Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pied-Billed Grebe

This week's post is inspired by  photos of a Pied-billed Grebe on the nest at Hagerman NWR, by Eileen Sullivan.  According to David Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behaviorscientists think that grebes originated millions of years ago.  While there are other species of grebes, Pied-billed are the only living member of their genus, Podilymbus.  Other North American species are Red-necked, Eared, and Horned Grebes.

A dictionary search informed us that "Pied" refers to multi-colored, patterned, having patches of two or more colors.  The Wordbook dictionary app traces the origin of "pied" to the "magpie" with its black and white plumage.
Pied-billed Grebe, nest, at HNWR
In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (pp. 127-131) we read that the Pied-billed Grebe is a small, diving waterbird with a short bill.  It feeds on small aquatic invertebrates, small fish, vegetation and insects.

Grebes are said to have elaborate courtship displays.  Most species nest on freshwater lakes and ponds.  Both sexes build the nest which is usually anchored to aquatic plants, and a clutch consists of from 3 - 10 eggs.

Pied-billed Grebe on nest at HNWR
Here are some "Cool Facts" about the Pied-billed Grebe, from All About Birds website:

Rarely seen flying, the Pied-billed Grebe prefers to escape predators by diving, and it migrates at night. However, it can fly, and stray individuals have reached Hawaii and Europe. 
Although it swims like a duck, instead of webbed feet,  the Pied-billed Grebe  has lobes extending out on the sides of each toe that provide extra surface area for paddling.

The downy chicks can leave the nest soon after hatching, but they do not swim well at first and do not spend much time in the water in the first week. They sleep on the back of a parent, held close beneath its wings. By the age of four weeks, the young grebes are spending day and night on the water. For the first ten days their response to danger is to climb onto a parent's back.  After that, when danger threatens, they dive under water.

Legs set far back on body, adapted to swimming underwater, make grebes walk poorly. (Sibley)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope Facts

A large flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes has been at the Refuge for several weeks, to the enjoyment of the Refuge visitors.  Here are some facts about Wilson’s Phalarope, from Audubon  and the NationalZoo/Smithsonian Park websites:

Wilson’s Phalarope, Phalaropus tricolor,  is named after the great early American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson , and is the only one of the three phalarope species confined to the New World.

Wilson's Phalarope  is a slender, delicately built shorebird with a small head, and thin, pointed bill; medium-sized shorebird averaging 2.1 ounces in weight and 8.5 inches in length, with pointed wings that span 17 inches.

Females are substantially larger and can weigh as much as 40% more than males.

In winter, both sexes have grey-white plumage.

Breeding females (photo below) -  colorful, with a gray cap, white eyebrow, and dark crimson mask that extends from the bill to the back of the head and then swoops down the nape toward the back. The throat is white; a rusty wash colors the neck and chest, otherwise whitish below and grey above.

Breeding males (photo below) - pale grey above and whitish below, with a light rusty wash on the nape of the neck.

Winter range – from Peru  to the tip of South America
Breeding range -  Great Plains of North America

Feeding – a number of Refuge visitors have commented on the Phalarope’s spinning behavior during feeding.  Note circular ripples in the photo of the female phalarope.  “Like other phalaropes, the Wilson's often spins in the water, at speeds of up to 60 turns per minute. The purpose of this whirling behavior may be to churn the muddy bottom, excite small aquatic creatures, and condense them in the swirls, where they can be picked off the surface. Wilson's phalaropes consume flies, beetles, brine shrimp, and other tiny marine creatures."

Reproduction – sexual roles are reversed with the female displaying bright plumage and aggressively  courting males They often mate with more than one male, have more than one nest and, after egg-laying, they leave their families to the sole care of the males.

The female lays four eggs; incubation time is 18 – 27 days. The young are fully feathered and  can walk, swim, and feed independently within an hour after hatching, but require brooding to keep them warm.

After the breeding season , Wilson’s Phalaropes are one of the few birds to undergo a post-breeding, molt migration, traveling to large western lakes in the US to molt and build up fat reserves for the 54 hours flight to South America.   According to  The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, they can gain up to 55% of their body mass at this time; some become too fat to walk, and have to "take off" swimming.  

Photos taken at Hagerman NWR by Dick Malnory

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ode to Bois D'Arc

Interpretive Sign Along Harris Creek Trail
Twelve interpretive signs were installed along the new loop of Harris Creek Trail at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge  in late April.  Shown above is just one of the signs that add to appreciation and understanding of the habitat and wildlife there.  Several years ago this poem by Don Mathis of Sherman, Texas, was submitted to the Friends, and seems appropriate to publish along with this particular sign:

The Osage Orange is a lowly tree.
French explorers called this wood 'bo dark.'
Natives of the 16th century
used many parts of the wood and bark.

This 'wood of the bow' served well in war.
Bows and war clubs were used on the Plains.
Tannin from bark could help cure leather.
Ropes were twisted for use or exchange.

Dye from the roots yielded a yellow.
It's used to make uniforms khaki.
And it was a creative fellow
who used it for fence in the prairie.

'A hedgerow of bois d'arc was bull-strong,
horse-high, and pig-tight,' old experts said.
Horse Apple fence posts also last long.
The wood is even good for the dead.

Grave markers, gates, and parts for machines,
foundations, wheel rims, and rail-road ties,
were made from the hardest wood ere seen.
It's essence repels mildew and flies.

But like the tree of evil and good,
there's a shady side to the Hedge Ball.
If you try to burn it as fire wood,
wild sparks will fly to directions all!

A tougher, thornier, more tangled
specimen of cantankerousness,
odd grains that grow twisted and angled,
does not exist in the wilderness.

Try to prune bois d'arc limbs if you please,
the branches will bend with your chain saw.
Board Ark lumber splits and cracks with ease.
The toughest wood west of Arkansas.

Thorns adorn this arboreal quirk.
Itchy inch-long spikes will shame barb-wire.
They tried paving streets but it didn't work.
It floats in flood and is fuel for fire.

But like the natives of the Blackland,
the versatile qualities shine through.
Bois d'arc roots grow in clay, loam or sand.
And we're bodacious in all we do!

Don Mathis
Sherman, TX

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Painted Buntings

Painted Buntings were among the most sought after bird sightings at BirdFest Texoma.  The following information is excerpted from an article that appeared in the Featherless Flyer, in May and June  2012.  The article was an interview with Dr. Wayne Meyer, by Allen Rich, editor of the North Texas e-News.

"Painted Buntings are most common in areas that have open grassland with small honey locust, mesquite, or other trees that like to invade abandoned pastures.  The birds feed on grass seeds and insects, but build their nests in small trees about 3-5 feet off the ground.  Honey locust and mesquites have thorns to deter predators from getting at the nests.

When field seed is scarce, they may come to your backyard.   They seem to really like white millet seeds and will readily feed from hopper feeders with perches, unlike most sparrows that prefer to feed on the ground.  If water is also provided, you'll increase the chances of getting a visit or two, however, it is pretty rare that they continue to use a feeder for more than a few days.  Only a few lucky people get Painted Buntings to come all summer.

One of the more interesting things about this species is that adult males migrate three times each year.  In addition to moving south for the winter and north in the summer, buntings in western and central Texas fly to western New Mexico and Arizona in July.  Breeding usually ends about that time, so males leave the females to raise any young birds.  Late July and early August are when the monsoons arrive in Arizona and New Mexico, so the birds take advantage of the rains to molt where there is an abundant food supply.  Presumably females who haven't any young also go, but most females that are rearing young will stay here in Texoma through September. 

As they prepare to fly south in September they may come to feeders again.  Remember that young birds of both sexes retain the female-like yellow-green plumage.  Exceptionally, a few bright males will stay as well,"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bring the Family to BirdFest Texoma

BirdFest Texoma, May 3 -5, will offer several free events at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge for youngsters and families.  On Saturday, May 4,  Eensy Weensy Spider will be presented by John Slaughter at 10 am and Leave it to Beaver will be presented by Texas Parks and Wildlife ranger, Kelly Lauderdale, at 1 pm, both in the Audio Visual Classroom at the Refuge.  Please register in advance for these events.   

From 9:30 – 11 am on Saturday, May 4, Susan Knowles will be on the Visitor Center patio to help visitors identify birds at the feeders and houses near the Visitor Center.  No registration is necessary to join in.   Free coffee will be available.

Jarryd Robison will exhibit snakes all day Saturday, May 4, and The Raptor Project, live outdoor show with 36 birds of prey - owls, hawks, eagles and falcons, is set for 10 am, 1 pm and 3 pm on May 4, and for 1 pm and 3 pm on Sunday, May 5.

A general presentation on snakes will be given Sunday afternoon by Don Walker, at 1:30 pm in the A/V Classroom.  Advance registration is recommended for this event as well, to guarantee seating.

Families can also enjoy reading a nature-themed story together as they walk the Storybook Trail at the Refuge, available from 9 am – 4 pm both Saturday and Sunday.  On Sunday afternoon, the Bluestem Chapter, Texas Master Naturalists will help children make wildflower seed bombs, from 1 – 4 pm on the Visitor Center patio.

Food and nature-themed merchandise vendors will be on hand throughout the festival, or families may bring picnics and non-alcoholic beverages (no glass allowed) and enjoy one of the three picnic areas at the Refuge.  There is no charge for parking or admission. Hagerman NWR is located on the Big Mineral Arm of Lake Texoma, at 6465 Refuge Road.  Information and registration is online at, or call the Refuge, 903 786 2826.