Sunday, December 14, 2008

BATHING BIRDS AND HUNGRY HONEYBEES


OK, the animal life around my home has now successfully trained me to 1) wake up, 2) feed domestic animals, 3) feed wildlife, which now involves, a) add food to (what has now become) a various assortment of wildlife feeders, b) rinse and fill the bird bathing area with clean water, c) put out some deer chow around the trails, and d) (as of today) tend to honeybee feeding stations! I have to admit, this is getting a little bit ridiculous! I feel like the local Mother Nature sanctuary! But I have brought this on myself, the wildlife is not forcing me to do it..... :)

I am totally sure that anyone who is not a nature nut like me would undoubtedly think I was CRAZY if they followed me through my winter morning routine! We actually have metal garbage cans set up along the front porch containing all of the various feeds and scoops and buckets and whatever else needed to accommodate a host of feathered, furry, and other assorted flying, buzzing, or crawling friends. It is a lot of extra work everyday and the money expenditures add up, but it makes me happy to see the wildlife eating, and bathing, staking out territory and vocalizing to each other all over the place everyday! So while I know it probably seems nutty, I still keep doing it and when I'm done I sit back and reap my reward by watching all of these totally neat and unique species display their exquisite behaviors for me!


This morning was no exception and since it was a fairly nice day all of the resident birds decided it was BATH TIME!!! Now, I don't mean that only one bird or one species gets cleaned up on bath day around here. THEY ALL LINE UP (!) in the trees, or on the ground, or somewhere nearby and take turns! I can sit and watch them through the window as they go in some sort of pecking order that only they understand. The Cardinals are usually the ones to go first, male before female, and they can usually kick the smaller birds out if they want to get in. Sometimes a different species will share the bath, but they always keep a respectful distance from one another.
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Pretty much all of the different birds have a similar ritual of; sit on the edge and look around a bit, take a few sips to quench that thirst, hop to the rock or just jump right in if feeling brave, sit a bit, and then get TOTALLY WET! before anyone catches you! video

Hop out when done and the next bird waiting takes your place! I was able to snatch pictures of the Cardinals and a Titmouse bathing, but I truly have a steady stream of different species that come to the communal bathing pond including; Chickadees, Inca Doves, Savannah Sparrows, wintering Pine Siskins and Finches - all taking turns!

It's a great source of amusement to watch them flitting and splashing around, trying to get clean, ever mindful of who or what might be watching or lurking just around the corner!

Well, having finished my morning entertainment session at the bathing station, I hadn't expected anymore wildlife chores for the day - until I just couldn't ignore the activity going on at the hummingbird feeders any longer.

Now, I have been trying to keep at least one feeder up for the hummers this winter because I have heard them buzzing around so I'm fairly sure we have at least one or two that are still hanging around. They haven't been using the feeders at all, but the HONEYBEES sure are!



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Soooooo......just in case you didn't know, this is not a good thing, to have honeybees desperately trying to suck sugar water out of the hummingbird feeders. Because, what actually happens is they crawl into that tiny hole (believe it or not) and they DROWN in the water basin! I unfortunately found at least 20 of the little guys dead as a doornail when I emptied it. Well, I can't have that, and I know they must be really hungry for that sugar water so I decide to try out some homemade "HONEYBEE FEEDERS" made from assorted shallow pans that I find out in the shed.

This, of course, takes up another hour of my time, but again - it is all worth it to me! So I get out my makeshift pans, add some lounging rocks to it (so my little buzzing friends will have a way to crawl out), and look up a honeybee sugar water recipe on the internet. I don't know anything about feeding honeybees so if any of you have advice, please help me out here. I read that they prefer a higher sugar to water ration of 1:1 instead of the 1:4 ratio for hummers. So I made that up and divided it into my pans. Just for fun, I left the red dishes with the 1:4 ratio and added 1:1 to the new dishes to see which they preferred.

And then I waited to see how long it would take them to find it again. It was not very long, immediately 1 or 2 sniffed it out and started drinking and in about 30 minutes I had a whole pack hanging around fixated on the mixtures in the pans!

