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Beak of the Week - Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler ( Setophaga fusca ) Family: Parulidae The Blackburnian Warbler is a small songbird with a bright orange throat and face with a black crown, broad white wingbars, and a triangular ear patch. Females and juveniles are paler and yellower overall. They have a thin call that increases in speed that sounds like sleet-sleet-sleet-sleetee-sleeeee.  They live in woodland areas, specifically conifers in the summer and humid mountain forests in the winter.   They eat mostly insects and especially enjoy caterpillars.  During summer they will eat many caterpillars and sometimes beetles, ants, flies, and spiders.  During winter they will branch out and feed on some berries as well.  Blackburnian Warblers feed mostly in treetops, looking for insects along small branches. They will also search in dead leaf clumps or hover to take insects from the underside of leaves. Males tend to forage higher in the trees than females. Blackburnian Warblers will court the female by singing and p
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'Voices of a Flyway' in High Island, TX

I awoke well before dawn on April 6, 2019. A night of fitful, anxious sleep pushed me out of bed. After a year of planning, I was eager to start work at Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary in High Island, Texas. Walking about a quarter of a mile east into the sanctuary, I reached the rookery in the middle of Claybottom Pond. I placed my microphones next to the pond, scrambled up a small hill, nestled myself under a tunnel of trees, and pressed ‘Record’. Over the next 45 minutes in the pre-dawn light, I listened to the sounds of hundreds of water birds reverberate across the pond, through the trees, and into my headphones. It was a moment I’ll never forget. That recording was the first of hundreds my team and I would make on our 2,000+ mile journey from the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana to the Minnesota/Canada border. This effort was part of the ‘Voices of a Flyway’ project that I dreamt into existence over the previous year. Supported by National Geographic, our team of three followed a

Beak of the Week - American Kestrel

American Kestrel ( Falco sparverius ) Family: Falconiformes The American Kestrel is the smallest yet most numerous and colorful of the North American falcons. It was once referred to as the sparrow hawk because of its small size and its occasional sparrow snack. Unlike many raptors, which may prove difficult distinguishing male and females, it is quite easy to discern male and female kestrels. Both sport a white face with vertical black stripes and a short hooked bill, but the female has rufous orange wings while the male has blue-gray wings and an unbarred tail. Kestrels are found as far north as Canada down to South America’s Tierra del Fuego. In Texas, at least two subspecies occur as residents, F. s. sparverius and F s. paulus. Kestrels tend to avoid dense woodlands and can be found perching on power lines or fencing in open or lightly wooded spaces such as grasslands, deserts, parks, pastures, and urban/suburban areas. When spotted on a fence post or similar object you may be able

From Avian Absence to Bountiful Bird Haven: How One Yard Finally Got It Right

On Christmas Day 2018, my 7 year-old daughter joyfully opened a gift we had both long-awaited, that of a DIY birdhouse kit. I had envisioned a project we could complete together, one that would develop her budding interest in bird watching and give us something to do during the cold winter days ahead. Indeed, after applying a haphazard coat of brightly-hued paints - as only a first-grader can do - twisting in the tiny screws on every corner of the aviary abode, we hung 3 bird houses from our live oaks in the front yard. With noses pressed against the living room window, we eagerly anticipated a flurry of feathers and happy chirps. Yet, surprisingly, no birds arrived. A week went by, then a month, soon migrating flocks returned north and not one bird took an interest in the houses. Not a parent to shrug off a child’s genuine interest or attempt, I began wondering what could have gone wrong. I attempted to solve the problem with a trip to our local retail chain hardware garden c

Beak of the Week - Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler ( Setophaga petechia ) Family: Parulidae The Yellow Warbler is a small songbird with medium-length tails and a round head. The bill is relatively large for a warbler species.  Males are a bright yellow with reddish streaks on its underside.  Both males and females have yellow patches on their tail.  Their face is unmarked, allowing you to see their large black eyes.  Yellow Warblers will be near the tops of tall shrubs and small trees.  Common trees include willows, alders, and cottonwoods. They eat mostly insects and up to two-thirds of their diet may consist of caterpillars.  They also feed on mayflies, moths, mosquitoes, beetles, and damselflies.  Yellow Warblers will take insects from twigs and hover briefly to take insects from the undersides of leaves.  They forage from low levels up to the treetops.  Males tend to forage higher and in more open foliage than females. Yellow Warbler males will actively court females for 1-4 days.  They breed in shrubby thickets and

How to Start a Native Container Garden

I live in the southwest Houston neighborhood of Willow Meadows. We have a typical lot for the area, about 9,500 square feet, with about 2,500 square feet of backyard. There was a mature pecan tree along with a fig tree, citrus trees, a hibiscus, and a palm tree I had planted before I learned about the importance of planting native plants. I knew from a short-lived experiment with raised bed vegetable gardening that gardening requires constant attention and maintenance, so for my next project I wanted to create a landscape that was interesting, easy to manage, unlikely to be ruined by dogs or children, and of course bird-friendly. Enter: container gardens. Containers are great because it's easy to change plants out, keep weeds down, and add color and texture to your landscape. You don't need as many tools to plant in containers and native plants will do fine with any organic potting soil available in bags at the hardware store.  PLANNING I wanted the containers to sit on gravel,

Beak of the Week - Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite ( Ictinia mississippiensis ) Family:  Accipitridae Mississippi Kites arrive in spring from their winter homes deep in South America. A medium-sized hawk, the Mississippi Kite has long, narrow, pointed wings and a long black tail. The back is dark gray while the breast and belly are almost white. The head is pearly gray with a black mask surrounding red eyes. Adult male and female plumages look similar; juveniles are brown with heavy streaking on the breast.  An acrobatic flier, this kite glides, circles, and swoops as it pursues and feeds on airborne insects such as cicadas, dragonflies, katydids, beetles and grasshoppers. They typically hunt on the wing, capture their prey with their talons and consume prey while flying. While large insects make up the majority of their diet, Mississippi Kites will angle agilely and quickly to the ground to catch frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, and small birds. The call of the Mississippi Kite is a high-pitched, piercing, two-syllable