Frequent your happy places.

Commons Ford Park is one of my happy places.   I haven’t been out here in a while, though.  The prairie is breaking out in color and teeming with songbirds.

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A painted bunting singing atop a mesquite shrub:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One scissor-tailed flycatcher posing in the foreground, and another flying away in the background:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A dickcissel pausing his constant singing to give me the once over:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pretty birds.

Memories of most birds that I identify through binoculars reside only in my mind’s eye.  Though, occasionally, I am able to capture a clear photo.  These are a few of the 100+ species logged on my trip to High Island and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge over the weekend.

Chestnut-sided warbler:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Golden-winged warbler:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mom and Dad Great Egret at the nest with their babies:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yellow-billed cuckoo:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eastern kingbird:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Neotropic cormorant:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Bikes and birds.

This is the weekend of the MS-150 bike ride from Houston to Austin. I served as sherpa again with Doray and drove Laura and her friend Patty to Houston on Friday night.

This morning we helped her get to the start and then we drove east, instead of west, so we could do some birding on the coast.

We had a great day, logging over 80 species, and turned in at the hotel late and a tad tired. Tomorrow is another day!

Migrants.

Over the weekend I made a trip to the coast.  The Spring migration is underway, and I wanted to see some colorful birds arriving after their Gulf crossing.  I thought the cold front headed for the coast might make for favorable chances of a fallout.  As it turned out, the front passed north of where I was, so weather conditions were not exceptional.  I did end up seeing lots of birds – almost 70 species.  But, I had to work at it.

Scarlet tanager eating a juicy mulberry…

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Painted bunting and common yellowthroat…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Black-necked stilt, standing daringly close to an alligator…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Counting birds.

I participated in my 3rd Christmas Bird Count today.  Our small group of four birders hiked for over 6 hours and logged 45 species.  Our counts will be rolled up with the other teams’ results.

A foggy morning over the Pedernales River….

turned into a beautiful day above the Pedernales River.

What a lovely day!

Looking for a snack.

I spied this crested caracara atop the telephone pole at the end of my driveway.  I had just enough time to go back in the house for my camera and take this shot before he flew away.   It’s not a terribly clear photo, but the best I’ve gotten of one of these big birds so far.  Caracaras are in the falcon family, but they often hang out with vultures.  You may have seen one feeding on a dead animal in a field or on the side of the road.  They they also will eat small animals and birds that they can swoop down on and pluck off the ground.  I think that is what this guy was scanning the area for.

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Brrr-ski.

Last night a cold front settled down in central Texas. The high yesterday was 92 degrees. The temps today have dropped nearly 50 degrees. A rude awakening.

All but one of my hummingbirds have moved on. This one has spent the day under the eaves out of the rain, sheltered from the north wind, and with its personal supply of nectar. I named her Ellie. I hope she makes it.

Fountain 4.0.

A year or two ago, I installed a small water feature under the oaks next to our back patio. It was a small fountain powered by a tiny water pump (4W, 80 gallons per hour). The birds have enjoyed it almost as much as I have.

The first pump lasted about a year. I clean it every few weeks. But one day it just stopped working. No problem. I ordered another pump from amazon and installed it. A week later some varmit pulled the pump out of the water basin, and it ran dry until it melted. 😦

I bought a third pump and the same thing happened; probably by the same damn varmit. 😡

This time, I’ve placed the pump under a rock and added a piece of plastic tubing to carry a stream of water through holes in the rock onto the pebbles below.

Wish me luck!

Birding outing.

Doray and I visited Warbler Woods and Crescent Bend Nature Park today.  We saw many more species than I was able to capture on camera, but here are my only keepers.  I love the variety of migrant birds we get to see here.

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Common Yellowthroat female
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Painted Bunting male
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White-eyed Vireo
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Bronzed Cowbird

 

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Black & White Warbler
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Louisiana Waterthrush
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Blackburnian Warbler female
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Inca Doves

Apps to pack.

I enjoyed my Italy trip immensely. On this trip I graduated to the realm of the connected-passenger, relying on technology to assist my travels. I thought I’d share some of the apps that I found useful (and a couple I didn’t). Also, note that I have an iPhone, so I can’t comment on the availability of the apps for other phone types.

International data plan: Before setting off, do take the time to research your wireless phone provider’s international plan options. Mine has a day-pass for $10/day which essentially extends the already generous cellular voice/data limits of my existing plan to use while connected in other covered countries. Free wifi is generally widely available in Europe, but I found it could be a bit spotty. I didn’t want to worry about data caps, and Italy and the U.K. are included in my provider’s per-day international plan, so I went with that. You may choose differently, but decide before you leave.

