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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Learning about Birds

I'm thorougly enjoying my volunteer job at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. As I struggle to learn about bird identification, I realize how many species of birds either make their home in, or migrate to, the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

I'm totally fascinated by the birders - the knowledge, enthusiasm and energy they have for birds. Some come to the Center and spend hours on the boardwalks looking for new species. Each new identification thrills them - I think the hunt becomes as much fun as the actual sighting.

Last night I talked with avid birder Nan Wisherd, owner of Cable Publishing. She told me she identifies birds by sight but her sister identifies them by sound. I think sound would be very difficult for me. It seems so much easier to learn about their physical characteristics and habits than to distinguish their songs. I even have a hard time determining the direction of the sound when there is more than one bird.

There's one bird I really want to see, the Red-Crowned Parrots shown in the photo above (photo from site). Red-Crowned Parrots, normally living in Mexico, come as far north as the Rio Grande Valley. They are most often seen in flight and have been seen near Fort Brown in Brownsville, Harlingen, Rio Hondo, Pharr, the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco and at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Branson ranked as Top 10 Destination for Families in 2010

Kara Williams of the VacationGals blog ( ranked Branson as one of the top 10 family destinations on the Fodor travel blog ( Other destinations in the top 10 included Hawaii, any national park, Colorado, Italy, Germany in winter, and Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Here's what Williams wrote about Branson:

"Sure, the "live music capital of the world" is a little hokey, but according to everything I've read about this touristy city, my kids would love it-from the permanent Titanic museum, to the plethora of mini-golf courses and go-kart tracks, to the area amusement parks. The Branson Airport debuted in 2009, with low-cost flights from AirTran and Sun Country. And 2010 brings a new zip-line tour and Branson Auto Museum, plus live shows "Yakov's Moscow Circus," "The Legend of Kung Fu" and "Cirque Montage," aerobatics from Cirque du Soleil alumni. When you get your fill of man-made attractions, you can always seek out local lakes and recreation trails for fishing, boating, hiking, horseback riding and biking."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

South Padre Island Birding Center

We spent another day volunteering at the Birding and Nature Center. With the warmer weather, both the birds and the visitors are out and about.

Our goal is to learn more about birds and other wildlife in South Texas. Three alligators make their home at the center but we've only seen one at this time.

Each person we meet adds a little more knowledge for us to absorb. We're loving the energy and enthusiasm of the people we meet.

The center is partnering with area colleges in a series of presentations about wildlife in the area. The first talk, Shore Birds in the Laguna Madre Bay, drew a full house.

Check out the new center at .

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Volunteers at the South Padre Island World Birding Center

Yesterday we spent our first four hours as volunteers at the South Padre Island World Birding Center. Neither of us knows much about birds and we want to learn more.

What really surprised us on our first day was our fascination with the bird watchers - even more than the birds. On a cold and windy day, Tim, our well-informed guide, led a group of about 15 out along the 4800 linear feet of new boardwalk. Everyone bundled up against the wind and cold, carried their binoculars and cameras, and sought out birds.

Many different species -both resident and migratory - searched for food. The cold brought fish to the top of the water so food was plentiful.

However the experienced birdwatchers were the highlight of the day. They amazed the rest of us with their knowledge, their eye for different species and their enthusiasm. They not only recognized the species of bird, but they told us about their feeding and migrating habits. When we could hardly see a bird, one of them would be explaining its characteristic markings.

Tim brought along a telescope that truly gave us a "bird's eye" view. For example, we had seen reddish egrets before, but until we saw one through the telescope, we had no idea how long and beautiful its red feathers really were. They were so fine they looked like hair.

Tim is a Texas Master Naturalist. His knowledge and teaching ability enhanced the walk.

The center is one of nine World Birding Centers in the Rio Grande Valley. It is the newest; it opened last September. The facility is beautiful inside and out. If you visit the island, be sure to stop by.

A deck runs along the back of the building and provides a beautiful setting for lunch or a place to hang out and enjoy nature. If you go to the top of the building, the view of the bay and causeway are fantastic. I bet it's a great place to watch a sunset. By the way, after we braved the cold wind and climbed to the top, we found out there was an elevator. Guess it just wouldn't have been the same.

Inside we toured the facility, watched a beautiful video about South Padre Island and learned about our jobs. The facility houses an exhibit that showcases the nature - geology, plant and animal life - of the island and Laguna Madre Bay.

