Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Birding at Home

We just got back from travelling over a thousand miles with birding as the main emphasis. But I realized this summer that I had been missing some great birding opportunities much closer to home. There are great birding places around Austin that deserve my attention as well as those that require much travel.

But . . . . an even closer opportunity exists for me. We live out in the country on five acres. I have several different habitats. The top part of my property is a grassy, grazed pasture. During the summer, we routinely see scissor-tailed fly catchers sitting on the fence near the entrance to our property. We have a large pond in the back. And near the pond is a wooded area. And we have a woodpile where we toss the branches that we trim every year.

I've been trying to feed the birds regularly for the last few years. And we are reaping the benefits of long term feeding. I am convinced we have many more birds that frequent our property. And I truly enjoy my morning time on the porch as I watch the birds and hear their beautiful songs.

The bird species have changed from the summer birds I was watching in August and September. The wintering sparrows have arrived. Most people find sparrow identification difficult. Some are easy - the white crowned sparrows are pretty easy to distinguish with their bright white stripes on their head. But sometimes it is easy to look at a group of sparrows and have the mind freeze because they do look so much alike. After my intensive birding time and armed with more (and perhaps better) books, I'm trying again to learn to identify the birds that I see both in my front yard and on the pond.

From my porch I've seen:

White Crowned Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Harris Sparrow
House Sparrow
House Finch
Carolina Chickadee
Crested Caracara
Red-tailed hawk
Northern Harrier
White winged dove
European starlings (juvenile)
Red winged black birds
Eastern Phoebe
Orchard Oriole
Ruby crowned kinglet
Yellow rumped warbler
Orange crowned warbler

Henry has been watching the ducks on the pond from his working spot in the RV.

Over the last few days we've identified:
American Widgeon
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Pied-bill grebe
Ring necked duck

Over the years we've also seen on the property
Great egrets
Cattle egrets
Great blue heron
Little Blue Heron
Black crowned night heron
Green heron
Killdeer (nesting)
American Kestral
Eastern bluebird
Blue gray gnatcatcher
Boat tailed grackles
Ladderbacked woodpecker

My treats this week have been the Yellow rumped warbler (I had not seen them in my yard before) and the Harris sparrow I identified this morning. The Harris sparrow has a beautiful white belly and a striking black face and crown.

Now, if I could just get great photos of all these birds!

Friday, November 24, 2006


For me, Thanksgiving is a celebration about family. My favorite Thanksgivings have been when we've been with a group of people.

My first Thanksgiving as a married lady was spent with one of Henry's friends, Scott Cupp. My mother had never cooked a turkey in my growing up years. So I learned that year how to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. To this day, I make my dressing the way Lee Cupp did. And my children told me this year that this is the way they like their dressing.

Henry's family lives 500 miles away from us, so most Thanksgivings we did not try to go home. But when we did, I have special memories. Those memories of Grandma Wheeler, Mary's kids when they were young, Martha's kids. My mom even came over for Thanksgiving for them a few times. One Thanksgiving we celebrated with my friend Jeanette and her extended family in Oklahoma City. One year we went and had Thanksgiving with Debra out in California.

A couple of years ago we visited with Debra before Thanksgiving and spent Thanksgiving Day in Death Valley. We watched the campers all around us trying to have a turkey dinner in their campers.

Last year Thanksgiving was a little different. Henry's dad had just gotten out of the hospital and was still very ill. Most of the family converged in Amarillo. Thanksgiving was at my niece's house. The fried turkey was a hit - very moist and tasty. But it was so special to be with family . . . .

This year was special as well. While a smaller group, just Henry and me, Thomas, Jonathan and Debra. A simpler meal, but still turkey and all the fixin's. With Thomas around, watching a football game is a given. And then a movie that Debra wanted me to see.

And much to be grateful for . . . . Debra's special husband Jonathan, Henry's dad is still with us and healthier than last year, Thomas was able to be home with us, my recent photographic victories, several answers to prayers . . .

It was a good Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Coming Home

I had to hit the ground running this time. We got home on Monday evening and Thanksgiving was to be at my house on Thursday. My daughter, Debra, had put out my Thanksgiving decorations as a surprise for me. But there was still clutter that need to be dealt with for me to have full enjoyment of the day. Plus my kitchen table was filled with mail.

My goal was not to have a "perfect" house rather a "top cleaned" house. I did a general pickup in the two living areas. When I learned that my son, Thomas was indeed coming home for Thanksgiving, I quickly moved the mat cutter and matboards from that bedroom. And I did "quick cleans" in the bathrooms. As far as the piles of mail, I did a quick sort - magazines, Christmas catalogues and junk mail went into one box and the important stuff went into another box. I'll process mail after Thanksgiving.

And I chose to take short cuts for the cooking - I went to Great Harvest Bread for pumpkin bread, peach cobbler bread and dinner rolls. I bought a pre cooked smoked turkey. This was our son-in-law's first Thanksgiving and he likes pecan pie. So I made what I think is my first pecan pie.

But I tried to Keep it Simple, Make it Fun rather than stressing out.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Birding Field Guides

Back in the 1970's the most commonly used books to identify birds were the Peterson guides. We had a good friend give us a set of all of them-birds, mammals, insects, etc. Because I was not as well versed as to what to look for in finding some of the species, I sometimes found it hard to find the bird I was looking for.

Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central Americal

A Field Guide to Western Birds: A Completely New Guide to Field Marks of All Species Found in North America West of the 100th Meridian and West of Mexico

A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas: and Adjacent States

And the Peterson guides are still commonly used.

But as Henry and I travelled around the United States both before and after children, I found that the Audubon Society field guides were easier for us to use. They had good photos of each bird and the birds were arranged by how they appeared rather than by species groups. So in addition to grouping the hawks together, the ducks together, the perching birds etc; all the "red" perching birds were together, the black birds were together, and the brown females were together. This made it easier to find the more common birds and make the identifications.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region

During our visits to National Parks we ran across the National Geographic Field Guide. Since I find it useful to have several books (because sometimes the bird you're looking for isn't in the book), we added it to the collection. It was nice because unlike the Audubon Society guides, all the information and the photos about the bird were all together on the page. So many times the final identification is dependent on where you and the bird are, so having both the photos of similar species and their geographical ranges on the same page helped us figure out which bird we were watching.

National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America

As I run across different guides, I'll pick them up because sometimes the bird is photographed at different angles. I have Kaufman Guide to Birds of North America, Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region,
and The Birds of Texas, by John L. Tveten.

At the Rio Grand Festival I picked up two other guides - the first one because I was intrigued by one of the seminars on a different way to identify shorebirds - by shape and size rather than by the feather patterns:

The Shorebird Guide by Richard Corssley, Kevin Karlson, and Michael O'brien.

The second one I picked up because I was having so much trouble distinguishing between hawks. I thought this one would HAVE to help. William Clark was also one of the speakers at the RGV Birding Festival.

A Field Guide to Hawks of North America by William Clark and Brian K Wheeler

But I kept hearing people talk about the Sibley guides. They seemed to be very popular with the more expert birders. So while at the Bosque, I picked up the big Sibley Guide to Birds. One of the things that I realized was tripping me up with both Hawk identification and some of the shorebird identification is that some species have several very different looks. Some of the shorebirds have four different plumages depending upon what season of the year it is. Some of the hawks look differently every year for the first four or five years. And then you have morphing, such as the dark morp of the red tailed hawk or the blue morph of the snow goose. The Sibley guide are excellent drawings that show each of the ways these species may appear.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
The Sibley Guide to Birds

While I suspect I will still be using my older guides for certain birding situations, these Sibley guides may be what I need now to bump my birding skills to the next level.

Now if only my memory will hold out.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Leaving the Bosque

For me this was a different visit to the Bosque than the ones in the past. For one thing, I was here for the Festival. Lots of opportunites to increase my birding skills and knowledge. A lot more people at the various decks at sunrise and sunset. And I started my visit tired because I came from an intense schedule at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival coupled with a long two day drive between the two festivals.

My schedule at the Festival of the Cranes had me going from the Bosque area and back to Socorro to the Macey Center for the various things I'd signed up for.

I found myself in the learning mode rather than the photography mode. Plus I had another symptom I was not expecting. I got some really great shots last year. The ponds where I usually photograph the cranes in the morning had not been filled yet this year. Somewhere in the back of my brain was the fear that I could not outdo the shots from last year . . . . Plus I do better with my photography when I have time. Friday I finally got some of that time. I did not have any events scheduled for Friday. So . . . I had time at dawn on the flight deck, time to make the loop drives, time on the boardwalk over the marsh, and time at the Willow Deck for sunset.

Most years at the Bosque I take 8 or more memory cards of photos every day. This year over the five days I only took 7 cards. While the photographic part of my brain felt a little cheated, the reality was that this was truly a different kind of visit. My focus was on educating myself to improve my bird identification skills, and to enjoy time around other birders.

I also enjoyed the Festival booths on Saturday. There were so many rescue birds. I enjoyed seeing a merlin up close and personal. I did not realize that they have blue in their beak and in the area around their beak. There were a number of species of owls - all sizes. Too many people around and undesirable backgrounds were part of the reason I was not tempted to pull out the camera. In one tent were artists booths, in the other displays from various nature conservation organizations and some optic booths. In still another area they were capturing and banding tiny sparrows, the smallest I've ever seen.

After the refuge tour, I did one last loop. I saw the number of cars coming in for the "fly in" so I headed over to the marsh loop. There were fewer people over here. I drove slow. And I made the entire loop. At the very end, near the main pond, I turned off my engine and soaked in the beautiful musical caucophany of the snow geese honks, the crane calls, and the duck's quacks. While I know I'll be back (Lord willing), I also knew I was saying goodbye for this trip.

The Refuge Tour

Henry and I have our own system of exploring the refuge. We've been around the loops many times on the trips we've made. But I wanted to see the refuge with someone else's eyes. And I was hoping to get to parts of the refuge that were not open to the public. Plus a tour guide tells you background things you may not learn elsewhere. So, I signed up for two refuge tours.

My first one started at 2:00 in the afternoon. We loaded on to a big white school bus and headed off. At first the information was stuff I already knew. And it was not nearly as focused on identifying the little birds we drove by. But bit by bit, I warmed to the tour leader. In the big ponds the snags (the dead tree skeletons) had been planted dead as perches and roosts for the raptors, particularly the eagles. The open spaces in the dense coyote willow is chopped each year to allow the refuge visitors a better view into the ponds and fields where the cranes and the geese feed. I learned that the geese need at least three days to regain the weight they've lost during their migration. FIve or more days if they are too disturbed.

And yes, we did go back into areas of the refuge that you can't get to otherwise. While it was the same loop as we travelled with the Black Belt Birding, it was a different time of day and we saw more raptors. But still no turkeys!

