Hawks 0, Pelicans 1

For a couple of days, I have been trying to figure out what species of hawk it is that we keep seeing on the power poles along the highway lately.  We have been seeing dozens of them, and we think it probably is the red-tailed hawk based on which species are migrating in this time of year, although it could be a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned.  The ones we are seeing have red-brown feathers with a white breast.  I’ve been reading about winter hawks online, and although I have come across some interesting information, it seemed that in order to truly identify what we are seeing, we were going to have to get out there with the binoculars and the camera.

I thought we might do that today, in a planned morning trip to Brazos Bend, but the weather turned cold and nasty, so we didn’t go to that park.  We did, however, have to leave the house for an extended errand across town, and I thought we might see the hawks there.  We didn’t see a single one though! It is just as well, because we forgot to bring those two critical tools mentioned beforehand.

We did do a little bit of exploring, though, on our way to and from our errand.  We stopped in Kitty Hollow Park on the southwest side of town to see the improvements that have been made there.  I actually had never been to this park, and J hadn’t been in ten years, during which time they have added the dog park and many other embellishments.  We walked through a grassy field to find a cache near the forest line, and I spied some killdeer and a flock of small black or brown birds.  I am not sure what they were, because J walked right through them and they scattered before I could make out anything distinctive about them.  Probably they were nothing more than the common grackle, which we spied later in their more typical parking lot surroundings.

On the way home from our errand, we stopped at the retention ponds on the west side of Fiorenza Park, in between Highway 6 and Eldridge.  We headed for the dead end of Schiller Road from Highway 6, because we had seen huge white birds in the ponds.  We wanted to see if our guess was right about those being American White Pelicans.  Even without the binoculars, it is clear that is what we were looking at.  There were so many of them!  This species is a winter migrant, and by summer, will be out north and west in places like the Great Salt Lake.  If we stick to our vacation saving plan, maybe we will see them there on our next road trip ;-).

The pelicans surrounded a larger flock of smaller birds that were white and brown ringed with black accents.  We thought at first those were their babies, but I am learning some facts about pelicans that might change our minds.  They breed in March-April, and the young seem to resemble them or be gray with dark brown.  The family groups separate by the fall.  It might have been a species that has a symbiotic relationship with the pelicans.  The pelicans have a peculiar feeding technique that involves gathering in a circle and beating their wings to “herd” fish, making them easier to grab.  Smaller species, such as cormorants, tend to feed with them to grab the fish from the outside of the circle and as the fish rise to the top.   Interesting facts about the American White Pelican include their status as the longest of the North American birds, at 50-70 inches, and their wingspan of 95-120 inches, which is the second largest (only surpassed by the California Condor).  They are huge birds.

We discussed our desire to get kayaks, and get out there and explore this water more fully someday.  There is a new asphalt trail that goes around the series of connected ponds out here, and several new geocaches (hidden by our friend Jerry that we were hiking with last week at Brazos Bend), one of which we made the find on today.  We will be spending more time out in this area for sure this next year – be it on foot, on the water, or with birding books in hand.  We might have to go back out there this weekend to figure out what that other species of birds were.  We really couldn’t see them well enough to identify.

On the water’s edge in front of us, we watched two ibises feed- one the typical white, but then one that was white and brown.  Its bill identified it as an Ibis most certainly, but it was not the two other types of Ibises that are darker in color.  After much flipping through books and pictures, we decided it was the juvenile stage of the White Ibis that we were seeing.

Although we were cursing ourselves for not having a way to view any of the birds out there closer, we did mark some observed species down on our Katy Prairie Bird Checklist:  Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, and the Common Grackle (on the way home).  Some of these are repeats from last week, so that makes the total species count so far this year at 19.

Current Issues in Outdoor Ethics: Smartphone Apps

Lately, I have been reading about this debate that is raging in the birding community.  It used to be that the hobby of birding involved a lot of watching and waiting.  It takes patience to be a birder, apparently.  The popularity of smart phones and the inundation of technology into our daily lives is changing that, and some are not sure it is for the better.  There are apps that can be downloaded to help identify birds (J and I use one called I-Bird Pro) that also play the bird calls for help in identification.  These apps can be used, and abused, to lure birds into coming into view.

