Deep Freeze Deep in the Heart of Texas

In Austin we are lucky to get one snow fall each winter and we had ours on January 10th, 2021. Only a couple of inches of snow fell, but enough for excited kids to build snow people and have snow ball fights. By the next day it began to melt. We had gotten our snow for the year and were satisfied with what we got. Little did we know that much more was to come.

We had seen the forecast for the polar air to sweep far south, deep into Texas and surrounding states. On the evening of Saturday, February 13th it got quite cold. By early the next morning we had a heavy sleet storm.

Sunday, Feb. 14th- Valentines’ Day- We woke up to an ice covered lawn and found a dead, frost covered squirrel at the base of our burr oak. I recognized it as one that had suffered an injured leg at least a month ago. I guess this round of cold was too much for it. Later, while taking bird seed and warm water out to the birds, I slipped and fell and hit my head on a rock. I got up quick, assuring my husband, “I’m okay!” But, he saw blood running down my neck. He cleaned the scalp wound (and yes, scalp wounds bleed a lot!) and we monitored me for any signs of concussion. The roads were too iced over to drive, so I am glad my injuries were minor. Even ambulances were having a tough time responding to all the falls and car accidents. The first responders were working overtime.

In the afternoon the snow began to fall. So, now we had snow over ice.

Millie our elderly dog late that night

Monday, Feb. 15-More snow had fallen in the night

Millie in even more snow 7:16 a.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 16th- Happy Birthday to Me! Had to postpone my Birthday dinner of chicken fajitas from Chuy’s restaurant. We still have power. Many people do not.

Cold Cardinal

25 degrees and it began to snow again.

Wednesday, Feb. 17th-Our water pressure was very low in the morning and my husband was quick to fill a couple of pots with water. Later in the morning we had no water at all from our taps. The high was 32 degrees and it began to sleet again. A neighbor stopped by to see what we might need. Later, she and another kind neighbor brought us 2 pitchers of water (she had filled all her sinks and tubs in anticipation of the storm). It was still not safe to drive on roads and we heard that many stores had run out of drinking water and most food. This was like what happened during our initial covid lockdown the year before. At least we had plenty of food in our fridge and pantry. Days of no sun started to wear on me.

Ice Covered Trees

Ice Covered Crepe Myrtle

Thursday, Feb. 18th-Still no running water. Our high today was 32 degrees and it snowed again! Our Desert Willow tree on the side of the house lost two large limbs under the weight of the ice. We melted lots of snow on our gas stove to use to flush toilets. We are lucky our power is on and our natural gas is okay. At 9p.m. a boy from next door brought us a large bottle of water!

Friday, Feb. 19th- Sun! Melting has begun and we gather more snow because we still have No Water! At 1:37 p.m. the temperature outside is a glorious 39.4 degrees. I have not bothered to record the lows because they are so low that I don’t want to think about it (I think the lowest it got was 5 degrees). With the sun come clear nights and we can see the stars again.

Happy Squirrel

Chipping Sparrows Bathing in Snow Melt

Saturday, Feb. 20th- Day #4 of no running water. Sun and 57.9 degrees! Our snow melt is running out.

Robin and Snow Melt

I am in my 60s and have never had to experience the lack of running water unless it was my choice (back country camping in Big Bend or a trek into an Amazon rainforest village). This is a life lesson in gratitude and recognizing how lucky and privileged my life has been. We are grateful for snow and kind neighbors and that our power did not go out and our pipes didn’t burst and that I did not get a concussion or break any bones when I fell. I am also grateful that I was not alone during this ordeal.

So many Austinites lost power and water. Many were left in the cold for days. Some died, including a young boy. And there were people left in the cold, without water, that were also suffering from the covid virus. A woman gave birth at home in the cold. A family with many kids lost power/heat at home and survived huddled in a van for several days.

Sunday, Feb. 21st- Our water came back on! But, we are under a boil water notice. And it is good the taps are running because there is no more snow to melt. Sunny and 72 degrees. I heard a screech owl trilling in the evening, so I know at least one owl survived the cold. I have heard many birds died.

Monday, Feb. 22nd- 75 beautiful degrees and I saw my first crane fly of the season.

Tuesday, Feb. 23rd- The City of Austin lifts our boil water notice. We are blessed to have clean, running tap water. This winter storm has been a humbling experience. Things have become more normal again. Knock wood, this will be the last of the Winter for us Central Texans. Repairs to burst pipes and water damaged homes are keeping plumbers and others busy. Our concerns will become “normal” again…like where we can find a covid vaccine shot.

