Who are we? We are our stories.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Happy Teeth

Last week I broke off a tooth - busted it all to hell. I seem to recall 30 years ago the dentist (my late dentist) saying something about there wasn't enough support and the filling was a temporary situation. 30 years, maybe 40. Normally people go to Nuevo Progreso for cheap dental work, but travel south of the border is a little iffy right now so I talked to our innkeeper and he gave me the number of a dentist. I called.

Yesterday I google-mapped my way to his office in San Juan, Texas. San Juan is poor, so poor there are no curbs, minimal paving, no street signs. The neighborhood was little rough, the office looked a bit like an abandoned gas station. Actually, most of the buildings looked like they might be abandoned. I thought, what the hell, I just need a tooth pulled, how bad could it be?

I was pleasantly surprised at the office interior, a typical waiting room, bright, four comfortable chairs, magazines, and with the requisite large bubbling aquarium full of cichlids. The woman behind the counter greeted me, then apologized that she would need to print the information sheet because she didn't have one in English. Eventually she got the printer working and I proceeded to fill out the form. A short time later I was escorted to a nicely outfitted room, modern chair and dental tools, art on the wall, a Haydn sonata playing in the background. A dental technician took my blood pressure (132/79) and took an x-ray of the tooth in question. Some time later the dentist, an older, overweight Anglo with wild, flyaway hair, came in humming to the sonata. 

He asked me what the issue was. "My tooth is all busted to hell." He glanced at the x-ray and looked at the tooth. "That tooth isn't busted to hell. I've seen a lot of them way worse. What exactly is your expectation for the tooth?" I said that I doubted it could be saved so I assumed it would have to be pulled. He immediately pooh-poohed that and said he could cap it for 450 bucks. "Cap it? That's great, let's go for it."

He said, "First, there is another option. I see there is a tooth already missing next to it." (Missing for possibly 50 years. For 50 years I have only been able to chew steak on one side. Sometimes I don't get around to fixing things.) "For about $1,400 I can cap both of the teeth next to the gap, then bridge it, inserting a tooth in the gap. Give you three good teeth."  $1,400! I guess he has to be somewhat competitive with Mexico.

So he deadened my jaw; I listened to Haydn while he hummed along and ground away at the two teeth, then took a series of tooth impressions in epoxy. A hour and a half later I had two temporary caps. In two weeks I will have three new permanent chompers in my right lower jaw for the first time in 50 years. I will have Happy Teeth!

Texas Birdwatching

Thanks to Mark Stonich for sending me this link.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Brownville Roadtrip! 5 Stations of the Cross

The five of us - Sue, Lorna, Pat, Steve and myself, met early yesterday morning and embarked on our adventure outing to Brownsville, Texas. As the group included some bird counters and at least one serious target birder, it was deemed desirable to have the target number of 80 species, and select a few target birds to go after. This philosophy is not necessarily shared by myself.

Steve and Gunnar. On the road again.

Station 1: The first stop was the Palo Alto Battlefield, a National Historic Park commemorating a battle which precipitated the Mexican-American War. We were not there for war, we were there for sparrows, particularly the Cassin's Sparrow. The male launches himself far skyward, singing his song so the female can see and hear him, referred to as "skylarking", then he drops like a rock into the tall grass to hide again. We saw and heard a number of Eastern Meadowlarks, half a dozen species of native sparrows, including the Cassin's skylarking.

Cassin's Sparrow

The ladies

Station 2:  The Old Port Isabel Road, possibly one of the worst roads actually on a map in North America. We had 4-wheel drive, but the road is deep rutted clay, which turns to slippery, truck capturing goo with the moisture of a heavy morning dew. I have never met anyone who has actually driven the length of it. You drive as far as you can until the women in the backseat (who maintain ALL of the on-board common sense) swear at you and declare they will get out and walk if you drive. One. More. Mile. There are three or four widely spaced failed ranches, punctuated by a few old, beaten-down, dark-eyed trailers with threatening "No Trespassing" signs. I take these very seriously. Anyone who has an Old Port Isabel Road address is very serious about being left alone. We give them their room and leave them to their solitude.