For several reasons, I opted not to do the second tour. But it was nice to see the refuge through a volunteer's eyes. There are a number of retired people who spend the winter as volunteers at the refuge. If it is like Santa Ann NWR, you do 24 hours a week of volunteer work and get to park your RV at the refuge. The minimum stay during the winter at the Bosque is 4 months. Hum . . . . I could see doing that one winter!

Birding by Ear

One of the things that has impressed me both at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival and here at the Bosque is people's ability to recognize the bird songs and calls. So I was eager to attend this workshop. The presenter did a great job teaching us what to listen for to learn the calls. It is like learning a language with a new set of vowels, consonants, musical sequences, low notes, high notes, buzzy notes, clear notes, fast rhythms, and slow rhythms. The time passed quickly as we listened to his selection of bird calls to help us learn what to listen for. I liked his teaching style because he helped each of us listen with our own unique style. Many times the guide books give human words to the bird sounds (such as chicka dee dee dee), but each of us hears and interprets things uniquely. His activities with us helped us start making those links in our own brain's vocabulary. He also stressed the need to be patient with ourselves, this skill takes time and much practice. He's been at it over 20 years.

Some of his recommendations for learning tools were things I had bought at the RGV Birding Festival - the Peterson Field Guide CD's and the Stokes CD's. I've got them loaded on my computer and will soon have them on my IPOD. One more set of things to listen to as we drive down the road!

These were listed as good references. The Stokes guide is very good about saying which bird you are going to hear and then giving the bird call which makes for easy study on your IPOD.

Peterson Field Guides - Western Birding by Ear

Peterson Field Guides - Birding by Ear East/Central

Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs - Eastern Region

Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs - Western Region

Friday, November 17, 2006

Thursday, My "Free" Day

Getting up before dawn, rushing over for the fly out, finding the "best" spot for the dawn. Yes, this is what I usually do when i visit the Bosque. Watching the vibrant colors of the sunrise, seeing the sun as it emerges for the day, and watching the birds in the golden light of morning - what a natural high!

We made our way around the loops of the refuge looking for our bird friends - the shy pheasants that live in the thick coyote willows, the kingfisher at his pond, the sandhill cranes foraging for their food. With so many recent field trips, I found a ruby crowned kinglit flitting among the empty branches of some trees. I identified a dark eyed junco from my bird book.

After making the loop a couple of times, we headed over to the Owl Bar in San Antonio for their famous green chili cheeseburgers. And then back to the refuge where I took the boardwalk over the marsh. Knowing there were Clark's Grebes and Western Grebes, I studied each grebe carefully trying to determine whether the black extended over the eye (Western) or whether the eye was in the white areas (Clark's) So many times they were far enough away it was really hard to tell. But I was pretty sure I was seeing both of them. There was a volunteer manning the boardwalk. After checking with him, yes I had been seeing both of them. And I had correctly determined there was a mother and a young one on the far side.

Having gotten off with only one battery that was low, we had to run back into Soccoro to get the other charged batteries before sunset. But we got back in plenty of time to get set up. Since I was trying to do differnent things this year, I set up at the Willow Deck hoping to get silhouettes of the flyin with the crimson sunset as a backdrop.

I was treated to a Red Tailed Hawk sitting on a far tree. Even with my monster lens, he is still just a small dark spot on the fork in the tree, but I enjoyed seeing him sitting there surveying his territory.

And then the magic of the evening begins. The sun fades behind the mountain. And the snow geese and sandhills begin to come in. At first they come in in groups of 3 and five.

But then suddenly the air all around is filled with calling birds. The horizon is filled with thousands of geese - both near and far- finding their sheltered spot for the night. As a photographer I try to capture the wonder knowing that the light is dim, I end up shooting at iso 1600 knowing there will be noise in the photos. But the beauty of the scene calls out to be captured to share with others. It is a sensory feast with the cool evening breeze on your face, the visual wonder of the mountain and bird silhouettes against the constantly changing hues of the sunset and the incredible caucauphany of the thousands of bird calls. Henry's camera shoots video complete with sound. To hear this amazing evening chorus, click here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Keynote Speaker - Julie Zickefoose

I had met Julie briefly at the Black Belt Birding Event. Her husband, Bill Thompson, rode in my van. They began the evening with Bill playing his guitar to accompany Julie's song with a lovely set of photos on the screen.. Her speech was a delight. She told of three sets of animal rescues that she and her family had done over the last few years. I was charmed by the story that is also available on NPR, "My Hummingbird Summer" . They ended up with four baby humingbirds that required feeding every 20 minutes. The story of the bonding, the personalities of the hummers, and the continued relationship even after release is heartwarming and well worth the time to hear her tell the stories.

"When Hummingbirds Come Home" tells the story of the following summer when at least one of the hummers returned.

Another year, they had baby chimney swifts, another remarkable tale.

July is an artist, a writer, and a wonderful story teller. She has a new book that also looks to be worth reading,
Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, In the Woods.

When checking out the rest of her books at Amazon, I found many interesting titles.

I was glad I got to hear her stories first hand. She combines her love of nature, her art, and her role of mother of two children and shares her fascinating world with us.

The Photo Contest

I've had the opportunity to photograph at the Bosque two different years now. While there are many opportunities for crane and snow goose shots, there are many other raptors, ducks songbirds on the refuge. The backdrop is the ponds, the beautiful New Mexico scenery and the crimson sunsets. I've been trying to get my work out in more places, so I submitted 9 photos.

