Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Great Gar Adventure

By Courtney Anderson

Growing up with a fisheries background has followed me to apply it at every internship I have had the pleasure of serving. It has been a constant theme, through my schooling and budding career. Most people don’t care about fish, unless it’s a game fish that can be “Fried up good!” And honestly, it drives me crazy. We should care about the planet as a WHOLE: from deer to songbirds, dragonflies to algae, humans to mosquito fish, because our planet works as such. A whole. And every part is unique and important.  That’s why I helped save about 60 Gar last Friday.
The Discovery
Deaver Pond at Hagerman NWR had an unfortunate accident with its’ culvert that led to a drainage of almost every last drop of water. I heard that the pond was a mess and stunk of dead fish, needless to say I was intrigued enough to check it out myself. Plus I had the opportunity to add a skull to the interpretation collection here at Hagerman. I was shocked to discover that there was still some water in the pond; A couple of pools here and there. So, I climbed on down to grab a perished carp when… SLOSH! My foot sunk all the way to my calf, so much for those nice pair of pants. After looking around I discovered some commotion in a small section (About 5ft in diameter) of water. Knowing I had already trashed my outfit I went to investigate. Lo and behold there were still fish! And I mean a lot of fish, hanging out in this small area. Clearly they were gar, which means the potential for Alligator Gar.  We have all four species of gar on the refuge (Shortnose, Longnose, Spotted, and Alligator).  There is concern for the long term survival of the Alligator Gar because their numbers have declined significantly in the past few years. With this in mind, I knew we needed to do something.
The Rescue
After discussion with Kathy Whaley, the Refuge Manager, she agreed that we couldn’t sit back with the potential for a species whose population status is in question, dying. So I recruited Deputy Manager Rick Cantu and Maintenance Worker Russell “Rusty” Daniel and headed to the pond. Now fishing is never easy, and fishing for gar is definitely not easy. We all loaded up with waders and braved the mud to the little pond where the gars were. I didn’t get but about 5 feet into the mud when my hip waders were so buried, I had no other choice. I slipped out of them and took on the mud like any woman who’s not afraid to get dirty. Rusty used a noose to catch the fish under their fins, handed them to me, and I passed them off to Rick. And we continued to do this. I began to hand catch the gar, which was easier than I thought because of the high number of them in such a small space! However, this is also why I was the only one of the three of us who had mud up to my ears (see photo!)
The Relief
With two very large coolers full of fish, we drove down the road a bit to Big Mineral Creek. The looks on both Rusty and Rick’s faces were priceless, being that they were exhausted and covered in mud like myself. After unloading the fish into the water and gleefully watching them swim away I couldn’t help but remember the wise words of the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” And saving those fish’s lives may not have made a difference to the world, but it most certainly made a world of difference to me.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Coyote

"The Coyote" will be the topic for Second Saturday at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge on April 11, 2015,  with speaker, Dr. Jessica Healy.  The program will begin at 10 am in the Visitor Center Meeting room at the Refuge.

Texas Master Naturalist Jack Chiles will lead a guided bird walk earlier that morning, at 8 am, weather permitting.  Participants will meet at the Refuge Visitor Center and will return in time for Dr. Healy’s program.  Loaner binoculars are provided by the Friends of Hagerman if needed.

Dr. Healy joined the sciences faculty at Austin College as Assistant Professor of Biology in 2012.  After serving as a postdoctoral research associate at University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. She earned a Ph.D. in zoology at Colorado State University, concentrating in ecological physiology, and completed her bachelor’s degree in biology at Central College in Iowa.

According to National Geographic, “The coyote appears often in the tales and traditions of Native Americans—usually as a very savvy and clever beast. Modern coyotes have displayed their cleverness by adapting to the changing American landscape. These members of the dog family once lived primarily in open prairies and deserts, but now roam the continent's forests and mountains. They have even colonized cities like Los Angeles, and are now found over most of North America....[Omnivorous mammals, the coyote may live to be to 14 years of age in the wild.]”

