Friday, February 27, 2009

More Alamo City lifers!

Confirmed once again: There's no basement in the Alamo!

Mary and I got up early again this morning and hit the trails at Eisenhower Park northwest of San Antonio by a little after 7 a.m. We were greeted by this sign at the trail head:Um... Daddy! Help! Several times, we were certain we heard grunts and movements in the brush; any second, we might've been charged by feral hog or pounced on by a mountain lion! However, we didn't actually encounter anything but a bunch of coyote poo: and a bunch of wrens, Carolinas and (drumroll please!) a lifer: Bewick's Wren!
Okay--WTF is with the bad focus, right? I accidentally had the camera on P mode, which is "exposure and flash compensation." Sadly, the morning was overcast so lighting was terrible. This was the best photo I got of the Bewick's, but we observed him for several minutes. We called him in with the fabulous birdJam on my Sony Ericsson Walkman phone. We had several of the wrens exhibiting territorial behavior (read: sounding pissed off), so we hurried with the pics and left them to their own testosterone-fueled displays.

The terrain was scrubby undergrowth with cedars everywhere, most of them over 200 years old (according to the brochure). Here's a pic of me in front of a rather harsh natural tableau: Here's more: After walking about a mile on the trails here and seeing/hearing only wrens, we went to Freidrich Natural Area. According to the write-up by the local Audubon Society, the best place to see the most birds here was around the parking lot because of all the diverse plantings and stuff. We saw more Black-Crested Titmouse:
bunches of cardinals singing their hormonal little hearts out: (this was disappointingly blurry, sorry)

and this strange pic, which I THINK might be another lifer! Look at these pics (sorry, but the clouds creating terrible backlighting)--

and this one of him coming right at me!
Is that an Orange-crowned Warbler?????? --no wingbars, yellowy underparts, a light eyebrow stripe. Philadelphia Vireo, which is a fairly common migrant here????? I haz teh dumb.... help?

This tree was obviously in close contact with an armadillo--it has leprosy!
And boy howdy, Black Vultures are everywhere! Here's one having a spot of lunch:

We're planning to go birding again this afternoon and evening with nieces Bronte and Lilia, so I hope to have more birds to come!

Monday, February 23, 2009

A steady IV-drip of lifers, emphasis on the "drip"

Two birding trips, three lifers--it's been a steady, if slow, procession of lifers here in San Antonio. I have to give credit to my kid sister Mary, who's been my taxi driver and fellow bird spotter, btw. Her contributions to the bloggy will be detailed below.

Sunday afternoon, my mom, Mary, and my nieces Bronte and Lilia, and I went to McAllister Park, a hard-scrabble area of mesquite, live oak, and brush. We didn't see a whole lot of birds, but Lil spotted a lifer of her own: a nine-banded armadillo! Here she is, making the spot:I only got a decent photo of his badonkadonk, as we stalked him through the brush: By the way, I'll mention that everyone in our party mentioned the "armadillos have leprosy!" factoid that you Flockers who've met me already heard... PURE FACT, you Doubting Thomases.

On our way to the car, I heard a familiar sound--a Tufted Titmouse. Eager to see if I could find a Black-crested Titmouse, a morph found only in Texas, I started looking and snapping.Got him! They sound just like TUTIs, but that black crest distinguishes them and made the ABA split them off as their own species. (I'm sure it's more complicated and genetic than that, but hey--I'm beginning to bird, not expert to bird.)

This morning, Mary was a total trooper--she got up with me at 6:30 and we were on the road at 6:45, headed to Comanche Lookout Park in northeastern SA. Sadly, not a whole lot of bird action at this historic location. We saw and heard dozens of cardinals and mockers, and that was about it. We also saw this little tower at the top of the peak, the "lookout" part of the park: We left after climbing the hill, in search of birdier places.

