Thursday

Wildlife Week - Tarantula Hunter

They mean death for tarantulas and can painfully sting us





One of the most conspicuous of Texas’ invertebrates, tarantula-hawk wasps (genus Pepsis) are also one of our most fascinating. These big wasps could certainly be described as beautiful with their iridescent, blue-black bodies and their wings and antennae that can be metallic black, orange or red. What’s most interesting about these wasps, however, is their namesake behavior: hunting tarantulas. 

I admire any hunter that specializes in prey larger than itself, particularly if that prey has the substantial defensive weaponry of a tarantula. But the tarantula-hawk wasp takes on the challenge without fear, not only hunting tarantulas at the ground level but also being so bold as to enter occupied tarantula burrows, forcing the spider to the surface for an attack. 

If you are lucky enough to see the battle, settle in and take advantage of a rarely seen show. 

After a tense face-off, the tarantula-hawk wasp makes its move: darting under the tarantula and biting a hind leg while using its own hind legs to hold the tarantula’s fangs out of biting range. Then, in a bold wrestling move, the tarantula hawk flips the tarantula on its back and delivers the coup de grace: a sting, usually at the base of the first leg (a veritable chink in the tarantula’s armor) that paralyzes the tarantula in seconds.

Then the tarantula’s day gets even worse. The immobilized but still-alive tarantula is carried back to a burrow, where the tarantula-hawk wasp lays a single egg. Like a tomb, the burrow is then sealed until the egg hatches, and the wasp larva begins to feast on the living tarantula. Although chances for survival are slim, all hope is not lost for the tarantula. In at least one species, if the wasp egg does not hatch, the venom will eventually wear off, allowing the tarantula to make a full recovery. 

Aside from their behavior toward tarantulas, adult tarantula-hawk wasps are, for the most part, docile vegetarians, feeding primarily on nectar. About 13 of the 250-plus species of tarantula-hawk wasps occur in Texas. Body lengths typically measure up to 2 inches, though the largest of the South American species can reach lengths up to 2½ inches.

They are easily observed up close, being active during the day, particularly morning and evenings, when females can be found engaged in a fast-paced search for prey, apparently unthreatened and unafraid of humans or any other would-be predator. 

Justin Schmidt from the University of Arizona hypothesizes that this confidence has arisen from the female tarantula-hawk wasp’s spectacular ability to inflict pain. Schmidt is well qualified to make this claim: As creator of the Schmidt sting pain index, he has been stung by more species of pain-inducing invertebrates from around the world than most of us care to think about. On the Schmidt sting pain index, tarantula-hawk wasps hold an infamous distinction as one of only three insects to attain the highest possible rating of 4 or “traumatically painful.” 

For perspective, the rather aggressive red wasps (Polistes carolina and Polistes exclamans) that are common throughout much of Texas get a 2, merely “painful.” 

Schmidt has described the pain of the tarantula-hawk wasp as “immediate, intense, excruciating, and totally debilitating. The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that few, if any, can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control” if stung. 

Despite the sobering warning, humans have little to fear from tarantula-hawk wasps. They don’t show unprovoked aggression toward humans, and in the unfortunate event of a sting, the pain completely subsides after a few minutes, leaving no permanent damage. 

Their bold coloration and charismatic swagger make tarantula-hawk wasps an entertaining and welcome addition to the Texas landscape.

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Wednesday

Wildlife Week - Box Turtles

These Texas treasures come packaged in protective, decorative shells



On a recent walk in the woods, our family dog returned from his travels with a “treasure” gripped firmly in his jaws. He ran straight to me, obediently dropped his package at my feet and proudly looked up awaiting his reward — a heartfelt “good boy!” Upon closer inspection, I noticed that this gift was a little different from his customary offerings. I reached down and picked up a slobbery, slimy and somewhat disoriented three-toed box turtle.

Just mention the name “box turtle” and it brings about a flood of fond childhood memories for most Texans. I doubt that there is any other type of turtle in our state so warmly welcomed by the masses, so loved that it could possibly compete with the beloved Texas horned lizard in a reptile popularity contest. Box turtles were once common throughout the state, but recent population declines have been a cause for concern.

