Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bird Humor

Birders tend to be either very serious folks or fun-loving silly people. After all, we spend a lot of time chasing after elusive little critters. It helps to have a sense of humor.

Fall migration is underway, and Jim and I took a 2 week vacation to Canada and New England (Talk about needing a sense of humor; I went expecting to see a lot of birds....but that is another post) so I haven't been writing.

Maybe it's me but I've started seeing a lot more bird and birding humor in comic strips. So quick post....thanks to Mutts!

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Hummers Are Here!

Reports are coming in from across Texas as the hummingbird migration begins. One measure of the size of the population is the number of hummers at feeders. I put my feeders out a few weeks ago and have had erratic feeding until this past week. Now there are three or four birds that stop several times a day.

As a reminder, the formula for nectar is 1:4 sugar to water. Only use regular sugar--no organic brown
sugar, raw sugar, or powdered sugar. Some raw and brown sugars have honey or other additives that can be harmful to the birds. Do NOT add coloring or buy the premixed nectar that is red. It is not necessary and may be harmful. Also unless your water is especially hard you don't need to boil the water. Just ensure that the sugar has mixed in well. Be sure the feeders are clean. That black stuff is mold that can cause the nectar to spoil quickly. What feeders you use isn't as important as being able to clean thoroughly (and types of feeders is a subject for another post). Hummers are territorial so if you are attracting more than a couple of birds you need multiple feeders. Just don't fill each feeder all the way as you need to change the nectar every couple of days in the summer heat.

If you aren't getting birds at your feeders, you'll really enjoy watching the hummer cams. A Rockport group, WWN, puts out a camera that streams live. Check it out at

For a real immersion into hummingbirds, plan to attend the 2014 Rockport HummerBird Festival, September 18-21. Hundreds of hummers can be seen at homes that open their gardens to festival-goers. People often comment about the number of hummers that swarm around (I suggested it was like swarming flies one year there were so many circling me.) and how close you get to them. It's free to tour the hummer homes and maps can be picked up at the local Chamber of Commerce office.

Hummer "butt"
While most of the birds in this area are ruby-throated hummingbirds, last year a calliope stopped by for the festivities, attracting quite a crowd at Zachary Taylor Park. One really fun thing is to watch the master bander putting little tiny bracelets on hummers so that they can be tracked. Two years ago I was able to see a sight few see--a hummingbird's bottom! The banders catch the hummers in mesh sacks, weigh them, check for gender, place the band, and then release them. Often one of the watchers is allowed to hold the hummingbird for the few seconds it takes the bird to get itself together to fly off.

Calliope Hummingbird
In addition to seeing the birds, as well as many other birds that are migrating through the coastal bend, the festival offers exceptional classes, programs, and tours. I was able to spot a number of birds on the bus tour to Fennessey Ranch including a green jay! This year I'm planning to take one of the photography classes offered. Check out the schedule for information on the other events and programs, including a lecture by Sharon Stitele, aka Birdchick. ( I just learned she also shares abeekeeping operation with Neil Gaiman. Yes, Neil Gaiman!) Her book, 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know provides practical tips along with humorous information about birding. Other programs focus on making your garden bird friendly, endangered hummingbirds, Texas woodpeckers, and more. While the focus is on hummingbirds, the event is called the HummerBird Festival to include the many other species in the area. I'm planning to hit several of the programs and will write up some of what I learn in a future post.

Oh, but I can't forget...the festival also features a shopping mall with everything birds and birding. I'm planning to find a bird bath! In the meantime, I need to put out fresh nectar. The birds are getting impatient.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

They Grow Up So Quickly

Parents creating nest
Photo by Jeanette Larson
In the past couple of years, I've seen skimmers pretty regularly during out visits to Rockport but this is the first year I've been able to actually watch their full cycle of life. Just before Memorial Day the birds started to gather and make nests on Rockport Beach.

Skimmer egg
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Skimmers are monogamous and the mates each take turns scraping away a place in the dirt and rotating in the sand to create a saucer-shaped depression. They are colonial birds so many nests are close together and they will nest near the gulls that are also preparing for their eggs. It can take up to about a week for the female to lay 3-5 eggs. The eggs can be tough to spot because both parents incubate and they are flush with the ground sitting on the depression. You have to be patient and watch for a chance to see them when whichever bird is sitting moves, turns around, or changes out with the other. The eggs are very vulnerable and gulls will take any opportunity to swoop in and steal an egg to eat.

Skimmer chick (note beak)
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The skimmers are very protective and aggressively mob intruders to keep them away from the nest and to protect the female. I have noticed that if I stay in the car to watch the birds and take photographs they don't seem to mind. But if I get out of the car they will swoop down as if planning to attack. Human disturbance is detrimental to the eggs and the newborn chicks so I stay in the car. Rockport Beach actually closes access to the nesting area around July 1 to deter people from getting too close.

Growing up
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Like clockwork, after about 21 days the babies hatch. Although I can't be positive, it looks like most nests end up with two chicks hatching. They continue to be cared for by both parents for another 3 to 4 weeks. The most distinctive feature on Black Skimmers is their mandible. Orange and black, the lower part of the bill is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to skim the water for food. Babies are born with beaks of equal length. Within a few weeks you can see the lower mandible start to lengthen and change colors.

