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!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hurricane Alex, Stay Away from My Nest!

This morning, as the first squall from approaching Hurricane Alex came through our yard, rain beating across the surface of  the arroyo and wind whistling at the windows, I watched a baby mockingbird, fresh out of its nest in the cenizo shrub, try to hold on to a branch as the wind whipped it to and fro.  A parent hovered close by.  I'm hoping the storm will not destroy nests and nestlings.  I'm hoping it won't destroy my own nest!

A couple of weeks ago I posted a sort of "state of the yard" piece, surveying the nesting activity around the house that week and comparing some of the birds to a restless wren questing for the perfect nest in a poem by Emily Dickinson (see "for every Bird a Nest").  My daughter Lori left a comment for me saying it reminded her of her favorite children's book, The Best Nest, by P.D. Eastman.

Now, Lori knows a lot about children and books, being both a teacher and a wonderful mother of five (my beautiful grandchildren who range in age from six months to fourteen years, birders all).  She pointed out that the mother bird of the book, who is unhappy with her nest,  learns in the end that it is not the location of the nest that matters, but the family in it. A good lesson for all of us, my wise daughter says.

I'd have to agree with her. She and her brother made our nest a very happy one before they fledged about twenty years ago.  We now visit their nests as often as we can (traveling to central Texas and Missouri), and in between those visits we continue to watch the  nests outside our own. So I guess you can say we don't suffer from "empty nest syndrome"--we've found a great way to take up our time, yard-watching!

Most of the backyard nesting this month has turned out well.  Bronzed Cowbirds still terrorize the neighborhood but even those parasitizing pests haven't prevented the baby boom.  Unwanted guests, they are nonetheless fascinating (and yes, beautiful) to watch.  If you had seen this guy with his ruffled mane and piercing red eye survey the sorghum field across the road, I think you'd be as stunned by his beauty as I was.

It's been a week of increase in the yard:   we have newly-fledged Green Jays eating from our feeders along with their parents,

Carolina Wrens flittering and singing everywhere,

and a family of Eastern Screech-owls screeching and trilling their strange songs as they perch in trees and on the outside stair railings at night.

I'm not sure where the little owls' nest was this year.  For years they chose a nest box in our yard, peeking out at us from the hole as we drove in the driveway.  But for the last two summers bees have taken up residence as soon as the owl family fledged--so we had to take the box down and we left it down this year. 

Brown-crested Flycatchers are very busy feeding chicks in their woodpecker-hole-nest-cavity nest in the dead cottonwood stump (they finally made the decision for the location of their second nest).  I love to hear their singing as they carry the insects to the hungry babies.  (Read "Let's Do Lunch" for a description of their first nest and "for every Bird a Nest" for photos of their search for this one.)

Here's a new nest and its inhabitant:  a White-winged Dove sitting on eggs in a flimsy nest in the small Brasil tree at the end of the driveway.  Isn't that blue-circled eye amazing?  I took this picture quickly as she was definitely eying me and my camera, even though I wasn't as close to her as my zoom lens makes it look.  I love to hear the incessant "who cooks for you?" queries of these beautiful doves. 

I discovered a very cleverly-placed nest last week in an unusual place: snuggled in the brain cavity of a cow's skull was a nest with several baby Black-crested Titmice!  Now if you are wondering where in the world the titmice would find such a nest site, remember this is Texas where citizens use dead animal heads as decor.  The skull, once bleached white in the Texas sun out in a Texas cow pasture, is now gracing (?) the wall of a neighbor's storage shed, clearly visible from our deck and an apparently enticing place for the titmouse family.

I've already mentioned the strange nesting habits of Black-crested Titmice in previous years when they nested inside the metal railings of our boat trailer and inside the metal arm of a satellite dish. This may just be the strangest place for a nest yet--though to Mrs. Titmouse it may be "The Best Nest" ever!  In P.D. Eastman's  The Best Nest,  the Wrens think they've found a great nest, a boot, until the foot it belongs to reclaims it.  That reminds me of the time one of my neighbors put on a pair of khaki pants he had hung to dry on the porch railing.  When he reached his hand in the pocket, he found a Carolina Wren's nest!

