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!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Yard Watch

If I spend a lot of time outdoors--and who wouldn't with migration in full swing?--I don't have much time for adding to my blog.  But since I set up this blog to keep track of what's happening in the yard, I will write quickly tonight and show a few pictures. (If I'm tempted to tell stories or get too long-winded, I'll cut it short. Tonight it's just the news. )

First, you may have noticed that I changed the photograph  behind the blog's title above.  The Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are just so much fun to watch that I wanted them to look over the page. (See this earlier post for other photos.) Every morning they stand or sit on the railing of the deck by the river, waiting for the neighbors to put out seed.  Today while my husband fished on the dock, I walked  up the stairs to the deck where the ducks had  perched, to within  ten feet of them, and they didn't move -- until I started talking too loudly and they flew in their awkward way to the next dock.

I'll be happy to see the ducks bring their family along with them later in the summer.  I'm not sure where the nest is--they are still spending much of the day here, so they may not have a nest yet.  Last summer I thought maybe they had nested on top of a neighbor's old shed where they spent a lot of time.   

Other nesting news:  Northern Mockingbirds have completed a nest in a small Anacua tree in the yard just to the east.  Another pair of mockingbirds are close by, perhaps in the yard to the west.    Brown-crested Flycatchers still take dried grass into a small hanging bird house though its proximity to the garage makes them nervous. The Altamira Orioles, Hooded Orioles, and Kiskadees are relatively quiet, not much movement in and out of the nests.  That may mean  they are sitting on eggs.  Of course, cowbirds keep close watch on all and harass them continually.  Green Jays  today followed each other around the tree canopy over the driveway, ruffling up their feathers and almost snuggling.  I know of no nest yet, but there must be one close by.  A pair of Northern Cardinals are also eating at feeders in the yard off and on all day.  They are certainly nesting nearby also.  The Curved-bill Thrashers are probably sitting on eggs by now in their nest in the neighbor's yucca. 

Every morning, a large male Wild Turkey flies over from across the river to walk around (and gobble) in the yard .  Today he flew to an entry deck behind the house, not far from where Brad was fishing on the dock.   They gobbled at each other for a bit  (I wonder what the bird thought of the fisherman)  and then the turkey moved around the house to stroll the driveway.  Brad also saw bottlenose dolphins this morning feeding in the river.  I'm hoping to catch them in a photo soon.  The dolphins are  one of my favorite things about the river.

The last few days have been good  ones for watching spring migrants.  Six new species have been added to the 2010 Yard List since Monday.   (The list is to the right in the sidebar.  I always set the recent additions in red.)

A beautiful male Rose-breasted Grosbeak has been in the yard for a couple of days.  He's not eating the orange half that's in the photo, of course--that's for the five species of orioles, Great-tailed Grackles, Green Jays, and woodpeckers.  He's partial to the sunflower seeds.  That's a picture of a grosbeak female to the right. These birds are a little skittish and shy at first, but once they find a feeder with large striped sunflowers, they settle in and eat for as long as there's still seed.  I think their large seed-cracking beaks make them look comical.

Female and juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeaks look similar to the male Black-headed Grosbeaks we sometimes have in the winter. (Look at this post for a photo of last January's first-year male.)

 (Yesterday was actually a two-grosbeak day when a Blue Grosbeak flew in very briefly.  Rust-red wing bars distinguish it from the very similar Indigo Bunting. ) 

The best migrant news is that the Painted Buntings are here.  Monday I saw a male fly out of the drive and across the road to  the patch of weeds beside the sorghum  field. I watched from the deck for awhile, and when it didn't appear again, I walked to the end of the drive and was lucky enough to get photos.  Not great photos --- since they were taken from across the road, but any picture of a Painted Bunting, even if fuzzy and small, is fun to look at--just like the birds.  So brightly colored with red breasts, blue heads and wings, red eye-rings and green backs, these birds do not look real but like they were drawn by a child with a brand new box of crayons. 

In the picture on the left, a second bunting hides behind another.  Until I downloaded the photo to my computer,  I thought I had seen  just one bird!  Arching above the birds in the picture is a seed-head of guinea grass that had grown up around a stand of century plants. An invasive plant that gardeners around here battle continually, guinea grass is tenacious and tough to pull up.  If you let it grow too long (if you're a lazy gardener like me) you have to dig the clumps out of the ground with a shovel.  I know I shouldn't,  but I let them go to seed when the buntings are migrating because that's where I always see the beautiful birds-- in the untidy clumps of grass in my yard.  (I guess pulling a few in my yard wouldn't help much anyway since across the road there's plenty of it. )

Yesterday was actually a two-grosbeak day when a Blue Grosbeak flew in very briefly.  Rust-red wing bars distinguish it from the very similar Indigo Bunting.  I hope I have a chance for a photo if it returns.

