Birding By The Numbers

In it to win it with the trifecta.  The 2016 teams that I was on came in 1st place for the Big Sit with the TPWD staff- Tweeting Chats, 2nd Place Week Long Tournament, 3rd Place for the Texas-2-Stop.

In for the win.

There is a lot more than just birds to count while  competing in the Week Long Tournament of the Great Texas Bird Classic. This year my husband, mother and myself set off on our fourth journey to identify as many species of birds as possible in 6 days from April 15-20. On the quest for the most birds, we racked up some other impressive numbers as well.

Our adventure took us from Austin, TX to the edge of the state in the Rio Grande Valley, and back through the rugged hill country. This year we added a second GTBC category to part of the 6-day trip called the,Texas-2-Stop, so my uncle and his friend could join us for 2 days of birding shenanigans. We also birded one day for the Travis Audubon Bird-a-thon to raise money for bird conservation and education in Travis, Co.

We traveled in the Ford f-150 a total of 1,227 miles with the vehicle running for 35 hours and we used 65.5 gallons of gas. The truck is good for comfort, but doesn’t get the best gas mileage. With gas costing an average of $2 per gallon, we spend about $131 on fuel.

We walked about 32.5 miles to identify 240 species (including 2 that are endangered) of birds across 26 counties of the state. While walking, my husband acquired 10 mosquito bites, and I racked up 3 ticks. We also spotted 5 feral hogs, 2 snakes, tons of turtles, 5 rabbits, 3 white tailed deer, 2 dolphins and a handful of lizards.

The Scott Free Family Birders at the Hawk Watch Tower

We stopped at 3 National Wildlife Refuges, 7 State Parks, 4 waste water treatment plants, 10 city parks, 2 nature centers and 1 Audubon Center. At each stop we met so many nice people who also shared our passion for birding. We even ran into 3 other teams participating or preparing for their GTBC day

Surprisingly, we did not stop at a single Dairy Queen this year. However, we did stop at 7 local eating establishments and only 1 chain restaurant. We also took our own food for the first few days and enjoyed 3 picnics along the way.

We stayed in 4 motels, including a brand- spanking -new La Quinta that had only been open for 2 days when we arrived in McAllen, TX. Only one of the lodges had an onsite bar, which we were happy to find after spending over 14 hours in and out of the car birding from Mission, to San Antonio, by way of Laredo.

Last day, just spotted the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler

For the most part we avoided the severe weather that plagued the rest of the state. Some areas, like Houston, received 17 inches of rain in under 48 hours. Because we were down stream of much of the flooding we could see the effects as we crossed 7 of the state’s major rivers and 2 lagoons. Most parts of the Rio Grande Valley remained desperately dry.

All-in-all the Scott Free Family Birders had one hell -of- a -time enjoying the journey around this great state.

Counties Visited: Travis, Bastrop Fayette, Lavaca, Victoria, Refugio, Arkansas, San Patricio, Nueces, Kleberg, Kennedy, Willacy, Zapata, Webb, Dimmit, Maverick, Zavala, Frio, Atascosa, Bexar, Comal, Hays, Blanco, Burnet.

National Wildlife Refuges: Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande Valley, Aransas

State Parks: Bastrop, Buescher, Goose Island, Falcon Lake, Llano Estero, Rio Bentsen, Pedernales Falls

Local Parks or Land Trusts: Lady Bird Lake- Austin, Webberville Park- Travis Co., Laguna Gloria- Austin, Red Bud Island- Austin, Mueller neighborhood park- Austin, Charlie’s Pasture- Port Aransas, Paradise Pond- Port Aransas, Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center- Port Aransas, Port Aransas City Park, Lockport City Park, South Padre Island Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Sheep’s Head Valley Land Trust- SPI, Roma Bluffs City Park, Salineño, San Ygnacio Bird Sanctuary & Riverfront

A little magnolia mud on the last day at Magnolia Cafe

Restaurants: Magnolia Café- Austin, Shells- Port Aransas, Texas Café- Rio Grande City, Los Comales- Lockport, Sea Ranch Bar and Grill- South Padre Island, P. F. Changs- McAllen

Lodging: Days Inn- Port Aransas, La Quinta- McAllen, Inn on Padre Island, Holiday Inn Express- San Antonio




Fury Friends of the Forest

My husband loves technology. I love wildlife (and so does he.) So what better way to bring those two things together than a wildlife camera. Last winter I set up the camera and slowly began defining the best place to observe the wildlife that lives in the woods behind our home in Austin, TX.

