Friday, January 15, 2016

Happenings at Bay Area Park: The Hungry Vultures

Part three of the series! Because I am behind on entries (you can add malfunctioning computers to my list of ailments!), please note that these events transpired on November 30th, 2015!

It's Bigfoot!

Alas, we could find no goose or mallards at the duck pond this fine day! Actually, there were no ducks there at all, not even the fairly numerous Muscovys. So we went in search of our favorite waterfowl, exploring other areas of the park, walking through mossy trees, disturbing half a dozen squirrels.

Finally, we found some Muscovys! My brother had brought along some bread especially for them.
After the Muscovys had been nibbling on the bread for a few minutes, I noticed something interesting: one Black Vulture had flown in to a nearby tree. It then flew to the ground, not too far away from us. Interesting!

It's but a vulture shape in the distance.
But then one more showed up. And then another. And another. They began to move closer to us.

They seemed to be looking around for food in the grass.
Their numbers grew, and suddenly, they were very close.

My brother threw a piece of bread towards them, and they were in on the action almost instantaneously.
The entire flock was galloping over to us at high speed.

I was immediately struck but how very differently vultures move from the other birds I'm used to watching. This was my first close encounter with wild vultures. Normally I see them soaring high in the sky, or settled down on a street lamp, or even standing at the roadside waiting for a chance to access roadkill; not running around on the ground by my feet.

Galloping seems like the only polite way to describe their movement. Skulking like a goblin would be another way I'd put it. I must confess to feeling a little creeped out by their sudden movements, all creeping gallops and hops, often moving about with heads ducked in and bodies held low to the ground, with the occasional long hop accompanied by a burst of wings. I couldn't help but feel slightly threatened, suddenly surrounded by this strange group of skulking winged goblins.

Their movement seems bold, their intentions sharp, their personalities dynamic.

I don't feel like words do them justice at all, so I implore everyone to watch this video, to get a better sense of what I'm talking about. Watch their intense flurries of activity and competition, at one moment bold and direct, at the next cautious and hesitant.

One of them landed on the trashcan right across from me. It only nibbled at the bag a little bit. These vultures got very close at times. One of them even came close enough that it could've touched my shoe.

You can see here that most of the ducks were finished with this frenzy, and began making their way down to the shore of Armand Bayou. The ducks laid down next to the water, their backs to us. The vultures stuck around.

I really loved watching them. It was something exciting, new, and entirely unexpected for us.
These vultures are fascinating birds that I found very entertaining to watch.

Also visiting us on this amazing day was a sizable flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds, which mixed occasionally with the Great-tailed Grackle flock. 

The red-wings are in there, if you look closely.

Here you can see the iridescent purple and blue of a male Great-tailed Grackle.
Another somewhat unexpected sighting were two tabby cats, one orange and one brown, slinking out of the bushes to go lounge in the parking lot. The original frenzy of the vultures was dying down almost as quickly as it had begun. Many had lost interest in the bread, and the flock began to fan out. A few of the vultures went in the direction of the parking lot cats, and I watched with interest, wondering how far the cats would let these birds approach.

Turns out the answer is: pretty close! And here's where I put in a little note of remorse about how one should always take good notes when you're out in nature observing, because you may think you're going to remember everything that happened, and, oh, you're gonna write that blog post in two days tops, all the details will get in there. But then you're sick and busy and months go by and you forgot what transpired between the cats and the vulture. Did the vultures seem interested in the cat? How much was the cat ignoring them? Did the cat walk away at this point, or did the vultures never get closer than this? All lost now because I didn't write it down right away.

Another thing I didn't make strong enough note of is that one of the vultures seemed very slightly different from the other, both in appearance and in some behaviors, and I thought this might be a young individual. But having not noted down exactly what those differences were, I can't report them here, and it now only counts as yet more lost information.

In the following picture you can see that a few vultures just decided to sit in the grass!
One of them even laid down completely!

Even they slowly began to gather together in the nearby tree, lining up on the branches one by one. At this point, we felt it was time to move on, finish our search for the goose, and head on home before it got too late.

Bird count for the day:
9 Black Vultures
8 Muscovy Ducks
50 Great-tailed Grackles
40 Red-winged Blackbirds
2 Mockingbirds
1 Anhinga
1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
12 unidentified gulls (they were too far)

We also saw three cats total, and one rabbit! I realized on this day too that I'd never bothered to count the squirrels that I see here, but it seems, at this point, a little unfair to just ignore them. Might start keeping track of that in my later adventures here.

I'd also like to point out that we have not seen the goose or the mallards here since mid November. We swung by several times in December to look for the goose especially, with no luck. Where did they go? Will they ever come back? It's a mystery.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Happenings at Bay Area Park: Seagull Frenzy

Being plagued by various illnesses and learning to navigate the maze of higher education has left me woefully behind on a lot of things, and blog posts are no exception! Now that months have passed by, I can review my notes and try to get back in the swing of things!
These are some Happenings at Bay Area Park (part 2 in a series!), from November 9th 2015!

The domestic swan goose still lurks on the premises. You can see him here, proudly surveying his terrain, while his four mallard friends have a little conference in the shadows.

These mallards frequently cluster together and quack to one another in soft voices. This happens suddenly and seemingly randomly. It's the same group of mallards that were present here two weeks ago. One is "wild" colored (with a greenish head), one is brown, and two are white -  and one of those has a poofy hat! These four stay together in a flock, and the mallards and the goose seem to hang out together quite a lot, with the goose following the mallards around, or the mallards following the goose. It's interesting to think that, without any other members of his own species around, this goose has perhaps found an adopted flock to be a part of.

