Eagle Scout Goes Batty at Quinta Mazatlan

Seventeen-year-old Amado Moreno III resident of Edinburg, recently completed an Eagle Scout bat house project at Quinta Mazatlán World Birding Center. Moreno was joined by family and friends to complete the installation of twelve bat houses at the urban sanctuary in McAllen. Moreno attends school at South Texas High School for Health Professions in Mercedes, Texas.bathouse-project-eagle-scout

Amado Moreno III is a member of troop 41 he was first introduced to the Scouts Program in kindergarten and has been an active member ever since. As his last project on his journey to become an Eagle, Moreno chose to construct and install bat houses to serve as a shelter for bats to roost. Twelve houses were constructed and placed in strategic locations around Quinta Mazatlán. These houses had to meet specific guidelines established by Bat Conservation International.  Guidelines were specific in the size, materials used, and the color and paint needed to promote a healthy bat population. As the head of the project, Moreno was responsible for organizing the helpers and the work detail.  When asked what he found interesting about the project Moreno had this to say “What interested me was that bats are a natural pest control and are better than man made pesticides. A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes or 60 medium-size moths in a single hour. Most bats are not dangerous at all. They are actually very beneficial to humans. The fruit–eating and nectar-eating bats pollinate many plants.” Moreno invites all to Quinta Mazatlán to view these important contributors to the environment.

 

The Importance (and Beauty) of Insects

By John Brush
Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

We bird watchers, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, like to boast of all the amazing birds we can see, and rightfully so. There are over 10,000 species of bird in the world, a list that continues to grow with the discovery of new species. Many of these birds are bright and beautiful, adding to the popularity of bird watching. But while 10,000 looks (and is) impressive, it pales in comparison with a million.

There are over one million species of insect that are known to science, but some scientists believe there could be as many as thirty million. While insects are often underappreciated (sometimes despised), they are some of the most important organisms in the world. One of the most vital functions insects have is as a food source for other animals. Most birds (a whopping 96%) feed their young with insects; it can take more than 5,000 insects to raise one brood of chickadees (birds that weigh about as much as 4 pennies).

Caribbean Yellowface

Halloween Pennant

Insects are also vitally important for humans. Pollinating insects like butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies (yes, even flies) are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. The next time you guacamole, you should thank a bee; over 90% of the avocados in the United States rely on honeybees for pollination. Similarly, citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits are almost entirely dependent on bees for pollination.

honey bee

Honey Bee

While the importance of insects cannot be overstated, sometimes it can take a bit to appreciate their looks. Plus, given their small size and ability to hide, it can be hard to find them. I usually spot a few bright butterflies as I lead bird walks at Quinta Mazatlan, but a focused effort reveals much more than just butterflies.

Flag-footed Bug

Flag-footed Bug

A little extra looking might lead you to a Flag-footed Bug, which is an uncommon insect in the Valley. This tropical insect has only been documented in two places in the United States: Brownsville and McAllen. As its name suggests, it has orange, red, and black “flags” on its hind legs, which it will actually wave around as a signal.

More obvious are the 300 butterflies that have been seen in the Valley (a whopping 40% of all butterfly species seen in the United States). A bright flash of blue might flit by you on a shady trail; a Two-barred Flasher whizzing by. Yet despite the well-known beauty of many butterflies, moths can be equally impressive. Not only can moths be incredibly beautiful, but also have some amazing names as well.

Two-barred Flasher

Two-barred Flasher

The Saucy Beauty (I’m not making the name up) is a day-flying moth that, like the leaf-footed bug, is only found in United States down here in the Valley. And its caterpillar might be even saucier than the adult!

Saucy Beauty (Phaloesia saucia)

Saucy Beauty

I could go on and on and on writing about all the beautiful and bizarre insects we can see here in the Valley. What I take away from looking at the abundance of insects is that our amazing biodiversity is not limited to birds, and neither is the beauty. This quote by E.O. Wilson seems fitting, “When you see one ant… you have not seen them all.”

