At the end of June, I made the trek with my daughter and two grandsons to Gulf Shores Alabama. Not a fun drive but we had a mission. My youngest grandson was playing his last tournament series with the baseball team he has played with for many years. So a bittersweet tournament. They always do well and this year was no different. Not first but second in their bracket which racked up the third year in a row that they brought home some hardware. They were happy.
Interspersed throughout the week, we had time to stroll or just bask on the beach. And Gulf Shores beaches are magnificent. Sugar white sand so very different from the sand I grew up with on Galveston Island. It was a pleasurable experience and of course being near the ocean is always good for birding opportunities.
On this trip, Ospreys abounded. Everywhere I looked I found platforms with Osprey nests. Most had juvenile birds that had fledged from their nests but continued to return and beg for food from their harried parents. Even though they can fly, the juveniles have not honed the fishing skills necessary for their survival. Their parents may continue to drop food for them for many weeks until they master those skills. At one of our late afternoon baseball games I witnessed this phenomenon from my baseball perch. The juveniles were flying off and on the nest, yakking away begging for food and I spotted one of the parents in a tall pine tree very near the nest…close enough to monitor and intervene if necessary, but far enough away to encourage independence from his/her offspring. If the game dragged, I had another source of entertainment, up close and personal.
Beaches, boys, birds and baseball! How much more summertime can you get?
As long as I can remember, I have drawn, sketched, colored, painted and in general taken great joy in piddling in different mediums in my feeble attempts to be an “artist”. It took me years to learn that as long as I was happy with my creation, that was enough. I have finally lost the need for perfection or approval. I am happy when I can capture the essence of a bird or a landscape or a human figure. I guess that makes me an impressionist. Whatever I am, it matters not. I derive great pleasure from sketching my birds and revisiting those pages in my journals to revive the memories of their sightings.
So just what are the basics for drawing, sketching or painting in a bird journal? A short list might include the following:
Sketching pencils – 4B and 2B (higher the number, the softer the lead)
Mechanical pencil ( an optional item, personal preference)
Strathmore Drawing Pad (many different sizes so once again personal choice)
Strathmore watercolor paper – 90# coldpress (this is a medium weight paper)
Strathmore watercolor paper – 140# is a higher quality and therefore more absorbent
Windsor Newton Water Colors – get student quality (really cheap ones will frustrate you but professional quality are not needed for learning)
Water soluble wax pastels. (Aquarellable)
A couple of watercolor brushes
And of course, some type of journal
The list could stretch on and on. Experiment, try new products/papers. It doesn’t take long to find your “go to” favorites that help you capture a memory in a birding journal. Paste in beach passes, restaurant receipts, print a photograph and lay it into the journal. Make your journal yours and build memories along the way.
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”
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.
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!!!
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.
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 one 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!
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.
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.
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.