Thursday, June 28, 2007

Article: In pursuit of painted buntings

Not all birds are created equal

About a month ago I was out horseback riding when a strikingly colored bird flitted by. I caught only a glimpse knew immediately that it was a painted bunting, Passerina ciris. I’m no bird expert but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify a male painted bunting.

The Peterson Field Guide, Birds of Texas begins its description of this bird with “The most gaudily colored American bird.” There’s no mistaking it. The chest and belly of the male are as bright red as any cardinal, the head more brilliantly blue than a blue jay and there is a startling patch of yellow-green on its back blending to dark green feathers on the upper wing. No child would color a bird so fancifully.

I followed the painted bunting I’d spotted until it perched in the uppermost reaches of a large juniper (also known as “cedar”). Against the overcast sky, the primary colors of the bunting’s plumage disappeared into black silhouette. It soon flew to a farther location. Since it had started raining--again--I suspended the chase. But while unsaddling my horse, I was surprised to see that same bird chase a tiny hummingbird off the apex of a skeletal tree.

In the morning I was a woman on a mission. I hoped the painted bunting was staying near the house and I was determined to get a photograph. Nearly ever year, we see one or two of these birds but they disappear almost as soon as they appear. I imagined they didn’t like the mix of vegetation around our property and were headed to the Hill Country where an elusive bird could remain unseen by human eyes. I needed to get my photograph before the bird moved on.

So I grabbed my camera and dragged an old lawn chair out to the juniper where I’d seen the bird the previous day. I sat as still as I could while mosquitoes bit me and abundant gnats crawled all over my face and arms. It was worth it though because the ploy worked. Within a half-hour I had some half-way decent photographs.

Through my camera’s viewfinder, I watched the sparrow-sized bird sing. What a beautiful song it was! Longer and more complex than the songs of typical birds on our property, the painted bunting’s song has the distinction of containing no repeated notes or phrases. I quickly learned to recognize it.

The next morning I heard that song while feeding the horses. I rushed to get my camera. Slowly, quietly, I followed the auditory trail. Soon I spotted the bird perched, again, on the ultimate pinnacle of a juniper. Looking up, I should have seen the brilliant red of its belly. Instead the backlighting caused the entire bird to appear black

The next day I heard the song again and made another mad dash for my camera. The bird flew from the top of a near juniper to one in a dense copse of trees. However, I noticed something strange--that distinctive song was coming from more than one location. I had at least two of the magnificent birds living with me!

On the following day, I carried my camera out while I fed the horses and was rewarded with another sighting. Again the bird was near the top of a juniper but at least this time I could see it was red. As I walked to the front pasture I heard at least two other birds calling. Suddenly it seemed I could hear that song everywhere.

Apparently painted buntings are one of the more common birds on our property. I’m not sure if this was always true. It’s possible I just never noticed them before. Despite their almost ridiculously distinctive colors, small birds that perch on the tops of trees are easily overlooked. Or it could be that mulching of many of the junipers on our property this spring changed our land into prime bunting habitat. Either way, the little birds are now driving me crazy. I carry my camera everywhere--when it’s not raining--constantly on the lookout for buntings in photogenic poses. Someday I will get that perfect photo.


Some nice photos:

Photo: From the bottom painted buntings look solid red.Photo: Singing from the treetops!

Photo: This one perched on a sunflower and darted into the grass to eat seeds.
Photo: Even when they're blurred they make a pretty picture.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Article: The history of a horse

Camp had another relapse. We had her put down July 3rd, 2007. This photo was taken a couple of hours before her death. As you can see, she was curved to one side again and by this point was having trouble standing. A few carrots alleviated her suffering somewhat.

Camp and other horses romping in the pasture.

No matter how much you expect some things, they still come as a surprise. I suppose this is generally the case when the thing you’re expecting is not what you want. I had one of these unpleasant surprises last month when I went out to the pasture one evening.

My friend Sheldon and I had been working on making riding trails in the back part of my land. As sunset approached, we stumbled, hot and tired, back to the house. Lazy as I am, I decided it’d be easier to let the horses graze than lug hay out to their pens. Sheldon went to make the release while I secured hay and grain against equine marauders.

