Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Killdeer

Post by William B. Hughes

Recent visitors to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge have seen that a couple of visitors have decided to take up residence at the Visitor’s Center/Headquarters building.  These welcome visitors are killdeer, a species belonging to a family of birds known as plovers.  The bird’s name comes from its repeated loud and strident call “kill-deer”.  Its call was the origin of an earlier name,  the noisy plover.

Although the killdeer is considered a shorebird, it is often found far from water in grassland habitats such as fields, meadows and pastures.  During the summer breeding season, the killdeer nests from the southern United States to Canada.  Nesting begins in March in the deep South, April in the middle states, May in the northern states and southern Canada and June in the far north.  (Photo by Randall Lantz)

The killdeer’s nest is very basic--a shallow depression in the ground in an open area with some stones (graveled roofs are used) and sparse to no grass.  The depression is formed by a “scraping” action of both the male and female bird. 

The killdeer frequently uses a "broken-wing" display to distract predators (and humans) from their nests.  In the display, the bird walks away from its nesting area holding its wing in a position that simulates an injury and then flutters around on the ground while emitting a distress call.  Predators are attracted to the seemingly injured bird and are drawn away from the nest.

As is the case for our pair of killdeer, the number of eggs laid is typically four.  The smooth, ovate-shaped eggs are dull tan or cream to yellow-gray in color with varied shades and sizes of irregular darker-brown blotches. (Photo by Kathy Whaley)

The simple structure of the nest and the spots of the eggs, which disguise them as stones, make the nest and eggs blend remarkably into their surroundings.  This camouflaging effect is very apparent for the nest at the Visitor’s Center. 

The eggs are usually arranged in the nest with the pointed ends together and positioned downward in the center of the nest.  If disturbed, the birds will restore the eggs to their oringinal positions.  Both the male and the female incubate the eggs; the male more often at night.  The eggs hatch in about 24-28 days; all four eggs usually hatch within an eight hour period.

Killdeer hatchlings are precocial, a term applied to young birds that are able to see and search for food soon after hatching.  For this reason, killdeer are not known to feed their young.  Newly-hatched killdeer can't fly, and they need the protection provided by the adults.  They are brooded extensively during the first three days after hatching.  Around one month after hatching, the young are fledged.

The killdeer is by far the most wide-spread and well-known of North American plovers.  Other plovers that could be seen at Hagerman, but are much less common than the killdeer, are the American golden plover, black-bellied plover and snowy plover.  These plovers are migrants that pass through the refuge but do not nest here.

The killdeer is one of the most successful of all shorebirds because of its tolerance for human modified habitats, such as lawns, driveways, athletic fields, parking lots, airports, and golf courses; and its willingness to nest close to people.  However, because they live near people they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and collisions with cars and buildings.  Presently, the range and population of the killdeer are considered stable.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Green-tailed Towhee in Haller’s Haven

Post by Wayne Meyer, PhD
Photo by Jack Chiles

Last December, while I was participating in the Tishomingo NWR Christmas Bird Count, I saw a photo that absolutely astounded me.  Someone had found a Green-tailed Towhee on Pennington Creek, just north of town.  A truly beautiful bird, one I have seen only a few times but always in the sagebrush country of California or Colorado, I never expected one to be in dense, riparian shrubs in southeast Oklahoma.  I would have loved to chase after the bird later that day, but I had to get back to Denison because it was my wife’s birthday and I figured I was already lucky to have been able to spend half a day birding.  I lusted over the photo one more time and went back to Texas thinking, “there’s a bird I won’t be putting on my year list”.

Later in the winter, I noted with interest that several more Green-tailed Towhees showed up on Texbirds and OKbirds, the listserves for Texas and Oklahoma birders.  All those birds were showing up in far western Oklahoma and northwest Texas.  Apparently several of these birds had been forced to leave the hills in Colorado by the lack of seeds due to last summer’s drought.  The winter of 2011-2012 was very special because of a number of sagebrush species wintering far east of their normal wintering country combined with a near record irruption of Snowy Owls after an unusually good year for lemmings in the Arctic.  Since I had to teach a Janterm class this year, I was again prevented from chasing after any of these birds.

