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Thursday, December 29, 2011

More on relict trees

A reader of my previous post asked me some questions about relict trees on my property. So I thought I'd go into a little detail here. A relict tree, or group of trees, is a species that was once plentiful in a given place and is now extinct except for one specimen, or a small population of them. In that category, the dead juniper was probably the last holdout of its species due to the continuing desertification of this region. There are two other species that are still alive here, but of relict status. One is a small cluster of Mexican Blue Oak that are gone from the Big Bend area except for a couple of small stands. My patch is high on the slope above my oasis. I'll post some photos of them when I get them from my Alpine computer. I hope this drought hasn't killed them.

Interestingly, Lucifer Hummingbirds favored nesting places are cholla, high on slopes, near oaks. That's the only place where we've seen their nests on my property. I wish it wasn't such a rough climb, or I'd go up there more often. (refer to post of June 30, 2010 for nest photos)

The other relict species here is one small cluster of Faxon Yucca. Again, I hope the drought doesn't impact them. Here's a photo from today.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mysterious tree

I decided to scan some more old photos today and came across this one taken 15 years ago. It's some kind of tree, probably juniper, that is probably way older than 100 years.

That's me sitting under the tree. Here is the same tree today. It hasn't changed much in 35 years, and probably much longer. The mystery is, how old is it, what kind of tree is it, and who hacked on it for firewood? Prehistoric foragers?

The mystery deepens. I first saw the tree around 1977-78. Then, even though I knew it was on my property, I could never relocate it again. Quite by accident, I rediscovered it 25 years later, more or less. And it's actually within sight of my house!

In the above photo the camera is looking NW. My [earth-sheltered] house is near the center, with basically just the roof showing. In the center left of the above photo you can barely make out the road snaking between the mountain and the arroyo headed toward the oasis, which appears as a dark fuzzy line on the left center of the photo.

Afterthought: Studying the photos a bit I see on the first one some unweathered wood, so I'm thinking some of the Mexicans that helped build my house probably scavenged some on the tree, but there was plenty of mesquite around, their favored wood, so doubtful they took much from it, because it's obviously a juniper of some kind. But most of the hacking activity was very weathered 35 years ago, so someone with crude tools worked on it before then. And in case you're wondering, I employed some undocumented immigrants; I didn't check IDs, but in those days it wasn't illegal to hire undocumented immigrants. I even helped a couple of them get their legal status here. Times change.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pre-digital photos

I'm at the oasis. Got here before daylight, at 10°, took down the frozen hummingbird feeders, and put up warm ones.Was pleased to see about 6 hummers (Rufous and Anna's) today. It was so cold all day that I mostly stayed indoors and scanned some of my favorite old film bird photos.

After Christmas of 2003 in Alpine we left our Christmas lights up and the following spring a Black-chinned Hummingbird decided to nest on them. That was really cool!

In 2006, off and on, all through the month of May, the oasis had its only ever Broad-billed Hummingbird.

Here's a just-fledged, or soon to fledge, Elf Owl that apparently got pursued by my ex-neighbors' cats and got into their house. They called me and I caught it and released it at my oasis. This photo was taken in their house in 2001 inside a home-made wreath the bird managed to retreat up into.

Christmas lights, a green and red hummingbird, and wreath are the last of Christmas cheer you'll get from me this year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My special Christmas present

During the 6 days (see posts Dec 1-6) the Violet-crowned Hummingbird was seen at the oasis very few people were able to come see it. One who was able to visit that week was Dennis Shepler. Afterwards, he made me a wonderful painting of it that is being mailed to me. Meanwhile, he gave me permission to post this photo of it here.

What a wonderful souvenir/xmas present of the rarest species documented at CMO to date (19th state record)! Thank you so much, Dennis!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eagle story

We were going to take a huge trailer load of mulch to the oasis today (in a big borrowed trailer), but it turns out the recycling plant is closed until Tuesday, so we went anyway to fill feeders. I rode down with Hugh. About 20 miles south of town (right before Calamity Creek) we passed a Golden Eagle on the side of the road at a road-killed javelina. Hugh didn't see it and we were long past by the time I decided I should have demanded we stop and take a picture of it. (He doesn't stop automatically like I do). I don't have any photos by me of a Golden Eagle.

I forgot all about it until on the way back to town four hours later Hugh said, "there's that eagle you saw." This time I made him stop and turn around. I took some photos with the truck running hoping the Image Stabilization feature on my camera would compensate. The eagle wasn't eager to leave the javelina, not that he wasn't stuffed like a Christmas turkey, but that lift-off might not work so good for him.

When we got as close as we dared, and Hugh turned off the engine, I was going to change my ISO from 800 to 400 for a sharper shot, but just then the eagle attempted to take off. He labored across the highway and into some low brush. No majestic flight today. Per my Sibley bible I think it's a 2nd year bird.