During the Annual Friends Dinner, they announced the winners of the contest. I was overjoyed to have picked up a 2nd place and a 3rd place. I was also very well pleased with my prizes - a plamp and a Canon compact flash card holder (6 slots). When we actually went in to the display, I found that I had an honorable mention as well and that all of my photos had made the exhibit.

It is fun to watch people study your work. Some turned the photos over to see who the photographer was. There were some beautiful photos to enjoy. I was proud to be part of such a great display.

Black Belt Birding

I confess I felt a little intimidated by the name, especially after my time in the Valley where I'd been around so many birders who seemed to know every bird right off the top of their head. But my guide for the day, Emerson Learn greeted us enthusiastically. We started the day at the refuge headquarters at 5:30. The Black Belt Birding group broke up into two groups and loaded up into vans.

First stop, the Flight Deck, where we watched the snow geese take off. Bill Thompson was our other leader. He is editor for Bird Watcher's Digest. He pulled out his scope and we got a good look at the difference between a Ross's goose and a snow goose.

We also checked the snags for raptors.

We loaded up and drove over to one of the other decks and were treated to a gopher working on his hole Next stop was to see where the belted kingfisher usually hangs out. He was a no show. We also went over to see if we could see the dipper, but likewise he was a no show. But we saw ruby crowned kinglets in the trees. One of our group was hoping to see a sora - one of the rails that lives at the refuge. Bill Thompson had a birding IPOD, and they heard the sora answer the call. The batteries gave out and the sora declined to make an appearance. But now I know one place to look for a sora as I make my loops around the refuge. We paused at one of the places where eagles hang out and found a dark morph red tailed hawk. I was amazed that one of our group spotted it. It was the color of the dead branch and blended right in. We got a good look at it through one of the scopes.

Then we headed to a part of the refuge that is closed to the public. When the geese first come in, they need 3-5 days to recover from their long flight. This area gives them a place away from people to regain some of their weight. Wild turkeys live back here, but they were also hiding well in the underbrush. Close to the Bill Norton Blind we saw a tree full of lesser goldfinches - what a delight.

I don't want to forget one of the other treats on this outing. They had prepared bags for each of us. Not any garden variety paper bag, no siree. We got beautiful cloth bags with this year's design labeled black belt birding. Inside was a beautiful mug, jalepeno cheese bagels, an apple, a banana, a bottled water, and two different slices of fruit bread. We munched on these goodies all morning. What a great souvenir for a wonderful morning.

This is one event I would gladly do again next year. In fact, I'll probably sign up for it more than once. Emerson Learn is one of the past presidents of the Friends of the Bosque and an avid birder. Going birding with him is truly a fun education.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Duck Butts

The wildlife manager at the Bosque presented a wonderful program about the water birds that frequent this area. There are "wet butts" and "dry butts" - check out how the tails ride in the water when the birds are swimming. The other amazing thing - the duck-like birds can all feed cooperatively together peacefully, because they are all eating something different. Some eat the clams at the bottom of the marshes. Some eat fish, others eat the tubers of the water plants.

After the program I went out to the refuge. I think it will get easier to identify these birds. There will also be field trips related to this seminar. Unfortunately, they are all full for this year.

Tomorrow morning is an early morning - I'll need to be at the Bosque at 5:30 for Black-belt Birding.

Burrowing Owls

My first activity on Wednesday was a presentation on burrowing owls put on by two ladies that are involved in research projects here in New Mexico. I knew that the populations of burrowing owls was declining - due to loss of habitat and the reduced number of prairie dogs. What I did not know was how little is known about certain aspects of burrowing owls' lives. I thought that burrowing owls were permanent residents in the Texas panhandle. Now I'm not so sure. It seems that they do migrate, but no one knows exactly where they go. They are doing research in New Mexico. They put radio collars on 26 burrowing owls and were hoping to locate them in Mexico. The last two years they have done some extensive studies of burrowing owls in Mexico. They were hoping to use the radio signals to locate the wintering owls. Unfortunately, no radio owls or banded owls have been found in Mexico.

They brought both a burrowing owl and a barn owl, both rehab animals used for education purposes.

I'm hoping I get to hear more about what they learn about burrowing owls over the next few years.

Deadly Beauty Behavior

I got to the "Owl Bar" early. We joined our falconer and drove about 15 miles east of San Antonio, New Mexico. He had with him a peregrin falcon and a Harris hawk. The plan was to watch the peregrin hunt and then watch the Harris hawk. We had a moment of watching the peregrin chasw one of the homing pigeons. However, this morning the peregrin decided that the wide open sky beckoned him. Fortunately the falconer was able to relocate the peregrin after about an hour. We did get acquainted with the Harris hawk as well. Harris hawks are very gregarious animals. They live and hunt in family units. This hawk explored the top of many our vehicles. He enjoyed riding on the shoulder of several of the participants. He wears bells on his legs so that his handler will always know when he takes off.

I also learned some interesting things about hawk behavior. One of them, I think it is the peregrin imprints on its original nesting area. They learned this because when they were reintroducing them (after the DDT had been removed and the birds were recovering), they put food on platforms for the newly relocated birds. The birds began nesting on these platforms, and then increased to nestin on other flat objects such as porches. Another bird was raised in a play pen. When it was time to breed it, they set up a nice flat gravel area. It ignored it. Then one day the bed was unmade and the bird began mating behaviors. It had found its "nest".