On Wikipedia we found this account of a coyote sighting from the journal of Meriwether Lewis, said to encounter the species a number of times during the  Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Lewis, writing on May 5, 1805, in northeastern Montana, described the coyote as follows:
Toltec pictograph of coyote from Wikipedia
"the small woolf or burrowing dog of the prairies are the inhabitants almost invariably of the open plains; they usually ascociate in bands of ten or twelve sometimes more and burrow near some pass or place much frequented by game; not being able alone to take deer or goat they are rarely ever found alone but hunt in bands; they frequently watch and seize their prey near their burrows; in these burrows they raise their young and to them they also resort when pursued; when a person approaches them they frequently bark, their note being precisely that of the small dog. they are of an intermediate size between that of the fox and dog, very active fleet and delicately formed; the ears large erect and pointed the head long and pointed more like that of the fox; tale long; . . . the hair and fur also resembles the fox tho' is much coarser and inferior. they are of a pale redish brown colour. the eye of a deep sea green colour small and piercing. their tallons [claws] are reather longer than those of the ordinary wolf or that common to the atlantic states, none of which are to be found in this quarter, nor I believe above the river Plat."

Second Saturday programs are free and open to the public.  Reservations are not needed.  Come and learn!

Hagerman NWR is located at 6465 Refuge Road, Sherman.  The phone number for the Refuge is 903 786 2826.  Refuge lands are open daily from sunrise to sunset, with no charge for admission. Directions and hours for the Refuge Office and Visitor Center are posted at

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring-time and Snakes Are on the Move

Speckled Kingsnake
By Kathy Whaley

It’s that time of year again – redbuds are sprouting their beautiful purple blooms, the fragrance of sand plums whiffs through the forest, and, yes, snakes are emerging from their winter siestas. For some people, this brings gasping for breath, while for others, it’s just an opportunity to see more of Mother Nature’s creatures doing what they do.

So, what do they do anyway? Like it or not, snakes are a very important part of the natural ecosystem. They play a critical role in the balance of nature by eating countless numbers of rodents – rats, mice, moles, shrews – along with bugs and insects worldwide. All of these can destroy crops or damage property by chewing or consuming them. Snakes will also eat lizards and eggs given the opportunity. On occasion, some snakes will even prey on other snakes. One example is the kingsnake that is known to eat even venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes.

Diamond-backed Water Snake
Snakes are often a food source for predators such as hawks, herons, egrets, bobcats, and coyotes. The most common predator you would likely actually see with a live snake is the great blue heron. Herons strike quickly with their massive, sharp-pointed beak to immobilize the snake. They often then use their beak to carry the snake to a more suitable dining location.

Snakes have been around for many millions of years and worldwide more than 3,000 species have been identified. In Texas, there are 109 species of snakes and 28 of those have been documented on Hagerman NWR. Of Texas snakes, none are currently listed as federally threatened or endangered, but two are listed as state threatened by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: timber rattlesnake and smooth green snake. State law prohibits killing (incidental or otherwise) any state-listed species, including snakes. Penalties can range from $25-$500 for a first-time offense to as much as a $4,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in jail if found to be a Class A Misdemeanor.

Only 5 of the 28 snakes found on Hagerman are venomous: broad-banded copperhead, western cottonmouth, western pygmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, and western diamondback rattlesnake. Of these, the most often seen is the cottonmouth. When frightened, the cottonmouth quickly opens its mouth showing the bright white skin inside – hence the name cottonmouth. Most adults are 30-42 inches long with a dark, grayish-brown body with little or no markings. Older cottonmouths may be entirely black. Unlike non-venomous snakes that have a round pupil, the eye has a cat-like pupil that usually appears as a narrow slit. There is normally a lighter colored band visible on the side of the head under the eye. Cottonmouths prefer wet or moist areas and are often seen swimming on a pond. A good rule of thumb is that if you see a snake swimming with the entire body on top of the water it is likely a cottonmouth. If only the head is above water, it is usually a non-venomous water snake.

Western Cottonmouth
In general, snakes are very misunderstood and often feared creatures. Many people think snakes are slimy and vicious – neither is true. As with any relationship, it’s all about respect. A snake doesn't want to be any closer to you than you do to it. Learn to identify poisonous snakes and keep your distance – enjoying the view from afar and never attempt to catch a snake with your hand. Almost half of all snake bites are a result of someone trying to hand catch a snake. If you find a venomous snake in your yard and feel it absolutely cannot stay there, please seek a non-lethal means of dealing with the snake first, remembering that it is part of the ecosystem and likely just passing through.

At the Refuge, snakes and all other non-game wildlife are protected and may not be harmed, killed or captured. Also, it is illegal to release any type of wild or domestic animal on a National Wildlife Refuge. The reason for this is to make sure that animals not native to the area are not introduced to possibly start a population (such as what happened in the Florida Everglades with pythons). The other important reason is that wild animals brought in from another location can transmit diseases such as rabies, distemper, or hemorrhagic disease to previously healthy Refuge wildlife.

For a list of all snakes at Hagerman NWR, click here: list of reptile and amphibian species found at Hagerman NWR

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Behold the Pelican!

American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) breed in the Northern Plains and in Canada, according to Lives of North American Birds, by Kenn Kaufman, and winter along the California and US Gulf of Mexico coasts. Their large size (wingspan is 9’), notable in the above photo by Dick Malnory,  and distinctive bill make them easy to recognize and the subject of cartoons and parodies such as this one by Dixon Lanier Merritt:

“A wonderful bird is the pelican, His mouth can hold more than his belly can,
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week.
I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!”

That famous bill has some interesting characteristics. It allows for catching and storing fish and is sufficiently sensitive that the birds can locate fish at night by touch. The bill allows water to be drained before the fish is swallowed. According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, pelicans exercise the pouch to maintain elasticity. And during breeding season the pouch become brightly colored.   

Pelican "Poucher-cize" by Eileen Sullivan

The next photo, taken by Jack Chiles, shows one of the American White Pelicans seen at  Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge this week during the bird census.  Jack notes that the bird is showing the horny knob on the upper mandible displayed by both sexes during the breeding season.  These knobs are believed to be a target for other adults when they arrive at the communal breeding grounds and fight for territories, Once eggs are laid, the knobs fall off.

Another interesting aspect of the American White Pelican is their coordinated fishing. They can be seen swimming in one or more lines, “herding” fish into the shallows for an easy catch. Most often found in fresh water, they eat primarily fish and crayfish.

These magnificent birds will be passing through HNWR during the next few weeks on their way to their breeding grounds.  Be sure to visit the Refuge this spring to see the American White Pelican!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Are Friends For?

On Saturday, March 21, Friends members will gather at the Refuge to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year and hear the "State of the Refuge” from Kathy Whaley, Refuge Manager.  In addition, the many volunteers who  carried out Friends activities at HNWR in 2014 will be recognized.

The present-day Friends of Hagerman NWR was organized in 2005, with this mission:
… to instill reverence, respect and conservation of our wild creatures and habitats through supporting environmental education, recreational activities, and programs of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, Sherman, Texas, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An earlier Friends organization operated in support of Hagerman NWR for a number of years but later went out of existence. In 2005, the newly constituted group grew from the steering committee responsible for organizing the first Red River Valley Birding and Nature Festival, held that spring, and the Friends have continued to grow in number, in programs offered at the Refuge, and in support of Hagerman NWR ever since.

Here is a recap of Friends history in general directly from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website:

The first Refuge Friends organizations started in the 1980's. Today, about 220 private, independent, nonprofit organizations build links between communities and their national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.

Friends organizations partner with national wildlife refuges to conduct public events, teach the community about conservation, restore habitat, maintain trails, coordinate volunteers, operate nature stores and raise funds. ( )

From its start in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has owed its very existence to concerned citizens eager to protect America's natural resources. There are now more than 200 Friends groups, with about 10 new organizations created each year. Some support a single refuge while others are connected to a refuge complex or an entire state.

Friends organizations are crucial to the collective mission of the Refuge System to conserve and protect the wildlife of this great nation. Friends organizations are essential to helping millions of Americans understand that their actions today determine the legacy we leave for tomorrow. ( )

In 1937, the Department of the Interior Appropriations Act recognized the legal status of cooperating associations but it wasn't until the 1980s that such associations began to support National Wildlife Refuges. Cooperating associations were authorized by Congress to support the education, interpretation and research activities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society formed in 1982 in Florida followed by the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society in 1987.

In 1994, the Service and "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society hosted the first training sessions for cooperating associations in Tampa, Florida. The following year, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order on the "Management and General Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System." During a workshop sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – "From Executive Order to Collective Action" – participants listed Friends organizations as the top priority for strengthening the Refuge System.

The Service joined the National Wildlife Refuge Association, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

and the National Audubon Society in a partnership called the Friends Initiative to jump start the creation of more refuge support organizations. The National Audubon Society began its Audubon Refuge Keepers (ARK) program to stimulate citizen action on refuges through local Audubon chapters.

