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In the eyes of the beholder

18 Mar

In between sky and land
is a palette
upon which no human
can paint
any better
than what we see.

It reaches deep
and through
to possess us entirely
magnificent
inspiring
and humbling.

Take me up
into the clouds
and let me float
soar
and fly.

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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.

Storm over the Refuge

26 Dec

Snow geese, sandhill cranes and mallard ducks on the Refuge.

Everyone loves blue skies and sunshine. But I love storms in the desert. Their power and beauty can be exhilarating, transformative, and inspiring.

While out roving one afternoon on the Refuge, a storm rolled in (literally). A gentle warm breeze turned into a furious stampede of wind and cold. Dark clouds battled with white puffs lit from the sun, which struggled to retain its foothold on the landscape. Marshes reflected light in valleys of white water caps whipped by the wind. Ducks dotted the water like dark tiny ships rocking on the water surface. The weather and skies changed quickly after a slow start. But I didn’t care.

As I drove around the loop road a few visitors braved the driving rain to enjoy the changes unfolding around them. I stood beside one young man with his binoculars, I with the camera. Our voices almost lost in the wind, I answered questions about the sandhill cranes and snow geese, and pointed out the white leucistic crane nearly hidden by other cranes.

We both watched the undulating mass of snow geese take flight, circle and land again. They came and went several times, apparently displeased with the stormy conditions. The cranes seemed unaffected by the weather and continued their rooting in the moist soil. Nor were the hundreds of mallards and pintail ducks disturbed in the shallow water near the observation deck.

Rain showers over the marsh.

Colors of vegetation were enhanced by the moisture. The dark greys and blues of the mountains provided a dramatic background for the white geese and the golden and orange vegetation. And the rain muted shapes providing a soft texture. Everything was dramatic and muffled as if everything around me was its own little temporary dreamland.

When my fingers were too numb to negotiate the lens and shutter release, I headed back to the car. I noticed then that rain drops covered the front of my lens despite its protective hood. Smiling, I realized I was oblivious to anything other than the landscape and animals around me.

The storm proceeded east turning the sky solid gray-blue. When the sun began to light the landscape surface from between the parting clouds, the contrasted fields and trees turned a vibrant gold. The geese remained upset, moving from marsh to field and back, unsure where to find shelter. While all the birds on the west side of the Refuge began to emerge from cover; ducks bobbing on water, cranes croaking to each other, and the raptors finding leftover breezes to soar.

Reflection of emerging sunlight.

The sun and remaining moisture in the air topped off the end of the afternoon with the most brilliant rainbow I’ve seen in a very long time. It was vibrant and immense as it almost circled the Refuge. A sense of renewal ended the afternoon storm’s drama  and power.

This oasis in the desert is magical.

Rainbow over the Refuge looking east.

Rainbow to the northwest of Refuge.

Raptor-Wannabes, Kestrel Chic Day, and Walkabout

29 Nov

“I think I see a hawk in the tree at 2 0’clock!”
“No; that’s a Raptor-Wannabe!”

Four of us piled into the Refuge van for the weekly Raptor Survey. Jac, one of the Nature Store staff, joined us for the first time. Between four pairs of eyes and varying levels of experience in locating and ID’ing our intended targets, we all learned something new or refreshed memories. The foursome also made for entertaining jokes, especially when the van wouldn’t start while out on the Refuge loop.

Informally lumped into the popular category, ‘raptors’, not all birds of prey are technically raptors. Eagles, vultures, hawks, and falcons share similar structures and functions. They all have powerful feet (raptorial) with sharped curved talons for catching and holding their prey. They also have strong hooked beaks for tearing their catch into pieces. Other ‘birds of prey’ that are not considered raptors are owls and osprey. Although they also have powerful feet and toes, they are arranged differently; hence they are classified differently. Our Raptor Surveys do not include the two latter species (the osprey is very rare here and owls are typically not active during daylight).

Raptors are commonly subclassified into informal taxonomical groups: the New World vultures, eagles, hawks, and falcons. Most all falcons are of the same genus (Falco sp.) , whereas most of the hawks in North America are of two genus: Accipiter and Buteo sp.

Identifying birds in the field is very similar to ID’ing plants: start with the obvious and the basics. Then dive into the details. The first field cues are size, flight pattern, and shape. With plants, it would be size, shape and growth habit (plants can’t fly ;).

Size: Birds of prey are generally larger than songbirds, although there are exceptions. The American Kestrel, a member of the falcon family, is the smallest with 10 1/2″ length and a 23″ wingspan. Not much bigger than a meadowlark. But like all falcons, a kestrel’s flight style and shape are similar to other birds of prey because of their food source. Yet, because of their body size, they fly differently compared to larger hawks and eagles.

