Saturday

National Bald is Beautiful Day

When Birds Go Bald


Darn, we almost missed National Bald is Beautiful Day without telling you about our favorite “bald” birds (well, besides the bald eagle, of course!). 

Have you ever seen a “strange” bird that looks like a cardinal, but then again, so different? Or maybe a blue bird that could be a jay, but why does it look so bad? Grackles, too.

They’re molting.



What’s up? No one knows for sure, but experts offer several explanations. At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, researchers with Project FeederWatch— a winter survey of birds at North American feeders — point to different molting patterns as one reason.

First, some basic avian biology: Because feathers wear out, birds molt old ones once or twice a year, usually in late summer and early fall, and grow new replacements. Normally, the process occurs in stages so birds can still fly and remain healthy.

Sometimes, though, a cardinal or blue jay may molt its head feathers all at once instead of gradually. Granted, the poor bird may look diseased, but the ghastly condition is only temporary, and harmless as well. Head feathers usually grow back within a few weeks.

Other reasons? Some bird watchers theorize that malnutrition or other environmental factors could lead to bird baldness. In other cases, birds may lose head feathers because of an infestation of lice or mites.

“I don’t buy the mites thing,” says David Bonter with Project FeederWatch. “Birds molt at different times and in different ways. There are some general patterns in terms of which feathers are replaced at which time of the year and in which order. In reality, however, there’s an incredible amount of variability in molt patterns, even within the same sex or age class of birds within a species at the same time of the year.”

Two blue jays kept by a former wildlife rehabilitator in Duluth, Minn., during the 1990s best confirm Bonter’s assertions.

“I was rehabbing one bird, and the other one was a licensed education bird,” recalls Laura Erickson, now the science editor with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They were in adjacent cages. Every fall for eight years, my licensed blue jay molted all her head feathers simultaneously. The other one didn’t.

“So it seems that some individuals molt their head feathers more quickly than others,” adds Erickson, who has authored four books on birds. “Which can lead to a very embarrassing appearance for a week or two until the new feathers grow in. It’s a good thing birds don’t have mirrors!”

On a positive note, bald birds make a great educational tool.

“Since the cardinal is such a visible backyard favorite, people get a peek at a world of bird physiology that they’d normally not witness,” says Cliff Shackelford, an ornithologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “At first, most observers worry that the sky is falling when they see a bald cardinal at their feeder. But once they do a little homework, they find out that the bird is molting, which is normal. The next step is to keep observing, keep asking questions and keep learning!”

Have you ever witnessed this “bald bird” phenomenon?

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Friday

Friday the 13th Full Moon

Why So Scared to Camp?


It’s Friday the 13thAND there’s a full moon. Yikes! What better time to talk about any camping fears we might harbor. Push those aside, and you can really enjoy sleeping under the stars.

It's called nyctophobia — the fear of the dark. But it's not the dark itself that scares us. It's what may be lurking there. Could it be wolves? A bear? Has the hook-handed man from the campfire story come to attack us?



We don't seem to fear much when we spend the night indoors, with the doors locked and the night-light on. But the thought of sleeping outside can unlock primal fears that might keep us from enjoying a night under the stars. Don't let an overactive imagination keep you from the highly enjoyable, non-scary world of tent camping.

We’ve all been first-timers, and likely we’ve all been teased for being afraid of things that go bump in the night, especially when they turn out to be nothing more than an owl or hungry raccoon. Getting close to nature can feel scary when you’re used to climate-controlled comfort in your own bed. Remember, you can’t get close to nature from those safe-feeling spots. Maybe it’s time to face those fears and give camping a try.

One of the best ways to get close to nature is by staying in a tent, which is how 60 percent of U.S. campers spent their nights outdoors in 2018, according to the North American Camping Report. But the report also notes that first-time campers are much less likely to stay in tents, with nearly 60 percent choosing instead to stay in cabins, RVs and other accommodations.

