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Anita’s Blog – Photo Bucket List

I was bursting with excitement! Finally! A photograph of a roadrunner!

Greater roadrunner. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

It’d been on my photo-bucket list since my only other sighting some 10 years ago on Inspiration Road, in Mission, Texas, when I happened to be without a camera. The vision stayed with me – as only those photo-ops-that-got-away do. I recall a flash of brilliant neon blue gleaming in the afternoon sun, and then it was gone, blending with the browns and golds of the roadside grasses before cutting into the thorn scrub.

In August, I usually write about my musings on siren songs of cicadas – which I’m not hearing much this year – instead, this is about an idea for a good dog day afternoon activity: a tram ride through Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, in Mission.

Our fellow South Texas Border Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist member, Jani McGee, drives the Thursday afternoon tram every hour on the hour from 1 to 4 p.m. Meet at the visitor center, grab a can of cold lemon iced tea and hop on the tram. You can ride around more than once. Don’t forget your camera – there’s more activity than you’d expect in this heat of the day excursion.

Here's the link for more park information: 2800 S. Bentsen Palm Drive, Mission, TX, 956-584-9156.

I went for a photo op of wild turkeys and wasn’t disappointed! We saw a flock of male Rio Grande turkeys foraging in the shade around picnic benches soon after we started the tour; the female flocks, with their young, we saw later, but were well-hidden. On down the road, fellow tram riders pointed out a large great kiskadee nest in a tall Mexican ash tree alongside the trail and an Altamira oriole nest in another tree.

Male Rio Grande wild turkey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Male Rios. Males and females segregate while the females raise their young. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A great kiskadee nest, said to have an additional side door. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Altamira orioles seem to build their nests at the edge of a tree canopy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Texas Ebony trees were blooming and full of lyside sulphur butterflies. Texas persimmon trees, next to the trail, were laden with fruit, a rare sight, as birds generally pick them off as quickly as they ripen. Several brasil trees were full of ripe, black fruit like I’d never seen before; coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, opossums and quail vie with the birds for these coveted berries.

Blooming Texas ebony aflutter with lyside sulphur butterflies. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Texas persimmon tree heavy with fruit. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Brasil, a great native tree for feeding wildlife. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Jani stopped often for photo ops, pointing out coyote scat and other deposits in the middle of the road. At one stop, just as we were about to take off, something in the distance was approaching at speed down the middle of the road. I aimed the camera through the tram windshield to get a shot of whatever it was. As it got closer, Jani said, “roadrunner.” I began shooting. The bird was running hell-for-leather, chattering away, like it was flagging us down to help with an emergency. As it neared the tram, it scooted off the road and slowed its pace, obviously familiar with the vehicle. I slid out of the tram and quietly walked to the rear and captured more photos. Voila! Just like that! I got my bucket-list-photo of a greater roadrunner. It was thrilling!

Greater roadrunner charging down the middle of the road. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

And he's off again! (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

If you haven’t received notice, the greater roadrunner is the newest Texas conservation license plate in a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department program that helps raise money to support and expand wildlife programs, habitat conservations work and nature tourism in Texas. It can be ordered online:

At home, after the great roadrunner escapade, a bird I never really thought about getting a close-up of came about by pure happenstance – as in I interrupted activity at the back of our property near the edge of the forest. I back-tracked quickly to the house for my camera, crept back to the scene but the activity had already dispersed. Two crested caracaras were in the mesquite tree above where the activity had been. I got a couple of shots of them and then advanced and managed a quick shot of the last vulture on the ground before it jetted off. But never mind, I thought, I have a lot of turkey vulture photos. What a surprise I had when later I viewed the photos on my computer. My first thought was that I’d captured some ancient reincarnation from the dark side. I’d photographed a black vulture.

Black vulture. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I’ve written about turkey vultures because they frequent the area where I live, and I have numerous photos of them. Black vultures were only a tailless silhouette in the sky and would only get passing mention as such. How I’ve escaped noticing what a black vulture’s head looks like all these years, I don’t know, but in my defense, I’d never photographed one up close, and the description of them is on the verso side of turkey vultures in my favorite Texas birding book, so I have not studied their looks.

Black vultures range from Texas east in the southern United States and all of Mexico. They are expanding into New York and the southern Midwestern states. They are described as a common to locally abundant resident in the eastern two-thirds of Texas. While turkey vultures tend to stay away from urbanization, black vultures are much more abundant in city scenes, especially around landfills.

Turkey vultures have a slick, bare head, but the head and neck of black vultures is covered with wrinkled grayish black skin in the shape of a peruke – that horsehair “powdered wig” headpiece of the British high court – which unwittingly gave the bird in my photo a persona of power, respect and dignity.

In the spiritual realm, black vultures are received with some revere; they symbolize rebirth or transformation: the birds take life from death through their scavenging. Other theories note that the color black can absorb negative energies, suggesting that seeing a black vulture can be an omen of change but that the one seeing the vulture will be protected during said transition and that beyond the change lies renewal and the beginning of something new.

Symbolism aside, in the field, the black vulture is kind of a bully. They are aggressive. They have keen eyesight but not the acute sense of smell as turkey vultures; but they’re smart and will look for turkey vultures feasting on carrion and then hone in – often in a family group, driving the shy, docile turkey vultures away. It’s not uncommon for crested caracara to scavenge together with vultures, as described in a 2018 blog post:

Crested caracara waiting to return to a carcass in the field. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The black vulture’s body size is about the same as a turkey vulture but with a smaller wingspan – 54 to 60 inches to the 68 to72 inches of a turkey vulture. Black vultures are usually in flocks; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website describes them as a highly social bird with fierce family loyalty. The offspring stay with their parents for years.

Turkey vultures rarely kill; black vultures, on the other hand, occasionally kill skunks, opossums, night-herons, leatherback turtle hatchlings and livestock, including young pigs, lambs and calves, according to the All About Birds Website.

Black vultures also eat eggs, other birds, turtles, lizards and may kill and eat young of some birds and sea turtles and small domestic animals; they also eat fruits, including bananas, palm fruits, coconuts and avocados as well as some plant material and rotting vegetables. Fully grown black vultures have few predators because of their aggressiveness. Eagles are larger and can overpower them; foxes and wildcats may sneak up on one as it eats carrion.



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