Recently in Wildlife - Birds Category

WoodpeckerEarlier this spring, an oak tree across the street from our house attracted the attention of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers*. The tree's trunk has a hollowed-out place about twenty feet off the ground and the opening faces our front windows; I can see it from my usual seat in the living room.

Since April, MLB and I have watched as the woodpeckers made a home in the hollow trunk. They diligently climbed in and out of the hole in the tree, bringing out mouthfuls of dust and debris to clean out the space, presumably in preparation for a nest and young. They were constantly flying in and out and around the tree and we grew accustomed to them as neighbors.

Then, a week or so ago, I noticed an exceptionally busy flurry of activity. The birds were even more active in flying up to the hole in the trunk, stopping for a moment, then flying away. I noticed movement in the hole, and theorized that the adults were feeding a batch of newly hatched progeny in the nest.

I set up a video camera on a tripod behind a tree in our front yard, zoomed in on the hole, and started recording at around 6:00 p.m. I left it running while I went in for supper. The battery on the camera was good for only about an hour or so of recording, but I hoped that it would pick up something interesting in that short time.

Boy, did it ever!

Instead of piling several thousand words on you to describe what we viewed, here's a semi-short video (~13 minutes) distilling a couple of months' worth of action, leading to a completely unexpected climax.There are really three different storylines in the video; I hope you find it enlightening, if not entertaining.



So, if you're in the TL:DW mode, here's a quick summary:

  • Woodpeckers occupy hollow tree
  • They create a happy home
  • Said home is invaded by a rat snake
  • Outcome is negative for occupants of bird home
  • Turns out, there are actually TWO snakes in that tree
As I note in the video, we think the snakes are Texas rat snakes; their behavior and appearance are consistent with what we've been able to glean online. These snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. They are excellent climbers (duh) and seek out birds' nests for food. They will also eat rodents, including squirrels. As serpent neighbors go, we could do a lot worse.

The woodpeckers have relocated somewhere else in the neighborhood. I still hear their calls, but haven't seen them again. We enjoyed watching them, but also recognize that they are somewhat destructive birds so their absence is not personally devastating. We do hope, however, that what the snake dined on was eggs and not live young.

The snakes remained in the tree for a couple of days after the final video. We have additional footage of them climbing up and down the tree in search of more prey, much to the chagrin of a small bevy of tiny birds who were obviously disturbed by one of the snake's presence. However, we never spotted their nest(s) so we have no idea of the outcome of that confrontation.

For our timid neighbor's information -- that would be you, Kristi -- the snakes are now gone as well.

*For the longest time, I thought they were ladder-backed woodpeckers. But while researching the species for this article, I realized that the coloring and especially the call were wrong. So much for my career as an ornithologist.
I haven't had much activity on the game camera lately, possibly due to the fact that the batteries were dead. Once I figured that out, I replaced them and set the camera on a step on our back porch, facing out into the yard. 

When I downloaded the images this morning, there was our neighborhood skunk, taking his usual stroll from one side of the yard to the other. A possum also made an appearance -- and somehow managed to bump into the camera while meandering around. These things were interesting, but not too exciting. 

But the last clip was a whole other thing. It started out in a boring fashion; I couldn't even discern what had triggered the camera. But about 15 seconds in, something...weird...occurred. 

In this case, a thousand video frames are worth a hundred words, so take a look for yourself.

 
 
So, any ideas about that that last flurry of activity might have been? I've watched it a couple of dozen times and I still have nothing but a cockamamie theory. Don't laugh, but here it is:

Captioned game camera photo

We do have owls in the neighborhood, and the wings on this UFO could belong to one of them. What I can't tell for sure is whether what looks like dangling feet belong to a second creature (in the claws of the first one), or if they're very poorly photographed bird's feet.

If the former theory is correct, the question then becomes -- what did the owl capture? If we were in West Texas, I'd quickly guess a rabbit, but we've never seen one in these parts. It's a mystery, for sure.

I understand The X Files is returning to television. If they're in need of an episode plot, this is a good place to start. The truth is out there...perhaps in our back yard.


MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

Horseshoe Bay is a little different than many places this time of year...it's less crowded and quieter because a lot of folks with lake houses aren't particularly interested in boating or skiing in winter weather (although the typical Hill Country winter isn't what you'd call brutal). Nevertheless, we managed to fill our schedule with some memorable events. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday

We were invited by friends to attend a Celtic music concert in nearby Marble Falls. None of us knew what to expect from the event, which was a fundraiser for The Phoenix Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their parents. The concert, billed as "A Celtic Christmas," was held in the Uptown Theater, a renovated 40s-era movie theater which, despite its name, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Marble Falls. It's a funky little place, very cool in its own way, and provided an intimate setting for what turned out to be a surprisingly delightful three hours of music.

The evening featured two musical groups. First to perform was The Here & Now, a quartet of Austin- and Dallas-based musicians. The fiddle player, Niamh Fahy, is an Irish lass who serves as a music therapist for The Phoenix Center. She was also the driving force behind organizing the event.

The Here & Now perform what I'd call traditional Irish music, although I'm hardly an expert in the genre. It's contemplative and lively by turns, and always lyrical.

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

It's worth mentioning that we were seated next to the stage, so we had a great view of the proceedings, which included some impressive dancing by Emily and Gavin, a couple of youngsters with extremely quick feet.

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

Gavin did step dancing (usually associated with productions like Riverdance), while Emily's specialty was old-style. I know this only because I visited with her during intermission where I succumbed to her atomic-powered dimple and bought one of the group's CDs.

Following that intermission, the trio known as Celjun took the stage. Celjun is a band based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and they specialize in a music amalgam of Celtic and Cajun genres (hence their name, right?). Their music is a bit more raucous...probably something you'd expect to hear around midnight in an Irish pub (not that I'm personally knowledgeable about that). I was most impressed with the skills of Pete Dawson, the flautist/whistle player (whistleist?) who hails from Baton Rouge. If you want a sample of his music, check out this video beginning at the 3 minute mark.

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

We took a day of rest from social activities and enjoyed some beautiful weather and a nice afternoon bike ride. And, as usual, Mother Nature provided some entertainment.

The Hill Country isn't really known for its fall foliage, but you can run across some spectacular, if isolated, examples.

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

Beauty in nature comes in different shapes and sizes. MLB spotted this amazing fungus during one of our bike rides, and I later returned to photograph it.

Tree fungus
It Came From Beyond: fungus growing on tree stump

There's an owl who (get it..."who...who..." OK, never mind.) hangs around our house. He (or she) is elusive, and I generally spot her (him) only as a shadow gliding through the trees...until now:

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

There's one more encounter with the animal kingdom I want to share, but in the interest of building suspense, it will come at the end. Please try to stay awake.

Monday

One of the primary purposes of this trip was to attend the annual Horseshoe Bay Members Christmas Party, a free dinner and dance held at the resort. It occurs on a Monday to reduce attendance (my theory, anyway), but if that's an effective strategy, it was difficult to discern based on the turnout. Anyway, we enjoyed the company of close friends as well as acquaintances old and new, and even got to do a little dancing.

Music was provided by the David Young Band, an Austin-based group featuring musicians who can play basically anything in any genre (we got everything from At Last to Uptown Funk).

This was our third time to attend this event, and we learned early on that a 20' x 20' dance floor doesn't accommodate the 500 or so people who want to dance, so our best bet was to get in some steps early on, while most people were still in the buffet lines. But the evening had an inauspicious start, because some sound system problems seemed to have the keyboard player doing a different song than the rest of the band, and we were all confused.

They finally got that sorted out and we were treated to a song we could actually dance to. But...it was a tango. Nobody outside of the movies plays a tango at a party...primarily because nobody actually knows how to do a tango. OK, that's an exaggeration, because, well...WE do. And so we did, alone on the floor (until mid-way through the song, an(other) older couple joined us). It was actually pretty great, and someone claimed that one table gave us a standing ovation at the end, although I'm pretty sure they were just heading for the open bar for vodka shots.

David Young Band
The David Young Band - Don't be fooled by the suits; they can boogie.

Later in the evening, the dance floor resembled a mosh pit, if mosh pits are ever populated by over-50 affluent wine-infused white folks in sparkly clothes. But I admit when the band led the crowd in doing The Stroll during an extended version of Uptown Funk, it was magically surreal.

Oh, did I mention that the whole thing was free?

Tuesday (hang in there; we're almost halfway finished)

Tuesday's plans centered around Christmas lights. But we first had a significant civic event to attend.

Today was the ribbon cutting for the new Horseshoe Creek Hiking Trail, and a pretty good crowd turned out in beautiful sunny weather for the event.

The trail begins near the Horseshoe Bay Mausoleum ("New niches coming soon!"), located on one of the highest spots overlooking Lake LBJ, and meanders along the Creek for just over two miles, down to Highway 2147. It's not a treacherous trek, but it is strenuous...hiking boots and a sturdy stick are recommended. We haven't yet done the hike, but it's on our "definite to-do" list.

The land for the trail was donated by Wayne and Eileen Hurd, who have donated untold amounts of acreage for civic use in the area. Mr. Hurd passed away in 2011, but Mrs. Hurd was present for the ribbon cutting.

Horseshoe Creek ribbon cutting
Eileen Hurd (center) cuts the ribbon to open the Horseshoe Creek Trail

I didn't even know that Horseshoe Creek existed, and it was a revelation to see (and hear) the live water coursing down and through the hills. I'm not sure it's always so energetic, but recent heavy rainfall had a wondrous effect.

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

That evening, we headed 20 minutes south to Johnson City with friends to take in the vaunted downtown square display. Each year, the courthouse and surrounding businesses go all out with lighted displays; the courthouse alone is draped with more than 100,00 lights.

We ate dinner at the Pecan Street Brewery (I heartily recommend the Pecan Sweet Fried Chicken), located directly across from the courthouse. After dinner, we braved the chill wind to walk around the square before heading back to HSB.

Christmas lights on the Johnson City square
A Christmas display on the Johnson City square

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

The display was impressive enough to make the trip worthwhile. But wait! There's more!

