Rio Grande Valley, Texas-Part One

Looking out the window while flying from Houston to Harlingen one can only think, “My God, how humanity has changed the face of the earth!”  Urban, rural, agriculture, petroleum, wind farms, you name it…it’s there.  Not that the country was scenic grandeur before…flat as a pancake and covered with mesquite with an occasional depression holding water.  There are still a few ranches and many of these are being converted from scratching out a living raising livestock to providing habitat for birds to entice photographers — like me — who pay to use their blinds to get images.  Also, there are a number of federal, state and private refuges scattered within this area.  All one really has to worry about is not looking like you are smuggling in drugs or people or get caught in the numerous road-blocks the Border Patrol instigates.

My first morning was spent on South Padre Island at the World Birding Center where a boardwalk follows the coastline through wetland habitats.  A good place for migrating songbirds although I was a couple of weeks too early, but, there were still a lot of resident species that made for exciting images.

Boardwalk

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Boat-tailed grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle 4

Boat-tailed Grackle 3

They’re EVERYWHERE where there’s any humanity.  A very invasive species.

Gt. Blue heron

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Very tame in the east…never could figure why as you can’t even slow the car before they fly out her in California.

Osprey

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Sora rail

Sora Rail 5

Clapper rail

Clapper Rail 1

It appeared out of nowhere and disappeared before I could change to a smaller lens.

Tri-colored heron

Tri-colored Heron 3

Snack time!

Roseate spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill 2

Common moorhen

Common Moorehen 6

Bonapart’s gull

Bonaparte's Gull 1

Water Thrush

Louisiana Water Thrush 3

Alligator

Alligator 1

Green heron

Green Heron 1

That afternoon I drove up to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, an area of scrub forest, wetlands and coastline.  Paved trails were pretty easy walking for an old guy carrying 30 lbs. of camera and lens and there was a photo blind with benches to boot.

Green Jay

Green Jay 1

The most flashy bird in this area and as aggressive as are all jays.

Roadrunner

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Posing for me along the entrance road.

Baby alligator

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A number of these were in a pond with their mother.

Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

Long-tailed weasel

Long-tailed Weasel 1

Probably looking for the cottontail.  Here in the SE states they have the distinctive face masks.

Chachalaca

Chachalaca 1

Tame and always around but never come out so one can get a clear image.

Wise Words from a Wise Man

“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.” –Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey-D)

KITCHEN WINDOW IMAGES

The cold winter months are not the most conducive to great bird photography.  The birds tend to stay out of the open and in the protection of trees and bushes.  In addition, those which sport bright breeding plumage have just begun to change and are often rather dull.  However, one benefit is their attraction to our feeders where they don’t have to scrounge in the bushes for food.

These photos were all taken sitting within the warm confines of our kitchen through an open window.  About 3 meters away is an oak tree where the birds gather to utilize a suet feeder.  There are always the common local species but sometimes I’m surprised by a speedy entrance and exit of an uncommon species so the wait is often worth it.

Dark-eyed Junco (“Oregon Junco” race):  These are one of the most common birds in the neighborhood, arriving in late October and staying until April.  Normally ground feeders, they really like the suet and there are always several in the tree and on the ground.

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Oak Titmouse:  Another common species that’s resident here all year.  They are pretty quick; coming into the feeder and grabbing a bite, taking it to a protected area to consume it, and then back again.

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White-crowned Sparrow: Largest sparrow and very showy.  More common in the winter than in the summer.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow: Usually competing for fallen scraps under the suet feeder.  Only here in th winter.

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House Finch: Another year-round resident, likely the most common.  Mostly considered one of those LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobbies) yet the breeding males can be very flashy.  Most hang out around the sunflower seed feeders in the back yard.

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White-breasted Nuthatch: Scooting up and down the trunk and branches, they really like the suet but getting them to sit still enough for an image is a challenge.

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Lesser Goldfinch: The oak tree is a stop-over in route to the backyard thistle feeder.  Year round, very common, we initially hung a small thistle-seed sock to attract them, now we go through 50 lbs. of thistle seed a month.

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Pine Siskin: Another first-year visitor from the pine zone.

Pine Siskin 1

Steller’s Jay: This is the first year we’ve had this species, apparently moving down from the Ponderosa pine zone a few miles above us.  You’d think with the warming climate the movement would be the other way but not so.

Steller's Jay 3

Spotted Towhee:  These guys don’t feed off the feeder but stay on the ground below it to pick at the scattered pieces the other birds dislodge.  A resident, but they are very scarce in the summer, staying in the brushy canyon below the house.

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Say’s Phoebe:  First (and last) time I’ve seen this species here.  Stopped briefly for a few seconds and then was gone…not enough time for a lot of good images.  These are flycatchers so the suet would not attract them.

Say's Phoebe 2

Western Bluebird: Residents all year but only occasionally seen in the oak tree, briefly landing to watch for insects in the lawn below.

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Nuttal’s Woodpecker: Never seen until we put up the suet feeder.  Now both male and female there several times a day all year.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Obviously the royal family of the area.  Loud, obnoxious, destructive.  There’s probably a dozen in and round our property.  When they arrive they do so with a lot of squawking to warn the other birds to get out.  A $1,500 renovation of our roof now prevents them from jamming their acorns under the shingles for storage so they’ve reverted to filling all my nest boxes with acorns Making it necessary to clean them a couple times before nesting season.  But, for color and attitude, you can’t find a better bird.

