Friday, September 27, 2013

Birding and Business

Anyone who travels for work knows that it is not at all glamorous. You arrive, usually late at night, after a day of negotiating airports, rental car counters and shuttles, luggage carts, and hotel reservations. You eat something on the run and try to get a good night's sleep. Exhausted after working all day, you head back to the airport, rarely getting any time to see the city you are visiting.

Last week I traveled to Orlando and Central Florida. Whenever my travel arrangements are such that I have to add a day, I try to include something fun or touristy in the area. Concerned that a Sunday flight might arrive too late to allow me to drive 90 minutes north of Orlando and not be exhausted on Monday, I added a day to the trip.  We've been to visit The Mouse, so I decided to schedule birding time instead of doing the usual things in Orlando.

Arriving late on Saturday night, I got up early on Sunday and drove to DeLand, a small town off of Interstate 4. My destination was Blue Heron River Tours. Driving through the sub-tropical landscape along the winding river, I admit to thinking I heard echos of "Dueling Banjos" playing. After a while, and after dodging a suicidal Muscovy duck, I arrived at Hontoon's Landing. I was a little early and the captain told me he was expecting three more people so the tour would be a very small group. By 10:00 a.m. no one else had arrived so the tour was a private one. Kudos to the captain for not cancelling!

A lot of the birds were the same birds we see along the Texas coast and inland waters--herons, ibis, and such but I was able to see an Anhinga. We do have this bird, related to the cormorant in Texas but I'd so far not managed to actually see one. This one preened and posed very nicely for the camera! Some of the heron were similar but different, like this
Little Blue Heron
Immature Little Blue
Little Blue Heron who was so blue it was almost unreal. Young Little
Blues are white and frequently mistaken for young Snowy Egrets.

Meandering along the river, the boat actually made a big circle and we encountered an alligator basking on a tree trunk, as well as turtles and many other birds. Lazing down river was an old-style paddlewheeler. These old steamers were the only way to navigate the St. John's River in years bygone and they played an important role in the economic development of Florida.

Florida Scrub Jay
After the 2-hour cruise, I headed to Deltona and the Lyonia Preserve. This preserve is actually part of the Volusia County Regional Library where I was going to be speaking the next day. It's open on Sundays from 1:00-5:00 p.m. so the birding was not as good as I had hoped due to the later time and higher temperatures. Actually, after walking for about 30 minutes I had heard a few birds but not seen a single one! Disappointed, and sweaty, I was about to give up when this Florida Scrub Jay started dancing in front of me. I sat on a concrete wall next to the walkway and waited for this bird and a buddy to come back so I could get photos! Restricted to the rare oak scrub areas of Florida, this bird is the only Florida bird found only in Florida so it made the trip really worthwhile. One of their favorite foods is the acorn.

I sometimes take photos even when I'm not sure what the bird is or if the photo will even be viewable. The wonder of digital photography is that I can take 20 shots and it's okay if only one is good. Thankfully I decided to take a photo of a bird I could barely see in a tree. Turns out it is a Loggerhead Shrike. This amazing bird is small and hardly looks like a predator. Actually it is quite ruthless, hunting lizards, insects, mice, and other birds. It stabs its prey on its hooked beak and then impales the meal on thorns that hold the unfortunately creature while the shrike rips it apart. Nature is not always pretty!

There were many other birding areas in Central Florida but this was all I could fit in for one day. Thankfully, I had that day because shortly after I left the Lyonia Preserve monsoon rains started and continued through Monday. If I had not come in early, I would have missed so much beauty.

Monday, September 16, 2013

You Might Be a Birder If...

I've struggled about referring to myself as a "birder." And, by the way, there is a huge difference between being a birdwatcher and being a birder. Entire articles have been written about the differences and some true birders take exception to being called birdwatchers!

