Welcome to my world!

Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


With less than three weeks remaining in 2010, the countdown has begun in earnest--at least in my yard.  I had hoped to have 200 species on my current Year-in-the-Yard List by the end of the year.
I doubt we'll make that count,  but it's been a great year anyway. We've even added several species to our cumulative Yard List.  Among them are the Magnificent Frigate Bird that blew in with Hurricane Alex, the noisy Green Parakeet that flew squawking through the yard in October,  and the tiny Cerulean Warbler that flitted in the treetops one day during spring migration.

Pine Warbler?
Yesterday another first-time visitor dropped by for a bath:  a Pine Warbler in its drab winter plumage, reminding me of why Roger Tory Peterson's pages of "Confusing Fall Warblers" always intimidated me so much.  (If my childhood hero, author of my first field guide, most famous birder in the country, found these birds "confusing," how could I ever be expected to sort them out?)

Orange-crowned Warbler
Sitting in my "blind spot" under the anacua tree on Saturday afternoon, hidden by the camouflage of my little tent ,  I carelessly assumed for a minute or so that all the drab little warblers on the pedestal bath and saucers were Orange-crowned Warblers and the ones with wing bars were the White-eyed Vireos which had been hanging out with the Carolina Wrens.  I snapped photos for a while and then put down my camera.  When I looked closely without the  awkwardness of holding a camera, I realized that one of the birds most definitely was not an OCW or any kind of vireo.  Look at the photo at the top of this post--that little drab bird has distinct wing bars.  It has gray auriculars (side face area).  It is definitely a warbler, I decided. No streaks on back. definitely no yellow on rump.  Maybe Bay-breasted Warbler?  Pine?  I continued to question myself and wished I had looked as long through binoculars as through the viewfinder of the camera.

Fortunately I had three pretty good photos, from front, side and rear.  After consulting field guides I concluded that it was indeed a Pine Warbler, a first-time visitor to the yard.  (Well, really, I'm sure other Pine Warblers have visited, I just haven't identified them. It's no accident that unusual birds always turn up in the yards of good birders.  They are the ones who have the patience and birding skills.  I know I'm missing things I should be seeing.)

One valuable birding tip I've heard is not to waste time in the field looking at a field guide.  Look at the bird and when you can no longer do that, consult your guide.  I used to miss good views of the bird because I was flipping pages.  Now I'll add this additional memo to myself:  don't forget to use your binoculars as well as your camera.  I may miss a few shots but I won't miss the bird.

Here's another of the bathing beauties.  I like to turn the dripper up so that the sight and sound of the gurgling, plopping, bubbling water draws the birds like a magnet.  Water makes the birds look interesting--details that don't always show, like the orange crown of this Orange-crowned Warbler, are sometimes made more obvious.

I began writing this entry a couple of weeks ago and then didn't post it.  I got distracted with last minute preparations for a trip out of state to be with children and grandchildren for Christmas .  We left town a day or so after I took the bathing-beauty photos without seeing any additional species in the yard.  But that's okay.  I welcome all of our visitors, even the common and always multiplying House Sparrows and Great-tailed Grackles.  It doesn't have to be a new yard bird to interest me-- but the count is fun.  Blogging and keeping a Year List made backyard birding even more fun this year.

I'll finish the interrupted post now by adding the rest of the bathing photos. I'll keep  the original date  of December 12 on the post, but confess that it is actually December 30.    I'm writing the end of this in a hotel as we stop for the night on our trip from Missouri to South Texas after a lovely holiday.  I'm eager to get home for the last few hours of 2010 and especially looking forward to the first bird of 2011 to start my new list.

Here are the remaining photos from earlier in month:

Altamira Oriole and Great Kiskadee

House Sparrow and male Northern Cardinal

A delicately colored female cardinal seems to be anticipating the drop of water that comes slowly from the dripper in this bath. Just before I took this photo, I had adjusted the water so that it was no longer running as fast as in the previous photo.

This female Pyrrhuloxia is similar to the Cardinal but note the pattern of red around the eye and the yellow of the beak. (If you can't see her clearly, click to enlaarge. She's worth a good look.)

A pair of Great-tailed Grackles visit a ground bird bath.  The brown female lacks the blue-black glossy feathers of her mate but is still quite attractive in her own way.

This shot of the driveway shows the location of two of the bird baths. Note the Cedar Elm that is beginning to show a bit of fall color now that it is mid-December. My little blind is hidden in the brush along the right side of the drive in this photo, across from the pedestal bath.

