All words and images © 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in any form.
Remembering back, I thought I birded every day, but the dates on my images don't bear this out. I did swim every day and walked around my parents' beautiful yard and down the canal photographing flowers and trees and whatever flew or seemed to fly every day nearly every time I needed something to do.
But real birds only eased into my days at Camp Grandma. I guess I had to settle in first, and catch up on sleep. I'd been walking early mornings at White Rock in Dallas, so I was used to being up at 6 ayem, when Mom & Dad do breakfast. I wanted to start every day with them instead of sleeping till noon and missing the best part of their day.
Once upon a time I had a car I called "Snag" for an injury it came with, and after driving it to The Valley I always got a serious case of Snag Lag. Catching up with time may be what took me awhile to find my way back to birds.
But find my way I did, catching quickly up, shooting everything in sight around the house and yard and the path along the canal to the highway.
I'd been wanting a flat-out flying shot of a grackle for months in Dallas. This is a Great-tailed, the same variety we have up north.
Mid this Sunday afternoon we drove down to the 65,000-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This is my first photograph of a wild owl (See my shot of an attacking, trained owl at last year's Texas State Fair).
I hope I'll get to photo a live, unstuffed indigenous one around White Rock soon. Anyone know where one hunts?
First, we visited the park's center for a glimpse of what we might expect if we were here in the winter and creeping along one of the long, cool pathways through the forest instead of driving a hot, mesquite jungle in the big middle of summer. Someday, I want to go back and explore and photograph. This day we heard birds but saw few.
Till we got home.
If you're one of those who've waded through the Dallas version of this journal, you might recognize the pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks Mom photographed with their stripy chicks earlier this summer.
I suspect this is the same couple. I'd seen them dawdling across the canal yesterday, but they flew away when they saw me. Wandering around with my camera after my afternoon swim, I did not at first recognize the pair of oddly flat, rounded birds swooping low over the back yard.
I shot, but did not get more than a duo blur. So I waited, and they circled over twice more, then rested awhile on the power pole by the grove, where I caught them standing in most of their glory and pole vaulting. Sharp, for a change, and in focus. Note their subtle male/female differences, and no, I don't know which is which.
The bird curve rocketed up today with a solo ayem trip to the World Birding Center near Bentsen Palms, south of Mission along the Rio Grande, and a visit with a really big bird in the neighborhood later that afternoon.
It was hot and nasty sweaty a morning. I shot a lot of birds — a Cardinal that could be a Scarlet Tanager or a Vermillion Flycatcher ...
a Groove-billed Ani, several varieties of Doves, a Killdeer in the parking lot and my best shot yet of the bright little Great Kiskadee, a bird I'd seen and attempted to photograph flying and calling from the trees overlooking Mom's pool (Dad would sooner fill it with dirt, the trouble it makes). The kiskadee was the first valley bird I learned to recognize by sight and call.
When I saw this Grooved-billed Ani from the top of the hawkless Hawk Viewing Tower at the Wildlife Refuge, I thought it was just another grackle and didn't follow through to get a better shot, making the ani one of my more difficult catches during my Hotel Grandpa stay.
This is one I still don't know what is. I have several shots of these whateveritizzes, and I'm growing fond of them, whatever they are.
But for being fond of a bird — and engaging in major interaction with it — nothing was better than my encounter with the Emu, although one other encounter nearly equaled it, several days later.
This emu belongs to one of Mom's friends and was obtained as a pair (the other suffered a broken leg and had to be put down), supposedly for meat (Anna read they taste like chicken), but the domestic market for emu meat never materialized.
I was frankly scared of it. Every time it looked at me with those big yellow eyes, I saw one of the nasty raptors in Jurassic Park and moved carefully, although I eventually got close enough to pet it.
I talked to it from the moment we were introduced. I was immediately fascinated, and it seemed happy enough to walk along and even add a squawk from time to time.
When I asked its owners if they had any shed feathers, he reached around behind this one and pulled out a hand full of the long, harsh, narrow, spindly protrubances. I had it in my hand briefly, but when the emu evinced more than passing interest in them, and looked like it might peck at me to get them back, I handed them off to Mom, who stuffed them under her shirt, where the 'mu seemed not to sense them.
