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, July 29, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

Our neighbor's metal roof looks way too hot for a perch, but this Black-crowned Night Heron doesn't seem to mind.  He perched there this morning, resting lazily on one foot,  as the sun crept higher and higher, hotter and hotter,  in the late July sky.  Taken through the window that overlooks the Arroyo, this photo of the night heron is one of the few I've snapped lately.  It's just too hot to wander around the yard.  If I go out early, camera in hand, the lens fogs up.  If I wait a while, the heat is stifling, the humidity is oppressive, and the mosquitoes are unbearable.

Looking out the window from an air conditioned house, though, the weather is just fine.  I've arranged furniture so that the most comfy seats face the views of the river and the bank beyond. Binoculars and scope are within reach.  A rocking chair sits right next to one of the two six-by-six windows.  From it I can peer down on feeders and baths and the butterfly garden.

Six tiny Black-crested Titmice (maybe the family that lived in the cow-skull nest cavity?) and three Carolina Wrens twitter in the Live Oak tree outside the window. Energetic and active, they flitter among leaves lit by the the sun, making me feel especially lazy and lethargic by contrast.  If I step out on the porch, I can hear a Chachalaca chorus, reminding me always of summer days, and two Inca Doves calling whirlpool! whirlpool! from opposite sides of the Arroyo.  (If I step outside on the porch, I remember the heat and return to my rocking chair!)
No wonder July has passed without my posting to my blog since the first day of the month--I have scarcely moved from the rocking chair!

These are indeed the Dog Days of Summer, those days so long and languorous.

The ancient Greeks called these long hot summer days "Dog Days," because that was when Sirius, the "Dog Star," rose in the sky each day just as the sun rose. Of course, we can't see Sirius presiding over the hours after sunrise, but the ancients felt the dog star influenced the days from July through August, bringing the scorching  weather.

Sirius, the brightest star we see in the sky (other than the sun), is part of one of the few constellations I can actually identify: Canis Majoris, the Big Dog.   It's near (well, in relative terms) my favorite constellation, the hunter Orion whose  three aligned stars form a very recognizable "belt."  Canis Major is the group of stars that  the belt of Orion seems to "point" to.  The photo at left above (not taken by me, borrowed from the the internet) is of Canis Majoris. Can you see a dog there?  I really can't either (the ancients had a better imagination, I guess) but I can certainly see Sirius. In the winter months, the dog constellations (there's also a Little Dog hunting with Orion) will be  in the night sky and can be seen easily.

Dog Days have arrived at the Arroyo Colorado in more than one way:   we've just adopted two canis minor of our own.  Rescued from puppy mills in Missouri and Arkansas, they needed a good home -- so we brought them home to Texas a couple of weeks ago.  We think they are perfectly adorable. 

That's where our July has gone, to the dogs!

Really, we've been out of town for at least half of the month. We visited our Missouri granddaughters who turned seven years old early in the month.  Then our five Texas grandchildren came here for a visit.  The three boys spent lots of time fishing. The girls, their mother, and I stayed inside, trying to stay cool.

The river was still quite muddy from upriver flooding caused by the hurricane rains in Mexico, so fishing from the dock was not successful.  But they caught lots of redfish in the bay.  Here's the group leaving from our dock early one morning. Notice how high the water is--no walking space for herons and egrets along the banks--and how green the unusually large amount of moisture has caused the bankside to be. 

Here's a very happy fisherman with his grandpop. Mitchell is the youngest of the three boys, but on this trip he was the champion fisherman. This is the smallest of the redfish he caught out in the bay.

The guys had a great time fishing in the Laguna Madre where water was deep (four feet is deep for the bay!) but relatively clear. One day they caught 172.5 inches of reds and a couple of small trout as well!

At high tide, wakes from boats splashed water over the dock or pushed it up from below so that it looked like the fountains of Bellagio!  Four weeks after the hurricane, we are still feeling its effects as flood water drains from a dam far upriver on the Rio Grande.

Here the fishermen jump over the fountains of water pushed up from beneath the dock. Water is still being released from Falcon dam on the Rio Grande, and as it makes its way to us (the arroyo is a floodway of the Rio Grande) it is very muddy and filled with debris--but fun for boys on vacation at Grammy and Papa's house. 