Okay, this guy isn't bathing, but how could I pass up an opportunity for another Green Jay photo?  Sometimes I fill the water holders with seed since there's never enough for the ravenous jays.

A Long-billed Thrasher spends most of the day thrashing in dead leaves, but he hops to the saucer occasionally for a quick bath.

 White-eyed Vireos seem to be bright, inquisitive birds.  They travel around the yard with kinglets and warblers, eating small insects and singing cheerfully. This one was awaiting its turn at the bath below the fiddlewood shrub.

Who would ever tire of seeing the Yellow-throated Warbler? When they are not gleaning insects high up in the palm trees, they enjoy a quick stop at the bird bath. 

One final thing to add to this post is a list of birds seen in the yard (or from the yard or over the yard) for 2010. Starting Saturday I'll have my 2011 list in the side bar and this one will disappear from that location, so I'll put the final 2010 list here.   I'm a dozen or so short of my year goal of 200--but maybe some never-before-seen species are awaiting my homecoming tomorrow (Jan. 31) when  I should have a couple of hours of daylight left!

A Year in the Yard:  Birds of the Baughman Yard, 2010

As of December 12, there were 185 species on the 2010 Yard List. With the addition of the Pine Warbler to our all-time yard list, the total (1996-2010) is now 265! Here's what we've seen in 2010:

Pied-billed Grebe; American White Pelican; Brown Pelican; Double-crested Cormorant; Neotropic Cormorant; Anhinga; Magnificent Frigate Bird; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Snowy Egret; Little Blue Heron; Tricolored Heron; Reddish Egret; Cattle Egret; Green Heron; White-faced Ibis; Black-crowned Night Heron; White Ibis; Roseate Spoonbill; Wood Stork; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Black-bellied Whistling Duck; Fulvous Whistling Duck; Greater White-fronted Goose; Snow Goose; Mottled Duck; Blue-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Osprey; Swallow-tailed Kite; White-tailed Kite; Northern Harrier; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Broad-winged Hawk; Cooper's Hawk; Harris' Hawk; Swainson's Hawk; White-tailed Hawk; Red-shouldered Hawk; Red-tailed Hawk; Northern Caracara; American Kestrel; Merlin; Plain Chachalaca; Wild Turkey; Northern Bobwhite; American Coot; Common Moorhen; Sandhill Crane; Killdeer; Black-necked Stilt; Willet; Spotted Sandpiper; Upland Sandpiper; Long-billed Curlew; Stilt Sandpiper; Lesser Yellow-legs; Laughing Gull; Franklin's Gull; Ring-billed Gull; Herring Gull; Gull-billed Tern; Caspian Tern; Royal Tern; Sandwich Tern; Forster's Tern; Least Tern; Black Tern; Black Skimmer; Eurasian Collared-Dove; White-winged Dove; Mourning Dove; Inca Dove; Common Ground-Dove; White-tipped Dove; Green Parakeet; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Barn Owl; Eastern Screech-Owl; Great Horned Owl; Common Nighthawk; Lesser Nighthawk; Common Pauraque; Chimney Swift; Buff-bellied Hummingbird; Ruby-throated Hummingbird; Black-chinned Hummingbird; Rufous Hummingbird; Ringed Kingfisher; Belted Kingfisher; Green Kingfisher; Golden-fronted Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; Ladder-backed Woodpecker; Willow Flycatcher; Eastern Phoebe; Great Crested Flycatcher; Brown-crested Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee; Couch's Kingbird; Tropical Kingbird; Western Kingbird; Eastern Kingbird; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher; Loggerhead Shrike; White-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Warbling Vireo; Blue-headed Vireo; Philadelphia Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Green Jay; Purple Martin; Tree Swallow; Northern Rough-winged Swallow; Cave Swallow; Bank Swallow; Cliff Swallow; Barn Swallow; Black-crested Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Bewick's Wren; House Wren; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; American Robin; Gray Catbird; Northern Mockingbird; Long-billed Thrasher; Curve-billed Thrasher; European Starling; Cedar Waxwing; Blue-winged Warbler; Orange-crowned Warbler; Nashville Warbler; Northern Parula; Yellow Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Black-throated Green Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Pine Warbler; Cerulean Warbler; Black and White Warbler; American Redstart; Prothonotary Warbler; Worm-eating Warbler; Ovenbird;Kentucky Warbler; Hooded Warbler; Wilson's Warbler; Canada Warbler; Summer Tanager; Olive Sparrow; Chipping Sparrow; Clay-colored Sparrow; Lark Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Lincoln's Sparrow; White-throated Sparrow; Northern Cardinal; Pyrrhuloxia; Rose-breasted Grosbeak;Black-headed Grosbeak; Blue Grosbeak; Indigo Bunting;Painted Bunting; Dickcissel; Red-winged Blackbird; Eastern Meadowlark; Great-tailed Grackle; Bronzed Cowbird; Brown-headed Cowbird; Orchard Oriole; Hooded Oriole; Altamira Oriole; Baltimore Oriole; Bullock's Oriole;Pine Siskin; Lesser Goldfinch; American Goldfinch; House Sparrow