Next stop: El Dorado (aka "Golden") Pond, which is in a residential area near a dammed up creek. Some interesting interaction of domestic muscovy ducks and the local kitteh population:
It looks like the kitteh is stalking, but he's actually just chewing on some grass. The ducks and the kittehs coexist in peace. We also saw this cute pup, who did us a favor and ate the rest of our greasy breakfast tacos, purchased at a Texas Cafe drivethru (the "cafe" was worse than the tacos!)-- He seemed hungry and even ate the tortillas! Isn't he cute? I wanted to take him home but I knew he'd never fit in my bag.

We went to the "pond" which was little more than a few puddles. Still, we found many more birds here than the Comanche place, perhaps because of the residential feeders and such. I saw my first lifer of the day:Inca dove! Found only in the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California! Mary spotted these guys, which I had kinda brushed off as MODOs. One peek through the binocs proved me wrong, however, and we got a lifer!

We also saw another lifer, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker! I had time to see him, spot him through my binocs, and touch my camera; then he flew off. Dangit! No photos, but he was bee-yoo-tiful, his bright yellow-orange nape flashing in the morning sun. Wow. Probably my favorite woody now, at least until I see an IBWO...

The rest of the birds we saw were interesting, if not lifebirds. We saw a mated pair of Black Vultures who were extremely interested in having us document their romance! They're kissing! He tried to mount her, but some neighborhood dogs started barking about fifty yards away and she got a little shy. They flew together into a nearby tree:
That's one intense gaze.

I think they were tiring of the papparazzi at this point: We saw some other birds, but try as I might, I can't figure out what they are! Here's the first one, a duck who was much larger than the mallards nearby:
There's some definite green on his head, but his back was very light buffy brown and rufous colors. Here's another one, though he's facing away: Any ideas?

UPDATE! Another lifer, a Blue-headed Vireo! Thanks, my birdy pals!

Here are some more photos:

He very obligingly gave us a badonkadonk shot: Again, thanks to the commenters for the positive ID!

Until next time, I'll be watching A&E's Horatio Hornblower miniseries on DVD with my mom....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gone to Texas, baby

It's Sunday morning, and I've been here at my parents' home in San Antonio since late Friday night. It's been wonderful seeing my family, some of whom I haven't seen since about four years ago!

Here are a couple of photos:

From left, big bro Ricardo, me, Raquel's daughter Lilia, Mommy, Ricardo's daughter Olivia, Raquel's daughter Bronte, and big sis Raquel (photo by Daddy). Note the shorts! It was probably in the mid-60s, though it cooled off a little later when a cold front blew through.
This is everyone again, with Ricardo taking the photo so you could see my daddy.

Saturday morning found me outside in the driveway with Lilia, who likes birds too, watching a strange little warbler-like bird fluttering among the oak leaves. I thought I'd gotten at least a cruddy picture, but now it's just all leaves and no bird. ? So it had a distinctly yellowish tint to its buff underparts, with a white eye ring, a skinny pointy warbler beak, and one wingbar--perhaps two, but it was hard to tell. I thought it might be an Orange-crowned Warbler--but they don't have that little wingbar, do they? Then I thought maybe female Common Yellowthroat. I wish I'd gotten a photo.

Next, I had to photograph one of the ridiculously abundant White-winged Doves fluttering and calling in the neighborhood; they're everywhere!

Not a great photo, but at least you can see the white parts of the wings. These guys are much larger than MODOs, and much noisier!

The only other neighborhood birds in abundance were Common Grackles and Northern Cardinals. No photos there, you know. I'm planning to visit several good birding spots here in San Antonio. Before I left PA, I googled around and found a list of San Antonio winter birds, with letters indicating the probability of seeing each bird during the winter months in Central Texas; I put it into a spreadsheet and sorted it; after marking (in red text) all the potential lifebirds among the common and fairly common birds, I then tabbed every page in my fieldguide that had a potential lifer on it. I'm sooo ready!

