Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Plain Day with Extravagant Expectations

Most of my day today will be spent toward tomorrow’s expectations.  I have family arriving tomorrow.  I don’t get to say that nearly enough.  It seems two generations of time has transformed a large family into a small family.  But small, like large, isn’t good or bad.  It just is.  I’m especially fond of my family--except for the fact that most of their lives are spent a distance away.  Any day I get to spend with family is an extravagant day.

Today will mostly be a plain day.  Today is about preparations.  A vegetable stew is in the crock pot.  Laundry is in the wash.  And a bit of cleaning will come about later today.  But I’ll still spend part of this afternoon in the field.  Mother Nature deserves daily attention. And She is never plain.
But a plain day, like an extravagant one, can be good or bad. It’s what I do with each day, and how I feel about my life on that particular day, that seems to make it a good one or a bad one.  My parents instilled in me the belief that any day spent with family is a good one.  That belief seems so very obvious after a half century of living.  And so when I do good things, in the presence of family, I’ve leap frogged from good to wonderfully extravagant. 
But I find complement in plainness.  And I probably need more plain days than most.  They fit my personality, not to mention my looks.  Perhaps that is why the Orange-crowned Warbler is one of my favorite feathered friends.  Field guides distinguish it from other warblers by its plainness.  I distinguish it by its cheerful and fluid movement as it gleans its day’s daily bread. 
Both the plainly and the extravagantly-costumed species of Aves can cause me to catch my breath—simply by watching as they go about their daily lives.  When left to themselves, they seem to spend their days with somewhat healthy habits.  Watching them reminds me…
Morning stretches and yoga positions add balance to life:

Daily intake of fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals:

Good hygiene and grooming are more important than fine clothes, jewelry and face paint:

When feeling stagnated by routine, taking the plunge and trying something new can be refreshing:

And when our lives include extravagant expectations, most especially with family and friends that give us community and love, there is no such thing as a plain looking warbler:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sighting (and Photographing) the Common Pauraque

Some days are a bit harder for me than others.  So I go birding.  I don’t plan an explanation of either statement.  I’d soon bore.
But I can easily share one reason that I watch birds: as far as they are concerned, I’m not a part of their world.  (Unless, of course, I do something stupid that forces them to flee my intrusion.)
Seems it would be arrogant of me to ponder their understanding of hue-mawn placement within Mother Nature’s living room.  So I don’t; and I kind of like that.  When watching birds live their lives, I don’t need to figure out my place in this world.  They don’t expect me to ponder my purpose or my goals; they are apathetic to my mistakes and my failures.  The birds just really don’t care.
So I go birding.  And I hope for certain species in specific locales.  Of course my allowance of hope rarely comes, regarding anything, unless something close to a 90% certainty is the likely outcome.  Less than 90% “likely” wanes hope for those of us from the school of hard knocks.  And what does this definition of hope mean in terms of bird sightings?  Well, I know better than to hope for a close encounter with a great number of “specialty” species found in North America, not to mention those wondrous Aves that never request passports to the U.S. 

Many Aves are truly beyond my knothole’s reach—due in part to my travel constraints, and in part to their whimsical behavior in extreme habitats.  I’ve longed to see rare warblers known to occasion remote locales in southeast Arizona.  But then, after researching the terrain that must be crossed to potentially sight them, I delete them off my “longing list”; and yes, I’m frequently disappointed by my own wimp factor.  But just because I don’t attempt hope over improbable sightings, doesn’t mean I don’t dream the dream of a personal encounter.
So begins the story of my sighting a Common Pauraque.  (Note: there are a LOT of interesting pronunciations of “pauraque” that I’ve heard in recent years.  Some pronunciations focus on what I’ll call a Texas dialect; some Spanish; some French; and some, well, other dialect of unknown origin.  But I personally like, and try to consistently pronounce, this species of Goatsucker with the Spanish influence of pa-RAH-key.  And yes, I said Goatsucker.)

