Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw

Sandhill cranes are wonderful to see! My annual visit to Whitewater Draw State Wildlife Area included an overnight. I was in my van as the night temperature was not higher than15 degrees! During the day, 30 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit … brrr! You gotta love sandhill cranes and birds in general to put yourself out there!

My visit was most enjoyable when I arrived. I was fortunate to pull my van into one of the two overnight spots still available. The majority of the cranes were out for lunch! Many people were visiting the area. I was especially surprised when I bumped into a Flagstaff tennis buddy who was with a Tohono Chul day trip group! Small world for sure! Always wonderful to see friends.

I took some photos and waited for the birds to return, but also saw a variety of other birds … even the sora hiding in the bushes!

Sleeping in my van with no additional heat is a challenge. But as a backpacker I knew I would be okay. Well okay as long as I was in my warm, down sleeping bag! Getting out of it the next morning to see the sandhill cranes take off, did not happen. Instead, my warm body had immediately cold fingers that froze in place necessitating me to manage the symptoms of my Raynaud’s syndrome/disease. Another time I will write about surviving cold weather when camping with Raynaud’s. It is doable, just a challenge one learns to live with since there is no cure.

So I walked the area, observed birds and returned to my van to make hot tea and walk the area again enjoying that cup of tea! I watched a red-tailed hawk eat its prey, fly off to another location, and then sit for us all to easily view it. Many of us were enjoying the beautiful cold morning as some of the birds walked on ice! 

Beautiful area:

Last year I was camping out in my van at Kearney, Nebraska’s Platte River area and freezing my butt off there to see the cranes. I need to discover where these birds hang out when it is a bit warmer. Actually, someone mentioned to me there are a couple of sandhill crane flocks that don’t migrate. Well I researched it and learned 3 of the 6 subspecies of sandhill cranes do not migrate. They are in Florida, Mississippi and Cuba. Good to know! Even so with the cold temperature, I was glad to visit here!

Some photos from Whitewater Draw. You’ll notice a couple of photos where I spent time watching the cranes drink water:

Sandhill cranes on the fly

Of course there are other beautiful birds here too! Plus the spectacular yellow-headed blackbirds as they flew as flock and could change direction as a group so quickly! Here’s a past post when I saw their behavior for the first time. People were so captivated watching these birds; I loved it!

Yellow-headed blackbirds. See past post if you have not already.
Killdeer
Northern pintail
Northern shovelers and American wigeons in the water, Northern harrier flew around.

Many people visit Whitewater Draw as a day trip and try to time when the sandhill cranes are flying in or out. It’s a great way to spend a day! If you have not, add it to your list of places to visit, especially if you are a birder! Then enjoy!

Happy Birds at Our Feeder!

The last 4 nights I have been traveling to see sandhill cranes. Freezing mornings, but this morning I am able to observe birds from the comfort of my home. All photos of the birds at our feeder were taken while I stood indoors in a warm setting. A really wonderful way to observe birds! I will write about my latest travel, the cranes, and other birds in upcoming posts.

This post is about the 8 different species of birds that came to our feeder within an hour! Wow! There are two feeders for the birds to eat from. Some birds were very patient while they waited for another who is taking up space and feeding at a feeder. The Gamble’s quail and mourning doves are waiting for seed to drop to the ground. When the male northern cardinal swoops in with its bright red color, it is simply beautiful. Then came the female! Of course, the yellow of lesser goldfinch is an eye-catcher too, especially when in the sunlight! The ladderback woodpecker is becoming a regular here, just like the Gila woodpeckers. I am always surprised when a white-crowned sparrow shows up! Of course, the house finch are often here. Many of the birds also like sitting in the nearby trees. We are happy to see the birds at our feeders.

Enjoy the photos of the morning visitors to our feeders:

Gambel’s quail
Northern cardinal – male
Northern cardinal – female
Lesser goldfinch
Ladderback woodpecker
Gila woodpecker
White-crowned sparrow

Don’t forget to look out your window when home. There may be some birds sitting in the vegetation around your home or flying overhead. Take time to enjoy nature!

My 2023 eBird Challenge

I decided to challenge myself and take on a challenge listed on eBird. Could I observe birds everyday and submit a checklist per day in eBird? Don’t know, but I am on my way to attempting the challenge … to be done every day in 2023!

With this challenge, there will be no difficulty in completing a checklist per day when I can observe birds at our home feeder. Then to enter the list in eBird, simple. The challenge will increase when I am not at home, yet there should always be a parking lot, campground or wherever to observe birds and then submit the list. 

I meet the challenge with 2 submissions in one day when there is so much bird activity at our feeder! It happened recently as the morning crowd of birds finished off some of the bird seed. After I replenished the feeders many more birds came by! Word was out … new seed at the scene!

It is interesting to watch the house finches calling others … I even heard the Gila woodpecker, first at a distance and then it flew in to check out the new cylinder of seed. 