After the morning birding and photography sessions, I had to go see my old friend Charlie in Austin, who had asked me come over and record the guitar parts for a demo he's working on. This girl writes and sings her own songs, but her guitar-playing is less than stellar. Here's Charlie and me working in his little "studio;" I'm plugged directly into a thing called ProTools by DigiDesign. It's amazing; you just plug right in, and it records everything like in a real studio, only just in a little room; it's all computerized:
This is Charlie's "give me the information, old man" face.
More recording.
Just a leeeeetttle bit more....
me, all focus-y. (All photos by Mary Guzman)

After a loooong day of recording (much longer than I'd expected, because I've only had the songs for a few days so I had to learn them, make up guitar parts for both rhythm and lead guitar, and deal with the many screw-ups and foibles of recording), my sister Mary brought me back to San Antonio and I went to bed.

Tomorrow, we're planning to do some birding in McAllister Park, which my mom says is full of birds! Until then, friends, Remember the Alamo!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sad and icky and frustrating bird-eating stories

This morning, a listserv entry caught my eye with its subject line: "'Extinct' Bird Seen, Eaten." There was a link to this story in National Geographic about the Worcester's Buttonquail, a species of bird thought to be extinct, and how it turned up in a local market in the Phillippines and was sold as a meal. The story details how a TV crew came and photographed the bird, and then the bird was sold.

It reminded me of the anecdotes Jerome Jackson told in The Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, in which locals would sometimes tell IBWO searchers that the bird wasn't extinct and then proceed to shoot one and bring in the dead carcass (though Jackson admits that perhaps these were just horror stories/urban myths). Still, plenty of scientists were still collecting specimens of the IBWO long after they knew it was threatened with extinction.


So this email on the listserv generated quite a discussion, and I thought you might be interested in some of the anecdotes:

One lister told about his visits to Taiwan, where vendors still sell whatever songbirds or raptors turn up in their nets, even though the practice is now illegal (but only enforced in the more urban areas). He also said that on his visit to Taiwan earlier this year, he didn't see a Taiwan Partridge in the wild (the bird was on his list of must-see birds) but instead saw one in a market. The vendor had the bird in a cage and was selling its eggs. He went on to say that wild bird eggs are "very popular" in Asian restaurants and, though most of the time the eggs are simply domestic duck eggs, he knew that fisherman often brought in eggs "from who knows where" of such threatened species as the Crested Tern and the Black-faced Spoonbill.

After that depressing tale, another lister sent around a story of this kind of thing happening here in the US, albeit 25 years ago. The lister said that there was a bar in southern Louisiana where they held an annual "gros bec" festival, featuring a gumbo dish made of a bird called a "gros bec." Probably we all know that "gros bec" is French for large beak, like our own Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, etc. Still, that's not the bird they used in this gumbo. The lister continued, saying that the "family stories are mostly about avoiding the game wardens who were trying to catch the cooks in the act of putting an illegal bird in the pot." She found out later that the birds used were Black-crowned Night Herons.

I wonder about people sometimes. I know that people -- all of us, really -- have to hustle for money in various ways just to feed themselves and their families, and when the natural resources are out there and other people are buying--well, the inevitable happens. This applies not only to places like the Phillippines and Asia but here as well. We're all out there buying gasoline and using plastics and doing other such natural-resource-using activities.

Still, these bird-eating stories really bother me. (You'll remember my post about Thanksgiving and turkey.) I guess it all boils down to the age-old hypothetical question game, a variation of which goes, "if it meant keeping your family from starving, would you ______?" and the blank is then filled in with all manner of craziness, from petty thievery on up to, I suppose, putting endangered birds into one's soup pot.

Why does it happen? Am I just spoiled by being lucky enough to live in a country where if I wanted to eat a bird, I could just go to the grocery store and buy a commercially produced bird that doesn't rob the natural world of any kind of rarity? I'm sure that's a big part of it. I mean, they don't have Tyson's chicken farms on the island of Luzon, the only place in the world that the Worcester's Buttonquail was known to exist, so they work with what they have. Still--someone realized that this was an important bird; they called the TV people and documented it. But then, instead of the vendor (or someone) saying, "Okay, lady, you can't have this bird; he's special. But I'll give you this other kind of bird instead." Why didn't the TV guys buy the bird and release it or call the authorities or something?

