Out on a limb…for love

I have been hunting, with my camera of course, a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers, for several weeks.  These birds are about as ubiquitious as mesquite in Palo Duro Canyon and I even know where their nest cavity is located.  Despite this, they continue to ellude me.  Time in the field, however, almost always produces something of interest even if it isnt caught on camera.  In this case, I found a female prairie lizard on the side of a soap berry and started to photograph her.  Then I hit record and much to my delight, a male arrived and started to court her with push-up displays and some serious nudging.  In the video, the male is much smaller and in some parts of the video you can see the bright blue on his sides.  Get outdoors and take a child with you.  There is so much to see and hear and like I said, who knows what you will discover.

Dining deer up close and personal

This is another video from Palo Duro Canyon showing a white-tailed deer browsing on a hackberry tree.  Deer are more browsers than grazers, meaning they feed more on shrubs and forbs than on grasses.  The white-tailed deer is one of two species of deer found commonly in the canyon.  Mule deer are common, especially on the uplands early in the morning and later in the evening and the white-tailed deer are more common in the bottom.  However, there is a lot of overlap.  I hope you enjoy the video!

Hated “parking lot” birds that I love

Great-tailed grackle male in wild flowers

The fact is that I tend to see the world differently than many others and here is a case where I seem to differ with many people, even my trusted Sibley’s guide to birds.  This oft hated birds is the great-tailed grackle.  I suspect its commonness has something to do with its perceived value.  It seems that parking lots are great habitat for these birds and you can also find them in almost any fast food place, waiting to pick up anything that is dropped.  Just last week I received a call from someone wanting to know if they could “get rid” of their grackles legally.  In this case, they were nesting in their back yard in good numbers causing a mess.  I would enjoy having them in my back yard and they are common visitors but do not nest.

The female of the species is a fairly drab brown but the male is an iridescent black-purple, depending on the light, with a long tail that they hold in an exaggerated V shape during flight.  They put on a remarkable display, raising their head and neck straight up and sticking their fanned tail out behind them.  Their displays also include holding their heads low and fluttering their partially outstretched wings.  However, my favorite thing about great-tailed grackles is their song.  To me it sound like a noise made by a toy laser weapon that you would never buy for your own children because it would be too loud and therefore, best given to grand children, nieces, nephews, etc.  Sibley’s disappointingly describes their song as “a series of loud, rather unpleasant noises: mechanical rattles kikikiki or ke ke ke ke ke teep; sliding, tinny whistles whoit whoit….; harsh, rustling sounds like thrashing branches or flushing toilet [who ever wrote this really didn't like great-tailed grackles]; loud hard keek keek…or kidi kidi”.  Disregard all the implied, heck, blatant disrespect for this bird.  I love their displays and their calls!  Again, they suffer the misfortune of being too common and therefore pedestrian.  These birds are also smart.  I have commonly observed them carrying dog or cat food to my bird bath, where they soak the hard food to make it easier to eat.  This is a common behavior and can be observed where ever you have water and dog and cat food in close proximity.  I have even seen a small group mess with a dog, distracting it while others raided its food bowl.

I predict that if great-tailed grackles were rare, isolated far from humans in some tropical area, birders (bird watchers) would consider it a great find and work hard to observe the bird and hear its song.  I get to appreciate the bird every day!

Stuck happens!

So far my blog has been about wildlife and that will continue to be the primary focus.  However, things often happen when you pursue wildlife that can range from comical to dangerous.  In this video, I was given a tour of Bastrop State Park in preparation for a research project on the effects of a catastrophic fire on mammals in the Park.  Mike Lloyd, State Fire Specialist for the Parks Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife and a friend of mine for 10 years was our tour guide.  Well, we managed to get stuck in the middle of no where.  I don’t worry about such things and Mike is a great person to get stuck with.  Not only does he not get upset, but he carries great snacks!  His truck was equipped with a winch so we expected to pull ourselves out in no time flat.  Well, the winch wouldn’t work despite us trying everything we could electronically to get it to work.  This certainly complicated matters but we gave it our best shot.  Special thanks to Mike for a great tour and his friendship over the years and also to Tricia in WT’s IT department for editing this video and adding the great soundtrack.

In praise of snakes.

