Who are we? We are our stories.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Hand Up For Old Ben

A couple of days before I finally got photos of the infamous "Blue Devil", Blue Bunting, I actually saw the little bugger on three occasions, or maybe that was the day before. Whatever, on one morning Ben Basham was sitting on a bench and gave us hell as we walked by because he was hoping for the bird to show up at the water drip along the path (a fat chance) so he could take photos with his digital camera. Benton has never owned a computer. Any photos he takes are trapped forever in the camera.

Even getting your ass chewed by Ben Basham is a bit of an honor. To birders he is a little bit like ... ah ... Babe Ruth or Johnny Unitas or Bobby Orr - you get the idea. He is the one who really lifted birding into a major activity, first one with over 700 North American  birds in one year - and one of the first people to sign my bird guide, "Benton Basham ABA 881", underlined, his life count. As I said, Ben has never owned a computer. That number was racked up before daily postings of rare bird sightings - the posting that have filled the parking lot at Frontera Audubon the past month. Old Ben is the birder giant and we all know it. There is no second place. 

We moved on around the bend and settled in with three other birders. Within 15 or 20 minutes the bird showed up way back in the thicket, but moving toward us and an opening. Basham!?! I quickly, quietly doubled back up the path and fetched Ben. He had not brought his walker, but no matter, he was so excited he left his cane back at the bench, and we hobbled back to the group. People made room, parted the path for Moses. The bird fluttered into clear view, binoculars came up with soft "ooohs". Cameras clicked. Ben is old, rather deaf and he tends to talk too loud. "I can't focus! It won't focus! I don't know what's wrong!" The bird left. A frustrated Ben, now crestfallen and quiet, "It wouldn't focus, I was on the bird and it wouldn't focus." Ignoring the fact that to ask any auto-focus camera to lock onto a bird through that lace of brush and twigs was totally unrealistic. A couple of the birders, one an optics rep, figured out who Ben was and began fawning over him. He loves attention and the disappointment of his camera snafu soon passed. 

I understand he got his photo a day or two later, so now he has at least one safely locked away in his camera ... until there is a SDHC card failure. The cards ALL fail eventually, but likely Ben will die before the camera and be planted beside his tumbled down old trailer by then. 

 Take care and be well - Gunnar

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Now I Can Die a Happy Man

I have seen "that bluebird everyone is so excited about" a number of times this month. This morning I finally got some photos of the Blue Bunting, not exactly bird guide poses or anything particularly artful, but I am quite satisfied ........ the other alternative being going completely insane over a bird.

Here is some other pictures I took later this morning before we knocked off and went for lonches at Nana's Taqueria to celebrate.

Still haven't seen that Crimson-collared Grosbeak this year *sigh* - Gunnar 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mildly Frustrating Day and Complaining

 In the past few weeks I have seen a number of rare birds. Most are rare only because of where they were found. They are in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas instead of other states or they have drifted up from Mexico or the Caribbean, and a couple are just flat out rare. 

As they say at the Emmys ... I would like to thank the Aplomado Falcons, Sprague's Pipets doing their mating flight!, a male Rose-throated Becard in a rough unmown Alamo city park - so rare a bird that only two people in all of Texas, in all of the U.S. saw it, Paul Prappas and me. I have seen Northern Jacanas walking on water, Groove-billed Anis hiding in marshes, Green-tailed Towhees and a dozen Pyrrhuloxias on Brushline Road, a female Black-headed Grosbeak (see below), a White-throated Thrush flocking with Clay-colored Thrushes, a Tropical Parula, and of course the Blue Bunting. About the only birds that have been reported that I have not seen are the Crimson-collared Grosbeak and the Mountain Plovers. The Mountain Plovers require patience, a very good scope, and a lot of luck. I have some luck, some patience, but no scope and little desire.

That leaves me with the Crimson-collared Grosbeak. There is only one option, a solitary female has been sighted a few times at Frontera Audubon. The Blue Bunting is really a once in lifetime bird, so most of the fly-in for two day birders tend to concentrate on it and leave the rest of the park alone. Today I was really tuned into seeing the Crimson-collared. The birds remember food and tend to return. Lorna and I settled into the feeding area where it was last sighted. We were alone so the chances seemed pretty good. One of the park's other rare birds, a female (or immature?) Black-headed Grosbeak has also frequented the same feeding station. Soon other people showed up. That's cool, more eyes. As it turned out, more laughing and loud talking, hand waving gestures and pointing, and sudden jerky movements. Some had big cameras and at least they didn't set up in front of us. Other than that they pretty much checked off all the "birding don't" list.

