Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas colors

Merry Christmas!

Hope you had a great one.

Here's some Christmas color for you.  

Northern Cardinal- There's a hidden water bowl
that keeps the winter grass fresh and green.

Northern Mockingbird in Possumhaw bush
The little bushes are unnoticeable in the summer,
but in the winter their bright berries stand out.

The mockingbird ate a berry before taking off!

 A Chipping Sparrow eating seeds.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Odds and Ends

We finally got to have our Thanksgiving dinner last Monday since we were waiting for cool weather.  The freeze killed my tomatoes, peppers, and many other leaves.  It felt like winter weather had finally arrived.  Thanksgiving day in Austin was about 80 degrees which makes cooking turkey, and eating a heavy meal less pleasant.  I cooked the turkey breast in my slow cooker for about 7 hours, and it turned out great.  I recommend this way of cooking turkey breast, and here's where I got the recipe.  We also had mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce. Yummm!

I am participating in The National Arts Program with 2 pieces on display at the Mexican American Cultural Center until Dec 29th.  I am showing Vain Raven, a painting that was in my previous art show, and a new mixed media painting/sculpture called Flyways.  The show has about 200 pieces of art made by City of Austin employees and their family.  The gallery is really fun because there are pieces of art on every subject made by kids, professionals, and level in between.  If you live in Austin, I would encourage you to stop by to see all the wonderful art.

I've found a new form of entertainment identifying African Animals on zooniverse!  Snapshot Serengeti is a Citizen Science Project that gets normal people to go through photos taken by motion censored cameras set up across the Serengeti.  The photos are real photos mostly of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles, but occasionally you get a lion, elephant, or other crazy animal.  It's like a game, but better because you never know what the next picture be, and your actually helping a scientist.  So far, I've found 2 elephants, a hippo, one male lion, an aardvark, a baboon, a secretary bird, a few warthogs, giraffe legs (they're too tall for the camera), a few hyenas  and a one jackal.  My favorite pictures are the animal butts!

Pictures that I've Collected!




Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Favorite Birds

As you know, I love looking for birds, and I have a lot of favorites; I have favorite birds in different categories, and from different birding places.  It may be easier to say which birds are my least favorite, but that doesn't sound like much fun.  Some of my favorite birds are listing for your enjoyment: diurnal bird of prey = kite, flycatcher = phoebe, favorite owl = burrowing owl, yard bird = chickadee, sparrow = field sparrow, and favorite shore bird = plovers of any kind.  Even with this long list, I have missed many other favorites.  I am actually happy to see just about any bird and find endearing characteristics in them all.

Wake up, you Canvasback, I want a picture!
Mueller Park, where I frequently walk the dogs, has two sets of ponds that are winter homes for a few of my favorite ducks, including Canvasback Ducks.  The male canvasback is beautiful with a dark cherry head and neck, a bright canvas white back, and black breast.  Canvasback are long billed, and long bodied, athletic and yet graceful.  Canvasback are usually seen in bays and inlets along the seashore so the fact that a family unit has taken up winter residence in Austin, Texas is a bit strange.  Their irregular choice of home makes seeing them all the more special.  Mueller is also winter home for Ring-necked ducks, Red-head duck, Northern Shovler, Ruddy duck (a favorite of Jacob), Gadwall, and Bufflehead (also favorite).  

Canvasback females and juveniles 

What a beauty!

Ring-necked ducks, canvasback, and coot


Pied-billed grebes are a year round resident at the Mueller Ponds and are winning a place on my favorites list.  They are not brilliantly colored, super cute, or graceful, but their spunky attitude makes them dear to my heart.  Like a small terrier that thinks it is a pitbull, they drive at larger birds, race across the pond, and have a loud honking voice in contrast to their puny size.  Over the year, I like to think that I get to know them; I have seen a mama on a nest, hatch-lings with bold black and white markings, and triumphant adults pop up from underwater with a fish in its bill.  I find that I am looking always looking for the small brown bird that thinks it owns the entire pond, and makes me laugh.

What's your favorite bird or birds?  
Pied-billed Grebe

American Coots

 A Pair of Pied-billed Grebe

Doggies wait in the car after a nice walk
while I take duck photos.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Report

In September, I picked out about 40 books from a collection that the Nature Center couldn’t continue to store. I wrote about the book collection in a previous blog post called Old Books.  Since September, I have read several of the books, and here are a few that you might also enjoy.

The title of Sally Carrighar’s book One Day on Beetle Rock is what first piqued my interest, and although there are no beetles in the story, the book is a very wonderful experience.  Beetle Rock is a high elevation valley that is home to the animal characters of the book.  Each chapter allows you to become a different animal as it forages, struggles to survive, and interacts with other animals over the course of one day.  Ms Carrighar helps you look at the world as the animal does with the senses that it relies upon to survive.  Some people may not like the human emotion that the author gives the animals, but I enjoyed connecting with the animal’s stories and lives even if it is fantasy. I also think this short book would be a great to read with children between he ages of 6 and 10.