PS- Yes, Hugh put the replacement tire on the water trailer for me while we were there. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hibernating as best I can

I'm sure I've told you often enough how I hate cold weather, so I just mostly hung out at my computer today. Finished entering those old sightings on ebird. Most of them weren't usable because they lacked dates, or where they were seen. The devil's in the details and all.

I'm delighted that my son, who had planned to move away from Alpine, has decided to stay. That's a huge relief to me because he's always there for me in a pinch. And you know how frequently that happens to me.

That Allen's Hummingbird that Kelly banded, and then recaptured, is still here. I got a bad photo of him through a dirty window right before dark a while ago. It's not a good enough photo for me to see the band, but maybe tomorrow I can do better.

How about you all email me and tell me what you'd like to see more photos of?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Looking back

I'm in Alpine for a few days so decided to enter some old birding records (that have been entrusted to me) into the ebird database. I'll do as much as my arthritic body can stand. It's the back and right arm that bothers me when I sit at the computer for long periods of time. I started doing it last winter and really want to get it behind me. I only have time to work on it in the winter.

There are lots of ducks here on our Alpine ponds. Ring-necked, Mexican Ducks, and the merganser and shoveler are still here. I think the reason we have so many right now is because I managed to prevent Hugh from mowing close around the ponds. The tall grasses help the ducks feel insulated from the street noise and traffic.

The Allen's Hummingbird is still around too. I meant to photograph it today, but that didn't happen. No sunshine, and my photos don't turn out as good without sun.

I've been working on scanning old negatives into digital photos. Here's one of me that dates to sometime in the early 1980s, when I was in my early 40s. Seems like an eternity ago. I finished the house in 1979. This photo was taken in the courtyard after that, but before the vegetation got big, which is how I date it.

In comparison, here is how the courtyard looked in the summer of 2007. Unlike me, it looks better with age.

Hopefully, it'll look that good again someday. It's had a rough year. That planter bench (in both photos) was made out of petrified wood by my brother. I remember how hard I worked to get grass to grow inside the courtyard. That was before I worked even harder to get rid of it. I pluck out any little sprig that comes up. I just want native trees, flowers, and bushes now. In other words, habitat for birds.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Birding excursion to Big Bend National Park

The only birder in my family, besides me, is my sister-in-law, Dale Ohl. We went to the park today, and although it was chilly and not very birdy, it was a fun day just spending it with her. Along the highway we enjoyed an abundance of Lark Buntings. Here is the only photo I got today. It's a Green Heron off the boardwalk at Rio Grande Village.

On the way home we stopped at Gage Gardens in Marathon. I had never been there before and was really impressed. I plan to visit there more often in the future.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The Violet-crowned Hummingbird is still here. The feeders were slushy to frozen this morning at 24°

I had left my camera in the pickup all night and it wasn't working right due to the freezing temperatures, therefore the poor quality shot. 


I stayed indoors all day after confirming the VCHU was still here. At 3:30 I went to the oasis to see what the high temperature for the day would be (40°), and to my dismay, the Violet-crowned was not there. I hung around until nearly 6 PM and no sign of it. I hope it found a warmer place to spend the night. Just in case, I put a heat lamp under its favorite feeder.

The above Violet-crowned photo may turn out to be the last photo of that gorgeous bird.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Virtual visit to CMO

Some of you are on your way here to see the Violet-crowned Hummingbird as I write this. Others want to come but can't, so here's the next best thing. I spend a lot of time on the road between here and Alpine at sunrise or sunset. Here's the gorgeous sunrise as I was coming down this morning, taken toward the vicinity of Santiago Mountain..

After I turned off onto the blacktop Terlingua Ranch Road, here was my view of the Christmas Mountains. That flat mountain to the right of the highest peak, which is W Corazone Mountain, overlooks the oasis.

Now I'm coming over a big hill on my land and can see the oasis ahead. Williams Mountain is in the background. My mountain is to the left, creating the shadow I'm driving through.

And shortly after 8 AM I'm photographing the Violet-crowned Hummingbird as it forages for insects. Not to worry, there are plenty... just not when you're looking for them.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

More Violet-crowned Hummingbird photos

I did get one or two photos with no flies on the bill.

But most were more like this

Hated leaving and going back to Alpine but did see an awesome sunset on the way.

I want to express a heartfelt thanks to those of you who have donated to the water fund. With your generous help I know we can make it through this drought. The donations are as much a sorely needed morale boost as a financial one. You are all the greatest!

Life is good

We were in the middle of cleaning a rent house in Alpine and I wanted to get it done, then have time to go enjoy my oasis. But I hadn't hauled water over the holiday, and felt I really needed to get down there and do that. First time I remember ever being reluctant to go to CMO.

