The Whoopers

A few years ago, I was determined to travel to Port “A” to see the Whooping Cranes. If ever there was a success story of bringing a species back from the brink of extinction, the Whooping Cranes are that story. Although they certainly aren’t out of the woods yet, they have managed IMG_0210to bounce back from certain demise.

In 1941, the total world population of these birds numbered just 16. Loss of habitat, unregulated hunting, animal predators all took their toll on these magnificent birds. Conservation groups worked hard to try to protect the remaining 16 birds and through their efforts and the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1967, the world population of these birds has grown to ~ 603. They are huge white birds with a distinctive red cap on the top of their heads. They have a large “bustle” of feathers on their rear which gives them a similar appearance to the Ostrich. They are five feet tall and have wingspans of seven feet. They migrate from Canada where they nest and hatch their young to Port Aransas Texas where they winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The young are fed by their parents for up to eight months and migrate South with them. Current population of the only wild migratory “dance” of whooping cranes is ~310. Unfortunately, these birds still face survival challenges.

When I first visited them, I expected to see huge flocks of them, but was surprised to learn that usually they are in groups of three. Mom, Dad and Fledgling peacefully wintering by themselves on an area approximately one half mile in circumference.

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Whooping Crane – Port Aransas
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Bands & GPS

Conservationists and wildlife experts recognized that one flock of Whooping Cranes does not assure the survival of these beautiful birds. There are too many exogenous forces….hurricanes, tornadoes, oil spills…which could decimate this one remaining flock. So there have been several projects launched  in an attempt to establish another group. One of these, Operation Migration, involved the hatching of captive bred chicks in Wisconsin to be led by ultralight planes on their migration south to Florida Because these chicks did not have parents to “teach them the ropes” humans devised this unique experiment and set it in motion. The hope is to establish another migratory group and by so doing double the Whooping Cranes chances of surviving a catastrophic environmental event. The people who participated in this did not interact with the chicks in any way other than to dress in bird-like costumes when around the chicks and when they were teaching them to follow the ultralights. Over time, the chicks imprinted on the ultralights and did follow it on their migratory journey. On their journey south, the young birds are memorizing the terrain and will be able to return north without assistance to breed. Unfortunately, a large IMG_0242number of the first group of these transplanted chicks were killed by a huge storm that devastated Florida. To date, the efforts to re-establish another migrating flock of whoopers continues and as of February 2015, the count of the Wisconsin to Florida group is ~95.

A few weeks ago a newspaper article recorded the death of two whoopers. They were shot by a teenager and the birds were part of a small introduced flock in Louisianna. The punishment is so minor that it breaks my heart each time I hear of these happenings. Education efforts must be accelerated in our primary schools if we are to avoid such incidents in the future and enable the population of these endangered birds to grow beyond certain extinction numbers.

Birds in captivity are spread out over eleven different locations in the United States. Numbering 121 birds, they are used for egg collection and reintroduction programs. These birds are our insurance policy for the future survival of these very special Cranes.

From November to April it is worth a visit to Port Aransas or Rockport to board one of the tour boats that can get you up close and personal for viewing of these spectacular birds. In the meantime, check out this you tube video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGX52B9iXXUIMG_8009.JPG

Happy Bird Searching!!!

 

 

 

California Birding

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Western Gulls

When my daughter and her family moved to Southern California I was blessed to be able to enjoy this beautiful part of California and of course expand my birding opportunities when I visited. Some birds on the West Coast are different from ones that I live side by side with in Central Texas and on the Gulf Coast, so it was with great anticipation that I ventured out to explore different birding areas that I previously scoped out on the internet.

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Southern California Coastline

As one might imagine, the Southern California coastline is high dollar real estate and approximately 90% of it has been developed leading to the loss of natural wetlands that are imperative for the survival of many bird species. Fortunately there are pockets of these wetlands that have been protected to ensure that some of these areas remain for our bird friends. One in particular that I can’t wait to revisit is the Tijuana Estuary at Imperial Beach. It is part of approximately 2500 acres that is part of the Tijuana River watershed.

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Western Grebe

On my first visit there, California was experiencing what they call a “California King Tide” which basically meant that the salt marshes and estuaries were flush with water. That translates into great birding opportunities. The tides flow in, fill the shallow estuary basins, providing food and shelter for many species of plants, animals and invertebrates. The depth of these ponds and the types of soil can determine what species live there. It is a careful balancing act that many times unfortunately can be upset by man.

