I travel light. A few clothes thrown into a tote bag, my binocs, a camera and I am off for another weekend visit with my sisters.
My two sisters just celebrated birthdays. One in December and the other just last Saturday. Recently I heard a young aspiring contestant on a television program describing her age in terms of how many times she had been around the sun. For her it was 20 times. For me and my sisters it is a whole lot more. I find myself thinking about how fortunate I am to have had both of my sisters so close to me throughout my entire life. Each time I complete one more trip around the sun, my oldest sister always describes in minute detail my arrival into their world. I always love hearing her descriptions and never tire of it. I get to enjoy a moment in my life of which I was totally unaware. So we now have a new way of reporting our ages. It is not measured in “years of age” but as how many “trips around the sun” we have been fortunate enough to complete.
So on Friday night we shared a home cooked meal, birthday cake and many memories.We laughed and enjoyed the camaraderie that comes with sisters knowing each other so well. On Saturday two of us checked out some of the birds in the Burton area and near-by Lake Somerville. We were making memories with every bird we spotted. And secretly I am always hoping that my passion for bird watching will transfer to them.
We spent some time at the Big Red Barn just outside of Round Top, Texas where antique dealers had gathered for a winter show. Walking up and down the aisles I am always entranced with the merchandising skill of the booth vendors. They hawk their wares by using them in new and different ways and displaying old and much-loved items in such ways that I am tempted to purchase even though I have no clue where to put them nor why I feel I must have them. They are sorcerers!
Exhausted, but filled with satisfaction of a day well spent, we visited a local cafe for dinner before returning to her home to watch a movie. Nothing fancy, just a day spent with someone I love and who loves me equally.
Every encounter builds memories and each is emblazoned in my mind forever. They are important and meaningful and I hope to share many, many more with my sisters.
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 shaped 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.
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 entrepreneur 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”!
The beak on the American Coot isn’t all that remarkable, but the feet of this bird species is quite unique. American Coots are more closely related to Rails and Cranes than to ducks. Easily identified by its plump dark grey body, black head and short, pointed white bill, this bird can be found most anywhere throughout North America. They readily intermingle with ducks on ponds everywhere even though they are not really ducks. On land they walk more like a chicken with bobbing heads rather than the waddle we most often associate with ducks. They require a long runway for take off much like a 747 must have a longer runway to become airborne. And they are not the most graceful birds once they have lifted off. In fact to get lift off, they use their wings to raise them slightly out of the water and then literally run across the water before finally achieving full flight.
But this bird’s feet are worth a closer look. Their feet are quite large and have lobes on each of the toes. No webbed feet here. Specifically designed to enable them to walk on ground or in marshy areas where they scavenge for leafy greens, snails, worms, frogs, crayfish, and other bird eggs, these feet do triple duty….enable coots to walk on land, walk on marshy areas, walk on the water prior to taking flight. In other words….these feet were made for walking!
So just because a bird is floating on water, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a duck. If it walks like a duck (and coots don’t), talks like a duck (they don’t – their call was frequently used in old Tarzan movies) or looks like a duck (bills are pointed, not rounded like ducks) then it must be a duck doesn’t apply to the American Coot.
They are interesting birds, fun to watch when taking flight, and easy to identify. So go find yourself an old “Coot”
In 2008, I took a trip to Africa and my view on zoos forever changed.
Many years ago I went through the training at the Houston Zoo to become a docent. It was quite extensive with each of us receiving instruction from all of the different directors of various areas within the zoo. Lectures on mammals, birds and reptiles were designed to arm us with as much information as possible so we could provide educational programs to schools throughout the Houston area.
I had some trepidations about the handling of reptiles since snakes were never right up there on my list of favorite creatures, but time would prove to me that of all the animals and reptiles we took in the zoomobile, the snakes were the only ones that didn’t try to bite me! Prairie dogs have very sharp teeth as do ferrets, baby lambs would knock me down in their excitement to get to the bottle of milk I had for them and hedge hogs were prickly. The snakes were cool, smooth and dry and they were quite content to wind around my hand or arm with absolutely no thought of biting me.
I recognize the valuable role zoos across our planet play in promoting education and in some instances preserving a species from extinction. One of their greatest benefits is providing people with the opportunity to see a species that they might not otherwise be able to see. But once I viewed the animals indigenous to the African continent in their vast homeland, I lost a lot of the pleasure I once derived from visiting different zoos in each city I visited. I’ve seen good ones, bad ones and struggling ones doing the best they can with limited resources and I just can’t get past the fact that as nice as a zoo might be, they all still lack the natural environment and sheer space that promotes good health and well-being in an animal.
I acknowledge the benefits of zoos and as recently as last year visited the San Diego Zoo, considered one of the best in our nation. Here I was able to spend much time watching one of my favorite birds…The American Flamingo. I may never see one in the wild, so I greatly appreciated the opportunity to be up close and personal with these magnificent birds. There is a video that a friend recently shared with me that shows these great birds performing their mass courtship display where hundreds of them move together in what appears to be a coordinated dance of sorts. Check it out at science spirituelle -Projet Lumiere, the dance of the pink flamingos. A group of flamingos is called a “flamboyance” which I think is the perfect word to describe their brilliance.
