Monday, March 31, 2008

More Dog Troubles

I had a few hours for birding on Sunday and made the usual trip to Anahuac NWR and High Island. There was a strong south wind and very little evidence of migration. Ran into Cin-ty Lee birding with a friend at the Boy Scout Woods, which was absolutely dead. From there we went to Smith Oaks, which was a little better, but not much. Added only a few species to the year list today - Redhead and Eastern Kingbird at Anahuac NWR, Red-eyed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Orchard Oriole at High Island.

Came home and when I reached our gate I was surprised to find a pit bull in our front yard. Shut the gate trapping the dog inside, and entered the house from the back. Michelle was as upset as I by the presence of the dog, and had called the sheriff.

Shortly before the sheriff arrived I looked out to see Mr. White Trash from down the road opening our gate and nonchalantly walking away with his dog. I confronted him in our driveway and made it clear to him that we didn't want his f**k**g pit bull on our property, and told him next time it entered our yard it would be shot. Naturally this lowlife threatened to do the same to me.

There is no leash law in this county, so irresponsible dog owners allow their pets to run loose and be a nuisance. The situation is totally out of control. A couple of our neighbors have already been bitten, and if you want to walk neighborhood streets you had better carry a hefty stick for protection. Stray dogs have approached me aggressively in my own yard and driveway. Recently I ran over a dog with my car only a block from our home. At the time I was driving slowly because I was already aware of a child with an off-leash dog in the road, but even at a low rate of speed I didn't have time to break when the dog darted in front of my car. Fortunately he appeared to be uninjured, but he could have been killed. Ironically I was returning with our dog from his obedience class when this occurred.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Shangri La Really Exists...In Orange, TX

Yesterday Michelle and I took the babies to the newly opened Shangri La Botanical Park and Nature Center in Orange. We'd heard great things about it and wanted to see for ourselves.

It was everything we hoped it would be and more. The landscaped grounds were beautifully integrated with the natural vegetation of the swamp. We had the babies with us in a double stroller, so rather than take a swamp tour we walked the main pathway which makes a long loop through the gardens and goes by a heronry blind. The timing of our visit couldn't have been better - the weather was perfect, the birds were nesting, and the azaleas were in full bloom. Also the gardens were not as crowded as the publicity had led us to expect.

Most of the nesting activity seen from the heronry blind involved Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants, but we also saw a few Roseate Spoonbills and distant Wood Ducks. From the blind I could hear the buzzing song of a Northern Parula coming from somewhere high in the cypresses.Inside the blind there were two large screens with live video of nesting egrets - the same nests you could see from the blind. It was like viewing the birds through a scope, but with lower resolution (unsatisfying picture quality in my opinion). What I found amusing about this arrangement was that to watch the action on the screens you had to turn your back to the heronry, so the viewer is choosing a virtual rather than actual view of the birds. A scope mounted within the blind could only be used by one person at a time, and I'm sure the video option was chosen as a solution to that problem. My question is, why go to a nature preserve to see birds on TV? Might as well stay home by your computer and watch birds via webcam.Here we see Bryce and Lucy responding gleefully to their first birding experience. Actually Bryce seemed to be more interested in the birds than Lucy, who preferred to study the odd people inside the blind.

Other birds seen while walking through the gardens included a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks and a few Broad-winged Hawks (the first I've seen this spring). The habitat looks like it should be good for Prothonotary Warbler and other woodland birds, but then it's still early in the season, and I would expect to find a greater variety of neotropical migrants in April and May.

I was also impressed by the ponds, fountains, sculptures, and greenhouses (particularly the Epiphyte House). Shangri La will be offerring free tours to school groups, and has the potential to bring much-needed environmental education and appreciation to Southeast Texas. I would recommend Shangri La Botanical Gardens to anyone. It's definitely worth the price of admission ($6.00 for adults). If you ever find yourself in Orange you should also consider checking out the nearby Stark Museum of Art, which has an outstanding collection of western and wildlife art. Orange is a small city, but for its size it certainly has some surprising cultural attractions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Favorite Third World Country - Louisiana

Just spent a weekend in hell. No, I didn't see any birds there.

Took a trip with Michelle and the babies to her ancestral homeland of Louisiana (make that incestral homeland for all the cousin-marrying yokels and kin of Jerry Lee Lewis). You'll recognize Louisiana as the setting for those 3 am commercials for "Girls Gone Wild" with Snoop Dogg (a reference I'm throwing in mainly to boost my blog's hit count). Sex sells in Louisiana...or at least sex toys sell - can't miss those big billboards along I-10 for the fabulous Adult Superstore. And then there are all the signs for casinos and crawfish, cajun this and cajun that. Just try finding some food there that isn't lethally overspiced and full of goddamn crawdads.

Looks like Lousiana's federal highway funding (like all the money it received for levee maintenance) must have been spent somewhere else. Every road in the state is cracked, rippled, and potholed - major highways included. The buildings aren't in much better shape. Everywhere you look there's peeling paint, slouching roofs, and mold. Anywhere else they call it decrepit, but here it passes for quaint and charming. But Louisiana is a land rich in opportunity. A guy could make a fortune selling burglar alarms. Not that crime is the only industry. Lousiana gets most of it's revenue from gambling, crustacean mining, speeding tickets issued to Texas drivers, and misuse of Federal disaster aid.

Which brings me to Katrina...the best thing that ever happened to Louisiana. If you lived through the storm and didn't get two years of free housing and a plasma screen TV out of it you simply weren't trying. And now after a couple of years of living rent-free in FEMA trailers they are suing the Feds over exposure to formaldehyde. They'll probably squeeze enough money out of the government for a new car and Xbox 360. Katrina is the gift that just keeps giving.

But what Louisiana is really all about is fun. We didn't find any, but then you have to go to the right places. We were at the Holiday Inn in Covington, which is most assuredly not one of those places. Of course we could have found fun as close as the local drive-through daquiri bar (it's Ok, they don't promote drunk driving because the straws they provide are wrapped and not put in the drinks).

For sheer quantity of fun Bourbon Street in New Orleans would be a good place to start, or at least to start drinking, and since the drinking age is 18 you can start earlier. I think the best way to describe New Orleans is as the Deep South's answer to Las Vegas, only seedier (and that's saying a lot). Used to be you went to Las Vegas to gamble, drink, and see tits. Now they're trying to clean up its image and make Vegas more family-friendly - out with the wise guys and hookers, in with Disney on Ice. New Orleans is still refreshingly naughty (and just as slimy) as it ever was. Drinking. Puking. Tits. Snoop Dogg. Bead sluts. Not a family place. They say "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." but what happens in New Orleans gets hacked up, tossed into the swamp, and the alligators do the rest.

By the way, Michelle gave me permission to rip on Louisiana. And I do like the place - for most of the above reasons. I'd even go back again, particularly if she makes me, which I fear she will. Thank goodness I like swamps.

The only birding I got to do on this trip was at high speed looking out the car window. Closer to home I saw an Osprey over Riverfront Park in Beaumont on Tuesday. Not a year bird, but a good bird for Riverfront Park, which despite it's location on a river is generally more of a pigeons-and-grackles sort of city park.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No Joy in Mudville

Saw my first Chimney Swifts of the season flying over downtown Beaumont today. Not only have the swifts returned, but suddenly there seem to be crows everywhere. I see them wherever I go, and yesterday I even had a few Fish Crows where I work.

After work today I went to Sabine Pass to look for the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, which was reported to still be present this morning. High winds were blowing ahead of an approaching storm and I stayed until the rain started and the light failed without ever finding the bird. From the reports I read it was in scruffy condition anyway, with tail feathers short and tattered, which is my sour grapes way of rationalizing that I'm not as disappointed to miss it as I am.

While I was looking for the flycatcher I met Jana Whittle, the one who originally found the bird. She mentioned that some fortunate birders had also seen Henslow's Sparrow near the end of the road. That gave me the opportunity to miss two potential lifers in a single trip. Despite my bad luck I did manage to add a few more birds to my year list - Cattle Egret, Clapper Rail, and Seaside Sparrow. The marshes were chock full of Clapper Rails, and I even saw a couple venture onto the roadway. My year list (sans FTFL) is now at 146 species.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What I Did This Weekend While Missing the Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Checking my email I see that on Saturday a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was found at Sabine Pass. I was birding on Saturday (by some small miracle) but in the wrong place. I went to High Island and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge instead. I guess missing the FTFL (which would have been an ABA Area lifer) is my karmic comeuppance for not participating in a scheduled Sabine Woods work day. The bird was also seen today, but I didn't find out about it until just now. D'oh!!!

