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.

Aransas County and the Southbound Bird Flight!

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“I need the seasons to live to the rhythm of rain and sun.” – Sophie Marceau

Fall has arrived!  As I write this little piece, the first real shift to north wind is upon us.  Is a familiar smell that has been missing for quite a while down here in South Texas.  Those string of blistering hot days and high humidity along the Texas Gulf Coast have begun to turn over within the past couple of weeks.  The mosquitos which have been absent during the hottest weather are back. Yes, the season is changing.  And the shift is especially welcome for my time in the field with the birds!

Nature’s spectacle which is bird migration is well-underway.  By mid-July, the shorebirds were arriving back along the Live Oak Peninsula.  In reality, barely a month since Spring Migration ceased, the earliest migrants where headed south again for points as far away as Argentina.  You hear birders around here say that from June to August, there is nothing happening beyond the resident summer birds.  In reality, by mid-July, southbound migration is going strong and can be easily noticed around the wetlands and shorelines of this great migratory crossroads.

In Mid-September, it is the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is the star.  These little creatures have been arriving in Aransas County over the past month.  Over the past 10 days, they have just poured in to be seen at feeders, their favorite native plants and the coastal live oak trees.  eBird data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicates that the average peak of these amazing hummers will be this week.  Which is just in time for the 27th Annual Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration that starts in the coming days.

The Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are here fueling up and building up fat before they make the flight across the Gulf of Mexico.  These are the smallest birds known to fly directly across the Gulf.  They will almost double their weight from feeding in our area, then one evening at dark with a favorable wind, take off for a 20 hour, non-stop flight into Mexico and Central America.  An absolutely amazing feat!  Some stay here in Aransas County for the winter.  Some actually circumnavigate the Gulf of Mexico rather than take the perilous flight directly across.

The passerine species such as the warblers and flycatchers are also beginning to arrive, right on schedule.  In recent weeks, we have seen some of the early migrants of these types of bird as they feed among the live oaks.  The peak of migration for the warblers is still roughly a month away.  Many more are due to arrive in the coming weeks. Just this past weekend, we were blessed with our first real cool front and wind shift from the north.  New migrants rode the north wind into to Aransas County and are enjoying the food source which our live oak trees provide. Another group of migrants passing through the Coastal Bend heavily over the coming month are the raptors such as hawks, falcons and eagles.  Action at the Corpus Christi Hawkwatch is building by the day.

The final round of in-bound migrants due are the ducks, waterbirds and sparrows.  Many of these choose Aransas County to winter. The Blue-Winged Teal is the earliest arrival.  Right on time, they have landed among the wetlands and ponds of our area.  A few Northern Shovelers and Pintails have been reported too.  But we are really about 45 days from the big rush into the area of ducks.  One species, the Redhead Duck population really favors Aransas County.  It is estimated that 75% – 80% of the entire flock from the Central Flyway choose the bays and estuaries of the Aransas to make their home for the winter. Also in late-October and November, the famed Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes fly in to make us home for the winter.

All appears to be normal for the season from a bird migration point of view.  This past Spring, migration flights were delayed by 2-3 weeks.  Probably due to the excessive rain and the cooler temperatures we had.  Yet, the amazing spectacle which is bird migration looks to be just as most years according to data from the field. Even though the temperatures may not have cooled much, the birds show us quite a bit of change as we transition from summer to fall along the Texas Gulf Coast.  The cycles that nature gives us are a true gift.  Subtle changes demonstrated by birds and wildlife are amazing markers of time.  And we are in a time of the year where there is much to see out there.  Which reminds me why the best prescription for humankind is time in nature.

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.

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