The pull to visit the beach is always present in my life. If money were no object, I would probably have a small cottage on a beach where I could while away my retirement years in total contentment walking the beach, watching the birds, listening to the surf, and enjoying the breeze. But since money is an object, I must content myself with regular visits to Galveston, Corpus, Port A, Matagorda and any other beach on our planet to satisfy my need of ocean solace.
This past weekend, BFF Kathleen and I traveled to Bolivar to stay at the Saltwater Inn so we could explore Bolivar beaches. It just so happens that our visit this Spring coincided with Galveston’s Featherfest Birding Festival which I have attended in the past with BFF Linda. The benefit of attending birding festivals is you have a guide who takes you to hot spots and helps you cue in on unusual bird visitors that might otherwise be missed. But having grown up visiting Galveston my entire life, I have more knowledge than a casual visitor of those hot spots. So, in addition to actual beach combing time, we visited The Rookery on High Island and also many of my favorite birding haunts on Galveston Island….East Jetty, Lafitte’s Cove, Sportsman’s Road to name a few.
Here are a few photos of some of our bird encounters this past weekend.
Springtime in Texas is synonymous with great birding, so get out there and do some bird searching!!!
In the Springtime, Mother Nature signals all her bird species to begin the long process of building a family. A family needs a place to live and grow, and the nests of different bird species differ as much as the birds who build them. Some are meticulously woven and others are just a shallow hollowed space in the dirt or mud. Some are colonial nesters and others are solitary. The various materials used differ by species as well, with some bird species having a particular fondness for certain nest-building materials.
As the young birds grow, the nest takes a beating. Throughout the whole process, many bird species will continue bringing in twigs, sticks, moss to repair and reinforce the basic nest structure if need be. And after the young birds have fledged and the nest is abandoned, it may fall into complete disarray and remain that way until the following Spring when the parents may return and “remodel and update” as they begin the procreation cycle again. Or, another bird species may decide that what remains is a fine home and may move in to raise their brood.
Carolina Wren Nest
Whatever the building materials, wherever it may be located, Spring is just around the corner as evidenced by bluebonnets dotting our highways, redbud trees bursting into bloom and the light green tinge on many trees signaling that the sap is running, time is of the essence and a new cycle of life has begun. Birds are feverishly seeking mates, selecting a nest site, gathering nesting materials as the race is on to have a home for their offspring. Everybody needs a home.
I’ve written several times about Cornell University’s live bird cams that enable people all around the world to spy on the interactions of different bird species as they begin the mating season, build their nests, brood their eggs, hatch their offspring, nurture them to fledging and then helicopter them as they gradually become self-sufficient.
This year high drama has surrounded the Hellgate Osprey Nest in Missoula Montana. But first we must recap last years drama… Iris and Stanley continued their relationship from years before, refurbishing their nest, brooding their eggs and cam watchers delighted in seeing Stanley deliver a fresh fish to Iris, delicately ripping fish flesh pieces that he then gently fed to her as she sat brooding the eggs. They worked as a highly efficient team driven by instinct to procreate and ensure the survival of their species. Unfortunately Mother Nature dealt them a deadly blow last year in the form of a hail storm that damaged their eggs and that year’s brood was lost. Stanley and Iris eventually migrated South for the winter and when April arrived the Hellgate cameras heralded the arrival of Iris. We and Iris watched for days and days for the arrival of Stanley. He never arrived and we will never know what happened to prevent his return. Most likely he died during the winter. So Iris waited, was approached by several males attempting to mate and ultimately her next “husband” arrived and won her over with his charming character and clownish ways. Louis had secured her affections and they set about to raise a family.
The experts let us know that this was probably Louis’s first year as a Father-to-be based on his inexperienced behaviors. After multiple awkward mating attempts, Louis finally got the hang of that piece of the family making puzzle. He had much more to learn though and Iris was more than ready to teach him. We watched as she yakked at him almost constantly, perhaps directing his nest enhancement skills or ordering a fish for lunch. As she laid her eggs and began to brood them, Louis would fly in with a huge gangly stick and in his efforts to place it correctly in the nest he many times bopped her on the head. He seemed not to realize that it was his responsibility to fish, fish, and fish some more, to bring those fish to Iris and give them over to her. She would fly off with the proffered fish and he settled in to fret about how to gently turn the eggs and position his body over the eggs before covering them for brooding. All new skills that he was desperately trying to learn. Iris yakked and yakked and yakked.