Prairie rattlesnake Carson County Texas

I grew up in Florida and have been catching and studying snakes as long as I can remember.  They have never been intimidating to me but rather  I  have always found them fascinating.  Archie Carr, a naturalist and herpetologist in Florida wrote an essay titled “in praise of snakes”.  In the essay, he states that “I want to speak on behalf of snakes.  I live in snake country, and have always liked snakes and have kept them steadily on my mind”.  For a person that has been catching snakes as long as I can remember, and most of these in Florida where I grew up, I feel a kinship with Archie. The above video shows a prairie rattlesnake we photographed at PANTEX on Thursday (Carson County Texas).  Prairies are grumpy snakes and there is no other way to say it.  They will rattle and tend to stand their ground while diamondbacks, in my experience, tend to try to get away as soon as they can.  Don’t get me wrong, prairie rattlesnakes will not come after you but tend to take up a defensive position and stand their ground.  At the end of the video is a picture Jimmy Walker took of the snake trying to crawl under my tripod and me.  This wasn’t an aggressive move, the snake was simply seeking cover.  People tend to be rather hard on snakes and I have met many that kill them on sight.  The truth of the matter is that there are many common animals that are much more dangerous than venomous snakes.  Wildlife biologists spend a lot of time in the field and therefore are likely to encounter snakes.  The leading cause of death for wildlife biologists is vehicle accidents and the most dangerous animal encountered by wildlifers are people.  Snakes do not even show up on the list of causes of mortality for wildlife biologists.  Actually, bees kill more people each year than snakes and your neighbor’s dog is likely to be more dangerous than venomous snakes.  For some reason, snakes have a very bad reputation and I think this is far more related to fear and a lack of understanding than it is on reality. Give snakes a break, they eat rodents and are an important part of the ecosystem.  Additionally, they are beautiful animals and you will see this if you can overcome the fear that many people suffer from when it comes to snakes.

A bird with scales???

Scaled quail photographed north of Amarillo

While this bird certainly looks to have scales it is simply the result of its breast feathers being edged by dark brown or black pigment.  I was up before 5:00 a.m. this morning with my trusty sidekick Melissa Sabin in tow, and we headed to Jimmy Walker’s land just north of the loop in Amarillo.  We had a couple of objectives, first, we attached my GoPro2 to Jimmy’s kestrel nest box and second, we set up my camouflage photo blind where we were likely to get photographs and video of quail.  The winds were fairly calm as we worked quickly in the dark and we had all our equipment readied and were in the blind well before sunup.  Melissa’s work is over for a while at this point and she lies on a sleeping pad behind me in the blind (there really isn’t room for two to look out the three small windows anyway).  She was fast asleep well before sunup, as has become her tradition, but was ready to help when the photo session was over.  I enjoy her company and don’t mind her sleeping, I tend to talk to the animals anyway, coaxing them into position, calling out species I see or hear, etc.  I know they don’t respond, I am a wildlife biologist after all, but when I listen to the audio that is captured with my video I sound quite mad.  Scaled quail are one of two species of quail in the Panhandle with the other being the northern bobwhite.  Bobwhites range from Florida and the east coast just west into New Mexico so we are on the very edge of their range.  Species tend to be less abundant on the edges of their ranges because conditions tend to be less favorable for them and I imagine this dry and hot spell has been hard on the bobwhites.  Scaled quail are more xeric (dry) adapted and we are on the eastern edge of their range.  Both species are beautiful birds and are a joy to watch.  I am partial to the scaled quail because they are a species I did not see until I was in college, having grown up with bobwhites in Florida.  Scaled quail are also called blue quail and cotton tops because of their color and their white top knot, respectively.

I love watching a large covey of scaled quail run from one piece of cover to another, their top knots seeming to glow.  Now is their breeding season and the coveys they formed in the fall and winter have broken up into pairs.  All the scaled quail I saw this morning came in as pairs.  It was a great morning for capturing images and video of these beautiful birds, up until about 9:00 a.m.  Then the Panhandle winds began to blow and our tent-like blind began to dance.  I woke Melissa just in time to get the equipment out of the blind and take it down before it became a large camouflage tumble weed, rolling through the plains until it was stopped by a barbed wire fence.  It was another great morning in the outdoors of the Panhandle.  I’m going to take advantage of the windy day to rest a bit and get some work done.  Sounds like clouds and a chance for rain tonight.  I just might be able to resist the call of the wild and get some sleep.  Don’t worry, I am working on several more posts and have enough material to keep posting for the rest of the summer!  Get out and enjoy nature and take your children or grandchildren too.  We need to ensure the next generation appreciates and enjoys the outdoors.  Just starting out watching wildlife?  No worries, try your local city park, especially if water is present.  There is more to see than you might expect.  I would love to see your photographs and hear your stories.  If you need help with identifying something you see, send me a photo and I will do my best to help.  If it is a plant, however, be forewarned, I am not very knowledgeable in the botanical world (unless it has to do with plants that are good for attracting wildlife to your yard).  Time for a nap.

The eyes of Texas are upon you. Yikes!

Actually the beautiful eyes of this pair of great horned owls, the largest owl in Texas, would only be frightening if you came upon them unexpectedly.  Jimmy Walker and I checked in on these owls today in a storage building in Carson County.  This pair has used this same building for nesting for the last several years.  Great horned owls are powerful hunters, taking prey like rodents, rabbits, and even skunks (most birds do not have a good sense of smell) with their large powerful talons.  They have great vision, even under low light conditions, but can rely completely on hearing to locate and accurately target their prey.  They consume small prey whole and larger prey in pieces and later regurgitate the indigestible parts like fur, feathers, and bones in pellets.  These owl pellets can often be found under roosts and some times in large numbers.  If you pick through the pellets you can look into the diet of the owls, or the fate of their prey, depending on your perspective.  I digest the fur and pull out the small mammal skulls to teach my mammalogy students to identify these using dental and cranial (skull) characteristics.  You can have your children look through pellets to get a sense of what these animals are eating or to simply look at these small skulls.  Anything to help get kids interested in nature.  If keen eyesight, super hearing, and sharp powerful talons weren’t enough to give rodents and rabbits nightmares, owls also have specialized feathers that reduce turbulence and flight noise making them practically silent in flight.  I tip my hat to the protective land owner who keeps a watchful eye on “his” owls and sure wouldn’t want to be a rodent living around his place!

