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Friday, May 11, 2018

The Lower Rio Grande Valley

Mouth of the Rio Grande River

The Texas coastal region ends at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and the Mexican border. The beautiful Rio Grande Valley is home to several threatened species of critters - most notably the ocelot and the Kemp's Ridley turtle. It's a migratory byway for birds and butterflies in the spring and fall.
South Padre Island sunset

There's so much natural beauty to love - from the coast and the bays to the blooming of the prickly pear cactus. The Gulf of Mexico attracts recreational fishermen, surfers and boaters.

It is a photographer's paradise. As we prepare to leave for the summer, I'm always a little nostalgic. I look through my photos and become entranced with the area's beauty all over again.
Early morning hatchling release

So, I just want to share a little of my fabulous winter and urge you to visit the Rio Grande Valley and create your own memories.

Visit Sea Turtle, Inc. If you're here in the summer, you may have the good fortune of witnessing a hatchling release. Birders love the World Birding Centers throughout the valley. The island is home to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. The valley and its wildlife refuges offer many outdoor activities.

The Gulf Coast and the Laguna Madre offer plenty of opportunities for water sports and the beach. Take a dolphin cruise or enjoy a sunset on a catamaran.

Oh, if you like seafood, especially shrimp, you'll be visiting paradise. If you prefer Mexican food, I can attest that it's awesome, too. The valley is a year-round tourist destination that I'm proud to call home!

Spring migration

Prickly pear in bloom

Gladys Porter Zoo
in Brownsville

Parrots in Brownsville

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Teddy Bear Sisters

Sisters Julia Lewis (L) and Linda Lewis Lee (R)
When I attended Branson Veterans Week last November, I interviewed these two lovely, fascinating ladies I claim as dear friends. This article appeared in the MWSA Dispatches Winter 2018 issue.

Service comes in many forms and shapes. Two sisters, Julia Lewis and Linda Lewis Lee, chose a unique path that springs from their creative minds. Fashioning teddy bears from veterans’ uniforms has become a mission of love and joy for them.

I first met the sisters through Linda’s husband, Roy Lee, who was a WWII veteran. Julia is a veteran of the Missouri National Guard. Over the years, they have shared their love of Branson (MO) Veterans Week, their creative spirits, love, laughter and lots of great gumbo. It’s been my good fortune to share many good times with them.

Julia and Linda come from a family of 13 siblings – six girls and seven boys. Out of necessity, their mother made all of their clothes. The sisters learned sewing skills at a young age. Julia learned to embroider at the age of five.

Their love of the military comes from a family history of service. Julia spent 24 years in the Missouri National Guard. Two brothers served in Korea and two in Vietnam. Another joined the Air Force.

“I’d love to have a teddy bear made from my dad’s (husband’s, wife’s or mother’s) uniform,” became a comment they frequently heard. “To many, it’s a way to hold a loved one close to their hearts and to remember the sacrifices he or she made,” Julia said.

Julia and Linda have responded to these requests and to date, between the two of them, have made over 300 bears. Not all of them are made from military uniforms. Many times it’s a favorite quilt that Grandma made or a special piece of clothing that a loved one wore.

Linda sold her first bear to an airman being deployed. He wanted Linda to make a bear so his three-year-old daughter wouldn’t forget him while he was gone. Another customer asked her to make a bear out of her mother’s 100-year-old blue fox coat.

For years, Julia has worked with a special needs camp in the St. Louis area. She has made dozens of bears and other articles for the kids involved. At the Town & Country Fair in Washington, MO, she has taken home many blue ribbons and a “Best of Show” trophy. 

The sisters’ greatest sense of accomplishment comes from creating bears that keep memories alive for families of military personnel. They take pride in replicating a person’s uniform, including pockets, patches and medals.

Julia lives in St. Louis, MO, and Linda in Shreveport, LA. Their “teddy bear” projects have brought them closer over the last few years, especially since Linda’s husband, Roy Lee, passed. They talk almost daily, share ideas for bears and work together on projects. The bears give them a reason for frequent extended visits.

Not only do they make the bears, they also fall in love with every creation. Since each one is custom-made, Julia and Linda find that the bears develop their own personalities.

Most of the bears are created from special orders and take anywhere from four days to a week to complete.

If you have a uniform or a piece of your family’s history that you’d like to save and share with family members, the teddy bears provide an ideal way to do so. Julia and Linda would be happy to create a special bear for you or a loved one.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Gift of Birding Photography

Red-lored Parrots

Life is filled with decisions that change you in ways you never dreamed.