The best part of listing a Year-in-the-Yard is that it motivated me to begin blogging.  I won't have to find scattered bits of papers and try to find misplaced journals to know what happened in 2010.  And the world of blogging is a whole new way of keeping in touch and even making new friends.  I never expected that when I embarked on this blogging adventure a year ago!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blind Spot

Today was so lovely that I spent much of it outside.  It was just cool enough (high somewhere in the 70's) that I could sit in what is becoming one of my favorite spots:  a chair blind under the anacua tree beside the driveway.  It's a little folding lawn chair enclosed in a small attached tent with zip-out windows.  The birds can't see me--or if they do they are not alarmed--and I can get pictures of them at the birdbaths close by.  The Northern Mockingbird above was one of my first visitors. He's taking a break from defending the ripening fiddlewood berries on the shrubs near the deck.

Another bather was this stunning bird--a Yellow-throated Warbler that hung upside down on a branch of the oak tree and then flittered in to the terra cotta saucer-baths.   A common yard bird for us in the winter, it's nonetheless a special guest.

Green Jays are all over the yard, having had an apparently very successful nesting season.   Even noisier today than the Kiskadees, with buzzy croaks and snores and cheh-cheh-chehs, the jays ruled the yard.  The bather above looked unusual with its outer yellow tail feathers being the only ones in its tail! The jay below, messily eating the orange suet cake,  displays the blue/green tail that is typical. 
Green Jays don't seem to fly long distances.  They fly from tree to tree, landing near the bottom and hopping to higher branches. They follow one another, tails flashing yellow V's of those outer tail feathers,  and make a ruckus with their odd sounds.
Black-crested Titmouse

Other birds I saw at the baths from my "blind spot" included Carolina Wrens, Black-crested Titmice , a White-throated Sparrow, a Baltimore Oriole, Orange-crowned Warblers, an Ovenbird, Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Lesser Goldfinches, and lots and LOTS of House Sparrows.

Since the wind was relatively calm today, I could hear birds all around me as I sat in the blind.  Once, as  I played my Ibird Pro app to hear the call of a White-throated Sparrow, the sound of wings and feet on the camouflage tent fabric startled me.  I think it was the titmouse pictured above but I was "blind" in my blind, at least to what was going on over my head.

While I was trying to get a picture of the warbler I heard loud familiar calls clattering overhead.  It was a sound I knew I should know--but since it was out of place in that part of the yard, I couldn't quite figure out what it was.  To get a good look at the noisy mystery birds, I would have had to climb awkwardly out of the little chair/tent contraption I was in, a  move that would scare all the birds at the baths, so I remained where I was.

Later, when my neighbor told me he had seen five large Ringed Kingfishers flying over our yards south of the houses calling loudly their wild clattering rattle, I realized what I had heard.  We usually see this largest of our three species of kingfishers on the north side of the yards, along the river, in ones or twos, but today they were flying high in a group over the front yards. Later from the deck I took a photo of one of them. He's just a dot above the palms, but that shape is unmistakable.  I missed the parade of five of the chattering giant kingfishers, but I didn't miss their chatter! 

The most contant bird sound of the day was one that might be my favorite:  the resonant rolling call of the Sandhill Cranes as they fly overhead to the fields across the way.

When I wasn't in the blind, I was on the deck that overlooks the front yard, another favorite viewing spot, especially nice since it's attached to the upstairs of the house and is convenient for viewing birds before I'm even dressed for the day--pajama birding.  This morning I was rewarded for putting niger thistle in the finch feeder by a visit from American Goldfinchs and Pine Siskins.  The siskin is especially welcome since it is not often here and because it reminds me of bird-feeding in Oklahoma when my children were young.  Whenever it snowed, and the finches were thick around the feeders, my son would stand with arms outstretched and birdseed in his upturned palms, waiting for almost-tame-with-hunger pine siskins to eat from his hands.

A Carolina Wren serenaded me from the bougainvillea nearest the deck, the reddish-brown of his breast especially bright, maybe because of the morning sun and maybe because it echoed the deep apricot of the nearby blooms.