At the other end of the spectrum, eagles are relatively easier to ID because of their large size and there are so few species. Hawks are the biggest challenge. Regardless, judging size in the field can be difficult and unreliable, especially at a distance. Flight styles and shape are field traits to consider next.

Flight: Typically, the smaller raptors fly closer to the ground. Marsh hawks (also known as Northern Harriers) tend to swoop close and parallel the ground, especially over shallow riparian areas, with wings upraised. They hunt for birds, frogs, rodents, and reptiles. Because of the small size and V-shaped wings, they are truly acrobats, turning on a mushroom.

Flight in birds is a function of their size and wing structure. The smaller raptors are quick and flap their wings more in flight than the larger birds. Eagles and the large hawks are more gliders than wing-flappers. Because of their large body size and weight, flapping their wings is very energetically expensive. Their wing beats are typically more deliberate and slow. They also use prevailing wind currents and thermals to take flight and glide. You will often see eagles and large hawks circling on thermal winds.

Shape: The overall shape and proportion of a perched bird or one in flight may reveal much information. Our favorite cue for a perched red-tailed hawk is its football shape. Kestrels are relatively easy to spot. Despite their diminutive size, the shape of the wings, squat head, and curved beak often reveal their identity.

Raptors in flight are a perfect opportunity to observe their tail length, shape and color, as well as their wing shape. Head size and neck length of perched raptors are another field trait that can differentiate them.

Occasionally a non-raptor plays the Trickster and fools us for a few moments. Several of the larger falcons and mid-sized hawks are nearly the same size and shape as the Common Raven. One of us might spot a dark form perching in a tree in the distance and call attention to it. Up go the binoculars and we all realize that dark perching bird is none other than a black raven: a Raptor-Wannabe! Such is what we call the ravens when doing our raptor surveys. (Ravens are not as easily confused as a raptor when in flight; their proportions and flight style are vastly different)

Chic Kestrels

Our raptor counts can significantly vary each week, and from day to day. Our last survey revealed six Northern Harriers, which are common on the Refuge, and five kestrels. Today we spotted only three harriers, but eight kestrels! Only one of the colorful males was spotted, but with a brown mouse in its talons. The other seven were females, which typically hunt solo in the open fields. We were presented with three females hunting together in one field today!! It was like a finely choreographed ballet.

We reported to the others that this morning must have been a Kestrel Chic Day.

Our final count for just 1/2 of the sampling area this morning was as follows:

  1. Red-tailed hawks: 14 non-sexed adults (1 was a dark morph, 1 a rufus-morph) + 3 juveniles = 17 total
  2. American kestrel: 7 females, 1 male = 8 total adults
  3. Northern harrier: 3 non-sexed = 3 total adults
  4. Bald eagles: 1 non-sexed adult, 2 juveniles = 3 total
  5. Cooper’s hawk: 1 juvenile
  6. Merlin: 1 non-sexed adult
  7. Ferruginous hawk: 1 juvenile
  8. Sharp-shined hawk: 1 non-sexed adult

Marsh with ducks and snow geese at Bosque del Apache NWR

            Walkabout

Because it was a warm day, and energized by the excitement of today’s raptor survey, I went for a walkabout on the Lagoon Trail. The wide and open trail wanders between two riparian canals on the side of the Refuge Auto Tour route, and across from the expansive marsh where ducks dabble and dive.

The two-mile plus walk was quiet and lovely, with tall grasses on one side and mowed native grasses on the other. I heard two hawks flying over the Chihuahuan desert brush land on one side. And heard the occasional quacks of mallards on the other side. Two scattered V-lines of snow geese flew overheard and I could hear the whoosh of their wings with their constant high-pitched honks.

Glancing down frequently in the gravel under my feet, mammal tracks showed big heavy mule deer, racoons in the dried mud, and one other string of human boots. A large deposit of fresh coyote scat revealed a partially digested diet of juniper berries, and even a small juniper sprig. In one line of big feline scat, I found a small white femur and other tiny tidbits of white broken bone encased in short light gray fur. Another tiny pile of scat further on suggested a young bobcat. Also discovered were two pieces of dried hide with long orange and beige fur! My guess was coyote or possibly red fox. Regardless which species, it was definitely from a wild canid.

