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, September 5, 2011

Fall Migration, Summer Heat

A hot south wind ruffled the feathers of the Osprey that perched on the rail of our dock yesterday morning.  The day started out hot and just got hotter, 106.9 degrees by mid afternoon. 

Still, it was a lovely day for yard birding. Determined to get out there and find some  birds despite the heat, I moved my lawn chair to the shade under a cedar elm and waited to see what would show up at the water drippers.

 I was rewarded with a two-vireo, four-warbler day, not bad for the hottest day of the summer.  This bright yellow beauty is a migrating Prothonotary Warbler.  We also had a couple of Kentucky Warblers, several Black and White Warblers, and one or two Canada Warblers.
This Red-eyed Vireo is probably a migrant, too.  I almost called it a Yellow-Green Vireo but the dark line at the edge of the gray cap made me say red-eyed though its eye didn't appear red.  Yellow-Greens do nest in the Valley, but although this is a bright one, with quite a bit of yellow, I still think that dark edge on the cap is distinctive. I could be wrong.
I heard the White-eyed Vireo several times before this one came to the oak tree just above the bath. It could be a migrant, but I am pretty sure they nest in the area.  I had one late in the spring and I have found small nests after breeding season that I am pretty sure are WEVI nests though I haven't seen any birds near them.

Butterflies are still a star attraction in the yard.  Yesterday morning I took a photo of this Pipevine Swallowtail visiting a milkweed vine.
Less than a minute after I took the photo above, a Couch's Kingbird alit on a wire overhead. I quickly focused my binocs on his prize.  A closer look let me know what he was having for breakfast.
The yard is filled with drama, even early in the morning.  Some of its inhabitants are not as lucky as others.  I don't know why this kingbird is not repelled by the reported bitter taste of the butterfly, but if you click to enlarge the picture, you can see that it is indeed the swallowtail.  I missed a picture of the capture by a few seconds--but the before-and-after photos tell the story.

A cool front this morning changed the wind from south to north and brought in relief from humidity. Today's temperature was a "cool" 95.  It's still hot but our autumn birds seem to pay more attention to the calendar than the thermometer. Migration has indeed started. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Blogging has slowed down here on the Arroyo Colorado.  I'm not taking as many photos. I'm not seeing as many birds.  Maybe it's the heat. 

This morning I thought I detected a milder morning.  The humidity seemed lower.  But by about 2:00 this afternoon, I looked at the thermometer and saw it was 101 degrees again.  Going outside for awhile to check for migrants, I found a waterthrush that tottered under the brush and then out of sight before I had decided whether it was a Northern or a Louisiana Waterthrush. 

Several Eastern Kingbirds, also migrants,   perched in the top of  a live oak tree next door. 

Kingbirds are among my favorite species, especially the Couch's and Tropicals that are here all year. I can't reliably tell them apart unless I hear them -- though the really bright yellow ones seem to be the Couch's which I see most frequently. The crisp black and white of the Eastern Kingbird makes it distinctive and cool-looking even in the heat.

Doves are always numerous at this time of year, but I think perhap  this year there are fewer than usual.  The drought has probably taken its toll.  Today I heard gunshot and the driveway was sprinkled with hunter's pellets when I was out. I hate that.  The houses are close together here along the river, and when a neighbor several houses to our east shoots doves from his yard, it rains birdshot here. I can hear it bouncing off our pickup and the next door neighbor's carport.  I've even felt it on my arms and legs as I sit on the deck. (If you are thinking this sounds really strange, remember we live in Texas. One year at the start of dove season I complained to the sheriff, but he just told me to stay inside my house until sunset when the shooting would stop.)
White-winged Doves, the hunter's favorite, is also mine--for very different reasons, of course.  I love the blue orbital ring and bright pink legs.  This photo was taken in the spring when the white-wing's colors are especially bright. At least two pairs nested in our yard this year. Perhaps more as they seem to nest close together in groups.

