Thursday, March 31, 2016

Haller’s Haven Nature Trail

NOTE: Doug Raasch, who passed away earlier this month, wrote a trail guide series for the Friends of Hagerman newsletter, Featherless Flyer in 2008, with the first installment published in the August, 2008 edition; later the trail guides were published independently to hand out to visitors to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. They were last updated in November, 2013. We will be publishing one each week in our blog, honoring his memory and love for the Refuge.

By Doug Raasch
The Visitor Center volunteers know that most folks that come in for information are looking for a “trail” to walk and, hopefully, see wildlife.  The hike that every visitor should be offered is the newly named “Haller’s Haven Nature Trail.” The name was chosen in April, 2009 by popular vote.

To reach the trail from the Visitor Center, turn right out of the driveway, stay straight and cross the low water crossing, go past the intersection with Hagerman Road, make a hard left at the curve ahead. In about 1/2 mile the road splits. Stay to the right and proceed into the Day Use Area.  Stay right and pass the restroom. The trailhead sign is about 200 feet ahead on the right. 

Follow the trail about 400 feet to Picnic Pond, turn left for less than ¼ mile to the steel bridge.   The large pond on the right past the bridge is quaintly named “Dead Woman’s  Pond.”   The name, in fact, may be as fascinating as the trail. Since no one has a story that is something other than rumor, each of us can choose the variations we like best.  Here goes:  A farmer and his much younger wife were scraping out a living in Grayson County. The attractive young wife had not been seen for a while when her husband was noticed by a neighbor driving his wagon down to the local pond with a large bundle in the back.  Said farmer returned home with the bundle missing.  From that time on, the locals began referring to the pond as “Dead Woman’s Pond”  thinking he must have dumped her there. No one knows what happened to the farmer or his much younger wife.

Dead Woman’s Pond is a true Hagerman gem.  From the parking area to the pond is only
¼ mile so most visitors are capable of walking the ½ mile round trip.  This is one of the few places on the refuge that visitors are guaranteed  to see birds or wildlife.  As you walk the road that defines the pond you will see and hear birds of all kinds. The herons, objecting to your presence, make a fabulous squawk that is somewhere between a very old rusty gate hinge and an unhappy burro.  

Year-round there is a flow of activity that never disappoints.  Keep your eyes and ears open for stately turkeys, woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, hawks, deer, and maybe even a beaver.  

The pond is a jumping-off point for those who are looking for a more strenuous adventure.  A hiker can continue on up the hill and walk a mowed loop trail while looking for upland birds.  There is a bench on the left at the ½ mile point overlooking Lake  Texoma.                                                         
Continue on until presented with a fork in the road. It is best to turn left (clockwise) to avoid confusion in navigation.  At the one mile point, the trail forms a “T” giving hikers an opportunity to turn left for a look at Lake Texoma or turn right and continue the loop. Look for the next right turn in about 0.2 miles. The two-mile point coincides with the end of the loop and the walk continues back to Dead Woman’s Pond.  Arriving back at the trailhead completes a 2.7-mile walk.

Next week:  Crow Hill Trail

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Harris Creek Trail

Doug Raasch, who passed away last week,  wrote a trail guide series for the Friends of Hagerman newsletter, Featherless Flyer in 2008, with the first installment published in the  August, 2008 edition; later the trail guides were published independently to hand out to visitors to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  They were last updated in  November, 2013.  We will be publishing one each week for the next four weeks in our blog, honoring his memory and love for the Refuge.    

By Doug Raasch

The Harris Creek Trail sits right at the south entrance to the refuge, literally in the front yard of the Visitor Center.  An information kiosk and wood rail fence defines the small parking area.

The Harris Creek hike has two parts, the lower being the wetland area and the upper consisting of a dryer, more open “Prairie Walk.”  The lower loop is approximately 1¼ miles and the upper loop is 2¼ miles.  The trail can take on a new personality after a heavy rain.  When the lower area floods, the hike becomes a kayak adventure. 

Harris Creek Trail - note - Visitor Center is north of the trailhead.
The new ADA accessible trail begins at the parking lot and completes a 1/2 mile loop back to the trailhead.  As you begin the walk, look up into the large trees along the creek.  A variety of birds is normally evident, busy with their daily search for food.

