Blog stats

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Enjoying Big Bend National Park by Gary Clark: A review

(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)

Gary Clark is a well-known naturalist and writer on Nature in my neck of the woods. He's also an educator who has taught "leisure-living" courses on birding at the local college, one of which I took several years ago. He is a very knowledgeable guide to all the birding hot spots in Texas, of which there are many since this is one of the birdiest states in the union. 

In Enjoying Big Bend National Park, Clark has not focused on the birds of the park but has given a general guide to the interesting geology and history, as well as the wildlife and flora of that wild and beautiful area. Big Bend, named for its placement at a big bend in the river that separates Mexico from the United States, is one of the wildest and largest of America's national parks. It covers more than 800,000 acres, making it slightly larger than Yosemite National Park. Moreover, it encompasses a vast variety of ecological systems that include the Chihuahuan Desert, the rocky Chisos Mountains that reach up to 8,000 feet, steamy riparian floodplains, and cool mountain forests. 

Sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? But Clark has broken all of that down into bite-sized pieces that should lead the visitor to just the type of experience he or she is looking for. He has suggested adventures within the park that range from two-hour to half-day to full-day time frames and that can be had on foot or on a drive. He rates each trek on its degree of difficulty from easy to strenuous and includes sections for families and small children and for people with limited physical mobility. The message here is that anyone can find a way to experience and enjoy Big Bend.

Clark does not neglect the safety cautions in regard to being in the wild. He repeatedly warns about the dry air of this environment and the importance of keeping hydrated. His most urgent advice is to carry water at all times, even if you are only going on a short hike and even if you don't think you'll need it. Also, the sun is intense here and it is important to protect yourself from it with sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are not a bad idea either. And if you are going to get out of that car and go hiking, it is vitally important to have sturdy walking shoes or boots and to wear socks that will protect your feet. But if you forget every other warning, Clark begs you to remember this: "DRINK WATER! DRINK WATER! DRINK WATER!"

Big Bend has over four hundred species of birds that either live there or pass through at some time of the year and that's why I'll be heading that way in a few hours. The park also has a plethora of mammals from ground squirrels to striped skunks to gray foxes to the occasional black bear and mountain lion. One must always be on the alert when hiking or camping in this wilderness and respect these animals. 

Big Bend is also a Mecca for butterflies. Clark writes that there are "a mind-boggling variety of butterflies, many of which are still being cataloged." Yet another reason this butterfly-fancier wants to go there. 

Whether you are interested in butterflies or rocks, the Colima Warbler or the earless lizard, human culture of the past or preserving the environment for the future, Big Bend has something to offer and this guide will help you to find it.


So, I will be on the road for the next ten days, most of it spent at Big Bend, and I do not expect to have Internet access for much of the trip. If you should happen to notice my absence from this space, that will be the reason. I hope you miss me!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It's spooky out here!

The quiet in my yard these days is eerie and a little unnerving. All of a sudden, the birds seem to have disappeared. Oh, there are a few here and there but not the large numbers that I'm used to seeing during most of the year.

I've had these episodes before, but they always surprise me when they happen. One day the yard is filled with birds and birdsong; the next day everything is quiet and still.

I've blamed a lot of it on the Cooper's Hawk that seems ever-present these days and I'm sure that does have something to do with it, but I think there is something more at work here. It's possible that a wild source of food has suddenly become available and attracted some of those birds that usually feed here. It may also be that this is the time of dispersal for the young birds that were hatched this year. Perhaps they are moving on to find territories of their own. I think this may be what's happening in the case of the Northern Cardinals.

Throughout most of the year, my yard is overrun with cardinals. It's not unusual to see 15 to 20 of the birds gathering around the feeder at the end of the day for their late afternoon snack. But lately the tally runs more to three or four. The birds have completed their molting by now and they are dressed in their winter/spring finery, so perhaps, now that they are adults, it was time for them to move on.

