Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Village of Juvenile Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (a Mamma's View)

The 2012 Summer Olympics finally got underway with opening ceremonies last night.  I’ll miss the social aspects of the workplace next week as I can imagine the cacophony of opinions that will be expressed about this particular ceremony.  I don’t have a strong opinion to share.  I was mainly impressed with the choreography of so many people and so much stuff.  I was especially impressed when I thought about how much time the night’s thousands of adults and children had volunteered, spending a lot of that time standing and waiting during rehearsals (and mainly keep their lips sealed regarding the event).  OK, ok, ok, I have to agree with Bob Costas--that really big baby was a bit creepy.

I must confess that my favorite part of last night’s opening ceremony was one particular Olympic-oriented commercial.  The commercial portrayed elementary-aged children as if they were competing in the Olympics. Each child-Olympian prepared for his or her unique competition, sporting attire that matched their particular event.  The premise of the commercial (from my knothole) is that mothers always see their offspring—no matter how old, and no matter how successful--as their children.  Motherhood and apple pie—how can you not smile?
Birds, like humans, possess an extremely diverse set of extincts when it comes to raising their young.  Some parents (birds, that is) simply push their hatchlings out of the nest as soon as their youngsters can fly.  Some adult females keep their juveniles with them until their offspring reach adult maturity (with dad no where in sight).  And then at maturity, the newly adult males are kicked out of the matriarchal society while the young-adult females remain and become a part of the social group (Red-winged Blackbirds are a great example).

Some Aves offspring never return to the original nesting grounds of their birth but make their way off and alone to find new adventures with their own to-be-discovered mate(s).  And some other Aves offspring become a part of a multi-generational village of birds, traveling, nesting, and living out their lives in the company of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on.

Last night’s child-Olympian commercial made me think about a series of photos I recently shot at Brazos Bend State Park.   While walking around one of the park's oxbows, I came upon a village of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, overflowing with young juveniles.  My photographs don’t express the sounds of these hungry ducklings—their rapid dabbling for food instantly brought back the sounds of highschool typing class, where a gaggle of teenagers, in a 1970's classroom, were happily banging away on the modern-era's electric typewriters.  It turns out that the humming and clicking sound of a room full of electric typewriters is similar to the sound of a whole bunch of juvenile Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks dabbling in the green muck for their daily bread. 

A mamma Whistling-Duck looks on, and the juveniles feed with a typing frenzy:

I froze in place and tried not to move for fear the group would turn their backsides to me and swim toward the far bank.  Because I didn’t want to move about, I missed the ability to photograph the village adults—at least 6 mature Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks standing guard at strategic locations around this plethora of little ones.  Whether by accident or with intent, Coots and Little Blue Herons moved into the guarded “keep out zone” and were quickly chased away by the guards on duty.

I photographed the only adult (a Mamma?) that centered herself with the little ones:

My stealthy viewing was rewarded by this attentive mamma not turning away:

And one particular little one seemed especially curious about my presence:

Mother Nature gifted these Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with an innate nature to protect and guard their young.  Time will only tell the future story of these juveniles—and whether or not they grow up and become a part of this Black-bellied Whistling-Duck village.  Not all of us can grow up to be Olympic athletes.  But our mammas usually think we’re pretty special, even if we do wander about staring at birds. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Siblings, Some Half-Century Later

Like many American families, mine is spread out across multiple states.  If I could change this geographic wandering, especially the miles of distance apart from my siblings, I certainly would.  But I learned a long time ago that families, like birds, often live their lives far from their original nesting ground.  And so comes the advantage of owning a condo-on-wheels, proving a great way to visit family and friends, in-between use in our glorious state and national parks.  A great way, that is, when not holding family reunions in July, during the certain heat and humidity of our Lone Star State.  But this kid sister spends time with her brothers any chance she gets.

And so this past weekend found the rick-man and me in central Texas, partaking in a wonderful reunion with my siblings and the families we each have created.
I am never certain what food we may eat when we gather, or what conversations and recent life experiences we may share, but I’m always confident that we will spend time outside—no matter how hot or humid.  A passion and respect for Mother Nature are strong family values that give we three unique offspring a common ground.  We three siblings honor our parents through individual hobbies and interests that reflect a childhood where camping trips were what was meant by vacation; where “free-time” meant outdoor play; and where “include your sister” meant I was always in for a wonderful adventure.

