The Rookery

 

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Roseate Spoonbill with Chick – Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary
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The Rookery

In the Spring the cacophony of sound that surrounds the High Island Rookery can be deafening. Just what is a Rookery? Think of it as a giant baby nursery for several species of birds. Cormorants, Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Herons arrive each Spring from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Driven by instinct to procreate, they begin the arduous task of building nests, laying their eggs and then waiting for the pipping to begin. As each new chick emerges from its shell and makes its way into the world, the parents begin hunting for food to feed the hungry begging mouths of their offspring. Featherless, flightless and totally dependent on Mom and Dad, they must eat, grow feathers and practice all the skills that will enable them to successfully fledge at the proper moment in time.

One of my favorite rookeries is located on High Island. High Island is so named because it is the highest point of land on the Bolivar Peninsula, a small barrier beach that borders the Gulf of Mexico. A huge salt dome rose from the earth to form this piece of land that is approximately 38 feet above sea level. A predator-free island is located in Clay Bottom Pond, which was originally created to help supply drinking water for the employees of the growing oil industry. Surrounded by marshy water, the birds find it to be an ideal location for building nests and raising their young. See more history of High Island at: http://www.houstonaudubon.org/default.aspx/MenuItemID/757/MenuGroup/High+Island.htm

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Great Egret Incubating Eggs

Once sites are selected in the trees and large shrubs on the island, the building begins. Each limb of the available trees is laden with nests, stacked one above the other. Picture a condominium for birds. Some wooden platforms have been built that are several layers high which are probably considered prime real estate in the bird world. (Take a moment here and think about where you might want your nest to be in a tree….on the top with blue sky above or on the bottom where bird droppings might fall upon you). The birds begin gathering sticks and fashioning their nests to their satisfaction.There is much stick stealing that occurs on the island as nest-building season begins. It appears frantic as everyone tries to “keep up with the Jones” in building a bigger and better nest. Once nest-building is completed, everyone gets busy laying their eggs followed by the boring job of incubation. They must be kept warm and turned periodically to keep the developing embryo from adhering to the inside of the egg-shell. It is an important job and all birds seem to instinctively know how to do these tasks. And of course, if one parent leaves the nest to forage for food, then the other parent usually steps in to take on the incubating duties. The ultimate goal is one that carries a heavy burden of responsibility….survival of their species on our planet.

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Juvenile “Teenage” Egrets

The spectacular show bursts into full glory when the eggs start hatching. The noise factor increases with the added voices of babies begging for food. Incoming and outgoing flights of the parents increase as they continually are fishing for food to fill their offspring’s bellies. As the young mature and their feathers begin to appear, they are unruly teenagers and some of their spiky feathers give new meaning to the term “bad hair day”.  As they grow, food demands increase and the babies begin doing other things like inspecting their environment, spying on other birds and nests, pulling at small sticks and “flappercizing”. They practice flapping their wings and working on building the muscles in preparation for their first flight. A fall from the nest or an aborted first flight that lands a chick in the water surrounding the Rookery could mean death since there are alligators lurking just waiting for a tasty appetizer to come close to their waiting jaws.

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Tri-Colored Heron

I have stood for hours watching the activity surrounding the Rookery. I have snapped thousands of pictures trying to capture that which cannot be captured. It simply must be witnessed to be believed. So if you happen to get the opportunity to visit High Island,Texas, be sure to make time to visit the Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

No happy bird searching here. If you visit the Rookery, it’s Happy Bird Watching guaranteed!

PS: Don’t forget your bug spray!!!!

Ballerino Extraordinaire of the Bird World – December 7, 2015

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Reddish Egret – Galveston East Jetty – Personal Photo GKennedy

Today BFF Linda and I traveled South to meet up with some dear friends to enjoy the camaraderie of lunch, laughter and a few games of cards in a Denny’s restaurant. As we traveled South towards Corpus Christi, Linda and I reminisced about one of the most beautiful experiences we were privileged to witness at a Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival event a few years ago.

As usual, we were up early, traveling in the dark to the convention center in Harlingen to board our bus for our planned outing to some mudflats located behind the South Padre Island Convention Center. We are never guaranteed bird sightings. Many times it simply is the luck of the draw. Today we hit the jackpot!