From the Old Port Isabel Road we saw Cactus Wrens, a Roadrunner in a shrubby mesquite tree (!), Long-billed Curlews, some deep russet colored Mourning Doves (puzzling), and Aplomado Falcons (more on that later). You almost never meet trucks (and certainly not cars) on the Port Isabel Road, but what the hell? there was a nice, newer pickup carrying a young Latino couple with their mountain bikes. The young woman was wearing a rastacap. Steve, who vacationed for a couple of years in Jamaica, immediate shifted into Rastafarian Patois. She was obviously charmed and she countered with a Spanish version of Patois. Jackpot! Steve and Sue had also lived in Mexico and if anything he upped the ante. She whipped the cap off and held it out for him. "Here, here take it. My grandmother knitted it for me. I have four. Take it!"  He declined. She insisted to the point where resisting would have been almost hostile. Now Steven has a new cap.


Now the Aplomado Falcons. There was a time when all hawks were shot on sight. Aplomados were hawks, so we shot them. All of them. Apparently the Mexicans didn't have quite as many bullets, so we've been reintroducing some of their birds to deep Texas. We have wiped out most of their habitat here and in Mexico, so their hold on existence is tenuous. Seeing one is rare. Seeing a pair, even at extreme distance, is a very special thing.

These have taken up housekeeping in a hacking box where a bird was kept to acclimate to the locale. The following photos are by Lorna. My lens just won't reach that far. The actually bird photos are a little fuzzy. I included the first photo with the arrows indicating the birds so you can appreciate how far away they were and what good shots she really got.

Aplomado Falcon - male

Aplomado Falcon - female
Station 3: The Brownsville landfill. "The Dump". It's huge. It's famous among the "life listers" for being thee place to possibly see the Tamaulipas Crow (probably not), and the Chihuahuan Raven (maybe). This year it was the Glaucous Gull. Sue did so want to see it. There were dozens of vultures, hundreds of crows, thousands - many thousands of gulls. It was a needle in a haystack. And it smelled bad.
Typical sky view
We added some species numbers of gulls to our list, but no Glaucous Gull. We eventually pulled Sue away from her glaucous dream and we moved on.

Station 4: Sable Palms. It's a beautiful 1890s estate. It's lush and tropical. Highly recommended. We were able to see a number of beautiful and rare birds. Here is their feeder cam.

Clay-colored Thrush

Green Jay

Olive Sparrow

The birds we saw included a female Rose-throated Becard. The past three years a single female has been seen in various locations. Same bird? Not likely, but possible. Why no male? I don't have a clue. They are very skulky birds and we didn't even come close to laying a lens on it.

The ladies Becard hunting.

This is a picture I took of a female Rose-throated Becard three years ago ..... the year I was officially "The Becard Whisperer".

Rose-throated Becard-female

Late afternoon. We had our first real meal break at a nice restaurant in Brownsville recommended by Scarlet's son Seth - southern Mexican cuisine. Celebrated Pat's birthday. Great food. Then on to...

Station 5: The soccer fields. Hundreds of parrots, 5 to 7 species, rally at sunset most evenings in the grove of large eucalyptus trees at the soccer complex. They are big, boisterous and screaming noisy. We were fortunate, there was soccer practice and the field lights were on, which amps up the whole show.

Red-lored Parrot & a Yellow-headed Parrot basking in the sports field floodlights.

95 different species in about 12 hours, including a lot of laughing and general dinking around. Home by 8:00 via the Military Highway. Very tired.

Be well,

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lorna's Blog

If you are even vaguely interested in this birdie thing we have going on, please check out Lorna's blog. She did not screw up her camera settings. She does really good work, forcing me to really try to lift my game.

Drizzle Monday Morning

Apologies for the quality of the Spoonbill photos. I had a bad setting on the camera, but they are such spectacularly beautiful birds I'm posting them anyway. I followed them with a set of what should have been once in a lifetime pictures of Soras. Self- inflicted camera injuries. ;-)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

OakWooD Winter 2014

It's been a long, hard winter back home in Oakwood. There have been years with more snow, winters that have been colder, but I'm certain this combination has been a real bitter bitch of a year. And I'm glad I am not there. My thanks to Kelly Jo and Cheryl for keeping the snow moved, 1410 lived in, and Bud as fed, fat and warm as an broken-down old Pug can be. And John Rust for dealing with the roof. I owe you, buddy.