The Common Pauraque is one of 8 species in the Aves family Caprimulgidae, or commonly, the Goatsucker family.  Within this family, taxonomists define 4 genera.  The Common Pauraque falls within the Nightjar genus.  How could I not be intrigued?  The pa-RAH-key is a Nightjar is a Goatsucker.
Nightjars forage exclusively at night, with insects their prey.  And during the day?  They sleep, of course, as would any hue-mawn with a third shift lifestyle.  As field guides and web portals describe, the Pauraque roosts (sleeps) on the ground, or on low branches, within the dense brushy understory of thick woods.  And if you’ve never seen a picture or photograph of a Common Pauraque, we’re talking serious camouflage!  And if you’ve never seen me foraging off-trail through dense understory within thick woods, it’s because you won’t!   I’ve been there and done that in the part of East Texas famously known as The Big Thicket.  My body’s response to chiggers, ticks, poison ivy and general allergic reactions made for a memorable—never again!  Give me a good trail, and I’m ready.  But what are the chances of a Common Pauraque sleeping trailside?

At best, wooded trails of south Texas only have broken underbrush, fallen tree limbs and various grasses and shrubs trailside:

 Wait a minute—what was THAT!  No—really?  From the trail!

Do you see it, just four feet from the trail's edge?

"Click-on" the photo below.  Do you see the feathers on the eyelid and ocular ring?!  And yes, that's one funky looking bill:

Some days are a bit harder for me than others.  And so I go birding...

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Northern Parula at Estero Llano Grande State Park

My first sighting of a Northern Parula was at Stephen F. Austin State Park in April of 2006.  That sighting’s Parula was doing exactly what you’d expect:  moving about the upper canopy of the campground’s taller hardwood trees, foraging in and out of the Spanish Moss.  My views were almost straight up, over my head, with my 10x42s sharing incomplete glimpses of body parts as it moved about the canopy.   

I was thankful that I’d learned the habit of more seasoned birders, scanning the upper canopies of trees, looking for movement and hoping for something good.  I was thrilled when I spotted that day’s new lifer.  I stood and watched the Northern Parula for a good 30 minutes, until my arms began complaint and my neck felt like it was about to freeze in the uncomfortable skyward angle.   It was an easy identification with its distinctive coloring and bill, but I wished for a view of the total bird, holding still for more than two seconds.

This week gave me opportunity to visit Estero Llano Grande State Park, one of the nine sites that make up the RGV’s World Birding Center.  The birding at Estero was fantastic, including a granting of my wish from 2006.  I was slowly walking the trail to the Visitor’s Center after a morning of unsuccessful searching for the Rose-throated Becard, recently sighted in the park's Tropical Area.  
I saw a small bird blast past me, headed toward the citrus treats to the left of the cobblestone trail.  It would be easy to ignore, making assumption toward another Orange-crowned Warbler.  But I have a special fondness for the Orange-crowned, and I am not particularly inclined to ignore any bird that may grant me viewing.  I was delighted with full viewing of this Northern Parula as it gleaned the sweet juices of the citrus pinwheels:

One of the more distinct features of the Northern Parula is its bill.  The upper mandible (upper half of bill) is dark, blending in color with the crown of its head; the lower mandible (lower half of bill) is pale, blending in color with the beautiful yellow throat and breast:

More advanced birders will note the darkish toes, contrasted to the yellow toes of many field guides and photographs.  I do not know if this is a non-mating color, a first winter coloring, or simply a nominal range of coloring that is more frequently yellow. 

I also noted from my own web searches that hybridization between the Northern and Tropical Parula (in Texas) is considered frequent in occurrence.  The subtle markings of this Parula’s breast and head, and my own inexperience with this species cause me to wonder if it has some hybridization heritage. 
This particular view gave me pause to stop and pay tribute to its beauty:

Every once in a while Mother Nature simply grants our wish, and for me it was a close range, full viewing of this beautiful Wood-Warbler.  Of course like most granted wishes, it involves some effort on our part.  And for me, it was a great day in the field at the very unique Estero Llano Grande State Park.

NOTE:  I would welcome comments to this blog regarding the photos.  I would especially welcome comments from more seasoned birders with knowledge regarding the toes and/or hybridization markings of Parulas.  And for those of you birders not familiar with blogging, simply “click on” the “__ Comments” text link directly below this blog (next to the “Posted by Emily” timestamp phrase).  The “__” may be 0, 1, 2, etc. depending on whether or not others have posted a Comment.  On the “Leave a Comment” page, after you type into the Leave a Comment box, you are asked to provide the “Word Verification” phrase as shown.  This adds safety to the comment posts.  And in terms of your identification, you can choose Anonymous—but I hope you’ll add your first name to your comment so that I’ll know the source.  So Elric, Jim, Rick, John, Audrey, Javier and others—what say you regarding the toes and coloring of this particular Parula?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Getting Along

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “getting along”—I’m not certain that I know what it means.  Seriously.  If I take these two words apart from each other, it seems I’d never think to put them back together.  Are you getting it?  I’ve never been along this road before. 

