Things to do in Austin, Texas

The Great Paddle Boat Rescue

On a day in August, many years ago, two out of town friends and I decided it would be fun to rent a paddleboat for a short cruise on Town Lake in Austin. *Kay and I seated ourselves in front of the paddlewheel, while Mikey sat between us by the rudder. The adults would provide the muscle and Mikey, age 7 (almost!), would steer. We were all wearing life jackets. It took a little while for Mikey to get the hang of steering, so we didn’t get very far from shore at first. We paddled around in the area underneath the South 1st street bridge. We saw ducks near shore and people catching lots of fish from a short pier. We also saw abandoned Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge, along with numerous pigeons roosting on the bridge supports. I pointed out to the others that the high pitched sounds we were hearing were the sounds of baby pigeons.

Eventually we got ambitious and decided to paddle across the lake and over to the Congress Ave. bridge. Way up ahead we saw some sort of water bird out on the lake near our goal. As we made progress towards the bridge we saw the bird splashing around in the water. Kay said she thought it was diving for food. When we were about 50 feet away I realized that the bird looked more like a pigeon and that it was fluttering around so much because it was trying to stay afloat. I said that we had better pick it up or it would drown. Easier said than done! Kay and Miguel both tried to steer while I paddled and yelled at Kay to hurry up or the bird was going to drown and for them to get us up alongside it on my side where I could grab it and that even though I was wearing a life jacket, I didn’t want to have to go into the water after it!

Well, we rescued the pigeon. We still had half an hour left in our hour rental of the boat, so I kept the bird pressed to my side and we paddled on. Out of the cold water of the lake, under my arm, the bird was warming up nicely. At one point, I happened to look down to check on his condition and noticed mites running all over my arm! Grey mites. Red mites. All I could do was lean over and wash them off with lake water. Kay and Mikey and I enjoyed the rest of the trip, but half my concentration was on the mites. Back at the dock, one of the guys who ran the boat rental said that someone brings in a pigeon every other day! The one we had rescued appeared to be a juvenile with feathers long enough to fly. Perhaps the young ones do not know enough not to land on the lake.

The pigeon was dry and eating by the next day and was turned over to a volunteer with Wildlife Rescue for observation and eventual release. Thanks to Kay and Mikey for their part in the rescue! If anyone is interested, the paddleboat rental is located on the south shore of the lake near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Have fun, but be prepared for the unexpected.

*Names were changed to protect the innocent

A Closer Look Part II

I come from a long line of hunters on my Dad’s side of the family.

From left to right:My father John Richard Downes, Jr. as a boy; his grandfather Richard “Dick” Downes, Jr.; my grandmother Mary Buie Downes and my grandfather John Richard Downes,Sr. (Johnnie)

If hunting was genetic, I would know all the game seasons, keep my licenses current, my guns cleaned, and have multiple mounted animal heads on my walls. But, as far as I know there is no hunting gene. I don’t have any hunting licenses and never did. I have no hunting guns and I only have a vague idea of when deer season is. My grandfather Johnnie loved to go off on hunting trips in various parts of Texas depending on what he was hunting. Sometimes my grandma Mary would go and sometimes my brother would go. When I was about 11, I went on one trip down to Pearsall, Texas. My grandparents gave me a chance to try shooting a shotgun. I was not prepared for the kick and was reduced to tears by the jolt and surprise of it. That was my first and my last hunting trip. I would rather observe and wonder at animals of all sorts and don’t have it in me to kill them.

So, I never became a hunter, and contrary to rumor, I was not named Betty after my grandfather Johnnie’s hunting dog “Betty.”

I did eat some of the game they brought home. We almost always had something wild in the freezer. My favorite was quail. I didn’t like the venison and I didn’t like duck or dove.

I think about hunting doves a lot these days because of the White winged doves that tend to dominate our backyard feeders.

These birds are easy to identify by their large size and the distinctive white edges to the wings. If you look just a bit closer you will see how handsome they can be with beautiful blue skin around the eyes and bright pink legs and feet.

White Winged Dove
(copyright 2019 Betty McCreary)

White winged doves have moved from south Texas to much farther north. When I was a kid we never saw them here in Austin. Now they are everywhere and seem to have pushed away most of the smaller Mourning and Inca doves. According to a year 2000 Spring Breeding Survey there were 264,000 White winged doves here in Travis County! That was almost 20 years ago and I imagine there are more now, many of them in my backyard at times. It is believed that changing south Texas agriculture, loss of habitat, and hunting pressure have all contributed to the birds moving north.*

*White winged Dove information from Texas Parks and Wildlife Website Page: “South Texas Wildlife Management” (White-winged Doves) https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/habitats/southtx_plain/upland_birds/white_winged_dove.phtml

A Closer Look

I am a birder. There is almost nothing I enjoy more than heading to a local park (or my backyard) to see what might be flitting about.
But, I didn’t come by this love of birds naturally. Oh, I enjoyed helping my grandmother fill her bird feeders with cracked corn and she taught me what a cardinal was. But, I really just wanted to watch the squirrels. I was a mammal person. I loved spotting deer in fields during drives in the Texas hill country. I was thrilled when I first saw a fox cross the road. It wasn’t until I was a volunteer with a local wildlife rescue group that I began to appreciate birds. More baby birds and injured birds came into our care than mammals. I started to learn to identify birds and learned about their needs and behavior. It was seeing them close up that made all the difference.

This time of year one of my favorite birds to look for is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). I will hear their sweet high pitched notes above and look up and see a flock of up to several dozen birds land in a tree. At a distance they may just be dark silhouettes with a crest on their heads and they don’t look particularly interesting. If the light is good and the binoculars handy, their beauty is revealed. Against a blue sky they are magnificent looking with a black face mask, red wing tips, and a bright yellow tail tip.

Cedar Waxwing in Burr Oak (photo by Betty McCreary)

I wonder what or who else in the world I might learn to appreciate by looking a little closer?