Kiskadees may have a second brood in their large spherical nest.  In this photo, you can clearly see the side entrance to the nest.  

I've seen only one more bird feeding a cowbird chick, a Northern Cardinal.  I don't know if it also raised cardinals. I hope so.  I'm just glad to see the pair of cardinals doing okay.  The female is one we saw at the feeders in the spring with a badly torn (or deformed) crest.  I didn't post this horrible photo then because I was afraid the bird had been attacked by one of the neighborhood cats and feared that it would not survive. Now the photo just reminds me of how resilient nature can be. That's something I want to hold on to with a hurricane bearing down on us so early in hurricane season and with oil still gushing in the gulf.   The bird is still strange looking, but she is seemingly healthy and has raised a brood of chicks.  Her image no longer horrifies me but gives me hope.

The Altamira Orioles have not returned to their nest, but I did hear them singing a few days ago.  I still have hopes that they will decide to use the beautifully constructed pendulous nest that they built and abandoned last March. 

Quick!  Is this an Altamira or a Hooded Oriole?  

You're right--it's the smaller but similar Hooded Oriole.  Hooded Orioles are still eating daily from the hummingbird nectar feeders and hanging out in the Washingtonian Palms.  I can't see their nests, but there appears to be one in a tree in the backyard and one in the front. 

I'm still frustrated that I can't find a Buff-bellied Hummingbird's nest.  I'm fairly certain there are new baby hummers among those at our feeders.  These are our resident hummers, quite beautiful birds. I like the photo above because the eponymous buff-colored belly shows clearly above those tiny feet.

Other birds whose numbers have increased greatly in the last two weeks are the Cave Swallows that nest under the roof of a neighbor's boat lift and the Purple Martins that live in another neighbor's martin house.  In this photo the young martin is the one with the grayish throat.

As I type this post, I am watching the Weather Channel.  We're playing that guessing game that people who live in hurricane land have to play.  Should we stay or should we leave?  Will the storm come straight up the arroyo  and the eye come over our house (as Hurricane Dolly did two years ago), or will we be lucky and get mostly just much-needed rain?  I hate to think that the storm will follow Dolly's path.  That storm was in August, past nesting time for the herons and spoonbills and pelicans on Green Island at the mouth of the Arroyo. This one, I'm reminded by the baby mockingbird clutching the cenizo shrub next to its nest, is early in the season when birds are still nesting.   Even the Best Nest doesn't offer protection when the very trees are in danger.

 Update on the storm:  So far, luck is with us.  The latest Tropical Update puts us at the top edge of the cone of danger in the hurricane's path instead of right in the middle as we were a few hours ago and it's saying the storm may be only a category one hurricane.

I think we'll be lucky.  And so will that little mockingbird whose parents built the Best Nest there in the cenizo bush.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

All Things Great and Small

The tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil is choking wildlife and killing bays and estuaries, sickens me and makes me angry.   I keep thinking  of Coleridge's albatross (in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") that was so wantonly destroyed by the unthinking mariner. When the mariner destroyed the innocent bird of the poem, the seas turned into a nightmare and it's that image I envision in the scene of oil and fire at the site of the fallen rig:
"About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white."
Yesterday I posted a photo of a Great Egret we saw on its nest at dawn in the Everglades this spring.  In honor of the birds of the Gulf  Coast from here in South Texas (where thankfully we are not affected by the spill) to Florida I'll post some of the other pictures I took on that trip.

Here is the most fascinating bird of our trip: a Wurdemann's Heron, which is a hybrid of the white color morph ("Great White Heron") of a Great Blue Heron and a regular Great Blue Heron.

Can you see the Great Egret sitting on the nest just behind this nest?  If not, click to enlarge the photo.  It's like one of those "how many birds can you find?" drawings.  

The "Wurdemann's Heron" looks like a Great Blue but has a white head.  On our way to fish for tarpon the fishing guide took us by a mangrove island rookery where he knew a Wurdemann's Heron was building its nest.  We approached slowly, using only a trolling motor, and did not disturb any of the birds.  Of course these photos are taken with a zoom lens so we were not as close as it looks.