And it is so easy to morph “getting along” into completely different expressions:  you get along; get on along now; not getting along at all. How are you getting along? Or how about, get along little doggies…

I like this national holiday we call Martin Luther King Day.  I won’t pretend to know a lot about the man.  All I know is that I’m much more comfortable honoring Martin Luther King than I am honoring Christopher Columbus.  But that’s just my knothole view.
I do know that birding helps me realize the importance of observation.  I’ve learned that it is difficult for me to truly observe what Mother Nature has created if I take things for granted, or if I just make ignorant assumptions, or if I forget to pause and study what may seem common place.

Sometimes I assume things with just half a glance.  I saw a bird sitting on a tree limb, from behind, and assumed it was an Eastern Phoebe.  I almost didn’t put my 10x42s on it.  And then I did, and I was surprised by a hint of blue and rufous coloring:

I wasn’t looking at an Eastern Phoebe; I was looking at an Eastern Bluebird:

And is an Eastern Bluebird a “better” bird than an Eastern Phoebe?  No, and I’m not sure the question makes sense.  But I had made assumptions, with a quick glance, and formed an opinion that was wrong.  I tend to do that with Hue-mawns more often than with Aves. 
And sometimes as a birder I give chase to the new and the rare, and forget to find the beauty in the common and the familiar.  How often do I stop and really study a Common Moorhen, and note the beauty of its ruby eyes and subtle markings against its uniquely black body?

I like to reflect today, not only on specific quotes by Martin Luther King, but also on my own observations of change to my corner of the world since the 1960’s.  I especially like to reflect on a quote I heard many years ago.  A 5 year old child was attempting to explain their understanding of Martin Luther King’s message.  And with the wisdom and words of that 5 year old:

“We don’t have to all like each other, but can’t we all just get along?”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Pyrrhuloxia and The Double-stuff Oreo

Have you ever thought that you were completely alone, and so you stuffed a huge bite of your favorite snack into your mouth?  You know--the kind of huge bite that just tastes better, but requires full attention to avoid choking or spewing food across the room?  I mean the kind of HUGE bite that requires a first or second chomp of the molars, without being able to close your lips?  Come on, you know what I’m talking about…

For me it is a Double-stuff Oreo cookie.  Yes, I admit it. I can cram an entire Double-stuff in my mouth.  The chocolate cookie and vanilla-cream “stuff” pretty much explode into a guilty pleasure that even my salt-of-the-earth grandmothers would have forgiven; but I’m fairly sure that both would have reminded me of the sinfulness of gluttony.  
I could rationalize:  by popping the entire Oreo, I avoid dealing with chocolate cookie-crumbs on the sofa (of course spewing is not an option in my living room).  But I’ll just go ahead and confess; Oreos taste better when stuffed.
But I don’t partake in such guilty pleasure in front of the rick-man or other species of humans.  My Oreo gluttony is usually saved for a solo evening of watching humans on TV, where they can’t watch back.  Kind of like congregations on Sunday mornings, texting and checking smart phone Apps while sitting in a favorite pew, assuming the preacher can’t see them.  We are so conditioned by TV that we forget that the watchers are sometimes watched.
And what is our reaction when caught with a mouthful?  The hand instantly goes up, in front of the mouth, hiding the chewing and crunching crime.  It is especially fun when you see someone with an overflowing mouthful quickly cup their hand in front of their mouth, and begin some attempt at verbal communication to imply nominal behavior.  I’ve done it; I’ve seen others do it; have you?
And where could I possibly be going with this story?  Well, this past Monday morning found me birding the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands site of the World Birding Center.  I was standing very still, up against a brushy area of the front gardens.  White-crowned Sparrows, Long-billed Thrashers, Olive Sparrows, and Lesser Goldfinch were but a few of the many birds sharing this spot with me.  And then suddenly, in flies a male Pyrrhuloxia, perching not far in front of me, eye level. 
This Pyrrhuloxia did not see me; otherwise, he’d be gone.  From his world view he was alone. And he was toting a bird’s equivalent to a Double-stuff Oreo.  A mouthful of feasting was about to begin:

I mean, we’re talking a bill-full, and the Pyrrhuloxia has one serious bill:

But this Pyrrhuloxia does what most species of Aves will do; they will look around to make sure they are dining in peace:

And yes, he seems to be looking harder in my direction:

And then he gives that wonderfully human-like look; a look that is something of a cross between being startled and being guilty--caught quite simply with the crime of an over-stuffed bill:

And what does he do?  The same thing we humans would do—he hid his bill from my view!  The open-billed feasting began from behind the cover of a convenient branch!
And all the while he chomped his tasty treat, he seemed to watch this watcher:

And if you didn’t “click on” the photos to get a full-screen view, give it a try.  This beautiful Pyrrhuloxia (with a limited U.S. range of southwest Texas and the very southern tips of New Mexico and Arizona) will give you something to look at while craving your favorite snack!  I’ve just added Double-stuff Oreos to the grocery list…

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bentsen State Park’s Guided Bird Walk: The Black-vented & Much More!

If you haven’t spent a Sunday morning enjoying the Bentsen Guided Bird Walk, you are missing a real treat!  This park-hosted twice weekly event is free, with the price of park entrance (which is also free for Texas State Park Pass holders).   If Sunday mornings do not work for your schedule, the Guided Bird Walk is also available on Wednesday mornings, at 8:00 a.m. (during the winter season).
Today’s birding guide, Javier de Leon, is the Bentsen State Park Biologist and one of the park’s team of outstanding naturalists.  Javier is an avid birder, and an outstanding guide for both beginning and seasoned birders.  Listen closely as he describes the birds and habitat of this park and you’ll note that he mentions his birding experiences on his days off.  Yes, when “on duty” as a state park employee, he is leading bird walks, one of several of his official park duties; and when he has a day off, you may run across him in the birding field!
Each Sunday morning’s Guided Bird Walk begins at 8:00 a.m. at the World Birding Center (WBC) Headquarters building.  Be sure to arrive a little before 8:00 to acquire your day pass from the Bentsen Park Store, within the WBC building. A human line was beginning to form at 7:50 a.m. this morning as I was “banded” with my day pass, a paper wristband that gives access to the park throughout each day’s date of admittance.
The walk is scheduled from 8:00-10:00 a.m., but when the birding is abundant, as this morning, don’t be surprised if Javier does not rush to complete by 10:00 a.m.  I’ve never heard a birder complain. 
We begin the morning’s Guided Walk at the World Birding Center Headquarters’ grounds, with Javier providing information and immediate sightings:

A Black Phoebe greets us as we make our way into the park, a first of many “good gets” for the morning.  The Easter Phoebe has a broad range through the mid and eastern United States but the Black Phoebe is a southwestern specialty.  Its arrival to the RGV is a probable example of ongoing habitat change and/or species adaptation:

The group stopped at the Interpretive Center’s bird feeders and we were rewarded with a coveted “get” for even the most-experienced birders:  The Black-vented Oriole.  (Note that the upper right side of my blog’s home page includes a listing of “Emily’s Favorite Post Links”;  the second link, titled “The Black-vented Oriole” provides additional information about this fabulous and rare visitor.  As mentioned in that blog post, you won’t find the Black-vented Oriole in a North American field guide.  It is a Mexican and Central American specialty.
I’ll include an almost-focused photograph from this morning, as our group got quick looks at the Black-vented Oriole:

 This Black-vented is developing a reliable morning habit of flying into this area of the park to enjoy the specialty treats that wait.  Park volunteers provide a wonderful service with their care and maintenance of the park’s many feeders.  This second photo from the morning’s guided walk accentuates the species’ black vent, for which this oriole acquired its name:

When not watching the Black-vented Oriole, our group got great looks at both a Clay-colored Thrush and an Altamira Oriole.  I encourage a check of your field guide and note the range map for both of these species. These two beautiful birds have a bird's version of a U.S. passport that ONLY bring them as far north as the Rio Grande Valley!

