Cold Comforts

As Texas headed toward its deep freeze, with temperatures falling and ice beginning to build, most regular visitors to my bird feeders seemed as bemused as this white-winged dove.

Hidden away from the cold myself, I can’t say where the birds took shelter, but a few ‘regulars’ emerged from time to time to visit the feeders and forage on the ground beneath them.

  Northern Mockingbird

There was something for everyone. While the mockingbirds, robins, and wrens seemed to prefer dried mealworms, the doves and sparrows feasted on white millet.

Field Sparrow (?)

Shelled peanuts helped to sustain the squirrels (with occasional shelled pecans as a special treat). I was surprised that no bluejays came to snatch away peanuts, but I’m sure the squirrels were pleased to eat in peace.

Water was sought as often as food, and breaking ice in the water bowls was a bit of a chore. When the bowls began to freeze solid, I finally instituted a two-bowl system: bringing in the frozen water dish and substituting another while it thawed.

All of these photos were taken from my desk, which allowed for some different perspectives. The ‘Robin Red-Breast’ at the water  bowl is easy to identify, but I’m not sure I would have recognized the bird below as a robin without a second or third glance. 

Now that the snow is gone and the temperatures have warmed as much as fifty degrees, the birds seem to be as happy as we are. The sound of robins singing and conversing at dawn and dusk as they discuss their coming departure to the north warms my midwestern heart as surely as the sun is warming our bodies.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Bird on a Blade

 

Turkey Vulture ~ January 5

I rarely visit the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge without finding a bird or two perched on the old windmill that stands near the Big Slough. Turkey vultures seem fond of the spot, although black vultures and an occasional hawk will pause there as well.

On February 7, I noticed a different species had taken up residence. A Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) was using the windmill’s vane to scan for the insects, lizards, and small mammals that make up the bulk of its diet.

Shrikes are part of the songbird family, although they behave more like raptors. A sharp, falcon-like hook in their beak allows them to attack and capture prey, but they lack the talons and strong feet of hawks and owls. Unable to hold their prey while eating, as raptors do, shrikes carry their meal to a thorn bush, cactus, or barbed wire fence, where they impale it in order to dine at leisure, or store it for later consumption. 

Their propensity for impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire has earned them the name ‘butcher bird, and their ‘larders’ are sure signs of a shrike’s presence. Because they prefer open areas with short vegetation and plenty of vantage points from which to watch for prey, a windmill vane or blade suits them perfectly.

While I watched, this shrike moved from the windmill’s vane to the top of its blades, and scanned the ground below. Every minute or two, it made another dive to the ground: sometimes returning directly to the blade, and sometimes flying off into surrounding grasses before coming back to perch.

Since I never saw it eating, it may be that it was filling up its larder. Given the extraordinary cold, freezing rain, snow, and sleet that we’ll have for the next week, I hope it’s well-supplied.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Snipe, Hunting

As early as the 1840s, unsuspecting children and newcomers to country life were being duped into trying to catch a nonexistent animal called a snipe. Even today, ‘snipe hunts’ continue, as new innocents are tricked into seeking an imaginary creature whose description varies according to the imagination of the perpetrators.

During my first year at summer camp, after being challenged to find one of the elusive creatures and trap it with a pillowcase, my hunt came to an early end when the older girls watching me fumble about in the dark couldn’t contain their giggles.

That experience led me to believe for decades that all snipe were imaginary, and that being ‘sent on a snipe hunt’ was nothing more than a poetic description for an impossible mission.

Then, I met this creature probing the mud along an isolated refuge road.

Wilson’s Snipe at the Brazoria refuge

While searching among images of sandpipers and dowitchers in an attempt to identify the bird, I emailed Texas Master Naturalist Shannon Westveer, who came to my rescue. Without hunting at all, I’d captured my first Snipe — or at least its image. Only weeks later, I found my second in a pond at the Brazoria refuge.

Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) breed in our northern states and Canada, then migrate to spend the winter in southern states, as well as in Mexico and Central America. In Texas, the majority are found along the coast and in the blackland prairie region between Waco and the Red River.

The birds prefer the soft soils of moist or wet places, and often are found in harvested rice fields, rain-soaked prairies, or low-lying areas along bayous, creeks, and ponds. Long legs allow them to navigate shallow water, while  long bills allow them to probe for worms, insect larvae, and other invertebrate prey. Their bill’s tip is flexible; because it can open to grasp food while the base remains closed, they can ingest small prey from the mud without having to remove their bill from the soil.

Wilson’s Snipe foraging in a shallow freshwater pond

During courtship, males ‘dancing’ in the sky create a distinctive, winnowing sound as air passes over specially modified outer tail feathers. When flushed, the bird’s call  is equally remarkable. Now that I’ve heard the sounds on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, I know that I’ve heard them in the field. The next time I hear such a call, I’ll look around for a snipe, hunting.

 

Comments always are welcome.