DUNCANVILLE, TEXAS — Saturday, Debbie Hatfield and I birded Richland Creek WMA (about 90 minutes southeast of Dallas) and surrounding areas. We got about 95 species for the day, including many returning migrants like Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Indigo and Painted Buntings, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and Dickcissel.
Shorebirding was grand in the WMA’s north unit. Wilson’s Phalaropes are beautiful and charismatic:
Calidris peeps are not so striking, but I really like working them over, analyzing subtle plumage and structural features. We had all five of the species I usually call “peeps” — Least, Semipalmated, Western, Baird’s, and White-rumped Sandpipers.
We had a chance to study dowitchers too, which I have always found to be particularly challenging. In Texas, we have the tundra-breeding Long-billed Dowitcher and two subspecies of the taiga-breeding Short-billed Dowitcher (central hendersoni and eastern griseus) as migrants and winter residents.
Cin-Ty Lee and Andrew Birch did some very detailed work with dowitchers a couple of years ago (two versions: New advances in the field identification of dowitchers and Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers (PDF)). This article is good too. I’m struggling to assimilate all of that stuff, but overlapping bell curves, feather wear, subspecific variation (in the case of Short-billed), and difficult structural variations leave my head aching.
I didn’t identify any Short-billeds among the dowitchers I saw and photographed on Saturday. While researching the problem, I found this gallery of alternate-plumaged hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers. The photographs are spectacular, and they show very well some of the key plumage features of this taxon, which is the most similar to Long-billed Dowitcher in breeding plumage.
We had lots of other good water and marsh birds, including five Tricolored Herons, a Common Moorhen, several calling Soras, ibises, and most of the other herons and egrets. Ducks are mostly gone; Blue-winged Teal are still around along with a handful of shovelers, and we had a single male Lesser Scaup. Debbie spotted a lone male Yellow-headed Blackbird flying across the marsh. He seemed to be missing his tail.
We also had four Hooded Mergansers, a male and three females. The females kept flying up to a Wood Duck nest box, squabbling with the male Wood Duck. The female Wood Duck emerged from the box, and she and the male flew off, leaving the mergansers to perch atop the house and check out the entry hole. I didn’t see any of them actually go into the box. The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds notes that although Hooded Mergansers are typically only winter residents in Texas, there have been a few reports of females laying eggs in Wood Duck nests or nesting in boxes themselves. I don’t know whether something like that could be going on here, or whether the females are still headed north and just getting excited along the way.