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Monday, May 28, 2012

Wild Burros of South Brewster Co

Everyone seems so delighted with the rapidly increasing wild burro population.

I wonder how big the herd will grow before people will be demanding something be done to control their numbers. 1,000? 10,000? 1,000,000? Interesting to contemplate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Baby birds

While sitting watching the traps for Kelly Bryan as he banded hummingbirds this morning I spotted a juvenile Black-throated Sparrow. It was following an adult around begging at every opportunity.

Suddenly I realized that I had taken a photo of something else, beside the fledgling, by mistake. It was a baby Ladder-backed Woodpecker, being assaulted by ants, and too young to be out of the nest cavity.

I picked it up, and in my haste to put it back into the Ladder-backed cavity in a nearby agave stalk (the same stalk the Elf Owls are nesting in), I accidentally put it in the wrong agave stalk. And I couldn't retrieve it no matter how hard I tried. So, in desperation, I cut open the side of the stalk and put it in its proper hole.

 A while later I saw an adult come out of the hole but I didn't see feeding activity. There may not be enough food available, in which case the adults may not feed the young. I simply don't know without monitoring the nest. And I don't have time to sit there all day doing that, as much as I'd like too. Had to haul water, then go to Alpine to pick and dry apricots.

Kelly ended up recapturing quite a few hummers, including one gravid (with egg) female and one that had just laid an egg. Unlike last year, it seems we've had enough rain for some of the birds to make nesting attempts.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vagaries of the desert

Only in the Big Bend would I feel comfortable enough to lay down and take a nap in a strange and remote arroyo. I've done it many times. Yet this land can be infinitely brutal. Here I have a supposedly desert adapted pine (Elderica, or Afghan Pine), struggling to survive this record drought, and look what happened to it.

The outer surface of the trunk seems to have suddenly split. It looks to me like a hurricane force wind might be responsible, but I don't really know. Also have no idea if it'll survive. That trunk is at least a foot in diameter.

I heard there's a hurricane in the Pacific that likely will bring us rain this weekend. I'm really optimistic because I've always said I get my best rains when there are hurricanes in the Baja. So we'll see. I did a little research and found a site that says there has not been a single May tropical storm or hurricane within 250 miles of Baja California since 1951, but if I understand correctly, this one, Hurricane Bud, will be the first.

Here are a couple of interesting wasps. I'm not sure of the names but I think maybe Spider Hawk-Moth.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Up and hauling again

Was it Winston Churchill that said, "Never give up, never give up, never give up...."?

We're getting faster at installing new springs. Only took us two hours today, as opposed to twice that long last time. Not bad for a couple of 70+ year-olds.

The Diamond-backed was positioned in its most recent depression late this afternoon. (The old depression is beside that clump of grass in the background.)

I was hoping it would dine on cowbird again...

And not Varied Bunting...

But with me hovering around so close it didn't get to dine at all, unless it did after I left.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

On my last leg

A couple of weeks ago two springs broke on the new water trailer, and today the other two broke. I had only used it for one of those two weeks because of a small shower (.2") I got. That same storm dumped 6 inches not far away, at Chalk Draw adjacent to Terlingua Ranch. If I had gotten one-tenth that amount my tanks would be full. My husband said this is the last time he's going to fix the trailer, so if it breaks again in a week or two, it better rain, or the oasis may be history. Meanwhile, I'm off to Ft. Stockton in the morning for new springs.

East and West Corazone peaks. (East Corazone is the jagged edges peaking out from behind the hills).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hooded Oriole and others today

A male Hooded Oriole visited today. This species doesn't visit my oasis often; they're more likely to be seen closer to the Rio Grande River.

He foraged for a while in some Beebrush. Probably looking for insects. They have been known to visit hummingbird feeders, so maybe this colorful beauty will hang around. 

Another beautiful bird, that I don't appreciate enough because they're so common here, is the Blue Grosbeak. But he's a nice bird to practice photography on.

I was also practicing on a Lark Bunting in summer plumage, which is unusual for here. I was waiting for him to get turned in the light just right and when he did I triumphantly clicked the shutter. Nothing happened because my camera battery was dead. Bummer! So this rear view is all I have to show of him for my efforts.

The Green-tailed Towhees will be leaving any day now. I'll sure miss them until next winter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My bird photography

I'm not mechanically inclined and really feel inept at bird photography. My son is a professional photographer, and I have many friends and acquaintances who are expert photographers. They've all been generous with advice and tips. It seems too much for me to absorb and remember. So I just sort of set my Canon Rebel  Xti on Programs (P) mode, and try different positions on the bar that goes plus or minus. That's it! I usually start at 2/3 plus, and adjust it according to how the pictures turn out. I then take dozens of pictures and post my favorite one or two.