But Louis wasn’t a quitter, he learned quickly and gradually took delight in his time brooding the eggs. When Iris returned from her brief forays, he was reluctant to relinquish his position. But ultimately he did because Iris was yakking at him. She definitely was the boss. As time passed, two of the three eggs were damaged…how we don’t know…maybe accidentally punctured by a talon claw, maybe by a beak that turned the eggs too vigorously, any of which could have been caused by Louis’s inexperience as a parent.
At last we waited and waited and waited some more for the last egg to pip. Expert bird people know exactly how long it takes for the egg to develop and as the days passed it became evident that this last egg was probably not viable. But both Iris and Louis are still being driven by instinct and continue to brood until some internal switch turns off and they accept that this year their efforts are unsuccessful. But the egg remains in the nest and although Iris is spending less and less time each day brooding the egg, Louis is still hanging in there, protecting his offspring which has become known to the world as Dudley. Dudley the Osprey who would never be.
Iris and Louis will spend the remainder of this summer fishing, flying and just hanging out together, continuing to bond as a mated pair. Then they will depart on their migration South each going their separate way. Hopefully next Spring they will both return to the nest at Hellgate and will begin again to build a family. And perhaps next year, they will be successful.
Watching the beauty of nature as it evolves is a gift. Thank you Cornell for giving the world a “bird’s-eye view” so we can learn, enjoy and embrace these beautiful creatures.
At the end of June and through July, the Purple Martins descend on Austin in vast numbers. Not hundreds but thousands of these birds arrive in Austin on their long journey to South America where they will winter. For years they roosted in about seven trees in the Highland Mall parking lot but last year they moved to the Capital Plaza Shopping Center parking lot and this year they have moved again a little North to the Embassy Suites Hotel parking lot. No one knows why they changed sites but the move they made isn’t very far from their old roosting site. Each morning they leave the trees in the parking lot and take to wing in search of the many insects they will devour all day long before returning to their roosts at night in those same trees in that same parking lot.
This phenomenon has become so popular that our local Audubon Society actually has Purple Martin parties on Friday and Saturday nights. These dedicated volunteers are in that parking lot just before dusk to answer questions and provide education for all the people who come to watch this incredible event. It is difficult to describe but I will try.
People begin drifting into the parking lot just before sundown. They may have umbrellas to protect them from the obvious byproduct of so many in-flight birds. They open their car trunks or tailgate and remove lawn chairs, select their chosen site, sit with binoculars in hand and begin the wait for the grand finale….when all the birds have settled in for the night. Looking up in the sky it is easy to see martins beginning to circle the parking lot. Gradually as darkness starts to increase, the birds begin spiraling in circles over the trees. They begin to land on branches and as their numbers increase, the boughs of the trees begin to droop with the sheer weight of the massive volume of birds. Each bird is seeking a roost for the night and the trees literally become alive with birds, shoulder to shoulder each chattering their indignation as other martins try to wedge themselves into any tiny available space. Estimates are that between 100,000-200,000 birds spend the night in those trees before ascending the next day to repeat the cycle. At first it was believed that these birds were staying here for about 4-6 weeks before continuing their journey south. But the recapture of some banded birds has suggested that this huge number of birds may not be spending more than one or two nights here before moving on. If this is the case, then the sheer numbers of Purple Martins traversing our city on their migratory journey increases exponentially. Check out a video here….. https://highlandneighborhood.com/purple-martin-migration-at-highland-mall/
Purple Martins are members of the swallow family. They eat and drink on the wing and spend our winter in South America. Landscapes in small towns and farms and even in urban areas, are dotted with purple martin houses erected to entice some of these interesting birds to take up residence, build a nest, lay their eggs and raise their young all to the delight of the property owner. They are colonial nesters which explains the preponderance of condominium style purple martin houses erected by homeowners.
So if you happen to be in the Austin area during the month of July, I highly recommend an evening with the birds. It is tremendous entertainment, totally free and I promise you won’t regret taking the time to include this activity into your itinerary for the day.
Happy bird watching at the Embassy Suites parking lot!!!
Seeing a bird’s nest abandoned in a tree or lying on the ground evokes so many pleasurable feelings. As a child, finding a bird’s nest was similar to finding a beautiful treasure. I would rush to pick it up, carry it home and place it on my dresser. I was always fascinated by things in nature…rocks, leaves, shells, bird nests, bird feathers, driftwood….they were all precious objects that gave me pleasure in how they looked or how they felt in my hands and my imagination would fly with the prospect of what stories they could tell if they only could.
The feather soared high in the sky helping propel a bird in its daily chore of searching and securing food. It perched in the tops of trees and scanned the panoramic landscape. It was slipped between the beak of the bird as it preened. The nest held eggs that ultimately hatched into babies that grew into birds who then abandoned the nest since it had served it’s purpose.