On the way out of town, we pulled onto Highway 290 and something caught our eyes a couple of blocks away. Well, it would have been difficult to miss it, as it resembled nothing less than a premature sunrise, or perhaps a nuclear plant meltdown. Intrigued, we drove to the display on the grounds of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters, where we were greeted by a score of huge oak trees adorned with what we would later learn are 1.2 MILLION LED lights. Holy cow...I earlier described something as surreal, but this took the concept to a whole new level.

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

PEC has been doing this display for more than a quarter century; the blue lights were added in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago, and they apparently were popular enough (or difficult enough to remove) that they've remained.

Once our retinas recovered enough to drive safely back home, we resolved to drive into Mable Falls to view that community's annual Christmas display. In retrospect, we should have done that first, because pretty much anything will pale in comparison (both figuratively and literally) to the PEC installation. 

The town's "Walkway of Lights" has a gorgeous setting on the bank of Marble Falls Lake, and it's laid out as an out-and-back route of perhaps a quarter mile through hundreds of random holiday displays. It's a pretty impressive installation for a small town. It boasts of more than 2 million lights and 400 displays, but frankly, spread out over such a wide area, it's not as dramatic as some others (*cough* PEC *cough*).

Marble Falls Walkway of Lights
The entrance to the Walkway of Lights

On the other hand, it probably is more kid-friendly (not quite as overwhelming to the senses), and there were quite a few families exploring the trail.

We were a bit disappointed at how many "sculptures" had non-functioning lights; I guess it's hard to stay on top of 2 million of them. And the displays became a little repetitive. You can have only so many Santa-and-reindeer tableaus before they start to run together. There were some imaginative ones, though: Santa riding a jet ski; Santa in a helicopter; Santa gutting a reindeer to make jerky. OK, I made that last one up. But this is hunting country, so...

Wednesday

Nothing happened on Wednesday. Well, other than...

We made a day trip to San Antonio to do some Christmas shopping at La Cantera and The Rim. Despite the proximity to Christmas, both areas were remarkably calm, which was a pleasant surprise. 

By the way, if you're driving in from the north on Highway 281 and that area is your general destination, I strongly recommend exiting onto FM 473 a few miles south of Blanco and driving through Kendalia, then on to I-10, where you'll enter the interstate just a couple of miles from the Fiesta Texas exit. Believe me, even with the winding road and lower speed limit, you'll come out ahead by avoiding 281 as it enters San Antonio. Plus it's a much more scenic drive. Just try to come back before dark, as the deer encounters might be a bit intense.

On the way home, shortly before 5:00, MLB was noodling around on her phone and discovered that Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate were playing that evening at Pardner's in Lake Buchanan. Pardner's is an old-fashioned honky-tonk that features a decent dance floor, a live band every Wednesday night, and a crowd demographic that skews AARP-wardly. (The live music begins at 6:30 and ends at 9:30, so that should give you a clue.)

If you've never heard of 8 From the Gate (Quick...can you identify the source of the band's name? The answer is helpfully provided below.), don't feel bad; neither had we. But the music that MLB streamed sounded danceable, and we decided to forego dinner to get in some two-stepping before heading over to some friends' home to drop off a gift.

We arrived around 6:45 and the dance was in full swing. We recognized several of the folks in attendance, either from other dance venues, or from previous trips to Pardner's. It's a place for regulars, and you can count on most of the same people showing up every Wednesday.

Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate at Pardner's
Can't see it in the photo, but it was almost a cliche that
the steel guitarist played with a lit cigarette in his hand


It's a great place for people watching (we were particularly intrigued this night by the man pushing 80 years and 300 pounds, sporting a straw hat and denim overalls tucked inside cowboy boots, whose dance style was primarily limited to walking around the floor with much younger women...that is, until the band played Dwight Yoakam's Fast As You, and then he absolutely rocked out), and everyone is pretty friendly. As you might expect, the crowd isn't rowdy; the biggest downside is that it's not a non-smoking venue, and despite having a good ventilation system, we always leave feeling a little smoky.

The music was good, and we got in more than an hour of dancing before heading back to our appointment in HSB.

I mentioned that we had skipped dinner; dancing always trumps eating, but we were a bit peckish and intended to go to Marble Falls for a Whataburger or something equally...fast...after a quick visit with our friends.

However, it's good to have a gourmet cook for a friend, because they also had not eaten and were laying out a spread of leftovers that rivaled anything we had consumed thus far on the trip (up to and including chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and homemade chocolate-and-coconut truffles). Maybe next time, Whataburger.

Thursday (at last)


We spent the day at home taking care of some chores. The high point of the day (and perhaps the week) was when I discovered - following several frustrating nights of lukewarm-to-cold showers - that the hot and cold water connections on the shower were actually reversed, and all the work I had done to recalibrate the scald preventer in an attempt to get more hot water was actually just providing more cold. Sometimes, the best solutions are the easiest; I'm just glad I didn't give in to the impulse to call out a plumber, who would no doubt be blogging now about yet another idiot customer. 

And, incidentally, those of you who are more deeply steeped in the arcane plumbing arts are probably wondering what good a scald preventer does in a case like that. I can answer that with an assertive "none." In my defense, the mere presence of that device kept me from trying the ultimate solution until I simply ran out of options.

Following a wonderfully steaming shower, we headed for nearby Spicewood with our dear friends to observe a long-standing Christmas tradition of buying each others' dinners instead of exchanging gifts. They had recommended Apis as a good place for a special dinner, and it was.

Apis is one of those farm-to-table eateries that are all the rage nowadays; it's also an apiary, in case you're into bees (and who isn't?). Their menus are prix fixe, which is French for "you're gonna need a bigger wallet," so it's probably never going to be a replacement for the Bluebonnet Cafe. However, it serves nicely as a celebratory spot for special occasions.

Apis specializes in what I refer to as foo-foo food. You know, the dishes that are comprised of ingredients that require several adjectives to impress upon you their elegance and sophistication: it's not just crab, it's "Peekytoe Crab"; why serve mere pastrami when you have access to "Veal Brisket Pastrami"; and a simple radish can never compete with an "Easter Egg Radish." In other words, you pay by the adjective.

All kidding aside, the food was great, the atmosphere warm, and the service knowledgeable with just the right amount of solicitousness. Highlights for me included an appetizer of charred Spanish octopus (a whole tentacle, and I was able to resist the temptation to wrestle it, Lloyd Bridges-style, much to the relief of my table mates), and the Honey and Crème Fraiche Gateau, a dessert topped with a tiny curl of crispy honeycomb. OTOH, there was a small miss: I couldn't resist trying a sardine-based "snack" (which was sort of a pre-appetizer appetizer). I was interested to see what kind of magic they could work with sardines, but just as a pig with lipstick is still, at the end of the day, a pig...well, you can figure out the rest. (And no offense to pigs; your bacon is delicious.)

All in all, it was a great way to end a great week...and this seems to be a great way to end an endless blog post. So...

Not So Fast...

Those brave few of you who are indeed still awake may recall that I promised one last thing.

I grew up in Fort Stockton, about an hour's drive from Alpine where the high school football team is known as The Fightin' Bucks. Most of you may understand that that nickname comes honestly, as deer of the buck persuasion are known to lock horns, literally, to assert dominance and win a date with the homecoming queen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

We were returning home at HSB one evening before dusk and, as usual, there were a number of whitetail deer doing deery things in the open field across the street from our house. It so happened that a couple of them were engaged in the aforementioned ritual, and I managed to get a short video of the epic struggle on my phone. The quality is poor - we were 50 yards away in low light - but you should still be able to get a sense of how, well, ridiculous bucks look when they fight. I did speed up the video considerably; two minutes of this action is 90 seconds too long. (And keep your comments about the length of this post to yourselves.)




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]

Rooftop Serenade
June 19, 2016 6:16 PM | Posted in:

Lately, this is what we've been hearing, coming down our chimney and serenading us, unbidden.



If you live anywhere in North America, you no doubt recognize the random stylings of Mimus polyglottos, otherwise known as the Northern Mockingbird (although the georeference seems superfluous since there's no Southern, Eastern, or Western Mockingbird). The mockingbird is the state bird of Texas (and also of plagiaristic, lesser states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee).

I'm not opposed to having a songbird share his musical gifts with us, but I became curious this afternoon as he competed with the soundtrack of the mindless movie we typical nap to on Sunday afternoons, and I wondered just what it was he found so attractive about our chimney. Was there a nest up there? Was he teaching his young offspring how to sing?

You should forgive my anthropomorphic tendencies on Father's Day, as I had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the case was made for male birds being superior dads to their mammalian counterparts, at least those of non-human species. Among other things...
Male songbirds tutor their young on how to produce the distinctive songs of their species in a sophisticated process that may help to explain how other animals, including humans, learn complicated skills.

Darwin called birdsong "the nearest analogy to language." Indeed, song-learning in birds turns out to have striking similarities with how humans learn speech, from the process of listening, imitating and practicing all the way down to the brain structures and genes involved.
Armed with the knowledge of this theory (my usual substitute for any actual knowledge), I envisioned dad holding forth to a bevy of attentive younguns, eager to emulate his own emulations (they're not called "mockingbirds" for nothing). My curiosity aroused me from the comfort of my recliner, and I climbed onto the roof in search of the nest that I was sure kept that bird coming back to the same spot day after day.

Of course, there was nothing up there, other than the shade of the chimney vent, that apparently being a sufficient platform for his vocal gymnastics.

Mockingbird on our chimney

My disappointment at not being able to confirm the avian-dad-as-teacher theory was tempered by the good news that we won't have to endure an amplified group singalong by a whole bevy of birds. But here's one thing to keep in mind: if you want to keep a secret, don't share it in the general vicinity of a chimney, because it makes an awfully efficient microphone.

Bird Talk
May 5, 2016 8:41 PM | Posted in:

First, listen to this:



No, that's not Donald Trump's mating call*. It's the dulcet tones of the Black-crowned Night-Heron, a bird that I have heretofore never seen, but one appeared on the banks of our neighborhood pond a fortnight ago. 

