Birding at South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas

I arrived to the Rio Grand Valley Birding Festival a few days early so I could explore this part of Texas I have never been before. It is so very hot and humid, simply not enjoyable to be sweating and continually drinking fluids! But the great news is I have seen 8 new birds in one day while visiting the South Padre Island Birding Center! I also listened to a presentation about American alligators. The presenter had a 3 year old alligator and we could touch its soft, smooth leathery skin …cool!

The birding center has a 3/4 mile boardwalk through mangrove trees, to the bay, and mudflat areas. As a result there are various birds at each location plus the ones flying overhead. I arrived early to walk the boardwalk and then my entrance fee allowed me to return before 5:00pm when they close and stay as long as I wished! That was fantastic! Fewer people were here later in the day so I felt like I had the place to myself with the birds.

Here are my new birds after hanging out at this place for a couple of hours in the morning and another hour in the late afternoon.

Green kingfisher
Scissor-tailed flycatcher
Black-bellied whistling-duck
Great kiskadee
Muscovy duck
Mottled duck
Franklin’s gull

The American oystercatcher is the only one I did not get a photograph of, yet I will be back out to this place in a couple of days and maybe it will be possible then. For that bird I needed a longer zoom lens. However, there was a nice sunset:

Great way to end a very hot and humid day!

Travel Beyond San Antonio, & About Squirrels: Part 3 of 3

Fortunately I am very flexible with certain parts of my travel plans. Rain has a way of doing that to you also! I thought I was hopping on my bicycle and later in the day heading to a state park. I also contemplated riding the local bus to downtown San Antonio, but I had already seen the Alamo and downtown San Antonio on past visits. (If you have never visited the Alamo and the downtown riverwalk, you should visit.)

Travel on! None of that was happening, so I had a plan B. Plan B: if the weather looks good I would stop at Guadalupe River State Park. And if the weather turns to rain, then drive on to Fredericksburg. Rain … bummer … so plan C … go directly to Fredericksburg. The drive through the hill country of Texas is actually very pretty, but Fredericksburg is quite the tourist town! It seemed like I saw no one on the road and then saw everyone on Main Street in this town! So many wine tasting rooms, shops selling hats, clothing, jewelry, jams and honey butter …. with tasters of every item, bakeries and restaurants. I did like the old buildings where the front wall was kept and there were historical markers on the buildings. I like seeing us not forget our history so quickly.

Photos of Fredericksburg store fronts & signs:

Hospital and now a kitchen store
Here you can taste every butter, jam, jelly, cheese, etc … popular place!
National Museum of the Pacific War

Squirrels … Back at the Campground!

Wow, these are the most industrious squirrels I have ever spent time watching! At first I thought the campground was overrun with them, but decided the great-tailed grackles are more numerous. The squirrels run head-first up a tree and down a tree, jump from branch to branch, climb out on some flimsy branches; all entertaining to watch. They gather their acorn, dig a deep hole, bury the acorn, truly cover it over with dirt and add any extra dead leaves, then bound off quickly to another spot or tree. By 10 am they are definitely done in this area. I have no idea where they all go, but they are back in the evening before dark and again the next mornings. One morning after the squirrels and grackles were not in the area and while I was working at the picnic table on my laptop, a couple of Egyptian ducks stopped by. A couple of days earlier I saw them at the pond here and I wondered if they are resident ducks. I need to ask someone.

Here are the squirrels in action:

The Egyptian ducks that walked by my site:

Egyptian duck

Here is a grackle:


Texas Birding Time is Soon; Time to Prep!

Time to hit the road again; I am off to Texas!

The van is packed for bicycling and birding fun in southern Texas. Do you know how large Texas is? I am not going to bore you with the details, but let’s just say it will take me days to drive 1200 miles to South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico, also not many miles to the Mexican border. (Before I arrive there, I will spend time visiting and bicycling in San Antonio.)

The birding festival in Texas at this time of year is in Harlingen Texas so I will be there the next week. Thankfully I have a good routine packing my van, so for this trip more time has been preparing for the birding opportunities. I like having an idea of what some birds look like before I actually see the bird. It is impossible to do if there are a hundred new birds for me in an area; however, I like to zero in on a few birds. 

Texas is east of the Rocky Mountains, therefore bird species are listed in the eastern bird field guide of North America. It’s sort of funny because I rarely think of Texas as eastern. Maybe the cowboy films, oil wells, beef lots, and whatever else make me think western … oh well, Eastern North America it is!

