Friday, March 29, 2013

Birding on South Padre Island

Wednesday, after looking at sandcastles and sea turtles, we stopped at the Birding and Nature Center of the island.  It is a new facility which opened in 2009 with an exhibit hall which takes visitors on an educational  voyage from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico through the dunes of South Padre Island and into the Laguna Madre Bay.  I was surprised to learn that the barrier island is the largest of its kind in all of the world.  There is a large wetland outside of the nature center, with a boardwalk for viewing water and shore birds. In the foreground of the picture below is part of the water treatment plant, which treats 1.5 million gallons of waste water a day.  The treated water provides the wetland for the birds.  The bay lies beyond the marsh.
As we started out on the boardwalk we immediately caught sight of a small bird flitting around the marsh scrubs.  Focusing our binoculars on him, we noticed that he was quite colorful and has a very long tail.  Our National Geographic bird book describes the scissored-tailed flycatcher as being "pearl grey above; whitish and salmon pink below"   The colors appear even more stunning when flycatcher is in flight.
Walking on further into the wetland the head of a yellow-crowned night heron caught our attention as it poked out from among the bright green marsh grass.  We also saw a great blue heron and large white egret.
We passed by a reddish egret feeding in the water, he was so intent on finding a tasty morsel of fish that he was not bothered by our presence.  He is another colorful bird with a reddish head and neck, a bill which is pink with a black tip and cobalt blue legs.  As he feeds he lurches and dashes about in the water.
We were encouraged at the nature center to watch for the roseate spoonbill, this is its breeding season and the red highlights on its pink body are presently brighter than usual.  We did see them, but they were quite a distance from the boardwalk, the picture below is the best one I could get of them.  In the foreground of the picture below are many red-headed ducks, they are fairly common in the Rio Grande Valley.
 Also in that area we saw an alligator sunning himself on the shore.  Next door to the nature center is a warbler rest area.  One has to be a very patient birder to find them, they hide out in thick clumps of shrubs and rarely sit still very long.  We felt we were lucky to find one, a black-and-white warbler.  A hummingbird also showed up, he was hanging over the bright red flowers of the bottle brush tree.  And, while in that area, a pair of whistling ducks crossed our path.  Padre Island sure turned out to be an awesome place for birding, what a great way to spend our 37th wedding anniversary!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sandcastles and Sea Turtles

Happy Easter!  We returned to South Padre Islands to check out several sandcastles.  The one above we found at the Welcome Center of the island.   We found another outside of the South Padre Travelodge Motel, part of it is pictured below.  Currently there are three sandcastles,  and we found them all.
Reportedly the sandcastles are built and maintained by Sons of the Beach Sand Castle Wizards.  After viewing the sandcastles we drove to Sea Turtles, Inc.  This "enviro-friendly" organization is dedicated to caring for and educating the public about endangered seat turtles.  One thing I learned is that it is not good to pick up a turtle by its shell without supporting the tummy.  That is similar to you being picked up by your finger, toenails or hair.  Pictured below is Gerry, a green sea turtle.  His shell is light olive green.  I am not sure what he weights now, but he can weight up to 500 plus pounds, eating primarily sea grass and marine algae.  The center feeds him romaine lettuce-  he consumes 500 heads of it per year.
Many of the sea turtles we saw in the center arrived there because of injuries they sustained from predator attacks, pneumonia, line and net entanglements, infections, bowel obstructions from balloons, and plastic bags.  Some have had run-ins with boats which have either wounded or removed their flippers.  Allison, the Atlantic green sea turtle, pictured below, had an accident which left her with one flipper.  Summer interns since 2005 have been working on a variety of prosthesis  to replace flippers, many of which did not do well for the turtles.  One was green in color- that did not last long as the other turtles thought it was a piece of lettuce and nibbled on it!  What worked for Allison was a prosthesis which works as a rudder- it stabilizes her in the water as she swims about with her one flipper.  She cannot be returned to the ocean, but many of the turtles cared for in the center are returned to the wild.
We found the intensive care unit for the center in the gift shop.  There small kiddie pools hold turtles who need special medical attention.  The center is in the middle of a capital fund drive.  Hopefully if enough money is raised they can purchase five more holding tanks with life support systems, as well build an education center and amphitheater.  Before ending this posting I want to mention another activity of the center, which is nesting beach patrols.  Volunteers from the center protect sea turtle nests through the spring/summer. incubation period.  Hatchlings found stranded on the shore are brought into the center and cared for until they reach the size of a dinner plate, and then are returned to the wild.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Texas Onion Fest

