Archive | wildlife refuges RSS feed for this section

Come catch me!

26 Jan

After a five-mile and five-hour trek in the Hill Country of Texas, I netted a dozen and a half butterflies and two diurnal moths. Caught two butterflies in the net with one swipe. Watched two metalmarks twirl and then couple together, the male struggling while flying away and the female hanging underneath.

I missed several  butterflies, caught some replicates, and three escaped my fingers. The most abundant species were gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) and common buckeyes (Junonia coenia). Interstingly, the size of the gulf fritillaries varied more than I expected, and they were all males.

The best prize was a male goatweed leafwing (Anaea andria); a beauty. It escaped my fingers as I reached for my phone from my pocket to photograph it. A four letter word echoed through the junipers. 

This species favors muddy areas in and alongside forest roads. They are different than many other butterflies because their preferred food sources are tree resin and decaying fruit, although they may also visit flowers for nectar.

On my return hike, a common buckeye taunted me by landing on the dirt in front of me and then flying up to land another meter ahead. It did this several times, while I told it outloud that I was not interested in playing its game. It continued this ‘game’, and I then said, “Okay. I’ll play once.” The little bugger would wait till I was close, facing me on the ground, then disappear before my net covered it. 

This continued again half a meter in front of me, facing me and waiting. So I tried to net it again; it would disappear and I had an empty net. “Okay, you little bugger. Game’s on!”

I finally caught it on the sixth try. I pulled it out of the bottom of the net, wings folded, and asked it why the hell it wanted to play, then put it on my arm where it sat for 30 seconds opening and closing its wings, then flew away.

A beautiful day in the low 70’s, sunny, and almost no wind. It was a wonderful day on the trails. All the volunteers (five of us) back at ‘camp’ had happy hour when I returned, with margaritas, peanuts, and popcorn. 

That night I dreamt that I was using two nets at a time and catching 4-6 butterflies in each net, had an assistant to remove and ID them while I picked up two more nets and caught more butterflies. Meanwhile, around us were people mingling at a party drinking margaritas, laughing and wearing party hats. 

All in a good day’s work.


To be a butterfly……

26 Jan

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? – Zhuangzi

Over the last four years while volunteering at the national wildlife refuges around the country, the two animals that have captured me, and for which I have devoted most of my time, are birds and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). They chose and adopted me, not I them. And we have developed an interesting relationship.

My academic career before retiring was focused on plants, their ecology and pathology, and later, pathopysiology and molecular cell biology. My last ten years was spent in a university academic ‘high tower’ in Dallas, Texas. The typical routine of 14-16 hours of my day in labs and offices, trains and traffic, slowly sucked the life out of me.

I missed the field, the dirt, sweat, the odors of wet soil and plants, and the sounds of all creatures other than Homo sapiens. They were part of my spirit and soul and I was tired of doing time in “the machines”. So I left it all behind.

My contribution to the refuges has involved assisting with the biology programs: bird surveys, banding birds, developing and implementing habitat surveys and management programs, training interns, assisting with outreach education programs, and other tasks that help fill in gaps in each refuge’s biology needs.

During one of my early commitments at a refuge, a butterfly flew by me one late morning. Large red and black wings flapped three times and then glided to alight on my arm. While looking at it, a smile formed on my face, and the butterfly stayed on my arm, slowly folding and unfolding its wings. Although possibly only 30 seconds, it seemed much longer as we both had a conversation inside and between our realities. That was my first intimate monarch butterfly encounter.

Several people have participated in forming my relationship with these animals. Especially a contract lepidopterist that conducts butterfly and moth surveys all over the Pacific Northwest. I still remember well our too-short and too-few excursions in the field sharing our observations and stories of butterflies, and life in general.

Another individual that also contributed at the beginning was a refuge anthropologist. Her excitement over my discovery of a relatively large population of breeding monarchs on the refuge initiated a survey documenting not only presence but also at least two generations of breeding monarchs on the refuge. After the initial disbelief by other staff that monarchs actually ooccupied and used the breeding resources (also said to be of rare presence) on the refuge, she and I provided documentation of presence, resource use and habitat value. That database was circulated to regional resources for future use.

