Daybreak in Seven Meadows

daybreak 1
Something I gained a new appreciation for on this morning walk, just as the sun was gaining ground in the sky and light was pushing out the darkness, was the peacefulness that sinks into one’s soul after spending some quiet time in nature.  Sure, I was in an urban environment, but it didn’t seem like it.  Natural elements were still all around us.  I walked the dogs past a little pond near by house that has a colony of Musgovy Ducks in it.  There was a Great Blue Heron that caw-ed a deep, raspy sound when we walked by, annoyed at having to move to the other side of the lake to escape from the dog danger.  Zero fucks were given by the ducks, who continuing to lay in the grass languidly, or moved in slow, gentle movements across the surface of the pond.

We turned a corner and skirted the edges of a creek. I marveled at the amount of bird calls all around me, and lamented not bringing the binoculars (would have been too much to carry and handle the dog leashes/picking up after them). Little birds flitted in and out of the trees and shrubs nearby. I heard a light “swooshing” overhead, and a flock of quiet black birds were crossing the sky.  Some, like this Northern Mockingbird here, just did not care I was passing right by her, even holding still for me to take her picture:

The mockingbird might seem near and dear to us, because of its ubiquitousness and the fact that it is our state bird, but we shouldn’t feel so special about the latter.  It is also the state bird of Arkansas, Tennessee,  Florida, and Mississippi.  It is also interesting to note that the mockingbird is one species that is urban-positive, meaning that it appears in greater numbers in areas that are urban compared to rural/non-urban.  It is not clear to biologists yet if this is a good thing or not; e.i. if this species is falling into an ecological trap or just benefiting from the constructs of man.
Later, I came upon another mockingbird, and took this video. She was singing this song as I came upon her, and kept on even though the dogs and I were directly below.  Possibly it was a male – the males are slightly bigger than females, but that is the only difference.  The males might sing more often and longer to attract mates; the singing repertoire is a means of sexual selection in both males and females.  

I realize this video is sideways, can’t seem to edit it on here.  It does not detract from the quality of this Northern Mockingbird’s song, though.  I myself had tended to take the mockingbird for granted, but after pausing to listen to this one’s song for a while and learning some information about them, I gained a new appreciation for them.
Another thing I gained a new appreciation for was both this little oasis in a section of nearby neighborhood, and the benefits to sitting still in nature for a while. I have always like this one little area where the developers decided to put in a little garden with stone steps leading up to a small bubbling fountain and a variety of plants and trees. There used to be a poorly maintained cache there, which has been replaced with a well-camouflaged one.  I sat down on the edge of the fountain, dogs resting their bums on the dampened dirt gravel path, so I could listen to the birds and try to identify some.

A few mourning doves flew off as I approached, but soon the trees around me, like the one in the picture at the top of this entry,  were besieged by smaller birds who were peeping and twittering among themselves.  Their breasts seemed to glow golden in the morning sunlight then fade to a yellowish as they turned to the side, little crowned heads bobbing up and down.  I finally figured out after much watching that they were Cedar Waxwings.  Very cool.  When I got up to leave, my whole body felt so relaxed, free of pain or discomfort.  It was very soothing, and that is a moment I will hold on to during the stress of the work week.  I need to go back there often, both to watch the birds and to get that feeling, a feeling like I had just come from a massage table or drank a few glasses of wine.

waxwing1All this activity made me think about a few things.  I thought about Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, and what it would actually feel like to live in a world absent of birds around us.  I thought about Italy and Albania, where hunters are literally wiping out all the migrating birds, where one can walk for hours and not hear birds at all.  I rationalized my recent obsession with birds by listing the reasons in my head why they were compelling: curiosity about the world around us, the true free nature of birds, the concept that they are a sentinels – a group of animals that can stand as indicators of the health of our environment.  Part of my interest is because of J, because he has taught me to look up instead of down, to be happy instead of miserable, to reach for my dreams instead of wallowing in lost chances, to pay attention to the marvels of the environment around us instead of being stuck in an inner dialogue.  Those are the reasons why I am carrying around a “Birds of Texas” book and recording species observed lately.

This week, I was able to identify at least one of the hawks seen along my commute as a Red Tailed, and also spotted an American Kestrel sitting on a utility pole.   Also, I had some sightings of birds (Blue Jays) out the window during a work meeting,  Earlier in the week, the kids and I were at the museum downtown, and a bird was on the porch peeping and seeking food in the dirt that I am fairly certain was an Eastern Towhee.  So new species recorded for the week include that hawk, kestrel and towhee, the Muscovy Ducks, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwings, and Mourning Doves.  Species count update: 27.

