Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gambusia Trail

A couple weeks ago I took a ride up to Sabine Pass to see what was going on in them there parts. I figured I would explore along Highway 87, stop off at Sabine Woods where a long-eared owl had been spotted, and then finish off with a trip to Sea Rim State Park.

As I was travelling down Highway 87 I spotted several red-tailed hawks flying over a field so I decided to pull over to the shoulder and watch for a while. There was a tree near the side of the road that was full of red-winged blackbirds, and ever so often they would drop to the ground below the tree to feed. One of the red-tails eventually landed in top of a tree that was about 50-60 yards away and began to watch the red-wings with intent. Even though their main prey is rodents, they’ve been known to “stoop” falconlike and attack other birds. (1) I sat there for about 30 minutes hoping that the hawk would eventually bust into the cluster of blackbirds on the ground, but it didn't so I moved on. Also in the area was a juvenile Northern harrier, (aka marsh hawk) which is a winter resident here, and was gliding low over the field. Bent gives a good description of its flight- “a lazy, loafing, desultory flight it seems, but really it is full of purpose, as it quarters low over the ground in a systemic search for its prey.” If you zoom in you’ll notice the “facial disk” on its“owl-like” head.

Impaled on the top row of wire of a barbed wire fence that borders this field was a lubber-type of grasshopper.

No doubt this was the work of a loggerhead shrike*. These insects are toxic to most birds, except for the shrike as I noted here. I went further down the fence and discovered another skewered item, this time a small frog. Not sure of its identity, because of its desiccated condition. Its posture had a gruesome appearance giving the image of an agonizing death.

Still further down was one more victim, either a large cricket or grasshopper that with a large ovipositor.

As I approached Sabine Woods I decided to venture on to Sea Rim and hit this spot on the way back. As I drove along the highway it was obvious how the drought and the brutish heat that we have suffered from this year had hit the marsh areas hard. All of these regions that normally are loaded with ducks of all types were bone dry and barren. I can't remember the last time I saw this environment in such a sad state. Once I arrived at Sea Rim State Park I noticed that the marsh areas surrounding the Gambusia Nature Trail there had suffered the same fate as the other marsh areas.

Named after the gambusia or mosquito fish, the Gambusia Nature Trail has a long boardwalk that negotiates this area allowing one to walk through the marsh to explore.

Normally this area would be flooded and teaming with life- alligators, mink, nutria, raccoons, opossum, skunks, river otters and muskrat are just some of the animals that make this area home. Not to mention the many ducks, shorebirds, marsh birds, crabs, fish, reptiles and amphibians that live here. Coyotes and bobcats* are also found in this area, so to see this is such a state is literally devastating.

I entered the park, paid my entry fee ($3.00) at the self-pay station and found a parking spot. I no sooner exited my truck when a park ranger pulled up behind me. He was just checking to make sure I had purchased an entry permit. We talked for several minutes about the dry conditions and then he let me go telling me to enjoy, that is, what there was left to enjoy. Well in my mind, even though the area was not in a “normal state”, not once did I think that there was nothing there at all to see.

On the contrary, I was thinking about how I now had access to roam in areas where normally there would be water. As I stepped upon the boardwalk I was presented right off the bat with a surprise- a pellet.

