Tag Archives: purple martin (Progne subis)

A desolation called Texas

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) standing on a fallen log (20080314_02632)

The world is brown now, and not a good brown, not a rich brown, not an earthen tone that looks warm against the skin and tastes good upon the eyes.  No, this is the brown of death, of drought, of crippling heat, of climatic records driven to the brink of extinction, then cast over the precipice of what was.

It started with drought, that’s all, the last appreciable rain falling in early September when the remnants of Hurricane Hermine came through, what with her tornadoes and floods and hail and wind.  But after that?  Nothing worth talking about.  In fact, what little rain came after just made it worse.

The few snow and ice storms we had helped get winter grasses started, but then the drought killed them and left dry kindling in their place, more dry kindling than we already had, more fuel for fires that swept the state, killing some, maiming others, knocking down home and hearth from border to border.

And the spring storm season gave us a few tornadoes, more lightning than the parched state needed, and a little rain here and there, just enough to start the spring growing season before the drought killed that smidgen of greenery, so more fuel for the fires, more death, more brown.

Burn bans spread almost as quickly as the fires did, crimson warnings seeping from major wounds in the map of Texas and spreading, oozing, spilling in every direction, all the while chasing the flames that gushed across the landscape.  And still no rain.

Then summer blasted in on the heels of a spring that grew hot, too hot, and summer’s been hotter, really hot, splitting the skin of weather records and pouring salt in the open wounds of worry.

A black and yellow mud dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) building a nest (20080708_09205)

Insects are scarce, something people have noticed since we’ve had no mosquito problems for quite some time, a surprising fact since we always have mosquito problems, even in winter if the day is warm enough.  And people noticed there are no moths around outside lights at night, and that surprises folks because, like mosquitoes, we always have moths and butterflies, as long as the day is warm enough.

I found the majority of wasp and bee nests have failed, many abandoned before they were completed, even in the nesting box I built early this year on a sleepless night, the majority of the abandoned attempts losing their queens over a single two-day period when temperatures soared and refused to fall, and climbing steadily higher since.  I’ve seen more dead insects than live ones and so few spiders that it feels like a famine of the sort.

A common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) resting on parched earth (20080712_09363)

Dragonflies and damselflies, at least the few that can be found, spend too much time on dead plants and parched earth, some landing never to move again, most in fact, and detritivores like millipedes and isopods have been no-shows this year, much like the fungi season last autumn and again this spring, complete no-shows, not even vain attempts to keep up appearances.

Ants venture out in the coolness of morning, but around dawn is the only time to see them since it’s too hot most of the day and night, and I’ve seen only a few katydids and grasshoppers, something that really put the halt on the digger wasps who built nests only to abandon them due to lack of food for their young.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in the shade of a bush (20081020_13873)

Though some might find it kin to karma, house sparrow numbers have declined, the flock that’s lived around my home for decades having diminished until it’s just a whisper, no more than a quarter its normal size for as long as I’ve lived here, and like them most birds are suffering, both young and old, both native and not so native, because when the bottom of the food chain suffers like this, the effects ripple along the links making sure everyone suffers.

Armadillos have been brazen and apparent, seen almost every morning before the sun grows too high and the day too hot, and their signs outside my patio have become almost desperate, each morning revealing more digging and destruction as they hunt for anything edible, sometimes digging deep and sometimes digging gaping holes and sometimes digging trails to follow the ants who won’t venture topside except when absolutely necessary.

A purple martin (Progne subis) chick hiding in the grass after leaving the nest early to escape the heat (2009_06_29_025000)

Three great purple martin roosts form a triangle around the metroplex, their enormous sizes making them oft watched radar regulars at the National Weather Service, but this year the numbers are down, way down, with most nests failing because young were too hot, too hungry, too thirsty, too weak, many abandoning the nest houses to escape the heat, only to be exposed to direct sun and predators without parents to help them.  I can’t count the number of unready young who fledged before becoming fledglings.

