Kickapoo State Park Bird Blind

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Black-Capped Vireo at Kickapoo S.P. – © Heather Valey

I always love birding in new places, especially areas fairly far from my home turf.  I recently went birding at the Kickapoo Cavern State Park bird blind and had a really good look at some great Vireos and a few other birds that are very hard to get a glimpse of in the Austin Texas area.

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White-Eyed Vireo at Kickapoo Cavern S. P. – © Heather Valey 2019

The bird blind was created very thoughtfully.  There is a place for birders to sit and watch through windows cut in the blind and there are windows placed higher in the blinds for photographers using tripods.

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Juvenile Male Bullock’s Oriole at Kickapoo Cavern S.P. – © Heather Valey 2019

A gravity fed stream flowed through the middle of the bird area with a few thoughtfully placed cedar branches as perches. There were a couple of sparsely leafed trees on the edges of the bird area that also allowed for some good viewing.  Native limestone with orange lichen was used ornamentally as well.  It was a very pleasant place to sit, listening to the gurgling stream and watch the birds flit in for a drink and a bath was a perfect way to spend the morning.

(Top Left: Hutton’s Vireo, Top Right: Yellow Warbler, Bottom Left: Yellow-Breasted Chat, Bottom Right: Black-Tufted Titmouse all ©Heather Valey 2019)

Friday the 13th, a Full Moon & Glowing Scorpions

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written & photographed by Heather Valey

It was Friday the 13th and a full harvest moon, enough coinciding symbolism to keep any superstitious folk home with the door locked.  However, there was an enthusiastic crew at the moonlight hike I co-led with super Volunteer Coordinator, Johanna Arendt (Travis County BCP).  The hike was on a tract of the Balcones Canyonland Preserve that is managed by Travis County.

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The tract we were hiking is a small part of a large network of tracts in the surrounding Austin area that make up the preserve. This land was put aside to preserve habitat for endangered and threatened species.  One of these species being the Golden-Cheeked Warbler. 

Hikers_reeditEveryone came equipped with flashlights and the desire to see creepy crawlies and things that go bump in the night at the preserve.  Luckily, for us nature did not disappoint. We wandered through a meadow at the beginning of the trail and made our way up into an Ashe Juniper and oak forest.  Once in the forest Johanna, armed with a black light, flipped over a couple limestone rocks.  After a few rocks, we found what we were looking for, a Striped Bark Scorpion.  (That’s Centruroides vittatus for anyone who wants to know the Latin. )  Now being proper Texans, we’ve all seen a scorpion or two, heck some of us have gotten much closer than we’ve wanted to and gotten stung once or twice.  I fall into that category… ouch. (I still think they are amazing though.) However, one novel thing about scorpions is, that in black light, they glow!

Blacklit Bark Striped Scorpion

Why do scorpions glow under black light? Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the effect.  They have narrowed it down to a substance found in the protective hyaline layer of the scorpion’s exoskeleton.  Scientists have noticed that scorpions don’t glow right after they molt.  Suggesting that the substance that causes the glowing develops as the new exoskeleton hardens.

After admiring the glowing Arthropods, we went on up to a ridge to look at the full moon and then down back to the trail head where an Eastern Screech Owl topped off the evening with an eerie whinny, much to the appreciation of the group.  After the hike we said our goodbye’s to our great group of hikers as everyone headed off to their cars.  We hope to see them on a future hike.

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You too, can join us on future guided hikes at the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in Austin, Texas.  Check their MeetUp page for upcoming hikes.  If you would like to volunteer to help with land stewardship activities on the BCP check out the opportunities they have on their Event Calendar.

