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, May 27, 2010

Is Anybirdy Home?

I skulked around the yard yesterday, spying on nests and any tree or shrub that looked like it could contain a nest.  I found quite a few, some unoccupied.  What prompted me was the three fledgling kiskadees in the photo above,  noisily perched in an oak tree across the driveway from their nest.  The nest, a big round blob in an ebony tree, is one of the most interesting nests in the yard.  Its side entrance is unusual (not for a kiskadee nest, but for nests in general) and it is so conspicuously placed in an exposed fork of an ebony tree that I figure the birds won't mind if I walk around under it.

The nest is the one I wrote about in early April  (here and here).  I can't be sure when the babies hatched, but the adults have been busy feeding them in the nest for the last ten days at least (since we returned from Florida).  Now three hungry fledglings clamor  for handouts from trees within about a 30 yard radius of the nest.

The Brown-crested Flycatcher nest is also empty.  On Sunday the parents were still carrying in bugs and flies (see last  Sunday's blog),  but by Monday afternoon all was quiet, nobody home.  I watched from the deck yesterday but saw no sign of flycatchers, young or old.  I knew from previous years that the flycatchers did not stay particularly close to the nest just after fledging.  Only once have I seen a young one make its first flight, poking its head up out of the vertical railroad tie a couple of times and then flying to the oak tree.  But I thought I would see them this time since they were so close to the deck I spend so much time on. I looked for the flycatcher family yesterday but never saw any birds that looked like fledglings.

Today I did.  Unfortunately, what I saw was a flycatcher interacting with a fledgling Bronzed Cowbird.  Cowbird  parasitism affects not just flycatchers but cardinals and especially hooded orioles, at least by my observations.  I hope that the one cowbird chick I saw was not the only young bird the flycatchers raised in their house beside our house.  I'll be watching for signs of successful nesting.

The Northern Mockingbirds have been frantically singing all day and into the night.  We have more than just one pair, so I don't know if the loudest most persistent singer is the same one that has a nest in the neighbor's small Anacua tree.  I suspect the singer is an unmated male that is trying to find a mate.  It's been over a month since the mated pair build their nest of thorny twigs about 4 feet off the ground in the anacua.  At least one fairly good sized chick is in the nest.  I hope it's not a cowbird.  I looked very quickly when the adults were out of sight but not close enough to take a picture or examine the nestling.  I felt bad enough about the quick peek.

In the nest photo you can see the rough sandpapery leaves of the Anacua, a wonderful native tree.  Some call it "sandpaper tree."  You know it's a favorite of berry-loving birds such as Mockingbirds and Kiskadees because they accidentally "plant" so many seeds beneath their favorite perches. (Not an accident, of course in nature's design.)

And speaking further of Anacuas, their green/gold  berries are turning brighter gold and a few already orange.  The nest tree is too small for berries yet, which is probably fortunate for the birds since when  anacua berries ripen, the tree is a magnet for kingbirds, kiskadees, mockingbirds, thrashers, green jays and woodpeckers.  I noticed yesterday in my ramble around the yard that a few of the gold berries are ripening to orange.  If you look really close at the picture of the fledgling Kiskadees at the top of this post, you can see that one has a berry in its beak.  I first thought it was a red berry of the fiddlewood but then decided it was a bright orange anacua berry because the fiddlewood berries are black when ripe (thus the alternate name negrito).  I wouldn't think an adult Kiskadee would feed its young unripe fruit!   Regardless, the young bird didn't seem to know what to do with the berry ripe or not.  It clutched it in its beak for the longest time.

The Altamira Oriole nest in the Live Oak tree to the west of the driveway is also unoccupied.  I have not seen any orioles at the nest since we came home.  I wonder if that, too, is caused by the cowbirds.  The orioles are nearby but are not in our yard as much as they were in April.  There's not been enough time since the nest was built in mid April for birds to have completed nesting, and I think I would see them going in and out of the large pendulous nest if they were still there. Although I did not see any contentious acts on the part of the Kiskadees, whose nest was about 15 or 20 feet away, perhaps the orioles considered them noisy neighbors and went elsewhere.  I have seen Kiskadees land on the nest a few times.  Another possibility I hope is not true is the issue of cats--we have too many in the neighborhood that are hunters.  But Altamira Orioles do not perch low enough to fall victim easily.  I have seen only one oriole at a time since we returned from Florida and never on the nest.  I'm certainly hoping to see a family in the yard soon.