Several years ago, I wrote a book about nature cinematographer John Bax. During the interview and writing process, he took me out on photography sessions with him. At the time, his interest centered on the parrots of the Rio Grande Valley and that led us to days and evenings in Brownsville, Texas.

John Bax biography
He taught me photography techniques and created an interest in birding. Most of all, he taught me patience and silence. In his eighties, he would stand behind his camera for hours to get the right shot in the right light at the right moment. I watched and marveled at his talent, passion and perseverance.

I listened to his stories of birding throughout Canada, the US, Mexico, Central America and South America. His work, and that of his photographer friends, amazed me. Even though I focused on the writing of the book, little by little, I fell in love with the birds he filmed. I already loved the Rio Grande Valley, but he awakened in me a passion for its natural wonders.

Orioles fighting for an orange
John passed away before I completed the book, but his memory is very much alive. Whenever I pick up my camera, he is there with me. I wish I had known him longer and learned more, but I will always be grateful for the time I spent with him.

Northern Perula
This spring as in every year since I met John, I've spent a lot of time on South Padre Island searching for the birds that stop by during spring migration. I learn a little bit more every time I'm out there. Nature photographers are an amazing group of generous-hearted souls who willingly share their knowledge and their passion.

I have an average camera - a Canon Rebel with kit lenses - and I'm lousy at recognizing bird songs. I'm still a wanna-be birder, but I've made friends and met birders who make each visit memorable. And I have memories of John.

From him I learned patience and with the birds, that's pure gold.

Thanks, John! You enriched my life!

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My hummingbird adventure

Banding the bird I later held

I felt her rapid heartbeat but I couldn't feel her weight. Her brilliance captivated me as she paused in my hand for a few seconds before flying away. I was completely smitten.

Kelly Bryan had just banded the 4-gram bird with a tiny numbered band. The silver jewelry around her leg will permit future banders and birders to identify her and track her behavior.

Each little ring is a band
The 50-degree morning, cold for the Texas Rio Grande Valley, didn't stop a couple dozen avid admirers from appreciating the beauty of the hummingbirds that were banded. While we watched, Kelly captured several buff-bellied and ruby-throated females and one ruby-throated male.

After he had secured the band, he conducted several measurements before giving the bird a much-appreciated drink. The hummingbirds needed the energy to fly away afterward. Several of us willingly volunteered to hold the birds in our hands until they oriented themselves and flew back to freedom. Kelly treated the birds with loving care, keeping them as short a time as possible.

As we watched, Kelly regaled us with stories of his 50-year banding experience. The thrill of recapturing and following some of the same birds keeps him coming back year after year. In some instances, he has found the bird in multiple locations across the country. This week he has banded hummingbirds at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, as well as a private home and the Hugh Ramsey Nature Center in Harlingen.

The data from each banding is stored in an international database giving scientists, researchers and birders information on the habits, migration and lifespans of the birds.

It's now hours later and the enchantment has not lessened. It's a life experience to hold such a tiny, beautiful creature in the palm of your hand. Do you think I should ever wash my hand again?
She gets her jewelry

A male ruby-throated hummingbird

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Twin Cities - Twin Churches

The Basilica of St Mary Minneapolis

The Twin Cities can boast two magnificent churches that attract the faithful and tourists. They are both Roman Catholic and architectural marvels. Both are located on hills and stand tall in their respective cities.

In 1680, Father Louis Hennepin, a missionary, started the first Catholic settlement in Minneapolis. From a tiny shed church, the parish and buildings grew as immigrants came in droves to Minneapolis.

A basilica is an honorary title designated by the pope. The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis became the first basilica in the United States. The church opened in 1914. Today it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Altar in basilica
The basilica ceiling
The basilica covers an entire block and is the dream child of Archbishop John Ireland. At the beginning of the 20th century, he commissioned the building of a church in the Neoclassical/Baroque architectural style. The walls are built of white Vermont granite. The main entrance is a colonnaded portico with two 116-foot spires on each side. The grand dome measures 40 square feet at the base and rising 138 feet above the floor. In total, it stands 200 feet high.

