Wire Cutters and A Mule

Downtown Houston

I am a native Houstonian. Born, raised and lived there the majority of my life. I have survived hurricanes with names like Carla, Allison, and Rita plus a myriad of other storms that perhaps didn’t grow large enough to meet hurricane standards and were relegated to tropical depression status. The one thing they all have in common is the potential to affect the quality of life for the small inconsequential humans who happen to exist in their pathway. I moved to Austin about 12 years ago and my up-close-and- personal encounters with angry storms have diminished. And then came Harvey.

Downtown Austin and the Boardwalk on LadyBird Lake

For four days within the confines of my safe, dry, well stocked condo, I watched the rain pound Ladybird Lake, the looming clouds scud slowly by and the persistent squalls of rain drenching Austin. I never lost power from the winds, so I watched the tragedy unfold before me through television video clips. And as I watched, I cried. I couldn’t stop crying when I witnessed the absolute destruction of a city I love and witnessed the horrible struggles of the innocent people battling to survive torrential rains and flooding. Houston has weathered many storms throughout a colorful history but never before has an American city experienced a year’s worth of rain in excess of 52 inches within a four-day period… an event that is impossible to imagine and totally beyond anyone’s expectations.

Houston will survive and rebuild stronger than before because it is a lumbering unstoppable behemoth of a city bent on surviving, but also because it must. The “Chemical Coast” that encompasses a large portion of the Texas/Louisiana coastline, provides huge amounts of petrochemicals that fuel the lives of Americans everywhere. A monster storm interrupts that well-oiled machine that churns out all sorts of products that fuel our life “needs” and it makes us aware of our dependence on many things that make our lives so comfortable. Without electricity, no air conditioning, no lights, no power for toasters, hair dryers, washing machines. Without electricity, no power to pump water through miles of pipe into our homes to deliver drinking water, water for ice making, water for bathing, flushing toilets. Without electricity, gas pumps don’t pump gas so if your car is empty, you will be walking or hitching a ride from a neighbor. Without electricity, the food inside our refrigerators and freezers spoils. And the list goes on and on. We take so many things for granted each day and one hiccup can make us aware of how quickly it can all disappear.

I know a lot of this from first-hand experience. I remember the fear my parents had when Carla swept through Houston ripping the roof shingles from our home and delivering huge quantities of water in a horizontal attack so fierce that moisture was literally driven under doors and around and through window sills. As an adult, when another “caine” burst upon Houston, our side of the street lost power for two weeks and as we struggled to deal with the heat and the humidity, all of our neighbors across the street had power. The lights from their homes each evening made our pain greater. And when Rita came knocking and a mandatory evacuation of Houston was ordered, I obediently began to travel West to escape her murderous rage. There were thousands upon thousands of us that departed Houston to evade this storm only to be bogged down in traffic, running out of gas, without food or rest on a 12-18 hour journey traversing a mere 75 miles. The evacuation was a disaster itself. People died on the roadways. It is simply impossible to evacuate millions of people from an urban area for a storm that may or may not decide to come your way. The landfall of hurricanes can be unpredictable because these giant water and wind monsters can be capricious.

Any natural disaster or, God forbid, a man-made nuclear disaster, and life as we know it can vanish in a remarkably short time. And then what? What do we absolutely NEED in order to survive? Food, water, shelter, the basics. But how do we escape the concrete jungle if the roadways are bogged down in traffic or gas is unavailable. Growing up in the Cold War era and vividly remembering the Cuban missile crisis, I recalled sage words of wisdom from my Father about how to survive a calamity. With confidence and great clarity, he said “All you need to survive is a good pair of wire cutters and a strong mule.” Something to think about in a world that is teetering on the brink of disaster on an almost daily basis.

My heart bleeds for my beloved home town. Be well Houstonians.

 

Port “A” Revisited

Port A surfside

Even short moments sitting on a beach or exploring new birding venues can boost spirits and alleviate the summer doldrums. And what nicer way to revisit Port Aransas than with my daughter, grandsons and friends. The beauty of traveling with them now is that the burden of all the “doing” of things is not on me. Yes, I have finally arrived at that sweet moment in life when I can be totally free of responsibility and confidently place my care and well-being into the hands of loved ones. I LOVE IT!!!!

Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center

After a Saturday sitting in the canopy shade on the beach, listening to the surf, and being caressed by the ocean breeze, I set out early Sunday morning to explore some birding spots I had not seen before. First up was the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center located adjacent to the water sewage facility. Some might think this to be an unlikely place to encounter birds of any merit, but I was richly rewarded that morning. Walking through the gate and onto a well constructed boardwalk that snakes out over the salt marshes, I had the entire place to myself and immediately enjoyed three Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring high in the clear skies above me. Black Skimmers were flying low over the water ponds collecting breakfast, a Little Blue Heron flushed with my presence, a Common Gallinule creeped among the marshes closely followed by her baby chick, Cormorants, Black Vultures, Black-necked Stilts, Killdeer, Snowy and Great Egrets, one lonely Coot, gulls, terns, Tricolored Heron and a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks made for a nice birding morning.

Next stop was Wetland Park where I was greeted by American Avocets, White Ibis, Common Sandpipers and Marbled Godwits. This stop was a spectacular one for me since I was able to identify by behavior, a Reddish Egret White Morph cavorting in the shallows. Surrounded by Great and Snowy Egrets, he was easily identified by his dancing skills.

Reddish Egret White Morph
Marbled Godwit

Finally I visited Paradise Park, a very small swampish area located behind a local restaurant. A boardwalk twisted through the trees and as I strolled I spotted a GBH and then my third prize of the day, an Immature Little Blue Heron. Baffled by his white egret-looking body and light green legs, I finally realized what he was. Once again, location and behavior assisted me in the identification. Little Blues are mostly solitary and shy and even though this small pond is smack in the middle of a very urban area, it was well concealed by trees, brush, marshy reeds and brackish water.

Immature Little Blue Heron

My weekend was a great combination of family time combined with alone time. Great memories made in a close-to-home location.

Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule Chick

Happy bird searching!!!         

Acadia Birding Festival/Bar Harbor Maine

My annual extreme birding adventure took me to Bar Harbor Maine this year and a special visit to Acadia National Park, a spectacularly beautiful place famous for lobsters, several bird species specific to the region and some pretty awesome scenery. After all, what is not to like…ocean, mountains, beaches, great food and Mother Nature everywhere.

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I was joined in this adventure by my oldest sister Linda and my BFF Linda! Right off we decided I needed to be able to differentiate which Linda I was speaking to so sister became “Lin” and BFF became “Da”. It has been at least a year ( a really tough year!) since I had seen my BFF and when we embraced in the JFK airport for our connecting flight to Bangor, it was as if only hours had passed between us. Thus is the depth of our soul sister bond. My goal at this stage in my life is to build memories and to spend as much time as I can with my loved ones. Traveling is never easy and becomes more difficult as I get older, so it was a great joy for me  to share this trip with my sister as well.

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“Lin”, G, and “Da” – Top of Cadillac Mountain

It is difficult to compress ten days of exploits into a blog post but here goes…fast forward… Flight to Bangor Maine, rental car to Bar Harbor, arrival at Wayman House residence, four days of early rising for multiple birding excursions to Witch Hole for beautiful views of Frenchman’s Bay and Mount Desert Range, an Owl Prowl till midnight, Little Cranberry Island highlights of common eiders, catbirds, red crossbills, and long-tailed ducks, Sieur de Monts up close and personal encounter with my favorite Pileated Woodpecker,  and Frenchboro Island where we simply sat and enjoyed visits from magnolia, yellow and yellow-throated warblers, chickadees, robin and cedar waxwings busily striping an apple tree of its blossoms.

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Cedar Waxwing

Perhaps the highlight of our birding field excursions was our Pelagic boat trip 25 miles out into the Atlantic in search of the seabirds that rarely visit the shore area. And we were not disappointed. My sister accompanied us on this particular field trip and layer dressed with scarves, hats and heavy coats, we began our journey. It was freezing cold and windy but with bacon and scrambled egg sandwiches and prophylactic Dramamine in our backpack, we forged ahead. Passing Duck Island, two bald eagles graced us with their presence. Successful nesters for several years, it was a real thrill to see our national bird in such a beautiful environment. Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Great Cormorants, Atlantic and Common Terns effortlessly gliding through the sky.  All of these sea birds were “lifers” for me, so I was richly rewarded on this trip.

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Common Eider Sea Duck

And of course, a trip to Maine would not be complete without a few lobster meals. My favorite memory is at Thurston’s Lobster Pound where we each attacked our own personal lobster guided by the waitresses expertise in how to best dismember this huge ocean crawler. It was a perfect evening highlighted not only with great food but the shared camaraderie of friends and family just enjoying a specific moment in life.

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Exploring the beautiful island, shops and special attractions rounded out the rest of our visit to Bar Harbor. These yearly birding trips are greatly anticipated, thoroughly enjoyed and revisited in my birding journals until our next adventure.