The Black-headed eventually showed up back in the brush almost out of sight and they got all excited, pointing, talking out loud and started camera clicking. I quietly told them that the bird was obviously hungry and if everyone would just cool it and be quiet the bird would eventually come closer and they could get better photos. For a short time they shut up and eventually the bird did come closer. Soon someone jumped up or danced or did whatever the hell they were doing back there and the bird flew. Then they went back to their same pattern. A group is only as quiet as it's loudest voices.

I left disgruntled, without even a prayer of seeing the Crimson-collared. As I was leaving one of the staff asked how my day went. I told her through clenched teeth. She said someone else walking on the trail had complained and they had already sent someone back to talk to them about their noise. A strong-arm thug I trust. Too late, it had already killed my afternoon. This is not a life bird for me, but I sure would like to see it at least once this year. Maybe next time.

Black-crested Titmouse,  Black-headed Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal

The last picture slot was reserved for a Crimson-collared Grosbeak, but I needed to employ a young understudy, a young up-and-coming Altamira Oriole. I generally do not like bird photos which "show the hand of man", so let us all pretend that the half-slice of grapefruit is a rare natural occurring phenomenon.

Curmudgeonly yours - Gunnar

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Blue Bunting Trivia

We were out again today to see the Blue Bunting. I honestly did not need to see that bird again. Lorna had seen the bird with Paul Prappa and in the next couple of weeks I got good looks at it, but Lorna was still dissatisfied with her earlier look. Thanks to Bill Mauck, the habitat seems to be been much improved since then with the added woodland water drips. At least if you measure it by the number of bird sighting there are every day it is. 

There was a small, thin elderly man in the group loosely spaced along the trail - apparently well into his 90s. He was quite deaf and frail. He had flown into Harlingen by himself the day before for a two day search for the Bunting - probably on a three-day pass from the nursing home. He seemed a little wobbly after standing for a short time, so Lorna loaned him her 3-legged folding stool while she went for a walk. Soon I was getting fidgety so I slowly moved off for a while too. 

As I was returning one of the fellows I met earlier saw me and made a slow chopping gesture toward the undergrowth to indicate a sighting and then pointed left. Bird in the brush moving to the left. He and three or four watchers hurried west to cut the bird off and hopefully get a look at it. Hesitating. It was a "what would Bill do?" moment. There wasn't much good Buntie habitat that direction other than the large pool, which in spite of all the folks who have spent countless hours bird wishing there, I think is really too open for such a skulky bird. Assuming the extremely skittish bird would avoid the commotion, I slowly moved away from them, heading east toward habitat - the Ant Hill and the Leaky Pipe drip. 

As I came around the bend there was a woman at the Ant Hill, binocular peering into the undergrowth. She saw me, smiled and nodded. The Bunting had indeed doubled back away from the crowd. Sighting over her head as she whispered directions, there is was, right in front of me in the business end of my Bausch & Lombs, hopping about on the ground in the dappled sunshine in all of it's tropical blue lightning glory. I watched long enough to sate my Bunting cravings then slowly stepped back to make room for others and quietly moved away to call Lorna. Then I returned to point it out to later arrivals. There was already a large group guided by Mike Marsden gathered by the time Lorna arrived - how do people sense a rare bird? Something mystical? Or simply word of mouth and cell phones? But by then the bird had obviously moved on. Hopefully toward the old man on the stool.
The life list counters speak of "needing" a bird for their list. For those who are keeping track, this bird was traveling loosely with a Hermit Thrush today. Previously it had been seen near a Long-billed Thrasher - I am not certain how many people really noticed that. Does this bird they tend to follow and feed behind birds that stir up the forest floor? File this away in your Bunting information warehouse in case you ever need to see a Blue Bunting. 
Lorna and I left the crowd hopelessly peering hopefully into the empty woods and we moved east. Around the bend the old boy was still on Lorna's stool. He had a camera in his hand and a smile on his face. Lorna helped him to his feet and kissed him on the cheek. He showed us the image on his camera screen - a photo of a dazzling blue bird. "The Blue Bunting. Life list bird number 815", he said as he teetered off to his rental car - which should terrify us all.

Photo by Lorna Berg

My old legs were tired. I went back to the truck to shed my jacket, get some water, and go back to sit on a bench, bask in the sun and in my glory for a while. Eventually Lorna came back from the thicket through the wrought gate, all smiles. She got really good looks at the bird and even got two or three nice photos. It was ...