Not all the birds of the yard are as brightly colored as the Painted Bunting. But the eye of the Bronzed Cowbird is as red as the bunting's brightest feathers. Look at the ruff of feathers around this guy's neck that he can puff up when he really wants attention. (If it were not late as I write this, I'd talk more about this amazing ---but not beloved-- bird.  I'll put that off for another time when I'm not just giving a yard report.) 

Other new birds I've seen and added to the 2010 Year List since my last report :  Western Kingbirds perching at the top of the Royal Poinciana ; a  Swainson's Hawk soaring high above the fields; and a  Willow Flycatcher  making quick forays over the driveway to catch bugs from a perch in a mesquite.  (The flycatcher obligingly sang  as it flew away so that I could tell it was a Willow and not an Alder. Usually I have no idea which of those two little flycatchers I'm seeing.)

Well, that's the end of this installment of the backyard report.

To borrow from Garrison Keillor:  That's the news from  the Arroyo Colorado...where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the birds are above average.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nature's Gifts

My granddaughter (who turned eight years old last weekend) called us yesterday morning with exciting news from her back yard:  an oriole was sipping nectar from her new hummingbird feeder, which had been a birthday gift from her brother.  They've been watching for hummers all week,  and finally a brilliant orange and black Baltimore Oriole completed the gift. Just above it on a branch, four other orioles awaited  their turns in the oak tree, icing on the cake.  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was a little farther out in the yard,  decorating a bird feeder with its brilliant rose-colored bib as it cracked and crunched striped sunflower seeds. 

Meanwhile, I had been out in our yard seeing everything  but  birds.  Such is the frustration of migration-watching.  One day is an eight-warbler day (here's a post about that day) and the next two are windy and warblerless.

Understand, however, that though frustrated at not finding spring warblers, I was still happy with what I discovered in a walk through the yard.  First, and probably most exciting, were the half dozen or so Monarch butterfly caterpillars that munched on the leaves of the milkweed.  It's been about a month since the first Monarch butterfly of the year appeared in our yard, migrating from Mexico where they winter. We have similar Queen butterflies here all year (see this post about a surprise Queen caterpillar eating the frozen-back milkweed plants in January), but the Monarchs seem to visit only briefly and lay their eggs on the milkweed. (I say "seem to" because I really don't know; I need to start observing more closely and recording dates.)

A Monarch egg is a beautiful thing, like a tiny pearl in a green-leaf giftbox.  After just a few days it will hatch into a hungry caterpillar that grows quickly, shedding its skin four times as it grows.  Here's a picture of one I saw this morning beginning to break out of old skin.  I wish I had looked sooner for the eggs or the smallest instars, which are the successively larger caterpillars between their molts. I have photos of monarchs on the milkweed on April 4, but I didn't think then to examine the leaves for eggs. Sometimes nature's gifts are just overlooked.

I am curious to know if the butterflies from these caterpillars' metamorphoses will continue migrating north.  I suspect they will.  That is, afterall, how they are able to go so far north every year.  It's not the same butterflies that arrive at their northern range, but later generations.

Every year we go to Missouri to plant a butterfly garden for our twin granddaughters.  We started the garden when they were only two years old, helping them "raise" caterpillars so that they could observe the entire lifecycle.  They learned that butterflies lay eggs on a specific plant (the host plant) that will be food for the caterpillars.  They saw how voracious the little caterpillars are, how fast they grow, and how they form the beautiful chrysalis from which an adult butterfly emerges.

The first butterfly they saw emerge from a chrysalis was a Black Swallowtail.  Its caterpillar had fed on parsley from the butterfly garden until it was long and fat.  It then hung in a curved "J" shape from the top of a plastic butterfly habitat and made its chrysalis.

One morning after breakfast, we looked in the case and there, where the chrysalis had been, was a Black Swallowtail butterfly!  One of the girls danced and clapped, cheering for the new life.  The other leaned toward the case, observed it closely, and solemnly stepped back.  With her hands together she began spontaneously to sing the sweetest rendition of "Happy Birthday" that I have ever heard.

