I think it’s time to stop messing with the oak trees for a while. Don’t get me wrong; I had a nice break today, out walking around my work building and checking out what was dead, what was still alive, and what was going on with the oak trees in north Austin. But, it’s the time of the year for the “tree worms,” as people around here call them.
I learned from Tallamy’s book about oak trees that these squirmy worm-esque creatures that hang by threads from oak trees right around when the oaks are blooming are not worms, but rather caterpillars of various oak moths (all of which seem to be brown and mottled, to blend in with oak bark and limbs). They hang from a strand of silk to make it harder for insect-eating birds and others to get to them. They can not only wiggle, but move up and down their strands of silk fairly rapidly.
Aren’t they fascinating? Sure, unless they are getting all over you and crawling around. I had this brilliant idea that I could get a picture of one of these caterpillars hanging from its silken thread, and spent at least 5 minutes trying to focus on one, but it kept swaying and wiggling. That was hard on the phone camera. Meanwhile, I was concentrating so hard I didn’t realize how many “worms” had landed on me.
I gave up and moved on to looking at one of my favorite groupings of oaks and other trees that shelter the office building from traffic noise. The motte of trees was generating its own sounds, though. A group of cedar waxwings was going to town on some of those bugs and singing, too. And there was one of those very loud wrens bopping up and down a tree trunk, along with a mockingbird, who was getting bugs off the ground. I saw evidence of a crow, too, and a big nest, just the right size for squirrels. Yes, there’s a lot going on in these city hideaways. No wonder the birds were singing, the trees contained quite the insect cafeteria for them.
I wandered back to the central courtyard a while later, and that’s where I found these tiny possumhaw holly blossoms. It made me feel more hopeful that at least the native plants in the courtyard made it. And with the rate things are coming and going in my life right now, that is a very good thing.
Unfortunately, when I got back to work, I kept finding caterpillars and bits of web on me. Good thing the little darlings don’t bite people. I put them all in a cup and let them go when I left for the day. Sorry, but I didn’t feel like photographing that collection. I still feel itchy, though. I do believe I’ll shower very carefully and thoroughly this evening. I bet no one would blame me!
Nonetheless. Hooray for all our resilient native plants and the life they support. Do you have yearly visits from the tree worms where you live? Are they all one kind, or a variety?
Social Media Update
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It’s much cooler this morning than it was yesterday, so I wish today was the massive hay-bale unloading day. And, yes, I have a sore back and arms, but that’s not gonna stop me from getting out and doing things! Um, and theoretically today I’ll finally have time to work on the newsletter that’s going sort of slowly this week.
Anyway, I have a bird story. Every day when I wake up, I head over to our second-story bedroom window that faces the chickens and the pond to see what’s going on in the world. I can see dogs, hens, horses, cattle, and often birds.
Today, I saw two white birds by the pond. Seeing a white bird is not uncommon, since we have a Great Egret who visits often. These two looked like egrets, but not so great. They were smaller and had patches of a pretty salmon color on their heads and backs. They looked like this:
I couldn’t get a photo, since my phone was updating its OS. The nerve. I wracked my not-really-awake-yet brain trying to figure out what it could be. It had a poky bill, so it wasn’t a duck. It had a long neck, but not THAT long of a neck. And it looked like an egret with a short neck and a short bill.
The phone finally finished updating, so I could look it up on Merlin Bird ID. That is one helpful piece of software! I entered its size as smaller than a goose, and its colors as white and orange. I couldn’t wait to see what exotic creature I’d seen, but not been able to photograph. I had to laugh when I saw what came up. The birds are a pair of cattle egrets in breeding plumage!
My gosh, I’ve been seeing these birds my entire life, but the color fooled me. Now I know they get all colorful this time of year. Looking through the photos on iNaturalist, I could see they can be quite colorful. I read that they get more colorful in some other parts of the world, too.
Learning about these guys (Bubulcus ibis) on Wikipedia explained to me why I’ve seen them my whole life. It turns out that they were first introduced to the US (escaping captivity) in Florida, where I spent my childhood! They were observed breeding there in the late 1950s, and had spread to Canada in just ten years. Wow. They also busily expanded from their native Iberian peninsula, too. I guess where there are cattle, they follow.
I have a vague memory of my mom mentioning that they didn’t see them when she was younger, which makes sense to me now. I strongly remember finding these birds very funny when they rode around on the backs of the huge herds of Hereford cattle we’d see in north Florida in the 60s.
I guess it pays to wake up and look out the window, because it can lead you to learning a lot more about a bird you’ve enjoyed your whole life! It pays to stay curious!
It was a beautiful morning here, with mist rising from the ponds and a very heavy load of dew, so the grasses and flowers were all shiny. As soon as I went downstairs and sat at my desk, I realized that there are even more birds in the field in front of the house than usual.
