Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gull Excitement at Hagerman NWR

Text and photos by Laurie Sheppard

In early spring, Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge attracts large numbers of gulls, as many preparing for migration join those that wintered here. Most are Ring-billed Gulls, but it’s worthwhile to look closely through the large flocks because frequently you will find a few Herring Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, or other species migrating through. This week, though, we have had a very unusual visitor – a Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) has landed in our midst. Jack Chiles reports that this is the first time one has been seen at Hagerman NWR and many birders have rushed to the refuge to get that rare sighting.

Glaucous Gulls are very large, with some approaching 28 inches, compared to the Ring-billed Gulls’ mere 17-21 inches. The Glaucous Gulls’ typical wingspan is nearly five feet, which rivals that of the familiar Turkey Vulture, and the gulls can exhibit bursts of speed of up to 40 mph. They are said to be the second largest gull species, behind only the east coast’s Great Black-backed Gull. They are strikingly pale and have been described as “ghostly”. Adult Glaucous Gulls have a yellow bill and both adults and juveniles have dark pink legs and feet. In any group of gulls, the refuge’s visitor will appear much bigger and lighter than others nearby, particularly because of its white wing tips. Most other gull species found in north Texas have dark wing tips.

Note the differences in size and coloring between the larger Glaucous Gull and the smaller, more common Ring-billed Gull.
Glaucous Gulls breed in the Arctic, along marine and freshwater coasts, or on nearby tundra, cliffs, or ice edges. Both sexes build their nest which is little more than a shallow depression in a mound of grass, moss, twigs, and occasionally feathers with little or no lining. These might be at the water’s edge or in grassy areas atop cliffs, on the cliff’s ledges, or in the rocky scree at the base of the cliff. Both parents tend the eggs and care for the young until they become independent. It takes four years for a Glaucous Gull to fully reach maturity and their lifespan in the wild may be ten years or more.

Glaucous Gull shows its pale feathers and pink feet as it prepares to land.
 Like most gulls, Glaucous Gulls are omnivores with a varied diet. They will eat fish, berries, mollusks, small birds or mammals, eggs and chicks of other birds, and vegetation. They will also scavenge dead fish, carrion, and human refuse, and will attempt to steal food from other gulls and terns. They often forage while walking or swimming. The gull at the refuge has frequently been seen in the vicinity of other gulls, especially in the shallow water near Harris Creek or the exposed area off J Pad.

Glaucous Gull feeding on a dead fish.
During the winter, Glaucous Gulls migrate south along the coastal edges of the continent, but most adults remain north of Virginia in the east and California in the west. Occasionally, some birds migrate further south, but nearly all of those are immature Glaucous Gulls. This appears to be the case with the one seen on the refuge, which has the black-tipped bill and occasional brown freckling of a third winter bird. Migrating Glaucous Gulls are rarely found very far inland, which makes our visitor unusual.

Markings of an immature gull include the black-tipped pink bill bordered by brown feathers and slight brown freckling on the chest and wings.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey

By Jean Flick  
On a cold day in January, a group of hearty individuals, led by Paul Balkenbush, Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Deputy Manager, searched the Texas side of Lake Texoma for the presence of bald eagles.  HNWR has supported the Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey for a number of years, providing bald eagle counts that are used to estimate trends of wintering bald eagle populations across the lower 48 states.

Each January, several hundred individuals count eagles along standard, non-overlapping survey routes as part of this nationwide survey.  Started in 1979, counts were first coordinated by the National Wildlife Federation and are now coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). 

Paul Balkenbush coordinates this effort for the Texas portion of Lake Texoma.  The 2018 survey was completed in one day in January, by individuals who were each assigned portions of the shoreline area between Highway 69/75 and I-35.  Team members may travel by boat or vehicle to search for eagles, with most choosing to travel by vehicle.  This year, the team completed 859 minutes of survey time with 67.3 miles of shoreline observed.  Bald eagle sightings included 4 adult and 8 immature eagles.

Paul reports the team’s data, including the time spent and miles observed.  This data, including the number of eagles/shoreline mile and number of eagles/survey hour is compiled from regions across the country and can then be used to support bald eagle relative density estimates.