Photo by Cheryl Vance-Kiser
Used with Permission
As the chicks fledge, the colony moves closer to the water. By the end of July, the chicks are almost full grown, their colors are changing and they are testing their wings. The chicks are also learning to fish for themselves. Parents will still feed them if needed and sometimes the chicks literally fall flat on their faces after the strenuous experience.

Winging it
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The experts say this was a pretty good year for skimmers with many chicks hatching. Black skimmers were once hunted nearly to extinction but are now categorized as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species but some years are better than others for the colonies. Once a colony is established the skimmers return year after year. While they breed in many areas along the Atlantic coast, they are on the Texas coast year-round. So I'm looking forward to watching the cycle again next year.

Other interesting things about the black skimmer: their legs are short with webbed feet. While they will wade into the water they don't swim or dive. They skim along the surface with the upper mandible held above the water. Their eyes, which in adults disappear into the black coloring, constrict to a narrow vertical slit. They are they only birds with this trait, which may be an adaptation against the bright glare of water and sand.

Literary tie-ins: In Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling, Minn, a turtle observes skimmers along with many other birds on a trip down the Mississippi. This classic by the author/illustrator of Paddle to the Sea and Seabird received a Newbery Honor award in 1952 and is a wonderful introduction to the ecology of the Mississippi for readers of any age.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A New Nest

I haven't blogged in almost two months but I think I had a good reason. Jim and I decided to move permanently to the house in Rockport so I've been cleaning the "nest" in Pflugerville, packing up stuff, and getting the house sold. I hadn't really thought of our life changes in bird terms until my dear friend Michael J. Rosen, author of The Cuckoo's Haiku: and Other Birding Poems, sent a haiku and a photograph of a hummingbird's nest to me as a moving gift. So yes, I guess we were abandoning our old nest and "building" a new one.

Black Skimmer Egg
It's a great time to be moving to Rockport as it is nesting season on the coast and it's fascinating to watch the birds mating, nesting, and raising their young. The gulls and skimmers are nesting on Rockport Beach. The nests are scraped into the dirt and sand in several protected areas. It's quite a challenge to spot the eggs and the parents are very protective. Although I've yet to actually see a chick hatch, I am starting to see them fledge and the chicks are adorable.

Black Skimmer nesting
Skimmer chicks
Black skimmers have distinctive red and black bills that look a bit like candy corn to me (or I guess more accurately what is called autumn mix since those are black, orange, and white). The lower mandible is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to drag its mouth through the water skimming up small fish. There may be as many as four eggs in a clutch. At birth the mandibles are the same length (look closely at the chicks), but start to show differences by four weeks. The parents feed the chicks until they are about four weeks old and can skim their own food. This is the only American skimmer; the other two species are African and Indian. Although the skimmers are migratory they stay in Rockport year-round.

Laughing Gull Chicks
The laughing gulls are very abundant but I never tire of watching them. Rarely do I go out to take photographs without getting a few of the gulls doing silly things. They always look so clean and graceful!

Laughing gull
The laughing gulls nests will often be mixed in areas with or near the skimmers. The gulls are monogamous, often staying together through several breeding seasons. Each clutch may have one to four eggs. Both male and female gulls incubate the eggs for about 30 days.The gull chicks will go through several molts, changing from light brown feathers to the more familiar white head and gray back.

It appears that some of the gulls stand guard around the edges of the
protected nesting area to warn of intruders.  I find this kind of ironic as laughing gulls sometimes sneak up and steal skimmer eggs. We joke that every post has a gull because they do seem to love standing on the signs and posts around the nesting area.

After the egg hatches, gulls clean out their nests to prevent shell pieces from attaching to other eggs, preventing hatching. Seems like we all need to clean house and build a new nest once in awhile!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Siege of Bitterns

I'm fascinated by collective nouns, especially those that refer to groups of birds and animals. It seems somehow fitting that a gathering of hippopotami is referred to as a bloat and there is a joke going around that a group of baboons is called a congress. While that sounds right (at least from a political perspective) it is not accurate; a bunch of baboons is a troop. Fun collective nouns for birds include a stand of flamingos, an
A Charm of Hummingbirds
(Photo © Jeanette Larson)
ostentation of peacocks, and a charm of hummingbirds. Perhaps because as scavengers they are sometimes associated with death, a flock of crows is referred to as a murder. Actually how that particular collective noun came to be associated with crows is unverified, but the term goes back to the 15th century and it's a great title for a mystery, one of my other passions.

European Nightjar
(Public domain)
Given my two interests I was thrilled to find a new mystery series that is based on birds and has titles based on collective nouns. A convergence that was meant to be! A Siege of Bitterns is the first in a series by life-long birder and nature writer, Steve Burrows. Living in Canada but originally from the UK, Burrows sets the series in Norfolk, the heart of Britain's birding country. In the winter migrants roost in the marshes and  Britain's largest lowland pine forest is home to woodlarks, tree pipits, and nightjars. (Nightjars have an almost supernatural reputation for their ability to fly silently and, according to folktales, they steal milk from goats. I'm thinking they would make a great subjects for a mystery in the series.)