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Happy bird searching wherever you may be!!!!

 

When is a Grouse a Chicken?

Last weekend I took a quick road trip. Up early Saturday morning to travel to Eagle Lake, Texas to pay a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, home to approximately 35 chickens by their last bird count. Another 10 or so are hanging out at a neighboring rancher’s place. This refuge is about 10,000 acres of just what you would expect….prairie which is the type of terrain most liked as a homestead by these Prairie Chickens, members of the North American Grouse family.

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Male Attwater Prairie Chicken

These plain, homely birds have been residents on the Endangered Species List since 1967. Intense captive breeding programs have tried to increase their numbers over the years, but without much success. When a bird is at the bottom of the food chain, survival is an onerous task. A hundred years ago, their numbers were in the millions, but the destruction of their preferred habitat in Texas and Louisiana, as well as being a good food source for people and other numerous forms of wildlife, has left them clinging to existence by the merest of threads.

I wanted to take this opportunity to see these special birds because they may ultimately disappear from our planet much the same way the passenger pigeon became extinct. The draw at this time of the year is to get lucky and see some of the breeding males as they perform their mating ritual dance for the females. In the Spring, the males enhance their appearance by changing some of their everyday plumage for their “courting” attire in the hopes of being the most handsome in the group. They usually do this on a slice of prairie land called a “lek”. Each morning the males parade up and down the lek puffing out their bright yellow cheeks and as their cheeks deflate, a booming sound emerges as the male furiously stamps his feet up and down. It is a sight worthy of being seen. And I was fortunate enough to see a couple of the 35 birds that call these 10,000 acres home.

I left The Attwater Refuge and continued my journey to The Armand Bayou Nature Center located in the NASA area. This beautiful expanse of  2500 acres of marsh land, riparian forest and prairie land is located right in the middle of a very urban area. Boardwalks and nature trails wind through the terrain and reptiles, mammals and birds enjoy a peaceful existence in a well maintained, protected environment.

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Armand Bayou Marsh
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Yellow-banded Water Snake

Leaving Armand Bayou, I took a short afternoon ride to check out some of my favorite birding spots in Galveston, I was rewarded with a few of my favorite birds but also with a sighting of a Clapper Rail strolling through a marshy area and stopping long enough to take a bath.

Clapper Rail – Galveston
Bath time
Red-bellied Whistling Duck
Snowy Egret

The next morning our group met at NASA for our special tour and up close and personal view of the Attwater Prairie Chickens that are part of a breeding program sponsored by NASA in cooperation with the Houston Zoo. The goal is to support the birds in their breeding efforts, monitor and support their young to an age where they can safely be reintroduced back into the wild. Breeding pairs are kept in screened pens and the eggs are meticulously examined, protected and monitored. It was exciting to see them up close, hear their constant booming sounds, and watch them do their mating ritual. 

A bonus of my Chicken Little weekend was walking through a large building at NASA that houses the Saturn 5 Rocket. The enormous size of the entire thing blew me away and it was mind-boggling to think of the courage it must take to climb into a capsule on top of thousands of gallons of rocket fuel and anticipate your propulsion into space.

It was an extremely quick trip, just an overnight stay, but packed with lots of adventure and some pretty impressive birds, both the feathered kind and the man-made variety. America is a beautiful and fascinating place both at home and throughout our many different states. America was, is and always has been GREAT!!!! We don’t have to make it great again, just preserve and enhance what we already are privileged to enjoy. Happy bird searching!!!

Sure Signs of Spring

On my way home from work last week, I stopped in a sports complex parking lot to take a peak at the Monk  (AKA Quaker) Parakeet colony where these beautiful birds were busily building and reinforcing the colony nests that look like condominiums. They are busy, very busy right now preparing to procreate their species. They are noisy, messy and fun to watch. And appropriately a group of parakeets is known as a “chatter” of parakeets.

Monk Parakeet
Nest building time

A recent trip to my sister’s home in Burton Texas rewarded me with some beautiful flowers bursting into bloom as Spring arrives in full force.

Climbing Pinkie Rose

Climbing Pinkies bursting into bloom
A new arrival in Burton – A friend for Burton Ernie!!

A short stop at LadyBird Lake found a few year round and some winter residents.

Female Mallard
Cormorant
Green Heron

Opportunities to enjoy Spring rituals abound. Turn off the cell phone, take a deep breath, go for a walk,  become aware of all the wonders that Mother Nature provides for our enjoyment if we only pay attention. And just like Spring which is a renewal, you will begin to fill invigorated by the beauty that surrounds us all in our ordinary lives.