MLB and I were out for a late afternoon walk and I just happened to have a camera with me (gee...what are the odds?). I took a picture of a bird on the bank, and later in a tree where the skittish fellow landed after he tired of my attention.

(Please try to overlook the trash in the water; we had just had a pretty heavy rain followed by some strong winds, and nature was a bit disheveled.)

Black Crowned Night Heron
Black Crowned Night Heron

I suppose this particular heron was just passing through; I've not seen him (her?) again.

It's been a good year for birds - or bird watchers, anyway - around here. The Red-Winged Blackbirds showed up earlier than at any time in memory. Not only that, but they've been spending more time in our neighborhoods, not just around the ponds where they love to perch on the cattails. We've had them yelling down our chimney for what seems like hours at a time...they don't have the most melodic calls in the bird kingdom. Although, when a bunch of them get going at the same time, the result is reminiscent of a 1950s jungle movie.

They do make good law enforcers, though.

Red-Winged Blackbird atop No Swimming sign
We've also have a couple of mourning doves sitting on eggs in nests they built in our back yard, one on our palm tree, and the other on a baker's rack on our patio. I couldn't resist a massive invasion of the latter's privacy, and I've set up a GoPro over the nesting mom with a plan to do a time-lapse movie of the event. 

However, I've just discovered that it could take up to fifteen days for the eggs to hatch, and my camera card won't hold quite that many photos (15 days of one picture per minute is...a bunch). So, I've got a week's worth already and I'll revisit the site later. But here's where the action - if you can call a bird sitting motionless for hours on end "action" - is taking place:

Dove on nest with GoPro camera looking on
And, finally, I leave you with this picture of a goose. Because, why not?

Swimming goose
*I'm guessing that Trump's mating call is along the lines of "me me me me me money me." But, that's just a guess.

Fish Dinner
July 7, 2015 5:43 PM | Posted in: ,

We were giving some friends an afternoon tour of Horseshoe Bay and were driving across the low water crossing where Slick Rock Creek empties into Lake LBJ when I spotted a crane* diving under the water, presumably in pursuit of a fish. Sure enough, he surfaced shortly thereafter with a large silver fish grasped firmly in his beak.

The crane walked slowly over to a shallow water-filled depression in the rocks and dropped the fish, which was still weakly wriggling. The depression was just deep enough to prevent the fish from escaping back to the lake.

Crane with fish in bill

The bird stood over the fish for a brief moment, seemingly contemplating his next move (or, perhaps, praying over his next meal).

Crane inspecting captured fish

After another brief pause, he bent down, picked up the fish, and...well, you can imagine what happened next. OK, you don't have to imagine, because video. You might want to go to full-screen for the playback.



I stripped out the audio from the movie to spare you the exclamations of "yuck!" at the point the fish went down the bird's gullet and seemed to pause for a last wriggle. That could have just been the crane's throat muscles at work...yeah, we'll go with that.

If this has whetted your appetite (no pun intended) for another video of a bird swallowing an impressive meal, try this one from an earlier trip to South Carolina.

*I've referred to the bird as a crane, but to be honest, I'm just guessing at that. It does vaguely resemble a sandhill crane but the coloring doesn't really match. However, the photos and video aren't sufficiently clear, and I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable, to render a positive ID. Feel free to email me if you have a better idea.

When Species Collide
June 19, 2015 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Red Fox
Update (6/21/15) - A lot of people have asked if we're feeding this fox, and that's why he's in our yard so often. The answer is an emphatic "no." I have no doubt that there are some people who are providing food, perhaps inadvertently, in the form of cat or dog food, but I would never leave food for a wild animal. They shouldn't get too comfortable around, or come to depend on humans. Having said that, I do leave a five gallon bucket of rain water uncovered on our back porch, and I've seen the fox get a drink from it from time to time.

If you've spent much time around mockingbirds, you probably know that they're quite territorial, and will vigorously defend what they believe to be their personal space (which is generally arbitrary and expansive). I've shared this before but on at least one occasion I've worn a motorcycle helmet while mowing the lawn to protect my head from a spiteful mockingbird.

I've seen them repeatedly dive at cats, squirrels, and dogs; they're seemingly fearless, and quite persistent. (At the risk of being overly anthropomorphic, I don't believe they're sadistic, like blue jays, which have been known to swoop down and grab baby birds of other species and then drop them to their deaths, seemingly for the fun of it.)

So, it was no great surprise when I witnessed a mockingbird harassing our back yard fox earlier this week. We suspect there's a nest hidden in the thick foliage of the Mexican elder that's planted next to the back wall. I was fortunate enough to have my video camera running when it happened.



By the way - let me put this as delicately as possible - if you watch closely toward the end of the video, I believe there's evidence that dispels the question of whether we're dealing with a regnard or a vixen.

Local Nature
May 7, 2015 10:34 PM | Posted in: ,

Just a few random observations from the Wide World of Nature - Midland, Texas Edition.

First, the following video is noteworthy in spite of its poor quality (shot through an office window with a zoomed-in iPhone), because it shows a ladder-backed woodpecker who landed on a red yucca and began working over the blooms. These woodpeckers are not exactly unknown in our parts, but I've only seen a few during the decades of living here, and I've never seen this kind of behavior. (Click the full-screen arrows to get a slightly better view; the ticking noise in the background is not intended to evoke a woodpecker's noise - I just forgot to remove the audio track.)





Can anybody identify this bug? We noticed several of them on one of our Texas Mountain Laurels. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but they're really tiny. They weren't damaging the leaves, as far as I could tell (although something is eating on one of our trees).

Update: After some intense scientific investigation (aka, several Google searches), I've narrowed it down to a member of the Pyrrhocoridae family. Possibly. That's my story, anyway.

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf

Bug on Texas mountain laurel leaf



A couple of weeks ago I posted some photos of a dove that built a nest - and I use the term very loosely - on top of our concrete block wall, under the eave of the house. I pretty much forgot about it until last week; when I checked it, here's what I found.

Two baby doves in nest

The eggs had hatched and two babies were growing rapidly.

A few days after this photo was taken, we had a serious wind- and thunderstorm. I had assumed that while the nest was of the typical shoddy construction that's the dove's trademark, it was still well-sheltered. However, when I checked on things, I discovered that the storm had had a bigger impact than I expected.

Both doves were on the ground, but one was deceased. The other seemed to be in good shape, and even better, the momma was keeping close watch over it. I got within a few feet and while she was clearly agitated by my presence, she didn't fly away. Again, forgive the quality of the photos, which were taken at dusk with a phone.

Young dove on ground

Mother dove keeping watch



And, finally, anything Nature can do, Photoshop can...well...undo? Overdo? Outdo? You decide.

Cutter bee on firewheel

Another Ill-placed Dove Nest
April 19, 2015 9:57 PM | Posted in: ,

If you've spent much time around doves you know that they run a close second to sheep for being the dumbest animals on God's green earth. I make this assessment based primarily on the ridiculous places they choose to build their nests. For all I know, they're geniuses when it comes to differential calculus and quantum physics, but architecture and civil engineering is not their forte.

Case in point. This afternoon, Debbie mentioned that she'd discovered that a dove had built a nest on top of our cement block wall, under the eave of the house, and appeared to be sitting on eggs. Of course, I had to grab my camera and check it out. I came around the corner by our garage and, sure enough...

Mexican dove on nest

I went into stealth mode (meaning that I did my best not to fall on my face and destroy my camera) and drew closer.


Mexican dove on nest

There was a stiff north wind and I was downwind so I was able to get pretty close before the dove noticed me. She looked vaguely apprehensive in a low-IQ sort of way, but didn't budge from the nest.

Mexican dove on nest

As you can see, there's not much to a dove's nest, just enough twigs and grass to form a berm to keep the eggs from rolling away.

Mexican dove on nest

I suppose this will work for her, but it seems awfully exposed, especially if our foxes and the occasional neighborhood cat come around. And, while it's sort of off-putting to draw attention to it, that scat behind the nest came from some kind of predator, so I think this nest is existing on borrowed time. We'll see.

[Update: A Gazette reader has noted that the dove was actually responsible for the rather large scat, the result of long periods of nesting. My response is mainly along the lines of "ouch."]

Funny story about these photos. I was completely focused on the camera (see what I did there?) and heard someone come up behind me. I didn't turn around because I figured it was Debbie coming to check on the nest, so I just kept shooting. When I finally finished, I turned around and was quite surprised to see my next door neighbor quietly and patiently waiting for me to finish, and holding a rather large plant she was moving from her back yard to the front. But she was also fascinated and said that she'd probably walked by the nest a dozen times this afternoon without noticing it. So, perhaps it's not such a ill-chosen location after all. But I don't think it's humans the dove needs to worry about.

Raptor Breakfast
February 7, 2015 9:33 AM | Posted in: ,

My favorite chair in the living room looks out onto the back yard where I get to see all sorts of interesting things (and it makes me wonder how much I haven't seen). Such was the case this morning.

As I was finishing my daily Bible reading a movement in the Mexican Elder near the back wall caught my eye. It appeared to be a bird that was building a nest, which I thought was rather odd for the season. So I went to the window to get a better look and realized it wasn't a construction project, but rather breakfast for a hawk.

Unfortunately, he had positioned himself in such a way that I couldn't get a good look at the object of his ingestion, although every now and then a feather floated down, so I assumed he was dining on an unfortunate dove.

I hurried to my office, grabbed my camera and swapped out the prime lens for a zoom, bumped up the ISO to 400 to account for the shadows, and started snapping photos from the back porch, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I hoped that I was as obscured from his vision as he was from mine. These were the best I could get.

Hawk in tree
Hawk in tree

The hawk finally tired of my attentions and flew away, still clutching his breakfast. I attempted to get some action shots but ended up with nothing but bricks and blue sky. However, this did seem to confirm my theory about his menu selection, as it rested on the ground underneath the branch where the hawk was perched:

Dove feather on ground

On a somewhat related note, as I was running through the pasture yesterday evening, I scared up a large covey of quail...probably twenty or thirty birds exploded into the air in various directions. Almost simultaneously with that, a hawk swooped through the scattering flock, and I wondered if he had had one in his sights just as I startled them. However, he showed no interest in following any of them, so I decided he was just messing with their tiny little heads. I'm pretty sure that's what hawks do for fun.

