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!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Hauntings

In our neighborhood, Trick or Treaters seldom come knocking on doors or asking for candy.  We live far from town, and the people in the houses that line the river are more oldsters than youngsters.  On Halloween night I miss the little ones, dressed  up as ghouls or princesses, traipsing down the street amid giggles and choruses of "Trick or Treat! Close inspection of the backyard, however, reveals a host of natural tricksters.

A couple of years ago, I posted some pictures to prove that Nature itself had done a pretty good job of celebrating Halloween. Here are a few spooky characters from around the yard, an encore of Nature's trick or treaters.  

Can you tell what's making this scary face?

 It's a pomegranate hanging from a bush in the yard! (I flipped the photo upside down so that you can appreciate the Halloween mask. )

 Cactus blooms can also make faces worthy of Halloween! That blood-red mouth is downright gruesome!

 A hoary Fungus Face hides on an old tree stump, waiting for the Halloween party to begin.  

 Talk about disguises: the Walking Sticks in the photo below came to the party dressed as, well...walking sticks!

What's a Halloween party without a few well-dressed spiders?

and night-black snakes,

and black birds with devilish eyes.

A Silver Argiope spins her web. That little guy  above her is her mate, and possibly a Halloween treat.

A flash from the camera lights up this Wolf Spider's creepy eyes.

What's in the web-below--is it spider or prey? 

No matter, the web is a masterpiece, a fine Halloween decoration!)

 Click to enlarge the photo above: you'll see the hundreds of baby spiders creepy-crawling out of their pod, headed for the Trick or Treat party.

Other guests at the Halloween costume ball: a butterfly dressed in ghostly garb,

and an appropriately-named  Funereal Duskywing, just perfect for Halloween haunting,

 One little goblin (bee or butterfly?) dressed up in the Flower costume,above. (Look close! Can you see it?)

 A Black Witch Moth (yes, that's really its name) flew with five-inch wingspan into our house and spent the night on the curtains.

 Last, but never least, a night-time owl prowled the neighborhood on Halloween night:

Screeches, hoots, trembling trills---an Eastern Screech-owl sings to the Halloween moon!

Happy Halloween from the creatures of the Arroyo Colorado--human or non-, imaginary or not!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Riverblog Resumes

I started blogging a couple of years ago as a way of keeping up with what was going on in our yard.  I'm not keeping up.

The blog seemed like a good idea.  A lazy birder, I seldom wandered out of the yard, but I spent a lot of time wandering around in it. And wondering.  I wondered what birds were nesting here and when they were nesting.  I wondered if the birds that showed up this year kept to last year's schedule or if they were weeks early or late.

  I wondered what butterflies flittered through and if the number of bird species in this Rio Grande Valley yard  was actually greater than I knew--if I could just start keeping a list in one findable location, I could answer those questions.

So I bought a relatively simple automatic camera with a built-in zoom lens, found out how to stumble through the mechanics of posting to Blogger--and the Arroyo Colorado River Blog was born.

At first I kept up pretty well, posting at least every week, then every two, then once a month (usually on the last day of the month). Now three months have passed by without a word from me. Three months--that's a whole season of yard happenings. (If posts appear below for late winter and spring migration, it's because I plan to cheat and post-date them if that's possible. I have a couple of drafts that I will finish up and slip into the spots I would have posted them if I had been posting.  My last update was actually just before February's Great Backyard Bird Count and it was little more than a photo of a huddled clump of Inca Doves. I had planned posts about January hummers and even a couple of birding trips away from the yard--but was already getting recalcitrant and lazy. Not blogger's block exactly but just resistance to the computer. At night I'd rather sleep or take in the night view from the windows; during the day I'd rather sit out in the yard. ) 

Looking at photographs from the last three or four months, I can recreate details from my lost blog. 

Hordes of Red-winged Blackbirds that crowded feeders and baths all winter and into the spring have come and gone. (Individuals stay, of course, especially in the sorghum fields across the road, but the invading army has retreated -- or rather advanced.)

Common year-round residents  such as this Curve-billed Thrasher and Green Jay that hung around winter feeders now just grab quick bits of seed  as they go about their primary Spring business of tending to nestlings and fledglings. (I'm waiting for this year's crop of new fledged Green Jays to show up with their parents).

Kiskadees built their  messy nest again in the Ebony tree and are now catching lizards and insects for hungry nestlings.  

Eastern Screech-owls decided against last year's nest box beside the sandy driveway and opted instead for an old woodpecker hole in the dead cottonwood. I'm glad our former neighbors left that 15-foot stump between our houses. When the tree (once the tallest in the neighborhood) died, we lost a convenient look-out for Great Horned Owls who who-who-whooed from the branches, but after a busy few years of excavating by Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, the branchless trunk has plenty of cavities for titmice, starlings, wrens and woodpeckers (the latter have thankfully left the eaves of the house alone since they found such a perfect place to construct their condos). I wouldn't have thought the hole in the picture above was large enough for a screech-owl, but the little guy seems satisfied.  That disgruntled look (Angry Bird) is probably due to my taking a photo from the bedroom window a few feet away rather than its being unhappy with the nest. The young are not yet fledged but we expect them any day. Clumsy baby Great Horned Owls fledged a couple of months ago from their nest three yards upriver.  Their awkward flight and voice has entertained us already.

(The lovely ripening berries in the owl photo are on an Anacua tree that has grown up around the old cottonwood.)

Chestnut-sided Warbler

 April brought warblers that stopped by for rest and water when north winds or quick rains caused "drop days." Writing about these guys last year and posting photos of their brief visits helped me remember just which one is which.  I didn't even have to remind myself this year that the bather above is a Chestnut-sided Warbler. Or the one at the top of this post is the lovely Mourning Warbler, so much brighter in spring than fall, its exquisite  black bib setting off the yellow breast and blue-gray back to perfection.

Canada Warbler

Though we did not host nearly as many species of warblers this spring as we did last year, it was still exciting to see such colorful species as Canada Warblers,  Yellow Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, American Redstarts, Swainson's Warblers, Prothonatory Warblers, Ovenbirds, and Worm-eating Warblers, among others. (I'll update my side-bar species list and get it posted soon.)

Yellow Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler
The photo of the acrobatic Prothonotary Warbler was taken at the South Padre Island Convention Center rather than our yard.  I know many people  are thrilled to be at the warbler lots on SPI on a fallout day, but I just feel uncomfortable in the crowds and always wish I were in my own yard.  When  we got home the same birds we saw there were here.  If it weren't for being able to eat at Blackbeard's where British Burgers and onion rings make up my favorite meal, I'd probably always stay home.

(A day of watching so many birders crowd around a small water feature  is anything but relaxing -- but it is entertaining. And there are days that I like the excitement and social aspect of that kind of birding.)

I like these two shots of Yellow and Prothonatary Warblers.  They show that any side of a spring warbler is a good view.

Nothing beats the view of nature we have here on the Arroyo Colorado. When I stepped outside with the dogs this morning, I heard young coyotes and chachalacas across the river and the whistling of Whistling Ducks above me.  Perfect sound track for a perfect view.

So that's the news from the Baughman Yard.  Lots of details are left out of my account, but at least I'm back to the Riverblog.  Life of the yard goes on even if blogging doesn't.   

Friday, February 17, 2012


Today is the beginning of one of my favorite weekends of the year--the Great Backyard Bird Count! Everyone can do it: Look up the how-to's here. Even if you can spare only 15 minutes  in the whole weekend to count birds, your count will contribute to science and can be great fun, especially if you have kids or grandkids to help.  (They will love the interactive maps on the website.)

Now, help me with my count:  How many Inca Doves are sitting in my live oak tree? (Look close!)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Life (and Lifers) Beyond the Yard

Though my favorite place to bird is our yard, I do go to other places.  I'd be crazy not to take advantage of the dozens of great birding sites that are within a short distance of our house.  Thousands of people spend lots of money to travel to the Rio Grande Valley to view the wildlife, and here we are, right in the middle of it. (I say lots of money because ecotourism is one of our area's biggest industries. But a single trip doesn't have to be expensive.  Here's a link to a post on "10,000 Birds," one of my favorite blogs, about how inexpensive a birding trip to the RG Valley can actually be.)  