I had a chance to talk to some local people about the rare aplomado falcon. Henry and I remember seeing this bird in southern New Mexico 15-20 years ago. Apparently the birds are no longer nesting where we saw them. I saw some empty nests on my way to Ruiodoso. I would love to get back to the area in the summer to see which birds are using those nests.

On the way back to the "Owl Bar," we stopped and got a great look at a prairie falcon that was perched on one of the power line platforms. As it flew off, we got a good look at the markings under the wings.

Even though the event did not go as planned, it was still worthwhile and fun.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Festival of the Cranes

Well, we made the 950+ miles and are now in Socorro, New Mexico. While I have been to the Bosque del Apache before, I've never been to the Festival of the Cranes. I have chosen a lighter schedule, but I'll still be going out at either sunrise or sunset to watch the cranes and geese. And, of course, I'll be blogging.

My first event . . . . "Deadly Beauty Behavior," a raptor demonstration.

The Newspapers

One of the people on the Arroyo trip looked at me and said, "You were in the paper today." I said, "I was? Which one ?" Turns out Henry and I made the front page of the Harlingen Valley Morning Star. When I called my friend Debbie to check on her, the first thing she said to me, "You made the paper." I asked, "How did you know?" Turns out we made the Austin paper - E-3, as well. Henry has done a google search and the article also made the Brownsville paper. Along with the hoopha over the common black hawk - no make that the zone tailed hawk story, I made a bigger splash here than I ever intended or expected.

South Padre Island

This morning started off with what we called a raggedy beginning in Girl Scouts. From my photos, I knew I needed to clean the sensor in my camera. So I got up when I was "fresh" and did a quick clean. Started grabbing the stuff I needed for the day. And then . . . . . I could not find the car keys. After checking the most logical places, I knew I needed to get Henry's keys and scoot. When I got to the municipal auditorium, I grabbed my camera bag and my tripod. I put my water, Dr. Pepper and granola bars in a bag. I tied the jacket around my waste and started walking over to the buses. Something nagged me . . . I felt like I was missing something. But I shrugged it off to the fact I had put the water bottles in a bag so I was not juggling several bottles and the other stuff like I did the day before. About 10 minutes into the bus ride I realized that I had indeed left something behind . . . . my binoculars. Sigh . . . . Determined not to let that ruin my morning, I told myself that I did have my big lens. When we got to the first location near the Convention Center on South Padre, most of the bird watching was done with the scopes. Since everyone shared their scopes with those that did not have them, I was able to get some good looks at the shorebirds and water birds. When I went out on the board walks, most of the birds were visible, pretty up close and personal. I got to see moor hens, a tri-colored heron up close, a marsh wren, and a common yellow throat. Because I ended up on the board walks before many of the others I had a chance to observe some very interesting little fish. These fish were about three to four inches long. They spent most of their time feeding on the surface. Sometimes you would see their silvery bodies as they would flop out of the water. The fun part came when something startled the whole school and they all surfaced at once. I waited patiently with my camera ready and actually got some shots of this. None of the guides and none of the people on the tour seemed to know what species of fish. Mullet comes to mind, but in my experience, mullet behave differently. Mullet are larger and tend to jump higher out of the water. A single mullet will make three or four giant leaps before vanishing again under water.

Closer to the convention center, was an area with trees. We saw pewees, golden crowned kinglets, ruby crowned kinglets, yellow rumped warblers. We made another stop several blocks south of the convention center at an area that has been preserved for wildlife. It is a small area, but we actually saw quite a few birds here. Cedar wax wings, pine warbler, yellow rumped warblers, and golden crowned kinglets. The warblers acted very tired from their recent migration.

Then we piled on the same boat from the Arroyo trip to cruise Laguna Madre. One of our first bird sightings was a peregrin falcon near the bridge. We stopped traffic as we went through a swing bridge. I always enjoy going through a port area watching the big fishing boats. We came on a sandy area where there were quite a few osprey just perched on the sand. At least two of them had a fish that they were eating for breakfast. And both of those had a seagull sitting about three feet away hoping to steal the fish away from the osprey. There was another sandy area that had maybe two dozen blue herons standing on the sand. We saw several different turns, black skimmers, some white ibis, roseate spoonbill, sanderlings, marbled godwits, willets, a northern harrier.

Heading toward the passageway to the gulf we passed a gulf oil rig being towed by several tugboats. Quite a sight. As we got to the south end of Padre Island we began to see bottle nosed dolphins in the water. The rocky jetties had a fair number of fishermen, but I only remember seeing a ruddy turnstone trying to find food in the rocks. As we actually entered the gulf, it got pretty choppy. I'm so glad I don't have problems with sea sickness. I just held on and was glad I had secured my camera bag and tripod. On our way bag we encountered a pod of dolphins with at least one baby.

While I did not get as good a look at some of the birds, if I had to forget my binoculars one day, this was a good day for it. The first part had scopes, and the latter parts had birds that were pretty much out in the open even if they were far away. Plus, after 5 days of birding, my get up and go had left. I found myself checking out all the birds that were being pointed out, but I made less effort to id the shorebirds For one thing, I am familiar with some of them. For another, I bought the book that goes through the shorebirds and helps you identify them in ways besides their plumage (which changes each season of the year anyway.) . I found myself enjoying a bird sighting and then going to the back and sitting down until the next new bird came along. Normally I'm at the front of the boat, taking it all in. But today, I was tired.

