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!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Homesteading Update

So much avian homesteading is going on in the yard  that I'm actually posting an update only a day after yesterday's post! ( I'll add the update to the  Saturday "Camera Critters" meme  posted by Misty Dawn over at her blog.   Be sure to check it out.)

One of the little Eastern Screech-owls above is probably the one I photographed giving the "stink eye" yesterday when I walked past the new owl box.  Looks to me like it's the guy on the right.  I say "guy" because in this species, as with most owls and raptors, the male is the smaller of the pair, sometimes 20% smaller than the female.  (The difference in posture in this photo might make it hard for me to tell for sure which owl is actually bigger.  I can tell which one is giving me a dirty look, however.) I looked up some information on screech-owls in   The Eastern Screech Owl: Life history, Ecology, and Behavior in the Suburbs and Countryside, by Frederick R. Gehlbach. He says the larger size helps the female to survive while nurturing young and also to defend her nest when the male is away hunting.  The male's sleeker size helps him catch the more abundant smaller prey and means he won't need as much food himself when his job is to provide food for his mate and the growing, hungry nestlings.

 The owl on the right in the picture of the duo had been in the box until I walked along the driveway.  When I stopped close-by to adjust a hose, it flew across the drive to a pine tree.  The Sabal Palm  frond in the background makes a little shelter for the owls, and it's a common place to find them resting. It's also a great background for a picture!

Because Eastern Screech-owls in South Texas can be nesting already in February, I was afraid that we might not get owls in a box that wasn't put up until March. Imagine my surprise when, in just a few days,  we started seeing an owl regularly peering out of the new box.  I'm still not convinced that there will actually be eggs and young.  These owls seem more skittish than others that have nested in the old box in the same location, owls that would peer at us patiently all day long without flying to the safety of the trees.  Perhaps these homesteaders are younger than previous residents.  But the appearance today of two screech owls makes me hopeful.

I don't know where the closest nest was last year. We had removed the old one because of a bee hive, but the nest was probably close by since I was able to photograph this adorable owl in the pine tree last August.  It was being mobbed by Green Jays and a Mockingbird that pecked it on the head. No wonder its feathers are ruffled!   I think from the feathers this must be a fledgling, but Gehlbach's book says that molting for all Eastern Screech-owls peaks in late July--- so maybe this is an adult that is molting.

(Bragging Alert!  What follows is relevant to discussion of these owl photos, perhaps, but is also unabashed boasting.

Our Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society had a photo contest open to members last November, voted on by visitors to our booth during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. My little owl won 2nd place in the contest---apparently cuteness counted most!  The prize of a gift certificate at a local  framing store came in handy when I had my Ochre Oriole watercolor framed last month.  [Check out the RGV festival, one of the first and best in the nation, by clicking the link.  You can expect me to talk about it quite a bit this year since I've joined the planning committee.  I helped with it in the early years and am excited to be involved again.]

Owl photos are lucky for me.  Another one won a blue ribbon in last month's Laguna Vista Birding Festival amateur photo contest. It was of an owl that perched in our oak tree one night last June as I stood on the deck a few feet away.  I ran back into the house to get my camera.  Not sure how to take a night photo, I held a flashlight in one hand and the camera, flash on,  in the other.  Amazingly, the photo turned out well, capturing for my memory and blog one of several screech-owls, some of them fledglings just out of the nest, hunting and trilling in that June night.

The other photo that won a ribbon (3rd place) at the Laguna Vista festival is the one of a Cedar Waxwing with a dark blue berry in its mouth that I posted a few weeks ago,  just after a small flock of the birds visited the ripening berries on the ligustrum tree.   The Laguna Vista Birdfest was a really fun small festival held at the Laguna Vista golf course near South Padre Island, about 20 miles from here.  A very active group of birders who live there have the small festival every year and really outdo themselves with interesting speakers and activities.  It's a great example of what a small dedicated group of organizers can accomplish.)

Okay, enough about my ribbon-winning.  You can tell I'm not used to winning anything.  I'm just glad to be learning more about my point-and-shoot camera.  I always wanted to be able to take pictures of birds and now with relatively low-cost amazing cameras (mine's a Canon SX10IS), even I can take photos I want to keep and share.

Now on with the update on nesting and pre-nesting activity in the yard:

Here's a series of photos of Eurasian Collared Doves getting to know each other on top of the boat dock.  At least the male would like to get acquainted.  That's him in the back (I presume), pursuing the lovely lady in the lead. She is keeping an eye on him though she continues stepping out.

She walks on--- but knowing she's aware of him behind her, he begins a kind of nodding, bowing dance.  

Maybe he gets just too forward for her sense of propriety---and she flies away.

Eurasian Collared-doves are, as the name implies, not native to the United States, having been introduced from Europe---but their range here in South Texas is rapidly expanding.  I had never seen one before 2002 when I saw three near the high school parking lot where I taught in Rio Hondo (about 12 miles from here).  Since then, they have spread to Arroyo City and are now nesting in the neighborhood.  I will keep an eye on this couple and hope to find a nest.  This is just one of several species of doves that frequent the yard:  Inca Doves, Common Ground Doves, White-winged Doves, Mourning Doves, and White-tipped Doves are also common and year-round residents.

One more "couple" piqued my paparazzi-like interest today.  I put a few orange halves on the front deck this afternoon and immediately attracted a pair of  Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.  The male is on the left, distinguished by the red patch on his crown as well as gold on the nape and forehead.  The female on the right lacks the red on the crown.  They are similar to the Red-bellied Woodpeckers I remember from my Oklahoma childhood.

Golden-fronted Woodpeckers nest in the yard every year.  They are the excavators of about a dozen holes in two dead cottonwood trees that the former next-door neighbor cut down to about fifteen-twenty feet, forming condominiums for starlings, woodpeckers, and titmice.  Until the dead trees proved so enticing, the woodpeckers used to make holes in our house, pull out the insulation, and build nests in the walls.  We tried to discourage this, of course, but they were persistent.  For a few years we lured them to nest boxes.  Finally,  we patched the holes in our house, beat on the walls when we heard the birds, and hoped that they would stick to the cottonwoods.  So far it has worked.  Last week, for insurance,  we also put up a new nest box in the back yard where an old one had, like the owl box, been taken over by bees.

Now that I am retired, I can spend all the time I wish exploring the nature in  our yard and writing about what I see.  The yard is not really very big, just about a third of an acre,  deeper than it is wide, but it's a fascinating place.    Blogging gives me a chance to keep records of my observations.  Today, reading Thoreau's journals, I found this entry for April 7, 1853.  It says just what I've been thinking:

"If you make the least correct observation of nature this year, you will have occasion to repeat it with illustrations the next, and the season and life itself is prolonged."

I wonder what Thoreau would think of nature blogging.  He could take a laptop to his cabin at Walden pond, but I don't know where he'd plug it in.  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Homecomings and Homebuilding

I was almost right about the Hooded Oriole's return.  He came "home"  just one day later than last year.  Here he is in one of the palm trees in the backyard, not far from where a pair of the birds nested last summer.  Actually several pairs nested last year, as every year, in our palms and those of yards nearby.  Their small beautiful nests are made of long palm fibers, like little golden purses, that are usually nestled under a palm frond. So far this spring I've seen only one male at a time and no females.  It appeared first late in the day at a front yard bath, just as it did last year, and was in the Bottlebrush tree early the next morning.

Below is a photo of a similarly-colored  Altamira Oriole in the Bottlebrush.  Here in Texas, Hooded Orioles are orange like the Altamiras, though I think they are more yellow or gold in other locations.   The two species are sometimes confused by casual observers. Note the difference in the shape of the black on the head--more like a mask on the Altamira Oriole and coming straight down just behind the eye of the Hooded, forming the orange "hood." In addition, the Altamira Oriole has an orange wing patch high on the shoulder and the Hooded does not.

When the male Hooded Orioles arrive home, they seem most interested at first in bathing and eating.  When the females follow in a few days (this is the usual pattern), oriole-watching gets more interesting as the males crisscross the yard and show off from every tree. Home-building quickly follows their homecoming as they pair up and start finding nesting sites.

 My favorite oriole photo from last spring is this one in which a male is spreading his tail almost as if imitating the palm frond on which he's perched (and where his mate will build a nest after his antics successfully get her attention).

