Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Effects of Drought at Refuge

Photo: Harris Creek bed, looking north from Wildlife Drive at the bridge.

Visitors who have not been to the Refuge recently will be amazed at the changes in the landscape brought about by the drought. We contacted Refuge Manager Kathy Whaley, Dr. Wayne Meyer, and Dr. George Diggs, while doing research for a presentation on the impact of the drought on Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. Here is what we learned.

Whaley told us, "If you walk or drive through Hagerman NWR, it is easy to see that the Texas drought has not bypassed the Refuge. Wetlands are dry. the lake is at a 32-year low. Hiking trails are full of cracks in the soil - some more than two feet deep. Shorebirds passing through this fall will find mudflats, but they will be much farther out than normal, making the birds very difficult to see."

She continued, " The ditch we normally pump water from to fill some impoundments is dry. The Refuge staff is working hard to install the water pipeline from Big Mineral Creek to all water to be pumped into the wetlands along Wildlife Drive, but it is a slow, time-consuming process."

"So far," Whaley reported, "staff has rescued two wading birds and one deer that were stuck in the mud. One of the birds, a Snowy Egret, actually had a turtle hanging onto its right leg. Assistant Refuge Manager Rick Cantu found this out while working to free the bird when he grabbed the turtle that was buried in the mud, trying to free the bird. The good news is that Rick still has all his fingers and we saw both legs and two feet as the Egret flew away. The only loser of the day was the turtle."

Whaley said that the lake level is dropping by as much as one inch per day. Ponds, if not already dry, are also getting drier and wildlife are having to travel to the lakeshore to get water. Feral hogs are creating wallows in creek beds where a few pockets of mud remain. Raccoon, bobcat, coyote, and deer tracks are visible along many areas that have not yet been covered by growing grasses and weeds. Plants are suffering - many trees and shrubs are turning brown and only time will tell if they have simply gone dormant or are dying. Numerous grasses and wildflowers are now dormant also, leaving many shades of tans, grays, and browns throughout the Refuge.

Whaley added, "Rain will come again - but when is anyone's guess. There is no doubt that the lack of precipitation will have a negative impact on some species and their numbers will decline. But native wildlife have evolved to withstand drought, and for the most part, they will survive. With any luck, non-native species such as the feral hog will also be impacted and perhaps reproduce in fewer numbers."

Dr. Wayne Meyer, Associate Professor of Biology at Austin College, added, "Drought has certainly affected the food supply and several summer breeding birds stopped early this year. The lake still provides drinking water for most species, so the real crunch as been the loss of seed crops and fruits, plus the insects that would have been feeding on green plants. Since the drought is not terribly widespread (I know, Texans want everything to be big, but east of north of us there has been excess rain), migratory animals like birds and insects will probably not be too badly affected. I expect their numbers to be near normal next year."

Like Whaley, Meyer says, "I'd like to think that the feral hogs will decline a bit, but I'm not holding my breath. Deer have been more visible lately, presumably because they are having to come to the lake or ponds that still hold water to drink every day. I don't know how their food supply has been affected but I should think they would be able to find sufficient browse around the the water sources. There may be a bigger dip in their numbers just because there is less food scattered across the drier parts of the Refuge.

Meyer added, "By the way, we are expecting a bumper crop of waterfowl this year; the prairie potholes got lots of rain and duck and goose reproduction was high. The question will be whether they will be able to find enough forage to make it through the winter. If Lake Texoma rises over the next few months to inundate all the dry ponds that are now full of smartweed, it will be a fabulous year for waterfowl - but if the lake level does not go back up, the waterfowl will probably have to go elsewhere by the end of December, much as they did last winter."

The third person we contacted, Dr. George Diggs, Professor of Biology at Austin College, pointed out that droughts occur with some frequency on the long term-scale, referring to the Dust Bowl ear and the bad drought of the 1950's. "Plants in this area therefore must have adapted for such occurrences. This adaptation does not rule out tree death or even the elimination of some species from certain areas or a dramatic decrease in animal populations."

