A Christmas Tree Bird Count

Over the past several years, my mom and I have been collecting bird Christmas ornaments, beginning with Hallmark’s “Beauty of Birds” series, of which we have all but the super-rare Scarlet Tanager. (Well, to be fair, my mom does most of the collecting and I enjoy the results when I come home for the holidays – she likes to talk about how she went to three different Hallmark stores to track down the limited-edition female cardinal.) We’ve picked up some non-Hallmark bird ornaments, too, but only ones that are clearly identifiable as specific species. No cute-but-generic owls or hummingbirds for us.

Click on any image to bring up a slideshow.


There are more in the Hallmark series – a Blue Jay, a chickadee, a bluebird, a goldfinch that drives me a bit nuts because it’s bright yellow like a breeding male but conspicuously missing the breeding male’s black cap. By my count, that brings the species tally for our Christmas tree up to eleven.

Has anyone else’s nature habit spilled over into your holiday decorations?

Christmas Birds

Okay, so I’ve been taking a bit of a break from blogging while I enjoy a little hard-earned rest after surviving my first semester of graduate school. I’ve still been birding, though.

On the evening of Christmas day, we took a walk on the golf course in my parents’ neighborhood, which can be a surprisingly good place to find birds. (I’m very dubious about the wisdom of irrigating land for a golf course in the desert, but oh well.) On that particular day we came across two Harris’s Hawks that had just killed a wigeon. Harris’s Hawks are handsome, buteo-like raptors of the southwestern desert, dark-colored with chestnut shoulders and a white strip across the tail, that are very unusual among hawks in that they hunt cooperatively. They flew up into the palm trees as we approached, and if only I’d had my camera with me I could show you a photo of a freshly killed and disemboweled American Wigeon.

Then on the 26th I went out on the Superior, AZ Christmas Bird Count. No Pyrrhuloxias this year, but I did get one lifer (Rufous-crowned Sparrow) as well as seeing quite a few meadowlarks, one of my favorite birds and one I don’t come across very often. The count as a whole netted over one hundred species for the day. The one closest to where I live in Wisconsin, on the other hand, got 24. The difference between northern Wisconsin and southern Arizona in December.

Hope you all had a fantastic Christmas! I’ll try to return to a more regular posting schedule soon.

Happy 2011!

I’m back in Georgia, and it’s 2011.  My new year’s resolution (well, one of them) is to write down three things that I am happy about or grateful for in my journal every day.

I meant to post something brief about what Santa brought me but never quite got around to it while I was at home, but rest assured, the bulk of it was nature related: Kenn Kaufman’s Butterflies of North America, How to Keep a Naturalist’s Notebook by Susan Leigh Tomlinson, and of course a 2011 wall calendar featuring photographs of songbirds.  I am nothing if not predictable.

Anyway, posts here should resume with more or less their normal frequency now that I’m back from break.  Hope everyone’s year got off to a fantastic start!

Saguaro Santa

Clearly I’m not paying much attention to my blog while I’m visiting my family for the holidays – I did get my life Black-bellied Whistling Ducks over the weekend, though, and I’m sure I’ll have more to share after the Christmas Bird Count I’m doing on the 26th.  In the meantime, Saguaro Santa, a holiday fixture in my parents’ neighborhood, says Merry Christmas.

(My mom took the photo.  Thanks, Mom, I knew you wouldn’t mind.)

Mele Kalikimaka

After a week of cold, gray weather, today around lunchtime the sun came out and it warmed up so much that for about an hour it actually felt like t-shirt weather again.  Bliss.

One of the songs on the Christmas mix I’ve been listening to in my car is “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Hawaiian Christmas song.  Recently a couple lines in particular caught my attention and made me laugh:

That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway!

I snapped this photo this afternoon while taking a quick break from packing – tomorrow I fly west to visit family.  For now, anyway, merry Christmas from an island where palm trees sway.

What Do Christmas Decorations and Coffee Have in Common?

We may not have snow, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beginning to look a lot like Christmas on Jekyll Island.  Take this shrub along the boardwalk, for example.

What’s Christmasy about that, you ask?  Take a closer look.

See those red berries?  Have you guessed yet?  This is Yaupon Holly (pronounced YOE-pon), Ilex vomitoria.

If you’re thinking “Huh, those don’t look like holly leaves,” it’s probably because you’re picturing the spine-edged leaves of American Holly, Ilex opaca.  We have that here, too; it’s a full-sized tree, as opposed to the usually shrubbier Yaupon.  But really, Yaupon Holly is the more interesting of the two.  I mean, come on, you know there has to be a good story behind a species name like vomitoria.

You see, Yaupon Holly happens to be the only plant native to North America that produces a significant amount of a chemical we humans are very fond of: caffeine.  Naturally, American Indians in the Southeast had discovered its amazing properties and were brewing it into a hot beverage long before some certain beans you may have heard of made their way here from Ethiopia.  In reading up on this plant I’ve come across a couple different versions of what, exactly, this has to do with vomiting.  Some say the American Indians would actually drink their “black drink,” or Asi, until they vomited, some say there was a tribe that had a ceremony that included both the black drink and vomiting and Europeans made the understandable but erroneous assumption that the one caused the other.  In any case, when this species was given its Latin designation it was memorably dubbed “holly that makes you vomit.”  According to Wikipedia, the black drink was the exclusive province of men – women couldn’t even help prepare it.  Good thing I wasn’t a Guale Indian!

Though the berries (of all hollies, not just this one) are somewhat toxic to humans, they’re an important food source for birds.  They also add a bit of holiday cheer to the island.  Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m not still dreaming of a white Christmas.  Sigh.  Two more days of work until break!