Share with other members stories about your memorable encounters with birds, favorite bird books and other media, and funny or educational tidbits about birds you have discovered. Some of the BAS board members have started the sharing process by writing about their “spark” bird that set them on the path of bird appreciation and conservation. We invite you to share your stories by submitting them to Webmaster@bexaraudubon.org.
What Was Your "Spark" Bird?
Patsy Inglet: When I was five years old, we moved next door to my Dad’s mother—Ma as I called her. I seemed to always be over at her house (there was no Kindergarten back then), and she loved to teach me things: how to count to 100 in German; how to iron pillowcases; how to recite poems. Above all, she loved nature and all its creatures, especially birds, which she said share their happiness with us through their songs. One day, Ma found a mockingbird in the yard that had been injured—how she didn’t know. One of its wings wouldn’t work right, so it couldn’t fly away. She rescued the bird and together we created a place for it to get better on her screened-in back porch. She taught me how to be kind and gentle and even showed me how she could splint the injured wing so it could heal. I got to feed the bird sometimes, and all three of us would “dance” to the little songs that Ma would sing—bouncing up and down to the rhythm. As time went by, the injured wing did heal, and one day we took the bird outside and released it back into the wild. Ma said that nature would take care of it now—that we had done all we could. Maybe that’s why I became a teacher and a dancer. Maybe it was the spark that now has flamed into my passion for birds and their conservation all these many years later. And why the sassy Northern Mockingbird’s song always makes me think of Ma and our happy times together.
Anne Parrish: The bird that sparked a feeling of thrill in me for the first time was the Black-necked Stilt. When I first encountered this bird, it was in the 1990s at Mitchell Lake. Its regal strut in the skim of water in the wetlands there captured my imagination. This bird’s black and white “tuxedo” coat feathers and its specialized beak designed to probe the mudflats for food made me yearn to protect that special spot so the bird would still have a home in Texas. And that is what it is all about actually, each of us finding a special spot on Earth to nurture and protect. Because, after all, every place on Earth is someone’s or something’s home and the Black-necked Stilts still make theirs at Mitchell Lake in South San Antonio. Photo by Ansen Seale.
All Things Birds
BAS President Patsy Inglet is writing a series of articles about different bird species for the Alamo Area Master Naturalist (AAMN) newsletter. The articles are added here after they run in the AAMN newsletter.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!
(Part 1 of 3)
The birds in the Cuckoo family (Cuclidae) that live in our part of Texas do NOT sound like the clock that hangs by my backdoor: that’s the sound of the Common Cuckoo of Eurasia, where the clocks originated. But the three Central Texas species that will be featured in this 3-part series ARE a wonderfully diverse and interesting bunch of, well, cuckoos.
First up: the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus):
Familiar to many cartoon fans as the nemesis of Wile E. Coyote, the roadrunner’s real natural history is much more amazing. Roadrunners are ground cuckoos that live in hard scrabble arid country and thrive with adaptations including solar panels above their tails and a gland in front of the eye to excrete excess salt. They will eat literally anything: rattlesnake rattles and lizard scales, insect bodies and wings, bird feathers and bands, and bat teeth have all been found in roadrunner stomachs.
Called paisano—“friend or pal”—in South Texas because of their habit of following a person on horseback, roadrunners are actually catching the critters that the passing human disturbs. Pairs maintain a long-term pair bond, renewing their vows annually with an elaborate courtship display, after which they both incubate the eggs and raise the young.
The roadrunner’s distinctive X-shaped footprints are used as sacred symbols by Pueblo tribes to ward off evil. UTSA has chosen Rowdy the Roadrunner as the school mascot. Rather than the bogus “Beep-Beep,” the male roadrunner’s call sounds like a puppy left alone in a dark box—whiney and pitiful.
(Part 2 of 3)
Next up in our cast of cuckoo characters: the Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris).