Tail-fanning seems to be a popular way of attracting attention in the bird world.  Here's a photo of a Long-billed Thrasher showing off to his mate a few weeks ago.  I had taken a picture of what I thought was just one thrasher in the Bottlebrush tree.  I hadn't even seen the dancer with the fancy tail, but there it was when I reviewed the photo.  I love photos I just shoot randomly that turn out later to be really interesting.

Long-billed Thrashers

Curve-billed Thrasher
We have two species of thrashers that live year-round in the yard,  both virtuoso singers.  Long-billed thrashers are more musical, their phrases a little slower,  but I find the Curve-billed Thrasher's song extremely interesting.  The male that lives in our yard all year began singing in January, very quietly but constantly as though practicing for the "real" full-throated singing that began in February.  I've written about this "whisper song" before.  (I've also written about Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Altamira Orioles singing so quietly you have to be very close to hear them.) When the thrasher sings his quiet song, he doesn't open his beak much, if at all, but his throat moves. I'll hear a song that sounds as if a singing bird is far away, and then find the persistent singer in a nearby Hackberry tree. His usual song is like the whisper song in quality and phrasing but is very much louder.

Curve-billed Thrashers seem always to be doing something interesting.  

Here one is taking a sun bath on a  sun-warmed stepping stone.

Here one bends low to sip water spraying from a dripper hose.

And here he looks especially distinctive perched on a post.  

Curved-bill thrashers have more rounded markings on their breasts than Long-billed, and of course their color is a more muted brown.  Both have a distinctive long, dark bill,  and orange eyes.  Our yard, a messy one with unraked leaves and brushy unkempt tangles of native shrubs, is a perfect place for them to thrash around in, throwing leaf litter and dirt all around. 

Yesterday I thought perhaps a Brown Thrasher had stopped by our yard.  Once one spent a whole winter with us.  Yesterday's bird appeared redder than the usual dark brown of the very similar Long-billed.   But closer looks showed me the gray face and darker bill of the Long-billed after all,  looking especially bright and reddish in the sun. 

Both pairs of thrashers are beginning nest-building activities,  though neither has settled on a specific location.   I think the Long-billed pair will nest in a Cedar Elm in the front yard and the Curved-billed couple are experimenting by sticking  thorny twigs  in various locations in the back.  Curve-billed Thrashers seem to not need such brushy locations.  They have built in past years in just about every medium sized tree in the yard.  Last year their first nest was in a Yucca and the second in a Brasil.  One year they even built a nest in a Purple Martin house that the martins no longer liked because trees had grown too near it. 

Starlings are already nesting in a cavity in the dead cottonwood.  I don't begrudge these invaders a spot since there are about a half-dozen other cavities for the woodpeckers and titmice to choose from.   A Screech-owl is at least roosting if not nesting in a new owl box by the drive.  We put the box up just a couple of weeks ago to replace one bees had taken over last summer.  It's probably too late for this guy to nest, but he sure likes sitting in the box. 

He doesn't, however, like me to walk past his door.  That's what my granddaughters call the stink eye.  

I've added to the year's bird list (see sidebar) but I'm not sure it's accurate yet. I'm still tweeting new year birds on Twitter, but I don't always remember to tweet every one.  I'll work on my list tomorrow and then keep adding more as migrants return home or pass through.  I think the list is a little behind last year's at this time.

 Two days ago I was very excited to see an Aplamado Falcon fly over the house. Typically, I didn't have my camera with me.   This is only the second time I've seen the falcon in (or over) the yard.  The first time was about ten years ago when two perched on an electric pole in September.  (We live not too far from Laguna Atascosa NWR where several pairs have nested successfully after a reintroduction program by the Peregrine Fund.)

Spring arrived officially a few days ago.   The moon over the arroyo on the first night of spring was a Supermoon, named because it was nearer the earth than it had been in 18 years.  A moon rising over the water is always breathtaking, but this one was especially ... well, super.  I wish I could have captured a picture of the Great Blue Heron that flew along the river across the moon's light.  

I'll try to blog often to report on our  homecomings and nest-building.   Spring is super everyday in the Rio Grande Valley. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Catching Up (and Looking Back)

Sometimes I feel like the osprey in this photo--not the one with the fish, but the one chasing ineffectually.  I'm not flying as gracefully as this bird, of course, but I'm trying to catch up. The last time I posted was the day before St. Valentine's Day and here it is St. Patrick's Day!  This post won't have a real theme--it'll just be catch-up time.