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes the rise of nature phobia. Today’s parents keep children indoors to keep them “safe,” though their fears are based on dirt, plants, insects and wildlife rather than crime or other urban problems. Today, health officials tell us that it’s to our benefit to reconnect with nature and spend time outdoors, no matter the age.

Let’s get a reality check on some common concerns that intimidate people from camping. 

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
As a new tent camper in Texas, you may have nightmares about wild beasts arriving for a nocturnal visit. While we don’t have any tigers in Texas, some areas do have mountain lions and black bears. Remember, we are visitors to their home, so be sure to practice proper procedures on the trail and at your campsite.

Just sounds nasty, pretty much is
Many newcomers to the Texas outdoors have questions about snakes. Texas does have a nice variety of venomous snakes: coral snakes, copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes. Be sure to pay attention to any warning signs or ranger instructions but, most importantly, if you see a snake, leave it alone.

Disconnection detox
The really good news is that your chances of having a Wi-Fi connection or even cellphone service are not very good. Wait, that’s good news? Yes!

To read about more about these fears and learn about others (like poison ivy, oh my!), go to our Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine app for a SNEAK PEEK at our upcoming October feature!

Thursday

A Need for Speed  — Roadrunners

Roadrunners rely on swiftness and agility, not flight. 


“Beep-beep!” For many of us, this silly sound pops into our minds when we think of roadrunners. You know, Wile E. Coyote’s cartoon nemesis, the road-racing bird that was always one step ahead. 

Today, we also relate lightning-fast Internet connectivity with the name. Either way, this zippy bird is indisputably affiliated with speed. 

The greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) is a ground-dwelling member of the cuckoo family (Cuculidae). A large bird, reaching a total length of 24 inches, it is the only roadrunner found in the United States. 



And, actually, “Beep-beep!” is not even close to the dove-like coos and clicking vocalizations roadrunners make. 

Often thought of as an iconic species of the desert Southwest, the greater roadrunner can be found throughout Texas, even behind the pine curtain of the easternmost regions of the state. Roadrunners are aptly named for their ability to run and walk. 

Speed is their greatest asset, and they are capable of running as fast as 17 mph. While these birds are quite capable of flying, they rarely do unless threatened. Even then, roadrunners will fly only short distances, and usually hit the ground running. 

The roadrunner’s diet is as diverse as the habitats where it can be found. Well-known as rattlesnake hunters, they consume mainly other animals: insects, lizards, snakes, rodents and other birds. 

Roadrunners are exceptionally agile and can catch birds right out of the air. Their long tail provides a valuable counterbalance when involved in high-speed pursuit of prey. 

Armed with speed, agility, power and a sharp beak, roadrunners usually have no problem getting something to eat. If necessary, they will subdue their quarry by repeatedly slamming it onto the ground. 

Roadrunners prefer to eat on the run, and are often seen with a snake or lizard hanging from their mouths. Greater roadrunners live from seven to 10 years, reaching maturity after two years. 

Monogamous, they breed once or twice annually. Males exhibit some interesting courtship rituals. 

The male will often entice a potential mate with a tasty morsel while performing a tantalizing dance, keeping the food just out of her reach. While she’s distracted by the prize, he takes the opportunity to breed. He then relinquishes the bait, and through this innocent chicanery, a lifelong pair bond is formed. Such ingenuity!

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Wednesday

Archery Season: Tree Stand Safety

Tree stands give hunters visibility and camouflage, but can be dangerous. 


When Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was giving firefighting advice, but those sage words apply to tree stand safety as well. Falls from tree stands are the leading cause of hunting injuries in many southeastern states. 
By following these simple safety tips, hunters can prevent a fall from a tree stand that could result in injury or even death.

  • KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT. Read and understand all manufacturer’s instructions and warnings before using a tree stand and full-body harness in the field. Hunters should practice using their equipment with another person present, at ground level. Learn to properly use your harness with a suspension-release device. Never climb without it.  
  • CHECK EQUIPMENT. Before the beginning of every season, inspect stands (including straps) for wear, cracks and fatigue. Replace equipment showing such signs.  
  • SELECT THE RIGHT TREE FOR YOUR STAND. Select a straight, healthy tree that is the right size for your tree stand. Check to make sure there are no insect nests or animal dens in the tree. Avoid using climbing stands on smooth barked trees, especially during icy or wet conditions. Clear debris from the base of the tree to minimize injury from a fall and to ensure a safe base, if using a ladder stand.  
  • ALWAYS USE A HAUL LINE. Never carry equipment when climbing into or out of a stand; use a haul line to raise and lower equipment. Make sure firearms are unloaded and the action is open before raising them to or lowering them from a tree stand. Never attach the haul line near the firearm’s trigger or trigger guard. Make sure arrows are placed in a covered quiver prior to hauling your bow up to the stand or back down.  
  • HAVE A HUNT PLAN. Let a reliable person know where you’ll be hunting and when you expect to return. Include a map of the area, making it easier for emergency personnel to find you if you don’t report back in. Have a backup plan in case weather, fatigue or uncertainty about the climb are concerns. In such times, hunting from a ground blind is a wise choice.  

  • By planning ahead, practicing how to return safely to your stand and having a rescue plan, you can avoid additional problems.  

    Here are a few other helpful hints to make your elevated stand hunting safe.  

    Remember that early morning dew can make footing slippery, and keep in mind the “three points of contact rule” — either two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot should always stay in contact with the ladder or climbing device. Blood flow to the legs can be a problem during extended time in the tree stand, so use a suspension relief device or techniques like pushing your legs against the tree.

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    Tuesday

    What's This Fish Called?

    Confusing Aliases of Texas Fish 


    The unusual names people have for fish can be intriguing: sac-a-lait (white crappie), goggle-eye (warmouth), slick-jim (green sunfish), high fin blues (blue catfish), op or opelousa (flathead catfish), jack fish (pickerel) and choupique (bowfin). 

    For biologists or fishermen, this diverse terminology often leads to confusion and misunderstandings.     For instance, ask the average angler if he’s caught any fish, and he might respond, “Oh, just some bream.” When you ask what kind of bream he’s catching, he might say, “Well, you know, just some perch.” Now, anyone who has ever spent time fishing with earthworms at a local pond probably knows the terms “bream” (pronounced “brim”) or “perch,” and knows exactly what it’s like to catch one. 

    Bream, brim, sunfish, bluegill, perch, huh?


    But what is a bream? Examine the stringer and you might identify the fish he’s caught as any number of species — bluegill, redear sunfish, white crappie or warmouth, just to name a few.     

    The origin of the word “bream” is likely from the Middle English word breme, or Old French bresme, used in the 14th or 15th century; it simply means “freshwater fish.” Tracing the word back even further to the Proto-Germanic language (an ancestor of European languages, including English), bream may originate from the word brehwan, meaning “to shine, glitter or sparkle.” 

    The most common theme of all definitions of the word “bream” refers to fish with flattened, compressed bodies and shiny scales. The name is used in many cultures around the world.  In Europe, there are several species belonging to the minnow family commonly referred to as “bream,” including the silver bream and the carp bream. One definition defines bream as “any of various freshwater sunfishes of the genus Lepomis, especially bluegill.” 

    Locally, many people refer to groups of sunfish species collectively as “bream” or “perch,” and may be unaware that those are common names used for different fish around the world. To avoid this confusion, biologists use a classification system known as Linnaean taxonomy. 

    In this system, every species has a unique name derived from Greek or Latin that is used worldwide.  Many fish from the taxonomic order Perciformes are referred to as “perch.” This group contains about 7,000 species, including sunfish, bass and crappie. Perciformes means “perch-like”; the origin of the word “perch” comes from the Proto-Indo-European perk, meaning “speckled or spotted.” 

    In biology, the term “perch” is commonly used to refer to the family of walleye and darters, called Percidae. Sunfish and black bass belong to another family, Centrarchidae. The largemouth bass is actually in the sunfish family.  

    True bass, in the family Serranidae, include the striped bass, white bass, yellow bass and white perch. In the northern United States, fishermen use the term “perch” when referring to the yellow perch. 