When I finished what I was doing, I looked out to watch the horses lope to the far corner of the pasture to where, in their minds at least, the grass is the greenest. They are such beautiful, graceful animals, I never tire of watching them. But immediately I knew something was wrong. My oldest horse, Camp, was literally stumbling along behind the others.

I grabbed a halter, called to Sheldon and we went after her. My heart sank. Camp wasn’t just lame her entire body curved to one side. From head to tail her spine traced an arc of a circle. Her hind legs seemed to want to go one direction while her head went another, resulting in an uncoordinated side-passing locomotion. When I put the halter on her she nearly stumbled into me.

I bought Camp for $700 fifteen years ago as a birthday present for my daughter Coral. Coral was eleven and Camp was thirteen. She was the perfect horse. Always calm, would do anything and go anywhere, never spooked and yet was willing to run all day if that’s what Coral wanted. Camp had the speed to make it worthwhile.

Over the years her smooth gaits and gentle disposition made her the perfect horse for kids and novice riders as well as the more experienced. A few years ago, I looked her up on the AQHA web site. I was surprised to learn she had an ROM (Register of Merit) in racing back from when she was a two-year-old. And she sold for nearly $20,000 as a yearling.

What was even more surprising was that her record was marked “deceased.” Further investigation revealed that the AQHA marks horses as dead when they reach twenty-five unless they hear otherwise. While Camp was starting to show her age, she was a long way from dead. Just last month she was under saddle with my son’s eight-year-old daughter on her back.

Then came her injury. Camp has struggled through the last month, making an amazing recovery. After last Friday’s vet check, our family let out a collective sigh of relief. On Sunday evening I decided she could go out to graze with the other horses, just as she was going to on the night she fell ill. But when I went out to release her, Friday’s healthy Camp had been replaced with the Camp from a month ago. She’d relapsed.

Now we’re waiting on test results that may, or may not, reveal what’s wrong. The options are four types of encephalitis--including West Nile--or a brain tumor. The prognosis isn’t good any way you look at it.

Twenty-nine is ancient for a horse. Even so we’re not prepared to let her go…not yet. We’ll try to see her through this. As long as her spirits are good and she seems happy, we’ll keep working. She’s done so much for us, especially for Coral, that we can’t fully repay that debt. But part of the payment is care for her current illness.

That’s the easy part. I hope we have courage for the hard part. We don’t want her to suffer and mercy is something we can afford our pets. If Camp knew it, she’d be glad she is livestock and not a human being.

Update 2007/06/28: Test results are back. Camp has a herpes viral encephalitis. There is no treatment and once contracted the horse has the disease forever. However it may go into remission but this is unlikely in a horse her age. We are starting her on oral steroids to control the symptoms. She's currently doing fairly well and as long as the symptoms remain mild, we'll watch and wait.

Photo: The last time Coral rode Camp was in July of 2006.Photo: Camp curving due to central nervous system problem this month. She still likes to eat.Photo: Camp in September 2004. She's red roan so she always had white in her coat.Photo: Camp in the bluebonnets, July 2004.Photo: Camp at around 16 years old.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Article: Baby bird abominations

Becky and her peach-faced lovebird Squeeks

Not all hybrids are bad. I have a hybrid car with an engine that is both gasoline and electric. It gets around fifty miles per gallon. Considering current gas prices, my Prius is more of a godsend than an abomination. And mules are hybrids produced by mating female horses with male donkeys incorporating some of the good traits of each parents (along with some of the bad traits of the donkey).

But not all hybrids are good. For instance, there used to be a vehicle known as an El Camino. It had the front end of a car and the back end of a pickup truck. They didn’t work well as cars since people were embarrassed to ride in them (at least I was) and they didn’t work well as trucks since they had low clearance. A liger is the production of a male lion and a female tiger. It lacks the bright color definition of a tiger and the resulting offspring are the largest felines in the world. Really, who needs that?

This is all leading up to my friend Becky and her two lovebirds. There are nine species of lovebirds and it turns out Becky’s pets represent two of them, the peach-faced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis) and the masked lovebird (A. personata). Both of these species originate in Africa but it’s a large continent and their ranges do not overlap. In the wild, the peach-faced lovebirds zip from oasis to oasis in the sizzling heat of the Namib Desert while the smaller masked lovebirds inhabit the great African savanna in Tanzania.

