Οκτώβριος 08, 2021

Idaho, Nevada, and Utah (May 20 - 29, 2021)

This was a trip for love and adventure! We went to a wedding, which I officiated. We met our goddaughter's fiancé. And Brenda and I took our first trip outside the borders of Texas since before the start of The Great Infection, trying to make up for our 40th anniversary trip to Canada that we didn't get to to do in August 2020 because of the pandemic.

My nephew Matt and his girlfriend Jessica announced their engagement in late 2019, and they set the date for May 22, 2021 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. This was all pre-COVID, and it seemed like a long time for an engagement. But then COVID hit, and we didn't know if we'd be able to go, which was an especially big deal because Matt and Jessica had asked me to marry them. I was greatly honored and happy to marry them (the second wedding I've been asked to do), but didn't know if we'd be able to make the trip because of COVID. Then Brenda and I were able to get vaccinated in January and February 2021, and the pandemic slowed down enough that we could go.

After we left Idaho Falls, we went back to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which we first visited in September 1993 (Notes 44: 35-38). Then we headed to McCall, Idaho for some family time with Brenda's brother David, his wife Beth, and Brenda's sister Debra.

Three of my favorites from Craters of the Moon National Monument (left to right): Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium var. focarium), Dwarf Purple Monkeyflower (Diplacus nanus), and Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis).

We got to see our niece and goddaughter Jojo and meet her fiancé Cody in McCall. We had a great time with them fishing, hiking, and gathering mushrooms in the woods around McCall, which is a really pretty part of Idaho.

Our trip was May 20 to 29, 2021, and we spent most of the time in Idaho, with travel through Nevada and Utah. Brenda and I went swimming in the Great Salt Lake the day before we flew home. I've wanted to do that since I was a kid, when my brother Mark told me you float like a cork because of the high salinity.

Swimming with the brine flies (Ephydra cinerea) in Great Salt Lake.

(Notes 149: 28-37)

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Μάιος 17, 2020

Eastern screech-owl nesting behavior

We put up a nest box for eastern screech-owls on December 26, 2006, and owls moved in sometime in January 2007. We've seen them almost continuously ever since, and they use it for roosting when they aren't nesting. As you can see in the photos, it's made out of a piece of hollow log. It's a little bit bigger than most commercially available screech-owl boxes that are made from cedar boards, and I think they like it better. If you're going to put up a screech-owl nest box, make sure it's big enough.

Left photo: Screech-owl with a black rat on April 10, 2011 (iNat #20941573).

Center photo: Screech-owl with part of a bird on April 14, 2019, possibly a white-winged dove (iNat #22938371). At the same time, the male was perched about 15 yds away in a loquat tree.

Right photo: Screech-owl with part of a bird on April 21, 2020 (iNat #42818949). At the same time, the male was perched about 10 yards away on a limb of the same plateau live oak that the nest box was in.

These three photos show a screech-owl just perched in the entrance and holding a prey item. Is this typical behavior? I believe it is the female of the pair in all three cases that is holding the prey. Only the female eastern screech-owl incubates, the average incubation time is 30 days, and the average nestling period in central Texas is 28 days (Ritchison et al. 2020 Birds of the World species account). When we photographed the owl with prey on April 21, 2020, we thought she had been incubating for about the last month. We think the owls fledged on May 5, 2020, because we saw the nestlings a lot up to that date, but not after (see iNat #45656028 and 46286608). Is holding a prey item at the entrance to the nest box some kind of birth announcement?

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Μάρτιος 30, 2020

Baker Sanctuary (March 29, 2020)

Today was a perfect, beautiful day for a walk in the woods, so Brenda and I met our neighbors, Cinta Burgos and David Ring, at Baker Sanctuary. We enjoyed glorious spring weather and hiked a little over two miles on the north end of the Sanctuary. We saw and heard 14 bird species, including golden-cheeked warblers. All four of us got good looks at one GCW male singing from the top of an old cedar snag.

Travis Audubon Society bought the original 94 acres of Baker Sanctuary in 1966 to be a golden-cheeked warbler preserve, and the Sanctuary is now 715 acres. This is the first preserve set aside anywhere in the world specifically to protect the GCW. Baker Sanctuary is now part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which is about 33,000 acres in western Travis County.

Heller's Marbleseed (Lithospermum helleri). David Ring & Cinta Burgos. Little Indian Breadroot (Pediomelum hypogaeum).

