It is a joy being a naturalist in an area of high ecological diversity. The melding of the tropical zones of northern Mexico, and the arid regions of southern Texas are dominated the Rio Grande River. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge epitomizes the diversity of the region. Walking through the refuge throughout the year can yield over 400 species of birds, 450 species of plants and over half of the species butterflies found within the United States. Although our trip to the region was targeting birds the opportunity to enjoy the ecology of the region while strolling through sable palms or meandering through desert scrub is a tremendous treat! Every region has a secret to give to one who watches long enough.Spending time being in nature is therapeutic. Mornings and evenings birding offer a time of enjoyment, relfection, observation, and exercise. A much needed relief from the routines of Daily Life, which I would encourage you to explore, maximize, and enjoy.
Rio Grande Video:
Our trip built on our trip from 2014, which was a great introduction to the region. In 2015 we added on several more ‘lifer’ species including but not limited to vermillion flycatcher, burrowing owl, cactus wren,painted redstart, audobon’s oriole, and red-crowned parrot. These were just a fraction of the 125 species we observed during the trip which is a modest number of species compared to some birders. Our time there focused on watching behavior by spending significant time with the birds and habitat. Since we are approaching the breeding seasons, many of the birds were a bit randy. We listened to breeding calls and watched many, many birds carrying nesting material. The video above shows some of that behavior; in particular watch the a cute lousiana waterthrush puff out his chest feathers, a black-necked still splash water around its mate, and a pair of parrots cuddle. The pictures below further capture some of the incredible birds, plants, and landscapes behind the lens of a novice naturalist.
Duskywing Butterfly (unknown species)
Some spring flowers
Modiefied Purple Leaves
Unknown inext on a species of Texas Holly (perhaps Yaupon)
Cactus Wren with a mouthful of nesting material
Eastern Screech Owl
Beatiful heart shaped red flowers, unknown species
Eastern Bluebird (female)
Eastern Bluebird (male)
Kingbird (couch’s or
A speices of prickly poppy
Butterfly, unknown speces
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (male)
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Female
Great Blue Heron
Green Anole lizard displaying for a mate
Foggy sunset on South Padre Island
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
A stunning Green Jay
Scissors-tailed Flycatcher takes flight
A least grebe with dinner!
Roosted parrots having a frackas
An invasive cane toad – about the size of a softball! That’s a big toad!
These images are from a variety of locations including:
Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley, Olivea Park, Sable Palms Sanctuary, Laguna Madre World Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these locations are discussed in this post from 2014.
When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!
It seems I have inherited a family legacy. Why? Well, outside of my window as I type this a red squirrel, whose fat rolls are bulged to the size of small golf balls under its elbows, is eating my birdseed and I am choosing to do nothing about it. Many chipmunks and squirrels were spared from my arrows and bullets because they were decreed ‘off-limits’ by my dad although they were destroyers of gardens and wasters of seeds. Bird feeder construction attests to the cumulative frustration of birders everywhere watching their money being vacuumed up by greedy rodents. Undoubtedly, if I were to figure out how many pounds of bird seed the family of squirrels living in my brush pile were responsible for chomping down at my buffet line, I would find that my 40 pound bags would last indefinitely longer. In the back of my mind, I know the squirrels are any easy target for my stew pot, but I never seriously consider harvesting them around the house because the feeder is a sacred place. Besides, it hardly seems sporting to shoot a happy squirrel on top of his seed supply.
A winged candidate for dinner has also taken up residence under the feeder and watches me from the surrounding birches or from the hoops of my fallow garden each day that I walk by. Like the mind of the Wiley Coyote, that sharp-tailed grouse has transformed into drumstick in front of my eyes several times. But, seeing as I have not even thrown a rock at it, it has become fairly accepting of pedestrian traffic. I think anyone that has a bird feeder can give nod to the benefit of these wildlife for watching far outweigh their worth in their pan.