But you might be a birder if you get up at 5:00 a.m. to go on a birding field trip. I did that last Friday. Along with a busload of people with binoculars, scopes, cameras, and guide books, I headed out to Fennessey Ranch in Bayside, TX. The ranch offers 3,500 acres of land for birding. I had seen many photographs of the various birds and other critters on the ranch but this cool morning was not as productive. We saw some great birds but I was not able to get photographs of some of the best ones.

Green Jay (photo from Creative Commons)
Black Vulture
The most exciting bird we saw at Fennessey was the green jay. We saw several, or maybe it was the same bird flying back and forth. He rarely stopped long enough to focus a camera (photo from Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons). This was exciting because the green jay usually remains in the Mexico and South America, although it is starting to show up in Brownsville and the tip of Texas. More commonly we saw a lot of vultures, turkey vultures and black vultures. I actually kind of like vultures. They clean up dead things so disease doesn't spread. The black vultures is considered almost dapper compared to his companion, the turkey vulture, who is lanky and less elegant in flight. Both vultures were sitting on water tanks, poles, and towers around the ranch and about two dozen were circling over something that was dead or dying.

Golden-fronted Woodpeckers
We saw a number of golden-fronted woodpeckers. The light was all wrong so this is not the best photograph but take my word for it. This beautiful bird is found only in the brushland and open wooded areas of Texas and Oklahoma so it was a great catch for the trip. Less rare but still new for my photo collection was the killdeer. Killdeer are a shorebird, one of the most familiar, but they spend a lot of time away from the beach. If threatened while nesting they may feign a broken wing to lure predators away from the nests.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
You might be a birder if you spend the day going from house to house looking at hummingbirds. During the Rockport HummerBird Festival people with great gardens and lots of feeders. Jim and I visited about eight homes plus a park and a hospice. The hummers were staying up north a little later so there were not the swarms but quality is more important than quantity. Many of the hummers were quite happy to pose and do acrobatics for the photographers. I got some ideas for more plantings to attract more birds at our house as well. But the best part of hopping around to hummer homes was the reports from other birders.

Calliope Hummingbird
You might be a birder if you drop everything to run out to a location where a calliope hummingbird was spotted. Why all the excitement for this little guy? (He is a male juvenile.) Calliopes are
rare in South Texas (and most of the US). They are the smallest bird north of Mexico and are generally only found in the mountains, preferring to be in areas above 11,000 feet, from El Paso west and north. This little guy liked to pose, and valiantly defended his magnolia tree, returning to the same spot over and over, making it pretty easy for photographers to get some good shots.

Double-crested Cormorant
You might be a birder if you get excited and pull over and back up when you see birds on a golf course. In addition to the "normal" herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills, I was thrilled to see this double-crested cormorant "posing." Cormorants are a common sight in beach areas but I loved watching this one standing by the water feature, looking like he was conducting an orchestra. They pose because their wings don't have the waterproofing properties of most water birds. When the cormorant is out of the water it must dry its wings out. The double-crested is the most common cormorant in North America and the one mostly likely to be seen at freshwater spots.

Finally, you might be a birder if you plan to spend your birthday birding. The best present I could get today is finding a painted bunting.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Blame it on Rockport

Rockport, TX, the "charm of the coast," is known for many things but possibly the best of their many festivals is the HummerBird Festival. The first thing a lot of people notice is that this festival is not called the Hummingbird Festival, although much of the festival does focus on the fall migration of Ruby-throated and other hummingbirds. But the festival also features activities and opportunities for novice and experienced birders who have an interest in the many other birds that live year-round or migrate through the Coastal Bend of Texas. And there are hundreds of species in the area!

My first experience with the festival was also my first experience with Rockport. Jim and I took a short vacation to this coastal town we had heard so much about during our early years in Texas. We were charmed by the town. Then I walked out of the hotel to be surrounded by hummingbirds! I was amazed. I had no idea that we had decided to visit during the height of the fall migration. Nor did I know that it was HummerBird Festival weekend.

As it happened, I was fortunate to have an editor at Charlesbridge who wanted to publish my book when I wrote one. And I had a friend who illustrated children's books with beautiful fabric art and the editor wanted to work with her also. We just needed to come up with a topic. After pitching around a few ideas, we weren't coming up with anything.