In closing, to take your mind off that poor dove, here's some extreme cuteness.

Sleeping fox


Nest Report
September 5, 2014 8:38 PM | Posted in:

One of the guys at work claimed he'd seen a hummingbird nest in one of the trees outside our new office building. I was skeptical; in all our years of putting up feeders and watching the little guys, I'd never seen a hummer's nest.

So, today after lunch, Debbie and I walked past a live oak tree and she said it was where the nest was allegedly located. I looked up and immediately saw this:

Hummingbird nest

OK, so it's not the best photo in the world. The wind was gusting and it was threatening rain, and my phone had a hard time figuring out where to focus. But this is definitely a hummingbird's nest, no larger than two inches across. I figured it would be hidden better, but the tiny size means it's difficult to spot unless you're seriously searching for it.

I didn't see any activity around the nest and it was too high in the branches for me to peek inside. I have the same problem with the barn swallow nest on our front porch, but the occupants have no problem peeking at me:

Barn swallow nest with two fledglings

Here's the interesting thing about this. This is the THIRD brood of hatchlings this season in this nest! The swallows have been frisky little things this summer. And notice how the nest has grown taller; it's almost bumping up against the ceiling.

I'm not sure whether I'll leave this nest up once they migrate for the winter. As I've mentioned before, it's in a fairly out-of-the-way location, and if I knock it down, they might pick a less convenient place to rebuild. But after two years, it's bound to be pretty gross, and maybe it's time to make them start over next spring.

In closing, here's a picture of our Horseshoe Bay watch lizard, Poirot the Anole.

Green anole on fence


MLB was trimming the ground cover on the east side of our yard and when she pulled back a section from the wall, this is what she found:

Hatched quail eggs

As perceptive Gazette readers - which is both of you, I believe - will recall, we recently had a family of quail in our back yard, including nine chicks. And I'm pretty sure there are nine hatched eggs in the above photo. So, exercising my excellent deductive skills, I have concluded that this could have been the nest from whence they sprung.

However, I'm not going on record with a conclusive statement because there's always another possibility...

Jurassic Park raptor holding egg

Mockingbirdlets
August 11, 2014 9:50 PM | Posted in:

I discovered a mockingbird nest in the lower limbs of the Chinese pistache planted in our back yard. I had been hearing odd chirps coming at fairly regular intervals over the preceding few days, but didn't really think anything about it until Saturday afternoon when I noticed some unusually persistent mockingbird presence around the tree. 

I took a chance (the last time we had a mockingbird nest in our yard, I had to wear a motorcycle helmet to protect myself while mowing the lawn) and took a quick glance inside the foliage. Sure enough, there was a typical crudely built nest holding two sleeping mockingbirdlets. The parents weren't happy about the intrusion, but they exhibited remarkable restraint and I was able to back away unscathed.

A mockingbird warns me away from its nesting babies

I thought you might enjoy seeing a little nature in action, so I made the following video from footage taken on Saturday with a GoPro camera on the end of a monopod, and some additional footage from a Canon video camera that I shot this evening, as a sort of follow-up to the tale. (Note: If you watched this video on Sunday via my Vimeo account, you might want to take another look, as I've replaced that movie with this slightly extended version that details some slightly troubling developments.)


Toward the end of the footage shot this evening, one of the adults did take a dive at me, but I think it was just a warning shot out of habit, given that the nest is empty. I'd really like to know what happened to the second baby, but it was starting to rain and I didn't have a chance to take a good look at all the potential hiding places in our back yard.

Return of the Quail
June 15, 2014 3:06 PM | Posted in:

As an alert and perceptive Gazette reader, you no doubt recall this time last year when I undertook to stalk the wily blue quail residing in our landscape. I was able to see but not photograph the two baby birds that the adults were protecting. And shortly afterward, the entire family moved out, apparently tired of nosy neighbors.

Well, I'm happy to report that either (1) they don't hold a grudge, or (b) the alternatives were even less hospitable, because the quail family is back...with a vengeance.

Adult blue quail and babies
Adult blue quail and babies

After seeing signs of their dirt-scratching in our flowerbeds, we finally spotted the whole clan - two adults and nine (NINE!) babies foraging in the lawn yesterday. Occasionally, one of the adults (the male, I'm guessing), took a break from scratching for lookout duty.

Adult blue quail on wall

That keen-eyed stare is designed to deter the most aggressive of predators, although he could possibly just be pondering the meaning of life.

Anyway, I also managed to take the following 2 1/2 minute video of the industrious family. It's not the best footage - it was taken through some windows, between the slats of shutters, but I think the terminal cuteness of the babies comes through nonetheless.


The barn swallow nest on our front porch that provided some video footage last summer is once again occupied. However, I haven't noticed the presence of baby birds, and my curiosity got the better of me this afternoon. I mounted my GoPro on an extendable monopod, connected it via wifi to my iPad so I could monitor the footage, and did some detective work. Here's what I found:



I've never seen this before. Is it unusual for baby birds to share a nest with unhatched - but viable - eggs? I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm afraid two two eggs are not going to hatch...seems like they should have by now. I'll let you know if and when anything changes.

While I was out, I noticed an interesting insect crawling on the lone black-eyed susan bloom, so I swapped the GoPro for my macro-lensed DSLR.

Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom
Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom
Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom

I couldn't i.d. the insect. It flew away, and the presence of wings under the carapace seems to indicate that it's a beetle of some kind (we've touched on the bug-vs-beetle distinction in these pages), but I couldn't find anything close to a matching photo despite extensive research (which, for me, means 3 1/2 minutes looking at Googled images). If you have an idea, feel free to share it. Anyway, from a distance it wasn't too impressive, but up close, the sparkling carapace and delicate hairs glistening in the sunlight were a revelation.

Preaching to the birds
April 7, 2014 8:56 PM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall.
Matthew 7:26-27 (NASB)

NestI suspect that most people who visit this blog are familiar with the preceding Bible verses, and their context, where Jesus warns against putting one's trust into things without a firm foundation. He was, of course, not giving a lecture in architecture or civil engineering, and His intent was to address spiritual issues more than the mundane, practical things of life. But...that's not to say that there are no practical implications to this parable.

It's also quite possible to apply this principle to non-human undertakings, and if you substitute "bird" for "man," and "front door wreath" for "sand," and "West Texas winds" for - well, the parable does hit that one on the head - the logical conclusion might be this sad scene, which greeted us this afternoon after work.

Broken bird eggs on concrete

We had not even noticed the nest in the wreath until a couple of days ago, and I hadn't had a chance to see if there were eggs in yet (although I told Debbie that surely the birds hadn't yet laid any). But, judging by the carnage on the concrete, there were at least five, and possibly six eggs of unknown avian origin. Very sad, but...really birds? What were you thinking?

The nest is intact, and the wreath has been re-hung (and more securely), so we'll see if the parents were sufficiently traumatized that they'll give up on this location. But perhaps they'll try again. After all...Matthew 6:25-27.
I noticed this evening that someone had added my Twitter account to a group called "Bloggers in TX." That poor misguided soul had apparently not noticed the infrequency with which actual blogging-like activity occurs around here, but now I feel obligated to live up to his expectations. So, here're some buzzards.

Buzzards come home to roost in Fort Stockton, Texas
Capistrano has its swallows; Fort Stockton has its avian garbage disposals.

Barn Swallow Sibs
August 26, 2013 7:18 PM | Posted in:

The second brood of front-porch barn swallows has hatched and has become the avian equivalent of teenagers, meaning that they're trying to simultaneously be completely free to do their own thing while expecting their parents to do all the important stuff for them. This has become increasingly difficult because, as far as I can tell, the parents have left for less stressful environs, leaving the two kids to fend for themselves.

That seems to be working well for them...except at night. They're now too big to fit in the mud nest, but too timid to seek out different quarters, so they're overnighting as close to "home" as possible, and trying to re-create the coziness of their younger days. Like so...

Photo - juvenile barn swallows huddled together

This is how I found them this morning around 5:30, huddled together on the quarter-inch ledge of the ceiling trim, about six feet away from the nest that will no longer accommodate them.

It's a cruel world out there, and everybody needs a buddy. I wonder how long these siblings will stick together before nature pulls them in different directions?
I observed a couple of instances of unusual behavior on the part of some young animals this week, and they made me wonder about whether such behavior was learned or instinctive.

My drive to work each day takes me for a mile down a street called Mockingbird, the length of which on one side is mostly undeveloped pasture that belongs to Midland Country Club. A lot of wildlife comes out of that pasture and crosses the road, for reasons that perhaps only a chicken might be privy to.

On Wednesday, I observed a couple of young cottontail rabbits foraging side-by-side in the grass next to the curb on the side of the street across from the pasture. As I came upon them, they froze for an instant, then immediately bolted...in opposite directions, both away and toward me [despite what this biologist states with such British authority]. One had the poor judgment to bolt right in front of my truck (he fortunately managed to avoid getting squished); the other ran perpendicular to my line of travel, but away from me.

I can't recall seeing two rabbits bolt in that fashion before, but it made me wonder if the tactic of moving in opposite directions was an instinctual reaction designed to ensure that at worst only one of the pair would succumb to an attack by a predator. It seems highly unlikely that a single predator could bring down both bunnies even if they ran in the same direction, but it still raised the question of whether the maneuver was learned, instinctual, or just a random occurrence.

[It could be that rabbits are more noble than people, because everyone knows that the first rule of hiking in bear country is to make sure you can run faster than your partner.]

The second scenario played out on our front porch yesterday evening. We have a new brood of barn swallow hatchlings in the nest above the porch, and I was being my usual nosy, annoying self by standing and watching the little guys, who were just old enough to poke their beaks over the edge of the nest in anticipation that someone would drop something delicious into them.

