Rio Grande Valley Day Six: Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, October 13, 2014

This is part six of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

I haven't posted much lately but realizing I am coming up on the one year anniversary of my trip to Texas made me get on here to finish this series up. Let's pick up where we left off.

Day Six:

I had a goal for Day Six. As we chatted about the day and wondered where to go I was sure we should hit up Sable Palm Sanctuary.

People had recommended we hit up Sabal Palm Sanctuary and the descriptions of habitat and species looked good. Sabal Palms Sanctuary is home to a large stand of old growth Sabal Palms. Locals had warned us that the birding here just wasn't as good as it used to be after the building of "The Wall." In our xenophobia we've been busy building a giant wall between parts of Mexico and Texas. It doesn't actually keep anyone out since it isn't a complete wall that covers the whole border. All it does is makes people cross somewhere else, or, you know, buy a ladder. We visited plenty of other sites along the Rio Grande where crossing the border would take nothing more than a quick short swim.

The Wall
We were greeted by a pair of Chichuanan ravens as soon as we drove in. This was a good sign and we were happy to see them since they are no longer hanging out at the Brownsville dump.

Excited about ravens before we even hit the parking lot, we hit up the feeding station at the small visitor's center. The birds were plentiful. I also realized as I sat there watching the emending parade of birds that I had seen this feeder set-up before. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary has a web-cam set up on the feeders and I had watched this webcam months earlier. Seeing all these amazing birds on the webcam on a cold boring day in Minnesota was one of the things that had encouraged me to visit the Rio Grande Valley. Here's the live feed right now:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

While we did see new birds, one of the great things was to get better looks at birds we had already seen.

Clay-colored Thrush (a.k.a. Clay-colored Robin)

We had previously gotten a not very good look at a Clay-colored Thrush while chasing another bird earlier in the week. It was wonderful to get such a better look. We also got a better look at the Black-crested Titmouse and White-tipped Dove.

Black-crested Titmouse

White-tipped Dove

We also got a good look at a bathing Olive Sparrow. We had tried to find one earlier in the week at Estero with no luck. 

Olive Sparrow taking a bath

The highlight for me was this Yellow-throated Warbler. I was a lifer and beautiful!

Breathtaking Yellow-throated Warbler.

At some point, all of the birds disappeared from the feeders when this Red-shouldered Hawk showed up. 

Red-whouldered Hawk

We yet again failed to see a chachalaca though I had seen one at Sabal Palm on the webcam back in Minnesota. Oh we'll. Sabal Palm wasn't just a feeder stake out. We also explored and hiked around the site. I even happened upon a beautiful and endangered Texas Indigo Snake.

There are a number of blinds set up at Sabal Palm. We didn't see a lot of species from them but I imagine at times they are great spots for seeing birds. Here, Erik is checking out the Resaca Blind. Erik was so taken with Texas that he moved down there to take a job with Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center.

Erik in his native habitat

We were able to see these incredibly adorable grebe chicks from the blind.

We also got good views of this Green Kingfisher from the Resaca blind.

Here are the new birds for the trip I added at Sabal Palms Sanctuary.

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Sandhill Crane
White-eyed Vireo
Chihuahuan Raven
Carolina Wren
Yellow-throated Warbler
Olive Sparrow

All told, we saw 35 species at Sabal Palms including the White-eyed Vireo. Everyone else on the trip had seen several of them and it was starting to be a bit of a nemesis bird for me. I kept missing them, including at a gas station while I was loading up on treats inside.

There were lots of other birders at Sabal Palms on official field trips for the festival. I'm not a birding by bus kind of guy and while I'm sure the tour leaders were great and I'm sure they saw tons of birds, I much prefer to bird in a small quiet group at my own pace.

We finished off Sabal Palms Sanctuary by noon and I was feeling pretty good.

At this point in the week, seven new species for the trip by noon was a great accomplishment. Four of them had been lifers for me so I was even more elated.

We hit up our first gas station tacos for lunch informing Kelly that her reputation was on the line since she had raved about them. They were not bad though without adding on loads of extras they were completely devoid of flavor or spice. We should not have taken advice from the one and only Texan who cannot stand spicy food. Still, you cannot argue with the speed and price. We were in,  out, fed, and back on the road with a half day of birding ahead of us.

Where to next? There were rumors of a Prairie Falcon hanging out north of Harlingen. Another new species anyone? It would be our sixth species of falcon for the trip and a lifer. We'd already seen Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Aplomado and Peregrine. What were we waiting for?

We hit the roads and headed north following directions on the BirdsEye app. We saw lots of birds on the wires but no Prairie falcon. Kelly had caught wind that we were headed for the falcon so she drove out to intercept us and try to see it too.

After a little driving around we decided to try a side road and sure enough, there was a raptor perched on the power lines.

We slowly crept up and then scoped it from a safe distance. Sure enough, Prairie Falcon.

Prairie Falcon

What a cool bird to see. Kelly ended up pulling up behind us right as we found it and she got a look too. We found 13 other species while looking for the falcon but none of them were new for the trip. The prairie Falcon was our 145 species of bird for the trip.

It had been a great day of birding but there was a problem. I'd been birding with a pair of Vortex binoculars and the hinge had developed a crack while down in Texas. It wasn't from being treated rough, it had to be a manufacturing defect. I knew of one other pair from the same batch that had developed the same crack. Since I was at the festival and knew that Vortex/Eagle Optics had a booth there I decided to swing by to see what they could do. I showed them to the rep on hand and he looked at them with interest. He had heard of this happening to a few pairs before. He flexed them back and forth a few times and then proceeded to snap them in half. He said something like, "Well, can't be using these can you?" He then reached under the table and pulled out a box with the brand new version of my binoculars and handed them over no questions asked. This is what a lifetime warranty looks like folks. I'm very happy with my binoculars and I know they will be backed up for years to come.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the series. We ended with one of the greatest days of the trip.

Amazing Heron Video

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Those of you who follow the Twin Cities Naturalist page on Facebook may have already seen the video below I shared it there yesterday. If you are not already following on Facebook you can follow this link and click on "like."

This video was taken by Jessie Garza out in Washington state. It has been shared over 1,000 times so far as it is truly amazing. Great Blue Herons are opportunistic feeders and will take food where they can get it. Be sure to watch the whole video!

Backswimmers Bite

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, July 7, 2014

I took my first job as a naturalist about 17 years ago. I was a summer seasonal at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township, Minnesota. I learned many valuable things that summer but one of the first was a staple of the naturalist trade; Dip netting. 

Take a group of kids down to a lake or pond, scoop around with nets from the shore or dock and empty the contents into kitchen tubs, cool whip containers or whatever you can find. 

The exact mechanics might vary a bit from program-to-program or nature center to nature center. Sometimes we were just looking see what was there. Sometimes we would sort all the macro invertebrates we would find, putting predators in one, tub scavengers in another and decomposers in yet another. In one of my favorite versions, we would sort the animals into small tubs by species, with the kids doing all the identifying, and then tally up the results and look at population dynamics. There are many variations but in the 17 summers, springs and falls I've done dip netting there's always been backswimmers. 

I learned what backswimmers are the very first time I went dip netting. They are one of the more common critters we find.  They are a little less than a centimeter long, swim on their back and use long oar like legs to propel themselves through the water. 

I've seen more than a few backswimmers  in my life. I conservatively estimate I've done somewhere around 510 dip netting programs in the last 17 years. That works out to somewhere around 15,300 students. 

I've scooped backswimmers into buckets, I move them around with spoons and screens, I've had hundreds of kids doing the same.

This weekend though, I learned. something new about backswimmers, they can bite! 

Why didn't anyone ever tell me this? Does everyone else know that backswimmers can bite and I somehow missed this bit of information? How did no backswimmer ever bite one of those 15,000 school kids? 

 I was doing a dip netting program this weekend and wanted to show the public a little backswimmer scurrying around inside a kitchen tub placed on the dock. Some folks had arrived late at the drop-in program and I wanted to catch them up on what we'd been seeing. I used my hand to try the scoop up the little innocent looking backswimmer or maybe just make a little pool in my palm so it could swim around and people could get a good look. The backswimmer did not appreciate my hands-on pedagogical technique. 

I felt a pinch on my pinky finger and quickly pulled my hand out of the water. "Ouch," I said, "I think he just bit me!"

I was quite surprised as I had absolutely no idea they could bite. I was also not ready for what happened next. Instead of the pain going away as I would expect from a tiny pinch from a tiny bug, it got worse and worse. A strong burning sensation spread through my finger as though I had been stung by a paper wasp. 

I saw this as a great personal learning opportunity so here is what I have learned. 

Backswimmers are in the insect order Hemiptera making them "true bugs." True bugs are those insects with piercing mouth parts. Yup, sounds right. They are in the family Notonectidae. 

I'd love to tell you the genus and species of the one that bit me but there are 400 species worldwide and many can only be identified by experts examining differences in the male's genitalia under a microscope. I'll pass on that endevour. 

The reason the bite hurts so much has to do with the hunting technique of the backswimmer. They catch prey with their legs and quickly pierce their skin or exoskeleton with their sharp beak. The backswimmer injects digestive enzymes and other chemicals into the animal which paralyze it and begin to dissolve the insides into goo. Once nice and juicy inside, the backswimmer can suck the prey dry. The enzymes are irritating and burn like the sting of a wasp. 

So, there you go. Backswimmers have a very nasty bite. If 15,000 kids over 17 years managed to not get bitten though you must need to really tick them off to get bitten. 

Must be my lucky day. So far my insides have not liquified. 
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Lily-leaved Twayblade Orchid

Posted by Kirk Mona Sunday, June 22, 2014

While training a volunteer in on plant survey techniques in the prairie at Lowry Nature Center, natural resources staff found a rare orchid. I headed out to look myself and was able to snap this photo.

This is the lily-leaved Twayblade orchid. I was trying to find more info on it online but was initially stumped as I only knew the common name "Twayblade orchid". There are quite a number of plants that go by the name Twayblade orchid and most of them are in the genus Neottia. I searched around the read up on the genus but nothing seemed to match what you see in the photo.

It turns out this is what is commonly called the Lily-leaved Twayblade and it is in a completely different genus. The scientific name of this orchid is Liparis liliifolia. Note that "lilifolia" literally means "lily-leaved." I prefer this common name over some others for that reason. It is less confusing. That's the problem with common makes though, they hold no sway and you can make up your own if you really want to. Some other common names of this plant are Brown Widelip Orchid, Large Twayblade, Purple Twayblade, and Mauve Sleekwort. How's that for confusing? Want to make it more confusing? The reason I had trouble finding the exact species is that the Neottia genus are in deed the "twayblades" while the Liparis genus comprise the "false twayblades".

Okay, so do we call this False Lily-leaved Twayblade? No, that would imply that there is a true Lily-leaved twayblade in the Neottia genus. How about Lily-leaved False Twayblade? That's probably better and more accurate but a mouth full. You can see why scientists and botanists simply stick to Liparis liliifolia.

This particular plant or patch of plants is particularly interesting when you consider this map from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This map shows which counties have recorded occurrences of Liparis liliifolia.


Liparis liliifolia has never been recorded in Carver County before making this discovery a county record.

Why is it called a Red-Bellied Woodpecker?

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, June 3, 2014

As I show birds to kids I often get a question about red-bellied woodpeckers. It's not so much a question has a statement, they usually say, "Hey look, a red-headed woodpecker!"

While it is technically possible for a Red-headed woodpecker to show up where I work, this isn't what they are seeing. Invariably, they have pointed out a Red-bellied Woodpecker. 

It is an easy mistake to make. The birds are large, conspicuous, and sport a very red stripe down the back of the head. Red-headed woodpecker would be a great name for this bird if it wasn't already taken by this beauty.


The bird above is the red-headed woodpecker. As you can see, the whole of the head is a deep red and the belly is clean white. The bird below is a red-bellied woodpecker. I took this photo toward the end of the winter. As you can see, the red is only on the back of the head. It isn't an award winning photo by any means but I wanted to share it as you can clearly see the "red belly" as the bird is feeding off a tray feeder.

This seems like a terrible name for a bird. They mostly feed while keeping their belly pushed up against a tree which hides the field mark they are named after. Keep in mind though, that while we study birds today with binoculars, they were primarily studied with guns in the past. Ornithologists would go out in the field, shoot birds, and then study them later in hand. It seems awfully strange to us today but especially before high quality binoculars and spotting scopes existed, shooting the birds really was the best way to identify and learn more about them. The red-bellied woodpecker, and others like the ring-necked duck, have names that are hold-overs from a time when birds were best studied post-mortem and in the hand. Remember, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
What bird names have you always thought were puzzling?

Partial Leucistic Rose-brested Grosbeak

Posted by Kirk Mona Friday, May 9, 2014

Spring migration is one of my favorite times of the year. On Wednesday, I added 10 new birds to my year list of birds. Thursday I added six more and then today, Friday, I added an additional 11 birds. They just keep coming and it makes it a fun time of year.

One of the birds I look forward to seeing every year is the Rose-brested Grosbeak. People sometimes ask about the name, Grosbeak is derived from the french grosbec. Gros is simply old French for large. The moniker sure fits these beautiful birds.

While at the Lee & Rose Warner Nature Center this morning I checked out the feeders to see what was there. There were numerous Rose-brested Grosbeaks but one caught my eye.

This is a female, though her coloration is aberrant. She is exhibiting partial leucism which I have written about before in other species. Leucism is distinct from Albinism.

Albinism is the total lack of pigment in the body. An albino bird would have all white feathers, pink legs and pink eyes. A leucistic bird has regular colored eyes and legs and the feathers are either paler or they have white patches. The cells of a leucistic bird are damaged and cannot make the pigment necessary for the coloration of some of their feathers. Only the affected cells are white and leucism only affects feathers, which is why the legs and eyes remain the correct color. In contrast, albino birds lack the pigment melanin in all of their cells so their eyes and legs are also not the normal color. Albinism is systemic, affecting the whole body so you cannot have a partial albino.

The partial leucistic grosbeak is interesting. You can see the breast still retains some of the yellowish-orange wash of a female but there is extra white, especially on the head and back.

How much for that book?

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Have you heard the joke that asks what the difference is between a large pizza and a naturalist?

A large pizza can feed a family of four. 

Basically you have to do this job for the love of it. That means when collecting books I have to be, shall we say, price selective. That leather bound Francis Bacon natural history book from 1631 I saw on eBay for $2500 is not in the cards. (No one bid on it by the way so apparently it wasn't in anyone's price range.)

I have a fairly low dollar amount I never go above for books and while it means that I miss out on many books it also means the ones I do get are a great deal. 

I'll go a little higher on something really spectacular but having a firm budget in mind when you go looking for books is a good idea. 

With that in mind, here are a couple if books I came across that were simply well out of my price range (but wonderful!)

First up is this 1917 gilded edition of Birds of Britain by J. Lewis Bonhote. Look at that cover! I've been known to buy a book just for an exquisite cover. The bird motif is great and the use og gilding got shading on the wings is fantastic. The orange-red cloth boards makes the whole thing pop.

The asking price? Why just $350. Ouch. No thanks. 

Of course, you can get the same book in the 1927 edition without gilding and on boring tan cloth boards for just $23. Kinda boring though once you've seen the one above right?

Sometimes a cover is boring and what's inside is the real treat. That's the case with all of the Naturalist's Library series of book by William Jardine. Published in the early 1800s the drawings are real eye candy. 

Unfortunately, each volume goes into the hundreds of dollars. They are probably a good value but not likely to grace my shelves any time soon. The owl is from a multi-volume set on birds of the UK and the hummingbird from a two volume set on just hummingbirds.

What are your favorite nature books? Let me know!