Last January when I began identifying the winter strangers at my Little Piney feeders, I discovered the work of Greg Lavaty. On his Texas Birds website I found intimate and detailed views of the Texas birds I was looking for. Many times these photos helped me more than my guidebooks, and they were a treat to browse through. Eventually I clicked through to Greg’s other website Texas Target Birds and was delighted to learn that he offers custom birding guide services throughout Texas! Surrounded by birds I didn’t know and birds I could hear but not see, I contacted Greg to see if he would be willing to spend a day with us at Little Piney. At the time Greg was traveling to Costa Rica as guide to a group of birders, and on to Mongolia to shoot photos for a nature book, but he was willing to schedule a visit on May 9 for a private birding and photography day.
Greg arrived at Little Piney at nine a.m. He stepped out of his car, said, “I hear a painted bunting in that tree,” and we were birding! We started with that painted bunting and a summer tanager. Next three large birds flew over, and we learned that one was a Mississippi Kite, a new bird for me. The other two were an adult and a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, and we learned about the white finger-tip band that distinguishes the red-shouldered hawk from any other.
My biggest surprise was learning that a familiar call always audible at Little Piney was a White-eyed Vireo, not one of the many cardinal songs I hear constantly. They are very small, darting birds with startled-looking white-ringed eyes, and they are as abundant as the familiar chickadees, just less visible.
The Northern Parula was the next find. With a cricket-like call ending with an upward lilt this little beauty is well represented. Patience was required to get a good look and photo of the tiny Parula among the dense leaves, but Greg has endless patience.
With a similar but louder and more resonant call, the Pine Warble is everywhere at Little Piney. I had seen this warbler before but not this close. I took several photos of the cheery yellow bird. That morning, I learned the calls of the Northern Parula and Pine Warbler by repeatedly asking Greg, “Warbler?” “Parula?” as they sang until I got it right.
At 11:00 we took a break for water and photo reviews at the house. Greg is a master photographer as well as birder, and the next hour was spent looking over my photographs. Greg is an excellent teacher, and I came away from the day with a new level of editing skills.
We set out again after lunch for a walk down the road. Greg pointed out a Gray Hairstreak butterfly whose tail that looks like its head, designed to attract predators to a less lethal area. He also heard a new bird sound, the yellow-throated vireo,and we got a good look and some photos of this cutie.
On the way back to the house, we saw the pair of Scissortail Flycatchers that hang out on the fence in front. These elegant birds have been at Little Piney for about two weeks. Greg confirmed that they were a mating pair and predicted that we would have a Scissortail family soon. The female has a slightly shorter tail, and they are a beautiful pair. As always bluebirds were perched on the electrical wires overhead.
We had a second round of water and photo editing lessons, then headed out with Greg’s big camera and a tripod so that I could see firsthand what a difference a lens can make. While we were setting up to photograph the Pine Warbler, we heard the loud hammering of a Pileated Woodpecker very close by. If you have never heard the big guy working, think of the red-bellied–if the red-bellied sounds like someone hanging a picture, the pileated sounds more like someone framing a house. We found him just above us pounding and pulling insects from an ailing pine tree with his long black beak . Through my binoculars I had a clear view of all the details of his features and gestures, the red lines leading to his shiny beak, the crimson crest, crisp black and white body, and the determined excavation. He let us watch until his mate called, then flew off in her direction.
Greg set up the tripod for these shots of a painted bunting and a pine warbler. The difference in the clarity and definition convinced me I’ll be saving up for a more powerful lens. Greg walked me through the edits on these. I’ll be printing and framing these two.
Saturday was a delightful day for me, walking Little Piney with Greg and learning so much about birds and nature. Greg is not only knowledgable, talented, and patient, he is a very nice guy and fun to hang out with! My husband and I hope to join Greg on a birding trip to Costa Rica sometime soon. Truthfully though, the birds that thrill me the most are the ones here at home at Little Piney.