After much petting and hugging of the emu and laughing, we left the emu on his farm, E I E I O.
A little quieter day. Swim, walk down the wild, tree-lined irrigation canal out back and see what I can see, even if I can't identify all these birds and bugs. One of the first things I noticed was tiny frogs hopping across the road toward the canal. I knew frogs were on the decline, but I saw enough of these guys I thought they might have a chance at a comeback.
So, there were those little frogs; an abundance of unknown birds (scattered below); this shimmering skimmer that I got perfectly clear photos of, but why show that when there's this glittering gem resting on a plant in just the right angle of sunlight with dark tree shadows beyond; and a dark moth larger than my hand, hanging upside down from an eave on the front porch.
I watched it flap slowly and softly in under the ceiling along the front porch just outside the kitchen window. Straining back, shooting almost straight up, I shot and shot and shot. A few of those were actually in focus.
These birds — and others less worthy of inclusion here — were all shot up and down along the canal. I've lost my Birds of Texas' Rio Grand Valley color brochure, which I suspect would make identifying them a lot easier. Meanwhile, they join the ranks of the mysterious. (See Whateveritizzes, below.)
Let me know, if you know who any of these guys are. I am, as I like to repeat fairly observant and armed with a camera, but still no expert.
I also think I saw a Plain Chachalaca deep in the shade thicker than where the cardinal was, in the trees along the canal, but I only had a vague notion of what a chachalaca looked like then, so I wasn't sure.
My second to last full day in the Valley I returned to the Birding Center in Bentsen Palms for souvenir T-shirts and wandered around the grounds photographing whatever I could find, mostly flutterbys that were so numerous it was creepy.
Not just the dark, misshapen ones, of course, but also the bright, happy ones. An overabundance of weird bird food.
By the time I finally got out to the Birding Center — after aligning Blue's suspension and balancing its wheels, it was too hot for most birds or sane humans to be flapping around.
I seemed to be winding down with the birds again. But I had one more, major avian interaction to go. One I won't soon forget. This inter-species exchange — not quite communication but close, maybe more like a shared giggle — left me in awe.
I was floating in the pool with my camera close. I learned that lesson a couple days ago when I'd looked up to see a hawk making lazy circles in the sky. I showed it to Mom, who was also impressed at its size, even as far away as it'd got by then.
But my camera was out of reach. The rest of my stay, I swam with the camera under a towel in reach from the pool. After seeing that first hawk, I requested the Universe send me another, hoping I'd be ready next time.
While floating — just floating, not the usual slow but strenuous, back-stroke laps, I leaned back and watched with wonder a large, three-foot-wingspan bird silhouette (as above) arcing easily through the air against the fading mauve sky. No power flapping, more like floating, toward me, then veer off over the garage.
I waded over, grabbed the camera and climbed out of the pool, hoping the bird would return. It did. Eventually bringing three friends who took turns shooting over the pool, into the trees out by the road, turning in the treed darkness there, then out over and into the grove. And back repeatedly.
In my first photos of the mystery birds I tried to pan with the bird, then birds. But my lens would not focus as quick as the birds flew in closer, nor could I follow their twisting, turning paths.
So I set focus on manual, prefocused on things not flying by me that were about the same distance. Shoot; look at the image; adjust focus. Shoot again. The flash created the severe eye glow reflection that obscures their faces and beaks, but renders everything else pretty sharp. Sometimes.
I have a lot of near and total misses, but these are the best shots.
I got better at it, and they kept figure-8-ing through their aerial gymkhana. Toying with the human twisting and turning into their spirals, flashing every few seconds. I was having gangbusters fun. So, I think, were they.
What was best about interacting with the Emu was the interactivity. It was right there in fingers' touch. Close enough to feel its textures, look into its eyes and worry what it was thinking.
Tonight's encounter with the four hawks had a similar flavor. They were playing with me, buzzing me like barnstormers in a new town. And I was toying with them, flashing every time they whizzed by.
I must have done something else today. Swim. Walk. Wander around. Mess with the automatic transmission fluid that keeps leaking out of Blue ...
But what I remember is rain.
Something not common to the Middle Rio Grande Valley. It was a surprise, although I'd wanted to photograph its prelim clouds on our way to Mom's friend's backyard where birds always were. Well, almost always.