Everyone tells me if I shoot in Aperture Priority (Av) mode I'll do better. But that's one more thing to remember and have to adjust and maybe miss a chance to document a rare bird, which is more important to me than taking perfect photos. However, I do get frustrated seeing everyone else's photos turn out much better than mine.

Recently, a lovely couple, Jim and BeaAnn Kelley visited. BeaAnn got enviable shots of the Lucifer Hummingbird courtship display. I've taken many but can't get the action sharp enough. She kindly and patiently helped and explained to me how to use Av mode. It occurred to me that it was about time I learned to do one more simple setting on my camera to improve my pictures. Surely, like everything else, it'll become automatic when I do it often enough. I made up my mind to commit, even though whenever I tried it before I ended up going back to P mode. But this time I'm not going back. I'll practice until it's a piece of cake.

So this afternoon I started with the 2/3 plus, the ISO at 800, which I always do, and had the f-stop set at 5.6 like BeaAnn showed me. I was going to take a bunch trying different settings, but the bird flew after the first shot, so tomorrow I'll practice again. Nevertheless, I'm satisfied and encouraged by that one photo. It's of a Yellow-breasted Chat, which are very secretive and hard to photograph. I think the colors turned out accurate, and I like how they're reflected in the water. Here's the first decent Av shot. Thanks BeaAnn (hope I'm spelling your name correctly)!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Christmas Mountains name

I often get asked how the Christmas Mountains got their name. While there are no shortage of theories, the one that I find most believable is the following:

The mountains were originally called the Corazones by the Spaniards and appear that way on old maps. Pictured above is West Corazone Peak, taken from my place to the west of it. Corazone means "heart" in Spanish, and it's unknown why they called them that. Maybe they loved them. Maybe they thought the peaks, East and West Corazone were heart-shaped. Anyway, the earliest rancher in the Big Bend area was named John T. Gano. His G4 ranch covered most of southwestern Brewster County and was headquartered below the Window in the Chisos Mountains. By 1891 Gano's herd was estimated at 30,000 head. From  the headquarters his ranch hands could see the Corazone Mountains to the north. They desired to explore them, but never got a day off in which to do it. Finally, on Christmas day they got their much coveted day off and set out to explore the mountains. Thereafter, they called them the Christmas Mountains, as a tribute to their treasured day off.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird is here this afternoon. I love the sound their feathers make when they fly.

Here's an unusual looking Varied Bunting. I don't know if it's atypical, or molting, or what.

Update: Expert Kelly Bryan says it didn't finish its last year's molt and retained its old feathers. Interesting! Thanks, Kelly.


The madrone that had the sunburned leaves last year is shedding them and replacing them with new leaves. Hopefully, the surrounding trees will give it enough shade this year that the new leaves won't burn.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Diamond-backed makes kill

(Warning: The content of this post may be disturbing to some people.)

My resident rattler went to his/her hunting blind at 6:30 PM this evening, about thirty minutes earlier than usual. Notice how well it blends in with the shadows, as well as when it's in the light.

It seemed agitated and soon left to prowl around, which made me extremely nervous, and more determined than ever to get it relocated sooner, rather than later.

After a little while it settled back into its blind. I held my breath as a couple of Scaled Quail investigated, surely within striking range.

When they departed I got distracted photographing a Black-headed Grosbeak.

Suddenly I became aware that the rattler had made a kill. I was so relieved to see the bird's identity... a Brown-headed Cowbird. Notice the cowbird is right on the spot the quail had occupied minutes earlier.

The snake held the struggling bird firmly, waiting for the venom to do its work. It took a while, but within 10 minutes the cowbird was gasping for breath, then dead.

Here is the last photo of the 138 I took.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ibis in Alpine

New yard, or shall I say "pond," bird for Alpine. My husband spotted 3 White-faced Ibis as they landed and called to me. Of course, he had no idea what they were, except he hadn't seen them here before. I ran for my camera and got a couple shots through the fence. When I tried to creep closer, they departed, alas. Here's the only documentation I got.

Monday, May 7, 2012

More good fortune

A Hooded Warbler visited and luckily I got a few photos before it disappeared. To clarify, the Hooded Warbler that I thought I saw the other day (see post of May 2 and 3) was actually the Yellow-throated Vireo. This bird I saw today for the first time, actually is a Hooded Warbler. The warbler and vireo look nothing alike, and I initially thought the vireo was a vireo, but didn't get a good enough look to really imprint the diagnostic features in my mind, so I convinced myself it was the warbler.

My new cholla patch is coming along fine and even sprouted a few blooms already.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A bit of luck

A group of Houston birders visited today, led by Adam Woods. I made it known to one and all that I was anxious ("desperate" was the actual word I used) to photograph the Yellow-throated Vireo if they should happen upon it. Adam located it once or twice but it was gone by the time I got to where he was with my camera. He also discovered a new yard bird for me, a Scarlet Tanager. I did get to see it, barely, but no one got photos. It seems to have left almost as soon as it arrived.