Never underestimate nature’s capacity for surprise.  Walking Harris Creek twenty years ago with my wife and two young children, we spotted a gathering of about twenty barn owls contentedly perched in these same trees.  Communal roosting is rare for barn owls, but I have never again walked Harris Creek without hope that those owls with the haunting face have returned.

Bring your camera because after about 100 yards there is an observation blind that allows a view of “Duck Pond,” the first of six ponds along the walk.  Wading birds are sometimes available for photo ops.  If you missed the shot from the blind, there is another chance at an overlook 200 feet ahead.  When viewing wildlife, don’t forget to look down as well as up.  

Harris Creek is one of the best spots on the refuge to study tracks.  On a good day with soft ground, the trail surface looks like a stampede from Noah’s Ark.

You will soon notice that the trail is outlined by large, sturdy bluebird houses.  This lengthy bluebird trail has been very successful in increasing the number of bluebirds on the refuge. 

Leave the hard surface trail and take the path that leads to Crawfish Pond. At less than a mile, you will find several benches allowing you to rest and observe.

After leaving the benches, your walk will take you to a three-way intersection where you decide if you will return to the parking lot or hike the “Prairie Walk.” Turn left here for a 1/2 mile walk back.  If you choose to take the upland “Prairie Walk”, you will  sample a different animal habitat.  As you move up the small grade, look right and see the wooded east/west ridgeline, the western end being Crow Hill.  Turkey and deer are common in this area.  As you walk east, you will notice the abundance of dove. Stirred by your presence, they produce a soft, staccato whistle as they leap into the air. 

Your walk takes you to an intersection, where you turn left (north), then after about 200 yards, take the trail to the left  to rejoin the refuge pond system.  You will follow the ponds until reaching Frog Pond and another bench on the right. Rest a bit, then head off to the right for the trailhead.  A unique wetland along the way on the right  side is a great place to look and listen for frogs. Keep bearing right  ahead at the split and you will connect to the hard-surfaced path which leads to the parking area.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Here Comes the School Bus

The spring school field trips to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge are beginning next week, with a group of third graders scheduled to visit.  During their time at the Refuge, the youngsters will view a power point explaining what the Refuge is, will have a 30-minute hike along a portion of  Harris Creek Trail  and participate in a "Prairie Investigation Activity".  Following a picnic lunch, they will learn about Hagerman as a "Bird Migration Station" and attend "Butterfly College", learning the butterfly life cycle in the Butterfly Garden.  To help engage the students even more in the garden, the Friends have just ordered enough close-focus butterfly binoculars for each student at the station.

Harris Creek Trail hike

All of these activities are led by volunteers from Youth FIRST, from the garden docent committee and from other program areas who team up to provide a full or half day of nature activities for school children.  The volunteers are in an on-call pool, the School Team, ready to serve when needed.

"Little Grass on the Prairie" with Education Chair, Cindy Steele

The volunteers strive to gear the material for each topic to the particular age level of the visiting students.  Already on the calendar for this spring are classes ranging from first grade to 8th grade, as well as mixed aged home school groups.  Power points, nature walks, games, crafts, stories and more are employed in the various learning stations and large groups of students can be accommodated as they are divided into smaller groups and rotate among the various learning stations.  Additional learning stations are offered for larger school groups.

Thanks to the support of the Refuge staff and the Friends of Hagerman, there is no charge for these school visits, with snacks as well as craft supplies or other materials  provided. AND - new volunteers who  enjoy working with youngsters, are available on weekdays, can narrate a power point, lead a nature walk, tell a story or demonstrate a nature craft are always welcome for the School Team!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Woodpeckers at HNWR

The Hagerman NWR Bird Check List includes 8 species of woodpeckers:  Red-headed, Red-bellied, Ladder-backed, Downy, Hairy and Pileated woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicker.  The Red-bellied and the Downy are listed as likely to be seen in suitable habitats all year around at the Refuge. On Saturday, March 12,  Dr. Wayne Meyer will lead a bird walk, weather permitting, and then speak on the Woodpeckers at  Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.   Let’s take a look today at two of the most often seen.

First, the smallest of the bunch, the Downy Woodpecker: think checkerboard when you think of the Downy.  Here is a description from Cornell’s All About Birds: 
Downy Woodpeckers give a checkered black-and-white impression. The black upper parts are checked with white on the wings, the head is boldly striped, and the back has a broad white stripe down the center. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head. The outer tail feathers are typically white with a few black spots.

