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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, February 10, 2011

Weather is Changing--and so are the birds


I just talked with my sister who still lives in our Oklahoma hometown.  Last week winter slammed them with a whopping 15 inches of snow--definitely unusual weather.  When we were kids we hoped for even a few inches of winter snow.  But as it turns out, last week was just a beginning of their amazing winter weather.  Yesterday it snowed another 15 or so inches. And this morning the thermometer at their place showed negative 29.7 degrees fahrenheit!

Texas Baby's Bonnet, one of our loveliest native 
plants, had just begun to bloom before the storm.
That makes it seem downright balmy here.  Our thermometer says 32.  Actually, this is our second freeze for the month.  February blew in with south winds and a 70 degree day--about the normal for Feb. 1--but the groundhog and a strong norther brought us real winter by Groundhog Day. Although the little furry guy didn't see his shadow, we never pay attention to his winter predictions anyway. The last week of January had seemed like spring already according to our birds and all the blooming wildflowers and flowering shrubs.

Our neighbor's  mix of native and tropical
plants was beautiful before the freeze.



Kiskadees had been calling and flirting and lifting their crests.  Tanagers and buntings suddenly appeared at feeders.  One of our Altamira Orioles was even inspecting the nest they had built and abandoned last spring.  A Curve-billed Thrasher was singing its little "whisper song" from the hackberry tree every day, a prelude perhaps to its full-throated song during courtship.

The Summer Tanager and Indigo Buntings, uncommon winter visitors, were beautiful reminders that summer was not so far off and spring migrants would be arriving before we know it.  We were getting huge flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and cowbirds that emptied feeders at a budget-breaking rate.


This female Summer Tanager apparently didn't get the memo that winter was on its way.
But here she is after the ice storm, just as lovely as before.




Then came the frigid air mass that had already slammed the rest of the country.  Since we have mostly native plants, I didn't cover them.  I had brought in a potted milkweed, not because it would freeze, but because of the Monarch butterfly caterpillars that were just getting fat and would need leaves of the host plant to survive.  Other plants will be ugly for a while, but it won't take too long to return to normal.  I'm hoping it's a very temporary setback. At least this one caterpillar stayed unfrozen, if not warm, in our garage. [I have edited this paragraph since first posting it.  I originally said the caterpillar was a Queen.  Now I've decided it's a Monarch.  It had only two sets of antennae, not three.  I read about the difference on this very good butterfly blog.]


What surprised us most was not the four nights of freezing temperatures but the ice that coated the trees, shrubs, and grass.  The photo at the top of this post shows the beauty of the ice as it  decorated palm trees and the river bank.  All day long on Thursday, a week ago, strong winds blew down sheets of ice that looked like crystal palm fronds as the freezing drizzle coated the fronds, turned them to ice, and then were dashed to the ground by the wind.  I've always loved the way moonlight can brush the palms with silver; this was a similar beauty.

On the day the wind was scattering ice on everything, I covered my head with cold arms (protected not by my winter coat which  I had left in Missouri, but by layers of hoodies and sweaters) and ran out to refill the feeders.  Just as I reached one of them, a Pine Warbler landed about a foot from me.  I think I could have touched it if I'd wanted to.

Surprisingly, we've had several Pine Warblers here this winter.  I've written about discovering the first one a couple of months ago, a new bird for our life yard list, and I also posted another photo in early January.  Both of these were pale birds, possibly first winter or females.  The one that almost landed on my hand was a brighter male.  I have been wondering how the changes we are seeing in our climate all over the world will change our wildlife.  That's impossible to know for sure but I am speculating.  Will weather change bring permanent changes in bird populations?  Will populations be in danger or will they merely rearrange?  Of course I know that there will be permanent disastrous changes if we don't heed the warnings.  But for now I am eager to see what will show up in my yard.

Here's the Pine Warbler on a warmer day last week, dining from our Oklahoma State University (ride 'em cowboys!) feeder.  I was glad to see it again after that cold day when nature was hurling ice from the trees.  Pine Warblers are the only warblers I've observed eating seed.  Several help devour the orange slices I put out (Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers) and regularly sip from the hummingbird feeders (Yellow-throated Warblers as well as Orange-crowned), but until this little guy all but pleaded with me on the icy day I had not seen warblers at a seed feeder.