In addition to the three noisy, hungry Northern Kiskadees, I know that Starlings and Great-tailed Grackles and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers already have successfully nested. I'll keep reporting on what I find in my front-yard spying. Perhaps my reluctance to get too close to nesting areas means I miss some clues.   I'm just disappointed that  such a beautiful Altamira Oriole nest isn't being used. Something happened when we were away from home, but I don't really know what --and there's no reason to think the orioles aren't elsewhere in the neighborhood or across the river.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Brown-crested Flycatchers: Let's Do Lunch

Brown-crested Flycatchers are quickly becoming one of my favorite birds.  Right now they are our closest neighbors.  Every time I sit on the deck or walk out of the house, they are the first bird I see.

Our pair of these lively brown, gray, and yellow flycatchers built this year's nest in the bird house that hangs from a branch of the fiddlewood that grows in a patch of shrubs and small trees near the corner of the garage.  When they first set up housekeeping, I was afraid the hanging house was too close to human activity to make a good nesting spot, but they persevered.  (Here's a link to an earlier post about their arrival for the breeding season.)  Looking at the first photo above, it's obvious how they got their name: the hapless fly grasped in the flycatcher's strong fly-catching beak looks like one I photographed a while ago (the photo is in this post) and the brown crest, unlike the crests of some birds,  is always standing tall.

When we got home from vacation last weekend, I knew these guys were feeding young birds because of the constant comings and goings of the adults, legs and wings of some unfortunate insect poking out of their mouths.  It looks to me like the baby food of choice is katydids and mayflies, although any kind of flying insect seems to be attractive to them.  They perch and "pose" for a minute or so before flying into the bird house, probably checking for predators (me with my camera, I suppose).  As often as not, they sing or call, talking with their mouths full!

That's what this one to the left is doing. (You can tell it's singing because of  its puffed up throat, what poets call "full-throated.")  I love the song.  It sounds to me like "come over here; come over here!", with kind of a warbly and rolling, but at the same time slightly buzzy, quality. The call is a short "whit!". It's puzzling why they sing so close to the nest.  Sitting on a branch within just a few feet of the nest, They sing and then quickly slip into the box, brown tail sticking out slightly from the entry hole.  Click on the photo to see what treat this bird has for the babies.

Last summer Brown-crested Flycatchers nested in a birdhouse further out along the drive, a location they have chosen for about ten years.  Before that they nested in railroad ties turned on end that decorated the end of the drive by the road.  The first site was abandoned because it became so overgrown with bougainvillea and esperanza.  I can't see an obvious reason for abandoning the second site except that this new box must have just looked homier.

I just looked up information about the flycatchers on my iPhone Explorer Pro, a great iphone app, and found that a collective noun for them is a zapper of flycatchers.  That's appropriate!  They are better than a bug zapper, for sure, returning to the nest every few minutes with a katydid or cicada or fly.  (Cicadas here are called chacharras, which in Spanish is  onomatopoeic for the buzzy sound the insect  makes.  Here in the Rio Grande Valley the chicharra is so loud on summer nights that I have no hope of hearing Pauraques calling or coyotes howling. iPhone Bird Explorer says the flycatchers will catch female cicadas rather than males because of the loudness of the male's buzz.)

When Summer Tanagers migrated through the valley a couple of weeks ago, they sat in the same fiddlewood tree as the flycatchers and snapped at bees, which seems to be their favorite food.  Here's one of my favorite pictures (taken the first week I had my camera last fall) of a female tanager eating a bee.  You could clearly hear her strong tanager beak snap snap snap as she sat there in the tree.

I'm glad this is one photo I had saved already to my Picassa album, before the big computer crash.  It's another instance when I didn't discover what I was looking at until I examined the photo.  For some reason (maybe because I was struggling to figure out how the camera worked) I thought I was taking a picture of a female oriole and never even saw the bee in  the tanager's obviously tanager-beak until I looked at the photo!

I'll finish with another bird beak perfectly adapted to the task of getting its favorite insects, in this case smaller non-flying ones.  This is one of a pair of Ladderback Woodpeckers that are busy all day long in the yard, probing for insects under bark of mesquite trees and some non-native pines. The strong pointed beak is perfect for getting ants and other small bugs and larva.  I've also seen them eating cactus fruit after carving out a big piece with that perfectly adapted  beak.

I still haven't found what nest cavity the Ladder-backs are nesting in, but I'm on the trail and am sure it is close by.  I'll probably find it when they start bringing home carry-out  for the hungry nestlings.

