Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some LRGV pics

White Peacock


Mexican Bluewing

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Green Jay

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Coast Guard Helicopter patrolling the Rio Grande

Least Grebe


Texas Tortoise

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rio Reforestation!

As you advance in birding in the ABA area, you gradually learn that the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is amongst the top birding locations in all of the United States. With many Mexican species that just barely spill across the Rio Grande, as well as the confluence of two different migratory bird pathways, plus numerous species at the eastern or western edges of their ranges, the area has one of the most diverse avifaunas in the USA. Many exotic or tropical looking species like Green Jays, Great Kiskadees and various Orioles jump out of the pages of many birding books and magazines enticing birders to visit this part of the country.

One thing birders may not learn is that the natural habitats of this area are amongst the most endangered in all of the U.S. In fact numerous sources estimate that over 95% of native Tamaulipan brush habitat (the dominant habitat type of the LRGV) has been lost on the U.S. side of the border. That means that so many of the species of birds that thousands of birders travel to south Texas to see each year are pushed onto a tiny network of fragments of remnant habitats (primarily Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park and a few other tiny areas of public land owned by other conservation minded organizations and agencies).

Not all is doom and gloom however. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is a collection of many different tracts of land stretching across all four counties that make up the valley (and currently covering over 90,000 acres) is attempting to create a "wildlife corridor" linking the best remaining areas of native habitats in the valley.

Many of these tracts are areas of reclaimed farmland that no longer support native vegetation. Because of this the LRGV NWR has developed an interesting revegetation effort. Native plant species are grown by the refuge or a collection of local farmers that help the refuge in return for the ability to farm certain areas. These native plant seedlings are then planted at refuge tracts in an attempt to restore the dense native brushlands required by much of the valley's wildlife species.

Currently researchers at the refuge are trying to determine the best mixes of native plants for quickly and effectively restoring native brushlands. Many factors come into play. Invasive Asian grasses are a constant threat to native plants in this area and quickly creating a native plant canopy to shade out the grass is one technique that may prove successful. Only time and careful research will tell what strategies will prove most effective for restoring quality wildlife habitat in the region.

With the help of farm crews, local school children and of course the biologists of the LRGV NWR, some of the fields of the Lower Rio Grande Valley may soon be restored to native brushlands supporting birds, Ocelots and other wildlife species. Hopefully the restoration of a viable wildlife corridor in the area will provide quality habitat in the valley for generations to come!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yellow Rail!

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and spending a lot of time at Seney National Wildlife Refuge during the early days of my wildife career, I was lucky enough to work on part of the ongoing Yellow Rail research at Seney. Yellow Rails are often considered the most difficult bird to "see" in North America (in the right habitats during the breeding season hearing one is quite a bit easier). However this ultra secretive species is very much an "avian mouse" almost impossible to flush and even more impossible to see as they navigate underneath the tall grass and sedges of their marshes and meadow homes. Because of this they are almost always considered amongst the "most wanted" birds in North America by birders. They breed locally across a broad swath of sedge meadows and wet prairie in Canada and the farthert north parts of the U.S. and winter primarily along the Gulf Coast.

In recent years birders have begun to discover certain locations where Yellow Rails seem to concentrate during migration. One of the prime places for this has been Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in far southeastern Oklahoma. A former rice plantation that in recent years has been converted into a marsh complex that is one of the best birding locations in Oklahoma.

So in hope of spotting some of the rare and beautiful Yellow Rails that I had known so well at Seney NWR I found myself dragging a rope across acres of wet fields on a beautiful October morning. One of the few ways to get the notoriously Yellow Rails to show themselves is to drag a rope with attached weighted bottles in a line with a large group of people behind it. If you are lucky perhaps you will get a brief look at a tiny dark rail with white patches on the back of their wings flush in front of you.

Sort of like this guy in the above photograph.

Some lucky birders watching the Yellow Rail fly above the wet fields of Red Slough WMA.

And if you are very lucky you get to see this happen not once or twice but five times in one morning!

Other birds seen on a Yellow Rail drag at Red Slough include quite a few Sedge Wrens and LeConte's Sparrows.

And if you are very very lucky. You actually spot a Yellow Rail walking amongst the grasses right ahead of you, where you can watch him and photograph this "shadow bird" in all its secretive glory!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Species Focus - Lewis's Woodpecker

"I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today… it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deal like the jay bird” - Meriwether Lewis, July 2oth 1805.

I have long been fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. I have read the journals and most of the available treatises on the subject. I even took a seminar class on the expedition in grad school. The thought of travelling out into the thrilling unknown, the romantacism of seeing the American West before it was "civilised", all of these things draw me and thousands of others into learning about the famed expedition. Perhaps as a biologist the part that intrigues be the most is the discovery of new species of plants and animals. Lewis was a pretty good naturalist in his own right, and when not suffering from one of his bouts of depression, would take copious notes and samples of the new flora and fauna they were seeing as the traversed the continent. As an ornithologist I am of course most interested in the new birds discovered by the expedition, perhaps the singular woodpecker (or crow) of Lewis most of all.

