Wednesday, January 29, 2014

For the Birds

The weather here continues to be unseasonably cold and very windy.  However, there was one glorious day between last week’s frigid Friday and this week’s miserable conditions.  Sunday was sunny, brisk and not too breezy, a great day to go to Rockport and take the Skimmer out to photograph Whooping Cranes and other birds.  While Captain Tommy identified the birds for us, David set up on the lower deck and I opted for a spot upstairs.  

The Skimmer carries a maximum of 32 passengers, and on this early-morning trip most of us were either birders or photographers.  I didn't immediately recognize some of the smaller shore birds, but am slowly getting better at identifying them.  It's not hard to recognize a Whooping Crane, though.  Standing up to five feet tall, with a wingspan of over seven feet, they have brilliant white plumage and black wingtips (visible during flight).  Their heads have a red crown, and their bills are long, dark and pointed.  Along with the Sandhill Crane, whoopers are the only crane species found in North America.

A Whooping Crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild.  They are an endangered species.  By 1941, there were just 15-21 wild birds and two in captivity.  Since then, they have had a limited recovery.  In 2013, the International Crane Foundation estimated there were around 599 birds world-wide.  The flock that winters near Rockport in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has been estimated at near 250 birds.  It is the only wild, naturally-migrating flock in the world.  Each April, these birds fly north to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada.  They return to ANWR each November.  There is quite a controversy over the actual number of cranes in this flock.  It seems the individual who for a number of years had been responsible for the annual crane count retired, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has changed the way it estimates the population.  There is concern that their methods do not give an accurate count.

We saw a number of whoopers on Sunday.  Unfortunately, most of them were faaaarrrr away, like this crane couple who gave us a brief preview of their mating dance.

There was one bird we called Pink Knees that was more accommodating.  He (or she) was fishing close to the shore, accompanied by a number of friends.  (I've tried to identify the "friends" to the best of my ability.)

Whooper and Willet
Whooper and Great Blue Heron
Whooper and Reddish Egret
Although blue crabs are the favorite food of the Whooping Crane, this one only came up with a small fish for lunch.  

The Reddish Egret and Great Blue Heron were lurking close by, presumably hoping to steal something for their own meal.  

We searched for more whoopers, but unfortunately found none close enough to photograph.  We did locate a number of Roseate Spoonbills feeding close to shore.  The ones with the more brilliant feathers are getting their breeding plumage.  I was also happy that one of them gave me a chance to photograph it in flight.  (And, I was thrilled the shots turned out so well as I was manually focusing the camera instead of using its autofocus feature.)

Captain Tommy brought us close to a number of other birds, including the American Oystercatcher shown below, some Brown Pelicans and more Great Blue Herons.  

I learned something new, too.  The Reddish Egret, shown below, has a "white morph," or white phase.

Though they don't at first look alike, this one is also a Reddish Egret.  You can recognize it by its thick, dark bill, and its green legs.  Who knew?

It was a productive trip.  We got some nice photos and had a great time!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Birds of a Feather

Well, today was supposed to be a red-letter birding day.  My friend Dave and I had planned to charter a small boat to get up close for good photos of the area's endangered Whooping Cranes.  Mother Nature didn't cooperate, however.  Yesterday at mid-afternoon, the north wind strengthened and the temperature dropped like a rock.  Last night, sustained 30 mph winds with gusts to 50 rocked the RV.  Today, the temperature has been in the 30s all day, with strong north winds...not a good day for photography!

We'll try again to go out on Sunday, but in the meantime here are a few images of birds I have been able to photograph.  Most were taken at the Leonabell Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas.