On the way down I thought something great would probably be there, in that case. After arriving I began a quick assessment of what birds were there. It was 22°...  colder than everywhere else in the area, as usual. As I was counting Sage Thrashers (2 or 3), and Anna's Hummingbirds (5 or 6) I couldn't believe my eyes when I got a quick glimpse of a gorgeous Violet-crowned Hummingbird. Naturally, my water project was put on hold as I ran for my camera. A new yard bird for CMO!

It'll probably be long after dark before I get back to Alpine tonight.

UPDATE: I decided to check a bird guide and apparently the female and male VCHUs look alike, so I don't know which this is, unless it sticks around and gets banded by Kelly Bryan.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Back to normal...

Whatever normal is.

I have a wonderful large extended family, and we all had a great holiday. My genius sons did lots of stuff to my computers, so I feel state-of-the-art now.

After everyone was gone I slipped over to a private residence (in Alpine) where a Harris's Sparrow has been hanging out for several days. Another tick to my Brewster County list. Bad lighting, through a window, but at least you can tell it's a Harris's Sparrow.

It got down to 16° at the oasis last night. I hope that's not a harbinger of things to come.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Visit to Rio Grande Village

I decided to get a load of water and then check out Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park. I hadn't been there all year and was curious how it looked after February's freeze and the summer's unbearable heat / drought. Remember, RGV is my second favorite place on earth. Last November the rare Tufted Flycatcher showed up there.

At the lodge I, the "queen of water," photographed my "water wand" (all this terminology per the office personnel), and loaded up my water wagon.

In my eagerness to get unloaded and packed for RGV, then Alpine, I forgot to empty the 35 gallon tank. So it made the long circuit with me, full of water. Duh! Now I can't fill it with free water in Alpine because it's already full!

RGV looked great!

And I loved the new state-of-the-art boardwalk..

But the day's highlight for me was watching an American Bittern trying to swallow a fish.... a very serenzipitous sighting. (My newly coined word means zippity-serendipity, ie. not a long enough look at an awesome unexpected sighting.)

It seemed that the bittern would get tired and droop its head, then try again, then droop, then repeat the process over and over. Since it's the first time I've witnessed this event, I'm not sure if that was the case, or if the bittern was somehow using the ground for leverage. Or maybe trying to dislodge the stuck fish. Any comments?

It was a long way off, and when I tried to get closer, the bird waddled into the underbrush and disappeared, fish and all. Since the bird was about ten feet away from any water, this process may have been ongoing for quite some time. Any idea how long that lasts? I've watched snakes take as long as 30 minutes to dispatch a large frog, but that's my only experience in that area.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trees, tank, and Phainopepla

A few of the deciduous trees are finally starting to change color. Here is the peach tree.

And the Chinese Pistachio tree...

 I seldom see Phainopeplas, except when the mulberries are ripe. (Click Phainopepla label for photos.) So when I saw one today I right away wondered why. Upon closer examination I realized it was feeding on mistletoe, its trademark food. Having never seen a mistletoe berry, I was somewhat perplexed, but I scrutinized the patch of mistletoe, and sure enough, there were a few berries. I was amazed. They also nest in mistletoe, so when I saw an old nest, I wondered. I'm going to pay more attention to mistletoe in the future, that's for sure. It astounds me that the Phainopepla even located that one small cluster of berries.

This old nest is full of old leaves.

The mistletoe is on a scraggly catclaw acacia bush above an old gray water cistern near the guesthouse. (Because the guesthouse is underground I couldn't run the water out onto the ground.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alpine ducks

Every year my Alpine habitat gets better. Today it hosted its first Wood Duck... a gorgeous male.

There have also been various other visitors recently, including these Mexican Ducks.

Tomorrow I'm going back to my oasis for several days. Can't wait!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Alpine habitat

I got out and did some much overdue work here. Still much more to do, but I can just do what I can.

Above is the Mexican Elder tree before I worked on it. Below is after.

Here is a Desert Pine (elderica) after I cleaned out around it and put it in a bigger deer cage. They come up by themselves around our yard and I put some of them into pots while they're still just tiny sprouts, then plant them in the habitat once they develop a substantial root system.

Last, is a White Mulberry I bought online, cheap, this spring. I wanted a white one because I think they grow larger than the black or red ones. Birds like tall trees.

The soil here is pure clay. It takes forever for water to soak into the ground, and it's a killer digging in it. I did four trees today and still have about 20 to go. Here's the after shot.

The extreme cold and heat of this year was hardest on young trees, but I think this one will thrive next year.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bay-breasted Warbler revisited

I wanted a better photo of the Bay-breasted Warbler in Marathon and I feel like I got it. Still higher in the canopy than I would have liked but I'm not going to try again.

I was hoping it would go into this Mexican Elder tree where it wouldn't be so high in a tree, but no luck.

Here's the tree it was in... a large elm.

There's a shorter Mexican Elder tree to the right and in front of the elm that the warbler divested of many berries.

And a nice fountain by the other elder tree.

The gardens at the Gage Hotel are wonderful, but street noise and people activity spoil the ambience, in my opinion.