Ah, yes: the reason we're here. (Pictured: Muscovy ducks, Franklin's Gulls, Great-tailed Grackles, Strange Human)
We're mostly visiting this park because it's a lovely place to eat lunch, and my little brother is very keen on interacting with birds. Of course one of the chief ways to get birds to interact with you is to start feeding them scraps of your lunch.

These are Franklin's Gulls (and one Great-tailed Grackle there in the back), in their winter plumage. This is not a typical year-round resident species for Texas, but a migratory one, passing through in the Spring and the Fall. Fifteen of them joined us for our lunch this afternoon.

These gulls were all pretty amicable...with one exception. You can spot the gull I'm talking about right here near the center, mouth open wide. This particular gull was ferocious. Rushing aggressively for the food, attacking any other gull that got in the way (even grabbing one by the neck for a few moments), and screaming more and more loudly and for longer periods of time as the feeding frenzy went on. The rest of the gulls were silent aside from some soft squealing calls, and didn't seem at all aggressive, not fighting with each other the way this gull was picking fights. In the video I'll be posting soon, you can see perfect examples of the fighting and screaming, and how the other gulls are just so much calmer. In addition to these behavioral differences, I couldn't see any white spots on this particular gull's wing tips, which lead me to believe that it might be a lone Laughing Gull in this flock of Franklin's Gulls. This theory is supported even further by reading the passages for these two species in The Behavior of Texas Birds by Kent Rylander (great book!), where the Franklin's Gull is noted to be gentle and non-aggressive, whereas "noisy, aggressive, and persistent" are all words used to describe the typical Laughing Gull. This brings our gull count to fifteen Franklin's, and one Laughing.

It seems that one lone grackle always managed to sneak his way into these pictures. They couldn't quite compete with the gulls, so they mostly stood on the sidelines, snatching food opportunistically. Or they ignored the frenzy entirely: the majority of the grackles were just foraging in the grass nearby.

I just like this one seagull backed by the sunlit fountain. Plus the duck face peeking in.

This Muscovy duck has such lovely yellow feet! These ducks were only slightly interested in the chicken scraps we had to offer, so they mostly just hung around the vicinity, nibbling at the occasional bits and pieces. I saw eight Muscovy ducks at the pond, and four in another part of the park, leaving us with a total of twelve seen.

A fantastic passerby to our feeding frenzy was this Great Egret, first spotted standing on the opposite side of the pond! It was not interested in the food we had to offer, sticking to the shoreline and ignoring us.

The following video shows one piece of the action for the day, including the egret walking by, and the one boisterous Laughing Gull in this flock of calmer Franklin's. In the background you can hear the grackles chattering.

Speaking of grackles, I counted thirty of them here at the pond, foraging in a loose flock. Most were wandering through the grass, looking around, occasionally picking at leaves or sticks. Whatever they were eating (small bugs, I assume?), I could never see it.

Great-tailed Grackles are gregarious birds with a highly varied diet. As most Houstonians know, they can make quite a living in a fast-food parking lot. Though most of them weren't all that interested in our fast food, foraging on their own instead, which gave me an impression of self-sufficiency. A grackle won't beg you for food, I guess, but a sea gull will.

Don't miss the grackle at the edge of the picture with a stick in his beak! Also note the way you can see all the way through a sea gull's nose.
These grackles are also one of my favorite examples of sexual dimorphism in birds, with males and females being vastly different sizes in addition to having different coloration. The big males with their long tails are obvious - seriously, they're show-offs! Rather than ever come to blows, they just engage in posturing contests with one another. I have witnessed these posturing showdowns personally in Ihop parking lots, and I've seen super poofy courtship dancing in Whataburger drive-throughs. I feel like I owe these grackles for making parking lots exciting.


An hour later, after the feeding frenzy was long over, we found the goose and the mallards taking an afternoon nap!

So asleep.
We were able to get very close to the goose without waking him up. He only opened his eye once to look at us. We didn't want to risk disturbing him too much, of course.

Another interesting visitor to the pond was this Black Vulture! It took a few sips of the water before flying away. A second vulture dropped by shortly afterwards!

As if really trying to showcase the variety of birdlife here at this little duck pond, twenty minutes after those vultures showed up, this cormorant appeared, drying their wings in the sun!

I also saw a small bird flycatching in a tree nearby, but I couldn't discern whether it was a wood peewee or a phoebe before I lost track of it for good. I also saw a Great Blue Heron on the Armand Bayou shore, a ladybug in some reeds, a Green Anole, four turtles in the bayou (two of those had red ears), and heard what sounded like chickadees.

There was one last strange thing waiting for us before we went home for the day: a red-eared slider in the parking lot!

My brother said he saw someone placing this turtle in the lot before they got in their car and drove away. These people had been kayaking. I'm not sure what the story behind this turtle is (why was he put here, if he was even put here at all?), but we were a little concerned about leaving a turtle in the street.

We picked up the little fellow and moved him closer to the bayou, so he could swim in if he wanted. A few minutes left alone, and into the bayou she had gone.

This concludes my park stories for November 9th (2015!). Check back soon for the third entry of this series, and a closer look at some of those Black Vultures!