Baby barn swallow in nestThey took absolutely no note of my presence...unlike the parents. They returned from what I presume was a foraging expedition and took immediate umbrage at my presence, buzzing me like tiny fighter jets [I never have a badminton racket when I need one]. But here's the interesting thing: just before they began their strafing runs, they let out with loud chirps that sounded to my un-barn-swallow-like ears just like all the calls they make. But as I kept my eyes on the babies in the nest, at the first sound of the chirp, all the young ones ducked back into the nest and did not reappear, even though under normal circumstances the appearance of one of the parents would bring them up for feeding.

I have to think that chirp was simultaneously a warning to me, but also an alarm to the hatchlings. Again, I wondered whether they were hatched with the instinctive recognition of such warnings, or if there was some kind of learning curve involved.

I doubt that anyone has a definitive answer to these questions, although I did find this page with some insights about (and recordings of) the barn swallow calls and songs. If the website is to be believed, male barn swallows give out fake alarm calls if their mate seems to be getting frisky with another male (although in this case I'm pretty sure there's nothing fake about it), raising more questions about instinct vs. learned behavior.

I don't want to read too much into a couple of isolated incidents - we could just be dealing with aberrant, deviant, and/or typical youthfully rebellious behavior. But these questions add to the fun of observing the natural world around us.

Barn Swallow Feeding Video
June 24, 2013 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo - barn swallow feeding a babyThe photos I posted of the barn swallow family got enough positive reaction that I decided to get some video of the parents taking care of the young'uns. 

Following is a five-minute video distilled from about a 45 minutes of raw footage. I've edited it to focus on the interactions between the adults and the babies, which of course is all about the feeding. During that time period, I counted 11 distinct instances of feeding.

Here are some of the highlights you'll observe if you watch the entire video.

  • It appears that both parents contribute to the feeding. I can't tell them apart, but at the 2:50 mark, one shows up to "tag team" the other (although at first glance, it seems not be be a welcome appearance).

  • I have always assumed that barn swallows fed their young by regurgitating partially digested insects into the babies' mouths, but right off the bat - at the 30 second mark where I've slowed down the action - you can see a whole insect, legs sticking out of the adult's mouth, and it gets stuffed right down the gullet of the infant. I guess they know what they're doing.

  • Another slo-mo feeding takes place near the end, at the 4:10 mark, and this one seems to clearly demonstrates the regurgitating process.

  • It's also fascinating to watch how the adults seemingly know who gets fed next. If there was any doubling up, with one youngster getting fed twice in a row, I didn't catch it.

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, we decided to let the barn swallows finish building a nest on our front porch, mainly because they picked an innocuous spot and I figured if I ran them off, they'd just find a worse place while we were out of town.

The clutch of eggs in the nest hatched recently and we've seen some tiny bird heads leaning over the edge, waiting to be fed. I figured this was a good time to snoop.

I put an adhesive-backed GoPro mount near the nest (it's about eight feet above the floor), and attached the camera to it, set to take a picture every 30 seconds. The setup didn't go unnoticed.

Photo - Barn Swallow Nest

It also wasn't completely successful on the first try. I was sitting in the living room when I heard a loud thump. I went outside to find the camera laying on the concrete. I had combined several mounts into an articulating arm in order to get the right angle for the shots, and the leveraged was too much for the adhesive.

Fortunately, the GoPro housings are very sturdy and the camera was unscathed. I redesigned the setup to reduce the strain on the mount, and tried it again. Following is a sample of the results from about a two hour period. Click any photo to see a larger uncropped version, or start with the first one and use the controls on the pop-up to step through all the images.

Photo - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow Nest

I think my favorite shot is #14, the one where the adult is flying away and the babies are still fussing because they think their mouths need to be filled again. They were obliged shortly thereafter.

Quelle Quail? These Quail!
June 4, 2013 10:01 PM | Posted in: ,

This evening I noticed some shallow disturbances at random between the flagstones on the east side of our back yard, as if something had been digging or scratching. I also heard some rustling noises around the mediterranean fan palm in that vicinity. This looks like a pretty good place for something to hide, doesn't it?

Photo of palm tree and ground cover

I decided to do a little investigative photojournalism, so I grabbed my camera and a long lens and went snooping. Here's what I found hiding in the middle of that shrubbery.

Photo of hiding quail

OK, so it wasn't a catamount or a lemur, things that would have generated a bit more excitement. But can you identify the type of bird?

Photo of quail

It's a scaled quail, aka blue quail, and there were two of them under the tree. Shortly after this one ran out - in an apparent attempt to lure me after it and away from their nesting spot - another one sprang from the brush. (If you don't have quail where you live, be sure to listen to the bird's calls on this page.)

Photo of palm tree and ground cover

I'm guessing the second bird is the female, and she was protecting something until the suspense became unbearable and she decided to flee. Sure enough, when I looked closer, I saw at least two baby quail disappear into the ground cover, too quickly to photo (and I wasn't crass enough to paw around trying to flush them).

The female didn't go far; she was determined to keep an eye on me.

Photo of quail on roof of house

The neighbors' roofline made a perfect lookout spot, close enough to see what I was up to, but not within reach.

I decided to wait her out, and hid behind the wall next to the palm tree. Pretty soon, curiosity got the best of her.

Photo of quail peering over fence

She would peek over the wall, disappear for a few seconds, and reappear at a slightly different spot, all the while making note of my position. 

Eventually, her patience, the 100+ degree temperature, and the swarming flies crumbled my resolve, and I retreated, while she gave me the nonchalant "I have no idea why you'd want to hang around here as there's nothing to see, and nothing to worry me" look.

Photo of quail on fence

I walked quietly by the tree about ten minutes later and could see her hunkered down, presumably with her babies safely underneath. She didn't stir, but I could feel the stinkeye all the way around the corner.

We've noticed a lot of quail this spring around the neighborhood, mostly in pairs - no full-blown coveys. I presume that the drought is driving them in from the dry pastures. They're fun, goofy birds, and I'm glad we can offer a preserve for them for a while.
The wreath hanging on our front door isn't really a Christmas wreath. Well, it did start out that way, but when Debbie was unable to find a spring wreath she liked, she hung a few spring-y accessories on it and decided to leave it up for a while. But I suspect a few people in the neighborhood wondered why the red-and-gold decoration was still up in May.

It's because we didn't have the heart to take it down after we discovered a bird nest full of eggs in late April.

The nest was constructed immediately next to the beveled glass in our door, giving us a, well, birds-eye view into it. And, of course, I couldn't resist hauling out the camera from time-to-time, much to the annoyance of the mother birdie.

A month to the day after the eggs hatched, introducing three new birds to the world, the nest was abandoned, the young ones having spread their wings and flown the coop. Here's a brief look at how it unfolded.

Disclaimer: I mentioned the beveled glass above. It presented some unavoidable photographic challenges, as did the extreme backlit conditions during daylight hours. I did the best I could with what I had.

April 18 - And so it begins

The momma bird was so skittish, this is the only photo I was able to get of her, shortly after she laid the eggs.

Mother bird

May 1 - The Hatching: A look only a mother could love.

Hatching bird egg

May 9 - They eat and poop. But mostly eat.

Baby birds

May 16 - Even pre-teen birds have attitudes

Juvenile bird

May 17 - Getting adventuresome

Juvenile bird

May 18 - Ready to fly?

Juvenile bird

At this point, sensing that we wouldn't have the birds around much longer, I had the brilliant idea to mount my GoPro camera on the front door and take a series of photos. I put a strip of clear packing tape on the glass, and then stuck an adhesive GoPro mount onto the tape, reasoning that it would be easier to remove that way. I then assembled an articulating mount and set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds. Here's what the rig looked like:

GoPro camera mounted on door

Good idea; poor execution. For one thing, I had waited two days too long to think of this. The birds were now too active and skittish and wouldn't stay in the nest. (Plus, one had already left the nest.) The GoPro also didn't handle the backlighting very well. Out of the 200 photos it took, here's one of the best.

Birds ready to fly the nest

I might have been a bit late, but if I'd waited six hours longer, I'd have been too late. Both remaining birds had flown away, never to return, by evening.

I still have two more opportunities to be an annoying intruder, as we've discovered another nest - containing five eggs - in the palm tree at the corner of our front porch. We're also giving in for the first time and letting barn swallows build a nest in a fairly innocuous part of the front porch.

And speaking of good ideas poorly executed, never underestimate the sticking power of clear packing tape to clean glass.
I put the video camera on a tripod and trained it on one of the hummingbird feeders on our back porch, and then edited the two-hour recording into the following "best of" video, slowed to 50% to give a better perspective on bird behavior. 

Think of it as a soothing screen saver - perhaps not the most exciting movie ever, but the patient viewer might observe some interesting action, especially at the 6-, 11- and 12-minute points. (Note: Click the full-screen icon -  - to view the movie in, you know, full-screen mode.)


We went for a walk around the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, primarily to check out the new homes under construction. My usual practice is to stick my point-and-shoot camera in my pocket before leaving the house, just in case we encounter something out of the ordinary. I was glad I did.

Photo of a yellow headedWe've had multitudes of red-winged blackbirds roosting around our ponds, and they've even been venturing into our yards, which I haven't seen until this year. So we weren't surprised at the noisy flocks of those birds around the north pond. What we were surprised to see were two black and bright yellow birds on the ground next to the water. I grabbed my camera, zoomed in as closely as I could, and managed to get two photos before the birds spooked and flew away.

It wasn't until I googled "yellow chested birds" that I discovered the identity of the pair: yellow-headed blackbirds. I hope they stick around; they're beautiful birds.

Photo of two yellow headed blackbirdsPhoto of two yellow headed blackbirds

Eggs-it Here
April 9, 2012 5:58 AM | Posted in: ,

As Bill Engvall says, you might be a redneck if you have Christmas lights up on your porch year-around. Photo of the wreath on our front doorThat's an unfair characterization. A lot of people like the looks of little twinkly lights, and I'm of the opinion that you fit the redneck stereotype only if those year-around lights are strung over a Christmas tree made of Bud Light empties tied together with baling wire. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But what if you still have a Christmas wreath on your front door in April? What does that make you? Well, we're probably still rednecks, but not for that reason. Take a look...



