Last month I shared my trip to the Texas coast. It was a much longed for getaway scheduled after the crowds of spring break and before the crowds of summer. It was just coincidental that this visit was during the peak of the spring bird migration. Ordinarily the Texas coast is a wonderful place to look for birds, but the numbers of different birds during migration make this a special time. And we happened to visit during a fallout…this is when bad weather conditions temporarily prevent the migrating birds from traveling on to their breeding grounds. I got a good look at many wonderful birds from rose breasted grosbeaks to indigo buntings to orange colored orioles. However, most of the photos I actually got were of birds that can be seen year around.
There were large birds…
Birds flying in large groups…
Birds with long beaks…
Colorful birds with short beaks…
Delicate shore birds…
And other types of flocks…
Birders at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center
Port Aransas has so many places to see birds from the beach to the ship channel to designated nature preserves. Birders can walk for a mile or so on some sturdy boardwalks at The Nature Preserve at Charlie’s Pasture and Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. A fun and short walk is at Paradise Pond, a small wetland tucked behind the Restaurant San Juan.
Lots of beautiful birds seen and perhaps a trip during Fall migration is in my future.
*Bonus bird seen on the way home- Wild turkey flew across the highway just north of Kenedy, Texas
Back in August 2021 I wrote some free flowing words to describe a trip to the Texas coast in 2013. In August of 2021 Covid was keeping us home and one of my travel fantasies was going to the beach. And it was not just Covid. Our aging, ill dogs kept us home. We finally headed out a few weeks ago, January 10th, for a 2 night stay away. This time our destination was Rockport and further. Our goal was to enjoy nature and see the wintering Whooping Cranes and scatter some of the ashes of both our dogs.
Rockport is only 200 miles from Austin (about a 3 and 1/2 hour drive), but in my pre-trip brain it seemed far, far away. I get anxious before any trip, but once on the road most of my anxiety dissolves. I like to head out the door and get out of town. But, first, we had some delays. I had a dirty windshield and no wiper fluid…trip to store to get that. Had to pull over on the outskirts of Austin to deal by cell phone with a company in another city about being guarantors for my daughter’s first apartment. This took a long 20 minutes of my husband giving them lots of information. Finally, we were headed south on highway 183. Then road work south of Cuero…one lane only with pilot cars guiding us through.
Picked up Whataburger burgers for lunch and ate those in Goliad State park, our mid point break. Got to stretch here and start the birding portion of our trip. Meadowlarks, phoebes, vultures, warblers and little sparrows.
Made it to the Holiday Inn in Rockport where we would spend 2 nights.
The next morning we headed out to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is 48 miles from Rockport and much of the trip is a drive around plowed, barren winter fields. It was windy that day, not ideal for birding. But, we saw quite a few interesting critters, some from the car and some from walking the numerous trails. Here is the first one I took a photo of:
At Jones Lake we saw these beauties:
Further away, we spotted a few more White Tails amongst quite a lot of feral hogs. The two species of mammals seemed to be getting along just fine. I had never seen deer and hogs together and thought the hogs would be too aggressive.
We saw a variety of birds: lots of Black vultures; some Turkey vultures; Great blue herons; Snowy egrets; Great egrets; Little egrets; Osprey; Red tailed hawk; Grebes; Moorhen; Pelican; Terns; Kestrels; Ducks; Caracara. We checked out the observation decks searching the marshes for Whooping Cranes, but only spotted one, a tall white dot far in the distance. Several other visitors told us they had seen Whooping Cranes at Goose Island State Park in Rockport and we pondered checking it out.
On the 9 mile Auto Loop in the Refuge (one way only), we saw something new for both of us. There were a handful of Black vultures bathing in a marsh. Who would ever think seeing vultures bathe would be a treat?
As we prepared to leave the park, we stopped and walked out onto a pier over San Antonio Bay. Here we let go of our beloved dog’s ashes, mindful of the wind.
Leaving the park we saw more deer:
We had a hearty meal that evening at The Boiling Pot. The waiters cover your table with butcher paper and dump your dinner in a pile in front of you. Shrimp, sausage, corn on the cob, and usually crab, which they were out of that night. We took the offered plastic bibs and made a mess eating with our fingers.
The next day we decided to check out Goose Island State Park before we headed home. We got out of the car and walked around The Big Tree. Experts think it is 1,100 years old and huge (my photos didn’t do it justice). We drove around the park and saw deer, numerous birds, and people fishing, but no whoopers. We drove back to the park entrance and my husband went in and asked the ranger where the whoopers might be seen. She told him exactly where to see them, just outside of the park. And find them we did. The closest I have ever been to them (but not close enough for good photos with my little camera). And they weren’t just standing and walking like I had seen from afar in the past. Some would fly to a different area of this private property. There were at least 3 juveniles among them. Sandhill cranes, Egrets, and Herons were nearby. It turns out that they love this property because of the deer corn feeder.