Hawks 0, Pelicans 1

For a couple of days, I have been trying to figure out what species of hawk it is that we keep seeing on the power poles along the highway lately.  We have been seeing dozens of them, and we think it probably is the red-tailed hawk based on which species are migrating in this time of year, although it could be a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned.  The ones we are seeing have red-brown feathers with a white breast.  I’ve been reading about winter hawks online, and although I have come across some interesting information, it seemed that in order to truly identify what we are seeing, we were going to have to get out there with the binoculars and the camera.

I thought we might do that today, in a planned morning trip to Brazos Bend, but the weather turned cold and nasty, so we didn’t go to that park.  We did, however, have to leave the house for an extended errand across town, and I thought we might see the hawks there.  We didn’t see a single one though! It is just as well, because we forgot to bring those two critical tools mentioned beforehand.

We did do a little bit of exploring, though, on our way to and from our errand.  We stopped in Kitty Hollow Park on the southwest side of town to see the improvements that have been made there.  I actually had never been to this park, and J hadn’t been in ten years, during which time they have added the dog park and many other embellishments.  We walked through a grassy field to find a cache near the forest line, and I spied some killdeer and a flock of small black or brown birds.  I am not sure what they were, because J walked right through them and they scattered before I could make out anything distinctive about them.  Probably they were nothing more than the common grackle, which we spied later in their more typical parking lot surroundings.

On the way home from our errand, we stopped at the retention ponds on the west side of Fiorenza Park, in between Highway 6 and Eldridge.  We headed for the dead end of Schiller Road from Highway 6, because we had seen huge white birds in the ponds.  We wanted to see if our guess was right about those being American White Pelicans.  Even without the binoculars, it is clear that is what we were looking at.  There were so many of them!  This species is a winter migrant, and by summer, will be out north and west in places like the Great Salt Lake.  If we stick to our vacation saving plan, maybe we will see them there on our next road trip ;-).

The pelicans surrounded a larger flock of smaller birds that were white and brown ringed with black accents.  We thought at first those were their babies, but I am learning some facts about pelicans that might change our minds.  They breed in March-April, and the young seem to resemble them or be gray with dark brown.  The family groups separate by the fall.  It might have been a species that has a symbiotic relationship with the pelicans.  The pelicans have a peculiar feeding technique that involves gathering in a circle and beating their wings to “herd” fish, making them easier to grab.  Smaller species, such as cormorants, tend to feed with them to grab the fish from the outside of the circle and as the fish rise to the top.   Interesting facts about the American White Pelican include their status as the longest of the North American birds, at 50-70 inches, and their wingspan of 95-120 inches, which is the second largest (only surpassed by the California Condor).  They are huge birds.

We discussed our desire to get kayaks, and get out there and explore this water more fully someday.  There is a new asphalt trail that goes around the series of connected ponds out here, and several new geocaches (hidden by our friend Jerry that we were hiking with last week at Brazos Bend), one of which we made the find on today.  We will be spending more time out in this area for sure this next year – be it on foot, on the water, or with birding books in hand.  We might have to go back out there this weekend to figure out what that other species of birds were.  We really couldn’t see them well enough to identify.

On the water’s edge in front of us, we watched two ibises feed- one the typical white, but then one that was white and brown.  Its bill identified it as an Ibis most certainly, but it was not the two other types of Ibises that are darker in color.  After much flipping through books and pictures, we decided it was the juvenile stage of the White Ibis that we were seeing.

Although we were cursing ourselves for not having a way to view any of the birds out there closer, we did mark some observed species down on our Katy Prairie Bird Checklist:  Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, and the Common Grackle (on the way home).  Some of these are repeats from last week, so that makes the total species count so far this year at 19.

Current Issues in Outdoor Ethics: Smartphone Apps

Lately, I have been reading about this debate that is raging in the birding community.  It used to be that the hobby of birding involved a lot of watching and waiting.  It takes patience to be a birder, apparently.  The popularity of smart phones and the inundation of technology into our daily lives is changing that, and some are not sure it is for the better.  There are apps that can be downloaded to help identify birds (J and I use one called I-Bird Pro) that also play the bird calls for help in identification.  These apps can be used, and abused, to lure birds into coming into view.