There are two species of box turtles found in Texas — the eastern box turtle and the ornate box turtle. Three representative subspecies occur in Texas. The eastern box turtle is represented by the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis). The ornate box turtle has two subspecies: the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) and the desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola).

Box turtles can be found statewide, with each subspecies generally occupying a different area of the state. The desert box turtle inhabits the southwest, the three-toed box turtle resides in the eastern portion of our state, and the ornate box turtle generally enjoys a more statewide distribution. Box turtles are omnivorous, with a diet of insects, snails, slugs, fruits, berries, plants and sometimes carrion.

These unique turtles acquired their name from the hinge on their shell that allows them to completely shut the shell when threatened. This adaptation protects the turtle from its natural enemies, which are not thought to be the most likely culprits in recent population declines. Habitat loss and collection for the pet trade are the more likely reasons for the decline.

These turtles occupy a very small home range, which means that when they are removed from an area for any reason, they generally do not recolonize that area. They are also long-lived, having been documented with a lifespan of up to 50 years. Because of this long life expectancy, they take between five and 10 years to reach maturity, and produce relatively few offspring. These biological constraints add to the already daunting task of rebounding from population and habitat losses.

To enable us to better manage their populations and to gain more information about these turtles, TPWD tracks box turtle sightings. You can help by completing the form at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/boxturtles if you happen to encounter a box turtle. We hope these efforts will allow for future generations to look back at their fond childhood memories of these interesting “treasures.” 

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Tuesday

Wildlife Week - Skeleton Shrimp

Tiny monsters lurk in the shallows off the Texas Coast



Ever find yourself jumping in  your seat when a fascinating yet horrible monster pops out on the movie screen? Even though you cover your eyes, you still venture a peek between fingers to get another glimpse.

Real animals often serve as models for some of Hollywood’s scariest inventions. It wouldn’t be surprising if a certain type of amphipod — small crustaceans found along the Texas coast — inspired man-eating aliens in a series of blockbusters. Even its name is scary: skeleton shrimp.

Skeleton shrimp, a small, unusual group of amphipods, are not really shrimp at all. Shrimp have 10 pairs of legs, but most amphipods have only seven (certain skeleton shrimp have as few as five). With a long, stick-like body and large claw-like appendages (gnathopods), skeleton shrimp look like the translucent offspring of an aquatic praying mantis and a walking stick.

If you want to search Texas beaches for these living monsters, bring a magnifying glass. Of the nine species of skeleton shrimp recorded from Texas coastal waters, the largest are only about one inch long; the smallest, less than a quarter-inch long. 

Aside from their small size, skeleton shrimp are masters of disguise. They use their hind legs to grasp onto their favorite substrate, and then allow their bodies, antennae and remaining appendages to wave in the water, blending in like a small piece of algae. They can be found attached to a variety of surfaces, including mangrove roots, eel grass, floating debris and the sargassum that washes up on beaches. 

Depending on the species, skeleton shrimp feed on a variety of material, including detritus (a mixture of living and dead plant and algal material and microorganisms), plants, algae and small animals, including other skeleton shrimp. Despite their terrifying close-ups, they are much too small to pose any threat to people. 

When piles of sargassum make fishing on the beach difficult, put down your pole and collect a small bucket of the stuff. Look closely and find the eerie world of skeleton shrimp, perched like their bony namesakes in a forest neighborhood of odd residents.

Pull out your magnifying glass or zoom your camera in for a closer look at what might be the next Hollywood monster.

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Monday

Wildlife Week - Streetwise Grackles

Mobs of great-tailed grackles call cities home




If you’ve ever dined on an outdoor restaurant patio in Austin, you’ll remember the laser gun vocalizations and bold presence of the great-tailed grackle. You can’t leave your plate unattended for even a moment without the streetwise thief snatching a morsel.

This noisy, gregarious bird has not been deeply rooted in much of the Lone Star State for long. Some early writings on Texas avifauna (including J.K. Strecker Jr.’s 1912 checklist The Birds of Texas) found the great-tailed grackle only in South Texas, from San Antonio to Corpus Christi and south to the Rio Grande Valley. 

