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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cold Case Costa's

Ten  or more years ago I was struggling to learn how to identify female and juvenile hummingbirds. It wasn't easy then, and it's only slightly easier now. 

For the past eighteen years I've kept a daily journal of what bird species I see at my oasis every day. In the year 2000 I had two Costa's at the oasis, one in September, and the other in December. With sketches accompanied by terrible photos, the Texas Birds Record Committee eventually accepted those sightings as official. At that time, they were only the 8th and 9th documented Costa's for Texas.

8th Texas record Costa's

9th Texas record Costa's

Then throughout December of 2002 I recorded seeing Anna's Hummingbirds. On the 30th, I added the entry, "1 ANHU or COHU". The same for the following day. At some point during the next few days I was pretty certain it was a Costa's and reported it to someone. I don't remember to whom, but it was before I had a computer or used the internet.

On January 4, 2003, I photographed the bird with whatever film camera I had at the time. Around that same time,  I was contacted by Eric Carpenter, who was doing a Texas Big Year that year, had heard about my Costa's, and wanted to come add it to his year list. He arrived on the evening of the 5th, spent the night in my guesthouse, and did not locate the bird the following day. I had seen it the previous day, but when Eric was there the weather had turned bitterly cold and windy.

All we saw that day were Anna's. I was pretty positive none were the same bird I had been calling a Costa's. No one but me ever saw the purported Costa's. Time passed, and my hectic life sped forward. At some point I sent my film off to some lab, and by the time I got it back, I had probably talked myself out of it being a Costa's. Both the 2000 year birds had purple gorget feathers, but in different parts of the throat, so that I knew they were different individuals, and were easy to identify. There were no purple gorget feathers on the 2002-2003 bird. I simply wasn't knowledgeable or confident enough to pursue the matter. 

 As was my habit at that time, when I photographed a bird whose picture I wanted to paste into my day journal, I left an empty place to add it later when it came back from the lab, with a notation of which species is to fill that space. In the case of this bird, I just sketched a hummer at a feeder to remind me. I had written "Costa's Hummingbird" as the page title, but at a later point changed that to "Broad-tailed." I'll explain. After all, no serious birder could mistake that bird for a Broad-tailed. That's what led me to "reopen the case."

Fast forward to the present. I was wondering if I'd ever had so many hummingbirds during a January as I had this year. I checked my ebird entries to see. (I had copied all my journal data to ebird.) That's when I noticed an entry for Broad-tailed in January of '03. I knew that had to be an error, so I pulled out my journal for that year and discovered my notations, such as "tail shorter than wings," which could only be describing a Costa's. And if that wasn't proof enough, there was a photograph covering a generic sketch, unmistakably a hummer of the family calypte, be it Anna's or Costa's. A few days ago I showed the photos to Kelly Bryan, the expert, and he says it's a Costa's. 

Explanation: In 2003 I experimented with keeping a journal in species order instead of chronological order. Disaster. So, apparently when I convinced myself that wasn't a Costa's, I repurposed that page for my 2003 Broad-tailed sightings, and changed the page heading, but left the notations. (No actual Broad-tailed sightings were entered on the page until April.) When my Costa's photo came back from the lab, I pasted it over where the generic hummer sketch was, assuming it had been ID'd as a Broad-tailed, and apparently ignoring the notations. Entering many years of data was daunting enough without taking the time to analyze the information contained in each entry. Today I couldn't make that mistake. It would jump out at me, but didn't then. 

The December 30-31 (2002) of the previous year had merely said ANHU or COHU, and was in a separate journal, already archived and forgotten. 

So now, in January 2013, I reported it belatedly to the TBRC. As luck would have it, Eric Carpenter is on the committee and remembers his visit well. If the committee does accept the report it'll have been the 13th Texas record (The one Kelly banded recently in Study Butte, once official, will then be the 35th Texas record.) 

