Painted Buntings

Summer is an oppressive season in southeast Texas.  Long days allow heat to build up–it can be nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit well after sunset–and the humidity doesn’t letup. If northerners are snowbound in winter, we’re sunbound in summer. We visited the Ecuadorean Amazon recently, where it was cool sometimes (cold, even), days were much shorter, wind pollination was refreshingly absent (or rare), and where one stands much less of a chance of being swarmed by mosquitoes than in summertime wildernesses of the temperate zone.

However, despite the unpleasantness of the season, one can still experience the beauty of nature here, as I found out less than two weeks ago when I saw a male painted bunting for the very first time. Ironically, I’ve lived within its breeding range for most of my life but never birded within its habitat during summer.  (Also ironic: I saw it only ten minutes from where I grew up!)

If one rises early enough and travels to its breeding grounds–a shrubby, overgrown prairie with not too few and not too many small- or medium-sized trees–then one might see a male painted bunting in a treetop, head thrown back, singing its lovely song.  It might even fly from treetop to treetop, singing at each location, as did the males I observed–a magical experience!  Here are a couple photos I took of one of them:

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In May, during the tail end of spring migration, I also saw a playful, beautifully green, female painted bunting in a nearby marsh.  I was observing a female indigo bunting when the female painted suddenly appeared and landed on the same stalk of grass, making them both drop down.  The indigo flew off, but the painted remained nearby.  Here’s the quick photo I took of it:

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An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

tanager by christine casas
Male scarlet tanager photographed by Christine Casas at Boy Scout Woods on 4/29/17.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” – Evelyn Underhill

Last Sunday, my girlfriend, two friends, and I had a remarkable experience in High Island, TX:  a quiet Sunday morning hike in coastal woods slowly transitioned from seeming “birdlessness” to finding ourselves literally surrounded by tens of migrant bird species just-arrived from Central and South America.  It felt like a Big Bang of birdlife; it felt as though God had just decreed, let there be birds.  We were in the midst of a “fallout” of songbirds precipitated by a storm the night before and by abatement of the south wind that had previously allowed them to skip the island entirely.

At Boy Scout Woods (BSW), the warblers trickled in slowly at first.  We saw male birds almost exclusively the entire weekend–in many species, males migrate first–indicating that females may be seen in the next week or two.  A hooded warbler started the show by appearing suddenly at Prothonotary Pond, then a magnolia warbler and a northern waterthrush became visible.  Soon, the treetops were alive with black-throated green warblers.  Occasionally found solo, but usually in mixed flocks, we eventually saw bay-breasted, Tennessee, Canada, Nashville, and chestnut-sided warblers, as well as American redstarts and a common yellow-throat, punctuated by sightings of other species:  a peregrine falcon and a broad-winged hawk flying inland, a green heron at Prothonotary Pond, an immature orchard oriole singing far beyond the boardwalk.

Sighting a warbler–a tiny, quiet bird constantly on the move–or any other “new” bird is quite thrilling, even addictive: one raises one’s binocular in eager anticipation of identifying the species before the bird moves out of view.

By noon, in the small parking lot and adjacent street alone, in the span of fifteen minutes, I saw four male indigo buntings, at least four female indigo buntings, male and female summer tanagers, innumerable black-throated green warblers, two male Baltimore orioles, a male rose-breasted grosbeak, and a male scarlet tanager.  Soon after my girlfriend and I left for Smith Oaks, our friends saw a male painted bunting in the parking lot.  Very few of these birds will stay for the summer; most will radiate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada.  (In fact, when I returned to High Island today, I only saw two of the above species at BSW: the rest may already be at their summer homes.)

At Smith Oaks, where I hiked for about an hour last weekend, I saw numerous male and female Baltimore orioles, summer and scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, a black-billed cuckoo (we saw a yellow-billed the day before at BSW), a brief flash identified by others as a vagrant black-whiskered vireo, and, at water drips in the forest, males in breeding plumage of the following warbler species: Blackburnian, Magnolia, Tennessee (unclear if male), chestnut-sided, American redstart.  So many species observed in so little time amongst the lovely old oaks and other trees!  (The birding was so good this week along the upper Texas coast that even I–a casual birder who doesn’t aim to maximize the number of species seen, unlike more “muscular” birders–ended up seeing sixteen warbler species, including the rare golden-winged warbler.)  A short walk away, the famous High Island rookery teemed with nesting wetland species we observed and photographed the day before:  roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, common gallinules feeding with their chicks, neotropic cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, and other species.  Down the road, Bolivar Flats–we didn’t go there this trip–hosted numerous shorebird species, including (rumor had it) red knots and piping plovers, the latter of which I saw in February on a birding trip with two other friends.