We got back to the Municipal Auditiorium. I made one last purchase at the Birder's Bazaar (an ocelot T-shirt to commemorate seeing the ocelot.) Henry was there, jeep attached to the RV, ready for the sprint to New Mexico. After lunch, I crashed into a deep slumber as Henry made the miles.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cruising the Arroyo

A cold front came through over night and the weather went from sunny to overcast. I took a light jacket in case it rained some more on the boat. I was beginning to recognize faces from the previous field trips. It is always nice to make new friends along the way.

Each trip seems to have had a predominant bird. And for the Arroyo Colorado, it has to be the Night Crowned Heron. I've never seen so many in one are before. It was not uncommon to pass a tree with 3 or 4 in the tree. And there were the juveniles.

The first part of the trip was upstream. Numerous blue herons, snowy egrets, great egrets, ringed kingfishers, belted kingfishers, green kingfishers, a kiskadee, a northern harrier, numerous osprey were among the birds we saw. The upper part of the arroyo is lined with short cliffs with various trees growing both along the cliff and on the top of the bank. When we turned and began heading toward the bay, the vegetation changed dramatically. The soil got much sandier, and the plants much shorter with more native palms and yuccas. We could see the mouth where the river empties into the bay. There was a salt marsh where we saw northern shovelers, and other duck like birds.

The highlight of the day was near where the arroyo empties into the bay. One of our eagle eyed guides spotted a peregrin falcon. I think it was in flight when he first spotted it. Then it landed on the sand. I kept trying to get a lead on where it was, because I had never seen one in the wild. Finally I located it in the sand. I followed it as it took to the air. There was another dark bird and they were on a collision course. Because I've seen a lot of crows trying to attack eagles, my first thought was "bird fight." But what was actually unfolding in front of my eyes was amazing to watch. The peregrin falcon was attacking a coot in flight. The falcon caught him with those powerful talons and quickly brought him down to the sand for his meal. Everyone on the boat witnessed this incredible drama.

Our guides on this trip were especially good at spotting the birds and making sure that everyone was able to find them in their binoculars. What really amazes me is how these expert birders can see a bird that is far in the distance - sometimes in the air, sometimes on the ground - and make an accurate identification. That initial peregrin sighting is a case in point. Our guide picked out that peregrin from quite a distance. It took him a moment or two to relocate him and finalize the id.

I'm a long way from being able to identify birds that quickly. I'm learning that some of this instant recognition has to do with relative size, some of it with the way the bird flaps its wings, some in the silhouette, and some of it is behavioral, and some of it is based upon where the bird is. Trying to figure out in my mind how some of these birders have acquired this amazing ability, I realized that some of it is a memory process, some of it involves a lot of time in the field actually watching the birds (spending time with people who know their birds speeds this process up), and some of it is spending a lot of time in the field guides studying the information about the various birds.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Laguna Atascosa NWR

After the seminar I decided to head over to Laguna Atascosa. I had seen a sign for it off the loop around Harlingen. I'm trying to experience as many of the birding places as I can while I'm down here. As usual, it was a pretty good drive, it took about 45 minutes from the RV park to get there. But it was well worth the drive. I took the bay shore drive just around sunset. The water was beautiful. I saw a large number of herons and egrets fishing near the shore. On the way in I got a good sighting of an osprey. And the view of the water was lovely and peaceful.

But the highlight of the trip was when I spotted an ocelot near the road. When I first saw it, I thought it was a coyote. But then I realized that the body shape was wrong, the coloring was wrong, and the tail was certainly wrong. The animal I saw had a cat like tail and certainly the right blotchy coloring for an ocelot. The head was more catlike than coyote like although I thought it looked a little boxy. But this is one of the safe havens for ocelots - so I'm pretty sure of my id. I'm pretty sure I had not seen one of these in the wild before!

It was another one of those times where putting yourself out in the wild gives you opportunities to see things. The more you go out and explore, the more surprises you get like this one.

The Shorebird Guide

The seminar I went to this afternoon was done by one of the authors of a new guide to shorebird identification,
The Shorebird Guide. I liked both the concept and the photos that he showed from the book. The premise is to learn not the identifying feathers and markings, but rather the overall shapes and relative sizes.

Because I'm really trying to get my bird identification where I can do it more reliably, I went ahead and bought this book. I'll post more when I have a chance to study it.

Canoeing the Rio Grande

Henry joined me today on a canoe trip down the Rio Grande. We started about 2 miles north of the main headquarters of the Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge. We had about 14 people and 6 canoes. While some canoes had three, Henry and I got to have our own. We had a reporter and camera man on our trip. Our guides were two young men, one a graduate student from Chicago, the other a Nikon representative. The refuge also sent a guide with us.

It seemed to me that the birding in some ways was a little thin. We could hear a lot of birds in the trees around the river, but we did not see many of the smaller birds. The most common bird was the spotted sandpiper. We had good looks at many of the heron family - a family of white crowned night herons, several blue herons, snowy egret, great egret, cattle egret, and green heron. We saw all three kingfishers . . . . A really good sighting of the green kingfisher. Several raptors. One of the guides heard and saw the grooved bill Ani. That's on my list of birds I had not seen. Unfortunately, he ducked right back into the brush, so I'm still waiting to see him.

