Friday, May 28, 2004

Indigo Bunting On Hard Times

Last night, at work, a male Indigo Bunting was found on the sidewalk outside the store. It was apparently injured or in shock, possibly from collision with a window pane. It could fly only a very short distance, and did so when I tried to pick it up. When I left this morning it was still alive and huddled against the wall of the store. There isn't any decent bunting habitat in the vicinity, so I assume it to be a late spring migrant that made an unfortunate mistake during the night.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Pilgrimage To the Holy Land (LONG!)

Got back this morning from a wonderful weekend trip to the Hill Country with Hillary. Don’t know how we managed to pack so much fun into only four days! Let’s see if I can remember what all we did…

Thursday morning I picked up Hillary in Port Neches. From there we drove to San Antonio, listening to music and cloud watching along the way. We had a reservation at the Crockett Hotel, a really nice place located right behind the Alamo. It’s front faces one of the walls that Santa Ana’s troops scaled on March 6, 1836. Of course we visited the Alamo, first of the sacred sites on our tour. If you ever go there check out the huge live oaks inside the courtyard; their horizontal limbs are improbably massive, supported by columns and cables. The history is impressive too.

After that we did the riverwalk, had dinner at Casa Rio, took a boat ride, and then went back to our hotel for a nap. Later that evening we returned to the riverwalk and had margaritas, then went to Pat O’Brien’s, where Hillary and I each had one of their world famous “hurricanes.” Mistake. The name, size, and venomous red color of the drink should have served as a warning…the last thing I remember we were back in our room at the hotel…everything was spinning wildly and then I got sick…

Not surprisingly, Friday morning we got off to a late start. Hillary was hung over and I didn’t feel so good myself. Changed hotels for reasons of geographic convenience, and had breakfast at Denny’s, which is a proven hangover cure.

Our next stop was Natural Bridge Caverns. The oak/juniper woodland of the Texas Hill Country reminds me of parts of California, specifically the foothills of the Coast Ranges. Some of the birds are similar (Ladder-backed Woodpecker instead of Nuttall’s), and some are pretty much the same (Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Scrub-Jay, Bewick’s Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow). This wasn’t really a birding trip, but I had my binoculars with me and couldn't help myself. There were Canyon Wrens at the entrance to the caverns, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming to feeders at the nearby gift shop. A Crevice Spiny Lizard was spotted atop a rock on our way back from the caverns.

After seeing the caves we did the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, one of those drive-thru zoos where the animals stroll around your car. Highlights: Hillary almost getting tongued by an over-friendly bison (even grosser than you might imagine), and a zebra that made her jump when it unexpectedly stuck its snout in the window and sneezed on her. Driving slowly along the loop road I was able to see some native birds, including Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebe, Summer Tanager, and Lark well as such exotics as Ostriches, Rheas, and Emus...

Friday night we went to Gruene (pronounced green), and it couldn’t have been more perfect. Before going to see Jerry Jeff Walker at Gruene Hall (the oldest dancehall in Texas) we had dinner next door at the Gristmill. The food was great, and our table was on an outside deck that overlooked the Guadalupe River. It was a warm evening cooled by a light breeze, and as darkness fell we shared strawberry shortcake and watched fireflies flickering in the woods below. By the time we finished dinner the show was starting. Jerry Jeff played some of our favorite songs, and after the encore we went outside and watched Common Nighthawks flying around the Gruene watertower (yes, I can turn anything into a birding trip).

Saturday we got up late (again) and spent most of the day at Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. Schlitterbahn is touted to be the world’s largest water park...large enough that we didn't have time for all the rides, which is fine, because it gives us a good excuse to go back someday. Just a teensy criticism of the park: it wasn't always clear where the lines for the rides started, which line was for which ride, and where to get the necessary flotation devices. Despite these petty complaints it was definitely worth the price of admission. The wave pool was awesome! I even did a little birding while waiting to ride the Banzai Pipeline - from atop the tower I observed Chimney Swifts and Common Nighthawks flying over the park.

After changing into some dry clothes we went back to Gruene to have dinner at the Gristmill again. The restaraunt was more crowded than it had been the previous evening, and we had to wait a while in the beer garden, but there was musical entertainment and beer there, so that was no problem. When we were taken to our table it was in a roofless courtyard with crumbling stone walls and a wooden floor with trees growing through it. Food and service were again outstanding. On our way back to the car we passed Gruene Hall, where Jerry Jeff Walker was singing Navajo Rug to a packed room. Goodbye Gruene, thanks for the memories....