Diggs continued, "When this ecosystem was intact ( a couple of hundred years ago) such occurrences would probably not have had significant long-term consequences because the ecosystem had enough resilience to recover over time. However, now, with so little native vegetation left and much of the best habitat converted to a variety of uses by humans, drought damage to the small remnants of native vegetation may have more serious consequences. Most of the habitat at the Refuge is so modified by natural conditions that I simply don't know what effect the drought will have."

On September 18, the elevation for Lake Texoma was 609.95'. Lake level information is available at

For Refuge information see the official website, and for information on the Friends, see

Photo by Dick Malnory

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Curlycup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

By Nancy Miller

Despite the heat and the drought we have experienced this summer, the Curlycup Gumweed is in full bloom at the refuge right now. Lucky for us, it favors dry soil. It can be found mainly on the end of many pads, and along the Auto Tour route.

This is one of my favorite flowers. It starts growing in the Spring, blooming late June to early September; however, it seems to bloom in the later months at the refuge. I have seen a few that bloomed earlier along some of the back roads. I have been watching them for several weeks, waiting for the bright yellow blooms to appear. They finally came in full bloom about two weeks ago.

I check out all the wildflowers at the refuge, but this is my favorite, attracting all kinds of cool looking insects as well as the beautiful butterflies. They seem to come at the right time for the butterflies that are starting to migrate to stop and enjoy. I’m hoping to catch a few more butterflies on them since butterflies seemed to be a little scarce this year.

The Curlycup Gumweed is a member of the Aster family. Curlycup Gumweed is unpalatable to cattle, sheep, and horses. Tannins, volatile oils, resins, bitter alkaloids and glucosides give it an unpleasant taste. The fresh or dried leaves of gumweed can be used to make an aromatic bitter tasting tea. The plant was used by the native North American Indians to treat bronchial problems and skin afflictions such as reactions to poison ivy. It is used in modern herbalism for treatment for bronchial asthma. The plant merits investigation as a treatment for asthma.

The dried leaves and flowering tops are anti-asthmatic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, expectorant and sedative. Externally, the plant is used as a poultice to treat burns, poison ivy, dermatitis, eczema and skin eruptions. In early times, the Spanish New Mexicans would drink an extract made from the flower buds and boiling water for kidney problems. The sticky sap was chewed as gum. Leafless stems would be used as brooms.


Photo by Nancy Miller

For more information about what to see and do at Hagerman NWR, see the official Refuge website, and the Friends website.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Choosing, Using Bird Field Guides

By Dick Malnory

There are hundreds of field guides to birds on the market. So – how to select the right one for yourself? Here are some points to consider:

· Choose a guide that covers the geographic region where you plan to bird. There are versions available for Eastern and Western U.S., individual states or regions, as well as for other parts of the world.

· Portability – for true field use, choose a version that easily fits into a pocket or bag to carry in the field.

· Illustrations – some field guides have photos of the birds, others use paintings. With modern photo editing technology, photographs may represent a bird most faithfully; however, paintings offer the ability to highlight field marks, so this decision becomes a matter of personal choice.

· Choose a field guide that includes bird descriptions for different seasons (i.e., spring – breeding), for both genders and for juveniles, along with pictures representing each. It is helpful to have a field guide that points out distinguishing field marks and size by the picture of each bird.

· Some guides include unique feeding behaviors and flight patterns. A few field guides include silhouettes, a great help in bird recognition.

· Bird songs are usually included but may be difficult to interpret. An exception to this are the new electronic field guides with bird calls.

· One of the handiest features is a quick reference index at either the front or back of the field guide. This eliminates going through the entire index for each search. Tabs or color codes for bird families facilitate searching.

· Range maps should appear on the same page as the pictures, for ease in use.

A final point about field guides - any bird guide is worthless unless studied and used regularly! Unfortunately the information is not absorbed by placing the book under your pillow at night.

A large variety of birds will be seen this fall at Hagerman NWR as the fall migration is underway. For your convenience, these field guides and foldout flash guides are now available for sale in the new Nature Nook at the Refuge:

Birds of North Texas laminated field guides, Ducks at a Distance, Birds of North America, Backyard Birds of Texas, Field Guide to Birds: Texas, and Songbirds Pocket Guide.