One side argues that these apps are potentially damaging to wildlife.  The National Park Service has banned use of bird calls in its parks, calling it an “intentional disturbance” to bird behavior and biology.  It can lead the birds to become desensitized to the calls of others of their species, if they respond to it several times and don’t see another bird on the other end.  We don’t always understand the true nature of the calls we are broadcasting, so it is possible it could off territorial birds or interfere with breeding.  The birds leave nests unattended to come seek out the call, leaving the young exposed to predators.  Federal biologists who were using the call to find spotted owls by listening for them to “whoo” back soon learned that those call-backs would draw attacks on those owls by the more-aggressive barred owls, so the biologists scaled back on this practice in the best interest of the birds.

The other side argues that drawing the birds out is actually less stressful for the birds than tromping through their habitat, disturbing their areas for longer time periods than the short time it takes to play the call.  There is no specific data to demonstrate that there is an actual effect on the wildlife, especially when the calls are played correctly (short durations and only when necessary).  Experienced hunters and birders have been mimicking animal calls for generations to lure animals to them with no real negative consequences.  Before these apps, field researchers relied on the use of cassette tapes to bring the animals out.  Is it judicious to assume that everyone who uses these apps will use them irresponsibly, thereby affecting the animals in a negative way?

Another way technology is being used to view wildlife differently is Wildlife Spotting Phone Apps.  Apps such as Where’s a Bear and YNP Wildlife let visitors to Yellowstone National Park know where sightings are occurring, up to the minute.  Therefore, visitors who are hungry for a bear sighting can find out where the bears are, and get over to that area of the park.  If the animal is still in that area, a crowd could develop, which can be negative in terms of human and animal safety.  One potential side effect is that repeated exposure to humans desensitizes the bears to them, and potentially grizzly bears that have become desensitized to humans are more likely to attack them.

I am on the fence about these apps.  Having been to Yellowstone and seen NO bears or other exciting predators, I would have loved to have up to date information on where the animals were.  However, I would hate to do something that is detrimental to wildlife.


Brazos Bend State Park: Tales of the Wilderness

brazosbend 2It is our annual tradition to spend New Year’s Eve on a camping trip with a certain core group of geocachers, give or take a few.  For me, this is only the third year I have been involved in this tradition, but for J, this goes back about ten years.  (It would be the fourth for me, but last year we had to cancel it due to weather and my leg injury).  I knew about it back in the day, but I had trouble convincing my family to go, until my family dynamic changed.  This is the second time since I have been involved that we had it at Brazos Bend.  The first year, there was a whole group of us there.  This year, it was down to a handful.

When we got to the park, we had about an hour until the sun went down, and it was immediately apparent that J and I had different agendas.  He was in a race to get the campsite set up, and I wanted to get those last two geocache finds to help me end the year by logging the event as my #3300 geocache find.  He encouraged me to take the dogs and make the finds while he situated camp.

In retrospect, we realized that what he meant for me to do is to swing by the other campsite and pick up our friend Diane and maybe her friend, and have them come with me.  I didn’t get that part, and plus they had their own thing going on, so I went off by myself at dusk to try to score some finds.  I think if I had a friend or a flashlight, it would have been a little different experience for me.

The picture up above is a scene from the trail I took, the Hale Lake Loop.  Also, below, a shot of the water from the bridge I crossed to get there.  I was really brazosbend 1enjoying the quiet serenity of having the park to myself – I saw a person when I first set out, but once I got on the trail, not a single soul.

However, the thing about being in the woods is – you are never really alone, even if you think you are.  I realized this as I reached ground zero for the first cache I was after, which was about 250 ft off into the woods.  I saw a big, black animal moving in the woods about 80 ft in front of me.  I thought it was a bear for a moment before I remembered I was in Texas, so it was certainly not that – but in fact, a feral hog.  They are a huge pest species in our state, and generally speaking will leave you alone – unless they are in a group, or feel threatened for some reason.  I was worried this one would in fact be threatened if my silly dogs decided to start barking and lunging at it, and considered going back for a moment – but I really wanted that cache find, so I stood still, and that is when I realized that pig was not alone.  One, two, three, FOUR pigs in a line passed within about 50-80 feet of us.  I was amazed that when I told my dogs, “quiet,” they actually listened, and stood stock still, even stopped panting, to watch the pigs pass quietly.  We made the cache find, and then got the heck out of dodge.

The sun was going down, but I wanted that next find, so I set off for the next one along a side trail that was the closest one to me.  I started reading the cache description, and started getting a little spooked.  The cache was called “Cat Tracks”, and it turns out the reason why that name was chosen is because the cache owner said they saw the biggest bobcat they had ever seen at the cache site when going for the hide.  As I got closer, I began to get the paranoid feeling that I was being stalked.  I had to go about 180 ft into the brush, which by now was kind of dark inside, and when the dogs and I were about halfway in the thicket, we heard a branch snap nearby.  We all froze…and then beat a hasty retreat outta there.