 In breeding plumage, all the birds were at their most beautiful, especially this Tri-colored Heron I photographed  when we were kayaking in the Everglade's "River of Grass."  I'm used to seeing these guys fly by in twos and threes along our Texas coastal river, but this one was so close I could admire its two-toned blue beak. 

This is the same Great Egret as the one in the photo of my last post.   Its plumes are not showing as well, but the green at the base of the bill is amazing. The color changes during spring breeding season are among nature's most beautiful miracles.
The red bill of the White Ibis is another amazing coloration.

The few American White Pelicans we saw were probably not breeding.  They for some reason had not migrated as the Florida white pelicans do.  We have a flock of white pelicans in our area in South Texas that remain for the summer also.  I see them in the bays sometimes when we are fishing.  I read last week a post on Texbirds that described one being hit by one of those large wind turbines that are along the coast north of us.   The fishing guide in Florida thought these two guys were probably too weak to have migrated.  I wonder if they will survive the summer.

It's the pictures of the Brown Pelicans covered with oil that are so heartbreaking in the news of the gulf oil spill.  As we saw this beautiful bird in breeding plumage on the mangrove islands of the everglades, we already knew that oil was spilling into the gulf and we were hoping that somehow the birds in Louisiana could be safe. 

Another bird we enjoyed seeing in Florida was the Osprey.  This one was nesting on an electrical pole near Chokoloskee Island.

Birds were not the only creatures we saw in the bays and rivers of South Florida.  Here a Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle comes up for a breath and a peek at our boat.

Seeing a hooked tarpon jump was exciting, especially to my husband the fisherman. Click to enlarge this photo to see the fish  in more detail.


Our vacation to see the Florida Everglades, to fish among the islands and paddle through mangrove tunnels
and along the quiet and beautiful "river of grass,"  was a wonderful week of stunning landscapes and fascinating wildlife.  I cannot imagine oil covering and killing this beauty, but of course that is exactly what is happening in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico and it is because of the carelessness, and yes the greed, of humans.

I keep thinking of Coleridge's ancient mariner.  His story is of a man who took for granted the wonder of nature.  As he tells the story, the mariner finally learned a lesson:

"He prayeth best, who loveth best; 
All things great and small; 
For the dear God who loveth us;
He made and loveth all."

It was his punishment to wander from land to land telling the story of the death of a beautiful and innocent bird at the hands of a man who was not evil but who was thoughtless and unaware of his actions.  Coleridge tells us that the "wedding guest," to whom he recounted the story, woke up "sadder and wiser," but I wonder if he really did.  I wonder how many environmental disasters it will take for us to be any wiser.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Great Egret: Florida Everglades, May 9, 2010

This is my response to a challenge, "Wordless Wednesday (Saturday edition)."  I don't think anyone thinks I can be wordless.  But what words are needed here? 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"for every Bird a Nest"

The story of the yard in June is always a story of nesting.  I haven't been outside as much in the last two weeks as I was during migration (the heat index is over a hundred by late morning) but I have been looking out the windows, and even from limited views the nesters can be seen going to and fro or overlooking their nests from a high branch.

Some of these busy nesters remind me of a poem by Emily Dickinson in which she wonders why ("wherefore" in her archaic 19th century English) a little wren continues its search for the perfect nest spot, even though there's one in every tree:

For every Bird a Nest --
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round --

Wherefore when boughs are free --
Households in every tree --
Pilgrim be found?   
. . . .

(click the link above for the whole poem)

Watching a pair of Brown-crested Flycatchers, I'm thinking the same thing.  Why continue the exhausting quest in search of the perfect spot (as though on some sort of pilgrimage) when there are perfectly fine nesting spots everywhere and every bird seems to be guaranteed one.  Why all the fuss, just build the nest! get on with it already!!

Really, I'm just kidding.  I love watching birds search all around for the best place to build.  They seem so human.  I can just imagine what they could be thinking.  

I'm fairly certain this is the same pair of flycatchers that so steadfastly built and tended a nest in April and May,  even though they disappointingly (at least for me) seem to have raised Bronzed Cowbirds instead of flycatchers.  Watching from the front deck for a few days last week was entertaining.  Here (photo on right) one looks over the dead cottonwood stump that has already this spring proved a successful home for European Starlings (though, really, who needs more of those to compete with our native cavity-nesters?) and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  (The woodpeckers had chiseled out quite a few holes in the two old cottonwoods during the winter--a few in our house, too! Golden-fronted wp's are the contractors who provide housing for several species.)