They weren't there when we were, but I figure they knew about the impending rain. All was left were a few doves and naked little beige birds. And a dog that could never be a guard. Too friendly.
What I was waiting for was the bird lecture at Quinta Mazatlan that evening. Before that, I planned to (and did) wander the winding paths through the grounds looking for birds that had escaped me thus far. The Chachalaca for major instance. Maybe some others.
I hoped the guy could identify the four birds that buzzed me last night, and he did. After a decent slide talk about the subject of his book, Nesting Birds of the Neotropic Frontier (meaning right here in The Valley), the motley crew of us queued up in the diorama room, then flowed out into the road around the estate and onto a nearby path, which was literally crawling with birds.
We saw tiny, faraway Common Nighthawks who did not buzz us; a Golden-fronted Woodpecker hammering away at a palm tree; several Plain Chachalacas, a whole family of whom played in a tree like monkeys scooting up branches; some Kiskadees; White Wing and other Doves galore; and the two noble Whatever It Izzes above ...
Again, another place I want to come back to in winter or fall. When it is cool, and I can concentrate on something besides sweat and heat.
Today, I drove home. 500+ miles north to Dallas.
Along the way: more Turkey Vultures; a dead Javalina apparently hit by a vehicle; a few other birds; mostly on signs; and a steady swirling stream of millions of Monarchs and other butterflies — about 100 or so per minute, mile by mile all the way up, mostly dark, nearly black at first, transitioning to lighter, even eventually brightly colored yellows and whites and mixed butterflies in a staccato stream all the way from Mission to San Antonio.
I tried to photo the bugflies themselves, but the stream was visually elusive, except splattered across my windshield many miles north. I'd stop, fill up with gas and carefully wash their splattered remains off, drive more, stop again and wipe ...
I didn't know when I saw these guys floating among the clouds what they'd sensed. Not long later, I found this, dead by the side of the road. In the 70s I did a long, Dead By The Side of The Road series of critters clunked by cars — dogs, cats, several armadillos one of which had been being eaten by a vulture that was also struck and landed fifty yards down the road, a bloated cow with its nose chewed off, a horse.
The series stopped when my mood rose decades ago. But here was this strangely flattened critter, dead by the side of the road. Click, drive.
I used to think the gateway to The Valley was Falfurious (which is not how it's really spelled) or Premont or even Alice, Texas. But now I'm sure it's the Brooks County Rest Stop somewhat north of the idiot Border Inspection Station where I always nod and say "yes," when they ask if I'm a citizen.
I've never tried a back road around it, but I'm sure some non-citizens have. It's hardly a surprise to find it still right where it's always been. But it's nice to have that big impediment to traffic north there, gave me time to rearrange my ice chest and the audio books I kept fumbling to find.
The rest stop has wonderful gnarly trees and, at least when I was there today, was filled with the sounds of birds. I followed some of those tweets and twitters and squawks to find this cousin to the Golden-fronted Woodpecker.
The Golden-fronted Woodpecker looks a lot like the Ladder-backed Woodpecker from the back. If you look at their faces, however, like I did not when I first mis-identified this bird, there's plenty difference. Their backs may be similar, but their faces are completely different. The Ladder-back has black and white and red stripes on their faces. This doesn't.
Much closer to Dallas, where I got after again getting lost trying to find the San Antonio Shoes (SAS) factory store where they sell seconds that look like firsts but go for less than half price. That's the second time I failed to find that elusive factory.
It was dark in Dallas by the time I got there, and I crashed and slept most of the next day, read my email, went back to sleep. Then got up early Sunday to walk at the lake and photograph Parakeets up close in telephoto nesting in The Big Hum.
Which journaling I'll get to when I finish this and do a couple other things pending.
There's more and more artistic (different, anyway) photographs from this trip now on my DallasArtsRevue Member page.
— J R Compton
bird stories on the June, July, August, September, October and whatever
month this is Amateur
Birder's Journal, our walking journey along The White Rock Trail and my paddle up White Rock Creek. >>
Read the new Birds of the Rio Grande Valley page with The Birds of Winter.
All text and photographs
copyright 2006 by J R Compton.
All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction in any
digital or analog medium
without specific written permission.