Sunday, March 16, 2014

"The Valley", etc.

Here we go again--it's been 6 months since my last post! I would really like to post more regularly. I feel so incredibly blessed to have a life full of things I love: relationships, nature, a terrific job..... And I'd like to write about it. I would like to try for a more realistic goal of one post a month, minimum. But I have a lot of (old) ground to cover!

First are a few photos of the park where I work in Laredo.

Gulf Coast Toad at my park (Laredo)
Our office at work got a bit flooded with one of our large storms, and when I moved some boxes, I found this dude!!!! I took him outside.

The lake levels really came up high at my park!

My friend Glenda, from our local Audubon chapter, started a birding club at the high school where she teaches. Here we are on a field trip at my park!!
This cute garter snake was chilling out in a large tractor on a ranch in south Texas.

I so do love large, sprawling trees. We don't really have them in Laredo (okay, we pretty much don't have them at ALL in Laredo). This one is in San Antonio near my boyfriend's house.

Smokey is my boyfriend's dog, who has pretty much captured my heart.
Next are some photos of a November trip to "The Valley". So I live in Laredo, which I actually *do* tend to think of as "south Texas". But if you continue down the Rio Grande about three hours or so, you get to "really really south Texas", or, as Texans call it, the Rio Grande Valley (often just shortened to The Valley). The Valley comprises a bunch of medium-sized cities about 20 minutes (tops) from one to the other: Edinburg, Weslaco, Mission, Harlingen, Brownsville, etc., and it is known by birders NATIONWIDE because it is really, really terrific birding. And butterflying. And the lizards! It's pretty darn awesome.

As part of my job, I have been extremely lucky to travel to lots of cool parts of the state for work. This past November I got to help out at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Here are some photos from this.

Believe it or not, this is not a wasp, but a moth pretending to look like a wasp! Texas Wasp Moth at Frontera Audubon.  
Blue Spiny Lizard (or Texas Spiny Lizard--I forget which!) 
The award for most prehistoric-looking bird in south Texas goes to the Plain Chachalaca. They are SO bizarre, and they get into strange poses, and make unearthly noises. So cool. 

Hackberry Emperor butterflies all drinking something delicious at Bentsen Rio-Grande Valley State Park, Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. 

Green Jays are so beautiful that it's hard to believe they're "junk birds" in the Valley. Junk birds meaning that in the state parks, they're everywhere!!

This is the best example of camouflage used by a bird that I have ever seen. Common Pauraque: these birds are nocturnal, and during the day they find a place to roost on the ground. 

Here's the Pauraque again. 

Eastern Screech-Owl.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron looking pensive. 

Sego palm is not actually a palm at all, but a prehistoric plant. 

Groove-billed Ani is a very odd-looking bird that, in the United States, can only reliably be found in South Texas and Florida. Here is one perched cooperatively on a branch at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. 

The bridge at Santa Ana NWR was so cool!

We gathered for the field trips EARLY in the morning, which did allow for amazing views of sunrises!

This spotting scope is burdened down by lots of gear!

At the festival, I helped man a booth for Lake Casa Blanca State Park and the Laredo Birding Festival. There was  a live raptor exhibit at the other end of the exhibit hall. Several times, one of the birds got loose, and flew around the building, much to the surprise and delight of festival-goers! here is an endangered Aplomado Falcon sitting in front of our Laredo Birding Festival banner! Photo taken by a City of Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau employee. :)

Spanish Moss draping the trees at Santa Ana NWR. 

This was the bird species highlight of the festival: the 2nd US record of Amazon Kingfisher was found!! (The first US record was in Laredo, a few years ago). 

and here is my very poor photo of this bird, taken by my phone through a spotting scope. 

That's all for the moment!!!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Davis Mountains Adventure

Somehow it's been 6 months since I last blogged (and that entry was a rather half-hearted one, at that!). But in those 6 months I've gotten to do so many fun things and see so many wonderful parts of Texas. Today I am sharing photos from my most recent trip out of Laredo, to the legendary west Texas.

Laredo is awfully flat. Even on the drive north on I-35 to San Antonio, the bit of rolling hills that exist are pretty mediocre compared to Oregon or even other parts of Texas. I got to drive a winding road through the Texas hill country a month ago and I fell in love even more with this state. It is so diverse....I keep on inadvertently placing Texas in a box. And then a drive like I made in the Hill country (that is the area NW of San Antonio) breaks Texas out of that box. I think that when someone has not been to Texas, he/she tends to think of it as one type of place, and for me, it was, well, desert/monte (it's what Spanish-speakers here call the brush). You know. Cowboys and Indians type of land. And then even when I've been in Laredo a year, and I know that there's more to Texas than that, I still almost forget that there is more to Texas than mesquite trees and prickly pear (the Laredo landscape--the "monte").

