Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Flashback: Oct 2010 Texas

A year ago today I wrote my first post on this blog about robins. You can read my early posts, which includes the amazing Buckenham rook roost (with between 30-80,000 birds coming in to roost), under 2014 on the sidebar to your right. To celebrate my 1st anniversary as the Autistic Naturalist, I thought it would be great to start a Flashback series sharing with you a few of my biggest adventures before this blog even existed. Back in October 2010, they didn't get any bigger than a month long stay in Texas. The information and drawings come from entries in my first wildlife diary that I wrote just for this adventure and the photos were taken by my first digital compact camera, which was basic and ate away at the batteries like anything.
Monarch Butterfly

I had just left college and decided to stay with my Aunt Barbara for a month and explore the Lone Star State and see its wildlife. At the time, she lived in Taylor with her dachshund called Austina. I remember the first Texan creature I encountered as I arrived to her house, though, was a cockroach! Waking up from my second night in Texas, I went to the toilet only to find one in the sink! I tried to ignore it as I sat down on the toilet to do my business, when the cockroach launched itself out of the sink and onto the towel beside me, making me jump out of my skin! Barbara's garden, on the other hand, was a nicer experience. Her flowers attracted monarch butterflies fueling up for the last leg of their migration to Mexico. I briefly saw about 3-4 hummingbirds, but blink and they were gone. Her garden was also attracting blue jays, cardinals, chirping sparrows, white-winged doves, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice and a red-bellied woodpecker. At dusk, I heard the sound of grackles which was earsplittingly painful to listen to.
Black Witch Moth (as big as my hand!)

Roosting egrets
Not far from her house was a park full of lakes and islands. One night, we took Austina for a walk as it was getting dark. I noticed that cattle egrets, great blue herons and two great white egrets were roosting on one of these islands. We went for a closer look and we saw more and more birds joining them. There was a murmuration of red-winged blackbirds and grackles, pouring down onto the island like rain and covering the bank and telegraph wires on the far shore until all you could see was black. A black-crowned night heron joined its cousins with a fish in its bill, bats flew over the lake and terrapin heads were popping out occasionally from the surface. Finally, a few black birds with down-turned bills came in to roost. These were white-faced ibises!

Murmuration of Red-winged Blackbirds
A week later, we went to see it again. This time Austina was playing up, so I decided to walk back to Barbara's, while Barbara sorted Austina out. I thought I knew where I was going, I didn't and I got lost in the dark alone. Barbara did eventually find me as I was retracing my steps, but while I was lost I managed to have a chance encounter with two great horned owls! The pair of these enormous birds swooped right over me and greeted each other on top of a large water tower structure, before disappearing into the night.

Loblolly Pine Trees at Bastrop State Park
Getting lost was bad enough, but there was another bit of misfortune during my adventure that could have gone a lot worse. We were joined by one of Barbara's friends and was about to enter Bastrop State Park for a walk around a pine forest, when suddenly we were hit by a car. I was at the back and felt the force of the collision. Luckly no one was hurt and the damage was minor. After exchanging details and reporting what happend to a police officer, we were on our way again.

Texas Spiny Lizard (I think)
Pipevine Swallowtail

Texas Spiny Lizard



Inner Space Cavern
During my time in Texas, I had walked along the edge of a waterfall, got prickled by a cactus, visited a swamp and went exploring in two caverns. The best of these caverns was Inner Space Cavern near Georgetown. The cavern was discovered in 1963 while building the I-35 motorway when they drilled a hole to see if the ground was stable. They had discovered a cave network that had been hidden away for 10,000 years. A tourguide took us around this beautiful work of nature. Each chamber had its own unique set of stalactites, stalagmites, 'soda straws' and other rock formations. The best chamber, though, was the 'Lake of the Moon', the only chmaber with a pool of water in it. We also got really close to a roosting Eastern pipistrelle bat!

Lake of the Moon chamber
Eastern Pipistrelle Bat
Enchanted Rock
Climbing through rock formations underground was one highlight of the trip, climbing up one was another. One afternoon, I climbed a magnificent granite structure called Enchanted Rock. It was a steep walk up the 425ft to the summit in the soaring heat of the sun with rocks that was apparently hot enough to fry an egg! For an unfit person like me, the ascent up the rock was a real challenge. I felt dizzy and lightheaded the higher we climbed and I needed to stop to get my breath back and have a drink 3 times, but I did not give up. Life around us became less and less apparent with only bare granite and the odd cactus to be seen. But at the summit, unseen from ground level, were trees, flowers and even a swallowtail butterfly. Not only were we on level terms with the vultures flying around the rock, but life was somehow thriving up here! The descent was quicker but a bit nervy. Back on the ground, we got close to a white-tailed deer feeding by the car park before leaving.

At the summit
Giant Swallowtail (I think) at the summit
White-tailed Deer
Black Vulture
Waking up at 5am one morning, Barbara and I visited Hornsby Bends, a sewage water works to do join a group to birdwatch. This may sound like a strange place to birdwatch, and believe me it smelt really bad, but once you got use to the smell, I found out that this was a haven for birds. With the help of our guides, together the group (which was split into three vehicles) saw or heard 37 species here. We saw; blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, least sandpiper, a belted kingfisher, killdeer plovers, a Savannah sparrow, meadowlarks, barn and tree swallows, American wigeon, double-crested cormorants, pintails, snowy egrets, American coot, spotted sandpiper, downy woodpecker, scissor-tailed flycatchers, Eastern phoebe, ruby-crowned kinglet, Eastern bluebird, monk parakeets and an American kestrel. The best of the lot though was a merlin, a red-shouldered hawk and an osprey!

At McKinney Falls State Park

Green Anole
Giant Swallowtail
Bottle-nosed Soft Shelled Turtle
One of two Hackberry Emperors on my finger!

Texas Whiptail
Texas Brown Snake
Palmetto Palms at Palmetto State Park

During my last weekend in Texas, I was promised to go visit somewhere special by Diane, Barbara's neighbour. Diane just happend to be a bat naturalist who studies Texas' bat population. As dusk approached, she took us to a busy motorway bridge a few miles away from the city of Austin. This bridge was home to a million Mexican free-tailed bats roosting inside it. You could just about hear them squeaking above the sound of traffic and there was a strong smell coming from the bridge. Along the ground beneath was a strange brown paste which was everywhere, this was guano, bat poo! It took a good while until we started seeing them. The first few to leave the bridge were the scouts, venturing out and returning to the bridge again to check if the conditions were right. Then, like a Mexican wave starting at the furthest end of the bridge, they all began to pour out and formed a long, never ending band weaving up and down in the air heading east. A train rushed under the bridge and forced them to panic and fly over our heads. It was like the perfect way to end my Texan adventure. It was one I shall never forget. This was my only visit to America, maybe one day I will return for more adventures and to see more incredible wildlife.
Mexican Free-tailed Bats emerging from a bridge!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Sean. It takes me back to a couple of trips we made to the USA in the 1980's and 90's during which we saw loads of birds much like those you mention in your blog. Most of my pics are on old 35mm transparencies so it would be difficult to get them digitised, but you've made me think about digging them out and seeing what I can do. Look forward to your next adventure.