The Rio Grande Valley boasts the largest number of bird species in the US - over 500 species live in, migrate to or through, the Valley each year.

South Padre Island is one of the longest and least developed barrier islands in the world, The island provide habitat for 17 animal species of national or statewide conservation concern. The Laguna Madre, sheltered between the island and the mainland, is one of only five hypersaline lagoons in the world. The Laguna Madre is important for both commercial and recreational fishing and provides internationally significant habitat for birds, mammals, and fish nurseries.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Still Reminiscing

If you're old enough to remember the Burma-Shave signs scattered across America's highways, you'll remember both the humor and the absolute need to see all five signs so you could get the entire jingle. There were a total of six signs but the sixth one always said "Burma-Shave."

When I read an article about the signs in the Springfield News-Leader earlier this week, it brought back the memory of many trips both as a child and as an adult. Very occasionally, it's still possible to find a remnant of this extremely successful marketing campaign.

For those of you too young to remember, Burna-Shave manufactured men's shaving cream. In 1925, the company initiated an advertising campaign that rocketed the company to national prominence.

The company placed a series of staggered signs along a stretch of highway. The signs contained a jingle ending with the "Burma-Shave" name. From the mid-1930s until 1963, travelers across America read and loved the jingles. By 1936, the small company from Minneapolis rose to the #2 seller of men's shaving cream.

Take a moment to travel down memory lane with these samples of a bygone era:

She kissed the hairbrush by mistake
She thought it was her husband Jake.

The cannibals took just one view
And said he looks too nice to stew. (1937)

Don't pass cars on curve or hill
If the cops don't get you morticians will. (1940)

Soldier Sailor and Marine
Now get a shave that's quick and clean (1941)

Tested in peace Proven in war
Better now than ever before. (1945)

This will never come to pass
A back-seat driver out of gas. (1960)

Henry the Eighth sure had trouble
Short term wives Long term stubble. (1960)

Don't lose your head to gain a minute
You need your head Your brains are in it. (1963)

Everyday we do our part
To make your face a work of art. (1963)

I couldn't find any statistics about who read the signs. My guess is that most men, women and children read and laughed about them as they traveled along those highways.

For a listing of jingles throughout the years, visit

Monday, January 4, 2010

Random Thoughts

I awoke this morning to the sound of seagulls. I lay in bed remembering little incidents throughout my life. Funny how those thoughts created a pattern.

One of my earliest memories is of catching fireflies - my brothers and I called them lightning bugs - and putting them in a jar. We poked little bitty holes in the lid so they wouldn't die. Then we carried our "lanterns" around and proudly displayed them to each other and any adult who would listen to us. I loved them but always felt sad if we left them in the jar too long and they died.

Visiting Uncle Joe on his farm always created a sense of adventure. He had cows and had to go out to the pasture every evening, bring them in and milk them - by hand. I loved going with him - his dog seemed to know more than people did about where the cows were and how to get them back. Once we made it back to the barn, cats and kittens came running. My favorite time was when Uncle Joe fed them milk - direct from the cow. Streams of milk soaked the faces of kittens who gobbled it up almost in the blink of an eye.

I learned to shoot a gun but was an abject failure at hunting. I couldn't see the rabbits at a distance. Besides that I certainly didn't want to kill the cute little creatures.

We moved to Colorado when I was 13. My mom's one requirement in a home was a picture window that looked out on Pikes Peak. She taught me to love the mountains. She loved natural beauty and nurtured that love in her home and paintings. We lived near the Garden of the Gods and I fell in love with the red sandstone formations.

Colorado gave me my first eagle sighting. I still remember that magnificent creature swooping down through the mountains. I discovered mountain streams, trout, and critters I'd never seen.

I was a teenager before I found the sea and it captured me completely. The timelessness, the continuity and the sheer beauty - the view, smell and sounds - have called to me ever since.

On the Texas Gulf Coast I found dolphins, pelicans, shore birds, migratory birds and seashells. My brother Gary took the photo of the birds.

 Last summer we watched sea turtle hatchlings make their way home to the Gulf waters. Although their odds of reaching adulthood are slim, all of us onlookers cheered the little ones on in their scramble to the water.

