Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gallinules Seen at Refuge

Recently a number of photos and sightings of Gallinules have been posted for Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.   They are listed as “Accidental – has been seen only once or twice” in the Hagerman NWR Bird Check list.

The more frequently spotted this season has been the Common Gallinule.  Up until about three years ago, this bird was called “Common Moorhen”.  

Common Gallinule at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, by Dick Malnory
From  All About Birds  we learn that the Common Gallinule is “The most widely distributed member of the rail family, [and] inhabits marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, from northern Europe to southern Africa, and across Asia to the Pacific. Vocal and boldly marked, the species can be quite conspicuous, sometimes using its long toes to walk atop floating vegetation. 

The birds are about 12 – 13 inches long, with a wingspan of  21 – 24 inches.  They feed mostly on seeds from grasses and sedge, and some snails.  The same website gives these “Cool Facts about the Common Gallinule":
 The Common Gallinule has long toes that makes it possible to walk on soft mud and floating vegetation. The toes have no lobes or webbing to help in swimming, but the moorhen is a good swimmer anyway.
The Common Gallinule sometimes lifts its feet out of the water in front of the body while swimming, perhaps to pass over vegetation.
A  clutch has from 3 – 15 eggs.  Newly hatched chicks of the Common Gallinule have spurs on their wings that help them climb into the nest or grab emergent vegetation.

All About Birds  notes that "Twelve subspecies of the Common Gallinule are recognized from around the world, most differing only in size or brightness of plumage. One subspecies is found only in the Hawaiian Islands and has been known as the Hawaiian Moorhen, or 'Alae 'Ula."

In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,  two female Common Gallinules and a male may cooperate in sharing a nest, and the breeding season may be extended if there is adequate food available; the Common Gallinule may attempt as many as three broods. In that case immatures from a previous breeding will aid the nest pair in feeding the next brood.

Pair of Common Gallinules at Hagerman NWR , by Eileen Sullivan

The Purple Gallinule is the  subject of the other recent sightings.   Here is a description of the Purple Gallinule from All About Birds: A beautifully colored bird of southern and tropical wetlands, the Purple Gallinule can be seen walking on top of floating vegetation or clambering through dense shrubs. 

Its extremely long toes help it walk on lily pads without sinking.
Swims on surface of water like a duck and walks on floating plants rather like a chicken.
Dark purple head, neck, and underside, with a green back.  The bill is red, tipped with yellow, and triangular like a chicken's, not flat like a duck's.  Light blue forehead, and yellow legs.  Approximately the same size as the Common Gallinule.

Purple Gallinule at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, by Eileen Sullivan

It is interesting to note that, according to Sibley, while rallid chicks are semi-precocial, they can leave the nest only for short times; Purple Callinules have been observed moving chicks in their bill from a threatened nest.

All About Birds says that the Purple Gallinule is essentially a tropical marshbird that just makes its way into the United States and even farther, regularly turning up in northern states and southern Canada, even  in Europe and South Africa.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Eastern Gamagrass at Refuge!

Eastern Gamagrass, by Dick Malnory
Last week Dr. Hugh B. Garnett came into the Visitor Center at the Refuge to say that he had found Eastern gamagrass growing along Refuge Road, near the main entrance sign for the Refuge.  He went on to add, “Eastern gamagrass  (Tripsacum dactyloides) is one of the foundation grasses of tall grass prairies in the eastern half of the USA and is unusual west of interstate 35 in north Texas. Pristine tall grass prairies west of Interstate 35 usually include only four tall grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian grass, Switchgrass) and very rarely do we see Eastern gamagrass, and where it is found, it is in low, very moist depressions.”

Eastern Gamagrass, by Jack Chiles
According to NPIN, on the Lady Bird Johnson WildflowerCenter website,  Eastern  gamagrass  can grow 10 ft. tall, but is usually 2 – 3 feet tall. It is interesting primarily for its terminal inflorescences which have separate male and female flowers. The stigmas are purple and the stamens are orange.  This plant is a native perennial, related to corn and deer readily eat the hard, yellow seeds of the plant, as do grain-eating birds.    The leaves are evergreen; the plant provides cover and nesting sites, and is good for grazing.  It attracts butterflies and is a larval host for the Bunchgrass Skipper.