 

sources

Brown, Wizzie, “Hot Dry Summer Has Scorpions in South Central Texas Heading Indoors”, 30 June 2018https://today.agrilife.org/2018/06/30/hot-dry-summer-has-scorpions-in-south-central-texas-heading-indoors/, Agrilife Today

Kids Discover, “What Makes Scorpions Glow in Ultraviolet Light?” 2019, https://www.kidsdiscover.com/quick-reads/makes-scorpions-glow-ultraviolet-light/, KidsDiscover.com, 

Terminix, “Why Do Scorpions Glow Under Ultraviolet Light?”, 2019, https://www.terminix.com/blog/bug-facts/why-do-scorpions-glow-under-ultraviolet-light/, Terminix.com

Fall Migration Birding in Austin TX

Swainsons Hawks Migration

photo by Heather Valey Copyright 2018

by Heather Valey  (originally appeared on Travis Audubon’s Smoke Signal blog) 

 

Every spring and fall, over 400 species of birds migrate through Texas skies. Most of them embarking on an incredible long-distance flight from their northern breeding areas in spring to their winter homes in South & Central America.   Why such a long arduous journey every season?  Birds migrate in order to move to more agreeable environments with resources for building nests and raising their young in the spring. In the fall they move to where there is more of an abundance of food in the winter.   Other contributing factors motivating this journey include the decreasing amount of light hours in the north and the colder winter weather.

When is fall migration in Texas?

Fall migration in Texas starts as early as July.  You may have noticed that in August you weren’t seeing some of our early spring birds, such as the Purple Martins, Barn Swallows & Golden-Cheeked Warblers.   They had already made their way south toward their over-wintering grounds. Other birds migrate a little later. For example, by late August we start seeing more hawks moving into the area from the north, peaking by the second week of November.  Whooping Cranes generally start their trip from Canada to their wintering ground in Texas around October.   Different species of birds seem to have different environmental and physical factors that motivate them to migrate at different times, so the exact time a species migrates may vary from year to year.

How can you see migrating birds in Austin?

According to Shelia Hargis, President of the Texas Ornithological Association, “There are numerous places around Austin to go see specific types of migration, but I think Hornsby [Bend] is the best place to see several different types of migration – shore bird migration, hawk migration and passerine migration…”  She also recommends Commons Ford Prairie for witnessing hawk & passerine migration.  Also, you can get lucky just by remembering to look up occasionally wherever you are, as you are driving, or working in the backyard or walking in a park.

Is There A Way I can find out what is migrating now?

Yes! As a matter of fact there is! Cornell Scientists created an online tool called BirdCast, that uses weather radar networks to track birds on their migration routes in the spring & the fall.   The map uses near real-time data to forecast bird migration in the US. It is designed to help keep you informed so you know what to expect in the few days ahead, in order to plan your bird watching trips.  To help you learn to read the BirdCast map and use the tool to your benefit, Cornell has created an online “how to” guide.

Fall and spring migration can be a great time to see birds that aren’t normally in our area.  You can go out birdwatching at our local parks or be more of a casual birder looking to the skies.  Technology can help you get a better idea of where and when to look.  Remember to log your migratory bird findings in e-bird and happy birding!

Sources:

Arnold, Keith A., “The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas: Golden-Cheeked Warbler”, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/golden-cheeked-warbler/

Oder, Tom, “With these maps, you can track migratory birds in near real time”, Mother Nature Network, 22 August 2018, www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/cornell-updated-birdcast-maps-track-bird-migrations

Powell, Hugh, “Here’s How to Use the Migration Forecast Tools From BirdCast”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 3 April 2018, www.allaboutbirds.org/heres-how-to-use-the-new-migration-forecast-tools-from-birdcast/

”The Basics of Bird Migration: How, Why, and Where”, All About Birds, Cornell University, 1 January 2007 www.allaboutbirds.org/the-basics-how-why-and-where-of-bird-migration/

Shackelford, Clifford E., Rozenburg, Edward R. , The Migratory Birds of Texas: Who They Are and Where They Are Going, Fourth Edition,  Texas Parks and Wildlife, 2005, travisaudubon.org/home/wp-conten/uploads/2011/07/migration-and-the-migratory-birds-of-texas-tpwd-publication.pdf

Fun at Focus in Flight Workshop

Roseate Spoonbill - photo by H. Valey

Roseate Spoonbill – photo by H. Valey

On the weekend of April 6th, I drove up to High Island, south of Houston to Houston Audubon’s Smith Oaks Rookery for Houston Audubon‘s first “Flight In Focus” photography workshop.   The rookery had been on my list of places to visit, but when I saw they were having a 2 day photography workshop I decided that this was something I didn’t want to miss.

Speakers at the workshop were Alan Murphy, Trey Williams, Sonny Manley, Clay Taylor from Swarvoski optics, and Joe Smith. Topics ranged from set ups for bird photography, to digiscoping  to urban eagle photography.