When visiting the Harvard Museum during an ornithological conference, I was able to see and photograph the voucher specimen of Lewis's Woodpecker, that is the actual Lewis's Woodpecker collected by Lewis himself and thus the first known to science. Sadly most of the specimens and other artifacts collected by the expedition have been lost, either in fires or other mishaps. So this lone Lewis's Woodpecker represents an extremely valuable part of American and scientific history, a truly fascinating and valuable artifact!

Besides its discovery having an interesting and fascinating backstory, the bird itself is decidedly odd. As you can tell from Captain Lewis's quote above, upon first glance many people, even with reasonable naturalist backgrounds may confuse Lewis's Woodpecker with some kind of corvid. It often perches upright at the top of a tree or limb (very un-woodpercker like), it flies kind of like a jay and has such a dark. odd color pattern (a mix of dark green, gray, crimson red, and blushy pink), so unlike any other bird, especially woodpecker!

I recently spent several days in the northwest corner of Oklahoma and the southeast corner of Colorado, right at the edge of the sporadic range of the Lewis's Woodpecker, and spent a leisurely hour watching the behavior of and photographing a group of five Lewis's Woodpeckers in the beautiful Cottonwood canyon in the Comanche National Grassland.

One of the most interesting things about Lewis's Woodpeckers is that in the summer, they rarely forage in the manner of other woodpeckers (that is hopping up and down the sides of trees, hammering and scraping at the bark to get at the coleoptera larva and other goodies underneath). Instead they spend much of their time hawking insects, much like a flycatcher! The group of LEWO that I watched were doing just that, flying out from a grove of cottonwoods in the beautiful canyon catching dragonflies and large grasshoppers! The above photo shows one of the LEWO with a large grasshopper.

In the winter, Lewis's Woodpeckers return to feeding much like other woodpeckers. They are known to cache acorns and other nuts, and that is in fact what the above bird was doing. They were collected acorns from a nearby oak and wedging them into gaps in the bark of this giant cottonwood!

Sadly, this odd and fascinating species is rapidly disappearing from the landscape. BBS records indicate a general decline since the 1960's and there are several instances of known local extirpations. Though loss of habitat and especially nesting places are often blamed, Lewis's Woodpeckers which are generally uncommon and spottily distributed throughout their range are difficult to study and thus poorly understood. Hopefully, more research will discover keys to conservation for the LEWO. One of my favorite species and a unique part of American history.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Wildlife Society - Wildlife Policy Updates

Quite a few important bills and potential policy changes being considered at this time. Its a good idea for wildlife conservationists to be aware of these things and write to their representitives. I have found that uniquely written messages sometimes do make there way into the hands of some of these politicians.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sabine's Gull, Lake Carl Blackwell

I finally picked up my life Sabine's Gull this morning! This species, which breeds in the artic and winters mainly at sea, is a very rare visitor (though annual) in much of the interior of North America. One of the most beautiful gulls in the world, with I think a very attractive juvenile plumage (this SAGU was indeed a juvie). It was associating with a flock of about 30 Franklin's Gulls which in of itself was a nice little find on Lake Carl Blackwell, which is actually a pretty small reservoir about 10 miles outside Stillwater. The above photos were the best I could do, as the bird was about halfway out in the reservoir and never got closer, but at least they are diagnostic. A very nice find for me on a beautiful fall morning, I love fall migration!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Good News for a very rare bird!


After seeing my friend Heidi's post on bats today I was inspired to finally post this Hoary Bat picture I took about a month ago. This beautiful little guy had sadly been injured during a severe storm the night before and was found and brought to us hoping he could be rehabilitated (sadly no, his wing was far to shattered and he seemed to be in a lot of pain so he was humanely put down).
It did however remind me of the plight that faces bats around the world. These interesting and beautiful creatures are one of the truly great products of millions of years of evolution, the only flying mammals! They are among the most specious and diverse of all the groups of mammals, with forms most varied and interesting.
I've been interested in bats for about as long as birds. My hometown, Iron Mountain, MI has what is probably the largest bat hibernaculom in the midwest (actually located only about a quarter of a mile from the house where I grew up).
This site discovered only during my childhood, led to an in-town battle over whether the hibernaculom which is located in an abandoned Iron Ore mine, should be saved, or whether the town should go through with a plan to fill-in the mine due to concerns about safety.
This led the founder of Bat Conservation International, Merlin Tuttle
to come to Iron Mountain during a series of visits where he spoke at the town library about the importance of bats in the ecosystem and why bats needed to be saved. In a rare instance of wildlife winning a battle like this, it was decided that the hibernaculom would be saved, and made into an ecotourism site! As a young nature nerd, I was delighted (I was also delighted to meet Merlin Tuttle, I brought along several National Geographics he had written bat articles in to get autographed) and inspired to continue down a biologists path.
Bats may have won this one little battle, but unfortunately they continue to lose the war. Bats are still hated and feared by many people. So it is difficult to muster up the kind of conservation support that animals like Pandas, Whales and other charismatic species enjoy because of this stigma. But bats face countless problems and there are quite a few bat species on the Endangered Species list, and many more knocking on that door. Habitat loss, wind farms, persecution, and disease are just some of the issues facing bats today.
Please visit the Bat Conservation International Website to learn more about these beautiful, interesting and declining creatures.