Monarch caterpillars are not the only creatures enjoying the milkweed (also called "butterfly weed").  The appropriately named Milkweed bugs and Milkweed Tussock caterpillars are also there.  Both bug photos here are of the Milkweed bug. It's a "true bug" or hemipteran.  (That's about the extent of my knowledge of bugs, but I'm wanting to learn more.  I need to find a good field guide.)

When I looked up the identity of this furry little caterpillar,  the  Milkweed Tussock moth,  in my caterpillar book (Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner),  I read the description which called the little hairs  "lashes,"  "tufts," and "tussocks."   I don't know if those are technical terms or not, but I like them.   Great photos illustrate the various caterpillars, but most of all, I love the descriptions. Unless a guide book is also well-written, I don't care how good the photos are!

Speaking of books, I'll recommend a wonderful one (not a field guide but a narrative) about Monarch butterflies:  Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly, by Sue Halpern.  I've already read it twice and am thinking about reading it again--if I can find it, and if there are no warblers out there to chase down the driveway. (Just kidding. As a backyard birder,  I neither twitch nor chase.)

I also walked across the road yesterday to look for sparrows and buntings in the weeds and grass along the side of the sorghum field.  I discovered that some of the weedy patch had been tilled under by the farmer, but enough remained (I hoped) for the buntings.  There were no buntings yesterday (a buntingless day as well as a warblerless) but I did find a few lovely Great Southern White butterflies on the grasses and spiderworts. I love the color of blue on the thorax and the black edges that make the upper wings look as though they are scalloped.

Walking back across the road and into my bird garden, I found a Funereal Duskywing butterfly lounging on the hammock pillow.  Don't you love the names of butterflies?

Yesterday was also another day to spot the "narrow fellow in the grass" that I've blogged about before.  This was a small Texas Indigo snake that wriggled through the grass by the neighbor's fishing dock. If you look closely (and click to enlarge) you can see the really neat forked tongue. Does anyone know why snakes have forked tongues and why they flick them in and out of their mouths? (I'd look it up myself but I really like to get comments at the end of my blog!)

And finally, for my Not-Warbler discoveries, here is a beautiful example of an often-overlooked creature I found in the yard.  I don't know its name, being a birder not a fly-er, but I think it is lovely (if not buzzing around my head). This one was resting not far from the hammock.  Look at those colors!

 So yesterday there were no migrating warblers and no new yard birds, but the yard was filled with wonders. I started writing this post before I knew what kind of day today would be.

As you might guess, it was another good migrant day (the pendulum swings) with many Orchard and Baltimore Orioles (I hope they are now on their way to my grandchildren's feeders), a few buntings, a Summer Tanager, and one beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler.  A Wild Turkey strutted from yard to yard and rested for a while under an Ash tree.  Across the road a resident Lark Sparrow sang from a tall sunflower, a long song sometimes buzzy and sometimes clear and sweet.  

Living on the Arroyo Colorado is like a birthday gift that you can open everyday of the year.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Summer Homes

Another favorite yard bird made it home for the summer.  Yesterday morning when I looked out in the yard, Brown-crested Flycatchers were up early checking out the nest box where they've nested for years. But today, they had claimed a different bird house very close to the deck.

The bird in the photo above looks pretty dapper, crest under control, but my husband usually remarks that these guys look like they are having a bad-hair day  In this photo that usually unruly crest looks pretty smooth, like it's had a good conditioning treatment.

All day (well, when I wasn't counting warblers and orioles--more on that later)  I watched the flycatchers building their nest.  They had large "beak-fulls" of grass and other plant material and worked at stuffing it into the house. (One time when cleaning out an old nest  I found a piece of snakeskin in it--but it appears they are building this one of dried grass and small twigs.)

I wonder if they chose their spot too quickly.  In the picture here you can see their house hanging from a fiddlewood shrub/tree (middle of photo) that is very close to the deck where I spend a lot of time.  I spent most of the day today walking in the yard and driveway,  looking at the fabulous migrants that were making rest-stops here, so I wasn't on the deck.  When I did sit out there briefly, I think the flycatchers were disturbed that I was so close.  If I'd thought they would use this box, I wouldn't have put it so close to the house. We'll see how it works out.

