Birds, Butterflies and Outdoor Etiquette
This has been a banner birding year for me. Besides a trip across the Southwestern States and California, I have made several trips concentrating on the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This allowed me to visit the different sites of the Lower Texas Coast Birding Trail. In an earlier article, I mentioned South Padre Island, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park and Roma Texas. During a July visit, I had the chance to investigate the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas and Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, Texas (another World Birding Center location).
Butterfly Center on the Map
Birding Butterfly Territory
The National Butterfly Center
The Butterfly Center is just a short drive from Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. The people there were very helpful and wonderful guides. I received a warm greeting and was told where to find specific birds I had been told to look for. They also invited me to view the resident Least Night Hawk and her chicks. While talking about their bird species, I was told of a wild turkey who visits in the mornings, cementing the assurance of a second visit. One gentlemen gardener told me about the different species of turkeys in the area, the Eastern Turkey we all know plus three that are normally found in Mexico.
One of the birds I was told to look for was the Groove-billed Ani. This black bird in a member of the cuckoo family. It has a large curved beak with rows of grooves running the length of it. It’s only U.S. range is in these open grasslands of Southern Texas. I found the Ani in a stand of trees between the visitor center and the back gardens. It appeared that the center was hosting a small family group of six or seven birds. They didn’t seem to mind me coming to visit. I stayed back anyway as they were getting water from a pool in the service road. It was interesting that two Mockingbirds came to the same watering hole while I watched and didn’t try to take it over. This was a surprise as Mockingbirds are famous for their courage and aggressive nature. As I left a few hours later, they were still in the same area huddled up on one of the tree branches. It was a perfect opportunity for the portrait photographer in me to get a family group shot.
After the Anis, the gardener took me on a walk out to see the night hawk. For anyone that doesn’t know, night hawks are nearly invisible when on the ground. My first experience with one of these birds was an Antillean Night Hawk while my family was stationed in GTMO Cuba. It was sitting in coral rocks. I saw it, sort of. I mean I knew there was something on the ground there, but could not for the life of me focus on what it was. Scanning the area with my camera, I still could not quite see it. Finally, I just took a series of pictures and hoped something would show up (this was before digital cameras). When the contrast was adjusted right, the night hawk finally appeared. Nature’s camouflage can be amazingly effective.
That same effectiveness was enforce when the gardener took me to the broken asphalt bed that the Lesser Night Hawk had chosen for her nesting site. I knew it was going to be hard to see her. The guide had marked the nest site so people wouldn’t walk up on her. Even so, as we walked in the grass beside the area, scanning and searching, we came within two feet of where mama bird was sitting. We both nearly had coronaries when she popped up to fly around us. There was no warning, just the sudden appearance of a dark bird, long wings flapping a warning. After a tense moment, she flew off to watch us at a distance. We found the babies safe and sound, not quite where the markers were. Actually, they had slept through all the excitement. We then moved back, and within a few minutes mama came back.
Leaving there, I was led to a large bird feeding station near the back corner under trees with low hanging limbs and water. I sat to survey the birds for about twenty minutes. Green Jays were abundant along with White-wing Doves, Mourning Doves, Long-billed Thrashers, Curve-billed Thrashers, and a number of juvenile Mockingbirds and sparrows. In the spring the bird species count would be much higher; but for now, I was viewing birds that nest locally.
Despite the fact that I mainly came for the birds, I also made a point to take in the butterflies too. The gardens are planted for a butterfly’s benefit. Some areas are covered greenhouses for shade and some were open garden plots along wide walks. In the center of the back gardens, there is a patch of low plants covered in Queen Butterflies. These regal beauties are black with white spotted bodies and deep orange wings with black borders sprinkled with white spots, as seen in the picture Butterfly Gallery section. Among them, I witnessed a Cabbage White butterfly laying tiny yellow eggs on the back of a leaf. Along the walking trails I found Tawny Emperors and about four other species. I have a soft spot for butterflies and dragonflies. This place had both, and birds, so was well worth a visit. I plan to go again, not only to see the turkey, but to ask questions about plants and find out more about feeding butterflies. They had a particular food coated over branch feeders around the gardens.
The National Butterfly Center
One recipe I found for it came from a Treehugger.com article from The Butterfly Garden, by Matthew Tekulsky (Harvard Common Press, 1985).
• 1 pound sugar
• 1 or 2 cans stale beer
• 3 mashed overripe banana
• 1 cup of molasses or syrup
• 1 cup of fruit juice
• 1 shot of rum
Mix all ingredients well and paint on trees, fence posts, rocks, or stumps–or simply soak a sponge in the mixture and hang from a tree-limb.
