Birds

Wildlife Wednesday: Eastern Screech Owls

Wildlife Wednesday:  Screech Owls – Predators in Your Backyard

When we lead people through the park at night, the star of the show is usually the diminutive and active Eastern Screech Owl. Many visitors are enraptured, and tell us that it’s the first time they’ve seen an owl in the wild. In fact, most people don’t even know that we had owls here in Bellaire… that they had owls right in their own backyards.

I felt the same way, when I was starting my career as a naturalist. I didn’t realize that owls were living their lives, nesting, hunting, and raising their young right in the midst of where I was living and working. In fact, Screech Owls are very common urban/suburban owls, making a living wherever trees and small prey are available.

The Eastern Screech Owl is the smallest owl species you’ll see in the Houston area, and the most common. As you’d expect with owls, they’re nocturnal and predatory. These owls feed on a wide variety of small prey; such as lizards, snakes, small birds, and large insects (including large flying cockroaches). Much of this small prey is surprisingly abundant in urban areas, and so are Screech Owls.

They nest in tree cavities; usually abandoned woodpecker nests or holes formed from broken branches. Screech owls also take well to nest boxes, placed in trees by helpful humans. They’re territorial birds, establishing a zone around their nests from which they’ll attempt to exclude other screech owls. The mothers stay in the nest during the day, while the father finds a secluded roost in a tree nearby. At night, both parents hunt for prey to feed the chicks. In some parts of the screech owl’s range, the parents may add a live blind snake to the nest, to help control ants and other small insects.

Here in our 4 acre park, we usually get 3 breeding pairs. They begin nesting as early as January, and may care of their young as late as the Summer, though the young usually fledge from the nest around May.
We more often hear Screech Owls, than we see them. Though we may think of owls hooting, many species of owl don’t hoot at all. Screech Owls make long soft trills, ghostly whinnies, and piercing screeches. Once I learned their calls, I realized that I had heard them calling from the trees near my apartment for years. And that’s the way it is with a lot of urban wildlife… We may encounter them in one way or another all the time, but may be totally unaware of sharing our environment with them.

If you want to encounter screech owls, you can go out at night in your neighborhood and listen for them. Perhaps you’ll even see one sitting on a tree branch, looking for prey. Have a look at these YouTube Videos, with common Eastern Screech Owl calls:

 

You can also join us here at the Nature Discovery Center for a guided night hike, looking for owls and other nocturnal animals in the park: a Family Night Hike on May 4th and an Adult Night Hike on May 19th.

For more info about Screech Owls or our programs and hikes, give us a call at 713-667-6550.

Eric Duran

Staff Naturalist
Nature Discovery Center

Photographs by Don Verser and Eric Duran

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Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

Wildlife Wednesday: The American Parrots

We don’t usually think of the United States as a place where you can find parrots. We think of them as tropical birds, flying around, squawking, and eating fruit in a lush humid rain forest far away. However, this country has parrots, here and there. At one time, we had at least 2 native parrots within what is now the borders of the U.S., one of them being common and widespread across 2/3 of the country. Currently, we are left with only a few introduced species scattered across various small areas. And so, today, we have a look at a few of these species of American parrots, past and present.

At one time, believe it or not, we had a common and colorful parrot, found across the central and Eastern United States, ranging from Southern New England, west to Colorado, and south to Texas along the Gulf Coast to the tip of Florida. The Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) could be found in temperate and sub-tropical areas of the country, and was the Northernmost parrot in the Americas. They ate mostly large seeds and small fruits. Its thought that their habit of eating poisonous cocklebur seeds may have made the birds themselves poisonous, protecting them from predators. These parakeets were gregarious, living in groups of 200-300 birds. They nested in old hollow trees, using species such as Sycamore and Bald Cypress, in old growth forests, along the edges of wetlands.

We could have seen this bird right here in Houston, if you had been here 150 years ago. Sometime in the mid 1800s though, the birds began to decline, and by 1918, the last known bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo… America’s gorgeous, gregarious, and relatively common parrots were extinct. The cause of extinction is thought to be a combination of factors that came along with European settlement and increasing population across the country. Logging of old growth forests and over-hunting for the millinery trade (feather’s for women’s hats)  were the driving forces that lead to losing this beautiful bird.