Another barometer of Texas birds, H.C. Oberholser’s 1974 book Bird Life of Texas, claims the grackle did not arrive in Fort Worth until 1944 (and in Dallas until 1947). The explosion northward throughout Texas (and beyond) caught steam after World War II when Texans flocked from rural areas to the cities. These now-urban birds are as ubiquitous in cities as pigeons, rats and roaches.

There really is safety in numbers, which is one reason for the success in this species. During breeding season, males carefully guard harems of females with their young, reacting viciously toward perceived predators. Near the nest colony, grackles overwhelm visitors with numbers and noise. 

The colonies can be large and are considered a nuisance by many. Anyone who parks a vehicle under a shady tree full of these nesting or sleeping birds soon regrets the decision because the droppings are not easy to scrub off.

Slender and long, male great-tailed grackles are iridescent black with a long shovel-scooped tail; females are smaller in drabber shades of brown and black. The voice of the displaying males is elaborate, with a variety of sounds, some sounding like a laser gun in a movie. 

These city birds forage in open areas such as parking lots, in search of scraps from cars or garbage cans, and they forage lawns for anything that crawls. They sometimes even follow behind a lawnmower.

At one time, this species and its close relative, the boat-tailed grackle, a resident of coastal marshes straddling the Gulf Coast, were considered one species. Both are glossy black and noisy and congregate in sizeable flocks. There are slight differences, however, which have resulted in the split into two species. 

The male great-tailed has pale yellow eyes, while the boat-tailed in Texas has brown eyes. The forehead and crown are very flat on the great-tailed, while that of the boat-tailed is slightly rounded or humped. This gives their heads very different profiles. 

While you won’t find the boat-tailed grackle very far from coastal marshes with brackish water, the great-tailed grackle has a far greater range, one that continues to expand northward with the aid of the growing (human) urban population.

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Sunday

Big Bend Ranch State Park Hosts Annual Fiesta Today

Rugged West Texas park celebrates 10th anniversary




Big Bend Ranch State Park is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a free fiesta Nov. 3 at the Sauceda Ranger Station located in the middle of the park. 

“Big Bend Ranch State Park offers a unique wilderness experience within the state parks system tied with spectacular night skies and scenery,” says Mark Lockwood, Regional Director for Texas State Parks. “The expansion of access within the park that started 10 years ago has introduced this rugged park of Texas to a generation of outdoor enthusiasts.”

The event begins at 10 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m. Walt Dabney, former director of Texas State Parks, career ranger and past national chief ranger for the National Park Service will give the keynote presentation and speak about the history of public lands, public lands in Texas and the BBRSP acquisition.

The fiesta includes activities such as guided hikes and bike rides, horseback rides, jeep tours, birding activities, a variety of vendors and entertainment, and barbecue. There will also be geology, archeology and birding tours throughout the day.

Fiesta details, schedules and bike ride registration are available on the Compadres del Ranch Grande website

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Saturday

Texas Deer Hunters Welcome Cooler Weather for Opening Weekend

New mandatory harvest reporting required for antlerless deer harvest




Deer hunters hoping for a change in the weather may be in luck for opening weekend of general deer season as weather forecasters predict cooler temperatures across the state. With an estimated 5.3 million deer in the statewide white-tailed deer population, Texas hunters heading to the field this fall are sure to fill their freezers with this season’s bounty.

“Good fawn production this year should help maintain the overall population and provide an abundance of deer for hunters to pursue,” said Alan Cain, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s white-tailed deer program leader. “We’ve seen a slow but steady growth in the statewide population over the last 15 years, particularly in areas such as the Hill Country, Oak Prairies and portions of the Cross Timbers. As a result of the growing population, we’ve expanded hunting season opportunities in the last several years, including a couple of changes to the antlerless season in 2019.”

For the first time, 21 counties in south-central Texas can partake in a four-day antlerless season that runs from Nov. 28- Dec. 1.

Any antlerless deer harvested during the archery, youth-only, muzzleloader, and the 4 doe-days during the general season is required to be reported to the department within 24 hours of harvest using either the “My Texas Hunt Harvest” mobile app (for iOS and Android) or on TPWD’s My Texas Hunt Harvest web page.

