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A community working together for wildlife

6 Oct

We get dirty sometimes. Mosquitoes practice their vampire act on us. Often times we get wet, such as falling in marsh water with chest waders on. Sunshine beats on us and the wind might push us around. But everyone has a good time, from the refuge staff, to dedicated local volunteers, perhaps a photojournalist thrown in, to the occasional beauty pageant queen.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 10,000 acres of marsh land and forest, most in various phases of restoration. It is a part of the overall Montezuma Marshes, a wooded swamp and marsh complex named in 1973 and designated as National Natural Landmark. The entire complex is around 100 acres of low land at the northern end of two of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. In addition to the federal refuge, large holdings are also managed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Audubon. Together, they form the Montezuma Complex with similar goals: to restore, conserve and protect habitat for wildlife.

The Montezuma Complex is important for conservation because the marshes, pools, and channels are stopovers for migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway. Songbirds, shorebirds. waterfowl, swans, and raptors use the riparian areas and food sources for shelter, rest, and to fuel their migration south and north. Also of significance are the slowly increasing population of sandhill cranes. As of this summer, five or six nesting cranes were documented on the complex, most of them on the national wildlife refuge. They form a new but small component of the Atlantic Sandhill Crane Population.

The refuge was also instrumental in the successful reintroduction of bald eagles to New York State, and the first such program in the U.S. Since the program began in 1976, many of those eagles, and now their offspring, still return to the Montezuma complex to nest. Two of the nests that we monitored this summer had three nestlings fledge per nest, a sign that the species is doing well.

Another raptor species recovering from near decimation in this area is the osprey. Four of the five nests atop utility structures that line the road to the refuge entrance were full of nesting osprey and their young. These raptors are now a common sight as they elegantly dive for fish in the channels and marshes.

In addition to eagle surveys, the refuge participates in monitoring other species: ducks, geese, great blue heron, swans, grassland birds, black terns, and shorebirds. A new species added this year is the monarch butterfly: testing habitat evaluation tools and management protocols for monarch and all pollinators.

But there is more to just counting and banding ducks on the refuge.

Some of the refuge is accessible to the public to enjoy birds and native vegetation.A visitors’ center, wildlife drive, and hiking trails weave through the refuge pools, marshes, forests, and fields. Visitors can observe birds in the water and in the air. At the nearby Audubon Center, visitors can stroll through native fields in colorful bloom, or even rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the creek and nearby canal.

But many parts are closed to the public, too. Because many waterfowl species -ducks, swans, geese, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and eagles- nest summer-long in the marsh water, fields or trees, they need undisturbed places to successfully rear their young.

dscn2386These marshes, forests and fields are also field laboratories for children and adults. Many educational events occur on the refuge and the Audubon holdings for children to experience hands-on education on ecology, biology, botany, and team building. The DEC staff conduct training sessions for young hunters. And even the staff of the refuge and DEC partake in skill building and training workshops. This past summer we participated in a three-day workshop on waterfowl habitat management and a two-day course in duck banding in cooperation with the American Bird Banding Laboratory.

Most impressive to me was the cooperative and successfully productive network with the state, private, public, and federal entities. At the core of this are the committed staff and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to the large membership and contributions of the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, many projects in the complex are supported by donations and volunteer work. The most successful is the MARSH! program.

MARSH! is part of a larger effort to restore, protect, and enhance wildlife habitat on nearly 50,000 acres in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.

We formed this VOLUNTEER program to support the habitat restoration efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Montezuma Audubon Center and other partners at Montezuma. This group works on controlling invasive species in grassland, shrubland, forest, marsh and river. The work is hands-on as we cut and pull invasive species & replant with natives that will be more beneficial to wildlife & less harmful to Montezuma habitats overall!

Staff from both the national refuge and the NY DEC work with volunteers on a variety of projects:

  • surveying seedling tree survival,
  • controlling invasive species, such as swallow wart, honeysuckle, etc.
  • black tern surveys,
  • collecting wetland and upland native plant seed,
  • surveying for invasive plant density using GIS apps on phones and iPads, etc

We always finish off with lunch together, sharing stories and laughs. My last MARSH event with them culminated with a presentation I gave on the monarch life cycle and habitat. Sharing those events with them this summer was a unique and satisfying experience that will be memorable.