Indeed, we have seen far from them all.

Saucy Beauty caterpillar

Saucy Beauty caterpillar

To learn more about the unique insects that call the Lower Rio Grande Valley home, visit Quinta Mazatlan for one of their many nature programs.  Tuesday and Saturday mornings at 8am, walk the trails with a guide during the Songbird Stroll.  The Garden Walk and Talk starts at 10am on Wednesdays and runs through the end of April.  Saturday Discovery Day programs are at 10am and 2pm every weekend.  The Nature Lecture Series takes place Thursday evenings from 6 pm to 7 pm through April and is proudly sponsored by Thurmond Eye Associates. Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center is located at 600 Sunset in McAllen, one block south of La Plaza Mall in 10th Street. For more information contact Quinta Mazatlan at (956) 681-3370 or visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com.

Meet the Tyrants

By John Brush

The world of birds is full of different personalities. You might go from the enjoyment of a shy White-tipped Dove to the brashness of a male Great-tailed Grackle. I always enjoy watching the business attitude of a Carolina Wren as it pokes and prods along a fallen tree trunk, scolding angrily if a cat strolls by. Yet in the Valley, there is one family of birds in the Valley that seems to have gotten an extra serving of pizzazz – the Tyrant Flycatchers.

Great Kiskadee by John Brush

The Great Kiskadee is one of the largest flycatchers in the tyrant family and is easily identified by its striking colors and loud KIS-ka-dee call.

The family Tyrannidae is one of the largest families of birds in the world, with over 400 known species in their native Americas. Most tyrant flycatchers are insectivorous, as evidenced by their name. Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, over 30 species have been documented. These include many loud, beautiful, and, well, tyrannical birds. Let’s meet a few!

Our most common tyrant flycatcher is the 9.5 inch Great Kiskadee. The kiskadee is also one of the loudest, most recognizable, and easiest to see. Its distinguishing characteristics are it black and white striped head, yellow front, and loud kis-ka-dee! calls. Kiskadees are unique in that they will eat almost anything, including fruits, insects, lizards, and even dog food; I’ve personally seen a pair bring lizard after lizard to their large, dome-shaped nests.

Couch's Kingbird by John Brush

The easiest and most reliable way to distinguish this Couch’s Kingbird from its cousin, the Tropical Kingbird, is by their song.

Kingbirds, also sporting bright yellow like the kiskadees (though lacking the striped heads), are some of the most tyrannical of flycatchers. They often perch high in trees, looking for the next flying insect to pursue. They will aggressively chase hawks, dive-bombing and pecking them until the predator leaves. We have several kingbird species here in the Valley, with two of them also being considered South Texas specialties; the permanent resident Couch’s Kingbird and Tropical Kingbird. Nearly identical in appearance, and these two are best told apart by their voice.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, named after their long forked tails, is a beautiful bird of open areas. The longer the male’s tail (also perhaps the female’s), the more attractive the bird is to a potential mate. These birds mostly eat grasshoppers, but will also eat a number of beetles as well. This bird is a summer resident, leaving to Mexico and Central America in the winter months.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher by Erik Bruhnke

The coming of spring is heralded by the arrival of the aptly names Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  In the fall, they form large, noisy flocks to migrate south to Mexico and Central America.

The beauty of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is rivaled by the incredible red plumage of a male Vermilion Flycatcher. No other tyrant flycatcher in the Valley has such vibrant plumage. But the most sought-after flycatcher is not any of the above. Indeed, it is the tiny gray Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet that lures many birders to the Valley.

Only found in small portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the tyrannulet is an inconspicuous bird, but has a loud voice. The species’ slightly sad sounding whistles of “peer” carry long distances in the South Texas riparian woodlands, a declining habitat in our area.

Vermilion Flycatcher by John Brush

Vermillion Flycatchers are named after the brilliant scarlet pigment made from cinnabar.  They are often seen perched on wires or on the tips of tree branches where they look for passing insects to snatch out of the air and eat.