A birding highlight was a Great Horned Owl that flew from a palm tree at dusk after Grammy called "hoo hoo hu hoo." (A favorite children's book of my grandchildren is Jane Yolen's Owl Moon in which a child goes "owling" at night with his dad.)  During the day Green Jays and Cardinals brightened the window feeders. Out in the bay Roseate Spoonbills and Reddish Egrets winged their way from rookeries to feeding flats and back to rookeries again.

An eating highlight was Pirate's Landing in Port Isabel, with windows that overlook the causeway to South Padre Island.  Sadie and her siblings looked jaunty in their pirate hats.  Caleb, Spencer, and Mitchell ate fish that was good, but not as good as the redfish their dad would cook for them later, a delicious reminder of a great fishing day. 

We always have a great time with our family, but this visit may have been the best ever.

 Dog Days of summer on the Arroyo Colorado are days to remember.

Or to dream about for the rest of the year.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

After the Storm

I'll start out with the good news:  the storm is over and bird-watching along the river is good.   The storm surge made the river itself very full, especially at high tide.  With nowhere to stand,  wading birds flew by in a steady parade: Roseate Spoonbills, Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, White and Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Reddish Egrets.  Black-crowned Night Herons perched in trees. Several kinds of terns cruised the river and sometimes swooped low to scoop up a fish:  Least, Caspian, Royal, Forster's, even a Black Tern or two. Brown Pelicans fished and Laughing Gulls stole their catch.    
But the Star of the day was a bird I had never seen from our yard--one I  see infrequently in the bay:  the magnificent Magnificent Frigate Bird. An adult female flew fairly low (for a frigate bird) over the river as I watched from the porch.  Strangely, I was expecting it.  I told myself I wanted to see one today, went out on the back porch, and twenty minutes later there it was!  (I've had these intuitions before:  see the post "No Sooner Said..." for one example.) 
The photo I managed was from far away (I was looking the other way when it first passed the yard and I had to run down the stairs for a clear shot), but it is clearly a magnificent bird, number 262 on our Yard List!

Hurricane Alex, after drawing a bull's-eye on us for a few hours Tuesday, moved its course to the south and went into Mexico instead of South Texas.  Outer bands of rain and wind hit us yesterday, but the wind never blew here stronger than 60 mph and the rain in our area was less than four inches.  I was relieved that there was no damage to our "nest"--but some of the birds were not so lucky.

The Brown-crested Flycatchers may have lost their chicks.  Early this morning I saw them near the nest site in the cottonwood stump, just sitting.  Not rushing in and out of the nest with bugs.  Not singing as they do when waiting for their mate to vacate the nest. Later I walked over to the old cottonwood and for the first time could see nest material hanging out of the stump as though they had pulled some of it out.  Though "hope is the thing with feathers," as Emily Dickinson says, I'm not too hopeful about the nestlings.

A neighbor told me that she found a Great-tailed Grackle's nest with two dead nestlings in her driveway.  This morning I looked at the retama tree where I had photographed a grackle nest a couple of weeks ago, but the nest was gone.  It was probably the one that blew into the driveway next door.

The Kiskadees were also unlucky. In the last post is a photo I took a few days ago of the nest in an ebony tree.  Today, it looks like this. The main part of the nest is half the size it was and the blown-away part is lodged in a fork of the tree a couple of feet below it.

The wind blew all day yesterday, first from the north as we were catching bands of the storm circling counterclockwise around the center of the hurricane, and then from the east as the outer bands north of the storm accompanied it to land.

The good news from the yard is that the little mockingbird I talked about in the last post apparently survived the gale.  I saw two juveniles near the nest today. I was so glad to see the survivors that  I snapped a picture though the light was not good enough to get a good photo.  Notice the speckled breast:  that's how I know this bird is a juvenile.

Watching the young mockingbird battle the storm as the hurricane's winds began on Tuesday, I kept thinking of Emily Dickinson's poem about hope and the storm.  (I didn't quote it in the last post because I suspected I might do too much of that, but now I'm thinking, why not?  I taught literature for over thirty years and old habits are hard to break!)

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

I keep disagreeing (at least in part) with Emily Dickinson even though I love her poetry.   She seems to say that hope doesn't ask anything of us.  If she means that hope exists in the world despite all the things we humans seem to do to defeat it, I guess she's got a point there.  But at the same time I think we need to sprinkle a few crumbs for that bird to eat!

I keep thinking of those birds in the eye of the man-made storm in the Gulf of Mexico.  We can't do anything about hurricanes but we can take care, as best we can, of the natural world. If hope is the thing with feathers what are we doing to deserve hope?