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!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Altamira Orioles

I like this photo so much I've been using it as my computer's screensaver. It is of an Altamira Oriole perched on the oriole feeder one misty morning.  All orioles are spectacular birds and the Altamiras are among the loveliest.  I love their color, their song, and the way they are almost always in pairs.

I'm hoping "our" pair will nest in one of our trees this year.  A few years ago they began building a nest at the end of one of the branches near the top of a live oak tree that overhangs our driveway.  We watched for several days as the pair attached several long pieces of grass that hung down a couple of feet from the slender forked branch.  They wove other grasses and plant material horizontally around those vertical pieces, starting from the top.

As the Altamira Orioles continued construction,  Bronzed Cowbirds acted like building inspectors. (The cowbirds here are a real nuisance to other nesting birds, parasitizing the nests of orioles as well as cardinals, thrashers, and other birds.  They are especially troublesome to Hooded Orioles.)  After a few days the orioles abandoned that nest and started building another nest in the same tree.  This nest, too, was abandoned. Neither nest was ever completed.  Each was  woven about six inches long with the longer vertical strands of grass never joined at the bottom of the nest.  (Completed nests I've seen are all at least a foot long and sometimes two.)   I wondered if the abandoned nests  were decoys to distract the parasitic cowbirds from the "real" nest built later in a neighbor's ash tree.  Or maybe this was a young pair of birds who had to make a couple of false starts before they got it right.  Or perhaps that location just didn't seem right. 

All summer long the large pendulous nest the Altamira pair finally completed was clearly visible  overhanging a neighbor's drive. And hanging down about twenty feet from beneath the nest was a piece of garden twine that the birds had stolen from the neighbor's greenhouse! Apparently they couldn't break it off into smaller pieces, so the long trailing end of it was left to dangle to the ground.  A few weeks later two new orioles were fledged from that most unusual nest.

A few days ago I watched one of the orioles behaving strangely and I wondered if the behavior was related to nest building.  The bird was in an esperanza shrub, which has very flexible branches.  The bird grasped a small green branch (part of the live shrub) in its beak as though it was testing it for flexibility, perhaps even trying to break it off.  This went on for several minutes.   It wasn't eating anything, just holding the branch horizontally in its beak. I am guessing that it could have been "testing" the branch for nest material, though the diameter probably would be too big.  The esperanza branch was too low to the ground to be a nest location.  Perhaps the bird was just cleaning its beak.  I have no way of knowing what it was doing, but it was interesting enough and went on long enough that I took several photographs. 

Altamira Orioles are daily (or hourly or sometimes minutely!) visitors to our nectar feeders and  also eat nectar from the aloe vera  that blooms in the late winter and spring.  During the winter the Altamiras also frequent the seed feeders, the only orioles I have ever seen eating seeds. 

The song of the Altamiras is very loud and musical, kind of like someone whistling.  One echoes the other as they sing and call to each other from yard to yard.  Sometimes you can hear one, if you are close enough to it, practice a little "whisper" song, a very very quiet song but long and complex.  The first time I heard one doing this, it was perched on the outside of an upstairs window, presumably whispering to its reflection.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Pouch of Pelicans

When you were a kid, did you learn that poem, "A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican..."?
I can't remember who wrote it (though I do know it wasn't Ogden Nash) or how the rest of it goes, but I do agree that the pelican is a wonderful bird. On days like today I find that silly rhyme running through my head.

I've spent the day watching Brown Pelicans. I love to see them fly over the river, watch for fish, and then dive in the water with a twisting motion, hitting it hard enough to make a loud splash. Sometimes two or three pelicans will be fishing together and dive at almost the same time. As they enter the water, they fold their wings and go in beak-first. The twisting motion must continue underwater, for they always come up facing opposite of the direction they went in. They slam in hard and come up fast. If their dive is successful, they stretch their throats upward and you can often see a fish filling out the pouch before they swallow it. Mullet and menhaden fish are their preferred food (according to what I've read) and we definitely have those in the arroyo. (Menhaden are the silver "shiners" that fishermen net up for bait, and mullet are the silvery fish that jump out of the water, sometimes in a series of three or more leaps. People don't like to eat either menhaden or mullet, but the pelicans certainly do.)

Yesterday the bird in the photo above made a loud splashing dive just out from the dock as I watched from the porch. I wasn't specifically looking for pelicans and at first I paid little attention to it. But something seemed different about this bird. I kept looking at it, first as it ate the fish it caught in its dive and then as it paddled around for awhile. I noted that it was in breeding plumage, a yellow/gold on its head and dark brown on the hindneck, but that wasn't the difference I was sensing. Lots of the pelicans I'd been watching for the last couple of weeks had that.
It wasn't until I looked at the photos I'd taken that I realized what didn't seem right: its gular pouch was not dark brown or gray as most of the Brown Pelicans I see, but a surprising red. I checked several field guides. Most didn't even mention this coloring at all, but the couple that did identified it as a fieldmark of the pacific or California subspecies. This guy might be a long way from home! I don't know how many of "our" pelicans have this coloration--but it is beautiful!

Today I watched for Brown Pelicans all day so that I could get an idea of how many had the red pouch--and I only saw one. It may be the same one I saw yesterday, of course. I saw dozens of the birds flying and floating and diving but only one that looked the same as the photo above. I'll keep watching. Tomorrow we may go out to the bay where there will be many more birds to compare.

