Friday, April 27, 2018

The New Madrid, Missouri Museum

At New Madrid, Missouri, The Mississippi River rolls by, while across the wide meander one views Kentucky. Islands are above and below and one such island is famous in its own way. It was called Island Number Ten, during the civil war, and was the site of a Confederate Fort, but that’s not why we are here.
I taught high school and college geology, for thirty years, and whenever we get near something I taught about we always stop and visit. New Madrid is the site of one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the United States. In 1811 a magnitude 7.5 earthquake shook the ground with such force that the ground liquefied and erupted in sand geysers.
The Mississippi river was reported to flow backwards and at least two waterfalls formed during the subsidence. Church bells were reported to have rung in Charleston, South Carolina. Luckily the area was sparsely populated and the only reported fatalities were from barges and boats on the river.
Its looks so peaceful now, the streets are bordered by flowering crab apple trees and many of the houses and stores are built of brick, (which happen to be about the worst type house to own in an active earthquake zone).
Our first stop was the New Madrid Museum, where they have displays on the Mississippian Indians, the Mound builders, with many artifacts dug from some of the nearby sites. Many skeletons were unearthed and hopefully they have been reburied and are not sitting in storage.
Another display is an actual sword that displays Spanish markings, perhaps from DeSoto’s expedition in the sixteenth century!
The next room is filled with displays about the earthquake, and you can listen to recordings made from written statements of the people that live there during the disaster. One display lets you build a structure and then dial up different magnitude earthquakes. Of course, your building is destroyed.
The next room contains artifacts dug from the battle sites and from a Union camp. One of the locals was a famous Confederate and many here joined the Confederate army. A replica of an 1841 mountain howitzer stands silently next to the filled display cases.
The second floor is filled with dresses, sewing machines, and something we have never seen before, a family’s hair wreath from 1861. The flowers are all made from actual hair of family members. That to me at least, was macabre as I prefer memories and images instead of fragments of dead people.
Now I can check another off another lesson plan from my checklist of places I have taught about. The fault zone is still very active, and another major earthquake could happen at any time. The day before a 2.5 magnitude earthquake had shook but that’s too mild for anyone to have felt it.
Our next stop is Springfield, Illinois, where we will visit family and tour the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln’s Tomb, and the Lincoln Library and House. From there we will turn west and head for Iowa making stops in Keosauqua, Waterloo, and Cresco/Decorah.  Clear skies

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

It Looked like a Christmas Tree!

My sister Connie and her husband, Gary had moved to Grand Isle, Louisiana twenty years ago. They had just retired and one of her new friends there, described the spring fallout of birds by saying that some years it looked like the trees had been decorated for Christmas.
Now I was seeing what she had said as the mulberry tree in front of us was filled with so many colorful wild birds, so many that it really did look like a Christmas tree. Bright red scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers, red-orange breasted orchard orioles, were just a few of the birds only a few feet away.
Other colors were bright yellows and greens of other birds in their spring breeding plumage. In a few short minutes we acquired three new birds for our life list, a Cape May warbler, a Blackpoll warbler, and a Tennessee warbler.
Of course, I didn’t have the good camera, but Renita had thought to bring the small one and I did take a few images with my phone. There were about twenty birders, and local bird lovers gathered to enjoy the beauty, and the birds didn’t seem to care.
They were too busy stuffing themselves with ripe mulberries. Some would land and hop to a berry, while others would pick the berries in flight, and then land before devouring the sugar rich pulp. Usually they would eat the berries one small berry at a time, until the large fruit was a size where they could gulp down the rest.
I only saw one bird with any berry stains, and that was a female Red Breasted Gros Beak. It made me laugh as I usually stain my clothes my clothes whenever I start to eat any berries, at least that’s what Renita says.
We had earlier seen a similar tree at the state park, where one birder there had said that he had experienced the best birding of his life, (and this was a person with a lot of years of bird watching). We had seen lots of birds in that mulberry tree, but not as many as today.
(There are seven birds in the above image taken at Grand Isle State Park, they include blue grosbeaks, indigo buntings, a painted bunting, cat bird, and part of an orchard oriole)