House finches, mockingbirds and mourning doves nested in the tree outside my patio, and all three species failed to fledge young, the mourning doves having tried twice before giving up, and I felt surprise seeing the mockingbirds bringing mostly fruit to the one hatchling they had who only lived a few days and spent most of that time crying loudly as though the same old berries weren’t cutting it and the few insects offered were just a painful tease.

Bats and common nighthawks vanished almost as quickly as they appeared this year, what with the nights empty and lights left lonely for the insect dancers who once upon a time filled their luminance with endless performances, but not this year, and so dawns and dusks are empty of the night flyers who have never been absent as long as I can remember, and the lights long for the moths and beetles and other bright lives who once filled the void with shining lines traced on dark backgrounds.

So now the whole state is in pain, climatologists saying the need here is more than 15 inches of rain just to get to a comfortable place, and saying it’s not going to get better any time soon, and the Forest Service saying all of Texas is a tinderbox ready to burst into flame, and farmers in the same area having long ago given up hope for crops of cotton and wheat and such, and ranchers culling herds because there’s not enough water and not enough grass and hay costs too much since it has to be shipped into the state since none of the Texas hay crops grew into anything more than fodder for wildfires.

Secretly like everyone else in the state, residents wish for an energetic hurricane season with multiple strikes on the Lone Star State, drenching rains being the primary need with other considerations becoming less than secondary, but like the storm seasons of last autumn and this spring, hurricane season is looking less promising for Texas, and the drought goes on and surpasses the Dust Bowl in severity and blows away other drought records like they were so much childish scribbling, and the heat goes on and begins a serious effort to challenge the heat wave of 1980, the heat wave to end all heat waves for the 40+ years I’ve lived here, and all the while we miss the rain, and relief from the heat, and the normalcy of nature, all of which now seem so far removed and so imaginary as to be from another world.

As we head into the season for migrations, both butterflies and birds alike, I worry what these creatures will find when they reach this place, for even now the hour is late, and there is no chance for recovery before they begin passing through, and what they’ll find here is a growing desolation, dry and parched land with no plants and no insects and no relief from unrelenting heat.  This place has become the kind of miserable that’s felt from the lowest to the highest, from the least to the most, and we’re all suffering, and waiting for change, and watching the sky, the forecasts, the prognostications, and wondering how bad it can really get since no one’s willing to say it can’t get any worse, because we know it can, and it has, and there’s no reason to think it won’t if that’s to be the way of things.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. Fox squirrel (a.k.a. eastern fox squirrel, stump-eared squirrel, raccoon squirrel or monkey-faced squirrel; Sciurus niger)
  2. Black and yellow mud dauber (a.k.a. mud wasp; Sceliphron caementarium)
  3. Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)
  4. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  5. Purple martin (Progne subis)

A sign of warmer times

Though I saw my first purple martin (Progne subis) of 2010 in the middle of February (shortly after The Big Snow™), their return has been delayed this year as opposed to years past.  Too cold, I suspect.  But warmth has arrived in force and the martins have followed it north.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) perched on the side of a martin house (2009_04_11_014916)

Like the barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) who likewise have returned, these male purple martins are the vanguard for more to come.  Perhaps a dozen of each species are here, give or take.  They’re picking the best nest sites, establishing a pecking order, and filling the sky with the antics and sounds that speak of summer.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) perched in front of his nest entrance (2009_04_04_014187)

Unlike the western population of martins that nests mostly in natural cavities, the eastern population is almost entirely reliant on human-provided housing.  It’s an interesting bit of behavioral adaptation that took only a short time to present itself.  It began with martins nesting in food bowls and gourds and other structures provided by Native Americans.  How that got started is anyone’s guess.  But the birds liked it and the people liked it, so it continued.

Then when Europeans arrived, they fell in love with these majestic, dark creatures—and no doubt appreciated their high-volume insect consumption—so larger and more elaborate houses were built.  The birds liked it and the people liked it, so it continued.