Happy bird searching!!!

Winter Birding

I mentioned previously about taking a sparrow class in an attempt to demystify some of the little brown birds that all seem to look alike. Our instructor, Dr. Birdie, has great knowledge about these members of the bird world and did a great job of imparting his knowledge to us. We would meet Wednesday nights  to discuss and view different sparrows common to the Austin area, learning their markings, differences,  and preferred habitats and haunts. The field notes provided were used by me to sketch and paint the different birds in my attempt to help my brain remember some of those characteristics.

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On Saturdays, we had our field trips to different popular birding areas in the Austin area to try to actually locate and get up close and personal with some of the birds we studied. Some of the ones we were chasing were obvious…black throated sparrow, rufous crowned sparrow but others are so similar that I am still having difficulty determining the accuracy of my sightings without Dr. Birdie there to help guide me through the identification process.

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Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Small birds move quickly, darting in and out throughout grasses, bushes and shrubs. This rapid movement makes it challenging for my identification skills. We trudged our way through waist-high grasses and tried to surround one La Conte Sparrow for at least 30 minutes. In the end the sparrow won, flying easily away each time we though we had cornered him leaving behind some very tired and frustrated bird searchers. Did I see the bird…yes. Could I identify him again if he sat still long enough for me to study his markings…perhaps. The only thing I “caught” for sure on that particular day were some chiggers.

I have learned over the past few years that improving my bird identification skills is a long-range process. And slowly but surely, I am getting better. But at the rate I am progressing, I will probably expire before I become a super expert. That really doesn’t bother me though because I still get excited with each bird I see, my eyes constantly scanning my surroundings just in case something new and different or old, tried and true appears within my scope of vision. You see, it is the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of the sighting and the satisfaction of making the identification that bring an immeasurable amount of  joy into my life.

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Debris on the banks of Lake Somerville

Happy winter bird searching!

 

Nest Architecture

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.

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Cavity Dwellers
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Oriole Nest

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Pileated Woodpecker Home

 

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Carolina Wren Nest
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Baby Eagles

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Juvenile Osprey

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.

Happy bird searching!!!

An Ordinary Day

As I was driving to work this morning I found myself thinking about the everyday minutia that comprises are lives…commuting to work, grocery shopping, putting gas into our car, cooking meals and actions as mundane as brushing our teeth.

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Killdeer

On workdays, I always set my alarm for approximately 2.5 hours prior to my “I need to leave for work now” time. I enjoy drinking a couple of cups of coffee, reading the newspaper and generally easing into my work day. Driving to work there is always the possibility of seeing a Great Blue Heron flying over the freeway or a Red Tailed Hawk perched on one of the freeway lights. And of course, the whole world abounds with rock pigeons, white wing doves and the ever-present grackles. At work we have many house sparrows flitting in and out of the trees around our building. Last Spring I heard a bird calling in distress and opened the door to investigate. I spotted a killdeer frantically trying to encourage her two babies back into the grassy area. Her chicks were so very tiny yet totally complete birds and they were running here and there completely unaware of the dangers that surrounded them. I cheered the parents on in their efforts to conjole their offspring, but I am sad to report that they were unsuccessful with at least one of them. These chicks were so small (very mobile, but tiny!) and as I watched,  a car passed directly over one of them. The car’s tires didn’t crush him, but the air draft from the car passing over him tossed the chick against the underside of the car and a tiny fragile life was instantly extinguished. I was devastated. I cried and cried, frustrated that I could do nothing to prevent it. Although I don’t know for sure the fate of the other chick, I prefer to believe that he successfully navigated back to the safety of his parents.

Driving home in the evening, I pass a football field complete with those extremely high lights necessary for illuminating a night-time game. On the platforms just under these lights, monk parrots build great colony nests and raise their young. I once spotted a hawk hanging out near them….great hunting ground for his dinner no doubt.

Once home, the birding from the balcony kicks in. With binoculars or my spotting scope I can watch the snowy or great egret or the Great Blue Heron as they fish for their last meal of the day before settling in to roost for the night. It is a peaceful sight.

Nothing really unusual about the day but since I started my birding adventure, my world has expanded greatly and my observation skills regarding my surroundings have grown exponentially. An ordinary day can be filled with extraordinary drama. I love the drama!

Happy bird searching in every ordinary day!!!

Dudley Drama

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.

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Louis

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.

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Dudley

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.

Photos courtesy of Cornell live bird cams