So many birds crowd in on the feeder! They seem to take turns, but every so often a couple of lesser goldfinch would challenge each other to a perch. It was fascinating to watch. Exciting at times when a yellow-rumped warbler or a ladder-backed woodpecker would show up. Unfortunately I could not get my camera in place fast enough to capture good photos of them. 

We have railings and plenty of trees near the feeders for birds to simply sit and wait their turn or to call in other birds before that bird went to a feeder. I will continue this challenge … 365 checklists to be done during 2023 … on my way!

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.

It’s Not Always About the Birds!

I was thinking about the readers of this blog. Are they saying, is it always about birds? So I went back through my photos to see and this is what I discovered. Many are birds, but there are some exceptions … time to share a few of those photos if I have not done so already.

Other animals: javelina, gray fox, squirrels in various locations in Texas, spider’s web, alligators, flowers and butterflies:

A woman walked by my campsite and asked what was for dinner. I told her minced clams with onions and rice noodles. She was amazed to find out I could cook it all on a backpacker stove. And yes, I do enjoy a Deschutes black porter beer! 

So now I see I am bird – obsessed sprinkled with some other observations! How can I not be though. I saw so many new birds in my life and that has been exciting! What are there, 10,000 different species of birds in the world? I now have 374 … I’ve got some work to do! I look forward to sharing them and my van adventures with you … and other thoughts and happenings … hang in there as who knows what the next year will bring!

Birds After the Festival

Birds are around, even as I travel home … and where are they? The weather in southern Texas turned cold quickly! Everyone said how unusual this was and the birds were smart enough to nestle into warm places. While I was tired of hot and humid, cold is not something this Arizonian loves. Then unfortunately, when I arrived in cold, damp San Antonio, I was not able to bicycle ride. So the next morning, I departed early for South Llano River State Park, Junction, Texas, thanks to a fellow birder’s recommendation. 

This park has 5 bird blinds in different locations around the park and a huge area for wild turkeys to roost in the pecan trees. I spent hours walking in 45 – 50 Fahrenheit degree weather to view birds at each blind. An advantage of blinds is the staff often set food in feeders early in the day and birds regularly check-in for the food. Plus a blind allows viewers and photographers to get views and photos while not scaring the birds off. So I hid in the blind, out of any wind and somewhat protected from the coolness of the day, and often had the blind to myself. It was a great way to spend time before getting back on the road to spend the night in Fort Stockton, TX.

Here are some photos taken on this day:

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Ladder-backed woodpecker
Bewick’s wren
Black-crested titmouse
Northern cardinal

Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in Harlingen, Texas

This is my first bird festival where I am attending field trips. During the 5 day festival, I attended morning field trips from 6am – 1pm, afternoon speakers and interacted with many other birders day and night. It was wonderful to walk and see birds with people of all abilities. For me, the guides and fellow birders provide support in locating and identifying birds seen or pointing out birds I would have missed if on my own. My goal in coming to the festival is to see different birds. We are not far from the Mexican border and the Gulf of Mexico; there will be different birds than from landlocked Arizona!

Here are the trip locations and number of new birds seen by me at each location:

South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center , SPI Convention Center & Valley Land Fund lots – this was actually my second visit to the Birding & Nature Center since I went on my own a couple of days prior. With my festival group and guide, I added 10 new birds to my list at the listed above locations: buff-bellied hummingbird, clapper rail, Magnolia warbler, bronzed cowbird, short-billed dowitcher, dunlin, red knot, white-eyed vireo, golden-fronted woodpecker and groove-billed ani.

Clapper rail

Magnolia warbler

Kings Ranch – Norias

The next morning we drove to a section of Kings Ranch and I had 3 new birds: Couch’s kingbird, Sprague’s pipit, and after three hours of searching we finally saw a ferruginous pygmy-owl! 

Ferruginous Pygmy-owl

The next day I birded on my own at Hugh Ramsey Nature Park and found 2 new birds: plain chachalaca and long-billed thrasher. I actually had a better photograph of the plain chachalaca in upcoming days but I am including it here.

Plain chachalaca

The next day was many degrees colder, damp and overcast. I found myself wearing a pair of pants and fiberfill jacket, winter hat and gloves. The birds seemed to have hidden deep in the shrubs. At Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande River, I saw an olive sparrow and black-crested titmouse. We were not having that much success here. Our hiking boots had tons of clay on them. We were walking on trails muddy from the previous night’s rain. So we went to the RGV- University of Texas campus. It’s a beautiful campus, we saw a number of birds and my new ones were: greater scaup and social flycatcher.

The next day, our last day of the festival, was a park I liked best: Estero Llano River Grand Park. We saw many birds and 2 birds I would never have seen unless the guides pointed them out. They were a common pauraque and a McCalls Eastern Screech owl.

McCalls Eastern Screech Owl
Look closely for the Common pauraque…eye is in top right area.