Airline apps: This trip I flew Norwegian Air Shuttle and easyJet. You’ll want your airlines’ apps on your phone, too. Online check-in may help you avoid some lines, and online boarding passes can make connections and terminal transfers a bit easier without having to find a kiosk or person to print out a paper boarding pass for you.

Lodging: I booked my lodging through Airbnb. The Airbnb app makes for easy communication with hosts for directions, check-in times, and handling any questions or problems that come up during your stay. If your hotel has an app, you may want to install it for the same reasons.

Itinerary management: Instead of printing out a dozen or so reservation details, I opted to use GoogleTrips to integrate them all together. Once installed, you can login and have it pull details from emails in your inbox relating to travel reservations, and it will organize them all neatly by trip, date, and destination. And you can have it download the itinerary for offline viewing. This puts times, flight numbers, locations, reservation codes, contact details in one easy to reach place.

Train schedules: Following a tip from Rick Steve’s Europe website, I installed the Deutsche Bahn’s app DB Navigator for online rail timetables. It was awesome. Though it is the German rail’s app, it includes very current schedules for all of Europe for online viewing. The Italian rail information was accurate and I used this app exclusively to plan my train travel. I didn’t use it to purchase tickets, just to figure out which train I wanted to catch. I highly recommend it.

Currency conversion: The Xe currency app works online, or offline if needed, using the last exchange rate it downloaded. Not necessary but nice to have if you don’t know how much that thing is really going to cost you.

Foreign language help: My English and Spanish get me by in most places, but I don’t know much Italian. So, I used the Google Translate app. It will translate individual words or phrases for you. But it can also use the camera on your phone and will translate entire paragraphs of text in an image for you. This was awesome for translating text from tour brochures. Plus it was just kind of fun to use.

I also recommend Duolingo for learning a new language. I always have it on my phone, to sharpen my Spanish, and I used it for a few weeks ahead of my recent trip to learn a bit of Italian. It definitely helped. They also make a flash card-based app called Tinycards that is a nice companion to the original Duolingo app. And they are both free.

What to see: I installed the Trip Advisor app, and downloaded ahead of time the info they have on Florence, Pisa and Cinque Terra. I used it to look for ideas on new things to see and places to visit. Google Trips also has a “things to do” category, but I found Trip Advisor was the one I used more.

Finally, I recommend installing Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app. It has audio walking tour and museum audio tours for several destinations in Europe. You can download ahead of time the ones you want to listen to.

Entertainment: I always tote my kindle e-reader around, but I also downloaded some free audiobooks and videos using Hoopla and Overdrive apps. If your city library participates with them, you can checkout several titles for free each month. I loaded up a few for the plane and train rides.

I never leave home without my Geocaching app. If you want to see more than a few caches you’ll have to sign up for a premium membership, which I find very reasonable. You can download ahead of time collections of caches in different places that you are going to visit. I earned my Italy badge on this trip. Woohoo! I carry a real compass in my backpack, but an electronic version is handy, too.

I left my binoculars and big camera at home this trip. So I didn’t think I’d get much birding in, and that was correct. I could hear many birds, but I was hard-pressed to get a good look at most. Before I left, I paid $15 for a European birding field guide app called Collin’s Bird Guide, as the European bird species are different from those in North America. Turns out I didn’t use that app at all. It has beautiful content, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It didn’t have a function to guide me in identifying a bird by color, size, etc. Good old Google search did the trick; I’d search, for example, on “Italy large black and grey bird” and just scroll through pictures until I found the one I was looking for. A website called world-birds.com turned up often with helpful info.

Navigating: I prefer paper maps, but for electronic aid I just used Google Maps to plot walking directions ahead of time, or if I had a “where the heck am I” moment. I wasn’t worried about my data usage as my data plan has high limits. But if you are, you can look up a route and directions while on wifi and take a series of screen shots ahead of time for viewing later. There are a couple other map/navigation apps I’ve seen recommended, but I didn’t use them: navmii and CityMaps2Go. If you really are trying to limit your data usage while traveling, download these ahead of time to see how helpful they are and practice with them before you leave.

Check out these and other apps to make your trip more enjoyable.

What other apps would you recommend?

Beach shots.