The USACE website provides summary trend tables from 1986-2010, which show an overall increasing trend in eagle sightings in the majority of national regions (6 of 9 regions) but an overall decreasing trend in sightings in Texas during that same time period.  A wide range of variables may impact this data.

The USFWS considers the recovery of bald and golden eagles to be a conservation success story.  When the bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles.  By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was in danger of extinction. Loss of habitat, shooting, and DDT poisoning contributed to the near demise of our national symbol.

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973, and in 1978 the bald eagle was listed as endangered throughout much of the contiguous U.S.  Habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the federal government’s banning of DDT, and conservation actions taken by the American public have helped bald eagles make a remarkable recovery.  Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in August 2007 because their populations recovered sufficiently.  (USFWS Endangered Species website and Fact Sheets)

Data from a variety of sources, including estimates from the annual Midwinter Survey, contribute to our body of knowledge regarding the continued successful recovery of bald eagle populations.  Paul is always looking for members to join the Bald Eagle Survey team.  Participation is open to any interested birder who wants to spend a day looking for eagles along the lakeshore.  Contact Paul at the refuge office if you would like to participate on the team in January 2019.

Photo Credit:  Bald Eagle at HNWR by Brian Fant

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Smartweed February Plant of the Month at Hagerman NWR

Yellow-headed Blackbird, Pennsylvania Smartweed at HNWR, by Philip Jones
Smartweed is a plant that is native to the lower 48 states and Alaska in the U.S. as well as in much of Canada.  When Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge was first established, smartweed seed was among the 10 - 15 tons of seeds of various plants sent by the Fish and Wildlife Service to both Hagerman and Tishomingo national wildlife refuges, to be planted at both refuges along the edges of newly built Lake Texoma (Denison Herald, February 18, 1945).  Since February is the anniversary month for the establishment of the Refuge, we chose Smartweed as the featured plant this month.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, smartweed is in the buckwheat family and is important to waterfowl and other birds, which use it for food and cover. 

At least 50 species of birds have been observed feeding on the seeds, including ducks, geese, rails, bobwhites, mourning dove, and ring-necked pheasant. The seeds and other parts are eaten by mammals such as the white-footed mouse, muskrat, raccoon, and fox squirrel. (Wikipedia)

Great Egret in Field of Smartweed at HNWR, by Kim Morris
The Wildflower Center notes that about 75 species of smartweeds occur in North America.  Pink blooming Polygonum pensylvanicumand white blooming smartweed, Polygonum lapathifolium,
can be found on the Refuge. We know this because thanks to the birds, we also have volunteer plants of both species in the Butterfly Garden each summer.

Pennsylvania, or pink, smartweed, is mainly  identified by spikes of numerous flowers and encircling leaf sheaths.  The white blooming smartweed is also known as Curlytop knotweed, and Pale Smartweed.  Pale Smartweed (P. lapathifolium), is closely related to Pink Smartweed and has white or pale rose, arching flower spikes and usually smooth stems. Both are found in gardens as well as in damp waste places and wetlands.   The plant is annual, so watch for it to come back from seed this spring. The bloom-time is March-May.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Listen to the Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird at Hagerman NWR, Photo by Bill Hurst
"If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 different birds singing outside your house, you might have a Northern Mockingbird in your yard. These slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities. They sing almost endlessly, even sometimes at night...(Cornell, All About Birds)

Noting that the mockingbird "... is found in all parts of the State, in winter and in summer, in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the woods and hills ... is a singer of distinctive type, a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan ...", the Texas legislature designated the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) as official state bird in 1927.  The northern mockingbird is also the state bird of Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, where the mockingbird symbolizes innocence and goodness, Miss Maudie says

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don't eat up people's garden, they don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. that's why it's a sin to kill a Mockingbird.

In Carl Sandburg's poem, Wilderness, we find this verse:

"There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

"Hush, little Baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a Mockingbird.

And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring.

Northern Mockingbirds have extraordinary vocal abilities; they can sing hundreds of songs, including the songs of other birds, insect and amphibian sounds, even an occasional mechanical noise.  You can check out the "music" on this video from Cornell.