Nest update:  The Altamira Orioles' nest is completed, an amazing feat of engineering.  I am trying not to look at it too often, though that's hard since it's so fascinating.  It hangs down from one of our Live Oak trees over the driveway next door to the west.  The house there is for sale starting tomorrow (the neighbor's house, not the Altamira Oriole's) so there will probably start being a little more human activity that I hope won't upset the birds.  (I am nervous about the house being for sale and hope that the new buyers will be bird-friendly. If I were wealthy I'd buy the beautiful lot and trees myself.)
The Curve-billed Thrashers have a nest in the yucca (Spanish Dagger) at the end of the driveway of the neighbors to our east.  I think theirs is completed.  I don't know if there are eggs yet and of course I won't get close enough to look.  Both birds are always close by.
The Kiskadee nest in the Ebony tree is complete.  It is just a tree or two away from the Altamira Oriole's nest.
After reporting on several suspected nest sites for the Black-crested Titmice  I can now say that I have no idea where they are actually nesting!
We have two pairs of Hooded Orioles that appear to be building nests in the Palm trees though I'm not sure which ones.  I still see them visiting all of them.  I think one pair is building in a tree near the road and one in a tree on the river side of the house.

Today was an absolutely wonderful day for watching migrants.  In fact, it was an eight-warbler, four-oriole day!  The Mexican Olive tree is in full bloom and is filled with orioles.  I had worried that the orioles wouldn't stop by this year since our Bottlebrush trees bloomed a month ago, but the Mexican Olives make up for the faded Bottlebrushes!

Here are Orchard Orioles feeding on the blooms.  The first one is a first year male.  Note its green head, black face, and the two spots of red on its breast. The yellow will be replaced by brick red in the adult and the head will be all black.  The photo of the adult Orchard Oriole doesn't show off the bird so much as the Mexican Olive tree (Anacahuita) with its white funnel-shaped flowers and soft velvety leaves.
 The female Hooded and Orchard Orioles look very much alike.  I use "context clues" to tell me which is which.  For example, the one that is eating from the olive tree was probably an Orchard Oriole because that's where the Orchard Orioles were.  The second female oriole photo is most likely a Hooded.  She was in the Retama tree near the Palm where they are nesting. She is interested in nesting and checking out the palm trees; the female Orchards are interested in eating for a day or two before resuming migration.

I was hoping today would be a five oriole day, but the Bullock's Oriole we saw Thursday was not still around.  So Altamira, Hooded, Orchard, and Baltimore graced the yard today.  But I'll take a four-oriole day any time!

What can be more fabulous than a four-oriole day?  An eight-warbler day! 

Before we left town last Thursday we had seen very few migrating warblers in the yard.  I knew from Texbirds, however, that birders were seeing them on the Island,  so when we returned home on Sunday evening, I  headed for the yard.  By the time I reached the end of the drive, a  Kentucky Warbler had flown in for a bath  and a Blue-winged Warbler flitted across the driveway.  A good omen, I thought.

But yesterday, no warblers!  It was a good day in lots of other ways (we added nonwarblers to the 2010 yard list:  Chimney Swifts and Common Nighthawks flew over the yard; a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, black and white tail streaming, flew into the smaller brasil tree, home perhaps for the summer; and the  Brown-Crested Flycatchers arrived to start their summer work of raising a family.)

 Today more than made up for the warblerless frustration of yesterday.  We had eight warbler species by the time the afternoon was over.  Of course most were too high in the trees or too skitterish to capture in photos, but I can see them each clearly in my mind's photos (which are never out of focus or underexposed).

A Northern Parula flitted into the fiddlewood behind one of the birdbaths.  Its green back and yellow breast with that reddish band made  a colorful spot in the cloudy grayness of the morning.  A Yellow-throated Warbler popped up in my binoculars as I was scanning  a palm leaf for a Hooded Oriole. A Black and White Warbler scurried up and down the tallest oak tree in the front-yard bird garden, along with a Cerulean Warbler that I thought for awhile was another black and white.  It was high in the tree, silhouetted against an overcast but brightening sky.  (That's it in the photo to the right.  Too bad its cerulean blue back isn't showing, but the white belly and throat with the side stripes and neckband are nice.)   A  Worm-eating Warbler  scurried around in the leaves by the saucer bath and then across the driveway.  A Yellow Warbler and a Blue-winged Warbler busily searched for insects in a tangle of Esperanza and Mexican Caesalpinia trees in the bird garden. A Canada Warbler skittered in the tree tops.

