Monday, April 14, 2014

Sabine Pass Trip

Several weeks ago I had some free time so I decided to take a ride up to Sabine Pass and see what was going on at Sabine Woods Bird Sanctuary.  This is one of my favorite haunts that I frequent and it never disappoints as seen by my previous blog posts involving this area.  I haven't been up this way in a while and thought I might get lucky and see the beginnings of spring migration, it being a favorite fall-out area.  It was a comfortable 58 degrees outside, sunny, but windy as hell.  I checked a local weather station on my smart phone and found it to be gusting upwards of 26 mph.  Windy days make for haphazard birding.  When I arrived the first thing I usually do is walk over to the small covered area near the entrance and check the clipboard hanging there to see what observations had been reported.  The last entry was made back in October of last year. 

Cutting off on one of the side trails I began hearing the calls of a red-bellied woodpecker and found it working its way up the trunk of a tree.  At times it twisted its head in odd positions as it probed the tree’s every nook and cranny for bugs.
I walked over to the man-made drip site to see if anything was present and found an eastern phoebe resting on the drip line enjoying the day.  A few minutes later a black and white warbler passed through. After about a half hour nothing more showed up so I decided to go and check out the swift tower that had been built several years back.  
The Driftwood Wildlife Association is an organization that promotes the conservation of chimney swifts and came up with the plans for these nice towers.  This one has been here for several years and so far no swifts have been observed utilizing it.
 I then encountered an area that was barricaded encompassing a large oak and hanging from the barrier tape I find a sign that read “DO NOT ENTER OWLS NESTING”.
I immediately began glassing the upper branches for any sign and then movement on a branch caught my eye and it was then that I discovered a juvenile great-horned owl.
I respected the yellow tape, walking its edges to a spot where I could get a better view, not wanting to risk frightening it or eliciting a response from the adults.  By that I mean a response towards me in the form of sharp talons.  I never saw the adults, but owls have a knack for concealment and I’ll bet a $100 bill that they were somewhere in the upper story of the trees watching me.  I tried locating the nest itself but was unsuccessful.  Owls do not build their own nests, but use old hawk, crow, raven, osprey, squirrel, eagle, and great blue heron nests.  They do not add anything to these nests and so over time they tend to break down quickly.   Juveniles will disperse from the nest and hop from limb to limb in what is known as “laddering” or “branching” as a way of exploring the area until they are able to fly.  I read of an instance when a juvenile had fallen to the ground and had to literally claw its way up the trunk of the tree to return to its perch. 
This dispersal from the nest may also act as a survival mechanism preventing nestlings from becoming the prey of bobcats and raccoons.   It never moved from its perch, but it also never took its eyes off of me.  Since I had owls on my mind I decided to stroll over to a spot in this scrap of woods where the oak upper story is thick providing a dense niche for roosting, where in the past I have spooked several barn owls and have found lots of pellets for study.
The easiest way to find an owl roost and pellets is to look for “white wash”- a gracious label for owl crap.  It wasn’t long before I came across a site where the ground was splattered and an accumulation of pellets scattered among the leafy floor.

Most of the pellets I found had already begun to break down from recent rains that came through this area. Dissecting them is really interesting and not only helps determine the diet of owls in a particular area, but also sometimes lead to new discoveries as with what happened in Ireland where barn owl pellets revealed the skulls of mammals never before found there.  Pellets I came across all contained the fur and bones of rodents.  I can remember in the past walking in the open fields on the north side of these woods and seeing hispid cotton rats scurrying all around my feet.  Using Mark Elbroch's book " Animal Skulls: A Guide to North American Species"  I was able to identify the top photo remains as that of a hispid cotton rat and the other as a marsh rice rat.

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