San Benito Wetlands

That afternoon a few of us birded at San Benito Wetlands. My new birds were a white-tailed kite, least grebe and a fork-tailed flycatcher. We had a fun time trying to identify birds as we saw them. At one point we saw 4 birds high in a tree. We identified them as 3 scissor-tailed flycatchers and 1 fork-tailed flycatcher, yet we were unsure of our identifications. If correct, this would be the first fork-tailed flycatcher any of us had seen. We were thrilled when another group yelled up to us and asked if we saw the 3 scissor-tailed and 1 fork-tailed flycatcher … yeah, yes!

Least grebe

Afternoons I attended the various speakers, the trade show and checked out the silent auction. The festival was very well organized. It is wonderful having such a positive experience at a festival … not only for the birds, but the many nice people who also attended. It was a joy to be in such a positive experience. I look forward to more opportunities. I suspect I will see some of these people again at other festivals. Come to the Southeast Arizona Festival each August in Tucson, Arizona.

Final tally: I saw 140 different bird species. Thirty-five bird species were new to me! WOW!

Time Before the TX Bird Festival

Arriving a few days before a big event allows me time to discover an area. Plus I can relax after driving so many miles. When given the opportunity though, a bicycle ride is a wonderful way to start a day! Off I went to the southern tip of South Padre Island to see the Jesus Christ of the Fisherman statue.

While at the statue I spent time looking at dolphins, birds, and talking with a man from Alaska. He lived there for 33 years and is now traveling and specifically interested in SpaceX launches. We sat here looking across the bay to the launch pad where they are testing the Starship. This huge rocket is being designed for future missions to Mars. The man is hoping to see the launch before he heads on.

I bicycled north on the island. It is a very pleasant approximately 12 mile ride with the wind at my back. Then the road ends in the middle of sand dunes. When I headed back to my campsite and the wind was in my face, it made for a not-so-enjoyable ride! But you do what you have to do and keep pedaling!

This night I stayed at CD&J Mini Ranch, a Harvest Host in San Benito, Texas. They have an amazing place with goats, turkeys, chickens, beef cattle, and greenhouse producing various greens. Plus a waterway to view many birds. The people were very informative about the area. I parked my van to watch the lunar eclipse from 3 – 5 in the morning without even getting off my mattress! I did see my first Altamira oriole here!

Altamira oriole

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

It is not possible to visit all the locations listed on the birding festival registration during the festival. So I decided to visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on my own ahead of the festival. On my way to the visitor center, I saw ocelet road-crossing signs. But then I saw a big brown animal crossing the road!  It looked like a weird-shaped cow. I knew from my reading it is a nilgai (pronounced nil gi) antelope, or also called bluebuck. I wish I had my camera out to take a photo, but I did not! This animal was introduced in Texas in the 1930’s originally from India/Pakistan. Now there are over 30,000 of them, hunted for their good meat. I learned the animal has a tick detrimental to other animals here in Texas …another reason for the hunt.

Certain areas of the refuge were closed due to the hunt in progress. Fortunately I still had a couple of trails open to walk. That was plenty since it was at least 85 degrees and humid. A couple of bird blinds allowed me to get some photos. I drove out to Osprey Overlook and saw plenty of birds there, but no osprey! A couple of bird photos from today:

Green jay
Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Early to bed at the hotel. I decided it easiest to be sleeping right at the festival’s location. Transportation to the birding spots leaves at 6:00AM. Thus easier for me to roll out of a hotel room and catch my ride. Looking forward to my first bird festival field trip tomorrow!

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!

Road Led to San Antonio, Texas: Part 1 of 3: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

It’s a long, very long, lonely road to drive from Arizona to San Antonio, so unlike northern Texas panhandle driving! Here the majority of the time I was looking at green trees and shrubs, windmills and an occasional small town. The panhandle was dry, flat and brown. The only disturbing moment on this day, seeing traffic on the the other side of the highway at a standstill. There was an overturned tractor trailer in the median! Yikes. A good reminder to always have plenty of gas in the tank and extra hours for your arrival. 

Texas is a huge state. For me to eventually arrive in Harlingen for a birding festival in another week, I drove this road with a stop in San Antonio. Past visits to this city, I saw the Alamo and the well-known downtown river walk. This time I looked for new things to see and do. Recently I read, “science shows that giving ourselves the opportunity to try new things improves our memory, mood and motivation, builds our confidence and best of all gives us a ‘rush’ of expanding our horizons.” The quote is from the Insider Weekly of Growing Bolder, and I agree with the science! When was the last time you did something for the first time?

I am traveling in my van. After a good sleep at a KOA, I headed to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center. Easy check-in and paid fee at the visitor center. I spent about a half hour looking at and photographing moths, bees and butterflies. At home I plant native pollinator plants to attract insects, yet these plants have me beat!

Here are some of the insects:

Texas Wasp Moth

Much of the center is a driving loop. With recent rains, roads are closed, but still can be walked. Some basins were bone dry. As I walked closer to Mitchell Lake, about one mile, a couple of basins were full of water. No new birds for me to discover, and I remain frustrated trying to identify the various sandpipers. I did not include any of them here and await eBird experts to verify my identifications.

Here are today’s bird photos:

Crested caracara