My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Bird Count on the Trinity River

My friend, Bruce, recruited me to paddle Thursday for another Christmas Bird Count - this one on the Trinity River for 19.5 miles.  The sullen sun made a brief appearance before going back to bed and pulling up his cloudy covers.  The day stayed cold and we had a light misty rain on us a few times.

Dawn sky

Looking upstream from take-out on Hwy. 105

Bruce Unloading

And carrying his kayak down the steep put-in

Bruce marking our sightings before leaving
 But we had some wonderful birds.  While waiting for Bruce at the take-out, I got bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, crows, cormorants, a great blue heron and a flock of cedar waxwings. By the time we were ready to leave from the put-in, we had added another twenty species, including a red-breasted nutcracker, orange-crowned warbler, three species of woodpeckers, and a golden crowned kinglet. But our count on the water slowed way down and we missed several species we usually see.  We did have a record number of pileated woodpeckers - I think twelve or more - and a huge number of anhingas. And we saw four eagles. The best species, though, were two little green herons.  They are almost never still here for the Christmas count.

Two year old bald eagle

Wilson's snipe feeding at water's edge

We followed the current from high bank to high bank

Except when we needed to take a break on a sand bar

We got to the restaurant about six to find no one there. Upon questioning the staff, we learned that the group had already finished supper and left. At this point, Bruce decided he wasn't sure if the count leader even knew we had been counting. (We just start at the river since we have to paddle so hard as it is to make it to the take-out.  Today we averaged almost four miles and hour when we were underway and still got back only about two hours before dark.) But  Bruce called the count leader and told him our best birds.  We found the entire count besides us had only found 75 species and we learned that we had added at least five species to the count.

View from under the bridge at the take-out on Hwy 105
So this was another day well spent and yet another example of the adage: any day spent outside is a good day. Friday morning I have to make cupcakes, clean up my boat, boots, and dry bags, then pack up my food and go to meet the guys I'm riding with whom Louisiana.  Hopefully, I'll get in a nap during the four hour drive before paddling for three days in the Atachfalaya Swamp.

So have a great New Year's celebration and a wonderful, lucky 2013. I'll see you next year. Hope you tell me some of your fun doings from the Holiday Season in the comments. And I'll be looking forward to reading your blogs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Things Your Mother Never Told You About Alligators

Alligators are an important part of the ecosystem in wetlands from Texas to Florida.. They almost became extinct but, once again, the voice of the alligator is heard in the land. And if you look closely, you can find many alligators hiding in canals, ditches, bayous, lakes and swamps, usually with only their eyes and nostrils sticking out of the water. Sometimes you can only see a little bit of movement in weeds. Even our most urban streams have alligators and a small pond can harbor a largish one. You should never let your dog, even a big one, go into water in alligator territory. They have been known to take dogs from unfenced yards along canals or bayous.

Sunning alligator

 Alligators  managed to survive when the dinosaurs were killed off and  have not had to evolve much since then, which gives scientists a lot  to think about as they try to solve the secret of their success.

Some interesting facts about alligators include:
  • They have four-chambered hearts like mammals, allowing them to swim for long periods of time. 
  • They have no sex genes. so the males are as genetically strong as the females. Sex is determined by the temperature during the first ten days of embryo development. -  Temperatures above 89°F usually produce all males while cooler temperatures usually produce both males and females or all females (at/below 86°F).
  • Alligators have about 80 teeth and can replace them when lost. No dentists needed. They can do this throughout their lives. They go through 2-3000 teeth  in a lifetime. 

Alligator showing teeth
  • Alligators can bite with 2000 pounds of pressure compared to a person which can only get a pressure of  170 pounds. But the muscles used to open their mouths are relatively weak and you can hold their mouths closed with your hand.