The site goes on to discuss differentiating Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, whose appearances are very similar but the Hairy is much larger with  a much  larger bill.  Cornell gives tips for distinguishing the two visually at Project Feeder Watch. 

Downy Woodpecker at HNWR.
Look for the Downy in open woodlands and brushy edges.  The abundance of dead trees around Dead Woman Pond provides a good habitat for all the woodpeckers at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  And, according to Cornell, the Downy is the most likely of the woodpeckers to visit  the backyard  feeder, where their  preferred diet is suet, followed by sunflower seeds, peanuts,  and other seeds.

Downy at a backyard feeder.
Also commonly seen year around at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. The name is confusing, as the visible red is on the forehead, cap and nape of the adult male and on the nape and around the bill of the adult female, according to Cornell’s All About Birds, but the female does have a “red belly, usually concealed by surrounding gray feathers”.

Red-bellied Woodpecker at Hagerman NWR, by Miguel Mendoza

Good places to watch for Red-bellied Woodpeckers at the Refuge are Haller’s Haven Trail and the Big Mineral Picnic Area, where they may be found “hitching” along branches and trunks of trees. Cornell's site notes that they will also visit backyard feeders for suet, peanuts and sometimes sunflower seeds.

Some “COOL FACTS” from Cornell:
You may sometimes see Red-bellied Woodpeckers wedge large nuts into bark crevices, then whack them into manageable pieces using their beaks. They also use cracks in trees and fence posts to store food for later in the year, a habit it shares with other woodpeckers in its genus.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females, possibly allowing a breeding pair to forage in slightly different places on their territory and maximize their use of available food.
The oldest known Red-bellied Woodpecker was 12 years and  1 month old.
Join us Saturday at the Refuge for more on woodpeckers!

Photos of Downy woodpeckers by Dick Malnory

Thursday, March 3, 2016

See Orange Sulphur Laying Egg

Text and photos by Laurie Sheppard

Spring is fast approaching, and with it comes the emergence of butterflies of all types.  The warming sun is already responsible for the first of four or five broods of Orange Sulphurs to be on the wing all over the refuge.  The last brood, like those in flight today, will winter over in chrysalis form and take flight early next spring. 
Orange Sulphur, Female (L) and Male (R)
Wherever there are open grassy areas or fields, you will see the mostly yellow Orange Sulphurs fluttering over the landscape in search of food, a potential mate, or a place to lay their eggs. Last week I was taking a photo of one that had landed, and as I usually do, I shot a burst of four photos in rapid succession.  I was surprised later to discover I had captured the moment that a female Orange Sulphur deposited a single egg on a leaf and left it to begin its journey to become a butterfly. 

In the first picture in the series, the butterfly’s abdomen is curled forward and touching the surface of the host plant leaf.  In the next shot, although somewhat out of focus, you can see the egg extruding from the tip of the butterfly’s abdomen.  This process is called ovipositing.  The third shot shows the butterfly flying off and you can just see the tiny egg standing up on the surface of the leaf.  The last shot is a close-up of the egg and the surrounding leaves.

Each Orange Sulphur lays its eggs one at a time on the upper surface of a leaf of a host plant – at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, these host plants are typically in the clover or pea family (including vetch).  When laid, the egg is white and spindle-shaped but will later turn crimson.  Each female has the potential of laying up to 700 eggs over its lifespan, so this process is repeated many times.  During the next 31 days, the egg will mature and hatch into a small dark green caterpillar with whitish stripes which will eat, grow, create its chrysalis, and emerge as the next generation of Orange Sulphur butterfly.

Orange Sulphurs are one of the most widespread and common butterflies in North America.  They flourish from southern Canada to central Mexico and are found in all of the “lower 48” states.  Although they are a joy to watch at the refuge, they are often considered a pest by farmers because the hungry caterpillars can inflict significant damage to fields of alfalfa.  In fact, in some places, the Orange Sulphur is referred to as the “Alfalfa Butterfly.”

The numbers of mature Orange Sulphurs is at its lowest point in February and March, but if not for changeable conditions and predation, just imagine how many could be produced over the course of a year.  In any case, as the seasons pass, you will see more and more of them all over the refuge, along with many other types of butterflies.  We recently confirmed the 60th species to be seen at Hagerman and more are likely to be out there.  Come visit the butterfly garden any time during the season and you are sure to see Orange Sulphurs and other species nectaring on many different types of flowers.