Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Buzzing Humble Bumble Bee

I will be returning to Colorado soon, in June, the best time of year for Colorado. Yes, it is also tornado season, but June is when the flowers bloom, the birds sing, the baby antelope prance and play on the prairies, and the parks are filled with laughing children.

It is also the best time of year to photograph one of my favorites subjects, the Bumble Bee. They photograph very well. I love those "grab" moments when a bee pulls it's head from the center of a flower and is covered with pollen, and I love listening to their buzz as they move from plant to plant, completely oblivious to the camera's lens.

In Shakespeare's time, in fact, right up to around World War I, Bumble Bees were called Humble Bees. Charles Darwin referred to Bumble Bees as Humble Bees in The Origin of the Species.

I much prefer the Humble Bee. They are not pretentious creatures, begging for attention, flapping and calling and showing off the way some geese might do. No, they simply move from flower to flower, sharing the love.

I haven't seen a single bee this year, that I recall. Though we seem to have a shortage of flowers around the house we are renting, we certainly do not have a shortage of wasps! The red wasps are everywhere, and in Texas, some of these wasps are as big as longhorn cattle!

And I miss the sound of the Humble Bumble Bee, though I know I will hear it again soon. A remarkable little bit of trivia that I just learned: The Humble Bee's humming sound does not come from the beating of its wings, but from the vibration of its flight muscles.

Another bit of trivia, contrary to popular myth, it is not a scientific mystery as to why the Humble Bee manages to fly in spite of its heavy body weight compared to the lightness of its wings. The wings of the Humble Bumble Bee function in a similar fashion to those of the hummingbird, like reverse-pitch, semirotary helicopter blades. Hummingbird wings are often compared to helicopter blades.

I can picture the moment when a bright, young scientist, perhaps an aviation engineer, a dreamer who believed in miracles, who understood the perfection of all God's creatures, sitting on his back porch, his coffee cup in one hand, a piece of toast in the other, glanced over at a flower, at the Humble Bumble Bee moving near his head, just close enough for the scientist to see the rotation of its wings, and the scientist said, "Hey, I wonder if..."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dogs, Cats, and Crawfish

My dog, Holly, has a bug bite on her tail. She was trying to nibble at it with her teeth, lost her balance and did a backward somersault into the closet, landing on a pile of dog pillows.

I was worried at first, but she walked out of the closet just fine... then turned around and looked back inside, staring at the pillows and sniffing around as if trying to figure out what had pulled her in there in the first place!

There was a big bin of live crawfish at the grocery store and they were all crawling around on top of each other so of course I started filling up a container to take them down to the creek and set them free and my husband made me put them back! What is up with that? It makes perfect sense to me. If I pay for them, I should be able to do what I want with them.

My chihuahua usually picks and teases and snips at my cat, Niblet. He's like a pesty younger brother, and Niblet, who is 60+ in cat years, takes it all in stride. A few days ago, my husband shaved the cat to get ready for our 105+ Texas summers. Now that Niblet is shaved, though, Chewy doesn't tease him. It's as if he thinks Niblet was Samson, and without his hair, he's lost his manhood. Now, Chewy walks up to the cat and rubs noses, as if to say, "I'm sorry, dude. You just look...goofy."

After spitting repeatedly on the ground to try and teach my chihuahua the meaning of the words "drop it," as he started into my eyes, then gulped down whatever piece of garbage was in his mouth, I finally figured out why my neighbors all think I'm a nut.

My bed is too tall, and my cat is too fat to jump onto the bed. The vet claims he's not fat, just big, but when he jumps and drops and jumps and drops...

Instead of reaching down and helping him, my husband would laugh at him. "The big, scary, Niblet, Boo Boo Kitty Black Fang is too old to jump on the bed," he would say, and the cat would sit and glare at him. (Yes, my cat has many names.)

Today, I bought Niblet Black Fang Boo Boo Kitty a step ladder. He has a right to his dignity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Love Bird Legs!