A good day in the thicket - Gunnar

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Last Supper

Beef Brisket sandwiches at Willie's BBQ this evening before Chris (of Blue Devil fame) flies home, and Bill and Cathy get a headstart jump tonight on a long two day drive to the Florida Keys to see a Zenaida Dove, a life bird for them. They have been great neighbors and friends again this year, coming regularly across the courtyard to our shady veranda on sunny days, to share daily results, birding lore and pointers.

Miss you already; see you next year, - Gunnar

Like a Stone, Buried in the Silt

Charlie Parr posted a note last night.

"Today is a day of regret, of questioning every move I make and almost immediately being disappointed with myself no matter what I do. Mom has had a heart attack, she's stable and evidently doing well and I'm eternally grateful that my big sister is taking care of her. On the other hand, I'm in LA waiting on a plane to take me to Australia for tour, my guts are twisted, my eyes hurt, I am confused and ashamed and don't know how to proceed. Mom wants me to go on, and said she'd see me when I get home in two weeks. My nerves about flying are kicking in on top of it all, but I'm listening to Michael Bloomfield and Willy Tea trying to stay calm and face the next thing. I feel like a stone, buried in the silt of a creek bed, flying miles above the earth."

His mother comes from sturdy stock, she is a Cole from Maple Island (Mn). Charlie may short on formal education, but even in his confusion and grief, he can turn a phrase - sounds almost like his song lyrics.

"my guts are twisted, my eyes hurt,
I am confused and ashamed and don't know how to proceed
I feel like a stone, buried in the silt of a creek bed,
flying miles above the earth"

Here's hoping the man's mother does well. - Gunnar

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Eli Green

I found Eli Green through one of Charlie Parr's songs. Here is the path and the destination.

Hand me that bottle, son ... - Gunnar

Friday, February 19, 2016

Getting the Blue Devil

This is a Green Heron. It has very little to do with this posting, it just happened to be posed there on the lower branches of a Water Cypress as we were leaving Frontera Audubon after a major break in the action. It gave up the photo willingly, and I merely took advantage of the situation as we walked by.

Recently there has been a constant procession of people to Frontera - people slowly wandering the paths, peering into the underbrush. Some are casual birders like myself. Some are other types - like young couples with children, or pairs of pudgy ladies with no binoculars, carrying point-and-shoot cameras and large bags with festive decorations, "Where can we see this blue bird that everyone is so excited about?" One is tempted to say, "Hell lady, I don't know. If I knew do you think I would stand for hours staring like a f***ing zombie into a green leaf wall?" Then there are the serious birders, those who have flown here from around the country just hoping to get a fleeting chance glimpse of "the bird". Chris is one of those serious birders.

Chris is an old birder friend of our neighbors, Cathy and Bill. 'Old' meaning they have been friends for some time; and 'old' also meaning he is no longer a young man. Chris has seen over 750 bird species in North America, but there was one that eluded him for years. He refers to the Blue Bunting as "The Blue Devil". Chris wasn't an Ahab out to kill his nemesis whale, he just wanted to see it. He has tried a number of times - whenever a Blue Bunting was reported north of Mexico, Chris was there, looking, hoping. Bill said he personally discovered the last one reported before the Frontera Audubon bird and he thought that might have been seven or eight years ago, so it is not as if poor old Chris has been living on airplanes and motels full time. 

Chris has been here a few days and Bill has been frustrated that he hasn't been able to deliver his friend's nemesis bird. It is a very hard bird. As Bill said, "Most of the people walking around Frontera looking for the Blue Bunting have no idea how hard (to see) this bird really is." Today Chris scored the Blue Bunting and got really good looks at it. The weight has been lifted and he has been set free (at least until he really needs to see a Short-tailed Albatross). When we joined them moments after the sighting, Bill pumped his fist in the air and shook my hand. I shook Chris's hand. Everyone within sight was shaking Chris's hand. There was much back slapping of men and hugging of women.

I know it is just seeing a bird, that it isn't really important in the overall scheme of world affairs, but for those few minutes the very air was filled with pure joy and relief. For old men real joy can be a rare and fleeting thing. And it is really great to be there when it happens.

Tonight we had a Blue Bunting Party. Cathy and Bill, their friends Tommy and Theresa, Lorna and me, and of course Chris. Seven people, all members of a very select group, the Blue Bunting Club.

Bill fixed us a wonderful meal, and for the man of the hour, we finished it with coffee cake and coffee ice cream in lieu of "lifer pie"- as I understand it is Chris's favorite.

