Sparrows of Hermits’ Rest

Today I am taking a mental health break and just having fun outside. I spent a really long time this morning watching the edge of the woods to figure out how many kinds of sparrows are flitting around in the brush. We get so many in winter, and it’s easy to see them with the cedar elm leaves all shed out.

Where there are sparrows

The first ones I saw were Harris’s sparrows. These are really easy to ID because they have black faces. We get them every winter.

Also they have very pink bills.

They aren’t common in much of the US, but you sure see them in the brush here. Sorry for these stock photos, but I couldn’t get photos.

The blue is the non breeding range.

Most of the sparrows were white-crowned sparrows. You hear them more than you see them. You hear their lovely calls all around you, then hear rustling. That’s the sparrows rummaging through the leaf litter looking for food.

Blurry but easy to ID.

When you finally see them, their heads shine at you, at least the males. They are vibrantly black and white. A spectacular little bird and lots of fun to watch, especially as they flit around in groups going from tree to tree.

I want a bug.

Others stay in one spot for quite some time. I guess there are lots of tidbits to eat there. I will spare you more blurry photos, but it was fun trying to get them.

Once I got out the binoculars and started looking that way, I found the third brush-dwelling sparrow at Hermits’ Rest Ranch in winter, the white-throated sparrow. They look a lot like the white-crowned, but have a bit of yellow above their eye near their beaks.

The bill also helps you tell them apart.

The Field Sparrows

We also have a variety of sparrows in the fields, completely different types. Most are vesper sparrows. These are the biggest ones, and their white tail feathers make them easy to ID. I never get close enough for a good photo, though.

There’s two of them. Take my word.

The vesper sparrows are here all year, even though the maps say they aren’t. There’s another smaller sparrow here now, which I’m not sure if they are savanna sparrows or song sparrows. Well, I’m better at this than I used to be!

We also have lots of meadowlarks right now. They fly really differently from the sparrows, though. And the killdeer are here in the fields, too. It’s quite busy!

Oh, I wanted to share one more visitor, a pair of greater yellowlegs, who have been sharing the pond behind the house with the huge great heron.

Three water birds.

I didn’t know yellowlegs swam, but for sure they weren’t ducks! Then they stood up and I knew what they were. There’s always something new to learn about nature.

Snacky Hawky Time

Yesterday was my last day in the Austin office for a while. There were at most three other people on my floor today, so it was pretty darned quiet. At least no one breathed on me!

The excitement started when I was getting ready to go home. I had decided to walk the parking garage for a little exercise, for old times’ sake, and just started out when I heard all sorts of commotion, consisting of upset bird chirps, upset squirrel sounds and the unmistakable call of a red-shouldered hawk.

I ran to the side of the garage that looks over the courtyard and saw a lot of wings, flapping, and screeching. I followed the sounds of the hawk (certainly not a subtle hunter) to the oak tree next to last year’s nest. There he or she sat, triumphantly pecking away at whatever creature got caught in all that commotion.

Allow me to screech about my current meal.

I’m not sure, but I think it was one of the squirrels. I couldn’t get a good enough photo to tell for sure, since the sun was at an awkward angle. It certainly appeared to be a satisfactory snack.

I’m trying to hide over here. Go away.

I hung around a while to see what all the bird sounds were. I saw a mockingbird, what appeared to me to be a nuthatch, and some really pretty birds with red on them, but I’m not sure what they were. I wish I always had binoculars!

The other thing I saw all over the courtyard were these masses of leaves in the trees, mostly the cedar elms, but others as well.

There are dozens and dozens of these clumps of leaves.

I knew they just weren’t leaves the trees had shed, because they are stuck on their really well, no matter how windy it gets or anything. I figured there must be an insect or something in there, so I looked closer.

Aha, webs.

Sure enough, it’s webs that are holding the masses of leaves together. I wonder what it is? I’ve gone with fall webworm moths on iNaturalist, but am patiently waiting to see if that’s verified. If it is, we’re in for a lot of pretty moths at some point.

I’m so glad to have this oasis of nature right next to the building where I work in Austin. I often give silent thanks to whoever preserved this little bit of nature and added so many native plants to the courtyard to make it a wonderful respite for so many people. I miss my desk with a view of the hawk nest, squirrel nests, and birds.

And now, back to Cameron, where I shall avoid germs like…um…the plague.

Book Report: What It’s Like to Be a Bird

What a joy it has been to read What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing and Why, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley (as I said to Anita, yes, THAT Sibley). The man responsible for the many Sibley field guides has just published this labor of love, a large-format book with beautiful, often life-size illustrations.

book cover of what it's like to be a bird
It’s a big, beautiful book.

The accompanying text is organized in a fun and interesting way, where slowly but surely, you’re able to learn all about how birds “work,” mentally and physically. I learned something new on nearly every page, and I thought I knew quite a bit about birds! There are many fascinating diagrams of how birds fly, digest food, lay eggs, and so much more, too.

It’s fun to learn the difference between birds whose eggs hatch fully able to get around and do things (precocial), like chickens, and birds whose eggs hatch all naked and vulnerable (altricial), like purple martins (photo below is from a Master Naturalist blog post I just sent out, by my friend Donna).

newborn purple martins
These little dudes can’t do much other than open their mouths and ask for food.
a page from a book
A sample page, showing how pelicans catch fish. It’s not how you imagined, I’m guessing, unless you’re an ornithologist.

