Sunday, October 28, 2007

Welcome to the State of Tex-Ass

An email was recently sent out to the TOS membership urging opposition to the impending sale of the Christmas Mountains in West Texas. The area in question is 9,200 acres of pristine habitat contiguous with Big Bend National Park. The National Park Service has expressed interest in acquiring the area, but Jerry Patterson, our Texas Land Commisioner, refuses to allow them time to make a proposal. Why? Because he disagrees with the prohibition of firearms in our national parks! Apparently he's opposed to any transfer of the property that wouldn't allow future hunting there.

Yup, it's unbelievable.

Well, almost unbelievable. In a state like California or Oregon I would use the word impossible. But this is Texas, where the state has repeatedly tried to raise education funds by selling public lands. And deer hunting is treated like a sacrament here.

Personally I really doubt this is about funding Texas schools and some bureaucrat's idiotsyncratic conviction that the second ammendment should apply everywhere. I suspect it's just another swindle. Since when does a government agency work so hard to divest itself of public property? I smell corruption.

From the TOS email:
"The property was donated to the state in 1991 by the Virginia-based Conservation Fund and the Pennsylvania-based Richard King Mellon Foundation on the condition that it remain protected from development. The state was bound by deed restrictions and could not sell the land without the approval of the fund. A spokesman for the Mellon Foundation states that if the sale goes through, the state should not look to their foundation for any future help. In the past they have donated many thousands of acres to state parks and wildlife, such as the approximately 40,000 acres in the Chinati Mountains."

The full story can be found here, along with a picture of the jackass - or in this case Tex-ass - who would sell off our natural treasures like unwanted junk at a yard sale...and claim to be doing it on principle!

That a state agency could legally sell off public lands donated to the state by conservation organizations is a travesty. A sealed bid land sale is scheduled to begin on the 31st of this month. It would be a sad commentary on Texas and its people if the sale is allowed to proceed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Odd Crow Behavior

I heard my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the season in our yard this morning. Once again the return of a winter bird neatly coincides with the arrival of a cold front.

Later in the day I was returning home, and as I walked to our front door I was surprised to find a crow sitting on our birdbath. Surprised because it didn't immediately fly at my approach. I came to within a few feet of the birdbath, and still it didn't budge.

Appears to be the same young crow that I recently photographed on the road into our neighborhood. Because it was alone and fearless I at first assumed it to be sick. I now think it's more likely to be escaped from captivity. I put out some food for it, which it readily took.

I also may have erred when I initially identified it as a Fish Crow. We have both Fish and American Crows here, but unless they are calling I'm not confident of my ability to tell them apart. If anyone can determine which species it is from the photos please let me know.

The crow walked around our porch, allowing me to take some pictures at very close range. I went inside to get some food for it, but when I came back outside it was gone. Guess it got bored and flew off.

Later I heard a squeaky grosbeak-like call coming from the fruiting magnolias that border our backyard, and then saw two birds fly out of the trees. One perched where I could get a decent view, and sure enough it was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The only other neotropical migrants seen around the house today were a few remaining Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a single Broad-winged Hawk that was observed flying southward.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

First Dogs, Now Cats

We are in the middle of a big rainstorm here, with all the cool audio/visual effects. A moment ago I went outside to check on the drainage, saw a brilliant flash, and heard an eardrum shattering thunderclap. That lightning strike was CLOSE!

Yesterday it was dogs, today it's cats. For the record I'm not a hater of either. I had a cat for years, despite being allergic, and if you've followed this blog you know we have a dog of sorts. He's a growly ill-tempered little bastard, but we love him just the same. As I see it the problems are really caused by people - irresponsible pet owners who dump their unwanted animals, or who allow their pets to roam and be a nuisance to others. Both situations harm wildlife. Feral cats in particular kill millions of songbirds each year.

From Rob Fergus at The Birdchaser blog I just found out that the City Council of Cape May, NJ, has voted unanimously to allow feral cat colonies within its city limits. If you are a birder I am sure you've heard of Cape May, one of the best places in America to see concentrations of migratory birds. It also has endangered Piping Plovers and Least Terns nesting on its beaches. The city's plan calls for "establishment of a 1,000-foot buffer zone between cat colonies and beach nesting areas of endangered birds."

I'm sure the cats will observe the ordinance and refrain from roaming within 1000 feet of the beaches. Pleeeeease!