Sorry for the shaky video, but the winds were, well, Panhandle-like this morning.

Hawks return to nest after a round trip to Argentina!!!

Well, I decided what to do today and that was join my graduate student, Jimmy Walker, as he tracks Swainson’s hawks he placed transmitters on last summer, during their nesting season here in the Panhandle. These beautiful and amazing hawks migrate and spend their winter’s primarily in Argentina!!! Six of 9 hawks marked last year have returned to the area and most are settling into the exact same nest they used last summer. We are anxiously awaiting the return of the other 3. This year we will be putting satellite transmitters on hawks so we can follow them all the way to South America and back. This is another WT project funded by PANTEX with assistance provided by Jim Ray.

Predators galore in the Panhandle

Wow, yesterday was quite a day and as a result, I wasn’t able to get a post up.  But I gathered a lot of media and was processing until midnight when I fell asleep at the computer. First, the day started with a great call from Jim Ray, wildlife biologist for PANTEX, letting us know that my graduate student Lena had captured a new bobcat as part of her thesis research.  Her project is examining a population of bobcats on and around PANTEX to study their use of PANTEX and the shortgrass habitat that usually isn’t considered good habitat for them.  We gathered our equipment and met Jim at the capture site to “work up” the cat.  By this, I mean we anestethize the cat, examine its health, sex, size, etc., and ear-tag, pit tag, and attach a collar-mounted telemetry collar that provides locations of the bobcat every 6 hours.  I videoed this process and am working to edit and post this video.  Please be patient with me as this is the most complex and lengthy video edit for me to date and I have a great start.  I am integrating video from a tripod-mounted camera and wore my GoPro2 on a head band to take you with us up close as we handle the bobcat.  Jim also provided access to a prairie rattlesnake and a Texas horned lizard so I have video of these beatuiful animals too!  WTAMU has been researching various species on PANTEX for over 10 years as part of their very active wildlife management program.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Jim Ray and PANTEX for all of their support, both financial and in terms of all the time Jim spends in the field in support of our student’s research projects.  Don’t feel too bad for Jim, he has a lot more work to do as because he assists us but he gets to see all the amazing wildlife up-close and personal.  You’d be amazed at all the wildlife on what Jim calls “the world’s most secure wildlife management area”.

I was working on video edits when a strong thunderstorm rolled through the area and forced me out in field to see what the rain had moving in the area.  I was accompanied by Melissa and Lena and our first stop was South East Park in Canyon.  The birds were loving the water, or rather, all the food it made available.  Ducks and a variety of other birds were feeding in and around the flooded grassy areas, likely gobbling up insects and other invertebrates forced out of hiding by the down pour.  Predictably, we headed to Palo Duro Canyon next.  We drove to the back of the park to again watch the turkey vultures gracefully sore into their roost while we waited for dark.  The sore gracefully but this grace often disapears when they attempt to land on the small branches of a large cottonwood!  From our vantage point above the trees, Melissa spotted a group of feral pigs on the flats below us with the thermal camera.  We then hit the roads with the thermal camera and flash lights after dark.  It didn’t appear that the park received as much rain as the city of Canyon, and as a result, the amphibians weren’t as diverse as I had hoped.  However, the red spotted toads were everywhere on the roads and we also saw a lepoard frog and a bullfrog (my first in the canyon – good eyes Lena).  We stopped at the wildlife viewing blind on our way out and could hear raccoons fighting over access to the feed.  I can imagine this scream-like sound has frightened a fair number of people enjoying the outdoors at night and has probably been mistaken for everything from moutain lions to bigfoot.  We headed home about 10:30, exhausted, but what a day with wildlife in the Panhandle!  We live in some amazing country, get out and enjoy it – and take your children out and help them to learn to enjoy and appreciate it as well.

I’m trying to decide where to go today, maybe Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Tune in to find out what I decide and what new adventure I’ll have in the Panhandle.

Lizard love (courtship in collared lizards)

I recorded this video of a collared lizard couple in Mesquite Campground in PDCSP about a week ago.  When I found them, the male was next to the female with his right fore limb on her back.  shortly after, you will see a short sequence of courtship between the two.  He then separates from her to survey his territory and she continues to bask on a warm rock.  Isn’t lizard love grand!  These are no ordinary lizards by the way, they can run bipedally when necessary to avoid predators.