Pictures tell the story better than words.  A childhood of outdoor play where toys were often empty boxes and inner tubes:

State park hikes included being carried "in the arm chair" when kid sister couldn't keep up:

And some half-century later, a day hike is what we mean by a reunion outing:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Birds and the Mushrooms: Some of Mother Nature's Manna

I may have multiple vices but I don’t think anyone would call me a birding snob.  I love to bird watch—literally just stand or sit and watch birds. I love to study and learn about birds; and I love to talk and spend time in the field with other birders.  I also enjoy taking non-birders out in the field, sharing an extra pair of binoculars, and hopefully sparking their interest in my feathered friends.  But I’m not a birding snob. 

It’s not only that I know several birders that are MUCH more knowledgeable than I (with much longer life lists). It’s not only that I know several birders that are also great naturalists, with detailed understanding of habitats and other, non-feathered specimens of Mother Nature’s creatures.  It’s quite simply that when it comes to my vices, being a factoid snob isn’t really one of them.  There are simply too many facts that I know that I don’t know; and, as the saying goes, there are way too many facts that I don’t even know can be known.
No, I am not a factoid snob which pretty much prevents me from being a birding snob.  But I admit, when a good friend or family member says “Look at that amazing-looking bird!” I will respond with some phrasing that clarifies the species name of the Aves in question.  “Yes, isn’t that a beautiful Great Blue Heron?” 

Or a friend will say, “Goodness, look at that!”  And I’ll reply, “Doesn’t the Great Blue Heron have an extraordinary neck?”

My taxonomy clarification of a “bird” is not based on snobbery.  I simply believe that saying “bird” does not pay homage to these feathered beauties and their unique species attributes.  I prefer to be called by name—shouldn’t they?

And so this past week found me walking my neighborhood (in between torrential rains).  I was not chasing birds but looking for photographic opportunities to practice depth of field techniques with my 180mm macro lens.  A friend called me to suggest that I check out a colony of mushrooms sprouting against the trunk of one of our neighborhood’s beautifully-canopied Live Oak trees.
And even though my depth of field technique needs work, I was pleased to sight and photograph these lovely mushrooms:  


Those mushrooms:

What kind of mushrooms?  I really don’t know.  But aren’t they pretty?

My best guess is a hypholoma fasciculare, or sulfur tuft mushroom.  But this guess reminds me of a beginning birder spotting a fairly large white bird and guessing a Snowy Egret, only to learn it is a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
And so I think of one of my favorite words that carries a meaning not commonly understood:  manna (as in “manna from heaven”); my understanding (confirmed by an online search engine) is that the Hebrew definition of manna quite literally means “What is it?”  So those 40-year wanderers would sight some cache from heaven, run over to it and wonder:  “What is it?”  I can’t help but picture a great cartoon series of the “What is it?” kind.

So next time you sight a bird, a mushroom or some other natural wonder, ask yourself “What is it?”  A bit of manna from Mother Nature…
(And if one of my blog readers happens to know the “What is it” answer for these mushrooms, your non-snobbish factoid knowledge would be greatly appreciated.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

"Got Milk?" Yes, says this Whistling-Duck

While shooting photos of the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons at Brazos Bend State Park, I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched.  And, in fact, I was.  This Black-bellied Whistling-Duck seemed to be taking it all in. Whether mostly curious or somewhat envious of the paparazzi-like attention I was giving the night-herons, I couldn’t decide.   

But when I turned to look at this whistling-duck, the opaque off-white color of his bill tip seemed to stand out more than usual.  It reminded me of those glossy magazine “Got Milk?” commercials.  You know the ones--those full page pictures of some famous person with a milk mustache painted on their upper lip.