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Whimbrel

On this particular day, a few we were fortunate to spot were Whimbrels, Egrets, cormorants, common  rails, house finch, California Towhee, American Kestrel and Western Grebes.

Walking beaches and trails in search of birds makes one hungry. And what better way to satisfy that craving than seeking some street tacos to assuage our hunger. Easily available in a town bordering Mexico.

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House Finch

If you are lucky enough to be visiting Southern California check out this wonderful protected natural resource if you just want to enjoy some beautiful scenery or experience the thrill of finding a new “lifer” bird species. Find more information at http://www.trnerr.org.

Happy bird searching!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty From the Beast

The beast was a hurricane named Ike. He roared onto the Texas Gulf Coast on Galveston Island in 2008 and in his passing he wrought great destruction to the sleepy resort city of Galveston. The wind ripped trees from the ground and the salty ocean tidal surge washed ashore and in its path left thousands of dead trees and other vegetation. But from the death of some of these great oak trees sprung a whole new cottage industry for some very talented artists. They cut and IMG_1962shaped from the dead trunks of these trees beautiful sculptures many of which are reminiscent of ocean front icons that have been used by authors to describe coastal areas throughout the centuries. And others are just plain whimsical.

The Causeway leading onto Galveston Island is lined with oleander bushes that have been there as long as I can remember. They bloom profusely throughout the hot Texas summer and combined with crepe myrtles they announce the arrival into a city filled with beautiful foliage and blooming plants. Many of the homes date back to the early 1900’s and have historical markers. The gardens that surround them are meticulously tended and lovingly maintained to enhance the homes that they adorn. Many of these homes are located in the Garden District. The very name tells you to expect an oasis of beautiful flowers and plants.  Salt water destroys….be it plants, trees, paint on houses, rust on cars….inland, where it does not belong, it is a killer. Birds of Paradise, plumbago, crepe myrtles, roses, hibiscus and so many other varieties had to be replanted. After Ike, the rebuilding began. The people who inhabit Galveston Island are survivors. They have experienced many hurricanes…some barely dusting the island with blustery winds and rain and others like Ike that are killers dealing fatal blows.

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Bottle Brush Tree

There are many entertaining things to do in Galveston….shopping on the Strand, the Pleasure Pier on the sea wall, Moody Garden’s Rainforest, perusing souvenir shops, walking the beaches, birdwatching, fishing and the list goes on and on. The one that has become a must see tourist attraction is called the Tree Sculpture Tour. Self guided or with a guide, it is fun and entertaining to seek and find the homes that have engaged one of those IMG_1731entrepreneur artist to turn a dead tree in their front yard into an art object. It is truly remarkable to see how beautiful they are and certainly an example of one of the highest forms of recycling.

I am sure that another hurricane will eventually make its way to Galveston Island. Mother Nature is a powerful force when it takes the form of a hurricane. Rebuilding after one is the price one pays for living on the Gulf Coast. Is the price too high? Only the person living it can answer that question. The love of beach life, the smell of the salty air, the warm gentle Gulf breezes and the healing powers of a walk on the beach are powerful motivators for challenging Mother Nature for a piece of real estate that offers what many islanders consider to be “the good life”!IMG_1726

Happy bird searching!!!

 

 

 

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

Another walk, another beautiful day in the neighborhood. Lady Bird Lake gems.

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Ring-billed Gull – Winter Visitor – January, 2016
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Cormorant – January 2016
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Preening Cormorant

 

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Snowy Egret – January 2016
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Great Blue Heron on the hunt – January 2016
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Great Blue Heron – January 2016

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Cormorants Drying their Wings
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Great Egret
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Fall Leaves Hanging On
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Snowy Egret having a bad hair day!
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A bird of a different species
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And Another from the past
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Snowy Egrets Branching Out
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One of the many
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Male and female Mallards catching a little shut eye

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Great Egret
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On the Boardwalk – Lady Bird Lake
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Look What I found! – Lesser Scaup – January 2016
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Dabbling Gadwalls – January 2016

Another great walk on Austin’s beautiful Lady Bird Lake.

Happy bird searching!!!

A Short Walk Along Lady Bird Lake

A beautiful winter day, blue skies, and 70 degree temperatures always inspire a walk along Lady Bird Lake. Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cardinal, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Lesser Scaups, Wood Ducks, Mallards, American Coots, Grackles, Cormorants, Rock Pigeons, Squirrels, and beautiful reflections on the water were all sprinkled throughout a leisurely stroll along one of Austin’s greatest treasures. Here are few of the regulars that I captured along the way.