While I do get an occasional juvenile male Costa's at the oasis, they've all had at least a couple of purple gorget feathers. Obviously, any without purple would have gotten overlooked by anyone but Kelly. He didn't make his first visit to the oasis until 2008.  Even the female that over-wintered near Study Butte/Terlingua a few years ago (2 winters in a row) had a few central purple gorget feathers. (See post label Costa's HU) The 2003 hummer was the only one I'd ever seen without any purple on it until this year's Study Butte one, which Kelly, not me, identified. 

Hopefully, the next one without purple on it won't get past me, even though as recently as my Oct 2012 juvenile male, it was Kelly who ID'd it, alas, not me. But I have a better excuse for missing that one. I had gotten to the oasis just before dark the night before, saw the Costa's, but without enough light to see the color of the gorget feathers. (It had lots of them.) Not getting good looks and seeing all the green on the sides I decided it had to be an Anna's. Then when Kelly arrived to band at daylight the next day, he immediately spotted it and knew what it was.

UPDATE: The TBRC did accept the ten year old sighting.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Great weather

It's so wonderful to have perfect weather in January. Things are decently green considering the time of year.

And one of the Red Yuccas is putting on a bloom. What next?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Collarless Dove

Here's a Collard-Dove without a collar. I'm thinking it's either a juvenile Eurasian Collared-Dove or an African Collared-Dove

Visitors to see the thrush didn't arrive until mid-afternoon and had a hard time getting quick looks at the thrush, but at least they did see it. I think one reason it's not eating grapes or coming to the feeder as much is because of all the recent rains and warm temperatures it's probably finding a feast of insects in the ground.

I didn't get much done outside today. There was a big influx of sparrows overnight. I worked/played at the computer most of the day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Most January hummers ever

Never had more than one or two hummers in January before so this is a real treat. I'm certain I have 6-8 Anna's, plus 2 Rufous.

 female Anna's

 female Rufous

Before I know it Black-chinneds and Lucifers will be back to nest here. Probably in the last week of February.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Anniversary portrait

Today mark's the 3 month anniversary of the day I first had, and photographed, at the oasis, my lifer Varied Thrush. So it was only fitting that I take another photo of it today to commemorate the occasion..

October 20, 2012 - January 20, 2013

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Caught in the act, finally

Well, today I saw no other species nabbing grapes except a Northern Mockingbird, so the new feeding program is to quit with the grapes. I brought some cracked corn from Alpine today, and the Varied Thrush seems very happy with a diet of that. Meanwhile, I'm letting the mockingbird finish off the rest of the grapes.

Kelly Bryan has his 2012 hummingbird banding report posted to his website now. Here's the link to it.

I think it's exciting. When you plug away, banding session after banding session, you don't realize the importance (I don't anyway), but when he gets the data organized, it's quite impressive. I'm proud to be part of the team.

Of course, the one time I had to miss for road work, he got the state's 35th documented Costa's.

Photo by Kelly Bryan taken during banding Jan 14.
 I went down yesterday to photograph it, and was dismayed that I couldn't pick it out from the Anna's. So I just photographed everything I saw. Male Costa's are easier because they have at least one purple gorget feather.

Here's a photo (from the 120 I took) that Kelly said is the Costa's Hummingbird. Apparently the clean, unmarked throat is the most obvious feature.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Varied Thrush update

It's still here. It lacks just a couple of days of making it 3 months. Pretty awesome! Weekends attract quite a few visitors to the thrush. For those who come, the road has been worked some, so medium clearance should suffice.

It comes to this feeder under the dead cottonwood tree.

I hate that the can makes it hard to get a decent photo of the thrush, but I can't be there all the time and I don't want it to run out of sunflower seeds. All I could think of doing to keep that from happening is to fill a trash can with holes punched along the bottom. It's weighted and staked and so far javelina haven't ravaged it, although they try nightly. The thrush simply will not ascend to the hanging seed or grape feeders. You can sit fairly close to the feeder if you're still. In early morning or late afternoon it's pretty reliably seen. If it comes for grapes a good photo is much easier. You might have to sit still a couple of hours waiting though.