I’ve often wondered why this bodacious duck, named for his black belly (just peeking out of the lower left side of this picture), didn’t warrant a name that emphasized its pink legs or bright orange bill or white-ringed eyes that give it that look of a waterfowl’s version of a rock star; or maybe a Muppet.  Either way, they are great fun to photograph and often ready and willing to pose for the camera.
No Photoshop editing required for this photo's star to sport a milk mustache.  Don’t you think this whistler warrants a “Got milk?” advertising gig?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Brazos Bend

My favorite photo from this week’s rainy daytrip to Brazos Bend State Park was of this Yellow-crowned Night-Heron:

Or maybe this one is my favorite.  You decide:

Although the Yellow-crowned Night Heron is mainly nocturnal in nature (thus the name), it is commonly sighted by both birders and non-birders when driving along suburbia’s roads, especially when driving next to low lying fields (or drainage ditches) with standing water after a good rain.   The Yellow-crowned will appear “frozen” as if someone just called out “Red Light!” in a childhood game of Red Light/Green Light.  Their frozen yoga-like pose usually finds them eyeing the shallow standing water. This roadside “Red Light” behavior makes sense with the knowledge that crawfish, as well as crabs, are their preferred diet.  I’ve had non-birder friends ask me: “What is that bird that looks like a dinosaur, stands next to the drainage ditch, and doesn’t move at all?”  Well, my friends have usually identified a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron; and one that is patiently waiting to grab a crawfish.

And even though Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are a fairly common sighting, they are not overly friendly to photographers or birders wanting a close encounter.  They like a good distance away from huemawns, especially when fishing or taking a daytime nap.  This is not unfamiliar behavior to me, but pretty much reminds me of my own family members.   

But this rainy daytrip to Brazos Bend allowed me fairly close encounters with the two mature adults in the above photographs.  Both were aware of my solitary presence but stayed put with the spitting rain and dark skies. Both seemed ready to fly at any moment, carefully watching my slow arm and hand movement as I changed camera settings and protected gear from the rain.

This photo of one, magnified to the point of being blurry, shows the nictating membrane shuttering across the eye.  The nictating membrane is a translucent eyelid that provides protection and moisture while allowing the bird to maintain visibility.  Note that it moves horizontally across the eye:

As I walked further along the trail, I caught these two juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in full juvenile camouflage: 

These two juveniles were well trained by Mother Nature to instinctively go “up” if suspecting threat, so I only got the one photo above before they became the difficult to shoot (photograph) “juvenile in tree”:

Next time you are driving along the gulf coast after a good rain, take a look at areas of standing water and you may too sight these herons of the night, chasing crawfish with the greatest of patience.  Red light!

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Little Blue Heron at Brazos Bend

This week’s rainy daytrip to Brazos Bend State Park gave me chance to study and photograph several of the “locals”; those beautiful Aves that make this upper gulf coast habitat their year-round residence.  I’ve decided to break apart my “trip report” into multiple blogs, focusing attention and photographs on unique species sighted as well as an upcoming blog on current habitat conditions.  My first post was about the Anhinga.  Today I want to post photos of the Little Blue Heron.

Herons, Egrets and Bitterns are members of the Order Ciconiiformes (which also includes storks, ibises, spoonbills, and vultures) and the Family Ardeidae.

Ardeids are not vegetarians.  These carnivores are expert fishermen.  It is great fun to watch their innate stealthy-slow movement of long legs and necks, and then sudden forward thrust of body and bill to spear a fish or frog or other aquatic animals.  It can be comical to watch an Ardeid spear an oversized fish with their long pointed bill and then attempt to maneuver the fish off of their bill and into their mouth for a single “down the hatch” dinner.  It took Tom Hank’s character in “Cast Away” a good number of years to acquire this life-saving skill.  The spearing, that is.  I have to believe these expert Aves fishermen were role models for the nonfictional Native American fishermen of centuries ago.

