Making The Turn

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“I have an affection for those transitional seasons, the way they take the edge off the intense cold of winter, or heat of summer.”  ― Whitney Otto

Here we stand in South Texas at the real crossroads of the passing fall season and the impending winter. Of course, winter here typically is not something that makes life so uncomfortable as it is in the northern climes. However, we do see the by-products of a more remarkable fall and winter season through the ever-changing cycle of nature. Birds that spent the breeding season near the Arctic Circle pass through South Texas heading to their winter destinations for example. Just like the Winter Texans that migrate to the Texas Gulf Coast for the season, many of the winged ones make their move throughout the flyways of the world.

There are a number of the North American birds that choose South Texas and the Gulf Coast for their winter grounds. Largest group of which, are the Redhead ducks of the Central Flyway. Most spend the summer in the Northern Plains and Southern Canada across a vast area. Yet for some reason, 70 – 75% of the population comes to Aransas County area for the winter. Thousands upon thousands of them move around in the bays of the Coastal Bend. Am still amazed how so many of these ducks from a widespread breeding range end up in a relatively small area. A giant flock rafting on Copano Bay is quite the sight.

The famous last flock of Wild Whooping Cranes in the world also migrate to Aransas County for the winter. 2500 miles to the north-northwest they breed and spend their summers in a remote area of Canada. The first Whoopers of the flock, estimated around 330 after breeding this year have already arrived. New arrivals will land almost daily in the coming month to spend winter on the Texas Gulf Coast indulging in a tasty diet of blue crab. Many eyes are trained on these Whooping Cranes. Visitors to Aransas County from all over the world will come to see them in the winter months as they are one of the rarest sights in all of the avian world. To us here in the Rockport area, they are friends, neighbors and treasured guests.

Our fall season this year can be described as pretty average or typical. I personally have spent much time in the field this fall season. The excitement of migration and shifting characteristics of resident birds always make for good birding. My rarest find of the season was a female Lark Bunting on 24 September 2015. Though we will see more around South Texas in the deep winter, an arrival in late-September was very early and unusual. My species seen per month of course, increase from summer months with the variety of migrants. October will probably be the peak of the variety of species seen per month until March or the earnest spring migration.

Outside of the extremely early arrival of that one Lark Bunting, everything else bird-wise was pretty typical and right on-time based on historical records. An interesting seasonal observation for me, still relatively new to South Texas, was the fall migration of the warbler species. Spring brought a large variety of warblers and dramatic abundance to the Coastal Bend. The warblers and other species were making a beeline for their breeding grounds in the Spring driven by an intense sense of instinct. Their return seemed to me much more leisurely. Their passage seemed more drawn out and the number of birds seen was quite a bit less than Spring. This tells me that they are not as driven to the wintering grounds as strongly as they were heading north in the Spring. The birds were not moving in large flocks as in Spring. Overall, the passage lacked the intensity that I personally experienced in the field just six months ago.

Here at the tail-end of October and the doorstep of November, the changes continue just like always. The ducks are increasing daily. The host of sparrow species that winter here have begun to arrive in the past two weeks with the first cool fronts. The migrant shorebirds, waterbirds and warbler species that are heading much further south for winter have most all passed through our area. A few lingering birds may still be seen, but for the most part, the movement of fall has happened for these types of migrant birds which by the way includes 100’s of species.

The focus from now until mid-January when the first northbound shorebirds begin to pass these parts will be the winter resident birds. Species of all types make the Coastal Bend and South Texas home during the more intense winter of the northern US. Looking at historical data it is clear to see that here in Aransas County, birding can still be excellent from December to February. Over 300 species can be observed here in winter. Compared to the annual average of just over 400 species, even winter months offer great opportunities for the birder here in South Texas. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to be outside in nature during North America’s coldest months.

It is this coming winter season that marks one year since my arrival here in Aransas County from North Texas. Am close to experiencing daily, the entire cycle in this important bird area for North America. Have learned so much and observed birds as never before in my life. As the cycle continues, will share much more of this experience which has been so different from living in a major metropolitan or totally urban environment. The perspective I have been given through these seasons is a gift. I feel at home.