Quinta Mazatlan on the Map
Songbirds of Quinta Mazatlan
My second destination for the day was a lovely adobe home built in 1935 originally consisting of a cottage and hootch (raised retreat hut with a rope latter entrance), and the main house with 6,739 feet of living area. The house itself has an amazing history as does the Matthews family. The grounds, however, was the object of my visit.
The gardens around the house are a remnant of the Thornforest that use to cover the valley. It is landscaped with two amphitheaters, a pond and rambling walks through shady thick cover naturally decorated and sprinkled with stone information markers and bronze statues of native wildlife. There were feeding stations all about and streaming water features. While sitting quietly in several places, I found many song birds. These included Green Jays, Altamira and Hooded Orioles, Least Goldfinches, Green Parrots, thrashers, sparrows, doves, pigeons and the little Black-crested Titmouse that has eluded me for months. But, the most interesting bird was not a song bird, but a game bird.
Texas Bucket List Video
At this time of year, in the summer, the crowds were few and the Plain Chacalacas were everywhere. These game birds are mostly brown and a bit homey with tails that appear deep blue in the light. They don’t seem to mind people. I first met these birds at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. They are the only member of their family of birds to range into the U.S. They prefer thickets, dense scrub and forest growth, in semi-arid regions according to Cornell Labs. As such, they were happy birds on the Quinta Mazatlan grounds. I saw them high up in trees and down under the dense scrub growth. They walked the trails in lines with their babies, an adult leading and one trailing.
A little careful trail etiquette is wise when dealing with them or any other bird. They are not particularly aggressive, but this was their breeding season and they were escorting chicks and juveniles, making them on guard and protective.
Chacalaca Portrait Session
The Rules of the Birding Trails
- The birds should get their pick of picnic tables and sitting areas. They are the residents, you are the visitors.
- Don’t try to shoo them away or let children chase them. This stresses the birds.
- Give any bird the right of way on trails and give space when walking around them.
Most importantly as I learned;
- Be very careful about the adults when they have chicks and juveniles.
While walking in a deeply shaded trail, I caught sight of a baby Chacalaca following two adults in a sunny opening beside the pond. I stopped to get pictures of it. This was the first juvenile I had ever seen. It stopped too, to stare at the stranger. Suddenly, the little one wasn’t there anymore. I looked up from the camera and found an adult up on the low limb the baby had been walking under. I backed up a step. It came closer followed by a second adult who flew up on a branch over the trail, as if showing me the door, so to speak. I was lucky the Chacalacas weren’t more upset about my presence. Birds their size could have caused significant injury had they attacked; so always give fledglings plenty of space.
- When birds say a portrait session is over, it’s over. Very carefully take your leave.
- Keep well back so as not to alarm the parents.
Juvies and parents with chicks are one thing, but I should also caution against approaching nests. I’ve been very blessed to see so many nests, chicks and juvenile birds this year. Unlike the Night Jars, only a few birds nest in the open. Most are up high or well-hidden for good reason. If you are a careful observer and take your time, you too may see these sights during nesting seasons, but the view comes with risk.
As you read, my visit to see the night hawk chicks, even with a guide was a stress on the mother. We never intended to get that close, but her unknown movements put us in a bad situation. Other birds on nests also tend to freeze in place. It is best to move back and enjoy your find at a distance when dealing with an incubating bird, but mama isn’t all you may find yourself dealing with. The male’s job is usually to feed the mother and guard the nest and his territory. Many will attack if they feel their nest is threatened.
In your neighborhoods and backyards you may find fledglings alone. This is a common situation that bird lovers become concerned over. Don’t worry too much. Their parents are likely nearby waiting for you to leave. Leave fledglings alone. If it is in an unsafe place you can move it to a covered area, such as under shrubs, but the best choice is to leave it alone.
- Rumor Warning – You may have heard that a bird will reject a chick or fledgling that has been touched by a human. This is NOT true. It is perfectly safe to return a baby bird to its nest or to move it to a safe place if the nest is not reachable. The parents can then find their young and get it back to the nest themselves.
- If a parent does not show up within a few hours, you may need to call a bird rehabber, a trained wildlife specialist, who can take care of the bird until it is able to take care of itself. Check with local veterinarians or wildlife authorities for qualified rehabbers.
The Final Word
I will end this article by making a small point about bird photography. Most of the pictures you see here may look like I was very close. The truth is, I was using a telephoto lens at the maximum focal length most of the time and then later had to crop down the images. Sometimes this required as much as 70 or 80 percent reductions to get these close-looking views. One day I will own a longer lens and be able to get better views without so much cropping, but the rule when dealing with wildlife is to always stay back.
- Birding is an activity accomplished at the bird’s comfort level. Anytime you chose to enjoy the beauty of birds, be very respectful and careful to enjoy nature safely.
To read more about birding ethics visit the American Birding Association Code of Ethics page.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg