Summertime Is Coming and the Chickens Are Laying

I hear y’all like my ranchy stories, so here’s what excitement greeted me when I got back to the ranch today. Since no one had picked up eggs, the first thing I did was check the top of the garage fridge. There were at least three eggs per hen, but 5 white ones. Little Henley had gone into overdrive! I’m guessing she laid two in one day. Wow. One was tiny compared to her usual eggs.

One of these eggs is teeny!

Then I went to find Bertie Lee’s eggs. But there were NONE where I found the last bunch. So I looked under everything. Voila! There were 7 eggs, one broken, in the original corner where she first started hiding her eggs, on an old mop. Let’s hope she keeps this location up.

All 19 eggs I found.

That just left Big Red. The little darling had laid two while I was in Austin. Oddly, they were two different colors. That led me and Sara to wonder if she’s really two hens, but they never appear in public together. That’s plausible, right?

So many shades of brown!

Now I am about ready to sell or give away some of the eggs. We have lots now!

There are other signs summer’s coming around here! I’ve seen scissor tail flycatchers already. Another summer of watching their beauty has commenced! And the intensely fuchsia wine cups on our property showed up. I’m relieved.

My favorite jewel of a flower. Look at all the pollen!

I’ve saved the best for last, though. My favorite violent murderer bird is back! I really missed the loggerhead shrike when it left last year. I haven’t seen it. But it’s handiwork is easy to see.

Loggerhead shrikes impale insects and save them for later. This is a female grasshopper, because you can see her wings.

I was never so happy to see two dead bugs in my life!

Beautiful scarab on barbed wire.

Yeah, it’s hot already. But I’ve got my two red buddies, Apache and Big Red, to entertain me. After my long week, I just sat and watched them this afternoon while Sara worked with Ace. As always, being with them helped. It’s yet another way I can maintain my equilibrium.

My buddies in peace.

Hope you have a peaceful or fun weekend. I have a Zoom wedding to look forward to.

Three Gray Birds Outside My Window

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 view out my window, bordered by the computer monitors I try my best to focus on. Notice that the window also tells me how to not be a better conversationalist.

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!

Northern mockingbird. Photo copyright BJ Stanley (CC)

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.

Here, the mockingbird chased off one phoebe, and moved the other one out of the prime viewing area.

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.

These may be gray, but they’re striking. Their heads are founded, and they have lovely light breasts. Photo copyright Pedro Alanis (CC).

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.

This photo by Benjamin Schwartz shows the little crest on its head.

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!

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus

I’ve written about these birds before, but they are the third gray bird I keep seeing on my fence. I feel honored to have a rare bird on the property.

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus along FM 2810 SW of Marfa, Presidio Co., Texas 12 September 2005. Photo copyright Greg Lasley (CC) – he’s one of the guys I looked at shrikes with before.

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.

This beautiful photo by Jonathan Eisen (CC) of a parent and baby shows how easy it is to ID them from the back.

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.

That IS the shrike, however.

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.

Here’s a photo I took last September of a bug caught by a shrike. You don’t even have to see them to know they were here!

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.

I Discovered Something!

It’s been a great day, for many reasons, and a great weekend. We took Apache out again today, and he was his old self again! He and Spice were very brave when they came upon some people building a new gate between our two pastures.

This is as close as the horses would get.

But they had fun. Fiona kept plopping down and rolling whenever she found dirt.

The flies are bothering me.

I also had fun seeing things this weekend. One is that I see signs that I wasn’t mistaken, we DO have a loggerhead shrike this year. I didn’t see one last year, and I was bummed. Today I saw lots and lots of insects impaled on our fence, though!

Plus! I’m very happy to share that another chicken started laying. Her first egg is pinkish and has little blue spots! On the other hand, Hedley, the one that lays white eggs, has started spending a LOT of time in the nest box. She did lay today, but if she’s gone broody I’m just giving her three eggs and letting her go for it.

The new one is on the bottom. Cute!

I also found two new and interesting insects. First is the extremely cool Beelzebub Bee Killer Mallophora leschenaulti, which is a type of robber fly. This things is huge, loud, and intimidating. I saw two yesterday and two today.

The other new insect is what I’m excited about. It turns out that my entry of the Long-jawed Longhorn Beetle Dendrobias mandibularis is the first one Milam county and the farthest north it’s been seen.

I’m the first!

Also, this is one of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen. So colorful!

Look at those antennae! And it’s so shiny!

I’ve been waiting to finally see something new and different to share on iNaturalist and I finally did! I feel so scientific.

Bugs Beware!

I got to sit on the front porch for a few minutes this morning. Finally. And I got excellent news!

Here’s where I saw the swallows. You can also see trees budding out. Ah.

A familiar chirp told me to look up. And oh happy day, there were barn swallows scoping out the area. I love watching them swooping around and eating bugs. I don’t mind the two nests they rebuild every year, either. It’s our thanks for their services.

The shrike WAS on that post.

As I was looking for a swallow to take a photo of (failed), I saw another familiar friend, our loggerhead shrike. These guys take care of larger bugs for us and leave them impaled on barbed wire fences. I wrote a lot about them when I went on a field trip looking for them at last year’s Master Naturalist conference.

I also love porch sitting.

One reason I love porch sitting is the easy bird watching. I’ve seen a red-tailed hawk, black buzzards, mockingbirds, and of course, the field sparrows, too. I hear crows. I sure wish my laptop battery wasn’t dead, so I could do my work outside.

The Loggerhead Shrike and Friends

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A loggerhead shrike nest in a bur oak tree in Old Settlers Park, near baseball fields.

My time with the Master Naturalists ended on a high note with a post-conference outing to Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. The idea was to observe how a declining species, the loggerhead shrike, has adapted to using the park as a habitat, and is thriving.

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Bur oak acorn. Huge and tasty.

Before the outing, I’d attended a session led by Jim Giocomo on “The Geography of Grassland Birds: How International Bird Conservation Efforts are Linked.” He talked about how agencies and Master Naturalists can help provide these birds with more appropriate habitat, track their locations, etc.

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Jim Giacomo (center) and some of the other experts he brought to our field trip in Round Rock.

In that talk, he mentioned his own work with the loggerhead shrikes (the only songbird that is a predator), which conveniently nest right near his house and showed us some great footage of baby shrikes. In one film, the parent birds keep trying to stuff a dragonfly in the mouths of the babies, but it keeps getting stuck. It was hilarious.

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Tania’s Halloween costume was “nerdy birder.”

Jim’s luck in finding birds to observe over entire breeding seasons has given him lots of insights, so it was really fun to go with him and fellow biologist Tania Homayoun out in the field to see what he sees.

Continue reading “The Loggerhead Shrike and Friends”