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Master Naturalists: Winter Birds: Back in the Coastal Bend

Dec. 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.

A yellow-breasted chat has a brownish back; a bright yellow throat and breast; and a white belly.  Its profile resembles a mockingbird's profile but has a white ring around the eyes.  But it's much shier and more secretive, often remaining in thick foliage like that of sandpaper tree (anacua).  It lives in dense thickets, brush, or scrub and forages low in dense brushy shrubbery like these mistflowers outside our bedroom window and sometimes on the ground, for insects, berries and fruit.

Anyone for a snipe hunt?

The first thing I thought spotting a chicken-sized oval bird with a long beak in the backyard on Sunday evening was "It's a woodcock." Then I began to wonder whether woodcocks are seen in Victoria and whether my first reaction was correct. "Handbook of Texas Birds" by Lockwood and Freeman is an excellent resource with maps showing where and when birds are found in Texas. Woodcocks do winter here but are not common. Was it a woodcock? I checked Sibley's "Guide to Birds", looked at the pictures; and found the shape, size, and bill were the same, but woodcock's have orange to buff stomachs. Mine did not. Further searching for similar birds led me to identifying our back yard visitor as a Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, an Arctic resident in summer and a winter Texan. I have finally seen a snipe! My years of mythical snipe hunting with a sack in the woods as a Boy Scouts were rewarded at last.

By Paul and Mary Meredith

Fall and winter are fun times for both backyard bird observers and serious bird watchers. We definitely fall in the first category. And we make extensive use of friends in the latter category when we get one of those "Ah, what's that in the bush outside the window?" moments. As the weather cools, we see neotropical migrants heading south, to winter in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley. Some - like jays, blackbirds, finches, warblers, and sparrows - even winter here.

Our bird of mystery

The other day, we had one of those "maybe-a-(rare)-migrant" moments, up-close and personal.

First, we took a picture of the bird we spotted. Then we started looking for a description of the bird. For once, we got the same basic description from more than one printed (or online) source. We also checked for the bird's particular behavior in information about how particular birds behave. OK, so much for looking in books and online.

Then it was time to consult with the real experts. They are special folks to work with.

Bill: "Not common here; but not rare here."

Linda: "You're fortunate to have them. They can be quite secretive."

In our particular case, after several pictures we took and consultation with several books and experts, the bird of mystery turned out to be a yellow-breasted chat.

There are also other perching and songbirds around here now or passing through on the way to the tropics. One confirmation that there are lots of small birds around is that birds of prey migrating with those passerines are on the coast. On a recent trip to Port O'Connor to gather a sample for the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, Paul spotted several small falcons, mostly kestrels. Some were on power lines and some were hovering over fields, locating prey. Also he spotted some bigger raptors, many of them over-wintering Red-Tailed Hawks. Also he saw a single Swainson's Hawk, either lost on its trip to prairies in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay or stopping here. Swainson's are almost as big as a Red-Tailed, but thinner and with longer, thinner wings.

While on a trip to Cajun Country last week, we got some information about hummers in that area during this last summer. Folks who live in that area said that they spotted only four hummers during last summer - definitely fewer than their usual numbers.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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