On my way to the coast on Friday, I made a side trip back to High Island, and was treated to another fun day of birding through their woods.   I also made a stop at Bolivar Flats – a beach on the gulf coast.   I am woefully lacking knowledge of shorebirds, but am trying to learn.   Afterwards, I took the Bolivar-Galveston car ferry to Galveston Island and then drove on up to Kemah to meet the ladies.  Some sights..

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Memorial to those lost to the Deep
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American Avocets – with their funny upturned bills
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Wilson’s Plover – I was pleasantly surprised one of my in-flight shots turned out

Hello, Trident!

This weekend I headed to the coast again.  This time it was to join Lori and a group of girlfriends to stay on her boat, the one we sailed to Texas from Florida a little over two months ago.  We planned to go out for a ladies’ sail, and to help her with the renaming ceremony for the boat.

Lots of wine, dancing and laughing took place.  The sail was nice – in Galveston Bay with 15-ish knot winds.  The renaming ceremony was fun.  I even squeezed in a quick birding trip back to High Island.

Nice!

Home maker.

A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers have consistently made appearances at my feeders for at least two years.   The male has chosen a tree in the front yard to make a hollow for their nest.   I will be keeping an eye on them!

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Birding trip extraordinaire.

I finished our tax return today, with 2 days to spare!

Now I’m finally getting the opportunity to look back through the notebook that I took with me on a birding trip last weekend.   I enjoyed two wonderful days on High Island on the Texas Gulf coast.   A cold front was predicted to sweep through southeast Texas last Saturday morning, and I got up early so that I could get to the coast about the same time the Norther did.   The hope was that the cold air and strong northerlies would persuade the wave of birds migrating north from Central and South America to land in the woods on High Island for cover, rest, and stay there for a day or so.   I left Austin at 3:30AM, drove through the advancing cold front and made it to Boy Scout Woods bird sanctuary right after sunrise.

It was drizzly, not pouring rain, but because of that, I didn’t take my camera out all day on Saturday.  But WOW was I treated to a diverse collection of birds.   It turns out that the front stalled a bit and took its time getting to the coast.  But it eventually did.  And though it wasn’t a fallout of colossal proportions, the birds were happy to stop for a break and birding was fantastic, giving me the opportunity to see nearly 100 different species, many of them lifers for me.

We southeastern and central Texas residents are incredibly fortunate to live right on the superhighway that is the twice-a-year-traveled pan-American bird migration path.  So, let me share with you a bit of my experience.  High Island is a small coastal island on the Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston; and it is unique in that it sits on a salt dome foundation, rising over 30′ above sea level, providing a habitat in which shrubs and forests thrive where they are not usually encountered until well inland.   The beach along Bolivar Peninsular and the trees in the sanctuaries on High Island are often the first thing migrating birds see after completing their 600 mile (and 15-24 hour) non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

My trip to High Island was quickly-planned, but I had an amazing experience.  First of all, High Island is home to a number of lovely birding sanctuaries/locations that are beautifully owned and managed by the Houston Audubon Society and/or the Texas Ornithological Society.   On my trip I visited Boy Scout Woods, Bolivar Flats, Smith Oaks woods & rookery, and Hooks Woods.  And since I was in the neighborhood, I spent time at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge on my northwest trek back to Austin.

The Houston Audubon Society charges admission of $8/daily visit to their sanctuaries.  Or you can buy a (lovely) patch for $30 which is good for admission to all their High Island sanctuaries for the entire year.   I opted for the patch.  Because I WILL be back.

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A Prairie Warbler graces the 2018 High Island patch from Houston Audubon Society.

Around lunchtime on Saturday I got mighty hungry.  So you can imagine how pleased I was to see a sign outside the Boy Scout Woods entrance advertising the local St. Matthews United Methodist church BBQ lunch.  Every Saturday during Spring migration.  $12 a plate.  Delicious.  Also, I simply must encourage you to make sure you take advantage of the FREE, 3-times a day each Saturday during Spring Migration guided walks hosted by the fantastic group Tropical Birding.  Tropical Birding have been partners of Houston Audubon Society for many years.   Three expert guides walked us around the island with sharp eyes, ears, and spotting scopes, making it easy to see the birds that are usually so invisible.  I spent at least 8 hours with these guys and enjoyed every minute of it.

I didn’t have a plan to stay on the coast overnight, but I knew I would.  It was very easy to find an inexpensive place to stay in Winnie, Texas, just 20 miles north of High Island, right off I-10.

I did eventually get my camera out on Sunday, which was quite chilly, but at least it wasn’t raining.  I may post a picture or two from that set of photos in the future.  But, for now, if you are even mildly interested in birding, you must get down there soon!