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.

Gardening For Wildlife

28225581807_431293b5c4_oI’ve been spending a good portion of my time this spring working on my wildlife garden in my backyard.  We started out 3 years ago with just a backyard full of St. Augustine grass, now I have over 25 types of native plants in the backyard and about half the grass.  Do I have more wildlife? Yes and no… When I wasn’t out fiddling in the yard all the time I did notice that we had more lizards. When I wasn’t taking such good care of the compost bin, we had raccoon visitors nightly.  Now, not as many lizards, although that might change now that there are more shrubs growing in the yard and rock piles that I won’t be mucking about with anymore.  The compost bin has been switched out from an open frame style to a closed drum, so no more raccoon salad bar, but perhaps that’s ok. I didn’t mind the raccoons, but I never got any compost because they ate all the green bits!

42843548601_7c85524141_oI have noticed more birds, as I have more native bugs in the yard with the native plants.  I’ve noticed more wrens gleaning bugs off of our dwarf Yaupon bushes, which  is quite entertaining to watch.  Plants with berries, such as the Beauty Berry bush and Pigeon Berry bring in Mocking Birds and Doves, not that I needed more Doves, but still 🙂 We also had a Painted Bunting in the yard this year, and a Red-Breasted Grossbeak last year which is a little unusual in a suburban neighborhood.

We have more hummingbird visitors now that  I have more Salvias & Batface Cuphea planted. My milkweed is doing really well this year so I’m hoping to get some more Monarch visitors at some point as well. We definitely have more spiders… jumping spiders and wolf spiders. They are quite fun to watch.  We have more ants too, which I’m not that excited about though.

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I’ve had a lot of fun picking out the plants and planning the garden, although its taking more iteration than I ever imagined.  I really enjoy just sitting and watching the animals in the yard.  I’ll be adding a butterfly garden addition soon.  We just pulled out more grass in a sunny spot, so this fall I’ll plant some pollinator annuals. I also have some plans for a new water feature for next year to replace the utilitarian bird bath.

We don’t have a big yard.  I envy the folks with an acre or more to work with, but I’ll do the best with what I have. Now that it’s summer and over 100 degrees everyday, I’ll just wait until the fall to do some more work in the yard.  Its worth it to me to have a place to escape to, to forget all of the craziness in the world.

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Plant Resources for Texas Wildlife Gardeners:

What kind of plants and critters do you have in your backyard?

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.

 

Banding Golden-Cheeked Warblers – Photo Essay

I tagged along on a Golden-Cheeked Warbler bird banding session with biologist Julie Murray from the Travis County Balcones Canyonlands Conservation office in Austin, Texas. The endangered birds are banded and re-sighted every year during breeding season to help scientists understand how many birds are returning each year, how long they live and how big their territories are, among other things.

Below is a photo essay of the banding experience.

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For more information on the BCCP and the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, check out these resources below:

  1. The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
  2. The Golden- Cheeked Warbler

Up Close with Whooping Cranes

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Whooping Crane in Flight – photo by H. Valey © 2018

Fulton is just outside of Rockport TX, the place that got hardest hit during Hurricane Harvey last summer.  You could still see the signs of the storm.  Tarped roofs and piles of gathered debris were evident pretty much on every street we traveled in Rockport & Fulton.

When we got to the marina, still more signs of storm recovery.  Bait sho

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Favorite Nature Experiences of 2017

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Hiking through the hail in RMNP – photo by H. Valey © 2018

I wanted to get this done in January, but well the month steamrolled over me before I knew what happened.< Anyhow,! I’ve been wanting to do an overview of my favorite nature experiences of 2017.- -more- It’s healthy I think,- to look back on the past year and celebrate the moments that made that year special.> It’s so easy to forget the little things that brought a smile to your face or changed the way you look at the world. One of the reasons I like photography is it allows me to go back to a specific moment in time and relive it briefly.

10.  Vanishing River Cruise – Golden Eagle sighting

In December we took the Vanishing River Cruise up near Lake Buchanan in Texas.  They boasted Bald Eagle viewings and I hadn’t seen a Bald Eagle in Texas yet and was itching for a sighting.  Not only did we get to see Bald Eagles, but we got a glimpse of a couple Golden Eagles as well.  Other birds we saw on the trip included Double Crested Cormorants, Belted Kingfisher, Blue Herons, Osprey, Snowy Egrets…   They had a biologist as our guide on the boat who pointed out the birds and they served us lunch too. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods I highly recommend their eagle cruises!

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Golden Eagle – Colorado River, Texas – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

9. Thanksgiving weekend  2017 – Animal Spotting

One of my favorite things about mother nature is when you go outside for a hike, you never know what you’re gonna see.  I find this especially true if you walk slowly and quietly.  This past November, I was out scouting for coyotes.  I saw one that weekend but he didn’t want to have anything to do with me and my camera. However, other critters were cooperative.  Lots of deer and birds including a red-shouldered hawk.