Our bird list for the morning:

Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
White-eyed Vireo
Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay
Common Raven
Carolina Chickadee
Black-crested Titmouse
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Bewick's Wren
Cedar Waxwing
House Finch
Black-and-white Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler
Northern Cardinal
(also on eBird at https://ebird.org/checklist/S66375308?share=true)
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Φεβρουάριος 08, 2020

"Tiger cat" from Bear Creek, near Manchaca, Texas (December 1884 - January 1885)

The following passage is from the autobiography of Gus Birkner, my great grand uncle (born in Gonzales, Texas April 8, 1861; died in Lockhart, Texas, June 4, 1956, and buried in the Lockhart Cemetery).

The events described below happened on his farm on Bear Creek, near Manchaca, Travis County, Texas (which he identified in his autobiography as "the old Fielder place") on Christmas 1884 and in the days following.

"My wife went to stay with my father and mother for a while until my second son was born February 27, 1885. During this time I was batching. The nearest house was about two miles from where we lived. On Christmas, 1884, while I was batching, my wife’s uncle came up to spend Christmas with me. Christmas morning we started down to my father’s. My wife’s uncle was feeling good from being out the night before, so he started running his horse and roping at bushes. His saddle turned with him, and he fell off his horse; his saddle came off. There was a bunch of horses on the road, and his horse started to run with them. I tried to cut her off from the bunch and was running my horse fast over very rocky land. My horse’s shoe caught in one of the honey-combed rocks; as we were going very fast, he fell with me with a forty foot rope on my saddle. The fall broke the horn of my saddle and my arm. As my head hit a rock, I don’t know whether I got up on the horse or he got up with me still in the saddle, for I was unconscious. He carried me about two miles with the rope dragging and his fore foot in the bridle reins. He carried me to my father-in-law’s. They took me down to my father’s and got Dr. Ellison from Manchaca to set my arm. As I was at that time riding the pasture, looking after about five hundred very wild mules from the King Ranch, my wife’s uncle had to stay with me until I got well. We needed that ten dollars a month that I got for looking after the mules. Incidentally, our uncle was found back on the road where I had left him, asleep by his saddle, totally unharmed.

Before my accident, I knew something had been catching my chickens, kid goats, and pigs. I had not moved my chickens from our early camp, where they roosted on a brush fence. Every morning I had been missing my chickens from that fence. I got up early one morning while my uncle was getting breakfast. I told him that I had counted the chickens the night before to see if there was any missing this morning. I called my two good hunting dogs; and off we went. Yes, one of my chickens was gone. The dogs got on the trail of whatever was catching the chickens, and they soon caught up with a tiger cat. The dogs couldn’t do anything with him; he whipped my dogs for the fun of it. They ran him for about a mile, but every time they caught up with him, he whipped them again. I had my left arm in a sling; but I picked up a liveoak club and carried it to the tree that the tiger cat had gone up. He was getting pretty mad by now. He had whipped the dogs until he was tired. He now came out on a limb toward me and thought that he would take it out on me. He jumped off a limb right toward me, and as I stepped back to get out of the way, I fell backward. When he hit the ground, the dogs bounded on him, and I jumped up right quickly with my club. While he was busy with one of the dogs, I hit him on the forehead with this club and stunned him. I kept yelling for my uncle to come and help, but I couldn’t make him hear me. So I had a time dragging that heavy cat back to the house with one arm in a sling. We skinned him, and he was the fattest thing you ever saw. We got enough grease out of him to grease harness with for about a year. I had his hide dressed. He was the only tiger cat caught in that part of the country. But we had lots of rattlesnakes. We might hear them rattling any time of the night or day. We didn’t pay any attention to them, but we did keep out of their way."

What is the "tiger cat?"

Not a bobcat (Lynx rufus), because they would have been more common, and very likely not the only one "caught in that part of the country."

Doubtful it was a mountain lion (Puma concolor), because they're not striped or spotted or otherwise with a pattern that might have been described as a tiger cat, and probably would not have been rare in the area.

And what would have been so big and fat that he could have greased harnesses for a year?

In his 1905 report titled "Biological Survey of Texas," Vernon Bailey described two other cats in Texas that might have been Uncle Gus's "tiger cat": the jaguar and the ocelot. So where were these two cats known from at that time?