You may recall I drew a poorly-sketched, black oystercatcher that helped me locate the bird in California. Well, my sketching is back with an attempt at a few other birds. I would love to see a Great Kiskadee:

Great Kiskadee

When I first researched what birds may be in the area, I thought it great to see a green jay. But then I thought it would be cool to see the grooves on the beak of the ani. I also wondered how plain the plain chachalaca could be. After seeing it in the field guide and drawing one, it is as plain as plain can be!

Colorful green jay and a groove- billed ani.
Plain chachalaca

Whatever birds I observe in Texas will be of interest to me. Other festival attendees will be helpful in sighting some of these birds too. Many eyes on an area, especially those trained to know silhouettes of birds will be most helpful to me. I am off to Texas! Wish me luck! 

Snake! Can You See It?

If you look at the pile of rocks in the photo below, you may not see a snake, but one is in there! I cropped the photo so the snake’s head is upper left and its tail is lower right. See if you can find it in the photo below:

Look closely to find the snake.

Usually when seeing a snake, the next question is, what is it? Actually I think I asked, is it alive? A quick look to its head and tail helps with identification. Fortunately for us, this one was actually in the road when we first came upon it. It seems this is the time of year snakes are crossing roads! I almost drove over one a few days previous to this sighting! Fortunately it fit between my van’s wheels.

Our first look at the snake

This is a Sonoran gopher snake starting to cross a road we were bicycling on. It has a narrow, round head and the tail did not look like that of a rattlesnake. We spent time creeping closer to it to get a better look while also not trying to stress it out. Eventually it moved off the road and returned to where we thought it came from, the rocks at the side of the road.

Snake does not cross the road.

And so it slithered in the rocks when I realized there was no way I would ever see that snake if it were not in the road! This one is camouflaged in the rocks. If I was walking there I would have stepped on it, or a portion of it … no maybe not, as I would think it would pick up on the vibrations in the ground from my walking in the area. Another good reason to use hiking poles when walking in the area.

Sonoran gopher snakes I discover are correctly named since gophers are their main food source. What I was surprised about, people have these snakes as pets! Ok, I know they are nonvenomous, will not hurt your cat, and have the loudest hiss of all snakes, but a 4 footer as a pet? They can grow to 9 feet and climb walls so keep a good lid on your tank please, thanks! (I will admit I like seeing wildlife in a natural setting not an aquarium, terrarium or tank. But if you do, then provide the best care possible for the animal or plant, thanks.)

The Sonoran gopher snake is back in a well protected area for itself.

If you needed help identifying the live plant or animal you observed and photographed, be reminded you can enter it in the iNaturalist website or app. It is helpful to know what it is you are looking at!

New Bird per day in Salinas & Monterey, California

This trip is not really all about birds. I must admit to being excited when seeing a new bird though. I checked in at my campground in Salinas. In past trips I have already seen the cannery and other Salinas history, so off I went to Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, California. Will I see a new bird?

I hope we all appreciate the agricultural work done here in California … so many  fruits, vegetables, nuts, and there are the workers out in the many, many fields bringing in the food we shop for at our markets. While driving some back roads I discover Castroville is the “artichoke capital of the world”. Cherries and pluots are available now. And while we thank these workers, let’s not forget the truckers who are hauling these products all over the place! I see the trailer trucks here and on the interstates.

At Point Pinos, Pacific Grove, I see the usual birds: various gulls, brown pelicans, cormorants and then black turnstones! The thing about birding, I sometimes have an idea of what I am looking for and other times I discover a bird. I may not recognize the bird, so I photograph it, and later in the day identify it. The black turnstone is a new one for my life list.

Black turnstone

Another day … another bird?

The next day another birding hotspot: Moss Landing State Beach and north jetty where many birds were reported and apparently sea otters. I did not know about the otters till a woman asked me where they were, as we looked out on harbor seals lying in the mud flats. This was the Pantano Marsh area so I decided to walk the state beach and jetty. 

Sanderlings and marbled godwits are fun to watch as they run toward the ocean water going out, dig into the sand for food, and run back on the beach as the water flows in! At the jetty, people fish for whatever fish they can catch, or so they tell me.

The usual shorebirds were here too, but as I looked over the rocks on the jetty I saw a bird by itself. I knew what a common murre looks like swimming in water since all field guides have that picture; however, this one??? Hmmm… photo taken and later I identify it as a common murre! Another new bird!

