Thursday, April 25, 2013

How Sweet It Is

Do you have "good taste"?  You are invited to attend a honey-tasting, at BirdFest Texoma, oSunday afternoon, May 5, at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  A Friends of Hagerman member and Visitor Center volunteer,  Barbara Corbin,  is arranging this opportunity for you to test your taste buds.  Barbara, who is a long-time Collin County beekeeper, will have 12 – 15 floral honeys for you to sample at this free event to be held in the Visitor Center at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.   A handout will list the floral honeys present; honey samples will be numbered, and you will try to match the honey to its floral source. Crackers, water, cups and other supplies will be available to clean the palate between honey samples.

You will also get to meet and visit with the Texas Honey Queen, Shelby Kilpatrick, shown above.  As an official spokesperson for the Texas Beekeepers Association, the Texas Honey Queen promotes all aspects of the beekeeping industry.  Shelby is a senior in high school and is home educated along with her two younger sisters. She began beekeeping in 2007 when she received a Youth Beekeeping Scholarship from the Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association. Since then, beekeeping has become a family project. In addition to beekeeping, Shelby is an active Denton County 4-H member, a certified Denton County Master Gardener and an Elm Fork Chapter Master Naturalist Intern. 

While honey is the best known bee product, it has been estimated that 30% of our food supply depends on bee-pollinated plants, not to mention the importance of pollination to  plants for feeding livestock. (  In addition to the tasting table, there will also be a display and handouts with information about bees, honey and the beekeeping industry.  

Advance registration is recommended for this program, to guarantee that you will get to taste.  You can register online at, or download a form to mail; forms are also available at the Refuge.  Come learn about the honey bee, pollination and the sweet gift of honey at BirdFest Texoma! 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Text and Photos by Laurie Sheppard

Spring is a special time for birders at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  We expect many migrants to pass through on the Central Flyway, but spring is also a time when our summer birds return.  One of the first things these visitors, as well as many of our resident birds do is to search for a mate and begin to raise a family.  Nesting behavior is happening all over the refuge.  Sometimes it’s very obvious – a Great Blue Heron carrying a stick to the rookery beyond Harris Creek, a bluebird or martin sitting on a nest box near the Visitors Center, or a woodpecker hollowing out a nest in a dead tree at Dead Woman Pond.  Last weekend, I happened upon one of the less conspicuous nesters, but one of the more interesting.

Among the first summer visitors we hear, almost as soon as the leaves pop out, is the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  I say hear, because usually you will hear them before you see them. Everywhere you go, if there are trees, you will hear the buzzing Pzzzzz, Pzzzzz call of the busy little birds.  Smaller than a sparrow, the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flit about looking for small bugs and spiders in the emerging leaves.  When you hear that distinctive sound, look high in the trees – often oak trees – and watch for movement.  Gnatcatchers constantly flick their tail when they are hunting.  They will continue to frequent the canopy throughout the summer and into the fall when they will head back south to avoid the cold weather. 

Male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at HNWR
As their name implies, they are mostly steel gray with a conspicuous eye-ring.  There is often some black in their tail and they have white bellies and white outer tail feathers.  In breeding plumage, the male has a black line over each eye that meets in the middle just above his beak.  Because of their size, they are often hard to see, but if you’re patient and watch for movement, you will be rewarded.  That is how I found the nest-building pair.  I noticed that there were two birds in the tree and they repeatedly went back to the same branch.  I thought maybe it was a particularly good feeding spot but soon I realized they were carrying nesting material.  They were not terribly bothered by my presence so I took advantage and when both were off getting more supplies, I re-positioned myself to get a better look.

Female at the nest
I have since learned that the nest they built is typical of the species:  beautifully constructed of grass stems, bark strips, plant down, hair, feathers or other fine fibers held together with spider webs and caterpillar silk.  On the outside, it is camouflaged with tiny bits of bark and lichens.  Both parents participated in perfecting the nest, which is positioned on a level branch away from the trunk of their tree.  Soon there will be 3-6 pale blue eggs dappled with brown spots.

Male at the nest
To give you an idea of the size of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, an American Goldfinch is reported to be around 4.5 to 5 inches, and a Ruby-throated hummingbird 3 to 3.5 inches.  A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is right in between at about 3.9 to 4.3 inches.  I have read that hummingbird eggs are the size of a Tic-Tac mint.  I imagine these will not be much bigger than that.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the only member of its species you will find this far north, and is the only truly migratory one. Predominantly, gnatcatchers are Neotropical residents but the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher can be found from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic.  In the west, the birds remain in the southern tier, but in the east you can find them all the way north into Maine.  Here in the central U.S., they are active all over Texas, Oklahoma, and throughout most of Kansas. 

Sources for technical material: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Audubon Birds app for Android.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Great Blue Heron Rookery at Refuge

Great Blue at Hagerman NWR by Carol Ann Sowell

The Great Blue, a favorite sight year around at HagermanNational Wildlife Refuge, makes its nest in a group of the tallest trees on the horizon, looking south from the Harris Creek Bridge.  
Heron Rookery

The Herons, members of the Ardeid family, are seasonally monogamous, according to (Sibley, 2001) The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, and breed in colonies.

The male and female cooperate in building the nest, which is usually located near water.  In colonies with mixed species, they tend to nest in tall trees, and may reuse the nests from one year to the next, adding on or refurbishing.

Herons have a single one brood each year, with from 2 – 7 eggs.  Parents take turns incubating which usually begins as soon as the first egg or two are laid.  When the chicks hatch they may be different sizes due to varied time under incubation.
The chicks, who make continuous food-begging calls, (Sibley, 2001)are fed by the parents, who regurgitate it into their mouth or onto the nest.  By two weeks in age moat chicks are ready to leave the nest and perch nearby.

If you visit the Refuge soon, be sure to look for the rookery as you cross Harris Creek Bridge.

NOTE:  David Sibley will be at Hagerman NWR for BirdFest Texoma.  He will present a painting demonstration at Evening with David Allen Sibley, and the painting, A Painted Bunting, will be up for auction at the close of the evening; register for this event at (no tickets will be sold at the door).  Sibley will also sign books from 11 am - Noon at the Refuge, May 4, and following the evening presentation.

Photos of  Rookery by Dick Malnory

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Killdeer Is Back

Last week a Killdeer began laying eggs in the newly placed gravel in front of the Hagerman NWR Visitor Center, near the bicycle rack.  Just about this same time a year ago a Killdeer chose an area much nearer the front door for her ”nest” and was frequently seen hopping about trying to distract passers-by, but this year the nest area is a little more out of the traffic pattern. 

Killdeer photographed near Visitor Center by Dick Malnory

We are hoping for a repeat of last year’s nesting success, as in 2012, we believed that the same Killdeer had two successful hatches from the same spot, with babies led into the nearby fields the day they hatched.  Many visitors enjoyed checking on the nesting progress, in person and on Facebook.

The following is  reprinted from the  April 26, 2012,  blog post by Bill Hughes, on "the 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.  

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. 

Killdeer, eggs, in field near Visitor Center, 2012, by Dick Malnory
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. 

The Killdeer nest with 3 eggs, taken March 25, 2013, 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 original 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."