Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Bats and Birds in Texas

This past week, we flew to Texas to attend our niece's wedding in Bryan, and then to spend a few days in Austin. I have only been to the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, so it was nice to see a different part of this big state. In a span of 5 days we experienced weather extremes from sixty degrees with threat of tornadoes to a near record high of 91. Since it snowed back here in New Hampshire while we were away, it was nice to enjoy summer-like temperatures.

Upon arriving at Austin-Bergstrom Airport we were greeted by the sounds and displays of Great-tailed Grackles. Larger than the Common Grackle, these birds are not shy of humans and enjoy making a display of themselves. Their iridescent black color and yellow eyes are quite striking.

Great-tailed Grackle
Although Texas has some great opportunities for viewing spring migratory birds, we did not have time to do any serious birding. We did, however make a point of walking underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin to see the bats come out at dusk. The bridge, which crosses the impounded Colorado River, aka Lake Bird Lake, now hosts the largest urban bat colony in the world. When the bridge was redesigned in 1980, the crevices that were created provided prime nesting spots for the Mexican free-tailed bats that migrate from central Texas each spring. After construction, the bats immediately started arriving by the thousands. Irrational fears from the public, led to proposals of eliminating the bat population, including illuminating the bridge. At that time, Bat Conservation International moved their headquarters to Austin and educated city officials on the benefits of bats - consumption of thousands of insect pests per bat each night. Thankfully, the city listened, and viewing the bats from spring until fall has become a popular tourist attraction.

From the viewing platform underneath the bridge and on the water, visitors await the emergence of the bats.

While we were waiting, birds were putting on their own show. Behind us, dozens of grackles were congregating making quite a racket. Then, across the river, hundreds of egrets landed in a single tree. Due to the distance I could not tell whether they were Snowy or Cattle egrets. Interestingly, both species of egrets and the Great-tailed Grackle are listed among six species of birds that have been identified as having "nuisance" heronries (nesting areas of colonial water birds) in Texas according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife publication Nuisance Heronries in Texas Characteristics and Management. Dealing with large populations of birds is another example of the challenges that occur when the human populated landscape intersects with wildlife. Although most people enjoy and are inspired by the beauty of seeing wildlife, they do not want it to interfere with their way of life. From the extreme of being a danger to air traffic at airports, to the nuisance of excrement falling on the family car, large congregations of birds may not be well tolerated by society. However, scientists continue to learn how closely interconnected all species are and that disruptions to one species can sometimes cause irreparable harm to entire ecosystems. As a reminder, the theme for this year's Earth Day is "Protect Our Species." We all must act to curb the massive rate of plant and animal extinction that is occurring across the globe
Flock of Egrets along Lady Bird Lake
Thankfully, for the bats in Texas, organizations such as Bat Conservation International and Austin Bat Refuge are educating the public on how to enjoy bats and help preserve their populations.

After the sun set and as it started to get dark, the bats started to emerging from underneath the Congress Street Bridge. My small camera was inadequate to capture a good photo, but seeing them in person was a sight to behold.  According to the Austin Bat Refuge, 814,000 bats took flight that evening. In August, that number may double when the pups are flying with the adults. It was surreal to look up in the sky and see a large black cloud, containing tens of thousands of bats, flying across the river. It's an experience I will not forget.

It is difficult to see, but those black specks are all bats in the sky
1. Bat Conservation International,

2.  Sustainable Food Center,

3. Texas Parks and Wildlife, Nuisance Heronries in Texas Characteristcs and Management, Second Edition, Ray C. Telfair II, Bruce C. Thompson, and Linda Tschirhard 

4. Austin Bat Refuge,


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Happy Spring and Third Super Moon of 2019

If the skies are clear tonight you will be able to witness another Super Moon, that is when the full moon is at its closest point to the earth in its elliptical orbit. This is the third consecutive Super Moon of the year, and will be the last.

Watch video on the full moon of the 2019 Spring Equinox, also called the Worm Moon.

With Daylight Savings Time in effect and longer daylight, coupled with a few days with temps in the fifties, it is apparent that gardening days are not too far away. 

This past Saturday was the NOFA New Hampshire Winter Conference. Although it was almost Spring, the day still felt very much like winter with cold blustery winds. From 8:30 AM - 7:00 PM farmers, backyard gardeners and conservationists listened to a variety of speakers, enjoyed delicious healthy food and shopped at a Green Market Fair.