Cornell gives these Cool Facts about the mockers' singing:

  • It’s not just other mockingbirds that appreciate a good song. In the nineteenth century, people kept so many mockingbirds as cage birds that the birds nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. People took nestlings out of nests or trapped adults and sold them in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New York, where, in 1828, extraordinary singers could fetch as much as $50.
  • Northern Mockingbirds continue to add new sounds to their repertoires throughout their lives. A male may learn around 200 songs throughout its life.
  • Northern Mockingbirds sing all through the day, and often into the night. Most nocturnal singers are unmated males, which sing more than mated males during the day, too. Nighttime singing is more common during the full moon.
  • Northern Mockingbirds typically sing from February through August, and again from September to early November. A male may have two distinct repertoires of songs: one for spring and another for fall.
  • The female Northern Mockingbird sings too, although usually more quietly than the male does. She rarely sings in the summer, and usually only when the male is away from the territory. She sings more in the fall, perhaps to establish a winter territory.
So listen up!  Do you hear the mockingbird?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

American Kestrel

Photo by Nature's Realm
According to Cornell's  All About Birds, the American Kestrel is North America's smallest falcon and the most colorful raptor.  

Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place. 

Photo by Jack Chiles

Recently, photographers have been posting a number of photos of this beautiful little raptor taken at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge on the Friends of Hagerman Facebook Page.  So we had the kestrel in mind as our topic for the week - then we discovered that a North Texas writer, Renny Gehman has the cover article, on the kestrel,  in the February, 2018 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.  Don't miss her five-page article, with excellent descriptors.

As Gehman points out, kestrels nest in cavities, relying on existing holes.  They have one or two broods a season, with 4 - 5 eggs.  According to Cornell, which offers box plans, kestrels take readily to nesting boxes, but you would be fortunate to have a nesting pair in our North Texas area, as they are seldom seen here in summer, per the Hagerman Bird Census.

Photo by Win Goddard
Watch for the American Kestrel show at Hagerman NWR!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

January Plant of the Month - Possumhaw


Have you seen this bright berried deciduous tree or shrub that just stands out in the winter landscape? It is Ilex decidua  - commonly known by a number of names - Possumhaw, Possumhaw holly, Deciduous holly, Meadow holly, Prairie holly, Swamp holly, Welk holly, Deciduous yaupon, Bearberry, Winterberry.

Possumhaw in the rain at HNWR, by Dana Crites
According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center website,

"Opossums, raccoons, other mammals, songbirds, and gamebirds eat the fruit of this and related species."

The spring blooms of the possumhaw also provide nectar for insects and the horizontal branches offer a platform for birds' nests.

From the Texas Native Plants Database

"Possumhaw is a large shrub or small tree frequently encountered in or near seasonally wet areas in Central and East Texas. Fairly nondescript in summer, female plants with their red, orange, or yellow fruit can become a blaze of color in the fall and winter landscape. It is the widest ranging of all Texas hollies and can adapt to a wide range of soil conditions. It can be grown in shade, but it fruits best in partial shade to full sun. Females need a male pollinator for good fruit set.

Possumhaw growing in Visitor Center landscape at HNWR
The Ladybird site notes that possumhaws can grow to 36' in height, while TAMU says 10' -12', occasionally 20', and 6' - 10' in width.  It is native within a "box" formed along the East Coast from  Virginia to Florida, from Virginia to westward to Kansas and down to Texas and in the states in between. (

Watch for possumhaw this winter as you walk the trails at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Wrap II - July - December, 2017

This week we complete our "look-back" at Hagerman NWR happenings for 2017:

July, 2017

Go green! HNWR added a water bottle filler to the drinking fountain; a counter shows the number of bottles eliminated from the waste stream.

The New Outdoor Crew has now worked on all three loops of Harris Creek Trail.

Geologist and geophysicist Diane Brownlee, below, was back for Second Saturday this month, to give an overview of Texas geology, addressing the local fossil record and plate tectonics that impacted Northwest Texas.

At The Refuge Rocks, youngsters, shown below checking their wingspan,  learned about our national bird, the eagle.

Photo by Cindy Steele

Three butterfly garden walks were held this month.

The FOH Nature Photography Club heard Paul Fuller speak on color printing of photos at the July meeting.

August, 2017  

Traffic at HNWR increased as visitors came to purchase Senior Passes before the price increase set for  August 28.