We attended this festival in Weslaco on Sunday.  The day before we had temperatures here up to 100 degrees, on Sunday the weather dove down into the mid-seventies and we were dealing with a strong wind which blew dust and dirt into our faces.  I think that I would have preferred the clean white snow which was falling down in Missouri on that same day!   Our son Dan wrote us that this is still all do to climate change, however the environmental community prefers to call it "global weirding".
Live cooking demonstrations were on the schedule at the onion festival as well as a salsa recipe contest. The various ingredients for a salsa were on display,  and I just could not pass up the photo opportunity!
We came to the festival primarily to see the Rancho Caballo de Puro Raza Azteca perform.  They are Mexican dancing horses, we may have seen them at the Rose Bowl Parades which we have attended as they have performed in those parades.
Quite a few years ago John and I had seen the dancing Lipzzaner horses from Austria, and enjoyed their performance immensely.  The Mexican dancing horses (one of them is pictured above) were not as spectacular in their routine, but still a joy to watch.  They moved in time very fluidly to the mariachi music, doing some very fancy high stepping and side to side prancing.  The master of ceremonies for the show explained that the horses we were viewing were the Azteca breed; a genetic mixture of American quarterhorse, charro, and Andalusian (of Spanish horse ancestry).
 I was going to close this post at this point, however I do want to mention a hike we took today at the La Feria Nature Center.  At one of the lakes there we caught a wonderful sight of numerous ducks and white pelicans together on the shore.  Among them we were also able to espy a great egret and little egret.  Taking their picture was a bit difficult because we feared they would fly off if we came too close to them.  It will be necessary for you to enlarge the picture in order to appreciate the variety of birds pictured below.
 I will show you another awesome shot I took there;  I was aiming for the long-billed curlew,  but several ducks and a turtle suddenly decided to join the party.  One duck in the background has just his rear in view.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Our Visitors from the North to the Valley

The temperatures soared here in the Valley today.  It probably reached 100 degrees, and strangely enough it is still winter, it would be that hot in St.Louis only in the summertime!  Our son Daniel checked the weather for Washington D.C. before he and Amanda left this morning- 43 degrees was the prediction for today.  That leaves us wondering how soon we should head north, our plans are to leave here in two weeks.
We also had other visitors this weekend- Amanda's brother Josh, wife Ashley, and their 4 children also came.  It was necessary for them to leave on Sunday morning.  Just before they left I took their picture.
I had just opened the door to their trailer when suddenly all four children showed up to greet me with big grins on their faces.  What delightful children, and over the couple of days they were here I did not observe one quarrel between them.  Most of Saturday afternoon they played in our park's pool.  Their Great-Grandpa and Grandma Lana were also here with us (Great- Grandpa lives in Mission,Texas).  On Sunday, after the children and their parents left, John and I took Daniel sight-seeing to places in the Valley which we thought he would enjoy.  Amanda stayed behind to spend time with her Grandpa recording family history.
John and I took Daniel to Roma, as he enjoys American history as much as we do.  John and him are inspecting the building above, a commercial/residential structure built in1853.  During the Civil War it served as a military hospital.  While in Roma we stopped at a birding center, and were encouraged to do some birding in an area northwest of town down by the Rio Grande River, and were also given a map of the town of Salineno where a variety of orioles could be found in the palms by a church.  We were successful in finding a variety of local birds to show our son. And it was fascinating for all of us to see the residential areas located in the small borders towns which we traveled through.  Beautiful mansions with colorful and lush vegetation could be seen located close to shacks with yards of scrub brush, and livestock.
Near the house pictured above was another residence with a horse in its backyard.  Daniel wanted to take a picture of the horse, as well as give the animal some petting.  What a beautiful horse!  Behind the horse was a large satellite dish for the home.
This morning, Monday morning,  John and I returned to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge hoping we could show Dan some more birds of the Valley.  Fortunately when we arrived a birding group was headed out,  led by a park guide.  She did an excellent job in locating birds for us, as well as identifying a wide variety of bird songs.  At Willow Lake we saw numerous shore birds as stilts, solitary sandpipers as well as long-billed dowitchers and a variety of ducks.  In the riparian forest John and I saw some birds which we never seen before as the flycatcher and gnatcatcher. The latter bird is so cute, with a blue-grey body measuring only about 41/4 inches in length.  We were unable to continue with our birding group for the entire time of their hike as Dan and Amanda had to leave for Austin by about noon.  As we stepped off the trail and headed back for the car a bird (we think it was a long-billed thrasher) burst into a long melodious song.  What a perfect ending for our morning in the wildlife refuge! 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Rio Grande Valley Livestock show

