Monday, October 29, 2007

Majestic Monarchs

My mother's words still haunt me. "Why would you do that to those poor butterflies?" Back then, like today, I sat out old fruit to attract them to the yard. Back then the outcome was much worse since I fed them to my Jackson's chameleons. I was remembering that exact conversation (or should I call it scolding) while traveling west to Roma and San Ygnacio this past Friday. Countless butterflies, many of them monarchs, were trying to navigate over Highway 83 on their way south into Mexico. I found myself routing for them, thinking if they could only make it past this last obstacle, they would surely make it to their overwintering sites.

The fall migration of the monarch butterfly begins in the northernmost parts of the United States and even Canada in late August. Monarchs east of the Rockies fly south and those that reach the Gulf of Mexico follow the Coastal Flyway along and just inland from the coast. Their eventual destination is the Oyamel Forest in the Transvolcanic Plateau in Central Mexico. So when Scarlet e-mailed me Sunday morning about their mass arrival on South Padre Island, we made our plans for the day.

Countless monarchs cluster on the outermost leaves of the Tepeguaje trees at the Nature Center. Many are battered, nearly all exhausted, after traveling up to 50 miles a day during the fall migration.

As I approach for a closer shot, orange clouds take flight only to land in the exact spot seconds later.

The majority of monarchs that make the fall migration are in reproductive dormancy. Here, an unusual mating takes place during the migration.

Just before sunset, a small cluster prepares to roost for the night.

The last rays of the evening light up the wings of already sleeping, weary travelers.

"No other animal is more typical of a healthy environment, nor more susceptible to change, than a butterfly" (John Feltwell - The Encyclopedia of Butterflies). As I think about the past, I realize my attitude towards butterflies has changed as I've learned more about them. Living in deep south Texas and watching the array of colors during migration each year has only heightened my awareness. Butterflies have no control over their environment. They can only respond to changes that we humans bestow on them. That usually means surviving or dying. My fruit offerings are no longer meant to bring instant death. I can only hope my mom is watching!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Afternoon in Paradise - Conclusion

After completing our tour of the Sealife Center, we walked around Lighthouse Square and enjoyed the late afternoon breeze off the Laguna Madre. A few more photos were in order about town before heading home to Brownsville.

The Port Isabel Lighthouse sits on the now state owned Historical Site situated on just under an acre on the north side of Highway 100 just before crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island.

The State Historical Marker.

Out on the square, I was lucky enough to get this shot of a Brown Pelican as it soared overhead.

On the drive home, we stopped at the City Docks and found this fisherman cleaning his catch of the day.

Another angle as he begins filleting his catch.

An almost too bright reflection as the sun sets behind a thick cirrus shield. It was my last shot of a most unforgettable afternoon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Afternoon in Paradise - Part II

As mentioned in "An Afternoon in Paradise", Darlene and I were invited to be Scarlet's guest at the Dolphin Research and Sealife Center in Port Isabel. They had recently relocated from South Padre Island to Lighthouse Square, which was right off the Causeway on our way home. Even though it was late afternoon, Scarlet assured us her sister-in-law would be working late and would be happy to accommodate us. It would be a challenge to photograph "Denizens of the Deep" behind glass but we were up to the challenge and eager to see more wildlife.

Front entrance at 110 North Garcia Street between the historic Lighthouse and Pirate's Landing Restaurant.

This mermaid greets visitors coming off the Causeway from South Padre Island.

This Banded starfish was in one of the touch tanks that allows children (and adults!) to have a "hands-on" experience with local marine life.

A Lined starfish in one of the touch tanks.

A Shrimp eel poses perfectly!

One tank was dedicated to nothing but Sea anemones.

A very personable Gulf toadfish.

This Spotted scorpionfish was in the same tank.

A very odd Mantis shrimp. Their punch is powerful enough to break glass.

This Guitarfish was ALWAYS on the move.

A heated turtle pond housed several species of local brackish
and fresh water turtles. This is a female Red-bellied slider.

