Thursday, March 05, 2015

Hawk vs. Mockingbird

You can always tell when the Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks that hang around our neighborhood are in the area.  Obviously one way of knowing is when you hear their calls or spot them gliding effortlessly overhead, but the fun way of knowing is by observing the behaviors of our yard birds- jays, white-winged doves, mockingbirds, sparrows, cardinals, starlings, grackles.  During the fall and winter large flocks of grackles, doves, red-winged blackbirds and starlings will congregate in the upper story of trees providing easy pickings for a hawk to tear through.  When a hawk is cruising by they burst from their perch all at once creating a sight that will definitely get your attention.  Another way of knowing, especially if one is perched nearby, is the mobbing calls most times by blue jays alerting you that something is amiss.

 There’s a willow tree in my son’s backyard that is part of a thick mass of shrubbery and cane that creates a nice niche for birds to hide, roost, and forage in peace.  But today that peace wouldn’t last for long.  There was a mish mash of birds- grackles, blue jays, starlings, white-winged doves all in this brushy area chattering up a storm when all of a sudden I began hearing a bird screeching as if in distress.  A cry so gruesome that I knew the bird had been snatched by a predator of some sort.  Seconds later every other bird burst like shot from the tree scattering in all directions.  The only sound left behind were the mobbing calls of a single blue jay and the blood-curdling screeches of the captured prey in its final death throes, and then…….an eerie encompassing silence. I walked over and looked up into the willow to see about midways up on a thick willow branch, an adult female sharp-shinned hawk with a lifeless feathered form in her talons. 
Feathers began drifting in the breeze as the hawk began meticulously plucking its prey.  Every now and then she would pause from her plucking to glance back at me as I tried to position myself for a good photograph.  She didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence as she returned to satiating her obvious hunger. 
After getting a few photos of her I crawled through the thick underbrush that skirted the base of the tree and was able to position myself below the branch the hawk was perched. This permitted me the opportunity for photos of the underside of the tail feathers of the prey bird, which I knew would help with its identity.  It was a surreal sight- the tail bobbing up and down with each tug of the hawk’s hooked beak.  At that moment I felt sympathy for the bird it had captured, but at the same time I was amazed at the power and grace of the accipiter as it fed.
I lay there quietly beneath the raptor as feathers continued to rain down around me.  I collecting several of them that I knew would also aid with identification. 
I eventually left the hawk to its feeding and returned about two hours later to find it was still perched it the same spot with what remained of its prey in its talons.  It sat quietly looking directly at me, still without a care that I was so close.
I went to a website I came across awhile back produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called “The Feather Atlas” and laid out all of the feathers I collected and began searching the image database.  It wasn’t long before I came across the answer I was looking for.  What I had collected was several tail feathers and a couple primary wing feathers of a Northern MockingbirdThe next day I returned to the kill site in hopes of finding more remains, such as the wings or a head, but found nothing.  More than likely she may have taken what was left of the mocker’s carcass to another area to finish.

Other hawk blog posts:  (1)   (2)   (3)

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Shelf Life Series From AMNH

This new series put out by the American Museum of Natural History talks about the history and importance of scientific collections.  Check it out and subscribe to be notified when future episodes premiere: 

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Friday, January 09, 2015

Black and Yellow Mud Dauber Nest

I found this mud dauber nest underneath an awning that’s attached to my house and as you can see from the holes the wasps that had developed there ate their way out once they became adults.
I opened up the globbed mass and found the remnants of cocoons in the empty cells that had contained developing wasps.  This particular solitary wasp is a black and yellow mud-dauber which gets its name from its black and yellow coloration.  It, like most mud-daubers, hunts, paralyzes and stores spiders in the cells of their mud nests where upon an egg is laid and then the cell sealed.  Once the egg hatches the resulting larvae feeds on the spiders and eventually develops into an adult wasp.
Inside I also found two fully developed individuals who apparently were unable to free themselves and ultimately died where they were born.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

European Starlings

A cloud of about 20-30 European starlings descended from the sky and landed in the top of the camphor tree that resides in our front yard.  The famished invaders were after the plum-colored berries produced by the tree.
I watched as they cackled and jerked the berries free in a feeding frenzy that shook the entire crown of the tree.  And as fast as they arrived they left in a woosh of wings. 

