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!

Monday, January 31, 2011

May be...a Phoebe

In the bird world, things are not always what they seem.  Or maybe I mean that some seem what they aren’t.

The bird above is a perfect example.  It’s an Eastern Phoebe.  I see that clearly now. 

But when I first encountered it, I wasn’t so sure.  I had gone out to the mailbox by the road to pick up the mail.  My camera was slung around my neck because I wanted to get a photo of the caterpillar I’d seen on the milkweed.  But I didn’t have my binoculars—I was, as they say, “birding naked.” (That means without binocs:  I assure you I was fully clothed!)  As I turned to carry my junkmail back up the drive, I spotted a bird perched on a neighbor’s gray-green century plant. 

True, it was just where a phoebe was likely to be, but it was most definitely not pumping its tail as phoebes “always” do.  I know they do that, and every field guide says the same.  Furthermore, it was not a dark brown bird but rather a lightish brown one.  The phoebes I see around here always seem pretty dark.  At least that was my impression.

I downloaded the day’s photos to my computer but didn’t look at the one of my bird on the century plant until late that night.    When I finally did, I had no idea what it was.  I still didn’t think “phoebe” since I had (too) quickly ruled that out.  Its head looked kind of big, and the crown was flat.  I considered some kind of flycatcher.  The photos did show those little rictal bristles around the bill.  There was no crest visible.  It seemed too big for a Willow flycatcher or some other empid.  The more I looked at the photos, the more I thought it was something I hadn’t seen before.  Remember it was late at night.  Flipping through field guides, I started looking for flycatchers but nothing looked right.  Finally I saw Peterson’s illustration of a female Rose-throated Becard.  My sleepy brain (it was after midnight) thought that was a match! Oh happy day (or night, or wee hour of the morning)!

Of course it wasn’t.  In the light of day I looked at the illustrations in other guides and saw that the color was all wrong and the cap wasn’t dark enough.  My lovely becard faded with the morning light.  And with a friend who said, what about Willow Flycatcher, size is the key. I replied that it was bigger than a Willow; it was the size of a phoebe. 

That’s when it hit me.  Of course it was the size of a phoebe.  It was a phoebe!   I googled images of phoebes and saw several that were almost identical to mine.  A flat-headed phoebe that didn’t pump its tail even once.  An ordinary, everyday Eastern Phoebe.  Not a new yard bird or a visitor from Mexico.  

Still, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?  Clinging to the sharp thorny end of the century plant leaf, it was motionless, perhaps posing just for me. 

A few hours later my friend emailed me to say she “didn’t want to burst my bubble” but my photo was of a phoebe.  I didn’t tell her I had already figured that out. Bursting bubbles is what good friends are for.

I saw a phoebe today perched in a tree in the back yard.  It was dark brown and pumped its tail ferociously.  I laughed.  The Eastern Phoebe is beginning to be one of my favorite birds. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Camera Critters: Green Jays

If I were not already a Back Yard Bird Watcher, I'd be one after seeing a Green Jay. I never tire of watching them, listening to them, or taking their pictures.

I started writing a post a couple of days ago that I have not finished. I know, I do that a lot--which you know if you follow this blog. I am wordy, perhaps too much so. Sometimes I just want to put a few of my favorite photos out there without the words, and that's what I'm doing here. I've decided to participate in a meme called "Camera Critters" to share some of my backyard visitors -- without so many words. Watch for backyard bird shots every Saturday.

This week, enjoy the Green Jays who, with a few friends, are enjoying the orange slices I put on a feeder. (If you must have words to go with the birds, I've written about the colorful birds several times. Just click the labels list in the sidebar to find other posts about them.)

The flashy Altamira Oriole is almost as lovely as the Green Jay. Behind them is a House Sparrow.

Whenever the bigger guys aren't around, Orange-crowned Warblers fly in for a bite.

I've had fun posting my "critters." Be sure to check out other bloggers' backyard visitors at the Camera Critter blog and the links there.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Clay-colored Thrushes, Granddaughters (and other of life's beauties)

Though no longer a "robin," this  Clay-colored Thrush
 still looks like one.  Ignore that green bill, delicate 
coloring, and lack of eyering. In black and white or sepia,
you'd say "American Robin."

