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, January 31, 2010

No Sooner Said...

First thing yesterday morning I said, "We'd better get some sunflower seeds out. I'm expecting a Black-headed Grosbeak!" Brad laughed at me, but he put the sunflower seeds out anyway and filled the drippers and baths. A front had come in and the temperature had dropped to the 40's, so I bundled up in sweats and stepped out on the deck to watch the yard.

There were absolutely no birds. Feeders were full; drippers were dripping. But all was silent except for the wind.

I went back in the house, down the stairs, and opened the garage door. I knew what I'd find out in the yard. Sure enough--a Cooper's Hawk flew from the Oak tree!

(This photo is not of the hawk I saw yesterday. It's of a Cooper's we had on the boat lift a few weeks ago.)

At this time of year a quiet yard, if the feeders are full, often signals the presence of a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk, two birds that hang out around feeders and cause other birds to scatter. I've seen them pluck a Red-winged Blackbird out of the air near a feeder. (I said "them" in the previous sentence because I'm not sure which of the two species I was watching that day. They are hard to distinguish since a large Sharpie [female hawks are the larger ones] can sometimes be almost as big as a small male Cooper's.) I'm pretty sure the one I saw yesterday was a Cooper's Hawk. As it flew out of the tree and into a yard down the road, it looked very large to me.

Now, back to the main story. Remember what I told you I said as I got out of bed yesterday morning? I just had a feeling about that Black-headed Grosbeak. It is rare in this area but shows up every year somewhere in the Rio Grande Valley. At this time last year we had a gorgeous adult male in the yard. It was black and orange with a surprising narrow band of creamy lemony coloring on its breast that sort of blended the orange into the white lower part of its belly. I really wanted to see another in the yard now that I have a camera with a zoom.
And, no sooner said than done .... when the birds came out of hiding, there on the driveway eating seed among the blackbirds and doves and sparrows was a Black-headed Grosbeak!
It had the more subdued coloring of a first winter male, rather than the vivid colors of last year's adult bird, but still it was a welcome sight. When I called Brad out to the deck to point out our visitor, he asked me what else I'd like to see in the yard. I thought for a moment and said, "A catbird--we haven't seen one yet this winter."

Are you ahead of me? You're right--a Gray Catbird with its perky little blackish cap was perched on the edge of one of the bathing saucers. Just ask for what you want. If you build it (or fill up your feeders and baths), they will come!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Butterflies and Caterpillars (What Winter?)

Yesterday I walked around the yard looking for signs of life in the plants that have looked sickly since the freeze. One especially bedraggled spot was the front-yard butterfly garden. The white plumbago, a favorite nectar plant for many of our butterflies, was a tangle of black leaves and black sticky seeds. The butterfly weeds, host plant to milkweed caterpillars, were mostly leafless stalks topped with dry, twisted black leaves. A cursory glance would make a gardener less lazy than I start clipping and clearing and pruning back. However, I am not that diligent a gardener. (I'd rather watch birds than clip and clear and prune.) So I looked more closely, and along the stalks I could see small green leaves just beginning to unfurl. On one plant I even found a Queen caterpillar. If I'd cleaned up my butterfly garden, I might have deprived this future butterfly of food!

Most plants in the yard don't show signs of damage by the cold weather. The mix of native and non-native lantana under the whitebrush, for example, looks better than ever. That's where I took this picture of a Red Admiral butterfly that flitted from flower to flower yesterday morning. Its wings are tattered and torn, but it was still beautiful in the sun. The Pipevine Swallowtail was nectaring on a fiddlewood.

Other insects I've been watching in the yard the last few days are the Red Harvester Ants that are busy carrying bird seed into their ant hole in the sandy soil at the end of the drive. In the photo below you can see the white round millet seeds and a black sunflower seed which I had scattered no where near the ant hill and which the ants had carried home. I like to watch the nest to see what the ants are up to. I've taken other photos when their hole is surrounded with little red pigeon berries and one series of photos that show a green caterpillar being carried to the hole by several ants at once and then disappearing inside.
Bird activity today:

*Early this morning I heard an Osprey calling over the front yard and went out on the deck to watch. It was carrying not the usual fish in its talons but a stick about a foot or two long. It must be building a nest somewhere--wish I could find out where.
*The pair of Pyrrhuloxias were all over the yard today, bathing, eating seed from the ground, singing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Back Yard Birding