Bubbles the tailless raccoon
Bubbles the tailless raccoon

This summer the drought returned with a vengeance and the creek behind our house dried up in July. In August I started, on occasion, setting out buckets of water just beyond the fence. The result was fascinating.

I started to not only see animals that I have not seen before, but I started to see some frequent visitors. These frequent visitors are full of personality. Perhaps the most vivacious is a no-tail raccoon that I have named, Bubbles, and her sidekick, Rocky.

They are not the only characters in this documentary. There is Bucky the buck, Foxy the fox, Mitzy the mouse, Peter the possum, Armand the armadillo, Coco the coyote, Kitty the feral cat, Henny the hen and Skeeter the squirrel. Each reveals a little bit more about themselves each time they pass in front of the camera.

Bubbles and Rocky sharing the bucket
Bubbles and Rocky sharing the bucket

Bubbles and Rocky sometimes spend hours just playing in and around the water bucket. Bubbles is clearly older and in addition to her missing tail she also has tattered ears, but she seems as nimble as the younger guy. She even snatched a moth out of the air for a meal, and it’s all caught on camera just before dawn.

Skeeter the squirrel is an obsessive little thing. Every morning at first light he scampers around sniffing the area, seeing who passed by in the night. And Mitzy the mouse seems to always be a few steps ahead of Kitty the feral cat. However, Kitty looks like she is ready to destroy just about anything that slithers, hops, crawls or flies.

When Henny the hen arrived one day out of the blue, it took less than 24 hours for Coco the coyote to pass on through. Coco looks thin and secretly I’m routing for her to catch up with Kitty. Foxy the fox looks a little healthier. But whether they are predator or prey they all look thirsty.

Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink
Skeeter the Squirrel getting a drink

At first I watered them with rainwater captured in our rain barrels. But then I noticed that had mosquito larva in it so I switched over to watering my plants with that water and setting out fresh water for the wildlife. I only water my yard on the scheduled days the city sets forth in effort to save as much water as possible.

It is a comfort to me to know the wild things that I share this forest with are healthy. I gladly share in the resources that I can acquire during these drought conditions. Some might say that is altering the natural balance of their life. To be honest, that ship has long sailed. The forest we share has been impacted and altered for hundreds of years now and even more so since 1958 when this house was built next to the creek.Doe in drought

Invasive plants have further altered the landscape. They line the creek beds, sucking away the life-giving waters and shading out the native plants. The loss of native vegetation means lack of nutritious food sources for wildlife. The invasive plants also alter the soil, which impacts the grubs, bugs, frogs and bacteria.

But I digress. I’m happy just knowing that the woods are full of creatures both large and small. And I delight in the fact that I can silently observe them with my wildlife camera.

Wildlife observed to date: Raccoon, fox, mouse, skunk, possum, armadillo, coyote, deer, squirrel, anoles lizard, Texas spiny lizard, gulf coast toad, Med. house gecko, tree rat, hognose snake

Birds: Screech owl, great horned owl, common night hawk, chimney swift, blue jay, common grackle, white wing and morning dove, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, house sparrow, house finch, lessor gold finch, northern cardinal, northern mocking bird, Baltimore oriel, curved bill thrasher, blue grey gnatcatcher, red bellied wood pecker, turkey and black vultures, coopers hawk, red shoulder hawk, Tennessee warbler, cedar waxwing, Mississippi kite, tufted titmouse, European sterling, great blue heron, painted bunting, ruby throated and black chinned humming birds, ladder backed woodpecker

Other: Feral cats, chickens

Foxy- the Grey fox
Foxy- the Grey fox
Screech owl- Oct. 2015
Screech owl- Oct. 2015