Here are pictures of 1410 that Lorna's sister Linda emailed us today.

Front Walk
Honda CR-V

1410 OakWooD

Growlery view

And why do we run and hide in South Texas?

You all be well. Be warm,

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Port Isabel and South Padre

Port Isabel is the last mainland stop before crossing the causeway and bridge across the mouth of the Laguna Madre on the way to South Padre Island. I drove to the home of Scarlet Colley, with passengers Sue, Steve, and Lorna. We transferred our gear into Scarlet's van and she drove us to her boat mooring where we boarded the pontoon boat. The first bird of interest for us was the Mangrove Warbler. On the way out to the mangrove islands we were greeted by dolphins, not an everyday experience. Unless you are Scarlet. We did eventually find the warbler, unfortunately I didn't try to get any photos. It was just too quick and skulky. After watching the warbler for a while we motored and drifted along the shores of islands and sandbars enjoying the birds and the beautiful day. Here's a few of the pictures. 

Brown Pelicans
Chaos! White Pelicans and Cormorants going airborne. 
White Pelicans and Neo-Tropical Cormorants - possibly Double-crested Cormorants.

American Oystercatcher

Black Mangroves and oysters

Laughing Gull and Brown Pelicans. The olive pouches are East Coast race, red pouch - West Coast . The dull pouches are non-breeding birds.

Pelican, Laughing Gull, Willet

White Ibis

Marbled Godwit, sleeping Redhead ducks
By the time we disembarked it was about noon so we drove over to South Padre and ate at Padre Island Brewing. After we ate we walked the boardwalks of the Convention Center. There were a few shore birds, but not anything really unusual, so I drove up the road to find an access road to the beach. We wasted away the rest of the beautiful day on the beach. Steve and I sat on the tailgate drinking coffee and talking smart, the ladies got their feet wet and we all got sand in our sandals.

Back home Bill and Kathy greeted us at about 7:30 and they came over to help us drink cheap red wine and put the day in perspective. It was a good day.  

Sue and Lorna feeling the sand between their toes at high tide.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Life Goes On

Today is typical southeast Texas, sunny, 82F and breezy. Life is still good, just a couple of small bumps along the way. 

The other day I inadvertently deleted maybe the best photos I've taken this year. My fault twice. I did a multi-select of the whole file to compress them after doing some minimal editing and deciding which photos to save. After I compressed them I decided to delete one more picture without realizing the multi-select was still in effect. All. Gone. Fault number two? For some strange reason I chose to work without a net. I decided I didn't need to save anything in my trash and it empties automatically by default.

Three days ago out on the Mad Max world of Texas expressways I was northbound on 281 between McAllen and Edinburg (4 or 5 lanes wide - Texans being the modern Romans of road building). I pulled out to the left to overtake a truck and was confronted by an abandoned car about 20' ahead. I mean, right there! I swerved sharply to the left, but ka-whump! I clipped the rear left we passed by. Shaken, we pulled over to the side and looked back. Yep, an unoccupied car sitting like a lonely island in the concrete of a busy expressway. We reported it to a Park Ranger in Edinburg who called it in. Too late. When we returned a short time later there were wreckers, an ambulance and two very totaled cars. Our truck has the whole right side creased, but we are extremely lucky. If I'd have pulled out 5 seconds later we'd have caught the dead car square on. Not. Good. 