I spent a long time just looking at the illustrations, and plan to keep the book out on the coffee table, so I can leaf through it when I need some inspiration. I can see many other uses for the book. It would be fun to share with younger folks, who can look at the pictures while an adult tells them how birds sing or how a woodpecker keeps from getting concussions while pecking. If I had grandchildren, that’s what I’d do!

Now, this isn’t a comprehensive guide to the birds of North America. Sibley chose common birds seen throughout the region as exemplars of various bird traits, though he did do his best to show examples of each type of bird, from water birds to songbirds. If you want ALL the birds, buy one of his guides. But to learn how birds “tick” from an educated lay person’s point of view AND enjoy some amazing artwork, you cannot go wrong with What It’s Like to Be a Bird.

Book Report: Nature’s Best Hope

Do you care about our planet and the life it supports? Then, stop reading this blog post and go order this book: Nature at Its Best: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, by Douglas W. Tallamy. Consider it an early Earth Day present to yourself and the Earth. Get ready for some gushing now.

Why encourage caterpillars? Birds need them to make more birds!

Wow, this is a great book, which you might guess, given that I devoured it in a weekend. It’s got proper footnotes and references and such, but is written more for a lay audience than Behave! was. (Since I really don’t want to take pictures of the pictures in the book, I’ll share my own happy nature pictures from the weekend to encourage readers to make environments where they can see these for themselves, like the book describes!)

This is the book you want to give people who are not naturalists or environmental activists to explain to them that a) all those horrid weeds and bugs are what’s keeping the world alive and b) you can make a beautiful planting area on your property that encourages birds and other wildlife without going to a lot of trouble and effort.

While not part of creating a landscape of natives, donkeys and horses have a place, at least in my heart. (Spice and Fiona)

Tallamy makes so much sense in this book! Wow! He calls using native plants in naturalistic, yet attractive, settings creating Homegrown National Park. The main point of the book is that if people did this instead of planting endless swaths of turfgrass and non-native plants, we would be well on our way to saving the beauty all around us, benefiting us (we get to watch birds, butterflies, and animals) and the planet (diversity will be maintained, etc.). And Tallamy points out that turfgrass does have its place, for making nice paths.

Urban wildlife! Duck party at the Pope Residence.

I especially enjoyed all the beautiful photos he includes in Nature at Its Best, to show the kinds of sights you can see if you just make an appropriate setting. And that’s important, because exposing kids (and adults) to the natural world right where they live will make such a huge impact (as opposed to visiting nature in very carefully structured short trips). I say yes to all this, as do my fellow Master Naturalists.

You just can’t help but get all fired up and ready to drag in some native trees and shrubs and stick a rotting log or two around the place for moths to pupate in. And, conveniently, Tallamy provides links to two excellent websites to help you select what you should plant where YOU live:

  • Native Plant Finder: uses your postal code to help you find trees and herbaceous plants for hosting caterpillars. This is EXTREMELY cool.
  • Plants for Birds: same deal, but for hosting birds. I’ve already looked up both my houses.
Don’t worry, we are just using up the last of the red hummingbird food. We’ll make more of the correct kind!

I’m impressed that the work of one person, Kimberly Shropshire, created the original database for these, working with Tallamy. She must be an amazing person!

Honest, this book encourages citizen science at its BEST. I’d really like to spread the word about this resource. If you know people who enjoy nature and gardening, please share this post or the name of the book. And order it, even if just for the pretty pictures!

Those of you who prefer novels to nonfiction, rest easy. My next book is a fun historical novel.

Quit Spying on Me, Internet

First, yay, we made it to scenic Jackson, Tennessee, which means we should be able to eat dinner with my stepmom tomorrow, even though we lose TWO hours thanks to Daylight Savings Time.

But, on to a brief rant. I’m sure you’ve experienced the extra creepy feeling you get when something you were just talking about appears in your Facebook or other ads.

I find it less than helpful. Why do I keep getting ads for stuff I just bought? Like I need another one?

Example. Last night my sister gave me a throw with a pattern of birds on it. She said, “It has birds,” and I looked at the picture on the label, then agreed it did have birds on it. It’s a nice blanket.

Less than an hour later, this appeared in my Facebook feed:

Geez!!! Ack!! Eww!!

It’s the matching comforter set. I did NOT describe the throw or say what it was called or take its picture. I understand Siri listening in to everything I say or browse to, but no one said what the dang throw looked like or its brand. Just birds. There are many throws with birds on them.

I believe Facebook has out-creepied itself. I may become a conspiracy theorist and claim it’s in my retina or something. Then today, when we stopped for lunch:

I already ordered soup! Go away!

It was taunting me.

Now friends, I don’t need advice on why I should leave social media or turn off settings x, y, and z. If someone, something, or some corporate entity wanted to gather intel on me, they already have it. I’m just not that fascinating. So spy away. I’m sticking with social media omnipresence.

I just wish they’d suggest more things I want or new places to eat, rather than things I’m familiar with.