Over the span of 100-200 years, martins east of the Rocky Mountains had transitioned entirely to nesting in man-made housing.  For the majority of the birds, that’s now the only way they’ll nest.

Male purple martin (Progne subis) at his nest entrance (2010_03_13_051197)

Despite rumors to the contrary, the eastern population of purple martins does not use human-provided nest facilities in response to competition from European starlings and house sparrows.  Those birds were introduced long after the martins had come to rely on us for communal nesting structures.

(Their population did collapse after the introduction of starlings and sparrows, hence more intelligent home designs were created that would allow martins to enter the nest sites but would keep the starlings out.  And education was important so those managing martin houses would know to keep sparrows out of the cavities and thus allow the martins a better chance at successful nesting.)

There are half a dozen martin houses within walking distance of my home.  The native Blackland Prairie meadows along the eastern shore of White Rock Lake provide the right habitat and the plethora of insects these birds need to brood and raise young.

[As an aside, I just want to go on record as saying that the nitwit who decided martin housing should be white needs fifty lashes with a wet noodle for the photographic affront that creates.  I realize the color helps reduce heat and therefore is good for the parents and the offspring, but still…  Do you know how difficult it is to properly expose a picture of a nearly black bird when it’s posed against a bright white house?  It ain’t easy!]

Bad birds – Part 2

I continue apace with my effort to expel bad bird photos from my collection.  The experience feels cathartic in a way, a precursor to finally catching up as it were, and by doing so also expunging the digital cloud that grows darker and gloomier as I continue taking pictures: when it’s time to download from the camera, I realize I’m adding to an already overwhelming pile.

Besides, as Amber pointed out in the comments on the first entry, it “[f]eels good to just get them out there and move on.”  And so it does.

A male purple martin (Progne subis) sitting on a martin house as a juvenile male flies up in the background (2009_04_04_014165)

Not that I don’t have better photos of purple martins (Progne subis), mind you.  I do.  In fact, I’m working on a post about this species because there are untruths to right and truths to reveal.

As the only bird species on the planet completely reliant on humans for nesting locations, these avian beauties have secrets to tell and interesting stories to relate.  They also want to correct falsehoods about their introduced counterparts, the European starling and the house sparrow.

But I’ll save all that—along with the better images—for a future post.  For now, let me say I stood beneath one of the local martin houses back in April 2009 and let the shutter fly as adults and subadults arrived from their overwintering below the equator.

And just when I thought I had a good image setup of this male sitting near the entrance to his nest, I flinched as the juvenile male behind him flew into view.  Why did I flinch?  Because the cold nose of a dog suddenly drenched my leg in ticklish little puppy sniffs.

I could hardly be upset with the bounding bundle of canine antics, cute as it was, and especially because its human companion was so very apologetic for letting the dog interrupt me.  Most people don’t notice such things, don’t see or care when dogs run loose and create havoc, interrupting people and wildlife.  In this case, though, it was quite different, so I knelt and gave the cute little pup all the lovin’ it could handle—and also chatted comfortably with the tiniest woman being dragged along by the leash.

A Franklin's gull (Larus pipixcan) flying overhead (2009_04_10_014615)

Less than a week after that event, I enjoyed the waning light as evening settled in on Sunset Bay.  Spring migration was in full swing.  Black-bellied whistling-ducks sat across the confluence and beckoned for attention, osprey and peregrine falcons swooped through the air, Canada geese tried to remain unseen, and Franklin’s gulls (Larus pipixcan) flocked overhead.

The circling plume of birds danced so high in the sky that I and my fellow observers could only guess at their identities.  We suspected we knew who they were, but it wasn’t until I looked at the photos on my computer that I confirmed my suspicions.

And for weeks after that, I saw hordes of these gulls moving through.  Each time I stepped outside they were there, floating on gossamer wings held against the sky, all in a perpetual game of chase it seemed, one following another following another.

Then the mass of them would move on to make room for the next.