I joke around a lot about how much work it is to provide food, shelter, and water for the wildlife (and it IS work and it CAN BE costly), but for me it truly is gratifying to watch these creatures and to learn from them everyday. So there you have it, the crazy nature lady is now not only feeding horses, dogs, cat, birds, squirrels, deer, rabbits, hummers, but (pause for breath here), she is now feeding the HONEYBEES TOO!!! video video

Sunday, November 23, 2008

BUTTERFLY FALL

OK, I had to post a few pictures of the butterflies and moths that have been congregating outside my front door the last several weeks. The weather down here in south-central Texas has been fabulous, I don't know if this is our prelude to major global warming trends or not, but I must say for right now I am enjoying it. Usually our area of Texas gets about 3 or 4 weeks of beautiful, perfect weather in the spring and the fall and then it either slips into hot, humid summers or cold, damp winters but this year is certainly an exception. Our summer gradually faded into cooler nights in the 40's and 50's and gorgeous fall days in the 70's and 80's - and it has stayed like that for the longest period of time that I can remember. It's been like that for months now! I think we only had about 1 or 2 real cold fronts so far this fall and even then no freezes that killed off anything. The butterflies and moths are taking advantage of the climate and they are collectively habitating my fall orange Cosmos, which are still in bloom by the way - at the end of November! I have soooo many different species of butterflies and moths right now, there is no way I can identify them all. Several of them can't sit still for pictures either, so you are getting the click and post for the few that did. I am not a butterfly expert by any means, so those of you out there that are, please correct my identifications if I'm wrong so I can learn more. Also there are at least 2 pictured below that I would love to ID so please help if you can! Here they are:

These, I believe are called 'QUEEN' butterflies. They are really beautiful! They're about the size of a Monarch. And I have TONS of them flying around right now. They outnumber the other species by at least 2 to 1. They seem to be torn between visits to the Cosmos for nectar or hanging out on the Milkweed/Butterfly Weed plants.


I think the butterfly pictured to the left is called a' GULF COAST FRITTILARY'. These guys all seemed to be going crazy over the orange Cosmos. In years past it seems like I had a lot more of them but this year the numbers have been slimmer. I still have plenty of Passion Flower Vines for the larva, in fact probably more than previously, but this species has not been out in full force like in years past. I don't use herbicides or pesticides, only organic materials in my gardens so I don't think that would be the reason. It remains a puzzle to me. Any ideas???

















Now these two guys I think are called 'VARIEGATED FRITILLARIES', but that is just a guess based on what I see in my butterfly ID book. They look very moth-like, but I do think they are classified as a butterfly. I wish the pictures were better because they have awesome color variations on their wings. Hopefully you can tell from my shots. Someone correct me on the ID if I am wrong.
OK, here we have 'BUCKEYE' which has the most unique large spots that look like eyes staring back at you on the wings. I have several of them flying around right now and they are actually kind of easy to photograph - I just didn't get a good one! There is a video clip with Buckeyes at the end of this post, maybe you can get a better view that way.
















OK, now this one really has me puzzled and this is a really neat little guy! I think it is a moth because of the hooked antennae but I'm not sure. He has this awesome long, straight tail (wings actually) and a big white stripe on the underside of the wings. It's hard to tell his size from the pictures but I'd say it's about the size of a medium butterfly like a Fritillary, it's not a little thing by any means. What is it???!!!! Please help me ID I can't find it anywhere in my books and it's driving me nuts to find out what this is. Even without a positive ID, it's a pretty species to watch.....!

Here we have the dependable yellow butterfly, of which species I am not sure. Is it a 'SULPHER'? I don't know, but one thing I am sure of is they are usually the first ones out in the spring and the last ones to leave in the fall. Even on those days when the butterflies are are nowhere to be seen, I can usually spot some species of yellow around somewhere! ID please....thank you!