Especially when a local beauty pageant queen worked with us for one MARSH day.

A photographer and column writer from a local paper watched and photographed us all one day while we collected emergent marsh plant seed. He called me the next day to request an interview, which I really did not think would be published. But it did.
(Follow link below for full article)

THE BIGGER PICTURE: A visitor from the Land of Enchantment

fltimes-interview-copy

Link to full article.

An encounter with a young hawk

29 Jul

I heard a nearby truncated shriek. A familiar sound, but lacking the usual power and strength. Scanning the area around me, I saw a silhouette that, again, was a familiar shape.

Underneath the wide umbrella canopy of an old tree, sheltered from the sun, sat the form of a raptor. My first thought was one of the four raven fledglings that constantly explore the air and ground around the refuge headquarters and resident area. But the shape of the head, attentive and looking around, was not that of a raven.

Most of the buteos have a sloped skull that flows into the downward slope of their hooked beak. The bony ridge over the eyes of a buteo gives the profile of their familiar hooded eyes, which can be piercing.

A raven’s skull is shorter and rounder than a buteo’s. Ravens also lack the boney ridge over their eyes, which are like round black buttons. The long and fat raven beak is the key difference. Thick and long, it might be compared to a tapered black banana.

When the bird awkwardly took flight from the ground, white feathers of the short leggings and underwings confirmed that the mystery bird was a buteo, or hawk. What also caught my eye was that its talons were taking a meal for a ride.

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

The hawk flew into a nearby large and ancient cottonwood tree, where it couldn’t seem to find its balance on a branch. As I walked closer, perhaps about a hundred and twenty-five feet away, the bird gave up flapping its wings in amongst the branches and finding a place to perch. It flew down to the ground.

Now quite curious, I retrieved my binoculars out of the travel trailer and walked back to where I was. Scanning the weedy grass and rabbit brush, I could not see any sign of the bird. But occasionally I would hear a sound like a short and high-pitched bark. An odd sound for a raptor!

Walking slowly and carefully through the dried weeds and grass, I chose a direct path towards the sound. After 20 feet of noise with every foot-fall, I stopped and returned to the chunky gravel and decided to try my luck along the edge of the gravel refuge road.

Recalling what I was taught decades ago when learning to track animals, every footstep was slow and light. Any audible sound of the gravel rearranging under my feet was muffled by the strong breeze and moving tree leaves. Keeping my upper body as motionless as possible, I slowly shifted my weight with every carefully-placed footstep. Moving sideways, without moving my head and arms independently was a bit tricky, trying to keep it all a fluid motion. I made a mental note that I needed to get back into Tai Chi to improve my balance and proprioception.

With the binoculars held up to my eyes, I spotted first the raptor head, then the neck. Moving closer, I could monitor the bird’s eyes through the binoculars. Whenever its head and eyes moved in my direction, I froze; sometimes with a foot suspended above the gravel while waiting for the head and eyes to turn away from my direction.

It seemed to take forever for me to approach near where the bird was on the ground. Perched on a large branch lying on the ground and in the shade of the tree was a young hawk. A few features informed me that it was immature. The color of the eyes (iris) were grayish with subtle yellow. Adult Red-tailed hawks have dark brown irises, which often blend in with their black pupils.

The white breast feathers were typical of a red-tailed hawk. However, its white patch was smaller than most others I have seen on juveniles of this species. Below this patch were soft, almost downy variegated feathers; white with wide bands of medium to light brown, and many of them blowing in the breezes sneaking under the canopy of the tree. It’s cere was large and bright yellow, the brightest coloration on this mostly dark bird. Little white showed on the top of the wings and head. Below its white softly feathered leggings betrayed the presence of knobby legs and gray-yellow talon. This bird had not gone through its first molt yet.

Now at about 25 feet from the bird, I didn’t need the binoculars anymore. I held them to my chin to avoid any exaggerated movement. Standing stock still, I studied this bird and wondered why it decided to perch on a grounded branch rather than up in the tree canopy.

Slowly shifting my body a few more feet to the right I was able to see more of the story. One set of talons grasped the wood, and the other…….   All I could see was the bottom of its leg and the upper toes disappearing in the gray-rusty colored fur. These talons were deep into the hindquarters of an unidentified furry mammal with soft gray and tan-orange fur. Below the heap of fur was the bottom of a leg with some white fur and a foot. A paw, to be more exact. With the binoculars, the shape of a paw with dark tan fur had me stumped. Then another feature grabbed my curiosity.