A white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) perched in a tree (2009_04_16_015404)

The very next weekend I lost myself in the burgeoning glory of the Audubon trails near the spillway.  The sweet smell of honeysuckle and damp leaves heavy with dew made for a beautiful walk, venomous snakes notwithstanding, and the heavy load of resident and migratory birds meant the air always rang with song.

So you can imagine my efforts to chase this white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) based almost entirely on its voice.  I had a real hunt on my hands as it flitted amongst the high branches and dense foliage.  Mostly I knew it was there by listening for it—then trying to catch up to it for a photo.

I felt mocked a bit with the bird giving me just a quick moment to see it before it vanished again.  And I laughed at myself for trying so hard.

Other voices filled the void when I finally gave up, finally let it sneak away under the cover of loud calls and busy activity.

A least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) running along a boat dock (2009_04_16_015657)

I left the Audubon trails and worked my way toward the heron lagoon near the paddle boat building.  Once out of the cover of the dense trees, I found it was terribly windy—windy enough to push me around with ease.

Water sprayed along the shore.  I had to keep my distance lest the camera and I get soaked.  And of course that’s when I noticed this least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) running to and fro on one of the boat docks.

Several times the poor little bird found itself redirected by strong wind, and then when it would right its course a healthy splash of water would slam over it like a wet blanket.

But it never stopped hunting whatever it was hunting.  The dock was covered with something too small to see but compelling enough to keep the sandpiper’s interest.

A male myrtle-form yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon's warbler; Dendroica coronata) perched on a branch (2009_04_16_015496)

Realizing the gusty environment made it too difficult to do photography in the open, I returned to the Audubon forest.  The cacophony of birdsong found itself challenged by the groaning and creaking of treetops swaying in rhythm to nature’s drumbeat.

As I stood quietly letting the chorus sweep over me, this male myrtle-form yellow-rumped warbler (a.k.a. myrtle warbler or Audubon’s warbler; Dendroica coronata) suddenly flew by.

He was singing the whole way.  I followed.

In one of the old fish ponds he lighted upon a branch.  And there he stood while sending his voice on the wind.

I took only one photo of him before falling under the spell of his music and beauty; after that, I stood and watched, listened, enjoyed.  And what a show he gave me before disappearing amongst thick woods.


That’s when a new voice caught my attention.  Behind where the warbler had stood, this hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) stayed hidden within a tangle of branches and vines while singing the afternoon away.

A few times it flitted up into the treetops before returning to the understory.  A few times I almost had a good photo.

Mostly I watched sans thinking about photography.

While taking pictures of nature can invigorate a weary soul, I’ve learned in four decades of life that being a simple observer has more power than does the lens.

Seeing these images that never quite measured up to my standards has reminded me of something: there are times when the camera is an obstacle, a detriment that inhibits our ability to thrive in nature’s care.

Sometimes it’s just more important to sit back and enjoy the show than it is to snap some pictures so you can prove you were in the theater.

The last walk left lonely

Written yesterday before I decided to go offline for the evening.  Yet even now as I post this, the sky has grown dark and forbidding as clouds heavy with rain float by overhead, and already they bring us more of the same…more rain…a tremulous dance performed to the unending beat of heavenly outpourings, one punctuated only by thunderous cymbals clapping to their own rhythm. . .

It has been more than two months since I’ve been able to enjoy a walk at the lake.  As I told Jenny,

I’d really like to start taking walks again! Ugh. At first, I loved the constant rain. I loved the cloudy skies and cool weather. I hated the high humidity levels but was willing to put up with them for the gorgeous storms and torrential downpours. Now I’m over it. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing, and this is the perfect example of that premise. Enough already! I want to take walks again. I want to know what a blue sky looks like, and I don’t just mean via tiny holes in an endless cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon. Occasional rain? Sure, that works. Even infrequent flooding and, of course, severe storms. But give me a break.