It serves as the venue for area events including the annual Basilica Block Party weekend music festival.
Cathedral of St Paul

A cathedral is the home church of a bishop. The present Cathedral of St Paul is the fourth church building in a diocese dating back to 1841 and was completed in the early 20th century. The outside walls are built of granite from St. Cloud, MN. The church seats 3,000 and includes a Shrine of Nations with six individual shrines honoring the patron saints of the city's immigrants. In addition, the church encompasses four side chapels.

The cathedral is the third largest church in the US and the fourth tallest at 306.5 feet. It dominates the skyline from its perch on top of St. Paul's highest hill.

Altar in cathedral
In researching it, I learned a fun little piece of history. The original French Canadian settlement that would become St. Paul (named after the cathedral's dedication to the apostle Paul) was originally called Pig's Eye.

Pipe organ in cathedral
The cathedral is host to many local arts events throughout the year, including an organ concert series, Vocal Essence Choral Ensembles and the Minnesota Orchestra.

On our recent visit we stayed at the Residence Inn in Roseville, which offers close proximity to both Minneapolis and St. Paul. It is an ideal location for those of us who love to explore various places. For those like us who travel with their dogs, the Residence Inn is pet-friendly.

Disclosure: Visit Roseville MN ( hosted our visit to the Twin Cities, however, all opinions expressed in this article are my own.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis

More than 150 years ago, Minneapolis was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River. The river and St. Anthony's Falls, a natural waterfall, provided power for the sawmills and flour mills. Today the mills are part of the city's history, and the riverfront is a beautiful parkway that enriches the lives of citizens and visitors.

The Stone Arch Bridge is an early landmark. Completed in 1883, it tied the railroad to the new Minneapolis Union Depot. It remains the only arched stone bridge on the Mississippi River. At 2,100 feet long and 76 feet high, it has 23 arches.

Imagine 600 men working day and night, year-round, to complete the bridge in just under two years.

It continued to be used as a railroad bridge for years. In the 1990s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation repurposed the bridge as a pedestrian and bicycle trail. Today it is a key link in the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. It is an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The riverfront trails will make you fall in love with Minneapolis. Created and designed for walking, jogging and biking, the trails have historic markers, and are clean and well-kept. On a warm September day, the city's energy permeated the air. People of all ages were enjoying the day - from joggers and walkers to those using walkers or wheelchairs and parents with strollers.

It was as if the river that gave the city its first breaths is still giving its gifts today. As I strolled along the bridge, I saw the locks and dams that now control St. Anthony Falls and the river. I pondered a city's ability to use the river for commercial purposes, for beautification and for the well-being of its citizens. Minneapolis is doing just that. I understand that summertime sees a number of festivals in the area.

Take your phone and/or camera with you when you visit the trail and walk across the bridge. The views are fantastic.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Guthrie Theater, an architectural delight

The Guthrie Theater

Sometimes plans gone awry can produce a stroke of good fortune. We planned to start our first day in Minneapolis with a visit to the Mill City Museum. We drove downtown and located the museum only to discover that it was closed on Mondays. 

View from the 4th floor
We wandered around until nature’s call demanded we find facilities. A kind soul told us the Guthrie Theater, just across the street, had restrooms on the fourth floor.

Our helpful concierge
View when you enter the Endless Bridge
When looking at a visitor’s guide, we had talked about the theater but did not include it on our itinerary, thinking we didn’t have time to attend a performance. However, our chance visit turned into an awesome couple of hours exploring the architectural uniqueness of the building.

We wandered around the fourth floor, amazed at all the windows facing the downtown. Several comfortable chairs sat in strategic locations at each window. The concierge urged us to explore the Endless Bridge, a 178-foot-long cantilever structure that juts out facing the Mississippi River. We walked up the bridge and out onto the deck for a great view of downtown Minneapolis.

Stone Arch Bridge from Endless
Bridge deck
View from the 9th floor Amber Room

He then told us to visit the Amber Room on the ninth floor for a different viewing of the same scene. That room casts a warm-honey glow over the downtown and offers a birds-eye view of the nearby landmark Gold Medal Flour sign.

Gold Medal Flour
Standing on the ninth floor looking at the Stone Arch Bridge, we could hardly wait to get back to the first floor and check it out. I'll share more on that next time.

We loved staying at the Residence Inn in Roseville because of its proximity to both Minneapolis and St Paul. We found it great to explore the cities during the day and return to Roseville to enjoy its many restaurants in the evenings.

Disclosure: Visit Roseville MN ( hosted our visit to the Twin Cities, however, all opinions expressed in this article are my own.