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.

 

First Flowers of Spring

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purple Windflower – photo by Heather Valey © 2018

This year being no exception, the Windflower is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, usually late february.  You’ll find it blooming in purple, white, blue and violet.  The blooms are about 1 and a half inches in diameter.  They aren’t big flowers at all.  Probably the main thing that keeps them from being stepped on is that they are one of the few plants not brown at the moment!

As you can see, the center of the flower forms a cone protruding from the base. Once the flower has finished blooming, the seeds fly away on the wind, which gives the plant its name.  After its brief blooms it will go dormant in the summer.

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