I'm learning to accept that on any given birding trip, no one will see all the birds. Sometimes you're not in the right place and the bird moves quickly away. Sometimes, even with directions, it is hard to spot a little bird in a big tree or brushy thicket. But the nice thing about going with experienced birders, they not only see the birds, but they recognize many of the songs.

The disadvantage of the canoe trip was that we tended to stay scattered along the river making it hard to hear what someone else was saying when they were first sighting birds.

But I don't get to take many canoe trips. There is something very peaceful and satisfying about going along at slow speed along the river. I hope to take this canoe trip again.

P.S. I took a lot of pictures of the people on this trip. In the next couple of weeks I'll try to get them posted on my website.

King Ranch

Growing up in Texas, the King Ranch was one of the legends of Texas. Probably the largest ranch in the world, it is still a working ranch today and still owned by the original family. I had heard about the great birding on the ranch, but I was not sure how one got access. When I saw the King Ranch as one of the field trips, I knew that one had to be on my list.

Arriving at the bus, it was obviously a popular trip, the bus was full. We headed out during the predawn. Turns out our field trip leaders were either former or current employees of the King Ranch as wildlife managers. We were given some of the history of this extraordinary place as we travelled from Harlingen to the Norias Unit.

I learned new uses for duct tape! They brought several colors (presumably so we could color coordinate with our clothes). You can wrap duct tape around the bottom of your trouser legs to keep chiggers and ticks from getting on your legs. You can cover your shoe laces with duct tape to keep stickers from collecting on them. There were lots of stickers! But I did not get too many on me, but a few did make it all the way back to the RV at the end of the day.

After we were all duct taped and sprayed with insect repellant, we trekked off into the woodlands in search of the pygmy owl. The King Ranch has probably the largest population of pygmy owls anywhere. Our guides had recorded calls to make contact with one of them. We finally heard the answering call in a wooded thicket.

The owl was well hidden behind twigs and branches, but we all (45 of us) got a chance to see him through several scopes that gaves us a pretty good view. The scope I chose gave me a good view of his eye and the back of his head.

The photo I'm posting here is of a pygmy owl sighting I made at Bentsen Rio Grande State park a couple of years ago. Even though it is not a great photo, I'm proud of it, because I found this owl all by myself!

The guides were patient while everyone had their chance to see the pygmy. At the end they even thanked us for our patience in waiting for everyone to get to view this special owl.

After we had all seen the pygmy owl. We headed deeper into the ranch and the search began for the Sprague's Pipit. The guides gave us all the information to identify which bird would be the pipit. Then one group went to the slight rise and began to walk through the tall grass. And they were successful in flushing not only a pipit, but a savannah sparrow as well. The pipit was cute with its stairstep assent and its flight pattern of beating its wings rapidly and then pulling them in tight to his body to glide for a second or so then beat beat beat . . . . We also went over to a marsh area and added the sedge wren. They were hoping for LeConte's sparrow but that one alluded us.

Our last stop was a wooded area. I was pleased to get a good view of a ruby crowned kinglet. But the real find at this site was Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

As a group we saw or heard 57 species. For me the highlights were the pygmy owl, the sprague pipit, the ruby crested kingbird, the white tailed hawk, the Wilson's snipe, and the green jay.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Quinta Mazatlan

Quinta Mazatlan was a wonderful place to visit. We spent about an hour there. I could easily go back and spend a day.

From the butterflies to the wonderful feeding stations to the beautiful buildings, there is much to see, explore, and photograph. I would love to go back with my big lens and sit for a while at each feeding station.

Common black hawk or Zone tail . . . zone tail

While I can identify many birds on site, I am not as well versed in distingushing between hawks (I'm working on this . . . ). After a lot of debate which was most instructional for me, the best information points to the hawk being a Zone tailed hawk.

 Perched above the river

In flight

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Riverside Dreamer Pontoon Boat on the Rio Grande

Morning came very early today. I got up at 5 to get to the bus for my first excursion. And even so, I was the last one on the bus. I'll do better tomorrow.

We rode on the bus about 45 minutes to an hour to get to Mission where we boarded the Riverside Dreamer. A beautiful boat, just three weeks old was a wonderful setting for our excursion this morning.

A loud kiskadee greeted us from the lamppost as one of our first birds of the day. A black phoebe farther away and a Lincoln sparrow got us off to a good start. The fog was thick as we went upstream by the Chimney campground where my friends and I had camped on my first visit to the Valley.

We had attentive and knowledgeable guides who made every effort to find the birds and help us find them also.

It is so much fun to go birding with experienced birders. They know the birds not only by sight, but they can distinguish the differences between the bird calls. There were several birds that we could hear, but that never came into view. And with so many watching eyes, I doubt that we missed many birds this morning.

From the boat ride, the list of birds I saw:
Lesser scaup
Pied-billed grebe
neotropic cormorant
double crested cormorant
great blue heron
snowy egret
tricolored heron
cattle egret
turkey vulture
sharp shinned hawk
Common black hawk
American kestral
Common moorhen
American Coot
spotted sandpiper
rock pigeon
White-winged dove
Inca Dove
Mourning dove
Belted kingfisher
Green kingfisher
Golden fronted Woodpecker
Black phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Vermillion flycatcher
Great kiskadee
Couch's kingbird
barn swallow
common yellowthroat
boat tailed grackle
oriole (I don't remember which one - Audubon's I think)

Other people saw:
blue winged teal
caspian tern
Cooper's hawk
Red shoulder hawk
ladderback woodpecker
white-eyed vireo (heard)
green jay
orange crowned warbler

Quinta Mazatland I saw
gray hawk
black catbird
long billed thrasher
buff bellied hummingbird
house sparrow

Other people saw:
cactus wren
house wren
blackcrested titmouse
ruby crowned kinglet
olive sparrow
indigo bunting
redwing blackbird

While riding the bus we saw:
white pelican
burrowing owl

I don't think I've gotten all 70 species on this list. But for me there were several species I had not seen before:
the sora, the vermillion flycatcher, buff breasted hummingbird, long billed thrasher, the gray hawk.