And for my last unidentified species that had assembled at the nectar feast, here you go.... Moth? Butterfly? Whatever he is he has spectacular coloration and he was different then all of the others. And he held still long enough for a picture - any ideas?


Below, Buckeyes at work....(or play?!)




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Saturday, November 1, 2008

MONARCHS & MIST FLOWERS


I have been totally enjoying myself this weekend at the local Fall Festival at the Antique Rose Emporium! Every year they hold this event and every year I can't wait to go again! The gardens out there are spectacular and they have speakers presenting throughout each day on a variety of plant and nature topics. This is a free event, open to all and it is exciting to see so many new faces each year as people from the community and from afar gather to hear about and discuss plant topics! This morning we were all greeted by throngs of Monarchs and other assorted butterflies and moths as we passed by a long row of White Mist Flower (Eupatorium wrightii) in full bloom. It will be hard to convey the full effect of the onslaught of butterflies, moths, and assorted bees that were attacking these white flowers through a video clip, but I assure you, no one passed without taking notice and at least saying, "Wow!" If you live in the south and you want a great butterfly plant, try White Mist Flower planted in masses!


















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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

9 BANDED ARMADILLO (Dasypus novemcinctus)

Well I don't have all of the pictures I'd like to post, but I couldn't wait any longer to share these video clips with you. The Army Corp of Engineers has cleared a new hiking trail through the woods by my house and of course I couldn't wait to check it out. More pictures from that to follow, but for now, here are 2 videos I just had to post because - Armadillos are just SO CUTE! This one ventured close to me on the trail and as I stood very, very still I was able to get some shots. Armadillos can't see very well, but they can hear a little better and once he sensed my presence, he took off running through the woods!

While I had him in my sights, this guy exhibited typical Armadillo behavior, rooting around in the soil and under logs searching for a meal. Yes, they do dig around with their noses and look for grubs, worms, and other insects to eat. And yes, they do leave fairly large holes in the soil, which a lot of people with formal gardens seem to despise. I don't understand this adversity toward Armadillos at all. They are most excellent soil aerators, and they control the soil dwelling insects that destroy plants at the same time. From my observations, they do not uproot established plants, instead, they move the soil all around the root balls and provide a 'tilling' function that is better than any plow I have ever seen. All that is needed after an Armadillo comes through is a soaking from a water hose to flatten the mounds back down and the garden looks as good as new, but much healthier! Unfortunately, the way most people experience an Armadillo (besides seeing holes in their gardens and yards) is by passing them by in cars, lying 'legs up' alongside the highway. The poor little guys, like so many other animals, do not have a chance when it comes to vehicles and they experience a huge amount of highway mortality.

One very interesting fact about Armadillos is that each female bears 4 offspring at a time which are exact clones of each other. Apparently they are the only mammals which do this consistently and that makes them extremely unique! If you have some time and you want to read more about Armadillos, here is a link:

http://www.flex.net/~lonestar/armadillo.htm




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Friday, September 5, 2008

WHOOPING CRANES IN TEXAS!

WHOOPING CRANE (Grus americana)

(Photo credit Luther Goldman/US Fish and Wildlife Service)


Well, actually they haven't quite started their annual migration yet, but a prior comment on this blog prompted me to post about Whooping Cranes. They are an example of one species of beautiful migratory birds that us northerners and southerners 'share' during the year. Mid-October through March is prime Whooping Crane season in Texas - which should give me ample time to plan and execute a trip to see them first hand (stay posted!) I thought it would be a good idea to post some 'whooper' information in case any of you happen to be in the western or eastern flyways. That way you can be on the lookout for these magnificent creatures as they take to the skies! Fall migration has started and here in Texas we are noticing our skies dotted with more and more varieties of avian flocks as they head toward winter destinations. If you look up and see some very large cranes with all white bodies and black wing tips you just might be viewing some endangered Whooping Cranes.

Down here in Texas we have an extensive Whooping Crane project aimed at helping this most unique species survive and thrive. Whoopers stay north in the hot summer months and then migrate down south when those cold northern winds start to blow. The population counts reported over the last several years seem to indicate an increase in individuals so hopefully all of the effort is making a difference.

Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) are the rarest of all crane species and only found in North America. Our western inhabitants spend the winter months in Texas and summer months in Canada. The primary wintering grounds for the western 'Whooper' population are the coastal areas of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge located a little bit north of Corpus Christi near Rockport. Here is an informative link which also has an audio of the bird calls:

http://www.fws.gov/southwest/REFUGES/texas/aransas/whoopingcranes.html

Although Whooping Cranes can be found slightly north of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge or even slightly inland on private lands, the winter range for this population of birds typically only covers about 35 miles of this unique and pristine coastal habitat in Texas!

Whooping cranes are listed as a USFWS Endangered Species. In 1979 there were only 56 known birds in a wild flock that wintered in Texas and nested in Canada. In Dec of 2007 the count was up to 257 birds wintering along the Texas coastline. The 2007-2008 count was 266! So they do appear to be making a come back - slowly but surely. Whoopers are now federally protected from hunters however, their main threat continues to be the loss of coastal wetland habitat.

There is also lots of hard work underway to re-establish an eastern population of birds which will winter along the Florida coastline and spend the summers somewhere near Wisconsin. So far the Texas/Canada population has been the most successful as far as numbers.

SO - if you come to Texas - especially during the fall through early spring - don't forget to plan a trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for some most excellent biding adventures! And keep your eyes peeled - you just might see some rare and endangered Whooping Cranes!

These video clips were taken by BILL BEASLEY / TAILFEATHER PRODUCTIONS and reproduced with permission – Thank You, Bill for sharing your clips of these beautiful and rare birds in the wild!!!

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

FAYETTE POWER PLANT LAKE





Opted to stay closer to home this weekend and still get some kayaking in so I went to Fayette Lake (which lies in Fayette County Texas) to see what I could find. This particular lake was constructed here for a coal-fired power plant that was built to help supply the city of Austin with power. They built the lake for cooling at the power plant. This is supposedly one of the better lakes around central Texas for bass fishing because of the warmer year-round water temperatures. We tossed a few lures and didn't get a bite today although I'm sure it is probably great for fishing at the right time and in the right spots. It's also not bad for hanging around and nature sightseeing, (as long as you don't mind looking at a coal-fired power plant on one side of the lake).

I shouldn't rag on the energy companies, I know. At least they let us come enjoy the lake they built so I guess it's not all bad. I was here on a weekend and the lake was fairly busy with boaters and families swimming and enjoying the water. Even with the fair amount of human activity I managed to slip away along the banks and find some peace and quiet among the reeds.


The herons were out today, wading and sunning. I saw a very large Great Blue Heron as he dodged into the woods along the shoreline narrowly escaping the wrath of my camera. I had better luck with the next bird. A brave little Green Heron stood his ground on a tree limb as I floated past. He kept a close eye on me while defending his territory from that strange looking yellow vessel in the water. He waited patiently as I took my pictures and finally moved on. A Great Egret also allowed me to get in a shot.


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Did I mention how much I love kayaks for nature watching? They are quiet and peaceful and they meld into the environment without causing a ruckus. Not at all like a stinky, smelly motorboat or jet ski, which are really annoying when you think about it, and can be quite a menace to everything on or near the water. (And half the time they don't work right.) It's always amusing to me to see a packed boat ramp, everyone jockeying for position to get that boat in or out, struggling with their trailer gear, hoping those motors start up and run this time - cause you know at least one of these times they are guaranteed not to! And here I come, gently and quietly sliding my kayak out at the nearest bank, loading up just like that - and I'm gone! No fuss, no mess, no yearly license and registration fees to pay, no maintenance to keep her running. Notice my obvious satisfaction as I stand with my kayak loaded and ready to leave and a full boat ramp behind me in the distance. .... It's good to be a kayaker....


