Don’t Mess With My Food!

When I was a 7th grade science teacher, an activity for my students was to create a beak for a bird to dig, grab and eat the bird’s food. Dependent on the student’s research of what food the bird eats would determine the shape of the bird’s beak. Then their challenge was creating the beak and only allowed to use two of their fingers to move their created beak. Really interesting creations were made and some truly worked in picking up “food”.

Often I think of this science activity as I observe birds working to find food in the natural environment. Every so often I also see other birds try to “steal” another bird’s food. While walking along the north trail at Imperial Beach, CA, I did see one gull try to get another gull’s food. I suspect this happens often, yet here was my opportunity to observe the action.

Here is a western gull with food in its beak. It shook the food and a small bit fell off. The other gull picked up the piece and moved closer to the gull. 

They see each other and the one gull tries to get closer. The gull displays its annoyance to get the one to move away. I watched this activity between the birds for a couple of minutes and the gull with the food was having none of this annoyance from the other gull! Do not mess with my food! Looks like it snipped at the gull’s tail feathers.

Ok! that gull will leave the other one alone now!

Brown Pelican … in Action!

Bird photography has its challenges! I set myself in a place to capture a photo as a bird flies into the wind and hopefully towards me and within reach of my camera lens. While on Southern California’s Pacific Ocean, I saw a number of brown pelicans and thought this was a good bird to photograph.

All set up to capture the brown pelican flying towards me.

Then before I knew it, the bird must have seen some fish just below the water’s surface and dove into the water! It’s head was well underwater!

I was originally looking at the bird’s breeding plumage and large bill and pouch, but then was holding my breath as it plunged underwater! The bird feeds on small fish and I could only hope it would be successful.

Back to the surface!

Once back on the surface, it looked like the brown pelican was running across the water. Check out the photos and see what you think. I loved seeing and photographing this bird!

Lunch with a Friend & a Hawk!?!

My friend and I just finished a bird walk with a local group. We then decided to get out of the wind and sit in a car to eat lunch. As we talked and looked over a grassy field, we noticed some birds. At first glance we thought it was two birds mating, but after there was no movement for a few minutes we took a better look. What’s that? A Cooper’s hawk on top of a Greater roadrunner. Wow! The tussle we witnessed between two birds was no love affair as they were two in battle! The hawk won.

I got out of the car and brought my camera along hoping to get a photo before any bird flew off. Well the roadrunner was not going anywhere as it was dead and the hawk simply stayed on it … all in the middle of a local road. Those hawk’s talons in the dead bird made me feel sorry for the now dead roadrunner.

After a few minutes, and after a pick-up truck maneuvered around the birds in the road, the hawk decided to pull its prey to the grassy field. This was not an easy task for the hawk! But the hawk had success.

We watched the hawk continually look around … was it being sure no other predator would steal his prey? Or was it trying to figure out where to put his prey for consumption later in the day? Or how was it simply going to move it out of sight of every other living thing? Minutes went by…

Cooper’s hawks do eat medium-sized birds, like a robin, or small mammals, like chipmunks … but this hawk seemed to have gotten a big prize capturing a roadrunner. Now its challenge was what to do with it!

I moved closer to the hawk and there was no doubt he saw me. I was moving slowly, not waving my arms or anything around to cause it any real disturbance. It had to know I had no interest in his prey, right?

The hawk decides it is best to get back to the road. And so it pulls the roadrunner through the grass and an opening in the fence and onto the road. That must have taken plenty of energy to accomplish. I was amazed to see the hawk move that bird to the road.

Back out on the road, I figured the birds would not hang out here too long. A Greater roadrunner weighs at least 8-15 ounces and of course we are talking dead weight now! A Cooper’s hawk can weigh up to 1.2 pounds and usually will not be able to carry anything heavier than itself, so this was a huge kill for the hawk. I could only imagine the hawk continuing to drag the roadrunner along. But then again, I may be wrong …. and I was as I saw the hawk fly off down the road with the roadrunner.

There the hawk went with its prey; quite the predator-prey interaction of 21 minutes we shared with these birds!

I wish I knew how far the hawk actually carried and stashed his prey. That had to take plenty of energy to accomplish the carry. No doubt the hawk will rest and eat … and if birds can be happy, then this is one happy hawk!

Turtles Brumate. What!?!

Where are all the turtles? Last month the question was asked of me by a young girl who obviously knew we usually see many, many turtles basking in the sun on the logs near the pond’s edge. Not on this winter day though. My answer was, the turtles probably are buried in the mud at the bottom of the pond since the water is very cold in winter. We will see them again when the weather warms.

I worked as a naturalist for a few summers when I was in my 20’s and learned to follow up on questions asked by people on my nature walks. It was important for me to learn more about a topic so I could provide accurate information when asked again by someone on my next hike. So I did some reading about the red-eared slider. This semi-aquatic, freshwater turtle is often seen here and I no doubt will hear that question again.