On our back porch, we marvel at the stillness - and the speed of movement - of a little iguana that makes his home with us. We watch the seagulls and the other birds who come for the winter.

Last year I fished for salmon in Lake Michigan, toured lighthouses, got up close and personal with elk in an elk preserve, and walked through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park.

The photo on the right is Grand Haven Lighthouse on the coast of Lake Michigan.

Life is good and it is the little things that give pleasure if we take the time to enjoy. From fireflies to sand dunes, it's all a part of God's earth. Just the thought of the diversity of life and our planet makes me realize that I am just a tiny piece of the whole - and that when I stress over little day-to-day issues, I need to stop and understand that in the big picture, the great majority of them are insignificant.

The earth in all its natural forms and beauty will still go on. I want to enjoy it, explore it, and let its beauty consume me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Back to Work

It's the start of a new year and a new decade - a time for renewal, setting goals, generating creative energy and enjoying the world we live in.

I'm back at my computer - ready to share my observations of my little piece of this planet. I received the Amazon Kindle for Christmas from all my family. What a great gift. I can take the world of books with me wherever I go in a convenient, light-weight gadget. I already love it.

My son Mark suggested one of the first books I should buy - he actually bought it for me - was Bill Bryson's The Short History of Everything ().

I mention this because Bryson introduces the book with a discussion on the miracle of life - describing all the atoms that had to come together to make you, you and me, me. Although he writes with a good measure of humor and whimsy, he presents a picture of accidental and amazing coincidences that lead us to the moment and place we are today. He states:

"To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once."

Consider all that is involved in us being who we are. If we totally ignore the beginning - when there was just a void - we still have to stand in awe of the consequences of life that led so many generations to successfully reproduce from the beginning of time through to our parents. If even one little chromosome had been different, we would not be the person we are.

Most of us have wondered at some time what would have happened if our parents had not met or had met someone else. Multiple that by thousands of generations - it's an awesome concept to ponder.
This is not an essay on religion versus science. Although I certainly look at it from the view that God created our world, I think it's just as amazing if you look at it strictly from a scientific viewpoint.

Given that I am here writing this today and I am the result of this amazing coming together of atoms, I have much to be thankful for. For me to be here at all, everything up to this moment has happened for a purpose.

How's that for motivation? That we are the result of trillions and trillions of atom "changes" throughout time is a fact that boggles the mind. Bryson puts it into perspective:

"Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimly wounded or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly - in you."

If all that happened for a purpose, then it is our job - each of us - to make our lives count. It means that each of us have gifts and resources within us that present the opportunity to make our special mark on the world.

An awesome responsibility and an exciting challenge! I hope that all of us - you and me included - use the energy and life within us to make the world a better place, to motivate others and to share kindness.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year from South Texas

Happy New Year!

Just one week ago last night we braved a blizzard in Kansas City to celebrate Christmas at church - before Santa and all the fun! Yesterday we walked the beach in 70+ degree, sunny weather. Need I tell you how much I appreciate South Texas?

The drive from Kansas City through Arkansas and Oklahoma into eastern Texas avoided the storm that passed through Oklahoma and northern Texas. It's a drive that can be interesting or boring - all depends if you're just going from Point A to B, or enjoying the journey. We passed through some interesting little towns and marveled at some of the names - our favorite was "Skullville Cemetery." By the time we passed Cucumber Creek, the wonderment of the naming process totally fascinated me.

In southern Oklahoma we drove through the Ouachita Mountains. Even in the winter, they are a beautiful range.

In Longview, Texas we found the Jalapeno Tree Restaurant. It is a regional chain. We really liked our food. The restaurant offers a complimentary avocado dip, flour tortillas and an ice cream cone in addition to the chips and salsa. Our entrees were excellent. We'll make sure we stop at one of their locations again.

Entertainer Neal McCoy makes his home in Longview. We thought of him and look forward to his performances in Branson this year.

We stopped in Dayton to spend time with friends. The visit was friendly and warm but the weather was still cold.

We've been here three days - already hit the beach and our favorite restaurants. In our absence the World Birding Center on South Padre Island opened, Dirty Al's has a new restaurant location in Port Isabel and the Ocean Towers building was imploded.

The fishermen, kite flyers, dolphin watchers, birders, kayakers and parasailers are out enjoying the Bay and the Gulf beaches.

We are blessed to live here!

Wishing all of you a successful and happy 2010!