Black vulture, Turkey vulture

P1080446This pair of black vultures were hanging around on the trees by Buffalo Bayou in Houston while we were there, taking a walk one sunny morning. It’s not a particularly good shot with out of focus leaves blurring it, but it offers a clear enough view of the scaly bald head of this bird.

I find vultures fascinating. They’re fairly ugly and they have grim associations with carnivorous tastes for dead animal matter. I didn’t at first like their scaly heads until I learned that they’re bald and without feathers so that the bird can insert its head into the carcass and feed without getting head fearthers messed up. Quite a neat trick of nature really, and rather practical in a gruesome kind of way.

There are always plenty of black vultures around in Huston, and they can be seen wheeling overhead in gangs or, as we noticed on this visit, hanging out on the banks of the bayou. We once counted 21 of them on a dual carriageway road tussling and vying for a morsel of the dead squirrel which several of them were having a tug of war over. Those not joining in were watching from nearby rooftops. It was reminiscent of a scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Turkey vultures are similar but significantly different. They also have bald scaly heads, but theirs are red, not black. They are larger, their wings have white patches underneath (not visible in this photo because taken against the light) and they’re more likely to be seen in open countryside. They soar overhead seeking out carrion and have a keen sense of smell.

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When we visited Brazos Bend State Park, a group of them were involved in seeking out something hidden on the ground, repeatedly wheeling around returning to the same spot. Nature being nature. I took this shot of one of them and its red head is just about visible. Its finger-like wing feathers make it easy to ID. Trying to get a shot of them on the wing is always a bit of challenge though.

Since I’ve been back in the locked-down UK, I’ve been doing a fair bit of on-line singing with my choir and think I must have been doing too many vocal warm ups because as I typed the title  “Black vulture, Turkey vulture” I started saying it as a tongue twister – like “Red leather, Yellow leather”…….oh dear!

A day of birds and beasts

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Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite  thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.

Footprints

Time in lockdown doesn’t have a great deal of sense, and it seems a while ago now since we were in Houston (actually it’s not), socially distancing ourselves as a family, ahead of the instructions of both US and UK governments, but we made sure that when we went out for  walk, it was somewhere quiet and not especially popular.

A walk around part of Barkers Reservoir in Houston was suggested – wildlife, not likely to be busy – and take care because there had been reports of aggresive wild boar roaming in this area…..a nice relaxing Sunday afternoon stroll then!

The name Barkers comes loaded because this was the dam, close to where our family live, that threatened to breach in the endless rain following Hurricane Harvey in 2018. This was prevented by a conrolled release of water, and although many homes were flooded, a major incident was averted. Thankfully our family’s home escaped but it was a nail biting time nonetheless. So going to see Barkers had a sort of fascination for us; we’d be able to see it for real, as it is now, controlled and surrounded by fairly unruly vegetation and thickets.

P1080521There were plenty of wild flowers to enjoy as we walked, some butterflies too, and we walked to one of the large ponds that are part of Barkers (beware of the alligators by the way) so the grandchildren could lob stones into the water. A few fishermen go there, but otherwise it’s generally deserted. We saw large empty water snail shells as we walked along the edge of the water, and where the earth was muddy and still damp, we started to notice animal tracks.

We guessed at what they might have been made by, and I took photos to ID them later. Well, “later” has just arrived, I’ve done some research and think we saw coyote, deer and raccoon prints (see above). If any expert out there knows what they are for sure, please leave a comment. I’m pretty confident about the coyote print as the long nails seem significant – and different from dog prints, where the claws would be more worn down from walking on pavements.

Lost in Cumbria

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It was summer and we’d gone away to Cumbria for a weekend break in our campervan, We were staying on a  site new to us, having read about it and heard good reports. In a park-like setting, with views of the sea, nearby access to the beach and village, and plenty of walks to be had, it sounded ideal.

The weather was good – quite hot as I recall – and we decided to explore the nature reserve area, adjacent to and part of the campsite. Following rocky paths, we climbed through a wooded wilderness, clambered over mossy rocks and stones and took care to avoid the cowpats and the insects which went with them. We couldn’t see any cows, but there was a faint whiff in the air so we guessed they were around. The cowpats were enough evidence.

Enjoying the walk, we explored the area for about an hour but realised quite soon that we weren’t getting anywhere and were going round and round in circles. We were following the same paths over and over again and we started to recognise the same cowpat, which we passed several times.

No matter, it was warm and sunny, we were glad of some shade and we spotted a shy roe deer and several butterflies – painted ladies, wood whites, even a dark green fritillary and a cinnabar moth. We began to wonder if we were a bit lost, passing that cowpat once again, but at that stage we weren’t really worried, knowing it wouldn’t be dark for a long time.

Repeating the same circuit yet again by following the now all-too-familar paths as we tried to find our way out, we both started to get a bit edgy. The dog gamely kept up but did give us a few looks which said “Why are we going down this path again?” It was getting cooler by this time and we were getting tetchy with each other too. Were we really lost? Nobody knew where we were, there was no phone signal and the Google map of the area included the nature reserve, but not the paths. It just showed up as a green space on the map.

Going round the circuit once again, we climbed up one of the rocky paths and found our way blocked by a large bovine. We reined the dog in on his lead, but he’d seen the cow and made an executive decision. He diverted from the blocked path and took off in a downward direction along another path we’d clearly missed, but had been searching for.

With some relief – it was cooling rapidly, and we praised the dog – we reached the gate at the entrance to the reserve. It was the same gate we’d entered through, with a “Please close the gate” sign, but there was no info board with a map of the place.

How good it was, though, to see civilisation again, in the form of the children’s play area in the campsite, and some mown lawns, people, and best of all, to get back to our van and put our feet up!

Another Place

P1080293We took off in our campervan at the weekend, encouraged by the forecast of sunny crisp weather, and headed for the Merseyside and Sefton coast. We’ve been to Crosby beach, near Liverpool, countless times before to walk and enjoy sculptor Antony Gormley’s “Another Place” – his 100 statues of his naked body which stand on the beach, and stretch out into the sea.

They’ve been there for some time now and many are rusting as most are covered at high tide. Those standing higher up the beach are often clad in various garments which people have put on them – Liverpudlians have a great sense of humour so one or two Antony’s could be dressed in anything ranging from hippie gear to part of an NHS worker’s uniform. Some might have a traffic cone as a hat.

We parked by the prom, with clear views of the sea and passing ships en route to the port of Liverpool, ate lunch in the ‘van warming up the home made soup we’d brought with us, then walked along the coastal footpath towards Formby. The frost had gone, but there was a chill, brisk wind. Invigorating, enjoyable stuff, with sea views all the way. When we started to return, the sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon. By the time we were back at the ‘van the tide was in and most of Antony’s statues were either covered, or just head and shoulders above the waves.

One nearby was strikingly silhouetted against the rolling, bronzed waves illuminated by the low sun. Something about that image reminded me of what my dad used to say: “Always face the sun and the shadows will fall behind you”.

Then we continued our journey to Southport, where we stayed overnight, cosy and warm in our ‘van in spite of the sub-zero temperature outside.