I've done it again, though I made a New Year's Resolution not to--let two whole weeks pass since my last post.

I really wanted to do better this year as far as frequency of posts goes.  Yes, there are excuses:  we spent a few days visiting grandchildren, and we've had a week since of gray drizzle, even  temperatures in the 40's and 50's--but I still resolve to do better by my blog and birds!

Enough of the excuses:  here's the yard news for my delinquent two weeks.

Look closely and you'll see the little red berries this
frugivorous bird is foraging for in the leaf litter under
a Brazilian Pepper tree.
The Clay-colored Thrush is making itself at home in the yard, eating berries from the Brazilian Pepper tree in the neighbor's yard and the fiddlewood berries in ours.  It likes to hang out in the leaf litter along the driveway because of the little red berries that have fallen among the leaves.  I suspect there are actually two of the thrushes, though I can't quite catch them together.  A couple of days ago one flew into an ash tree and then another flew to the fiddlewood.  But when I looked back at the ash, the first was gone.

Until a few years ago, Clay-colored Thrushes were Clay-colored "Robins."   I imagine the reason the name changed is that even our American Robin is not a true robin.  The red-breasted bird was called "robin" by English settlers in America after the familiar red-breasted robin of England, even though the American version is clearly a thrush, looking much more like Europe's  Common Blackbird or Song Thrush than a true robin.
A European Robin perches on a
spade in Peter Rabbit's garden.

I was delighted to see the European version of a Robin when I visited England and Scotland  a few years ago.  A cheerful little bird in appearance as well as song, it reminded me of illustrations in my favorite children's books. When a robin perched on the window sill at Beatrix Potter's home, I was transported back in imagination to Peter Rabbit's garden. (The trip to England and Scotland was my life's dream vacation not only because of the children's books I loved, but also because I had taught English Literature for several decades before I retired.)

American Robins are so beloved of Americans that I doubt the American Ornithologists' Union (in their official checklist of birds)  would ever change the name, but the rarer tropical Clay-colored Thrush, White-throated Thrush,  and Rufous-backed Thrush all had name-changes a few years ago, dropping the misleading "robin" part of their names for the scientifically accurate "thrush."  These are all tropical birds of Mexico and Central America; in fact, the Clay-colored Thrush is the national bird of Costa Rica. In the 90's the Clay-colored version of what we called "robin" started showing up more often north of the Mexican/US border (that's when we had our first visitor) and even nested in a few parks and refuges in the Rio GrandeValley, though not in our yard.  It's one of those birds that seem to show up where the birders are--which makes me pretty sure they have been more common than we suspect. I don't think they recognize human borders.   It's just not an accident that they hang out in the same parks where birders hang out.  I think they are in lots of yards when no one is looking.

Last week I went with a friend to Estero Llano Grande park, about twenty minutes west of Harlingen in Weslaco, Texas, to see a White-throated Thrush that is attracting birders who want to tick this tropical thrush off their life lists.  I had seen them in Belize and Mexico but this was my first in the US.  It was easy to spot--we just looked for the other birders gathered under the tree where it was feeding.

The White-throated Thrush is darker and grayer than the Clay-colored, looking a little more like an American Robin to me.  I really love the coloring of the Clay-colored Thrush.  Its delicate brown is unique but reminds me somewhat of the shades of a female Northern Cardinal or Pyrruloxia.  The latter two birds seem to be always in the vicinity of the thrush in our yard. Of course, the yard is not large, but I have been seeing these two species, along with the light brown Curve-billed Thrasher, under the neighbor's Brazilian Pepper tree and along our driveway. It's as if someone said, "Okay, all you light brown birds, line up over here!"

A Pyrrhuloxia (female) hides in a grapefruit tree

A female Northern Cardinal's delicate coloring
is to me even more beautiful than its bright mate's.
And while I'm thinking of beautiful pale-colored birds (nothing plain to me about these guys, despite the bad rap brown or gray sometimes gets), I'll put forth the White-tipped Dove, a pale gray-brown dove with a pink iridescent sheen delicately coloring its forehead and throat. Its rolling, liquid way of walking out of the shadows and across the drive is really lovely. (I also love its huoo-huoo call, sounding  as if someone were blowing over the top of a soft drink bottle.)
White-tipped Dove

Finally, the best bird I've seen in the last two weeks was not in the yard at all.  It was in the Art Show at my granddaughter's school.  For her submission to the show, Sadie drew an Indigo Bunting that she had seen in her yard last spring.