Not sure what bird coughed this jewel up, but is was a nice one. All of the items in this particular pellet (fur, bones), is what the gizzard in the bird was unable to break down. Pellets come from a number of different birds- herons, owls, hawks, terns, gulls, crows, grebes, flycatchers, shrikes, eagles, swallows to name a few. I think though it’s either from a hawk or an owl. I’m leaning more towards an owl, because it resembles the many owl pellets I have found below known owl roosts. From photos I’ve compared it to (3), it appears to possibly be a pellet from a barn owl, which are found in this area. It was 11/16" in width and 1 1/2" in length, which falls in the range of reported measurements by Elbroch, et al (3). What puzzles me though is the fact that there’s no perch. Most times pellets are associated with a bird’s nesting or roosting area and there’s no tree nearby and the walkway has no railing so did the bird land on the walkway itself and expel the pellet? Was it flying over when it expelled it and it happened to land here? I have seen gulls and kingfishers regurgitating pellets “on the wing” so I guess it’s possible for an owl. According to Elbroch, et al. (3) the stomach acid in owls is much weaker than that found in hawks. What this means is that when dissected if I find mostly whole bones, then the pellet is probably from an owl, whereas if it was from a hawk all that would be left of the bones would be fragments due to them being broken down by the stronger stomach acid. I picked it up and place it inside a Ziploc bag so that later my grand-daughter and I could dismantle it and check the condition of the bones within. I will report later on what we found.

I glassed the area ahead of me to see if anything was on the move. All that crossed my view was a small flock of sparrows and another northern harrier flying low over the marsh. The stiff winds coming off of the gulf aided at keeping the mosquitoes at bay, which was a blessing, because normally they would be viscious.

On the ground all along the edges of the boardwalk were the holes of fiddler crabs, which even though there is no water present are still active. The only live ones that I saw were just inside the quarter-sized entry hole and would immediately disappear into their tunnels upon seeing me. I jumped off of the boardwalk and began walking where once was not possible.

Scattered everywhere were the sun-bleached shells, claws, etc. of blue crabs that had once thrived here.

There were so many it gave the appearance of a bone yard. Some were still whole and intact, while other had been ravaged by predators that took advantage during this drought to feast on the stranded, exposed crabs. Seems I was not the only one that was taking advantage the dryness that surrounded me. I collected some of the more pristine ones to use as yet another educational tool for my grand-daughter.

As I walked I discovered a trail of tracks left by one of the local coyotes. I followed the trail which eventually led to one of the many areas of clustered reed that is found here. It would not surprise me at all if these canines, along with bobcats and other mammals were taking advantage of these spots for prey and to use as a hideaway for resting. Because when you think about it now that there is no water I’m sure that all makes a models of rodents that inhabit the surrounding fields are also trekking through here attracted to these reed beds, which in turn attracts predators.

I found one track that was large measuring about 3 ½ inches in length (from tip of claws to edge of rear pad) and about 2 ½ inches in width. Quite impressive.

I began to notice that the day was coming to a close and wished I had gotten here earlier so that I could explore even further. Hopefully in the coming weeks I will be able to return and take up where this post leaves off.

*(see my posts about bobcats in this area here, here, here, and here.)

*(see my other posts about the loggerhead shrike here, and here.)


(1) Terres, John K. 1991. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New Jersey.: Wing Books.

(2) Wheeler, Brian K. & Clark, William S. 2003. A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors. New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

(3) Elbroch, Mark with Marks, Eleanor 2001. Bird Tracks & Sign. Pennsylvania.: Stackpole Books.


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Blogger Chris said...

Thanks for such a neat, exciting post, it is unfortunate at times how the wild world of nature can be so brutal upon the many lives of those that call a particular habitat home. Unfortunately they happen to participate in the negative realm of some change that oft times brings the greatest gift to those that follow.

Thanks for taking the time to share that info about the potential 'owl' pellet..the stomach acid to bone density theory i had never known.
Wow, it makes perfect sense, thanks so much for writing such unique postings.


10:11 AM  
Anonymous CGJ said...

What a nice article. I was unaware of the Loggerhead Shrike. Fascinating! What interesting behavior.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Jace Stansbury said...

Thanks- Chris and CGJ. Appreciate the nice comments. Hoepfully I will be able to get back here soon and find somemore interesting stuff.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Darragh Castillo said...

I found your informative blog while gathering Sea Rim State Park information for a travel writer. I have seen the trail in this condition and was also fascinated. I plan to share your writings with our board. If you do come back to the area, give us a buzz.
Darragh Castillo
Port Arthur Convention & Visitors Bureau

1:47 PM  

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