A Simple Action to Help Birds - #1

Make Windows Safer, Day and Night

The challenge: Up to 1 billion birds are estimated to die each year after hitting windows in the United States and Canada. 

The cause: By day, birds perceive reflections in glass as habitat they can fly into. By night, migratory birds drawn in by city lights are at high risk of colliding with buildings.

These simple steps save birds: On the outside of the window, install screens or break up reflections—using film, paint or string spaced no more than two inches high or two inches wide. 

Take it further: Work with businesses or public buildings to offer a contest for creative “window mural” designs that make windows safer for birds. Support legislation for bird-friendly building designs. Start a lights-out campaign in your city.

Thanks to our friends at for these suggestions on how we can all help birds.

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3 Billion Birds Lost in 50 Years

Together We Can Bring Them Back

In less than a single lifetime, North America has lost more than one in four of its birds, according to a report in the world’s leading scientific journal.

A startling report published in the journal Science yesterday shows that the United States and Canada have lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970, or more than one in four birds. That marks a massive reduction in abundance involving hundreds of species, from beloved backyard songbirds to long-distance migrants.

“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds,” said Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. “We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds.”

The findings show that of nearly 3 billion birds lost, 90 percent belong to 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and swallows — common, widespread species that play influential roles in food webs and ecosystem functioning, from seed dispersal to pest control. 

Among the steep declines noted:

  • Grassland birds are especially hard hit, with a 53-percent reduction in population — more than 720 million birds — since 1970. 
  • Shorebirds, most of which frequent sensitive coastal habitats, were already at dangerously low numbers and have lost more than one-third of their population.
  • The volume of spring migration, measured by radar in the night skies, has dropped by 14 percent in just the past decade.

Our friends at are offering some terrific tips on how you can help. We’ll share one here every day for the next week.

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Talk Like a Pirate Day: Find Your Booty in a State Park

Geocaching is a Natural Hidden Treasure Hunt

Did you know that there are specially hidden treasures at state parks across Texas? In fact, you’ve probably walked by hundreds of them without realizing it. Geocaching is a type of treasure hunt using a global positioning system (GPS) unit or app on your smartphone to help you find hidden “caches” placed by people around the world.

Here’s how it works. First, decide where you want to go. Geocaches are everywhere, from just down the street to far away in the most remote wilderness areas. On the website, you can search for and then download the needed coordinates — the exact location of a cache using latitude and longitude.

Next, travel to the site of the geocache you’re seeking. When you get close, turn on your GPS unit and start following directions toward the cache. It’s important to remember to practice “common sense caching” — your GPS unit knows the shortest direction to the cache, but that may not be the easiest or wisest route. Always use the paths and trails that are safest for you and your family.

Once you’re within 10 or 20 feet of your geocache, it’s time to start looking for good hiding places — maybe under a rock or behind a tree. Caches come in different sizes. They might be in small containers, such as a 35mm film canister, or larger containers, such as an ammo box.

Found it? Great! Remember that hiding places for geocaches sometimes make good hiding places for animals too — tap your cache with a stick first to see if anything crawls out.

When you open a geocache, you can find many different things. Some small caches contain just a small roll of paper to sign your name. Others might include tradable items for kids and adults, or special trackable items that travel across the country. Bring a pen with you to sign logbooks, as well as small inexpensive items to leave behind in place of your new treasure.

Always remember to hide a cache back just the way you found it; this helps to make sure that whoever comes after you enjoys the same experience.

Geocaching turns an ordinary hike into an exciting treasure hunt — a new and inventive way to get kids excited about getting outdoors. Take a look at the Texas State Park Geocache Challenge to participate in a fun program for caching in your state parks. Cache on!

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World Water Monitoring Day

Texas’ ‘Water Parks’

Waters born from above and below, from desert downpours to crystalline springs, carve their way across the vast Texas map, shaped and colored by their geography and geology. They gradually unite and mix as tributaries become creeks, creeks become rivers and rivers become gulf. Along their transformative journeys, many will flow through tranquil places, away from the noise and trappings of civilization, each bringing beauty to the landscape and inspiring those who seek its restorative power.

On this World Water Monitoring Day, let’s take a pause to refresh ourselves in these state and national parks with water flowing through them.