Spring into Summer!

“All of us are migrants to this world for a few days!” ― Kandathil Sebastian, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain

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The seasons come and they go. The little blue planet continues it course from aphelion to the perihelion rotating once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds with respect to the stars. As I have aged, time appears to be moving faster too. This of course is an illusion, but one that can be illustrated with simple mathematics. When I was 10 years old, one year was 10 percent of my life. Today at 54, that same year is a mere 1.8 percent of my life. Hence, the illusion is driven by declining proportion in my own opinion!

Anyway, Spring seemed to start late here in the Coastal Bend and my home of Rockport, Texas. From historical records of migrant bird sightings, the winged ones were slightly later than average. 2015 has been anything but an average year for us along the Texas Gulf Coast. The winter brought rains which ended a drought since 2010. We had the wettest winter in the area since 1903. The results of all the rain both in the watershed upstream from the coast and our immediate vicinity was dramatic.

The wetlands have been full. The ephemeral ponds that dot the coastal landscape have water. Even some of the crop fields had so much water planting was delayed by Coastal Bend farmers. Each of these elements represent a dramatic shift in fortune from recent years with its parched attitude. The bays and estuaries of the area have declined in salinity which bodes well for many species such as the blue crab. With more water, there is more food and cover for all wildlife. With more water, food and cover, reproduction increases. All has caused a real shift in the habitats of our Texas Gulf Coast! New life sprung forth!

Life has been busy and the Spring seemed to pass too quick to enjoy the annual show of new life. Though the migrant birds seemed to get to a slow start, all unfolded in its grand style as is typical for this region. The peak of Texas Coastal Bend migration brought the birder the expectation to see more than 150 species within a day. Thousands of buzzards (Buteo), hawks, migrating north from the tropics were seen concentrated at inland sites as well. The migration ‘big time’ this year was from around 1 April until just before Memorial Day. In my opinion, the birds were on average 2 – 3 weeks late from average ‘first of season sighting’ records. But they did come as always.

The Texas Central Coast was also graced several times this Spring with “Fall Out” conditions creating heavy concentrations of birds grounded due to the weather. Large numbers of northeastern forest related migrants, such as thrushes, vireos, wood warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks and buntings, can be grounded during periods of inclement weather of cold fronts and rain. The migrant bird fall out is a dream come true for many a birder and 2015 gave us this prize on several occasions all along the Gulf Coast.

By the month of June, most of the migrants had passed through our region heading to their breeding grounds. Some travel as far as the arctic circle and the northern boreal forests of Canada too. But a host of species choose the Coastal Bend of Texas as their nesting grounds. As Spring was winding down, all had established their territory, built nests, laid eggs and began to hatch their young. This year, I worked on nest surveys and monitoring for mostly colonial waterbirds. The Laughing Gulls seemed to have a banner year as they start early in the Spring on their reproductive ritual. Success seemed to also fall upon the Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets as they nested upon the many windswept Live Oaks of our area.

Yet, the ground nesting birds such as the Black Skimmer, Least Tern, Royal Tern and other species as well had a tough season to put it mildly. The Spring rains continued their records pace peaking in the month of May. The entire State of Texas saw more rain in May 2015 than any previous years of weather records. The amount of rain that fell was of epic proportions. According to the experts, 35 trillion gallons of rain fell in Texas during the month of May. That is enough water to cover the entire state of Texas with eight inches of water!

As a result, many of the ground nesters lost their nests due to flooding. Despite the usual nest disturbances such as depredation, water pushed the situation over the edge. For example, as of the beginning of July, the Black Skimmer colony as Rockport Beach Park has had zero success per our monitoring. Other birds fared a little better, but overall, those that nest on the ground have had a very low reproduction year except the Laughing Gulls. The extremes of the weather seemed to have the heaviest toll on these species.