Sunday we got up late (as usual) and took a long meandering drive through the beautiful Hill Country between San Antonio and Austin. On our way out of San Antonio the radio was playing "Full Nelson" - all Willie Nelson, and nothing but. At Luckenbach we stopped to drink beer, listen to some live music, and buy T-shirts. While Hillary was taking a bathroom break I crossed the little creek behind the store, and before she could stop me I saw Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Bewick's Wren, White-eyed Vireo, and Northern Cardinal. After leaving Luckenbach it occurred to me that we were really on a sort of piligrimage, touring the holy land of Texas country music. Hillary agreed, and commented that I had finally figured out what we were doing...

Our penultimate stop was Pedernales Falls State Park. Along the road leading into the park I had to brake to let some White-tailed Deer cross (including a couple of cute fawns). We took the trail down to the falls, where the lovely Pedernales River spills over rocky ledges into a series of large green pools. While Hillary cooled her toes in the river I climbed the rocks upstream to check out a Cliff Swallow colony on a ledge above the swirling water. After that we walked the nature trail between the campground and the river. Where the trail overlooks the river we saw a Texas Earless Lizard, a velvet ant, and a singing male Indigo Bunting. On the way back I got a fleeting glimpse of a singing Golden-cheeked Warbler; it flew just as I got my binoculars on it. Darn.

From there we drove into Austin, where we explored the capital building and grounds. The walls of the capital rotunda are decorated on each level with paintings of past governors (including, most recently, George W. Bush) and presidents (Texas was a sovereign republic for a while). Near the entrance on the first floor we also saw the famous painting of Santa Ana's surrender at the battle of San Jacinto. Hillary is a political science major, so I got the full tour, complete with interesting factoids about the capital and how the state legislature works. One oddity caught my attention - on an upper floor of the rotunda we stopped to look at a painting of a rather important looking gentleman that was labeled "Unknown Judge." How the hell can the identity of a judge be unknown? I mean they have to record their decisions and sign documents don't they? I can understand the existence of the Unknown Comic, but an anonymous judge...?

Before leaving we strolled the capital grounds, taking pictures and admiring the statues of Texan heroes. White-winged Doves and Great-tailed Grackles seemed to be pretty common there. After that we went in search of Freebirds, one of Hillary's favorite restaraunts, and it took us a while, but we eventually found the place, with helpful directions from a hippie (Austin is full of hippies; it's the Santa Cruz of Texas). Hillary was right, the burritos there were delicious, and rather hefty, too.

When we left Freebirds it was starting to get dark, so we hurried back to the Congress Avenue bridge to watch the bats leave at nightfall (about a million Mexican Free-tailed Bats roost under the bridge, which is located within sight of the state capital in downtown Austin). From our position at the base of the bridge we could hear their loud twittering above us, and as the light faded they began their exodus, first a few, and then a steady stream. Large crowds were gathered atop and at either end of the bridge to witness the spectacle. As darkness settled in the bats swarmed around us, fast on their way to wherever Austin bats go. It was after 9pm, and finally time for us to head for home...what a wonderful end to a great trip! We got back home at about 2am, exhausted and ready for bed. Can't wait to do it again...

Monday, May 10, 2004

Sunday Birding

Yesterday (Sunday) I went back to Sabine Woods. It's getting late in the season, and migration is definitely winding down. Numbers have greatly diminished, but there were still a few birds around. At least Swainson's Thrushes were plentiful. The only parulids seen were Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, and Bay-breasted Warblers; American Redstart; and Northern Waterthrush. Other birds seen included Bank Swallows, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Summer & Scarlet Tanagers, and a female Indigo Bunting. But my most exciting find was a 3-4 foot-long Speckled Kingsnake.

After leaving Sabine Woods I went to Sea Rim State Park. Didn't see much in the willows...just a Black-and-White Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush or two. Walked the Gambusia Nature Trail (a good place to view alligators). Birds seen included a Least Bittern (flying away, as usual), Tricolored Herons, Black & Least Terns, Orchard Oriole, and Boat-tailed Grackles.

Later on Hillary and I got together, and we went to Sartins in Beaumont for dinner. Sartin's is a greasy seafood place with rolls of paper towels on the tables and a predominantly redneck clientele...Their motto is "We've Got The Crabs." Last night the place was packed and the trailer park was empty. After getting stuffed we rented a movie and sort of watched it. Just another day in paradise...

Friday, May 07, 2004

My 100th Backyard Bird!

At about noon today I finally got the 100th species for my backyard list, and it was a good one: Blackburnian Warbler. It was a female, and I found it foraging in the company of a Tennessee Warbler. They were in the tall willow beside the pond...that tree seems to have a special power to attract warblers.