The most exciting bird was the common black hawk which is usually found much farther south. Our leaders were very excited to see this one. I posted more photos of the black hawk on my website, Mary Ann's View.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Arrival in the "Valley"

Getting off is always a challenge. This time I decided to enter the Toronto International Salon of Photography. I got my photos printed and mounted last night. And, of course, I had one photo that did not mount well last night, so I ended up choosing another photo, printing and mounting it this morning. A trip by the polls and the post office and then it was time to go through the house and load up what we will need the next 2 weeks. First stop is the "Valley" - weather will be warm. Next stop is Bosque del Apache in New Mexico - weather will be COLD. So I needed to be sure that all my cold weather gear had made it to the RV. I knew that my hats (both kinds for warm and cold weather) were in the house - they did get loaded. All the hard drives and backup DVD's came along. I have submissions that I will be working on during the "off time" from the birding festivals. And I needed to double check to get everything out of the car (like the new alarm clock for the RV) and to make sure I had all the camera gear.

We finally got off around 2:30 and made it to our RV site by 9:15. My event tomorrow is the River Pontoon Boat trip and Quinta Mazatlan. I have not decided yet whether to take my 100-400 lens. I know I'll miss it, but I also want to concentrate on seeing the birds and taking photos of the events of the Birding Festival . . . . and travelling light does have its advantages . . . .

I have to be at the Municipal Auditorium by 6:00 in the morning. Time for bed!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Home Again

Over the last 72 hours, 24 of them have been spent on the road. From Christian music, to French lessons, the Carpenters, to Podcasts about photoshop and finishing up singing along with hymns on my ipod, I stayed awake and alert in the car. On the way up there was even some quiet contemplative time.

But after 12 hours on the road today, I am one zombie. It is time to go straight to sleep.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Hubbard Museum

Located in Ruidoso, New Mexico, the Hubbard Museum is a high quality museum dedicated to the American West. Each year they have a Fall Photo Exhibition. This is my fourth year to enter and my third year to have photos displayed. This is the first time I've gone to the Awards Ceremony and Reception. It was well worth the extra trip to New Mexico.

Most of the year, I work on my photos, submit some to the online contests, some to magazine contest, some now to stock agencies, and some to magazines as submissions. I have always gotten kind encouraging comments from the websites. But I'm finding that when I print out a photo and mat it and mount it in a larger size (13X19), it becomes "real" in a different way. And certainly being at an event and hearing people talk about your photo both before and after they know that you were the photographer has been very gratifying.

And the Hubbard Museum made a very nice event out of this. They had all the pictures so beautifully displayed, they had painted the walls this year in a darker tone that really made the photos stand out. And each photo had track lighting that brought out the best in each one. They served an excellent buffet and had high tables for us to eat at.

The City now manages the museum, so the Mayor and Mayor pro tem were there. I got to meet the directors of the museum and the exhibit. Turned out I had another photo that almost made the exhibit.

But I was pleased with the choices that hung on the walls. Most of the people photos really represented the American West theme. It was an impressive array of photos to be a part of.

It has been a good evening for me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Texas 130 and Texas 45

They opened a big chunk of the new highways yesterday. I got to do my first driving on it today (I rode with Henry on short stretches of it yesterday.) A new highway is a nice thing - wide, low traffic, smooth, and surprisingly pretty.

This was a hard fought road. Lots of politics about whose backyard it should go in - with lots of NIMBY (not in MY backyard). And it certainly changes the dynamics along its route. There were even some last minute route changes that really made me mad as it took some land where my friends had just finished adding on to their house (they've moved now.) At the time it did not seem fair (and it wasn't.) And lots of people who had rural, quiet land now have a big highway running behind their homes.

But we needed this road, with NAFTA, traffic along I-35 has gotten crazy, especially in the Austin area. And for us, this new road when finished gives us a straight shot to the airport, a straight shot to Georgetown to visit our daughter, and a much quicker route to Round Rock. And for two months, it will be free. Just long enough to get some of us hooked.

There are several amazing things about this road. Once the final decisions were made and construction started, it went in FAST. They have constructed many segments simultaneously. And whoever did the design work made it estheticallly pleasing. The concrete pillars were put in with molds that make it look like limestone. And they were painted the color of limestone. The metal supports on the overpasses have been painted a pretty crimson color. At some long overpasses they have put in very nice landscaping. And driving it for the first time - wow! The road is smooth, clean, and not congested with cars . . . . yet.

I fear that it will be expensive to use all the time and that it is going to be so convenient that it will be tempting. And while there may be some more efficient use of gas because you don't waste it sitting at traffic lights, I don't think the gas saving will pay the toll. But I drove it to and from church tonight. The good news . . . . Texas 45 does not connect to I-35 in the directions we would travel to and from church. My original, free route is quicker.

But I have to take my hat off and salute the people who have been in charge of this project. They've done a good job.