Watching the raptors, spotting the tracks and scat, they all told stories of some of the wildlife that call this Refuge ‘Home’. I am perfectly happy sharing their Home with them. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Turkey Day on the Refuge

27 Nov

As I sit in my ‘home on wheels’ drinking my early morning coffee on Turkey Day catching up on correspondence (and rare Internet connection), I hear the air boat out on the large marshes across the road and RV ‘Village’ on the Refuge. One of the biologists is out this morning picking up dead snow geese. They are carriers of and susceptible to avian cholera. With the prolonged unseasonal cold weather we’ve had here, we’re seeing early mortality of snow geese. I also wonder how much stress levels from extremely high human visitation with the recent Crane Festival adds to increases in mortality rate, possibly compounding overall stress from cold temps, high animal density, lower water volume, and less corn/feed access than in previous years. One of the biologists mentioned last week that recent mortality incidents are earlier than normal.

During the Festival I was fortunate to accompany as an aide a six-hour Sandhill Crane Behavior class. The instructor was crane biologist Paul Tebbel and his associate. Our group of 15 Festival participants was out by one of the ‘Crane Ponds’ in the dark at 5:45am to watch the ‘fly out’. The ‘fly outs’ and ‘fly ins’ are the daily celebratory attractions for people from all over the country as tens of thousands of snow geese and nearly 10,000 sandhill cranes take to the sky in the morning and land in the evening. We chose one of the smaller marshes for a closer and more personal view of the cranes. It was indeed magical and awe inspiring despite temperatures in the mid-20’s. Even the cranes were reluctant to take flight until the sun warmed them a bit. We could see ‘bracelets’ of ice on their legs when they moved around in the marsh.

Paul has been involved in sandhill crane biology and conservation for decades. Formerly the director and manager for the 1400-acre wildlife sanctuary on the Platte River in Nebraska (the bottleneck for sandhill crane migrations), he is now head of the Effie Yeaw Nature Center north of Sacramento. His expertise is crane behavior and he has conducted workshops here at Bosque del Apache Refuge for 20 years!

He is one of the best naturalist instructors I have had the fortune to meet and work with! His casual approach to imparting information on biology and animal behavior elicited a genuine and more personal interest from all participants. I especially enjoyed how he and his associate demonstrated the crane’s pre-flight signals between members of crane family units (forward leaning and looking back to see if other family members and uits were attentive). The two presenters mimicked the crane behaviors accompanied by a human speech interpretation: “Look, Junior, I’m leaning forward now! It’s time to fly! Are you paying attention? Is Mom there, too?”

I learned more about cranes in those six hours than I could ever accumulate from reading literature! And I now have a greater personal and scientific understanding of cranes, as well as an increased overall appreciation of how special they are. Not just because they are ‘big and pretty’ (the most common response to Paul’s question to participants why people are interested in cranes), but also because they have extraordinarily complex social behaviors. And bird/animal behavior is my primary interest (second to biology).

The Festival overall was a huge success for all involved: participants, the Refuge, the Friends of BdA, and the volunteers. It was crazy busy for us all, but well organized. Every single Refuge staff member worked long hours and every day along with the rest of us, and it was truly a great ‘team player’ experience. Even the Refuge Manager was on board daily with smiles and encouragement. All the vendors and auxiliary representatives from public (federal and state) agencies and other non-profit organizations (e.g. wildlife conservation and rehabilitation groups) were tremendously friendly and interactive with both Festival staff and visitor participants.

Now that the Festival is over, all of us get a chance to relax and enjoy more personal time. I volunteered to help conduct raptor surveys every Saturday, which I enjoy immensely. Especially when pointing out one of the bald eagles to visitors that may be around me when surveying the two main marshlands. Folks are thrilled to see them.

I have to admit that I have grown very fond of our smallest falcons, the American kestrels. I was giddy with excitement when close to a rehabilitated female kestrel and a male Great Horned owl (both serve as foster parents!).  Additionally, I now have the opportunity to see many of the male duck species that nest at Malheur NWR in all their winter plumage! One of my favorites is the male bufleheads; they look like large floating black and white Nike sneakers. The only waterfowl missing here from my ‘Favorite List’ is my old friends, the loons. They are a very rare occurrence here.

Since serving the wildlife refuges is my new retirement ‘career’, my intentions are to improve and expand my professional capacities that will enhance my skills and performance as a naturalist and a biologist. This was my goal upon retiring: to devote myself to the conservation of wildlife and contribute to enhancing the connection between wildlife and people. And I admit that doing so is enormously satisfying and often full of adventures.

Our volunteer group here is planning a large turkey dinner potluck this afternoon, including those of the Refuge staff that live on site. Now that we all have more free time I plan to finally take my camera out and hike in the mornings! Although I think I might invest in a pair of insulated coveralls 😉

Happy Holidays to all of you!