Common murre

I ate lunch in my van and worked at my laptop to download photos and identify some. By the time I finished the work, it was time for a bicycle ride. I take the Monterey Coastal bike path from Fort Ord State Park …plenty of sand dunes here … toward Monterey. I start my Garmin to track my ride and “gale warning” is displayed on the Garmin. Ok, let’s get a ride in before that is a major concern!

Sea otter in the area!

I met interesting people today: couple from Oakland, CA because I found the woman again and could direct her to where the sea otter was eating. The woman, her husband and I could comfortably talk about any topic we wished and did so for a half hour. I also directed them to where the sea otter was … yes, only one sea otter and great fun to watch. I eventually direct others to where I had seen the sea otter.

Sea otter rubbing his belly with the clams
Eating one clam and other clam is on the belly of the sea otter.

Another guy from Las Vegas, NV is across from my campsite. He and his wife are winding up 3 month travel pulling their 40 foot trailer. They head to Morro Bay, CA tomorrow for a 10 day stay. I am sure to leave earlier than them  in the morning. I have a long ride tomorrow, but this was a great visit for birding and bicycling. Starting early each day with a gray, misty sky that does not burn off and reveal blue, sunny sky till 1:00pm is a bit of a challenge! Times like this I realize how important sunshine is for me. But tomorrow morning, I will be up and out early despite the lack of sunshine!

Identify Unknowns With An App

In my twenties I worked as a naturalist at three county parks in New York State. I would lead nature hikes for visitors on the park trails. All ages of visitors would join me. While NYS ferns were my forte, we could never overlook the colorful wildflowers, slowly creeping slugs and snails, various mushrooms and fungi after a rain, or any flying bird or insect. As a result I was always studying my field guides or asking another naturalist to identify something for me.

We have come a long way….

Fifty years later, we have technology to thank with helping us to identify critters and plants we may have no idea of what they are. An app, iNaturalist, provides me with a way to include my photo of a living plant or animal, location and date. Then it suggests what I am trying to identify. After reading through the choices, I choose what the plant or animal may be. Once I share my observation, other individuals provide input to help identify my finding. They may not always agree with me and that is okay. I see their choice and can agree if I do agree.

Could you identify this wildlife?

With the help of the iNaturalist app and others who agree to my identification of each, here are some for you to see if you already know what they are or would need an app to help:

You know it is a dragonfly…specifically it is a blue dasher.
You know it is a cicada….specifically it is a scrub cicada.
You know it is a toad…specifically a red-spotted toad.

There are other apps available to help identify animals and plants. Give them a try!

Bullfrog is Everywhere?

How many times have you walked near a stream bed or pond’s edge to only hear a bullfrog jump away? Darn, actually missed seeing it! I know an area where this often happens when I bird watch. But on this day I decide to find a a bullfrog and photograph one. The heat and time of day meant few hikers or bird watchers would be on this trail. Will this be a perfect time for me to challenge myself in locating a bullfrog?

Slowly and quietly I crept along a grassy edge of a stream. I had heard bullfrogs jump in the water so I moved very slowly to get closer to the area. Do you see the bullfrog’s eyes through the grass in the photo below? I enlarged the photo so you could see the bullfrog more easily than I did.

Blades of grass made it difficult for me to get a good photo. I moved closer, quietly, and assumed the bullfrog saw me as I certainly saw it. This is an American bullfrog found in Canada and North America. It is actually native to eastern North America and considered an invasive species here in Arizona. It is especially a threat to California’s red-legged frog. I moved closer and wanted to get a different angle. Soon I was stepping on grass blades folded over in the water. I stepped closer till my sneakers began to take on water. The bullfrog remains in position with what I think is a smile on its face.

I am thinking this bullfrog is a female. Its tympana are about the same size as the eyes, as you’ll see in the final photo in this post. Male bullfrogs have tympana larger than their eyes. I would love to see any frog shoot their tongue out and attack a prey. I have only seen that on nature program. They capture the prey in less than one-tenth of a second! Wow, and I certainly have no photography equipment to capture that action. But this was a good challenge for me and here is an American bullfrog!

American bullfrog before it jumps away!

Squirrels Should NOT Be Fed by Humans!

Squirrels, as with other wild animals, should not be fed any food from humans. You may find it enjoyable to feed them. The squirrels run toward you for the bread crumbs, peanuts, crackers and whatever else you are feeding them; then they scoot away to only run back for more food. However, please know the reasons why signs are posted with info stating not to feed the squirrels.