On June 16 – 17, we had our first tropical storm make landfall in the area. Though it was not a big storm, it did bring much rain and some wind. Rockport-Fulton area was on the weak side of the storm’s track. But on Wednesday, 17 June, we had over eight inches of rain in a few hours. Tides were still high from the storm, so the rain runoff had no where to go. A big flood occurred from Corpus Christi north to Rockport-Fulton and beyond. This major tropical dump took its toll on the ground nesting birds as well. For many, was the last straw for this breeding season. However, some will try to breed again with new nests before the season ends in August. That’s what we are looking for now, the beginning of July – new nests!

And new nests we have at Rockport Beach Park. Our Black Skimmer colony survives and looks to have new eggs lain. The cycle continues. A beautiful thing. The earliest of Fall migrants, some Shorebirds are also arriving in the Coastal Bend. The cycle continues, a beautiful thing.

At Home with the Hawks

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“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk”
– William Shakespeare

There is something special about the raptors – hawks, eagles, falcons, owls. Man seems deeply attracted to these birds as if some primal thread connects us. Legends such as the massive man-eating eagle of Maori lore have spell-bound cultures for eons. I personally have been captivated my entire life by the raptors. Have been absolutely entranced by their noble presence and soaring freedom. Years ago, had grown close to a Native American Spirit Man. After countless hours of time with this man, he deemed my Spirit Friend as the Red-Tail Hawk. He told me that this hawk was to be my life guide on the great red road!

And upon the great red road have tread for many years now. Though have become somewhat of a bird person within the context of my naturalist studies, the raptors still have my heart! My spirit friend, the Red-Tail has comforted me and confirmed those intuitive feelings that come every now and again. In all my birding adventures over the years, the raptors have been with me. They seem ever-present in most all habitats to me. If there is a hawk, falcon or eagle around, I know that I will see it.

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As a new, full-time resident of Rockport, TX on the Live Oak Peninsula, my favored family, the ACCIPITRIDAE of the order, FALCONIFORMES are with me again. I live among a large motte of Live Oak trees with acres of vacant land on three sides of my residence. As of now,mid-April, my Yard List is about 65 species in 2015. Many of the accipiters have graced my yard this winter and early spring. New migrants are arriving daily, but some of the hawks have been full-time residents of Rockport just like me!

The main event for me recently in my patch has been a breeding pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks at the far north-end of the property. For a little more than a month, they have been busy with the business of establishing or reclaiming territory and nest building. A new perspective and experience for me with my special birds, the hawks. Living just on the western edge of town, surrounded by woods, this pair of Red-Shoulder Hawks are my neighbors. The entertainment is splendid, their lives are extremely profitable.

A Portrait of Love For Today

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** Editorial Note : This was written in 2013, but thought would share here on AransasNaturally.Rocks too!  RT

Frequently, am asked, “Man, why do you ride your motorcycle so much?” It’s a complex question, so usually I take the easy way out by responding, “Because I can.”  Almost always, that takes care of that and I am on down the road.

Some years back, it hit me!  I live in a box and ride in a cage.  Barefoot hurts my tender feet. I am often the recipient of airborne infection.  Without the television weather, am lost. My skin is pale. Am hot, am cold, am never just comfortable. I had been sucked into a closed culture where the earth and its environment were blocked off from my day-to-day existence. A sad life, insulated from one of the most incredible gifts from God, the earth and Mother Nature.

I envisioned a time before 1870, where our great Native Americans lived free and unfettered by the Anglo-European mind.  The earth and God’s treasure trove of natural resources provided for all their needs.  They had a way of life that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Native Americans knew the earth and their connection to it. They built a spiritual life centered upon these great gifts found in all of nature around them.  They were all connected. They were one with the earth, the weather, nature and all God’s creation.

Contrast the realization of my life in a box to the freedom of this connection to our amazing earth. I knew in the deepest reaches of my soul that I must change.  I needed to change to feed my spirit.  I needed to change to have a deeper relationship with God. The insulated life in boxes and cages had to end!  Enter my old friend, the Harley-Davidson.

Fast-forward to Sunday, 10 February 2013.  Have been riding daily for years and years.  I am connected more than ever to the environment and nature around me.  The feeling is wonderful and satisfying.  The experiences over almost 20 years of “being out in it,” are immense.  Countless encounters with nature have honed my skill of observation and awareness. Cycles and circles found only in God’s natural world are ever apparent.  It is in these great circles I live and love.