Rather than focus on a particular theme, I selected four workshops that were all different from one another. In the morning, Cat Buxton of Thetford, Vermont, spoke of Soil Health and In-Field Monitoring. Improving the health of our soils through minimizing disturbance, maximizing diversity and keeping the soil covered can all help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. There is tremendous potential there and scientists are only beginning to understand the potential of utilizing plants and life underground to address the current climate crisis that has been brought on by industrialization and the destruction of the Earth's natural vegetative cover.  

Cat Buxton describes different soil characteristics
The second session I attended was presented by Dr. John Zahina-Ramos who traveled from Illinois to
talk about his research projects on quantifying sustainability benefits of small-scale agricultural operations through experiments he has done as a single farmer on his own property. 

The NOFANH Winter Conference always has great vendors at their Green Market Fair and this year was no different. I can never pass by the books displayed without buying something. This year I purchased Consulting the Genius of the Place by Wes Jackson and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I have already started reading Braiding Sweetgrass which describes how all plants and animals as intrinsically connected and calls us to truly acknowledge the wonder of nature, thereby demanding our respect and appreciation. Musical entertainment at the fair was provided by American folk band Decatur Creek.
In the afternoon, I listened to the history of some of New Hampshire's heirloom and native plants through photos presented by John Forti of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire. And, finally the last workshop session I attended was a virtual walk through the woods as poet Hannah Fries read from her book Forest Bathing Retreat: Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees. It was a relaxing way to end the afternoon before listening to the evening keynote "What's Wrong with Working 35 Hours Per Week? Using Lean Ideas to Cut Out Waste and Free up Your Time" by farmer and author Ben Hartman.

There was a lot of information to take in and now that Spring is officially here, I am looking forward to putting some of the ideas presented at the conference into practice. 

UPDATE: I just received an e-mail that I won the "guess how many eggs" in this container" contest put on by Pete and Gerry's organic free range eggs. A year's supply of eggs, thanks Pete and Gerry's for supporting this event! 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

National Ag Day

2019AgDay 468x60.jpg

How did I miss it? Today was National Ag Day. National Ag has been in place since 1973 to bring awareness of the vital role that agriculture plays in our society. Although often overlooked and underappreciated in today's society, none of us could survive without farms and the products that they produce. From the cereal or orange juice that you have in the morning, to the glass of wine or beer that you might have at the end of the day, everything we eat or drink is as a result of agriculture. And agriculture provides not just the food that we eat, but it supplies the materials for the clothes that we wear, and sometimes the fuel that powers our vehicles. We all should be thankful, not just today, but every day for the resources and benefits that farmers provide for ourselves, our community, and the world.

I am looking forward to this weekend and attending the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New Hampshire's annual winter conference. It's always a fun event and a great opportunity to learn more about what is happening locally in the field of organic agriculture. I plan to share more about the workshops and speakers after I attend.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sweet Potatoes with Wild Rice and Tomato Sauce

This recipe was adapted from the Ultimate Vegan Cookbook. It is very easy to put together.


1 cup wild rice
1 sweet potato 
1 small can crushed tomatoes
1 Tablespoon miso paste
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tablespoon maple syrup
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon crushed basil

Cook wild rice.
Steam sweet potato in microwave. Place in a covered bowl with a small amount of water and cook on high until soft. Cool slightly before slicing.

Make sauce by combining the remaining ingredients and simmering on the stove for about 15 minutes. Serve sauce over potatoes and rice and service with a salad or your favorite green vegetable.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Great Backyard Bird Count

Cardinal in crabapple tree

This is the fourth year I have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an international event led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada.
I look forward to spending a weekend examining the every day birds that visit our backyard feeders. Over three days, I only observed nine species, and of the birds that did stop by, there seemed to be fewer of them. Birds that I have seen in the past that were missing included the Red-bellied woodpecker, sparrows and finches. I am not sure of the reason for this. Could the relatively mild winter have adjusted their range? Or, could the fact that the squirrels devoured most of the fruits and berries from our trees during the fall, and continue to overpopulate our feeders, contributed to fewer birds at our feeders. I do not know.

One species that did arrive in record numbers was the Eastern Wild Turkey which showed up in a flock of 19. This is not surprising, as their numbers in New Hampshire are increasing. According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game winter turkey flock survey, 20,244 birds were recorded in 2018. Turkeys feed on nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetation and like to visit feeders for nutrient rich sunflower seeds.

Female Wild Turkey
Turkey tracks look like arrows going in the opposite direction that the bird is traveling

Our old pear tree harbors a lot of insects. This, combined with a suet feeder, attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches.

White-breasted Nuthatch (left) and  Hairy Woodpecker (on suet) and Downy Woodpecker (right)

The photo on the right above shows the size difference between the larger Hairy Woodpecker on the left and the male Downy Woodpecker on the right. We had a pair of each species visit over the weekend. The Red-bellied Woodpecker which has been a frequent visitor over the past few years has not been seen this winter.