Our group's look at a Clay-colored Thrush:

Our group’s look at an Altamira Oriole:

Javier drives one of the two trams supporting today’s guided walk, sharing his knowledge and experience about the birds, habitat and history of the park:

We stop at Kingfisher Overlook where we are greeted with good looks at both Green and Ringed Kingfishers.  The group then turns our attention to a fabulous sighting of two Pied-billed Grebes and two Least Grebes swimming alongside each other in the park’s beautiful Resaca.  The more experienced birders called out distinguishing markings between the two species:

We walk across the beautiful picnic area to the Kiskadee trail.  Jim Bangma, park volunteer and experienced birder, points out a reliable location for a Screech-Owl.  We get a delightful “bird’s eye view” of this beautiful owl, as it slept in a tree's notch, blending in so perfectly that it was almost invisible.  This “get” of the Screech-Owl is a wonderful example of the benefits of joining a Guided Bird Walk.  Without the experience and knowledge provided by those volunteers and staff familiar with the park, the owl is missed by almost all that walk by (that is the owl’s intent).  The sharing of this Screech-Owl’s location came with an appropriate request—do NOT attempt to invade the privacy of this owl (or other species in the park) by getting too close for viewing or photography.  We want this particular owl to keep this spot as its daily safe haven for slumber.   
We ride the tram to the Hawk Tower, and from its incredible vista views, we sight Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and several other waterfowl.  I could hear Verdin scolding in the trees below and behind us.  And did I take pictures?  No.  I was too busy delighting in great views via Javier’s park-provided scope.  Because of that scope, and park volunteer Jim Bangma, I added a new lifer that was sorely missing from my life list:  the Stilt Sandpiper. 
Only yesterday I was at the hawk tower with my trusty 10x42’s.  But neither their power nor my solo ability would have allowed me to differentiate the Stilt Sandpiper from the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs that were present at this viewing distance and easterly-facing morning light.  But today I was on a park-facilitated free tour that included Jim Bangma’s volunteer time.  Jim provided the group an impromptu lesson in the differentiation and sighting of the Stilt Sandpiper.  Even silhouetted, I now feel confident in its differentiation from the two species of Yellowlegs. 
And as Javier drove us back to the WBC Headquarters’ building, an alert member of our morning’s group spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched openly at eye level for our pleasure.  I took a quick look, but my mind was already focused on opening my Excel spreadsheet and checking a new lifer, the Stilt Sandpiper.  Thank you Javier and Jim!  And thanks to Bentsen State Park for this wonderful service.  If you haven’t spent a Sunday morning enjoying the Bentsen Guided Bird Walk, you are missing a real treat!
(A couple noteworthy points: first, this “walk” is really a comfortable tram ride throughout the park.  No strenuous walking is required, and most of the “birdy spots” along the route have benches for those that may need seating.  Second, this guided walk is a wonderful experience for both beginning and advanced birders.  A positive group dynamic flows easily, with enthusiastic sightings from all.  Each time I participate, I learn something new.  Javier encourages dialogue, and the morning’s more-experienced birders add knowledgeable tidbits, while the less-experienced birders add enthusiasm that makes each sighting a joy.)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Supporting Bentsen State Park's Christmas Bird Count

Have you ever studied really hard for an exam, and then after taking it, felt like it was almost too easy?  Have you ever walked out of an exam and felt disappointed that your hard studies and knowledge acquired just weren’t exercised by the test?   Well, that was a bit of my sensation after yesterday’s experience with the Bentsen Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

Don’t get me wrong.  It was an amazing day and I’m extremely happy to have participated.  I learned some things and I met some extraordinary people.  But yesterday was what birders call a “dead day” in the field.  Our team of six experienced birders, working one of several zones for the count, only sighted some 45 different species for the day.  Other CBC teams birded different habitat zones within Bentsen, and the total count for the day’s CBC will be much higher, but probably not one for the record books.
As with many circumstances in life, there is a cause, or multiples causes, that will explain the effects for most of life’s situations. Sometimes we choose to ignore the causes.  Sometimes we want to deny the causes.  And sometimes we just don’t understand the causes.  And we find ourselves in life situations that leave us feeling confused or disappointed; or victimized; or perhaps other situations that leave us feeling blessed by some life “gift” that we just don’t understand.  I believe it is the understanding of life situations that enables us to learn; to grow; to better equip ourselves for the good, the bad and the downright wrong of what each day of living can throw at us.
Experienced birders won’t write off a dead day as just an accidental circumstance.  The cause or causes will be discussed and evaluated.  All living habitats are undergoing change.  Some changes are so slow that all but the experts do not notice them.  And some changes are so rapid that they impact havoc on all involved.  Survivors of Hurricane Ike, and of the Bastrop County fires, are easy examples of victims created by rapid, unexpected change. 
And for Bentsen State Park, is there some significant causal impact that might affect the birding habitat?  Two specific events can be considered causal factors influencing the current habitat:  flood and drought.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Our CBC day placed us in the field soon after 7:00 a.m.  This untouched photo appears dark, as dawn was just arriving:

Our group of six experienced birders was led by “Red” and “Louise”.  These two fascinating birders have been married over 50 years, and have birded Bentsen State Park every winter since 1984.  Red is pushing the age of 88 and Louise is within two years of that number.  Red walked and birded (and cleared debris from the trail) a good three hours before taking a rest to sit for awhile.  Louise walked and birded the day, with the rest of us striving to keep up.  Her skills with aural cues and bird calls were extraordinary.  She did not delegate the record keeping for the day, just as other good CBC leads don’t.  And so she walked, birded, and real-time recorded (with pencil and small pad), the days sightings for both unique species and total numbers of each species sighted.  She told us stories of this wonderful place.  She shared her some twenty-seven years of experience with the land's habitat, pointing out the locations where past year’s valley “specialty” species could be found, but are now mostly absent.
And although the team’s human factors made the day a good one, this field day was wearied by a dead day of birding, the current consequences of recent flooding and drought.   July 2010 brought Hurricane Alex to the mountains of Northern Mexico, the causal event for torrential rains that flooded the Rio Grande, the Arroyo Colorado, and pretty much all of the RGV’s floodway system.  Bentsen State Park was flooded, with different areas of the park completely underwater between a period of one month and six months.
One might think the below photo is a result of drought, but in fact it is a result of a key habitat area being underwater for some six months.  The impact on birding habitat is obvious:

But flooding also provides long term benefits.  The RGV is a known jewel to both birders and produce consumers.  This area is famous for its farming, especially of citrus products.  And the richness of the soil is in fact based on a long history of natural flooding.  This land is constructed of layer upon layer of sediment created by centuries of the Rio Grande flooding.  Geologists would call it a rich and fertile alluvial plain.  Native shrubs and trees such as Cedar Elm, Sugar Hackberry, Rio Grande Ash, Anacua and the beautiful Texas Ebony provide botanical canopy.  And this canopy brings birders from around the world to chase the valley specialties.
And so just as naturalists and farmers alike were reacting to the significant flooding of 2010, the 2011 drought brought significant impact to the RGV, just as it damaged much of Texas.  (Reference my August 2011 blog post on the drought conditions at Brazos Bend State Park and my December 2011 blog post on “Hundreds of Millions Dead”—the impact to Texas trees.)
The impact of the 2011 drought on the Bentsen habitat is still being realized.  This photo of an open field area with riparian wood and Resaca (to the right and left), would normally be spilling over with species such as sparrows, meadowlarks and pipits.  But yesterday there were none.  As one of the most experienced of our team noted, the field was obviously absent of insects.  The drought’s damaging impact on the food chain was staring at us, silent:

But we continued our birding through multiple habitats, with part of our day alongside the Rio Grande River, quite full to its banks this day:
And even though yesterday was a “dead day” for our birding team, time will bring end to the current drought cycle—or it will bring a slow change to a more arid habitat—and new bird species already finding their winter home here, such as the beautiful Verdin and Pyrrhuloxia, better known to southwestern locales.  Neither of these species were to be found in the RGV when Louise first birded this land.
For me it was a rewarding day to both learn from, and enjoy the company of other passionate birders.  I learned yesterday that the song of the Olive Sparrow is a series of sharp, hard chips that increase in frequency upon ending.  I learned from a more experienced birder to think of the sound of a basketball, dribbled on court as it is lowered and stopped on the wooden surface by the dribbler’s hand.  The Olive Sparrow sings the song of a basketball player that elegantly dribbles the ball to rest.
I also learned that if I have the rare opportunity to bird this place the next twenty-six years, I may be able to share stories of both the hardships and the benefits of habitat change.  This year's myopic view of the flood and the drought may soon be rewritten, within the upcoming years, of habitat changes that bring a bounty of specialties to this place.  To know a place, as to know a person, takes time--and simply being there for both the bad days and the good days.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that contrary to popular opinion, birders DO have a wonderful sense of humor.  And so a last photo to honor this dead day in the field.  When all else fails, a sense of humor can go a long way for making even a dead day, a really good day:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Day of Study, a Day of Anticipation