However at Becky’s house their ranges overlap 100% in their little cage. Close quarters make strange bedfellows and lovebirds didn’t get that name for nothing. Soon there were six small eggs and four worried parents (the two lovebirds and Becky and her husband Randy). The potential babies arrived at a bad time though, it was the middle of winter and the family was moving. Becky and Randy did their best to shield the birds from the chaos of the times but, sadly, none of the eggs hatched.

We weren’t sure stress resulted in hatching failure or if lovebird hybrids are maybe not viable. Looking it up on the web revealed a strong prejudice against this kind of interbreeding. Apparently the Frankensteinian monsters produced by these crosses are viable and fertile themselves. This leads purists to fear that the lovebird breeds will become cross-contaminated and the pure forms will be lost forever.

Becky and her birds did not heed this dire warning. Within a few weeks after the move, when things were settled in the new house, four more eggs arrived. These hatched resulting in Tweety, Charlie, Foghorn Leghorn I who died and was replaced by Foghorn Leghorn II, the last of the chicks to hatch.Becky wanted me to come over to photograph the baby birds but I resisted. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of this affront to nature. These babies were never meant to be. Probably they would grow up to have two beaks and three eyes. But eventually I had to fulfill the responsibilities foisted on me by our friendship and go see the little abominations, take their pictures and fawn over them. The things I do for friendship--not to mention that Becky is my boss.

I was surprised to find the hatchlings were adorable. At least the two older ones, Foghorn Leghorn II didn’t have any feathers yet and naked birds are not very cute. They don’t have extra legs or wings and their baby feathers are bright green. They have relatively enormous beaks but I think they’ll grow into them. So I guess lovebird hybrids are more like hybrid engine cars and less like El Caminos.

Photo: Squeeks, the proud fatherPhoto: Pedro, the mother bird
Photo: Tweety
Photo: Charlie
Photo: Foghorn Leghorn II

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Article: After the storm

Our bridge with an assortment of fallen branches.
Note that I had already moved most out of the way and that
several large but detached branches are suspended in the trees over the bridge.

I have something to confess: I’m afraid of chainsaws. People might call this an irrational fear. I think those people are all men. And I think those men have never read a chainsaw manual. There’s a warning that if you hit something unyielding the chainsaw will jump backward and saw your head in half.

Living semi-rural and having a disabled husband makes chainsaw-phobia a real problem. Things happen out here and someone has to go clean them up. Naturally, I’d like for my son Philip to do this. He’s twenty-eight, tall and strong, a perfect candidate for the job. Except he lives in Round Rock and has a job and a family of his own.

From time to time, I coerce a friend or two to help. Surprisingly, and because they haven’t read the manual, some men jump at the chance to use a chainsaw. They’re real-life incarnations of Tim on Home Improvement. Even so, I find you can’t really rely on them. Like Philip, they have lives of their own.

So when I got up Monday morning and saw the devastation the storm and high winds brought upon our place, I knew chainsawing was in my future.

Our property has one serious logistical weakness: we have to cross a narrow concrete bridge to get in and out. That bridge has a target painted on it in tree language. If a branch falls anywhere on our property, it falls on that bridge.

Monday proved a special case though. Certainly branches fell on the bridge but others went into the creek, across the fences, in the pasture with the horses. In fact, branches and downed trees could be seen everywhere. I couldn’t face all that right away so I pushed enough debris aside to get out and I went to run some errands.

I was stopped before I even got to the paved road. A gigantic tree had snapped in half and fallen on the dirt road that serves both our house and our neighbor’s. Fortunately their power was out and they needed to get the road clear so a utility service man could get in. My neighbor was just reseating the chain on his chainsaw as I drove past. I felt guilty but I had absolutely no idea what to do about that tree.

Eventually the time came to face my responsibilities and start cleaning the place. I got my truck, my gloves, a good pair of loppers and my cute little chainsaw and headed to the bridge. Now I wouldn’t normally call anything as deadly as a chainsaw “cute” but mine is different. It’s an electric chainsaw. Not one of those dumb corded ones. How’s that going to work? They don’t make cords long enough and I don’t have any desire to lug a generator around. No, mine is a battery powered chainsaw.

