Hummers, High Island, and High Hopes

“This could all be yours someday.”  ~ Guster

* * *

Little did we know what Christmas would spark.  When Scottie came in to tell me, There is a Rufous in our tree, I brushed him off in usual fashion.  I thought he probably just wishes there was one, much like the wood stork he talks about could be in our creek out back — but equally as unlikely.  He spends a lot of free time on the iBird Pro app and I can’t tell fact from fiction, especially when he’s deep in the business of learning about something.  I hear about some bird fact no less than 10 times per hour.  A mother can only humor a boy so much. 

“There’s a Rufous on our feeder, Mom!  He’s on our feeder right now!”  He was looking out the window now, binoculars hanging around his neck.

I keep it right outside, in view of the sink, so we can watch for any stragglers during the winter time.  Usually, a Ruby-throated visits the feeder, one that didn’t quite make his migration trek.  Some will even hang out all winter long, so long as there is something to eat.  (They can always count on me to keep it filled.) Rufous, huh?  This I had to see.

But there he sat, as my skepticism vanished, a beautiful male Rufous hummingbird, his unmistakable red-orange and green plumage just like the picture in the book.  Scottie was right.

Almost immediately, another showed up.  Not one, but two — perhaps even three — of this rare bird was hanging out in our backyard, on our feeder.  Though I was unable to get any of one of them in flight, I snapped this photo of a female just as she lighted.

A Rufous Hummingbird decides to crash our feeder in December
A Rufous Hummingbird crashes our feeder in December

I couldn’t believe it.  Not only had he spotted a hummingbird in the winter, but he correctly ID’d its species……in the trees before it had even come down to take a sip.  I really should pay more attention to this kid.  He’s got a gift.

Along came the Ruby-throated to the punch bowl.  It’s always fun until another hummer is in the area.  These birds will joust each others rather than drink, the skinnier, plainer Ruby, contrasted with the more flashy, curvaceous Rufous.  It’s worth setting all work aside just to stand and spectate.  They just won’t let each other drink, spending  all their time guarding and fighting over the feeder.   Here’s a really good shot of her, taken by Robert Hanelt in New Mexico.   (Unfortunately, I’m unable to display it here.)

Then the most amazing thing happened.  On the First Day of the Year, 2014, perhaps they got tired or were just hungry enough.  Whatever the reason, they set aside their differences and the Ruby and the Rufous dined together on the feeder, for a good long drink.

We all stopped what we were doing and rushed to the window to watch these two beautiful little birds, together, only for a minute, this special time we may never witness again.

* * *

Winter is time for the big slow down and is extraordinary for backyard birding.  Just as the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky, feathered beauties begin to gather outside our breakfast room window.  The local squirrel population sufficiently out-smarted by our strategic feeder location — with the exception of one really smart one — the little birds get to enjoy their sunflower seeds and warm birdbath all to themselves, on the relative safety of our back porch.  We get to enjoy family walks between the kitchen and the creek, binoculars at-the-ready, ears pricked for new sounds, bird books waiting for the thumbing.  It’s all about the birds.

It’s a veritable paradise right here.  Scottie and Angie fill their respective Birding Journals with new species as they see them, adding them to the 50+ variety that we see regularly every day:

  • Wood Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Pied Grebe
  • Neotropic Cormorant
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Rufous Hummingbird
Scottie keeps his eyes peeled for new species
Scottie keeps his eyes peeled for new species

Coming into the 100’s territory has sparked what we now refer to as The Big Yearinspired by the movie with the same name.  Beginning on January 1, 2014, they are determined to log as many bird species as they can before then end of this calendar year.   They are already off to a great start.

Time to kick things into high gear for these budding naturalists.

* * *

The immediate Texas Gulf Coast can also be a birding oasis.  This time of year, not much is going on aside from the wintering water residents.  The spring migration is only in just a few more months, when hundreds of species begin to move from their winter homes to their spring homes.  Texas is unique in that it is right smack-dab in the middle of three of the four migratory routes in North America:  the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic Flyways.  Migrating birds travel quite long distances — our Rufous nests all the way up in Alaksa! — and need to both rest up and tank up before finishing their journeys to a final destination.