I love bird legs. They are so cute. Tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, big thick ones on vultures--such tremendous variety, too.

I like catching shots of birds taking off, flying over my head where I can see their tiny legs tucked beneath their body like the tires of an airplane. The legs of House Sparrows look delicate and small when viewed from beneath, then they pop those legs out as they come in for a landing and the tiny toothpicks hold their bodies perfectly. They do not wobble, stumble, or fall, in spite of the fact that their legs are clearly no where near the same weight as their bodies.

Hummingbird legs are especially delicate because they are so small, and they tuck beneath the body in a different way-they are so small, they don't even appear to fold, they look as if they just flap down onto the bird's belly, then stretch out again. And yet, when they land on the ledge of the feeder, those teeny legs are not only strong enough to keep them in place while they eat, but also hold them in place in out harsh, Texas winds.

I watched a blue heron at the park yesterday afternoon. It's legs appeared to be longer than its body. It stood on a rock near the water's edge as fierce gusts of wind battered its body, but it stood strong, solid. It didn't even appear to sway with the wind.

Vulture legs are like tree trunks, but they seem to disappear when they land, covered by the vulture's massive wings. I suspect the vulture's legs are thicker because their body is much heavier, especially when you add in the weight of those massive wings, which are sometimes 6 to 8 feet across! I think their legs are the reason why it's a bit more difficult for them to take off than other birds. When on the ground, they have to get a running start.

I like bird feet, too. I like the way they curl their talons around tiny twigs to hold them in place. When I take the dogs out, I always knock on the back door to warn the birds that we are coming, and sometimes the smaller birds, like the chickadees and sparrows, and even cardinals, will hop onto the sides of the trees, gripping the bark with their little talons and watching the dogs sideways as the dogs stare back at them, neither really frightened or intimidated, just...curious.

Edited to add: After I posted this blog, I looked out my bedroom window and watched a baby cardinal land on a tree branch. I have two crape myrtles that we bought for our old house, but we could not find a place to plant them because there was so much rock on the land, so I put them in pots, hoping they will survive until we find a house in New Mexico. The trees are only five feet tall, and the branches are more like twigs. When the baby cardinals land on the twigs, they bob up and down, but the babies hang on with their tiny legs and talons firm and strong until the bobbing stops, confident that their legs, and the tree, will hold.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Walk in the Park

I took a walk in the park today. There is always a wide variety of birds and other creatures down by the water, including snakes--I was very careful!

The first thing I noticed was a scissor-tailed flycatcher on the telephone wire above my head when I got out of the truck. He had the longest tail I have ever seen on a little bird. He turned his head from side to side, posing for the camera.

Also known as the Texas Bird of Paradise and the Swallowtail Flycatcher, the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher is among the most exotic-looking birds in Texas. These birds are truly stunning, but in a delicate way, not quite as eye-catching as the equally popular Painted Buntings. They have soft gray heads, pale pink flanks and dark gray wings. Their most distinguishing feature, however, is their long, forked tails that are black on top and white beneath.

Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers are in the Tyrannus genus, in the Tyrannidae family, and are also known as kingbirds. They are beneficial, insect-eating birds, mostly grasshoppers and dragonflies, and convenient to have around, especially if one lives near the river. They are 15 inches or longer when fully grown, though juvenile birds have shorter tails. I photographed both adult and juvenile birds at the park today.

It grew very windy this afternoon, so I started back toward the truck where my husband was fishing. A few feet from his pole, standing tall on a rock, was a large blue heron. My husband didn't even notice him until I started photographing the bird--he stood so still he looked like a statue. One of the more remarkable aspects of herons is their huge wings. They don't seem very large when they're standing still, but as they fly away, you quickly realize how big they are. Their wings span as much as 80 inches!

Just before I got into my truck, I noticed two white ducks beneath a tree. They were huddled close together in the wind, digging through the grass, looking for bugs. I took their picture and when I checked it later on my computer, I would swear one of the ducks is smiling contentedly, snuggled up beside its mate.