About twenty feet back down the trail, I started second guessing myself, and started to go back in…only to see or sense something jump down off a nearby branch, which then bounced up and down from the relieved weight.  Nevermind!

As I was headed out of the woods and towards the bridge that would lead me back to the campsite, I started hearing cracking and snapping of branches in the woods to my right.  Several times the dogs and I stopped to listen, and I became convinced there was a whole herd of feral hogs in those woods, about to bust out and chase us down.  As the sun was finally setting, I came to two realizations.  One: those sounds, and the faint hissing sounds I was also hearing, where in fact only vultures settling in to roost, fighting over the best spots, and knocking down dead branches as they went.  Two: that at dark, Brazos Bend State Park belongs to the creatures.  That, although a frightening thing, is also how it should be, and I am glad the creatures have a place to call their own.

brazosbend 3That night as we sat around the campfire sipping our adult beverages and telling life stories, I heard a sound.  It increased in intensity, and J noticed it, too, and agreed with my consensus: coyotes howling.  It sounded like a lot of them.

The next day, when we were hiking with Rod (from the caching team “uptrain”), he told us that earlier that day, he had come across the carcasses of four feral hogs that had been tore up.  He had told the ranger about it, and the ranger explained that was the work of the coyotes.  The coyotes lurk around the edges of the pig trails, working together to take down the weak and the young.  I am not sure if it was the four pigs I had seen the day before – Jerry didn’t think so, because they were on the far end of Hale Lake, not the side I had been on – and I am not sure whose side I am on in this nature’s scheme, but I did find it interesting to think about what kind of dramas played out in those woods once the sun goes down.

Purple Martin Madness


You might have seen our Facebook posts Friday about watching the Purple Martins roost in Stafford.  We posted enough pictures and videos there that I don’t necessarily feel like I need to double post them here.  As far as I know, the only readers of this blog are friends with us over there on Facebook (?).  The posted YouTube video, though, is from that same night, taken from someone behind us.  Jason and his parents are over to the left of the view, I think I was sitting down at this time.  I really enjoyed the hour or so we spent out there.

At first, the birds gathered slowly, and seemingly with little purpose.  They weren’t flying as much as they were gracefully gliding with the night breeze.  I found their movements to be smooth and silky feeling, and it was relaxing to watch.  Birds would glide in and out, and the group gathered in numbers and then eventually in momentum and energy.  It went from a few groups of hundreds of birds to a more solid group of thousands, coming closer to the ground and moving faster and faster, tweeting, beating wings in unison.  They would light on top of the trees and then suddenly move off en masse, and then more birds would join and they would repeat the process, over and over until they finally settled.

I wanted to share a thought about those graceful little birds that really intrigued me, though.  Twelve thousand years ago, before man crossed over the Bering Straight into North America, the martins kept their nests in abandoned chambers of woodpecker nests or hollowed trees.  However, at today’s evolutionary point, these birds have stopped nesting naturally east of the Rockies, and are completely dependent on humans setting up houses or gourd-like nests for them.  This is a behavior shift that happened over hundreds or thousands of bird generations, as the humans and the martins began mingling.

Back before the urbanization of America, the Native Americans had realized the appeal of these little birds.  The purple martins acted like little “scarecrows”, scaring crows away from crops and vultures away from their meat and hides.  The Native Americans hung dried out gourds up to attract the birds to nest near them.  The birds were potentially able to lay more eggs and successfully raise more offspring to maturity as a result.  Over time, the birds returned to these nests year after year, until they “forgot” how to make it on their own in North America.  Approximately one million Purple Martin houses are put out by human beings to keep this species of bird going.

indian and martinsBy the early twentieth century, this behavior shift was complete.  Also, around the 1800s, the introduction of the House Sparrow and European Starling to North America meant that the Purple Martins had competition for resources.  The starlings and sparrows take over the houses of the martins, and the martin numbers began declining in the 1980s. Pesticide use and deforestation in the martin’s winter grounds in Brazil have also added to the decline of this species.   The Purple Martin Conservation Association formed in 1987, and has been trying to keep these birds from further decline.  You can get more information here if you are curious about this association.

This has made me curious about the co-evolution of humans and other species, and also about the ways people help nature.  I am not sure if the relationship the martins developed with the humans was negative or positive – while they do benefit from the support of the houses, if we didn’t enable them with the houses in the first place, they might have retained their ability to find their own nests and be sustainable as a species without us.  I am going to look for more examples like this to illuminate in future posts.