Another bird that we have lost in the United States is the endangered Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), which thankfully still persists in the Sierra Madres of North-western Mexico. This large green and red parrot was once found in mixed oak and conifer forests in Arizona and New Mexico, and wandered occasionally to Utah and west Texas. Deforestation, general habitat disturbance, and over-hunting lead to dramatic declines, and the last reports of the birds in the U.S. (in SE Arizona) were in the mid 1930s. In the 1980s, the government attempted to reintroduce them to SE Arizona, but dramatic changes in habitats and intense human settlement doomed the project to failure. Most of the introduced birds fell victim to predators or left for Mexico, and the project of bringing them back to the U.S. was abandoned.

Today, parrots present in the United States are mostly introduced species, released and escaped pets. Here in Houston, as well as in NY, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other urban areas across the Eastern half of the country, Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) aka “Quaker Parrots” have taken a foothold. This is our most common introduced parrot, and it fills some of the niches of the extinct Carolina Parakeet, feeding on seeds and grain, and nesting in large colonies. Their huge group nests can be seen in power line towers around the city, including right here in Bellaire. They can be seen feeding at bird feeders and on lawns nearby, as well as on Green Ash seeds here at the Nature Center.

Besides Monk Parakeets, and the occasional escaped Budgie, released Red-masked parakeets live in San Francisco, and various species of Amazon parrots live in South Texas and Southern Florida. Red-crowned parrots and Green Parakeets nest in the most Southern parts of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, though its not clear if they are released pets, or whether Mexican populations have begun to creep slowly into the U.S.

Though you can no longer see Carolinas or Thick-bills in the U.S., you can see Monk Parakeets here in the park, in the trees in front of Whole Foods in West University, and in the power line right of way between Newcastle and Weslayan on Bellaire, on warmer days. If you get a chance, get out and experience these delightful little parrots for yourself.

Thanks for joining us, and see you in the park!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

If you’d like to know more about local birds, or birds int he park, feel free to email: eduran@naturediscoverycenter.org

images: Illustration by John James Audubon (1833); Carolina Parakeet – James St. John | Wiki; Thick-billed Parrot – Tim Lenz | Wiki; Monk Parakeets – Tamara K. | Wiki; Red-crowned Parrot – Roger Moore | Wiki

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Wildlife Wednesday: Winter Birds at Russ Pitman Park

Wildlife Wednesday: Winter Birds at Russ Pitman Park

We have finally entered our winter bird season here on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and here at the Nature Discovery Center (in Russ Pitman Park). Most of our Fall migrants have flown through and moved on to South Texas, Mexico, and Central America, and many of the birds that spend the winter in our area have begun to arrive. On today’s Winter Bird Walk, and in previous days, we’ve seen some of these much anticipated birds feeding and singing in the park, many right out in the front yard area. Today, we take a look at a few of these recently seen wintering bird species.

Pine Warblers (Dendroica pinus) breed in the Eastern United States from East Texas to New England, but we don’t really have them here in the Houston area until winter. As the name would suggest, the bird is heavily associated with Pine Trees, where they nest and search for food under pine bark and in pine cones. They have a varied diet of seeds, berries, and insects. As with most new world wood warblers, the males are more vibrantly colored than the females.

Orange-crowned Warblers (Oerothlypis celata) are another winter warbler for the Houston area. They nest and raise young in the Western U.S., Canada, and Alaska. The yellowish males are fairly dull colored for wood warblers, and the females are even drabber in coloration. The western populations are somewhat less colorful even than the more yellowy Eastern populations. The male does occasionally show off a small dark orange patch on the top of the head, when excited, but the orange crown is usually unseen. Orange-crowned Warblers feed on berries, insects, and flower nectar. We sometimes see them feeding at hummingbird feeders in the park during the winter.

We also find Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) feeding on sugar water from hummingbird feeders in our park during the winter. The small gray birds are easily recognized with their black and white wing bars, but the small ruby colored crest on the top of the head is not always easy to spot. When the birds are active and excited they may raise it up for you. They are bold little birds, often approaching birdwatchers out of curiosity or to scold them away. They’re common here in the winter, but during the breeding season, they completely disappear from this part of the country, as they breed in the Rocky Mountain corridor of the Western United States, through much of Canada, and Alaska. They feed on flower nectar, insects, tree sap, and berries.