We already had an extremely full day of shore bird identification. It was a very, very cold and windy day and standing in the biting wind being buffeted on all sides while trying to identify some birds with cold binoculars can be exhausting. When we arrived at the mudflats, we were immediately captivated by two Tri-Colored Herons playfully challenging each other. They ran, jumped and skittered across the mudflats in a choreographed display that can only be called magical. We watched these two for quite some time and soon they were joined by one of my favorite birds, a Reddish Egret. He was regal in his beautiful rust colored feathers that were blowing gracefully in the breeze created by his cavorting. He pranced, skipped, hopped and darted to and fro, changing directions effortlessly. If birds could be ballerinas, then this bird was definitely the premier danseur noble.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a ballet performed by the Russian Ballet troupe in the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Because of traffic, my friend and I had arrived with our group a little late and we rushed up the stairs to the theatre afraid we would not be able to get a good seat. We were delightfully surprised to find ourselves being ushered to the front row of the theatre directly in front of the orchestra pit. We breathlessly took our seats as the curtain rose and the orchestra struck the first chords of Swan Lake. I knew at that moment that what I was about to witness was going to be one of the best and most touching memories of my life. I sat captivated for the entire ballet, tears streamed unchecked over my face just from the sheer beauty of what I was seeing, the emotion that I was experiencing. As the story unfolded and I watched the rib cages of the swans as they heaved in and out, I found myself holding my breath. My heart skipped beats as the raw emotion of such beauty washed over me. At that moment, the ballerinas were the swans and the power of their tremendous artistry and the timeless majesty of the music was unsurpassed by anything I had ever seen, heard or experienced.

That cold winter day on the mudflats of South Padre Island in South Texas, what I witnessed approached the indescribable beauty of that Russian ballet. It was spectacular. It was magical. It was beauty as only nature can provide at moments when we are least expecting it. I was captivated and in awe of nature’s premier danseur noble, the Reddish Egret.

Happy bird searching!

 

The Magnificent Frigatebird

 

It was a late Spring Day with summer gently nudging its way into the South Texas coastline. Another BFF of mine, Kathleen and I are out doing our “Thelma and Louise” thing on the twenty three miles of beachfront located in Matagorda Texas.  A favorite fishing spot for many people, for us it is one of our favorite beach combing areas and of course a great bird watching venue.

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Brown Pelicans on beach patrol

This day was a little different from our usual beach jaunts though. We drove perhaps 10 miles or so down the beach and selected a spot to stop and begin our beach combing work. Because of some recent health issues, I was too fatigued to do the miles of walking required to thoroughly scour the beach for sand dollars, whelks, starfish, cockle shells, sundials or any of the many other treasures we hoped to find. So for today, Kathleen had the beach entirely to herself.

I pulled my beach chair from the car, set it in place and planted myself to enjoy the ocean breezes, the blue sky with its scudding white fluffy clouds, and the many different birds that might present themselves to me for observation. The screeching laughing gulls and the terns were scanning the breaking waves at the shoreline in search of a meal, the sanderlings and the “always there” Willets raced back and forth along the shoreline and the Brown Pelicans flew in perfect formation patrolling the beach. So I settled in to rest, enjoy and just be present in that moment. I leaned back in my beach chair and gazed up at the cloud formations and it happened.IMG_6105

I spotted a very large bird soaring high in the sky, higher than most of the regular beach loving birds. I could hardly believe my good fortune. She was huge and effortlessly gliding with the thermal waves around, up and down and through that beautiful blue sky. She was the queen of the air, a magnificent specimen for sure. So impressive that this bird has the name of Magnificent Frigatebird. A name like that tells us right up front that this must be a special bird. And so she is. Her giant forked tail was my first clue to her identity coupled with her large size and great white breast. The male and female are distinctively different from one another, more so than any other bird species. She has a massive white breast and he sports a brilliant red throat. This bird has a nickname of Man O’War because of its speed, sleek body lines and the ability to steal fish from other birds. They spend most of their lives soaring high above the ocean and rarely descend to land on the ocean. They build shaky platforms in mangroves on which to lay their eggs. A group of frigatebirds is known as a “flotilla” or “fleet” of frigatebirds. Seriously…a fleet or flotilla!  With a wingspan of 6-8 feet these are extremely large birds!