It's already a rough world for our birdy friends. I just wish we humans would stop making it worse.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


See here, here, and here, folks! Catch the TV detective feevah!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Niblet update -- bad news

I took Nibble in to see a bunny doctor on Friday, and apparently abcesses are "a bunny thing" and they're usually removed by surgery. However, Niblet's abcess is very close to his missing ear, and the doctor is worried that the infection originates in his inner ear. Thus he's advising that the surgery be done by a specialist at Cornell or Penn. This would mean a couple thousand dollars, and so it's pretty much out of the question.

For now, we're going to see what happens to the abcess over the next three weeks. He didn't give me any antibiotics or anything, saying they wouldn't help. I think I liked it better when I thought it was just a matter of lancing and draining.

If anyone out there has any experience with this kind of thing, I'd appreciate any information you can give me.

Obviously, this is going to run into some vet bills, and I've decided that I don't have the financial means to go to the New River birding festival with the Flock in April. I'm pretty bummed about this, but I think it's probably best to keep whatever pennies I have in case I need them for the little Son Moon and Stars.

Meanwhile, I already asked off for those days in April, so I think I will probably end up just going camping around here somewhere, maybe with Gretchen, and birding. We've got some migration paths in this area, and I'm hopeful that I'll still get a lot of birds. I figure it's the low-cost option.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Birds Sing -- book review

Red-winged blackbird singing on the marsh, March 24, 2008

Why do birds sing so gay?
--Frankie Lymon

I’ve finally finished reading David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, in which the author both looks at the extensive scientific (and other) research on birdsong and conducts his own little studies by playing music for birds.

The book is interesting in many places, and Rothenberg’s writing is at times clever but at times irritating. For instance, here’s a passage in which his jazzy little sentences work; he’s playing various instruments for the birds in the Wetlands room of Pittsburgh’s National Aviary, a place with which we are all now familiar:

Wittgenstein had the nerve to warn us that if a lion could talk, we would not understand him. Can you be so sure, Herr Ludwig? If a lion roars, we do understand him. If a cat purrs, we understand her. And if the voice of an animal is not heard as message but as art, interesting things start to happen: Nature is no longer an alien enigma, but instead something immediately beautiful, an exuberant opus with space for us to join in. Bird melodies have always been called songs for a reason. As long as we have been listening, people have presumed there is music coming out of those scissoring beaks.
But there are many times where his crazily loose writing style bleeds over into the organization of the book, which isn’t a good thing. The book just seems like it’s all over the place. Cutesy chapter titles like “Your Tune or Mine?” and “The Canary’s New Brain” don’t really help to clarify what he’s trying to do in each chapter, so they all tend to run together in a flurry of opinions and theories by a bunch of different scientists and other researchers. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was exhausted, and I already knew the author’s answer to the title question: Birds sing because they love to do it. But I still wasn’t sure I believed him.

There are some interesting theories explored: territoriality, warning and other necessary communications, mating, etc., but as I said, it’s all kinda jumbled together. Still, it was interesting to learn about the many experiments and studies that have been done on birdsong. Some interesting notes:
--Many researchers have tried various methods of notation to “capture” birdsong, from making up crazy syllables to drawing funky little lines, to actual musical notation. The funniest part was the guy who tried to write out the notes to a bobolink’s song and ended up with a jumble of notes with their stems pointing in all directions on the staff. He got stumped by the bobolink.
--Starlings are excellent mimics and songsters. Further, they are somehow able to “place [our] sounds in context,” making the author wonder whether they have “a sense of themselves in our environment.” They take bits of the things they hear, from the humming of fluorescent lights to human songs (even Mozart!) and incorporate whatever snippets or riffs they enjoy.
--Some birds learn only the songs they hear during the first couple of years of their lives, while some—the mockingbird, for instance—learn new sounds and songs during their entire lives.
--Thoreau loved the song of the Wood Thrush, just like I do: “It changes all hours to eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness.” Amen, Henry!
--Here’s a really cool Navajo blessing:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again

I have to be honest; I started skimming when I got about 3/4s of the way through. It just wasn’t holding my attention enough, and you know this kind of geeky stuff usually does. I dig the subject, but this kind of exhaustive exploration of the past and present study of it just wasn’t that interesting for me.