But I digress. So yes, Laredo's kinda flat. But as I said, there is (obviously) more to Texas than Laredo. Enter: west Texas.

I had been wanting to see west Texas for a long time. I'd heard of the legendary beauty and wildness of the Davis Mountains. Well, last week I was beyond blessed to be able to attend a special "Stars Over Our Parks" night sky training for myself and 23 other Texas Parks and Wildlife employees at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas. Thank to an incredibly generous sponsor, the 2.5 day training and all materials was totally free of charge for us; TPWD just had to pay gas.

This workshop was the best I have ever been to. I came back with an arsenal of new ideas and materials to share the sky with my park visitors. The park where I work is right in the city, and so it doesn't have very dark night skies. But in this workshop, we learned lots of activities that we can do with visitors on cloudy  nights, or even during the day.

The drive to the Davis Mountains was about 7 hours from Laredo. Luckily I was able to carpool with another park interpreter. Her park is 4 hours from Laredo, and so I drove to her park, and then she drove us the rest of the way. This was nice for two reasons: 1.) I didn't have to drive more than 4 hours. And 2.) I got to enjoy the scenery!

The mountains were pretty cool. To me it still was not quite as dramatic as, say, the Cascades in central Oregon, or the Rockies in Colorado, but it was beautiful just the same. I got to see ocatillo (a neat desert plant) for the first time in about a year; we don't have it growing in Laredo. And the star-strewn skies above the McDonald Observatory were really neat to see. I got to see a constellation I had never before seen: the dolphin. And I got amazing looks at the Pleiades (a beautiful group of 7 stars)!

Below are some pictures from my trip. 

This was the 107-inch (diameter of the lens) telescope. You can see it was eNORmous! The 82" one was even more impressive because it was in a smaller room, taking up almost the entire space. But this one was really neat as well!!!

The guy on the right, in plaid, got to move the telescope around with the joystick!!

Then I got to use the joystick to move the HUGE ceiling so that the telescope would see outside! (if the ceiling were open; we could not open it at that time because it was morning, and they try to keep the temperature inside cooler so it will match the evening temperature to prevent shrinking and expansion of the telescope elements). The dome weighed 450 tons and it moved with the touch of a joystick!

See that pulley above the doors? It had the cable for the dome ceiling to move. The entire top of that ceiling rotated.

Outside, we found a tarantula friend! He was fast.

There were these enormous grasshoppers there. The muscles in the hind legs were just amazing. Here you can see him with my room key for scale. he doesn't look that big, but there were some others that were just enormous.

Here's looking at you, kid!

Me in front of the beautiful view! It reminded me a bit of the landscape in southeastern Oregon, around Malheur.

This plant in the foreground is cholla. :) There are lots of different types of cholla. My favorite is a kind they have in Tucson called teddy bear cholla. It looks super fuzzy but the "fuzziness" is spines!!

beautiful daisies/sunflowers.  (I'm not a plant expert, obviously!)

Then we got to see the big, big, BIG telescope! It is inside this structure that looks like a mini Epcot.

whoa. This is the HET telescope (Hobby-Eberly Telescope) and it's the 5th largest in the world. You can see the tiny people up on the teal jungle-gym-like structure. They are doing renovations on this telescope.

We got to see the control room. This whiteboard was right outside the hallway. It reminded me of doing chemistry or physics homework in college!

I took a walk in the early evening and spotted this gorgeous snake sunning himself against the wall!

He had beautiful coloration!

turns out it was a Big Bend Patch-nosed Snake! You can see the funny scale on the tip of his nose, for which he is named. New life herp for me!!!
Another shot of the gorgeous landscape. It was a bit windy there, as evidenced by my crazy hair!!

That evening I played around with the settings on my camera and was able to take a surprisingly good shot of the moon!!

I stretched my legs at Seminole Canyon State Park, about halfway between the Observatory and Laredo. I spotted this perky Say's Phoebe there!

Seminole Canyon is a place I definitely want to go back and visit more thoroughly! To go down into the canyon itself, you must be on a guided tour. There is a LOT of cool rock art from ancient peoples there, too, that I want to go back and see.

When I first saw this Rock Wren, I had to think for a minute to identify him! I hadn't seen a Rock Wren in a long time.

I should hope it'd be prohibited!!!

These next few photos are ones I took with my phone camera while my friend was driving.
It's mountains!

I really wish I had been able to better capture this. There were cottonwood trees changing from green to yellow along the canyons, and they were just lovely.


more beautiful mountains.

Even though it was really, really neat to see west Texas and the Davis Mountains for the first time, it was very tantalizing, because I did not have much spare time to explore. The training was Wednesday through Friday, and almost every hour was accounted for. I am absolutely planning to go back. My boyfriend and I want to go back and explore the back country!