Some of the Ardeid species exhibit what ornithologists call “polymorphism” of plumage.  Simply said, a species can have either light or dark-colored plumage, and birders will refer to sighting a “light morph” or a “dark morph” individual.  The Reddish Egret is most commonly sighted as a dark morph—a slate-gray body with reddish neck and head.  But birders love sighting the white-morphed Reddish Egret, simply because it is the statistically rare morph (Sibley’s estimates a 2-7% population of light-morphed Reddish Egrets on the gulf coast.)  These Reddish Egret light and dark morphs carry their plumage coloring throughout their lives.  It can be great fun to get a group of birders started on a discussion of the multiple current theories for this type of lifelong polymorphism. I can just sit back and watch the opinions fly.
The Little Blue Heron’s polymorphism is age specific.  The juvenile (early summer birth date until the following spring) is an all white morph.  The yearling Little Blue Heron is white with a mottling of dark gray feathers.  And the mature adult (by second year) is a beautiful dark gray-blue bird with a dusky-purple neck and head.

If you own a birding guide with pictures (or a computer with common search engines), take a look at the polymorph pictures of the Great Blue Heron, Reddish Egret and the Little Blue Heron.  Look carefully at their bill shapes and colors and compare those with the Great Egret and Snowy Egret.  Bill shape and bill coloring can be a great identification marker when viewing a potential white morph in the field.  The bill color will cleanly differentiate a white morph of a common dark species (such as a Reddish Egret) from other un-morphed white species such as the Great Egret or Snowy Egret.  
I won’t soon forget my first Freeport Christmas Bird Count (CBC) several winters ago when I took a too-quick binocular glance at a distant white-morphed Reddish Egret standing still against marsh grasses.  I assumed it was a Great Egret, expressing my confident opinion to the seasoned birder that I was shadowing for this CBC day.  “John” gently corrected my mistake and explained the bill markings and other field markings of this white-morphed Reddish Egret.  My moment of embarrassment quickly turned into a teachable moment and an extraordinary day of learning.
And so whether a beginning or seasoned birder, the summer season of birding at Brazos Bend State Park gives ample opportunity to sight and study the age-related polymorphism of juvenile, yearling and mature Little Blue Herons.
A beginning birder might glance at this juvenile and mistake it for a Snowy Egret.  But its bill, eye and leg coloring instantiate it to be a juvenile Little Blue Heron:

My favorite sighting is the yearling Little Blue Herons with their differing degrees of mottled gray-and-white coloring.  I spotted these two yearling Little Blues practicing the ways of patient fishermen:

And a photo of the beautiful 2+ year old Little Blue Heron, a probable parent to one or more of the many juveniles I spotted that rainy day:

The Little Blue Heron at Brazos Bend is worth a closer look, especially on a hot and rainy summer day when multiple generations of this Ardeid can be found fishing or eating or just sitting still and admiring the great outdoors.  Kind of sounds like my family’s yearly summer reunions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Anhinga at Brazos Bend

Yesterday was a day of gulf coast thunderstorms, heavy rains and spotty flooding.  It was the kind of day that beckons one to stay indoors if work and life allow.  And so the rick-man and I were out the door at an early hour, headed for a day trip into the great outdoors at Brazos Bend State Park.
This trip would be my first to Brazos Bend for the 2012 summer season.  We arrived just as the park was opening for day visitors, greeted by an empty parking lot, heavy clouds, seasonal humidity, and of course those Texas-sized mosquitoes.  It felt great to be putting on my rain jacket and slinging my daypack, binoculars and camera over my neck.  Wading boots and loose jeans completed an outfit that exposed only hands, neck and face to those pesky mosquitoes.  I hate using mosquito spray, but am thankful for its power over those flying, biting morsels of bird and bat food.

With an empty trail ahead of me and the rick-man some 50 yards behind, I immersed myself in a morning of birding photography.   The sky was dark with the threat of rain, and would darken as the morning progressed, not providing easy lighting conditions for shooting my camera at birds—but I couldn’t have been happier.  The on-and-off rain would make protecting my camera, lens and binoculars a challenge—but still, I couldn’t have been happier.  After all, “It Chanced to Rain” is one of my all-time favorite story and picture books.  I was in my element:

Brazos Bend ALWAYS provides a wealth of bird sightings; rainy days are no exception.  One of my favorite year-around park residents that rewards with reliable sightings is the magnificent Anhinga (of the Family Anhingdae, Order Pelecaniformes and Genus Darter).  The Anhinga is the only North American Darter.  A multitude of visits to Brazos Bend State Park have allowed me to watch the Anhinga and learn of reliable haunts to sight it from afar.  