Blue-wing Teal and many other water fowl were
effected by chemicals intended for insects.
Silent Springs brought awareness of the
widespread use of chemical pesticides.
Silent Spring is book that really opened America’s eye to the dangers of using chemical pesticides, and lead to many changes in policy and public thought about the use of chemicals.  I knew that Rachael Carson’s book was important, but I actually had no idea what it was about.  Since, I was born after the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts much of the book was a history lesson.  I couldn't believe that we sprayed thousands of acres year after year with such dangerous chemicals. It seem so unthinkable to kill everything with such far reaching chemicals.  Silent Springs is not a fun read, but I do recommend it as a history lesson and an example of positive change when people become aware of threats around them. 

William Beebe was an explorer in the early to mid 1900s. He was a naturalist who studied birds, explored jungles, pioneered sea diving, and wrote books of his adventures.  Beebe’s books are easy to read, very descriptive, and offer little glimpses of people who live in the wilderness he was exploring.  I like going with Beebe into the jungle or diving down in the ocean; his books are a lot of fun.  Since, Beebe’s work is old you can get many of his books for free for e-readers; barnes and nobles for nook, amazon for kindles, and project gutenberg has 2 William Beebe books.

What have you been reading?  What should I add to my reading list?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Thanksgiving Birding Adventure

Feathers from the scene of the crime:
Probably from a Northern Shoveler 
Thanksgiving morning Jacob and I went out to our favorite birding spot with the dogs, and were treated to a spectacular sighting of several uncommon and fantastic birds.  We usually make a clockwise trip around the ponds as we scan for ducks and  songbirds, but Thursday morning we decided to walk counter-clockwise.  What a lucky choice because about 1/3 the way around the pond, we spotted a Bald Eagle.  I made some silly guesses to its identity because I didn't trust my eyes, but I was soon corrected.  We noted the Eagle's size, and that it was probably 3 or 4 years old because it had a white head, but the tail was still brown.  Juvenile Bald Eagles are blotchy blown and usually get their adult colors by age four.  As we watched the Eagle sitting on a  telephone pole, it swooped down to the pond, snatched a duck, and returned to the perch where it proceeded to pluck the duck's feathers.  We couldn't believe what happened, the strangest thing for me was the quietness and quickness of the attack.  There was no splashing, loud quacking, or other  hysterical sounds; I think the duck was asleep and never saw the Eagle.  Other birds did notice the hunter including an Osprey and a Red-tailed Hawk.  First, the Osprey came by and started dive bombing the Bald Eagle.  Since both birds are usually fish eaters, I guess the Osprey didn't like having an Eagle around.  The size of the two birds was like a hawk (4' wingspan) and a crow (3' wingspan) instead of an eagle (8' wing span) and an osprey (6' wing span)!  When the Eagle moved down a few poles with its meal, a Red-tailed Hawk came to investigate.  It didn't bother the Eagle, but went to the first telephone pole to peck at the duck blood and bits.  Wow! And Ben Franklin wanted to make the Turkey the national bird. 

Doodles of our morning sightings, regrettable we forgot the camera

We were happy with the amazing Bald Eagle show, but there's more!  We also got to see a Common Goldeneye, a duck we see about once per year, two beautiful Northern Pintails, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch, my first TX sighting and a bird I missed on two previous birding trips.  I should also mention the normal species that keep us returning: Northern Shovelers (hundreds), Green-wing Teal, Ruddy Ducks, American Coot, Great-blue Herons, Great Egret, Least Sandpipers, Eared Grebes  Ring-necked Duck, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Crested Caracara, Marsh Hawks, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Cardinals, Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and more.  We are so thankful!

Northern Shovelers- March 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sketch book

Ideas for my paintings come from many sources; some paintings come directly from things I see, and others come completely from my imagination.  But, most of my paintings start with a vague idea, theme, or subject, and then I have to develop the composition.  My sketch book is where the composition details are mapped out, where different color schemes are tested, and better ideas emerge.  In my journal, I often draw several quick versions of a painting to try to get the overall balance and flow.  The sketches are a rehearsal for my eyes, brain, and hands, but even with all the planning often the finished painting is different than I anticipate. 

My doodle book is an important tool for me, not only because it is where most of my painting ideas are developed, but because it is a place of freedom.  I can make as many mistakes as I need; it doesn't really matter if an idea is bad or that it didn't work out the way I intended.  My doodles cover just about every subject: cutesy animals doing human activities, abstract circles, anatomical sketches of skeletons and muscles, completely imaginary creatures, and everything in between.  Many of my sketches are very messy and quick, while others are as precise as possible with detailed shading.  My sketches train my hand and eyes, and teach me to interpret what I see.  I believe drawing helps my imagination continue to play and be fresh.  I read that part of being creative is giving yourself time to be creative; a doodle book with no pressure is an outlet for creativity.  A drawing book is made of many pages waiting to be filled with good, bad, pretty, ugly, simple, and complex ideas.    