Our house sitter Kelly Jo called last night. There is a lot of snow building up on our Oakwood roof - a portion is flat roof with a rubber membrane. She said the circuit breaker tripped every time she plugged in the heating cables. Squirrels? So she has a water drip from the living room ceiling. Some panic phone calls and my friend John Rust is up on the roof shoveling and is going to check on the cables. My FRIEND John says he may have to shovel it twice. See below:

After two snowstorms in three days, couldn’t the National Weather Service issue a nice weather warning? Or at least give Freeborn County a day off from warnings and advisories?
Nope. The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard watch to be in effect from 6 a.m. Thursday until 6 a.m. Friday. Those times could change as the expected storm nears.
The watch is in effect for only a portion of southern Minnesota. The counties are Freeborn, Faribault, Waseca, Steele, Rice, Dodge, Mower, Olmsted and Fillmore. A winter storm watch is in effect to the east of that area and into Wisconsin. Several counties in Iowa also are in a blizzard watch. The region extends from the Des Moines up to Mason City, Waterloo, Fort Dodge and Decorah. It includes Winnebago and Worth counties. The watch is for the same time span.
The possible blizzard is expected to bring heavy snow, sleet and strong winds Thursday and into the evening. Totals by Friday morning could range from 6 to 10 inches in some areas.
Northwest winds are forecast to increase to 25 to 35 mph with gusts of 40 mph Thursday afternoon through Friday morning.
Whiteout conditions are expected to make travel dangerous.

You all be well, have good friends and good fortune,

Friday, February 14, 2014

Short-billed Dowitchers ? (Long-billed)

It was really warm today. We didn't go out until after lunch when it was clear blue skies, sunny and 85F. These are really not great conditions for taking pictures, sucks - the light is harsh and the birds tend to find sheltered places to nap. We went down to the Santa Ana Refuge not expecting much and that is about what we found at the Pintail Lakes. Nada.

We walked from the sun-baked open area around Pintail into the humid, buggy shade on the path to Willow Lake, where my Valentine, Ms Lorna stopped to get some photos of an Olive Sparrow. With her fetching British influenced sports-skirt, tastefully badged vest, coupled with her matching turquoise cap, shirt and shoes, she has set the outdoor fashion bar pretty high for this birding season. Well done.

As I obviously wasn't going to get any special bird shots, I thought I would just shoot some pictures of the scenery to help me remember the day.

Suddenly a flock of Black-necked Stilts flew by, really close. It was just amazing. I was caught completely off-guard; they seemed to come out of nowhere. They flew at us, did a fly-by right in front, and wheeled away and showing black wings, white underside, trailing flashing pink legs. I never even lifted my camera. I do that a lot - stand stunned stupid - just watching, forgetting that I even own a camera until the moment has passed. I determined that if they flew by again I would at least try to take a picture. They didn't. 

But later a group of Short-billed Dowitchers (see note) did and I was ready this time. As I saw them approach I flicked the camera to manual mode, concentrated on following them, swinging the camera rapidly, but smoothly as I continually focused, shooting a quick set as they flew by. They fly pretty fast, were quite close, and honestly I didn't think I would have anything to show for it. I was pleasantly surprised this evening when I looked at them on the computer. I got lucky. Usually I try to pick the best of a set, maybe crop it a little and just post it. Not this time. I just couldn't decide, so here they are. Enjoy. I know I did.

Update: Paul Prappas (Redwing) has suggested that these are Long-billed Dowitchers. As he is far more expert than I am, I defer to his knowledge.


You all be well,

Edinburg Environmental Expo

Yesterday busloads of students from all over the Lower Rio Grande Valley came to the Edinburg Wetlands for the annual environment awareness program. Below is a picture of some of the volunteers. One might take note of a familiar face wearing her very stylish, birdie vest. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rufous Hummingbird: The Red Menace

This is a photo that Lorna took three days ago between the slats of the venetian blinds shading our kitchen window here in Alamo, Texas. All things considered, I think this is a marvelous picture of a juvenile (female?) Rufous Hummingbird.

Normally I wouldn't post something written by someone else, but Carolee is a friend and she has graciously given me permission to post it. It originally appeared in Earthcare Northwest magazine and has never seen the light of the internet until now. Enjoy. 

The Red Menace: Rufous Hummingbirds and their Epic Journey
Carolee Colter

"Distance wouldn’t seem to be their strong point. You’d think they’d burn themselves out.”
That was my partner’s reaction when I described the migration route of the Rufous Hummingbird. It’s an elliptical route, up the Pacific coast in spring, some as far as BC and Alaska, into the Cascades and Rockies in summer, then down the spine of the Sierra Nevada or the Rockies, into the Sierra Madre Oriental, in midwinter westward across the highlands to the Sierra Madre Occidental, then up the coast again. All this at a speed of 25 miles per hour in still air.

Between the northern edge of its breeding range just shy of Anchorage, to its wintering grounds in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, the Rufous flies the longest migration of any bird in terms of its body-lengths (49 million.)  How can anything so diminutive pull off this feat? They do it on a few grams of fat, replenished at refueling stops along the way. Small size is great for living on nectar but it limits the amount of fat a hummer can accumulate and thus the length of each stage of its journey. As a result, hummingbirds spend more of their lives in migration than most other bird species. Like all migrating hummingbirds, the Rufous follows the flowers. Here in the Puget Sound region we may first sight the glowing males working a stand of flowering currant. By midsummer they are feasting on columbine and Indian paintbrush in alpine meadows. On their journey, Rufous move first through the territory of resident Anna’s, then breeding Calliope, Black-chinned and Broad-tailed. The notorious aggression of the Rufous as an invader has earned it the nick-name, “the red menace” among ornithologists. 

Hummers don’t live on flower nectar alone. They grab gnats out of the air, pluck aphids from crevices, rob spider webs. They’ll take any arthropod small enough to swallow. They even drink sap from wells drilled by sapsuckers. But whatever they feed on, they are bound by the laws of fuel dynamics. If they put on too much fat, it takes too much energy to fly. Therefore migrating hummingbirds have to stop for frequent short feeding bouts throughout the day’s journey. At dusk they will tank up with one-third their weight in nectar before finding a safe perch for the night. Under cold conditions, they go into a state of torpor, lowering their body temperature and slowing their heartbeat and breathing to a fraction of the normal rate, to conserve fuel. 

Working their way up the coast in spring, the males come first, followed by the females about a week later. As they start southward along the mountain chains, the males come first, the females lag behind by one to two weeks, and the juveniles by another week to a month. Thus the young make the first great journey of their lives without benefit of parental guidance. Hummingbird researcher Bill Calder writes of standing “in awe of a naïve, month-old bird with less than 1/10,000th of our brain volume, bravely setting forth and successfully navigating to Mexico for the winter, returning north by an entirely different route and then following the same loop the next year.” 

 How does Calder know that this bird, having outgrown its naiveté, will follow the same loop again? Only a handful of banded hummingbirds have been recovered but those few give us a glimpse into an amazing degree of site fidelity. An individual Rufous may very well return not only to where it was born and where it wintered the first year, but to the same stopover points along the way. In fact, banders have recaptured banded hummers on the very same day of the year. 

How do young birds find the ancestral wintering grounds and travel the northbound route when they have never been there before? How do they retrace the exact routes north and south for the rest of their lives? No one knows but evidence points to inherited knowledge. As anti-social as they come, hummingbirds form no pair bonds and certainly do not migrate in flocks. In their essay in the Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior, Robert and Martha Sargent write, “When migrating, they are aggressive and unfriendly, yet they share a single migration strategy.” 

Due to gradual population declines over parts of its breeding range, the Rufous Hummingbird is on the Partners in Flight WatchList. But scientists are not sure why. At first glance it seems that neither breeding nor wintering habitat is under immediate threat. Rufous wintering grounds in the mountains of Jalisco are at a high enough elevation to avoid the pesticide-drenched agricultural regions. 

As for logging, north or south, their favorite flowers thrive in edges and openings and brushy secondary growth. It would seem that as long as cutover forests are allowed to regenerate--and not converted to residential or business development--there should be plenty of breeding habitat. I haven’t found any research on whether herbicides on replanted stands of commercial trees pose a problem. 

It seems most likely that it is their 2000 mile migration that poses the greatest peril to Rufous. A drought in Mexico and Southern California can wither the flowers or keep them from ever blooming. A mid-summer thunderstorm can devastate mountain meadows wiping out nectar for hungry travelers. 

Yet over the millennia of neotropical migration, birds have faced hazardous weather and the species survived even if the individual didn’t. Permanent loss of habitat is another problem entirely. Most of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coast. Coastal development puts more hazards in the path of northbound Rufous migrants, particularly glass windows, domestic and feral cats and pesticides. 

