Surprise – Not Dead

Greetings everyone! Coming off a wonderful night hanging out with some great friends getting caught up with what’s been happening in their lives since last we met – in some cases that’s been more than a year thanks in part to the pandemic. One of those friends reminded me I had 4 birds to go to meet my goal. So, while I shake off the last of the spirits in my machine, thought I’d see if I could cut a bit into that deficit. To set the stage I am generally not a fan of “surprises”. I’ve found over the years that a vast majority of those incidents result in some kind of bad experience. In the corporate world, I dreaded system surprises – ghosts in the mechanical machine if you will. Those in the IT/Systems world know NOTHING positive EVER comes from a code surprise. When it does, you tear your hair out until you determine a way to get the failure to predictably repeat thus solvable. In private life this fear of the unexpected jolt is equally favored to the bad side of the ledger. “Wow, surprised how hard that cement step is that I just launched my chin into while second guessing a new skateboard stunt” or “Amazing my hand made it through that sharp opening – wait, what’s all that blood from”. Add to those examples my surprise on how painful a blow to the back of the head from a box fan can be (once I regained consciousness). A few stunners do end up on the good side – meeting Linda on day one of my career and later her agreeing to spend the rest of her life with me are up there at the top hehehe. Today’s featured feathered friend happens to be one of those surprises that also landed on the positive side.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

Not the most flamboyant of birds I’ve brought your way for sure. Unfortunately, this specimen lost a bit of its luster thanks to less than ideal shooting conditions. It is hard enough to shoot in dense woods on its own, but when you have to shoot across rays of light penetrating through small gaps in the trees it gets a bit tricky. I had my settings dialed in for black subjects hanging out in the canopy (more on that in a bit). Perfect for those conditions – not ideal for capturing this Finch that popped out on the trail ahead of me. Did my best to pull it out in the digital darkroom at the expense of the yellow highlights on the outer edges of its tail and wings. For the birders out there that are unfamiliar with the Pine Siskin, visualize the overall coloring being a bit tanner and more of a lemon yellow piping.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

Hit the jump to find out more about this new addition along with a “bonus”.

Getting a little ahead of myself. This encounter happened at place called Brazos Bend State Park. A few of my readers will recognize this location as I know they frequent this area a lot. It was our first time at the state park that sits about an hour from downtown Houston, TX. We were on our annual trek down to the Rio Grande Valley this last January and planned to visit Linda’s cousin who lives in Houston. I had heard about this place from some birding journals and decided to check it out. The proximity to a major city brought with it our first experience with controlled occupancy. I cannot confirm if this was just a Covid issue or standard operating procedure that caused this park to check reservations at the entrance. “No reservation – please take your next left and exit the way you came – have a nice day.” Saw a recommendation while planning our trip to reserve a time (and camping spot) ahead of arrival eliminated that assured “surprise”.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

Ended up spending two days there. The day we got there it was nice and sunny allowing Linda and I to explore their various trails – that were still open. They were experiencing some serious flooding and many of the lowlands were underwater. I managed to get in 7 miles of exploring before calling it a day – I wanted to experience as much as I could before the forecasted rains came the next morning. Besides the unnerving amount of black objects in the trees, this ended up being an incredibly fun place to bird. Multiple habitats from open ponds, marsh, hardwood and the Brazos River that forms the parks eastern boundary. The trails are a mixture of cement, gravel, hard packed and wood chips as they meander throughout the park.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

I was exploring the trails around Hale Lake taking shots of eerie sights above me when this initially assumed little brown jobber (LBJ) popped out on the trail. Golden rule in play – if it moves get it in the tin and figure it out for sure later – at worst, an extra key stroke to purge it from the day’s haul – at best, future blog fodder! Going full circle to the opening on surprises, I had seen a listing of a Seaside Sparrow being found at Anahuac NWR. Intriguing as Ron and I failed to tin that bird while on our Dauphin Island visit. Remembered tinning a Sparrow that I wasn’t sure about when we were there on this same trip. Dug into the archives, found that day’s shots and started going through the thousand+ shots in an effort to spot the Seaside. Sad to report – no luck (unsure bird ended up being a gorgeous Savannah). Decided to poke around a bit in the other folders for that trip – considering maybe posting on the dark massing in the trees at Brazos.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

That is when I came up this LBJ – this time I noted the yellow piping and shocked myself right of my seat. Immediately sent a screen shot to Ron with the good news (for me of course, not sure he has one hehehe). What a complete surprise as I have been hunting for years to witness this supposedly common bird to my home region. A friend of mine says he has them at his feeder from time to time and promised to call me over when one showed up. No luck with that and constantly came up empty in my many excursions. Now I was staring at one already in the tin! This surprise brought the Snoopy happy dance as it would get me one step closer to 300.

Pine Siskin found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

How about some info on this subdued little bird. First off, the LBJ wasn’t a correct assessment as it is not a Sparrow rather a Finch. Unlike a lot of other members of that family, their bills are noticeably slender which is a good field trait when paired with the yellow highlights. Apparently, they are especially keen on thistle or nyjer which is probably why I never see them at my feeders. According to the Cornell region map you should have little trouble spotting them anywhere in the US especially during the nonbreeding periods. Note, for the record I think they should turn the Heart of Illinois to white on that map… just saying. The Siskin has a “crop” in their esophagus that allows them to gather seeds up to 10% of their mass – “Finally Monsieur Siskin, care for one more waafffeerr thin seed”.

… and there you have the latest addition to the unique species list, officially putting the goal deficit at 3. Things are looking up for sure…maybe even “surprisingly” well ha.

Bonus time!

Time for some extra innings in the old birdgame if you will. Multiple times in this post I referred to something else in the trees. Actually, something very ominous in the trees. Rather than wait for the dedicated post on it, opted to give you a sneak preview to one of the odder bird experiences I’ve witnessed in the field. Linda and I were caught off guard when we started out on our hikes on the Brazos Bend trails. A mile into it, we came upon something so surreal it could only be described as someone taking a brush filled with black paint and repeatedly flicking it at a Bob Ross forest painting. Grabbed this poor shot from the folder to help set the scene.

Black Vultures found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

Vultures EVERYWHERE. Mostly Black Vultures, but a few Turkeys scattered randomly. Now imagine that picture of a Vulture filled tree replicated for as far as you could see. Not just that trail, this massing was seen at various points on a number of different trails. There was a feeling of dejection whenever we took a step.. “False alarm… still alive”. Does anyone have a clue on what is going on at that park, are the Gators ravaging the place leaving carcasses littered about, unexpected hole open up to the depths of hell, radioactive dirt.. what gives?

Black Vultures found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

A bit distracting when you are standing alone on a trail far away from anyone else. 51 eyeballs monitoring your every step just waiting for a “surprise” to happen. Got the feeling they would all move in closer if I inadvertently touched my heart. “Look sharp boys, he’s getting close to our trap…”

Black Vultures found at Brazos Bend State Park,  Needville TX in January 2021

I’ll cover this again in more detail after the holidays – thought this fit the whole surprise theme and threw it in to complete the experience. If it wasn’t for having my camera dialed in for these dark objects against the sky I would have executed a lot better on the above Pine Siskin shot for sure. Today’s feature popped in immediately after I two these last two shots.

So long everyone and may your week be filled with the mundane hehehe.

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