Another factor may be changes in the weather. We get fronts through here every few days now and the change in temperature, humidity, and the barometric pressure may well be a signal to some of the birds - hummers, for example - to move on.

But whatever the reasons may be, my backyard is a relatively quiet place these days. Spooky - like Nature is playing a Halloween trick on me.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

This week in birds - #42

A roundup of this week's news of birds and the environment:

The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week this week is the American Golden Plover which they featured in their newsletter in its breeding plumage as you see here. This is how it would look in spring but at this time of year, it looks more drab, somewhat like the fall-plumaged Black-bellied Plover (its close cousin) that I showed you on Wednesday. This bird is not yet threatened or endangered but its population is decreasing due to habitat destruction and to its being hunted in the Caribbean.


And speaking of the ABC, the organization has completed a study of the status of birds in all fifty of the United States and its territories and has determined that fully one-third of those birds are in need of help. 


This is really hard for me to believe, but it seems that that ubiquitous bird, the House Sparrow, is disappearing from cities in India! Conservation groups there are concerned about the birds and are trying to find ways to help them. It is believed that they are being endangered by high pollution and by the increased use of pesticides. 


Winter finches continue to pour south from Canada and the northern states because of a crop failure in the seeds and nuts that they rely on. This week the star of the irruption show was the beautiful Evening Grosbeak. What I would give to have some of these wonderful birds turn up in my yard this winter!


A new study has concluded that a meteorite that landed in the Moroccan desert last summer was ejected from the surface of Mars some 700,000 years ago. It is composed mostly of black glass with noble gases trapped inside.


Environmental groups are concerned that a rodenticide used to control the population of black-tailed priarie dogs could pose a danger to a wide range of prairie bird species including Bald and Golden Eagles, Burrowing Owls, Ferruginous Hawks, as well as many songbirds. The rodenticide is an indiscriminate killer. 


Bird extinctions are continuing and increasing world-wide, in spite of some successes in protecting individual species. The most vulnerable species continue to be those on islands.


The whirling blades of the turbines at wind farms can be deadly for migrating birds and for bats. Conservation groups are particularly concerned about a facility in Maryland and have banded together to ask for changes which they hope will better protect the animals. 


The Compound Eye blog at Scientific American has a picture of a praying (or is it preying?) mantis. Here's my own picture of one from my garden. 

As a habitat gardener, I know that mantises are great partners that help me control some nasty insects.


A European effort to save the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis received a setback this week when one of the iconic birds was shot by poachers as it made its way to its wintering grounds in Tuscany. The bird was shot by illegal hunters in Italy. Migrating birds must fly a gauntlet of these hunters twice a year in spring and autumn and uncounted numbers of them do not make it. 


BirdLife International has issued a new seabird atlas which identifies 3,000 oceanic sites that are critical to the survival of these birds. The organization's hope is that this atlas will spur protection efforts for these sites.


A team of European astronomers have discovered a new planet with the same mass as the earth. The planet is located in the triple-star Alpha Centauri system, which is our Sun's closest stellar neighbor, a mere 4.4 light years away.


Around the backyard:

Things have been pretty quiet, actually, I suspect because the Cooper's Hawk seems ever-present these days. He even seems to be growing used to my presence and no longer takes flight the moment he (she) sees me. Maybe I'll finally be able to get a good picture!

The bird who considers himself boss of the backyard, the Northern Mockingbird, keeps a close eye on things and maintains a close lookout for that tricky hawk.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rainy day birds

It's a rainy, rainy day here in the old backyard. The birds are mostly lying low. Standing on the back porch, I can discern several of them taking shelter in the shrubbery, feathers ruffled to repel the raindrops.

We had a front come through over the weekend that seems to have pushed some of the birds, especially the hummers, on their way farther south. Last week the yard was still busy with hummingbird activity, but yesterday, I could only count three as I sat in my favorite bird viewing chair in the backyard. There could well have been more around but I could only be sure of those three.