Counties required to report their harvest include Austin, Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Dewitt, Fayette, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Karnes, Lavaca, Lee, Waller, Washington and Wilson. Also included in the change are Goliad, Jackson, Victoria and Wharton counties north of U.S. Highway 59 and Comal, Hays and Travis counties east of IH-35.

The change in weather may be what is needed to jump start deer movement which has been slow during archery season due to unseasonably warm temperatures.  As hunting conditions improve with cooler temperatures, hunters can expect an above average year in terms of antler quality, deer numbers and overall harvest.

“Despite a slow start to archery and MLDP (Managed Lands Deer Program) season, I’m hearing of some exceptional bucks being harvested including an incredible 214 gross Boone and Crockett score low-fenced buck from La Salle County,” said Cain. “I’ve talked to a number of hunters and landowners who have been scouting at their lease or hunting property for the upcoming general season and are reporting good antler quality as well. I think hunter excitement is high this season and hunters have lots to look forward to.”

The general gun season opener kicks off on Nov. 2 and runs through Jan. 5, 2020 in north Texas and Jan. 19, 2020 in south Texas. A late youth-only season is also slated for Jan. 6-19, 2020. For additional late season deer hunting opportunities and county specific regulations, consult the 2019-2020 Outdoor Annual of hunting and fishing regulations.

Hunters are also reminded to review the TPWD chronic wasting disease regulations for information about CWD testing requirements and carcass movement restrictions for the 2019-2020 season. Also as a reminder, Texas hunters harvesting deer, elk, moose or other susceptible species in other CWD-positive states must also comply with carcass movement restrictions when bringing those harvested animals back into Texas.  Additionally, the Texas Animal Health Commission has mandatory testing requirements that apply to elk, red deer, sika, moose and reindeer.

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Friday

New Paddling Trail Launches on Sabine River

Texas now boasts 78 paddling trails across the state




As we look to starting a new recurring feature in 2020 featuring paddling/hiking/biking/history trails across the state, we're proud to share Texas' newest trail here on our blog. The Sabine Sandbar Paddling Trail near Carthage opens this week, offering paddlers the opportunity to enjoy tree-lined river views and plenty of wildlife sightings. 

The 78th official Texas Paddling Trail, as designated by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was nominated by the Panola County Chamber of Commerce and Texas Conservation Alliance because of its gleaming white sandbars and opportunity for great paddling.

The Sabine Sandbar Trail starts at FM 2517 southeast of Carthage on the Sabine River and continues 15 miles downriver to McFadden’s Landing on the west side of the river at CR 438. The trail has an alternate take-out point another four miles downriver at Yellow Dog Park on the east side of the river on CR 455.

“This section of the Sabine River is lined with beautiful white sandbars, ideal for resting,” said Michael Banks, Paddling Trail Coordinator for the Texas Conservation Alliance. “The winter sand bass spawn is great for fishing and slipping down the river in a canoe or kayak is a great way to see wildlife.”

The sand bass spawn usually runs from February to mid-March and draws anglers from all over Texas. Catfish are also a popular fishing species that can be caught year-round. The wide variety of wildlife a visitor may see includes bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons, kingfishers, and various kinds of ducks. The lucky paddler may also spot a river otter, beaver, or white-tailed deer.

“There are safety measures that should always be observed,” Banks said. “Let someone know where you are going on the Sabine River; wear a personal floatation device (required by law for anyone under 13 years of age); take enough water for your trip; wear sunscreen and insect repellent and take a first aid kit.”

Kiosks mark the trail’s access sites and provide information such as reminders that traveling the 15- to 19-mile trail may take 7-10 hours, so paddlers need to plan and pack carefully for their outing. The water level in the Sabine River fluctuates with local rainfall and runoff from upstream, and temporary high-water levels can occur. Visitors should check river levels and flow before launching their boat.

For more information, visit the trail's home page.

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Thursday

Beware the Bugbear

Ghost-faced bats’ frightening features actually aid echolocation 




Once upon a time, an ugly mythical creature called a bugbear gobbled up children if they refused to behave. At least, that’s what their frazzled parents had them believe!

