Odd Bird Life

Snowy Egrets are elegant shore birds with plumy white feathers and black bills and legs. Bright yellow feet pattern-interrupt the elegant impression only when said feet are visible, and they’re usually below the water. However, I came along behind two Snowy Egrets at the edge of Braes Bayou when they were avidly investigating whatever goodies the recent flood had churned up, and from that perspective the Snowies looked like the business ends of Q-tips balanced on oddly angled black wires!

The last six or eight months have been remarkable for shore birds on Braes Bayou, including White Ibises and a Tricolor Heron.  For a while there was a Roseate Spoonbill in the vicinity of the Kirby Drive bridge.  Roseate Spoonbills are usually Pepto-Bismol pink;  they use their wide-tipped bills to forage in mud flats for little crustaceans, eating which makes their feathers pink.  The one on Braes Bayou looked not very pink and rather misplaced.  I’ve seen them  in tidal marshes and on Clear Creek near Galveston Bay, never this far inland.  The drought may have driven brackish water much further up the waterways than usual.

Get Well Wish

Walking to work, I was startled by being smiled at from the branches of a tree.  It was two mylar balloons – one of them bright gold with a smiley face.  The other balloon had little smileys all over it plus the words FEEL BETTER SOON.

OK, it’s not too surprising, that close to Medical Center, to see a couple of get-well balloons on the loose. On the other hand, it was very apt because  Houston has had severe drought for a year.  Even on a prosperous residential street like Greenbriar many trees (especially magnolias) look wilted. Over in Memorial Park there are so many dead trees it looks like Agent Orange fell out of the sky. The land itself has dried out to the breaking point. Greenbriar has buckles and potholes that could wallop a small car.  And on nearby Braes Bayou the asphalt hike and bike trail developed terrible cracks over the past year.  Cracks big enough to break a jogger’s ankle or take out a bicycle.  So the city put up warning signs and outlined the cracks in white, after which they looked like a crime scene where dead bodies had lain.  Maybe the dead bodies of a year’s worth of hopes for rain.  FEEL BETTER SOON is a great wish for the trees and the rest of the natural fabric of our city.

Owl Recognition

Fondren Library’s most recent Staff Recognition event had an an Owl Recognition element with the screening of videos taken by Jay Gillen of the screech owls roosting in the trees by the West entrance.  These have been very exciting owls, seen by numerous Library visitors and Rice people as well local Fox News station viewers.  Jay staked out the roost with a video camera on a tripod and caught the owls staring, vocalizing, preening, and falling asleep, as well as having plumage that looks remarkably like tree bark. According to OwlPages.com, “When threatened, an Eastern Screech Owl will stretch its body and tighten its feathers in order to look like a branch stub to avoid detection” – but these two have apparently decided that being detected by humans is OK given such lovely trees in which to roost.

Hawk Kettle

Today I saw what I took to be a large flock of small birds way up in the sky under a cloud.  However, they weren’t  flapping their wings. It turned out to be a large flock of large birds:  a kettle of hawks.  There were a couple hundred hawks circling under the most handsome cumulus cloud in the sky.  Because the size of the kettle seemed to change – at one point the apparent number of hawks doubled – I think they were at cloud base with some of the kettle in and out of mist.  I’ve thermalled at cloud base in gliders and I know what it’s like.  The updraft holds you up with no effort at all, and the gray fringe of the cloud keeps you blessedly cool.  The hawks found a cloud-gray oasis in their fall migration across Texas.

Rice Owls

Rice University alum and adjunct professor Robert Flatt has been photographing the Great Horned Owls on campus ever since a pair were discovered last March with babies in a nest in the trees behind what used to be the President’s House.  Mr. Flatt is a darn good photographer:  witness the Web page devoted to these owls.  Not only that but he has a book going to press with owl photos and remarks by Rice luminaries including President Leebron and former President Gillis.

Owls in Residence

The Rice Owls football team won a big game last weekend, half-grown owls have been adorably perching in the trees just outside the Library west entrance, and I wonder how many other university mascots naturally occur on campus? Cougars, mustangs, longhorns, Razorback hogs, tigers? No way. Yellow Jackets, Bulldogs?  Maybe, but flying wasps and roaming bulldogs are not exactly welcome on a college campus. Then there are the University of California – Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. The UCSC website says, The Banana Slug, a bright yellow, slimy, shell-less mollusk commonly found on the redwood forest floor, was the unofficial mascot for UC Santa Cruz coed teams since the university’s early years. The students’ embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities.   In a  low-budget-sci-fi-movie-prop-ish way, banana slugs are as cute as fledgling owls.  Go owls and slugs.

Bat Habitat

With the prolonged drought, a lot of creatures are turning up inside buildings where they try to find shade and water.  Over the weekend we had a bat in the library.  It flew around creating much excitement.  “Bat!” “Bat!” “Where?!” “Over Current Periodicals!”  “There’s a bat!!!”

I’ve never gotten such a good look at a bat in flight. It was pointier than a bird, and absolutely silent in flight.  “Very good Library conduct to be that quiet,” my colleague observed.  We called Facilities, which said they’d send somebody over, whether with a net or not and whether to evict the bat or kill it they did not say.  As it turned out, a tall Library patron solved the problem with a borrowed sweater.  He swept the bat out of the air with the sweater, carried the bundled bat out the West door and unfolded the sweater on the sidewalk.  The poor frazzled bat lay there for a minute, panting and blinking in the sunlight.  Then it  levered up and flew off into the trees. I didn’t know bats could launch from flat on the ground. Way to go, bat!

Holy Saturday

The day between Good Friday and Easter has a kind of shocked, sad silence to it.   Not so much in my neighborhood with birds singing on every twig and an elementary school having an Easter egg hunt.  But in churches where yesterday the altar was stripped of cloth and ornament and now there’s nothing on the bare altar, or only a plaited crown resting on its long thin thorns, there’s a sad silence, a gentle echo of the aftermath of old violence. 

There’s a rawer silence in an old-growth forest somewhere.  Trees are mortal and they die, bugs get under the bark and woodpeckers drill out the bugs and make holes to nest in and it’s still a part of the fabric of life. But a hale old  tree  logged and turned into upscale furniture leaves a tree-sized fissure in the forest.  There’s a silence in an oil-smothered Louisiana marsh.  There’s shock in the sea behind a  trawl net that just scraped up everything like a watery bulldozer.  And infinite sadness in the extinction of a species that was flourishing in its ecosystem but inconvenient, or like the passenger pigeon  too conveniently easy to kill. By profound coincidence, yesterday was both Good Friday and Earth Day.  A facetious quiz went around, asking “what are you doing to celebrate Earth Day?” with answers like “wear Birkenstocks.”  My answer would have been “go to Church to mourn  the ongoing crucifixion of nature.”

Feathers Like a Cloud

What the pigeon in the planter on my porch and the eagle on the nest in the Decorah Fish Hatchery Eaglecam have in common:  settling down on the nest with exquisite care. The eggs or baby eagles are  ever so tenderly covered and cocooned.  The adult bird’s belly feathers look as soft and fringy as the underside of a cumulus cloud.  The pigeon even has cloud-bottom-gray feathers;  the eagle has brown underfeathers or, toward the tail,  pure white.