Sunday, April 24, 2016

2016 Purple Martin Season 3

I no more than open my mouth and the feuding has begun.  Upon hearing a ruckus in the area of my gourd racks I found two SY males and one SY female battling it out over a particular gourd.
It got pretty nasty at one point when both males went after the female.  This is only one of the many fights that are more than likely to occur. 
My main concern though is whether or not the SY males are going to do any harm to the now present eggs of the adults or to the future nestlings.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

2016 Purple Martin Season 2

Performed a nest check today and found the first eggs of the season.  Eight in total from three different nests.  There are seven other nests that were empty and about four partial nests.  Looks like the season is getting off to a good start.  I'm also seeing a total of three SY (second year) or "subadult" males hanging around.  This is unusual since in the past I might see one maybe two at my colony, but not this many right at the beginning of the season.  They usually show up later.

In the past I've had lone SY bachelor males actually build a nest along with the adults in the colony.  Naturally there were no eggs since it had no mate.  This can be harmless and it can also be a problem.  At times SY males will go into the nests of adult martins and destroy eggs and kill nestlings.  It's all about competition.

As I've written before- Infanticide by definition is basically the killing of young by adults. This behavior occurs in other bird species as well such as House Wrens, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, English Sparrows and European Starlings. It is believed that unmated SY male martins perform this act because of limited nesting sites, mates, and food, which then is intensified by the urge to mate. By removing and/or killing the young or destroying eggs it causes the mated pair to “divorce” so to speak due to reproductive failure. This gives the SY male the chance to take advantage of the situation and possibly mate with the now “free” female.  During the time that this has happened before there was only one subbie present.  Now I'm seeing three so this could make for an interesting season.  Stay tuned.

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Kinsey's Wasps

Check this new episode of Shelf Life from the American Museum of Natural History on Alfred Kinsey's gall wasp collection.


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Thursday, April 14, 2016

2016 Purple Martin Season 1

The 2016 martin season has begun!  On April 6 I dropped the gourds and unfortunately found two dead martins in two separate gourds.  Each bird sustained an injury to the back of the head.  Both deaths could have very possibly been due to territorial disputes since it occurred at the beginning of the season.  Either one could have also been the result of a dispute with a European starling.  I did see a few landing on the racks not long after I put them in the air.  What ever the reason it is always sad to find this.
On a happier note,  I began performing nest checks today and have found several full and partial nests (9 full and 3 partial).  I took a photo of one of the gourds where you can see mud splattered all around the entrance.  This is from the carrying of mud to the nest for building the mud dam.

I'm planning on rebuilding my gourd rack arms for the 2017 season.  The racks I have up have been in use since 1998 and are beginning to show their age.  I will get started on them this summer/early fall.

See these prior posts:  (1)   (2)   (3)


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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Jaguar in Arizona


What wonderful news to find out that a jaguar was caught on a game camera in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona. If I remember correctly, the last time they were seen in the Arizona area was back in 1996 when two jaguars were chased and cornered by cougar hunters and their hounds in two southern Arizona mountain ranges. According to the Defenders of Wildlife website there is “a small population of 80-120 cats in the remote mountains of Sonora, Mexico bordering Arizona. Defenders played a key role in helping establish the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Sonora, Mexico, to protect the northernmost remaining jaguar population. The properties are owned by Naturalia, one of Mexico’s leading conservation organizations, and managed in cooperation with Northern Jaguar Project with technical and financial support from Defenders of Wildlife.”

“Jaguars are being killed because of perceived conflicts with livestock, and overhunted for their fur and for trophies. Habitat loss is also a big problem for the northern population and the U.S.-Mexico border wall threatens to block jaguar migration routes. The Northern Jaguar Reserve, now at over 55,000 acres, is the result of major binational cooperation to help save jaguars in their northern range. Initiated in 2003, the growing reserve protects key habitat for the last breeding population of northern jaguars—offering hope for their recovery in the United States. Groundbreaking research being conducted on the reserve today will also help us better understand jaguar behavior and habitat requirements—information that’s helping experts pull together a stronger recovery plan.”

Hopefully these protections and other efforts will lead to an active population in the U.S. once again.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Beached Whale in Galveston, TX

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Searching For Nature Treasures

"Most children have a bug period, and I never outgrew mine.  Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist.  Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail.  Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming."       E.O. Wilson

"The most effective way to connect our children with nature is to connect ourselves with nature.  If mothers, fathers, grandparents, or guardians already spend time outdoors, they can spend more; they can become birders, anglers, hikers, or gardeners.  If children sense genuine adult enthusiasm, they'll want to emulate that interest..."      Richard Louv