And a Kestrel on a wire nearby:
So, a good get away for us. We came home refreshed and renewed. Two weeks later we are sick…my husband has Covid and my head feels stuffy and I am tired (my Covid test was negative). And, Yes, we have been fully vaxed and boosted.
To paraphrase Carson McCullers from her novel “Reflections In A Golden Eye”: There is a backyard in the South where a few days ago a murder was committed…
Yes, a week ago today, Tuesday September 20th, a crime was committed. I murdered some beautiful little creatures. It was negligent homicide. Our little backyard pond needed some water added, so I set the hose running and meant to check on the water level after a few minutes. It was a nice, evening and three of us in conversation on the back porch was a distraction. At some point I realized that I had not monitored the water level. It was overflowing into the yard! I pulled the hose out. I did not see any goldfish flopping around in the grass, so I figured all was okay. The next morning (Wednesday) I fished out seven pretty, little, golden corpses, which I netted and dumped into the compost bin. Yuck! Not because of the decaying bodies, but because of my guilt. I had poisoned them. I started to think that maybe we should just get rid of the pond.
This little pond has attracted so many interesting creatures: frogs, toads, dragonflies, wasps, snakes, opossums, raccoons, and an occasional bird. Colorful waterlilies add beauty and the sound of the trickling, pump fueled, waterfall is relaxing. And I enjoyed seeing the goldfish moving about in the water. But, I was not a good caretaker of this little oasis and these critters would have to find somewhere else to hang out.
One more corpse floated up on Thursday morning, the first day of Fall. I pulled some water plants out and tossed them in the garden. I wanted to see if any goldfish had survived. But, I didn’t see any. Maybe they were hiding after seeing their family members die. No more little bodies showed up Friday, and I began to let go of my self-criticism. I am human. Humans make mistakes.
Saturday morning I brought my notebook and pen out to the back porch and attempted to write a poem about the falling leaves in the yard behind ours. I wrote:
As each leaf descends
And says goodbye
Sun reflects gold
A little while later, my husband and I were enjoying our morning coffee. My binoculars and camera were nearby. I like to take pictures of lizards and whatever else catches my attention. The binoculars are for checking the trees and sky for birds. This was the peak of migration and I was hoping to spot something different than our resident birds.
And then they came!
Warblers! Lots of them and more than one species. They came to bathe in our pond! Golden treasures from above.
This lovely parade of migrants lasted about 20 minutes, when our dog Millie wandered out and scared them off. I feel so blessed to have witnessed these visiting birds reveling in the same water that I had been contemplating getting rid of just a few days earlier. I guess the Universe has forgiven me. Or at least I have forgiven me. I will be a better caretaker of this small environment. I promise.
(please let me know if my warbler i.d.s are not correct)
It is a July morning, the only good time to sit outside when we are experiencing 100 and 100 plus temperatures. We sit out in our backyard sipping coffee. The breeze is pleasant, rustling the leaves in the burr oak above us. There is a bright, blue sky with fluffy, white clouds, drifting and shifting shape.
I have my binoculars close by, and my eyes scan the sky above our roof. My husband’s eyes are glued to the news on his Ipad.
Two people. Alike and not alike.
“Look! A Mississippi Kite!” I point at the soaring grey bird, it’s white head helping me identify it. My husband looks up briefly.
We both hear a far off engine noise. He taps and scrolls and says, “That is a Gulf Stream 4 private jet flying from Cabo San Lucas to Austin.” We look up and see the plane heading east. My husband has an app on his Ipad that shows a photo of the plane, the name of the plane, and the route it is taking.
“A White Egret…it is flying east too,” I declare, as I follow it with my binoculars.
“DC-9-15 (F) USA Jet Airlines heading from San Antonio to Detroit at 29,000 feet.” We watch it head north until the tree obscures our view.
Flying things in the sky. Alike. And not alike.
My eyes spot swallows flitting about up high. I can’t identify them.
“Boeing 737-79P. Southwest Airlines from Austin to Denver.”
A black chinned hummingbird zooms past us. As I follow it, I spot another Mississippi Kite. “Oh look, honey! Did you see it?”
“Yes, that was a Piper PA-46-350P Malibu Mirage…a private prop plane…going from Houston to Ruidoso at 24,000 feet.”