One side argues that these apps are potentially damaging to wildlife.  The National Park Service has banned use of bird calls in its parks, calling it an “intentional disturbance” to bird behavior and biology.  It can lead the birds to become desensitized to the calls of others of their species, if they respond to it several times and don’t see another bird on the other end.  We don’t always understand the true nature of the calls we are broadcasting, so it is possible it could off territorial birds or interfere with breeding.  The birds leave nests unattended to come seek out the call, leaving the young exposed to predators.  Federal biologists who were using the call to find spotted owls by listening for them to “whoo” back soon learned that those call-backs would draw attacks on those owls by the more-aggressive barred owls, so the biologists scaled back on this practice in the best interest of the birds.

The other side argues that drawing the birds out is actually less stressful for the birds than tromping through their habitat, disturbing their areas for longer time periods than the short time it takes to play the call.  There is no specific data to demonstrate that there is an actual effect on the wildlife, especially when the calls are played correctly (short durations and only when necessary).  Experienced hunters and birders have been mimicking animal calls for generations to lure animals to them with no real negative consequences.  Before these apps, field researchers relied on the use of cassette tapes to bring the animals out.  Is it judicious to assume that everyone who uses these apps will use them irresponsibly, thereby affecting the animals in a negative way?

Another way technology is being used to view wildlife differently is Wildlife Spotting Phone Apps.  Apps such as Where’s a Bear and YNP Wildlife let visitors to Yellowstone National Park know where sightings are occurring, up to the minute.  Therefore, visitors who are hungry for a bear sighting can find out where the bears are, and get over to that area of the park.  If the animal is still in that area, a crowd could develop, which can be negative in terms of human and animal safety.  One potential side effect is that repeated exposure to humans desensitizes the bears to them, and potentially grizzly bears that have become desensitized to humans are more likely to attack them.

I am on the fence about these apps.  Having been to Yellowstone and seen NO bears or other exciting predators, I would have loved to have up to date information on where the animals were.  However, I would hate to do something that is detrimental to wildlife.


Brazos Bend Part II: It’s For the Birds

After staying up until midnight talking, drinking, and eating with our friends on New Year’s Eve, we headed off to our tent.  Despite the predictions of cold temperatures, it actually was not a bad night in our sleeping bags, and we felt quite rested in the morning.  I flipped us some oatmeal-banana-chocolate chip pancakes that I had found a recipe for on Pinterest while J broke down camp.  After all this, we had to drive back up to the headquarters to deal with some unresolved check in issues, and then finally we were ready for our actual goals for the day: work on finding some of the caches in the park we had not found, and record a list of bird species observed for the day.

I had decided that this year we were going to actually keep a species count of the birds we saw.  I would say that it was our Big Year, except that we have really never had a “Year” at all.  I would actually say that in fact, this is our “Baseline Year”.  From the moment we got up, I had been keeping a watch out with the binoculars, bird book in hand, checking off the ones that flitting about the campsite in my Brazos Bend birding checklist that I had downloaded and printed out before we left the house.

When we pulled up at Diane’s campsite to see if anyone else wanted to go caching with us, I still had those items in my hands.  We found Rod, and set off down the trail.  We spent two hours hiking about along the Bluestem and Bayou trails, attempting to make cache finds.  We ended up finding two out of the three we looked for, and I was able to drop off a travel bug I had been carrying for much too long.  I was interested to see how my ankle held up, since we want to do some distance hiking this year.  I was carrying a little bit of weight in my pack, but not a lot, and my ankle was a bit sore by the time we got back.  I hope this will not slow me down from hiking this year.  I probably should wear hiking boots and not sneakers when I go – it might help the stability of my ankle, although it is pain in my right heel after long walks that keeps me reaching for the sneakers and avoiding all other shoes.

brazosbend 6Our total bird species count for the day was 14.  We could have gotten a lot more if we had made it over to the lakes, since we only claimed one water bird species today.  There are 4, 987 acres in this park – there was a lot of land we did not cover.  We mostly saw birds at the campsites, and just a few different kinds along the trail.  My favorite species of the day was the Eastern Bluebird that I saw on our way to the last cache.  It was also during this sighting that I somehow lost the cover to the viewing glass of the binoculars, which J found understandably annoying.

These are the birds we saw today: Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Snowy Egret, Black and Turkey Vultures, Killdeer, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and American Crow.  There were probably dozens more, but we are still novices at this birding thing.

These were, of course, the most common species seen today.  Go figure.  This only confirms my theory that we are making the world a very good place for vultures (or, if you read my previous post – maybe we can blame this on the coyotes).

BB 8 vultures