By the time the day was drawing to a close, the skies had cleared.  Look how the evening sun illuminates the crests of the Cedar Waxwings.  Someone farther north is waiting for them to return to nest in their summer home.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Look who's building a home at our home!  It's the Altamira Orioles. (Click here for another post about these champion nest-builders.) Over the years I've seen their amazing pendulous nests in the area, but this is the first nest that will actually be completed in a tree in our yard.   Sure that the Hooded Orioles had decided on homes in our trees, I was concentrating on that and  had really given up on  being lucky enough to host the Altamira Orioles.  

But yesterday morning,  walking  past the Ebony tree where the Kiskadees are nesting , I found the nest quite by accident.  Scanning the Ash and Live Oak trees along the side of our yard, I looked up and there it was, construction well under way! I'd been in the yard off and on all day Tuesday but somehow had missed the very obvious nest swinging from the northwest side of a 20-foot Live Oak tree that overhangs the neighbor's drive. (I've never seen an Altamira nest that wasn't on the northwest of a tree on a branch that hangs down and sways in our strong winds.) 

Here's a closer view of the nest.  See how the orioles begin construction at the top and work their way down?  I'm sure you've spotted the oriole inside the nest in the photo, bottom left.  Click to enlarge it.  I want you to get a good look at the strip of something blue on the bottom right. 
If you read an earlier post about Altamira Oriole nests (or clicked the link at the top of this post), you recall that they have helped themselves to the garden twine from a neighbor's greenhouse.  This time they  scavenged some kind of plastic and recycled it into their home. What resourceful birds!

I don't know exactly what it is,  but I've seen bits of that blue plastic in the yard for months.  I even photographed a piece of it on the ground in December!  (It was interesting and kept sort of moving from place to place around the front yard.  I should have picked up the scrap and thrown it away--but instead I took a picture!)  

You may be sensing both what kind of yardskeeper I am (messy) and  also something about my artistic sensibility (I have no idea what adjective would describe that or why I took a photo of torn bits of plastic in the yard).  As soon as I uploaded the photos from camera to computer and looked closely at the blue plastic streamer in the nest, I recognized it and located the other photo taken months ago. (I think the strip of blue plastic may be from a woven tarp that was torn off of a shed or something in Hurricane Dolly.  Or maybe it's part of an old lawn chair. Longer strips of it are still somewhere around because the orioles found them and began their nest by weaving them around the top, letting the ends fall down the sides of their amazing nest-in-progress. The little scrap I took a picture of is still somewhere in the yard.  Maybe I'll continue photographing it as I find it.) 

This morning the nest is quite a bit bulkier than it was a day ago.  I am restraining myself from watching it all the time.  The Bronzed Cowbirds are doing enough of that.  Yesterday, while one oriole was inside of the nest, a cowbird flew across the yard to the nest and circled it quickly without landing.  The other oriole,  just as quickly, chased the cowbird back across the yard.

I've noticed that male Hooded Orioles also stand guard while the female builds their nest, and continue to do so all during the nesting process, chasing cowbirds that get too close.    It's a constant battle for them to fend off the parasitizing pests.  I have not seen Altamiras feeding fledgling cowbirds, but I see Hooded Orioles doing so almost as often as I see them feeding young orioles.  (Perhaps that's why the Hooded Orioles raise as many as three broods each summer, to make up for the heavy parasitizing of their nests by the Bronzed Cowbirds.)

You can see by this photo how interesting the cowbirds look.  Their eyes are demon-red and their mating ritual is fascinating to watch.  The males puff up their neck feathers in a mane (some call them "lion birds") and hover two or three feet off the ground, going straight up and down like little helicopters in an attempt to attract a mate.  If it were not for their habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes even displacing the eggs laid by the bird whose nest it is, they would be welcome in our yard.  These home-wreckers, however,  are not welcome!

Other pairs of birds are playing musical chairs with nesting sites.    Remember the little Black-crested Titmice that were inspecting various nesting sites in the side and back yards, the male trying to entice a female with food offerings by the nest? (If not, here's a link to the post about them.)  I thought they had  leased the hole in the cottonwood stump (the one on which the titmouse had perched with his caterpillar),  but  as I watched yesterday, a female Golden-fronted Woodpecker emerged from the hole.  It was the woodpecker, after all, that had made the cavity,  so it's only fair for it to use the home if it wants it. 

Look at the beak of the woodpecker in the photo.  It's easy to see how such a strong sharp instrument could quickly excavate a hole in a dead tree.  (Or in the siding on my house.)

