Saturday, December 31, 2005

2005: The Wrap-up

It's New Year's Eve - time to look back at the year that was before the next one comes crashing down on us.

What a year. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Mostly it was a time of hard work, major setbacks, and big changes.

In January I met Michelle. In February we were engaged. In March she moved in with me (funny how fast things can happen). Since then we've had to deal with medical emergencies, a few minor crises, and a natural disaster or two.

In April the birding world was rocked by the announcement that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was alive and residing in Arkansas. The initial excitement of the discovery has since then been dampened by months of unproductive searching, a lack of definitive proof, and growing skepticism about the validity of the original sightings.

Intrigued by the possibility that IBWOs might also persist in the riverbottoms of southeast Texas, I began following the trail of old unsubstantiated reports, and made a few tentative trips into the Big Thicket this past summer. I explored some interesting habitat and enjoyed the birding, but found no trace of IBWOs. I had planned to continue searching in the fall, but as John Lennon once said, "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." There are those unexpected - usually unwanted - events that come along and change everything. All plans came to a sudden halt when Hurricane Rita slammed into the Texas Coast in September.

We evacuated to Tyler, TX., and took up temporary residence in a handball court at Tyler Community College. A disaster area awaited us when we finally returned to Lumberton. By some miracle our home was intact (although it'll need a new roof), but many big trees uprooted and fell, and there was destruction all around. At first we were without electricity, but thanks to Troy we had a generator until power was restored. Life has slowly returned to normal (cleanup and repairs continue), but the last three months have been a very stressful and unsettling time for everyone.

Throughout this trying time Michelle also had the task of planning and organizing our impending wedding, which will take place next month in Mandeville. Unfortunately, Mandeville is one of the communities near New Orleans that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. As might be expected, there have been a few setbacks. But through it all Michelle remained determined, and managed to overcome the obstacles that the fates have conspired to put between us and marital bliss. The wedding will proceed, come hell or high water (and I mean, literally, come hell or high water). Hurricane Rita further tested the strength of our relationship, and I'm glad to say we weathered the storm(s).

As I sit here, writing, the quiet is occasionally punctuated by the loud bangs of rockets detonating, and barrages of what sounds like mortar fire. There's a burn ban in effect due to drought, but fireworks are very popular around here. In fact there's a fireworks emporium located directly across the highway from our home in the swamp, and they must be having a busy night there. The store is closed for most of the year, but opens up for New Years and July 4th.

Well it's getting late, the year 2005 is now passing into history, and I must go to bed before long. I'm looking forward with hope and optimism to a better year ahead - bring on 2006!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas, Y'all!

Merry Christmas!

I had to work last night, and it was hellish. But I'm off today, so Michelle and I are celebrating our first Christmas together. That is if I ever get off the computer.

We have a Selasphorus-type hummingbird (Rufous or Allen's) wintering at our feeders. I've been trying to identify it to species, but it's a real challenge. Except for adult males, the only way to differentiate Rufous from Allen's is by the relative width and shape of certain tail feathers. With birds in the hand this might be easy, but it's next to impossible with a bird on the wing. Our hummer spends long periods perched in a bush near our feeders, and occasionally fans its tail, giving me split-second glimpses of the individual tail feathers. Based on probability (Allen's is much rarer in Texas) and a few of these quickie views I would say it's most likely Rufous.

On December 20th I visited Cattail Marsh, which is located adjacent to Tyrell Park in Beaumont. Cattail Marsh is a large area of manufactured wetlands, featuring a series of ponds separated by levees. Water levels vary. Some of the basins are appropriate for diving ducks, while others are choked with marsh vegetation. This is one of those places where you have to leave the car behind and do some serious walking - the layout reminds me of Palo Alto Baylands/Mountain View Shoreline Park. Best sightings on my trip were a Least Grebe in the northernmost pond (unusual, but a few have been observed here recently) and a male Vermilion Flycatcher. It's definitely a place I'd like to explore further.

Michelle and I took part in the Bolivar Peninsula Christmas Bird Count on Thursday, December 22nd. This was Michelle's first CBC experience, and apparently it wasn't that awful since she said she would bring warmer socks next time. I took that "next time" as a positive comment.

Our count area included parts of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. We had to do some bushwhacking and wet slogging in the morning, but we had rubber waders and at least it wasn't painfully cold like it was last year. Carrying a scope through the thickets along the bayou was a bit awkward, and I think I'll leave it behind next time - it's hard to be fast with the binoculars when you are encumbered with a heavy tripod. We had one minor mishap - Royce Pendergast, our leader, fell in a muddy wallow trying to cross the bayou, and got the back of her jacket coated in muck.

Our best bird was a Couch's/Tropical Kingbird found along one of the roads north of FM 1985. We were able to study it for quite a while at close range, but our attempts to identify it were frustrating. It refused to vocalize, and voice is the only sure way to separate the two species in the field.

At noon we met up with David Sarkozi and his group, and Michelle and I joined them for a rail buggy ride through the marshes at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

The rail buggy is a wagon pulled by an old tractor with big balloon tires, and it goes lurching and sloshing through the marsh grass, crushing vegetation and scaring up any rails that have the misfortune to be caught in its path. We did flush one Yellow Rail and a few Virginia Rails, also a Barn Owl and Sedge Wrens galore. High water on the refuge kept rail numbers low. To get from one expanse of marsh to another we sometimes had to cross canals, which is exciting (or nerve-wracking) when you can't tell how deep the water is. The tractor broke down on our way back, but fortuitously this happened on the road, within easy walking distance of our cars.

Odd coincidence - once again I had the count's only Cattle Egrets, a flock of 5, just like last year. Our last bird of the day was a male Vermilion Flycatcher seen along a bayou as the sun disappeared behind the trees.

Well we are having a VERY early Christmas dinner (more like brunch), and Michelle is calling me to come eat...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What's New

Latest addition to my yard list: Winter Wren. I found one on Dec. 12 at the edge of the pond by our back fence, same spot where I had a Marsh Wren in October of 2004. It's not really the sort of place in which you would expect to find a Winter Wren creeping about. When flushed it took refuge under the root mass of a fallen pine, which is a bit more typical. This is also a new state bird for me.

In other news, Aadam's Tree Service finally came and took down the tall oak behind the house. They also removed what was left of the big oak that had knocked down our back fence. Now the question is what - if anything - is to be done about the stumps that remain. We've lost several large trees, and the place just doesn't look the same. The backyard has deep trenches and tire marks that will need to be filled, and the fences will need to be mended where they've been bent and broken.

Michelle has been wanting a new car, either an SUV or cool sportscar. Today she got a 2005 Chrysler Sebring convertible. It's sweeeeeet.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Latest Belated News From Here

Sorry for the long lapse between these blog postings. It's been a very busy time for Michelle and I. In the last two months we've had to deal with the herculean task of post-Rita cleanup, followed by insurance and home repair issues, holiday preparations, and all the rigmarole associated with our impending wedding. Christmas is coming, sales are up, and I've been working overtime as usual. Hopefully things will eventually return to normal. Maybe sometime after the wedding...

Tomorrow a tree service is coming to remove a couple of trees from our backyard. One is still standing, but its top branches are broken and hang over the house. The other is a big oak that uprooted and came down on our back fence. After the trees are removed we can have our fences repaired and our cable TV and phone lines hung (they are connected but lie on the ground now). Allstate had initially been rejecting claims for fence damage and tree removal, but recently changed its position and will hopefully pay part of our expenses.

Bird activity has been low, with little news to report. In November a Selasphorus-type hummingbird (Rufous? Allen's?) was coming to our feeders. Yesterday I again saw a hummingbird briefly visit one of our feeders, but it sat on the far side of the feeder and I wasn't even able to identify it to genus. Haven't seen it come back today. A cold front has moved in and it's very chilly outside. Already some of our tropical foliage has withered. I'm keeping the hummingbird feeders up in case our little friend decides to stay for the winter.