(Be sure to click on the RGV Bird Fest button in the sidebar--or here-- to find out all about our Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival held every Novermber.  Shameless plug, I know, but it really is a super time to come see birds of the valley.)
A couple of weeks ago I went with Norma Friedrich, president of our local Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society, to scout out the "Harlingen Loop" route of the club's upcoming field trip. The loop would take in several local birding sites, not the ones that are on maps as state or county parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and World Birding Center sites (there are plenty of those in the area), but several hotspots known to the local birders. Norma, who always puts together great field trips for ACAS,  wanted to fine-tune this one before the Saturday trip, and I was more than happy to tag along.

The 80-mile drive started  at our regular meet-up place on the arroyo,  Harlingen's Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, a World Birding Center Site that the Arroyo Colorado Audubon Society has worked hard to develop (along with the City of Harlingen and the local Master Naturalists organization).   Ramsey itself is a great park, but we didn't do any birding there  that day; we were too eager to get started on Norma's "Harlingen West Loop" that would take us to rural spots in a loop to the north, south, and west of Harlingen. It turned out to be a very good trip as we traveled on mostly country backroads and ended up with 62 birds on our list, including one that was a lifer for me and one that was a lifer for Norma. Who says there aren't new things to see close to home!

One of our first notables was perched on a water tower at the intersection of Farm Road 1018 and 375, a Peregrine Falcon.  We spotted the shadow first and then found the majestic bird surveying the countryside.

We found this midsize flycatcher swooping from branch to ground, chasing insects beside a small pond.  Even at a distance the tawny color announced that it was not a "regular" Eastern Phobe--and I realized I was seeing a life bird:  a Say's Phobe that like other western birds this winter may have been forced further east because of drought.  It's rare here but not unheard of--I was glad to be in the right place at the right time.

Norma's "lifer" was running over furrows in a field where we had hoped to find Mountain Plovers.  Disappointment at not finding the plovers faded as a lone  Sprague's Pipit appeared and posed for photos. We snapped pictures from the car like lazy papparazzi.

Car birding proved to be rewarding on the windy day of our scouting trip.  Temperatures were in the 60's and a brisk wind made it seem even cooler, but that didn't matter since we saw most of our birds from the car.  This Belted Kingfisher, a winter visitor that joins two other kingfisher species (Ringed and Green) in the RGV for the cooler months, perched on a wire across the road, above a canal and  just across an intersection from the Red-shouldered Hawk that perched on another wire. On the other side of the canal, surprising-for-January Yellow Warblers chased unseen insects in the reeds.

We found a farmer plowing a post-harvest sugar cane field near Santa Rosa and counted over two dozen White-tailed Hawks soaring overhead.  These beautiful birds are among my favorites. A burning sugar cane field or a farmer plowing makes me look upward in hopes of seeing at least one soaring there.   I have never taken a photo that does them justice, but I will keep trying. The WTHA soaring in the photo to the left was fairly high (and therefore the photo is not ideal) but still you can see the beautiful whites, grays, and black of this magnificent bird of prey.

Black-necked Stilts

Despite the lovely hawks,  falcons, life birds, and good company, as I look over the photos I realize the birds I liked best are the Black-necked Stilts that were busily feeding in a shallow pond somewhere on the loop (the places now run together in my mind, but it was at a small pond by a country roadside).