On this particular Sunday, was riding south on Lemmon Avenue by Bachman Lake in Northwest Dallas.  It’s a route that is very familiar to me.  With the lake, there is wildlife and winged ones that come and go with the seasons.  I know their cycles and mark my view of time by their appearance.

On Lemmon Avenue, coming over the Northwest Highway bridge,  came upon a Little Blue Heron that was dead on the side of the road.  Immediately, I said my usual prayer for the soul of the bird.  At that instant, I saw something rather amazing.  A sight that many people driving over that bridge likely missed.  It tore at my heart but warmed me with a unique picture of love, at the same time.

On the right of the road, perched upon a light post was another Little Blue Heron.  Within feet of the deceased bird, was its probable mate in grief over the loss.  Cars flying by, the Little Blue Heron atop the light post appeared focused solely on the dead bird.

The rest of my day had the picture thought of the grieving, crying Little Blue Heron over it’s partner. Could not get the image out of my mind.  While at the same time, did not share the experience that day with anyone.

Instead, I held it in my heart as the love between two mates, suddenly separated by death.

The following day, around Noon, was passing by the same spot on the same road.  The dead Little Blue Heron was still there, lain the gutter of the road.  And atop the same light post, was its mate!  Still there, still waiting or grieving.  I just don’t know.  Over twenty-four hours later, the scene had not changed.  I was beyond amazed at this sight!

Tuesday, 12 Feb., about the same time before Noon, was back on that bridge on my motorcycle pointed south.  Before I noticed if the deceased bird was there, I saw the mate, still perched in the same spot.  For the third day, that Little Blue Heron held vigil for its lost mate!  My thought again was of an intense love and bond these two Little Blue Herons must have had.

By Wednesday, 13 Feb., the dead bird was gone.  Probably picked up by the city workers that maintain the park around Bachman Lake.  I looked quickly to the familiar light pole.  The Little Blue Heron that had been perched on high was gone. He or she with a broken heart had flown from the scene where the mate laid for the three prior days.  My eyes began to tear as I pondered this incredible experience. 

Now it was over, the circle closed.  A view of love as I had never observed tugged at my heart.  An experience of love that would never had been possible in my life without a connection to Earth, nature and God’s amazing creation. This was a new experience from which I can learn. I am blessed!

Spring! Migration! Game-On!

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Mother Nature gives us many gifts!  Everyday, her bounty is all around us if we take notice.  The cycle of the seasons is one of the most amazing and constant possessions of nature.  Man, for eons has marked life by these natural rhythms.  Nature’s children have imprinted instincts that are tuned heedfully to the seasons and this cadence of life.  One spectacle of the changing season is the migration of birds worldwide.  If you really studied what is known of bird migration, you would be awed!  In fact, despite the fact that seasonal migration is as old as time, the real facts have only recently began to emerge from the world of science.  Bird migration has represented a mystery to man, yet to those in-tune with natural rhythms, an awareness has existed for thousands of years.

The master of the seasons and migration is our beloved sun.  Of course, other factors come into play, but the sun and our little blue planet’s rotation are the primary drivers.  Suffice to say that as we spin around in a slight wobble, that great giver of light, the sun, triggers massive change in nature through the course of every year.  Almost all the creatures of earth are tightly tuned to this annual cycle.  Genetic imprinting of thousands of generations motivate many behaviors of God’s creatures.  And of course, my favorite subject, the birds, are not exempt!  All is a symphony that plays out in four parts offering man quite a show.

Here in the Coastal Bend, it is absolutely Spring!  In fact, the mesquite trees bloomed on Live Oak Peninsula in late January.  These blooms signal, no more freezes for the area.  As always, the mesquite blooms were right again.  Every day since, those subtle signs of Spring have emerged.  We have had a very wet winter and as of now, the wild flowers are beginning what will be an explosion of color.  My best guess is we are within 10-14 days of an absolute outburst of wild flower beauty.  Another gift from dear old Mother Nature.  In the avian department, much has been happening with this turn from Winter to Spring along the Gulf Coast!  Slowly but surely over the past 30 – 45 days, any observant birder has seen the unfolding of a great spectacle.