Then I walked out of that hotel on that weekend in 2007. Surrounded by hummingbirds, I could actually see the light bulb go off over my head. Hummingbirds were interesting and beautiful and colorful and they were a perfect match for fabric art. But I didn't want to write a book that was essentially just another biology of the birds book. While pondering what could make my book different, I remembered from my anthropology classes that the Hopi, Zuni, and other First Nations people had stories and mythology about the hummingbird. So I set out to match facts about the birds--what they eat, where they live, their migration, etc.--with pourquoi stories that explained the same facts from a cultural perspective. That idea, germinated in Rockport during the HummerBird Festival, became Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. So blame this publishing event on Rockport!

Back to the Festival. 2013 will be the 25th year for the festival. Last year I was delighted to be invited to be a presenter. I don't consider myself to be an expert by any means but it was a lot of fun talking about mythology and symbolism of hummers with avid birders. The other highlight of the festival is being able to go to private homes with gardens that attract a lot of hummers. I was able to take photos up close as dozens of hummingbirds hovered and whirred nearby. A few locations also have banders catching hummingbirds in order to attach very tiny bracelets on their legs so that scientists can study migration patterns and other factors.
We are learning more about hummingbirds all the time. This bander was checking the gender and age of the hummer he's holding, giving us a great view of the southbound end of the bird. Yep, that is a hummingbird hiney!

This year I'm volunteering in the HummerMall, a huge area with vendors selling everything hummingbirds and birding. I've got my eye out for a good pair of binoculars and a sign that says "Hummingbird Way" for my garden. I'm also planning to attend a couple of sessions on birding on the coastal bend and developing a hummingbird garden. But the thing I'm most looking forward to is the field trip to Fennessey Ranch. I'm so looking forward to this that I'm willing to be up and at the bus site by 6:00 a.m.! The ranch has over 3,500 acres devoted to birds and birding with blinds set up for photographers. So expect photographs in the next blog posting. Lots of photographs!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gardening for the Birds

Mockingbirds like cacti
I've never been a big gardener. Actually I've never been much of one for the outdoors. The mid-century modern home we owned in Austin for sixteen years had a lush backyard and a side yard off the master bedroom that was full of interesting and exotic foliage, including a banana palm. The joke was that I only ventured outside once or twice a year.

That all changed when we moved to a new house with nothing but a few bushes, the requisite builder-supplied three trees, and grass. A lot of grass. One of the first things we did was plan for some garden areas to fill some of the huge lawn space and we wanted the gardens to be attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

House Finch on Photina
I wish I'd had a book like Gardening for the Birds by George Adams to consult back then. I have finally overused my renewal privileges at my public library so have to return it but I've been making notes about good plants to add to the yard. I'm especially interested in adding some new plants that attract birds we haven't seen before.

Wildflower Garden
Why do I like this guide? After providing general tips about creating bird-friendly environments, the author offers a very detailed calendar, divided by region, for which plants flower in which months and which like different degrees of sun or shade. One of the things we've tried to do with the gardens is have something blooming all the time to provide color and nectar at varying times throughout the year. While in Central Texas it is probably still not possible to have something flowering every month, this guides will be very helpful for filling in some gaps. With a little planning we can have almost year-round blooms. We've also put in a wildflower zone and the author deals with native flowers, as well as useful weeds that are good for birds. A huge section, over 100 pages, is devoted to a plant directory. For each plant, information is supplied about the birds that are attracted to it, along with details about the plant. Close up photographs of the plants and the birds have me drooling at the possibilities.The final section is a directory of birds, also taking up about 100 pages. Each double-page spread provides information about the bird, including its habitat and range, along with feeding habits and plants for food and shelter. Photographs and drawings help with identification.

At over 425 pages there is way too much information to digest, even after borrowing the book for six weeks. So I guess I'll be buying a copy before planting season starts.

Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard by George Adams (Timber Press, 2013)