This plain-looking black bird, common in open savanna and pastureland of Central and northern South America, has the eponymous “grooved bill,” which gives these birds a distinctive “Roman nose” look to the beak. Their genus name means “tick eater,” and indeed they are connoisseurs of both arachnids and insects, which they often catch by following cattle. They move through vegetation with their long tail swishing in a totally ungainly fashion, which is also helpful in revealing their prey. The Groove-billed Ani is common in the New World tropics, but it is uncommon in Texas, where it occurs only in the southern part of the state. When in South Texas, take a closer look at all “Great-tailed Grackles.” If the beak is big and grooved, it’s NOT a grackle.
The really cool thing about these birds, which breed at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center in the summer, is their communal approach to raising their young. Groups of 1-5 breeding pairs defend a single territory and lay their eggs in one communal nest. All group members incubate the eggs and care for the young. It take a village! Their call comes close to sounding like a cuckoo—sort of a high-pitched squeak toy version of the bird in the clock.
(Part 3 of 3)
FINALLY, a cuckoo with the name: Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)—which translates as American Cuckoo.
Summer residents throughout Texas, the bird’s presence is often revealed by its hollow, wooden call. Dubbed the “raincrow” because of its apparent tendency to call more frequently on cloudy days, its proficiency as a predictor of the weather remains unproven. Their dietary preferences are unusual; they are one of the few species that will eat hairy caterpillars like tent caterpillars, that other birds shun. One bird’s meat is another’s bird’s poison.
The breeding cycle is extremely rapid: it requires only 17 days from egg-laying to fledging of young. Born naked, bursting feather sheaths allow nestlings to become fully feathered within two hours! Yellow-billed Cuckoos are sometimes nest parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other species such as American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds. Curiouser and curiouser.
Yellow-billed Cuckoos are fairly common in the East but have become rare in the West in the last half-century due to much of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo’s riparian habitat being converted to farmland and housing. As long-distance, nocturnal migrants, Yellow-Billed Cuckoos are vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines, and other structures. The western population is a candidate for federal endangered status.
Bob Dylan sang about the cuckoo—and other issues—in the traditional Scot-Irish song from the 1840s, which of course was written about the Old World bird. The Dance of the Cuckoos was used as the theme song of Laurel and Hardy films. Wonder why?
Here’s to Cuckoos Everywhere!
San Antonio runner sees Golden-fronted Woodpecker on trail and comes up with idea for his company's name! Read about it here.
Curious about avian pox? A question about avian pox was recently posted in the SATXBirds Google Group chat forum. Intrepid San Antonio birder Brad Wier did some research and found a website with information about the disease and how to prevent it. Here's what he found:
- Mosquito control and elimination of breeding sites is an important aspect of poxvirus transmission prevention.
- Avian pox spreads easily where birds congregate, like bird feeders.
- If you need a different approach to bird feeding, native plants make an excellent substitute — various seasonal sunflowers, wildflowers, grasses, and others produce plenty of seeds.
- When outbreaks occur, bird feeders, baths, and cages should be decontaminated with a 10% bleach and water solution (9 parts water:1 part bleach).
Click here to learn more.
San Antonio resident Art Madden photographed this white bird with pink legs sitting at his backyard feeder and the photo was posted to the Google group SATXBirds on July 1, 2020, leading to a discussion of what species the bird was and whether it was albino or leucistic. The concensus was that the species is House Finch and the bird is leucistic rathern than albino. Definitions of both terms are shown below.
Albinism: Birds that lack the color pigment melanin have a genetic mutation that results in the lack of an enzyme called tyrosinase (ty-RAHS-in-ayse) essential to producing melanin; this condition is called albinism. These birds are often pure white, but in some cases an albino bird might still have yellow or orange feathers. Birds have multiple pigments other than melanin; for example, colors such as yellow or orange are carotenoid pigments, rather than melanin ones, so they can still express in birds with albinism. The true test of whether a bird is an albino is in its eyes. The lack of melanin allows blood vessels to show through, causing the eyes of albinistic birds to be bright pink or red. A bird is a true albino if its feet, legs, bill, and eyes are pale pink or red. Genetics determine true albino birds: Both parents have to carry the uncommon recessive genes that produce rare pure white offspring. Albino House Finch is shown at right.