I’ve watched this species perch on upper tree limbs, a distance away and over oxbow waters; they give an expert example to a watchful and patient fisherman that wants solitude along the bank of a quiet lake or river.  Any attempted approach toward the Anhinga’s perch and they fly away to another solitary fishing spot.  On occasion I’ve spotted an Anhinga flying surprisingly high in the sky; they soar with a beauty that challenges Raptors. And I’ve watched in wonder when an Anhinga swims the lake and oxbow waters.  It swims with its large body completely submerged; only its skinny neck and head are visible above water. 

This unusual swimming technique gives reason for the widely accepted common name for this Darter:  the snake-bird.   I’ve frequently stood on water’s edge and watched what appeared to be a snake magically dancing above the water, with a rhythmic movement that mimics a horse’s head pulling against its reins.  On closer inspection I realize it is a snake-bird, with skinny neck and long, pointed head swimming along much like a human’s dog-paddling swim style.
But this rainy day I was delighted to come upon a beautiful specimen of an Anhinga, perched low on a broken snag’s trunk, seemingly pondering the rainy day with a thoughtfulness that was lovely to watch: 

On occasion this Anhinga would turn to eye my watchfulness:

But mainly this Anhinga seemed lost in deep study of the oxbow, as the morning’s rain fell over it, producing lovely circles on the water’s surface.  I stayed very still and took multiple photos, varying my camera settings for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.  I felt rewarded by an almost studio-like sitting of this bird. I chose to work with the low lighting rather than fight it, increasing my shutter speed with a goal of paying homage to the contemplative pose of this beauty:

I won’t soon forget this day’s Anhinga, or the bond that we seemingly shared—a purposeful and solitary immersion into watchfulness.  Time spent to quietly observe this day’s gift from Mother Nature:  a good summer rain at Brazos Bend.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Stuff of Life

Three years ago the rick-man and I began that difficult process that adults sometimes self impose called “letting go of our stuff.” We (mainly me) were downsizing our “stuff” to fit into a small townhome and condo-on-wheels.  I let go of things that I’d held tight for many years, including my high school tennis letter-“man” jacket.  My definition of home and homestead changed. 
As we unpacked our things into the townhouse, the rick-man filled one of the two precious shelves of our to-be-shared computer desk with his old software programming books. I suggested that this particular set of books might better fill a shelf at a local used book store.  I quickly backed off after his unusually terse response. I realized that he needed those old C++, Windows and Ada (!) books; they were a part of his self identification.  And that was OK.  If he’d suggested I let go of my set of Kingsolver books, I’d have countered with, well, let’s just not go there.  (Of course I read Kingsolver on a yearly basis—a secret luxury of relationship with fictional characters that have become old friends, ready to spend time with me on a moment’s notice.)

And so this past week I got the urge to clean out more of “my” stuff. Three years of townhouse and condo-on-wheels living gave me objective evidence to the stuff of current use and the stuff of past use.  I filled three bags with old hardback books—some that had shared home with me for 30 years.  I emptied the far back corner of my closet from its contents: formal dresses and jackets, each carrying memories of church and work cultures that warranted such attire. I cleaned out drawers of stuff untouched in this three year history--old hobbies and interests of a life from no more land.  And as I piled my stack of stuff by the back door (an intentional “in the way” location to promote timely donation or recycle), I stared at that shelf of programming books.  I still judged them a passive monument to the rick-man’s former work life.  I’d not seen him open a book or turn a page these three years past.


With the best gentle spirit that I could muster, I asked the rick-man about adding his programming books to my own larger stack of books headed for donation.  To my surprise he quickly said, “That would be great!  I never use them—I’d appreciate it if you got rid of them.”  Well, just between you and me, I didn’t remind the rick-man of his response those 3 years ago.  I just happily added his books to my larger “not read in years” pile. 
I find joy in the knowledge that an empty book shelf will soon become filled with new (to us) books that represent the rick-man’s passions of today:  banjo, travel, nature, and more.  I look at that empty shelf and see the goals and interests of today and tomorrow.  I have never been much for man-made monuments to the past--unless of course I can view them from some lovely outdoor venue such as the National Mall.

