Sunday, 23 June 2013

Ten Hours in Houston

That title sounds like a bad follow-up to the 80s hit "One Night in Bangkok" by Murray Head.  To put a little context into why I had a layover in the first place, I won a trip to Peru to follow the 2013 Birding Rally Challenge Nor Amaz√≥nico and ended up with a lengthy layover in Houston on the way down.  I will tackle the details of the birding rally later because it was a rather epic adventure.

A few days before leaving for Peru, I finally got around to checking if any Houston birders would be willing to pick up a sleepless Canadian fresh off a red-eye for a morning of birding and other natural history goodness.  I must have been in panic mode because I contacted around eight people and the Texan hospitality was overwhelming!  I ended up having six or so birders get back to me saying they would be willing to take me out for some birding, which was amazing!  Dave Dolan mentioned he was already going to be at the airport at around the time of my arrival and that made my decision very easy.  We got the details all squared away, including a couple target birds I was hoping to connect with in the area.

Early in the morning on June 9, I was very worried that Dave might have thought I skipped out on him because I was concerned my checked bag wasn't going to come out.  A lady working at the airport ensured me it would automatically get transferred to my connecting flight, but I was a little skeptical because it contradicted the details I had received when I checked in.  I decided to double-check with the Houston bag lady and she snapped back with "They don't pay me $30 an hour to be wrong."  I decided to wait an extra few minutes and checked with her one last time and she told me to exit the airport.  Alright.  Done.  I got out to the arrivals area and put on my binoculars - the trademark sign you're a birder.  No sign of Dave.  I wandered out among the cars and a voice rang out from behind me, asking "Jeremy?"  Phew!  I was now set to make the best of the layover with Dave as my local guide!

We started by cruising a neighborhood very close to the airport in hopes of finding some Fish Crows.  With windows down and eyes panning all around, we searched for black corvids.  Finally I spotted a couple of black birds on a wire.  We pulled over and waited for one of them to call.  Finally, one tipped its head back and unleashed the classic "Caw, caw, caw" of an American Crow.  Darn... keep moving.  We continued down the road and spotted a few more American Crows along the way.  As we slowly rolled along, Dave spotted a couple of crows in a parking lot so we pulled in and listened.  One of the crows flew up on a lamp post and let out a croaking "Awwp, awwwp, awwp".  Fish Crow!  The crow then descended back to the pavement, picked up a chicken bone and flew off with its mate in tow.  It was beautiful... just how I pictured my lifer Fish Crow.  So majestic!

After the Fish Crow, we were faced with a tough decision.  Should we head to the coast and try to find Seaside Sparrow and King Rail or get into some nice forest and look for Swainson's Warbler?  I was more excited about the latter option, so we headed up to an area near Sam Houston National Forest where Swainson's Warblers are known to hold territories.  We were rather leisurely about the birding, which is somehow starting to be my style.  This is likely due to the fact that I have seen the majority of the bird species in most areas I head to in North America, but there is a whole suite of odonates and butterflies that would be new.  I end up focusing on the more minute critters and birds fall into the background.  I am not sure if Dave knew that's what he was getting himself in to, but he was a great sport.

As we worked our way along the road through refreshingly exotic habitat, the sounds of White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos, Hooded Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Summer Tanagers, Carolina Wrens, Pine Warblers, and Northern Cardinals were rather distracting due to their unfamiliarity to these West Coast ears.  Then Dave picked up on an empid song and exclaimed it was an Acadian Flycatcher.  For whatever reason, I hadn't considered this species even though its breeding range clearly envelopes the area I was birding.  I guess ignorance is my coping mechanism for Empidonax flycatchers.  I worked hard to track down the feathered source of the call and eventually was rewarded with looks at a rather bright olive empid continually giving its "peet-sah" song from dead branches over a swampy channel.  I took a few mosquito bites in the process to make it feel like I really worked for this lifer.

In the end, Swainson's Warbler threw out one brief song and that was it.  I really didn't have much of a chance to even really recognize it, but Dave picked up on it.  Other bird highlights included: a Northern Parula singing away that offered a couple viewing opportunities, a handful of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in the open country, and a calling Brown-headed Nuthatch.