Why should you not feed squirrels? The posted sign states one good reason:

Sure, the squirrel population will explode and pest control will need to take action to decrease the squirrel population. Also know, when squirrels are not fed they become aggressive and when not fed for a period of time they can starve to death.

We want animals to maintain a natural fear of humans. A truly wild animal will move away when a human arrives. So that is a clue about the health of an animal if it seems to be hanging around you … possibly looking for food from you … because that animal equates humans as a food source.

Flashback to a squirrel bite moment…

I was walking along the sidewalk and saw young ladies feeding 6 squirrels. Wow, this did remind me of my youngest sister having been bit by a squirrel at the bottom of a Colorado gorge decades ago. My sister was 7 years old at the time. She casually picked up a popcorn kernel from the ground and stuck her fingers through a fence. There a squirrel eagerly took it and bit her finger. We took my sister to an emergency room. Her finger was thoroughly cleaned and doctors decided not to start the painful series of rabies shots. Was this squirrel possibly rabid? My entire family worried for days about my sister’s health. It was this time I became aware of the importance of wild animals needing to know how to hunt or find their own food and not look for a human’s handout.

As I walked further down the sidewalk, a squirrel and I seemed to have a stare down. Honestly, I kept my eye on the squirrel and it on me. The squirrel remained so transfixed on me I had plenty of time to take the photo above! There was no way I was even going to open my own snack bar for lunch while this squirrel was near me. Finally I did see the sign about not feeding the squirrels. Obviously more than one sign is needed in the area! I ate my snack in my van and the squirrel finally went its own way.

Bike and Bird Watch!

When I travel, bicycle riding an area new to me is simple joy. This is the main reason I built an area in my van for my bicycle and gear. Plus, cycling gets me from one place to another faster than walking. The downside to cycling, especially when  birds are in the area, is to observe them while pedaling, especially those flying overhead. I often take time to slow down and observe them. So far, no bicycle accidents while birding!

(This reminds me of a t-shirt I saw a guy wearing the other day, “Sorry I am late, I saw a dog”. A shirt appropriate for me, “Sorry I am late, I saw a bird”. I wonder if anyone makes that shirt?)

Recently I was bicycling around Mission Bay in San Diego, California. The eleven mile bike path winds through parks and passes nearby housing and resorts so an 8 mph bike speed is recommended. Many people were at the beaches, the playgrounds, on the water in all kinds of watercraft, and also pedaling various wheeled vehicles on the bike path.

I like the bike rack!
Paddleboards and boats of all sizes were on the bay, plus swimmers at beaches.

Most of the bike path is not near the bay water’s edge; however, a short section parallels the San Diego River estuary. I saw 3 birds standing on a construction roll where bridge work was happening. The birds were the same type of bird but I could only say they were herons. I photographed them, identified them later in the day, and they were little blue herons! Another new bird for my life list!

They look like herons… but which species?
Little blue heron
I moved closer to photo this bird with hopes it would not fly off.

Most funny moment on this bicycle ride: seeing a jogger with his dog wearing large, sport, mirrored sunglasses! Important to protect eyes! What a fun bicycle ride with a new bird observed and photographed!

Aliso Creek Bicycle Path & My Observations

I started my bicycle ride from the Aliso Wood Canyon Nature Preserve in Mission Viejo, California. I love stopping by one area of the creek because I know I will see birds.

Sure enough, there was a white-faced ibis, snowy egret and mallard with 6 chicks! They were so cute following their mother down the creek!

White-face ibis
Snowy egret
Mallard with 6 chicks

Then I decided to bicycle ride more miles in the other direction from the visitor center. I was surprised to see this warning sign as it was not here last year:

Always read warning signs!

What was bringing the mountain lions to the area’s trails. Usually healthy wild animals will stay away from humans. Something obviously changed in the past year.

As I rode the landscape changed. Apparently a wildfire had come close to the water treatment plant in the area and the hillsides were burned. No doubt this was the reason mountain lions were being displaced and now within eyesight of humans hiking and bicycling on the wilderness trails. 

Fire burned area
No place for an animal to shelter or find food

My last visit I did cycle one mountain bike trail here. This time though I decided I did not want to be solo rider on the trail. I would not be making enough noise to let a mountain lion know I was in the area. As wildfires burn more acres of land, wildlife will be displaced. Are you doing your part to reduce wildfire risks? No one, humans or wildlife, want to lose their homes. Do what you can to protect your community.