Suggested Reading:

Nest Site Competition
2011 Purple Martin Notes 4
The Impact of Starlings
Starlings And Woodpeckers: Eternal Enemies
House Sparrows and Starlings Are Super Competitors

Friday, November 14, 2014

Camp Time With Grand-daughter

“The quiet wisdom of nature does not try to mislead you like the landscape of the city does, with billboards and ads everywhere.  It doesn’t make you feel like you have to conform to any image.  It’s just there, and it accepts everyone.”  Richard Louv
 A long awaited weekend at our camp had finally arrived and grand-daughter was thrilled to be here.  While we unpacked, she could hardly contain her excitement of getting outside to go exploring.  If I had access to a place like this when I was younger I would’ve been stoked.  Well I’m stoked now knowing that I now have this place to share with her.  Our property borders the Big Thicket which contains more diversity than any other area in the country.  In other words- it can’t get any better than this.  I’ve written before of my plan to educate her about the natural world and slowly but surely I’m beginning to see the fruits of my labor.  When we’re outside she’s the one that spots the caterpillar, or the lizard creeping in the ferns, or the hawk soaring overhead. 

The first thing we see are buckeyes flitting everywhere along the edges of the driveway.  Yes that’s right- butterflies in the fall.  These nervous little insects have a brilliant pattern of eyespots on their wings which are believed to startle or ward off predators. They are here in this part of Texas for most of the fall during their southward migration.  I can remember seeing them on days where temps had dropped in the lower 40’s.  My grand-daughter was in awe of their beauty as they danced all around us.

I recently had bought her a book called “A Guide to Wildlife Sounds” by Lang Elliott.  It contains the sounds of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.  We sat on the front porch listening to the various animal sounds on the cd and wouldn’t you know that as we were listening the call of an
eastern phoebe, one showed up and landed in the ash tree out front about ten foot from where we were seated.  What wonderful experience that was.
We also looked at some fresh mounds created by the diggings of our local pine voles.  These mounds are a part of an extensive tunnel system below ground.  We sat and watched hoping one of the beady-eyed mammals would appear, but never did.  In a sandy area we came across a nice set of fresh deer tracks.  I explained to her what had made them and then told her to “feel” the edges and interior of track with her finger.  I wanted her to get up close and personal with a mark in the sand that had been produced by a living, breathing animal.  I wanted her to feel its essence.
I then taught her how to make a plaster cast of the track.  I allowed her to mix the casting material and pour it into the track.  As Richard Louv said in his book “Last Child in the Woods” -  “Much of our learning comes from doing, from making, from feeling with our hands.” 
I could have easily mixed the plaster and poured it into the track myself allowing her to only watch.  But I didn’t.  I allowed her to do this. I wanted her to learn from doing, making, and feeling.   This “closeness” with the track will also help her to remember this experience for years to come.

I marvel at the small treasures she has collected- cicada husks, bird feathers, remnants of bird egg shells, and now a nice cast of a deer track.
Later in the afternoon right before we went inside my wife spotted a white-tail doe about 40 yards away from the house on the edge of the woods.  We sat still and watched as she watched us.   The look in grand-daughter's eyes as she watched this beautiful creature in front of us was incredible. 
I was able to get a nice photo before she trotted off.  Then, to our surprise, the next morning when we got up I looked out in the hay field and saw a white-tail buck foraging on the hay.  Grand-daughter got a kick out of that.  We were able to slowly open the front door without spooking it to get some good photos.  It was really cool that we were able to not only make a casting of a deer track, but to also get to actually see the animal that made it.  I hope and pray as she gets older she retains this love of play and the outdoors.  That she remembers and cherishes the time the two of us have spent exploring this wonderful world that God created and that she passes along her knowledge and experiences to her own children and grand-children.