Out by the road a small brown bird with a white eye-ring called to an echoing bird in a brasil tree.  It was too far to see just what it was though its call was distinctive.  I'll figure out what it is and maybe post that later.  For now, I'm including its picture because the background, so different from the wren's blooming backdrop, looks almost like trees in winter in northern climates.  Of course, what it's actually perching in is not winter woods, but a brush-pile of dead branches.

Our trees are still green with foliage, but the winter of my imagination (where branches are bare and snowy Pine Siskins eat from a little boy's hand) can almost be seen in this picture.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moon River

The Arroyo is so beautiful tonight, as ripples on its surface catch the silver of a full moon, that I stepped outside on the stair landing to see if I could capture it in a photograph.  Of course, I couldn't.  This is as close as I could get. But you can see the glittering of the river and the black bank beyond.

A few years ago I tried to capture the beauty of the arroyo and the full moon with these words:


I want you to see the moon rise full 
over the Arroyo Colorado.

At first huge and red like a distant fire
behind the line of ebony and  mesquite,
it will slowly rise to a silver globe,
pouring light across the water
in broad bands of sparkling waves
that narrow to a  point
at the corner of my dock.

I want you to see dolphins touched with the moon’s silver,
roll up through the surface
of wind-rippled waters
and disappear in widening circles of light.

I want you to see,  above shadows at the bank’s dark edge,
a deer, head lifted high,
glowing with moonlight
caught in the silver cup
of its velvet antlers.

I want you to see shining minnows burst in circles of sparks
across the dark waters
and hear pauraques call across the fields.

I want you to see the Arroyo Colorado in moonlight.
I want you to see
my South Texas home.

(Kay Baughman, 2002)

It's hard not to wake at night and go upstairs to look outside at the river.  I'm glad I'm no longer working so I can stand by the window as long as I want, as long as there are palm trees catching the silver of the moon and owls that silently glide across the river on velvet black wings.  Even on moonless nights the fishing lights add glittering highlights--but my favorite nights are the ones when moonshadows and moonlight embellish the landscape. Tonight is one of those.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kiskadees, Kids, and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival last weekend was, as always, a great success.

I can't imagine a better way to learn about birds if you're a backyard bird-watcher just beginning to distinguish a kiskadee from a kingbird,  or to immerse yourself in the particular  (I didn't say peculiar!)  birding world if you're an expert birder.

Hundreds of birders, butterfliers, nature photographers and artists come to Harlingen TX every year in November for field trips, workshops, seminars, and not least of all the trade show where colorful brochures and knowledgeable enthusiasts peddle all things birding: from binoculars and books to xeroscaping plants and zoos.  You can buy (or put on your dream list)  scopes, feeders, and travel packages. Valley residents and world travelers alike can learn where in the Rio Grande Valley they can go to find its avian specialties such as Green Jays, Chachalacas, Northern Kiskadees, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Altamira Orioles.  Now, I can find all of those in my yard--but I still like to discover the dozens of locations around the valley that attract our special birds.

And it makes me especially proud to see hundreds of people from all over the country and around the world marveling at our Rio Grande Valley.  When my husband decided twenty-one years ago that he wanted to come coach high school football here in the tip of Texas, I had never heard of the Rio Grande Valley.  I was a birder but a stay-at-home kind.  On one of the first days of school at my new teaching job,  I heard the raucus call of a Kiskadee and caught a glimpse of its black and white "hat" as bright yellow and rust flashed by my open classroom door. I  realized that this was more than a place to make a living.  It was a birder's paradise.  We spent weekends driving to the many refuges, parks,  and sanctuaries in the area and finally moved outside of town to the banks of the Arroyo Colorado where the birds and all of nature were right outside our window. 

Kiskadee!  Kiskadee!
As education chair of Harlingen's Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, I spent two afternoons of the RGV Birding Festival tucked away in Kiskadee Korner, the bustling area of the festival that drew kids like a magnet (or I could say like a  dripping bird bath draws migrating warblers or ripe fiddlewood berries draw Kiskadees).

It was so much fun.  Area refuges, clubs, and environmental groups lured the kids with crafts, critters, face-painting, a five-foot crab (or a five- foot person in a crab costume), and a lady who could imitate (loudly!) just about any bird you could name. At our ACAS corner of the Korner, with helpers from  the Fun 'n Sun RV park, we made masks of Northern Kiskadees, the "official" bird of Harlingen and mascot of our Audubon group.