Examining the nest can be an interesting activity.The kinds of materials used to build the nest can sometimes give us hints as to the species of bird that constructed it. A cracked flower pot turned on its side inside a basket on the front porch makes an ideal nesting spot in the eyes of a Carolina Wren. An old boot, floppy hat, or any type of container may prove to be the chosen spot for a wren’s nest. Male and female will gather sticks, leaves, twigs, string, roots, plastic, hay and build a messy nest that tunnels down and to the side. She may line the tunnel and the inside of the nest with grass, moss, dried leaves or feathers. Just imagine how many trips they must make to construct this fine piece of architecture. The Carolina Wren that I discovered one day on the front porch of a country farmhouse had done just that. I could hear tiny peeps of begging baby birds and their parents would flit in and out constantly delivering food for them, totally undisturbed by my near-by presence. Looking into the nest, I could barely see a few tiny beaks. These babies successfully fledged and the nest was abandoned. This is not always the case though. Many times the Carolina Wren makes a bad choice in nest location making it vulnerable to predators…cats, raccoons or possums.
That old cracked flower pot had been recycled by a small Carolina Wren. I guess beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and “This Old Pot or This Old Boot” was just fine for her “This Ole House”..
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 to 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.
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 number 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=DGX52B9iXXU
It’s winter. For those of us in Texas, this means almost perfect weather….nice temperatures, clear skies, many leafless trees and excellent bird watching. Not so for many parts of our country where falling snow and adverse weather conditions may limit outdoor time for many people. Enter Cornell University’s Live Bird Cams.
Each year I open each of these cams on my computer and delight in watching many different species up close and personal as they build nests, lay their eggs, incubate, feed, nourish and teach their offspring survival skills and then watch them fledge for the first time. Each of these bird events is highly anticipated by thousands of viewers all over the world. Ah, what a wonderful thing is this internet. Allowing each of us windows into different worlds that may literally be a world away. A giant thank you to Cornell University for supporting and facilitating these cameras and an equally large thank you to all the volunteers that moderate these sites teaching us about these birds, their habits and behaviors. I have learned so much and have also discovered that viewing birds on the camera has transferred to better identification skills for me in the field.
In Hawaii I get to enjoy a Laysan Albatross as she and her mate build a simple nest of a few sticks on the ground, tend to their young for a long seven month period before that one youngster takes to its wings for the first time. Last year I felt privileged to watch the young Albatross trundle up a hill that overlooked the ocean, open her wings and launch herself into the air for the first time. She will spend the next couple of years soaring high above the ocean. It was a magical moment filled with raw emotion….the sheer beauty of this bird instinctively thrusting herself into the Albatross life.
Drama unfolds at these cam sites. Red-tailed Hawks Ezra and Big Red have been successful for many years in raising their young on the Cornell University campus. Campus goers actually write notes in chalk to them on the sidewalk below their nest site. One of their fledglings was injured in a crazy impossible accident involving a greenhouse roof on the campus that closed on the young bird and injured his wing. The dedicated BOGs (birders on the ground) that track the fledglings movements called for help and he received the best veterinarian care in the hopes he could be returned to the wild. Unfortunately this didn’t happen so E3 is now being used for educational programs. His life is happy and he definitely will not have to worry about survival in the wild.
Dottie and Casper are two barn owls that live in Texas. I’ve watched and rooted for their offspring, one in particular. Ollie was the fourth egg to hatch and seemed to be struggling to survive since his older siblings seemed to get the lion’s share of the food Mom and Dad brought to them. But as I watched Ollie got stronger, beating the odds that he might experience the siblicide fate of so many. Today Dottie has returned to the nesting box, but so far no sighting of Casper. There has been another male owl periodically and all of us “watchers” are anxiously awaiting Casper’s arrival. Did he survive the winter? Is this new male owl (already named Dash) his replacement? Only time will tell.
And even when the birds have finished their nesting and young raising chores, the bird feeders on Sapsucker Pond and in Ontario Canada continue to provide great bird watching and many surprises throughout the year. It was on the Sapsucker Pond feeder that I saw my first Pileated Woodpecker. And in Ontario I saw my first ruffed grouse.
If you are wheelchair or home bound these cams are for you. If you work in a cubicle with no windows to the outside world, these cameras are for you. Or if you just wish to have a secretive look at birds in their natural environment and watch them work their many wonders, then these cams are for you. I know they have greatly enhanced my serenity, my knowledge of birds and my identification skills. So check them out. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
Happy bird searching!!!
All photos captured from Cornell Live Bird Cams via my computer. Thank you Cornell!