Other birds seen here today included 3 Mississippi Kites, 4 Broad-winged Hawks, an Inca Dove, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swifts, a Swainson's Thrush, Summer Tanager, and Orchard Oriole. I heard - but did not see - Great Crested Flycatcher and Fish Crow. The pair of Eastern Bluebirds nesting in my yard are feeding young; I could hear their begging calls coming from inside the box.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Sabine Woods Was Not The Place To Be On Wednesday

Yesterday I made a quick trip to Sabine Woods, hoping to catch a wave of late migration. Well it was more of a drip than a wave. Disappointed!

A Bay-breasted Warbler, a Tennessee Warbler, an Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush were the only parulid migrants seen. Not that the woods were completely birdless, but variety was definitely lacking. There were catbirds, and catbirds, and more catbirds. Walking through the woods I kept spooking thrushes...and every time I got a look at one, it turned out to be a Swainson's. There were one or two Red-eyed Vireos, a couple of Scarlet Tanagers, a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Not exactly a big fallout. Had lunch at Sonic on the way home, so it wasn't a total bust.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Hillary Goes A-Birding...One LONG Day

After I got off work yesterday I took Hillary on her first birding trip, a short outing to High Island. She didn't have binoculars, but I was carrying my scope, so she got to see the nesting Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants at Smith Woods. Not only did she get to see the baby birds up close, but also some nice migrants, like Spotted Sandpiper, Eastern Kingbird, Swainson's Thrush, a bright male Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, Philadelphia Vireo, etc. Little flitty warblers and a male Indigo Bunting were more elusive. Still, it was nice to have so many birds perch close in front of us so she could see them well. Since she's not bird crazy we also stopped to look at alligators and turtles and make friends with a Swamp Rabbit that crossed our path.

After that we had dinner in Winnie at Al-T's Cajun Restaurant, which doubles as a museum of taxidermy...the walls were thick with dead critters. I should have done a head count on all the trophy bucks. A very large alligator was afixed to the wall near our table. Reminded me of Dudley Moore looking at the trophy on the wall in the movie Arthur..."you must have really hated that moose"... Oh well, by the time we left we were both stuffed too. I had the crawfish platter, yum. It was late in the evening when I finally got her back to Port Neches, and since I was coming off a graveyard shift from the night before I was more or less zombified by the time I got home...

Sunday, May 02, 2004

On Yard Patrol Again

During a lull in yesterday's storm I went into my soggy backyard and did a little birding between the raindrops. Best find was a female Yellow Warbler in willows by the pond. Also had a brief look at a female Indigo Bunting.

Spent some time on yard patrol this afternoon. It was cool and windy (almost long sleeve weather) with no rain and just a few passing clouds. The pond has risen, which should make the fish happy. Turtles were lined up sunning on the fallen pine at the far end, and the resident Green Herons were chasing each other around as usual. For sky watching the best vantage point seems to be by my back gate. From there I saw adult & immature Little Blue Herons, Black & Turkey Vultures, 2 Mississippi Kites, 2 Broad-winged Hawks, a Common Nighthawk, and lots of Chimney Swifts and swallows (mostly Barn Swallows). The majority of these birds appeared to be northbound. Searching my yard and the area around the pond I also saw Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Summer Tanager, and Orchard Oriole. A Tennessee Warbler was singing and foraging among the budding leaves of the pecan tree behind my bedroom.

Got a new dragonfly for the yard list - Common Green Darner.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Darkness At Midday

Geez...I awoke late to the sound of thunder. It's after 11am, but outside it looks like nightfall...

Yesterday was my birthday. In the evening I got together with Hillary and some of her friends to celebrate...we had dinner at Olive Garden and then went to Rao's for dessert. Nice. Then it started with the wind and rain and thundering and lightning flashes, and it's continued with brief intermissions to the present moment. I like these stormy days, they are good for getting up late, staying indoors, and writing blog entries. I'm in pajamas and the cannons are still blasting outside. That last one was a loud one!

Note of interest: here in Southeast Texas - and I'm guessing this is true of the south in general - religion plays a much larger role in people's lives than it did back in California. Most of the people I meet here seem to be active in their churches. Last night Hillary's stepbrother told us all about an evangelist's vision of hell, and everyone at the table responded with serious interest. No skepticism, no derisive comments. Coming from California this was a revelation in itself.

Yesterday there were 3 or 4 Great Crested Flycatchers bickering in the trees along my driveway, an American Redstart visited the birdbath, and a Belted kingfisher rattled hello to me as it flew over the backyard. Something's always happening here.