Jaguars in Texas

Bailey wrote "the jaguar, the largest of North American cats, once reported as common over southern Texas and as occupying nearly the whole of the eastern part of the State to Louisiana and north to the Red River, is now extremely rare.” He listed the following locations and dates of jaguars in Texas, mostly from reports he got from other naturalists:

  • Brazos River (specific location and date unknown, but entered in the National Museum Catalogue in 1853)
  • Aransas County (ca. 1858)
  • Dimmit County (1879)
  • South of Jasper (1902)
  • Neches River near Beaumont and in the timber south of Conroe (before 1902)
  • Mouth of the Pecos (ca. 1889)
  • South of Comstock (reported to Oberholser “some years ago,” before 1901)
  • Camp Verde at the head springs of the Nueces River (1880)
  • Center City, Mills County (September 3, 1903)

David Schmidly (2002) reviewed Bailey's 1905 report and documented the changes in Texas wildlife over the preceding century. He described the distribution of the jaguar as "once extended well into Central Texas, including much of the Edwards Plateau, as well as along the southern and southeastern parts of the state. There are many records and sightings that date from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and this large cat actually was regarded as common in some areas." Lowery (1974) showed the historic distribution of the jaguar as covering much of Texas and possibly extending into western Louisiana.

The photo below is from Schmidly's 2002 book and is inscribed with "tiger cat" on the photo. He also included a photo of a jaguar killed near Goldthwaite, Mills County, in 1903.

A jaguar (or "tiger cat") killed in south Texas near San Benito, Cameron County, January 30, 1946. (Schmidly 2002).

So it looks like the jaguar is at least a possibility. It's hard to imagine fighting a jaguar using a club with one arm in a sling, or dragging one very far back home, but adrenaline probably would have helped.

Ocelots in Texas

And what does Bailey say about ocelots? For one thing, he said they were also known as "leopard cats." His report on the distribution of this cat in Texas shows they were also known across the state, including the Edwards Plateau.

"The ocelots are still found in brushy or timbered country over southern Texas, as far north as Rock Springs and Kerrville, and up the Pecos Valley to the region of Fort Lancaster. One killed near the Alamo de Cesarae Ranch, in Brewster County, between Marfa and Terlingua, in 1903, was reported by Mr. G. K. Gilbert, and later its beautiful light-gray skin was purchased from Mrs. M. A. Bishop, of Valentine. This seems to be the westernmost record for the State. Farther east ocelots are still reported as very rare about Beaumont and Jasper, near the eastern line of the State, and farther north, near Waskom and Long Lake. Early records carried their range across into Louisiana and Arkansas, but it is doubtful if at the present time they are to be found in the United States beyond the limits of Texas. Most of the records are from hunters, ranchmen, or residents of the country, who know the animal by the name of ocelot or leopard cat, or describe it as a long-tailed, spotted cat the size of the lynx. In 1902 at Sour Lake Hollister reported "several so-called leopard cats killed near there," and says: "They are described as about the size of the wildcat but of a different build, spotted and with a long tail. Near Beaumont Oberholser reported them as occasionally killed In the woods along the Neches River. In Kerr County Mr. Moore, the sheriff, told me that he saw a beautiful skin of a large, long-tailed, spotted cat that was killed 10 miles south of Kerrville the latter part of June, 1902. At Rock Springs in July of the same year Mr. Gething told me that each year a few ocelot skins were brought into the store for sale. In his report from Sheffield Cary says: "I am informed that leopard cats are fairly common in the cedar brakes along the Pecos southeast of here." In 1899 Mr. Howard Lacey the well-known naturalist of Kerr County, told me that he occasionally caught an ocelot while hunting with dogs for other game. "

Lowery (1974) also showed the historic distribution of the ocelot as covering most of Texas and possibly extending into western Louisiana.

Given that distribution, it's possible that Uncle Gus's tiger cat could have been an ocelot. Ocelots are a little smaller than jaguars, so maybe not enough to grease harnesses for a year. I don't know; I haven't ever greased a harness with wild cat fat. Davis (1974) gives the weights of jaguars as up to 200 lbs and ocelots as 20 to 35 lbs. For comparison with a species present day biologists may have some first-hand experience with, Davis gives the weight of bobcats as typically 12 to 20 lbs, but sometimes up to 36 lbs.

I may never know what Uncle Gus's tiger cat was, but I think it was either a jaguar or an ocelot, and jaguar seems much more likely. Either one could have been present in southern Travis County in the late 1800's. Based on what he said about the size and weight, it seems like jaguar is a better fit. And clearly "tiger cat" is a name people used for jaguars, as shown in the photo above from Cameron County.

Literature cited

Bailey, Vernon. 1905. Biological Survey of Texas. North American Fauna No. 25. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Biological Survey, Washington, D.C. 216 pp.

Davis, William B. 1974. The Mammals of Texas. Bulletin 41. Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept, Austin, Texas. 294 pp.

Lowery, Jr., George H. 1974. The Mammals of Louisiana and its Adjacent Waters. Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission by the Louisiana State University Press. 565 pp.

Schmidly, David J. 2002. Texas Natural History: a Century of Change. Texas Tech Univeristy Press, Lubbock, Texas. 534 pp.