To the right of the hawk I noticed and oddly shaped reddish branch covered with yellowish knobs. It looked like a miniature bloody chainsaw! Not until the hawk picked up its buried talons and shook the heap of fur did I see this odd reddish bar shake as well. It was attached to the heap of fur!

I realized that the hawk was sitting on a hindquarter that was still attached to the bloody spine of a mammal. After shaking the heap of fur and the rib, the hawk looked down at his trapped talons. Apparently the youngster buried those talons into the scavenged meal and was unable to remove them. Shaking it a few times unsuccessfully released it. It finally took a break and glanced around, yawning. And I continued to watch.

After a furious attempt to shake the cumbersome attachment to its talons, it managed to jump up off the fur heap and branch, and turn around with a squeal. Possibly sitting on the rib and powerfully pushing off, its talons were finally dislodged from the fur. With great dexterity, this determined bird caught the entire carnage before it fell on the ground, parked it on the branch, itself carefully perched on the wood, and began to tear off tufts of gray and tan fur. A whitish tail surrounded by gray and tawny-orange fur leads me to guess that the unfortunate meal was a white-tailed jackrabbit, a large relative of the common black-tailed jackrabbit.

The beautiful black and brown banded tail feathers confirmed the age of this bird. Although fledged for a month or so now, it was learning to hunt and feed itself on its own. Finding a partially consumed meal might seem an easy meal for this youngster, but now it needs to learn constraint on digging its talons into prey. And I thanked it for letting me share its experience.

 We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of haven taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. –  by Henry Beston, excerpted from The Outermost House

Fuzzy owls day off!

8 Jun

“Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The four Great Horned owlets near the Refuge headquarters have fledged from their nest. I visited with the entire family for a few hours the other day as they roosted in two large cottonwood trees. I was privy to some interesting behavior and interactions.

At six to eight weeks old, Great horned owl nestlings will begin to venture from their nest. By climbing branches or other structures next to the nest, the  young begin to exercise and strengthen their leg muscles. They will also flap their wings for the same purpose, often jumping around in the nest while flapping. At this stage, these nestlings, and other large birds of prey, are referred to as ‘flappers’. They will then progress to taking flight for short distances.

The four owl siblings were often spotted flying around inside the fire tower structure, where they could safely exercise without falling to the ground. It was like a large playpen for these owl youngsters. We knew then that they would be fledging soon outside of the fire tower box and take wing.

Owl fledglings remain in close proximity for several weeks.  They will often roost together in the same tree or in neighboring trees. Adults generally roost away from the young, albeit nearby, and they will continue to feed their young with decreasing frequency throughout the summer.

I spotted three of the youngsters with the dad in one tree. The lone sibling was in a tree across the way with mom. I heard the adults communicating with each other shortly before I spotted them, which is how I identified the gender of the adults. A pair of nesting ravens (in a spruce tree ~400 yards from the cottonwoods) tried harassing the lone owlet. Mom had enough and chased them off.

I quietly chuckled while watching the group of three youngsters preen each other while perched on a large tree branch. When one tried preening the feathers on its sibling’s leg, it got a foot of talons in its face. So it stepped on its siblings foot and proceeded to continue preening its leg feathers, while the other tried in vain to pull its leg away. All the while, third sibling did it’s rolling and bobbing the head-thing while watching its two siblings argue about pedicures.

I returned later with the camera and found that the siblings had separated. Two were deep in the shade of the tree canopy, their heads pulled down into their shoulders and wings. They blended in quite well with the rough bark of the tree. One lone sibling was still awake, watching below and in plain view. I set up the tripod and zoomed in for a few portraits. These youngsters still have some downy feathers on their heads, which makes them look lighter than the adults.

As the day was getting warmer and brighter, this one eventually succumbed to nap time. It very slowly tilted to the side and laid prone on a branch next to it.

Unfortunately, a visitor appeared, yelling out, “Whatcha watching there?! Anything good?!” Because it was my day off, and I was not in anything associating me with refuge staff, I told him to be quiet!

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Where the wild things are, go I

30 May

Last week was a string of days within this:

Malheur NW Refuge and Steens Mnt.