The meadowlarks have been all over the fields for weeks now, but I realized that there are also a lot of European starlings, along with some of the red-winged blackbirds that I’ve mostly been hearing and not seeing. The savannah sparrows are also participating (a few white-crowned sparrows are at the edge of the woods, but they don’t like to come out in the middle of the field). Joining the crowds are our breeding pairs of mockingbirds and cardinals. This creates quite a cacophony.
I wondered why there were more birds today than in the past couple of weeks. I put on my Master Naturalist thinking cap and thought there must be some kind of thing for them to eat now that wasn’t there last week.
Sure enough, I recalled mentioning to Lee last night that the chickweed was all yellowish and looked like it had gone to seed. Could that be it? The name implies birds like it.
So, I went off to search the internet and look at that. I found an article that told me chickweed is not native, but is good to eat for us humans, too. It’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. Most important:
Chickweed is also grown as feed for chickens and pigs, hence its common names clucken wort, chicken weed, and birdseed. Wild birds also love to eat chickweed seeds.
Well, there ya go. I used my brain and got my answer. It looks like I’ll have plenty of bird-watching fun for the next few days, right out my little window. Chickweed is my new friend, and officially a wildflower and NOT a weed (even though I already figured it was).
The situation in this area with regard to the effects of the bad weather incident is pretty dire. I don’t think I realized how bad it was until I read the documentation encouraging people to participate in a project to track the state of pollinators and pollen sources here. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, wrote:
The 11-day cold spell (10-20 February) in Texas was a disaster. Freezing temperatures covered the state and extended well into Northern Mexico. While many of the immediate effects of the freeze are clear, season long and multiple year effects may linger. The damage to the flora was extraordinary, and it is likely that nearly all above ground insects died over a wide area. Plants already in flower may have been so damaged as to not flower this year.
Nearly all above-ground insects died! Now, every time I see an insect, I’m thrilled, and must record it. Yesterday I spotted a young grasshopper and a jumping spider, and if I could have hugged them, I would have.
A few of my friends have been mentioning that the bees are everywhere right now, and they don’t have much to choose from for nectar sources. As I showed you yesterday, I mostly have henbit and dandelions for them, along with a very few white clover blossoms (I think I saw six blossoms between my house and the horses, which is a half mile in distance).
I’ve been seeing photos of home-made bee feeders, which seem to mostly be pans with some gravel in them, filled with honey water. My friend, Pamela, had a lot of success with using a cookie tray and a simple plate!
I wasn’t sure if I needed to do that, since dozens and dozens of bees have been sampling the chicken feed, which makes me worry about how much sugar must be in there!
But, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I already had a nice shallow dish over by the chickens, but I don’t have any gravel, so I found a few rocks that look like reasonable perches. I poured some honey water in there (same stuff I make for hummingbirds) and waited.
I guess I haven’t waited long enough, because I have only seen a couple of bees check out the water, and there are still very many on the chicken feed. I think I’ll go out and put in some sticks and flowers and the things Pamela had. It’s an ongoing experiment.
As an aside, I have to laugh about my chicken yard. It now feeds not only chickens but many wild birds. I’m always startling doves and meadowlarks in there, plus many sparrows. That’s fine with me. They’re all my avian buddies!
I do hope all the feeding of the bees helps. We need them, the native bees and the honeybees.
When I went out to check the mail, I took a detour by the chickens to see how the bee feeder was doing. I was happy to see that they found it, and could tell I made the liquid too deep. So, I added some flowers and sticks they can hold onto. Immediately the bees started using them, and more arrived. My heart is full.
Snow and bitter cold are okay if you have a warm and cozy house to stay warm in. Ours is not cozy, but can be made semi-cozy, because we have electricity and space heaters. Most of my friends in the Austin area are without power at all or for long stretches, and there are also water outages (not to mention burst pipes). It turns out that yes, your water supply can be affected by power outages. It doesn’t just flow without help. That is NOT cozy.
Okay, here’s a funny story, though. Apparently someone yelled at a water company employee in our area when they said the water wasn’t working due to electrical outages. They said they KNEW you can’t mix water with electricity, so they have nothing to do with each other! At least they know ONE fact.
I’m happy to say the chickens are still with us, and are sharing their scratch with the wild birds, who are not faring all that great. One thing that’s helping them a lot is that water is dripping off the house, so they can drink. And the sun is so bright that it has melted some bare spots. At least one little brown bird is actually finding stuff to eat!
The birds here do have a lot of shelter and plenty of food in the woods, but we are still getting casualties. On my front porch just now I found poor dear yellow-rumped warblers (male and female), as well as a white-winged dove. I am so sad for these creatures.
On a happier note, someone was out exploring this morning!
The cows are running low on hay, so I’ll have to ask the neighbors for more, and they are certainly not helping their water supply. One of them pooped into the trough, and of course the poop froze to the ice. I did not enjoy trying to get all that out. Cows.