By 2008, there were more than 200 nonprofit Refuge Friends organizations with more than 50,000 members nationwide working on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge System. ( )

Here are additional resources for learning more about specific Friends groups:

Directory of Friends Facebook Pages:

Find a Friends organization:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

OWLS Topic for Second Saturday

Barred Owl at HNWR, by Monica Muil
This Saturday, March 14, 2015,  Dr. Wayne Meyer, Associate Professor of Biology at Austin College will speak on “Owls” at 10 am in the Visitor Center at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, and in the evening at 7 pm he will lead an Owl Walk, that will depart from the Big Mineral Picnic Area at the Refuge.

With a nod to Dr. Meyer’s topic, here is some owl trivia gathered on the worldwide web:

To watch a nest of Great Horned Owls, here is a link to a webcam site belonging to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  

Interesting facts about owls, from Texas Parks &Wildlife include:
  • Most owls are active primarily at twilight and by night.
  • Owl flight is silent, thanks to the combination of large wings, small bodies and special fringed and velvet textured feathers which deaden sound.
  • Owls have superb eyesight, between 35 and 100 times the sensitivity of the human eye, and excellent night vision.
  • Owl vision is binocular and while, unlike humans, the owl cannot rotate its eyeballs, it can rotate its neck from 180 degrees up to 270 degrees.
  • Owls have excellent hearing, with ear openings concealed behind the edges of the facial eye disks, which can be moved to listen in different directions.  Their hearing is especially tuned to detect high frequency sounds made by prey.
  • Ear tufts do not play a part in the owl’s hearing; birds do not have protruding external ears.

The website, Journey North  offers a menu of audio clips for listening to owls.  You are sure to learn more from Dr. Meyer at Second Saturday!

Note - Second Saturday programs at held year around at Hagerman NWR, sponsored by the Refuge and the Friends of Hagerman,  and are free and open to the public.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Miracle of Seeds

Who has not heard this popular proverb?

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." 

Although spoken metaphorically, this also describes one of nature's "miracles".

On Saturday, March 7, youngsters will learn  about The Miracle of Seeds at Youth FIRST at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.  On the website, High Country Gardens, we found a description of that miracle:
“The fact that plants can create little dormant pieces of themselves to broadcast out into the world to germinate is quite marvelous.  Even more amazing, is how long some seeds can survive before being given the chance to sprout. There have been discoveries of bean seeds uncovered in archaeological digs that are over a thousand years old, and they were still viable and able to germinate! While not all seeds have that ability to hold a spark of life for so many centuries, it’s not uncommon for seeds that have been stored in a dry, cool place to maintain their viability for a decade."
From Wikipedia:
"Seeds have been an important development in the reproduction and spread of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants, relative to more primitive plants such as ferns, mosses and liverworts, which do not have seeds and use other means to propagate themselves. This can be seen by the success of seed plants (both gymnosperms and angiosperms) in dominating biological niches on land, from forests to grasslands both in hot and cold climates."
Another amazing aspect of seeds is the multitude of adaptations that have developed to disperse seed by means of wind, animals who pass seeds through their digestive tract, carry seed in their coats (think Velcro), or cache seeds that are not eaten later, gravity, fire which eliminates competition from adult plants and releases seeds, floating on water, or even ballistics, in the case of plants that can “launch” their seeds.  A video explaining these adaptions to youngsters (interesting to this adult as well!) can be found at

Whether you ate cereal (oat, corn, rice, wheat?) with milk or ham and eggs (from grain-fed animals) and fruit or juice for breakfast this morning, your meal depended on plants from seed. Humans depend on plants from seed for not only food, but also for shelter, clothing, medicines and more.

“Providing much of the nutritional values that humans need, seed plants are the foundation of human diets across the world.

Wood, paper, textiles, and dyes are just a few examples of plant uses in everyday human life.
Traditionally, humans have also used plants as ornamental species through their use as decorations and as inspiration in the arts.

 As medicinal sources, plants are vital to humans, as many modern drugs have been derived from secondary plant metabolites; ancient societies also depended on them for their curative properties."*

*Source: Boundless. “The Importance of Seed Plants in Human Life.” Boundless Biology. Boundless, 03 Jul. 2014. Retrieved 03 Mar. 2015 from