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Red-Shouldered Hawk – Hill Country in Texas – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

8. Rocky Mountain National Park

Every year we make the trek to Colorado to camp and backpack.  This last year we went up into Rocky Mountain National Park for a backpacking trip. It rained and it hailed but it was still an amazing trip.  As you can see we had to get creative to keep our gear dry, and well actually it didn’t work too well.  I still ended up sleeping in a wet sleeping bag one night… brrr.

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Inclement Weather in RMNP – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

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RMNP Colorado – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

7. Butterfly photo shoot

In Austin we get butterflies in the spring and then again in November.  The Monarch butterflies migrate right through our area on the way to Mexico every fall.  I really wanted to take advantage of the migration to take photos.  I scouted a handful of locations near creeks and rivers where bee brush and other nectar plants thrive… no luck.  Finally I found a bunch of Golden Eye bushes packed with butterflies basically in the parking lot where I work.  Sometimes you don’t have to go as far as you think you do to find what you are looking for!

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Monarch Butterfly – Austin TX – Photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

6. Buck Chases Fox

So this was some fun animal interaction.  I was looking out at a meadow in the Rocky Mountains one morning and I saw a white tail buck browsing the vegetation.  A red fox comes trotting up the road past him and stops to stake out the scene.  I don’t think he knew the buck was there at first. The buck notices the fox right away and he is not happy.  He charges the fox and chases him out of the meadow. With the fox gone he goes happily back to grazing on the vegetation.  I have no idea why the buck wanted the fox gone.  It was late summer, the fawns were big and fat. Much to big for a fox to take, but maybe I’m wrong.  I find animal interactions like this pretty fascinating.

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Buck Notices Fox – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

5. Purple Martins

Every year in late February the Purple Martins start arriving in Austin, TX for breeding season.  You’ll see the tell tale gourd bird houses hanging all around town in Austin.  In summer, after the birds have fledged their young they all flock together before making the trek back to South America for the winter.  Thousands and thousands of birds swirl around and land in just a few trees in the summer evenings of June & July.  Travis Audubon hosts Purple Martin parties every year to promote awareness of the species and their club.  I’ve gone three years in a row to see the birds roost before their migration and every year is just as spectacular.

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Purple Martins by Moonlight – Austin TX – photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

4. Texas Panhandle

In the spring, we took a trip out to the Texas Panhandle to  visit some wildlife refuges and state parks.  The highlights of the trip were the wildlife sightings. My favorite were the Bullock’s Orioles.  They were a welcome blast of color as they flit from tree to tree looking for food.  The prairie dogs were fun too.. lots of babies when we were there.  I’m glad we made it out when we did as I heard recently that the particular prairie dog colony we were at was closed down just a few months later as the colony had come down with the bubonic plague. 😦

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Panhandle Collage: Bullock’s Oriole, Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, Ground Hog, Mississippi Kite, Wild Turkey, Collared Lizard – photos by H. Valey

3. Golden Cheeked Warbler

Last spring, I volunteered with the city to help do a re-sighting count of Golden Cheeked Warblers in our area.  They are an endangered bird and there are many agencies in the Austin Hill Country doing their best to protect habitat for the bird.  The bird is endangered due to loss of habitat as the hill country in Texas becomes more and more developed and the trees that they rely on for nesting materials get removed. The re-sighting work involved tracking the birds by ear in the wilderness.  It was exciting to have my first sighting after chasing the birdsong around for a couple hours.. they are fast little buggers.

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Golden Cheeked Warbler – Austin TX – photo by D. Valey (c) 2917

2. Robin Migration

Last February we had an unusual American Robin migration into the city for a couple of weeks.  Thousands of American Robins flew over Austin, Texas and surrounding suburbs. I had hundreds of birds in my yard for a couple of days, which was pretty exciting, although a bit messy to clean up after.  These guys at the bird bath cracked me up.  They would all jockey for a spot at the bird bath and then some other bird would fly over and kick someone off their spot.

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Robins Visit – Photo by H. Valey (c) 2017

1.Critter Cam fun

I bought a game cam last year, because I was interested in what type of animals we got in our backyard at night.  I was most interested in the night visitor that insisted on knocking over the birdbath continuously.  Our yard backs up to a preserve so I knew we probably got some interesting visitors.  I set the camera up in a variety of places and got glimpses of deer, grey foxes, screech owls, a rat, and the rude bird bath visitor, a fat ol’ raccoon!  The pictures from the cam aren’t the highest fidelity, but it was a lot of fun looking at them.

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Critter Cam Collage- Top L -R Raccoon, Screech Owl. Bottom L-R Grey Fox & Rat