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Yellow-headed Blackbirds in ‘disguise’

24 Jan

Yellow-headed blackbirds on an ocotillo.

One morning last mid-May, I heard a cacophony of clacking, clicking and gawking. Practicing my tracker’s ‘stealth walking’, I got close enough to see a small group of birds pecking at the ground near the edge of a dropoff. I remember smiling while watching them; they seemed like little jesters at a jumping contest. Some birds would almost jump on their partner, while the aware victim rapidly jumped away only to jump into another’s space. What struck me was the variation in plumage; few birds looked like each other.

I slowly and carefully stalked away to retrieve my camera. Returning again, I was able to get within only fifty feet. I have found that the very process of bringing a camera up to my eye often scares birds away. (Photographing birds is a lesson in patience and slow movement.)

After uploading the photos to my laptop, it took quite some investigation to identify these birds. They are not well documented as typical of the Big Bend region, neither summer or winter habitat. However, they are noted to occasionally migrate through Texas between their summer and winter habitats.

These birds were finally identified as Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). Occasional visitors to the southern Big Bend area, they are not always easy to identify. Although they are typical of most blackbirds – fairly large, with stout body, large head, and long, conical bill – this species has several color morphs. In other words, they all don’t have the same color pattern.

Most grown males have a striking yellow head and breast with a black band around the eyes, and white patch on the wing shoulders. And this is what you will see depicted in the guide books. However, the females and juveniles, both male and female – and even immature males! – don’t sport this colorful golden hood and cowl.

Females are often dusky brown with a buffy or faint yellow breast, and a belly streaked with white. Juveniles are dark brown with buffy edging on wings and back, heads often tawny with mixtures of faint yellow, black and white. Immature males often resemble females, but with narrow white bands on the tips of wing feathers.

Typical of most blackbirds, this species is usually found in large groups, even commingling with birds of other types. They may also forage individually, but seldom for too long.  Northbound Yellow-headed blackbirds pass through Texas from March through June, with the largest populations between early April and late May. Their breeding range is historically in the Great Plains area of the North America (N of TX and up into S Canada) and west to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain sides. Their winter range is west of TX and south into Mexico. However, changes in bird migration and habitat are well documented, corresponding with climate change.

This group was photographed in the Solitario area mid-May of last year. They stayed around for several days before heading off to parts unknown.

Color morph representations of the Yellow-headed blackbird.

Mountains in the desert

19 Dec

I just found a topo map online for the area I now live. The ‘bird’s eye’ perspective is profound. I live in a basin at 3,625′, surrounded by mountains reaching up to 5,728′, and next to two mountains at 4,420′ and 4,416′, and within a mile’s distance of Tornillo Creek which meanders south to the Rio Grande, winding its way through centuries of geological and paleohistory.

It has been years since I’ve lived in the bosom of mountains. They aren’t a distant landmark this time, or an emblem on the horizon. I can touch and feel them; I cling to their skirts. I am their child, along with the owls, quail, deer, birds and reptiles. They comfort me when I am here, and sooth my dreams when asleep. The saddle next to me is a window in which the moon rises and Orion dreams. My night companions are a nesting pair of Great Horned owls. I wish I could fly with them and see what they see below.

And I feel right at Home.

Owl peak, 4,416'

Owl peak, 4,416′

Fire in a desert sky

5 Dec

From the desert I come to thee,
On a stallion shod with fire;
And the winds are left behind,
In the speed of my desire.

– Bayard Taylor

Sunset over Reed Plateau near Terlingua. X-mas Day, 2009

Desert Sunrises

12 Jul

Sunrise over Christmas Mountains and the Corazones.

A desert on fire
And embraces me.

Busting Butt and a Reprieve

23 May

Completed flagstone patio

The last few months have been intensely busy completing client projects. No time to ride the motorcycles, no hikes, no work on our own place. We underestimated the time to complete the largest undertaking, building a 480 square foot flagstone patio. That was after building the bar (stuccoed cinder blocks with cement and tiled counter) on one side of the patio. But they are both done. We all celebrated its completion last weekend with margaritas and lounge chairs.

Ed welding purloins for roof.

Then we could concentrate on a few high-priority projects at home: spray paint the barn, place and plumb the two new water tanks, buy steel and erect a roofed structure connected to the barn for shade and protection from the upcoming monsoons. I even spray painted two of the water tanks. We applied a clay slip to the exterior of the ramada adobe wall. Neighbor Doc commented it looked thick enough to be cake icing, to which I added, ‘Hmm…. Mocha icing!”. I didn’t have enough time to put together a lime wash as I intended, but the thick clay slip hopefully will protect the adobe and mortar from deterioration during summer storms.

We were under a time crunch and the pressure was obvious every day. But the important projects are done and we are enjoying some time off during the summer to relax and do activities we haven’t been able to in months. I miss riding my motorcycles and hiking. So the next few months will provide us opportunities to do so. I also hope to take time to begin developing a website devoted to topics of scientific interest. I look forward to promoting participation from folks and collaborating with others in content, including kids. I have two guinea pig girls that I hope will kick-start the kids’ section with questions, reports on observations and home experiments.

Hike up Black Creek Draw.

Meanwhile, Mother’s Day was the best in years with a visit from a family beginning an adventure in off-grid self-sustainability in the Terlingua area. While Chris and Ed worked on playing with steel, Nicole and their two girls joined me in a hike up Black Creek Draw. We explored fossils, rocks, plants, and tracks. The day was topped off with homemade grilled chicken enchiladas and my green chile sauce. I hope to share similar days like that in the future!

Ed and I took most of a day off to attend a historic occasion in Big Bend La Frontera: Voices from Both Sides. For the first time since closing of all non-essential border crossings into Mexico from Texas eleven years ago, people on both sides of the Rio del Norte (Rio Grande) joined voices, hands and food again. Starting with music, then mingling in the river water, the border disappeared by hands and voices together, and hugs across water, across politics, and across cultures to become one again. “The river does not divide us.” Only those that live along the borders, on both sides, know the meaning of this. I even noticed smiles and nods from faces of the Border Patrol personnel present.

Yes, not all life in La Frontera is as benign. But there are places where goodwill still exists, as it has at times in the past and, hopefully, will again. As a reporter wrote, “To this observer, a new Texan of a mere 20 years, the event was a joyous success, proving that those elsewhere in the USA shouting for ever higher walls along the border, just don’t understand the binding force of family and culture, which links the people here on both sides of the Rio Grande.” It was truly heartwarming for all of us, on both sides. Viva La Frontera!

Voices, hands and fellowship across the river and across borders.

Happy summer to you all, and, to all, a good night.

79852 is Home

7 Apr

A collaborative production by Terlingua singer/songwriter Alex Whitmore, Jason Blum, and videographer Jessica Lutz: 79852. This is Home for this locality of the desert and all its denizens, including me.

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