They have done a fairly good job of making this a nature-friendly lake. In addition to the water activities, they have a 3 mile bike/hike trail through the woods and along the lake which joins two campground areas. They also have a shorter hike/birding trail that runs about 2 miles in total length, meandering in and around the woods next to the lake which is really quite nice. As it got closer to sundown we hiked into the birding trail to check it out for ourselves. It was mostly crushed gravel and dirt with several exposed tree roots in places. There were interesting bridges to cross and even a staircase to climb leading up to a pond which happened to be dry on this visit. All in all, it made for a nice day trip and conveniently located within 30 minutes or so of home. I'm not complaining............until next time! Happy adventures!






























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Saturday, July 12, 2008

ROSEATE SPOONBILLS - MATAGORDA COUNTY

I was really lucky this week to get some awesome shots of one of our Gulf Coast's prettiest wetland bird species - ROSEATE SPOONBILLS!!!
















South-Central Texas holds some treasures as far as wildlife viewing if you know where to go. There are still some pristine wetland habitats here that haven't been developed for, ugh(!)...humans and their beach condos, but the money keeps pouring in from everywhere and the future remains precarious for these small yet fairly isolated stretches of coastline. The ROSEATE SPOONBILL (Platalea ajaja), I think you'll agree, is a beautiful wetland bird species. I happened across a whole flock of them this week and I was able to get some video clips of a pair who were wading and fishing!

Roseate Spoonbills can be found in the U.S. along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. They also occur in South America and the Caribbean. We are very lucky to still have them here as they were hunted close to extinction during the 1800's for their beautiful pink feathers. Thankfully the populations have rebounded since then, but of course they now face threats from the continued loss of wetland habitat along the gulf. They require shallow, brackish waters where they use their unusual spoon-shaped bills to sweep back and forth gathering small fish, shrimp, snails, insects, or other crustaceans for food. They are indescribably unique the way they use that big flat beak to sift the water for food! They almost look prehistoric or something! This is the first video clip I've ever gotten of these birds feeding so I was a very happy birder on this day!

The coastal areas of Matagorda County, Texas still provide many opportunities for these big wading birds to breed and nest. Spoonbills can get fairly big at 32 inches with a 50 inch wingspan and they are very dramatically colored with bright pink feathers - you will know it when you spot them!

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Monday, June 30, 2008

CRYSTAL BEACH AND HIGH ISLAND



Had time for some birding between High Island and Crystal Beach this past Friday afternoon before meeting up with friends. High Island is about an hour northeast of Houston and an hour southwest of Beaumont along the Texas Gulf Coast. The Pelicans on this particular day were in rare form and groups of 30 or so of them were flying down the coastline, drafting in each others wake, moving along in wave-like fashion. They were really cool to watch! This went on for quite awhile so I decided to hang out and enjoy the show!


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The waves were up at the beach and it was fairly windy. The water on this northern Texas coastline is much browner than the water farther south due to the influence of the Mississippi River which drains into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. The flow of sediments from the midwest and all points south mixes into the gulf water near the mouth of the Miss. and flows to the Texas/LA side causing muddy waters. The muddy water is nutrient-laden which in general provides good food sources for fish and other aquatic creatures, but a big problem that we have in this part of the country is the DEAD ZONE. This is a large area of water in the gulf which becomes devoid of oxygen and causes massive fish kills and other marine life die-offs. When the dead zone starts to expand everything in the water has to either leave in a hurry or succumb to suffocation. The cause is now known to be too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the river waters deposited way upstream. These rivers (such as the mighty Miss.) travel hundreds of miles through the U.S., collecting runoff from farms, towns, commercial areas, before spilling their contents into the Gulf of Mexico. Excessive nutrients are added to the rivers and these deposits have a direct influence on our waters along the Gulf of Mexico, especially from the mouth of the Mississippi westward to the south of Houston. As you travel farther south in Texas, the water becomes clearer ever so slightly until you reach South Padre Island where the waters are blue!

SO....if you live 'up there' please remember us 'down here' and try to limit the use and over-use of chemicals and fertilizers on the land because they end up in the rivers and eventually in our beach water too!!!