Unfortunately for this one moment in time, I had forgotten my camera back at our hotel room so I was forced to record this beautiful bird only in my memory. Later I wrote about her in my Bird Journal and painted a poor image of what I had seen. I have no regrets of not having the photos (Well, maybe a few).  I was forced to record it with the best camera in the world, my eyes, and store it on the best computer hard drive ever made, the brain. That moment, the memory of her beauty will remain with me always. It was a special communion with nature at its finest.IMG_6803

Happy bird searching!

Road Trip – December 5-6, 2015

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Red-Tailed Hawk

Today BFF Linda and I headed toward College Station to attend a relative’s wedding. Once again we were blessed with a beautiful crystal blue sky day, perfect temperatures and we set out in good spirits.  It is my practice to never travel (even within the city) without having my binocs with me. To see a bird and not be able to get an up close and personal look for identification is very frustrating. So there one of the best tools of birding remains….in my car to satisfy my desire to feed my voracious appetite of learning more about this relatively new hobby of mine.

It would take us approximately two hours or so to reach our destination with many miles of potential bird perches between start and finish. Driving along the highways presents you with an excellent opportunity to BBC (Bird By Car). As I drive, my eyes are always scanning fence lines, fence posts, power lines and poles. Mile after mile there are perching birds or soaring birds if we train ourselves to be more observant.

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Northern Mockingbird – State Bird of Texas

When a bird is spotted, we try to pull over, stop and get the bird into our binoculars for identification.Then off again until we see another one. On our trip today we spotted many Starlings, Red-tail Hawks, a Crested Caracara, Black Vultures, and Great Blue Herons. The thrill is in the hunt. And even if it is one we have seen many times before, the fulfillment and satisfaction of the spotting and identification never gets old.

Happy bird searching!

 

BFB Defined

What is BFB? Birding from Balcony is another of my favorite ways to find enjoyment in birding.

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Osprey – Joe”s Crab Shack , Lady Bird Lake 2015

I live on the 10th floor of a building that overlooks Town Lake (AKA Lady Bird Lake) and each morning presents another opportunity to use my spotting scope to check out which birding friends and visitors might be perching, wading or swimming on the lake. The year round residents are Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Mallards, Green Herons, Ospreys, Kingfishers and a plethora of others. And most recently, the cormorants and bufflehead ducks have returned.

But this morning i stepped onto the balcony with my spotting scope and witnessed a truly uplifting sight. There were a few strange birds on the water. They floated and paddled. Their plumage was red, shiny and filled with beauty. But what should appear before my eyes but three small flat boats decked with tinsel. And low and behold I spied at least three Santas taking a day off from their toy workshops to do a little fishing. A Christmas tree adorned one on the aft part of the boat and a plastic Santa stood watch on another. I ran for my camera to capture the moment. And I and my friend Linda stood pondering with wonder and amazement at how three fishermen decided to take the time to decorate their boats and themselves before getting up early on a crisp winter morning to go forth and bring a smile to the faces of anyone who was fortunate enough to observe these three kings.

What a gift!  We smiled, we laughed and we posted those photos on Facebook so others might experience our special moment. To those hardy fishermen….I thank you for having such pure spirits and sharing the true meaning of Christmas…giving to others and filling their hearts with joy and wonderment. I am blessed to have witnessed it.

Happy bird searching!

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Hornsby Bend – December 4, 2015

A clear crisp,blue skies day In Austin Texas, the perfect day for a short trip out to Hornsby Bend to check out which birds may have stopped by for a rest while on their migratory trip South.

Hornsby Bend is a 1200 acre site situated on the Colorado River and it did not have its beginnings as a bird sanctuary, but instead was built in the 1950’s as the main water treatment facility for Austin. It has become a national recognized biosolids recycling center and is expertly managed. Here the sewage from Austin is transformed back into potable water and returned to the Colorado River. Here sludge is transformed into Dillo Dirt which is sold to gardeners throughout the area.

Hornsby Bend has been a birding hotspot for over 50 years now. The story of how the first birders found the ponds goes something like this…A young birder named G. Frank ‘Pancho’ Oatman was visiting relatives in the area over the Thanksgiving holidays when he spotted some ducks flying across the Colorado River. He began exploring and found the sewage facilities at Hornsby Bend. He spotted several different species and began spreading the word to other birders who flocked (pun intended) to the area to enjoy looking at multiple species that had never before been seen in the Austin area. Over the years, thousands of birders have visited this facility to enjoy the many birds as they drop in for a visit and rest on their migratory travels.

Check out more about Hornsby Bend at http://www.hornsbybend.org

Today I visited Hornsby with my BFF Linda who is in Austin visiting for a few days. We spotted Killdeer, starlings, mockingbirds, Gadwalls and a large flock of Northern Shovelers. My friend on the right was nowhere to be seen today however. No matter, I am sure I’ll catch him on the back side.

Happy bird searching.

 

Conundrum

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Red Tail Hawk Chick

A few years ago I discovered Cornell University’s live bird cams. I became obsessed with watching Big Red and Ezra as they prepared their nest, nurtured the eggs in all kinds of weather, kept their young well fed and finally helped them to fledge to continue their education free in the wild. It was so beautiful and tender and mind blowing to watch this family survive and go about their activities of daily living. There was much drama throughout the months that spanned egg laying to fledge time.

I traveled via bird cam to Hawaii where I watched a Laysan Albatross hatch and survive to spread his wings and soar for the first time out over the Pacific six months later. There was a beautiful video of Spike (my nickname for him) as he took to his wings for the first time. I learn so very much from the postings of expert birders on these cam sites. A Laysan Albatross may be hatched in January and his parents have to care for him until July before he can fly away on his own to spend a couple of years riding the thermal waves above the ocean. Doesn’t sound too difficult until we learn that the preferred food of the Albatross is squid. To get this squid food, his parents fly as far as Japan or Alaska, gorge themselves, fly back to their chick and regurgitate the rich liquid to their offspring’s begging mouth. And they do this over and over and over again.

I’ve enjoyed a backyard cam in Ontario Canada in the dead of winter and the feeders on Sapsucker Woods Pond in Ithaca, New York. Each feeder explodes with different species of birds and can be a source of great entertainment for birdwatchers particularly if they are physically handicapped and are unable to trapse around in the bushes in search of new birds.

So, here is my conundrum….Many birders keep a Life List of all the birds they have seen or identified. We work hard at adding new birds to our Life List. It is an exciting endeavor filled with much anticipation.  So, if I am watching a bird cam in some far away place and I see a species of bird that is new to me, is it politically correct for me to be able to add it to my Life List? I ask this question sometimes to different birders and have received all different kinds of replies. The staunch dyed-in-the-wool birders say “No way…cam birds aren’t legal to count. You have to go out looking for them.” The way I interpret this response is…” I have spent a lot of time and money doing this hobby the hard way and if I suffered then so should you”. This mindset is similar to the way some experienced nurses will treat new graduates…I suffered and you should also.  However, many times the response is “I’m not sure” or “I have never thought about that” but when I back my choice with justifiable reasons FOR bird cams being a legitimate means of adding to a birding Life List, often I am able to swing them to my way of thinking.

Since I am a nurse, I have spent a career dealing with many patients with impaired mobility. These people, many times through no fault of their own, can’t physically get out and about to pursue a hobby such as bird watching. I strongly believe that in this advanced age of technology, why not take advantage of the live bird cams to experience the joy of nature, observe and learn about the many different species and by doing so expand our world. Why not let it count? I will always resoundingly say “Yes”  since I don’t believe that one has to be physically present to experience the thrill of spotting your very first Pileated Woodpecker. I am forever thankful for the technology that has enabled me to see many species and their habits up close and personal when otherwise it might not have been possible.

And again I say….Why Not?IMG_3130

Happy bird searching in person or via cam. In my world it counts!!!