Spring is Coming Soon

(photos by Betty McCreary)

Tree Peace II

In January 2019 I posted my first blog piece, “A Closer Look”, in which I talked about how looking closer at things can reveal so much. I gave the example of how beautiful Cedar Waxwings are up close and used this photo:

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) Up Close

In my blog piece last month (“Tree Peace”) I showed photos of various trees, some decorated and some winter bare. The bare one is the huge Burr Oak in my back yard. Siting on the back porch at dusk watching the last rays of the sun as they illuminate the branches gets me out of my worries about the world and brings me peace.

Over the two years I have posted these blog pieces I often spend more time worrying about what to write about than actually writing. I was contemplating writing about several different subjects, but nothing was really speaking to me. I kept thinking about our country’s current problems with political division and the ongoing pandemic/lack of vaccine. I pressure myself to write about them. But, so many others are writing some thoughtful and often brilliant pieces. I don’t know that I have anything better to add. I know so many people are agitated and afraid right now, me included.

So, yesterday evening, to escape my worries, I chose to sit outside and bird watch. Had the usual White Winged Doves and Cardinals. I even saw a Hermit Thrush take a bath in our shallow pond. I could hear the laughter of Robins once in a while and the sweet whistles of the many flocks of Cedar Waxwings in nearby yards. And then:

Cedar Waxwings in Burr Oak Tree

The Cedar Waxwings decided to hang out in my back yard tree. They came in one by one. Some would leave and others fly in to replace them.

Some sat like sentinels while others preened themselves. All seemed to stay in the sunny branches as the shadows grew on the lower branches. I saw one gently put its beak to another’s, like a kiss. There was constant movement and sweet whistling noises. Other flocks of Cedar waxwings were flying over, as were flocks of Robins. All were heading west into the setting sun. Watching them was mesmerizing.

Sometimes it is better to look at things from afar. The birds reminded me of little golden balls, like ornaments. I see in them the beauty of a large, peaceful, cooperative group. I am thankful for this magical gift of nature that swept me away for a while, and I love witnessing the cycling of the seasons once again. I feel the connection to January 2019, although that seems so long ago. I wonder if any of these birds came to our tree two years ago? As the sun continued to lower in the sky, the birds began to leave the tree. Afterwards, the only evidence they had been there were numerous purple bird droppings left on the cover of our outdoor grill.

(photos by Betty McCreary)

Grateful For Nature Photography

It was a dreary, drizzly winter morning. I had been sitting in my portable photo blind since dawn (several hours of boredom) waiting for the sky to lighten and birds to come in to the perch I had set up near a feeder. I was tipping back on my little hunter’s stool (not made for tipping) and must have started to doze. Over I went, taking the blind with me, not to mention my tripod, the attached camera, and heavy lens. Instinctively, I grabbed the lens as I was going down. I fell on and bruised my other hand. As I righted the blind and tripod, I hoped no one other than the birds and nearby cows had seen me go over.

Nature photography can be difficult. Sometimes I have had to carry heavy camera equipment and other essentials (blind, stool, water, etc.) over rough terrain. I have been bitten by chiggers, fire ants, ticks, biting flies, and mosquitos. I’ve endured heat, cold, and lightening. I have encountered cactus spines, cow patties, poison ivy, and snakes (once a sunbathing Cottonmouth water moccasin blocked my path).

But, the rewards are great. The most obvious reward is getting some nice photos. I can show them to people proudly and say “Look what I did!” I can also show them to people and say “Look what I saw!” Maybe show them something they have not seen before and maybe in the showing and telling I can help others in their appreciation of the web of life.

Bobwhite Quail

There is also gratification in the process of taking the picture. The focusing on that one subject. My whole being becomes concentrated on seeing and recording a single, small part of the world. All else fades away.

Sometimes I have sat in my photo blind for hours, being quiet and still so I wouldn’t frighten away potential subjects. I needed to stay alert and aware. After hours of this sitting, I may or may not get the shot I wanted. I was rewarded with just learning the art of being patient and still.

There is the reward in just being outdoors communing with nature. Listening to the quiet. Listening to the bird song, the insect buzz, the coyote howls.

And the reward of the unexpected:

I had not planned on getting this Jack Rabbit portrait. I had been passing through an area to take photographs of something else. He ran into some bushes as I walked by. When I came back through that area later he allowed me to approach him and take lots of pictures. It always feels magical when this sort of thing happens.

The rewards I have gotten from my photography have been a sustaining force in my life. I am full of gratitude for this. When I have finished taking pictures of a subject I always say a quiet “Thank you.”

*Photos by Betty McCreary- Bobwhite Quail and Jack Rabbit photos taken in Goliad co., Texas

*Author’s note: My days of lugging heavy lenses over rough terrain are pretty much over. I shoot mostly flowers and insects in my own backyard with a small, lightweight digital camera.

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?