Meeting the tyrants here in the Rio Grande Valley is a regular and yet always exciting experience. They are relatively easy to spot and will readily occupy our towns and cities. Take a look in your yard. I’m almost sure a kiskadee is proclaiming its presence.

Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center is located at 600 Sunset in McAllen, one block south of La Plaza Mall in 10th Street. For more information contact Quinta Mazatlan at (956) 681-3370 or visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com.

Spring Birding in the LRGV

Yellow-billed Cuckoo by John BRush

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Did you know that birdwatching is one of the most popular and fastest growing hobbies in the United States? Everyone can enjoy the beauty and awe of birds. From our own backyard to select natural areas like Quinta Mazatlan, the thrilling world of birds exists all around us.

Blackburnian Warbler by John Brush

Blackburnian Warbler

Some people like to birdwatch as a social event, gathering with friends and other like-minded folk while enjoying the presence of the winged ones. Some people study birds as a profession. To many people, birdwatching is a connection to solitude and a happy place. A breathtakingly colorful array of birds can be found not far from our homes here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Unique in their own way, over 500 species of birds have been observed throughout this region. Many birdwatchers consider the Lower Rio Grande Valley a birdwatching mecca.

Indigo Bunting by John Brush

Indigo Bunting

You need three things to enjoy birdwatching. The first is a field guide, which will help you understand and identify the different birds you are seeing and hearing. There are many field guides to birds out there, each with their own pros and cons for that suits people’s learning styles. The second thing is a pair of binoculars, which doesn’t have to be fancy especially if you’re starting out. Binoculars help bring the energy-packed world of birds up close to our eyes. Lastly, you must enjoy learning about new things. Many people think of birdwatching as a treasure hunt, which means you’re in for a great time while learning about birds!

Swainson's Hawk by John Brush

Swainson’s Hawk

The months of April and May are an exceptional time of year to go bird watching and visit Quinta Mazaltan. Earlier in the day from when this article was written, hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks poured through the skies in their migratory fashion. Delicate and colorful warblers of various species have recently arrived from their wintering grounds, some of them on a journey to lands as far away as Canada. Flycatchers of subtly different sounds and appearances feed throughout the branches as radiant-orange Altamira Orioles sing their sweet whistles atop the trees. Green Jays make the leaves look drab, and Plain Chachalacas talk all morning long.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by John Brush

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

If you’re looking to get into birdwatching for the first time, spring migration is sure to knock your socks off regardless if you choose to wear shoes or sandals. While the migratory months of April and May are taking place, immense masses of birds both big and small will be flying into and through the state as they aim north towards their breeding grounds. Some of these birds are highly colored as mentioned before, hosting an array of rainbow-like feathers. Some of the birds migrating through are earthy colored, secretly showing off their dapper array of olive and brown feathers. Each bird species behaves a little (or a lot) differently. They fly differently and feed differently. They sound differently. They’re found in different environments. Birdwatching in Texas throughout the spring is one of the grandest natural spectacles to behold. Get out there and watch the birds!

Magnolia Warbler by John Brush

Magnolia Warbler

To learn more about the unique birds that call the Lower Rio Grande Valley home, visit Quinta Mazatlan for one of their many nature programs.  Tuesday and Saturday mornings at 8am, walk the trails with a guide during the Songbird Stroll.  The Garden Walk and Talk starts at 10am on Wednesdays and runs through the end of April.  Saturday Discovery Day programs are at 10am and 2pm every weekend.  The Nature Lecture Series takes place Thursday evenings from 6 pm to 7 pm through April and is proudly sponsored by Thurmond Eye Associates. Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center is located at 600 Sunset in McAllen, one block south of La Plaza Mall in 10th Street. For more information contact Quinta Mazatlan at (956) 681-3370 or visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com.