The Boy Scout Woods is where we were
The Boy Scout Woods is where we were

Along the coastline, just east of Galveston, there is a sweet spot for these weary birds — a sprawling oak canopy atop a salt dome where the water is fresh and food is abundant.  High Island is their Motel 6.  There is nothing else like it for miles.  Driving to it, the area is surrounded by salt marsh and grasses and otherwise open wetlands.  The sanctuary sticks out like sore thumb.  Given the thousands of miles these birds travel each year, it’s no wonder they’ve pinned it on their GPS.

Keep the eye on the prize...
Keep the eye on the prize…

Given our own Big Year, and being the planners we are, it made sense that we go check it out beforehand.  Scottie was excited to maybe get to see his first wood stork.  (I didn’t have the heart to tell him we probably wouldn’t…but secretly hoped he might surprise me again.)

We arrived at the Boy Scout Woods in a little more than an hour from the interstate, on a cool but otherwise beautiful, sunny Sunday.  As we walked in the gate, devoid of any other non-feathered two-legged species, our family was promptly greeted by a Ruby-throated hummingbird.  She flew straight to our noses to get a better look.  I was half-expecting Tinkerbell to usher her off.

On this particular trip, we saw mostly birds we already see around our part of town, those who are regular winter residents.  But we also saw this guy, unsure whether he was working to trick us or not, right down to the glaze-y, opened eyes.

Dead or Sleeping?  Couldn't tell until we poked him with a stick.  (Yep. DEAD.)
Dead or Sleeping? Couldn’t tell until we poked him with a stick. (Yep. DEAD.)

Unexpectedly, we also got to add a few more species to our Life List:  the Cinnamon Teal, Brown Thrasher, American Pipit, Band-rumped Storm-petrel, Gulf-billed Tern and the Black-crowned Night Heron.  In fact, three of the four kids correctly identified this drab-looking juvenile perched in the trees at eye level just a few feet away.  The closest I could get on ID was “it’s a heron of some kind.”  When I looked up the photo for their choice, it was spot on.

See?  Again, it appears I can learn a thing or two in my middle aged-ness.  From now on, I will watch and listen more to see what it is these fine little people can share.

Much to Scottie’s dismay, there was no wood stork to be found.  Maybe next time.

Once the hiking and birding had played out, it was time for the beach.  The kids were longing to get their feet in the very cold sand and water.

Beach!  Cool temps have no affect on kids wanting to get their feet wet.
Beach! Cool temps have no affect on kids wanting to get their feet wet.

I kept my hoodie snugged tightly around my chin and watched as the pelicans and cormorants flew over, feet dry on the shore.  I remember being a kid on the coast and how splendid it feels to run in the waves.  My need to stay warm and dry now that I’m older, though, beats the urge.

If all goes well — and provided we can somehow get squeezed into limited accommodations during this popular migration — we will be among the masses who visit this tiny oasis in the spring.  The kids have high hopes to earn their badges and their stature as Real Birders and Mini-Naturalists.

At the very least, they have earned respect as their mother’s own personal walking bird books.  And indeed, they have again won over my heart.

* * *

This could all be yours some day, kids.
Let’s take good care of it.

25 thoughts on “Hummers, High Island, and High Hopes

    1. It’s pretty sweet, Rachael. If you ever make it down to the Texas coast, you’ll have to put it on your list. Though the scenery is much prettier way down south toward Mexico, our birds on the east coast are spectacular.

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  1. So great! That is awesome that your kids are getting so good at identifying birds. Oh, and a comment above I saw you talk about painted buntings. We get them every year at random times at our bird bath in our back yard. One time I couldn’t believe my eyes because there were 3 out there at the same time. I had heard they were solitary. They are so beautiful! It seems strange to see such a brightly colored bird in TX, but like you said, they are headed all over the place.

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    1. I do hope to get a painted bunting on my list this year. If you keep your bird bath out along with a variety of feeders, your regulars will remember to come back to your yard every year. Love your comments, Jocelyn. Plumdirt is out there near you.

      Birding’s a lot like working a puzzle. You see one you’ve never seen before and you go, Oooo, I wonder what that is…then start thumbing through all your books to try and work it out. The kids are way better at it than I am. I just published a page called The Big Year where I list out all the species we count as we go; you can find it on my home page’s menu. Already up to 74 and it’s not even February yet.

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      1. I am so amazed that you have so many birds that you can identify. In the past when we’ve tried to identify hummingbirds with our book I just couldn’t figure out what most of them were. They move so fast and a lot of them look similar.