The first signs I noticed were the change over of plumage with the Laughing Gulls.  Winter plumage quite quickly changed to the breeding plumage, especially for the males.  Some birds have left, and new species are arriving daily with onslaught of the Spring migration.  For myself, this is one of the high points of nature’s cycle.  Spring migration offers daily entertainment in the Coastal Bend if one takes the time to enjoy.  On 10 March 2015, a sure-fire sign appeared that Spring is game-on appeared in Rockport – the Swallow-tailed Kite drifting north.  I saw two of these beauties that day for the first time this season.  Several other birding friends around town saw the same birds and noted to our community this arrival.  Not the greatest distance flyer, the Swallow- tailed Kite does cover some serious mileage!  For example, there are some species that winter in the far southern reaches of Chile and breed in the summer near the Arctic Circle.  Now that is quite a journey, twice each year, my friends.

But back to our friend, the Swallow-tailed Kite.  According to science, the entire US population of this beautiful bird are migratory.  Here is where it gets interesting.  These science folk are not completely sure as of 2015 the routes and destination at the southern end.  It is believed as of now that these birds winter from Southern Mexico into Northwestern South America.  Summer breeding of the US population of these birds is in Florida and a couple other points along Atlantic just north of Florida.  Thanks to citizen science which report sightings in near real-time, it is known that the Kite does not fly across the Gulf of Mexico.  Instead they drift mainly over land around the Gulf of Mexico and other short land hops headed to wetlands of the Southeastern US.  They prefer swamps, lowland forests along with freshwater and brackish marshes living in loose colonies nesting near each other typically.

Here is a Species Map of the Swallow-tailed Kite which shows sighting (year-around for past 10 years) that illustrates their range both north and south.  This map is courtesy of the eBird system of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology  (http://www.ebird.org). Another great tool for monitoring migration from Cornell Lab is BIRDCAST (http://birdcast.info).  Check it out!

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Science has hinted that the range of the Swallow-tailed Kite may be expanding northward thanks to climate change.  However, I believe that these beautiful birds are wanderers too.  The entire US population does not breed each year, so am thinking they are just tourists along the Atlantic corridor. Have seen annual appearances of this bird at the epicenter of American Birding, Cape May, New Jersey each summer as well.  And of course, this is quite a bit north of the traditional breeding range!

So, Spring is here!  The Swallow-tailed Kite and hundreds of other species are on the move.  Many of these birds will pass through Aransas County and the Coastal Bend.  About a month from now, the trees will look as if they are decorated for Christmas with colorful warblers and other birds. Phenomenon such as migratory fallout may or may not occur along the Texas Gulf Coast.  I think this year looks potentially good for a fallout due to rain.  But, the cool fronts have moderated and do not think strong north winds will ground the birds this Spring.  I may be dead wrong with my prediction. Because Mother Nature is ALWAYS full of surprises!

And a saying I have adopted along the trail which is “My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather” comes to life with the spectacle and color of Spring!

Rockport Birding : A Rich History

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Texas is a very fortunate state when it comes to the avian action! As they say, everything is big in Texas. Our great State offers just about every ecology type found on earth except the rain forest. West meets the East with a centerline roughly running from Dallas-Ft. Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville. North meets South too with the Great Plains rolling into the Mexican Plains. The Gulf of Mexico lines Texas for about 367 miles with a grand total of 3,300 miles of shoreline along bays, islands and river inlets. All this and more creates an important bird area for the United States.

Famed naturalist, ornithologist and artist, Roger Tory Peterson, called Texas, “The No.1 Bird State.” Now that is really something and by most accounts still the case today. Of the roughly 950 species of birds in the United States, around 800 of these call Texas home or migrate through the State! That is near 85 percent of all species are found in our great state at some point in the seasonal cycle. Beyond the varied ecologies, the big draw is the Central Flyway. This flyway is one of the primary interstates for the birds moving from as far north as the Arctic Circle to Águila Islet of the Diego Ramirez Islands in Chile to the south. The flyways of the Americas could be a topic by themselves. Just know that with what is known of the birds and migratory paths, the road through Texas is key!