Here (left) the lively brown flycatchers  flutter excitedly over the birdhouse that's already been used by Brown-crested Flycatchers for many years.  Though not a great photo, it does capture the flurry of activity as they "quest" for that perfect spot. 

Flycatchers are not the only birds on a quest for the perfect nest in our June yard. These Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, if not still searching out nesting places, are certainly searching for something.

In tall Washingtonian Palm trees they look high...

they look low....

Once called Tree Ducks, these guys favor the palms and sometimes even sit on the electrical lines.  Every day we watch them on our dock, preening and sunning themselves.  And early in the morning, before the heat is oppressive, we watch their pilgrimage.  Emily would certainly be wondering the whys and wherefores of their constant search.

The Northern Mockingbird nest in the neighbor's small Anacua tree that a few weeks ago contained a single nestling (see posts from May) was empty by early June without my seeing any newly fledged Mockingbirds. The quick glimpse I had one day of a nestling with dark feathers was too brief to say for sure it was a cowbird. 

[I'll repeat again my disclaimer about bothering nests.  It is something I am super careful about.  I don't want to  move branches to get closer looks or disturb the nesters.] 

Two weeks ago the neighbors discovered a mockingbird going in and out of the Cenizo shrub that is less than ten feet from the Anacua where the first mockingbird nest was. (Cenizo is the native "purple sage" that blooms so beautifully across the river a few days after a summer rain.  Its ashy-green foliage and soft purple blooms  decorate the wild thorny brush along the Arroyo Colorado and are often used in landscaping.)

I think this second nest, fastened like the first to  forking branches about four feet above the ground, may have been built by the mockingbird that sang day and night during the time the other pair were nesting. (See this post for a picture of that nest site.)

It surprises me that the nests are so close together.  The neighborhood gossip in me is starting to speculate.  Did the pair, to make up for the first possibly cowbird-infested nest, start a new one nearby before the cowbird had left home?  Or is this a case of Big Love (one of my favorite television shows) where one male has actually two adjacent homes and two ladies?   Hmmmm.   (I read an interesting article the other day, while throwing out old birding magazines, that cited DNA studies showing supposedly monogamous nesters sometimes having multiple mates.  Some males father broods with more than one female and sometimes eggs in one nest have more than one male parent. )

Whatever the parentage, nestled in the cup of coarse twigs, lined with finer vines and palm tree fibers, were six eggs, four of them light blue blotched with reddish brown.  According to my nest book  (Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul J. Baicich and Colin Harrison) those are indeed mockingbird eggs.  Hooray!  Unfortunately,  two more eggs were the pale blue-white of the Bronzed Cowbird. (No adult mockers were in sight, so my neighbor removed the two interloper eggs which, being tall,  he could do without touching the nest or the branches.)

A couple of days ago the eggs began hatching. The state bird of Texas, once again, is increasing in number!   And the neighborhood cats are running for cover as the Northern Mockingbirds begin their assault.  My hope is that the intense heat as well as the protective instincts of the birds will keep the cats indoors where domestic cats belong. 

I've been promising a photo of a Hooded Oriole nest and finally have one.  Woven of the finest materials, soft gold fibers from the palm tree, this is a nest I think Emily would call "of twig so fine," an achievement she guesses the wren aspires to.

On a frond of a Washingtonian (non-native) Palm tree, this nest is in the usual kind of tree for a Hooded Oriole but is not typical because it is on the top, not the underneath, side of a dried, not a green, palm frond.  The day following our discovery of the nest, high winds twisted the leaf so that the lovely little woven nest is now out of sight.  I was concerned that the winds would blow down the dried frond, but luckily it's still there, more hidden now from the marauding Bronzed Cowbirds. Woven of fibers pulled from the leaves and bark of the tree, the nest is perfectly camouflaged. 

