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, March 28, 2010

Nature's People

Just in case you think all we have in the yard are birds, or in case you are tired of photos of orioles, I'll begin with a beautiful fellow I found in the neighbor's yard yesterday morning, a Texas Indigo Snake.  Moments before this photo was taken, the snake was winding its full four or five feet at a leisurely pace along a flower bed and water sprinkler.  But  when I rushed over with my camera, it quickly slithered away under a plumbago shrub against a fence. Like poet  Emily Dickinson's  snake in "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" :  
"it  wrinkled,  and  was  gone."

I thought I'd been foiled again, but I took this picture anyway, aiming the camera back in the shadows.  Surprisingly, the photo turned out okay.  You can see the deep indigo blue of its back end coiled up by the lighter face with the little whisker-like marks radiating out from the eye.  I love these creatures and think they are among the most beautiful in the yard.  I've seen pictures of them eating rattlesnakes,  and I'm always ready to tell that to people who declare they hate snakes and have guns to kill them with (unfortunately I've heard that said a surprising number of times around here). I don't think Dickinson would kill a snake, but even she who can describe one so well says they make her feel "zero to the bone."  She's one of my favorite poets, but I'll disagree with her on that.

Now to the orioles!  I've spent the weekend watching  Hooded Orioles that returned just a few days ago.  At first glance they look like the resident Altamira Orioles.  When we first moved to the Rio Grande Valley and I had never before seen either species, I confused the two.  The Altamira is a little larger, a relative field mark not too helpful if  the two birds aren't side by side.  In the photo to the left here is a Hooded Oriole and to the right an Altamira Oriole. You can see two distinguishing features easily -- the Altamira has an orange shoulder patch notching a little "v" in the top front of the black wing, and the Hooded does not.  That's probably the most helpful field mark, the one a field guide would point an arrow at.  The shape of the black facial patch is different, too.  Some field guides say the Altamira has a mask because the black goes from the beak back to the eye and is narrower on the throat. On the Hooded Oriole the black goes down from the eye, covering more of the face and throat--see what I mean?

If you look closely at the Hooded Oriole on the left, you can see that the beak is slightly decurved, or pointed downward, another distinguishing mark, but it's the orange shoulder patch that I always look for first.  Of course, once you have welcomed these guys to your home and hung around with them, you know them from a distance just like you know each of your grandkids running  towards you,  even from way across the park.

Using those two field marks, you could answer the photo quiz from my last post, right?  And a special "GOOD JOB!" to  Caleb, my smart grandson who may have also had help from his equally smart younger siblings.  (Not his baby sister, though--she hasn't looked through a pair of binoculars yet,  but just a few more months and she'll be birding with the rest of us.) I think most of you identified the orioles correctly-- Orioles A and B in the quiz were Hooded Orioles and Oriole C was an Altamira Oriole, all eating nectar in the bottlebrush tree in our yard. (If you're not sure what I'm talking about, see the post below that I wrote a few days ago.)

The Hooded Orioles were busy this weekend checking out the prime real estate in the neighborhood-- the tall Washingtonian Palm Trees where they  make nests every summer.  Here's a photo of one male that perched on a palm above our deck yesterday afternoon and called out "wheat!" over and over.  He was repeatedly answered by two other "wheat!"s  from two other palm trees.  This went on for quite some time. 

I don't know if other male orioles were answering the calls.  I'm assuming a female Hooded Oriole was within hearing distance, since the male I watched was being such a show-off.   At one point he fanned his tail, making it look in miniature like the palm frond he perched on. I hope this photo shows up well enough for you to see the black tail feathers---it  was extremely neat to watch.  (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)  
Today I finally saw a female Hooded Oriole,  first in a shrub near the palm where she looked very lemony yellow below, more greenish yellow on her back.  Then later I photographed a male and female together eating an orange half.  Unlike the Altamira Orioles whose males and females look pretty much alike, the male and female Hooded Orioles are distinct.  Aren't they a cute couple?

I'm still on the lookout for migrants,  but so far most of our birds at the baths and feeders have been birds that show up here only in the winter.  The Gray Catbird is still here and the Black and White, Orange-crowned,  and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This weekend's new birds for 2010 were  a Yellow-throated Warbler and an American Robin, both brief winter and early spring visitors.

April begins in a couple of days, a fabulous birding month here at home.  I love to see the exciting birds that pass through for a day or two--I'm still fluttering about last week's close encounter with a Swallow-tailed Kite--but I also especially love the ones that stay awhile and  build nests, raise young. I like to get to know them, not merely tick them off my list. I understand why Emily Dickinson refers to them as  people:

"Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality"
         (click this link to read Dickinson's "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass")

I don't share Dickinson's view of a snake that made her feel such a cold uneasiness, but I too know "nature's people." I look forward to the just beginning nesting season when I am a nature watcher and not just a lister.  I think getting to know nature does transport us to a better world.  We could sometimes use a little more "cordiality."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

They're Ba-ack!

So far this year our Yard List has been woefully--and a little strangely--short on ducks. For a while in January a single Ruddy Duck paddled around occasionally out in the Arroyo, and a few days ago a couple of Mottled Ducks flew by -- and that's been it.

But today my favorite duck came home:  our South Texas specialty, the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck.  I heard my neighbor call from her porch, "The ducks are back!" and I ran out to see.  First there was just one of these funny-looking guys standing on the top railing of the deck above our boat lift, and then another joined it.  They flew across the deck, feet dragging and heads down in that funny way they fly for short distances, and peered down at the bird feeder they knew was there, having been daily visitors last summer.  It seemed pretty obvious these two were returning home and not just stumbling upon  a random feeder. Look at the photo above.  These guys know what they're looking for.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are really cool ducks. I love the way their white eye rings make them look wide-eyed and curious.  Those bright pink long legs and orange beaks seem cheerful and comical, and the coloring of their plumage is really quite beautiful:  the chestnut brown backs, the black bellies and tails, the chestnut brown on top of the head and along the back of the neck, the white patches on the wings when they fly.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are year-round residents here in the Rio Grande Valley,  but I don't know exactly where "ours" (okay, these are wild free creatures, but I might be a tad possessive of some of them)  hang out all winter. At least one field guide suggests that they may move short distances south for the winter months from the northern part of their range, which would include Texas.

These ducks are very gregarious--see how social they look in the picture above, as if working the room, asking each other how their winter was.  Last summer we began noticing, as we drove through Los Fresnos, the town south of here, that a huge constituency of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were always gathered on one particular roof at the town's main intersection.  They looked like they were having a large but friendly town hall meeting.

I think it's possible that the dozen or so ducks that gathered daily at the feeder late last summer were all one family because at the first of the summer, it had been dinner for two. My field guides tell me that they lay  as many as 16 eggs, usually in a tree cavity, that the young tumble out of the nest after only two days,  and that they remain with their parents for up to eight weeks.  This year I'm going to note details such as how many juveniles are at the feeder and how many adults.  (One of my purposes in writing this blog is to keep track of what's happening with our birds and wildlife so I won't have such a vague recollection next year. There's just so much to see here that I haven't kept track very well in the past.  All that is changing in 2010--I'm determined to keep blogging all the details of our yard birds! Maybe its scientific curiosity and maybe it's just nosiness, like keeping track of what the neighbors are doing and forming hypotheses about their comings and goings!)

As we continued to watch our newly-returned visitors this morning, one duck hop/flew down to the feeder,  and along with half a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds ate mixed seeds and corn.  The other one  stayed on the railing, standing on one foot.  My neighbor, who was watching with me, just as delighted as I that they had returned, wondered if something was wrong with its leg---but I knew it  just preferred, in its whistling-duck way,  to stand for a while on one leg.

Five minutes later a group of about twenty Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flew east along the river, whistling of course, until they spotted the original two and circled back around, landing on the roof of the neighbor's deck.

The ducks are not the only returning birds.  Scissor-tailed Flycatchers perched on the electric wires today and Purple Martins soared over martin houses to the east and the west of us.  I saw the first Barn Swallow of the year this afternoon and another male Hooded Oriole was on the Bottlebrush tree -- two Hooded and two Altamiras at the same time.  Now that's colorful! 

Our bottlebrush tree (also known as callistemon) is sometimes literally filled with birds when it is in bloom.  Last fall I counted five male Orchard Orioles, six male Baltimore Orioles, one male Hooded Oriole and three female orioles of undetermined species  at one time in the neighbor's small bottlebrush,  which I can see as I sit on my front deck.  (Though most of our plants are native, the bottlebrush is not--it's native to Australia.  I've checked lists of invasive nonnatives and can't find anything that identifies it as invasive in Texas.  One internet source questions its invasiveness in California, though, so I need to find out a little more.)