So one of my excuses for not reporting on the yard activities for a couple of weeks is valid.  Even better than watching birds is being with our grandchildren: Sadie, her look-alike baby sister Jacey, and her three older brothers drew us away from the yard and up to their home for a few days.  A year ago I posted a picture of the baby who had interrupted first-week-of-the-year birding last year.  See how much she's grown (and how much she loved her first birthday cake) in the photo below.  I'm always ready to leave the banks of the Arroyo if I can see such beauty elsewhere.  I don't even have to use binoculars!

From brown birds to red-headed granddaughters, it's been a good two weeks.  Today the sun came out for the first time in a week.  Its slanting  rays just before sunset  tinted the banks of the Arroyo Colorado a golden brown.  Life is good.  

Post script (Monday):  Visiting our daughter's family requires us to drive north about six hours, but at least we are still in Texas where it is reasonably warm.  To visit our other two beautiful twin granddaughters, we drive considerably further to Missouri where winter weather can bring cold and snow.  Here's a photo I received today of their sledding fun over the weekend.  They, too, are lovely enough to tempt us out of our south Texas  yard for a while. At their house over Christmas holidays we watched American Robins bathe in melted snow.  Now after a week of Missouri temperatures in single digits, maybe those robins are winging their way to the Rio Grande Valley to join their Clay-colored cousins.  I wish our granddaughters could also migrate here for a visit. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Berry Good Birding

 The Buff-bellied Hummingbird that became our first bird of the New Year yesterday morning had to get up early to beat this guy:  the little Yellow-throated Warbler that won the honors a few years ago.  Maybe his calendar is a day off--this morning he was the first bird I saw when I went out on the front deck.  The sun rose at 7:16 this morning--and this photo was taken less than four minutes later. Using the camera's flash, I was able to get a picture that shows both the bird and the interesting berries.

Black-crested Titmouse

 Gleaning insects from among the ripening berries of a Queen Palm tree beside the deck, the warbler looks even more picturesque than usual. I had taken a picture of the berries by themselves yesterday, but decided not to put it in my post.  It just lacked something

But today the birds were as attracted to the fruit as I was--me for the beauty of the green-turning-orange berries; the birds for little insects drawn to the sticky sweet fruits. Today's photos have the missing element--birds!

The  fruit will get more orange still as it continues to ripen.  Some berries attract birds for the fruit, some for the insects they lure.  This one will eventually attract the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers that eat the berries and maybe Green Jays and Grackles.  It'll be interesting to watch and see what other birds are drawn by the magnet.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

A Pine Warbler and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet lit briefly on the palm, too, but I wasn't quick enough to capture them in that pose.  I did get the warbler investigating a flowerpot.

That's the kinglet on the bath with the tiny yellow feet grasping the dripper hose.  I had never noticed  before that they wear "golden slippers"--in a much smaller size than Snowy Egrets of course.

The most exciting bird of the day was one I didn't see in the yard at all last year.  In fact, I've seen it only twice before--the Clay-colored Thrush.  (The last time I saw one, it was still called the Clay-colored Robin and was considered rare enough that it was on the state's rarities list.)  Though it remained in the yard, and the neighbor's yard, for quite a while this afternoon eating ripe red berries from the Brazilian Pepper tree, I didn't have my camera. (I was getting error messages and had to charge the batteries.) 

[Edited on Monday morning:  When I first went out to walk the driveway this morning, the Clay-colored cutie was right there on the bird bath.  Too early for good light, too late to remember a tripod, too far away for a flash, but I did the best I could.  The color shows fairly well--isn't it lovely? The interesting greenish bill is also apparent.  I intend to continue my paparazzi-like stalking throughout the day.]