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Junior Naturalist Club

Nov 3rd was the second hike of the newly formed Junior Naturalist Club at the Austin Nature and Science Center.  The Junior Naturalist Club is an extension of the Naturalist Workshop and Trade Counter, and is designed to provide a deeper experience for traders who show an above-average interest in nature.  The main activity of our club is a monthly hike during which we learn to use our senses, see what we can find, and share our enthusiasm with like minded people. 

Nov 3rd Track Hike!
Each hike is themed to focus our attention on different aspects of nature; the October hike was on insects.  On Nov 3rd, I led a group of 5 kids and 4 adults on an hour-long hike to learn how to find and recognize tracks.  We walked slowly and carefully in single file with our bodies bent close to the ground to see the faint and sometimes clear paw prints of raccoons.  We followed the raccoon tracks around the pond, and found small trails leading from the woods down to the water.  At the water’s edge, deer tracks told a story of a small herd that drinks from the pond, and a tiny trail leads back to a well-hidden mouse home in thick weeds.  We looked at scratch marks and scat of another raccoon only to discover that the marks belonged to an opossum; the proof was in the set of nearly perfect tracks and tail drag in a clay track trap left in the middle of its trail. We left 6 clay traps out the night before and several raccoons, a mouse, and the opossum left their prints in the soft mud.  The one-hour excursion went by in a flash, but I think the experience will  encourage the kids to wonder what critters visit their own yards at night.    

A bunch of raccoon tracks.  Can you find the tiny mouse track?

Oct 4th Insect Hike!
 A persistent concern I have is that the Trade Counter often loses participants at about 11 years old; kids already have all the polished rocks and sea shells that they want, and they start to feel too old to trade.  Anika is a good example of why I felt the need to provide complementary activities at the Naturalist Workshop.  Anika has been a regular trader for about 5 years, and she has enough points saved up to get almost anything our trade program has to offer including the 3000 point butterfly collections.  She is very knowledgeable about the items that she trades, often writing reports and teaching me.  Anika is in that age range, and I don’t want to lose her or any of the other kids like her who make my job rewarding.  I hope the Junior Naturalist Club can stimulate her interests, and keep her around the nature center until she is old enough to volunteer.

Thank you, Kirsten and Schuyler for being our photographers. 

Opossum tracks and tail drag

Avery with a cool rock

Insects caught by Michael

Deer Track

Rye with a track trap

Looking of tracks

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Halloween Fun

I love making costumes and dressing up for Halloween.  I really don't care about any of the scary stuff of Halloween, but thank goodness for an excuse to look silly and have a little fun.  At the Nature Center, we have an event called Halloween Howl that gives me an opportunity to go costume crazy.  This year I was an Armadillo, and I think it is one of my best costumes.  The past four years I have been an armadillo, a bird, a tree with a nest of cardinals, and a cockroach.  I have to say that the cockroach was pretty fun, too.  I always make my costumes; its the biggest part of the fun.  I made my armadillo hat out of paper mache, and sewed the shell with quilt batting to give it the right shape and then attached the shell to a backpack with safety pins.  A large number of safety pins are usually incorporated into my costumes.  I am going to hang the hat and shell on the wall as a decoration for our apartment.  This time of year with its cooler weather, pumpkins, colored leaves, and costumes is pleasurable.

Too much fun!

Armadillo costume

Paper mache armadillo head 

Me in the Trade Counter Nature Center
Pumpkin impostors!

Big squash! I haven't seen a were-rabbit yet,
but perhaps I should get ready!

Jacob with 3 giant squash!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gulf Fritillary Fun

 Since moving to Texas in 2008, I have been charmed by the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly.  Its fiery orange inner wings, and silvery outside make it flash as it zooms about the garden.  It is a common butterfly in Austin, but I never get tired of seeing it.  I am such a fan that I think the Gulf Fritillary should replace the Monarch as the Texas State Butterfly.  No offense to the Monarch, as it is also an incredible butterfly with its long migration, warning colors, and its special place in the hearts of children as they learn about life cycles in science class.  The Monarch is the state butterfly of at least 8 different states including Texas, and I think some of the attention can be given to our Gulf Fritillary.

The Gulf Fritillary deserves recognition as the most common representative to the United States of the tropical longwing butterflies (Heliconians.)   Like the Monarch, the Fritillary wears bright warning colors, has a life cycle that can be watched in the backyard (if you live where its food grows), and is large and beautiful enough to get the attention of anyone.  The Passion vine, the fritillary’s host plant, grows with the zest of tropical plants and displays extravagant purple flowers.  The butterfly is almost tame living in backyards, and allowing you to get very close with slow and steady movements.   

This summer and fall, I have been lucky enough to capture much of the Gulf Fritillary's life cycle with my camera, thanks to the passion vine I planted this spring.  Many of the following photos were included in previous posts, but collectively they create a mini story of the Gulf Fritillaries in my yard.

First I planted a Passion vine, and up it goes.

Laying eggs

Little golden egg
Good luck little egg.

Time to eat

Once I counted over 70 caterpillars!

Look at that warning color.  Don't eat me!
A hidden chrysalis looks like a dry leaf. 
All the Leaves are gone

Just hatching!

Zinnas are great for hungry Butterflies.

On the Wing