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
– Wendell Berry

The ultimate was watching a pair of swans with four cygnets. Watching for hours the intimacy of their body language with each other, their communication and connections so basic and honest simplicity, putting all of ours at shame and bumbling inadequacy. The poetics of space and place through the eyes of six swans was an experience I won’t forget. And it makes all our human drama seem so ignorant and trivial.

I belong where the wild things are.

Trumpeter swans and cygnets

White-faced ibis and cinnamon teal on marshes on the Refuge.

Choices

23 May

It was my free choice to release all the stuff and trappings in life and live simply where I want. Poor, yet very happy in the natural world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

 

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On Being an Osprey

15 May

My treat for the day was watching the osprey finally get a fish on its fourth dive into the pond.

I can see its eyes, its talons, it indecisiveness and aborting a dive. I can almost feel it spring out of the water, shaking that cold wetness from its feathered back and wings, climb back up in the air, and finding a thermal to coast, I could almost feel its exhaustion.

I stood there with my eyes projected through the binoculars, almost flying and diving with it, smiling and rooting for this osprey, calling it ‘Sweetheart’, and remembering why it was known as the ‘sea eagle’ where I grew up.

I love ospreys. If I can’t be an osprey, take me with you in flight and in dive.

Osprey at Yellowstone; photo by Jean Philippe Dugault, French nature photographer.

Osprey at Yellowstone; photo by Jean Philippe Dugault, French nature photographer.

Changes……

18 Mar

Bosqe del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Posts here have been infrequent due to limited wifi access. I hope that this will change in the near future. On the other hand, many changes have occurred during the last several months.

A few long-time readers here are aware that the desert in southwest Texas was my Home. No longer. That process was slow and very painful. That change, however, is a positive and happy move in the right direction. This author is now fully disentangled from Texas, officially a Nomad (or ‘location independent’ 😉 and committed to serving at the wildlife refuges in the lower states. It is my mission and new retirement ‘career’. And it has thus far given me much joy and satisfaction, more than my previous years in academia. Especially the last six years. I am back in the field, where I belong.

What has not changed, however, is my penchant for arid and semi-arid environments. On the other hand, a new component has attracted, fixated and captured me: the juxtaposition of desert and riparian environments. Water in the desert, and all the life that it attracts.

Everything about the high desert and riparian habitats have captured me. Like a precious jewel of life and sweetness that huddles and coexists with its opposite. It is the quintessential yin and yang. And I love them both.

Chihuahuan desert and marshlands in south-central New Mexico on the BdA Refuge.

I will shortly return to the high desert in the northern stretch of the Great Basin, the largest desert of North America. At a national refuge in southeast Oregon I will be working with the biologists in bird surveys, nest monitoring, bird banding, and leading occasional tours into natural areas on the refuge. My free time will again be spent camping and hiking in the mountains and in the wild.

With better wifi access, I promise to post more frequently about the high deserts, the geography, geology and the life there.

In remembrance of my four and one-half months at the Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, I will introduce you to a few of the many ‘friendships’ I made.

Male bufflehead duck ready to dive under water.

One of 13 overwintering bald eagles this past winter on the BdA Refuge.

Top count of red-tailed hawks was 38 during one survey. This was a lucky capture.

Rufus x dark morph red-tailed hawk, I suspect a female.

Immature Red-tailed hawk. One of the many we saw during our weekly raptor surveys on BdA.

Two neotropic cormorants visiting the Rookery wetland at the BdA Refuge.

Cinnamon teal drake weaves its way in between resting snow and Ross’ geese.

Female American kestrel, my favorite little falcon.

I have had the fortune and pleasure to meet many wonderful people from around the world at the Bosque del Apache Refuge. Crossing paths with a few people led to surprises: a former colleague from the USDA in Corvallis, Oregon, and fellow Refuge volunteer from my hometown and high school! Hundreds of photographers visit the wildlife refuges across the country, and my most favorite and memorable is a very interesting, friendly and kind photographer, Danny Hancock from Texas. I am privileged to have met him and have enjoyed our chats. With his kind permission, his photograph of this male American kestrel is my ultimate favorite of any I have seen during my stay at the Refuge this past winter and spring.

You can enjoy more of Danny’s work at his website, 500px , by following the link. Thanks, Danny, and I hope we meet again.

Male Am. kestrel by Danny Hancock, wildlife photographer.

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