I was going to write about snakes this month, but I’m camping and got distracted.
After a dinner of canned chicken noodle soup, I heard the soft “sip” call of a Black-crested Titmouse behind my picnic table. I’m studying titmice, and so have banded several birds in this park (Abilene State Park) including one near my campsite. I rummaged in the car to find my binoculars (discarded for dinner because I am a lazy bird-”watcher” who usually just bird-”listens” when possible).
I found the titmouse in a small live oak in the dense woods near the picnic table and was thrilled to see it was my banded bird (most of the others are a half a mile away). It was my bird! I saw orange and black plastic bands on one leg and the aluminum Fish and Wildlife Service band on the other. I’ve put the color bands in unique combinations on the titmice’s legs so I know who’s who and know for certain when I’m observing the same bird.
I followed Orange-Black for almost a half hour. Who knew a bird, with its tiny but powerful wings, could move so slowly? The little bird hopped, and hopped, and occasionally gave calm “sip” call notes. I wondered if it’s talking to itself or another silent bird nearby. Once a distant titmouse made a scolding call and Orange-Black responded with a few short scolds of “rrank rrank.”
Other birds sometimes pulled my attention from the slowly moving titmouse. Dots in the hazy blue sky suddenly focused into a whirling flock of Mississippi Kites. A Turkey Vulture zipped by on invisible air currents. A bizarre crow-like coughing sound turned out to be a raven (they occur regularly in the southwest part of Texas, unlike at home) cruising over the forest.
Suddenly I realized that I need to keep track of where my marked bird is going, so I head back to the car to grab my GPS. I figured that since it’s moving so slowly and keeps talking once in a while, I can find it again if I want to. Sure enough I went back through gaps in the underbrush and I found Orange-Black again after a brief wait. The air was still and cool (and now as I write this the mosquitoes have come out!), so I saw the little hops of the titmouse foraging.
Hop, hop, hop. Then it hung upside down from a branch, and smacked its beak several times after eating some tidbit. It peered up and down and sideways, cocked its head, and inspected all surfaces of the branches and leaves it was hopping over. “Pi-tuck-tuck-tuck.” That call was a Summer Tanager in the background. Other birds grabbed my attention again. Cardinals sang in the distance. At one point I was staring at the titmouse and jumped when two cardinals, a male and a female, came careening through the forest and almost hit me. I’m not sure who was more surprised, them or me.
I heard a slightly different “sip” note and noted a new tiny bird in the trees. A slender Nashville Warbler, a spring migrant, was foraging through on a different path than the titmouse. It also examined every leaf and branch with its bright dark eyes, but in a less acrobatic fashion than my titmouse.
OW! I was trying to keep following the titmouse but my openings in the briars kept requiring more and more acrobatics to get through. Sometimes I failed in those acrobatics and my skin was pierced by a thorn. The titmouse had only foraged through a few trees in almost 30 minutes, so I knew that if it went further I would lose it because of the briars. Then the titmouse neighbor to the south began singing. I waited to see if my bird, Orange-Black, would sing. Sure enough, it listened, and after a few minutes responded with a song! They sang back and forth a few times, but both stopped. More vigorous singing can wait until the morning. I’ll be up hopefully before they are and can listen to them maintain the invisible boundaries between their territories.
Sitting outside all day and working on my bird study forces me to slow down and look at every little thing in life, whether it’s following a tiny bird through big trees or marveling (and shying away from) the seemingly infinite variety of harmless jumping spiders on my picnic tables.
Even the briars that I stumble through are fascinating as they intertwine up trees and shelter cardinal nests. Whether you are at home or away, keep your eyes peeled for the little details in our world. You will always find wonders to delight you!
The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be June 1 and July 6. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the forest service district office in Decatur. Call Mary Curry (see below) or the forest service at (940) 627-5475.
Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.