Debbie discovered the nest and the eggs only after taking the wreath off the front door in preparation for putting it atop the credenza in our bedroom. I'm glad she did, as it would have made for an unpleasant surprise around June or so.

Anyway, she quickly rehung the wreath on the front door and the mother bird promptly returned to attend to the eggs. I have no idea if they'll hatch, as the bird flies off every time we walk by, and the eggs may not be getting their minimum daily requirement of feathered butt. I'll report on whether we eventually have a brood on our front door, or if we can finally switch over to a more appropriate seasonal entryway decoration.

I'm sure you're wondering, what kind of bird is it? It's a little gray one. Who do I look like, John Q. Autobahn?

Technical note: I filmed this using my little GoPro HD camera. It's perfect for maneuvering into tight spots you can't reach with a standard-size camera, video or otherwise, and it's auto-focus, good low light performance, and fisheye lens makes it a good choice for no-look close-ups. (In other words, I couldn't see what I was filming.)

Bird's Nest Troupe
December 18, 2011 8:28 PM | Posted in: ,

I suspect that the red oak tree in our front yard will not emerge in full foliage next spring. It's a multi-trunk tree, and one of the trunks has been devastated by some unknown assailant - borers, oak wilt, dengue fever, black plague, overexposure to Lady Gaga...who knows? We had it treated by a tree service last year, but they warned us it may have been too far gone to save, and I think they were right.

But, that didn't stop the tree from being a very popular destination for our feathered friends. The leafage on the rest of the tree was quite thick and apparently made for a secure gathering place for a wide variety of birds. Just how popular a destination was only recently revealed, when the tree dropped its leaves after the first hard freeze.

I counted seven (7!) nests in the smallish tree, nests of all shapes, sizes, and quality of construction. You know, sort of like any neighborhood in Houston. I'm sure some of them weren't inhabited this year, being abandoned tenements from an earlier time, although I could be wrong about that as none of them seemed to be as completely deteriorated as you would expect from a full year of West Texas wind.

Anyway, I'm posting photos of six of the nests for your perusal during what I'm sure are boredom-filled holidays. I have no explanation for why I captured only six of the seven nests, but it is, as they say, what it is. And along with all the other things I don't know about this whole situation, I also don't know what kind of birds built any of these nests. Feel free to offer opinions, educated or otherwise. I won't know any different.

Note: In the interest of scientific accuracy, I will note that these photos aren't necessarily all cropped to the same scale. For example, the first nest is much smaller than the others, approximately teacup-sized. It's also the best constructed, obviously built by someone other than the low bidder.

Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest

Mocking Bird
December 9, 2011 12:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I was driving past the south pond this morning and something caught my eye on the far bank. I pulled into the clubhouse parking lot, grabbed the camera (which, for once, actually had a charged battery) and set out across the grounds to get a closer look. Turned out to be this guy:

Photo - Great Blue Heron

It's a Great Blue Heron (I hope it has a happier fate than a previous visitor), and at first I thought it was just innocently hanging out. But then I realized that birds can be cruel jokesters, too, because look who was nearby.

Photo - Great Blue Heron and Goose

Yes, it's our good friend, the one-legged goose, and the heron was obviously mocking him, much to the goose's dismay. Appalling behavior, right? It makes me weep for the animal kingdom.

Goose Update
August 2, 2011 6:41 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember our neighborhood's one-legged goose? I'm pleased to report that he/she/it appears to have effectively adapted to its unipedal status, as evidenced by this photo taken yesterday evening:

Photo of three geese standing on bank of pond

The bird at right is the goose in question, and as we watched the trio feeding along the bank, it was doing the one-foot-hop with ease.

It's been almost three months since the goose was returned to the pond, and fears that it would be easy prey for predators have not materialized. An unexpected positive consequence is that all three geese seem to be sticking a bit closer to the water, leaving the sidewalk around the pond a little cleaner.

The Goose Whisperer
June 14, 2011 6:38 AM | Posted in: ,

Sorry about the post title; it's the best I can do at 6:30 a.m. Anyway, this story does deal with a goose - a one-legged goose at that.

Earlier this month, someone noticed that one of the three geese that have taken up residence at the ponds had an injured leg. One of our neighbors arranged to have the ailing goose netted and taken to a local vet clinic, where it was determined that the leg needed to be amputated.

The procedure was successful, although an infection complicated things a bit. After a stay at the clinic, the goose was returned to the pond on the afternoon of June 13th. I captured the triumphant release on video:


It's probably safe to say that many of us in the neighborhood have mixed emotions about the geese living at the pond. They make an awful mess, but they're also fun to watch. I doubt that there's any ecological benefit to having them around.

Perhaps the best storyline here - besides the assistance of an injured animal - is that the neighborhood rallied around the goose and contributed enough to not only cover all the medical expenses, but to also enable the beginnings of a fund that will be available for any future such uses. Many thanks to Deena Kargl and Melissa Tomlin for taking the initiative to get treatment for the goose and to mobilize a response in the neighborhood.

Overheard Bird
June 4, 2011 5:27 PM | Posted in: ,

All afternoon, while puttering around in the front yard, we've been hearing this odd bird call, kind of a plaintive "squawk," not harsh like a grackle's, but a bit more melodic. It sounded familiar to me, but I just couldn't place it. Nor could I discern its source.

Then, a few minutes ago, the call was closer and I was able to zero in on the apparent source...at which time I remembered where I'd heard it before. It was in this same scene:

Photo - Quail on top of roof

Do you recognize the bird? Probably not. Here, try this one:

Close-up Photo - Quail on top of roof

Yep, it's a quail - specifically a scaled or blue quail - apparently pretending to be an eagle or a hawk. I have no idea why a lone quail would fly up to a rooftop and walk along the ridgeline, squawking at the world. Lonely? Bragging? Defying? Who knows what goes on inside the brain of a quail? I certainly don't. But I suddenly got a craving for jalapeños and bacon.

It's important to keep the Historical Records up to date, so here's what's happening in the front part of la hacienda:

Barn Swallows - When last we checked in on the little #@*%& fellows, their nest was almost complete. It's now finished and positioned so close to the ceiling that we can't see inside the nest, even with our tallest ladder. They think they're so smart, but they underestimate the vastness of my tool inventory, specifically the small round mirror mounted on the telescoping, articulating arm. (I knew I'd have a use for that someday, besides helping me locate stuff that I drop behind the workbench.)

So, here's what's inside the mysterious nest:

Photo of barn swallow egg reflected in mirror

Interesting that there's only one egg in the nest. I thought they usually had a multi-egg clutches.

By the way, I hope you're impressed by the photo, as I stood near the top of a 12-foot ladder, holding the mirror in one hand and the camera in the other, while Debbie re-read my life insurance policy.

Moving on to the flora, I'm pleased to report that our pomegranate-tree-reborn-as-a-bush is growing like a weed, which it is, by definition. Anyway, we put this funky three-sided tomato cage around it to tame its wildness, and it's now 3' tall. Pretty sure it won't have any fruit this year, but we're hopeful about 2012, assuming the world doesn't end.

Photo of pomegranate bush

And, finally, our palm tree has fully recovered from its close encounter of the frostbite kind. It's still a bit lopsided from where Debbie had to prune the dead fronds following that bitter freeze (feels a bit weird to be writing about it, given that it's around 100° as I type this).

Photo of palm tree
By the way, don't let the apparently green grass in our lawn fool you; it's becoming increasingly heat-stressed due to the watering restrictions. I'm not sure why it looks this good; the back lawn is more brown than green. And based on the long range weather forecast, it's going to get worse before it gets better. Pray for rain!

Stationary Hummer
May 24, 2011 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

So, say you're a hummingbird trying to cope with 40mph+ winds, blowing dust and smoke from wildfires on the north and the south, temperatures in the 90s and humidity around 5%. What would you do?

Probably the same thing this little guy is doing...perching on a tomato cage sheltered by a concrete block wall, and leaving the hovering to the helicopters.

Photo - Hummingbird perched on tomato cage
If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, we've just been enslaved due to inattention.

I stepped onto the front porch this morning, just before daybreak, and this caught my eye:

Photo - Barn Swallow Nest

I swear, that nest was not there yesterday at noon, when Debbie and I did our usual lunch hour tour of the front yard (yes, our lives are filled with excitement and danger!). But it does explain why barn swallows were so seemingly perturbed as we sat on the front porch last night, eating ice cream and reading, until sunset. We thought they just wanted to go to bed, since they frequently perch overnight on the small ledge provided by the ceiling trim.

I had planned to check the nest this morning and if there were no eggs in it, to knock it down. But I did a quick check of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and found that I'm too late. Once the nest is built, it's illegal to destroy it, whether or not it has eggs or babies. We'll have to wait until the birds migrate away next fall.

The good news is that the nest is not over our front door, and is situated so that the inevitable mess will be manageable. I'd rather it not be there at all, and I take it somewhat personally that the birds won this battle, but the war is a long one and I'll bandage my wounds and plot my counterstrike. The immediate price the birds will pay will be my camera invading their space on a frequent basis.

Photo - Barn Swallow Flying in Front of Nest

Avocet Video
April 20, 2011 2:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember the flock of avocets that visited our neighborhood pond last weekend? Sure you do! Anyway, I finally got around to editing the video I shot and I've uploaded it to YouTube. You can either view it there via this link, or just click the following embed. Note that the source footage* is HD so you can embiggen it in full-screen mode if you wish.



Please excuse the poor audio quality. The wind was pretty strong (I know; that hardly ever happens in West Texas) and my camcorder has a built-in windscreen, I'll be darned if I know how to use it. 

On the plus side, this was a good excuse to finally learn to use iMovie '09, which I've been resisting for a long time. Turns out it has some great features; I was able to bump up the contrast and saturation a bit to overcome the flat light caused by the wildfire smoke in the air, and the last 20 seconds of the video feature the slow-motion capabilities of the application.