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DOWNY WOODPECKER VISITS





Thursday I came home and found a DOWNY WOODPECKER entertaining himself on one of our pine trees. My husband has seen many of them in the woods in Northeast Texas where he was born and raised but I had never seen one down here. This is a first for me! Cute little bird, isn't it?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

BIRDS, REPTILES, AND AMPHIBIANS

Tell you what, I can hardly get out of my yard without something new popping up in the way of wildlife or outdoor amusement. This afternoon I had 2 different snake species, a frog, and a bird feeding chicks all within 30 minutes of each other! Of course, I had to grab the camera and get some pic's for the blog! First of all these sweet, little, insect-killing Carolina Wrens have been raising their second batch of young this year in my hanging gourd. She (and he) seem to be taking pretty good care of their brood and putting a dent in the insect population for us at the same time. It seems like they bring back a new morsel every 20 minutes or so, pretty much round the clock. You can hear the parent birds chattering nearby and then they sneak up to the gourd as fast as they can, deposit their catch, take a look around in there to be sure everything looks OK, and then off they go again!
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After wren watching for awhile I lowered my attention back down into the garden to finish my chores and turned to come face to face with a cute little Leopard Frog staring at me from beside the patio. Yes, we have a few frogs and toads in this yard.............but I'm thinking we should actually have a few more.......

Because we all know what frogs and toads attract......





SNAKES!!!






Actually, a Texas Rat Snake showed up first. He must have been offended by my garden watering and he crawled up onto the front porch. Well, we can't have that so we caught him with our snake tongs (modified from garbage pick-up tongs), and put him in the snake transporter (garbage can w/lid) to relocate him a bit farther from the house. We had no sooner started walking toward the truck when we saw a large Yellow Bellied Racer head across the walkway. Now I am thinking, "What is this, snake day or something????!!!" Anyway, YB Racer's are really beautiful snakes and non-poisonous. And they don't call them a 'Racer' for nothing! They can really scoot and they are very hard to catch and even harder to videotape! Tx Rat Snakes are also non poisonous, but they are kind of ugly (to me), usually get really BIG, and they are also very common here - so common that we get tired of seeing them. Neither snake is venomous. I have read that a rat snake can bite pretty good, but a YBR doesn't have the teeth to do much harm to a human (at least I'm hoping not).

Well, we couldn't catch them both as I only had one snake transporter and it was in use at the time. So.....I grabbed the camera again instead and got a video of him! Hopefully this guy will take off now that he's been spotted near the house (but I doubt it). I don't want to have to change my blog sight to 'Adventures in Snake Bites' if you know what I mean! :) Until next time, I'll keep those tongs handy......

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

STANDING CYPRESS!!!

This summer has been pretty darn good for surprising me with large stands of wildflowers and today was no exception!!! First it was the Bluebells popping up all over the countryside and now I have come across this huge stand of native STANDING CYPRESS just growing away and blooming it's heart out right next to the highway on my drive to work!!! This is definitely the largest stand of this plant that I have ever seen growing out in the wild. I was blown away by it!

The pictures don't do it justice, but I hope you can get at least some idea of how magnificent this plant looks en masse in the wild.

The blooms appear on top of a single rigid stem and line the top of the stalk with multiple tubular-shaped scarlet red flowers. And they are SCARLET RED too! Very brilliant in the sunlight and will certainly catch your eye. The plant stalks are really tall, over 5 feet easily, and the stems are covered with these thick, green, fern-like leaves that just beg you to reach out and touch them to make sure they're real! I was very surprised to see this plant growing like it was because although it is listed as a Texas native variety, I personally have never seen it growing here in central Texas. This was a first for me!


According to the literature, it's easy to start and establish from seed that can be purchased from native plant suppliers. It is listed as a biennial though, so you would have to re-seed a second year in order to have year-round plants. Apparently, it comes up as a rosette the first year and then in the second year it sends up that tall shoot to flower in the middle of summer! I can't wait to try some in my own garden!

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