    In Texas, “white perch” is commonly used when referring to white crappie. Confused yet?  

    White perch, sac-a-lait, white crappie

    The bluegill can be distinguished by the vertical bars on the body and a black spot on the back on the dorsal fin. Other common names include sunperch, perch or coppernose.  

    Bream, perch, panfish and sunfish are some of the most important species in fresh water. They are a primary food source for larger fish like largemouth bass and catfish. They are an important indicator of ecosystem health, and are often the first fish young anglers hook. 

    Sunfish are easy to catch and can be good for showing new anglers how to fish. Some of the most common sunfish species that anglers catch in Texas are the bluegill, redear, longear and redbreast sunfish.  

    Redear sunfish can be identified by the red edge of the opercle flap or “ear.” Names for the redear in the U.S. include shellcracker, Georgia bream, cherry-gill, chinquapin and stumpknocker.  

    Redbreast sunfish can be identified by a red or orange belly and a long opercle flap or “ear.” Names for the redbreast in the U.S. include yellowbelly sunfish or redbreasted bream.  

    These species can be found in virtually every lake, pond, river or creek in Texas, and there are no statewide length or bag limit restrictions for harvesting sunfish. 

    These “panfish” also make an excellent meal! Sunfish are caught on light tackle using small hooks with crickets, worms or small artificial lures.  No matter what you call the fish, freshwater fishing is fun for all ages. Get out and fish, and take a friend or family member along to share the experience.

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    Monday

    Texas' Fantastic Fall Hunting

    Hunters Brace for Hot Teal Season Opener

    This year’s early teal hunting season is expected to be a hot one, both in terms of temperature and prospects. Extended forecasts for Saturday’s opener indicate waves of blue-winged teal headed for Texas, along with daytime highs in the mid to upper 90s.

    The 16-day statewide early teal and Eastern Zone Canada goose season in Texas will run Saturday, Sept. 14 through Sunday, Sept. 29. The daily bag on teal is six, with a possession limit of 18. Bag limit for Canada geese will be five and a possession limit of 15 in the Eastern Zone only.

    “Literally millions of teal are heading our way and growing numbers are already being reported across the state,” said Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “It is looking like the timing of this year’s teal season may be another encouraging point considering the full harvest moon will be on Friday, the day before the season opener. That will trigger mass migration of teal out of the Dakotas.”



    While the stars may be aligning for what could be a bountiful teal season, the extended dry weather across much of the state could be a concern. Kraai indicated a lack of water now following the wet spring and early summer that hit much of the eastern half of Texas isn’t necessarily a detriment to hunting.

    “Seems we are always in a pattern of too much or too little rainfall here in Texas,” he said. “We have definitely entered a dry spell over the last couple of months, which is not necessarily a terrible thing for many parts of Texas. Typically, when there is less water spread out across the landscape it concentrates birds in areas where hunters tend to be waiting.”

    The extremely wet spring and summer in eastern Texas had rivers in flood and lakes way above conservation pool. This unfortunately will impact the amount of terrestrial seed producing vegetation that generates the high energy foods that teal will be seeking. The upper ends of these reservoirs will still be a great place to check for migrating teal despite high waters earlier in the year. Submerged aquatic vegetation should be growing rapidly this time of year and aquatic bugs, essential to migrating and molting teal, will be flourishing in those locations.

    As for conditions and prospects for teal season around the state, TPWD waterfowl biologists report:
    • The Gulf Coast is drying out quick but freshwater flows into the bay systems have sparked an above average amount of submerged aquatic vegetation currently growing in places that are typically much more saline.  Marsh complexes up and down the coast should see an increase in teal use this fall.
    • Further inland in the agricultural areas of the Gulf Coast there are a lot of people prepping for the wave of teal coming our way. Pumps are running night and day and canals are open and flowing. These folks will most certainly see incredible teal concentrations enjoying the tables that they set for them.
    • Much like the rest of the state the High Plains playas received substantial rainfall this spring and summer. Very high temperatures and strong dry winds have really wreaked havoc on the standing water across much of the Panhandle the last couple of months. There are still some locations with clusters of wet playas, but they are receding fast. Definitely going to need some replenishing rains soon to carry this important waterfowl area into the winter.