Rob suggests some things that birders can do to get this decision overturned, including a possible boycott. Birders pump quite a bit of money into the local economy, and the threat of withholding those birder dollars might change some minds. Here is the comment I sent to the City of Cape May, NJ:

Cape May is visited by large numbers of bird lovers each year. How many come to see your feral cats? I'm betting somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Cats kill large numbers of birds. Allowing feral cat colonies to proliferate in an area of such importance to migratory birds is a shame and stupid as well. I for one will avoid Cape May as long as local government favors unwanted cats (nobody wants to take them home, right?) over our native birds. There are plenty of communities that value and take pride in their wildlife, places deserving of ecotourism. Too bad Cape May is opting not to be one.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Don't Get Me Started...

I'm reposting this comment I made on Mike's Birding & Digiscoping Blog. It's in reponse to the piece he posted (and the ensuing discussion) about an incident involving a dog owner who was allowing his pet to roam off-leash in an area where that was clearly prohibited:

Amen! In my years of birding and just inhabiting the planet I've had to deal with all these problems, from being knocked off my bike to being bitten, to watching an idiot let her dog swim around a tern nesting colony.

As to the guy's lame arguement - I'm on the conservative side myself, but my understanding of conservative principles is that being responsible is one of them.

About the comment "Why is it that you [bleep]ing liberals can't just leave people alone?"...I wish irresponsible dog owners would leave me alone! I can't even walk the streets in my own neighborhood without carrying a weapon, and had to brandish a club a couple of days ago when three dogs came running at me and my dog, which was the only one on a leash. Two of my neighbors have been mauled while out walking. We all carry sticks. That's the kind of "freedom" your jerk in the park espouses. Very selfish.

I live in a part of Texas where jackasses rule and there are no dog ordinances, but in areas like yours where there are leash laws the answer I've found is to pressure the parks and local law enforcement to deal with the problem. I've found that works better than confrontations with scofflaws.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Specktacular Birding

Thanks to David Ringer of Search and Serendipity for correctly identifying my mystery plant as a Crinum lily. Not a triffid. There's someone with an answer for every question. Isn't the web great?This photo was taken yesterday morning at the Smith Point Hawk Watch. Check out the many tiny specks. A few of the larger ones are vultures, but the majority are Broad-winged Hawks. If you enlarge the image you'll find that there are almost 200 of these specks. And this is just part of a much larger kettle - when the picture was taken I counted about 700 hawks in a single sweep of the horizon!

I was at Smith Point not to count hawks but to do the 'Big Sit.' I had help from the hawk watchers there, and when I left at about 2pm we had tallied 52 species. Not bad. Could have done better. I really thought there would be more passerines, and I probably would have added a few more species if I'd been able to stay longer. But it was fun, and at least got me out of the house for a while.

Most of the action was in the morning. As the air warmed kettles of hawks began rising from the treeline to the northeast, and soon the sky was full of swirling specks. It was a bit surprising to witness a major flight of Broad-wings so late in the season, but hardly unprecedented. We also saw good numbers of Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and American Kestrels. The only other buteos were the resident Red-shouldered Hawks.An Osprey made a close pass by the tower.

Didn't really see anything unusual during the sit. A few Magnificent Frigatebirds were still lingering in the area, and getting a Crested Caracara was nice. The only shorebirds were a pair of American Oystercatchers over the bay and a flock of unidentified peeps in a distant marsh (not counted in the final total). Gulls and terns also disappointed with low numbers and a lack of variety. A medium size alligator was spotted in the little pond nearby.

It's seldom noticed, and maybe I'm the only one who finds it interesting, but HUGE numbers of swallows pass the observation tower at Smith Point in fall. They aren't as charismatic as raptors, but in sheer numbers they greatly surpass them. So why doesn't this migration event receive more attention? Northern Rough-winged Swallow was probably the most abundant bird species at Smith Point on Sunday, but I don't think anyone was counting them.This big spider made its web between the beams of the tower.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Any Idea What This Is?

Any idea what this plant is? I'm curious to know. It was already here when I moved in. Haven't seen anything like it in any of our local nurseries. I suspect its origin is tropical...or extraterrestrial. Some kind of triffid, perhaps? This year it's had quite a growth spurt, and recently developed a flower stalk for the first time that I can recall.

Yesterday I had a couple of interesting flyovers while watching the sky over our backyard. In the morning I saw my first Northern Flicker of the season, and at dusk I had 3 small unidentified ducks (probably woodies) go hurtling by.

The arrival of winter migrants is often associated with cold snaps. This morning we noticed the weather had turned chilly, and maybe that had something to do with the addition of Red-breasted Nuthatch to my yard list today (#124). I had one at High Island about two weeks ago, and there have been widespread reports of sightings on Texbirds, so finding one here was no big surprise. Texas is in the midst of a Red-breasted Nuthatch invasion, and I was expecting to get one sooner or later. They like conifers, and our neighborhood has plenty of pines for them. I only saw one at a time, but my observations this morning may have involved two or more birds.

It was definitely a good day for nuthatches. Later on I watched a Brown-headed Nuthatch taking sunflower seeds from our feeders. It's the first time I've ever seen one at a feeder, and certainly the best look I've ever had at one (they usually forage up in the treetops). Simultaneous with the arrival of the nuthatch there was a Pine Warbler at the feeders and a Summer Tanager at our birdbath.Found this Fish Crow on the road into our neighborhood. The picture was taken from my car window. Judging by its behavior it was probably sick (West Nile Virus?). Appeared to be weak and a bit unsteady. After allowing me to get within a few yards it suddenly flew right at me and landed on the car roof. Bird must be trippin'!

I guess I can now reveal the super-secret location of my circle for the 'Big Sit". This Sunday I'll be at the Smith Point Hawk Watch Tower, located south of Anahuac on the edge of Galveston Bay. Anyone who wants to help count raptors and/or take part in the 'Big Sit' is free to join us. Y'all come on down!

Fat, Drunk, And Stupid Is No Way To Go Through Life, Son

The 2007 'Big Sit' - that most sedentary of all birding competitions - is scheduled for this Sunday. I'll be one of the sitters. At this time I can't reveal where I'll be sitting, because the location I've chosen is so awesome that for now I've gotta keep it totally secret. How awesome could it be? Really awesome. I'll let you know more later.

Anyone can participate in the 'Big Sit,' and all birders are encouraged to choose a spot and sit. It's the perfect birding event for Fat America, the America of the future (and the future is now). If national trends continue as predicted, the 'Big Sit' should become even more popular.

Actually I love the concept of the 'Big Sit.' I find it challenging. When I'm birding I tend to hurry from place to place, but sitting (or standing, as I prefer to do) in a single spot forces me to concentrate on my surroundings. It's a stimulating mental and sensorial exercise.

On the other hand, the fattening of America is a depressing reality. If present trends continue the majority of Americans will be obese in the near future. It's easy to blame the fast food industry, advertising, and corporate greed, harder to blame the victims. Who in this case are also the primary perpetrators. Fat America is ultimately the result of a lot of people adopting bad habits. It's a combination of poor personal choices, over-indulged appetities, recreational gluttony, the desire for immediate gratification, lack of discipline, and a life style that demands uninterrupted comfort. As my favorite cartoon possum once said, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

Also reminds me of a line from Animal House, possibly the best movie ever made on American education: "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." The challenge for Michelle and I is to raise our children smart and healthy, despite the contrary pressures of a culture that encourages them to be neither. That's gonna be a big challenge. Fortunately there are organizations like Action for Healthy Kids trying to bring awareness to the obesity problem and make appropriate changes in our schools.

O.K., My rant is over. None of this is meant as a criticism of the 'Big Sit,' which I will be participating in on Sunday. If you have some free time pick a spot and give it a try. It's fun. Maybe you'll even find the Golden Bird!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Another Milestone!

Yet another milestone has been reached. We've started spoon-feeding the twins. As you can see they haven't fully mastered the technique, but we'll call it a milestone nonetheless. How fast they grow up. Only yesterday they were infants sucking on bottles. Of course they are still infants sucking on bottles, but back then the future seemed so very far away. Thoughts of spoons and jars of baby food were the furthest thing from my mind. Now everything has changed. Soon they will be walking, going to school, and asking to borrow the car. Brings a tiny tear to the eye.

We were in Mandeville, LA, over the weekend. Took the twins to have them christened in the church where Michelle and I were married. They are offical Episcopalians now. All the Navalances were there, and we ate a lot of good food (Michelle's brother Devon made the best crawfish etouffee ever). Got to see my sister-in-law Barbara's new baby (Carson, very cute) for the first time. With all the kids there it was like Babyfest 2007.

Yesterday I had a Yellow-throated Vireo in the fruiting magnolias along the edge of our backyard. Neotropical migrants have been sparse here - just a few Red-eyed Vireos and a Northern Parula last week. Winter birds have yet to arrive, with the exception of an early Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that visited our yard on Oct. 3rd.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Cooper's Hawk!

I just had an adult Cooper's Hawk fly across the backyard! Normally I wouldn't get very excited over a Cooper's, but it's a long overdue addition to the yard list. In fact it's almost ridiculous that it took me this long to get such a common migrant. Embarrassing really.

With the addition of Cooper's Hawk my yard list now stands at 123 species. Other birds in our yard this morning included Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the flowers, and a Red-eyed Vireo that was plucking the red seeds from a magnolia fruit.