 Inca Doves are also common in the yard.  Their soft whirl-pool! whirl-pool! call is the music of summer.  My granddaughter Sadie took this photo of an Inca Dove for me to use in my blog.  I think she did an especially good job of capturing its soft beauty.

Mourning doves are  hunted here as well as the white-wings. Their soft cooing is a haunted, sad song, thus their name.  (Some in the area also call the Inca dove a "mourning dove" because they think its song is mournful as well.)  I'm always glad, on days when guns mar the natural sounds of a summer afternoon, to see these gentle birds enjoying the water saucers under our live oaks.

The large dove seen frequently waddling up the driveway is the White-tipped dove, another of my favorite yard birds.  Its call sounds like the hollow whistling made when you blow over the top of a soda pop bottle.  (I realize youngsters like my grandchildren seldom have a chance to make "music" in this way, but I remember the sound from my childhood.)

The sounds of doves, a slow sad song, punctuates the heat of a summer afternoon in a somehow fitting way, but not everything about a summer afternoon is slow-paced.  Butterflies abound, flittering with agility and  speed that belie the otherwise lazy day.
The blooms of butterfly weed and other milkweed plants attract many kinds of butterflies such as the Black Swallowtail above.  Its attraction to the plant is for the nectar, not for its use as a host plant, for this butterfly lays its eggs on parsley or fennel or native wildflowers in that family. 

A Black Swallowtail caterpillar munching on parsley

Milkweed is host plant, though,  for migrating Monarchs and resident Queen butterflies who lay their eggs on the plants.  We had so many Queens this year that a virtual veil of them hovered over the flower beds and fluttered in front of me when I walked by.  Caterpillars were so thick on the plants that they stripped the leaves at an alarming rate. (See if you can spot the "hungry, hungry caterpillar" in the photo below, and notice the nubs where leaves used to be.  If you look very closely you can see a few eggs on one of the leaves--eggs that never had a chance to hatch.  For a better look at a pearly-white, grooved Queen egg, see this post from last year.)

I bought several new large milkweed plants to accommodate the hungry critters,  but even those new plants were leafless in a couple of days.  Fortunately the leaves grew back quicklyafter I watered several times a day.  Now there are fewer caterpillars and butterflies, more of a normal quantity I'd say, and the supply is keeping up with demand, if just barely. 

Queen butterflies feed on the nectar of native mistflower.  The pink tropical sage is also a favorite food.

I'm wondering if the increase in butterflies corresponds with the increase in mist flower.  It certainly seems to be a favorite nectar plant of the Queens.  I planted several more of a small native blue mistflower this spring, a kind that blooms all summer.  A taller kind is fall-blooming.  Though it is already about four feet tall, it is not yet blooming.  I never plant it specifically,  but there is plenty around. Its tiny seeds are easily scattered by the wind.  One waist-high patch has completely taken over a new flower bed that I planted with herbs and perennials this spring. It's now a messy jumble, but I don't mind.  Butterflies and birds seem to like my gardens the way they are, though they would probably get me kicked out of any respectable garden club.  

I leave the mistflower seed to be scattered about by the wind.

It's dark outside now--and still hot.  A heavy humid hot that makes us move slowly even after dark.  We just watched snook and catfish slowly circling the underwater fishing lights by the dock.  A large shrimp swam by and they didn't even look at it.  Even underwater it must feel too hot for moving around much!

I'm hoping for  migration activity to pick up soon.  I'm not sure if the birds are really slow to come back through on their way south this year or if it's just me being too lazy to go outside.  I did start a part-time job last week, teaching a couple of classes at a nearby university, so I'm not getting out there to look at the yard quite as much.  Yesterday as I pulled out of the driveway, a flash of gold near the bird baths --a year-round Lesser Goldfinch? A migrating Prothonotary or Yellow Warbler?--made me wish I could stay and watch.  But then I got to campus and a small flock of Green Parakeets flying overhead made me glad I was there to hear them. 

No matter where you are in the Rio Grande Valley, you'll find the birds--or they'll find you.  Slow is relative.