Monday was a very long day for us.  It started out fairly early for us.  Mary Jo, my sister-in-law had a rehearsal meeting with her dulcimer club and suggested I come along, since Benson State Park was on the way and perhaps I would enjoy some birding there.  Wayne and John decided to join me on that excursion.  When we arrived at the park we were greeted by the sight of two altamira orioles bathing in a puddle of water.  A brown thrasher walked nonchalantly in front of us, and I espied a titmouse hanging out on the window ledge of the nature center.  The din of the birds was deafening but wonderful.  I could pick out the cheer-cheer of cardinals, the konk-la-reee of the red-winged blackbirds, as well as the signature song kis-ka-dee of the bird so named.  The ranger at the park pointed out some hiking trails on a map for us, as well as where to find the best feeding station for birding.  In that area we also saw green jays, warblers and woodpeckers.  Later, after a two hour hike, we then picked up Mary Jo and headed to the livestock show.  You would think we would see a rodeo at a livestock show, but that was not on the agenda for the day.  We saw several other interesting shows instead.  The first one I saw was the Kachunga and Alligator show.  Castillo and his sidekick, Bert Lucas handled an alligator from the swamps of  Florida with surprising ease.  Castillo encouraged a young girl from the audience to come on stage to pet the animal and even to sit on him, which she did with amazing aplomb.  Castillo held the tail of the alligator so it would not whip around.
 Lucas also placed his hand inside the creature's mouth, which he said he could do because the alligator's eyes are on top of his head and he was unable to see Lucas' hand.  The next show we was the Craz E.Crew Stunt Team.  The teams is comprised of young men, professional performers who are always pushing to go bigger, faster, and higher on skate boards and bicycles.  Reportedly they have gone as high as 18 feet.
Wow, I was surprised that I was able to capture the action on my camera!  The team has over 18 years of experience and travels all over the world with their shows.  Our next entertainment was the Catherine Hickland's Hilarious Comedy Hypnosis show.  She is one of  very few females in the field of hypnotism.  With her melodious soothing voice she put 18 people under, as you can see in the picture below.
After she got them into a sleep state she was able do get them to do whatever she commanded.  She had them acting like James Bond, also playing imaginary instruments and dancing.  It was very funny when she  had them listening to music out of their shoes!  I could understand why only young people volunteered to undergo hypnosis-  no adult would be that trusting and would be concerned how they acted in a dream-like state.  Unfortunately John and I did not see the end of that show because we wanted to see the greased pig competition.   Teen-age girls (from local high schools) tried to capture slicked-up piglets in large arena.  The show was over in at least 5 minutes- the girls ran very fast, and the small pigs even faster.  I felt sorry for the last pig still running at the end.  A least five girls fell one him, but only one was able to hold onto him.  That was our day, we had seen and experienced a lot in about 12 hours;  from singing birds to squealing piglets.  We were certainly four very tired but happy senior citizens!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Harlingen Arroyo Colorado

I had mentioned in a previous posting that it was necessary to start out early in the day if we were to see any wildlife.  On Friday that was our intention, until we learned that a choir rehearsal for our park's vesper services was to be held that morning, and we wanted to attend that.  So our plans went awry,  and we left for Harlingen later than originally planned.  There are two parks in Harlingen which are located along the Arroyo Colorado, which is a second branch of the Rio Grande River.  It flows between the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that the first park in which we hiked, the Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, had a lot of lush vegetation.  It was a bit of a shock to our eyes to see such vibrant greens, when we have been seeing a lot of brown and grey plant life due to the lack of rain.
Not having lived in this area before, with the exception of my early years when my family lived in McAllen, I do not have any concept of the seasons here.  But lately I have had a sense that spring has sprung here.  I am seeing wild flowers in areas where there were none when we came in December.  The lily pads in the nature park have yellow flowers just starting to open up, and the prickly pears cactus has blooms on it.
Some of the native trees are also starting to bloom.  I especially appreciated the flower of the Texas paloverde tree.  The bloom has a bright yellow flower which is spotted with red.
We heard birds chattering around us, but only caught a brief glimpse of a hummingbird.  Unfortunately the bird feeders in the park were empty so the photo blinds around the feeding areas were useless.  And maybe early morning hours are the best time to see birds.  We did see egrets in the river, and the butterflies were so numerous we literally kept running into them!  The mosquitoes were bad along the river, so we quickly ended our time in the nature center and drove over to Harlingen Thicket.
The park is a 40 acre tract of land within an urban setting.  And just as it was a pleasure to see green vegetation at the nature park, here we were surprised by the sight of hills.  Many hiking trails wind through the hills of the thicket which has an impressive plant variety.  It was getting to be late afternoon by the time we had hiked one trail in that park and we had a commitment at Our Savior Lutheran to help finish setting up for their rummage sale.  John and I are anxious to return again to the parks of Harlingen.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Child Haven International