My feeder has been a great source of entertainment, and has also given me insight into natural bird foraging behavior. The birds interact with the Alaskan Birch and my feeder. During the last couple of days I have come to appreciate the importance of the catkins of the Alaska Birch as a food source. Both the pine grosbeaks and black-capped chickadees have been taking mouthfuls of them. Seems like pretty meager forage to me!
Spending time watching wildlife in your backyard is rewarding! Observing this sharp-tailed grouse nearly every day for the last two weeks has been a privilege, and I’ve learned a lot. For instance, they do not move far, and this one roosts in the same trees near the house every night. During the day it spends most of the time on the ground and does not move farther than about 30 yards. Although sharp-tailed grouse are not traditionally common in the Fairbanks region, they seem well adapted to the cold and can puff their bodies up to large sizes much like chickadees, jays, and other boreal species.
I will leave you with a ‘feeder first’ which occurred just two days ago. A northern shrike came and perched outside of my window. It was near dark, but the chickadees started squawking and kept their distance from the carnivorous bird. I must say, I was rooting for this bird to whack a chickadee, just to see it first-hand! Shrikes are actually songbirds, and are known as “butcher birds” because they cache food by impaling it on sticks or anything sharp. They eat rodents, small birds, and insects (in the summer). Ordinarily they are found in habitats with tall trees where they perch and survey the area. It was very rare to see one in a closed spruce and birch habitat, and especially at this time of year in Fairbanks! Due to the time of day (we are down to 5 hours of light), I wasn’t able capture to an incredible shot of the bird, but here’s what I have. It shows very clearly the curved beak for tearing meat, a feature you would normally attribute to being a raptor.
When the sandhill cranes arrive in the fall in Fairbanks, Alaska it is a marker of the passing of a season. It means fall is beginning, and the birds that have nested on the tundra for the summer are shipping out to warmer latitudes. If you have ever head the raucous call of the sandhill, you’ll know their presence is trumpeted for miles, and that it is unmistakable for any other sound!
Of the 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the only ones which are not endangered or threatened in some way (Creamers Field Billboard). Across their global range, cranes were threatened by habitat loss and market hunting. In the early 20th century market hunters nearly exterminated whooping cranes. Their numbers dropped as low as 23 individuals in the 1940s, but thanks to the International Crane Foundation and the work of many other agencies, numbers hover around 600 currently.
Sandhill cranes are actually omnivores and spend their days eating grains, seeds, insects and small rodents. In fact, in larger concentrations of cranes I believe they can temporarily clear a field of pesky, small rodents. Of course that’s just me being an optimist. Sandhills can have long migrations and breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska, but can also be found in breeding populations in the western United States (All About Birds.org)
Each fall hundreds of cranes pass through Creamers Field National Waterfowl Refuge . The fields and water sources there bring in many ducks, geese (snow, white-fronted, canada, cackling) and of course the Sandhill Cranes. In fact, it’s such an event that each year the Sandhill Crane Festival brings in hundreds of visitors. The cranes are fascinating to watch and the power of any large migration event such of this can be overwhelming!
When observing the cranes there’s a lot of things to notice, and a lot of questions to answer. The cranes with chicks still maintain their family groups, and chicks may stay with the parents for up to 10 months! Also, the cranes seem to be very territorial and are always squabbling with each other. They may point their beaks straight into the area and verbally duel each other, or hop towards each other beating their wings either to intimidate or strike. I don’t know why, in an area with such plentifiul food, they are so territorial! I guess they’re a cantankerous species. If you are lucky enough to see a courting crane pair they may ‘dance’ with each other trying to win a mate.
This fall I spent a lot of evenings enjoying the cranes. There is always new behavior to watch, and the roads which bisect and border the fields at Creamer’s Field offer first class seats to watch and listen. Here’s a montage of some crane behavior including the magnitude of their call, the family groups, grooming, feeding, and defending territories. The cranes departed in Mid-September along with most of their avian comrades, but I certainly will look forward to their return!
Spring is in the air! In Fairbanks the trees are leafing out and the days are long and warm. Even now there are only several hours each day that are dark. 150 miles north of here, Fort Yukon is just starting to wake up for the season. I got to spend some time up there (it was much different than the last time I was here) and I made it a point find some of the things which represent spring. All around birds, plants, and humans are celebrating the season.
As an avid birder I am interested in the new migrants which arrive in the spring. The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was set up to harbor waterfowl; they flock there by the 10’s of thousands. The small ponds dotting the landscape are ideal for brooding and raising chicks. My waterfowl list for the trip included a dozen species. Passerines like yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos were abundant. These two species (e.g. yellow-rumps and juncos) are some of the first to show up for spring, and are a great indicator the season is here for good!
Waterfowl are pursued by Subsistence Hunters as they migrate north. Each spring it provides a new source of meat (in a region that depends on 85% of its meat from the wild) to replenish stores until the salmon arrive in July. In particular white-fronted geese, canada geese, and snow geese are shot. When I was touring around the village I found a place where the birds were plucked. An unusual (for the region) strong north wind blew the features onto the trees and ground. It looked like a massive and violent pillow fight had been staged there. I got to share in the bounty of goose soup, which was delicious!
The breakup for the Yukon River is a celebrated event by all who live on it and depend on it. River travel is fast, and gives residents access to some resources which have been unavailable since the previous fall. Although the Yukon has been clear for over a week large chunks of ice on the banks demonstrate the power it took to push them there and are a testament to how thick/resilient the ice can be! Over 8 feet of ice in some regions.
The leaves have not appeared on the trees yet, but spring pasque flowers, and willows have started to bloom. The bright yellow stems of the willows caught my eyes and were at stark contrast with the surrounding gray bark of the aspens. Especially eye catching was the contrast of the yellow stems and the blue sky! The base of the willows were dirty and marred where river water had washed over them just a few days earlier.
Spring is certainly in the air in Fort Yukon. Overall, it’s one of the ‘last’ springs to arrive in North America. I leave you with a still, spring sunset in one of the river braids of the Yukon. I hope you are having a great spring!
One of the perks of being back in college is spring break. Kassie and I took the opportunity to head to Rio Grande Valley, South Padre Island, and Corpus Christi regions of Texas for some birding. Why choose those regions? Well, during the year over 400 species of birds and half of North America’s butterflies can be found in this region, which borders Mexico. There are brilliant tropical birds and northern migrants. March marks the time when the migrants are starting to move, and many of the winter residents of Texas move out.
All told we observed 120 species of birds and were able to enjoy many habitat types throughout southern Texas. We birded ‘hard’ for 5 days through grasslands, estuaries, sand dunes and beaches; our time outside gained us some red to cover up the Minnesota and Alaska ‘white’ from the winter. My skin definitely had not seen the sun for awhile!
This was a birding trip, so naturally there were a lot of birds. In order to keep this post a reasonable length I have included a full gallery of birds at separate page. It has a bulk of the photos in it. You will find it by clicking here the or the following link: .
Bentsen was my first look into the “Texas style” of birding. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and their birding blinds fit that bill. By walking into a birding blind you can observe species at close distance thanks to a small, habituated trust of humans and the wooden wall between you and the birds . At these stations variety of Rio Grande Beauties can be observed.
Bentsen is close to the Mexico border, and it’s pretty normal to see border control and helicopters flying through the area. The region in general is a blend of Mexico and the United States and the mixing of cultures show through the housing and lifestyles of its residents.
This park focuses around wetlands. As a birder you can expect a variety of ducks, wading birds. This location provided our first look at white ibis. The bird pictured here is a juvenile, but will become stark white as it ages.
Estero was also home to this wee-little Sora and Common Gallinule. Sora are a very shy species, so after spotting them it’s important to be patient as you wait for them to reappear from the cattails. Gallinule are the exact opposite and I think some would consider them to be ‘dumb birds’ because of how close you can get. However, I think they realize there is no threat from us in this location.