Since then, my commitment at every refuge I have worked at has involved butterflies, especially monarchs. Last summer that expanded to a two-month moth survey in collaboration with lepidopterists at Oregon State University, and the friend and colleague mentioned previously.

Recruiting other volunteers to assist in sorting and identification of the moths was a greater success than I ever anticipated. The weekly sessions, sometimes lasting three to four hours, were eagerly attended. They regretted that the survey ended in late September. The moth samples are now in the hands (literally) of the expert lepidopterists in Oregon for authoritative identifucation and documentation.

Now at a refuge in Texas, I am netting butterflies again.

Several refuge staff, volunteers, and acquaintances have over the past years urged me to write posts about working with birds and butterflies. I shrugged that off because of the plethora of  websites about both on the Internet. Two monarch researchers that I collaborated with also suggested writing and posting observations on monarch natural history, ecology, and critiques of published literature.

A friend and professional writer finally pushed me to follow that through. And this is the first post in that series.

Stay tuned for additional posts.



Flying High

6 Nov

Last night on the way back from town, I observed and drove along with a flock of ~250-300 sandhill cranes returning to the refuge from foraging north of here. (Couldn’t do an accurate flight count and drive at the same time.)

Observing the flight dynamics of this group was really quite interesting. Unlike Canada geese that typically form several dynamic ‘V’ patterns, this flock of cranes did not. Except for the front ‘V’ with a very truncated side ‘arm’ of five individual cranes, the rest of the flock was one long linear flock stretching for a few miles.

Typically with geese the front leading bird of the ‘V’ formation frequently changes, trading places with nearby individuals. This seems logical because energy is then conserved among the leading birds. Not so with this flock. The leading crane never left its position as lead and never ‘coasted’ in flight, aka never altering or ceasing wing-flap flight. I was impressed, but also suspected it was very energy consumptive. Additionally, the five cranes forming the truncated arm behind the leader never changed positions and also never faltered in consistent wing activity.

The cranes following in line behind the leader, on the other hand, often coasted with short periods of folding wings alongside their bodies. Whether this was to rest (energy conservation) or to retain their position in the long line, I cannot be sure. I did notice that some individuals did change positions when some birds slowed or fell slightly out of line. Consequently, the line was truly maintained as one long linear fight pattern! I also wondered how many of these birds were immature cranes who aren’t yet as strong as the older adults, or if they haven’t yet mastered the ‘protocol’ of flying in large flocks. I watched one crane fly under and ahead of five other cranes in front of its former position and fill in a gap in the line. It reminded me of how blackbirds and other flock songbirds change positions while roosting on utility lines, with some hop-scotching to keep a tight and consistent line formation.

I was fascinated by the flock and flying dynamics of these several hundred sandhill cranes! Very different from the geese. Although my original intent was just to monitor where this flock landed, I was treated to an entirely different perspective of flock flying dynamics.

Because questions of daily roosting versus feeding movements and populations of sandhill cranes arose during a meeting between state and federal managers this week, I thought watching where this flock was destined might be interesting. Only a small percentage of the total flock (~24) landed on the small ‘crane ponds’ (small shallow water impoundments just north of the main refuge where cranes often roost). I expected a higher sub-set of this flock to land there. I briefly watched these birds try to locate the members of their family units for roosting overnight, then I drove ahead to monitor the remainder of the flock.

As the larger sub-set of birds approached the center of the refuge where two large impoundments are shallowly flooded for roosting and feeding, the linearity of the flock dissolved as smaller flocks formed and dispersed. Approximately 50% of the flock settled on these impoundments, and the other 50% flew east to roost on the sandbars of the Rio Grande River.

New Mexico state biologists survey populations of waterfowl on the river via aerial surveillance once a month. This refuge conducts feeding surveys every week. We are discussing now whether to incorporate ground roosting surveys for geese and cranes once or twice/month to add to the total data on use of the resources and land in the mid-Rio Grande Valley, especially since most of the cranes now present here are flying north to feed during the day at state-managed refuges (~38 and ~60 miles north of here).