Fast forward to March.  It was spring break at Austin College and I had 5 days to myself.  On the 12th I decided to join Jack Chiles and Dick Malnory on a Monday version of the usual Tuesday bird census at Hagerman NWR.  The refuge was going to be closed on Tuesday for invasive species control work, so we braved the fog and rain to get in a morning’s birding when we could.  I had hopes of making up for some of the regular winter species I had missed in the first two months of the year.  The weather hadn’t been great, it had rained all weekend so I was really aching to go birding.  We walked along the Haller’s Haven trail toward Dead Woman Pond to see how many species of sparrows we could find.  We had gone as far as the dam and were searching the dense brush where sparrows are always pretty common when I saw a big one jump up into view.  My first thought was Fox Sparrow.  Once I got the binoculars onto it, however, I saw a red cap and yellowish-green back and tail.  I recall saying, “Here’s a … oh my gosh, Green-tailed Towhee. Green-tailed Towhee!”  All three of us starting clicking off photo after photo, knowing that most of them wouldn’t be any good, but maybe one or two would be usable. 

Later that day Jack and I posted the bird to Texbirds, thinking at the time that we had a Grayson County first record.  Later Jack found that there had been one previous record at Hagerman NWR in the 1980s, but it was still a very surprising find and all three of us had gotten very good looks at a bird that was a lifer for both Jack and Dick.  Apparently the bird stayed around for about 5 days until the area flooded.  Jack returned for more photos and several birders from the metroplex and Tulsa found it before it left.

So what’s my moral here?  Always be prepared for anything.  You never know when the next oddball will be showing up.  And when it comes to birds, oddballs will show up any time of the year.

Ed. Note:  Be sure to visit for up-to-date lists of birds sighted and the Photo Gallery that includes albums for waterfowl, waders, songbirds and more.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Second Saturday in April

Forecast:  Saturday morning, April 14, 2012,  will be full of interesting activities at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge!

WALK - Dr. Wayne Meyer will lead a nature walk on one of the five trails at Hagerman.  Walkers are to meet Dr. Meyer at the FOH Center at 8 am, and he advises “dress for the weather, wear sturdy shoes, and participants may want to bring a camera, field guides and/or binoculars”.  Walk will  end in time for the Second Saturday presentation.

TALK - John Slaughter will present a program on Arachnids of North Texas, for Second Saturday at the Refuge on April 14.  John is a Certified Entomologist who has been working with arachnids as a hobbyist for over forty years. He currently owns over 2000 tarantulas and scorpions, and belongs to a number of entomology societies including the Entomology Society of America and the American Tarantula Society.  John, a branch manager for Orkin Pest Control in the Metroplex, will bring live specimens for audience to see as he talks about tarantulas/spiders and how they benefit the ecosystems where they are found.  His presentation will begin at 10 am in the Multi-purpose Meeting Room of the Visitor Center at the Refuge.

FUN FOR THE YOUNG - Second Saturday for Youth will be held from 10 – 11:30 am on April 14, in the Audio Visual Classroom of the FOH center.  Busy Bees will be the topic for this hands-on nature program for children ages 4 – 10, led by Katie Palmer.  Reservations are needed to insure materials for each child, and may be made by calling the Refuge, 903 786 2826.  Youngsters aged 6 and under must be accompanied by a parent or other responsible adult.

FYI - Second Saturday activities are free of charge and open to the public. Reservations are need only for the youth program.  Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is located at 6465 Refuge Road, Sherman, Texas, 75092.  For more information, call the Refuge or visit friendsofhagerman.com

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Texas Invasives News

If you see  a purple  sticky trap at the Refuge, you are witnessing front line efforts to detect a new Texas invasive.

Refuge Manager Kathy Whaley announced last week that HagermanNational Wildlife Refuge will be among the locations throughout Texas where nearly 2000 emerald ash borer traps will be installed this year by USDA Plant and Animal Inspection Service, Texas AgriLife Extension, the U. S. Forest Service and other agencies.  

The emerald ash borer is a non-native insect that attacks only ash trees.  It  is native to Asia and was first detected attacking ash in Michigan in 2002.  The metallic green colored, wood‐boring beetle is well established in Canada and 15 states of the U.S., and expected to eventually threaten Texas trees;  all species of  North American ash can be affected.

The emerald ash borer traps are purple, coated with a sticky surface and baited with an attractant, are specially designed to attract the borers, and are nontoxic.  They are being placed in or near ash trees this spring, before the flight season for the emerald ash borer begins.

Traps will be checked periodically and removed and checked in August after the flight season ends.  Traps will not bring emerald ash borers into the area, but will attract borers emerging from nearby infested trees and help officials determine their presence.

Fallen traps can be reported to the Refuge or if elsewhere in North Texas, to Charlie Helpert at

For more information on the emerald ash borer and other Texas invasives, see

On August 11, Saul Petty, Invasive Species Biologist based at Hagerman NWR will be presenting a program on invasives at the Refuge, for the Friends of Hagerman Second Saturday program.