PHOTO CREDIT: all photos by John Brush

Black and White Warbler by John Brush

Black & White Warbler

Birds and Their Nests

by John Brush
Curve-billed Thrasher nest by John Brush

Curve-billed Thrasher nest

One of the pleasures of bird watching, or any other sort of nature viewing, is experiencing the changing of seasons. Spring has sprung in the Valley. The huisache trees have been in bloom, the mesquites have burst out with the vivid green of new leaves, and spring migration of birds has begun. However, even now, as shorebirds and hawks and songbirds pass through, some of our resident birds are beginning to build nests. This affords us a wonderful opportunity to delve deeper into where, and of what, birds build these crucial aspects of their lives.

Worldwide, birds build a diverse array of nests, ranging from the intricate communal nests of the African Sociable Weavers (truly impressively sized, multi-chambered nests) to the massive mound nests of the Australasian megapodes (who literally bury their eggs to be ground-incubated). Many types of nests are represented here in the Rio Grande Valley, so let’s take a tour.

Common Pauraque nest by John Brush

Common Pauraque

The simplest types of nests barely even qualify. Some birds, such as the Common Pauraque (a favorite of many birders here at Quinta Mazatlan), will lay their eggs directly on the ground, making nothing more than a slight depression or scrape in leaf litter. The camouflage of the adult pauraques as they take turns incubating is the only protection the eggs have. Fortunately, their camouflage is excellent.

Some birds will make use of burrows; most of the time these are dug by the bird itself (as opposed to utilizing burrows dug by other animals). The Green Kingfisher, the smallest kingfisher in the United States, will use its bill to dig a tunnel about three feet in length. The kingfisher’s partially fused toes help to push loose dirt behind as they dig into steep riverbanks.

 

Similar, in regards to excavation, are the cavity nesting habits of many species. Primary cavity nesters, such as the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, are capable of making their own nests, while secondary cavity nesters must rely on pre-existing cavities. Dead palm trees are some of the most popular nesting sites for the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers. These old palms turn into bird condominiums, as other cavity nesting species will come in to use the old woodpecker holes. Green Parakeets will quietly poke their heads out, or perhaps the raucous squawking of a Red-crowned Parrot will announce another cavity-nester.

The classic bird nests, the ones frequently depicted in animated films, are typically cup nests. These nests are smoothly rounded, with the interior of the cup being woven of fine, soft materials to accommodate the eggs. Cup nests can be placed almost anywhere, from the ground up to the tree canopy. A good example of a cup-nester in the Valley is the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, which builds tiny nests made from spider webs, lichen, and other fine materials.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird nest by John Brush

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Large, domed nests, such as those of the Great Kiskadee, are distinguished by having a side entrance, as opposed to being open to the air from above. Great Kiskadees defend their nests vigorously, dive-bombing and screeching loudly in any intruder’s ear.

Perhaps the most impressive nest in the Valley belongs to an equally impressive bird. The long hanging nest of an Altamira Oriole, swaying in the summer breeze, is a welcome sight for birders. It can take more than three weeks for the female to weave the nest, patiently working from top to bottom. They often place their nests on the northwestern side of trees to avoid the strong southeastern winds we experience in our area.

Bird nests are marvelous examples of engineering, efficiency, and how a bird’s habits fit its lifestyle and environment. The nesting season seems an almost intimate way to get to know our bird community. It offers a new perspective into the lives of birds, and I hope we all get to appreciate the beauty and process of this annual phenomenon.

Join us at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center every Tuesday and Saturday morning 8am-9:30am for a Songbird Stroll.  Quinta Mazatlan is located one block south of La Plaza Mall on 600 Sunset Drive, McAllen, TX.  For more information visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com or call (956) 681-3700.

Doves of the Rio Grande Valley

By John Brush

Doves and pigeons are used are some of the most familiar species of birds in the world; they are commonly hunted, bred as a hobby, kept as pets, and frequently seen in towns and cities. There are 8 species found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, making our area one of the most dove diverse regions in the United States. Let’s go through the line-up!