One of the INCREDIBLE bird species in this location are the Common Pauraque. These ground-dwelling birds have camouflage so good that even when you know where to look you have to look twice. Can you see him?!
Estero is also home to some impressive gators. Stay on the trails and you’ll be OK! 🙂
The highlight of Salineno was seeing both a Hooded and Altamira Oriole. These orange beauties are sought after users of the feeders.
Salineno is very, very close to the border. Can you see Mexico from there? You bet! Just look across the river!
Near to Salineno was a far different landscape than the lush river valley. An arid landscape was brought to life by the windmill which still dripped water. Cacti, succulents and mesquite were the predominant vegetation on the landscape.
Meep Meep! Falcon State park brought hopes of the mighty and fabled roadrunner. Although we did not see any empty crates of ACME or a The Wiley C. there we were graced by the roadrunners which were truly running on the road.
The other species that were great to find were the pyrrhuloxia. These birds are similar in sight and sound to cardinals. I’m not sure which habitat is preferred by this species, we found them feeding on the ground as seen here as well as in the shrubs.
While you are walking around the sand dunes there is a common feature on the landscape in the form of small funnels in the sand. These were not made by water drops or meteors, but instead, the vicious ant lion! These predators live in the bottom of their sand pits waiting for prey to fall in. They flick sand up at it before dragging it into the sand for consumption. Remember seeing that movie Tremors or Enemy Mine? Kinda like those. Check it out the video of ant lion vs prey
At the World Birding Center of South Padre Island (SPI Birding and Nature Center) a small wetland marks what is left of the once diverse island habitat. Here, many shorebirds, ducks, and warblers pile in every spring and fall on their migration route. One of the most memorable moments from the trip was when this scissor-tailed flycatcher landed a just a few feet from us. These birds use their “scissor tail” to do wild acrobatics to catch insects. In front of us they swooped and stooped catching unseen winged invertebrates.
South Padre Island is highly critical to one species in particular – the Redhead duck. It is thought that 80% of the world’s redheads over-winter here. Although the vast rafts of 1000s of birds had moved out by the time we got there, some of the hungover ducks were still sleeping off their winter blues.
The showiest bird was undoubtedly the roseate spoonbill. These filter feeders use a large spoon shaped bill to sift through the shallow waters for invertebrates and small fish.
Padre Island National Seashore is marked by windswept dunes and long, long, long beaches. At this location, after miles of beach combining we discovered something truly amazing, and it’s not bird related! The butterfly clam shells which was up here can be found alive and well just inches under the sand. They are tossed up in the surf and a scoop of the hands will bring up hundreds. They come in many colors, all of them beautiful! Not sure what I’m talking about?
Never have a seen a more docile duck. I’m not sure what was ‘in the water’ so to speak but it was truly incredible to be mere feet from Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged Teal. This location also contained an uncountable amount of Black-crowned Night-herons which roost there day.
One of the other firsts for me in this location was the Nutria. These invasive rodents from Eurasia were brought here for the value of their fur. However, once here it was discovered there was no market for these wetland destroying terrors. Nutria breed rapidly and are renowned for stripping native wetland vegetation bare.
This spot is a cool juxtaposition of sculpted gardens and wild-wetlands. There was a good variety of ducks and waders to be found in this area. However, one of the highlights was their blooming orchid greenhouse which has varieties from across the continent. Incredible!
This stop was the last of our trip and yielded an unexpected (but exciting!) bird. Behold! The black skimmer. This feeding specialist has a bill that allows it to fly next to the water and skim small fish and invertebrates from the surface. We got to watch these birds feed up and down the coast. On top of that dowitchers, godwits, a variety of ducks, laughing gulls, spoonbills, a crested caracara, and many other species were found along the board-walk.
I hope you have enjoyed the birds! I wanted to leave you with one last thing. Bird-watching is all about seeing bird behavior. Throughout the trip I took video of bird behavior. I have compiled just some of it here. I hope you get a feel for what it’s like to see them!