One last Pelican note--while reading about them on the internet, I found out that a group of pelicans is called a pod, a pouch, a scoop, or a squadron. I especially like the last two designations. I've seen White Pelicans fish at night on the river, strongly paddling in a v-formation, scooping their beaks back and forth in the water almost in unison, "herding" the fish to the birds in the back. That was definitely a Scoop of Pelicans! Tonight I saw a scoop of 34 pelicans, and at last I got a (rather fuzzy) night photo.

What does this look like to you-- a Pod, a Scoop, or a Squadron of Pelicans?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Night Windows and a Morning Feeder-Dance

Last night I sat down in the living room after dark to start writing a blog, but soon became distracted by the arroyo night framed in windows across the room. The fishing light was making a circle of green on the river. The far bank was gathering light and casting reflections of upside-down trees, bank, and fence onto the still water. The image of sky in the river was black (opposite of what it is now: silver gray against the deep green of daytime shadows). I could see both real trees, grass, and banks glowing in the light cast across the river and, just beneath them, inverted reflected ones. At the edges of the windows all was black.
Suddenly, great white forms began moving through the picture as dozens of American White Pelicans streamed by, their unseen but powerful feet moving them through the circle of light as they paddled upriver. We counted 93 in all. I moved closer to the window and watched until they were out of sight.

A few minutes later a Barn Owl flew over the river going in the opposite direction, its white breast and wings shining a ghostly white against the dark sky. (I've heard that many legends of ghosts in graveyards stem from the Barn Owls that could be seen flying at night out of the church steeples where they lived next to the graveyards.)

I used to see Barn Owls in holes along the banks a couple of miles up river where we fish for tarpon and snook. But last week when we looked for the Barn Owls, we saw that large portions of the bank had caved in, probably because of all the rain we've been getting, and the holes had collapsed. I took a picture of one hole that looked almost big enough for owls, but I could not see any owls peering out as I used to. I think the owls sometimes enlarge these old kingfisher nest holes for their nests and sometimes use cavities that emerge among roots of trees when the banks cave in. I'll keep looking this spring, and maybe I can get a photograph.

Here's what I had intended to write about last night. When the oriole/hummingbird feeders were covered with bees earlier in the week, I took them down for a day and then replaced them with a less bee-friendly kind. So far the bees haven't returned, but the feeders are "humming" with activity: hummingbirds (the little Ruby-throated/Black-chinned and the larger pugnacious Buff-bellieds), orioles (the Altamira pair and the single Baltimore that is still spending his winter vacation with us) and Orange-crowned Warblers seem to be even more active in the cold mornings. Yesterday I watched the Altamira Orioles, an Orange-crowned Warbler and a Buff-bellied hummer take turns at the nectar. If the orioles were on the feeder, the little warbler waited on the railing of the deck or perched atop an old wooden oar, while the hummer waited in the fiddlewood. All remained within two or three feet of the nectar feeder. They traded places by turns, it seemed, and so quickly I couldn't keep up with them with my camera. As I lifted the camera to snap the oriole, I'd look through the viewer and see a warbler! Even a Black-crested Titmouse took a turn. (The photo here is obviously not from today; you can see the Add Imagetitmouse is at the other feeder, before the bees laid siege to it a few days ago.) From my warm place inside the house, I enjoyed watching the feeder-dance for a good part of the morning while the birds switched places, bobbing and weaving, as though choreographed.

Update (February 18, 2010): This morning, in the rain, the dance of the nectar-eaters resumed. This female Yellow-fronted Woodpecker was not as polite in awaiting her turn. Though not as graceful as some of the other participants, and certainly not as patient, she was able to get her share of sugar water.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

the north wind doth blow...

We've had several days of first rain and then cold. Not freezing cold, but uncomfortable cold (highs only in the 50's), with wind and misty dampness. I do my birding and photographing from the window on these days. The pictures of the soggy Northern Mockingbird and the Northern Cardinal were taken Saturday when we received almost three inches of rain. It was still warm then, but gray and wet and windy.

Monday night the clouds had cleared and the night was warm and still, finally quiet enough to hear the Hoo-Hoo-huh-Hoo of our Great-horned Owls and the trilling of Eastern Screech-owls. Tree frogs peeped and coyotes called each other across the river. I stood on the porch and enjoyed South Texas night sounds.By midnight, however, a "norther" had blown in.We woke to hear the wind howling outside in the trees and whistling at the windows. If a norther comes in during the day, you can see it coming with blue-black clouds building quickly from the north. (That's why some people call it a "blue norther.") But at night it can seem to slam into the house without warning.

The birds in the yard and on the river act differently and look different in this kind of weather. They look fat on cold days as they sit in the trees or on the dock, their feathers puffed up to trap warmer air next to their bodies, kind of like we do when we wear down coats I guess.
(The Great Blue Heron in the picture is having a bad hair day as the north wind blows and ruffles its feathers into unusual forms.)

When a front blows in and the wind is so cold from the north, American White Pelicans come further upriver and we see them on the river especially at night. Though it's dark now outside the windows, I just saw at least fifty of the large white birds stream by , their wings beating slowly but powerfully over the river. (With wingspans of 100+ inches, American White Pelicans are noticeably larger than Brown Pelicans, the smallest of pelicans.) In this picture, taken on Christmas eve, hundreds of White Pelicans were overhead as we fished on the dock. They "kettle" on warm currents of air just as migrating hawks do.

I wish I knew how to take photographs of the pelicans under the fishing lights or swimming on a moonlit night. They remind me of wax candles glowing against the black water, their rippled reflections inverted in the water. I keep trying to capture that image in poetry since I can't with my camera.
Pelicans at Night

As the moon spilled
into dark water,
shimmering candles
gleamed on the river.
White birds,
carved of wax,
flamed up
from black water
and vanished
into the night.