Northern Pintail
Least Grebe youngster (they breed year-round)
Northern Shoveler diving for dinner
Green-winged Teal

Northern Pintail

Brown Pelican monitoring ferry traffic
Brown Pelican preening
American White Pelican
With better weather and some luck and skill, maybe I'll be posting Whooping Crane images in a couple of days.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Unpleasant Surprise

Life here in Port A is moving along at a leisurely pace.  We’ve had more walks on the beach, visits to the dog park, happy hours with new friends, trips to Fulton/Rockport for fresh fish and sightseeing, and to Corpus Christi to visit the Texas State Aquarium.  Nothing terribly exciting, just relaxing and fun.

The only excitement has been a surprise of the unpleasant  kind. Last Wednesday morning I rose to discover that one of the dogs had thrown up in the living room.  It wasn’t hard to tell which one.  When something like that happens, whoever didn’t do it is quick to point out the mess.  Two dogs will be sniffing with disgust, and looking over their shoulders at me as if to say, “Can you believe someone did this!?  Surely you don’t think I did it!”  The third dog, the guilty one, will be hanging back and looking away, pretending not to see the puddle or pile.

On Wednesday, Colt and Kota where pointing their accusing noses at the puddles of vomit.  Rue would hardly come out of the bedroom.  As I cleaned up the mess, I made a discovery.  There, covered in bile, were two squeakers…like the ones found in dog toys.  Before ingestion, they are innocent-looking things, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter, smooth and round.  Not very appetizing, and not something you would think a dog would eat. 

But there they lay, the obvious cause of the problem.  Then, helped again by Kota and Colt, I found two more puddles and the remains of two more squeakers.  This was not a small problem!

After cleaning up the RV, I fixed doggie breakfast and was not surprised that Rue didn’t eat hers.  We went on about our day and everything seemed OK.  “Good,” I thought.  “Everything is back to normal.”  

Not so, unfortunately.  Rue did eat some supper, but it came back up in a couple of hours, along with another squeaker.  I was baffled.  For the last seven months, Rue and Kota have happily dismembered squeaky toys.  After extracting the squeaker, Rue always played with it until it didn’t squeak any longer, then simply left it on the floor with the remains of the toy.  I was baffled when, a week or so ago, I saw her apparently swallow a squeaker she was mouthing.  After that, I was quick to take away any that she was chewing and to get rid of any remaining toys that still had squeakers.  Apparently I wasn’t quick enough!  Whether to keep me from taking away the squeaker, or to prevent another dog’s doing so, she apparently had decided to eat them, and had been doing so for several days.

Wednesday night was a long one.  Rue was clearly uncomfortable, stretching and moaning like she had done in Hot Springs during our trip last sumer.  I gave her some medicine for stomach upset, but neither of us got much sleep Wednesday night.  I suspected another gastritis attack, but was not excited about another $700 vet bill.  It was clear, however, that a visit to the clinic would be in our future if she wasn’t better by morning.  

Thank goodness, sometime after 4:00 a.m. she seemed to be in less pain and both of us got a little sleep.  (I can’t recommend our living room recliners as substitutes for a bed, however.)  By Thursday morning, Rue seemed better.  When she went out for her morning “constitutional,” she deposited two more squeakers for a grand total of seven so far!  It’s now Tuesday, and no more squeakers have emerged from either end of the dog.  Rue seems back to her usual peppy self, and we hope we’ve seen the last of them.

John and I left the dogs home on Friday and went into Corpus Christi to visit the Texas State Aquarium and do a couple of errands.  One of the major displays is undergoing a face lift, but we still enjoyed our visit.  The sea turtle was oblivious to our presence, but the dolphins showed off for the crowd.

However, the “Wild Flight” program had a few problems.  The parrot (actually a macaw, I think) did his part.  As did the coatimundi and African serval.

Unfortunately, one of the stars of the show, a Harris’s Hawk, flew in on command the first time, but then took off for an aerial tour of the aquarium grounds.  The last time we saw him, he was perched on the roof of the building while one of the trainers tried to coax him down.  (The trainer giving the presentation explained that this is not an uncommon occurrence.  Since the hawks fly free, they sometimes take their time returning.  We were told that they always come back, however, because they have a strong bond with the trainers, and because dinner is free and easy.)