The circular area around the base of the large oak in our vacant lot is covered in desiccated leaves- the same leaves that were created by this very tree.   This detritus is also a mish mash of small branches, acorns, bark, and the gnawed upon shells of peanuts from a nearby squirrel feeder.   This spot has gotten the undivided attention of my 7-year old grand-daughter.  She is on her hands and knees looking for something that most people would either not notice or would wonder why she is looking for them in the first place.  “Here’s another one paw paw!” she cries excitedly- an excitement that only a child or a nature-obsessed old man can savor. I take the crinkly remains from her and add it to the rising pile inside a large plastic peanut butter jar. “That’s number 25”, I reply, as if we’re trying to break some sort of record.
Cicadas (in this case the annual or "dog day" cicada) emerge from their chambers in the ground as nymphs, latching themselves to a tree or any other nearby object.  They then, over a course of several hours, emerge from their nymph exoskeleton, dry their wings out and then fly away to find a cicada of the opposite sex to mate with.  This exoskeleton is what she is looking for.   Just another treasure to add to her nature collection.
Seeing them amongst the leaf litter isn’t easy, especially for my old eyes.  It’s greatly due to their color which allows them to blend in quite nicely with the leafy surroundings.  For some odd reason their color and consistency remind me of fried pork skins.  yum..........

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ruellia tweediana

Nature drops surprises on you when you least expect it- as with what happened to me the other day while working in our flower gardens.  While watering I began to hear a faint "popping" sound coming from the garden area, almost sounding like an electrical arc.  Puzzled I shut off the water to try and figure out what it was that I was hearing.  After a minute or so of silence, I began watering again.  Seconds later the popping noise returned.  What helped me discover what was happening, was when I felt something lightly strike the front of my shirt.  I looked down to discover several small, flat seeds affixed to my chest.  The popping noise I heard was coming from the seed pods of the Ruellia (aka Mexican petunia, wild petunia, Mexican bluebell) that has taken over one area of our yard.  These pods, when wetted were popping open, sending the seeds within flying in all directions.
This plant uses "explosive dispersal" as a method of spreading its seed, allowing each seed to be separated from all of the others giving it the room it needs in order to mature.  Many other plants distribute their seeds through this means of dispersal such as wisteria, witch hazel, jewelweed, okra.  My son was able to capture a nice video of this:
video
What is it about the contact with water that causes the pods to burst open?  I'm assuming that as the seed pods dry, tension is built up within the pod.  Then when they come in contact with water by way of rain or garden hose, this somehow releases that tension allowing for the rapid explosive dispersal of the seeds.  Note how the walls of the spent pod are turned outward, where they were once straight before release.
Once I figured out what was happening I couldn't wait to show this to my granddaughter.  I removed one of the pods and placed it in her hand.  I then wetted it and told her to cup her hands together.  Seconds later we heard a light popping sound and then a wide grin spread across her face.  Opening her hands she found the seeds that had been released.

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mason Wasp


 Granddaughter told me of a mud wasp nest her Dad had found that was attached to their bbq pit.  We harvested it and began opening the cells to see what type of prey the adult had gathered and stored for its prodigy.  When we opened the first cell a fully developed mason wasp (Euodynerus apopkensis) began to crawl out.  It flew a short distance and landed nearby, and began twitching its thin, cellophane-like wings to and fro as if to stretch them following its long nap inside the lump of dirt, before flying away.
In another cell though we found another wasp that was not quite developed.  Its white form almost appeared ghost-like. 
We both felt a sense of guilt for disturbing it, so we decided to placed it back into its cell and then we collected some dirt, which we wetted and sealed the hole enclosing the pupa inside.  We then took the nest and placed it in one of her bug boxes. We’re hoping that it will continue to develop and then dig its way out, then we’ll release it.
I’ve seen this particular wasp in other areas, once in our firewood pile.  We had been rummaging around in the wood for geckos when we spotted one halfway into what appeared to be the exit hole of a wood-boring beetle. 
Not sure what it was looking for.  I later found out that these wasps will utilize or “repurpose” paper wasp nests.  Maybe it was repurposing the exit hole/tunnel of the beetle. 

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nest Checking With Grand-daughter

Today I performed my third nest check of the 2015 season and had a little helper recording what I saw- my 7-year old granddaughter.  As I checked each of my 32 gourds I would call out what I was seeing and she would write it down.  We found a total of 31 eggs between the two gourd racks.
This is the first time she actually participated instead of just watching.  I was so proud! 
She was hoping that I would find some nestlings, but it's still too early.  She still remembers the time I allowed her to hold her first purple martin.  She was so excited to hold a tiny, living bird in her hand- and so was I.  She was very excited to participate and can't wait to do it again.  I hope my enthusiasm for the this bird encourages her in the future to have her own purple martin colony and use what I've taught her to maintain it and help this wonderful bird continue to exist.


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Monday, April 13, 2015

First Death of the 2015 PUMA Season

The season has barely begun and I already have a casualty.  I had lowered the gourds a couple weeks ago to pull plugs from the crescent/porch gourds when I noticed a foul odor.  Inside one of the gourds I found a dead ASY purple martin which had what appeared to be an injury on the one side of its head.
It is not uncommon for this to happen at the beginning of the season when males are involved in territorial battles for nesting sites and is definitely not the first time this has happened at my colony.  This fighting also occurs between females (see this post "Intraspecific Fighting" and "A Death in the Colony").  Then again a European starling could be the culprit.  It's really a shame that this bird survived its long arduous journey across the Gulf of Mexico to get back here, only to die in this fashion.  I checked for bands, but none were found.

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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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