A professional photographer, and expert birder provided everyone with a running commentary and a bird identification as the birds flitted in and out of the heavily laded fruit tree. He told us that we needed to appreciate it as the birds were getting ready to leave for the north, perhaps even Nebraska and Minnesota, (now that the snow is finally melting).
It was one of the best birding experiences we have ever had! Thank you, Connie, for showing us such a sight, Renita and I will always remember it.  If you ever get a chance and are lucky to see a fallout take it, (a fallout is when the birds have migrated across the Gulf of Mexico and have encountered strong north winds. When that happens they, fallout exhausted on the first land they see)!
Remembering this day, we can say that we were truly blessed, Clear skies.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet; Grand isle, LA, Spring 2018

It had been nine years since the Blessing of the Fleet had taken place on Grand Isle, Louisiana. During the blessing ceremony the shrimp boats pass quietly by the priest who blesses each boat with holy water. Today a strong north wind had caused small craft warnings to be posted and some boats had opted not to participate but the narrow channel was protected and many of the skilled captains took part.
Before the ceremony some boats had docked on Fifi Island while others jockeyed for position. One boat had mechanical problems and a Coast Guard boat quickly moved into position to aide with a tow, but the skilled captain swung his boat in time and was able to let the wind push him into the dock.
The priest from the Catholic Church, Father Carlos Talavera, waited for the signal to start and the first boat passed by as the priest dipped the silver miter into the holy water and prayed silently while blessing the boat and crew as it passed.
The crews and crowd were silent, and some crossed themselves. All were moved with thoughts and prayers for the safety of the fleet and the crowd cheered each boat in passing.
Many of the boats had been decorated for the event and all flew the US Flag along with the Louisiana pennant.
Some of the boats had figureheads on their boats, one a large image of Christ on the cross.
Another had a teenage mutant turtle riding behind the radar mast.
One after another all the boats passed safely by, the last boat being the Coast Guard boat, whose crew stood silently at attention.
The largest crowds roar was for them, the brave men and women of the Coast Guard who put themselves at risk to save their loved ones, and all who travel the sea. Thank you Coasties!
After the ceremony the crowd quietly left the dock, many still in silent thought of the special event that they had witnessed.
All of us were blessed to see the event and all of us were moved by the solemn parade. Clear skies

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Great Week of Birding on Grand Isle

As soon as we arrived on Grand isle, we spotted a hooded warbler. It was right behind out fifth wheel, in the state park campground.
The blackberries were in full bloom and it wasn't too long before a female ruby throated hummingbird made an appearance and next a small yellow warbler landed on the ground, and hopped around catching insects!
It was a great welcome to Grand Isle and when we told my sister Connie she reported that others on the island had been seeing other brightly colored birds in the woods that contained the Bird Sanctuary.
We were camping in the state park and the next morning we decided to spend time there as the day before had held such promise. We were quickly rewarded with sightings of  male Summer Tanagers, one fully mature and one with a beautiful coat of reds and yellows, (a first spring immature male).
The morning wasn't over yet as we continued to spot more ruby hummers as well as several rose breasted grosbeak.
Our pleasure continued when a brightly colored scarlet tanager showed itself for a moment before quickly flying into the thick brush.
We also spotted several Baltimore orioles, and this was just the first day. The rest of the week wasn't any different as the birds seemed to stay put. Perhaps they were simply rebuilding their strength before continuing their migration or did they sense the brutal snow storms up  north?
On Thursday, our discoveries didn't stop, when we shot a great image of an Amercian redstart! It flitted in the thick brush, teasing us with the orange patches on its wings, and after several so so images it landed in the street looking for rocks for its crop.
More birds followed, another oriole, an orchard oriole this time(?), with both females and males making an appearance. As the week progressed we took some time off for a little fishing and on Friday a new cold front threatened when the temperatures dropped and storm clouds threatened.
The Blessing of the Fleet was being celebrated and the heavy rains delayed the boat parade but it didn't stop the event as carnival rides and music continued in and around a tented pavilion. The actual blessings were delayed from Saturday till Sunday as the front roared in with heavy rains followed by cold temperatures and a strong north wind.
Taking a break from the festivities we went back to our camper and grabbed the binoculars and cameras for a short bird walk.. The sun had come out and with it the birds seemed to have lost most of their caution.
None of the birds had left and as we walked we pointed out tanagers and indigos, they were everywhere.Suddenly a small bird landed near me and I instantly recognized it. It had a bright red breast, a blue head and neck and a green back. It was the unmistakable color of a painted bunting!
It was the second we have seen this year, the other was at High island Bird Sanctuary, but this one was so close and it paused for just long enough that I was able to get a good image.
It flew to another bush where it teased us before making a show in some thick brush before Connie and Renita were able to confirm my sighting.Its only the fourth painted bunting we have seen, and one of the other sightings had been two years ago in almost the same spot.
This week, Grand Isle is hosting its annual Spring Bird festival. We plan on attending some of the events and perhaps we will see another painted bunting. Maybe we can also get some help on identifying some of the small warblers we have spotted and imaged. There are so many and several have crossed making the id's even harder! Clear skies