Estimating the light geese roosting population would be easier than that of the cranes because the former typically take flight in one large massive flock. Cranes, on the other hand, usually depart from their overnight roosting places in small family units of 2-4. However, cranes congregate in overnight roosting  flocks at only a few locations on the refuge. Counters posted at each of these locations can easily count the family units and obtain total numbers as they take flight. It might take longer, but it might also be more enjoyable.


Feeding sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR

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


Link to full article.

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.

In between…… imagine.

24 Apr

The world is not black and white.
like reading the silence
like the spaces
in between the parts
we can imagine any colors
in between
the dark
the light.

Where land and water meet and the desert kisses the sky.

Northern Great Basin, Round Two

5 Apr

Example of igneous rock from volcanic deposits of ash, later terraformed by rifting, faulting and moving water.

No matter where I go in this open country, the high desert of the northern Great Basin finds me smiling inside and out.

My first immersion in the high desert here in southeast Oregon was in 2010 when I spent two weeks living off the back of a 350cc motorcycle. It’s springy high suspension and knobby tires allowed me to travel in the backcountry. Most nights were spent in a small tent and warm sleeping bag, under a dark sky bejeweled with bright stars that couldn’t be found where I was living in Texas during that time in my life. From dust to snow and freezing rain to hot dry sunshine; from owls screeching overhead to a silence that roared in your head, it was all memorable.

I didn’t want to leave.

The transition from the Cascade mountains with giant scaly pine trees to the dry deserts was transforming. Standing on an outcrop, a memorable scene stretched below. Black volcanic seams and outcrops meandered through a gray-green carpet dominated with sagebrush. Ribbons of blue streams whose edges bristled with willows tickled that instinctive draw towards water. Occasional water-filled basins reflected the white clouds overhead, while dry playas were ground-clouds of dried white salt or lime.

Every time I come here I am reminded of similarities with my beloved Big Bend desert in southwest Texas. The high desert here shares geological and climatic features with the northern Chihuahuan desert, albeit colder in winter and less hot in summer. Topographical features here, typical of Basin and Range*, can be suddenly dramatic or gentle. Here are also the ‘big open skies’ that endear Big Bend to many people. Magnificent sunrises and sunsets are never boring here. And the clouds, from daily cotton balls to dramatic forms imparted by storms are continual award-winning players on the atmospheric stage.

Yet this is a kinder and gentler Big Bend; few thorny plants to grab and bite you, an astringent and intoxicating scent of sagebrush, and more recent volcanism. The most compelling feature for me is its presence of water. This is a land where land and water meet. It is a juxtaposition of water and dry climate and land. Consequently, the diversity and population numbers of wildlife outnumbers those found in Big Bend. Life here, and its interaction within the variety of ecosystems, is never boring. This overlap of water and land can’t be found in such intensity and variety in Big Bend.

Marshes fed by snow melt and crucial for migrant and summer nesting birds on the Pacific Flyway. MNWR.

Last summer was my introduction to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding area. This spring and summer will be like jumping in with both feet and getting my hands and feet dirty. Thus far, my first week has been quite rewarding. And I promise to post more about this region during months to come.

* For a primer on the geography of the northern Great Basin, see an earlier post from last summer (2014). Another post describes more local geography of the Harney Basin.

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.


14 Dec

Snow geese; light and dark morphs.

A quiet late afternoon on the water. Life is grand here at Bosque del Apache NWR.
An oasis in the desert.

Lesser goldfinches enjoying seeds.

Birds are chameleons ?

6 Dec

Of all animals, birds can be especially baffling (other than Homo sapiens). Although each bird species has typical behavior, they sometimes will ‘change their minds’ on how they look. And even where they will be. Nor do they send out memos informing avid avian paparazzi. You know, the ones with multiple field books in their hands, spotting scopes slung over their shoulders, and the gigantic camera lenses that almost require their own wheelchair. I don’t fault passionate birders at all. I’m one, too (albeit not an expert). The bird portraits that adorn photographers’ websites are all very nice, too.

Perhaps my years in field biology explain my preferences for watching and learning about animal behavior (including birds) rather than  obsessing on finding the perfect bird in its guidebook color and within  the human-made boundaries of habitat. Why else would one of my favorite personal photos be one of a Canada goose blowing bubbles in the water?