Meanwhile, the  titmice have been inspecting yet another nest box, this one hanging from a tree in the front yard.  It has had nest material protruding from the hole.  I don't know what birds have nested there previously.  For days, a House Wren has sung incessantly  close by.  One year I saw the family of some kind of mouse (large with snow-white  breast and belly) in the house.

The 2010 Yard List continues to grow quickly with migrants making brief stops or flyovers.  (I'm a couple of days behind but I think when I add to the list it will be over 130 for the year.) Indigo Buntings and Hooded Warblers (pictured below)  flitted around the yard yesterday and today.  Three kinds of Vireos ( White-eyed, Yellow-throated, and best of all Warbling Vireos) have been in the front yard this week as well as three kinds of wrens (Carolina, House, Bewick's). A Bullock's Oriole came to the nectar feeder midmorning.

We are still waiting on some of our summer-only nesting birds.  Beside the driveway there's a nest box that Brown-crested Flycatchers  have used every year for a decade.  Before that they nested in  old railroad ties that stand on end near the road.  Cavities had rotted out at the ends (the tops) which made nice little nesting places.  When bouganvillea and esperanza (yellow bells) overgrew the raillroad ties, the flycatchers moved to the nest box.  We don't usually see them back home until May.  That's also the month that the Yellow-billed Cuckoos return.  I don't know where they nest,  but it's somewhere close.  They fly through the yard daily, black and white tails streaming, and call from the trees.  My mother always called cuckoos "rain crows," an old-fashioned name for them. Their guttural  kluck-kluck-kluck-kluck-kluck in the stillness that sometimes precedes summer rains reminds me of my childhood home in Oklahoma.

We moved into our house exactly 14 years ago this week.  The yard looks a lot different  than it did then.  Then you could see the house from the road; now it is obscured by trees and shrubs.  Then it had a lawn of "carpet grass"; now there are only small patches that we mow with a push mower.  Then it was landscaped with tropical plants by the previous owners; now it is landscaped by the birds who drop seeds that spread fiddlewood (negrito), chili pequin,  pigeonberry, turk's cap and other native plants.  I love our yard because I love the birds that make their home here.  They share their space with us

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Sometimes I feel like I'm one of the paparazzi spying on celebrities with my camera.  But, of course, the celebrities of my yard are its birds.  I've spied on them with scope and binoculars for years.  Now  with a digital point-and-shoot zoom camera, I am  relentless.

Hooded Orioles continued to be among the most spied upon birds in our yard today.  They were everywhere:  bathing, eating orange halves, sipping nectar from the hummingbird feeders and the bottlebrush blooms, following each other around from tree to tree, calling from the top of the ash tree, males chattering and scolding other males, females inspecting nest sites in the palm trees.  Two pairs, at least, have claimed the yard as their own, doing almost everything as "couples."  I spy on them with binoculars and capture them in photos.

The female in the photo here was not bathing alone.  Just out of the picture, still in the bath but obscured by foliage is the male. I don't think their actual nest building has begun.  I have yet to see them carrying plant material.  From previous years, I know that their nests are amazing little pouches made of  fibers stripped from the palm fronds, probably torn away from the base of the fronds that still cling to the trunk.  Now that I have a camera with a zoom lens I'll be able to photograph a nest this year.  The females make holes in the palm fronds and then suspend the nests under them, weaving the fibers tightly into a small pouch.

The first Orchard Oriole of the season stopped by the bottlebrush tree yesterday.  See if you can spot him in this photograph.  It may look like just a blob of brick-red and black, but it is a bird if you look closely.  (Do you feel like you're looking at a photo of Jennifer Aniston taken from two blocks away? Paparazzi photos are sometimes just little blobs, too.)  Several females were in the tree at the same time,  probably some of them Orchards.  To speculate about their relationship really is too paparazzi-like, so I won't, but I can say there were several female orioles, one Hooded male, and one Orchard male. 

Tropical Kingbirds are another new tick off the year's yard list.  I think they've been here all along,  but today was the first time this year I had heard them.  Unless they sing, I can't distinguish them from the Couch's Kingbirds, so I was glad to hear the ascending pip-pip-pip-pip of the Tropical Kingbird that sang from the electric wire today. I can now officially list them in the sidebar Yard Birds 2010.