For a while, I thought that I had lost the female Rufous that I have referred to here several times, but then late in the afternoon I found her again, back at her usual perches. The two other birds were Ruby-throats, but I'm not entirely sure if they were females or juveniles. They definitely weren't adult males.

The rain is most welcome, but it doesn't make for good birding. It's a day for curling up with a good book. Maybe tomorrow will be one for the birds.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

This week in birds - #41

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

She's still here! The little female Rufous Hummingbird that has been in my backyard for several weeks continues to defend her territory. I can't prove it of course, but I am convinced that this is one of the two birds that spent last winter in my yard. Both of those birds were adult females. This one shows no signs of moving on, so I am hoping that she's here for the winter, too.


In this most political of seasons, the National Audubon Society has instituted a campaign to try to bring progressives, moderates, and conservatives together over the shared value of conserving the environment. They call their campaign "Because Conservation Doesn't Have a Party." Surely the need to preserve the environment is something that we can all agree on.


Beginning next January 1, California, which is often a leader in conservation matters, will institute a system of  "cap and trade" that will charge industries for the carbon which they emit. It is a grand experiment to try to rein in climate change. California can't do it by itself, but at least this is a step in the right direction.


The Department of the Interior has approved a wind energy project in Wyoming that will have 1,000 wind turbines when it is in full operation. The American Bird Conservancy, along with other wildlife protection groups, has expressed concerns to the agency that this has the potential to become "the country's biggest eagle killer."


Activists in Winnsboro, Texas are engaged in a last-ditch battle to try to stop construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The construction of the southern leg of that pipeline began in that area in August.


The Royal Cinclodes is a critically endangered South American bird species. Recently, a conservation group in Peru discovered a previously unknown population of the bird in that country. This has given rise to new hope for the survival of the species.


A proposed plan by the Obama administration to allow seismic airgun testing for oil and gas in the North Atlantic is drawing protests from a coalition of environmental and commercial fishing groups which fear that the project will upend the marine life in the area.


Conservation groups are charging that the recent designation of critical habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl is not sufficient to protect the bird because there are still provisions for allowing controversial and unproven logging practices in the habitat.


A newly discovered oil sheen along the Gulf Coast has been linked to the 2010 BP explosion and resultant oil spill in the Gulf. Scientists say that this is further indication that the full extent of the damage done by that massive spill still can not be calculated.


The migration trackers at Journey North still want to hear from us if we have hummingbirds in our yard. They are charting the progress of the tiny migrants across the continent.


The female Giant Panda cub born at the National Zoo in September died of liver and lung damage, a necropsy has shown. The cub's lungs were under-developed which caused it to have insufficient oxygen which apparently led to the damage which caused its death.


Six young Whooping Cranes are being led by ultralight aircraft on migration from Wisconsin to Florida this fall. So far the young flock has made it to Illinois. Still a long, long way to go. Let us hope they have the winds at their backs the whole way.


Around the backyard:

On Friday, we took a field trip over to the Kleb Woods Nature Preserve to walk the trails and look for birds. It proved to be pretty much of a bust as a birding trip. I had nine species on my list at the end of the trail. I could have seen many more birds in my own backyard!

The birds we found were:

Black Vulture
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Blue Jay
Northern Mockingbird
Carolina Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Northern Cardinal 

The only one of those that I probably wouldn't have seen in my yard was the nuthatch.

I was delighted to see that the nature preserve has a Chimney Swift tower at its entrance. Bird lovers are being encouraged to construct the towers in their yards for these very interesting and useful little birds.

I haven't seen or heard the swifts that spent the summer in my yard this week. I think they have probably moved on toward their winter home

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"I tawt I heard a..."

When I'm working in my garden, which is most every day, I'm always aware of the bird activity around me, even when it's not at the forefront of my consciousness. I may be concentrating on pulling weeds or deciding which limb to prune or digging a plant to be moved but I hear the Carolina Wren pair calling to each other in the shrubbery and the Northern Mockingbird practicing its oratorio on top of the utility poll. Those sounds plus all the others from the permanent resident birds that populate my yard are an expected part of the background noise of my life. But every so often, some unexpected notes make their way into the symphony.

