Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gambusia Trail II

On December 11th I drove back to Sabine Pass to finish up with the Gambusia trail and decided to stop off at Sabine Woods first to see what was going on there. When I first arrived it was rather quiet, but that ended soon. Before long I was seeing sparrows (white-crowned, white-throated) along with blue-gray gnatcatchers, red-bellied woodpeckers, mockingbirds, cardinals, Carolina chickadees, eastern phoebes, a hermit thrush, gray catbirds, and American goldfinches.

Along one trail I came across some whitewash on the ground below the branches of an oak tree. This sign usually designates the roosting site of an owl. This was confirmed seconds later when I discovered an owl pellet about a foot from the splatter. I looked up into the tree hoping to find the one responsible, but no luck. Then again they are pretty deft at concealing themselves in the thick upperstory of trees, so I very well may have unknowingly looked right at it.

A little while later I stumbled upon a dead hispid cotton rat. Couldn't find any visible wounds on it. These rats along with the rabbits that frequent this area are the main prey of bobcats, coyotes, owls, snakes and hawks found here.

Had the rat fallen from the talons of a hawk or an owl? Note the pads on the bottom of one of its rear feet. This is good to know when trying to identify tracks.

Years ago someone mounted an owl box on the trunk of a tree on the edge of one of the trails that had eventually become consumed by honeybees. I published a entry on this box a while back showing the comb in its early stages and then how later the house became literally engulfed by it. Hurricane Ike then came through and knocked it from its mount to the ground, shattering it. Returning to this spot I find that a new box had been installed and upon closer inspection through my binoculars I could see a honeycomb inside. It will only be a matter of time before it too will be consumed.

On the way to Sea Rim (and Gambusia Trail) I found a dead killdeer on side of the road that probably had been struck by a passing auto. It was hit so hard one of its wings was knocked loose. I’m surprised I don’t see more of these birds dead along this highway. They prefer the edges I’m sure due to the presence of loose gravel, which is the type of substrate they prefer for nest building, which is no more than a “scrape”. The gravel is a blend of colors that match up quite well with the spotting on their eggs, providing excellent camouflage. I came upon one of these nest sites years ago on this very road and was privileged to witness the distraction behavior performed by the adult that it displays when a predator comes near its eggs or young. It will extend one of its wings mocking an injury to distract the predator to itself and away from its nest. The prior post I speak of is located here.

I finished up the Gambusia Trail loop, not seeing much more than the last trip I made here recently. I came across what I thought was a live fiddler crab, but it was no longer with us.

I also found another long trail of coyote tracks, which I followed until it ended at an area of thick grass near the dunes.I brought along some PerfectCast for this very reason so I could cast a coyote track for my grand-daughter. I normally use plaster of Paris for casting tracks, but this time I used PerfectCast, and I must say it came out much better than the latter. I ordered it from a company called Acorn Naturalists, which by the way has an extraordinary catalog that contains all of the trappings of the naturalist’s trade. While waiting for the cast to dry I sat on the boardwalk and had lunch. The breeze off of the gulf that day was pretty vigorous. I pulled out my smart phone and checked the local meteorological station maintained by the NOAA that is set up right down the road near the ranger’s station. It showed the temp to be 51 and the wind coming from the ENE at 13 knots (15 mph). This calculated the wind chill to be around 46 degrees but the warmth of old Sol made it comfortable, and I didn't complain, especially after the scorching summer we experienced. The only thing that came my way was a northern harrier gliding low, as usual, over the desiccated marsh. Ever so often it would dip really low to the ground and I suspect it does this in order to flush out any prey that might be hiding in the knee-high grass. Best bet is to stay vewy, vewy still (to quote Mr. Fudd). I was recently rummaging through Helen Cruickshank’s book “ Thoreau on Birds”, which by the way, if you do not have a copy of this book, you must get one. It is filled with nothing but interesting bird observations made by the “hermit of Concord”. He must have really liked this hawk in particular, because in his notes he stated “The sight of the marsh hawk in Concord is worth more to me than the entry of the allies into Paris.” Its flight is described well in this passage:

[April 8, 1856] “The marsh hawks flew their usual irregular low tacking, wheeling, and circling flight, leisurely flapping and beating, now rising, now falling, in conformity with the contour of the ground."

He sometimes referred to the harrier as a “frog hawk”.

[April 23, 1855] “See a frog hawk beating the bushes regularly.”

[May 2, 1858] “If I were to be a frog hawk for a month I should soon know some things about the frogs. How patiently they skim the meadows, occasionally alighting, and fluttering as if it were difficult ever to stand on the ground. I have seen more of them than usual since I too have been looking for frogs.”

[April 19, 1858] “He skims steadily along exactly over the edge of the water, on the meadow side, not more than three or four feet from the ground and winding with the shore, looking for frogs, for in such as tortuous line do the frogs sit. They probably know about what time to expect his visits, being regularly decimated.”

After about 45 minutes I pried the cast from the sand and dusted it off revealing a satisfactory representation of the coyote track. Even the claw marks showed up nicely. Grand-daughter is going to like this.

While I was loading my gear into my truck I heard a harrier calling from the ground not far from where I was parked. Was it the one I had spotted moments earlier? I grabbed my camera and slowly walked towards the sound and spotted the bird on the ground about 15 feet from where I stood. At first I thought that it had captured something because, ever so often it would look down at the ground it front of it. I watched, photographed and captured video for about five minutes before it flew. I walked over and searched the area where it had stood, but didn't find anything. Had it tried to capture something, but missed? I was close enough to see its facial disk and owl like head. The video below shows both of these characteristics very well. When it looks straight on at the camera is does appear to be “owlish”.

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