There was surprisingly few grackles. I usually see grackles everywhere I go in Texas!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Family Meal

When we moved into this house, I placed a cart on wheels next to the bedroom window. I put a tray filled with bird seed on top and a glass pan of water on the bottom so the birds could bathe. I didn't really believe the birds would like this feeding station. The house is old and the windows are very low. My large black cat likes to sit in the window and watch the birds, and the dogs enjoy this, as well.

Surprisingly, the birds seem to understand that there is a screen between them and the inside creatures. The only time they flutter off is when they see me move toward the window! I wish I could take pictures of them while they eat, but I think the only way I will be able to do this is if I hide behind the fence and wait. However, they do seem to respond to my voice. I will call out "pretty bird," when the large female cardinal arrives, and she hops closer to the window to look in through the screen. I also sing to the fish whose tank is on the dresser near the window. He comes to the edge of the glass to stare at me when I sing, and the little black-capped chickadees hop into the seed tray when they hear me singing, too, moving closer to the window as if they are trying to hear me, while still chattering away at each other. I think my speaking voice is perhaps a bit abrupt for them, but they do like the singing.

This afternoon, my husband walked into the bedroom where I was typing. He held up his finger for silence then pointed out the window where we watched the most magical moment between a family of cardinals.

There were two baby cardinals perched on the edge of the feeding cart. You can tell baby cardinals, even when they are larger, because they don't have all of their colors, and their beak isn't the bright orange of their parents. The parents were there, though. Both the mother and father were sitting in the tray of seeds. Each parent picked up a seed, cracked the shell, then fed the meat of the sunflower seed to the baby birds.

At first, they appeared to be simply feeding the babies, but they stayed there for at least twenty minutes, and it became apparent that they were trying to teach the baby birds how to break open the seeds on their own.

The moment was hypnotic in its beauty and for that brief period of time, all my worries and concerns seemed to disappear as I watched the tender, compassionate sharing of food between this little family.

When we first started to watch the cardinal family sharing their meal, I wanted to reach for my camera, but I knew, instinctively, this would scare them away. Then I remembered something a very good friend once shared with me. She said, "Sometimes I think God sends us these special moments at times when we don't have a camera in our hands because he wants us to focus all of our attention on what is happening before us, in the beauty of the action, and not the act of taking the picture."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day is for the birds!

It is spring, the time of love in bird land. Early this morning, as my husband handed me a lovely bouquet of orange roses, I glanced out the window in front of my bed and watched as a tiny female house sparrow hopped onto the fence. Her mate hopped down beside her. He had a seed in his beak, which he gently, lovingly, placed in her beak.

I have seen this often between birds during mating season. At our last house, with the two ponds in front, the females liked to sit in front of the water as the males hopped up to the food dish, then brought seeds to their mates, placing the precious food in the beak of their mates just as gently and compassionately as a husband placing a bouquet of flowers in the arms of his adoring wife, feeding the love in their relationship, strengthening the bond, saying "thank you for being my partner in creating a family."

I am not surprised when I see affection between animals, what does surprise me is the obvious depth of emotions. I love watching vultures, who mate for life, land on a post then slowly inch closer to each other, nuzzling necks, preening feathers. Sometimes, one of the vultures--I am assuming it is the male--will fly up and around the other, then land beside his mate again.

The Northern Cardinals are wonderful to watch. They follow each other closely, flitting from branch to branch, bright flashes of red amongst the ever-greens, never more than a few feet away from each other until, of course, it is time to watch over the nest.

Some of the most precious observations are spent watching the parents care for their baby birds. I love watching the mother and father sparrows fly up to the nest every ten to fifteen minutes with a bug in their beaks, gently lowering it down to the chirping, gaping mouths of their babies.

Road Runners are fun to watch, too. When the baby is ready, the parents will take the young Road Runner out to hunt lizards. They strut across the fields with their heads moving carefully from side to side, and once they spot their prey, they pounce so quickly it is faster than a finger snap, and the baby watches carefully, awed by the hunting skill of its parents.