If you’re interested in reading the book yourself, please let me know and I can loan it to you. I always thought it would be neat to have a sort-of birders’ library between us, mailing books to each other and then returning them. Interested?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lifer trifecta! I mean -- daily double.... hmph.

This past Saturday, we had a rare mild day temp-wise (in the 40s), so my friend Roana and I went to look for some birds that had been seen in and around State College.

First, we went to the PSU campus to look for the White-winged Crossbills that had been seen near the Nittany Lion Inn. Sadly, we only saw (and smelled) a whole lot of crow poop and nothing else. The hemlock cones look pretty picked over, so we wondered if they had just moved on to another feeding area. My first lifer-attempt of the day was thus scuttled.

After that, we went to the duck pond to look for redheads, a pair of which had been seen recently. Sure enough, they were there and oh-so-easy to spot:

Look how beautiful they are! There's also a Ring-necked Duck (I think?) in that last photo--not a lifer, but the redheads are!

Also swimming around the pond was this HORNED (updated, thanks to Patrick and John) Grebe, [update:] NOTmy second lifer of the day! [I realized that I'd already gotten Horned Grebe on my lifelist, with a photo, back in April of 2007. That changes my whole post! It's just a daily double.
I had thought that Ro told me this was the Pied-billed, but you know--now as I'm saying this, I'm wondering if I didn't just mix it up myself. She's not prone to errors like I am.... The bad thing is that I should've KNOWN this wasn't a pied-bill. I just did a post on those! I'm so disappointed in my ID skills, or the lack thereof. I think, in my defense, that I was trying so hard to get a good photo that I didn't even look at the bird. I've talked about this tendency before; I get so caught up in the photography that I forget to really note the field marks and stuff. I just relied on Roana that day, and look what it got me. I'm bummed.

We then decided to try some different spots for the crossbills. We hiked up some snowy mountain road, and although we heard some nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees tuning up for spring (yay!), we didn't see any crossbills. In fact, the hemlocks all around us on this round (Pine Marsh Rd.) had very few if any cones on them -- is this a sign of disease? Do they not produce cones each year? Anyone?

We then tried around the Shaver's Creek Environmental Center. No crossbills, but check this out!
That's a Red-breasted Nuthatch (along with a cute Dark-Eyed Junco, who looks really huge compared to the little nuthatch). Lifer number 3! I'd only ever seen White-breasted ones; this guy was so much smaller than the white ones. Here's another pic:
So cute!

So that was my lifer DAILY DOUBLE for the weekend. No crossbills. No trifecta. Hmph.

Here's some other stuff I saw at Shaver's Creek:
this huge stuffed turkey was a little scary, actually.

This is a "Stinkpot Turtle." I'm guessing he must emit some smelly stuff. Help, Science Chimp?

This TV is for you, Lynne!

Here are some Pine Siskins we saw at the feeders near the center:

We've had a huge explosion of siskins this year, with everyone and their dog posting their pics on the listserv. It's gotten kinda funny how everyone seems to want to say "I've got 'em too! Look at my siskins!" on the listserv. I'll just say that here on the bloggy instead.

These warm temps have me sooooooo excited for spring and more adventures. I was thrilled to hear a forecast of showers, not snow, for the next couple of days. I'm just itchin' to wear shorts again.

Meanwhile, I'm sorry I haven't been posting or visiting your blogs. I only have access to the 'net during breaks and lunch now (there's a rumor that they're busting people for excessive internet use at their desks at work, so I'm trying to be good!). As a result, I'll be posting and commenting a lot less, and missing the heck out of all your blogs a lot more.