Western Tanagers are here!

12 May

No strangers to the Big Bend area, tanagers are some of the most colorful birds in the spring and into late summer here. And one of the favorites for both color and song is the Western Tanager.

Western Tanager. Photo courtesy of Anne Theil.

Western Tanager. Photo courtesy of Anne Theil.

The breeding range of these birds extends from southeastern Alaska to south through the western states and West Texas. Most Western Tanagers arrive in the Trans-Pecos and High Plains regions during spring from early April to late May. They usually breed in Texas from late April to mid-August. In the fall, they migrate south to central Mexico for the winter.

Big Bend National Park is on the migratory flyway of several tanagers as they migrate north and south. Thus, several species of tanagers can be found, especially in the Chisos Mtns., but also in the neighboring area. I enjoyed watching and listening to these colorful birds last May around Cedar Springs area on Terlingua Ranch. A local resident recently photographed a Western Tanager hunting for insects in a clutch of creosote.

Most red birds owe their colors of red, yellow and green to a variety of plant pigments known as carotenoids, which are deposited in their feathers. The Western Tanager gets its scarlet head feathers from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin. Unable to make this substance in their own bodies, Western Tanagers probably obtain it from their diet of insects that feed on conifer (pine, fir, yew, and cedar) needles, and small fruit (especially of the honeysuckle) which contain the pigment. These pigments are stored specifically in their crown feathers to give them their red appearance.

Another related species of interest is the Flame-colored Tanager. Historically common only to central Mexico, their range has increased north over the last decade. They have become more common in the Sky Islands of Arizona with a few documented sightings in the Chisos Mtns. of BBNP. Interestingly, because their DNA are closely matched, more than of other tanagers, the Western and Flame-colored Tanagers are quick to mate and hybridize. Increasing documented sightings of hybrid birds are reported in Arizona the last several years. It is not unusual for closely related species to hybridize when their border habitats overlap.

Photo courtesy of Anne Theil.

Photo courtesy of Anne Theil.

Loons and innate responses

25 Apr

In the Chihuahuan desert, no one would expect to hear what might be the most eerie sound of the watery forests, a bird more commonly known throughout the northern portions of the US. Especially a water bird. Yet I did, in disbelief.

I heard it the other morning, but I discounted it. ‘No way!,’ I thought. But I heard it again this morning. I know that wail like the blood that runs in my veins and my ears. It stirs deep inside like a wolf howl.

My childhood and most of my adulthood was spent in the northern regions in this country: Maine, New York, and Oregon. I know this sound, I know this bird. It is ingrained in my being like the beating of my heart.

Conversely, the common loon is very rare here in these parts of the desert. Water is scarce, and loons are an aquatic bird. The only documented reports of loons in this area are 1937 and 1988 (in Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio del Norte). Both were spotted on the Rio del Norte in the National Park. Another report of a loon spotting was in Boquillas Canyon a couple years ago.

It is amazing how (and even that it does) our ‘lizard brain’ responds to certain sounds. People usually don’t question man-made sounds, or sounds of a predator. They are typically associated with danger, pleasure, risk, etc, which is a plausible explanation. But a bird call that has no threat, instead eliciting a profound feeling of inate and inexplicable comfort and alliance is almost always casually dismissed by the scientific community.

There is one that could offer an explanation, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran*, who researches synesthesia and mirror neurons. He is one of the few scientists that ‘thinks outside the box.’ If the smell of rain is almost universally associated with the color green, and with pleasure, is it not possible that a bird call can elicit a profound psychological response other than fear?

At one point long ago, as a conventionally trained scientist I would have dismissed all this. Until a wonderful professor in my graduate biochemistry class impressed upon me once that we must  at some point in our lives accept that sometimes there is no explanation for what we ‘know’. And ‘knowing’ is a dynamic process. It’s a journey, not a destination. For a chemist to tell me that, it altered they way I understand things. And it enhanced my life both as an individual and as a scientist in so many ways.

The loon call literally gives me goosebumps and, simultaneously, a surge of endorphins. It stirs inexplicable primitive feelings in which no words can explain. All I can do is close my eyes and become a part of the sound, the bird and it’s environment.

It’s a ‘Zen’ thing.


A sampling of the sounds for the common loon can be found at this link to the webpage provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology (All About Birds website).

* V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I highly recommend reading his book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and listening to his many podcasts on iTunes and elsewhere. He’s also a fantastic speaker with a great sense of humor.

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