What’s Really Warming The World

Jokulsarlon in Iceland; 2007.Arguing the factual basis of anthropogenic climate change with its opponents is like cutting the head off a hydra: state one factor clearly and two more objections appear magically out of the ether, leaving you frustrated because the opponent never provides evidence to dismantle your carefully marshaled facts. It’s only knuckle-dragging dead-enders, but there are a lot of them, yet.

For example, “greenhouse gasses are the largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change (henceforward ACC),” you the responsible citizen argue.

Your opponent replies, “but it’s the solar super cycle! The Earth has been warming and cooling for eons.”

You reply, “sure, that might contribute a bit but no where near as exhaustively as carbon emissions.”

Your opponent is too dim to note the pun you just made, by the way. Your opponent then says, “it’s volcanoes!”

You just smile, as volcanoes spew ash and ash acts as a coolant.

Your opponent then blurts, “it’s the Earth’s axis, you know, the wobble, that drives long term climate change.”

At this point you’re frustrated and trying to remain amicable. You wish you had a ready made tool that could graph all these objections versus carbon emissions.

Well guess what?

Now you do.

You’re going to like using this. It’s helpful and it’s important.

I personally sense a bit of a change in the issue, even here in Texas, so push foward! It progress of a kind.

When A Blue Jay Isn’t Just Blue

Here is a photographic collection, so far, of all the “jays” I’ve seen in the world. Seven of the eight come from the Western Hemisphere, but one is from India and is called the Indian Tree Pie. We’ll start with him:

Indian Tree Pie (dendrocitta vagabunda)








Next we have the common Blue Jay that most people in the eastern half of the United States have in their yards at some point:

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)








For those of you in the Western half of the United States you are probably used to this character, the Western Scrub Jay:

Western Scrub Jay










Also to be found in the west, but at high altitudes are two other jays, first Clark’s Nutcracker:

Clark's Nutcracker










And second, the Steller’s Jay, one of which I saw in the Davis Mountains in Texas last week, which is a rare occurence, to say the least:

Steller's Jay








In South Texas two species of jays are to be found, one very common, and one very rare. The commoner bird is the Green Jay and he is spectacular:

Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)








The less common bird is the Brown Jay and while he looks brown and boring, he’s three times the size of the Blue Jay or the Scrub Jay and has three times the character:

Brown Jay










Lastly, is the fantastic bird I saw in Nicaragua, the White-throated Magpie Jay:

White-throated Magpie Jay








There are many more species of jays and hope someday to see them all.

West Nile Virus and Blue Jays

West Nile Virus VictimThe most common fatalities of the West Nile Virus are not humans, but birds. All too often since the virus entered the United States whole flocks of corvids have been eviscerated.

This Blue Jay–from our back yard–died from West Nile Virus two months ago. Most of our ten strong scold, the collective noun used for a group of Blue Jays, died this summer from the disease. Those who did not die were driven off by a stronger, younger scold of jays, only to catch the disease and then die.

The symptoms of West Nile Virus in Jays and other Corvids are such:

Birds do not usually show signs of infection until the last stage of the disease, which is encephalitis or inflammation of the brain. An infected bird may appear drowsy, be unable to fly or walk properly; it may even have problems standing upright

Further, Blue Jays are known to be able to fly while very sick if they start from high in a tree, but cannot fly off from the ground, appear dazed and confused. One neighbor reported a bird falling dead right out of the sky.

Indeed, we have very few Blue Jays left.

This is sad, they are fun birds with big, inquisitive characters. We named most of them, got to know them well. We fed them every day. They knew our patterns and would squawk at us or chatter with us when they were hungry or just wanted to show off.

Jays are my favorite birds. One of the first encounters I ever had with a bird was with a Mexican Jay in Big Bend National Park. I spent hours driving across the Valley this spring looking for the elusive Brown Jay. The raucous calls and shenanigans of Green Jays are impossible to beat once you’ve seen them, looking as they do like a Blue and Green Groucho Marx:
Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)
And at Yosemite I saw a Steller’s Jay for the first time. A true high altitude beauty.