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Lesser Scaup – January 2016
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Great Egret – January 2016
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Snowy Egret – January 2016
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Mallard – January 2016
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Mr. Curious Squirrel – January 2016
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Reflections – January 2016
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Wood Duck – January 2016
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Winter on Lady Bird Lake – January 2016

I started my walk today with the hope of spotting a Green Kingfisher that has been seen multiple times. Even though I didn’t spot him, I had a very pleasant walk and a great visit with many of the Lady Bird Lake regulars and a few winter visitors.

Next time Mr. Green Kingfisher! Happy bird searching!!!

Birding in Burton

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Peacock – Burton, Texas January 2016

This past weekend I traveled to Burton,Texas to visit my sister. We had a lovely weekend doing sisterly things together and as usual I superimposed on my loved one my birdwatching passion. And my passionate flame was fanned by the revelation from one of her neighbors that they had spotted a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a dead pecan tree in their back yard.

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Pileated Woodpecker Photo captured from Cornell University Live Bird Cam on Sapsucker Pond

The only time I have seen one of these birds was courtesy of the Cornell Live Bird Cam in Ithaca New York. I keep one of the live bird cams open as my screen saver while I am working because it gives me a window to the outside world. The day he popped into view I almost fell out of my chair. He was one of the most beautiful birds I had ever seen and I found myself salivating with the desire to see one in person. Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest woodpecker in North America.  Approximately 17-20 inches in length and with a wingspan of almost 30 inches, they are quite impressive to behold.

Then more recently, a friend of mine who is wintering in Alabama emailed me the news that she had spotted one in their area. So I was encouraged to know that when I visit her this coming April, I might be able to catch a glimpse of her Pileated Woodpecker.

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Cedar Waxwing – Burton, Texas – January 2016

So I was delighted to know that there was one living in Burton. My sister told me she had seen him many times during the summer when he was visiting her pear tree to help himself to its bounty. She didn’t realize how special he was to me. So I spent a large portion of Saturday scouting for this bird. I was successful only because he flew to a telephone pole across the street and began his clattering again. The neighbor managed to capture him on a cell phone camera but I was too late with my camera to capitalize on his appearance. But in the birding world, a visual sighting or being able to recognize a bird by its call counts. Do I want my own photo of this beautiful bird? Most definitely, so the game is still afoot.

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Red-Shouldered Hawk – Personal Photo GKennedy

Walking a few blocks around town I spied other species. Starlings, white wing doves, cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, red bellied woodpeckers, a ladderback female woodpecker, black vultures perching on the town’s water tower and the cedar waxwings had arrived and descended to begin their strip-mining operation of any berries in the area. A Red Shouldered Hawk sat high in a tree just behind my sister’s house. We later spotted him sitting on a neighbor’s fence with a squirrel running around on the ground perilously close.

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American White Pelicans – Lake Somerville, Texas January 2, 2016
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Belted Kingfisher – Lake Somerville, Texas – January 2, 2016

On Saturday morning we drove to Lake Somerville to see what birds we could find. I love the countryside during the winter months. The trees are stripped bare of their leaves and the tree branches are much like skeleton arms and fingers reaching for the sky. We were rewarded for our efforts when we came upon a large squadron of American White Pelicans, a Belted Kingfisher, Mallard Ducks, American Coots, Great Egrets, and a Black Crowned Night Heron lurking in a marshy area created by recent rains which caused the lake to move beyond its boundaries and invade surrounding forest.

 

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Black Vulture
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Male Cardinal – Burton, Texas – January 2, 2016
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Starling – Burton, Texas – January, 2016
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White Wing Dove
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Female Ladderback Woodpecker – Burton, Texas January 2016

So once again, I am reminded that birds are everywhere. And if you want more in your own backyard it is as easy as providing food and water for them and they in turn will reward you with much entertainment. So as the saying goes….”Build it and they will come!”

Happy bird searching!!!

Beach Therapy

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Beach Art

Pelicans have always been of special interest to me. It might be because during my childhood, the pelicans were the birds that I most remembered seeing on our family day trips to Galveston. I have wonderful memories of those day trips. My Mother would rise early and begin frying chicken, making potato salad, bread and butter sandwiches and brownies to take with us for our picnic lunch. In the car my mouth was watering the entire trip from the enticing aromas drifting out of that basket.