Our host took this large Florida horse conch out for a close-up.

I was intrigued by this mossy looking fellow, a Portly spider crab.

A juvenile Portly spider crab.

These were just a fraction of the species there. Many of my photos turned out fuzzy so check out Darlene's Blog to see more creatures. I'm still wondering how she persuaded the Moray eel to sit still for her! Next time you're passing through Port Isabel, be sure to make time to visit the nice folks at the Sealife Center. It's only $3 per person and your money goes to a very worthy cause.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Finally, a FROPA!

FROPA is an acronym used by the National Weather Service to denote a "Frontal Passage". We finally had our first significant cold frontal passage of the fall season in Brownsville this morning. For the past week, this cold front had been perfectly forecast. Even the timing of the front was almost perfectly predicted. So when it blew past our office at exactly 1057 am this morning, the 3 of us on shift were all outside waiting, eagerly anticipating the first blast of cool air felt here since last winter. What a blast it was! Low clouds rolled in, accompanied by northwest winds of 49 mph. The temperature dropped from 89 degrees to 62 degrees in less than an hour. What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, we tied the daily maximum high temperature of 92 degrees! Hopefully, we won't see another 90 degree day until next year. Unfortunately for us, that could be as early as January!

Low clouds on the horizon around 10 am depicting the location of the front. The building on the left is our inflation building where we inflate weather balloons.

On our doorstep!


Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Afternoon in Paradise

Friday was the start of my 3-day weekend and earlier in the week I suggested to Darlene that she take the day so we could do some photography. As the week wore on, it looked like Friday would turn into another work day for her and another snake work day for me. So it was a pleasant surprise when she called shortly after 1 pm and said she had finished for the day and was heading home. The weather was perfect so after she got home and changed, we grabbed our cameras and headed out, not really knowing where we might land. After a quick discussion about lunch, we decided to head for the island.

Thirty minutes to our east lies South Padre Island, a beautiful 4-mile stretch of world class beaches, hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. It's also the home of the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, a spectacular 50 acre sanctuary for our native species as well as birds and butterflies on their seasonal migration. We had been there many times over the years and it seemed the logical place to take photos. After a late lunch at "Daddy's", we drove over to the sanctuary.

As I had hoped, the butterfly garden was alive with butterflies. Gulf Fritillary's were everywhere as were several species of Skippers. One or two Monarchs were about which signaled the beginning of the fall migration. As I rounded the bend of the garden, I heard a familiar voice, that of Scarlet Colley. I've ran into Scarlet many times over the years, doing everything from post storm surveys to career days. She's always outgoing and friendly. She and her husband, George, own Colley's Fin to Feathers Photo Safaris on the island. We struck up a conversation about the butterflies and wildlife in general. She then asked if we had ever seen the alligator.

Now, I've heard a lot of people talk about the alligator that lives there in the salt marsh but I had never seen it. It even seemed a little far-fetched to me that an alligator would live in salt water. So when she offered to show us the alligator, we jumped at the chance. Out on the boardwalks we went and all the while Scarlet called "Aloishea!". I stopped to take a photo of a juvenile Great Blue Heron while Darlene and Scarlet proceeded on to the blind at the end of the southern-most boardwalk. To my amazement, through the cattails, I saw the familiar shape of an alligator's head that was slowly moving towards the sound of Scarlet's voice. Scarlet said she had known her 12 years and named her Aloishea from a children's book she remembered from her childhood. What an incredible bond between these two. You can read a tribute to these two special ladies on Darlene's Blog.

The afternoon could not have gotten much better in my opinion but Scarlet insisted we be her guests at the Sealife Center in Port Isabel on our way home. Details and photos of the creatures we met there will be forth coming in another blog. Photos of our "Afternoon in Paradise" are below. Enjoy!

Visitors are greeted to South Padre Island by this "photo-worthy" pull off, coming off the Causeway from Port Isabel.