Colorado Bend State Park: Spring-fed waters from Gorman Creek cascade 60 feet down multiple tiers of fern-covered travertine slopes to form Gorman Falls.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Shallow-water salt flats and gypsum flats are all that remain of an ancient lake, once fed by surrounding streams and by the runoff from the Guadalupe Mountains.

Caddo Lake State Park: Thick bald cypress trees and lush vegetation in tannin-colored water create a maze in the sloughs, bayous and ponds of Caddo Lake.

Big Bend National Park: Hot springs overflow from the foundation of the bathhouse built by J.O. Langford around 1909. Today, visitors still soak in the clear 105-degree springs as the Rio Grande rushes by.

Guadalupe River State Park: Framed by bald cypress trees, the Guadalupe River winds through the park in a series of deep pools and shallow rapids.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park: A red tributary of silted claystone and sandstone flows after a rainstorm on its path to the Red River.

Mustang Island State Park: Tides flow through the jetties of Mustang Island, merging waters of Corpus Christi Bay with the Gulf of Mexico.

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Aw, Shucks!

The Ins and Outs of Getting Into an Oyster

One of the things we “shellfish-ly” love about September? There’s an R in the month, so it’s oyster time! Here at Texas Parks & Wildlife, we’re all about oyster conservation, but we’re fans of eating these briny wonders, too.

While oyster season (for collecting) doesn’t begin until November 1, popular culture says they’re safe to eat now.

It is often speculated who had the courage to eat the first oyster. My suspicion is that upon watching the sea otters or a sea bird relishing an oyster, it took little courage at all to follow suit. Otters are uniquely equipped for opening oysters, though. It takes a little equipment and a little experience for us lower life forms.

The single most important piece of equipment is the oyster knife. I have used (and broken) many kinds of knives, and there is good reason to buy the real thing. Not only is it easier on your tableware, it is much less likely to go through a valued piece of your own anatomy. Of course, faced with oysters and no oyster knife, improvisation is called for. The best second choice I have found is a wide-blade screwdriver. A third fallback is the trusty church key, but I find that more kitchens have oyster knives than church keys of late. 

Gloves are optional. I like one for the left hand, which I use to hold the oyster, being right-handed. A folded towel can work as well, and I usually use both. A large, shallow bowl on the work surface saves the oyster liquor. 

To address the oyster, hold it hinge up, using the towel to grip. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist with increasing pressure until the hinge just gives and the top shell loosens. Slip the knife along the inside of the flatter shell until you feel an obstruction. This is the adductor muscle. Cut it, careful to avoid slicing into the flesh of the oyster. Remove the top shell and slip the knife under the oyster to detach it from the bottom. Remove any stray shell fragments.

There are some shortcuts for shucking oysters. Grilling is my favorite. Just lay the oysters on a hot grill for a few minutes with the cupped bottom shell down. Watch carefully and remove them with tongs just as they open. Open and clean. The grill imparts some flavor and cooks the oyster a bit. It also has the advantage of fewer fragments of shell to discover. Another shortcut is to place the oysters in an ice chest or freezer for half an hour. Be careful not to leave them any longer, as frozen oysters are impossible to open and turn to mush when they thaw. But 20 to 30 minutes is enough to relax the adductor muscle, making the whole procedure easier.

Now you have the blank canvas for your masterpiece! Add spinach, cracker crumbs, garlic, Parmesan cheese and Tabasco, pass them under the broiler until they turn golden, and you have Oysters Rockefeller. Roll them in seasoned crumbs and brown them quickly, serve on a bun with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and tartar sauce and you have a po' boy. Hide them in a pot of hot gumbo and let them poach or stew them in cream for New Year's. 

However you finish them, there is nothing that evokes the sweetness and flavor of the Texas Coast better than our oysters. What's your favorite way to eat them?

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Mexican Independence Day

Viva Casa Blanca! Fishing the Texas Border

On this Mexican Independence Day, let’s celebrate with a fishing trip to an international state park right on the Texas border with Mexico.

In his 17 years at Lake Casa Blanca, Rudy Dominguez has seen many a largemouth bass pulled from the water tip the scales at 13 pounds. Flathead catfish can weigh even more. Much more.

“They catch ’em big here,” Dominguez says. “Largemouth average 8 pounds. And I’ve seen guys with 30- and 40-pound flathead catfish.”