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Such irruptions of songbirds and other bird species are a rare occurrence for the occasional visitor to High Island, but do occur with some frequency during spring migration, especially following storms or when there’s a north wind.  However, I’ve met serious birders who have visited High Island for years without experiencing such a “fallout” of birds.

We met many other birders while there, including the ever-helpful and enthusiastic Houston Audubon Society volunteers who manage High Island’s nature sanctuaries.  It was a joy to help others see the birds we saw and to allow them to help us see what they were seeing.  Birders are a diverse bunch:  while many were casual, some were very professional, taking high-quality photographs of the birds they encountered.  Most birders are warm, engaging, and helpful people; I was surprised to find that a few were rather cold and businesslike and seemed to be there just to lengthen their lists of species seen.

I visited High Island for the first time about nine years ago.  Since then, I’ve unintentionally built up a store of happy memories associated with this tiny, unassuming salt dome in the Texas backcountry.  One of my first visits was with my friends, Jeff and Noam.  On that trip, we serendipitously chanced upon the Texas Birding Classic.  We were seen as “rare birds” by Texas Parks & Wildlife for being young men out birding–this was even rarer then than it is today–and were interviewed on the spot, had many photos taken of us, and were given free T-shirts (I still wear it; a songbird is displayed on the front with “Portable Audio Device” written under it).

A year ago, serendipity struck again:  I found one of those photos while hiking Lost Maples State Park!  At the end of a long hike, my girlfriend rested by a bird blind while I went to get the car.  When I returned, she recommended I check it out.  I glanced at the sign in front of the blind and immediately saw myself in a photo taken with a Texas Parks & Wildlife staff member that day I birded High Island with Jeff and Noam nine years ago:


Feeding Wild Birds

Blue ceramic tube feeder

I’ve been a birder for many years but never really knew the joy of feeding wild birds until I moved recently (see last post). My balcony faces the woods, so I set up some feeders I received from my mother.  Since setting them up, I’ve had many avian visitors, including small flocks of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and the occasional Carolina wren.  During spring migration, several rose-breasted grosbeaks stopped over at my feeders for about five days before flying north.

My girlfriend and I visited the Canadian Rockies recently, one of the most beautiful parts of the world–if not the most beautiful–we’ve visited.  We hiked ~55 km, through subalpine and alpine ecosystems, through snowstorms and hail, saw glaciers and gorgeous glacier-fed lakes up close, and visited remote teahouses on foot.  An observation I made after the trip is that watching birds at my feeders makes me at least as happy as hiking along some of the most beautiful trails in the world.

Feeding wild birds is similar to blogging in a few important ways. Potential visitors notice what you’ve provided, but they stop over only if they’re interested.  If you stop putting stuff out there, they move on.

The above is a watercolor I painted today of one of the feeders, a blue ceramic tube feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds.  I was inspired to pull my paint set out again after I skimmed a book (by Peter Partington) this morning on painting birds in watercolor.  I also skimmed Jack Reid’s Watercolor Basics over the past two days.  There’s an appealing minimalism, primitivity–some of the earliest paintings were watercolors–and portability to watercolor, as well as a unique brilliance and seeming spontaneity possessed by good watercolor paintings that’s always appealed to me and that I really missed.  I hope to start watercoloring regularly again.

I hadn’t used my Winsor & Newton watercolors for three years, but the dried  dollops of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna in my palette (from the last time I painted) came back to life with just a few drops of water!  I stubbornly tried to do the entire painting with a medium round brush.  Near the end, I pulled out a rigger and a small flat brush to help out.

Digging around in my old art materials, I also found this unfinished pencil drawing of a friend’s eye from years ago:



High-Yield Tips for Travel in Developing Countries

We came up with these tips after extended travel through the Yucatan this past summer, but they are generally applicable to travel in many developing parts of the world.

1. Learn the basics of the language(s) of the nation(s) in which you’ll travel.  This will help in rural areas and could even help in large cities (e.g., with taxis).

2. Have a dedicated checking account for travel with an ATM/debit card that is fee-free worldwide (rebates any fees you may have been charged).  Use only bank-affiliated ATMs and make transactions during the day whenever possible to avoid identity theft.

3. Bring small packets of detergent (e.g., Woolite) to wash your clothes in the sink (because laundromats or laundering services are often unavailable or inconvenient).

4. Bring a small bottle of Febreze (the type for fabrics) to spray on and freshen up used clothing when it cannot be laundered.  (Can also use Febreze to freshen up the bathroom.)

5. Use a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

6. Pay with the local currency when it is weaker than your nation’s currency.  In Cozumel, we repeatedly saw vendors asking for payment in US dollars instead of pesos.  Many tourists fell for this trick and were overcharged.  The peso was much weaker than the dollar at the time, about 16:1.  Paying in dollars, when converted to pesos, was always more expensive than the peso price!

