Thursday, February 26, 2009

Scenes from El Paso

Me and my friend Jeff, one of my hosts in El Paso.

A view from El Paso with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, below in the near distance.
A cool string of houses in an older El Paso neighborhood (Sunset Heights, I believe it's called).
An El Paso house with some very cool decorations.
A mural at the El Paso History Museum showing the spaniard El Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors of their overland trek from the Gulf of Mexico trading (desperately, it appears) with an indigenous community.
A dry desert wash out of the Franklin Mountains.  We hiked up to the ridge where the outcrop shaped like an elephant is. I saw Canyon Towhees and Black-chinned Sparrows.
A cool thorny plant in the Franklin Mountains.
Lichen on some rocks.
Jeff, intrepid hiker.
A view of El Paso and distant mountains and plains of the Chihuahuan desert from the Franklin Mountains.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A couple thoughts derived from my Texas birding trip

One interesting thing about doing an extended bit of intensive birding like I just did in South Texas is what you learn about the distribution of wildlife across the landscape, and in particular how birds and other creatures find their places with the context of the human habitat.  I think most of us have a good sense by now of how much we have altered the various ecologies of our planet in the course of living our lives and developing our diverse cultures and civilizations. Even the largest tracks of roadless wilderness generally show significant signs of our presence, if only in the fact that most of them require political acts to try and keep them wild.  

Large pieces of wilderness like Yellowstone are, in my opinion, crucial, both for the conservation of many plant and animal species that are found nowhere else (particularly large predators) and the opportunities for outdoor recreation and education.  And of course many birds are found in places like this, sometimes birds that are not easily found anywhere else. But if you are a dedicated birdwatcher - that is if you spend time seeking out birds of interest wherever they may be rather that just watching birds while doing whatever else it is that you enjoy doing - you will find yourself in a great variety of places and habitats, some exactly what you might expect and others that are decidedly odd and might even by considered downright unappealing except for that elusive blackbird that is hopping around the spilled piles of grain on the margins of the cattle feedlot.  

During my recent birding trip to Texas with MassAudubon, we visited around 25 different sites of the course of a week, including:

A sewage treatment outfall pipe leading to a tiny, yet picturesque wetland of running water and overhanging trees (green kingfisher);

An urban pond on a college campus (ringed kingfisher, black-bellied whistling ducks);

Laguna Atascosa, an enormous (and carefully managed) wildlife refuge of wetlands, fields, saltwater bays and woods (crested caracaras, reddish egrets);

A series of exposed tidal flats clustered amidst fishing docks and seafood restaurants (long-billed dowitchers, american avocets);

A suburban front yard filled with hummingbird feeders (allen's hummingbird, buff-bellied hummingbird);

A county park of soccer fields and picnicking families (pyrullhoxia, golden-fronted woodpecker);

A state park of trailer campgrounds and small parcels of exquisite desert scrub habitat (roadrunner, black-throated sparrow, vermillion flycatcher);

A former citrus orchard painstakingly restored to native thicket by the local Audubon society (kiskadees, kingbirds);

The fields lining the runways of a small local airport (northern bobwhites);

A busy strip mall in McAllen (green parakeets).

You get the picture.  In almost all of these places, human lives were busily going about their business while hundreds of species of birds busily went about theirs.  One might argue that this shows the resiliency of nature and I would agree that there's some truth there, but it is also good to recognize that many of these places, however humble they may be, were carefully conserved by local governments, federal and state governments, or just plain old private citizens.  We would all be wise to look carefully around our own neighborhoods, cities, counties and states for the little patches of forest, field, marsh or beach that may hold natural treasures and think about what we might be able to do to help them stay the way they are or even help them out a step or two.  Let's remember that birding (and hiking, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and any number of other outdoor activities) is not in and of itself an act of conservation; to the contrary we who are out in the field enjoying ourselves are putting additional pressures on these habitats, so it's important that we go a extra few steps to help out.  Give to local and national conservation organizations, develop environmentally responsible habits and shopping choices, keep informed on environmental issues and speak up when you feel it's important; work to minimize your impact when out in the field, volunteer at a wildlife refuge, help to instill a love of nature in a young (or old) person that you know.  Don't forget that people are part of the picture too - balance is essential.

