Thursday, October 25, 2012

Owl Facts and Folklore

    By William Bond Hughes

Owls are a family of birds known to everyone.  Of the eighteen species of owls that breed in North America, eight species have been recorded at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  The three species that nest within the refuge, eastern screech, great horned and barred, are the owls most likely to be seen at the refuge.

Barred Owl at Hagerman NWR, by Nancy Miles Miller
Owls are birds of prey but are not closely related to other birds of prey such as hawks, eagles and falcons.  Biochemical evidence shows that the closest relatives of owls are the nighthawks (common nighthawk) and nightjars (chuck-wills-widow and eastern whip-poor-will).  Both owls and nighthawks/nightjars rest during the day and hunt at night.

Owls are superbly adapted for their nocturnal mode of hunting.  Their proportionately large eyes enable them to see under very low light conditions.  The ear openings of many owls are larger than usual among birds, and the opening on one side of the head is higher than on the other side.  Together, these two adaptations enable owls to locate prey by sound even in the dark.  The flight feathers of owls are modified so that the sound of air passing over the feathers during flight is greatly reduced thus allowing a silent, undetected approach to prey.

Populations of many tree cavity-nesting owls declined during the early history of the United States from intensive logging operations that deprived them of their nesting sites.  Fortunately, the ready acceptance of nest boxes as breeding sites has resulted in the rebound of these populations.  I know from personal experience that the eastern screech owl readily accepts a box, and I know of a case where two screech owls occupied boxes within the same yard!  Plans for building owl boxes can easily be found on the internet.

Their distinctive appearance and behavior has led to the creation of many myths and legends regarding owls which fall into two main categories:  owls are associated with wisdom and owls are associated with death. 

An example of the wise owl can be found in the fables of Aesop which originated in the sixth century B.C.  In the fable of the owl and the other birds, the owl advises the other birds that flax seeds should not be allowed to grow as the resulting plants could be made into fibers which could be woven into nets to trap the birds. 

The Greek goddess Athena, patron goddess of Athens and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol.  Coins of ancient Athens portrayed Athena on one side and an owl on the other. 

The Zuni, a pueblo tribe of the American Southwest, have a story about the wisdom of the burrowing owl which lives in prairie dog towns.  When heavy rainfall threatened to drown their sources of food, the prairie dogs asked the burrowing owl what should be done.  In response, the owl began to beat a bag which contained the foul-smelling secretion of a particular beetle.  At each stroke, the rain clouds moved farther off, and with a final blow the sky became perfectly clear.  The prairie dogs came out of their burrows and loudly praised their “great priest, the grandfather burrowing owl”.

In current usage, a group of owls is called “a wisdom of owls”.

The association of owls with death is very widespread in folklore.  Among the Kikuyu of Kenya it is still widely believed that owls are harbingers of death.  If one sees an owl or hears its hoot, someone was going to die.  An old saying in Mexico still used today is "When the owl cries, the Indian dies".

ED Note:  Woo Hoo for Owls will be the topic at Second Saturday for Youth, led by Katie Palmer,  on November 10, 2012, and Owls will be Dr. Wayne Meyer's topic for Second Saturday, February 9, 2013, at the Refuge.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

All Aboard the C&E Cardinal Express

What is red and tan and rolls along the Auto Tour route?   The C&E Cardinal Express!  The C&E (for donors Carlos and Eulalia Araoz) is the new all electric tram at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.   With maximum seating for 14, the tram was put into operation at Super Saturday, to the enjoyment of all who toured on it.  The tram offers a great view and operates silently for minimum disturbance of wildlife.

Driver training was never this much fun!

Training is now underway for volunteer drivers who will operate the vehicle and be able to help passengers identify wildlife along the way, as well as share the history of the Refuge and information about Refuge operations.  Volunteer applications to become tram drivers are still being accepted; email the Friends  or call the Refuge, 903 786 2826.

Starting in November, regular tours will be scheduled, weather permitting, on Wednesdays and weekends.  Watch for schedule details.   Reservations for the tours, which will be limited initially to 8 adults, with additional room for up to 3 children, will be taken by phone during regular business hours.   Any unreserved seats on the tours may be filled by standbys at tour departure time.  Tours are free, but donations to the Friends of Hagerman Tram Fund will be accepted.