"Daddy's" is owned by the nice folks who own "Dirty Al's".
The menu there includes Cajun Cuisine.

The South Padre Island Convention Center sits next to the Sanctuary.
You are greeted by an incredible Killer Whale mural painted by the acclaimed environmental artist "Wyland".

The World Birding Center's Visitor's Center is already being designed.

A view of the Laguna Madre from the Convention Center.
A viewing area at the end of one of the Sanctuary's boardwalks is visible in the salt marsh.

The Sanctuary's Butteryfly Garden attracts many species of butterflies.
Here, 2 Gulf Fritillary's take nectar from the same clump of Blue Mist.

Close-up of a Gulf Fritillary Butterfly.

Another visitor, a Painted Lady.

The Monarch migration has recently begun.

A juvenile Great Blue Heron tries to become invisible in the cattails.

A close-up before flight.

A common moorhen posed under the bird blind until...

"Aloishea" comes to greet us.

Detail of Aloishea's head. Her right eye is partially covered by a cataract.

Darlene takes a photo of Scarlet for her blog.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lovely but Lethal

One of my co-workers called Sunday afternoon. "I've got a pretty snake," he said. "Do you want me to bring it to work tomorrow?" "Sure," I said. "Will it stay in a shoebox or will it get out?'' "It will escape," I told him. "Put it in a pillowcase." "A PILLOWCASE," he shreaked. It should be noted, I was in a bit of a hurry since he called during the Cowboys-Patriots game and Dallas happened to be winning at the time (we all know how long the lead lasted!). I said a hurried "good-bye" and was sure that was the end of it. I couldn't imagine his wife letting him put a snake in one of her pillow cases. So I was pleasantly surprised when he walked into the office Monday morning holding a yellow pillowcase, tied perfectly at the neck. I even joked he was now a professional snake hunter.

What I found inside was a pretty snake, alright! It was a Texas Coral Snake, which just so happens to possess the most dangerous venom of any venomous snake in Texas. Texas Coral Snakes belong to the Elapidae Family which includes the mambas, cobras, taipans and sea snakes and they possess a highly toxic venom that attacks the nervous system. Granted, very few people are ever bitten by a coral snake since encounters are rare and they have a very small head and mouth. That combination makes bites to humans almost impossible. It's a myth, however, that the coral snake has to "chew" it's victim to inflict a venomous bite. I witnessed this first hand when trying to photograph this particular snake. It bit the black poster board I originally thought of using as a back ground. One bite left a sizable amount of venom and made the entire process of photographing this thing VERY NERVE-RACKING!

If you're ever lucky enough to see one of these beauties in the wild but aren't quite sure if it's indeed a coral snake, just remember this simple rhyme:
Red and yellow
Kill a fellow.
Red and black
Friend of Jack (or venom lack).

That pertains to the banding, of course. As you can see in the photo, the red bands touch the yellow bands. The milk snake, which is so often mistaken for a coral snake, has red and black bands touching. Instead of trying to determine which snake it actually is, it's probably a better idea to just let the snake pass and go it's way. Now that I think about it, I wonder how my co-worker even caught this thing. Hmm, if he only knew!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Art is All Around Us

The debate over whether "photography is art" has raged for years. Can photography indeed be considered it's own form of art? Many say no. Hardcore artists will tell you photography first has to be considered technical. Since a camera is involved, it's a mechanical process and since the camera does the work, the photographer then has nothing to do with it. I beg to differ.

But what is art? To me, art is nothing more than something that touches you. Be it a painting or a photograph, to me, it is art. A good photograph causes me to pause and reflect. I inevitably wish I had been the one to take the photograph. To me, it's a form of art and maybe even art in it's purist form.

Photography has made me take time to pause and look at the beauty around me. A simple walk through the back yard to feed our Venezuelan redfoot tortoises recently made me dash back into the house for the camera. Two quick shots. You be the judge.

Yellow Plumeria In Bloom
Native Cactus In Bloom

Would you display these in your home? Is photography art? I say a definite YES!