Friday, May 21, 2010


When we returned home last weekend from a  vacation trip to my sister's home in Florida and a fishing/birding trip to the Florida Everglades, I planned to write all about it and post a few of the hundreds of photos I had taken.

We had paddled and trolled quietly past several rookeries (VERY quietly, I promise, and not so closely--not one bird was disturbed by our presence; if it had been, we would not have approached).  I had managed to get  photos of birds I love and a few I had never seen before.  A Wurdemann's Heron worked on its nest just as dawn was breaking; a Bald Eagle perched on a treetop silhouetted against the rising sun; a Green Heron froze on its nest but remained calm, watching as we watched.  There were also jumping tarpon (I unsuccessfully battled one as big as I am for over half an hour until it took one more magnificent leap and broke the line), and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles bubbling up to the water's surface  to look around, and Spotted Eagle Rays that leaped and soared as we fished in the early morning.   It was a wonderful experience.

Each evening after we  returned to the cabin,  I transferred photos from my camera to my powerbook.  As I always do now that I am blogging, I went over in my head just which pictures I would post and what I would write about so that friends and grandchildren could share the good time.  But since we were leaving the dock by 5 AM each day, I went to bed early and postponed posting until we returned home.

The problem occurred on the night we got home:  my computer crashed.  Maybe it was with a bang or maybe a whimper--but it was gone when I found it the next morning and I haven't been able to revive it.  It died with a new battery I had installed and a new power cord that had been waiting in the mail at home.  I don't know how exactly, but I killed it-- and somehow, along with it, my backup exterior disk. When it crashed (Macs aren't supposed to crash!  Mine had been a jewel for seven years), I was letting the newly charged  battery discharge while I backed up everything.  If you know the painting of Van Gogh's Scream, you know how I look and feel.

Of course I am still in mourning and trying to find a solution.  I can manage small posts with my iphone (I think--this is a test), but that explains why there's been no word from me in two weeks (my last post consisted on a few photos from home and two from the trip; I wrote it in Florida but decided not to mention that we were away from home).

Anyway, that's the depressing story of why I'm not blogging.  The yard is full of birds with the end of migration, the beginning of feeding young in the nest, and the joy of fledglings that noisily follow their parents around.  I will try a post later today using the photos I've taken this week.  (If my iphone doesn't work well for posting, I'll  try my husband's computer if he will quit playing poker for a while.)

The few photos here were among the ten or so still on my camera.  Don't you love the dragon flies that were in my sister's yard?

 Just blogging about the horrible death of my computer and disappearance of my photos makes me feel better. (That's what friends are for.)

I think I'll go see if I can find out what kinds of  dragonflies these are.  Or stroll up the driveway to look for late warblers.  Or listen for the baby Brown-crested Flycatchers in the bird house beside the driveway.  Or catch a glimpse of the Altamira Orioles as they slip out of their swaying nest.

I can always take more pictures.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Here's Lookin' at You

I'm really fascinated by birds' eyes.  The intense red eye of a Bronzed Cowbird, the pale white eye of a White-eyed Vireo, the black-button eye of a Black-crested Titmouse:  these features are the first I envision when I think of these birds.  

Yes, the eyes have it.  Here are some of my favorites:

A Black-crowned Night Heron hides in the back-yard Live Oak tree.

A Green Heron freezes on her nest, as though thinking she's invisible.

A White Ibis's pale iris accents the bright red face.

But it's not birds alone whose eyes fascinate me.  Just look at the eye of this American Snout butterfly!  Its compound eyes must give it an advantage in finding flowers to feed on. This one is upside-down on a bloom of the fiddlewood beside the front deck. Here's a closeup in case you can't see the eye. 
Now that I think about it, the snout's snout and antennae are every bit as fascinating as that eye!  Not to mention its proboscis.  
I have looked at this photo of the snout butterfly many times since I took it last autumn--but I've always been focused on the eyes and never before noticed the proboscis, or long black feeding tube through which it gets nectar from the flowers.

Which reminds me of one last photograph I want to post:  Look at how this female Golden-fronted Woodpecker gets its nectar from the hummingbird feeder.  What a tongue!  (Click to enlarge the photo if you can't see it.) Though the long tongue is usually used for probing for insects, here it is just as effective at getting nectar. 

My camera  has helped me see so many details,  opening my eyes to nature in ways that not even my binoculars had.