        Oh, and the other day we had a big hawk or falcon by our birdbath as well. I’ve seen it a lot when driving down the road but never in our yard. I need to look up what it is so I stop being unsure. Good luck on your big year!

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      2. I finally looked up the big bird I’ve been seeing around and it is a red-shouldered hawk. It’s such a pretty bird. Glad I have a name for it now.

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      3. Have I told you yet how I LOVE those red-shouldered hawks? Not only do they keep our squirrel population in check, they return to our property and nest every year. Here’s a post with a photo of one of our “babies” (http://wp.me/p28k6D-US) and another one with video (http://wp.me/p28k6D-pr) — in case you’re interested and have nothing better to do. LOL

        Glad you were able to ID. Fun, isn’t it?

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  2. Oh Shannon, coming here warms me up, which I need here in the frosty north. So many birds near your place! I adore birding and thankfully we do have a surprising number of species that live here year round, which is quite amazing when you think about how cold it gets and for so long in this Zone 3 part of the world. SO I happily set up sunflower seed feeders and suet cakes and delight in watching 5, 6, 7… maybe even up to 10 species in a week! Woohoo! 😦 Seriously I want to come visit Texas and bring my binoculars. There’s something so delightful about birds. Your Scottie has quite a gift! I’m so happy for you all to have that multiple hummingbird sighting. Wow! Hugs, Gina xo
    PS: Never meaning to overstep or assume of course, but just a thought… sometimes when I can’t get a pic to stick, I’ll notice it’s a GIF. If I go back and save the pic as a JPEG then the jpg ‘sticks’ right where I want it. Maybe your son’s photo was in a GIF format? Hoping to help keep your photos coming! 🙂

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    1. Hi there, Gina. Thanks for popping by and for your comments, which are always welcomed, over-stepping or no. 🙂

      I did learn from Houston Audubon that of the small numbers of hummers that stay in our area, Rufous make up the majority. I guess it’s because they’re more used to your kind of cold, so 40-50 degrees is like a tropical vacation!

      On the pic, I’m going to try a couple of different things, now that I have more time. Hopefully it will result in the image being displayed directly in the post. I try to save hyperlinks to “informative” extras (or to past posts), but if I get direct approval to use another’s photo talents, I do like to display it…so as not to rely on a click-away. It’s most probably something like you wrote — I’ll get around it somehow. I can be persistent when I put my mind to a thing! Cheers to you, and stay warm up there.

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  3. Aww, how fun! My folks are also in the hummingbird (and other) migratory paths and the bird watching at their place is a lot of fun. I remember counting more than 15 hummers at once on and around their three feeders. I tried a feeder on an apartment window once here, but no takers. I make due with walks around our neighborhood pond for herons and such. Although I did think someone had lost a pet bird once when a painted bunting landed on my back fence.

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    1. There are a few benefits to living in Texas, and the birding is right there on top! A painted bunting…it is on my must-see list! I think you guys have them out there as “regulars.” No fair for me, and lucky you. I hope to spy one this year, perhaps during the migration.

      You know? Speaking of pet birds, we used to have a love bird visit our feeder in our other house. He hung out with a flock of sparrows and finches. I have video of him somewhere. So pretty and bright GREEN! I wondered if busted out to take a walk on the wild side.

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    1. We poked him on the way back out of the woods, more than an hour later. He was in the same spot, same position. I don’t know though, I guess he could have just been sleeping! There were no other people there. We really couldn’t be certain — I wasn’t gonna touch him.

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  4. I loved this post, Shannon. Beautiful. Ann and I are so proud of Scottie, and of course you, by association. 🙂 We feel that we were an influence on all of you to get you involved in birding. Hope you get your life list up high and good luck on the Big Year, too. Also, loved the video. 🙂

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    1. Aw, thanks, Bob! That means a lot. You are right to assume that you kicked our birding into high gear. Just you wait. We’ll catch up to you yet. The video went in as an after-thought. Glad I included it; I knew it would endear the birders who follow this blog!

      You and Ann continue to be an inspiration to us — and not just in birding.

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    1. He is. You know, you and Bob made quite the impact on him during your visit in October. You might say it lit the fire! For Christmas, Santa left him a set of field lenses, a birding journal, and a back pack. He and Angie visit the water retention areas in our neighborhood regularly after school, once they’re done with homework. Too cute.

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