It was another beautiful day on the Arroyo, less windy and about 85 degrees. The bird feeders were attracting all the colorful birds of the neighborhood, as you can see in this photo. That's a Green Jay, an Altamira Oriole, and a Kiskadee along with a drab House Sparrow. (I really don't mind the sparrows, though, especially since our trip to England when I saw them in their "native" habitat. The males I think are especially perky little birds.)
The Kiskadee is not actually eating seed from the feeder in that picture; it's gobbling up granjeno berries from the shrub just beyond the feeder. Of course, Mockingbirds were just out of sight, jealously guarding the berries, but the Kiskadees usually had them outnumbered. Some of the palms also have berries that the berry-warriors are fighting over.
I've seen Kiskadees eat cat food, fish, insects, and berries, but never seed. Altamira Orioles eat seed, citrus, and nectar. Green Jays eat seed, peanuts, berries, meal worms. ( The feeder the birds are on in the photo is one our son brought us more than 13 years ago, just after we moved into our house. He carried it on the airplane because it was too big for the suitcase. Though it holds a lot of seed, we put out only a handful at a time to keep the raccoons from climbing on it at night. )

New 2010 "yard birds" today were a Reddish Egret that flew by over the river and a Brown-headed Cowbird eating seed with the Red-winged Blackbirds. I wish the egret had stopped to "dance" in the shallow water at the edge of the Arroyo, but it didn't. We did have a Tricolored Heron and a Snowy Egret feeding, though--and Night Herons filling the trees that hang down from the banks.

The Baltimore Oriole was back again today, perched in the same ash tree as before, above the grapefruit feeder.

The busiest birds in the yard were a couple of Long-billed Thrashers. They were under the bougainvillea most of the time, scratching in the leaves that fell off in the freeze. One of them kept flying to the very top of an ash tree to sing. I love their song, so loud and cheerful, more musical than the Curve-billed Thrasher's. I kept trying to get a good photo but didn't succeed.

Here's one of a Curve-billed Thrasher on some palm fronds in the back of the pickup. Always curious, they are the first to check out any new brush piles or fallen branches.
These birds are among my favorites, the first "day" birds up and around in the morning and the last ones to go to bed! They keep busy digging little craters in the sandy soil. We usually have two pairs that nest in our yard and they usually raise three broods. The Long-billed Thrashers nest in the yard most summers, too. Occasionally, in the winter, we get the similar (but redder) Brown Thrasher. We were used to Brown Thrashers in Missouri and Oklahoma so I always enjoy seeing them in the winters that they show up.

Tomorrow I'm going to do some reading about hummingbirds in Texas.
I'm not sure how to distinguish among the female and immature Ruby-throated and Black-chinned hummers that are at our feeders these winter days. I think I've read that the RTH's have greener heads, with the BCH's having grayer. I don't know if you can actually use that field mark as distinctive, though. All the ones I'm seeing have green heads, but one is less green. I am also noticing that some of the birds have wing tips that are about even with the tip of the tail and some have slightly longer tails.

Today we had three or four different Ruby-throated/Black-chinned. The one pictured here has tail and wing tips about even.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

From the Window

The river was obscured by fog Tuesday morning when I first climbed the stairs and looked out our living room windows. Stepping onto the porch, I glanced down at the pathway leading to the stairs and saw something small and brown scurry along the sidewalk. Darting quickly into the dead leaves under the papayas that froze last week was not a little brown mouse--but a Winter Wren! We see lots of Carolina and Bewick's Wrens but not so many Winter Wrens. In fact, I think this was a first for our yard! I will have to find my list and check to make sure--if it is a first, that makes the list about 254 or so. How exciting.

(Last spring a Carolina Wren flew into the living room from the open porch door and perched by the window on the back of a loveseat. It threw its head back and sang and sang, apparently to another wren that was right outside in a live oak tree. When it tried to find a way out, it couldn't seem to find the door. After perching on several window sills and flying to the ceiling beam, it stopped and resumed its song. Finally, I tiptoed past it to open the window closest to the live oak, and it flew away.

This morning I awoke early when it was still dark and watched the sky and river from the wren's loveseat by the window, a gradual lightening as the river and the sky turned from a dark slate to a fog-colored gray--not foggy like yesterday but overcast. The wind had blown all night, covering up the sounds of night birds (Great Horned Owls and Screech-owls and Pauraques). I was watching the river bank in hopes of seeing the Bobcat I'd seen there yesterday. Frightened by a kayaker, it had bounded up the bank, paused for a while, and then disappeared into the brush. I don't think the man in the banana-colored kayak saw the bobcat at all, hiding as it must have been in the grasses at the edge of the water (the tide was very low) or maybe getting a drink. I would not have seen it if I hadn't been watching the kayaker. I wish I had had my camera.

A few years ago an ocelot appeared one summer evening in the grass beyond the bank, flipping its tail as it lay among the tall grasses. I watched that tail (all I could see of the cat at first) for about ten minutes, flipping slowly up and down just like the tail of a slightly annoyed house cat. Because it didn't look quite like the tail of a bobcat, I was curious and continued watching through my scope until the rare cat stood up, looked around, and slowly walked into thicker brush. I was amazed and honored to have such a visitor just across the river from my yard.

For many miles to the north of the spot where the Ocelot was, the land is part of a large ranch. The brush just beyond the river is no longer as thick as it was then. The Corps of Engineers who take care of the Arroyo dredged it shortly after our ocelot encounter and bulldozed that part of the bank to reestablish a berm.

We have seen all sorts of interesting animals in brush there: deer (with Groove-billed Anis riding on their antlers and backs, eating ticks--it's neat what you can see with a good scope); coyotes; javelinas; nilgai (a kind of imported exotic antelope that inhabits parts of the ranchland); and strangely, ostriches. There's a fence there that all sorts of birds like to perch on--that's where the Ringed Kingfisher I took a photo of a couple of days ago was. Other birds we have seen on the fence: Osprey (see photo), Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl, White-tailed Kite, White-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Crested Caracara, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Harris's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. And many others--thinking of them is so much fun I may start a list of "Birds Seen on the Fence Across the Arroyo"!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Back to the Back Yard (and the Front)

Winter is not my favorite season in most of the country, but it certainly is in South Texas along the Arroyo Colorado! It was nice to sit on the little deck looking over the front yard yesterday and watch our winter birds. An Orange-crowned Warbler enjoyed the grapefruit we put out (fruit picked up from under our neighbor's tree). It was just one of three warblers in the yard. A Wilson's Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler also flitted around.

Best of all, we were surprised by another visitor at the grapefruit--a Baltimore Oriole enjoying the fruit and the warm winter sunshine. I remember being surprised last February when a Baltimore made it a three-oriole day--along with a Hooded Oriole and the usual year-round Altamiras. Yesterday was only a
two-oriole day as there doesn't seem to be a wintering Hooded around. One spring we had a five-oriole day: Hooded, Altamira, Baltimore, Orchard, and Fuertes's. My favorite of course is the rare Fuertes's Oriole that spent a couple of summers in our yard a decade ago. I look for one every spring and keep hoping to see another.

Today is another warm day with temps in the mid 70's. The rest of the week should be in the 80's. We'll probably take the boat out to the bay--or
maybe just fish and bird in the Arroyo. Here's a picture of a Ringed Kingfisher fishing across the Arroyo. (Not a great picture since the camera was zoomed in ((or out)) all the way from my back porch. But it does show that beautiful red breast.)
We have all three kingfishers
(Ringed, Belted, Gre
en) at this time of year. The Green is my favorite. One used to stay in our boat house most of the time. Then we tore the boat house down and replaced it with a lift with no side walls. The little Green Kingfishers still fly by--always low, flying about a foot above the water--but they hang out in someone else's boat house.
The large Ringed Kingfishers nest along the river in holes they excavate out of the banks. About a mile upriver are some old kingfisher holes that are now inhabited by Barn Owls. Maybe tomorrow I'll try to get photos of the owls if we take the boat that direction.

My husband just called me away from the computer to look out the front window at a pair of cardinals. Beautiful birds. Yesterday there were two Pyrrhuloxias in the back. They look like caricatures of cardinals, beaks and crests comically exaggerated.

Other birds in the front yard: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; Inca, White-tipped, Mourning, and White-winged Doves; Lincoln's Sparrow; Lark Sparrow; Kiskadees and Green Jays (of course); Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers; Mockingbirds; Black-crested Titmice; Buff-bellied and Ruby Throated Hummingbirds (maybe a Black-chinned: two of what I assumed were Ruby-throated hummers had dark green heads and another one had more of a grayish head; female hummers are hard to distinguish--at least for me)

Other birds in the back yard (river side): Great Blue and Tri-colored Herons; Black-crowned Night Herons; Great and Snowy Egrets; Osprey; Harris's Hawk; Laughing, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls; Caspian, Forster's, and Royal Terns; Anhinga; Ruddy Duck; Double-crested Cormorant; Black and Turkey Vultures; Great-tailed Grackles, House Sparrows, Starlings (none of those my favorites); Red-winged Blackbirds. Of course the Brown and White Pelicans.

I'm sure I've left out some birds, but this list shows it was a good day on the Arroyo Colorado! I'll go back out for awhile and see what I can see. From where I sit right now (inside the living room) I can see the brown grass on the bank turning golden in the late afternoon sun. Now I just have to decide whether to sit out on the front deck to look for the Baltimore Oriole or to watch the riverbank from the deck at the top of the boat lift. (Retirement is so full of hard decisions!)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Catching Up

I got off to such a good start for the year--created a blog to record the happenings in the yard, listed yard birds on e-bird--and then all my good intentions (of keeping up with a journal/blog) went by the wayside. But a very nice wayside it was--a new granddaughter! We drove the six hours to our daughter's house and then watched grandchildren instead of birds. Here's our little sweetheart.

Before leaving town, I took a few pictures of the Brown Pelicans that fly along the Arroyo Colorado, diving in when they spot a fish. They especially like to follow the barges and fish in their wakes.

Brown pelicans are certainly not rare here though I know until recently they were a threatened species. Over the years of watching the river we have seen their steady increase and now they are numerous.

Another picture I took just before leaving town for a couple of weeks was of a Kiskadee eating the berries of the shefflera. Remember the papaya tree next to the shefflera with the blooms that the hummingbirds were enjoying so much?
Well, when we returned home, a freeze (first one in several years) had turned the leaves and blossoms into a dark shriveled mess. I don't know if the tree will be lost or not. Most of the yard is not affected. In fact, some plants look better than ever--the lantana, for example.

Friday, January 1, 2010

January 1, 2010

A new year and a new bird list! My resolutions include keeping better track of the bird activity in my yard this year. My thirteen-year yard list has 250+ species, but the new birds are few and far-between now--which doesn't mean watching the yard is any less fun.
What I want to do this year is keep an electronic record of what I see and when I see it, so that next year when I wonder "when is the Pelican Parade going to start?" I'll be able to look up last year's dates. (In case you are wondering, what I call the Pelican Parade here on the Arroyo Colorado is the wonderful streaming of White Pelicans along the river on winter nights: flying past the fishing lights and docks in groups of three or four or maybe a couple of dozen, stopping to fish under the lights and paddle around with those unseen but powerful webbed feet, their white reflections shining against the black river. Some nights we see only a few; some nights, especially after a norther has blown in, we see hundreds.)

The year's first bird was an Altamira Oriole on the hummingbird feeder.
It was joined momentarily by a Kiskadee. The Kiskadees are going crazy for the bright gold berries of the scheffleras at the side of the house. As always when there's a new crop of berries (fiddlewood, Barbados cherry, turk's cap--they love them all), these berry-lovers are at war with the mockingbirds.

I'm posting some pictures I took today. I wanted to get a photo of the the Kiskadees eating the berries from the large shefflera plants. (Most of our yard plants are native to South Texas, and of course the sheffleras aren't, but they have such lovely golden berries every Christmas and don't seem to be invasive, so we let them stay.)
The birds flew away when I went out on the porch to take the picture, but you can see the golden berries near the stair railing and in the foreground a blooming papaya tree that the hummingbirds are loving. Two Kiskadees remained on the electric wire above, calling loudly. I did get a photo of a very excited Kiskadee on the wire, showing its golden crest.
I think maybe it is excited about the other kiskadee and not the berries. (My photos are not the best, but you get the idea.) The way the bird thrust up its usually hidden gold crest was really cool. Almost everything about Kiskadees is cool: I love the big football-shaped nest they made in the anacua tree last summer and the way they say "Oh boy!" and the way they stand up to the bully mockingbirds and gobble up the berries and the way they swoop down and then up when they cross the driveway from one bath to the other.