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.
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.