Leucism: Often confused with albinism is a lesser-known genetic condition called leucism (pronounced LUKE-ism), in which not just melanin but other color pigments may be reduced as well. Unlike albinism, leucism doesn’t completely eliminate pigment. Leucistic birds may appear lighter than normal but aren’t fully white. Sometimes these birds are pale, with an overall lightening of their coloring. In other cases, leucism can result in a bird being pied or piebald—with white patches across its body. Because they don’t fully lack melanin, leucistic birds have normal-colored eyes rather than the pink or red eyes of albinos. Leucistic birds are sometimes referred to as having “partial albinism.” This is a misnomer; there is no such thing as a partial albino. A bird referred to as a partial albino is really a leucistic bird.
You are much more likely to see a leucistic bird than an albinistic one. Keep an eye out for birds that have white patches or washed-out plumage. It could be a bird of any species. Still interested in knowing more? Click HERE.
Brad Wier, Field Investigator at San Antonio Water System, shared this not-so-happy story about an incident that took place in May, 2020:
At a customer’s garage, a fluttering commotion under the car turned out to be a poor Northern Mockingbird stuck in a glue trap. (They’d placed traps in the corners by the garage door and the bird stopped by to pick at the stuck beetle and gecko buffet.)
Eventually the bird flopped out from under the car into the scorching driveway to where I was standing, dragging the trap and his body behind. Nothing I could do but reach down to try to free his feet. He was forced to tolerate this, though it had to be painful; he left no skin behind at least. He was able to free his other leg while I held the trap down and managed to fly off towards Briggs Ranch, minus all his tail feathers and a few others. According to my web research, these birds are usually euthanized at animal rescue.
His leg had all the heft of a stem of basil.
Glue traps. Bad.
San Antonio "Vagrant Traps"
A woman who had recently returned to SA after many years away and is now becoming an avid birdwatcher wrote the SATXBirds Google Chat group asking if there are any spots that aren't on the radar where rare species (or anything besides common backyard birds) can be seen.
Local expert birder Bob Doe wrote the following reply:
When I started birding 45 years ago, I was told by some very good birders, "If you want to get a large life list, visit many places, or visit one place very regularly." Almost any local birding spot will provide rare or unusual birds occasionally. Some locations, such as Mitchell Lake, have a long history of attracting rarities and vagrants. But almost anywhere will be productive periodically. I believe that the secret to finding rarities is to get out there frequently. With that said, here are some of my favorite "vagrant traps":
Mechler/Jungman Roads (including the Gross Lane crossing of the Medina River): Most local birders are familiar with this site as a reliable location for Burrowing Owl (every year since the late 1990's, although the birds are sometimes "1 day wonders"), but my list of rarities there is quite extensive: Snow Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Wood Duck (breeding occasionally), Wild Turkey, Least Grebe (in a flooded roadside ditch), Wood Stork, White-tailed Kite, Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Harris' Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Merlin (annually), Peregrine Falcon, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Mountain Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Dunlin, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Snipe, Short-eared Owl, Burrowing Owl, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe, Cassin's Kingbird, Chihuahuan Raven, Horned Lark (intermittent breeder), Violet-green Swallow, Sedge Wren, Sage Thrasher, Sprague's Pipit, Chestnut-Collared Longspur, McCown's Longspur, Prothonotary Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Lark Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow (regular breeder), Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Red Crossbill. Fall, Winter, and Spring seem to be the best seasons. Many times, the area will appear virtually birdless, but regular visits will turn up rarities.
Calaveras and Braunig Lakes: Best known as a breeding site for Least Bittern (locally common breeder here), these lakes are worth a visit at any time of year. Brown Pelican and Bald Eagle can occur at any time. These lakes can be interesting following landfalling tropical systems: Magnificent Frigatebirds and Sooty Terns are the "expected" storm birds, but I have also seen Bridled Terns, Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Long-billed Curlew following storms. Apart from storms, I have seen Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, and Reddish Egret. Winter can be interesting with unusual duck and geese (Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser) and gulls (Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine's Gull, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull). My most unusual landbird was a Chestnut-collared Longspur.