Red-eared slider

So where did the turtles go? Turtles are cold-blooded animals not capable of generating body heat. When water is below 37 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtle slows down, is less active, and does bury itself only to rise to the surface as needed. Since it needs to drink water during this time it is not hibernation like we read about with bears, it is brumation. As a turtle brumates it can still move around, sleep underwater by resting on a pond’s bottom or float on the surface with an inflated throat as a floatation aid. Apparently a red-eared slider can survive in this cold water with no food for 70 – 100 days. If water dries up, they will travel in search of more water.

The turtles are back! Red-eared turtles are semi-aquatic so we see them in water and on land. They eat aquatic vegetation and invertebrates, tadpoles and fish. We love seeing them on rocks and logs as they warm themselves in the sun. If there are not enough logs they will even stack upon one another. They communicate with each other through touch and vibrations. One could wonder what the “message” was between them all.

Want one as a pet? The red-eared slider is one of 3 North American Pond Sliders. While red-eared sliders live long in captivity, they are one of the most invasive species found on every continent, except Antarctica, due to people unfortunately releasing their turtle to the wild. If you want a turtle at home, know the rules and regulations which vary per state in keeping it as a pet. Plus know how to care for it through all seasons, especially knowing it could live with you for many years. Otherwise, enjoy your red-eared turtle sightings when you are outdoors!

Waterfowl Bathe While in the Water

Waterfowl, such as ducks, splash around in water to clean their feathers. While photographing a cinnamon teal recently, the bird was so engrossed in its bathing that it left me few minutes to capture a photo when water was not splashing! So I stayed and watched the bird.

Here is the cinnamon teal:

Cinnamon teal

Besides eating, bathing is an important task for ducks to do each day. Soiled feathers are cleaned of excess oil and ectoparasites. Ducks splash water over their backs and wings, shake the water from their wings and then spend time preening. The bird uses its beak to position and smooth its feathers. Feathers are very important in helping the bird maintain its insulation, waterproofing and aerodynamic flight. 

Getting the spot on the back of its head
This side too!

With an extra shake, water is off the duck and any feather barbules that unhooked can now zip back together. Birds are born knowing this regular maintenance behavior and preen often in a day. And here I thought the bird was having a good time … well, maybe it was while also getting itself clean!

Getting to all the right places!
This is so much better! Shake it off!

Another bird that caught my attention … a ring-necked duck. Here it was:

And then it too was bathing and shaking its feathers …

It is fun to observe birds as they go about doing what they need to do within their day. Take time to notice … another joy in being outdoors in nature.

Bobcat Sighting!

Seeing a bobcat at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson, Arizona is not usual, but it has happened for me a couple of times the last few years. Most recent, my partner and I were birding there and found a cottonwood tree where birds loved to be within its leaves. While we searched for birds, a bobcat was nearby.

My eye caught sight of the bobcat. I told my partner to slowly turn around and see what was behind us. There was “Wyatt”, a bobcat we later learn about from the Bobcats in Tucson research being done in our area. We noticed his long legs, large feet, short tail, and a radio-collar around his neck. He walked on and so did we as we watched his behavior.

I saw a young boy waving a stick around, his parents walking behind him, and approaching us from another direction on the trail. I signaled to them to move slowly and be alert while they watched the bobcat at a respectful distance. They were thrilled, as we were, to see this animal. The bobcat sat and watched an area of tall grasses intently. We watched it all too.

After a couple of minutes, the bobcat moved to another spot. Their sit, stealthly-look, and wait is characteristic of these animals who mostly eat rabbits and all kinds of rodents. They camouflage nicely in these woods and use it to their advantage to catch prey.

Bobcats are beautiful creatures! They are found in about every U.S. state in wild lands and urban areas. Research teams studying bobcats in the Tucson area began in November 2020. They have trapped and radio-collared at least 15 bobcats so they can study the movement of these animals. Male bobcats have large areas which overlap with other males, but females do not have their smaller areas overlap with other females. The Bobcats in Tucson research also indicates bobcats living in urban areas: people’s backyard, under a storage unit, or on a house roof! The findings from their research is absolutely fascinating!

I know in our neighborhood there are bobcats because we have seen them fighting behind our neighbor’s home or walking down the middle of a nearby road. We have a number of washes and riparian areas the bobcats most likely use as ways to cross through our area. A bobcat crossing a road though is a bobcats biggest hazard. One male was tracked crossing roads 2,000 times during 10 months of their tracking … the 75th time crossing a particular road was when it was hit by a vehicle and killed.

Bobcats live on average 7 – 8 years. Kittens are born usually in April, nursed by the female for 3-4 months, and continue to travel with the mother from 5 – 8 months before going on their own. When a female can leave an urban area and make a den on wild land, it will do so. But sometimes people have discovered a female bobcat having its kittens in their backyard. People have been flexible in allowing the bobcats to remain there for the time needed for the developing kittens. Then the bobcats move on.

And so did “Wyatt”, the male bobcat studied by the Bobcats in Tucson research group, and the one we saw at the wetlands on our hike. We watched as he slipped back into another area of the wetlands. Wow, what a sighting … and shared with other people who were as thrilled as we were! Check out the Bobcats in Tucson website for more information.

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:

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!