The next two pictures are not good photographs, but I am posting them because they are also new birds for the Yard List (not just for this year but for the 15 years we have lived here). Whether because of changing weather patterns in the nation or just because birds--especially winter birds--seem to irrupt in different places in different years, these are species I haven't observed here before.


Isn't this an amazing little bird?  I know it's not a good photo--I had zoomed in as far as I could, and I took the picture through a not-so-clean window that looks out on the backyard.  It's an Anna's Hummingbird which I had seen before only once in California. So you can imagine my excitement.  At first I thought I was seeing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird when I saw it perched in the oak tree above this patch of shrimp plant.  I thought it unusual to see a male in the winter with a bright gorget. Most are young or female and can't reliably be even distinguished from the Black-chinned which are also common.  Then the morning sun lit up this guy and its brilliant rosy crown and gorget were clear.  What a spectacular bird!  I saw it several mornings, always in the shrimp plant, but have not seen it since the freeze.

Here's what the shrimp plant looked like encrusted with ice.  Hopefully the Anna's Hummingbird found another place to feed.  Or maybe it'll come back.  Surprisingly, the shrimp plant doesn't seem to have been too negatively affected by its days in the deep freeze.  This morning's freeze redux probably wasn't enough to hurt it any further.








This next bird is just as beautiful as the hummer.  My first glimpse of it was also in the live oak tree.  At first glance, I thought it was the Black-throated Green Warbler I had been seeing for a few days. Then I noticed how very bright its yellow color was and how the yellow extended down to the breast.  A Townsend's Warbler!  What a beauty.  This photo is the only one I was able to take, moving quickly to snap a shot before it flew.


I'll keep trying to get this bird in a good picture.  It showed off one sunny morning  quite close to the deck where I was sitting, and stayed there for a long time as if posing.  But, of course,  it was one of those mornings when my point-and-shoot camera and lens had frozen as it sometimes does on balmy days when the early morning humidity is so high.

So our weather is indeed a little unusual.  I never thought we'd have an ice storm.  But if weather change is at all responsible for new birds, I'll take a cold day now and then.  That is, a morning briefly at 30 degrees--not  minus 30 as they had in my hometown this morning!




9 comments:

Frank said...

Hi Kay. I guess we can all speculate on possible changes with global warming but there is, I beleive, already evidence over hear of definite shifts in certain specie territories.
Great to see the Palm Warbler so so close. I do hope the Anna's survived the ice and returns ... such a smart bird.

Arkansas Patti said...

Ah, did someone invert all the states and not tell us.
Oklahoma has really been nailed and Arkansas has had a strange winter too. We are going for records also.
It was negative 2F this morning and is 40 plus right now. I am feeding about 250 birds plus a few bewildered robins. I sure feel for our feathered friends.

Wanda..... said...

Loved all your beautiful bird sightings, Kay. We woke to 3 degrees this morning here in SW Ohio, it's 23 right now and will be up to 45 on Monday...sure hope the temps keep climbing. One Spring we discovered 2 Bluebirds that had froze to death in a nesting box. Too sad.

KaHolly said...

So much for coming to TX to escape the wrath of winter!! ~karen

Kay said...

Frank,
Thanks for stopping by. I'm still looking for the Anna's with no luck. We had a light freeze overnight for the last two nights. Maybe the little bird has flown south for awhile.
Kay

Kay said...

Patti,
Thank goodness you are feeding those birds! It is indeed a crazy winter. I enjoy seeing photos of your birds.
Kay

Kay said...

Wanda,
your bluebird tale is so sad. I guess those little guys gamble when they try to spend the winter in northern climes. Send a bluebird or two down here. That's one I don't have in the yard list.
Kay

Kay said...

Karen,

Yes, we've hit a cold spell but it'll be back in the 80's by MOnday!
Thanks for visiting my blog!

Kay

dguzman said...

WOW! just wow.