One of our favorite winter woodpeckers is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), which feeds on tree sap by making holes or sap wells in a variety of trees. They maintain these patches of sap wells, pecking at them occasionally to keep them running, and defending them from other birds. The males are more colorfully marked than the females, and they can be somewhat territorial, even in winter. These lovely woodpeckers also feed on the insects that come to consume the sap from the wells. Sapsuckers know to make different shaped sap wells for different species of tree, as various saps have different viscosities and flow rates.

So, those are a few of the winter birds we’ve seen more recently at the Nature Center as of late, and hopefully, you can come out to the park soon and see some of them for yourself. Remember, its not just parks that have wintering birds, you probably have them visiting your yard, as well. Birdfeeders and bird baths are a great way to invite them them close to your home.

Our next two guided Winter Bird Walks are January 10th & February 7th, from noon to 1:30 PM. (Find out more here.)

Thanks for joining us this week. See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Top – Eastern Bluebird and Pine Warbler by John Flannery | Flickr; Pine Warbler – Andy Morffew | Flickr; Orange crowned Warbler – Andrew Reding | Flickr; Ruby crowned Kinglet – Fyn Kind | Flickr; Yellow bellied Sapsucker – Dominic Sherony | Wikimedia

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Wildlife Wednesday: Fall Bird Migration

Wildlife Wednesday: Fall Bird Migration

Autumn is a great time to head outdoors and experience all kinds of migrating animals, creatures heading South for the winter. This week, we thought we’d focus on fall migrating birds that we’ve seen recently at the Nature Discovery Center. It really is an excellent time to head outside to find birds that we don;t normally see around the Houston area.

Fall is a time when many more northern hawks return to the Houston area, and one of the hawks we see here in great numbers is the Broad-wing Hawk (Buteo platypterus). Broad-wings nest and raise young across the Eastern United States, and then funnel through Texas during the fall to overwinter in Mexico, Central America and South America. These predators feed on a wide variety of smaller animals, like rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, and large insects. We usually see them flying high over the park during fall migration, but they occasionally perch on a high branch to rest for a bit, as well. They’re best seen from the open areas of the park.

The New World Warblers aka Wood Warblers are one of the groups that birdwatchers most look forward to seeing during Spring Migration, with their bright colors. Warblers don;t migrate through in the same concentrations in the Fall, but we do get plenty of them on good migration days. Wilson’s Warblers (Cardellina pusilla) have been passing through the park the last couple of weeks. These bright yellow warblers are fading into their drabber winter plumage now, but are still adorable. They nest in Canada, Alaska, and the Pacific NW of the United States, and pass through our area during Spring and Fall migration.

The wintering woodpeckers have begun to pass through our area as well, with the recent sightings of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers () in the park. Though Flickers do nest to the East and North of the city, we really only get them here in the park during migration and in the winter. These large brown un-crested woodpeckers are easily told apart from other similarly sized woodpecker species. They spend more time on the ground than other native woodpeckers, looking for food, and can be heard loudly rapping on dead wood and calling ki ki ki ki ki through the forest and across neighboring yards.

Thanks for joining us this week to have a look at a few birds that have recently passed through the park as part of their Fall migration. If you get a chance, come out some day, and wander the park with a pair of binoculars and have a look for yourself.

 

Thanks so much, see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top hawk – Patty McGann | Flickr; Hawk – Brian Henderson | Flickr; Warbler by Michael Woodruff | Wikimedia; Flicker by Jerry McFarland | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Wildlife Wednesday: Mosquito Eating Animals

Certainly, one of the hardships of living along the Gulf Coast of Texas in Summer is enduring the large and numerous mosquitoes. The nuisance and potential threat of mosquito borne diseases drives us to seek solutions, some of which are deleterious to local eco-systems and non-harmful native wildlife. There are already a number of native animals who help us everyday with mosquito control. We just need to help them out, and provide them with habitat near our homes and workplaces to get them to make our warmer months a little more mosquito free. Today, we take a look at 3 species that help keep mosquito population under control.