Binoculars and field guides are also available on a short term loan basis for use at the Refuge during your visit. For more information, see Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge or Friends of Hagerman.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Annual Hagerman Reunion is held each year on Labor Day. After reading about the event in the paper, some Friends decided to visit the reunion earlier this week to meet some of the descendants of those who once lived in the town of Hagerman. It is interesting that the group has remained so connected some 70 years after the town was cleared away to make way for Lake Texoma. We spoke with a number of folks who had brought photos, home movies transferred to current video technology, recordings of oral history, scrapbooks and more.

We heard the sharing of memories such as seeing the German World War II POW’s who were brought to the area to help clear the land of trees and structures, for the lake-to-be, and watching Perrin Field ramp up training for fighter pilots for the war. We learned that one woman, undoubtedly an early feminist, succeeded her husband to become one of the early postmasters of the town. We were shown a sketch map showing the location of the various buildings in the town – including at one time, three grocery stores. The school went through grade eight – for high school, youngsters traveled to Denison or even out of state, to boarding schools. The last graduation took place in 1942. We heard that the final gathering in the town was held under a brush arbor constructed to accommodate the crowd, and one of the town sages proposed the motto, “The Street Where Old Friends Meet”, for the gathering.

We learned that many of these memories and documents have been shared with Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, to aid in the preparation of the recent history of the area for the new exhibits at the Visitor Center, which is having its Grand Opening Sept. 8. We hope that you too will enjoy learning about the history of the town of Hagerman.

In the photo, taken by Dick Malnory, Annette Morrison Catts, of Missouri, who was introduced to us as the historian of the group, is shown holding a scrapbook about the church at Hagerman. To make way for the lake, the wooden church building was moved to Denison, where it became Hyde Park Presbyterian Church.

Please see Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge and Friends of Hagerman for more information about the Refuge and activities of the Friends.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lake Texoma Highs and Lows

Yesterday the water level for Lake Texoma as reported by the US Army Corps of Engineers was 611’ above sea level. A record may soon be set for the low water level, for the last twenty years. Yet in 2007, the lake level rose to over 640 feet, going over the spillway, washing out roads and other improvements, altering wildlife habitat and spreading debris over large areas. This also occurred in 1957 and in 1990. Again in May, 2009, the lake level reached 629’, flooding roads at the Refuge, among other places around the lake, just as repairs to the 2007 damage were about to get underway.

Lake Texoma, formed by the Denison Dam on the Red River, is one of the largest reservoirs in the US. It is the 12th largest USACE lake and largest in the USACE Tulsa District. The two main sources of water for the lake are the Red and Washita Rivers as well as a number of creeks including Big Mineral where Hagerman NWR is located; the total drainage area for the lake is 39719 square miles. Denison Dam and Lake Texoma were authorized for construction by the Flood Control Act approved June 28, 1938, (Public Law 75-791) for flood control and power generation. Construction was started in August 1939 and completed in February 1944.

Why does the level vary so widely? According to B. J. Parkey, USACE, who spoke on Second Saturday at Hagerman in May, 2010, since the lake was developed for flood control, in anticipation of spring rains, the pool level is allowed to go down to approximately 615’ by spring each year. If spring rains don’t come, the level will continue to decline until sufficient rain occurs over the drainage area for the lake. The second purpose for the lake, power generation, is put on hold except for brief periods, over these dry spells.

Visitors to the Refuge will notice a greatly increased shoreline, with shorebirds on their fall migration clustering in areas where there is still some water. The USACE has issued a health warning re the bloom of blue-green algae in the lake. People and pets are to avoid contact with the water. Let’s all hope for rain soon.

More information about Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge can be found on the official Refuge website, and Friends activities are available at Photo, taken in 2007 by Dick Malnory, shows fishing in a flooded field beside Refuge Road near the former Visitor Center location, and Wildlife Drive inundated except for the bridge.