7. Bring plenty of DEET-based bug repellent and sunscreen with SPF > 50 when in tropical areas (and mosquito netting if mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria are endemic).

8. Avoid uncooked, sliced/peeled fruits and vegetables unless you rinse them yourself with purified water before eating.

9. Brush teeth, rinse mouth, and use contact lenses only with purified water.

10. Bring packets of instant oatmeal, nuts, raisins, trail mix to make delicious and healthy oatmeal breakfast and for healthy snacks on the road.  Consider bringing packets of nut butter (almond, peanut, etc.).

11. Bring a small Swiss Army knife or equivalent.  Remember to check it in with your luggage because it will not be allowed onboard the plane, no matter how small it may be.

12. Bring a journal and writing or drawing utensils.  (In my case, I often bring an ink brush pen, a fine-point Sharpie pen, a ballpoint pen, a mechanical pencil, tortillons, a mechanical rubber eraser, a kneaded eraser, watercolor pencils, and a Niji waterbrush.)

13. Bring a small point-and-shoot digital camera with a large memory card and carry it with you almost everywhere as a valuable photojournaling tool.

14. Bring your own high-quality snorkel mask and dry snorkel. Bring a small bottle of anti-fog solution.

15. If you normally wear eyeglasses, don’t forget to bring contact lenses and rewetting drops if you plan to go into the ocean or other bodies of water.

16. Bring minimal electronics (e.g., only a tablet, not a laptop).  Consider leaving that smartphone at home.

17. Buy a cheap phone with a pay-as-you-go data plan as soon as you land in the foreign country.

18. Bring tea bags because boiled water (tap) is usually safe.

19. Consider bringing a portable water purifier (very small and inexpensive; available online or at REI).

20. Bring a sleep (eye) mask (Bedtime Bliss is a nice brand that fits comfortably) and enough >30 dB-blocking foam ear plugs to be able to sleep soundly throughout the trip.

21. Bring a roll or two of toilet paper and travel packs of toilet seat covers.  Many toilets in the Yucatan and other developing areas don’t even have seats.

22. Bring wet wipes for your hands and disinfectant wipes for surfaces.

23. Try to bring mostly quick-dry shirts (both short- and long-sleeve) and easily cleaned/dried clothing in general.

24. Bring a small travel umbrella and a light poncho.

25. Bring a small flashlight (with fresh or solar-charged batteries).

26. Bring mesh travel laundry bags to hold used clothing.

27. Bring appropriate adaptors, if applicable, for the electrical outlets at the places you’ll visit.

28. Visit your local travel medicine clinic months before the trip for necessary vaccinations and prescription medications, including antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea.  Bring Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), too.

29. Use TSA-approved luggage locks.

30. Carry multiple copies of your passport in different places (backpack, suitcase, money belt, etc.).

31. Carry a sheet of paper with phone numbers of immediate family, close friends, credit card companies, banks, etc., and contact information (addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, confirmation numbers) of reserved hotels and other services.

32. Use an RFID-blocking money belt.

33. Consider bringing a GoPro or other waterproof “sport” camera with you to take videos and photos during water-based activities.  Our GoPro recorded amazing underwater videos!

There are many other “high-yield” travel tips.  Which ones would you add to this list?

On the Three-Wattled Bellbird and Learning Guitar

I’ve finally reached the 77th piece of music, “All Through the Night,” in volume 1 of The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method. I’ve been practicing it for weeks now. It’s technically the last “required” piece in the book, as the remaining pieces are supplements.

Learning guitar–perhaps learning any instrument–is hard. For me, it has been much harder than learning to draw. I feel like a human songbird, carefully and clumsily developing my voice. 77 songs!

Speaking of songbirds, when we visited Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in 2013, we hoped to see the resplendent quetzal. Thanks to our guide, we saw many of them, both male and female. We were very lucky. Many travelers visit that same forest, in search of the same bird, and don’t see it.

Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.
Another male resplendent quetzal photographed through a spotting scope.

However, there was another, more unusual bird we encountered in the high forest: the three-wattled bellbird. (The bellbird and the quetzal both feed on fruits of the unique wild avocado found only in Monteverde…it’s similar to other types of wild avocado but is larger.)  We heard the male bellbird during our entire time in the cloud forest and then eventually saw it atop a tall tree. The male bellbird produces a loud “bonk”–possibly the loudest bird call on Earth–as part of a complex three-part mating song that includes extremely high pitches. The only part that we heard during our hike, however, was the “bonk.” Somewhat uniquely, instead of being instinctive, the bellbird’s song is learned and refined over years. This long “incubation time” for the development of its song is one of the reasons (or so we were told) that it is not reproductively prolific. It’s a rare, endangered species that was once considered common until it was discovered that the same small population simply migrates regionally to different places at different times of the year!  We were told that it is protected in Costa Rica and Panama, but, unfortunately, not in Nicaragua, to which it also migrates but from which it sometimes doesn’t return.