*Isn't it interesting that we still refer to video as "footage," even though that measurement is completely irrelevant in our digital darkroom. Ooh, there's another one...

Awesome Acrobatic Avocets!
April 18, 2011 6:27 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I were in the front yard yesterday afternoon - she was working; I was, um, supervising - and our eyes were drawn to a flock of birds circling our neighborhood's north pond, about two blocks away. I grabbed my video camera, and then returned and got my SLR with a long lens, and documented this unusual display.

Photo - Flying American Avocets

Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center, identified the birds as American Avocets. They normally inhabit the playa lakes of the Llano Estacado, but with many (most?) of those lakes drying up in the current drought, he said they're looking for other nesting areas.  

I don't think they'll find our ponds to be suitable, because there's too much human activity around them, and they're awfully skittish. But they are beautiful birds and a joy to observe. Click on the following thumbnails to see larger versions of each image.

Photo - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying Avocets

Those two head-on shots are my favorites; they remind me of airplanes flying in formation. In the last picture, notice how their wings seem to be synchronized.

I mentioned a video camera. I did get some footage, and if I can figure out how to edit it properly, I'll post something to YouTube. Those birds are fast flyers and hard to keep in a viewfinder, so don't expect anything professional.

Great Blue Heron in Distress
November 6, 2010 12:49 PM | Posted in: ,

We've had a Great Blue Heron hanging around the neighborhood for the past few months. It's quite a sight, especially when winging its way over the mesquite-dotted pasture that surrounds us; there's a vaguely prehistoric look to its flight. While it prefers to wade along the shoreline of the two ponds, it's not unusual to see it standing out in the pasture, head just clearing the thick grass that the early plentiful rains brought to life.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something different about the bird, specifically his flight. It's very skittish and difficult to get close to, but it appeared that it had something dangling from one leg as it took to the air. I finally decided that its leg was dangling, and I confirmed this a few days ago when I was able to get close enough to take some photos with a zoom lens. Those are shown below; click on each to see a larger version. Please note that these are difficult to look at; the injury is gruesome.

I don't have a clue as to what caused the injury. It doesn't seem to affect the bird's flight, and it doesn't look uncomfortable standing on one leg, but I can't imagine that it can hunt for food with ease, because it can't walk through the shallow waters looking for fish, frogs, and insects that make up its primary diet. One would also think that the injury makes the heron more susceptible to predators like coyotes.

I've contacted Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center and local wildlife expert, and he in turn has contacted a local veterinarian to see what, if anything, might be done for the bird. Capturing the poor thing will be a challenge, and rehabilitation of such a drastic injury might not be feasible. I'll let you know how this plays out.

It's a tough world out there, sometimes.

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron
As you may recall, I was successful in convincing the local barn swallows that our porches were sub-optimal for nest placement. That battle was messy and frustrating for both sides, as battles always are, and neither side emerged feeling entirely satisfied with the outcome.

During the aftermath, it became obvious that barn swallows are masters of turning lemons into lemonade. They also subscribe to the strategy of victory through overwhelming numbers. And so it is I find that even though I've successfully stopped them from building nests, they've created more holes in the dike than I have fingers.

Our next-door neighbor recently counted more than forty of the little birds perched along the eave of her back porch. That should give you an idea of the magnitude of the issue. A number of that gang has decided that our back and front porches provide excellent overnight accommodations, even if they can't erect apartment complexes for permanent residence. As it turns out, they've decided that the steps that I took to dissuade the nest-building (stuffing rolled-up shop towels behind ceiling-mounted speakers, for example) provide perfectly cozy places to spend the night.

Now, let me be clear: barn swallows are very cute birds, and entertaining to watch. They do a great job of mosquito control, and they don't bother other birds (unlike the house finches who bully the hummingbirds trying to service our feeders). But the concept of - how can I put this delicately? - "not fouling one's own nest" is completely foreign to them. In other words, we can always tell how many overnighted by the mess they left on the concrete below.

I'm now taking suggestions for further countermeasures. Regarding the speakers, it's obvious that I'll need to build a solid enclosure of some type around them. The porch eaves pose a bigger challenge. But if my idea for a tiny little electric fence works out, you'll be the first to know.
Debbie and I went for a walk around the ponds this morning after breakfast, and as usual, encountered some interesting animals.

The geese are still hanging around. They were inexplicably strolling through the vacant lot across from our house (I saw one of them nip at some of the weed seed heads), and when they saw us walking down the street, headed our way and paralleled our course. Here's a short snippet of video I took with my phone.



They continued to walk in roughly the same direction we were headed, but they crossed the street, back and forth, inspecting who-knows-what. Some of our neighbors had congregated on a front porch and they watching the geese with great interest. One of them had a chihuahua on a long leash, and he was quite attentive, straining at the leash to get a closer look...until, that is, the geese turned toward him, at which point he quickly retreated to his master, content to switch to remote monitoring mode. We had a laugh at his expense, but I observed that it would be like us confronting a T-Rex, given the size difference between the small dog and the large goose. I didn't blame him a bit.

It took us about ten minutes to round the south pond - pausing to speak to a cottontail rabbit who thought he was hiding in plain sight just off the sidewalk - and by the time we got to the opposite side, the geese had made their way along the pond and we watched them waddle down the bank and back into the water. I suppose they were getting in their morning constitutional, as were we.

Heading toward the north pond, we spotted something in the middle of the sidewalk about 20 feet ahead. It was a horny toad. I wondered why we always seemed to see them on the walkway, and we soon got our answer. He was resting in the path where an abundance of ants were busily crossing the concrete, and it was a veritable movable feast from his perspective. We watched as he pounced on several ants who had the bad judgment to wander into his sphere of ingestion. He didn't seem to be willing to chase any of them down, content to let them come to him, but we did see him miss one ant, eat another that was close behind, then whirl around and consume the one that almost got away. Unfortunately, the scene took place too far away to capture on my phone's camera.

Rounding the north pond and heading home, we roused the usual jackrabbit contingent. They like the tall grass brought out by the summer's rainfall, but you can usually spot the black tips of their ears sticking up over the ground cover. Those guys are built for speed, and they're as shy as the geese are bold.

Take a Gander at This
July 22, 2010 9:29 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I went for an early morning run around the neighborhood last Sunday and were surprised to see these guys at the pond area.

Photo - Four Western Greylag geese

According to my extensive (one or two clicks) research, these are Western Greylag (or Graylag, if you prefer the Americanized spelling convention) geese, with the pleasingly repetitive scientific name anser anser anser (just trying typing that without inputting "answer" instead). They apparently have a wide range worldwide, but I have no idea whether these are domesticated escapees, or slightly confused travelers, seeking temporary haven while trying to recalibrate their GPS.

I expected that they would be gone very quickly, but they were still hanging around yesterday evening. In fact, they had picked up an accomplice in the form of an apparently species-confused young duck. While the geese swam slowly across the pond in single file, the duck paralleled their course a few feet away, serving as a wing man. The other ducks  were huddled together across the pond. We surmised that they'd either ostracized the youngster for bad behavior (you know how they can be), or had sent him to spy on the intruders. Or, perhaps, he simply had grand aspirations that he felt couldn't be fulfilled by normal duckhood.

On a related note, that run was chock-full of good bird sighting, as a sandhill crane also graced the northern pond. Unfortunately, he didn't stay around for long, and I wasn't able to get a photo.

Paging Ferlin Husky
June 11, 2010 5:25 PM | Posted in:

I glanced through the window on our front door and saw this fellow crouching on the porch.

White dove atop ceramic iguana

At first, I thought it was a pigeon, but after observing him for a while, I'm pretty sure it's a dove. I've seen white wild doves before, but they are not common.

He seemed a bit wilted by the heat, but not overly distressed. I walked within two feet of him several times and he didn't back away. Debbie put out a shallow plastic bowl of water and he climbed onto the side and took a few drinks. Later, he walked over and conquered the ceramic iguana.

After about 20 minutes of investigating the flowerbed and surroundings, he disappeared. I'm sure it's an omen, but darned if I know of what.

Oriole
May 29, 2010 3:37 PM | Posted in: ,

There's something funky going on inside my camera, because this photo of an oriole in my neighbor's tree is definitely not accurate, color-wise. But it's still a cool bird, and one that's not commonly found around here.


I just checked the dove's nest in the palm tree and found it bereft of dove and eggs. I don't know where the bird went, but the eggs are lying at the base of the tree, victims of poor architectural planning and some stiff West Texas wind.

We can but hope that the local dove gene pool is thereby strengthened, but I somehow doubt it.

New Neighbors
May 24, 2010 6:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I recently wrote about the mockingbird nest in one of the trees in our front yard. The fact is, while we don't have that many trees, and they're not that big, those we do have are apparently quite attractive to the local birds. Besides the aforementioned mockingbirds, we have a western king bird nest in our live oak, and then there's this:

Dove nest in palm tree

Can you make out that mass of junk in the middle of the palm tree (and we're using the word "tree" quite loosely here; it's more of a palm bush or palm shrub). It's a dove's nest, perched precariously a full three feet above the ground.

We discovered it last weekend, and noticed it only when the nesting dove exploded from the tree as we walked by. Closer inspection revealed this (it's been a while...forever, in fact, since I've been able to photograph down into a nest without a ladder):

Dove nest with eggs in palm tree

The mother is quite skittish, and with good reason. She didn't exactly pick an obscure spot for the young 'uns. But I was able to point a telephoto lens around the corner and catch her hard at work:

Dove nesting in palm tree

As soon as she spotted me, she burst from the nest and took up residence on the neighbor's roof, keeping an eye on me:

Dove on roof

Dove as a species don't strike me as very intelligent; they're the avian counterpart to sheep. However, this choice of location for a nest isn't as dumb as it might seem. Sure, it's close to the ground, but it's also protected by a seven foot wall and locked gates. There's danger from weather, but that's a given regardless of location, but, otherwise, unless another marauding bird makes an appearance, this may be a good place to raise a family. We'd like to think of our neighborhood in those terms, anyway.