The lighting was overcast and foggy almost the whole time, but all of the photo shoots were fun and the talks were great.  Some of the photographer speakers took more of a studio approach to wildlife photography and talked about their setups and lighting while others took more of naturalist approach and only photographed their subjects in natural light and spontaneous settings.  I found it very interesting to hear talks from both camps and it has given me pause to think about my own photography style and philosophy, which I’m sure I will write more about later.

Some of the birds I was lucky enough to see and photograph on High Island that weekend were:  Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets and the Double-Crested Cormorant.  The Houston Raptor Center also brought in some of their educational/rescue birds for a photo shoot, which was fun. I’m starting to have mixed feelings about staged photo shoots though… definitely more on that later.

Enjoy the photos!

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I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…

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American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.

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Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!

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Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

Fall Showers & The Fungus Among Us

Gilled Mushrooms

Tall brittle stems – photo by H. Valey

This fall has been unusually wet for us in the Texas Hill Country.  We’re going on our 4th week of showers.  Our hot 90 + degree weather has nicely evened out in the low 80’s and the plants that didn’t get much of a chance to flourish in the summer due to our unusually dry spring are now making up for lost time.  Everything is green and pretty.  The extended moisture and warm temperatures are also bringing with them a host of interesting mushrooms almost everywhere you look.

The mushroom is much maligned.  As children we are taught to not touch them and definitely do not eat them.  There are only about 70 to 80 species of fatally poisonous mushrooms, but a lot of them look a lot like ones that aren’t poisonous, so if you are going to forage for mushrooms you have to know exactly what you are looking for.   However it isn’t going to hurt you to look for mushrooms, just don’t put them in your mouth or smell them.  Don’t let this scare you into not taking the time to appreciate them visually.  These organisms can be useful, beautiful, weird and extremely interesting.

In The Sidewalk Crack

In The Sidewalk Crack photo by H. Valey

The mushroom is the fruit of fungi.  The fungi live in soil (or in their food source: wood, leaves, etc. ).  When a mushroom sprouts up, it will then spread its spores out into the air and surrounding ground.  Most of the spores will die, but some will land in an area where there is nutrients and they will become fungi in the soil thus starting the process all over.

Some basic mushroom anatomy.  The cap is known as the pilious and the stalk, the stipe.   Mushrooms are typically either gilled or polyporous.  Most mushrooms have gills.  Polyporous mushrooms have pores or little tubes.  (see picture below).

Here are some links to more information on mushrooms:

 

Here are is a fun gallery of some of the mushrooms I’ve seen this fall. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

This Snake Freaked Me Out…

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Texas Rat Snake – photo by H. Valey

…until I realized it was a Texas Rat Snake, also known in some parts as the Chicken Snake. The scientific name is aphe obsoleta lindheimeri.

The Texas Rat Snake looks a little scary at first sight, mainly because they can grow to be very long (3 to 6 feet) and their defense mechanism is to freeze when they see you.  They also are known to shake their tails similarly to a Rattle Snake. This can be misinterpreted as the confidence of a venomous snake, but these snakes are constrictors and non-venomous. They do have a reputation for biting when cornered, but the bites are reported to be on the mild side and as mentioned non-venomous.

They are found primarily in Texas, but their range extends to Louisiana, Arkansas & Oklahoma.  No matter in what state you find them, their preferred habitat is one with Oak trees present.  Although I have seen them in parking lots before, and I saw one slither in through a mail slot on a mailbox once, most likely giving the mailbox owner a bit of a shock!

Their diet consists of rodents, and undoubtedly bird eggs and nestlings.  They are fantastic climbers and can find their way into birds nests pretty easily. An adult can take rodents as large as a fox squirrel. They are also good swimmers.

They are not considered threatened, but they are often the target of humans who come across them and kill them because they don’t know what kind of snake they are.

The picture up top was taken at a nature preserve.  The snake was in a pile of limestone rocks near many full grown oak trees.  The snake below, I spotted in the parking lot of an office complex.  Again, many full grown oak trees around, as well as leaf litter and limestone.  You can get a feel for how long these snakes can get in the video below!

For more information on Rat Snakes, visit these sites.