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, September 1, 2010


Late summer is a time of abundance.  Where there were two or three Green Jays at the feeders, there are now six.  Where there were a few butterflies basking in the sun or flitting from lantana to plumbago,  there are now dozens.  Four Kiskadees have become eight; eight White-winged Doves have become sixteen. One or two Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at a feeder have become a swarm of Ruby-throated migrants buzzing like bees around any available nectar.

A few days ago I heard a distinctive Green Jay racket. Out on the fishing dock, a family of six of these bright, cheerful, and noisy natives of South Texas lined up on the railing. Four of them were probably newly fledged; all were excited.  Ruffling their feathers and bobbing up and down in a funny dance, they were belting out the  strangest clicks and whistles.

I love these birds and never tire of watching their noisy antics.  When they fly into a tree, they alight on a low branch and hop their way to the top.  Though I don't put out their seed at regular times, they always discover it within about five minutes. With the sudden increase from two to six jays, I'll have to increase my supply of corn, peanuts, and bird seed.

Migrants  that disappeared in late spring are back as fall migrants, bookending summer with bright color and enlivening what had become a very lazy time in the yard.

Black and White Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Prothonatary Warblers, Hooded Warblers, and Canada Warblers began visiting oak trees and bird baths last week.  Summer Tanagers and Indigo Buntings added a splash of color as did migrant Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles that joined the summering Hooded Orioles and native Altamira Orioles. Though not as brightly colored in fall as in spring, these are still pretty spectacular birds. 

A little empidonax flycatcher entertained me all one afternoon catching small insects above the driveway.  I usually don't presume to distinguish between Willow and Alder Flycatchers, identifying them all as just Traill's Flycatchers, the name these two almost identical birds used to be called, but this guy sang and called a number of times, giving me a definitive clue.  Consulting the voice recordings on the Ibird Explorer Pro app of my Iphone, I'm pretty sure this was a Willow Flycatcher.  Its mostly three-syllable song and whit call  was convincing to me, anyway.  For a while earlier in the day, I had wanted to say Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but the lack of distinct eye ring made me decide this was a Traill's with a lot of color. 

Tropical Kingbirds have been singing in the backyard.  They fly from across the arroyo in the early mornings and announce their identity with song.  The otherwise identical Couch's Kingbirds are more often in the front yard where they nested earlier in the summer.  These look-alikes are native residents unlike the Eastern and Western Kingbirds that have been migrating through.  Great Crested Flycatchers (right) are similar to the Couch's/Tropical Kingbirds and in some ways to the  Brown-crested Flycatchers but with a deeper yellow belly and more rusty color on their tails.  There's an abundance of the latter this week, probably birds that nested farther north as well as our yard nesters.

Meanwhile, a little  Screech-owl sat unperturbed in the pine tree, enduring constant scolding by what seemed like a treeful of wrens and titmice.
I think even the person least inclined to anthropomorphism would call this a "wise old owl."  Or at least a curious and patient one.

Birds and bird activity are not the only increase in the yard.  Butterflies are thick among trees, shrubs and flowers; and blooms are abundant even as rain diminishes.  These three Giant Swallowtails were in a lineup of ten on a  fiddlewood shrub.  I would have needed a wide lens to get all the rest of them in the picture!

Another illustration of burgeoning life around the yard can be seen in the photos above of a Queen butterfly and a Queen caterpillar, both on milkweed plants.  Look closely--do you see what I am talking about? It's not the butterfly or the caterpillar.   That's right--the tiny round white specks are eggs! Click on the photos to enlarge them if you can't find the eggs. 

 I've cropped and enlarged this photo so that you can see the egg better.   The eggs are actually ridged, something my maturing eyes can't tell,  but the photo shows.  This one was on a yellow milkweed (butterfly weed) that is not native to south Texas but it grows well here and spreads easily from seeds that burst out of pods, and with the help of silky white filaments, float on the wind until they lodge in another garden or roadside. 

I have taken many, many butterfly photos in the last couple of weeks and then spent hours looking over guide books trying to identify them.  I used to classify butterflies in such categories as "yellow ones" "white ones" and "little skipperly things."  Now with the help of my camera and guide book (I like Kaufman's because of the maps and indication of size) I'm doing a better job, but my learning curve is slow.  A camera really helps me identify these guys, as it does with other insects and dragonflies.  I think my next blog will be devoted to the various butterflies and dragonflies I've been able to put a label on.

Speaking of increase (and also of insects), I have more photos of the spider I blogged about yesterday.  In the late afternoon sun, it is obvious why this spider is called a Silver Argiope. Notice that the little mate I worried about yesterday was back today, snuggled closer.  I laugh whenever I see this unlikely pair.   There I go anthropomorphizing again. 

Our population of Silver Argiopes has doubled:  today I found another one not far from the first.  Its web is also on the side of the house but separated from the other by a bump-out for the water heater.  This spider is only about half the size of the first one and not so spectacular.

But isn't the shadow cast by this smaller Argiope amazing?  Though the web's stabilimentum (zigzaggy web things) can't be seen well on the web, they are obvious in the shadow.

I'll keep watching these fascinating spiders and learning more about them.  And about the other creatures around the yard.  What's really increasing is my attention.   I'm sure the spiders have always been here.