“Well, the ______ (fill in the blank with bird name) were NOT at the _____  (fill in a specific location on the Refuge) on/at _____ (fill in with time/date reference). We didn’t see them! Are they not here? Where are they?”

We volunteers are often asked about where the birds are when they are not in their expected place at the expected time. We often respond with “They didn’t send us a memo on where they were going!” or “Birds have wings and they fly wherever they want, whenever they want.” I’ll often resort to “You know when they say about people, ‘Follow the money’? With birds, it’s ‘Follow the food.”

Well, it’s true!

Pair of mated sandhill cranes fly over the wildlife refuge.

Birds are fortunate that they can migrate over thousands of miles from one territory to another. Plants and most other animals do not. Most birds nest and brood in a specific habitat, one that provides the food they need to lay eggs and fledge their young. The right habitat must also provide cover and protection from predators. As the young birds grow, they are taught to fly and hunt for food. They also learn how to socialize outside of their family units. As the seasons change, they are encouraged to exercise and train for long daily flights, just like an athlete trains for a marathon. By the time they are ready to migrate elsewhere, they are almost adults.

Migration still perplexes biologists in many respects. What are the signals informing them when to leave one area and go to another? Do they always return to the same place they were born (called natal philopatry)? Do they always migrate to the same wintering location? What determines their migratory route? Do they ever veer away from their traditional route? We’re still investigating these questions. And often times, the answers raise more questions.

Some bird species demonstrate very strong natal philopatry. Sandhill cranes are one of these species. I have known some humans who have demonstrated this, too. 😉 Other bird species are not as tied to their birth place and may choose other nesting locations far from their original place. Likewise, not all birds exactly follow a map with planned stops on their migrations. Only humans do that.

Some of the factors that influence their seasonal locations (nesting and overwintering) are those that also influence humans. Weather, temperature, food availability, water sources, cover for protection, and even topography. High mountain ranges are a barrier to many migrating birds. Although larger birds can often migrate at high altitudes and fly over occasional obstructions, bad weather is often associated with long ranges of high mountains. Birds have learned through their evolutionary history what to avoid to conserve energy. They have also learned from their parents, and those before them, where food and water sources are during their long migrations. Thus, most of the continental flyways can be traced like a hopscotch board from one habitat to another where food and water are readily available for large flocks of migrating bird species.

They follow the food and water!

Of course, there are exceptions to everything. Life is not black and white, but mostly a large expanse of gray area in between.  Many scientists have documented that some birds are changing their traditional migratory routes, nesting grounds, and/or their wintering locations. Two major factors impacting these are loss of habitat and climate change.

Here we go back to the same source: food and water. As temperatures change, plants are becoming rare in one location, but might be increasing in population in another location. For example, some trees and other plants that grew near the base of mountains are now becoming less available or even rare. However, some of these same species are thriving higher up on mountainsides, where they were at one time rarely seen.

Likewise, many birds that nested in some of those plants, or were sustained by the plant seeds or other plant parts, are following the plants further up the mountain. The same applies on larger scales of land: some birds are being seen and documented in areas they were never, or rarely, seen before because their water and food sources have changed.

Additionally, some of their historic and preferred habitats have disappeared due to urban expansion. While some birds can adapt to mutually living with humans in their metropolitan areas, others cannot. With urbanization comes destruction of wildlife habitat. Their food source may no longer be adequate, or there is less available for them to nest and raise their young. Even loss of natural cover from predators may severely reduce bird populations.

Their only memo to us humans is “We’ve gone to find food and water!”.

In addition to the ability to migrate between far distance places, birds change their color throughout the year. All the time. Now, that is what has me stumped in accurate identification many times. But I like a challenge! And as one expert bird guide and author assures us, it’s alright to say, “I don’t know!!!”

Next post, we will look at how, and why, birds change color throughout the year. And why some bird species have a wider variation in colors than other species.

Until then, what are these two birds? 😉

Mystery Bird 2

Mystery Bird 1

%d bloggers like this: