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."


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your post, it will help me ID the two orioles. I too believe believe being a Nature watcher takes you to a better world, even can make us a better person.

Amber Coakley said...

Enjoyed your post! Lovely photos of lovely creatures. The inclusion of Emily Dickinson is thoughtful and relevant - very nice!

Kay said...

Thank you, Amber! Glad you stopped by--kay

The Early Birder said...

Thanks for the detailed ID help with these Orioles Kay. If I ever get to see either I'll now know what to look for. Cheers FAB.

Bernard Brown said...

For all the non-herpers out there, I want to note that the indigo is considered a really special beast to find. I wish I had one in the back yard.

Kay said...

Seeing an indigo would turn anyone into a herper! We feel very lucky to have them in our yard.

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