Anyway, that's enough with the harangue.  Good birding!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Scenes from the Northwest

A cool mushroom by the side of the house.
We are ringed by mountains here. When the skies are clear, it is something to behold.
The budding birdwatcher, my niece Gabby.  This is what I like to see.
Future mountain-climber, my niece Sonja.  
The common goldeneye - you can really see the color of the eye.
Climbing logs with Skyler and Amalie.
The girls and their mom.
Gabby and I.
Nick out over the waves.
Running along the beach.
My favorite bird of the northwest, the varied thrush.
The climber again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A few more photographs and some colorful moments from Texas

As you can see, on a trip like this it's easier to get a picture of a skittish bird in the distance than it is to get a shot of a fellow birder's face.  

A trio of memorable moments from my Texas birding adventure:

Stopping by the side of the road in the growing pre-dawn light early one day to watch thousands of sandhill cranes stream overhead in long lines and sinuous V's, the wonderful music of their bugling flight calls echoing mightily in the otherwise silent morning. 

An ecstatic moment as one of our intrepid leaders, Kathy, gets us on an odd bird cruising along with a bunch of wobbly, drifting turkey vultures and catching in the afternoon sun the thick white band across its tailfeathers, making it the elusive zone-tailed hawk.  Cries of surprise and joy erupt from our entire group.  Naturalist's note:  The zone-tailed hawk is a fascinating bird, appearing very much like a turkey vulture and cruising along with them in order to sneak up on unsuspecting prey who would not normally be very concerned about a vulture.  

A crazy end to a long day along a suburban strip of malls and fast-food restaurants, where our leader Strickland lands us right smack in the middle of an enormous host of raucous, colorful, flamboyant green parakeets hanging out in the midst of it all, on powerlines and flying in thick, fast formations, screeching, screeching. One of those moments it's hard to believe you've found yourself in the midst of. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

We're in the desert now.

Some wildly thorny and soft yellow flower-laden shrub called black brush.
Wetlands at Falcon State Park.
We do a lot of this.
Immature Gray Hawk.
A nest in the thorns.
An awesome desert landscape at Falcon State Park.
Along the Rio Grande.  

Monday, February 09, 2009

Just Pictures again, I'm afraid. Good night!

Santa Ana N.W.R.  A lovely, lovely, place.
Santa Ana again.
Common Paraque at Estano Llano Grande.  See if you can find him.
Me and some local color.
Plain Chacalaca.
Kiskadee!  Kiskadee!  Kisdadee!
Curve-billed Thrasher.
Another multi-species picture.  A bunch of ducks, basically.
More wetlands at Santa Ana.  This place was awesome.
The magnificent Harris' Hawk, courtesy of Santa Ana N.W.R.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

More birds and now to bed

A nice scene in south Texas.
Golden-fronted woodpecker.
Forster's tern.
The boat trip to Aransas N.W.R.
A red-tailed hawk at Aransas.
A whooping crane.
Another crane.
Some ancient live oak tree. Like 1000 years or so.

This is some intense birdwatching!  We get up before the crack of dawn, get moving with a quick motel breakfast and start scanning the roadsides for birds as the sun is rising in the east. Yesterday we started out at a place called Goose Island State Park near Rockport, Texas, where we saw little blue heron, ruddy turnstone, american pipit, clay-colored sparrow, black vultures, hermit thrush and many more.  My personal favorite from this location was the inca dove, a small, chunky dove with a long tail and a beautifully textured scaly pattern of plumage.  Next up was the big event for the day, a boat trip out to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to the world's entire wild population of the whooping crane, one of our most endangered birds in North America.  There are something like 250 individuals wintering at Aransas.  We saw about 18 or so walking around and feeding relentlessly through the grass and dry patches of ex-ponds.  They are our tallest bird and are quite striking.  There were also many other birds to see, of course, including a bazillion great blue herons, tons of the wonderful forster's terns, a crested caracara (a kind of freakish, giant falcon) cruising over the scrub, oystercatchers, skimmers, curlews, etc.

Then we took off to the south and did a brief stop at a private residence to see hummingbirds visit a bunch of feeders, and had pretty good looks at Allen's, Broad-Tailed and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.  From there we went to a pleasant state park that seems to be popular with families for a stroll along the water and got several more nice birds such as the golden-fronted woodpecker, pyrhulloxia, wilson's snipe, lesser scaup and lark sparrow.  Finally, just around the corner from our motel we checked out a tiny little patch of water, a little secluded eden really except for the fact that it was part of some kind of sewage treatment facility, and got a brief but stirring view of the green kingfisher, a tiny kingfisher as kingfishers go with a giant bill.  

I'd love to say more but we're up and at them.  I just wanted to give you all a quick idea of what I'm doing and what a day of birding on a trip like is is all about.  Today we head further south and should get into even more southern and Texas specialties like the green jay, harris's hawk and many more.  I'll keep you posted as I can.