Today for the first time, I observed a mockingbird stealing a grape from the feeder, so I can no longer gauge the thrush's grape consumption. Quite frankly, I'm surprised it took the mockingbird so long to discover the grapes were a food source that it would like.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Road work today

I had scheduled to go help Kelly Bryan band hummingbirds today, but when my husband volunteered to go work on the road in to the oasis, I opted to  help with that. I absolutely must be there when the work gets done or it's disaster. Not only is my back non-functional from raking the road, and picking up rocks, but I missed participating in banding the 35th Costa's Hummingbird for Texas. Bummer! But I'm really glad to have the road more passable. A bad rock slide is what spurred my husband to take action.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Great rain!

When I got to the oasis this morning I was pleasantly surprised to see 2.34" in the rain gauge. There was even a nice puddle in the wildlife pond, that had been dry for about 2 months now.

This rain will keep me from having to water for a couple of weeks, plus it put several inches of water in the tanks, which will last another couple of weeks, so that supplies me with water a month closer to rainy season. (The big tank is still full and won't have to be tapped for at least a month.) I'm good.

The Varied Thrush ate some cracked corn from the new feeder. He seems to have taken to the feeder just fine. I'm thinking maybe I'll have my sister just put out grapes every other day when I can't be here. That'll ease some of the pressure, anyway.

I tried putting out meal worms again. I'm sure the thrush was aware of them, but he didn't try any. As usual, the Curve-billed Thrasher made a pig of itself.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Snowstorm again!

I was stuck in Alpine during the last snowstorm and when I finally got down to the oasis I couldn't get up the big hill, Now I'm stuck in Alpine again,although it's just raining at the oasis so far. Yesterday no one was there to put out grapes for the thrush. This morning my sister couldn't make it up the big hill (too muddy), so she walked in to put out grapes. She's not a birder so I don't know if the bird is still there, but I presume it is. The sunflower seed feeder I made hadn't been breached by javelina so the thrush should have had access to seeds at least.

Meanwhile, I'm getting stir crazy here. I would have headed south if it wasn't for my dentist appointment in Odessa tomorrow, but you know where I'll be the day after.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


I do believe this is the longest I've ever seen snow remain on the ground at the oasis, but it's pretty much all melted by this evening.

I have to be gone at least two days this week with no one to put out grapes for the thrush. Today, given an abundance of sunflower seeds, it didn't eat any grapes. A visitor suggested that because the sunflower seeds have oil (fat) in them, which is more calorie-dense than the (mostly) carbohydrates in the grapes, the seeds might be better in cold weather for keeping warm.

Anyway, I was getting really stressed so I scrounged around and found an old trash barrel, punched holes along the bottom, and filled it half full with sunflower seeds. Then I tied and staked it as best I could to keep javelina from ravaging it. Hopefully, that will keep the thrush supplied with sunflower seeds while I'm gone.

Friday, January 4, 2013

It only looks like Christmas

When I heard it was going to get down to 9° tonight I felt compelled to leave Alpine and head for the oasis to do some preparations for that extreme temperature. There were no tracks on the road after I left the blacktop, so I knew it wasn't good. With backing up and making tire-burning runs up the little arroyos, I made it as far as my big hill.

From there I took out everything that dare not freeze (mealworms, cameras, groceries, etc) and toted it all up the hill in 4 trips. Then I used my satellite phone to call my sister to come get me at the top of the hill. She comes from the other direction. What an ordeal! At least when all this snow melts I won't have to water for a couple of weeks.

Alpine snowstorm

There's a lot of snow on the ground right now, about 4-6 inches. When my husband opened the door this morning an Eastern Phoebe flew in. It took us a long time to get it shooed out. One of his indoor perches was in this Norfolk Pine. I always knew that tree must be good for something.

Very cold Allen's Hummingbird this morning.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Three Rufous Hummers

I've had at least 3 Rufous Hummingbirds here for some time now. When I entered them into the Ebird database they got flagged and I was asked for more details. So I took photos of each this morning and sent them to the reviewer. You can read a couple of the band numbers on the second one.

Caught the White-crowned Sparrow with a meal worm but it was too fast for a good photo.

The thrasher stays and empties the bowl, but the sparrow grabs one and is gone in less than a blink.