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!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moon River

The Arroyo is so beautiful tonight, as ripples on its surface catch the silver of a full moon, that I stepped outside on the stair landing to see if I could capture it in a photograph.  Of course, I couldn't.  This is as close as I could get. But you can see the glittering of the river and the black bank beyond.

A few years ago I tried to capture the beauty of the arroyo and the full moon with these words:


I want you to see the moon rise full 
over the Arroyo Colorado.

At first huge and red like a distant fire
behind the line of ebony and  mesquite,
it will slowly rise to a silver globe,
pouring light across the water
in broad bands of sparkling waves
that narrow to a  point
at the corner of my dock.

I want you to see dolphins touched with the moon’s silver,
roll up through the surface
of wind-rippled waters
and disappear in widening circles of light.

I want you to see,  above shadows at the bank’s dark edge,
a deer, head lifted high,
glowing with moonlight
caught in the silver cup
of its velvet antlers.

I want you to see shining minnows burst in circles of sparks
across the dark waters
and hear pauraques call across the fields.

I want you to see the Arroyo Colorado in moonlight.
I want you to see
my South Texas home.

(Kay Baughman, 2002)

It's hard not to wake at night and go upstairs to look outside at the river.  I'm glad I'm no longer working so I can stand by the window as long as I want, as long as there are palm trees catching the silver of the moon and owls that silently glide across the river on velvet black wings.  Even on moonless nights the fishing lights add glittering highlights--but my favorite nights are the ones when moonshadows and moonlight embellish the landscape. Tonight is one of those.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kiskadees, Kids, and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival last weekend was, as always, a great success.

I can't imagine a better way to learn about birds if you're a backyard bird-watcher just beginning to distinguish a kiskadee from a kingbird,  or to immerse yourself in the particular  (I didn't say peculiar!)  birding world if you're an expert birder.

Hundreds of birders, butterfliers, nature photographers and artists come to Harlingen TX every year in November for field trips, workshops, seminars, and not least of all the trade show where colorful brochures and knowledgeable enthusiasts peddle all things birding: from binoculars and books to xeroscaping plants and zoos.  You can buy (or put on your dream list)  scopes, feeders, and travel packages. Valley residents and world travelers alike can learn where in the Rio Grande Valley they can go to find its avian specialties such as Green Jays, Chachalacas, Northern Kiskadees, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Altamira Orioles.  Now, I can find all of those in my yard--but I still like to discover the dozens of locations around the valley that attract our special birds.

And it makes me especially proud to see hundreds of people from all over the country and around the world marveling at our Rio Grande Valley.  When my husband decided twenty-one years ago that he wanted to come coach high school football here in the tip of Texas, I had never heard of the Rio Grande Valley.  I was a birder but a stay-at-home kind.  On one of the first days of school at my new teaching job,  I heard the raucus call of a Kiskadee and caught a glimpse of its black and white "hat" as bright yellow and rust flashed by my open classroom door. I  realized that this was more than a place to make a living.  It was a birder's paradise.  We spent weekends driving to the many refuges, parks,  and sanctuaries in the area and finally moved outside of town to the banks of the Arroyo Colorado where the birds and all of nature were right outside our window. 

Kiskadee!  Kiskadee!
As education chair of Harlingen's Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, I spent two afternoons of the RGV Birding Festival tucked away in Kiskadee Korner, the bustling area of the festival that drew kids like a magnet (or I could say like a  dripping bird bath draws migrating warblers or ripe fiddlewood berries draw Kiskadees).

It was so much fun.  Area refuges, clubs, and environmental groups lured the kids with crafts, critters, face-painting, a five-foot crab (or a five- foot person in a crab costume), and a lady who could imitate (loudly!) just about any bird you could name. At our ACAS corner of the Korner, with helpers from  the Fun 'n Sun RV park, we made masks of Northern Kiskadees, the "official" bird of Harlingen and mascot of our Audubon group.

  I'm not an artist, but  I looked at photos I'd taken of Kiskadees in my yard to sketch the pattern for the masks. The kids were wonderfully creative in creating their masks, don't you think?

Most of the the kids first said they didn't know what a Kiskadee was, but when we played recordings (thanks to the I-bird Pro app on my iphone) of Great  Kiskadees, most said something like, "Oh, yeah--I've heard that in my neighborhood!"  Looking at photos of the birds around the table, they hoped to find a Kiskadee  in their yards.  The idea, of course,  is to not only have fun crafting a mask, but especially to learn about a really cool bird that they can see and hear in their yards and parks.

Kiskadee Kids Korner became Kiskadee Parents.

Parents like coloring as much as kids.

Below I'll share the photos I used to decorate our craft area and to introduce the kids to the  Great Kiskadee. All the photos were taken in the yard.  The one where the bird is gobbling a berry made a good pattern for the mask.  Lots of our little artists made a berry to put in the beak.
One little birder spies a Kiskadee

Great Kiskadees build large, messy football-shaped nests of grass, twigs, and vines in native trees such as this Ebony.  The side entrance makes it easy for the parent bird to look out for pesky cowbirds that would like to lay eggs in its nest or Harris's Hawks that raid the nest and prey on nestlings.

Ripe berries from a Manzanita (Barbados Cherry) shrub is a favorite food for this Kiskadee.  The feisty bird chased away a Northern Mockingbird and a Curve-billed Thrasher for its place at the feast.  In addition to fruit, Great Kiskadees will eat insects, frogs, and fish.  They also eat mealworms from feeders -- and Meow Mix from the Cat's dish.  Omniverous is a word that describes them well. 

Great Kiskadees used to be called “Derby Flycatchers,” perhaps in honor of the Earl of Derby and perhaps because they look like they’re wearing derbies or round black hats! The gold crown on the top of the head is usually hidden.

This Great Kiskadee is definitely not hiding its gold crown!  Raising its crest, flapping its wings, and calling loudly from the electric wires, the bird seemed to be celebrating the New Year when this photo was taken on January 1, 2010.

Kiskadees like to visit birdbaths on hot summer days.  Water dripping into the bath from a hose or plastic jug will make it especially attractive to these colorful birds.

Great Kiskadees, like this one that nested in a yard beside the Arroyo Colorado, often live near water where they can catch small fish, crawdads, or tadpoles.

Coloring page from the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society

This photo would make a good caption contest.  What do you think this guy is thinking? I'm sure he's asking a question, but I'm not sure what one.
I like that this shows the yellow edge of his beak opening and even the little whiskery feathers beside the beak.  Most flycatchers seem to have those. (Ornithologists call them rictal feathers.)  I've read that the purpose is unclear and even ornithologists disagree:  some think they help the birds catch insects by in effect making the mouth larger; some think they augment their sense of touch; some think they keep insects away from nostrils and eyes. 
For now, it's a mystery.  Perhaps some of the young visitors to Kiskadee Kids' Korner at the the Rio Grande Birding Festival will grow up to become ornithologists and solve such mysteries.  
Sometimes it takes just one bird (or snake or insect) to make a kid a lifelong lover of all living creatures.