Now, here in our yard there are no more birds, except for the ugly and over-proliferating White-winged Dove to take the old family’s place. A few Jays linger, but they don’t know us and we don’t know them yet. Hopefully the disease will pass with the coming of fall and cooler weather. Until then, I won’t be investing in the habits of our back yard friends.

Great Valley Birding Trip

The Brunette are heading down to the Lower Rio Grande Valley this week for our spring break.

Here are the place we’ll be staying: El Rocio Retreat, Mission Texas, Chachalaca Inn, Los Fresnos, Texas, Alamo Inn, Alamo Texas.

And here are some of the parks we’ll be visiting: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Las Palomas Unit, Boca Chica State Park, Palo Alto Battlefield, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Our target list includes the following birds for The Brunette: Green Jays, Brown Jay, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Orioles, both Hooded and Audobon’s, White-collared Seedeater.

For me: Green Jays, Brown Jay, Rose-throated Becard, Tropical Parula

It appears as if I have become a serious twitcher. How’d that happen?

Rich Beyond Compare

Wood Duck (aix sponsa)“Where’d you see that,” my father texted me after I sent him this photo. “In the zoo?”

In true text-speak I replied: “Zoo! Haha! You’re just jealous.”

To which he replied, “yup.”

My father, in case you were wondering, is the man who introduced me to birds, among many other things. Our exchange was good natured, but it had a subtle point, one I think he’s been missing lately: if a person were to just get out and walk around they’d be amazed at what they found. It doesn’t matter, for the most part, where you live. There is an active birding community in New York City’s Central Park, for example. One afternoon while on a layover in Los Angeles on my way to Taiwan I saw this little guy, my first and only Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Before I started paying attention to the world around me I had no idea it was this rich. As my father replied after I admonished him to get out and just explore his neighborhood, “I hear you. I see people with headsets, paying no attention to the songs in the trees or the birds flittering about.” To which I would add: the crazy, insane beauty of bugs, the miniature dinosaurs rummaging around our grass and trees and the trees and flowers themselves. Better yet, try turning the television off for thirty minutes and watch the sunset (or wake up early and watch it rise), I promise you’ll not be disappointed.

Just yesterday while The Brunette and I were on our daily walk through the neighborhood we spotted the Wood Ducks, right in the middle of the city, paddling in Shoal Creek. Take a close look at the photo and think for a moment what it would be like to see such a beautiful animal. You’d pay to see it in a zoo, wouldn’t you?

So go walk around your neighborhood. It’s free.

A Little Bird Crazy? Why Yes, I Am.

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)Last year wasn’t anything close to being a ‘Big Year.’ I only saw about 225 or so different species. Heck, some people can do that from their backyard. And my year included Costa Rica, New Mexico, California, Malaysia and Indonesia. From the Monk Parakeet colonies here in Austin (which I have yet to photograph) and a small Common-yellowthroat I saved one morning in the backyard to the Great Argus I saw in the jungles of Sumatra it was, however, a good year full of wildlife and birds.

You might recall early last year I wrote in Texas Monthly that I came to birding somewhat late in life. But there was a lot to the story I left out. Namely, how I developed the skills, or ‘the eye’ to identify different species of birds. Shooting dove and quail in the Brush Country of South Texas was my introduction, but it was Father’s prime hunting directive that solidified it. He drilled the mantra “we only kill what we eat” into me. If I mistakenly shot a meadowlark thinking it was a flushing quail or thought a crow was a dove that’s what I ate for dinner.

Nor did I really have a chance to write in Texas Monthly about how my birding developed in 2010 and into 2011. It wasn’t until the year before last (2010) that I started keeping a list. Sure, I’d kept photos on Flickr, but it was more a kind of happenstance, “hey, I saw this cool new bird today in country X” kind of exercise. I’d had ‘the eye’ since I was a kid and found some enjoyment in the occasional bird, like the random Erckel’s Francolin or a gorgeous Hoopoe sitting on a collapsed, lopsided stela in Axum, Ethiopia but I hadn’t gone out specifically ‘to bird.’ By 2010 things were different. I now went specifically ‘to bird.’ I was now a full-fledged twitcher. (Get the pun?)

