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!

Fledge day.

On February 20th, we noticed a pair of Carolina wrens making a nest in a planter we have on the patio out back.  For the last week or two we have watched them bringing insects all day long, and could hear the babies’ chirps.  Today they fledged!  I saw the first one jump out.  Then called Monte to the window.  We watched the second one jump out, and then he reminded me I might want to get a picture or two.  🙂

The last three…

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And then there were two…

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And then there was one…

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And then there were none!  Such cuties.

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Yay!  Now I can finally trim that plant and water it.

Thanks Nikon!

I like to share when I have a great customer service experience; they are so rare these days.

I’ve owned a much-used pair of binoculars that were originally bought for the boat, but have also accompanied me on many miles of rainy, dusty and sweaty birding hikes. Unfortunately the adjustable eye cups both broke, making them less than ideal to use. Right when I was going to retire them, I remembered that Nikon has a lifetime warranty on their optic products.

So I looked up how to get a service return authorization, which was easy to do online, then shipped them off. I only had to pay for shipping to Nikon.

It took a little over 3 months, but yesterday I received a brand new replacement pair in the mail (postage-paid)!

It’s nice to know there are still companies out there that follow through on their quality promises.

Easter day trip.

With no commitments until Easter dinner with Julie later in the day, we headed out to visit Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.   It is a beautiful place to see in the spring, full of gardens teeming with wildflowers, and several miles of lovely trails to explore.

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I don’t think the wildflowers have peaked yet in south Austin, based on what we saw here, so there’s still time to get out there and see them!

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The view from the top of the cistern tower, overlooking the surrounding meadow trails.

There is a great-horned owl family roosting in a wall ledge just inside the entrance.  There are two owlets, but they are not sticking their heads up in this shot.

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Spring in the Hill Country.

I love this time of year in Austin.  The hills look like broccoli.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the golden-cheeked warbler returns for nesting season.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wish it lasted longer, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Simply a wonderful trip.

Monte and I took another road trip at the end of February.   Some stats:  10 nights & 11 days on the road, nearly 3,000 miles driven, over 1000 photos taken, 2 states visited, 18 holes of golf played, 3 birthdays celebrated, 5 relatives thoroughly enjoyed, my 1st ringer in a game of horseshoes, and 25 new lifer bird species seen!

It was a fantastic trip.  The only downside is that Monte picked up a cold somewhere along the way, so he’s laying low for a few days.

Susanne flew to Austin to drive with us to Tucson.  Though I have been to Tucson many times for work, I guess I never took the time to enjoy the place.  It is really beautiful.  And late-winter was a terrific time to visit.

Here are a few of places we explored in Tucson, and I would recommend all of them if you, too, get a chance to visit:

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:  an outdoor museum showcasing the diverse ecosystem of the surrounding desert, and its teeming flora and fauna species.  Simply an amazing destination, with so much to see.  I will do this again next time I’m in Tucson.

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The beauty of the desert – cholla, ocotillo, prickly pear, saguaro cacti, and more!
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An Allen’s hummingbird, a rare visitor to the area, seen in the Desert Museum gardens

Saguaro National Park (the western Tucson Mountain district location):  saguaro cacti for miles.  MILLIONS of them.  An informative visitor center.  Also some very nice petroglyphs at Signal Hill, only a short hike off of the Bajada Scenic Loop.

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LOTS of saguaro cacti
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One of the petroglyphs at Signal Hill

Catalina State Park:  a lovely park at the base of the Catalina Mountains.  Lots of nice hiking trails and many of my lifer birds were seen here.

Mission de San Xavier del Bac:  a national historic momunent, it is the oldest in-tact Spanish colonial structure in the Americas, built in the late 1700s.  It is still a working parish church, serving the Native American Tohono O’odham nation, on whose reservation it resides.  An informative free tour gave us an overview of the history of the Spanish, the native Indians, the Mexicans, from the 1700s through today.   We wanted to see one historic mission, and decided to do this one instead of the Presidio downtown.  I’m glad we did.

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Exterior of Mission de San Xavier Del Bac, the interior is full of colorful murals.