    Hunters are reminded to purchase their 2019-20 hunting license before heading afield, available online at www.tpwd.texas.gov/buy, at license retailers or by phone at (800) 895-4248. The online transaction system is available 24/7. Call center hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is a required $5 administrative fee for each phone or online transaction, but unlimited items can be purchased during a single transaction for this $5 fee.

    New this year are enhancements to make the licensing process simpler and faster. “Expedited checkout” speeds the process of re-purchasing the same license items bought during the previous three years. TPWD has also made it easier to show proof-of-license. Now hunters and anglers can use an electronic image of their license as proof-of-license and show/display it in any of these ways: (1) an electronic photo of your license, (2) an emailed receipt, (3) via your account within the license point-of-sale system, the Outdoor Annual App or the My Texas Hunt Harvest App (for hunters). You still must have your physical license for any activities requiring tags and the physical federal duck stamp for waterfowl hunting.

    Sunday

    National Grandparents Day

    Take Grandma and Grandpa to an Accessible State Park


    Everyone benefits from time spent outside, but for individuals with disabilities, such as some grandparents, getting out into nature can be difficult. Check out these locations for a variety of accessible outdoor adventures — just remember to contact the park before you go to check current conditions, since weather events often impact trails and other features.



    Visitors in wheelchairs can easily access three stocked fishing ponds at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, where catching a fish is almost guaranteed. No fishing license is required; gear and bait are provided. The visitors center and 0.8-mile Wetlands Trail are also wheelchair-accessible. Along the trail, stop at the animal sounds station and bee house; at the visitors center, check out the fish hatchery, aquariums and dive theater presentation.

    Though only 45 miles from downtown Houston, this park feels like another, wilder world. The half-mile, fully paved Creekfield Lake Nature Trail winds through wildlife-filled wetlands (alligators!); touchable wildlife bronzes line the trail. At the Nature Center, explore a unique hands-on alligator discovery area and tactile model of the park. The George Observatory, open on Saturdays, has a ramp to the viewing deck and an accessible interior. Also accessible: cabin, amphitheater, some screened shelters and campsites, trail to fishing pier, wildlife viewing platform.



    This popular park in the Hill Country hosts a mentored white-tailed deer hunting workshop for the mobility-impaired, with guides and all equipment provided. Fishing and swimming are also favorite activities — two fishing piers are accessible, and the shoreline of the lake is accessible from many points throughout the park. Also accessible: some tent sites, RV sites and cabins; paths to playgrounds.

    An ADA-accessible playscape at Government Canyon invites young visitors to enjoy nature-based play on structures like climbing rocks, stumps and a ropes feature in the shape of a giant spider web. The space is wide open, with many tactile surfaces to explore. The 1.23-mile Discovery Trail provides an accessible hike on mostly level terrain. Also accessible: some picnic areas and campsites.

    This otherworldly setting, where primeval waters surround ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, offers a peaceful escape. Cabins 3 and 7 are ADA-accessible, complete with kitchen counters 2 inches lower than standard, a bathtub with handrails and an ADA shower. An accessible fishing pier is available, and a new accessible restroom with showers was completed in late 2018. Check out special, ranger-led programming for most abilities, including a popular “owl prowl.” Also accessible: some campsites, two screened shelters, group recreational hall, picnic area, headquarters and gift shop.



    Where the Comanche and Tonkawa once camped and the Civilian Conservation Corps built stone structures, you’ll find a park that connects with history and nature. Yurt 2 is accessible inside and out, featuring a concrete pathway and patio, raised fire ring and picnic table (access is via a caliche surface). Also accessible: boardwalk to wildlife viewing platform, 1.5-mile Eagle Trail (caliche surface), shelter area bathroom with ADA stalls and showers, pool with ADA entry options.

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