Government Canyon State Natural Area: Before this area was open to the public, I and other birders did an initial bird survey of the area. We had consistent sightings of Canyon Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, and Cactus Wren. The habitat has been modified since we did the survey, and these species are no longer present, although I still hold out hope. White-tipped Dove has been present for the past few years (summers). Zone-tailed Hawk is believed to breed. Common Poorwill has been heard just outside the area and probably occurs in GCSNA. Unusual warblers are occasionally reported during migration, and this area would seem a likely area to search for western vagrants. I have heard of a report of a Gray Vireo, and the first Bexar County record of Hutton's Vireo was from GCSNA. There used to be a breeding population of Field Sparrows, but I don't know if they are still present.
Crescent Bend Natural Area: This former residential area is a must visit location, particularly in migration and winter. One of the highlights are the woodpeckers: 8 species have been documented, along with a couple of hybrids; 20+ species of warblers occur during migration, along with vireos, flycatchers, orioles and other passerines. Good place to look for Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper during winter.
Avenue A and Brackenridge Park: Historic vagrant trap, particularly in migration. Most passerine migrants on the county list have been seen here.
Botanical Garden: The Gardens seem to attract more than their share or rarities, either in migration or overwintering.
Mission Reach, San Antonio River: Since Martin Reid has been doing a bird survey along the restored Mission Reach, he has turned up a surprising number of rarities. This is another area that may yield only "common" birds most of the time, but turns up real rarities occasionally.
Irresistible Suet Recipe
Ron Tietz, who has a ranch near Concan, has shared his personal recipe for gourmet bird suet. Here’s what he had to say about it:
“The suet you buy in stores is usually beef suet and some seeds. Very dull. I Googled suet recipes and decided to combine some ingredients from several recipes. I experimented and have altered the recipe over the years. I first decided to put out suet to attract insect-eaters like woodpeckers. I found out that ALL birds like it: Cardinals, Summer Tanagers, and even Orioles. I can barely make enough.
Here's the recipe, with preparation tips from Ron: (It's a lot of trouble. Most people don't want to spend the time to make it):
1 Cup Lard (I discovered that beef suet is too hard to come by and not easy to use.)
1 Cup Smooth Peanut Butter
1 Cup Raw Unsalted Peanuts (I grind these in a small food processor; I get them in 5-lb. bags from Bertie County Peanuts, Phone (800) 457-0005.)
2 Cups Instant Oatmeal (If it's not instant, I grind it in a food processor.)
2 Cups Cornmeal
1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 Cup Raisins (I grind these in a small food processor with about 2 Tbs. of very hot water; otherwise, it's a sticky ball.)
Lately I have been adding about a Tbs. of brown sugar, assuming the Orioles would like it better.
1 Cup Water
- Melt the lard in a deep stainless steel pot on low to medium heat. (My ranch stove is electric.)
- Add peanut butter and mix. (Be careful not to splatter the hot mixture on you. I use a heavy plastic spatula.)
- Mix in peanuts.
- Mix in raisins.
- Then oatmeal.
- Then cornmeal.
- Then flour. (By this time it's very thick and difficult to mix.)
- Add the water and mix. (The dry mixture needs to be hot so the suet is sorta cooked. The water makes it sticky.)
- Place in a rectangular Pyrex dish (about 7"x12") and compress with a heavy metal spatula. Cover with plastic wrap & let cool.
- Once cool, cut into 6 squares with a small sharp knife and place the dish in the fridge for 3-4 hours.
- Then place the dish in a small amount of hot water in the sink for <1 minute to loosen the suet. Use the metal spatula to separate and remove each piece.
- Wrap suet in plastic wrap and refrigerate. I guess it can be frozen, but I go through at least a batch a week so I just refrigerate it.
- Put the suet blocks in a suet feeder and watch it disappear.
Each batch takes about 25 minutes to make; don’t attempt to double this recipe in one batch—the mix is heavy and thick and it gets way too difficult to stir.