– Catalina Mountains at sunset:  simply stunning to view

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The Catalina Mountains glow red in the light from the setting sun

Susanne flew home after we all had a nice visit with her.  And after a week, we bid adieu to Gene & Jo (and Dan & Patrick, who were also visiting) and took off on a loosely-planned trip home, on a northern route instead of the southern one we took on the way west.  Taking an I-40 eastern route home also gave us several opportunities to drive along portions of the Historic Route 66 (and, yes, we played the song when we did).

There were 3 things we wanted to see, and we left Tucson with no plans on where or how long to stay at each one:

1) Grand Canyon National Park:  neither of us had been there before.  The park needs no introduction, so let me just say it is all that it is cracked up to be.  And again, late winter was a wonderful time to see it with a minimum of crowds.   The park has a really well thought out visitor center, shuttle bus system, and easy to hike trails that run along the rim of the canyon with stunning views.  The Yavapai Geology Museum is another must-see inside the park, along the rim trail.   We had originally planned to make the park a quick stop, spending 2-3 hours there tops, and then head back down to Flagstaff to continue our trip east.   But as we were driving there, I decided to check out lodging options in the park.  I figured it was a long shot, but since we had to stay somewhere overnight, the park would be a much cooler place to stay than somewhere off the interstate.  I am SO glad I checked it out, because we were able to book a cabin at Bright Angel Lodge for that night RIGHT ON THE RIM of the freaking Grand Canyon!  What a treat.   And so we did spend much more than 2-3 hours exploring the park.  I’m so glad we did.

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The view from our cabin… less than 50′ from the edge of the Grand Canyon!
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And a view from another vantage point along the Rim Trail.  Simply beautiful.

2) Meteor Crater Natural Monument:  a hole in the ground about a mile across.  Formed by a meteor that fell to the earth 50,000 years ago.   It’s only 5 miles off of I-40.  The admission was (relatively) steep, compared to other tourist sites ($18 per person), but we knew that going in, and still just really wanted to see the crater.  It’s been on Monte’s bucket list for a while.

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The raised rim of Meteor Crater, viewed from about 2 miles away.
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And, a look inside the crater, 3/4 mile wide over 500′ deep.

3) Staircase of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe:  a spiral staircase in a 1880s-built Gothic chapel, with a mysterious legend regarding how it was constructed, and by whom.  Another last minute hotel search turned up a simply lovely location right next door to the chapel, the Inn & Spa at Loretto.  Yes, a staircase is an odd reason to visit Santa Fe, as there is so much to see and do there, but that was what took us there.   Our drive brought us into Santa Fe after dark.   The original plan was to stay one night, see the staircase at 9AM, and then proceed immediately east for the 11-hour drive to Austin.   Once we got to our luxurious room, and saw the private patio (which alone was bigger than my first apartment!), and thought of all the things we could do to fill a day in Santa Fe, we extended our stay another night.  Again… awesome!

After another long day of travel, we enjoyed a really delicious dinner and bottle of wine at the hotel’s restaurant, Luminaria.   The next day we ate breakfast at the Palacio Cafe, walked through the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, finally saw the staircase in the Loretto Chapel :), walked through the historic district, then made a bee-line for the Gruet Winery tasting room in the lobby of the St Francis Hotel.   Then we visited a lovely park, the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, just 2 miles east of downtown and took in another hour or so of birding.  More lifers!

On the way back into town, we picked up a baguette and some nibbles to go with the bottle of champagne we’d picked up at the winery, and enjoyed a late lunch al fresco on our ginormous private patio.  It was a tad chilly, but it was lovely.

After a big lunch, we chose to skip dinner and tried out a good place for margaritas and chips.   We chose Tomasita’s, in a restored railway station building, and enjoyed walking there and back.

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The Staircase!  Two 360-degree turns.  Miracle or not, it’s beautiful.
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Exterior of Loretto Chapel.  The orange building to the right is the Inn and Spa at Loretto.
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Flight of Bubbly?  Yes please!
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A perfect lunch on the patio.

 

That’s it. 🙂 We drove non-stop to Austin the next morning, and are enjoying being home again.

 

 

 

Wrens about.

A pair of Carolina Wrens are nesting in a planter on the back patio.   This puts them frequently within 10 feet or so of the window.    I can’t wait to watch for the babies in a month or so.

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