For maximum enjoyment of these tours, which will last approximately one hour, no smoking, no cell phone use, and no food will be allowed aboard.  Passengers will want to dress for the weather as the vehicle is totally open for best viewing!  This means bring a wrap!

Each person who tours on the C&E will say “Thanks, Carlos and Eulalia!”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

S-U-P-E-R S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y October 13

Spend the day, 9 am – 4 pm, October 13 -  or just an hour or two celebrating wildlife and nature at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, with free programs for all ages.  

Take a guided walk – for birds, butterflies or dragonflies 

Hear a nature talk – Shorebirds, Rainwater Harvesting, Using e-bird, Backyard Birds in Fall, Canoeing 101

Watch demos - fly-tying, use and care of binoculars  

Enjoy nature videos       

Craft a nature-themed project – feather guard for your window, wildflower seed bombs, and origami critters  

Learn bird “topography” as you assemble a bird picture

See the Blackland Prairie Raptors  

Kids, check your wingspan, line up at noon for a free butterfly or frog tattoo, while they last, then play Wildlife Bingo  

View the winning entries in this year’s photo contest and meet the photographers.  

Enjoy lunch provided by the Sherman Noon Lions or bring your own picnic.

Rain or shine, come on out to the Refuge this Saturday!

For complete schedule of events, see Activities on the Friends website

AND…  Hats off to the many volunteers and to those who support activities and projects of the Friends at the Refuge through memberships and gifts, and are making Super Saturday happen!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fields of Gold

Roadsides and fields in North Texas and at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge are glowing with “gold” at this time of year.  Several wildflower favorites are contributing to this fall palette.

Maximilian sunflower is a cheery yellow wildflower blooms that  from August to October and provides food for livestock, as a range plant, and seed and cover for wildlife.  Helianthus maximiliani Schrad., called Maximilian sunflower, Max sunflower and Michaelmas-daisy, was named for the German explorer and naturalist, Prince Maximilian, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant data-base.  Maximilian explored the Great Plains of the U.S. in 1832.

Maximilian sunflower, by Sue Malnory
Max sunflower is a prairie perennial native to the eastern U.S. and grows throughout the U. S. as an introduced species and ornamental.  Recognizable by multiple blooms along the unbranched, upright stalk It grows from 24” to 10’ tall, and reproduces by seed and by sprouting from the rhizome, which is edible.  In addition to seed, it also provides nectar for bees and butterflies.

Also in the aster family is Gutierrezia sarothrae (Pursh) Britt. & Rusby, with common names that include Broom snakeweed, Kindlingweed, Matchbrush, Texas snakeweed, Broomweed, Turpentine weed.  Growing from 1 – 3’ tall, it is a small shrub-like plant covered in tiny yellow flowers.  By bloom time the lower leaves have dropped off, giving it a delicate appearance. 

Broomweed, by Dick Malnory

Broomweed is native throughout much of the western U.S. and blooms from August – November.  It reproduces by seed, and provides nectar for bees and butterflies and seed for birds.  Dried plants can be tied together to fashion a “broom”.

Another yellow autumn wildflower, one that is considered a “bad actor” by many, is Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis L., also called Canada goldenrod, Canadian goldenrod, Tall goldenrod, or Giant goldenrod.  Goldenrod is blamed for causing allergic reactions each fall, but according to NPIN, the reactions are caused mainly by pollen from the ragweed plant that blooms at the same time.

Goldenrod, by Dick Malnory
Goldenrod grows 3 – 6’ tall, and like the Maximilian sunflower, is perennial.  It provides nectar for bees and butterflies, and produces seeds.  It will grow in most any soil and is tolerant of dry or moist conditions,   Goldenrod is  a native plant found  in Canada and across the U. S. and blooms September – November.

So, using the phrase in a different context, "Go for the Gold"  and enjoy the view.

"I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house.  So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air."
-  Nathaniel Hawthorne