Yard Make Over at 20 Paws Ranch


20 Paws Ranch
20 Paws Ranch

When we moved into our house the yard was filled with non-native plants, grass and some amazing trees. None of the plants bloomed and few offered any resources for wildlife. Over the past year and ½ I have systematically removed all the invasive and non-native plants (accept the grass.) This summer I decided to start replacing the plants with native plants that bloom and offer a food source to birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.                                                                                                                                It hasn’t been easy! Removing invasive plants is a lot of work. More often than not they come back unless they are sprayed and I don’t like to use herbicide. So I have to hack at them several times or totally remove their roots. But it’s totally worth it- I love Texas and I only want Texas plants in my yard!

This summer I ordered 1 ton of limestone and 2 yards of pea gravel to complete my flowerbeds. This afternoon I completed the second flowerbed. It has lots of native plants that will grow into the space, a place for me to coil up my water hose (finally!) and I installed a birdbath with a drip.

The birdbath with a drip is key to attracting birds in the front yard. It sits on a rock pile that I built to cover an old tree stump. The layered rocks provide places for toad and lizards to live- which in turn cuts down on insects.

The before photo- big hedges and no flowers
The before photo- big hedges and no flowers

I also have started mowing the large lawn in sections to the fireflies have habitat.  They love longer, moist grasses and plants. The results of that experiment have been amazing.  We have tons of fireflies every night. Oh- and another thing I did for the fireflies was eliminate all outdoor lighting.  The outdoor lights now only come on when someone passes by instead of always flooding the property.

In May I certified our yard as a Wildlife Habitat and Bird Habitat with National Wildlife Federation. The certification means that our yard has the following elements:

Water– we have 2 birdbaths and now a drip, plus a wet weather creek.

Food– we have large trees that produce acorns, pecans, and seeds, plus we now have a variety of native plants that provide nectar and seeds. We have bird feeders with seed and hummingbird feeders.

Birdbath, rock pile and gnom
Birdbath, rock pile and gnom

Shelter– we have large trees, log pile and rock piles.

Chemicals– we don’t use any chemicals on the lawn.

I purchase all my plants at Barton Creek Nursery – locally owned and locally grown.

The birdbath and other bird feeders come from Wild Birds Unlimited– also locally owned.

We also added gutters and rain barrels this spring to capture the water to use on the yard and plants.  They’ve been a big help this year.


Rain Barrel
Rain Barrel
Installing the plants, rock and gravel
Installing the plants, rock and gravel

Wildlife Behind the House- July 2015

It gives me a thrill to look at the photos from the wildlife camera we have set up just outside the fence behind out house. I love seeing the types of wildlife we share this small space with, what time they are active, and even knowing the temperature. On some days I can remember what I was doing, or how the dogs reacted to something.

For example on this last reel of photos a random chicken shows up, then five days later a coyote enters the frame. The coyote looks thin and thirsty which is not surprising since we are now in the driest July on record. We had a very wet spring, but July has been dry and hot. The coyote also might have been attracted to the feral cats that frequently cruise through. (I secretly hope the coyote eats the cats since they are not a native species to North America. And they kill millions of birds each year.)

I made a short slideshow with the images from the camera as it was fixed in one location from April to mid-July. Activity speeds up as the summer gets drier and I toss a watermelon on the ground. A very industry raccoon snacks on the watermelon for almost 4 hours one morning.

In this very small space of about 8 square feet that the camera is able to record images, there are approx. 10 species of animals and birds that pass through. Many are frequent visitors.

Thank you to William Orbit for the music in the video.



Sociology in a Sauna

On occasion I make it to the gym to swim or work out if the weather is nasty, but I prefer to exercise outside. Last week I ventured to the Gold’s Gym at prime-time after work to try to shake off a long day with a few laps in the pool.

After my swim I decided to sit in the dry sauna to warm up and dry off. My eyes where still adjusting from taking off my goggles when I opened the door to the small sauna- only to find it was packed with about 15 people. I squeezed into the top corner and could not have predicted what was about to happen.

Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t think the crazy hot sauna is really a hospitable environment for electronics. The other 15 people would not agree with that statement. Each person had a device and was listening to music, checking emails, Facebook and even taking pictures- I’ll get to that in a minute.

The woman next to me was decked out in a trash bag looking space suite that I thought they quit making in the 80’s. Her makeup was pouring off her lush, black skin and pooling on the collar of the suit and she was mouth breathing very loud. The man next to her decided a crowded sauna was absolutely the right place to do some yoga moves and grunt through each pose.

But the chick in front of me took the cake. At first she wasn’t looking at her phone, but then saw everyone else was so she pulled out her giant iPhone 6. She surfed around briefly on Facebook, then decided the sauna was a great place to capture a selfy.

She lined up her phone to get a good photo, puckered her lips, sucked in her cheeks, flipped her long blond hair around and snapped a few choice shots. I wanted to tell her to take her hat off so didn’t get such a shadow over her eyes, but I let it slide. She seemed so pleased with the way she looked in the hot sauna that I didn’t want to rain on her narcissistic parade.

Unfortunately, she didn’t check her background. If she had she would have noticed that I had moved my big old, white leg just behind her right shoulder. No one looks good in a sauna. They look even worse with a giant, middle-aged woman’s thigh photo bombing their precious selfy.

At one point she grew frustrated that her phone wasn’t able to follow her commands because her hands were too sweaty to navigated the touch screen. But, then again we were in a dry sauna so she might have expected that.

People came and went during the 10 minutes that I spent in the tiny room but there was never less than 15 people. I feel certain each one of them came pretty close to voiding the warranty on their smart phones on that day.





Trail Report- June- 2015

I love riding on the trails.  Well- I love riding horses pretty much any where, any time.  After the Memorial Day floods of 2015, there was a lot of debris and mud on the trails at the barn where I ride. But a few amazing women did a little trail work and now we can ride again.  I also love my GoPro and learning how to edit on iMovie.  So I made a little Trail Report news reel to share with the other riders.

I Like Lists

Looking into Mexico from Texas.
Looking into Mexico from Texas.

What can I say? I like lists. I like lists so much that I take a vacation every spring with my family to make lists of the birds we see. But even before we step foot out the door or pack a bag, I make lists of where we will go, what we might see and how long it will take to drive there.

Birding is about observation, tracking and cataloging as much as it is about getting into nature. The Greater Texas Birding Classic gives my husband, mother and myself a reason to make a crazy run around the state to count as many birds as we can see in 6 days.

This year we are planning on increasing our reach by heading out to Big Bend National Park to start our listing of birds. Big Bend is known for a few types of birds that can only be found in the strange and wonderful ecosystems of the park. From there we will journey to the Rio Grande Valley, up the coast, then inland to our home in Austin.

List From Smith Point

In the past we have witnessed around 250-275 species of birds per trip. Texas has amazing birding and the spring migration is where its at if you are an avid birder. The migratory birds journey up from Central and South America on their way to points north and Texas is smack dab in the middle of three major flyways.

The other benefit of this mad dash around Texas is it takes me to places I’ve never seen and would never normally travel to unless I was looking for birds. Last year we touched the very tip of Texas at Boca Chico at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and the Gulf of Mexico. This year I’m hoping to visit 3 state parks I’ve never been to before so I can get a little closer to having visited all 92 state parks in Texas.

Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.
Sable Palms Birding Center south of the boarder fence between Texas and Mexico.

The other thing I like about our journey is it blends together my love of Texas history, sociology, travel and nature.  We get to see so many great historical sites and some wonderful snapshots into the human activities of small town life, the oil boom of south Texas, campers at parks, and other birders who are on their own quest.

I make a lot of lists in my life. Most are for work, some are for daily life tasks, but the ones I make of the birds are purely for me and purely for fun. Well, I guess they aren’t all for me, I load them into eBird to be a citizen scientist to do my part to help better understand the bird populations and migrations. Stay tuned of for updates from the road on The Atomic Cowgirl Facebook page.

Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.
Adding to the list on the Texas Coast.