 And for everyone, one blue bunting peep!

Take care, be well, discover your own blue bird - Gunnar

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Blue Bunting, a Short Story

We were hunkered over and crouched down along the path so we could see beneath the brush to the "Ant Hill",  a pile of dirt back in the shadows of the thicket. The Ant Hill was named as a locator, along with the Leaky Pipe and the Drip Pool, as places where the bird, the Blue Bunting had been sighted in the past couple of weeks. The Blue Bunting is a rare visitor from Mexico and Central America. The Drip Pool was one the first places it was sighted and that had been manned for a week or more by a rotating group of birders anchored by a fellow going by the moniker, The Rogue Birder. He stared into the thicket for 20 hours over five days. Finally the bird appeared for 30 seconds, the Rogue got a couple of photos, and the bird released him from his purgatory. He walked to a bench up the path, where he sat, gathered himself enough to check the bird off his life list, then booked a quick flight back home.

Photo by Michael Emenaker
But, as our friend Bill said, "If you sit for twenty hours in the same place looking for a bird without seeing it, you are in the wrong place." Heeding Bill's advice, I was not at the Drip Pool; I was down the path at the Ant Hill, while Lorna was even further down at the Leaky Pipe. There were two guided groups of birders at the park. My company at the Ant Hill were a couple who confessed they had been chasing, chasing, trying for the Blue Bunting for 30 years (which may border on obsession), and a spotter for one of the guided groups. We alternately stood, kneeled and crouched. Occasionally the guide's 2-way radio would pop on and ask if he "had" anything, but generally the only sound was the distant calls of common birds and that muffled murmur that birders use to communicate with when they are on a serious quest. 

Suddenly there was movement in the brush at the right rear of the Ant Hill. Alert! Then nothing for minutes. Another flutter of wings! And quiet. The tension was building pretty strong. All senses on high alert, I could feel my heart pounding. Down on the ground on our hands and knees, straining to see something move, we glanced at each other with nervous smiles. Then ​there was movement in the shadows! Which became the dark profile of a ​Bunting. It hopped out into the sunlight! and that bird simply lit up, filling the world as I knew it with a blinding flash of brilliant blue light. And then as suddenly as it appeared, the lights went out and the Blue Bunting was gone. 

I quickly fetched Lorna from up the path, the guide had been on his 2-way mumbling, and soon there were fifteen or twenty people on the path, crowding together, kneeling in front, standing behind, all peering into the brush, asking, "Where was it?"  "Who saw it?" "How long was it out?" "Did it vocalize?" But the show was over. Maybe later, maybe at the Drip, maybe at the Pipe, maybe somewhere else, THE BIRD will return.

As Lorna's friend Lizzy said, "THAT bird is unpredictable, it is a bit of a rogue." 

Me? I care not. Today I got the Blue Bunting - Gunnar

Common Birds of the LRGV

In my last posting I alluded to "common birds" birds we had seen yesterday. This is a photo recently taken by our friend Mike Rickard. It is worth at least a thousand words, so I will not add more.

Altamira Oriole, Green Jay, Cardinal

Your day brightener - Gunnar

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Nana's Lonch

The day began in a pea soup fog - not an unusual occurrence here. While we were waiting for it to lift enough to drive, Lorna did a couple of loads of wash. It was 9:30 before we got on the road to Frontera Audubon, which is about 10 miles away in Weslaco.

We were there because Lorna (and I) still want better looks at the Blue Bunting and the other rarities which are there this year. As I write this that sounds soooo simple. You know where the bird is, just go look at it. It isn't that easy; case in point, the fellow who finally saw the Blue Bunting a couple of days ago after staring into the brush for 20 hours over five days. "Be careful you guys, it's a jungle out there." 

Just a quick observation. This is a flowering vine near the entrance. It was large and eye level so I shot it as I walked by. Note the droplets. It did not rain; the fog and dew just makes things that wet.

Today we had a short checklist. At the end of the day that list remains unchecked. Again, we did not see any of the really rare birds, but there were some warblers and a lot of more common birds. Common? Some are simply spectacular, birds that four or five years ago I would have killed to see.