When you look at the oriole photos below, you'll see bottlebrush blooms.  They look  like brushes you'd use to clean a hummingbird feeder, don't they?   The little spots of yellow at the ends of the "brush bristles" are pollen.  Yesterday I saw a yellow-faced brown bird on the tree and was startled until it dawned on me that I was looking at a House Sparrow that had been sticking its beak in the blooms, getting a face full of pollen. (Looking for insects?  Sampling the nectar?  A Red-winged Blackbird was doing the same thing.  I'm not sure what they were eating.)

 A couple of days ago,  I took photos of orioles feeding on nectar in the backyard bottlebrush.  I had promised a good photo when I had good light.  Getting a photo was harder than I first thought it would be because, as it turned out, there were two orioles in the tree!  Can you tell which of them is a male Hooded Oriole and which is an Altamiras?

We'll call this first one (in the photo above)  Oriole A.  Look closely at the pattern of the black on its face, its bill shape, its wing.

We'll call this one Oriole B.  Is it the same species of oriole as A?

We'll say this is Oriole C.  Remember to look at the top of the wings.  (I talked about how these orioles are a little different in an earlier blog.)

Okay, identify the oriole in each photo! 

Can you see why I was getting confused as I tried to take a picture of our newly-returned Hooded Oriole--and didn't know an Altamira Oriole was feasting in the same tree?

Study the differences in the two orioles 
(if you are my grandchildren, that's your assignment!)  and write your answers in the comments.  I'll tell you the right ones  in a day or two.

I love orioles and could watch them all day.  Tomorrow I'm going to try to take a photo from a video I have of a Fuertes's Oriole that spent two summers with us. (I know that will not be a good photo, but I am going to try anyway.)   It was a beautiful bird, like an Orchard Oriole but tawny gold or "old gold" or ochre  where the Orchard Oriole is brick red. (My old field guide to Mexican birds calls it the Ochre Oriole for its exquisite coloring.) Quite a few people down here saw it in our yard,  but no one took a still photo as far as I know.  That was ten years ago before so many people had cameras that could focus in on shy birds singing in treetops or splashing in a distant bath.  I've been wishing I had a photo.  A few weeks ago I looked at the Texas bird committee's website, and saw  a photo link to the Fuertes's Oriole (which so far is still considered a distinct subspecies of the Orchard Oriole), and I was excited thinking I'd click and find a photo taken of this bird that has been seen in the U.S. only a couple of times.  But when you click the link,  you see a dead museum specimen that was taken--which means shot and killed--in Brownsville a century ago.  Thank goodness we have cameras to shoot with now. Anyway, looking at that sad photo of a dead bird made me wish I could have taken a photo of the vividly alive and beautiful little oriole that sang from the treetops in our yard those two summers.  (I have seen on the internet a copy of the painting Luis Agassiz Fuertes did of the bird,  which he discovered in Mexico. I'll see if I can find it again and link to it from here.)

I thought this would be a short post about the Whistling Ducks.  But it's hard for me not to go on and on  about orioles.  I'm the eternal optimist and keep looking for a Fuertes's Oriole every April.  Both years it was here, it arrived on April 16.  If it comes, you will hear it  from wherever you are.  You'll hear a crazy woman shrieking to the universe, "It's ba-ack!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Yesterday was the best birding day of the year, not because we added several birds to our year list, but because of one especially magnificent bird that flew right over our front deck.  I was as awed as the speaker of  Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "The Windhover":   "my heart in hiding / stirred for a bird."  His poem describes the emotions he felt as he watched a Kestrel (the windhover) ride the wind.  I had the honor of watching an equally stirring Swallow-tailed Kite.

It was just after a front had blown in yesterday afternoon.  Though the wind was blowing fiercely, I had returned to the deck to catch any migrants that had been stopped by the front.
Watching for early warblers at the bath, I almost forgot to scan the skies.  When I did, the large kite (they can have a wingspan of 50 inches) was veering north towards the river and  trying to gain altitude. The afternoon sun, especially intense as it often is after rain clouds have broken up, illuminated the bird so that its dazzling white and black pattern gleamed.  If you haven't seen at least a photograph of this bird with its wings and deeply forked tail spread out to ride the wind, look at the photo linked here from the Peregrine Fund.  That's what it looked like,  but more brightly spotlighted by the sun.

My years of teaching (and loving) English literature cause snippets of poetry to be snagged in my head.  So first Hopkins' poem flitted out from my brain (the windhover hovering as its "hurl and riding rebuffed the big wind"), and then it told my hands to grab the camera. By that time, the battle with the wind had triggered aerobatic maneuvers by the bird and it was too low and to the side of me to get an underneath shot of those outstretched wings and long deeply forked tail.

My two photos aren't perfect, but they record a great moment. Not as well as a poem can, but they evoke the image in my mind of the bird that soared so magnificently.  See how the sun casts the wing's shadow on the white breast of the bird?   See how it leans into the wind?   In his poem Hopkins affirms "the achieve of; the mastery of the [bird]."  This lovely bird that I was privileged to watch yesterday was a master of his (and my) world.

(If you want to experience Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem you can link to it by clicking its title in the quote at the top of this blog's sidebar.)

Swallow-tailed Kites are larger relatives of the White-tailed Kites (formerly called Black-shouldered) that are residents here in the Rio Grande Valley.  Their striking colors  are  the same:  snow white against deep black.  I have watched a White-tailed Kite devour a rabbit on the fence post across the river, and we often see them hovering over the fields across the way. Although fairly common in our area,  I never tire of seeing them.  Another kite, the Red Kite that soared gracefully over a field near Inverness, was my favorite bird of a visit to the Scottish Highlands three years ago.  I've also watched Mississippi Kites with my grandchildren as they kettled above their house in south central Texas during migration. (editing note: the kites were kettling, not my grandchildren!  I should just change the sentence around, but it strikes me as too funny to change:  sometimes the seven of them do seem to be kettling.)

 The range of the Swallow-tailed Kites in the United States is mainly Florida but we do see them in south Texas in migration.  Several years ago one was embedded in a kettle of hawks that soared above our house.  That was exciting, a lifer for me,  but the bird was so high that I could see it only with binoculars.  This one was close, a surprisingly short distance for raptor migration, not far above the palm trees really, close enough that it is now truly a "yard bird."

I didn't see a group of kites, only one exquisitely beautiful one, but I've learned that one of its collective nouns is a string of kites.  I like that.  Kites, like those flown by my grandchildren and by my brother and sisters and I as children, are  beloved and fascinating toys that were named after this bird.  My father used to make paper kites and taught us to fly them.  I was reminded of that when the Swallow-tailed Kite flew between me and the sun yesterday, a brief childhood memory of flying kites on sunny days.  Last week we flew kites with our grandchildren.  I wish we had seen the Swallow-tailed Kite then so that I  could have shared the spectacular bird with them.  

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Command Performance

This was another "no sooner said than done" day.  I've written about them before:   I get up in the morning, announce what birds I want to see in the yard--and before the day is over, there they are!   When I said this morning that today we'd have buntings and Hooded Orioles, my husband just rolled his eyes. But before the day was over, that's exactly what we had. 
First thing this morning, I walked up the drive to start the  drippers on the bird baths.  We've been out of town for the last week, so I knew I needed to complete that task early.   Moving water is our number one bird magnet.

In the backyard, the river's brackish water attracts egrets, herons, kingfishers, gulls, terns, pelicans, whistling ducks and myriad other water-loving birds.

In the front yard, water drips continually from a quarter-inch black hose into one of the baths, the deepest one where we've seen hawks, Chachalacas, and even a Wild Turkey bathing.   (Last week I  put an adjustable valve on the hose, which hangs above the bath from a shepherd's hook, so that I wouldn't have to crawl through thorny brush  every time I needed to  turn it off and on.)  In another bath across the drive,  water drips from a plastic bottle (actually from a big plastic container that once held kitty litter!).   This shallow bath is favored by smaller birds like the Lesser Goldfinches and Painted Buntings that are especially drawn to dripping water on hot summer afternoons. There are two other baths that we fill daily from a garden hose, but that's okay because it gives me a chance to walk the drive and see what  birds hide in the brush, not visible from the deck unless they dart out to the driveway.

On the walk up the drive this morning, I saw a Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler and a Blue-headed Vireo, both in a Live Oak tree.  Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, and Kiskadees  flew noisily through the yard, calling out as they checked out feeders and baths.  A Ladder-backed Woodpecker squeaked like a dog toy as it climbed up and down the oak trees. A Couch's  Kingbird  flew its up-and-then-down-again dance from the tiptop of an Ash tree and sang out loudly in the still morning, a song that distinguishes it from the otherwise identical Tropical Kingbird.

When my neighbor called "Come here! Hurry!"  I rushed over to her drive in time to watch a 4- to 5-foot Indigo Snake slither away into the grass and then under a fence to another yard.  It was a deep blue-black in the morning sun, a really beautiful snake.   Though classified as threatened, they seem to do well in our area which has lots of native plants and patches of thick brush.  We have had them living in our yard every year and see them often around dripping water faucets and the neighbor's sprinkler. ( I didn't have my camera outside with me, but I'm determined to get a good picture soon. When I do, I'll write a little more about these beautiful snakes.)

And that's not the only Indigo I saw today:  the asked-for Indigo Bunting made its first-of-season appearance in the late afternoon.  I saw it on the bird bath  that's made from a down-turned terra cotta planter and an up-turned saucer, but it was there only  for a moment.  Just after I spotted the deep blue bird through binoculars, and  juggled them awkwardly as I tried to quickly raise my camera, the bunting  flew away, spooked by another bird making a command performance at the same bath---the brightly-colored male Hooded Oriole!  (You can see from the understandably fuzzy picture above that the Hooded Oriole is similar to the Altamira. One  distinction is the lack of the gold/orange epaulet or shoulder patch at the top of the Hooded's wing. I'll get a clearer picture on another day and post a side-by-side comparison for those who are not familiar with both birds. )

Today was also a great day for hummingbirds.  We had at least three Rufous Hummingbirds --two bright males were  at the same feeder at once and at least one other female was there off and on all day.  More and more Ruby-throated hummers are coming each day.  We had the first adult male of the season show up last week.
My favorite hummingbird of the day was a resident Buff-bellied Hummingbird that perched in a fiddlewood shrub and sang.  I could see its throat moving as it sang a short but rather complex song of descending notes. I'd never been lucky enough to hear that song before. Its usual calls are buzzing clicks and ticks, some possibly made with its tail, but this was a definite and surprising little song.

We had put several orange-halves out to attract orioles and weren't disappointed.  The Baltimore Oriole hasn't shown for a couple of weeks now,  but the Altamira pair were here all day and finally, at about five this evening, the male aforementioned Hooded Oriole flew in--just what I'd asked for!  We have had as many as three pairs of these orioles nesting in various Palm trees at the same time (not the same tree, of course).  They weave lovely little purse-like nests on the undersides of the palm fronds. Once a pair nested in a neighbor's potted ficus tree on a second story porch.

Perhaps this fellow will stay and nest. I know the same Hooded Orioles return year after year because we used to have one that had a very distinctive broken beak allowing us to identify him as he returned to our yard in the spring.  The lower mandible, bent and pointed straight down, was ugly and looked disfunctional.  I worried the first year I saw him that he would not be able to survive, but he did for at least two more seasons, and I watched him eat, build nests, and feed young even with that handicap.  I was always thrilled to see him return in the spring. (There's no way for me to know what caused the disfigured bill.  One oriole had slammed into a window that spring, hitting very hard and being stunned for some time.  Maybe it was that oriole.  Or maybe it was just a birth defect.) 

Also eating an orange half in the yard was a Gray Catbird, one of my favorite birds, and an Orange-crowned Warbler.  The eponymous orange crown was actually visible on this particular bird though it is usually hidden.  I think the only other times I've been able to see the crown was when one was wet in a bird bath and once when I was helping a bander.  The photo here is fuzzy, but I think you'll be able to see the orange on the  crown.  (For other photos of Orange-crowned Warblers, read this post and this one.)

So all-in-all, it was a good day for watching birds in our yard on the Arroyo Colorado.  New yard birds for 2010 were the Hooded Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Cedar Waxwings that zigzagged past in the late afternoon. I'll add them to the list I'm keeping in this  blog's sidebar.   A weak front is expected to cross the valley tomorrow and it may stop some migrants for a visit. The wind may gust to 50 mph the weatherman says.  I'll keep you posted!

I'm always thrilled when readers leave comments--hope you'll tell me what  you are seeing  in your yards.  Or what you want to see.  (Just make the announcement first thing in the morning.  It works for me!)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Topnotch Topknots

There is not a jauntier little bird than the Black-crested Titmouse. Crests always tidy, never having a "bad-hair day," they look especially bright-eyed and well-groomed.  Their black eyes looking like shiny buttons,  they dart quickly to the feeders, grab a morsel, and  fly quickly away to eat the black sunflower seed in a nearby tree.  Grasping the seed with tiny feet against the branch, they peck determinedly once or twice, deftly cracking the shell, and eating it posthaste.

We have a pair this year that apparently have chosen to nest in a dead cottonwood tree, a more conventional nesting cavity  than some they have had in the past.  One summer they raised two broods inside the metal railing on a boat trailer parked at the side of our yard.  It was a hot summer (of course) and I feared the metal pipe would be too hot--or within reach of marauding stray cats, but baby titmice fledged successfully both times.  Another summer they built a nest inside the metal arm of a large satellite disk about five feet off the ground.  Every time the dish moved when we changed channels (this was before  Dish Network satellites when we had one of those big awkward moving dishes), the arm would move too--but that didn't bother the birds either! 
Among my favorite summer days are those when just-fledged titmice are noisily following their parents around the yard.

I finally got a photograph of a Pyrrhuloxia at the feeder on the edge of the house.  A pair have been coming to the second floor feeder for the last couple of days along with several Northern Cardinals.  I like to see the two species together.  Superficially the Pyrrhuloxia looks like a female cardinal, but side by side there's  quite a difference.  I  think the Pyrrhuloxia looks like a caricature  of a Cardinal with its big yellow beak and exaggerated crest.  Looking at it makes me smile--which is why I have been trying to get a photo.  (Typically  it eats seed sprinkled on the ground at the end of the driveway,  too far away from the deck to get a clear photo, and it usually flies away when I walk outside with my camera.  So I was happy to have the pair start coming to the window.)

The female Cardinal in this photo demonstrates the strength of her beak:  those are bits of a just-crushed sunflower seed flying around the lower mandible.  At first when I looked at the photo, I thought there was something wrong with the beak, but I examined the photos taken just before and just after that one was, and realized those were splinters of the seed heart and shell that a split-second before had been shattered by that beak so well-adapted to her diet. 

Here's a close-up. Can't you just hear the crack of that seed exploding? 

I began this post with a Black-crested Titmouse; I'll end with a much larger crested bird:  the Crested Caracara (Northern Caracara) that posed in a mesquite tree while we were boating along the river yesterday.  People around here call them the "Mexican Eagle," but they are actually falcons.  When I see one of these on the ground, there's usually something dead nearby.  They are carrion-eaters like vultures (and often hang around with them, especially Black Vultures), but they also eat living snakes,  lizards, turtles, etc.

I like to see Caracaras flying.  Something about the way they fly, very purposefully, reminds me of kamikazes. They look helmeted to me, and other falcons do, too--- an impression I have that, it occurs to me as I write, others may not have.  But even from too far away to see clearly, I can spot these large crested birds and know just what they are.

Maybe it's the crest.  Whatever it is, these four birds--from the dapper little Black-crested Titmouse -- to the seed-cracking Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias -- to the imposing Crested Caracara--are among my favorite yard birds. Yesterday was  a topnotch day for watching topknots.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Obsession of Pelicans

It is almost impossible to look toward the river these days and not see a pelican.  Brown Pelicans fish along the river all day long, sometimes flying so low that their primary wing feathers barely clear the water, and sometimes rising high into the air and then plunging into the water beak-first, twisting as they dive and popping up facing the opposite direction. In a previous post, I noted that a group of pelicans is called a squadron, a pod, a scoop, or a pouch.  Sometimes I think that the collective noun for my pelicans should be obsession, for that is what they seem to have become for me!)

The pelican in the photograph above floated for awhile after its dive, spinning on top of the unusually still water that reflected a nearly perfect inverted image.  About five minutes later,  two other pelicans flew by at medium height, in their flap-flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-flap glide rhythm, and the bird joined them.

I wrote about the pouches of these ponderous birds a couple of weeks ago when I began looking specifically at the colors of the adult pelicans in their breeding plumage.  The feathers of their heads have turned golden on top and  dark brown on the back of the neck.  I'm still looking carefully at the pouch color of every Brown Pelican I see, trying to determine how many of them have the red pouches usually attributed to the California subspecies. (The pouches of the  Atlantic subspecies that you would assume birds here on the Texas coast to be is usually a brown or dark olive color.)  I see one such bird with the red gular pouch at least once a day -- but only one bird a time--which really doesn't tell me how many there actually are. The pelican in the photo above, taken from our dock, has the red pouch I'm talking about, opened wide just after the bird has scooped up a mullet. Stretched like this, the pouch is not quite as dark red at it appears when the bird is at rest, but you can nonetheless see that it is redder than the pouches of most of our Texas Brown Pelicans.

Last Friday we took the boat out, heading a few miles downriver toward the Laguna Madre, the "Mother Lagoon" between the south Texas coast and South Padre Island.  I counted Brown Pelicans as we went along, losing count a couple of times but seeing at least fifty.  Only one of the birds we saw was red-pouched.

That's it in the back of the picture below, behind the one that has its head straight up, stretching its beak and pouch. I read that they do this stretching exercise to keep their pouches supple for scooping up meals.

These guys, lined up on a neighbor's dock,  must be tired from making so many of those twisting, turning plunge-dives. 

I've noticed an apparent  range of sizes in Brown Pelicans.  Notice how much larger the one on the right seems to be than the other three. 

This one reminds me of one of those old fashioned decorative doorstops---you would pick it up by the beak and prop it in front of the outside door to keep the wind from slamming it shut. 

Not only have the Brown Pelicans gone through their seasonal changes in appearance, but so too have the American White Pelicans.  In late winter they grow strange fibrous bumps or keels on their upper beaks.  The color of the beaks change from yellow to pale pink and then bright orange. This white pelican floated placidly in the river not long after the the departure of the brown one pictured at the top of this post.  Notice the river water is rippled now.  It seldom stays as glassy still as it was early that morning.

On our boat trip downriver (we never made it as far as the bay) we scouted out not only pelicans, but other wading birds as well.  A Long-billed Curlew waded in the shallow water along the edge (above).

A small group of  White Ibises caught crabs in a small inlet.   (The collective noun for a group of ibises is a congregation or stand or wedge.  I'll say that we saw a stand of ibisis.  These guys were standing but also hopping and shuffling and probing in the shallow water for small wiggly crabs like the one grasped in the beak of the ibis in this photo. Click to enlarge if you can't see the crab.You can tell it has just been caught because the churned up bubbles are still on the surface of the water. )

The Arroyo Colorado,  once an ancient tributary of the Rio Grande River, is now surrounded by agricultural fields. Below the Port of Harlingen it has  been  dredged and widened  for use  as a shipping channel off the Intracoastal Waterway.   But small inlets and "old Arroyo" loops remain, wonderful places to ease a shallow-water boat into or paddle a kayak along.  A narrow border of native scrub along the edge retrieves for a small space a remnant of  habitat that once extended across the valley.

Sitting quietly in a boat in the shallow waters of a little inlet, you can watch a stand of ibises catch small wiggly crabs and pretend the arroyo scrub forest extends for miles and miles beyond the river.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Early Birds

The first bird I see on winter mornings is often the cheerful Orange-crowned Warbler.  I hear its chip note, a sharp "tick", and see it flitter in to the hummingbird feeder.  Inevitably it is the first to find a  new orange-half on the edge of the deck and the first to taste fresh sugar water. Field guides describe this guy as "drab" or "nondescript," but it's one of my favorite winter visitors.  Some are brighter than others.  The one above seemed quite yellow in the morning sun but most of them are a duller olive with yellow under the tail and along the margins of the wing coverts. (The photo turned out a little too bright perhaps, but that makes it look even more sunny--appropriate for my first picture of the day.  If it's more yellow than reality, we'll just call it metaphorical.) In good light you can see faint brownish stripes on the breast and a light yellowish eye-ring that looks broken because there's also a faint brown streak through the eye.  These birds are easy to study because they will stay put to eat oranges and nectar even if I'm sitting only a few feet away.

Thrashers are also early risers.  This Long-billed Thrasher was singing from the top of a live oak tree in the backyard this morning, and a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers investigated a brush pile.