Juncos, which are typically appear in groups, were observed, but only one to three at a time.

One lone junco
It was an unspectacular weekend with few sightings, but participating in the GBBC provides an  opportunity to contribute to science by documenting bird populations and their movements. It's also an opportunity to spend a little extra time and appreciate even common birds more fully.

Mourning Dove resting comfortably in the snow.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Thousands of Crows Put on a Show

Crows staging along the Merrimack River, Lawrence, Massachusetts
You may not think that spending an evening in freezing temperatures to watch crows would be a desirable activity, but that's exactly what my husband and I did this past Sunday.

A special evening to learn about these corvids was held in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was sponsored by the Merrimack River Watershed Council, Merrimack Valley Bird Club  and Andover Village Improvement Society. It was aptly named "River in the Sky-Our Merrimack of Wintering Crows." The event which quickly "sold out" was attended by a variety of individuals from avid birders to those who were just curious as to why anyone would want to watch crows. Before heading out into the field, we  gathered at the Essex Art Center where a gallery of photos and artwork was displayed. We listened to talks by the sponsors and Craig Gibson, an area photographer and member of the Lawrence "Crow Patrol."  When we saw a presentation given by Dana Duxbury-Fox and Bob Fox, veteran birders who have been observing the crows along the Merrimack River for the past few years.

If you don't already know, crows are highly intelligent, but also very social birds. This is evident in the fact that some migrate hundreds of miles from their summer breeding grounds, to gather in large groups during the winter. These winter roosting sites can number in the tens of thousands. Although these large roosting areas have been documented for centuries, the reasons for this behavior is not well understood. It is believed that one reason they congregate in such large groups is that it provides protection from predators. In recent years, crows seem to be selecting urban areas more for their winter roosting sites. One such city is Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the crows have been returning each winter for numerous years. The Fox's and Craig Gibson have begun to monitor their behavior. You can follow their research and observations at

Around 4:00 PM we drove to the anticipated staging area, the Abe Bashara Boathouse, 1 Eaton Street. Staging is what the birds do before settling in for their final resting spot of the evening. It provides an opportunity for all the birds to arrive at a central location. This process starts about an hour before sunset and lasts until approximately a half hour after sunset. Although the exact location of where the crows begin staging can change each night, we were fortunate that the boathouse location proved to be the perfect spot to view them on Sunday.
Craig Gibson describes to the group the crows staging behavior
When we first arrived, the first thing we saw were two bald eagles circling overhead. I took this as a sign that it was going to be a good night of bird watching. We saw several eagles after that and for the most part, the crows and the eagles left each other alone. However as dusk approached, groups of crows were seen chasing the eagles away.
Crows and a bald eagle sharing the trees in the early evening
At first, the crows arrived in small groups, but as the sun began to set, they could be seen approaching in waves of hundreds or maybe thousands. Some settled in trees on either side of the river, and some landed on the ice where the river was frozen. It has been documented that the crows are arriving from locations up to 20 miles away, where they have been foraging for food during the day. This is quite an amazing feat when you consider all the energy they must expend to do this.

Most of the crows settled in the trees, but some were more interested in gathering on the ice.
It was fascinating to watch and listen to them, as they were quite noisy, especially when a group  would decide that it was time to move. For some unknown reason, a large group would all take flight at once, circle over the river and then land on the other side.

Trees filled up with crows
We decided to leave before finding out whether or not this would be their final roosting spot, but our frozen toes told us it was time to go. We bid the birds farewell and left with a much better appreciation of these amazing birds and wonder at how marvelous Nature can be. Sometime in March the crows will disperse to their normal breeding grounds, so if you know of a roosting area where you live, I recommend visiting it some evening soon. You will not be disappointed.

Evening sunset colors along the Merrimack River

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sweet Potato and Chickpea Boats

Sweet Potatoes and Chickpeas with a tossed salad
You can't get much easier for a quick meal than this recipe for one. Simply multiply by the number of people you would like to serve.

1 sweet potato washed and cut in half
1 small can chick peas rinsed
1/2 cup marinara sauce
1/2 cup baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill chopped or other fresh herbs
Olive oil

Brush the tops of the potato halves with olive oil and bake at 375 degrees until soft (30 - 60 minutes depending on the size). Cool slightly. Mix the chickpeas with the dill, spinach and a drizzle of olive oil. Scoop out a small amount of potato in the center and fill with the chickpea mixture. Spread the marinara on top and back an additional 10 - 12 minutes. Serve immediately.