When I started blogging at the beginning of 2010, my objective was to write something that would help me keep track of a year in the life of the yard.  I had already tried that with various journals and lists, but found they were too easy to misplace--and you can't keep track of details if the list you keep them on is lost.    Even though I don't post as often as I had intended, my blog is always "there" (somewhere in cyberspace) and  I'm finding it really fun to look  back over last year's posts.  Today, as I read over last year's posts for February and March, I was reminded of some interesting observations and found myself comparing them to this year's.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I took a photo of pelicans  fishing out back in the Arroyo. One of them was the red-pouched form of the Brown Pelican, a subspecies usually found in California.  As I browsed the blog's posts from  a year ago,  I  saw that I was speculating then about how many of our Texas pelicans are this form,  but I couldn't find an answer anywhere.  Trying to figure it out for myself, I counted pelicans as we took a boat trip up the river.  Today I read in the TOS Handbook of Texas Birds (a book I didn't have last year) that about 10-15 percent have the red gular pouch.  I think that's an overestimation as far as the birds here on the South Texas coast--or at least in the Arroyo--are concerned.  Last year's effort to count pelicans and note the ones with the red rather than the grayish pouch made me conclude that more like 2% were the California subspecies. 

Another  thing I noticed after looking at last year's posts (see the links here and here) is that there are not nearly as many Brown Pelicans on the river as there were a year ago.  I hope that has nothing to do with the oil spill in the gulf.  The TOS handbook says Brown Pelicans are not known to breed along the lower Texas Coast.  I think they actually do breed on some of the spoil banks in the Laguna Madre.  If it's not windy tomorrow maybe we can retrace the boat trip we took looking for and counting pelicans last March.  It isn't scientific, but  it is interesting to compare one year's observations with another, and thanks to my Arroyo Colorado Riverblog, it's easy to do that.

Continuing with my catch-up post:  I'm on the lookout for our migrant Hooded Orioles.  Checking the blog for the date of last year's first appearance, I see it's March 18--that's tomorrow.  I can't wait!  The bottlebrush tree is starting to bloom, ready for the nectar-loving birds.  Today three Altamira Orioles flew across the yard and into the tree. For a second I thought maybe the Hoodeds were back.  By non-scientific observation, I know that the same birds migrate back to our yard year-after-year: we once had a male Hooded Oriole with a deformed beak, easy to recognize as it returned for at least three summers.  (I was especially glad to see it each spring, as I feared the deformity would make survival difficult-- but apparently it didn't, or at least not for those three years.)  

A Fuertes's Oriole ( formerly Ochre Oriole) also returned to the yard two summers.  I'm sure it was the same bird since it had  been seen in the United States only once before (late 1800s)--and what are the chances two different Fuertes Orioles would show up in the same yard two years in a row?    Every spring I look for the beautiful Ochre Oriole, but it did not return for a third year and hasn't been seen north of the Mexican border since.  This year, though, I have something almost as good--a lovely watercolor by bird artist F.P. (Tony) Bennett, who  saw it in our yard and has painted it for us. We just got the watercolor back from the framer's today.  Tony's depiction does the bird justice--a really beautiful creature. (To see some of Tony's other paintings, see this link: http://www.fpbennett.com/ )
Speaking of orioles, I'm  looking forward to the Altamira Oriole's yearly magnificent feat of nest-building. Looking back over the blog, I see  it was mid April of last year that they built their first nest.  Unfortunately, they abandoned that one in our Oak tree and built another in a Tepeguahee tree three doors to the west of us.  That nesting was apparently successful--two first-year Altamiras joined two adults all winter in the yard, eating oranges, sipping hummingbird nectar, feeding on aloe blooms, and even eating seeds from the feeders.  Above is one of the young birds.  Note the pale back and tail, and contrast it with the black of the adult below.  Male and female look similar in this species of oriole, unlike the Hooded Orioles whose female is much like the female Ochre Oriole in Tony's watercolor.  

Since I'm trying to catch up with a whole month of yard activities, I've got lots more to show and tell. I also want to tell about a couple of really neat experiences I had away from the yard.  But for now I'll close this post and continue writing tomorrow.  I want to get up early in the morning for some backyard birding.

Will the Hooded Orioles show up tomorrow?  I'll be watching.