Not every day can be a day out in the field chasing birds, dragonflies, butterflies or other natural wonders.  But tomorrow will be a BIG field day for me.  I report to the World Birding Center headquarters building at 6:30 a.m. to participate in the Bentsen State Park Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

If you are not familiar with the CBC, you can Google:  “Christmas Bird Count” to find the fascinating and informative link to the Audubon Society’s web page on all things CBC.  This yearly event, occurring throughout the Americas, is the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world.  Thousands of volunteers (including me) will report to a multitude of locations to count bird sightings for the day.  The “Christmas” designation for this bird count has an interesting history.  Look it up—you may decide to start a CBC on your own land.

The CBC is not about finding a particular species (although there are coveted species at each locale). Nor is the CBC a simple list of unique species for the day; it is about counting ALL numbers for each species.  For example, last year’s spreadsheet tallies a whopping 1,430 Red-winged Blackbirds sighted at Bentsen.  Other locales, including multiple locations in Arkansas, will tally much larger numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds.  But Bentsen will include sightings of species found nowhere else in the United States.  And, as you would guess, the locale with the most unique species for the CBC count day is especially honored in the birding world. 

I’ve supported past years’ Freeport, Texas CBC counts, as a part of Elric’s team.  Freeport is always one of the birdiest spots in the nation.  From Elric I’ve learned that there are techniques for counting large numbers of a single species, and techniques for going after a large number of unique sightings.  A highly successful (and accurate) CBC day requires both. I’m continuing to learn the challenging and unique skills required for both techniques, and will learn more from tomorrow’s experience.

I am thrilled with the privilege of being a part of the World Birding Center’s CBC.  And so just showing up at 6:30 a.m. with binoculars and day pack (with water and field guide) is not good enough.  A week ago I e-mailed Bentsen's ornithological naturalist a request for a copy of last year’s CBC tally.  He provided me with an excellent spreadsheet listing, and I am doing some “home work” studies to better prepare myself as a useful Citizen Scientist for tomorrow’s day of counting.  The day of the CBC is NOT a day to be turning to field guides to recognize a species.

And so today is a study day for me.  Today is a stellar weather day in the RGV, but I’m spending most of the day inside the CoachHouse, with last year’s list of species sighted, field guides, and lots of Earl Grey tea.  It has been awhile since I’ve focused a day on study. 

And how will I do tomorrow?  That will be a next blog, after tomorrow’s big event.  But today I’m feeling pretty good about my field guide studies—but identification of book pictures is always easier than sightings in the field.  And will I be able to differentiate a Tropical Kingbird from a Couch’s Kingbird if given opportunity through my trusty 10x42’s?  You look up these two beautiful species of kingbirds, and tell me your hints.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Years Day: Waking Up Early and Finding a Smile

I’ve never been one to call out “Happy Holidays!” or even “Happy New Year!”  And fitting my birding personality, I tend to welcome the New Year rather early on the 1st rather than late night on the 31st. 
I don’t make resolutions (I promise).  And I don’t tend to wax poetic on reflections and forward resolve on this particular date.  I save that waxing and waning for the other 364 days of the year.
I’ll openly confess that 2011 was not one of my favorite years.  It just seems most of it was kind of hard.  But I’ve always loved the saying, “leave them laughing when you go.”  So this past year went; and I’m kind of glad.  Let me leave it laughing--or at least, finding a smile.  
I thought these photographic observations "just might" help start your 2012 with a smile:
Is it the leaders or the followers that get us in a tight spot?

If you sit on the edge of the pool, be prepared to be splashed by the show-offs.

If you jump into the pool, be prepared for the universally playful “water push” that young and old give better than we receive.

I never look graceful when I’m caught with lime green gummies stuck on my bill.

My eyes are often bigger than my stomach.

I keep having this dream where I’m falling…or was it that someone pushed me away?

Is living green as easy as talking about going green?

I don’t always approach sticky situations with my best side.

I’m not always good at keeping a poker face, especially when I’m hurting.

Yes, I have a fear of heights; but I’ll climb almost any mountain to get a better view.

We don’t have to all share the same view, but couldn’t we just spend more time together in peace, harmony and ….

May all your 2012 days be birdy days.