On December 31st of 2011 I decided to try for 200 or more birds in the state for 2012. Not a ‘Big Year’ but not a little one, either.Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)

After last weekend, however, the count was already up to 50, much of which is attributable to newly acquired knowledge of birds and their habitats, where they can be found, at what time of the day and at what time of the year. But really, only ten days into the year and I’m at 50? Methinks I might have to make that number 300–especially as The Brunette and I have a trip planned for the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the spring migration. But I digress.

Bird crazy you say? Well, let me ask you this: would you rather spend your time looking for something as beautiful as this guy or something as fascinating as this gal? Or would you rather watch this clown on TV? Easy choice, if you ask me.

So, here’s the list so far this year:

1. Blue Jay
2. Carolina Chickadee
3. Black-crested Titmouse
4. Great-tailed Grackle
5. European Starling
6. Red-bellied Woodpecker
7. White-winged Dove
8. House Sparrow
9. Northern Mockingbird
10. Mourning Dove
11. Lesser Goldfinch
12. Carolina Wren
13. Northern Flicker
14. Northern Cardinal
15. Red-tailed Hawk
16. Great Horned Owl
17. Eastern Phoebe
18. House Finch
19. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
20. Ring-necked Duck
21. Pied-billed Grebe
22. Great-blue Heron
23. Snowy Egret
24. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
25. Yellow-rumped Warbler
26. Hermit Thrush
27. Barred Owl
28. Belted Kingfisher
29. American Coot
30. Red-tailed Hawk
31. Orange-crowned Warbler
32. American Goldfinch
33. White-eyed Vireo
34. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
35. Red-shouldered Hawk
36. Cedar Waxwings
37. Osprey
38. Wood Duck
39. Turkey Vulture
40. Loggerheard Shrike
41. American Kestrel
42. Whooping Crane
43. Western Meadowlark
44. Common Raven
45. Anhinga
46. Crested Caracara
47. American Robin
48. Red-winged Cowbird
49. Cooper’s Hawk
50. American Pipit

A Morning With A Coppersmith Barbet

Coppersmith Barbet (megalaima haemacephala)

So, I know not all of you will appreciate the bird photos, but hey, I like the birds. Call me a freak, I don’t mind. Thus far I have seen 24 new species of birds on this trip. Actually more, but I’ve only gotten decent photos of 24. If you are so inclined you can see the photos of birds from this trip beginning here and move forward. The big winner, thus far for me, has been the Coppersmith Barbet which I saw this morning. He’s the one pictured above. My full set of world birds can be found here, with birds from as far afield as Ethiopia and Texas.


Caracara In A Cold Mine

Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)

The bird migrations this year tell me one thing in particular: we’re in for a very screwed up winter down here in Texas. First, the warblers came early and have by and large lingered long. Northwest Park in Austin, where I walk many mornings during the week, is not known as a migrant trap. But many of the original migrants this year have set up camp there. Plus, there have been warbler sightings all across Texas that are very uncommon, birds have popped up in places like Houston and Austin that have no business being there. Palm Warblers in Austin and multiple sightings of Black-throated Blue Warblers in Houston (a bird that has no business ever being this far West). Several Hutton’s Vireos spotted outside San Antonio–another rarity. I, myself, even spotted a Black-headed Grosbeak in Central Austin, which is a rarity inside the city, just two weeks ago.

The sparrows showed up two weeks early and in force. We’ve a huge group in the backyard–close to thirty that are competing with the over abundant White-winged Dove and Blue Jays. I’ve watched three and four sparrows at a time harry the Blue Jays away from food–and Jays are not unaggressive birds. Now, Jays are great mimics of raptors (and I’ve watched them run off Red-tailed Hawks from the big Oak Tree in the backyard twice). There is now one Jay–the alpha of a gang of eight–who will fly in from afar, perch high up in the Oak Tree like a raptor and mimic him, scaring off all the sparrows and dove. All of these are behaviors that are no doubt drought induced.