Bats eat an incredible number of insects every night, and one of the better known species of bat in the Houston area is the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). Along with other species, like the Evening Bat and the Little Brown Bat, they emerge from their daytime roosts every night to feed on a wide variety of insects. Mexican Free-tails in some part of the country are migratory, and go as far South as Brazil to spend the winter. Most of population in Houston stays for the winter and goes dormant when temperatures start to drop into the lower 50s. They roost in attics, cracks in the sides of buildings, and under bridges, amongst other places. A good place to see 1000s of them at once, is at the Waugh Bridge Colony (click link to find out more) off of Allen Parkway, where they will make a nightly emergence, again, as along as temperature are above the low 50s.

Another winged animal friend that helps control mosquitoes, by feeding on them is the Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica). These little sooty black birds look very much like bats or little black boomerangs with heads, flitting around and squeaking overhead. Especially noticeable at the end of the day, as they fly lower and approach their night time roosts, they can sometimes be seen in great numbers together. As deforestation destroyed many of the hollow tree snags and dead branches where Chimney Swifts nested and roosted, they moved into nesting in chimneys and open towers, which for many years worked well for them. Continued deforestation and the practice of closing off chimneys and other open tower like structures has led to a marked decline in their numbers. Over the last several years, people have begun to help them out by building “Swift Towers” in parks and on private sites, to provide adequate shelters for them. Drop by the park some time in the evening, to see one of our swift towers, where you just might catch a glimpse of them returning home.

Mosquitoes breed in still water, so in our ponds we make sure to have robust populations of Western Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). This is a species of native live-bearing top minnow, which feeds on the aquatic larvae of Mosquitoes. If you have enough Mosquitofish in your pond, you can be sure that you won’t get any adult mosquitoes coming out of it! Mosquitofish are part of any thriving native pond eco-system, and they’re delightful to watch as they swim near the surface of the water and feed on various small invertebrates.

These 3 species are just are all important lines of defense against the threat of mosquito hoards, and they’re all native species, which are important parts of our local habitats. By insuring them healthy local natural areas  and adequate habitats near and in human settlement, we can be assured that they will continue to help us keep mosquitoes in check!

Thanks for joining us, head out to the park sometime and see some of these creatures for yourself!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photographs: Top bats by USFWS/Ann Froschauer; Mexican Free-tailed Bat by USFWS Headquarters; Chimney Swift by USFWS; Mosquito fish by USFWS

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Wildlife Wednesday: Spring Migration

Wildlife Wednesday: Spring Migration

When people think of Spring migration, they usually think of bird migration. During Spring Migration, we see wood warblers, orioles, tanagers, buntings, thrushes, and other birds, returning from the neo-tropics (Central and South America) to their breeding grounds in North America. We refer to birds from temperate regions of North America, who overwinter in tropical America to the South of us as “Neotropical Migrants.”

Bird migration is well known, but what many may not know is that various species of butterfly and dragonfly also migrate South in the Fall, and return North in the Spring. Here’s a look at 3 species of migrants that pass through the park every Spring.

  

Photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service

Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) are bright citron yellow wood-warblers that nest in tree cavities, unlike most other species of warbler, which make more typical nests out of vegetation on tree branches. However, like most new world warbler species, they feed mainly on insects and other small invertebrates (caterpillars are an especially popular food item). These birds are usually associated with forested wetlands (swamps), where they nest and feed. During the breeding season, they’re found in the Eastern U.S. and SE Canada, and they overwinter in Northern South America, and the central Caribbean coast of Mexico. They are found nesting in swamps East and North of the Houston area, but we only get them in Russ Pitman Park during Spring Migration.

  

photographs: Dan Mullen | Flickr, Jim McCulloch | Flickr, and Henry Hartley | Wikimedia

Green Darners (Anax junius) are large dragonflies that leave their breeding grounds across North America to migrate South for the winter to Texas and Mexico. This is an exceptionally wide spread and common species of dragonfly, found breeding and feeding around still bodies of freshwater (mainly lakes, ponds, marshes, and swamps). They are highly predatory, taking wasps, spiders, butterflies, and even other dragonflies (including other Green Darners, at times). Large numbers of them are noticeable during fall migration, and they return to their breeding grounds during spring migration (though this late stage of the adult life cycle, and migration habits and patterns are not well studied nor well understood). Most species of dragonfly in North America do not migrate seasonally like this, but instead die off in the fall (leaving behind aquatic offspring to overwinter).