Tonight the most noticeable birds on the river have been a large number of Snowy Egrets that even now after dark are circling, reflecting the fishing light as they fly.  Little bait fish startle under them, exploding like silver fireworks in circles of light.  We see Snowy Egrets all year here, but these must be migrating.  They struggle mightily against a strong east wind as they navigate down river.  A few have just landed in one of the trees on the far bank.

The buoyancy of the Snowy Egret's flight helps distinguish them from cattle egrets that have also been traveling the river in large numbers.  Of course, the bird's yellow feet are unmistakable if you can spot them.  Notice the "golden slippers"  in the photo of the flying bird, taken two weeks ago as we fished upriver. 

Below is a picture of egrets that rested in the trees across from our yard two days ago.  At the time, I thought they were Cattle Egrets,  like the ones I'd seen on the deck of the boat lift the day before (see Wednesday's post for a photo), but maybe they were Snowy Egrets.  The paparazzi doesn't always draw the right conclusions--or if it does, it's not known for truthfulness.)   Which egrets are these, really?

Friday we went to South Padre Island for lunch and stopped by the Convention Center where we enjoy strolling the boardwalks out into the marsh along the side of the Laguna Madre, watching shorebirds, rails, gallinules, bitterns, and other birds, as well as a resident alligator. We were surprised to find the boardwalk blocked off.  A sign told us to enter (and pay $5 each) from the South Padre Island World Birding Center next door.  I was disappointed, slightly angry, and not rich enough to pay ten bucks for a brief stopover, so we watched the trees, shrubs, and water features around the Convention Center for warblers and took some very long-distance photos of the terns, gulls, and Black Skimmers that were relaxing on the shore by the Laguna Madre.

I'm sorry that families and retired Winter Texans ("Snowbirds"), not to mention locals like us who wanted to make a quick stop,  may have been priced out of a wonderful site for birding.  I felt kind of like paparazzi, unwelcome and  sneaking a look through my camera.

Nevertheless, lots of birds were there, though far away.  Here are a couple of  the more interesting photos. If you click on them and enlarge, you will see all the interesting things the various birds are doing. What kinds of terns are in the top picture?  What kinds of gulls are in the bottom one? (Sometimes the paparazzi don't even know whom they're taking pictures of!)

The Black Skimmers are among my favorite shore birds.  I remember how excited I was the first time I saw them on the Alabama coast years ago,  skimming over a small brackish lake near our campground with that long lower mandible scooping the water.  In the first photo, they're the ones with the long black and orange beaks.  In the second photo, flies toward the gulls on the fence. This bird's posture in flight is quite recognizable (but I guess that's true of most birds).

Black Skimmers fly over the arroyo at night, white bellies reflecting the light and dark backs and wings fading into the night.  It's one of the reasons I like to awaken in the night and gaze over the river from an upstairs window. 

It's not just birds we see from our yard and windows.   Coyotes wade along the river,  bobcats hunt there occasionally, and this morning a deer ran along the shore, water splashing around its feet. But we're not seeing one favorite mammal nearly as often as in other years: the bottlenose dolphins.  I hope that doesn't signal something wrong in the river or a decrease in dolphin in the ocean or intracoastal waterway.  Some years they have been daily visitors along  our Arroyo Colorado, a brackish river of saltwater and fresh, feeding and leaping out of the water, swimming in groups up to a dozen, small ones alongside their parents.  Perhaps we will start seeing them again soon.

Yesterday morning as I watched a deer running through tall grass above the bank on the other side of the arroyo, spying from my living room window,  two Wild Turkeys were startled by the deer and flew up to the top of an Ebony  tree.   Of course I ran for my camera.  For  the next quarter of an hour I watched the male turkey fanning, then folding, then fanning its tail. The wind was blowing so hard I don't see how the bird managed to keep its balance, but it did.

And I managed to get some photos.  They were not good ones:  the camera was so far from the bird, the lens zoomed in so far,  that they are indistinct and fuzzy.  But that's often the  case with paparazzi photos, too, isn't it?

 Just think of this as not National Geographic but National Enquirer! I'm your paparazzo stopped by a river, or a blocked-off boardwalk, spying with camera and scope for a long-distance peak at our celebrities.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More Signs of Spring

Curve-billed Thrashers were the busiest of the nest-builders in our yard today.  This one looked at me warily as I raised my camera to capture him and his building material, dried vines that I had been clearing out of the butterfly garden.  In this photo he's perched on a light post at the end of the neighbor's driveway,  getting ready to hop into the yucca where the nest is located.  Both male and female are participating in nest building. I've stayed far away from the site so as not to disturb them, but they see me anyway.

