Birds in the Front Room

There is a tiny urban park in Corpus Christi which is maintained by volunteers but deliberately kept wild to attract the birds. Blucher Park is about half a mile from the coast and therefore gulls and egrets and other shorebirds will often be seen flying over it. The sunken path also has a small creek running through the middle, and is overgrown in places, and birds of course love it, especially during the spring migration; even before you enter, you can hear all their singing. I particularly like the creek area where, partially hidden by a tree, you can take a peek at the birds taking a bath and shaking off their feathers – English sparrows and squawking grackles particularly like it there. But you never know what you will see – a dozen yellow warblers may come and perch, and peck, on long dandelion stalks just a few feet away, loudly twittering as though catching up on the news; or a couple of bluebirds will flutter from branch to branch on a nearby anacua tree, which in spring is splattered with wax-yellow berries. A bright lemon bird (I’m not sure what that is), or a scarlet tanager, will perch on top of a canary date palm (whose fronds, I’m pleased to see, are growing back following the February snowstorms). I hear a drumming sound, turn, and am thrilled to see two pileated woodpeckers with their exotic red crowns drilling into a skinny palm, woodpeckers I have only previously seen in Mexico. I turn again, and to my surprise spot a rarely sighted chuck-will’s-widow, sitting as still as a stone on a branch. The park is so intimate that as I watch all these avian residents and visitors, I feel as though I’m invading their privacy, it’s like being in a stranger’s front room.

Though Blucher Park is a jewel for birders, it is often empty during the week. Part of the reason, apart from its lack of manicured paths, is that it is situated where the richer and poorer parts of town meet, and it is not unusual, sadly, to see a homeless person sleeping nearby. But once, Blucher Park was the private ‘park’ of the Blucher family – German immigrants who became prominent business leaders in Corpus Christi from the mid-1800s on. In 1942 they deeded the park to the city as a bird sanctuary and just opposite it are two of the lovely Victorian houses they used to own; one is now a lawyer’s office, the other privately owned.

A stone’s throw away is the first library of Corpus Christi, called La Retama for the yellow-blossoming native Texas tree. I first noticed it because of the rather splendid concrete sculpture of a century plant outside. The library was founded a hundred years ago by the La Retama Women’s Study Group, and principally on behalf of young ladies. After many sponsored lemonade stands, Mexican and chicken dinners and picture shows, the library was able to employ its first paid librarian – a Miss Marie Blucher.

A mile to the north of Blucher Park is the small Old Bayview Cemetery, the oldest federal military cemetery in Texas, constructed by the US Army before the Mexican-American war. I haven’t yet visited the cemetery and I’m sure that Mike, who is not a birder but a keen historian, will wish to see it, too. I will of course have my binoculars to hand, just in case!

A Graveyard of Fish and Flowers

The terrible snowstorms we experienced recently in Texas led to a number of people dying, extended power losses, broken pipes/contaminated water (still a problem for some), and unsafe roads. Michael and I experienced a burst pipe (little damage thankfully but we had no running water for several days) and desperate for a hot shower and to wash our clothes, we drove to our house in Corpus Christi as soon as we were able, filled with trepidation at what the situation there might be. We were in luck! Following a small outside pipe repair on a hydrant by Michael, the house was fine. Unfortunately the flowers and many shrubs hadn’t taken so well to the prolonged freeze: all around the town the ubiquitous oleanders with their dark green leathery leaves that normally bloom brightly all year round, were blossomless, and the leaves olive-green (at best) to brown in colour. The native bamboo on the coast was brownish, too. Non-native palms didn’t do too well either. Most plants, however, should spring back.

But the sad thing, when I took Leia for a walk that afternoon, was seeing all the frozen fish on Corpus Christi bay. I know little about Texas fish (except that we have a lot of grouper, flounder and drum, and speckled trout is the fish to catch), so I just made a note of the fishes’ patterns and unusual shapes: some were eel-like with pointed ‘snouts’, some sported pretty star and honeycomb patterns, some had what looked like small horns, some had whisker-like fins and there were several different-shaped flatfish. Sprawled around were also many silver fish that can often be seen diving in out of the water. But most of the fish were colourless, with only in some cases a few streaks of their original colour – purple, lime, shimmering blue, red. I was particularly fascinated by those with black wiggly stripes all over their bodies, like a maze.

As we were leaving the park, I spotted, on the patio of a deserted house, two large frozen turtles that lay next to a huge dark fish with its mouth open and sharp teeth bared. And up at Oso Bay that evening for our evening walk, I almost tripped over a dead raccoon. So sad.

The following morning, we went to Portland bay, about 25 minutes’ drive further along the coast. On getting out of the car I’d never heard such a cacophony of shorebirds, all there to enjoy the feast of not only the standard shell fish which are stuck in the sand when the tide goes out (mainly clams in their large, tough shells), but dead fish of course, too. Out on the sea a group of white pelicans merrily floated along, constantly poking their beaks in and out. Even a turkey vulture came down to the beach for breakfast, the first time I’d seen one on the sand.

In San Antonio, we had at least been able to help the bird life by keeping the feeder filled through the low temperatures (twice it went to 7 degrees F at night). We not only had the usual scarlet cardinals and black tufted titmice twittering around it, but also house finches (their winter breasts looking less raspberry and more scarlet in winter); goldfinches; carolina wrens; mourning doves; American sparrows and, of course, our local grey ‘squirrel bird’ who has been getting fatter by the day. Michael and I were well fed, too, with my homemade bread and cookies to eat. Luckily, we happened to have plenty of stuff in, never dreaming the stores would be shut for days.

Mattie and I both agreed that it was like being back in England in the snow. And surprisingly, Leia the dog loved romping around in it, even more so, perhaps, than romping in the soft sand dunes at the coast. It has in fact snowed here every few years for some decades now and really, the state should have prepared itself by this time. But there is always something, or someone, to blame, and I will be surprised if the powers that be get their act together soon.