 The reason I love these birds (besides the fact that they look so dapper dressed in  crisp black and white accessorized with  bright red-pink legs ) is that they are favorites of my granddaughters Katie and Lily who saw their first stilt as it inspected a rubble of seaweed and flotsam by the jetties on South Padre Island last month. Despite crowds of fishermen and beachgoers, and after all other shorebirds had flown, that one stilt searched the debris tirelessly. Two little girls from Missouri splashed past it-- back and forth just as tirelessly--distracting it momentarily, but it never abandoned what must have been a treasure of whatever food is prized by stilts.   ( I had left my camera in the car but my daughter-in-law took the photo below of "Mr. Stilts" who entertained us that day.)
Katie and Lily's "Mr. Stilts"
Katie and Lily with their mom and dad on the SPI Jetty

The jetty at SPI is where I first (I think) saw a Purple Sandpiper a couple of years ago.  I didn't count the bird on my life list then because I was there with no other birders (my husband was fishing and I was lazily watching pelicans and dolphins) and I had no idea what I was seeing. (An "I think that was it" while looking at a field guide a few hours later doesn't count on a life list of course,  even if two days later Texbirds reports a Purple Sandpiper on the rocks of the jetty. If retrospective conclusions counted, we'd all have championship life lists!) 

 Most shorebirds are mysteries to me. But last Saturday, on another birding trip--this one with "The Birder Patrol" from Valley Nature Center, a fun group that hosts Monthly Birding  Excursions--I was in the company of experts.  Instead of a planned stop at our yard, we drove to Port Mansfield  where, according to Texbirds, a Purple Sandpiper had been luring twitchers for several days.  When we saw a photographer focused on three birds in a tidal puddle on a seaweed-littered shore, we suspected we were at the right place! There it was, a dark shorebird with a purplish sheen (if you have a good imagination) and a beak with an orange-ish base. All the right field marks to excite birders who had hoped to see this bird that is a rarity for the Texas coast.

Purple Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone at Port Mansfield TX

The bird and its fellows foraged for quite a while, probably at least half an hour, as the photographer knelt down with his camera.  The rest of us stayed back getting long-shot photos and good views through scopes.  Finally a Willet, perhaps spooked by visitors but probably just being a willet, flew seaward and southward making an alarm call and sandpiper and turnstones followed. I read on Texbirds that one man who was not there but saw the bird later in the day reported that birders had "rushed the bird" which wasn't true.  It seemed to me everyone was being respectful of the bird and each other. By that time a cool front was changing the wind to  the north, everyone who was there had enjoyed the bird, and our two cars of birders moved on.

Next stop was a short distance away at a ship channel in Port Mansfield.  A raft of scaups (many of them the less common Greater Scaup) floated on the water led by a Surf Scoter, a rare bird for these parts and another lifer for some of us.

Let's hope other photographers with better equipment got better shots than I did. I'm perfectly happy with my smudgy photos.  Not a great photo--but I will be reminded of another good day of good birding with good company whenever I see it ...and when I see that checkmark beside  Purple Sandpiper and Surf Scoter on my life list. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

and the Winner Is...

Drumroll, please:  . . . First Yard Bird of the Year Honors for 2012 go to . . .

a Rufous Hummingbird!

The weather was warm, humid, and overcast at 7:30 this morning when I stepped onto the front deck to snap a picture of this little guy, using a flash because the light was still dim.  It was making a racket, as Rufous hummers do, and fending off a Buff-bellied Hummingbird (last year's winner) from both the sugar-water and the first-bird accolades.

A challenge is possible from the neighborhood Great Horned Owls who WHO-WHOOed their way through the night starting at midnight as fireworks and gun shots (remember this is Texas) announced the new year. So I guess I'll qualify my announcement by saying this is the first bird SEEN in the yard this year.

A front has arrived in the last hour bringing north winds. Though temperatures are still near 70, they'll drop a bit before too long.  Even if the birds start hiding out from a blustery wind,  I've already marked 30 species for 2012 and my first day goal of 50 is possible.    I'll post the official 2011 list, as promised, later in the day--after I watch the yard awhile. I love new years and new beginnings when every bird can be ticked off the list.  It's not that I'm only interested in the tick, of course.  I'm much more a backyard birdwatcher than a bird lister.  But games and competition with myself are still fun. 

214 Yard Birds in a year isn't bad, but I'm aiming higher and checking my list already. Who knows what a new day and new year might bring?