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Betty's Rv: Abbeyville, Louisiana

It was a short pull from High Island, Texas to our next destination at Betty's Rv. Betty's is located in Abbeville, Louisiana and is the best rv park in all the state. It's small and nothing fancy but if you want to immerse yourself in Cajun culture, there is simply no other place like it! As soon as we arrived Jim and Nancy came out of their motor home and greeted us, (They write a blog,  runningdownourdream listed on our page, and started full time rving the same year we did, in 2007).
The place is so popular that we could only get in for three nights. The park has seventeen spaces and many of the guests had stayed since Mardi Gras. Each day Betty has something planned, or at least suggestions for the best place to see what Louisiana life is all about.
The day after we arrived, a group of us traveled eight miles to Abshires County Store. Its a simple and small building but the food is great. Renita and I had the grilled shrimp salad which turned out to be the best salad I have ever eaten!

The cook, (the wife usually), prepares all the food on  a small cook surface. Its so small that she can only cook four meals at a time! If someone at the table orders something different they will have to wait, (they only have nineteen plates and if there are more than nineteen people you have to wait till someone finishes and the plates are washed)!
The salad consisted of lettuce, topped with grilled shrimp and grilled mushrooms, all seasoned with Cajun spices. It's then further topped with lots of grated Parmesan, ranch dressing, and lots and lots of bacon bits. The first bite filled my mouth with a flavor that said Louisiana!
The third day was a Sunday and we went to mass at St Mary Magdalene's. The church was built in 1908 and the stained glass alone is worth visiting the church to see! As we travel we like to visit churches of all faiths and all are open to view by the public, except for one in Salt Lake City. That afternoon, the weather was cold but still the campers all met for Happy Hour insides Betty's house.
The next day we needed to fix the closet in our fifth wheel, between rough Texas and Louisiana roads the shelf has collapsed and the fix took three trips to the local Lowe's.
Betty had offered to let us show out jewelry at that afternoons Happy Hour. Linda, another guest also is a crafter and so we both displayed our work on the outside side tables. Betty also loves our wire work and stones and she purchased one of our gold bracelets with a gold and blue tiger eye cabochon.
She is also a folk artist and decorates her place with many pieces, which I have published in an earlier blog. This year one of her guests had painted decorations on old satellite dishes. They were really nice but I missed seeing lots of Betty' painted driftwood pieces.
Too soon our time at Betty's was up and as we hooked up, Betty along with our old friends and new came out and gave a good bye huge. The nice thing about being our age is getting lots of hugs! We had a great time there and we look forward to spending more time at Betty's Rv next year. Clear skies