Mockingbird Recording
April 5, 2010 6:39 PM | Posted in: ,

As I sat on the front porch yesterday afternoon reading a book and enjoying the nice weather, I was aurally accosted by a loud-mouthed intruder who was so enamored with his own voice, I suspect he'd make an excellent Senator.



Just kidding. Mockingbirds are too smart to run for public office; they're more like lobbyists. Anyway, if you don't have any of these birds in your neighborhood, you may enjoy hearing one show off.

Technical details: I recorded this on my iPhone, imported the recording into iTunes, then opened it in Adobe Soundbooth CS4 where I trimmed the beginning and ending, increased the loudness, and used the noise filter to remove the, um, noise caused by the breezy ambient conditions. The resulting recording is a pretty good showcase for the bird's vocal versatility.
One of the presumed harbingers of spring in West Texas is the return of roosting buzzards. If that's true, then Fort Stockton has seen its last cold snap for the season, as evidenced by this iPhone video I shot last evening from my parents' backyard:



This is just a fraction of the flock of scavengers that would eventually come to roost in the Afghan pines and live oak trees of the neighborhood. My guess is that there were 100-200 of the big birds.

They're actually quite graceful, floating silently and effortlessly in the stiff breezes that persisted until nightfall. The only unsettling thing about them being directly overhead was...well, I'll leave it to your imagination.

The voices you hear at the end of the video recounting an encounter of a motorcycle with a buzzard are those of my brother and his wife.

Back Home
January 26, 2010 7:39 AM | Posted in: ,

We spent an extended and very pleasant weekend in San Diego/Coronado, California. I hope to post a report with a few photos as soon as I can work through the backlog of work and errands that accumulated while we were away. In the meantime, here's a teaser photo of four pelicans gliding along the coastline at the Cabrillo National Monument:

Photo of four flying pelicans

More Big White Bird Photos
January 18, 2010 6:44 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember this guy? He's still hanging around. Well, I suppose "hanging" isn't the operative term.

Photo - Egret in flight

Viewed from a certain angle, you can see that there's not much to this bird, despite his impressive size while he's wading.

Photo - Egret in flight
According to Asian tradition, the crane is a bird of good luck and long life, and further, if you fold one thousand origami cranes you'll be granted a wish.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a photo of a great egret* equivalent to folding a thousand pieces of paper? I obviously can't say for sure, but this fellow was a great photo subject on the first day of the new year, and if he wants to be the bearer of good luck, we'll take all he can carry.




*I think this is a great egret; I'm open to correction from any true birders out there. Whatever he (she?) is, he's a frequent visitor to our ponds during the winter. The ducks seem a bit indignant at his presence. I suspect the fish have somewhat stronger feelings, but I could be anthropomorphizing.

Bird
November 20, 2009 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I see a lot of websites during the course of a week. Many of them are design-related and thus represent what should be the most striking, innovative, and creative examples the profession can build. Still, it's not often that I run across one that simply takes my breath away.

This is one.

Andrew Zuckerman is a professional photographer, and his new book has the simple and completely descriptive title of Bird. It consists of a series of gorgeous photos of birds, both exotic and mundane. What sets his work apart from other "nature photographers" is his elimination of any context for the subject; the photo consists of an image of the bird against a pure white background. This makes for a striking image, and allows the eye to focus completely on the details of each specimen.

The website for Bird goes one step further by providing an audio recording of each bird's call. This added dimension allows the visitor to create his or her own context, albeit an incomplete one, although that depends on the extent of one's imagination.

I'm not a fan of websites built with Flash, but this is probably a perfect example of when the exception is entirely justified.

Bird is available via Amazon.com [link], and if you find it appealing, you may also be interested in Zuckerman's previous publications that use similar techniques, Creature [link] and Wisdom [link].

Woodpecker
November 7, 2009 2:52 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie was watering the plants on the front porch when she heard a tapping sound. She looked up and spotted the source: a ladder-backed woodpecker working its way up the trunk of our neighbors' red oak tree. We don't see many woodpeckers around here, so it was definitely a photo opportunity.

In the second photo, you can easily see the pockmarks the bird was leaving in the tree bark.

Photo of a ladder-backed woodpecker
Photo of a ladder-backed woodpecker

Green Heron
October 1, 2009 12:20 PM | Posted in: ,

I spotted a bird of a type I hadn't previously seen wading in the stream between the two ponds this morning. I took a couple dozen photos and shipped a few off to our resident wildlife expert, Burr Williams, who identified the bird as a green heron. He said they reside year-around in certain parts of our county, but he admitted that he'd never seen one with its crest raised, as shown in the second photo.

Is it just me, or does this bird with its raised crest have a faint resemblance to a roadrunner? If you didn't know better and just glanced at these two photos, you'd probably think they are pictures of two different species.

Photo of a green heron
Photo of a green heron

Sunday Morning Hawk
September 20, 2009 2:41 PM | Posted in: ,

I was sitting on our front porch after breakfast, accompanied by a Bible and a cup of coffee - both being essential to Sunday morning (or any morning, for that matter) - enjoying the beautiful weather. The street light at the corner of our yard was decorated with five or six Mexican doves basking in the sunshine.

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of frantic flapping as the birds exploded away from their metal perch and I looked up, wondering what had caused their alarm. Just then, a young hawk arrived from the east, swooping down and alighting where the doves had previously stood. I mentally kicked myself for once again forgetting to bring the camera, but he was perfectly content to sit and watch the other birds flying quickly past, studiously avoiding him. I crept back inside, grabbed the Canon, returned to my chair and snapped a dozen or so photos before he flew across the vacant lot and perched in a tree by the north pond.




The Original Hummer
August 23, 2009 8:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Back porch hummingbird views:

Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
You'd think that by now I'd have learned not to leave my camera inside when I retire to the front porch for Sunday morning coffee. I invariably see things that I wish I could share with you, but by the time I rush back inside, the moment has passed and all you're left with are my inadequate descriptions.

Yesterday morning was a great example. As I was drinking coffee and doing my "Through the Bible in a Year" reading, a movement on the neighbors' roof line caught my eye. I did a double-take; it was a roadrunner, one of the goofier denizens of our ecosystem. Very odd to see it atop a roof, but things got stranger, as a second one appeared. I was also surprised to hear their odd "clattering" sound, a series of rapid clicks they make with their beaks. I've never been close enough to a roadrunner to hear that (you can listen to a recording on this entry in Wikipedia).

The roadrunners had attracted attention from more than this curious human. A veritable swarm of barn swallows was dive-bombing the bigger birds, making them feint and duck. Roadrunners are omnivorous, and not above raiding nests of others birds for both eggs and nestlings. I doubt they would pose a real danger to barn swallows given the usual inaccessibility of their nests, but the swallows weren't taking any chances. (They're a lot more assertive than one might imagine, anyway.)

I watched for a minute or so, and decided to run in and grab the camera and long lens. Of course, by the time I returned, the drama was over. The roadrunners had flown the coop, so to speak (I spotted one of them running around a block north of our house) and the swallows had dispersed, presumably to find other prey for their bullying gang.

I'm sorry I couldn't capture any photos to share with you, but not to worry, because I've come up with an artist's rendering that I think does full justice to the scene that played out this morning. I'm sure you'll agree that it accurately captures the pathos and drama of the complex interchange between the species.

Cartoon drawing

This Bird's a Hoot!
August 10, 2009 2:07 PM | Posted in:

It's been like Wild Kingdom around here lately. Yesterday evening, Tom Woodruff, a home builder and one of the developers of our neighborhood, came across a Great Horned Owl beside the "creek" that recirculates from and to the south pond. He got some wonderful photos of the bird, which is rarely seen in the daylight around here. You can view a series of five photos via the Woodland Park homeowner's association website, beginning here.

Photo - Great Horned Owl standing in water
Photo courtesy of Tom Woodruff

As you can see, the owl is actually standing in the water. My guess is that he's been dining on the numerous leopard frogs that inhabit the stream. I hope he's also feasting on the cotton rats that were flourishing in the area earlier in the summer. I haven't spotted any in a couple of weeks, so perhaps that's the case.

I've heard this owl (or one like him), hooting in the early morning hours, and I've seen the dark shadow of one flying across the night sky, but I've yet to see one in broad daylight. What a beautiful bird!

Turkey Stalking
March 18, 2009 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

I've written before about the flock of wild turkeys that have taken up residence in my old neighborhood in Fort Stockton. For whatever reasons, the size of the group has dwindled from the upper teens to just three, a gobbler (male) and two hens.

The male has been known to exhibit aggressive behaviors towards people, chasing them back into their houses, something that sounds amusing until it happens to you. The city's Animal Services department seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it; admittedly, it's not a life-threatening situation.

Last Saturday (March 14th), having been forewarned by my mother, I took my video camera into the streets in search of the wily Meleagris gallopavo, and found them only a half block from our front porch. Here are a few minutes of video from that encounter.


The gobbler turned out to be all bluff, and not much of that. I could not induce him to come towards me, much less attack, and shortly after I turned off the camera, he flew up onto a roof to join his hens, away from our prying eyes.

One interesting behavioral note: If you listen closely, you can hear the scrape of his wingtips on the street. I wonder if that's an intentional warning signal. I noticed that he did that same thing each time he puffed up his plumage, but the sound effects were less effective when he was in the grass.

Neighborhood Killdeer
April 28, 2008 2:53 PM | Posted in: ,

Killdeer are exceedingly common throughout the US, and they're even regularly observed around bodies of water in our arid part of the state. Still, I haven't had the opportunity to observe them up close until a family took up residence around the stream and pond located in our new neighborhood.

I shot the following video this morning. It was unusually cold for this time of year - temps in the upper 30s - and the killdeer chicks were seeking warmth under mama's wings. The only problem is that there were too many of them and too little of her to go around. You'll also see a short clip of the "distraction behavior" killdeer use to draw predators away from their eggs or young.

I apologize for the shaky video, as I am too cheap to buy a camera with image stabilization, too unskilled to hold a zoomed-in shot steady, and too disorganized to remember to grab a tripod.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wildlife - Birds category.

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