Then there’s global warming. If drought at certain times and places becomes more common, the flowers won’t be there, even in pristine habitat.

The conventional wisdom is that rapid climate change will favor resident species over migrants. Residents will have milder winters to cope with, and presumably will survive in higher numbers to compete with returning migrants. They will have a head start in claiming prime nest sites and food sources. Also long-distance migrants are assumed to be more specialized than residents, and thus less flexible in terms of adaptation. 

But I speculate that migrants may be more resourceful than that. Their epic journeys take them through a great variety of habitats. Certain resident tropical species are so used to the dim light beneath the canopy that they will not cross a road cut through the rainforest and are confined to narrower and narrower territories. Neotropical migrants, on the other hand, travel through light and dark, across large bodies of water, across deserts, over high mountain ranges. They may change their diet greatly between breeding and wintering grounds. In other words, migrant species adapted to a greater variety of conditions than many resident species. 

Migrants have been known to expand their ranges opportunistically and Rufous hummers are a prime example. In the short space of 15 years they have begun to overwinter by the hundreds in the southeastern US. Perhaps a few storm-driven hummers found themselves in a paradise of blooming exotics and human-provided feeders along the Gulf in Texas or Florida. Somehow they stored knowledge of the way back there as they took off for their breeding grounds in spring. Perhaps they successfully raised young who inherited genetic coding of the route. If natural selection favors the southeastern winterers, Rufous Hummingbirds may come to establish a new migration pattern that will in some way enable them to survive climate change, and hold their own amongst resident species. 

In the Gospel, the meek may inherit the earth, but in nature, the ferocity of the “red menace” may be its key to survival. 

Gatherings of Angels: Migrating Birds and Their Ecology, edited by Kenneth P. Able, Comstock Books
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, National Audubon Society
Hummingbirds of North America, Sheri L. Williamson, Peterson Field Guide Series

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hook-billed Kite

This morning we motored through the early fog, west to the Mission Nature Park. "Nature Park" is a bit of a misnomer, probably only Texas would have a gun range in a nature park. In reality it's a park with paved bike/jogging paths threading through some grassland and scrubby trees - just a nice place for people to be outside and get some exercise.

Earlier in January I posted a couple of pictures of a White-tailed Kite, certainly an uncommon bird. Today we did a little target birding, going out to see a specific bird. There have been reports of a family group of five Hook-billed Kites making occasionally appearances at the Mission park. Given a choice, the birds live almost exclusively on tree snails, and locally heavy rains, or for whatever reason, the Mission woods are full of tree snails this year. Rare. My Sibley Field Guide states that the Hook-billed Kite is quote, "Rare; only a few pairs resident in woods along lower Rio Grande". A few pairs? Okay, maybe really rare. This is one of those birds that are coveted by those people who maintain a life list of North American birds. I remain listless.   

We walked west on the top of the levy scanning the horizon through the fog looking for flying birds.

Eventually we joined a rag-tag group of hopeful birders, some of whom we knew, familiar faces and some new ones. Slowly the fog cleared a little, but no birds. So we talked, listened to silly stories and waited. And waited. A couple of weeks ago Paul and Carolee talked to a couple who had finally seen the Kites...after waiting for 8 hours. I was hoping The Woman wouldn't want to wait 8 hours. No matter, after an hour or so, Steve called, "Hawk!" and the Hook-billeds were coming over the southern horizon, so far away it was hard to make them out. One, two, five of them. They flew right over the trees in a loose group, dipping out of sight, then reappearing even closer. Then suddenly near us, three swung past over the levy. People gasped and the big cameras shot bursts like machine guns. I snapped a few pictures through the fog of an all gray male as they flew by. Momentarily they dropped into the trees, vanished; it was quiet. Old men giggled like little children watching magic. 

Then as the quiet, excited jabbering started dying down, a grizzled, portly man named Rodriguez called, "Bird in the scope!". People queued up and waited patiently to see two distant birds, likely females, in his scope. Lorna got these pictures through the trees before the birds dropped down to feed and were gone. It was over.

Be well,