  

Photographs via: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service

Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexipus) are famously migratory butterflies, overwintering in mountain forests in Northern Mexico. They return to the U.S. in April, and undergo an annual migration cycle that is completed over 4 generations (with no single individual completing the entire migration cycle). Their geographic distribution and patterns of movement are actually somewhat complex, as a population, but here is a simplified overview of their migration.

Generation 1 hatches out in the Southern U.S., migrates to the Central U.S. then mates and dies.
Generation 2 hatches out in the Central U.S., migrates further north, then mates and dies.
Generation 3 hatches out in the North, migrates further North, then mates and dies.

Generation 4 hatches out in the far North, and then undertakes the longest leg of the migration, spending the Autumn migrating 1000s of miles back through the U.S. and down to Mexico, where they will spend the winter. In the Spring, they will migrate back to the Southern U.S., where they will mate, lay eggs, and die.

Meadows, wildflower gardens, and prairie are very important to Monarchs while migrating, as they will only lay their eggs on Milkweeds (genus Asclepias), which are found in these habitats.

Sometime this April, head out to the Nature Discovery Center, and see if you can spot one or all 3 of these Spring Migrants. If you’re interested in learning about more species of migrating birds, dragonflies, and butterflies, ask one of our helpful naturalists on site or feel free to email me with questions.

Thanks and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Top photo of male Blackburnian Warbler by Laura Gooch | Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: Birds Nesting in the Park

Wildlife Wednesday:  Birds Nesting in the Park

Spring is a time when flowers bloom, deciduous trees re-leaf, and the insects emerge from their winter hiding places. It’s also the time of year when we notice birds nesting and laying eggs. Today, during our hikes with students and birdwatchers, we noticed 3 sets of birds nesting in the park.

Eastern Screech Owls (Megascops asio) actually started nesting here in mid-winter, as they have for several years. Owls have to train their young to hunt, so they start the process of nesting earlier than other groups of birds, so they can spend more time getting them ready to live out in the world on their own. Our owls are most likely deep into the process of incubating eggs. Screech Owls are small, and a eat a wide variety of smaller animals (such as small snakes, lizards, birds, large insects, and spiders). In the evenings, you may hear them singing soft trills, whinnies, and less commonly, screeches, from the trees around the park.

They nest in tree cavities, like abandoned woodpecker holes and hollow branches. In our park, they raise their young in nest boxes, made specifically for them. We currently have 3 pairs of nesting Screech Owls in the park, and with 2-4 young per nest, we could end up with 12 young owlets fledging out this year!

Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) have been nesting in the park for 3 seasons now. These thin agile hawks, specialize in hunting other birds in wooded areas. You can often see them sitting on a tree branch, pulling apart and eating a White-winged Dove or an American Robin. They are also conspicuous by their call, a loud high pitched KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK KEK echoing out through the canopy of the trees.

They start courting and mating in late winter, and construct their stick nest high in a tree in late winter/early spring. It appears that the Cooper’s Hawk pair in our park have finished their nest, and are now incubating eggs.

Finally… the Purple Martins (Progne subis) have returned to Russ Pitman Park! We did see a few, here and there, in mid-February, flying over the park, but this week we noticed them returning to the colonial Purple Martin house next to the playground. They appear to be entering the nest holes and setting up shop. So far we have seen 3 pairs of North America’s largest swallows here. Today (3/22) they were very active, fluttering above the South end of the park, singing and catching insects on the wing. Purple martins are active and able hunters of dragonflies, flying grasshoppers, and other insects that go high up into the air.

We invite you to come out, and look for all 3 species in the park. If you need help finding them, a helpful naturalist can give you direction.

Thanks, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Above Photos: Screech owls by Roland Groenenboom, Cooper’s Hawk by Don Jewell, Purple Martin by JJ Cadiz | Wikimedia

   

photo by Teresa Connell                                        Photo by Sean Sun                                      Photo by Mike Carlo, USFWS              

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