Anyway, after the group left, I hurried to start hauling water. After my first trip I went to the house (a block away) for some lunch. Rushing from the courtyard I flushed a bird. My binoculars and camera were in my vehicle. With just my naked eyes, I figured it might be a female Townsend's Warbler, or something, but just in case, I went for my camera and binoculars. Lo and behold, it was the vireo and I got over a dozen photos of it. What luck! Here it is from two different angles.

Here's a glimpse at how pitiful the vegetation is along the arroyo where I can't water.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

NEVER a dull moment

I went to Ft Stockton yesterday and bought 2 heavier duty springs, which we put on. So today I was back to hauling water, however, I'm not filling the tank; I'm putting in 75 gallons less in the hope it'll help save the springs.

Back at the oasis, as I was watering, keeping my camera near me, the Yellow-throated Vireo popped into view between me and the camera. (It's impossible to drag hoses, attach sprinklers, etc with the big heavy camera in hand. I can't hang it from a strap because the strap snags on things and yanks the camera off me. I learned that the expensive way.) I managed to follow its movements as I retrieved the camera, but couldn't get a clear shot before it disappeared. Maybe tomorrow, if it's still around. Here is all I got of it. I would say, better than nothing, but I'm not so sure.

I had a note from some birders that visited after I went to Alpine Thursday saying they had seen a rattlesnake catch a White-winged Dove. The location they described is the same place the Diamond-backed has been being seen in that shallow depression by the east feeder (called the bucket feeder). So I thought it would be fun to observe it to see what it caught tonight. I invited my sister to join me. We sat watching it for 2 hours, but it never caught anything, even though some sparrows practically stepped on it. Guess it was holding out for doves or quail.

See how well camouflaged it is.

And here's a closeup.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A very eventful day

I don't even know where to begin. Yesterday I posted that I had a Hooded Warbler but couldn't relocate it to get a photo. I also told the ebird reviewer who contacted me that I initially was sure it was a [yellow-colored] vireo, but upon using bird guides decided it was a Hooded Warbler. I never felt right about that ID but couldn't find a vireo with the yellow around the eyes and the black cap I saw in my two-second look. That was yesterday.

Today an ace birder, Jon McIntyre, visited and saw and called out a Yellow-throated Vireo. I was walking  beside him and got my binoculars right on it and saw it was the same bird I'd mis-ID'd yesterday. I didn't have a camera on me. Jon did, but either it didn't occur to him to photograph it since they're a common bird in East Texas where he comes from, or it disappeared too quickly. It didn't have black on top of the head so I now have to think the black cap I was sure I saw was actually a stick or shadow. It's a new species for the oasis.

So I decided to spend the rest of the day trying for a photo of it. I even turned on my bird spa recycling pump, for the first time this year, hoping to attract it. Never saw it again, but at least I know what it is, and even have a witness. Not as good as a photo, but good enough for documentation.

The recycling water enticed a Canyon Towhee to bathe over and over. I'm going to have to run that pump more often.

And a Rufous-crowned Sparrow went crazy repeatedly gathering its beak full of insects from the water. It must be feeding a big brood because it kept returning for more.

A female Lazuli Bunting showed up but saw me and left without bathing or drinking. Probably went to the other water feature to bathe in privacy.

I felt guilty sitting there having so much fun when I should be hauling water.  So I got nearly to the lodge and something didn't sound right. I checked under my new trailer and a spring was broken. I turned around without getting water and brought it to Alpine. Maybe I'll have to take it to Ft Stockton tomorrow to get it fixed. So very difficult to keep the oasis alive. I crawl along that road to the lodge but it's so rough, and water so heavy, that it just wears out springs. All together I made 31 trips with the new trailer, which is 424 miles. Half of those miles were with a full load of water. 

I wanted to be at the oasis tonight to photograph that rattlesnake, but my ability to haul water took priority.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A resident rattler!

I hadn't seen a rattlesnake in over a year so I figured with the drought they weren't around. Cautious I was not! Around 8:30 a friend, Carlton Collier, dropped by to photograph Elf Owls and as he got out of the car he told me he supposed I already knew I had a rattler hanging out below the east feeder. Yikes! I hang out there too, and fill the feeder and other stuff. He went over to the feeder and showed me, and there it was, nearly invisible. Here's Carlton's photo of it. It's a Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.  Carlton had been here the previous two evenings and had seen it both times, but I had been in Alpine. Apparently, it's been gorging on birds at the feeder. I hope I will be much more careful henceforth.....

We sat and photographed a pair of Elf Owls. Here are my results. I realized I didn't have photos of one inside an agave stalk so that was my goal.

The male atop the agave was an unexpected bonus.

I saw a Hooded Warbler today but by the time I got my camera I couldn't relocate it. I'll try again tomorrow. Here is an empidonax flycatcher. I'm thinking maybe a Hammond's???