Golden Triangle Audubon Bird Alert -- November 30, 2009
West Jefferson County is recovering nicely from the effects of hurricanes Rita and Ike. It now appears that, north of Highway 73 at least, Rita disrupted bird life more than Ike. Rita's winds were much stronger and must have removed more of the understory, and may even have had more effect on the insects and mammals. North of Highway 73, in the fall and winter after Rita, a number of species were very significantly reduced in numbers, including Northern Harriers and Loggerhead Shrikes and even American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks. This year, these same species are present in the highest numbers in many years.
No matter what, there is good birding on the "South China Prairie" this year. The best area is bounded by US90 on the north, the county line (including Nolte and Ebner Roads) on the West, the county line to League Road on the south and League/Heisig/Johnson/South China Roads on the east.
Sandhill Cranes are present in what are probably record numbers this year. The flock appears to total about 1,000 birds. Most days, the birds can be located by hearing the calls, which carry for great distances. Often the birds have been found in cut over rice fields just north of the east-west section of Johnson Road near the intersection with Heisig Road. That intersection is at about 29º 55.710'N 94º21.590'W and the cranes have been roughly along a line from 29º56.065'N 94º22.410'W to 29º56.076'N 94º21.718'W. On October 29, a very large number (estimated at 750) was sheltering from the wind in the lee of a canal bank half-way between Ebner Road and FM1406, visible only from the north part of Ebner road, and as far away form any public road as they could get. The cranes were estimated to be from 29º57.235'N 94º25.439 W to 39º57.000'N 94º25.343'W. A few were also seen east of the northernmost part of Old League Road, 100 yards or so south of FM1406. They were at approximately 29º57.041'N 94º27.785'W. (The coordinates will help you look at the locations on Google Earth.)
There is a male Vermilion Flycatcher on the southernmost public part of Ebner Road, 1.4 miles south of Willis Road around the gate to WCW at approximately 29º54.357'N 94º26.371'W. This bird has been seen at this location three times on three tries. There was a young female on Willis Road at the cell phone tower 1/10 mile east of FM1406 (29º55.709'N 94º24.76'W) last weekend but not relocated on Nov 29, and on the Nov 21 Field Trip, a female or possibly a young male in the yard of a (farm) house at the corner of League/Willis and Old League Road. This one was at about 29º55.777'N 94º23.300'W. It liked the north part of the yard and liked to perch on the low-boy trailer, since moved. The house has a noisy dog in a small pen. This one was likewise not relocated on Nov. 29.
A very late Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was reported from the area on Nov. 28.
As noted above, the South China Prairie now has many raptors, with American Kestrels, Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks in greater numbers than for many years past. Loggerhead Shrikes, which decreased in numbers precipitously after Hurricane Rita, have staged an impressive recovery, and Eastern Phoebes are everywhere. So far, sparrows have not matched the other species, and the smaller patches of woods and shrubs have not produced either sparrows or other passerines in normal numbers. Savannah Sparrows are difficult to miss, but we have seen more in pre-hurricane years. Although large flocks of white Geese are in the area, ducks have so far been conspicuously absent, and we have no recent reports of eagles. Perhaps the Nov. 29 end of the first half of the duck season will persuade the ducks to become more visible. (In past years, ducks, presumably mostly hunter crippled ducks, have seemingly been the staple in the eagles' diet.) The Crested Caracaras are present if somewhat wide-ranging. Eastern Meadowlarks are also unusually numerous this late fall. However, we could not find a single meadowlark on the Migration Count in mid-September. No matter how well they may have hidden themselves in September, it is absolutely clear that there are many more out there now! All this strongly suggests that the meadowlarks that are present locally in the summer leave and go further south before the meadowlarks that come down to winter have arrived.
John A. Whittle