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Bobcat Bonanza

Never having been lucky enough to get one of these guys through my lens, I went out with a photographer that knows how to find them and we saw six.  I always thought early morning should be best but these guys were late morning/early afternoon actors.  Makes sense, as that’s when the ground squirrels are active too.  These are wild animals…just not harassed in this area.  You can see the images in full frame by double-clicking on them.

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Bobcat Portrait

Bobcat 3

“What’re those guys in the car doing?”

Bobcat 4

“Ahh, boring…!”

Bobcat 6

Bad hair day

Bobcat 2

“I’m getting tired of this invasion of my privacy.”

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“Gotta get this tail clean”

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“Dinner’s hiding in the hole…come on out!”

SANDHILL CRANES

In early October I hear the cranes high overhead as they head down to their wintering grounds in the Central Valley. Looking up into the sky, I usually can’t find them as my hearing aids scramble the direction of the sound and they’re often above the clouds anyway.  But their calling indicates their presence and as they’re one of the few birds my failing hearing can still detect, it is a joy.  April brings a similar event as they start to head back to their breeding grounds in the north.

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Driving the farm roads in the upper Sacramento Valley is the way I find cranes in the winter. They frequent the farm fields, tilled until next season’s plantings; the several waterfowl refuges; and open pasturelands.

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Sadly, their core habitat surrounding Lodi (yes…the Lodi of “stuck in Lodi again”) is rapidly being converted to wine grapes, good for us cabernet enthusiasts but very bad for the cranes.

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Yesterday was a great day for crane photography as I found a flock of about 30 near the road. They were obscured by the roadside vegetation from vehicles but I was able to park on the apron, quietly setting my tripod up in the bed of my truck where I could see over the fencerow.

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I then spent 2 ½ wonderful hours watching them feeding, flying in and out, and interacting.  I took over 1200 images, erased most, but here are some of the best.

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Sandhill Crane 11

Sandhill Crane 13

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Sandhill Crane 28

Sandhill Crane 16

HUMMINGBIRDS

Small, aggressive, energetic, and colorful, hummingbirds have been a target for my lens for several years.  Four hummingbird feeders off our deck have, at times, had nearly 100 individuals clamoring for the sugar water.

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At other times, as right now, an aggressive individual keeps all the others away.  While I’ve identified 4 species here over the years, the majority are Anna’s.  A few smaller rufous are always around and it’s usually an individual of this species that keeps all others at bay.  An occasional black-chinned appears off and on during the summer but only during spring migration do I see an occasional calliope.

Anna’s Hummingbird                                  Rufous Hummingbird

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Hummingbirds are unique; found only in the western hemisphere. They range from southern Alaska to Patagonia, including islands of the Caribbean, but the majority of species occur in tropical and subtropical Central and South America within the tropical and subtropical forests of the northern Andes.  Ecuador has over 130 species.

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As hummingbirds primary food is nectar from flowers, many bill designs have evolved to utilize the great variety of tropical flowers.

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One could easily see the evolution of the swordbill hummingbird’s bill to extract nectar from flowers too deep for other birds to obtain.

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On my trips to Central and South America I’ve had an opportunity to photograph a lot of hummingbirds, I think my total is somewhere near 40 (meaning I have well over 100 left to see and photograph!  Never happen!).

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Taking images of hummingbirds in flight is a challenge as the speed of their wings requires extreme shutter speeds …

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…so a “set-up” where several flashes are often arranged near a feeder or flower to stop the action is often used.

Set-up images

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Personally, I prefer the photos of the perched birds better as they show some of the habitat but because they don’t sit very long and move fast, I have a lot of frames with nothing but the perch.

Whoops!

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Here are some of the ones I’ve captured over several trips to Central and South America.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet (Ecuador) 

Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Guango Lodge, Ecuador   

Green Thorntail (Ecuador)

Green Thorntail 3a

Long-billed Hermit (Panama)

Long-billed Hermit 3                                                                    

Collared Inca (Ecuador)                                                                                

Collared Inca, Guango Lodge, Ecuador

Purple-crowned Fairy (Costa Rica)

Purple-crowned Fairy 2

Glowing Puffleg (Ecuador)

Glowing Puffleg

Booted Raquet-tail (Ecuador)

Booted Racket-tail, Tandayapa Lodge, Ecuador                                                                   

Sapphire-vented Puffleg (Ecuador)

Sapphire-vented Puffleg 2

Violet-bellied Hummingbird (Panama)

Violet-bellied Hummingbird 4                                                      

 Brown Violet-ear (Ecuador)

 Brown Violet-ear 5

  Great Sapphirewing (Costa Rica)

Great Sapphirewing, Yanacocha, Ecuador

 Black Mango (Panama)

Black Mango 2

Buff-winged Starfrontlet (Ecuador)

Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Tandayapa Lodge, Ecuador

 White-necked Jacobin (Ecuador)                 Purple-throated Woodstar (Ecuador)

White-necked Jacobin 6Purple-throated Woodstar 2

Violet-tailed Sylph (Ecuador)                      Velvet-purple Coronet (Ecuador)

Violet-tailed Sylph 4Velvet-purple Coronet

Sparkling Violet-ear (Ecuador)                      Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Ecuador)

Sparkling Violet-ear 5Rufous-tailed Hummingbird                              

Rufous-crested Coquette (Panama)           Buff-tailed Coronet (Ecuador)

 Rufous-crested Coquette 1Buff-tailed Coronet, Tandayapa Lodge, Ecuador