There are a few things to love about battery powered electric chainsaws. The first is that you don’t have to pull a cord to start them. I have never been able to do that on a gasoline powered anything. And pulling really hard on something that has stated it’s trying to kill me, well, that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Another nice thing about them is they don’t have as much power. They don’t cut through things as easily as a gasoline powered chainsaw, including my head. I view this as a feature.

Its final advantage is that the battery doesn’t last very long between charges. There’s only so much work I can do before I am forced to take a break. And it gives me justification for using the loppers even though the chainsaw might be faster--gotta save battery.

After working for several hours and taking two big loads to the dump, I’ve decided to give up. The job is too big for me or my little chainsaw. I’m going to have to hire someone with no known chainsaw aversions to finish the job. I feel bad about that. I should be more self-sufficient. But I’d rather stay alive.

Photo: Some of the cleanup I faced to clear the bridge.Photo: Another view of the bridge-related debris.
Photo: My little battery powered chainsaw next to a branch it sawed. There's more work for you yet, my little darling!
Photo: Since I took this photo, the chainsaw and I have cleared those branches you see just beyond the trees.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Article: Spider safari

A wolf spider eating a grasshopper

Recently I got a new macro lens, opening the world of the teeny-tiny to my prying eye.

The lions and tigers of the macro world are, of course, the spiders. Every spider is a predator but they go about capturing their prey using a myriad of methods. All spiders have spinnerets, the organ on the back of their abdomen that lays down spider web, but they don’t all use it the same way.

Orb weaver spiders, like Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, spin a new, complex, spiraling web each day. If you ever get a chance to watch that, do it. It takes a while but it is worth it. They never stop to rest. Makes me glad I’m not a spider.

Along with their web producing ability, all spiders are venomous. That doesn’t mean your average spider can harm a human. Here in Texas, about the only spiders people need to worry about are black widows and violin or brown recluse spiders. Neither of these makes a habit of biting people and generally bites are minor when they happen, but in rare cases they can be dangerous.

The venom of black widows is neurotoxic (acting on the nervous system) while that of violin spiders is hemolytic (causes damage to tissues). Spiders typically use their venom to subdue their prey, generally insects or other arthropods. Tarantulas are an exception, especially the large South American varieties. Some of these spiders can eat birds or small rodents. Oddly, tarantula bites, at least in the US, are not especially dangerous.

Keeping all this in mind, I set out one day to photograph spiders. I could have just looked around the house. We don’t use any pesticides or other poisons on our property which is good for us, good for the birds and rabbits but also good for insects and spiders. So there are a fair number of our eight-legged friends crawling the walls at my house.

That would have taken all the fun out of a spider safari though, so I headed to South Texas and Chaparral WMA, my favorite wildlife management area. I wanted to see some exotic arachnids in their unspoiled natural habitat. I was not disappointed.

Among the first spiders I saw was a large wolf spider. Like real wolves, these spiders are active hunters. They don’t loll about the web all day waiting for food to drop in, they go out, track it down and kill it. That’s just what this spider was doing. Clutched in its powerful jaws--called pedipalps and consisting of modified legs--squirmed a still-living grasshopper. Since spider venom typically starts the digestion process, there was no point to rescuing the hopper. Besides, I’m not sure I like grasshoppers better than spiders.

Next I spied a green lynx spider staked out on some small white flowers. I can hardly see these tiny spiders with my eyes but my camera lens blows them up so I can see the black, spiky hairs on each leg.

Moving on I encountered a large web with a little spider. The dense web formed a white tangle between branches in a bush. At first glance the strands seemed haphazard, completely lacking in the geometric beauty of an orb weaver’s web. However, the whole mess formed a neat funnel leading to a small spider, neatly hidden but ready to pounce.

The big excitement of my spider safari was the discovery of the elephant of the spider world--a tarantula. This one ran across the road at break-neck spider speed just as I was leaving. It didn’t care how many times I took its photo, it wanted out of there. It must have known about me. Even the tiny green lynx spider knew it was being watched. This one was just in a hurry and didn’t have time to deal with it.

The sun was heading down in the west when I pointed my Jeep back north with a successful spider safari safely cached in my camera’s digital memory.

For information on spider bites:
Good site for identifying spiders:

Photo: A cabbage spider stalking prey on a sprig of white flowers.
Photo: Funnel spider waiting.
Photo: Tarantula crossing the road.