No doubt, fishing’s a major attraction at Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, a 371-acre getaway located northeast of Laredo. Hybrid striped bass and catfish abound in the lake along with largemouth bass, crappie and sunfish. You can fish from the bank or a fishing pier or launch a boat from the park’s three-lane concrete ramp. 

On several weekends, the park has hosted “Go Fish! A Learn-to-Fish Event,” a morning-long activity targeted at families. 

Besides fishing, local folks flock to Lake Casa Blanca International State Park for family picnics and barbecues, not to mention swimming, boating and biking. Shaded picnic tables overlooking the lake fill up quickly on weekends and holidays, so arrive early to stake out your place.

Family reunion time? Take your pick from among five day-use facilities. All come with barbecue pits and picnic tables. Looking to escape the heat? Book the park’s recreation hall, which has air conditioning and indoor restrooms. Sporty types go for the picnic pavilion with volleyball and basketball courts nearby. Hint: Reserve group facilities in advance. 

The park also has tennis courts, a baseball field and several playgrounds. Three campgrounds with 66 sites come with water and electricity.

 FYI: This park has the only “international” designation among state parks. Why? “We’re only three miles away from the border,” Dominguez explains. “So we get a lot of visitors from Mexico.”

Lake Casa Blanca International State Park is off Bob Bullock Loop (Loop 20) near Laredo. Park entrance is via State Senator Judith Zaffirini Road. For more information, call 956-725-3826 or visit the website.

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Better Wildlife Imagery

Avoid These Three Wildlife Photography Errors 

As you turn the pages in your favorite outdoor magazine, you may notice that the beautiful wildlife images taken by professional photographers seem to jump off the page with visual impact and possess a certain “presence.” This leads many aspiring photographers to wonder, “Why can’t I get good pictures like that?”

There are three basic reasons why most wildlife photos DON’T attain that “wow” factor that we all look for.

Not getting close enough
All too often, that animal we photographed from our vehicle or front porch ends up looking like a small speck in the distance, despite having a good zoom/telephoto lens on the camera. Many  photographers mistakenly believe that a longer lens will magically bring an animal up close, allowing them to shoot from hundreds of feet or more. The dirty little secret is that, even with a powerful lens such as a 300mm, up to a 600mm, you still have to be physically close, especially for a close-up portrait shot. This is where patience, planning and luck pay off.

Getting close may involve setting up a blind, stalking an animal or photographing in areas where animals are not spooked by human presence. These could include backyard feeders, parks, zoos, wildlife refuges or game ranches. The best image will be the one that fills the frame with the animal, leaving just enough room around it to show its environment. Don’t forget the rules of composition, though, and avoid centering any subject in the dead-center of the frame.

Not using creative lighting
As you look over the images taken by professional wildlife photographers, you will likely notice that, almost without exception, they were taken under artistically pleasing lighting conditions. Usually, this involves the “magic light” times of morning or evening, when the warm-colored light creates a much more pleasing color palette than the harsh and contrasty noon to midday sun.

Alternately, shooting under atmospheric conditions as fog, or even rain, can add an artistic feel. Rarely will you see any great photograph taken under a noon sun on a clear day without some type of lighting modifier such as a reflector or diffuser.

Unfortunately, most photographers get started too late in the morning and miss the best lighting. As the old saw goes, “You snooze — you lose.”

Not showing animal behavior or body language
Even with a good close-up taken under nice lighting, if the animal is just standing there you’ve lost a big portion of the recipe for an outstanding wildlife photograph. By showing some unique aspect of an animal’s behavior, body language or motion, you can add that extra dimension that puts your photo over the top.  Capturing a sharp image of any animal in motion can be challenging, but it’s much better than a static pose. This is where practicing with your equipment (especially auto-focus features) pays off in the spontaneity required.

If the animal is not in motion, be patient and wait for those moments when it exhibits some type of behavior, such as when a deer snorts or makes a rub or scrape. Some great bird behavior includes preening, bathing or getting ready to take off.

The stealthy and elusive quality of most animals means that luck is always a factor for any wildlife photographer — amateur or professional. However, with some prior planning of the location and time of day to shoot, as well as the patience to wait for that split-second of unique behavior, you can increase the odds of getting that trophy wildlife photograph.

How’s your wildlife photography coming along? Have any tips to share? Gear that you love, or photo apps?

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