Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fun with herps

My Fiancee Nikki is doing her master's project on the breeding ecology of Skinks. For those who don't know Skinks are lizards from the family Scincidae, the largest and most diverse family of lizards. In general skinks have very little neck and usually have relatively reduced limbs, in some genera in fact they have no legs at all, which contributes to the myth that Skinks are or are related to snakes. Despite being the most common or only types of lizards in many areas, very little is known about skink biology. Nikki has two different study sites in the Stillwater area, one in a crosstimbers forest for woodland species, and one in a large old field for grassland species.

Anyway occassionally helping Nikki with her fieldwork helps me get my herp fix (I have always been interested in reptiles and amphibians nearly as much as birds). So I enjoy going out with her and trying to catch not only skinks but the many other species of reptiles and amphibians that she catches in her traps and under her cover boards. Here are some pictures of some of the various critters we have been collecting this spring.

Here we have a Ring-necked snake, a common snake species at the woodland site.

Here we see a juvenile five-lined skink in a bag! Nikki doesn not want him to escape, check out his beautiful blue tail.

This species occurs almost exclusively at the woodland site.

Here we have a Woodhouse's Toad, the grassland site can get quite marshy after rain and we see quite a few amphibians here.

Here we have a Strecker's Chorus Frog, this is a relatively range restricted species native to the southern plains

This beauty is a Speckled King Snake, a gorgeous black and yellow/green speckled constrictor snake, they eat rodents as well as other snakes and lizards.

Here Nikki teaches her minions a little bit about the biology of the Speckled King Snake.

Here we have a Small-mouthed Salamander, the only regularly occuring Salamander in the Stillwater area, I love Salamanders as much as birds, they are awesome!

Here I contemplate a world without Salamanders.

Nikki pit tags all of her Skinks, this way she can tell who she has captured already, as she is doing a mark/recapture study. This allows her to discover all sorts of things about skink natural history.

Here a beautiful southern prairie skink awaits his turn for a pit tag. This species occurs only in prairie habitat like the grassland site, it has a very restricted range and very little is known about it.

Friday, April 24, 2009


No word is as exciting to a birder as the word "Lifer". Lifers are often the currency by which birders judge themselves and others. A lifer is simply a new bird for a birder's "life list" a bird that they have never before seen. For some birders, birds are often little more than numbers, something to collect as they build their life lists higher and higher. To these birders the goal, in this case a large "life list" is the important thing, the journey is just a means to an end. For others they barely pay attention to their lists, they simply enjoy the experience of seeing a new bird, watching its never before seen beauty and its novel behaviors. For the majority some mixture of the above two scenarios is the norm. Most birders (though not all), watch birds because they do indeed LIKE birds, they enjoy watching their behavior, soaking in the particular habitat of each new species and listening to new bird vocalizations. However, they may also enjoy some facet of listing, competing against others or just against their own goals and expectations.

I fall into the last category, I am and for as long as I can remember, have been fascinated by birds (and indeed by all of the natural world). So much so that I chose wildlife ecology and management as my career. To me life just doesn't get better than being in a new habitat for the first time and watching a whole new community of birds and other organisms interacting with the habitat and eachother. I do admit to also being conscience of my lists though as well. For example at the beginning of each year I set a goal for myself about how many birds I want to see that year, how many lifers etc. its the part of it that makes it a game and a little more fun. With that in mind I entered this year (in what will likely be my final year living in Oklahoma), wanting to get my Oklahoma state list over 300, something I was hoping to accomplish much earlier but with grad school obligations and other responsibilities, I haven't had the time to just bird like I did in years past. Last weekend I was leading a group of my ornithology students (I am teaching an ornithology lab class at OSU this semester) to the Wichita Mountains NWR, one of the last strongholds of the Black-capped Vireo in Oklahoma. It just so happens that I had never before seen this species, not only in Oklahoma but never before period.
The morning started off cool and foggy and I was worried the birding was not going to be very good. However about 15 minutes after arriving at the refuge the fog began to lift and we soon saw a herd of bison.

Many of the bison in this herd appeared to be young males, and they seemed to itching for a fight.

We then took a trail into some likely looking Black-capped Vireo habitat. The birding was good and the students were hearing and seeing many new birds, many of them newly arrived Neotropical migrants like Summer Tanagers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Soon we heard a probable Black-capped Vireo but after hiking off trail for awhile toward where the song originated from, we were unsuccessful in locating the caller. After contemplating turning back to check some other areas for waterfowl and other species, I convinced the group to continue on through likely Black-capped Vireo habitat for little longer.

Ornithology students walking through Black-capped Vireo habitat at the Wichita Mountains.

Only a couple of hundred yards farther down the trail. We heard another Black-capped Vireo calling from up on a hillside. Andy Crosby, one of the students who had formerly worked on a Black-capped Vireo project and I led the way up the hill towards the singing Vireo. The Vireo was skulky and mostly stayed hidden in the small shinnery oaks but we were patient and eventually he showed himself.

Perhaps the most important thing about "Lifers" is that sometimes its just an individual bird, never before seen that can propel somebody into a life of birds and birding and eventually bird conservation. These lifers are called "spark birds" a bird that lights the spark that ignites the birding pation in somebody. For me I can actually point to one of these birds and moments that hooked me on birds for life. At 8 years old I had been interested in dinosaurs first and eventually this led me to a fascination with non-extinct animals as well, especially birds. But I don't think you could have called me a "birder" until a fateful family trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1989. I had been watching the local birds around my little hometown in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a year or so, and had already seen many of the common species. This trip into the "west" however would change me from a passive birdwatcher into an avid birder. I had brought along my little Tasco binoculars and golden field guide my grandparents had given me as a present and while my parents and siblings were swimming at the pool in our campground I walked around the area looking for new birds. I still vividly remember the bright sky blue bird that flew into my vision, over the black hills spruce and onto a barbed wire fence seperating the campground from a pasture. My field guide said it was a Mountain Bluebird but to my 8 year old mind it was something much more, something new and exotic, it was a lifer.
Finally adding the beautiful and federally endangered Black-capped Vireo to my lifelist has certainly been one of the highlights of my spring. More importantly adding this species to the fledgling lifelists of my ornithology students might help influence some of them to become ardent birders and bird conservationists themselves, just like that Mountain Bluebird in that Black Hills pasture did for me almost 20 years ago.