We did see a Groove-billed Ani, a tropical member of the Cuckoo family. It is a "good bird", rare enough to seek out, though maybe not worth a plane ticket. It turned out to be the first one sighted at the refuge this year. Anyone who has ever tried to photograph an Ani in its typical habitat will understand the photo. :-)

Groove-billed Ani

Hunger ambushed us right on schedule. We took a break and headed for Nana's Taqueria. Nana's has tables outside, but it was getting quite hot so we went inside. We caught the last small table. Of the dozen tables, three were manned by old, pale pink wrinkled people - the rest were Hispanic, some families, some apparently workers on lunch break. I realize I have become one on those wrinkled old pink guys, I just don't identify with my age group. If I show up for lunch in a golf shirt, shorts and white tennis shoes, just take me out in back of the barn and put me down. Anyway, Nana's is really good food - real fresh food, which is a rare commodity these days.

After lunch, back to the birds at Frontera. Not much luck, but here's a couple of shots of a Carolina Wren.

Good evening. Sleep well, - Gunnar

Friday, February 12, 2016

American Robin?

Really? It is the first one I have seen here in the Rio Grande Valley in five years. I greeted her, and as is the norm meeting strangers down here, I asked where she was from. "Minnesota, a small town in Southern Minnesota. My mate and I have a nice wooded lawn on a quiet lake - not fancy, but quite pleasant with a lot of berry shrubs and lawn bugs, and no herbicides or pesticides. You know how important that is when you are raising nestlings."
It was an amazing coincidence. We talked a while and I told her I would be waiting for her return in the Spring. It is a very small world.

It was a beautiful morning - forecast high of 84F today, and our excuse for going for a walk in the morning sunshine at Santa Ana was to see if we could get a glimpse of the two additional Northern Jacanas which had been sighted two days ago by our friends Bill and Cathy. 

We did not see the young Jacanas this day, but as we were leaving we did bump into Bill and Cathy. It was only mid-morning, but by then Bill was already spitting tacks. He does not suffer fools gladly (I get a pass only because I am on Lorna's arm) and he had found his first victim of the day. Some fellow with a camera was off the path, crushing vegetation along the pond edge. He then made the near fatal error of asking Bill if he could look through his scope so he could get a better view of his potential camera subject. 

Bill has had some rather scary military training and in general does not like photogrphers. I am rather surprised the poor clueless fellow survived the encounter.

May you stay on the path and have sunshine in your life - Gunnar

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A One Bird Day

We went to Frontera Audubon this morning to try to see a couple of the handful of rare birds that are there this season. It started off pretty good. We spent a couple of hours getting good looks and photos of some more common birds and we got good looks at the female (or immature male?) Black-headed Grosbeak. See below.

Then we got serious. Put on our serious birder faces, hiked up our birder pants, and strode seriously to the water-drip and pool where the Blue Bunting pair has most recently been seen. I stood for an a couple of hours with six or eight others, barely moving, seldom speaking. Finally a little old lady who probably had to pee, vacated a spot on the only bench. I grabbed the opening and sat for another half an hour. Nadda.

It always could be worse - there have been people who traveled down from the north to see it, sat for four days, never saw it, and went back home empty. And I really don't need to see the damned bird anyway - birds come and go. Lorna saw the Blue Bunting shortly after it was posted - I sleep with the bird chick and I am claiming her bird by association.

- Gunnar

The Biggest and Smallest

I used to have Photoshop. Over the years with crashes and new computers somehow I lost it. Now you can't even buy it, only rent it. Jeez. It is really not much of an issue anyway. Mostly I just crop my pictures a little and sometimes pulling a little more detail out of the shadows. 

Lorna has been using a freebie editing program called FastStone and recently I have used it to sharpen some details on shots of really distant birds which I have to crop the hell out of. Time to up my game? Today I played a little more, removing color out of some shots to allow the birds to be appreciated as shape rather than as color. 


Thank you for your forebearance, - Gunnar

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Birding With John and 'Nita

Lorna's sister Anita and John are staying on South Padre Island. Today we drove down to welcome them to south Texas and do a little birding. These pictures are for them. Thank you both for the day.

Be well, - Gunnar

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Bit of Thrashing About

Brown? (it was pretty rusty)
Edinburg Wetlands this morning. I think I may have both a Brown Thrasher and a Long-billed Thrasher here, but I won't go to the mat on either of them.

This is A White-eyed Vireo, a singer to the point of occasionally being a little irritating. The first shot captures that quality perfectly. It also catches an out of focus stick in front of it. The second shot is nicely focused and everything, but unfortunately it isn't alive and singing. Looks stuffed. Oh well.

Lastly, a flock of White Pelicans playing in the water, prepping for a Spring flight back to Minnesota to breed."See ya'll back in Oakwood!"

Still upright in Alamo, - Gunnar B.