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Φεβρουάριος 05, 2020

Commons Ford Committee field trip to Spicewood Ranch (Jan. 26, 2020)

The Travis Audubon Commons Ford Committee visited Spicewood Ranch on January 26, 2020 to talk about land management and prairie restoration on the ranch. We were fortunate to be there on a day when conditions were favorable for prescribed burns to restore and maintain prairie habitat.

Chris Harte, the ranch owner, was there to welcome us on this fine day. Chris has been managing the prairie and savannah habitat on Spicewood Ranch for more than 30 years. He's a past board member of the National Audubon Society, state Audubon Boards in Texas and Maine, and state Boards of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, Florida, and Maine. Because of his lifelong conservation actions, Chris was honored by Travis Audubon with the Victor Emanuel award in October 2019.

Chris and his brother convinced their father and uncle to buy 286 acres just north of the old town of Spicewood in 1972. Since then he has purchased additional parcels to create a 1,300-acre restoration project. Spicewood Ranch received the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 2018 Lone Star Land Steward award for the Edwards Plateau.

Many thanks to David Mahler for leading the trip. David's company, Environmental Survey Consulting, is one of the best ecological restoration and native landscaping companies in the southwest. Big thanks also to Terri Siegenthaler, also an expert land manager, for organizing the trip.

Commons Ford Committee members on the trip were Shelia Hargis and Ellen Filtness (Committee Co-Chairs), Andy Filtness, Michael Sims, Janice Sturrock, Cecilia Green, and Terri Siegenthaler. More info on the Commons Ford Committee is on the Travis Audubon web page: https://travisaudubon.org/conservation/commons-ford

Other Travis Audubon members on the trip were Eric Stager, Mark Wilson, Brenda Ladd, and Clif Ladd.

Here's a link to the eBird checklist compiled by Shelia Hargis: https://ebird.org/checklist/S64181644

Prescribed fire on Spicewood Ranch, part of the ongoing prairie management efforts.

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Δεκέμβριος 11, 2019

Grassy Banks Campground, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Presidio County, TX (Nov. 26 - 27, 2019)

We came here after our two nights at Chinati Hot Springs, and we only stayed here one night, but it was a nice night. We found out after we got back to Austin that my friend and colleague John Williamson and his wife Rachel Thompson also camped there that night, but we didn't see them there that night.

At sunset we headed west on SH 170 to the Big Hill to try to get a good view of the sunset. This was the "high point" of the trip, because it was the tallest hill we went up and it was here that we met a new friend, Praveen Gunaseelan. Lucia tells the story here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2851757394854674&set=a.102789809751460&type=3.

Engelmann's prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) on the Big Hill.

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Δεκέμβριος 10, 2019

Ruidosa Hot Springs (dba "Chinati Hot Springs"), Presidio County, TX (November 24-26, 2019)

In November 2002, Brenda and I went with some friends to Chinati Hot Springs (the name of the business operating at what is officially known as Ruidosa Hot Springs). On that trip, our friend Bill Corrigan proposed to Lucia Athens, and she said yes. So this November 2019 trip was kind of a return to the source. The source of the hot spring water and the source of Bill & Lucia's now 15-year marriage. May they have many more years!

To make the trip even more enjoyable, we ran into Myron Hess & Gail Rothe, who coincidentally arrived just after us on Sunday the 24th. Then by chance Janine Bergin & Bill Breaux came in on the next day with four of their friends, all from Austin. So we had a big gathering of Austin folks and a good time sharing the communal kitchen, hot springs, and campfire.

View of the Chinati Hot Springs oasis from the hill above.

We only put down a few birds, because we were doing lots of other things besides birding. The few that we saw on the trip and approximate numbers. (Posted on eBird at https://ebird.org/checklist/S62081550?share=true)
White-winged dove - 10
Killdeer - 2 in Hot Springs Creek
Ladder-backed woodpecker - 2
Ruby-crowned kinglet - 2
Canyon wren - 1
Northern mockingbird - 2
Lesser goldfinch - 25
Northern cardinal - 2
Pyrrhuloxia - 1

From here, Bill & Lucia and Brenda & I headed over to Big Bend Ranch State Park and camped in the Grassy Banks campground. https://www.inaturalist.org/journal/cliftonladd/29345-grassy-banks-campground-big-bend-ranch-state-park-presidio-county-tx-nov-26-27-2019

Three favorites: sunburst diving beetle (Thermonectus marmoratus), a short-wing katydid (Dichopetala sp.), and a potter wasp (Eumenes bollii).

(Notes 146: 14-21)

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Αύγουστος 28, 2019

Cuatro Ciénegas, Coahuila, México (October 2018)

In October 2018, I made a five-day trip to Cuatro Ciénegas, Coahuila with a big group of biologists, geologists, and archeologists from Austin. Peter Sprouse was the main organizer, and others on the trip were Andy and Leah Gluesenkamp (and their cool kids Jackson and Ruby), Jessica Gordon, Aimee Beveridge, Gabi Casares (friend and co-worker), Sarah Howard, Amy Grossman, and Crystal Datri. I rode down with Terry Sayther and Deborah Stuart, who are expert anthropologists (and the best BMW mechanics in Austin) and their friend Cathy Winfrey. Everything about this trip was enjoyable, including the people who went, the people we met in Cuatro Ciénegas, and everything we saw along the way.

Cuatro Ciénegas is one of the 121 Pueblos Mágicos of México, designated by the government for their cultural and natural charm and beauty. Everybody we met in Cuatro Ciénegas was very friendly and welcoming.

We saw thousands and thousands of butterflies: sulphurs, queens, monarchs, swallowtails, and others. And lots of other insects. Everything was green and lush. They must have had a lot of rain there in the months before we got there. And it rained pretty hard on the Saturday we were there.

The people there were more than friendly. They were also appreciative and protective of the natural beauty of the region. Conservation education was prominent, with signs for everything from a simple "don't throw trash" to big signs across the highway alerting travelers to the butterfly migration in the area.

Swimming with Minckley's cichlids (Herichthys minckleyi) and spiny softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera) in Rio Mezquites.

(Notes 143: 32-39)

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Αύγουστος 17, 2019

Roaring Springs, Real County, Texas (August 9-11, 2019)

Brenda and I had a fantastic time at Roaring Springs the weekend of August 9 - 11, 2019, with our friends Michael Crockett, Luz Stella Loza, Luke Browning, and Arlette Vila. The impetus for the trip was wanting to watch the Perseid meteor shower in a place with dark skies. Roaring Springs definitely has dark skies, but we also had a waxing gibbous moon (about 80% full). We saw a few meteors, and the nights were perfect for sitting out in lawn chairs and just enjoying the night and each other's company. It was a sweet weekend.

Roaring Springs Ranch has a high diversity of tree species, including papershell pinyon (Pinus remota), bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum), Arizona black walnut (Juglans major), pecan (Carya illinoinensis), and several species of oaks.

I searched the spring run of the Premier Spring of Roaring Springs for Valdina Farms salamander (Eurycea troglodytes), but didn't not find them. https://amphibiaweb.org/species/5375. I'll check again the next time I have a chance.

Brenda enjoying the cool waters of Camp Wood Creek.

(Notes 146: 12-13)

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Αύγουστος 16, 2019

SnakeDays 2019 (August 1-4, 2019)

I got to drive out to Alpine for SnakeDays this year. Arrived in Marathon late Thursday night, August 1, and stayed with my friends James Evans and Marci Roberts. James and I cruised the road together Friday night and Saturday night and found eight species of snakes.

About halfway down the Black Gap road (FM 2627) on Friday night, we pulled over for a rattlesnake on the road and ended up staring at the sky for about half an hour. These was no moon, and the Milky Way was spectacular!

I was glad to have the time with James, "The Photographer West of the Pecos." How many other photographers travel with a battery-powered softbox light?

My herp list for the weekend:

  • Texas toad (Anaxyrus speciosus) on US-385 a few miles north of Marathon
  • Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) at Tom & Susan Curry's in Alpine
  • Glossy snake (Arizona elegans) on US-90 a few miles east of Marathon
  • Trans-Pecos ratsnake (Bogertophis subocularis)
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)
  • Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus)
  • Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)
  • Great Plains ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi)
  • Sonoran gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis)
  • Long-nosed snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei)

Unfortunately, there were lots of road-killed animals (snakes and mammals) down every highway. Also, a utility company was installing a power line between Marathon and Alpine along US Hwy 90. They had dug about 50 holes that were about 6 feet deep for the poles, and left them open, some evidently for days. They were fenced with an orange mesh construction fence, but that's only good enough to maybe keep clumsy people from falling in. I decided to check a few and see if there were any trapped animals. In 10 holes, I found two live southern plains woodrats (Neotoma micropus) and one dead, dried-out kangaroo rat that looked like it had been at the bottom of the hole for several days. I was too late to help the k-rat, but I duct-taped my snake tongs to another stick, and was able to pull out the woodrats. They didn't like being squeezed in the thorax with the tongs, but they looked really happy as they high-tailed it back into the brush!

(Notes 146: 8-11)

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