The birds and the bees

As I’ve noted before, I have a lot of “old lady” activities.  We’re getting to the time of year where one of them winds down (knitting is not pleasant at 80 degrees and 90% humidity) and another ramps up.  Spring means gardening!

I’m only container gardening this year, but I have a lovely full sun deck.  I am somewhat hampered by my broken ankle, which limits my ability to haul bags of dirt upstairs.  But I persevere!  There’s a plant sale at the South Texas Botanical Gardens this weekend, and I already have a few things going.  Mostly tomato plants.  Soon, I will have more native plants!  I love natives.  Because I am deeply geeky and most cool things are under-pinned by science.

Native plants are the base of any terrestrial ecosystem.  They evolved in conjunction with the myriad butterflies and bees, moths and wasps, flies and beetles that inhabit any particular place.  You may not love the bugs, but know what does?  Birds.  Particularly, baby birds.

I'm practically a cartoon!  Image by  Suzanne Britton

I'm practically a cartoon!  Image by Suzanne Britton

While adult birds will eat seeds (depending on the species), young birds generally need insects.  The early bird gets the worm and all that.   Take the adorable Ruby Crowned Kinglet.  They eat insects almost exclusively, with occasional berries.  You will not see one coming by your birdfeeder.  And who wouldn’t want to have these guys around?  They’re little balls of floof, with a red crest!  Hummingbirds are similar – the adults may drink nectar all day long, but the nestlings primarily get bugs stuffed down their throat. 

If you want birds, you need bugs.  Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy really drives this home.  The author is an entomologist, so he’s partial to insects anyway.  But the science remains true.  Native plants lead to more insects – and a greater diversity of insects – which lead to more birds.  It’s for the birds.

Between Port Aransas and Austin, I used to stop at the Cuero Nursery, which has since closed down.  The first time I went, a friend was with me.  Slow, lazy bumblebees hovered nearby, while flies and parasitic wasps and a hornet buzzed around.  The humidity, still wind and blooming flowers made the air feel heavy and everything smelled wonderful.  My friend was not thrilled.  The owner of the nursery replied to her feeble attempts at avoiding the bugs, “Any good nursery is going to have bugs.”  And, of course, it’s true.  Go to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center during their plant sale in April.  I guarantee, there will be lots and lots of bugs.  Then go to, say, Lowe’s garden center.   I know which I prefer.

Some suggested reading:

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center:

Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy

Noah’s Garden by Sara Stein

Attracting Native Pollinators from the Xerxes Society

Ecosystem Gardening:

And, this is the blog post that spawned my initial interest in the subject:

I promised birds

This weekend is the annual Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival!  There will be guided tours of the Port Aransas birding suites, boat rides out to Aransas Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes in question, talks about conservation.  All sorts of good things, for the bird nerd in you.  How about a couple of brief birding stories, to gear up?  I don’t have any long, drawn out adventures the way some birders accumulate.  But, the Texas Coastal Bend has some of the best birding in the nation and I’ve seen some cool things.

Imagine a whole field of these guys.  Image from Cornell's All About Birds, because I'm not that good a photographer.

Imagine a whole field of these guys.  Image from Cornell's All About Birds, because I'm not that good a photographer.

The best birding sometimes occurs during the worst weather.  Right smack dab of the spring migration in April 2013, a cold front hit Port A.  All the birds heading north for the summer hunkered down in Port Aransas for a few days, to wait out the weather.  We were treated to some truly spectacular birds.  The best part: the cold front made them stop, but the weather cleared it up almost immediately.  We strolled around town, peeked out our office windows, and watched with glee as Painted Buntings, Black-and-White-Warblers, Blue Grosbeaks, and all manner of pretty little birds rested for a couple days.  I was (and still am) a novice birder, and had never seen a fallout like this.

Karen, another MSI grad student, and I decided to walk to happy hour that Friday, from work.  Normally, we would get there in about five minutes, but I think we took half an hour there were so many cool birds.  An empty lot filled with Indigo Buntings.  A small flock of White Ibis.  Baltimore Orioles flitting back and forth.   About halfway along our walk, we came to a tree that was chock full of birds.  Mostly warblers that I couldn’t get a good look at, orioles, and then a very distinctive little bird that I’d never seen before.  Small, black, but with bright orange wing and tail bars.  We stared at it, racking our brains.  Neither Karen or I were particularly well-studied birders – we just thought they were cool.

American Redstart, from the Houston Audobon.

American Redstart, from the Houston Audobon.

Luckily, we live in Port Aransas, where every third person is obsessed with birds.  We continued on to happy hour, ogling other birds as we went.  Shortly thereafter, we described the unidentified bird to a visiting professor, who promptly named it: American Redstart.  Any birders out there probably guessed that immediately, but new to us at the time!  Anyway, that’s the biggest fallout we’ve had here in Port A since I moved down here, but we see lots of cool birds at other times.

I’ll be going out on one of the guided boat tours to see the Whooping Cranes.  I have seen them before, but always from a distance.  In 2011, myself and a postdoc (who is much birdier than I!) traveled up to Inuvik, CA to sample the Mackenzie River.  We saw lots of very cool birds while there – a gyrfalcon, grebes, bald eagles,  lots of ducks, sandhill cranes.  On bright clear evenings, which were wonderfully frequent, we would sit on the porch of the house we stayed in, drinking beer, talking science and hanging out with the few other scientists stationed in Inuvik.  This particular evening, it was just us, flipping through Jorien’s bird book to figure out what we’d seen today.  A long shadow passed over, we looked up, and saw huge crane-like birds overhead. 

Whooping cranes had been officially sighted in Inuvik a couple years before.  These seemed too big, and a very bright white, to be sandhill cranes.  Most likely, that’s what they were.  These days, though, I like to think they were whoopers, though.

Sandhill cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. 

Sandhill cranes at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.