Rock Pigeon by Jason Allan Jakymowycz

Rock Pigeons have had a variety of names and nicknames over the years: Rock Dove, Feral Pigeon, Domestic Pigeon, Homing Pigeon, War Pigeon, and Flying Rat. (photo by Jason Jakymowycz)

We have two species of pigeon in the Valley: Rock Pigeon and Red-billed Pigeon. Note that “dove” and “pigeon” are sometimes used interchangeably, but typically birds called pigeons are larger than those called doves. Due to the many feral populations established in towns and cities, Rock Pigeons (a Eurasian species) are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, and are spread across almost all of the Americas (where they were introduced in the 1600’s).

Red-billed Pigeon by Tripp Davenport

The beautiful Red-billed Pigeon can only be found in the United States between Laredo and Rio Grande City. (photo by Tripp Davenport)

The Red-billed Pigeon is not a cosmopolitan species, as they are only found in Mexico and Central America. Though common in much of Central America, these purple-maroon plumaged pigeons are only found in the United States between Laredo and Rio Grande City, TX. This species is one of the most sought-after by visiting birders, and often leads to excited whoops and hollers when seen.

There are four medium to large sized doves that inhabit the Valley: Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, White-winged Dove, and White-tipped Dove. Mourning Doves are common across the United States, and are readily identified by their long tail and black spots on their wings.

Eurasian Collared-Doves by Derek Iden

Eurasian Collared-Doves were accidentally released in the Bahamas about 40 years ago, and they have spread across the United States at a rapid rate. (photo by Derek Iden)

 

Mourning Dove by John Brush

Mourning Doves can often be seen perched on wires along fences or between telephone poles with their long tails sticking out behind and below them. (photo by John Brush)

The Eurasian Collared-Dove is another non-native species that has successfully invaded North America. They established a population in Florida in the 1980’s, and have quickly spread over most of North America. Their three note “coo-COO-coo” is now a regular sound in urban areas across the Valley.

White-winged Doves were historically a species that occupied the southwestern United States with their densest populations here in South Texas. However, they too have spread and are now seen further northward. They are perhaps the most abundant dove in the Valley, and their “who-cooks-for-you?” calls are often the first thing you hear on a hot summer morning and the last thing you hear before the sun sets.

White-tipped Dove by Erik Bruhnke

White-tipped Doves are one of the largest dove species found inthe LRGV.  They are usually found under feeders (seen here with an Inca Dove) or running away to the safety of the woods. (photo by Erik Bruhnke)

Similarly named, the large White-tipped Dove is a much more shy bird than the White-winged Dove. They prefer to be in thick forests, and unless they venture out to a bird feeder, are typically seen running to the safety of the woods. Found from South Texas down into South America, White-tipped Doves give a call that sounds like someone blowing across the top of a bottle.

 

Last, and least in size, are the two smallest doves in the Valley; the Common Ground-Dove and the Inca Dove, measuring in at around 6.5 and 8.5 inches respectively. The Inca Dove is a longer bird because of its long tail, a feature that helps distinguish it from the shorter-tailed Common Ground-Dove. Inca Doves are also much more likely to be found in urban areas than are Common Ground-Doves, which tend to be in more rural and open brush land habitats.

Common Ground-Dove by Erik Bruhnke

The Common Ground-Dove is the smallest dove in the LRGV and is just a little bigger than a House Sparrow. (photo by Erik Bruhnke)

While many doves and pigeons in the Valley are quite common, aside from the Red-billed Pigeon, that should not mean they are underappreciated. The subtle differences in color, the various shades of blue skin around the eyes, and the generally calming coos of all our doves make them one of my favorite bird groups. I hope you will take time to look closer at the next dove that visits your yard, and enjoy the subtleties they offer.

Inca Dove by Michelle Hockaday Summers

The small Inca Dove looks like it is covered in fish scales and has an easily identifiable call: “WHIRL pool, WHIRL pool”.

Join us at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center every Tuesday and Saturday morning 8am-9:30am for a Songbird Stroll.  Last week we found seven species of dove during the walk as well as spring migrants.  Quinta Mazatlan is located one block south of La Plaza Mall on 600 Sunset Drive, McAllen, TX.  For more information visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com or call (956) 681-3700.