John met a man at the laundromat who excitedly told him about construction work he and his church back home (Illinois) had been doing on a children's home.  Currently he and his wife have been living here in the valley for the winter, and have continued their work at the home.  Yesterday, Saturday, the home was going to have its fortieth anniversary party and Eldon strongly encouraged us to attend it with him.  John had a previous commitment to participate in a men's choral workshop, but I decided to attend the party.
You probably can't read the words on the cake pictured above, and it does not help that they are in Spanish!  The home is located in Reynosa, Mexico.  In Mexico Child Haven is known as Refuguio Internacional De Ninos.  The haven had its beginnings when a child was left on the steps of a home owned by Shirley Mendosa.  She was a woman from the United States who came to work in Mexico and subsequently married a Mexican man.  More homeless children were dropped off at their house until it was necessary for them to build a larger home.  That home later burned and Mennonite Disaster Relief stepped in to help the Mendosa family.  That organization purchased 14 acres and built 6 separate homes for Shirley and her family to continue their work in Reynosa.  Over the ensuing years many church groups have stepped in to help out.  Joining our group, who crossed the border into Reynosa Saturday to attend the celebration, was Grace Community church from Kansas.  They have been coming to the home regularly for the past 15 years.  Church members will stay at the home for the week,  helping with various building needs.  They always bring their children.  Consequently, as we drove through the gates of the home, several of the home's residents were eying the vans closely to see if they could locate the children whom they played with in past years.  I guess if there was one word I had to use to sum up the day's festivities I would say it would be relationships.
In the picture above the couple are playing with one of the home's children, whom they sponsor.  I saw many similar scenes played out during the course of the day, children and their sponsors reconnecting in many meaningful ways. Some of the sponsors live and work in the border towns of Texas and are fortunate to meet with their children several times a year.
Other people attending at the gala were past and present board members (representing Canada,United States, and Mexico), also past and present staff members as well as alumni of the home.
In between the many speeches the children of the home and school performed with songs and dances.  The  home currently has 58 children, six of whom are attending college.  The school takes in children from the neighborhood and has 104 children, kindergarten to sixth grade.  And it has some success stories- one of the speakers was a pretty young woman, a lawyer, representing Mexico as a board member  She came to the home at four years of age.  Many of the speakers gave thanks to God for the blessings which the home has experienced over the past forty years.  Over the years the home has always witnessed to the children the love of Christ.  As part of its festivities for the day the home had an open house for its newest cottage.  It is the cottage which Eldon had said he had put in many hours of labor.  Unfortunately he was unable to attend the anniversary party because of a strep throat.  He certainly can be proud of his work, the cottage is a beautiful home for the little girls who will be living there!  Pictured below is the kitchen.
Winter Texans have been warned to stay away from Reynosa because it apparently is in the hands of many drug cartels.  It was a bit disconcerting to see the guards in military gear and carrying guns at the border. One soldier was also standing in what looked like a fox hole with two large metal barrels in front of it.  And as we drove through the streets of the city two young men, driving in a car next to our van, asked what we were doing in the city.  It was fortunate that the home had used their vans to shuttle us over- my those vans need replacing!.  We soon discovered that the words "Refugio Internacional " was all we needed to say and we were waved on with no questions asked.  With God's continued help Child Haven will make a difference for Mexico, one child at a time.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

The picture above perhaps gives you an idea of what we have to look forward to when we comment to each other: "let's go for a hike".  The above is the winter landscape of the Rio Grande Valley, and this park especially has plenty of prickly pear cactus, which you see in the foreground of the above picture.  And there is not much of a chance of seeing any wildlife if you head out in the afternoon, which we are wont to do.  My brother Wayne and I have told John that for out next hike he will have to haul himself out of bed early in the day!  Surprisingly, we did see a fair number of wildlife Friday afternoon.  We saw our first road runner since we have come to the Valley, also a caracara (that bird is like a vulture, he feeds on carion and small animals).  A distance ahead of us on the trail four javelina walked across our path and, coming back on the trail, an armadillo scurried away from us into the underbrush.  All of them moving to fast for me to get a picture.  There are three hypersaline lakes in this refuge, which are currently quite dry.  This use to be a stopover for migratory birds.
That is Wayne and John setting out to explore the lake called La Sal del Ray, or "the salt of the king".  By royal degree all minerals found in the New World were considered the property of the King of Spain.  Salt was the first export of the Valley, it was hauled out by ox carts.  Over the years the salt has been used for brine shrimp harvesting, for therapeutic mineral baths as well as drilling fluids and lubricants for oil field operations.  Not sure at the present time if the salt is being harvested because of the lake being so dry.  However, we soon discovered that the lake is not entirely dried up, as we walked on its surface we starting sinking into mud.  In the picture below is a puddle of mud and salt.
Not very exciting, right?  But I must say there really is not much picturesque in this barren wasteland.  We did find a scattering of large animal bones, I will spare my readers that!  Seriously, there were numerous deer tracts on our hike in the refuge, it sure puzzled us as to the location of their fresh water source!