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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Chrysalis vs. Chalcid Wasp

Back on August 17th my granddaughter and I were out in the front yard trying to get a photograph of a hummingbird that was feeding on some turk's caps.  All of a sudden I hear her cry out "paw paw look!"  I turn to see the chrysalis of a spicebush butterfly attached to a metal birdhouse we have hanging in one of our flower gardens under a camphor tree which, by the way, is one of this butterfly's  host plants.  I had been standing right next to it and  never noticed.  I'm constantly amazed how she has become adapted at observing things, most times before I do.
We decided to keep an eye on it day to day to see if we might be lucky enough to be around when the butterfly emerged.  That was to never be.  What I should have done was placed it in a jar protecting it from its natural enemies.
Today we found that it had a tiny hole in it.  And when I saw this I knew it meant trouble.  This is the workings of a chalcid wasp.  These tiny wasps lay eggs into the chrysalis during the time that it is formed when the tissue is soft.  The eggs hatch and the resulting larva consume the insides of the chrysalis and eventually develop into wasps which then bore a hole, as seen above, to escape.

Note in the first photo how the back end of the chrysalis is relatively straight.  In the second photo it is bent.   This is one of the signs of chalcid infestation.  Once the eggs of the wasp develops inside and begins to consume the developing butterfly within, the chrysalis dies and the muscles that once held it straight relax causing the bend to form. 

Check out this cool video showing how this wasp develops:

References and Suggested Reading:

1) Spicebush Butterfly Post
2) Chalcid Wasp Links  (a), (b)
3) Caterpillars of Eastern North America

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Hackberry Emperor Butterfly Eggs

Granddaughter and I went to check on the turtle eggs we witnessed being laid back on July 2 near a hackberry tree, to see if they had begun to hatch.  So far there's no evidence that they have dug their way out just yet.  While we were looking we discovered a leaf on the hackberry tree that had seven tiny jewels upon its surface.  These were the eggs of the hackberry emperor butterfly.  This tree is the host plant for this particular species of butterfly.  When butterfly eggs are laid the female attaches them using a naturally produced glue-like substance to keep them in place.  The eggs are laid either singularly, in small clusters, or in a mass.

If you were able to look at these eggs under a microscope you would notice a spot known as a "micropyle", which is a "little door" where the spermatozoa of the male enter to fertilize the egg.  The micropyle also allows water and air to enter the egg as it develops.  Just like a chicken egg, there is yolk inside which nourishes the growing caterpillar.

As the caterpillar reaches maturity it frees itself by eating its way out of the egg and then feeds upon the host plant's leaves until its ready to transform by metamorphosis into a chrysalis or pupa and then eventually into a new butterfly.  What a nice find!

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Awesome Shark Footage

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Raining Toads

 Our local weatherman predicted a 90 percent chance of rain today and to most parents this means their kids will be trapped inside with nothing to do.  What most parents do not realize is the learning experience being presented to them right under their noses.  When I was a kid my friends and I would revel in the thought of going outside following a torrential rain storm.  We would wade the rain swollen ditches barefoot in search of frogs, crawfish, amphiuma, snakes, whatever came our way, collecting everything in buckets.

Well today the bottom fell out for most of the morning leaving the ditches and neighboring yards swollen with rain. My grand-daughter and son came over and I thought this was a perfect opportunity to try out her new wading boots and to get outside for a little adventure.  As I've said before- I want my grand-daughter to grow up learning and knowing that nature is not all bad and scary. That nature is beautiful, inspiring, and something to be cherished.  She grabbed her boots and net and we searched the ditches up and down our streets.  In the distance I could hear the loud trill of gulf coast toads coming from my neighbor's backyard.  His property is low and collects lots of water following a good rain so I called him and asked his permission to enter.
We found the water was ankle deep and it didn't take long for grand-daughter to spot her first toad or.........toads.  She scooped them up with her net and that's when I noticed that love was in the air. 
She is very observant and asks lots of questions and wanted to know why one was riding atop the other.  What do I say??? 
She's only six years old so I took the easy way out and told her one was giving the other a ride.   Before you know it we found another pair then another and another.  When it was all said and done we captured around 20 toads.
Heavy rains trigger the mating instinct of these amphibians, proven by the long gelatinous strands of submerged toad eggs we found in different areas of the yard.  These eggs will develop rapidly and soon produce a new generation of toads.
Something as simple as a rain-filled backyard, a net, and a pair of rubber boots provided not only a learning experience, but also a memory that my grand-daughter and I will cherish for years to come.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Mother Turtle