  • Alligators have a protein  in their blood that has potent and broad spectrum antibiotic properties. This discovery may lead to a whole new class of antibiotics for humans.
  • Alligators only eat when its warm. They can survive cycles when food is hard to come by this way. (Thus it's safer to be around them in the winter when, even if they are sunning, they probably are not eating.)
  • The largest documented alligator was taken in 1890 from Louisiana. It measured 19 feet 2 inches and probably weighted nearly 2,000 pounds. Most of the alligators I see are under 8 feet. 
  • You can estimate the length of an alligator by estimating the distance from a point just in front of the eyes to the nose.  This distance in inches translates to the length of the alligator in feet. 
  • Mother alligators make a nest on land and defend it.  It is made of vegetation which rots and produces heat for the eggs. When the baby alligators start to hatch, the mother digs them out and carries them to water in her mouth.. Mothers defend their babies for at least a year, but the babies have to feed themselves from birth. Check out this wonderful video from National Geographic.

Mother carrying babies  (
In my thirty plus years of paddling around alligators, I've only met one aggressive one - a mother guarding her nest. She let me and a guy I was guiding through the pass into Miller Lake, but didn't want to let us back out. I finally found a path far enough away from her that she sank, and let us pass. But the most dangerous alligator is one with eggs or small babies.

This is discounting the alligators who almost ran across my boat to get into the water when  I paddled too close to the bank and startled them. That behavior is flight behavior, not aggression,  but  you should never paddle close to a bank or both you and the alligator will have an adrenaline rush and the alligator could dump your boat.  One of my friends had a little four foot alligator jump off the bank and land in his canoe.  He, of course, promptly jumped out.

A young alligator - probably a three year old - that posed for us.

This is usually the most you see of an alligator, and sometimes only their eyes and nose

I do have a story I tell as my scariest alligator story, though.  Before I retired, my favorite volunteer job was spraying water hyacinths at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, in  the ditch around Shoveler pond. One day I had been out there totally alone for several hours, spraying from my canoe, and was on the bank filling up my sprayer with more herbicide. Suddenly a big red truck raced to a stop behind me and a big, young scary guy, all covered with tattoos, jumped out and came running toward me. Then he started yelling, "do you know there are alligators in there?"  At that point I figured I was going to live so calmly replied,  "Yes. They just sink when I get near them."

And alligators can be the savior of their habitat in times of drought.  They dig their holes at the bottom of bayous and ponds deeper.  Sometimes everything but the alligator's hole dries up and that water sustains the rest of the animals  in the area until the next rain. When the drought at Anahuac got so bad that the channel around Shoveler Pond almost dried up, alligator holes in the bank appeared. I sometimes saw birds go down in these holes, probably looking for water and food.

This alligator had to go house hunting when his pond dried up during the 2011 Texas drought. Many alligators were killed by cars that year while crossing highways in search of water.

On a personal note: I'm rushing to finish up a project of painting Natalie's front steps. I still have 2-3 more hours of getting the old carpet adhesive off. Then I have to paint at least one coat. I probably won't get this finished until next week because today is going to be very cold for us and I may not want to have to put on long underwear, coats, hats, and gloves. (Yesterday I was still in shorts and a shirt and the temperatures were in the mid 70's).

And I'm packing up for my trip to Louisiana to paddle in the Atchafalaya Swamp.  Three guys and I will be camping at Lake Fosse Point State Park and doing day paddles there. I have to be ready by Wednesday evening because I'm doing a Christmas bird count on Thursday before leaving on Friday.  Last night I  made turkey gumbo to feed everyone for Saturday  supper.  It's the last of the Thanksgiving turkey.

But I'll have lots to tell you when I get back The Atchafalaya Swamp is one of my favorite places  and over the years, I've done many paddles there. Hulin and I even spent 4 days paddling and camping there over a Thanksgiving weekend.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Nature's Stocking Stuffers

I got out in Natalie's yard on Tuesday morning while the light was still beautiful. Almost immediately, I was distracted by some of the flowers and butterflies. I had to grab my camera and take the opening orange/gold rose. Then I saw another. Then a butterfly. Soon I was looking for more flowers and ended up taking pictures of most of them.

This is about the least flowers we ever have here.  It's the dormant season, except for crops and flowers that like cold weather, like greens, pansys, petunias, and other bedding plants. The roses only have a couple of blooms at a time.  Afew of the sages are still blooming and attracting bees, butterflies, and flies that mimic bumblebees.

So each bloom seems like a blessing and it's fun to visit them each day. And their insect visitors make them even more interesting.

Soon after Natalie moved here, we bought three roses at the Antique Rose Emporium,  a great place to shop for old and English roses.  We picked the three varieties because they were supposed to grow well here in our high humidity. They  have all done pretty well - don't need any spraying -  but only have sporadic blooms right now. This orange one was just opening when I was taking pictures and I noticed it finished opening by the end of the photo session.The other two are yellow and their blooms are falling apart and not photogenic.

There are a few monarchs still flying around. Two weeks ago, just before I went to Louisiana, there were 27 monarch caterpillars feeding on several Mexican milkweed plants. When I got back, there were only a couple left, but most of the leaves were gone and the remaining caterpillars were eating on the seed pods and the stems.  I found a few of the chrysalises while I was pruning and weeding. 

 Then I noticed this tiny drama. These two guys were having a gobbling contest to see who could eat the last leaf fastest. I threw the game to the caterpillar when I plucked and stomped the snail. By day's end, there were only two caterpillars and one was eating a seed pod.

 We had a few other butterflies flying around this day.  A Red Admiral who prefers to feed upside down was checking out the purple saliva.

The grass skippers are almost gone. The ones that are left love this red and yellow lantana that is scheduled to be moved, either when it stops blooming, or in late January. Got to move it before spring which will happen the middle of February so the neighboring rose bush can get its space back.

Paper whites usually start blooming in December. However, this is currently the only blooming one in the yard. Its relatives are all still in bud.

Blue mist flower has volunteered everywhere, much to the delight of the monarchs, queens and other butterflies. This is the last blooming  mist plant in the yard. I'm busy cutting the seed heads back on the others to neaten up the garden.

The flowers of the abutilon bush (really a small tree) look like lanterns when they are back-lit.

The pansys that Zootie and I hauled home in a wagon after my car ended up in the shop on pick-up day are growing well and making faces.

And we are still getting a few eggplants - these are ready to harvest and will make a meal for two. The tomatoes are starting to color up. We have to pick them almost green or the squirrels feast on them. So far we have only parsley, dill, and cillantro growing but I hope to get several kinds of lettuce, mustard, spinich, Swiss chard, and bitter greens growing soon.

Before I knew it, an hour of fun was done and I was behind on gardening and getting my stuff packed up for 4 days of birding and paddling. I'll be doing the Bolivar Christmas Count, in the portion that is Anahuac NWR, on Thursday. AND I had had a previous  thirty minutes of fun, walking on the beach with Natalie and two dogs, watching the sunrise, and enjoying the shore birds and sounds of the waves. So I was well gifted with all these little stocking stuffers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Count is On: Are You Counting?

Want to learn more about the birds in your locale?  Want to meet people who will go birdwatching with you?  Want to find great places to visit to find birds?  Want a peek at private properties? Are you visiting in a area that you don't know but want to go birding? Want to give a Christmas present towards the future existence of  birds?  Then this is your time to have it all. Count circles are spread across the country and you can click here and find one near you, or near where you'll be during the count period. And this year, you don't have to pay $5.00 per count to help pay for publishing the data.All this fun is free.

Most of the members of my group along P
 The Christmas count grew from the tradition of gathering up hunting friends and going out and shooting all the birds (and mammals) that came in the gun sights. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a "Christmas Bird Census"-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. Twenty-seven people from across the country did 25 counts. From that small beginning, the count has grown with 2,215 counts completed last year by new record 63,227 observers (54,262 in the field and 8965 at feeders). And I'm hoping, with your help, we can get more observers in the field this year. The data gathered helps us learn more about bird behavior and conservation and provides the baseline information for  many scientific studies on birds.

One of pictures to document the glossy ibis - brown eye, blue facial skin
To answer all your questions about what skills you'll need: You need to be able to walk a few to several miles, or be able to sit and watch at a feeder, and you need to be able to tell that an animal is a bird. You also need binoculars. But on most counts, you will be birding with a group of three to twenty people and doing a small section of the count circle. The more people looking, the more birds are found. Each person can look in a different direction so when the group can see in all the compass directions, as well as up and down, very few birds will be able to hide. And the total group knowledge is usually tremendous. So you don't have to be an advanced birder to have fun and be helpful to the effort.