Scary or not, bugbears share their name and bizarre looks with the ghost-faced bat, a Texas species that ranges from the Trans-Pecos and Rio Grande Valley regions into the Edwards Plateau. In Greek, the genus name Mormoops loosely translates to “bugbear face.”

“Whenever my students see one for the first time, they can’t believe anything looks like that,” says Loren Ammerman, a biology professor at Angelo State University. “Ghost-faced bats have a satellite-dish face with tiny eyes set way back in their big ears. Their faces also have flaps and wrinkles that help them send and receive echoes when catching prey.”

Leafy-looking flaps on their chins account for their other common name — leaf-chinned bats.

“They don’t have strong skulls, so they eat mainly soft-bodied insects like moths,” adds Ammerman, co-author of Bats of Texas (new edition, Texas A&M Press). “They fly fast and far when foraging.”
Little more is known about this elusive species.

“In the winter, ghost-faced bats tend to roost in caves found in West Texas and the Edwards Plateau,” Ammerman says. “But we’re not sure where they have their nurseries in early summer.”

They often share caves with myotis and Brazilian free-tailed bats. Barely, that is. Ghost-faced bats avoid roosting near other species and — unlike their more sociable relatives who sleep bunched up together — keep six inches apart among themselves. 

Wednesday

Big Time Texas Hunts Winners Announced

Texas Grand Slam winner, others can expect 'hunt of a lifetime'




The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has announced the 14 lucky winners of this year’s Big Time Texas Hunts, which were selected at random from entries in the drawing.

All told, hunters bought 106,114 Big Time Texas Hunt entries. More than $973,495 in gross sales was generated, and proceeds from the drawing go to support wildlife research, habitat management and public hunting.

“Big Time Texas Hunts continues to be an important conservation fundraiser for TPWD,” says Justin Dreibelbis, TPWD Private Lands and Public Hunting Program director. “If a hunter is lucky enough to win, they will experience the hunt of a life time.  If they don’t, they can feel good knowing the funds from their entry goes directly to wildlife conservation and public access projects on public hunting lands in Texas.”

This year’s winner of the Texas Grand Slam hunting package, Lee Ferguson of Marshall, is making plans for four separate guided hunts for the state’s top four premier big game species – desert bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, pronghorn and mule deer.

Following are the other category winners of this year’s Big Time Texas Hunts:
Ultimate Mule Deer Hunt – Carlton Martin, Palmhurst
Nilgai Antelope Safari – Carrie McCoy, Montgomery
Premium Buck Hunt – James Handley III, Campbell
Exotic Safari – Stanley Harris, Cypress
Whitetail Bonanza – John McCall, Arlington; Chris Fields, Corsicana; Phillip Lucky, Waxahachie; Justin Venable, Groesbeck; Darrell Dugas, Nederland
Big Time Bird Hunt – Richard Way, Christoval
Gator Hunt – Gerald Burch, Jr., Bynum
Texas Waterfowl Hunt – George (Kelley) Taylor, Corpus Christi
Wild Hog Adventure – Lance Lang, Minot, ND

All winners have been notified. Entries for next year’s Big Time Texas Hunts will go on sale May 15, 2020.

Big Time Texas Hunts is made possible with support from Toyota and the Texas Bighorn Society.

Sunday

Lifetime Hunting License Drawing

Win a Texas Lifetime Super Combo License




Enter the Lifetime License Drawing to win a Lifetime Super Combo License! This special license, an $1,800 value, gives you the privilege to hunt and fish in Texas without ever having to buy another state license.

There are two more chances to win: enter by October 31 or November 30. Winners will be drawn the next business day. Any entries not drawn will be automatically included in the next drawing. Only $5 per entry and you can enter as many times as you like! Purchase your entries wherever Texas hunting and fishing licenses are sold.

All proceeds from the Lifetime License Drawing fees go directly to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for on-the-ground conservation efforts that help make Texas one of the best places in the country to hunt and fish.

Lifetime License Drawing winners receive a Lifetime Super Combo License (an $1,800 value) and a 1-year subscription to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.

Look here for more information.

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