  I'm not an artist, but  I looked at photos I'd taken of Kiskadees in my yard to sketch the pattern for the masks. The kids were wonderfully creative in creating their masks, don't you think?

Most of the the kids first said they didn't know what a Kiskadee was, but when we played recordings (thanks to the I-bird Pro app on my iphone) of Great  Kiskadees, most said something like, "Oh, yeah--I've heard that in my neighborhood!"  Looking at photos of the birds around the table, they hoped to find a Kiskadee  in their yards.  The idea, of course,  is to not only have fun crafting a mask, but especially to learn about a really cool bird that they can see and hear in their yards and parks.

Kiskadee Kids Korner became Kiskadee Parents.

Parents like coloring as much as kids.

Below I'll share the photos I used to decorate our craft area and to introduce the kids to the  Great Kiskadee. All the photos were taken in the yard.  The one where the bird is gobbling a berry made a good pattern for the mask.  Lots of our little artists made a berry to put in the beak.
One little birder spies a Kiskadee

Great Kiskadees build large, messy football-shaped nests of grass, twigs, and vines in native trees such as this Ebony.  The side entrance makes it easy for the parent bird to look out for pesky cowbirds that would like to lay eggs in its nest or Harris's Hawks that raid the nest and prey on nestlings.

Ripe berries from a Manzanita (Barbados Cherry) shrub is a favorite food for this Kiskadee.  The feisty bird chased away a Northern Mockingbird and a Curve-billed Thrasher for its place at the feast.  In addition to fruit, Great Kiskadees will eat insects, frogs, and fish.  They also eat mealworms from feeders -- and Meow Mix from the Cat's dish.  Omniverous is a word that describes them well. 

Great Kiskadees used to be called “Derby Flycatchers,” perhaps in honor of the Earl of Derby and perhaps because they look like they’re wearing derbies or round black hats! The gold crown on the top of the head is usually hidden.

This Great Kiskadee is definitely not hiding its gold crown!  Raising its crest, flapping its wings, and calling loudly from the electric wires, the bird seemed to be celebrating the New Year when this photo was taken on January 1, 2010.

Kiskadees like to visit birdbaths on hot summer days.  Water dripping into the bath from a hose or plastic jug will make it especially attractive to these colorful birds.

Great Kiskadees, like this one that nested in a yard beside the Arroyo Colorado, often live near water where they can catch small fish, crawdads, or tadpoles.

Coloring page from the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society

This photo would make a good caption contest.  What do you think this guy is thinking? I'm sure he's asking a question, but I'm not sure what one.
I like that this shows the yellow edge of his beak opening and even the little whiskery feathers beside the beak.  Most flycatchers seem to have those. (Ornithologists call them rictal feathers.)  I've read that the purpose is unclear and even ornithologists disagree:  some think they help the birds catch insects by in effect making the mouth larger; some think they augment their sense of touch; some think they keep insects away from nostrils and eyes. 
For now, it's a mystery.  Perhaps some of the young visitors to Kiskadee Kids' Korner at the the Rio Grande Birding Festival will grow up to become ornithologists and solve such mysteries.  
Sometimes it takes just one bird (or snake or insect) to make a kid a lifelong lover of all living creatures.   

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

In our neighborhood we seldom see Trick or Treaters knocking on doors and asking for candy. But when I look closely, I see that Nature itself has done a pretty good job of celebrating Halloween.  In fact, here are quite a few spooky characters I've seen around the yard.

Can you tell what's making this scary face?  It's a pomegranate hanging from a bush in the yard.  (I flipped the photo upside down so that you can appreciate the Halloween mask. )

Cactus blooms can also make faces worthy of Halloween!

This Fungus Face was hiding on an old tree stump--

Talk about disguises:  the Walking Sticks in the photo below came to the party as, well...walking sticks!

What's a Halloween party without a few well-dressed spiders?

Another Silver Argiope is spinning her web.

(A flash from the camera lights up this Wolf Spider's creepy eyes.)
(What's in this web--is it spider or prey? No matter, the web is a masterpiece, a fine Halloween decoration!)
(Click to enlarge:  you'll see the hundreds of baby spiders creepy-crawling out of their pod.)
Other guests at the Halloween costume party:  a butterfly dressed in ghostly garb...

and another appropriately named the Funereal Duskywing, just perfect for Halloween haunting...

Some little goblin  (bee or butterfly?) dressed up in a Flower costume:

and a Black Witch Moth (yes, that's really its name) flew with five-inch wingspan into our house and slept on the curtains:

Last, but never least,  a night-time owl prowls the neighborhood on Halloween night: