Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Grassland Bird Survey

Grasshopper sparrow, one of the study birds in our survey
Notice the yellow on the wings and head.  Also the breast is not streaked.

While it may be hard to believe living here in West Texas, grasslands are one of America’s most quickly disappearing ecosystems.  Over-grazing of sheep, cattle and goats combined with changing weather patterns and recent droughts in the west, plus erosion and the crowding out of native grasses by invasive species are a big part of the problem.  Commercial development of grasslands also takes a toll.  And then there is the booming oilfield.

Setting up the nets

The Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) and graduate students at Sul Ross State University have been monitoring the decline of migratory bird populations of the Chihuahuan Desert and the Big Bend Region.  At least two of these birds, Baird’s and grasshopper sparrows, are considered to be keystone species as their numbers are declining and they depend on healthy grasslands to thrive. 

Baird's sparrow, another bird in the study
Notice the streaked breast.

Untangling the birds from the nets can sometimes be a delicate process.

Two Sul Ross graduate students, working on thesis projects, are monitoring avian biodiversity and these two keystone sparrows. David and I plus many of our classmates in Ornithology, have been assisting the graduate students.

Not a study bird, many savannah sparrows were caught in the nets.
This one is none too happy about it either -- getting a nip is just one of the hazards.

Part of the research has been taking place on the Mimm’s Ranch in Marfa.  The ranch is an ideal place for this study as the owners are committed to a long-term project of shrub clearing and seeding in order to reestablish native grasses and the grassland habitat. Presently it is not known exactly how or even if the invasive exotic grasses are used in the diets of Baird’s or grasshopper sparrows. The study on Mimm’s Ranch may someday answer many questions and help improve the survival of these birds.

Setting up nets in the wind is a challenge

Much of the project has consisted of banding these two sparrows. But transmitters were placed on some captured birds to follow their movements in order to learn about their winter survival and habitat use.  David and I helped with setting up nets to capture the birds and then helped flush the birds into the nets so they could be banded.  The graduate students did the banding, but we got to see the birds up close, help record data and then release the birds.

Graduate student, Fabby, hands a bird off to David for release.

A typical research day started at 7:30 at the ranch headquarters, meaning an early rise for us as we had about a 30 minute drive.  After a quick briefing at the headquarters we would help gather the equipment, load the trucks then head out to the study areas.  Nets were untangled, moved across the fields and set up. Then a large horseshoe was formed, and we would all wave our sticks both high and low to drive the birds into the nets. 

Forming the horseshoe

Usually there was at least one bird in the net and several of us would help the graduate students with the bird by recording banding information while others would move the net to the next spot.  This process went on for several hours with a break for lunch.

Measuring beak length

Measuring wing length
Birds were also weighed, checked for fat reserves, and feathers examined 

Other researchers worked with us tracking some of the birds that had been fitted with transmitters.  As it is migration time, a lot of effort has been made in the last several weeks to recapture these birds and remove the transmitters.  The birds are having a hard enough time surviving as it is and migration is quite an extraordinary feat without having to carry extra 'luggage.'

Grasshopper sparrow - examining wings 

Since this is a winter survival and habitat use study of grassland birds, the research just wound down before spring break.  One of the graduate students is finishing her research this year, but another one will continue his study for another year.  Probably others will follow as it may take many years to get answers for these young researchers.  Science is a slow process and it is always ongoing.  We learned a lot and it feels good to have assisted in this research in some small way.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Last freeze before spring???

Gamble oak leaf still hanging on - new leaves will be coming soon

View from 'the saddle' about 3/4 of the way up the Mt. Livermore trail

Except for that freezing fog back in January, it’s been a pretty mild winter here in West Texas.  In fact, February fooled us into thinking spring was almost here.  But we had a little ‘artic air’ down here last week and it was very cold – down into the 20’s.  All the recently bloomed out trees suffered a setback, but that often happens in these parts.  So, maybe this was the last freeze? Well it is West Texas and I'll not be wagering on it.  In March, anything can happen.  Just please spare me those dust storms.  Rain, however, would be most welcome…

David resting his ankle while gazing at Mt. Livermore
The girls take off on the Mt. Livermore trail

David and I had a challenging hike a few weeks ago.  We went to the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountain Preserve on a Mt. Livermore hike.  “Baldy” as she is often called, is not a particularly hard climb, but a good 10 miles long, very steep in places and more than 2,000 feet in elevation gain.  Often the winds blow at very high speeds near the top and the trail is precarious up there, so it is not advised to summit during high winds.  No one has been blown off the top yet, but there have been some close calls.

We also hiked with Cameron &Cathy (new Alpine residents)
 and Tara, volunteer coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

The day started off beautiful, sunny and just a little windy.  We hiked along with some middle school students that were on a field trip from a private school in Austin.  Only girls were allowed on this trip and some of them had never been on such a challenging hike. About half the group were off on a race to the top (such is youth) but we brought up the rear, encouraging the stragglers and showing them how to deal with steep portions of the trail.

Burned area near top of Mt. Livermore from 2012 fire.  Many Ponderosa
 pines were destroyed in this fire but new seedlings are beginning to grow.

David’s right ankle has 5 screws in it from a long ago injury and early on in our hike he twisted it enough so that it was bothering him. About 3/4 of the way from the top we made the decision not to summit.  Winds were steadily getting stronger, with some strong gusts so we weren’t even sure we would be allowed to go all the way up.  We had been ‘on top of old Baldy’ several years ago so it wasn’t a huge disappointment.  But we cheered the girls on and happily the winds died down enough that it was possible to reach the summit.  All but three of the girls made it to the top!  It was a happy and tired little group when all was said and done.

Wetlands at Balmorhea State Park

There are birds in every direction!

A week later, our Ornithology class had a birding field trip to Balmorhea State Park and surrounding areas.  We were happy to find that the pool is finally open again.  Repairs are finished!  However, we did not go swimming as birding was our mission and besides it was still quite cool for a swim.  The water is spring fed and always feels cold so I’m going to wait for a day that it is at least 85 degrees.  Probably won’t have to wait too long…

Spring-fed stream just above Balmorhea Lake

The birding trip was so much fun.  We saw yellow-rumped warblers, lesser and American goldfinches, spotted and eastern towhees, belted kingfishers, killdeer, a loggerhead shrike, red-tailed hawks, black and eastern phoebes, savannah and song sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, a road runner, cardinals, flickers, a red-naped sapsucker and ruby-crowned kinglets and orange-crowned warblers. And this was just in the woods and grassland right around the pool! 

A roadrunner checks out the birders

As we wandered farther going to both Balmorhea Lake and Sandia Wetlands, we saw many more birds, predominately waterfowl.  I won’t name all the different kinds of ducks and shorebirds but let’s just say it was a great day for birds!  We finished it all off by having a very late lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Balmorhea.  Maybe all that birding made me extra hungry, but the food was really good.  We will have to try this again a little later in the season – birding, followed by a cooling swim in the pool and some good Mexican food.


Our school semester is going well.  David is taking Conservation Biology as well as the Ornithology class so he is staying busy.  After working so hard last semester, I’m enjoying just taking one class.  That and trips to Odessa keep me occupied enough. 

Most of our class went on the field trip

Another thing we have done this semester is to help with a graduate student’s research project to survey Grassland Birds on a ranch near Marfa.  We have assisted with capturing and banding sparrows and I will devote my next blog to pictures and stories of that experience.

A West Texas Mountain Laurel
The leaves are more gray than green - adapted for the desert I guess and
they are much smaller and not nearly so plentiful.  But they still smell great!

Cactus growing in wood near Mt. Livermore


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Here we go again - Another New Year

The twin peaks near Alpine shrouded in freezing fog

Our little house and the results of freezing fog

My goodness, the years keep a coming!  And that’s a good thing.  Just wish those years weren’t coming so quickly.  I’m a big believer in the theory of relativity these days.  Time just isn’t consistent anymore – it seems to be speeding up like crazy…  Well, enough of my yammering, I’ll catch you up on our life in West Texas for the past few months before we welcome in the New Year.

The last few months of 2018 were very busy ones for David and me.  After returning to Texas in August from our travels, my mom and dad both celebrated their 85th birthdays.  Mom’s birthday was in late August and dad’s in November.  We threw birthday parties for both of them with lots of friends and family.  Mom’s birthday fell on a Sunday, so she got two parties, one at church at one at home later that day.  Dad’s was a few days before Thanksgiving, so his party went on for almost a week.  It was so nice to celebrate the 85 years of their lives with the both of them!

Two pretty good looking 85 year-olds!

Between the two birthdays, David and I took a trip to Big Bend at the end of September for the 40th Anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of 1978.  We took Silver and camped in Rio Grande Village.  It was still mighty warm in Big Bend at the end of September.  Even so, we managed a few hikes and went to talks about the Rio Grande River and the ongoing research being conducted by Sul Ross State University.  At the end of each day we were glad we had electricity and could cool off in the RV.

A wild and scenic Rio Grande River near Rio Grande Village

In 1979, just a year after the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act was enacted and to celebrate the Rio Grande’s inclusion, David and I, plus David’s brother and three other friends took a canoe trip down the Rio Grande.  We put in at Rio Grande Village near the head of Boquillas Canyon and paddled all the way to Langtry, TX, some 185 miles by river.  We still talk about that float trip. 

The Sierra del Carmens from Rio Grande Village
These mountains are part of the same formation as the walls of Boquillas Canyon

Dr. Kevin Urbanscyzk with the Rio Grande Research Center at Sul Ross 
State University gave a talk and demo on how the Center helps
 to document invasive species that threaten the river.

It was quite the adventure, following a 14-foot rise on the Rio Grande.  After torrential rains, we were the first people issued permits on the river that very hot July of 1979.  Once we entered the steep and narrow mouth of Boquillas Canyon, we were in solid canyon walls of up to 1500 feet for nearly 2 days with another 3 to 4 days inside the long, uninterrupted lower canyons ahead of us.  So it was paddle out or climb out the canyon walls -- no cell phones in 1979 and no help available if we were to have a problem.  

A hike on the Window Trail in the Chisos Mountain Basin

A rainy late summer in the Big Bend made for a lot of water on the Window Trail

I won’t go into the whole story, but we did have a few problems – from very fast running water and almost wrapping the canoe around a rock in the first hours of the trip, drowning most of the cameras in that little accident, to 115 degree days, severe sunburn, the Rio Grande running the consistency and color of chocolate milk and having to drink that water, to rescuing a very young filly from being stuck in the mud, putting her in the canoe and paddling down river  so we could actually get her back up on the bank and out of the mud, fighting 50-plus mph winds and 4-5 ft. waves going up stream on the river and last but not least (certainly not to David) a most severe case of poison ivy!  But we were young – it was a blast…  Wild & Scenic Rivers Rock!

Beautiful late afternoon sky from our campsite in Rio Grande Village

We also managed to take classes at Sul Ross during the fall semester.  Both of us took Archaeology of the Southwest which was a really informative class of places we had previously visited in our travels and of the Big Bend area.  We will have to go back and visit the Four Corners area so we can appreciate the history of that place with more knowledge this time.  Also, I never knew there were so many Late Archaic and Paleoindian sites in the Big Bend.  We hope to be able to go on some local archaeological digs before too much longer. 

Looking out "The Window"  
Always a treat!

The dessert is a marvelous place to explore

I also took a watercolor class.  It was quite a challenge for me and very time consuming.  There is a good reason I’m a photographer. I’ve a long, long way to go just yet, but I did really enjoy the class and think I will continue to play around with watercolor. 

We had visitors, friends from when I worked at the Botanical Gardens in San Antonio, with us for a few days in late November.  Terril and Lubos were volunteers at the Garden and we all became good friends.  They have since moved to Portugal and we hadn’t seen them in almost 3 years.  It was great catching up and there may be a trip to Portugal in our future.  

Christmas Dinner

Our Christmas was spent with my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and her mother.  Most family had come earlier for the birthday celebrations, so Christmas was a small affair.  But maybe one of our best – easy and relaxing, enjoying each other and thankful for our blessings and the gift of Christmas.

Kitties love Christmas!

After Christmas, our good friend, Chad was out for a few days.  We had some crazy weather with freezing fog which we had never had experienced before.  The freezing fog was just about the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a while.  We had no rain or snow, just very cold weather and a fog that rolled in.  The trees and cactus didn’t ice up but had these amazing fairy crystals all over them.  Truly beautiful!

Amazing crystals of ice on the trees

Well, that takes us into 2019!  Here we go again.  No resolutions this year, just to live and take it all in as it comes – even the yucky stuff.  Really, no choice there but here’s hoping for more good stuff than bad for us all.  (And maybe for the government to open back up?)  Would that be too much to ask?

Hopefully the spider was long gone