Eastern Gamagrass, photo by Hugh Garnett
Dr. Garnett added, “This grass also blooms and sets seeds much earlier than the other tall grasses in this area. It will begin blooming and setting seeds in late May to June, while all the other tall grasses (Big Bluestem, Indian grass, Switchgrass, and Little Bluestem) don't bloom and set seed until early fall.”

Refuge Manager Kathy Whaley said the grass may have been planted by Saul Petty, in a mix of native grass seeds sown in the area seen by Dr. Garnett.  If so, welcome back to Hagerman NWR, Eastern gamagrass!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Terns Welcome on Isle One

Habitat for the Least Tern,  as described by Cornell Lab of Ornithology on All About Birds is “Seacoasts, beaches, bays, estuaries, lagoons, lakes and rivers, breeding on sandy or gravelly beaches and banks of rivers or lakes, rarely on flat rooftops of buildings.”  You can add to that the first of two artificial nesting platforms at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, especially designed and built by Refuge employees for the Least Tern.  Funding for the project was provided by Jetta Operating Company, Inc and the Nancy Ruth Fund.

The first of two artificial nesting platforms has been completed and  is in place.
The Least Tern, the smallest American Tern, is an 8 to 9 inch bird, with a black "crown" on the head, a snowy whiter underside and forehead, grayish back and wings, orange legs, and a yellow bill with a black tip.  Males and females are similar in their appearance.  The name “Interior” is attached to Least Terns who breed in isolated areas along the Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Red, and Rio Grande river systems.  They  winter in coastal areas of Central and South America.

Interior Least Terns at HNWR, photographed by Eileen Sullivan in June, 2011
The Interior Least Tern is endangered due to loss of habitat, primarily because of changes in river systems and competition from recreational development. Terns arrive at the breeding ground in late spring – early summer and spend several months there.  Nesting in small colonies, Terns scratch out a shallow depression in sand or gravel for a nesting spot.  The female lays 2 – 3 eggs in  3 – 5 days.  Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for about 3 weeks. Chicks hatch one per day and leave the nest a few days after hatching but continue to be fed and cared for by adults.

Tern with chick, photographed at HNWR in 2009 by Dick Malnory
Terns feed on small fish and aquatic creatures and can be seen hovering and diving for prey, as well as skimming for insects.

Tern in flight, photographed by Mike Chiles
Terns usually return to the same nesting area year after year.  Hopefully the new platform at the Refuge will provide a safe nursery environment for a successful hatch this year.  At least two Terns have been photographed on the platform, to date.  For those who wish to check it out, the platform is located between “C” and “D” Pads.  And for the record, the one-legged Terns are decoys!

Nesting Tern, photographed at HNWR by Jack Chiles in 2011.

In addition to All About Birds, information for this post came from Texas Parks & Wildlife and from US Fish & Wildlife.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


The wildflowers at and around Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge have been spectacular this past week.  There is a whole field of one sure sign of summer, Gaillardias, growing along Refuge Road between Highway 289 and the Refuge.

Other names for this species of Gaillardia are Indian Blanket and Firewheel.  The species is Gaillardia pulchella Foug., in the Aster family.  According to the Native Plant Information Network on the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center website,  this Gaillardia is an annual that grows 1 – 2 feet tall; it is perennial in warm coastal areas.  It blooms May through August and the native range is widespread.  This plant does best in poor soils and will not bloom well in rich garden soil.  Native Americans found various medicinal uses for the plant.

The Gaillardia was approved as the state wildflower of Oklahoma in 1986.  There are several  legends about “Indian Blanket”; here is one from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center   



The legend tells of an old Indian blanket maker whose talent for weaving produced such beautiful blankets that other Indians would travel many miles to trade for one. The old blanket maker had never taken an apprentice and when he realized that he had only a short time left, he began weaving his own burial blanket. It blended his favorite browns, reds and yellows into the beautiful patterns for which he was so famous.

In time, the old man died and his family dutifully wrapped him in this blanket, which was to be his gift to the Great Spirit when they met. The Great Spirit was very pleased because of the beauty of the gift, but also saddened, because He realized that only those in the Happy Hunting Ground would be able to appreciate the old blanket maker’s beautiful creation. So, He decided that He would give this gift back to those that the old Indian had left behind.

The spring following the old man’s death, wildflowers of the colors and design of the old Indian’s blanket appeared in profusion upon his grave ... to bloom and spread forever.
~Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

 Photos for this post taken by Dick Malnory.