Yesterday I was busily pulling weeds from an overgrown bed and half-listening to the afternoon chorus of birdsong when, suddenly, I was brought up short by one of those unexpected sounds. When the sound registered with me, I stood up and looked at the sky in the direction from which it seemed to have come. It was a faint sound from a bird high overhead. I looked but there was nothing there to see. I stood for a few minutes listening intently, but the sound was not repeated. Surely, I was mistaken. It's much too early, almost two months too early, but just for a moment, I could have sworn that I heard the inimitable flight song of the American Goldfinch!

Could the little golden birds actually be in this area this early in the fall? I usually don't see them until December, but we know from many sources in the North and Northeast that there is already a significant irruption of finches this year. Hungry winter finches are pouring down from Canada in large numbers because of a failure in their food crops. Pine Siskins have already been seen in some parts of the South and Red-breasted Nuthatches (not a finch, it's true, but a fellow traveler with them) have already been seen along the Gulf Coast, although not by me.

I have seen and heard several birds that are normally winter visitors to my yard - birds like the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and the Pine Warbler, all of which I did either see or hear in the yard yesterday. But, it is just extremely early to have the goldfinches arriving.

Still, there was that high, faint call. Or was it simply my imagination?

Have you seen American Goldfinches or Pine Siskins yet?  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

This week in birds - #40

A roundup of news from the world of birds and the environment this week:

In early 2006, the first Eurasian Collared-doves started showing up in my yard. A slow trickle of birds soon became a flood and they became the dominant dove for about a year and a half in the yard. This one was seen today in the yard.

Then the White-winged Doves followed the same pattern - a trickle became a flood - and by the end of 2007, their numbers had overwhelmed the Collared-doves. Today both doves, along with Mourning Doves and Inca Doves are residents in my yard but the White-wings are definitely the most numerous. As birds' ranges continue to shift and expand, any day now, I expect the Common Ground Dove to show up and become the fifth dove in my yard.


Red-breasted Nuthatches are irrupting this year. They have already been sighted in many southern states, including Texas. I'm on the lookout for them in my yard but haven't seen one yet. Have you sighted one in your area?


Birds are definitely on the move. A Eurasian species, the Common Cuckoo has been found in Santa Cruz, California. This species has seldom been seen in North America.


The dry conditions that have prevailed throughout much of the country this year have provided an ideal environment for producing brilliant fall foliage. The Northeast, destination of many leaf peepers at this time of year, is expected to be particularly colorful this autumn.


An experiment with Anna's Hummingbirds has proved that hummers can fly backwards just about as efficiently as they can fly forwards. This will not really be a surprise to anyone who has spent time observing hummingbirds.


The border wall between Texas and Mexico, highly controversial with many Texans who live along it, is changing travel patterns and ranges for many mammals, some of them, like the ocelot, endangered species, which previously traveled easily back and forth across the border.


Wildlife officials are removing Bald Eagle nests from the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia because having the big birds in that area poses a threat to aircraft taking off and landing at Norfolk Airport.


Remember the boll weevil? Having grown up in cotton country, I certainly do. It is still a pest and scientists still look for ways to control it. While experimenting with pheromone traps, they discovered a way to attract and control the milkweed weevil which attacks and feeds on the plants which Monarch and Queen butterflies depend on for their nurseries. A bit of lagniappe and Monarchs need all the help science can give them.


Audubon Guides blog has a very interesting featured post on bird migration. About half of the 10,000 species of birds on earth migrate.


Global warming creates problems and concerns right around the world but a major area of concern is the Indian subcontinent much of which depends on water from the glaciers in the Himalayas. Like glaciers all over the world, those glaciers are melting, potentially leaving several million people thirsty.


The survival of a Mexican salamander, the ajolate, may well depend on the cleanup of the waterways where it swims. Those waterways are now polluted by fertilizer and other farming chemicals runoff.