The Bluestem Chapter, Texas Master Naturalists, began their 2017 Fall Training series.

For Second Saturday, Dr. Wayne Meyer spoke on "The Shorebirds at Hagerman". Following the program,  Kelly Simpson, shown at right,  demonstrated the art of Plarn, crocheting recycled bags into useful items.

The Refuge Rocks offered children a program on "SSSNakes".

An eclipse-watching party was held at HNWR on August 21. Participants could bring their own viewers, borrow a pair of special glasses, or make a shoe box viewer. 

Photo by Roger Wilkins
September, 2017

HNWR managers Kathy Whaley and Paul Balkenbush reported to south Texas to help with Hurrican Harvey recovery.

Several successful least tern nests were reported this summer.  The Nest Box Monitors reported that from the 52 boxes along the bluebird trails, 209 birds fledged, and 139 of these were bluebirds.

Tishomingo Refuge Manager Rick Cantu was the Second Saturday speaker - his topic - "Tishomingo NRW"!

Workampers Bill and Carol Powell are back!

Children attending The Refuge Rocks were "Hobnobbing with Hummingbirds" (photo below). Courtney Anderson represented HNWR at Sherman Arts Festival, offering crafts for kids and Refuge information.

Finding nectar hummingbird style. Photo by Cindy Steele

David Alley spoke to the FOH Nature Photography Club on photo editing.

October, 2017

HNWR celebrated National Wildlife Refuge Week with a Super Saturday, Butterfly Day on October 14, organized by the Garden Docents.  Butterfly themed activities were offered throughout the day. An exhibit of butterfly photographs taken at HNWR was on display throughout the month.

Photo by Mary Maurer
The Refuge Rocks topic for October was "Go Batty with Bats".  Shown here, youngsters learn how bat mothers and young use their sense of smell to find one another.

Photo by Cindy Steele
Wildlife Drive received an upgrade and application of low-dust crushed red granite.

Another drawing and nature journaling workshop was held, led by Walt Davis, shown below, on October 28.

November, 2017

Over 200 enjoyed "High on the Hawg" on November 4.  Musical entertainment was sponsored by Landmark Bank and First United Bank, and added this year was a popular silent auction.

Greg Guymon and Little Big Iron entertained at High on the Hawg. Photo by Becky Goodman

Winning entries in the 2017 HNWR Nature Photography Contest were announced November 11.

"Protecting Wildlife" was the Second Saturday topic, with  TPWD Game Warden Michael Hummert speaking.

"Hoot for Owls" was the final Refuge Rocks session for 2017. Youngsters shown below are dissecting owl pellets.

Photo by Cindy Steele

The FOH Nature Photography Club program for November was "Photographing Bears in Alaska, with speaker Tom Savage.

Thousands of  Snow and Ross's geese began arriving at HNWR by mid-November, in time for the many visitors who make an annual pilgrimage to HNWR over Thanksgiving weekend.

Photo by Carl Hill
Workampers Kris Armstrong and Mark Gurley came to volunteer at HNWR for a month.

Garden team workdays held weekly during the growing season tapered off this month as the butterfly garden was put to bed for the winter.

December, 2017

A new 8-stop audio auto tour of the Refuge was introduced. The audio available in several formats, including personal audio devices, purchased with a grant from Prairie and Timbers Audubon Society, to plug into a car speaker system, loaner compact disks, and as a download.

Photo by James Waghorne

Jack Frost visited  HNWR early in December - note the frostweed ice formations in the Butterfly garden shown in this photo by Nancy Miller.

Dr. Michael Keck spoke on "Sex Lives of Frogs Around the World" for Second Saturday.

Plans for the annual Christmas Bird count were announced.  Count results, compiled by Dr. Wayne Meyer are posted on the Friends website.

Adopt-a-Nest Box was open for 2018 adoptions and all boxes were taken before the end of the year.

Jay Noel retired from USFWS after 33 years of service, all at Hagerman NWR.

Winning entries in the 2017 HNWR Nature Photography Contest were hung for an exhibit in the Visitor Center.

All in all, we had a great year, thanks to all the Friends members and supporters, volunteers and Refuge staff!  Here's to a repeat in 2018!