I hope you all have a very happy Mother's Day with all the little hatchlings in your bevy of quail, your peep of chickens, your palette of painted buntings, your venue of vultures, your host of sparrows, your dole of doves...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Turkey Vulture

There is an exceptionally large turkey vulture who lives in the forest across the road. She flies out and over our house a few times a day, very low, calling out as she flies, which is something new to me. We had vultures living near our last house, but I never heard them call out as this one does.

I suspect she is the reason why the baby squirrels no longer sit at the very top of the dead tree in the yard. They still visit the house, but very early in the morning, before the dogs are awake, and they tend to wander around the trees that are thick with leaves instead of sitting out in the open.

The interesting thing about this turkey vulture is that I only see her with a flock on occasion, and turkey vultures are social creatures. They tend to hang out in large flocks that include black vultures.

I did see a black vulture fly over our house a few days ago with a small, gray, furry creature in its claws. It looked like a baby rabbit. Some vultures will eat small animals if there is a shortage of food. With the wildfires we've been having in Texas, and the extreme drought, combined with the fact that many of these birds are feeding babies, and there seems to be an overabundance of vultures this year, I do suspect there might be a food shortage.

I doubt that it would, or could, fly off with my chihuahua, but I do not allow him to be outside alone...just in case.


I counted nineteen birds on the back porch this morning and twelve on the front patio--our house is now a home. The interesting thing about these birds is the remarkable variety. At our old house, we had a flock of at least fifty house sparrows living in the Mustang grape vines. We also had an equally large flock of white winged doves in the back yard and regular visits from cardinals, titmouse, Mockingbirds, and one lonely, little male Painted Bunting.

I think one of the reasons why we had less of a variety of birds at the old house was because we had such a large quantity of birds! Now, we are seeing birds that leave us breathless.

A few days ago, I saw a large black bird in the backyard with a shimmering blue head and neck. It was, like most birds, very fast and difficult to photograph, but even with a blurry picture I could tell it is a type of grackle.

This morning, my husband saw a small bird that was completely blue. A deep, beautiful blue that caught the brief rays of sunlight shining through the clouds with a shimmer on its wings.

Later in the morning, we saw a deep green bird that resembled a female cardinal, though I've never seen a green cardinal before. We also saw two female Painted Buntings. They are easy to identify. Their color sparkles like the males, but their backs are a shiny green and their bellies lemon yellow. They seem much smaller than the males.

And, of course, dozens of house sparrows and doves. There is a pair of ringed-neck doves that likes to lie down in the dirt by the brick patio in the early morning.

There are two birds that interest me the most, though. There is a Mockingbird that follows me from tree to tree, just like the one at our old house. We have many Mockingbirds, but this particular bird clearly follows me around. I took the dogs out a few days ago and sat in one of the porch chairs. Buddy was on one side of me, Holly on the other, and Chewy the chichihuahua jumped onto my lap. The Mockingbird flew onto a branch directly above our heads, about ten feet away and sang and sang. Sometimes it appeared as if its beak was shut, but it was still making a trilling sound. I think we were out there a full half hour, and it never stopped singing. It also follows me to the front of the property when I go for my walks then stops at the last tree and calls to me as I walk down the street. It is always in the tree, waiting, when I return.

The other bird is the large female cardinal, the mate to the large, bright male who disappears the second he sees me move through the window glass. She is not at all shy. In fact, she will land on the table and eat seeds when I am standing a few feet away with my camera. Sometimes she lands on the ground while the dogs are walking around. At first, I though I was imagining her boldness, but my husband told me the same thing this morning, that he will take the dogs out early in the morning and the female cardinal will land on a chair, the table, or the ground, just a few feet away from him.

Each day I feel more comfortable in this house. It's amazing how the little creatures can make a person feel welcome. We just have to be aware of their presence.