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Abundant throughout the central and eastern United States, as well as portions of Canada, the blue jay is a common sight. Once solely a resident of oak and pine forests, blue jays now inhabit wooded suburban areas and parks as well. Like other members of the Corvid family (such as black crows and ravens), blue jays tend to have a bold and mischievous temperament.
A varied vocalist, blue jays can create both piercing calls as well as more subdued, almost musical notes. The blue jay also employs some mimicry, reproducing the screeches of the red-shouldered hawk to deter other birds from its territory. Their diet consists of insects, acorns, fruits, seeds, and the eggs of other birds which it robs from the nests.
Blue jays are blue above with a collapsible blue crest, a white face and black "necklace" around their white neck, with a whitish-gray breast. The wings and tail are striped blue and black, with several bars of white on each wing.
In Texas, the blue jay is found in the northern and eastern regions of the state, including the Edwards Plateau and portions of South Texas. Parks such as Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Panhandle and Bastrop State Park in Bastrop, offer year-round viewing opportunities. Kerrville-Schreiner State Park holds potential for winter observation.
Black skimmers require a double-take to fully appreciate their odd proportions. Unlike all other North American bird species, the lower portion of the skimmer’s knife-like beak is longer than the upper. This unique adaptation allows the skimmer to fly just above the water, its long lower mandible skimming the water’s surface for fish which, when found, it snaps up instantly. Skimmer’s bodies are also oddly proportioned, measuring eighteen inches in length with long, narrow wings and extremely short legs.
The black skimmer is black above, with a white face, throat, and underside. Their odd beak is bright red at the base and black at the tip. Black skimmers are found along the East and Gulf coasts of the United States, as well as Central and South America. Best observed along coastal bays, islands, and beaches, black skimmers create simple nests consisting of nothing more than shallow scrapes in the sand. Coloration resembling beach sand and debris disguises black skimmer eggs and chicks from predators and other threats.
Texas offers year-round black skimmer viewing opportunities. Nesting black skimmers can occasionally be observed at Goose Island State Park near Rockport, and along the John F. Kennedy Causeway in Corpus Christi, where a special area has been set aside for them. Such protection is necessary, as widespread coastal development and beach traffic poses serious hazards to black skimmer populations nationwide. Black skimmers are along Laguna Madre at Padre Island National Seashore.
The national bird of the United States since 1782, the bald eagle is the most well-known bird of prey in North America. Like many other species, the majestic bald eagle’s existence was severely threatened by human development, pesticide use, and poaching. Over the past twenty-five years, however, the bald eagle population has recovered thanks to federal legislation, including bans on harmful pesticides such as DDT, as well as public education, and other conservation and rehabilitation efforts. As bald eagle populations stabilized, the species was delisted from the Endangered Species List in 1995 and removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the continental United States in 2007.
Bald eagles measure approximately thirty-six inches tall, with an average wingspan of seven feet. Bald eagles are attractive birds with a brownish-black body, large yellow feet and beak, and a distinctive snow white head, neck, and tail. The bald eagle feeds primarily on fresh carrion and fish, occasionally taking waterfowl and small mammals as well.
Bald eagles are best observed during the winter, when they congregate around lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Like many bird species, individual bald eagles pair up with a lifelong mate and return annually to the same nesting site. Bald eagles create the largest nests of any bird species–nests estimated to weigh over two tons have been observed! Year after year, the breeding pair adds new material to their existing nest.
Approximately one thousand bald eagles migrate to Texas each year, nesting from December through February. The Vanishing Texas River Cruise on Lake Buchanan in Burnet, Texas, offers bald eagle viewing opportunities from November through March. Overnight camping and other facilities are available in nearby Inks Lake State Park. Some of the best bald eagle viewing in the state, however, is probably at Fairfield Lake State Park where eagle watching tours are held each Saturday from November through February.
The Western diamondback rattlesnake, common throughout North America, is just one of the many snake species that inhabit Texas. A member of the pit viper family, the venomous, six- to eight-foot-long diamondback is one of the world’s most dangerous snakes. The distinctive diamond pattern running the length of the snake’s body serves as camouflage.
When threatened or startled, the snake coils and vibrates the rattle at the tip of its tail, emitting a loud, rhythmic buzz. The sign of an impending strike, the snake may also raise its neck into an "S" curve; even when fully coiled, rattlesnakes can strike a distance equal to half their body length. Diamondbacks feed primarily on frogs, rodents, rabbits, lizards, and birds, all of which it can swallow whole.
Diamondbacks can be found in desert, grassland, woodland, and river bottom habitats; their longevity is approximately fifteen years. A nocturnal species, diamondbacks often spend their days coiled quietly in the shade where they can easily move in and out of the sun to regulate their body temperature.
In total, there are over fifteen species of rattlesnakes in the United States and they all have poisonous (toxic) venom. Other toxic venom snakes in the U.S. are water moccasin (also known as cottonmouth), copperhead, and two species of coral snake. Several harmless snake species have coloration similar to the poisonous coral snake; the following mnemonic proves useful in differentiating the innocuous snakes from the toxic ones, based on the arrangement of their color bands:
“Red on black, poison lack;
Red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Contact the National Poison Center Hotline if you are bitten by a snake or other venomous creature.
Virtually any grassy or brushy area in Texas can yield viewing opportunities for various snake species. The western diamondback pictured on this page was spotted at Mitchell Lake Wetlands in San Antonio.
Raccoons are widespread from southern Canada to Central America. Their preferred habitat consists of brushy or wooded areas near streams, lakes, or swamps. A distinctive black mask, outlined in white, extends across the raccoon’s eyes, cheeks, and snout, while the rest of its rounded body is covered in dense, gray or brown fur. Their long, bushy tail is ringed with four or more black stripes. Adults measure twenty to thirty inches in length, and can weigh up to thirty-five pounds.
Raccoons are omnivores, meaning they consume a variety of foods. Their diet is made up of aquatic life, such as crayfish, crabs, and oysters, as well as mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, nuts, and fruit. When human fare is available, raccoons will not hesitate to sample it as well. Using their highly developed senses of hearing, sight, and touch, raccoons can locate food quite readily. A camper’s closed ice chest, tent, and trash bags serve as no challenge to the curious raccoon.
Talented climbers and swimmers, adult raccoons have few natural enemies. Juveniles are preyed upon by owl, wolf, coyote, and bobcat. In some areas, raccoons are controlled through trapping and baiting due to overpopulation of the species and/or fears of potential rabies outbreaks. Raccoons may live up to ten years in the wild.
Virtually any wooded area in which humans congregate and leave potential food sources is a good raccoon-viewing location. Since raccoons are nocturnal creatures, viewing opportunities are most likely during overnight activities such as camping. One of the many Texas parks you may witness these masked bandits is Guadalupe River State Park in Spring Branch. They first appear just before dusk and can move quite stealthily.