Hooded Orioles, like Emily's nest-questers, seem always to be in search of a more perfect "household" even though every palm tree looks to my un-oriole eyes to be a perfectly good place. At least twenty palms are in--or within a short distance of--our yard, and at least two pairs of the little orioles continually fly from palm to palm.  I suspect the building of superfluous nests is a reaction to the overabundance of Bronzed Cowbirds.

I'll note just a few more of the active nests:

Another of our common nesters, Great-tailed Grackles, typically build large nests of twigs and weeds, sometimes several in the same tree or nearby trees. The one in the photo above is in our lovely blooming Retama tree.  Others are in an Ash tree and several are in two Live Oaks. The nests are usually pretty high in the trees and are apparently vulnerable to large birds of prey that fly over the yard, judging by both the fact that  Harris's Hawks have already raided a nest of young birds this spring,  and also by the reaction of adult grackles when vultures, hawks, and even gulls fly over the trees.  

The Turkey Vulture being chased by the grackle here was followed closely by a Black Vulture that was likewise harassed by the protective parents.  Male grackles don't seem to help build or sit on nests, but they do keep watch and go into action when necessary!

Curve-billed Thrashers have fledged already from the nest in the native Spanish Dagger Yucca.  You can tell this is a young bird because its spots are smaller, its bill slightly shorter, and its eye pale yellow rather than orange.  Curve-billed Thrashers have always nested in our yard and have had as many as three broods per year.  I've found their nests in several kinds of native trees including Negrito, Esperanza, and even one year in a metal Purple Martin house.  The house was no longer occupied by martins because it had become overgrown by small trees.

The last photo is of one of the Couches' Kingbirds that are nesting in a Live Oak tree. Their dawn song, longer and slower than their other calls and songs is one of my favorite sounds of a spring morning.

Our small Rio Grande Valley yard is filling up with more and more nests.  In such a place where "boughs are free --- / Households in every tree," our spring birds could indeed be described as a " throng -- /  Dancing around the sun." 

Friday, June 4, 2010


I often walk across the road and along the sorghum field (it's cotton in alternating years) to look for birds and butterflies that hide in the grass and wildflowers growing along our "Farm to Market" road.  Painted Buntings stop there in their migration, and  Lark Sparrows and  Red-winged Blackbirds call to mates from the occasional  tall sunflowers that invade the carefully planted sorghum.

This week the ripening field of grain has begun its seasonal change of color from green to gold to rust that fascinates me every year and transports me in memory to Oklahoma fields where my uncle raised wheat.  One memory that stands out is of my siblings, cousins, and I riding the truck that carried the harvested wheat to the elevator in town.  I don't often do this (share my poetry except with writing groups), but I decided instead of describing the fields again I'd just share the words I wrote a few years ago.

Fields, at 60

The sorghum fields across the road are changing
again, ripening as days count down to summer.
It’s that one day in early June when the fields
are mixed in equal parts of green and gold
and rust,  when the colors of grain for a single moment
are in perfect balance, blending in stippled swirls
that shift and eddy with the wind.  My eyes strain
to catch the colors, to fix them as they surge and billow
in that ocean of grain.  I see the field, and feel it too:
ingrained in me, gold deepening to amber,
rust for harvest, and again, dry brown stalks.

I feel it still, as I did then, sun-warmed grains
that cradled us as we rode the wheat truck
from another field that other summer afternoon:

Golden rays stretch out from the western sky ahead,
slanting across laughing cousins balanced
atop the cut grain piled onto the truck. Ripe
kernels slide over our bare feet and drop
from our fingers as we raise our palms to the sun.
At the end of the gravel road the elevator looms
still, white, blocking the sun. In the truck's bed,
we lean back, arms and legs spread wide,
as though to make snow angels—
but the grains fill in too quickly and our impressions
collapse as the truck lumbers into the elevator.

“Hold on!” grownups in the cab cry
as we grasp the front of the bed.
Trying to balance, we hold on
as the truck box rises and the grain,
like so many grains of sand that mark the hours,
slips away under our feet. When the truck levels,
we let go our grasp, fingers cramped with the holding,
and collapse exhausted to the emptied bed as the truck
bumps out of the elevator, and the golden grains
disappear beneath the grate