 

White-winged Dove by Michelle Hockaday Summers

All birds in the family Columbidae (doves and pigeons) have the ability to drink by sucking or pumping water into their throats. This is certainly convenient on a hot day when all you want to do is stick your whole face in a cool pond. (White-winged Dove photo by Michelle Summers)

A Yard Favorite – Purple Martins

There are certain birds that, for a variety of reasons, capture our attention more than others. It could be that they are easy to see, like a Great Kiskadee. Or perhaps they are exceptionally colorful or beautiful birds, like Green Jays or Altamira Orioles. An additional factor is a bird’s ability to coexist with humans. Enter the Purple Martin, our largest species of swallow.

Purple Martins 2

Photo by Kathy Detweiler

Not only are martins beautiful, with the males’ feathers shining a dark, purplish-blue, but they have long had associations with humans. They are frequently seen in our towns and cities, supported by the long-standing tradition of putting up bird houses for them to nest in. The Native Americans were said to have put up hollowed out gourds to host the martins, which is something many of us continue to do today.

In fact, most of the nest sites that martins use in the United States are provided by people.  Growing up, I enjoyed walking along a local golf course that had a couple martin houses, and watching the martins’ incredible flight abilities.

Like most swallows, Purple Martins are what biologists call aerial insectivores, and their body design reflects this lifestyle. Because martins capture flying insects (such as dragonflies, beetles, moths) almost entirely on the wing, their flight is quick and agile, and their body is streamlined. They also have wide mouths, which assists them as they pursue and capture their prey at heights upwards of 500 feet off the ground.

Feeding by Mathis Weatherall

Photo by Mathis Weatherall

They need to be efficient at capturing food, because while they are raising their young, adult martins have been documented bringing food to the nestlings up to 13 times an hour. Imagine if we had to feed human children that much.

After the hard work of raising their young, huge flocks of purple martins gather up to prepare to migrate south in the fall. One of these flocks had an estimated 100,000 martins. In Mexico, flocks have even been reported to break electric wires from the cumulative weight.

PUMA pair by Allan James Enns

Photo by Allan James Enns

You can see large roosts of martins in some of the Valley’s towns and cities, such as Pharr and Harlingen. Keep your eyes open for them in the late summer months to early fall (July-September). I remember seeing thousands of martins on wires above a shopping plaza in Pharr, the birds’ musical chirps ringing out even over the sound of traffic.

The Purple Martin Conservation Association has put geolocators, in the form of light-weight harnesses, on martins and has discovered some amazing facts about their migration. For instance, martins can migrate up to 310 miles per day, and can cross the Gulf of Mexico (a 500-600 mile trip) without resting. There is also a record of a female purple martin flying over 1500 miles from Pennsylvania to Honduras in a mere 5 days.

Purple Martin Eggs

Photo by Kathy Detweiler

You can get lost in learning about the aspects of how a bird lives, but with a beloved bird it is especially easy. While many of our backyard birds in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are different from other parts of the country, something that I appreciate is the Purple Martin being a common denominator. Just as a family in New York State can enjoy having a martin house, so too can a family here in the southern tip of Texas, enjoying long summer evenings to the chirps of these cherished birds.

 

The Purple Martin Conservation Association was founded to raise awareness of the Purple Martins for research, education and conservation.  You can visit their website to learn more about housing and other helpful information on Purple Martins.  https://www.purplemartin.org/

Join us at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center every Tuesday and Saturday morning 8am-9:30am for a Songbird Stroll.  The Purple Martins have arrived, and they can be heard chittering and chirping overhead during the walk.  Quinta Mazatlan is located one block south of La Plaza Mall on 600 Sunset Drive, McAllen, TX.  For more information visit http://www.quintamazatlan.com or call (956) 681-3700.

Purple Martin Lunch

Photo by Kathy Detweiler