A few winters ago a Brown Thrasher hung out in the yard for awhile.  It was neat to be able to see the Long-billed and Brown Thrasher side by side in the drive.  Although similar species, there are differences that can be seen when you have time to compare.  The Brown Thrasher was redder, especially on its head, and its eye was yellow instead of orange.
Last summer in Missouri I watched Brown Thrashers that nest in my son's yard and sensed a slightly more streamlined look to them than to the Long-billed Thrashers that nest here.  (Of course that may be only my impression and may not be true at all if I were able to carefully and scientifically measure.  It was just that sense you get of a bird when you get to observe it day after day in your yard.)

Whenever I see a Brown Thrasher or a Catbird or an American Robin in the winter here, (uncommon birds for South Texas), I am reminded of the common birds of Oklahoma where we grew up.  I would not want to be living anywhere else but here on the banks of the Arroyo Colorado, but sometimes I am nostalgic for those birds from the yard of my childhood.
My dad gave me my first Peterson Field Guide when I was eight  (and had the measles), and he patiently pointed out the differences in various sparrows that came to the seed he sprinkled on a table outside when it snowed.  In my favorite photograph of him, he is sitting in his chair with a newspaper on his lap and the bird feeding table visible through a picture window behind him.   Snow covers the ground but the table is covered with little brown birds waiting to be identified by a child and her dad.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Yesterday as  the late afternoon sun slanted across the sky and  turned the far bank of the Arroyo a golden color, I stepped onto the back porch and snapped a quick photo.  You can see it  in the background of the blog title above. That bank, clearly visible  from the  living room as well as the porch, is a scene I will never be tired of.

It changes slightly with the seasons (what seasons we have this far south):  in spring the green will be fresher and brighter; in summer the leaves will be thicker if we've had rain and thinner if we have drought,  and the heat will have dried the tall grasses to a brown-gold; after a rain the cenizo blooms pink and the ebonies put out a new growth of green leaves and creamy blooms; even in winter the  white stalks of the Spanish daggers make a showy display.

I keep binoculars on the window sill and a scope pointed to that river bank.  There is never a time that birds aren't visible.  If you look really close, even in a picture as small as the one behind the blog title at the top of the page, you can just make out the night herons that roost in the ebonies and mesquite growing down near the water.

Fallen trees, where the banks have caved in, form really good snags that water birds perch in to dry out or watch for fish.  Belted and Ringed Kingfishers fish from the branches and Black-crowned Night Herons nap during the day so that they can fish all night.  Some kind of heron (Great Blue,  Green, Little Blue, Tri-colored)--or egret (Great, Snowy, Cattle) is always wading there.  (To test myself on the truth of that statement I just went upstairs to look out the window.  It's almost midnight, but sure enough, a Great Blue Heron is fishing along the bank.) The amount of  shallow water at the edge varies with the tides.  Sometimes there's enough space for coyotes, raccoons, and deer to walk along the edge without getting their feet wet, and sometimes the water goes right to the bank.
I took this photo a few days ago.  In it you can see an Anhinga, a Black-crowned Night Heron, and a Double Crested Cormorant on the biggest snag across from us. Look closely at the water beneath the Anhinga.  Do you see the second Night Heron, submerged up to its chest? I'm not sure why it is so low in the water, but it is interesting--something I didn't notice except in the photograph!  I cropped it and made it larger so that I could get a better look.   Maybe it was just hopping in the water for a minute as it changed locations. 

I love the Black-crested Night Herons with their bright red eyes.  In breeding season they have long white plumes that trail down their black backs and their usually yellow legs turn pink. Immature night herons (both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned) are brown with striped chests.  They fish mostly at night and roost in the trees (and snags) along the river during the day.  Or sit on the fishing lights or the rails of the dock.  They make a hoarse quark sound, usually when they fly and especially when they have been rousted from a favorite perching/roosting place. Besides fishing along the shallow edge of the far side of the river, they also fish from the fishing dock, kind of plopping into the water when they see a fish or flying over it to scoop it up.

I just went outside on the porch to listen to night sounds. The moon is full and beautiful, touching the tops of the palm trees with silver and washing the bankside with light.  I could hear a Common Pauraque calling across the Arroyo for the first time this year and see a Night Heron stalking its prey.  Day or night, I will never tire of this place.