Once we crossed the causeway bridge onto the island and made our way to the beach, my Father would rig a tarp from the side of our car  to give us some shade from the intense sun. The ocean breezes cooled our skin making us unaware of the sunburn we were incurring. And I doubt seriously that we knew about sunblock in those days.

I spent much of my time chasing the little clams that washed onto shore and instantly buried themselves in the wet sand, splashing in the shallow waves and building sand castles. Those visits to the beach are some of my most precious memories.

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What’s for Breakfast? Brown Pelican hanging out at the back door of the fish market

As an adult, I still seek the beach on a regular basis to recharge my soul. And now, my beach combing passion has expanded to bird watching as well. There are many shorebirds that I enjoy watching but the Pelicans are part of my childhood memories so that makes them special. And as an adult I have now learned the differences between the Brown Pelicans and the American White Pelicans.

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Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans are plunge divers. They cruise low over the ocean and dive straight into the water when they spy a fish. They are frequently seen flying in a line over the beach and shoreline. When DDT was used as a herbicide, the run off into the ocean contributed greatly to their demise. Brown Pelicans use their feet to help incubate their eggs and the DDT caused the shells to be too thin and fragile which lead to them breaking before hatching . Their numbers dropped dramatically which placed brown pelicans on the endangered species list. Thankfully, when DDT was banned, they rebounded and are once again patrolling the skies on the Gulf Coast.

American White Pelicans work cooperatively with each other and while swimming on the water they “herd”  the fish and then feed. They do not plunge dive. They are one of the largest sea birds and may weight as much as 30 pounds and have a wingspan of nine feet or more.

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American White Pelican
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American White Pelicans hanging out at the bar

Aptly enough a group of pelicans is known as a squadron of pelicans. It definitely is a sight to see if in the Galveston area. The Brown Pelicans are always on beach patrol and the American White Pelicans fly in groups but are often seen bobbing together in the water or hanging out on a sand bar. Both are magnificent to behold.

Happy bird searching!!!

 

 

The Birds of Lady Bird Lake

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Lady Bird Lake – Fall 2015

There are many year round residents that abide on the shores of Lady Bird Lake (AKA Town Lake) and then there are the seasonal visitors passing through on their migration journeys. It is always fun to use the spotting scope from my balcony to see just who is up and fishing early in the morning or trying to catch their supper before heading to the roost for the night. Many times a walk around the lake trails will yield closer views of some of the year round residents. I can always find some species that thrill me along the way.

The Lady Bird Lake shoreline is almost always bustling with people…hikers, bikers, fast walkers, joggers, families with children in strollers, or senior citizens taking their morning constitutional. People watching is a sport right up there with bird watching. But the birds interest me the most and I find it amazing that they can co-exist in an urban environment in such close proximity to humans. Here they successfully build nests hidden in reeds or leafy tree limbs, manage to raise their young to continue the new generations that will grow up on these shores and perhaps seek their own territory near where they were hatched or move on to a different area…seeking mates and ensuring survival of their specific species. So here are a few of the locals that I have captured while walking the trails and boardwalk. Enjoy!!!

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Male Northern Cardinal

The male cardinal is always a favorite and is easily spotted and identified by his rich scarlet color, black mask and chin, heavy red-orange beak and distinctive crest on his head. They have a unique way of moving over the ground by hopping. They are primarily seed eaters.

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Yellow -Crowned Night Heron

Another secretive resident of Lady Bird Lake is the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. They are solitary birds and contrary to their name they may also be out and about during the day. I found this guy hunting for his breakfast in the shadows of the trees on the edge of the lake.

 

And of course, on every walk it is possible to view the beautiful Snowy Egrets. They are permanent residents on Lady Bird Lake. In breeding season, he has gorgeous plumes and at IMG_4043one time these beautiful birds were almost hunted to extinction because of the demand for their decorative feathers for women’s hats. Fortunately they are now protected by law. They are smaller than the Great Egrets and are easily identified by their bright yellow feet, sometimes called “golden slippers”.A group of egrets is sometimes referred to as a “congregation”, “skewer” or “wedge” of egrets.

So come on down to Lady Bird Lake and see what birds you can spot while walking the trails and boardwalk. It is always a rewarding experience!

Happy bird searching!!!

 

 

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!!!!

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!