Today me, my son and grand-daughter went on the hunt for a geocache at a local park.  While searching for our "treasure"  we came across a large red-eared slider at the base of a hackberry tree.  The park we were at contains a pond which is where the turtle had originated from. 
It appeared that the turtle  had begun digging a hole.  The first thing that came to mind was that it was about to lay eggs.  With finding the geocache on our minds we went on leaving the turtle undisturbed. 
A short time later we walked passed the turtle again so my grand-daughter ran over to check on it.  The next thing I hear is the sweet voice of my grand-daughter hollering "Paw's laying eggs!".  Sure enough in the hole was about three eggs.  While we were watching she laid another. 
When she finally finished her motherly duties she scraped the soil and covered her future progeny.  Depending on temperature, humidity, and other factors it usually takes anywhere from 45-90 days for turtle eggs to hatch.  It would be great if we could time it just right to be able to see the baby turtles emerge from the nest.  I plan on bringing her back starting in about 6 weeks, with regular checks afterwards in hopes of being able to observe this.  Hopefully a predator such as an opossum will not discover the eggs.  What a wonderful experience for my grand-daughter to witness.

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Friday, June 20, 2014


I tossed a watermelon rind that still had some "meat" on it out in the yard and it wasn't long before a female grackle came along began eating on it.

While it fed it kept a close lookout for other grackles and would chase them away if they got anywhere near the watermelon.
One of the grackles it chased off it returned later with a large cheeto in its bill as if to gloat....

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mystery Sea Monster Eats Shark??

Check out this video about a tagged great white shark that is believed to have been eaten by something much larger.....

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Purple Martin Colony 2014

I haven't mentioned anything about my colony yet this season, which so far is looking pretty good.  They began showing up on February 16, and as of May 17th I have 19 pair, which have so far produced 2 nestlings and 86 eggs. 
Over the last 10 years (of the 20 years of my colony's existence) I've averaged around 23 pair. There was a couple years (2004 & 2010) where I had 25 pair.  In the last 3 seasons though (counting this one) I'm beginning to see a downward trend: 2012- 20 pair, 2013- 18 pair, and this season again with 18 pair.  It is very possible that some could have perished on their way back during their exhaustive migration back from South America.  Just a fact of life with these swallows.  Eventually newer adults could be attracted here which could replace those lost.
As mentioned before I discovered my first of two nestlings, one of which was still inside one half of the egg it hatched from.  When I discover eggshell in the nest I remove them to prevent the other eggs from becoming "capped".

I expect to find more eggs during my next check in 5 days and more the likely more nestlings.  I will report from time to time what's going on.  Hopefully this will be a very productive season.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Ringtails and bears

A fellow blogger of mine and camera trap extraordinaire- Camera Trap Codger, put an excellent video capture on his blog.  He set up a camera hoping to capture ringtails on video near an area where he put down lures in the form of civetone (the musky pheromone from the African civet) and castoreum (exudate from the castor sacs of the North American beaver which is used by them for scent marking). He got one ringtail to bite, but what follows is some excellent video of a family of black bears also enjoying the lures. Check out Codgers blog here.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Gray Squirrels

Grey squirrels have been an ever present resident here in our neighborhood for as long as I can remember. My wife likes watching their antics and had me put up two feeders, which she keeps stocked with raw peanuts. It didn’t take long before our local “tree rats” discovered them. 
We sit on our front porch and watch as they lift the feeder’s lid, reach inside and grab one of the nuts and either eat it right away or carry it to a more private location. They’re very protective of their food source and will chase off other squirrels who try to pilfer from them.  Sometimes the squabble gets pretty physical.
Some of the peanuts though end up buried as I have found “peanut caches” in our flower gardens and in various spot of our yard, some of which had begun to sprout.  Makes me wonder how they can remember where they put them all.
We’ll also toss leftover cornbread, biscuits or bread out for the birds, but if they see this they’ll confiscate it.   It’s kinda odd (and hilarious) seeing a squirrel darting across the yard with a biscuit in its maw.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014


When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
~ Cree Prophecy ~

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.

Suggested Reading:


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