Saturday morning I heard my first Northern Parula of the season singing in the trees around our yard. I know they are common in northern conifer forests, but to me the Northern Parula's song is THE sound of the southern swamplands. My perception is that it's the most abundant warbler species breeding in the Big Thicket (Hooded Warbler would be the other main contender for that title). At our place, which is a bit more suburban, we get a few as migrants in March & April, and see them again in the fall. Saturday morning I also added Brown Thrasher to my year list - from the car window I watched a pair working the edge of the McDonalds parking lot in Lumberton.

On Texbirds there were reports of early migrants trickling in (Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, etc.) so with Michelle and the babies gone for the day I figured I'd give High Island a try.

Well, it wasn't such a much. There were Purple Martins and Barn Swallows (nice year ticks) overhead, but the only other neotropical migrant was one Black-and-white Warbler at Boy Scout Woods. Aside from that it was just the usual winter birds - Blue-headed Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, etc. Incidentally, here's a picture of that one Black-and-white Warbler.Both the Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks were "tore up from the floor up" by Hurricane Humberto. The rookery at Smith Oaks lost a lot of trees, and I noticed there appeared to be more intense competition for nesting sites and more aggression between birds than I had seen in past years. I practiced used the video feature of my camera to make short movies of Roseate Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets fighting (probably over a girl, as usual). I may post some of these video clips later, if I figure out how.This martin apartment complex is located in front of the Methodist Church in High Island.

After that I did the Shoveler Pond loop at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Snakes, turtles, and alligators were enjoying the warm weather, but it wasn't buggy, at least not in a bad way. Highlights included a King Rail, a male Cinnamon Teal, and an American Bittern. Photographed this Eastern Phoebe sitting on the sign for Shoveler Pond.I was hoping to attend the TOS meeting in Alpine in May, but it doesn't look like I'll be going (I won't have accrued the necessary vacation time). This is particularly disappointing because it would have been a rare opportunity to see parts of the Davis Mountains that are not open to the general public. It was the only substantial birding trip I had planned for this year, which makes my minimalist big year even more minimal.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Spring Sprang Sprung

This picture of Bryce and Lucy was taken in our yard this afternoon. As you can see winter is over. Azaleas and honeysuckle are already in full bloom, and we expect to have temperatures in the 80s this weekend (global warming again). Last weekend I replanted a palm tree that was too close to our front porch. Might as well be living in the tropics, and for about seven months of the year we are.

When the temperature does take a dip people complain about the cold like their very lives were in jeopardy. The rest of the time they complain about the heat. Fact is, most folks in this part of the world stay indoors as much as possible. They go from air conditioned building to air conditioned car to air conditioned building, get their meals in the drive-thru lane, and spend at most a few minutes out of their busy day in a climate not created by AC. How their ancestors managed to survive without it is one of the great mysteries.

Only recent addition to the year list was a Fish Crow I saw a few days ago at Parkdale Mall in Beaumont - bird #129.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ruby-throated Hummingbird is Back

Had our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season at our feeders on Wednesday. That's the earliest date I've got for a returning migrant by more than a week. It's that darn global warming I guess. We also still have a male Rufous hummingbird frequenting our yard. Spring comes early to Southeast Texas, and the azaleas and honeysuckle are already in bloom here. I know, I warming again. It's the all-purpose useful explanation. If a bird is early or late it's due to global warming. If present or absent in winter, ditto. Cold fronts, heat waves, deluges, droughts - global warming, global warming, global warming, global warming.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes 128 species for the year to date (pathetic). Only other recent addition to the year list was a Spotted Sandpiper at Riverfront Park in Beaumont on February 29th. My abortive attempt at a big year continues, if in name only. Coming soon - bird #129!