Lingering little green heron
You will learn a lot more about birds than you know now, while doing a very important Citizen Science job.  This data is needed to determine what more we need to do to keep our birds from going extinct and to measure the effects of weather, global warming, loss of habitat, and pollution have on birds. It is the baseline information needed for all sorts of other studies.

One of the many common gallinules we counted
I do at least one Christmas count each year and usually more. When I lived and worked in Houston, I usually spent some holidays there and some traveling. I always added a count or two to my travel plans and have never been disappointed that I did.

Snowy egret, glossy ibis, and white ibis
This year, I'm again in the Houston area so am doing some of my favorite counts. Saturday, I did the Brazos Bend Count. This was the first count I did in Texas way back in 1990 and where I got the black-bellied whistling duck as a lifer. This year was not as exciting, but our group did document an immature glossy ibis, a bird normally found east of this count. And two years ago, I was in the same group when we found the bird here for the first time. Other good finds was a little green heron who apparently couldn't get himself packed up in time to head south, a Wilson's warbler, and a Louisiana waterthrush.  The award for the find for the best bird went to the group that found an American avocet, another bird that should not have been here now.

Louisiana waterthrush - breast shows more cream in other pictures
For those of you who want a little more vicarious experience, check out these videos.  Then consider giving your spirit a much needed break in this hectic time and volunteer as a Citizen Scientist for a day.

I got to go on a dream count within the Sutter Buttes last year while volunteering in California. Click the link to see my story and the species list. And  below is a view we saw late in the very cloudy day. Besides these species, American pippets and least sandpipers were present in the damp field. Also I think we saw a great blue heron here, as well as two pileated woodpeckers.

Can you find and name the seven species?
I'd love to hear about a count you did this year. Comment or direct us to your blog about it. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Flowers

One of my gripes about gardening in the south is that I can't grow tomatoes and lettuce at the same time or have fresh dill in the summer. I can, however, have it with fresh broccoli in the winter.

But the really excellent part of gardening down here,  is that we can have something blooming every month of the year. Right now calendulas, some roses,  camillas, panseys, violas, fragrant stocks, dianthas, petunias, snapdragons, and cyclamens, all brighten our often cloudy days.

One of several colors of stocks being tested

Violas with dog faces
Earlier,  Maria took me over to the camellia garden at the LSU Research Station in Hammond. I wanted to go back to photograph the beautiful camellias blooming on huge, old bushes. So the morning after a front had come through giving us high winds and rain, and while it was still cloudy, I spent several hours at the Research Station.  Within moments, I was totally engrossed. There are over 100 shrubs in this garden and include camellias that bloom from fall to spring. Many bushes were days to weeks away from starting to bloom, while others had only a few blooms amidst the numerous buds. Still others were in full bloom or were already scattering the blossoms on the ground. (Camillias often drop the entire flower and I found many laying on the ground,  still looking fresh enough to take home.) It was too cold for bees to be working, but on my earlier visit, lots of bees  were harvesting nectar and honey and a few butterflies were helping them.

This looked pretty fresh but had already fallen

 Across the street, is the main part of the research station.  It is a vast field with islands of beds.  I ran out of time before I explored it all.  Must of the plants are in a dormant state but the azaleas were starting to bloom and some beds held bedding plants that were being tested.  I heard they have a demonstration native plant garden but didn't have time to locate it. I just walked through the several acres of azalea beds. The azaleas were mostly growing their buds.  They will be at peak bloom in February -March. But a few varieties were blooming.

The research plants are planted in a landscape situation and there are benches and this gazebo near a large, kidney-shaped pond.

Closeup of some of the  blooming double azeleas

I like the singles best

Another variety of azalea

A single fruit tree bloom, probably due to temperatures in the 70-80s
The research station property has some pines scattered around, several huge live oaks, and other hardwoods. This southern magnolia must be close to champion size. It is growing in full sunlight so has been able to grow branches from the ground up.
A southern magnolia, growing in full sun - almost champion size

A view across some of the beds to the pine trees along the road