This coming from me represents nothing short of a biblical event.  I love rain!  I most assuredly love storms!  Nothing enchants me more than dark clouds and gusty winds and strong rain.  Thunder is music to my ears and lightning art to my eyes.

But not anymore.  At least not right now.  Tempests have become ubiquitous.  When one appears, no longer do I feel the enthralling fascination I once felt.  No, it’s become more noting that it’s still raining, still storming, rather than losing myself in the pleasure of trembling before nature’s power.

What began as a welcome respite from drought in March became a missing friend in April, but then it returned in May and hasn’t left us since.  I’m ready for this to end…at least for now.  Let us recover a bit such that the ground can be walked upon without sinking in mud up to my ankles.  Let the sun shine a bit and the heat settle down on us so that we might look forward to the next refreshing, cooling shower.  Let our ears thirst for the sound of approaching thunder, and let our eyes quiver at the unexpected sight of lightning dancing betwixt earth and heaven.  Let all of this become a joy again, rather than a tedious mess.

It occurred to me today that the one or two readers of this blog might feel the same way.  Because it has rained for two months, torrential rain that seemed as unending as intent on inflicting harm and damage, I realized that much of what I’ve posted here has been wrought of our ad nauseam floods.  Two words: BOR. ING.

Well, perhaps not for me, as I’m living it.  Even now, rumbling and roiling, billowing and boiling, a dangerous thunderstorm swims through the air overhead.  There is more rain, of course.

Yet both Jenny and I have increasingly spoken of the longing we share once again to enjoy walks at the lake, to bathe our bodies in nature’s bounty, to wallow away the time with wanderings free of schedules.

These things are simply not to be, however, for the constant deluge keeps the area one massive mud pit, an example of Texas quicksand wherein shoes are deposited without being returned, where nature takes a holiday to escape storm after storm after storm, where plants swim to keep alive, and where the only clear path is made of concrete, something which removes all but the most mundane discovery and joy from the experience.

So it has been for some time now, and so is the cause of my inability to provide new experiences and photographs from the world around me.

Instead of lamenting it and crying about it, however, today I’m going to revisit the last walk I was able to take, the last walk left lonely for the absence of walks to follow.  It was April 29, the day before the rains came, the day before the world changed into a wet tropical mess.  Visit with me that splendid morning now so long ago. . .

A lone male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) sleeping atop a fallen tree as a few American coots (Fulica americana) swim in the background in front of the water theater (191_9189)

A lone male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) sleeping atop a fallen tree
as a few American coots (Fulica americana) swim in the background
in front of the water theater

The community amphitheater in morning sunlight (191_9199)

The community amphitheater

One of the many communal birdhouses around the lake with male and female purple martins (Progne subis) and a lone male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) (192_9213)

One of the many communal birdhouses around the lake with
male and female purple martins (Progne subis) and
a lone male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The tiniest of flowers, blue fieldmadder (Sherardia arvensis), still covered with heavy morning dew (192_9216)

The tiniest of flowers, blue fieldmadder (Sherardia arvensis), still covered with
heavy morning dew

A lone blade of grass held upward (192_9218)

Wielded like a sword, a lone blade of grass points toward
the heavens

A field of Engelmann daisies (Engelmannia pinnatifida) and as yet unidentified white flowers (192_9238)

A field of Engelmann daisies (Engelmannia pinnatifida)
and as yet unidentified white flowers

A field of wildflowers with the lake in the background (192_9275)

A field of wildflowers

A grove of trees near home (192_9292)

Standing amidst a grove of trees near home

Finally, some photos of my favorite bird, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  They are common in this area, especially around the lake.  I chanced upon this male perched atop an electrical wire.  Although the photos were taken from some distance, I still find myself entranced by this creature, even by these images, as no other bird captivates me so. . .

A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched atop an electrical wire (192_9278)
A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched atop an electrical wire (192_9279)

[I have but a few photos left from this walk and intend to post them at a later date; perhaps under different circumstances I would claim I’m saving them for a rainy day. . .]