Read more about the fascinating three-wattled bellbird here.

Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.
Male three-wattled bellbird calling from high atop a tree. Photographed through a spotting scope.

I can’t help but think about the three-wattled bellbird while I learn guitar. As with the male bellbird’s mating song, the guitar also has a long, difficult learning curve. The skillful player of guitar is atop a tall, hard-earned mountain of skill, even though she makes it look so easy. All guitarists climb that mountain when they practice.  The trick to staying with guitar or any other instrument is enjoying the sound of individual notes or note sequences, even enjoying the feel of the instrument.  The more skill you gain, the deeper the enjoyment becomes.

You can never be too good of a guitar player. As a guitarist (more generally, as a musician!), you’re constantly growing. Even simple pieces can offer lifelong growth, with different dynamics, different styles of play.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve grown since I started learning classical guitar in February, 2014:

Study 19

When I first start learning a piece, I cannot play it all the way through without stopping.  At some point (days or weeks later), I finally have the piece more-or-less figured out, even though it still has a long way to go before it sounds decent.  Here’s my performance of Study 19 from the Parkening Guitar Method on March 22, 2014, when I first started learning it:

Fourteen months later, here’s my performance of the same piece:


This next piece is Allegro, composed by Mauro Giuliani.  My first recorded performance of Allegro was on August 23, 2014:

Eight months later, it sounds like this:

I’ve come a long way since my first efforts.  My guitar instructor, however, who has played classical guitar for decades, sounds significantly better.  He plays with nicer dynamics, better control.  It’s heartening to know that the guitar–or probably any instrument–is anything but trivial and that it offers an open-ended, lifelong, immensely rewarding challenge.

A Witnessed Death


“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living…And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song and it awakens [you] and saves [you] from death.” – Anais Nin

On June 12, 2013, my driver and I were on our way to Sierpe, Costa Rica from Manuel Antonio when the road entered a palm tree plantation.  About 50 meters in front of us, a blue hatchback circled into view along a bend in the road, then lost control, veered off into the plantation, and hit a palm tree head-on, its front bumper popping out along a dramatic arc back onto the highway.

We were the only people who witnessed the accident, and we couldn’t believe our eyes.  My driver pulled to the side, rushed out, opened the trunk, and pulled out a fire extinguisher.  Flames licked the front of the wreck.  I was afraid the burning vehicle would explode.

He doused the fire, but then a little fire started up again near the front left tire.  His fire extinguisher was empty now, though, so he pulled out his cell phone and called an emergency number.

There was no way to pull the driver out of the car for CPR.  The young man was unconscious (likely died on impact, if not before), clamped tightly by the compressed right front seat.  His head lay to the right, out the passenger-side window.  An arm stuck out the window, too, and his face was bloody, with blood on the ground.

I checked his pulse through a blade of grass to avoid contact with his blood; his carotid and wrist pulses were absent.

We flagged down an eighteen-wheeler and other vehicles for assistance.  One of the drivers brought out a fire extinguisher but squeezed its lever with no effect, so he went back and produced a large container, previously for what seemed to be motor oil, and splashed what was probably water onto the remaining fire, dousing it.

More people had accumulated by this point.   Among other things, they looked at him and repeatedly checked for a pulse.  Then they put their hands on their heads and said “muerte,” one of the few Spanish words I understood.

If we could have pulled him out, if we could have cut away the car, we would have performed CPR.  I could have directed it.  But CPR was impossible.  Eventually, my driver and I got back into the car and drove to Sierpe.


He dropped me off at a waterfront bar/cafe, “Las Vegas,” where I waited for a water taxi to the jungle town, Drake Bay.  The accident I witnessed earlier was on the Costa Rican national news.


Sudden deaths are spooky.  Day in and day out, the most unusual thing about working in a hospital, relative to working elsewhere in a developed country, is that there are no illusions between you and the brutality of nature, which manifests most terribly as mortality. This is the most disturbing thing. Debility, deterioration, and death constantly force themselves into your view, such that there can be no illusions about what will happen to each of us, and indeed to all animals, everywhere (except, perhaps, the hydra).

I no longer spend a large amount of time in a hospital or acute-care setting.  Outpatient medicine is somewhat buffered from the three D’s above.  When I’m not dealing with the three D’s regularly, though, my wishful thinking begins to reconstruct itself: warm illusions of safety, stability, and longevity begin to envelop my perspective again.

The lesson in all of these experiences, for me, is to not take anyone in my life for granted.  It’s important to be fully present with yourself and others, to refrain from pettiness, to interact with others fully aware that you have no idea how long they’ll be around.

This essay was republished by on 1/28/15.