Have you ever bathed with family or a dear friend? I had the privilege of bathing with both recently. No, I am not talking about bathing in a tub or a shower. I am talking about Nature bathing, taking long, slow walks outside. Some call it forest bathing. I say it can also be called prairie bathing, riparian bathing, or desert bathing.
In early April I enjoyed such an outing at McKinney Falls State Park, which is on the outskirts of Austin. My husband and our daughter and I had a great time meandering along the creek looking at wildflowers (which are at their peak in early April here), bird watching, and even fish watching. Here are some photos:
Towards the end of April a dear friend invited me to go bird watching with her in the same park. Some different plants were now blooming. We saw snowy egrets, great blue herons, and more cormorants flying up and down the creek. Other than birdwatching, we had no agenda. We just walked and enjoyed the fresh Spring air on our skin. The sounds of many different birds teased our ears, from the screeching of red tailed hawks to the sweet songs of cardinals. There was also the recurrent chirping of frogs. We stopped to admire and smell flowers. I enjoyed touching leaves to feel their texture. Here are a few photos from that walk:
We did not talk about world affairs or gossip about people or our troubles. We talked about nature, that before us, and old encounters. And we met others enjoying the natural wonders of this park. There were the girls from a nature school laughing and having fun while processing yucca leaves into cordage. And a couple visiting from Israel led us to a view of a barred owl up in a cypress tree.
These times nature bathing with others both relaxed and renewed me. Get out there, somewhere green, and just be. Oh, and don’t forget friends and family. Invite someone outside to bathe with you.
As New England gets hit hard by winter storm Kenan, we Texans are keeping our fingers crossed that we make it through the rest of winter without a repeat of last February’s tragic freezing storm. That prolonged cold snap inconvenienced so many of us with loss of power and loss of running water. It also maimed and killed so many people.
But, instead of rehashing that event and being anxious, I am going to share some of the little blessings of nature that I got to enjoy in December and on New Year’s Day.
On December 14, 2021 I spent some time in my yard snapping photos of insects on still blooming flowers.
The insect pictured above was on a chrysanthemum flower. I googled the symbolism of these flowers and white ones are associated with death in some cultures. They can also represent happiness, love, and longevity, and rebirth. I see them as representing both death and rebirth.
Two weeks later, on December 28th I spotted this little fly on a dandelion flower
And this lovely butterfly on a milkweed plant
And this majestic being visited on December 30th
And on the first day of the new year
And last, but not least in beauty
I am thankful I got to see all of these sweet critters and am looking forward to more blessings from nature in 2022
*All photos taken by B. McCreary in her yard
* The following reference books were used to identify the critters (Don’t hold these books accountable for any mistaken ids on my part):
Kaufman Filed Guide to Insects of North America-Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman
A Field Guide To Butterflies Of Texas (Texas Monthly Field Guide Series) – Raymond W. Neck
Peterson Field Guides- Eastern Moths- Charles V. Covell, Jr.
Peterson Field Guides- Birds of Eastern and Central North America (fifth edition)- Roger Tory Peterson
I have written about certain plants that reminded me of family members (purple spiderworts for my Mom and madrone trees for my Dad). Deciding to follow this line of thought, I made a list of family members and friends. Next to each name I wrote the name of a bird or birds that I most associated with them. For example: Daddy- vultures, ducks, pigeons. My Dad got a kick out of telling a story about a neighborhood boy who lay out on a driveway, motionless, trying to attract vultures. And, when my daughter was young, my dad would enjoy going to Zilker Park with us to feed the ducks and pigeons.
Next to the name of a very dear friend I wrote crows, because of her many recent crow encounters. I also wrote cartoon birds because she draws whimsical birds.
My next list was mammals and quite a few people had dog or cat next to their names. Some were more specific, such as hunting dogs for my Grandfather Johnnie and chihuahuas for my Great Grandmother Tee.
I started a new list, Reptiles and Amphibians. I have not completed that one yet. And I started a list of categories: plants, trees, flowers, insects, fish, rocks, fossils, geographic features, and constellations. I tend to enjoy associations with the natural world. But, the possibilities are endless. It might be fun to see what kind of music or books or cars or art you associate with friends and family. This could be a fun icebreaker at a get together. Or ask people what animal they associate with themselves. It may be very different from what others associate with them.
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.
Monday, Feb. 15-More snow had fallen in the night
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.
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.
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.
Saturday, Feb. 20th- Day #4 of no running water. Sun and 57.9 degrees! Our snow melt is running out.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.