Clearly Burrows knows birds and I learned a bit about bitterns reading the book (even though it irks me that I've never spotted one during my birding time). But, of course, the big question is: how is the book as a mystery? The main character, Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is the fair-haired child of the UK Police Service even though,as a Canadian, he is considered an outsider. Following a highly publicized case, Jejeune is reassigned to Saltmarsh, a small town in Norfolk. This should be a big step up the career ladder except for one thing: Jejeune would rather be birdwatching than investigating. And since Saltmarsh is in the midst of some of the best birding territory in Britain it is easy for the detective to stray from his duties. When a well known environmental activist is found dead, a presumed suicide hanging from a tree, the only clue that it could be murder points to a couple of avid birders competing to reach 400 verified species sightings in the local marshes and the possible presence of a vagrant American bittern.

American Bittern
(Creative Commons License)
The book is a pretty quick  read and would be classified as a cozy, taking place in an insular community and featuring very little blood and no graphic violence. Much like birding, the pace is slow with intermittent bursts of activity followed by discussion about whether what you think you saw is what you really saw. And birders often head out in one direction only to end up following a complex path that leads in circles and off the beaten path. As we tag along with Jejeune through the marshes and forests, readers do learn a bit about birds and birding before ultimately spotting the killer. And other than adding a new bird to your life list, what could be better than that? Oh, and was there really an American bittern in Britain? You'll have to read the book to find that out; remember, I've still never seen one.

A Siege of Bitterns will be published April 19, 2014.

 (I received an e-book copy of A Siege of Bitterns from the publisher.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Spy in the Sky

Spring migration has started and I find that on our walks Jim and I spend a lot of time looking up and trying to guess what bird is flying by. Usually we have no idea, the bird flies by too fast to tell, or we are flat out wrong. Feels like a game of I Spy. Look fast, take a guess, check if you are correct.

Edward Gibbs is well known for his I Spy books. These offer a glimpse of a part of something seen through a cut-out in the page. For I Spy in the Sky young readers are asked to figure out what bird they are seeing. Starting with some purple feathers and clues about drinking nectar young readers will delight in figuring out that it is a hummingbird. While many of the birds may be birds kids will know, the condor may not be as familiar and, although peacocks can fly for short distances, they won't be spotted in the sky.

The richly illustrated book is perfect for preschoolers and they learn a little bit about each of the seven birds. The final page is a cut-through to the back cover challenging readers to see what they can spy with their own little eyes. This will be fun bedtime reading or as part of a nature outing and will help kids be more observant and start to figure out how to identify the birds they see around them.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya

Maybe I'm just more attuned to them right now but parrots keep popping up around me. Monk parrots (also called Quaker parrots) are in the trees around Austin and recently the City of McAllen, TX passed an ordinance protecting introduced parrots from being harmed or captured. 

Regardless of why I'm reading more about them, African Grey parrots have certainly been finding their way into children's books this past year. Like Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird,  The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya features one of these highly intelligent, very social, birds. Zeno knows he is a “Booful, briyant bird,” because his late “servant,” Dr. Agard, often told him so. For many years, Dr. Agard lived and worked with Zeno. Zeno understood and could speak more than 127 words. But one morning Dr. Agard doesn't get up and Zeno is left alone. His advanced vocabulary and intelligence didn't do anything to prepare Zeno for a life on his own. Flying around Brooklyn, Zeno lands on Alya's window. Battling leukemia Alya is just as desperate and nervous as Zeno. She feels totally caged in by her illness, unable to do much of anything for herself, and counting the number of times (9,595 at last count) that her mother strokes her head. Zeno is so confused and uncertain about his new-found freedom that he is plucking out his own feathers. (Reading about Zeno's trials and tribulations I kept hearing the Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson lyrics from Me and Bobby Mcgee--"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." At one point Zeno literally has nothing left to lose as he is a bald parrot.) In a story that is sad, funny, and joyful, Zeno and Alya find each other, lose each other, and finally find each other again. It is a story of friendship and hope, for both species. Oh, and banana muffins play a major role in the story. What could be better?
Monk parrot
(licensed under Creative Commons)

Author Jane Kelley acknowledges Dr. Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex as the inspiration for this story. As with the many of the best stories, there is some basis for it from the real world. There really are a lot of wild parrots in Brooklyn. The most reasonable story for the origin of this wild flock is a crate accidentally opened at JFK Airport resulting in a "great escape." Zeno mentions the Great Escape, having heard about it from Monk parrots he meets on his adventures. 

African Grey parrots have also been re-introduced to the wild by organizations like The World Parrot Trust and people like Jane Goodall. Like Zeno, these birds don't immediately rush to freedom when the cage doors open. About 80% of illegally captured birds die while they are being trafficked and the mortality rate for legally traded birds is 40-50% between capture and export. In the wild Grey parrots may live to be 25, while properly cared for captive birds can live twice as long.

Final thought....oh my gosh. While writing this post I learned about a Parrot Lovers cruise out of Galveston. Wow! Who wants to go with me?