We know about the problem of lead poisoning in western birds like the endangered California Condor which feed on animals shot and left in the field by hunters. But it is not only here that lead poisoning is a problem. In the UK, at least 10% of deaths of waterbirds collected from 1971 to 2010 resulted from lead poisoning. Fully one-third of living birds tested were also affected.


Around the backyard:

It is autumn and the leaves are beginning to fall, making it a little easier to see the birds in trees, even tiny birds like this Carolina Chickadee.

Or this Downy Woodpecker in my neighbor's pine tree.

And speaking of tiny birds, the little female Rufous Hummingbird that I have featured in several blog posts is still with me and still riding roughshod over the other hummers that venture into her part of the yard. I snapped this picture of her today.

The Rufous frequently tangles with this little female Ruby-throated Hummingbird who has her own territory staked out in the yard.

We are supposed to get a cold - well, cool - front through here tonight, The high temperatures for the next couple of days are only supposed to reach the 70s. It will be interesting to see whether the cooler weather pushes some of my hummers on their way. I estimate that I still have around ten of the birds doing daily battle in my yard.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pine Siskins are on the move

The Stokes Birding Blog reports today that they have a flock of Pine Siskins in their yard in New Hampshire. Other birders from around the New England area are also reporting the arrival of these energetic little birds. It may be a harbinger of things to come farther south, maybe even in Southeast Texas.

Ron Pittaway's annual Winter Finch Forecast states that there was a widespread tree seed crop failure in both coniferous and deciduous trees in the northeast this year. When this happens, it generally means that the finches and other birds like Red-breasted Nuthatches that depend on these crops will be wandering farther and farther south in search of food, so it is possible that we could be seeing a lot of these little visitors again this year.

In two of the last three years, I did have large numbers of siskins in my winter yard, but last winter, I didn't see a single one. It's always a delight to have these entertaining little guys around, so I'll be hoping to see a lot of scenes like this in the upcoming winter.

Pine Siskin, January 2011

Monday, October 1, 2012

The hunter

Working in the backyard today, I heard the sound of a kerfuffle and looked up in time to see a male Northern Cardinal streaking across the yard. Now, if you have observed cardinals, you will know that they do not streak. They normally fly in a rather leisurely undulating fashion. But this guy was streaking for all he was worth. He dived into the wild hedge along the back fence and was followed closely by a brown blur. The Cooper's Hawk was hunting again.

The hawk's projected lunch escaped her clutches. She (I think it's a female.) sat and looked into the tangle of vines and branches for a moment but there was no way she could extract the cardinal. Then she flew up to the branch of my old crape myrtle tree, where she was half hidden from my view by leaves and branches.

I've tried and failed repeatedly to get a picture of this bird. Usually, I either don't have my camera when she appears or she speeds across my line of vision so fast that I don't have time to react. Today, my camera was close at hand, and even though she was partially obscured, I decided to try to get a recognizable image. I reached very slowly for the camera, not wanting to spook her. I didn't dare move from my location to try to get a clearer shot for fear my movement would send her flying. Here's what I was able to capture with the camera.

 Even partially blocked by the leaves in front of her, I think you can see what a magnificent bird this is.

She sat in the tree for several minutes, probably scouting the area for another likely menu item.

She turned and was looking back toward the spot where the cardinal had disappeared, perhaps hoping he would break cover. I'm sure his black eyes were watching her just as carefully and he was not about to move as long as she was in the area.

In another minute, you could almost see her heave a big sigh of disappointment and she flew off to an area beside the garden shed. I know there are rodents there so maybe she was able to grab one of them. Mammals are not these birds' first choice for a meal. They are built to chase and catch birds and that's what they clearly prefer to eat, but they will catch and eat other things if they are hungry enough and the birds are not cooperating.

You may not be impressed with these pictures but they are actually the very best I've been able to get so far, but, just like the bird, I am undaunted and I will keep trying for a better image.