Sunday, April 8, 2018

High Island, Spring 2018

We said our goodbyes to Renita’s sister Pam and her husband Roy, before hooking up our fifth wheel and heading for High Island Texas. There we planned on spending a day birding, at the Bird Sanctuaries owned and maintained by the Houston Audubon Society.
It was a short drive, only one hundred and forty miles, and involved a ferry trip from Galveston Island to the Bolivar Peninsula. Reaching the High Island Rv park we set up and planned the next day’s birding. Our plan was to first register at the Boy Scout Woods, spend some time birding at the drips and then spend the afternoon at the Rookery at Smith Oaks Pond.
Our first stop was at the private lawn. Usually we see quite a few birds there but today the only bird we spotted was a cardinal.
From there we backtracked to the cypress swamp and the only flying creatures were all mosquitoes. Heading to the Cathedral we sat for a while and had little luck.
Deciding to go to Promothory Pond we met a large group of fellow birders, as they were leaving. Shortly after sitting down two dark small birds flew from the woods into the tall reeds. I saw they were a deep blue and sure enough they were blue indigo buntings!
We also spotted circling turkey vultures, tree swallows, other swallows and some distant flying herons. Common grackles perched on power lines.
Heading back to the cathedral we discussed what to do. We had heard that a painted bunting had been spotted at the first drip and so we went back to the Grand Stand and took a seat. Deciding to wait it out we were rewarded with spotting a Swainsons thrush, a red and white eyed vireo, more cardinals and a hooded warbler.
Then as I looked at the other small pond Renita told me that a painted bunting was at the drip! I moved my binoculars to the drip and was able to catch a glimpse of it before it flew into the woods. It was only the second painted bunting we have seen and made the birding trip, (our first and best viewing of a painted bunting occurred at Grand Isle, Louisiana)! Of course the pictures we took did not turn out.
Another indigo bunting stopped at the drip along with a catbird and a hooded warbler. We even got to see a ruby throated hummingbird! Its always amazing that most of these birds had just flown nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. They had encountered strong headwinds while crossing the Gulf, and we were seeing the exhausted birds during what is known as a fallout.
Returning to our campsite we ate lunch and rested before heading to our other favorite spots, Smiths Pond, The Rookery, and the Oak Sanctuary. Before starting out we stopped at the check in tent where the birder told us that a summer tanager had been spotted.
Heading for Doms Drip, Renita spotted another indigo bunting and the summer tanager! They were both feeding on mulberries, always a great draw for the famished birds. Renita mentioned to me to be careful about where I sat and sure enough, at Doms Drip, I sat on some ripe mulberries. At least when you are my age, you don’t have to be embarrassed about stains on the seat of your pants!
We then walked to the Oak Sanctuary and read the plaque describing the huge registered live oak, before cutting through to Smiths Pond. The pond was created to provide water for the Town of High Island and was also a source of clay used in the local oil fields. Smiths pond was quite different as the Audubon Society had constructed a long narrow strip of land and had planted trees. It was one of several projects that are intended to become future rookeries. We didn’t see any birds there, only three large alligators sunning themselves on the barren strip of land.
Clay bottom Pond, constructed as an additional fresh water catchment and source of more clay, had also undergone several major noticeable changes. The dense invasive species, Chinese Tallow bushes, had been chopped down for removal. Its an invasive species of brush that doesn’t provide any forage or is of little value to the birds.
Nearing the Rookery, we stopped to enjoy our first glimpse of roseate spoonbills and great white egrets in their breeding plumage. The adult rosy’s are a brilliant pink and are adorned with bright red shoulders and an orange section under their wings. Such a beautiful bird!
The great white egrets had been nesting longer and many had newborn chicks raising their heads begging food from the parents.
Male great whites were still displaying their wedding veils while others were sitting on the large pale blue eggs. They would occasionally rise and carefully turn the eggs with their beaks.
Most of the rosies had not yet laid eggs and were busy constructing large nests.
There was also a lot of mating behavior taking place, and males were still fighting for any available branch sturdy enough to hole a nests weight.
Most of the good high spots had already been taken and the lower nest appeared vulnerable to the alligators.
The alligators do occasionally eat an unwary bird, but they also provide a defense for the birds by eating any raccoons that cross to the island looking for eggs! We didn’t see any birds getting eaten as we moved from birding platform to platform enjoying the racket of the rookery.
Renita and I took turns with our telephoto lens equipped camera trying to catch a great shot of the landing birds, (you are only about thirty yards from the rookery island). My best shot was of a landing great white egret and hers was of a landing rosette spoonbill.
There were other birds there, including snowy egrets, double crested cormorants and tri color herons.
Clay bottom pond is further used by American Ibis, little blue herons, and green herons. The highest bird count took place at sunset, and one year reached almost fourteen thousand birds!
Tired, but happy, we drove back to our rig. It had been another great birding day at the High Island! Its one of the finest birding experiences we have had, and we highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see what a dinosaur nesting site looked like. After all birds are the direct descendants of the dinosaurs! Clear skies.