The odonates were must sparser than I was hoping, but I think that is due to the lack of good water features.  The highlight was a single, absolutely tiny Double-striped Bluet.  The only other two species I noted were Eastern Pondhawk, Ebony Jewelwing, and Blue Dasher.

You can just make out the razor thin extra stripe below the main blue stripe on this Double-striped Bluet

I actually enjoy the female Eastern Pondhawk more than the male because it looks nothing like the same sex of its western counterpart.

This seems to be the most prominent broad-winged damselfly in areas I've been in the east.  The all black wings make Ebony Jewelwing an easily recognizable denizen of slow-moving creeks and rivers.

The butterfly diversity was much more exciting and I encountered several species I have never knowingly seen before. The species I managed to photograph include: White Checkered Skipper, Tropical Checkered Skipper, Yehl Skipper, Clouded Skipper, Northern Broken Dash, Eufala Skipper, Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper, Red-banded Hairstreak, Grey Hairstreak, Carolina Satyr, Silvery Checkerspot, Variegated Fritillary, Red-spotted Purple, and Spicebush Swallowtail.  I also had looks at what may have been a Hayhurst's Scallopwing, but it darted off before I could draw in any details and snap a photo.  Here is a selection of some of the nicer butterfly shots I managed to fire off over the course of the morning.

I was trying to photograph as many butterflies as possible and luckily I fired off this shot of a White Checkered Skipper!

I then noticed this checkered skipper was much paler, so I photographed it and was delighted to find out it was a Tropical Checkered Skipper.

I find these dark brown skipper quite tricky, but I feel confident this little guy is a Eufala Skipper

I didn't know it at the time, but I have encountered this species in Ontario - it's a Northern Broken Dash

I was very worried about figuring this one out, but it wasn't too bad - this is a Yehl Skipper

I imagine the violet-grey dusting of the wings is the source of this skipper's name: Clouded Skipper

I have seen quite a few small satyrs down in the tropics, but the only one I have identified is Little Wood-Satyr in Ontario.  I wondered if this was going to be the same, but it's actually a Carolina Satyr.

I found Silvery Checkerspots to be the most commonly encountered species along the route I birded during my brief visit north of Houston.

This Silvery Checkerspot posed nicely while nectaring, showing off its intricate ventral hindwing pattern

Hairstreaks are one of my favourite groups, so I was happy to find my first ever Red-banded Hairstreak!

I saved this one for last.  I don't like to play favourites, but this one was my favourite - a stunning little Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper.

As a rounded naturalist, I was scrutinizing anything that caught my eye and I have a selection of other nice animals I encountered, ranging from an amazing mosquito right up to a Green Anole.  I wish I had access to this kind of exotic diversity on a daily basis.  I'm not saying that southern Vancouver Island doesn't have exciting fauna to discover, but being in new areas always gives me intense biological ADHD.  Alright... bring on the photos!

Delta Flower Scarab (Trigonopeltastes delta) - how cool is that name for a beetle with a dead obvious triangle on its thorax?

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) sitting up on a snag with a fully extended dewlap

This Ocellated Tiger Beetle (Cicindela ocellata) has an awesome stance!

This Striped Bark Scorpion (Centruroides vittatus) was my prize for flipping over some flaked off bark.  The two dark longitudinal lines are diagnostic of this widespread species.

Woodhouse's Toad (Bufo woodhousii) - not definite on the identification of this one, but close enough.

Promachus bastardii - the genus of this species is commonly known as the Giant Robber Flies.

The Elephant Mosquito (Toxorhynchites rutilus) is a large, colourful species of mosquito and I was utterly blown away when I spied it sitting on a leaf!

The time flew by and my allotted break quickly came to an end.  I am extremely grateful to Dave for picking me up at the airport and putting me smack dab in the middle of a naturalist's playground!  I can't wait to make my way back down to Texas and explore the flora and fauna at a leisurely pace!

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