I’m just beginning to understand that my beliefs, values and opinions are the stuff of my life that I hold tight to, until I’m ready to let them go.  And letting them go usually means I’m making space for personal growth to more current beliefs, values and opinions. The letting go doesn’t mean that I toss aside my core values that represent multi-generations of DNA influence and protestant work ethic.  Letting go of those would be like getting rid of my Kingsolver books. Not while I walk this earth. But it seems I should actively and consciously take an inventory, on occasion, of my beliefs, values and opinions—and ask myself the hard question: are they a monument to my past or are they an active part of my core personhood that I choose to grow and nurture and use—today?
Maybe I’ll put on some Joni Mitchell, open my old, yellowed copy of “Animal Dreams” and think about all this stuff tomorrow.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dear YRN

Dear YRN,

Your comments to my blog are greatly appreciated!  I read them and smile, with a wee bit of insight into your neighborly sense of humor that the rick-man and I greatly enjoy.
I’ve had (and have) friends and acquaintances that are easily comfortable with sharing news of their children, grandchildren, work, hobbies, travels and the things of life that are considered polite conversation.  Although I’m always glad to hear the “good news” they share, and always saddened to hear of any hard times that they are facing, I almost always feel a sense of loss over missed opportunities for personal relationship.  And when I ask to know what is on their mind, or initiate my interest to hear what they think or feel about some topic of interest or current event, I often note a squirming on their part.  I feel a deep sadness that is based on my own thirst for living water, but I quickly change the conversation to comments about the weather.  It is never my intent to make others uncomfortable.

But what a great day when I listen to someone candidly share their beliefs, opinions, goals or passions.  I am fascinated by the opportunity to glimpse WHO they are at that particular time in their lives. I listen with honest interest—whether I agree or disagree with their life views. 

And what a terrible day when I personally experience another’s attempt to convince me to hold their own beliefs, opinions, goals or passions—or attempt to convict me of the wrongness of mine.  I am frustrated that they pursue opportunity to change WHO I am and I listen with one thought in mind—closure and escape.  I find it rather interesting to ponder the root commonality for the words conversation and conversion.
When my head was without grey hair I was quite confident in a great deal more universal truths than I hold today.  I thought I could easily separate right from wrong, good from bad, constructive from destructive.  I don’t mean to imply that I don’t hold tightly to my own belief system—I’ve just uncovered that for MY life, dogma quickly creeps in if I don’t actively open myself to evolve my thoughts, beliefs and opinions as a path for personal growth.  But this evolving is based more on my own pondering (with a good dose of wondering and wandering) and based much less on other’s “going out and making” a convert of me.  Mother Nature openly shares her world view for me to ponder.  When humans share their world view, with open debate rather than intended conversion, I am blessed with much to ponder.

And yet I can laugh at my own stilted views and opinions—and love when others do the same, with a spirit of gentleness.  I am blessed to know a Martha in my life.  She is older, has experienced much, and is a survivor.  She has the most gentle of spirits and yet a depth of wisdom that I’ve rarely witnessed.  If I were asked to name the wisest people in this world, Martha would be on my list.  An example:  Martha was sharing with me, at my request, a personal view she holds on a subject that is quite complicated in this world of today.  I listened intently and then responded with:  “Martha, you are so wise—I always learn so much when you share your views with me.”  With a slight smile she replied:  “That is because we tend to think alike.”  She gave my arm a quick squeeze before walking away to a next life appointment.  As she walked off I pondered the wit and wisdom of her response.  Would I claim and proclaim her wisdom if she held values vastly different from mine?  You be the judge.  I already know the answer.  It feels good when others encourage me to laugh at myself, with loving intent.
And so YRN, I’ll look forward to a lively, constructive and laughter-filled conversation at our next sit down.  I enjoyed our last discussion, and find our different life views as interesting as our common beliefs.  But please remember, if good neighbors repeatedly ask to take you and the K out for dinner, a response of “That would be great!  How about tomorrow evening?” just might go a long way to making those neighbors feel a part of your life.  One just never knows the importance of accepting invitation as a way to making others feel valued.

Safe travels; keep commenting—and may all your days be birdy days.