Inside, we visited exhibits of sea life from the Texas Gulf Coast.  I always enjoy seeing the jellyfish.  There are several varieties that frequent this area, including the Moon Jellyfish we saw earlier washed up on the beach.

The smaller tanks containing colorful tropical fish and sea-bed inhabitants were beautiful, as usual. 

In addition, there was also a tank containing a number of Lionfish.  We were told that the Indo-pacific Red Lionfish is proliferating in the Gulf, and is having an adverse impact on native fish.  It is called a "voracious predator" and eats native fish and crustaceans.  Even though its spines contain a toxin, people are being encouraged to fish for lion fish to remove them from the ecosystem.

There is also an exhibit that focuses on the Amazon and its inhabitants.  One of the animals we especially enjoyed was this prehensile-tailed porcupine that is found in Central and South America.  A tree-dweller, this one was enjoying dinner provided by its keeper. 

It then showed us how it uses its tail.

It was a very good day.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Port A

We've been here almost two weeks now, and have settled into the rhythm of the Texas Coast.  Port Aransas, or Port A as most people call it, is a welcoming small town on the north end of Mustang Island.  During the summer it throbs with life and swells with tourists.  Its beaches are teeming with surfers and sun worshipers.  In the winter, however, Port A seems to move and breath with the tides rather than with the throb of music from bars and boom-boxes (or whatever they're called now).  The locals have been joined by refugees from the chill of northern winters and (in our case) cedar pollen.  The population is older, perhaps wiser, but no less vibrant and fun-loving than the summer residents.

For a solid week-and-a-half, we were also refugees from the cold and rain of the Texas Coast and spent most of our time inside the RV.  Over the weekend, however, the weather turned seasonable and everyone came out.  Saturday found a packed house at "The Gaff," one of Port A's venerable bars.  If you've never visited a beach bar, download Guy Clark's album "South Coast of Texas" and listen to some of his songs.  You'll get a feel for it.

In addition to pints and pizza, Saturday’s entertainment at The Gaff included the Belt Sander Races.  If you’ve never seen belt sander races, you should.  The belt sanders are modified by replacing their motors with router motors which pull more rpms.  In addition, most of them are also given “personalities.”  When attached to a 60-foot extension cord, they fly down the course with a high-pitched whine.  Here are photos of a couple of the participants.

We were a little late for the competition, but arrived in time to see the winners accepting congratulations and having their pictures taken.  

The winners, “Team Viagra,” were sporting funny hats and T-shirts with the slogan “Go Hard or Go Home.”  It was a great day.

In addition to the belt sander races, The Gaff was also hosting another sport called Hammerschlagen.  Participants wore "Get Nailed" or "Get Hammered" stickers.  The object of the game was to be the first to pound a nail into a large block of wood using the pointy end of a mallet.  This woman, wearing a Happy New Year hat and a shirt that said “Trust Me, I’m Famous,” put her money down and took the challenge.  When she was successful, the guy with her was thrilled!

The warm weather has allowed us to take the dogs walking on the beach several times.  They were very excited, snapping at the waves and chasing the gulls and sandpipers.  They never caught one, but entertained themselves with dead fish, seaweed, and investigating their first sand castle.  They were all very curious about it, and fortunately we were able to call them off before they destroyed it.  

The walk ended in the fog, with pelicans soaring overhead and then disappearing into the mist.

When we can’t go to the beach, we visit Port A’s dog park.  It’s big enough for chasing balls, and gives the Pack plenty of exercise…Colt and Rue, that is.  Kota is more interested in socializing with the other dogs and stealing an occasional ball.

And, at the end of the day, they retire with a Nylabone, engage in just one more dog tussle, or present a toy to ask for a little petting.  

Here is John with his fifty-pound lap puppy.  Keep your comments coming, and we wish you were all here to enjoy the coast with us.