also functions as a bird sanctuary. There were more families of Northern Shovelers, plus some American Coots, both juvenile and adult, and a couple of small black birds (one with red feathers on the shoulders of his wings) who were in a small tree near one of the ponds. We haven't yet been able to identify these last birds.

Of course, the tech guy I married thinks that one of the best parts of the morning was meeting another birdwatcher who was not equipped with binoculars, but with a camera and an enormous telephoto lens. My guy was so impressed he stopped our car and rolled down the window to get a better look. Fortunately, the camera owner was friendly, but we couldn't tell her where to find any cinnamon teal.

The migration season should be in full swing next month; who knows what we will see then?

Saturday, January 19, 2008


We saw a pair of green birds swooping across our street to roost in a neighbor's tree. What were they? By the time we got the binoculars, they were gone. According to the bird books, they were probably escaped domestic parrots or parakeets, but we couldn't make a firm identification.

It is supposed to be freezing tonight. We hope it won't be too cold for them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Our Equipment

Gary and I have very different binoculars, although we each paid about the same price. I'm noting the differences here, so that we will have a basis for comparison as our adventures proceed.

As birdwatching novices, our requirements are fairly simple:
  • We live in central Texas, where summer outdoor heat and humidity is roughly that of a sauna bath. Combined with aggressive indoor air conditioning, this means we need reliable waterproof and fogproof binoculars.
  • We both wear prescription eyeglasses, so we need provision for individual eyepiece adjustments, and good "eye relief" (with adjustable eye cups that permit the wearing of eyeglasses, if desired).
  • We want optics that are clear and bright, distortion-free and properly collimated, firmly set in sturdy casings that will stand up to everyday life.
  • We are definitely not in the market for world-class binoculars that require a big financial investment.

Gary's binoculars (7x50 Mariner Pro from Steiner, now discontinued) are a rarity in binoculars, waterproof porro prisms. Here are the specs.
  • Field of View: 354 ft at 1000 yds
  • Closest Focus: 20 ft
  • Exit Pupil: 7.14 mm
  • Eye relief: 22 mm
  • Eye cups: wrap-around fold-down
  • Weight: 37 oz
  • Waterproofed, nitrogen-purged lenses, fully multi-coated
  • BaK4 porro prisms

They are good, solid outdoor binoculars. No close focus, so no focus wheel. Set them to your eyes and you are done.

As birdwatching field glasses, they do best observing in wide open spaces or watching birds in flight. Gary also enjoys stargazing with them; they have nice broad light-gathering optics, with a broad exit pupil for dark nights.

These are the kind of binoculars you can grab from the seat of the pickup and use instantly, with no fuss. Gary grew up with binoculars like these, back on the farm in Colorado. Using them now is like coming home to a well-remembered friend.

My choice of binoculars (8x42 Burris Signature Select), are about 1/3 smaller than Gary's, in both size and weight. Here are the specs.
  • Field of view: 330 ft at 1000 yds
  • Closest focus: 10 ft
  • Focus mechanism: lockable diopter focus ring
  • Exit pupil: 5.2 mm
  • Eye relief: 19 mm
  • Eye cups: twist-up
  • Weight: 22 oz
  • Waterproofed, nitrogen-purged lenses, fully multi-coated
  • BaK4 roof prisms
  • Phase corrected
Burris is a small company in Greeley, Colorado, primarily specializing in hunting optics. Although these binoculars are made in Japan to Burris specifications, I hope that by purchasing them I am supporting American jobs in some small way.

(Actually, most optical glass is manufactured overseas these days, and even "made in America" products are assembled in the U.S. from imported components.)

For a person with small hands and a small face, the roof prism configuration and the smaller optics make these binoculars narrower, so the eyepieces can be closer together and the tubes are easier to hold. Plus the close focus at 10 feet makes backyard observation possible (not an option with Gary's equipment).

Optically, both binoculars seem to have glass with good edge-to-edge focus and good light-gathering characteristics. Both are shock-resistant, with heavy rubber armoring. We like our equipment sturdy!

We'll see how these work over the long term...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saturday Afternoon Backyard Birdwatching

We started around 4:00 PM and spent about an hour and a half this afternoon watching birds and other small animals in our back yard. Here is what we saw:

  1. White-winged Dove
  2. Great-tailed Grackle
  3. Rock Dove
  4. Northern Mockingbird
  5. Northern Cardinal
  6. Turkey Vulture
  7. Possibly a Wren. Either a Carolina Wren or a Bewick's Wren. This bird was sitting in the shadow of the purple martin house and we may have misidentified it. (After several hours of contemplation Marilyn doesn't believe it was a wren. We are not sure what it was.)
  8. Red Squirrel
  9. Domestic Cat - answered to the name of Billy-Bob. Seemed to take an interest in birdwatching with us.
  10. Numerous other small birds that we could not identify.
Today we purchased some art supplies to make journals of what we see. Marilyn started drawing several of the birds that were sitting still long enough to draw. I am not real sure how successful she was. For me it is going to take a lot of practice to get where it even looks like bird. (We may end up with a camera and a powerful scope if I need to draw any birds and have them recognized.)

Conditions this afternoon were chilly, in the 50's with a brisk wind from the northwest.

Bike Ride (with Black Vultures)

I was on a bike ride near Lake Walter E. Long Lake (aka Decker Lake) when we came upon about twenty Black Vultures. They were soaring overhead, sitting in the trees, and standing and fighting in the road. I guessed there was some roadkill attracting them. I didn't see anything, but the friend I was riding with said that he saw two birds fighting over some meat. As we rode by, many of the birds flew away.

Half an hour later when we rode past the same spot, some of the birds were still there, but not nearly as many. Where had they gone?

As we rode along, we saw black vultures scattered in the surrounding trees. About two miles further on, a small dead tree leaned over the road, weighted down with about ten vultures in it. Most flew away as we approached. However, two of the birds seemed to be staring each other down, ready to fight.

As I was almost under the tree, one vulture pecked the other and caused his opponent to fly away. The fleeing bird swooped down toward the road, with the second in hot pursuit. Not wanting to be hit, I swerved into the lane away from the tree. Luckily, there was no traffic on the road.

I didn't want those big birds to crash into me, and I didn't want to be mixed up with their fight--or with anything they might drop on my head!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday Evening's Birdwatching Adventures

Friday after work we put our binoculars to use in the back yard. We started a little after 5 and watched until about sunset. (5:47 PM) At first there were a lot of birds flying overhead, but the numbers quickly dwindled as sunset approached. The birds that we were able to identify were:

  1. Northern Cardinal (in pomegranate tree)
  2. White Winged Dove (on tree in back yard of the house next door)
  3. Rock Dove (roosting on purple martin birdhouse in yard next door)
It was a clear sky with little wind and temperature about 65.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Most Common Austin Birds

From the Travis Audubon Society

These birds are highly likely to be found in Austin at all times of year. We have indicated our first sightings of each in square brackets.
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture [sighted 1/12/2008 in flight over our neighborhood]
  • Kildeer
  • Rock Pigeon [sighted 1/9/2008 in a nearby shopping area]
  • White-winged Dove [two sighted 1/12/2008 in trees in our neighbor's yard]
  • Mourning Dove
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Carolina Wren
  • Bewick's Wren
  • Northern Mockingbird [sighted 1/12/2008 chasing a Northern Cardinal]
  • European Starling
  • Northern Cardinal [sighted 1/12/2008 in bushes at the edge of our yard, very close]
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Great-tailed Grackle [sighted 1/12/2008 on roof of neighbor's shed]
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • House Sparrow