This would be all well and good if it weren’t for the fact that yet another huge wave of awfulness is coming tonight, and there might be one after that. People have no water and no heat already! I am very worried about elderly and very young people. And I no longer think my mohair shawls are “too hot.”
I said there were booms, didn’t I? Yes. We have a metal roof. The sun is very, very bright right now, which means it’s warming the roof. As a consequence, very large sheets of ice are falling from the second-storey roof onto the first-storey roof. It sounds like a dump truck is in the ceiling.
As you may have already guessed, dogs are not happy with those booms. Harvey is as far under my desk as he can get, all scrunched into my blanket I’m under and the towel I put under there for him.
Carlton squeezed himself into a ball in my chair. They are not thrilled one bit. Plus it is still a balmy 55 degrees in the house (not complaining; my sister and Anita both have it much worse).
The sounds really are loud, like cannons. It turns out they are just icicles falling. Here, watch!
All of you in the grips of this weather system have my sympathy, even if you live in a place that can cope with the cold and with an electrical grid that has actual PLANS for bad weather.
I’ve mentioned that I’m spending a couple of weeks quarantined in the Hermits’ Rest house, working from my little den (which is lovely, other than poor connectivity). A real highlight has been looking out the window, where I can see a long fence that leads to the woods.
The main thing I regret about my window is that there’s a window screen. Otherwise, I’d be getting some really good photos of gray birds. Gray birds just love that fence. It’s apparently an ideal insect-hunting platform. Let me introduce you to the friends I see every day.
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Like most of you in North America, I’ve lived around mockingbirds my whole life. They are the state bird of Florida, where I grew up, so I’ve known them my whole life. When I was a kid, I thought they were a boring bird. I have changed my mind!
Through the years, I grew to love the birds that sat on the streetlight outside my house in Brushy Creek, Texas. They would sing so many songs, and occasionally emit the sound of a car alarm or cell phone. They are amazing singers.
Now that I’m at the ranch and working in Cameron, I watch mockingbirds every day. They’re big and bold, and very hungry. I love watching them catching bugs and finding food on the ground. The flash of white you see when one of these guys takes off means something interesting’s about to happen. I always know them on the fence by their long tails that are quite mobile.
Over at my fence, the mockingbirds are pretty bossy. They often make all the other birds move, so they get the best observation spot. They are fearless.
Now, the mockingbirds don’t only hunt out in the open. I often see them flying into the woods, and singing from the tip-tops of the trees (when crows aren’t using those spots!). So, I salute these fascinating creatures, my first gray bird friends.
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe
I had never run into phoebes until I got to the ranch here. Since then, I’ve heard and seen them often in my house in Austin. I guess there just weren’t any at my first Texas house.
Here, you can’t miss the little darlings. They have been nesting and raising babies in our porches, and sitting on the porches announcing their presence. They conveniently announce who they are by strongly shouting, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” You can’t miss them.
When they’re out on the fence among the other gray birds, the easiest way to distinguish phoebes from the others is the shape of their heads. They have some feathers at the top of their heads that makes it look bigger or more rounded than other birds. It makes them look sort of “husky.” They also have much shorter tails than the mockingbirds.
Phoebes are flycatchers (actually tyrant flycatchers), so it’s no wonder they are out there every day going after insects. It’s their job. They’re so acrobatic, too, making loops and circles before heading back to the fence to chew and spot the next bug.
Right now I have at least a pair of them hanging around (the males are slightly darker), so I often get to enjoy two at a time. I’m so glad to share my home with them!
These are incredibly beautiful birds. I was just out back looking at a flock of American robins (they were eating smilax berries so loudly I could find them by ear), when I saw one of our shrikes in a tree by the pond. Their black-and white feathers are really striking from behind.
When I try to look at the gray birds out my window, the phoebe and the loggerhead shrike are initially hard to tell apart, thanks to the darned window screen, since they are both grayish birds with pale breasts.
But, the phoebe is a more brownish gray, and has an entirely dark head, while the shrike has that cool “bandit mask” through its eyes. And of course, their behavior is different. I really enjoy running across the kills made by the shrikes, who impale them on our fences.
As you can imagine, I keep seeing movement in my peripheral vision and feel compelled to check it out. Usually it’s one of these gray birds, but that’s not all I see. Right now I see a male cardinal (who I’d been hearing in the woods when I was looking at the robins), a mockingbird and the female phoebe. A few minutes ago, a troop of eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) came marching by in their quest for bugs on the ground.
Oh, and three large duck-shaped birds with rings around their necks flew over, and I had no idea what they were until I checked Merlin Bird ID and realized they were wood ducks! I sure wish I’d seen them in the water, since they are so beautiful
Winter is a FUN season for bird watching around here!
What can you see at your house?
PS: I looked out just now and saw another gray bird, but I easily identified it as Gertie, our guinea fowl.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting in touch with your emotional truth, by processing feelings to improve the human condition in the 21st century. Living out loud by my motto,"Triumphing over Trauma" 🌈
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