I haven't seen the actual nest yet, just two very busy thrashers going in and out of the Spanish Daggers.

Cattle Egrets were lined up all along the rails of the deck above the boat lift this morning, on all four sides of the square.  At different times today I saw Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Egrets along the river.  A group of seven Reddish Egrets flew by this evening, six white ones and one dark.  (This is one of those interesting species with two color morphs, one pure white and one dark gray with reddish-gray  necks and heads. )

Hundreds, maybe thousands (I need to look that up) of Reddish Egrets nest in a rookery on Green Island  which is just north of the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado, about ten miles downriver from us.  Green Island, one of the few natural islands in the Laguna Madre (most of the islands are really spoil banks made from the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway)  is covered with very thick thorny brush, good protection for what is supposed to be the largest nesting colony of Reddish Egrets in the world.  Protected by the Audubon Society, the rookery is home primarily to Reddish Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills with other herons and egrets nesting there as well.  We fish near there sometimes but not too near so that we don't disturb the nesting birds.  Huge signs warn fishermen away,  and I've never seen anyone get too close.  I love to sit in the boat and watch the egrets, spoonbills, and herons fly overheadon their way to and from the rookery.  Roseate Spoonbills are especially beautiful when caught in the early morning sunlight. 

A short news clip  here  shows some of the Island's feathered inhabitants as videoed by outdoor writer Richard Moore for a local television station.  It's a wonderful video.  Click on it to see our local breeding birds.   

The rookery on Green Island has been very important in increasing the numbers of Reddish Egrets since the early 1900's when they were almost hunted out of existence for their beautiful plumes that decorated ladies' hats.

Another sign of spring in our yard is the increased activity of Green Anoles.  This one is not green, but he is certainly showing off his dewlap.  I took this photo of him two days ago while sitting on the front deck.  If brown coloring shows that he is unhappy or stressed, then this guy is not feeling great.  He's still a handsome lizard, but I like them most when they are green.

When we visited my sister in Florida last summer we saw the brown anoles  (Cuban Anoles) that live there.  They are not native to the United States as the Green Anole is, and their appearance in Florida has overtaken most of the Green Anole population there.

This guy is definitely happier than the one pictured above (if, that is, happiness in these lizards is measured by their color, which changes from green to brown).  Until I photographed several anoles in the last few days, I had not noticed the beautiful blue coloring around their eyes.  Click to enlarge for a good look.  (Click also on the brown one above.)

If you look at the third anole photo, you'll see why the second anole looks so fresh and spring-y.  He has just molted!  I took the molting picture about an hour before the other one.  This lizard was the same size and in the same place as the brown guy I had seen  the day before.  Since I know anoles are territorial, I think this is probably the same one.  Maybe he was so brown because his skin felt old and uncomfortable!  (I know I'm anthropomorphizing here.  I'm abandoning all pretense of being scientific.) 

Today I started down the back stairs and saw two anoles locked in combat.  (Maybe one of them was the one I had photographed  on the back deck who had ventured to the wrong side of the house.) One of the two had the other one's head grasped in his mouth.  I ran back inside to grab the camera but was too late.  They had separated, but it was still a standoff.  I took a picture just as my cat, who had slipped out the door with me, scared them--and the picture shows one very green anole and one leg of another anole as it scurried out of my photo!  At least its leg was still attached to its body--if the cat and I hadn't scared them away, I'm not sure how the battle would have turned out. 

When I was a kid they sold Green Anoles at the circus with little strings around their necks and pins on the strings so you could wear them.  They called them "chameleons."  I shudder to think about those wonderful lizards that could change colors and catch bugs and puff up bright pink dewlaps, being "worn" by less-than-careful little kids.  Of course our mom would not let us have one.  She was a teacher, interested in and respectful of all living things.  In one of my favorite photos of her, taken by my dad just a week or two after they had met, she is holding a lizard up to his camera and smiling.  I hope I have passed on to my children and grandchildren the same love and respect for nature that my parents gave to me.

Yard list note:  One yard bird has made its first appearance of 2010 and I'm sad to see it back, even though it is a very interesting bird:  the Bronzed Cowbirds are back ready to parasitize the nests of the Hooded Orioles.  I'll tell more about these unwelcome birds when I get a picture of them.  Meanwhile, I'll add them and the Nashville Warbler that I saw a few days ago to the year list in the sidebar.