I can still enjoy a visit to one of the great zoos, but now I find myself comparing the animals there with the ones I was fortunate enough to witness in the African bush. No animal should be caged. So I am always transported back to that magical two weeks spent inhaling the sights and sounds of a place that every human being should visit at least once in their lifetime if at all possible. Save your pennies now and I promise you will never regret the African adventure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Talk about a beak! Now this bird has a huge beak and its name gives us a hint as to its shape. Roseate Spoonbills are one of my favorite shorebirds and one that I seek each time I travel to beaches on the Gulf Coast. Their bills are “spoon” shaped, quite large and always makes me wonder how they ever manage to get food into the mouths of their young. But they do.
Spoonbills are easily identified not only by their bright pink and white colors but by their distinctive bill shape. The shape of their bills gives us a clue about how they feed. Like storks, they wade through the water swishing their beaks back and forth seeking minnows, small fish, crustaceans and plant life.
Spoonbill feet also give us valuable information about how they spend the majority of their time.
Their feet are adapted to enable them to wade in muddy waters where they spend a lot of time hunting for their food. They have three toes pointing forward and one pointed back and they are attached to semi-long legs. Think feet designed to support their weight so they don’t sink….. much like snowshoes distribute the weight of a human walking over snow.
One of my favorite times to observe these birds is in March and April at the Rookery in High Island. They join with other herons and egrets to build nests, lay their eggs and raise their young. I highly recommend a trip if you want to have an up close and personal view of these beautiful birds.
A lifetime of sunsets. So many of them beautiful, some captured on film, others burned into my brain hard drive and still others unremarkable, but like the sun coming up each day, we know and expect that it will set as well. A never-ending cycle of life. The life of a day. Sunsets speak. Slow down. Rest. Be still. This day is finished.
One memorable shared sunset happened in Africa. My sister, daughter and oldest granddaughter and I had traveled into the bush to four different camps for the opportunity to view some of our planets most majestic mammals and birds in their native environment. An extraordinary trip, one which changed me forever.
Each morning we would rise before sunup, dress and wait for our guides to come fetch us from our tent. Camp rules stated that we could not leave our tents once we were deposited there the night before unless we were accompanied by staff. And believe me, in Africa when nighttime visitors may include elephants or great cats, one stays put and follows the rules. In Africa people are prey, not predators. We ate a light breakfast around a campfire and then climbed into our range rover to begin our morning of bouncing about in the bush in pursuit of native wildlife to capture with our eyes and cameras. I wasn’t “officially” a bird watcher then, but my camera captured many birds that I have since added to my Life List.
Mid-morning we stopped for “tea” and then went again until around Noon when we returned to our campsite for a huge brunch followed by about two or three hours of free time before we started out once more in our vehicle. Right before sundown, our guides would pull our jeep to a halt, pull down the back tailgate and begin preparing our evening cocktail of choice as they passed hors d’oeuvres. This happened each night while in the bush and each night we sat and watched the sun set on one of the most fascinating continents on our planet. No time in the jeep was ever wasted for even as we returned to our camp after sundown, our guide would be scanning the land on either side with a huge infrared light trying to give us a glimpse of those animals who are nocturnal and only move at night.
One of our days came to an end when we were in a small boat skimming over the waters of the Okavango Delta. Our guide simply stopped the boat, took out the necessary equipment to give us our nightly “cocktail hour” as we watched the sun sink below the horizon.
I fully intended this piece to be about different sunsets in my life….from my balcony overlooking Lady Bird Lake or from my car as I began my long drive home from Houston to Brenham after my 12 hour shift at the hospital. But my memories took me first to Africa sunsets and the many beautiful creatures that live in such peace in their vast homeland. So, another day, another post for those other memorable sunsets.
I’ll finish this piece with some thoughts that I wrote immediately after my return from Africa. My view of life, the sheer majesty of it all, was forever changed as I mentioned earlier.
Written in May 2008 – “Upon my return from Africa, many friends/family have asked me to “tell” them about the experience. I am frustrated by my inadequacies in describing this adventure and the incredible vastness and beauty of this continent. So, here is my first fragmented attemptto relate how my trip there has impacted my life.
The scents of sage, wild basil, wild lavender, pretty lady, elephant dung, earth. The vastness of the countryside that swallows a huge elephant as if it were no bigger than a fly. How well the animals blend in and disappear into the grasses/trees, so rounding a bend in the road, a giraffe can be 100 yards away and remain invisible until someone cries out “giraffe!” and a large bull elephant bellows, flaps his ears, stomps his feet making himself look larger, with no clue of his greatness, to express his indignation for being surprised by our appearance.
Fruit bats crying in the night and the “rahoo” of the baboons up in the trees during the day. Having morning tea with two lions 100 meters away. Close encounters with eye to eye contact with the big cats… lions, leopards, cheetahs. The infinite patience of observing our guide Teko tracking a leopard for 45 minutes driving over bushes/shrubs and around trees to suddenly be face to face with a male leopard.
The large wealth of medicinal trees and shrubs within Africa. The incredible patience, knowledge and teaching skills of our guides who demonstrated such pride in their homeland. The graciousness of the people who cared for us so diligently, providing for our every need even when we had no idea of what that “need” was and protecting us from ourselves as well as the danger that lurked around every corner within and without our camps.
I sit here now in my apartment listening to the “sounds” of urban life…cars, freeway noise, and view the many lights of the city…the sights and sounds of humanity. I have returned to civilization.But I am afraid I have left my heart in Africa. A land that can change one’s view of just what is important in life.The sights/sounds/experiences/ vastness/ graciousness, sheer beauty of Africa are burned into my brain and soul. I want to return, to revisit and explore more. And, hopefully I will be able to do so in the not so distant future.”