Thinking it might be a White-throated Thrush (really rare, a Mexican bird that has shown up in the upper Valley this winter), I wasn't about to run in the house, change batteries on the camera, and miss the bird.  Trying to take pictures with my iphone resulted in one fuzzy blob and several pictures of leaves. I did get  a recording of its sort of cat-like call.  The color of a Clay-colored Thrush  is a soft distinctive brown, unlike any other bird really.  Its throat was whiter than I remembered and streaked, but no matter what,  I couldn't turn it into the White-throated Thrush.
Tomorrow I'll be stalking the elusive bird with camera in hand and hope to have a picture of the really pretty robin.

I'll finish with one more photo of a Buff-bellied Hummingbird, the early bird that was yesterday's New Year's baby, er..birdy.   This one was sitting in the same fiddlewood as yesterday making its soft little call (unusual because it has a typically loud call that I described yesterday).  Notice how its green throat is bluish?  Some field guides don't even mention that bluish throat.  Maybe they haven't seen it in the early morning sun along the banks of the Arroyo Colorado.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year:  Doin' the Green Jay dance!
It's a windy cool New Year's Day.  (I realize, of course, that's relative--most parts of the country would like a day in the 60's but after 88 degrees yesterday, we were hoping for better.  We got home from cold Missouri last night just before the wind switched around from the north and dropped temps a bit. Though not cold by most standards, it's windy by anyone's--at least 30 mph is my guess.

Even before helping unload the car, I turned on hoses to fill up baths as soon as we got home yesterday evening. With no rain since about July, the birds seemed delighted this morning to find saucers filled and drippers dripping.  Green Jays and Kiskadees sounded like they were celebrating the New Year, loud despite the wind.  No birds celebrate quite as much as Green Jays.  The photo above is a favorite one from summer 2010.  Those jays looked as though they were dancing--that's not wind blowing their feathers, but sheer jiggling, twisting joy! Today was also a celebration. 

Just after dawn this morning I took the dogs out and looked eagerly for the first bird of 2011.  I heard it rather than saw it at first--a very loud Buff-bellied Hummingbird sitting in the fiddlewood near the hummingbird feeder near the garage. Our common resident hummer, Buff-bellieds are larger than the small Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and much noisier. Males have bright red beaks and all have green backs, heads, and throats with buff breasts and bright rust-orange tails.  Certainly a worthy New Year's bird.

I'm adding something to the blog today.  Reviving  my twitter account, I have linked tweets to this blog (right sidebar) and will try to add yard-bird updates daily.  Of course in 140 characters I can't list all the birds for a day, but I can add the new ones for the year.  This is mostly for my benefit since I want to keep records of first-of-season appearances and birds to remember. When I started my blog (exactly a year ago today), it was sort of on a whim when I couldn't find the journal I usually wrote nature sightings in.  I wanted a misplace-proof place to record the goings-ons in the yard. I am really pleased with how it turned out, except for the fact that I ended up writing longer and more infrequent posts than I had envisioned.  Adding tweets may solve the problem of not really recording enough details to help me compare the sightings from year to year.

Birds aren't all we see from the yard and I'll tweet/ list other animals as well.  I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to capture photos of dolphins that swim in the Arroyo--maybe in the new year I'll be luckier.  Neither did I shoot (with camera, of course) a Bobcat or Javelina.  The best mammal sighting ever was an ocelot about 13 years ago.  I don't even hope to see another of those severely endangered cats from my window.

Here are a couple of other mammals seen from the house. I don't know for sure what the red deer is--it's definitely not our native white-tailed deer, being much larger and redder.  We saw it during the Big Sit in October (which may prove that there are all sorts of surprises to see if you are just sitting and looking.  As I said a couple of days ago about the Pine Warbler,  I think many birds are here that I never see.  And I think anyone that spends as much time looking --and sitting--as I do would see lots more birds and other critters than they do).

The people who own the ranch land across the arroyo must import exotics for hunting.  Besides this animal (Red Deer?  Red Stag?  Looks like the ones we saw in Scotland),  we've seen Nilgai which are commonly imported to ranches around Texas.  (Yesterday just before dark I heard guns and hoped the targets were running fast.)

The wind is still howling (as Winnie the Pooh would say, it's a "Blustery Day"), but the sun is shining and the temperature has climbed above 70.  I'll go see what else I can see from the windows on this first day of 2011.  I wish the best of days and all of nature's blessings to all of you in the New Year!