Other species of sparrows–White-throated Sparrows especially–have arrived very early as well, usually flying into the area in November. Flickers have pushed in to the areas around Austin early too, more highly unusual behavior. Juncos are in Central Texas and along the coast. We rarely get Scrub Jays in Austin but there have been multiple sightings of them around town and in local parks, and Scrub Jays compete directly with local Blue Jays.

Now, this may mean nothing to you. But birds and their behaviors do foreshadow environmental events. The general consensus is that early migrations portend a veery cold and very dry winter, which syncs with the La Nina conditions we’re still enduring. Just consider this another bit of anecdotal evidence that weather patterns are seriously amiss.

We’re are, however, so divorced from the behavior of our animal neighbors presently that we no longer notice what they are telling us.

Drought and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja)This may seem a rather peaceful, edenic-looking photo. Trust me, it’s not. This pond is withering away rapidly. I’ve never seen it this low my entire life. It’s easily three or four times lower than it should be. It’s highly saline and the spoonbill feeding in it is a stressed animal, which should normally have a relatively different color set this time of year, a brighter, almost magenta hue to it’s pinkish wings.

This is going on all around the Coastal Bend this year. Salt levels are three hundred percent higher than normal in the bays (think of them as giant estuaries). Blue crab populations are collapsing. Oyster catches are falling and on and on. A large fight is shaping up between environmentalist and chemical companies. There is so little fresh water flowing into the bays–much of it being used for fracking, refining and very necessary agriculture upriver that the survival in the wild of the last flock of Whooping Cranes is once again being called into question.

In an average year a visitor should see at least twenty to thirty different species of birds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. I was exceptionally lucky to have seen only ten. There should be kites and kestrels and caracaras all along the roads, perched on the telephone poles hawking field animals running around in the cotton fields. But not this year. Cotton yields on the Coastal Bend are well below normal and the crop was harvested a month early. There should be swarms of orioles, both Bullock’s and Baltimores in the trees eating the abundant early fall berries. There should be herons and egrets and pipers and all other manner of shore birds. There should be warblers galore: Nashville Warblers, Prothonotary Warblers, Black-and-Whites, Canadians etc. . There were few, if any.

Of course, one benefit to the deep plowing farmers are doing (they plow and turn over the soil deeply to catch the meager rains when they come) are the bugs which leads to a lot of flycatchers. But other than that? Nothing. What happens once all those bugs have been eaten?

Destroy the bottom of the foodchain and you also destroy the top of it.

Cattlemen in the Coastal Bend are deeply culling their herds. We saw few cattle and the ones we did were drought stressed, thin and the absence of cattle egrets was palpable. The drive from Rockport to the Refuge was a surreal concatenation of dried marshes, brown reeds and bone dry creek beds, normally full of water and meandering languidly down to the bays. Sure, it was humid. But it was also 104* degrees there Sunday. That’s simply too hot this time of year, with a strong wind coming in from the Gulf every gets dried out even more. Everything is dying.

I was in no way prepared for what I saw down there this year. It was brutal and gut wrenching.

Ranchers and Prairie Chickens

I’m headed out to Don Henry Ford’s ranch today outside of Gonzales. Anything y’all want me to ask him while I am there? I’ll be taking an obscene amount of photos so rest assured that will be covered. I’m excited. It’s been a little over a year and a half since I last saw Don and Leah. And this will be the first time I’ve been to the ranch.

After meeting with Don and staying at his ranch for a night I’ll make my way up to San Felipe, the homestead of Stephen F. Austin. In the area is the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where I hope to snap some shots of a the bird itself. I’ll be dilly-dallying around the area for a day or so, checking out old grave sites and trying to fix the location of where Sanchez crossed Tejocote Creek, which is now called Peach Creek. I will endeavor to locate more of the Daughters of the American Revolution granite markers on the old King’s Highway. (I’ve already documented two.) And also try to locate some more of his infamous “hills.” I’m about to go all Inigo Montoya on him, because he keeps using that word and I don’t think he knows what it means. I had a damnable and impossible time find a hill with iron deposits in it south of San Antonio, as I recounted yesterday.

After that I will head up to Nacogdoches, making a stop in Alto, Texas’ most recent libertarian paradise. More soon.