In my research prior to relocating to the Coastal Bend, found records related to birds back to 1851 from South Texas. More specific references to the birds in this area were reported near the end of the 19th century. As best I can find, the first real study of the avian life in the Coastal Bend was published by G.G. Williams in 1936 with his periodical, Gulf Coast Migrant. It is said that with the publications of this time, word of the richest bird area in the USA was finally being broadcast! The bounty of bird species found in South Texas and the Coastal Bend were the content of legend. The ornithological interest of the area exploded in the 1940’s and continues today.

All experts in the world of birds and the science of ornithology agree that there was one, small framed non-scientist woman in Rockport who did more to substantiate the area’s reputation than any. The imprint she made upon the Coastal Bend is large. She was doubted and laughed at by the top bird science minds of her day initially too. She held steadfast to her observations and records. In fact, she invited the academia from back east to come to Rockport and see for themselves. Each quickly became a believer in the scope of nature’s spectacle that took place in Aransas County! The rest is history as they say.

Martha Conger Hagar (1886-1973) was this woman that did all to bring Rockport and the Coastal Bend into the spotlight. Conger Hagar, known by all as Connie, provided 40 years of almost daily, year-around records about bird life. She was a tireless speaker and volunteer for Mother Nature during her 40 years in Rockport. This delicate, small, proper woman of an age gone by, spent countless hours in the field observing birds and their behavior. She documented most all in her “Nature Journal.” So much can be said of this gentle and kind soul. In fact, she is cited in many writings and the subject of an excellent biography published in 1986. Her life was dedicated the avian biology of the Coastal Bend and the Rockport area. Her reputation shook academia and spread all over the world.

I have read and highly-recommend her biography, “The Life History of a Texas Birdwatcher,” by Karen Harden McCracken. The book is an amazing story of birds, nature and the sleepy coastal fishing village which was Rockport, Texas. For a birder and nature-lover myself, her story is as inspiring as it gets. Her life in Rockport was a game-changer for Texas ornithology, South Texas and especially the Coastal Bend. In fact, it is specifically the reading of Connie’s biography that convinced me to relocate to Rockport on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Today there are many books published about the birds of the Coastal Bend. Thousands come to Rockport, Corpus Christi and other points along this stretch of the Texas Coast to experience nature’s spectacle of birds. The eco-tourism impact to the area from birding is respectable. The commitment to habitat preservation for birds and other wildlife by the government entities and other organizations is impressive. All of this a direct impact created by the rich birding history of the Coastal Bend and most importantly, Connie Hagar. Her imprint upon the Rockport area is undeniable. Her contribution to understanding of migratory patterns and species is epic.

All from the little bird lady of Rockport, a non- scientist, nature lover!

If Wishes Were Horses, We Would All RIDE!

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Every good adventure needs a piece of digital real estate these days!  Welcome to AransasNaturally.ROCKS!

Of course, life has been quite the ride.  And as Senor Garcia said so beautifully, “What a long strange trip it has been!”  Today, in the year of 2015, I, Rusty Turnstone find myself a resident of ARANSAS COUNTY, TEXAS.  By no whim or accident did I ride a cool front down to ROCKPORT, TEXAS either.

Welcome to my corner of the Net by the Bay! Nestled among the environs of Live Oak Peninsula, enjoy the unfolding of my adventure.  Once heard Ansel Adams said “In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”  I like that.  It fits me well on this journey.

Aransas County, one of the smallest counties in Texas, mainly covered with water is now HOME.  This place founded in 1871 and named for the Rio Nuestra Senora de Aranzazu, a Spanish outpost.  My new home town of Rockport claims its name from the rock ledge that runs along its shore.

The Live Oak Peninsula along with Blackjack Peninsula which make up Aransas County comprise a unique area of ecology, wildlife and of course, local characters.

Hope that you will stay tuned to the adventures of Rusty Turnstone out and about in the natural world which is Aransas County and environs . . .

Forever,

Rusty Turnstone

6 March 2015