Saturday, February 27, 2010

Black-bellied Whistling-ducks


I was introduced to the Black-bellied Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) on my first birding trip to S. Texas several years ago.  While touring the King Ranch as a new birder, we encountered a pond within the immense property that was literally filled to the brim with these noisy waterfowl.  We heard them before we saw them.  There were so many, one could hardly see the surface of the water.  In his book Essential Field Guide Companion, Peter Dunne describes them as " very vocal, but not necessarily loud.  Their call is a squealing whistle followed by two (or more) high, sharp stuttered peepings."  While they may not be very loud, when there are hundreds, their vocalizations fill the air.

Most recently, I've had the pleasure of observing the Black-bellied Whistling-ducks on my visits to the inner-city Brackenridge Park in San Antonio, Texas.

(click picture to enlarge)

This waterfowl, a medium sized (19" - 21") goose-like duck, slightly smaller than a Mallard, favors fresh water habitats surrounded by trees, but can be found foraging in dry fields.  Here they have found safety in numbers in the brackish waters within the confines of the park along the San Antonio River.

Mostly found in the subtropic environments of southern-most US to Central South America, they are pretty much non-migratory.  


They can often be seen perched in nearby trees.  As a matter of fact, they were once known as black-bellied tree-ducks because they nest in tree cavities.

And they don't mind sharing their space with others!
I always look forward to leisurely strolls through Brackenridge Park when I visit San Antonio, a place to escape the city for an hour, an afternoon, or even a whole day, in the company of my daughter.

To view more entries, click HERE!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Great Give-away!

My daughter, Kirsten, is sponsoring a terrific give-away on her blog and it's worth taking a quick trip over to check it out.  She makes beautiful greeting cards - seems to have "the gift"!!   Now, she is graciously offering her creative talent to YOU! 

I, for one, never have enough greeting cards on hand!  Here's an opportunity for you to brighten someone's mailbox with a hand crafted card for just the right occasion!

Here's a quick peek of just a small sampling:

Thanks for stopping by! ~karen

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Voles' Holes

Days are getting longer, the snow cover is receding, and look what it exposed all around the base of the bird feeding station!

They circle the area!

And in front of each hole, there is a pile of empty sunflower seed shells.

A little closer view!  Regretfully, I was never quite quick enough to capture any of the voles as they darted in and out of the safety of their little holes. 
Here in New England, voles, mice, and shrews live in and navigate through tunnels under the snow cover.  This area is called the "subnivian space", an extensive, continuous air space at ground level between the snow and the earth.  Temperatures maintain a fairly even 32 degrees F.

In Bernd Heinrich's book, Winter World,  he explains that near the top of any snowpack, the snow gets denser as the crystals bond together.  But, closer to the ground, where it is warmer than at the surface, water vapor from disintergrating snow crystals migrates upward and recondenses, freezing onto the upper snow pack crystals, and creating this subnivian space.

Young trees are very susceptible to the hungry winter appetites of these little critters.  They will chew the young, tender bark right off the bottom of the trunks, all the way up to the top of the snow mark.  It is enough to damage and kill the tree.  Trees planted purposefully will require protection!

Here's a picture of a picture sketched by Bernd to illustrate the activity described above.
Note the grass nest to the left.  Mice, voles, and shrews will breed very early in the spring when the sun is bright enough to penetrate the frozen ice crystals overhead.  Voles, especially, are very prolific!
But with the help of owls, foxes, coyotes, and weasels, their population remains manageable.
Great grey owls can hear the movement clear through the snow cover from 30 meters away (that's well over 90 feet!), and using their balled up feet, will crash right through the snow to catch their prey. Foxes and coyotes located voles by sound, as well, and dig through the snow for their tasty treat.

One final, interesting note - when the snow cover totally recedes and the voles vacate their fully exposed grass nests, they are often taken over by bumblebee queens that are starting new colonies.

There is just so much going on in our natural world.  How could one not be curious?

For more Nature Notes/Signs of the Season,
please click HERE!

hostessing such a delightful meme!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pecan Tree

As a Northeasterner, I am always fascinated with pecan trees (Carya illinoinsis) when I visit S. Texas at Christmastime.  Although difficult to clean, I can't resist harvesting the nuts and toting them back to the house.  On this day, I employed my daughter's help while I wandered the area with my camera.  Just a note: This year, the bag of pecans remained unshelled throughout my visit and I'm sure became compost after I left!

A member of the Hickory family, and the largest and most familiar in the south, the pecan tree is a stately, almost imposing figure in the rich open lowlands.  Deciduous, the Pecan Tree can grow to 130 feet in height,  and can live, bearing nuts, for up to 300 years.  Homeowners commonly plant the pecan tree to use for shade in their landscaping.

According to Sibley's new Guide to Trees, it is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, and the leaves stay green into late fall, and is monoecious.   As you can surmise by its massive size, a single tree can produce more than 1,000 pounds of nuts in one season.  It's wide spreading branches invite various visitors, including this ladder-backed woodpecker!

Pecans are a good source of protein and unsaturated fats, and like the walnut, are rich in Omega 6 - fatty acids.  They are featured in many traditional, sweet, southern desserts, such as pecan pie.

The word pecan  is from an Algonquian word meaning a 'nut requiring a stone to crack'.  The early settlers found these native trees growing in a large region from the Mississippi Valley to central Texas and to this day, they continue to be valuable sources for cultivars.   Aside from nut production, pecan trees provide furniture-grade wood. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Watery Wednesday


For more Watery Wednesday entries, click here!

Northern Sea Star

Northern Sea Star
  (Asterias vulgaris)  

A familiar site for me during my forays along the shores of Cape Breton Island,the Northern Sea Star, also called the Purple Sea Star, takes center stage.  I know, it isn't purple.  It's color depends largely on what it has been feasting upon, and it can range in shades from pink to red to orange. 
As carnivores,  their favorite food of choice includes mussels and oysters.  The majority of sea stars have the most remarkable ability to consume prey - from outside their bodies!  They use tiny, suction-cupped tube feet to pry open clams or oysters. Their stomach then emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. 
They wrap this stomach around the prey to digest it, and finally withraw the stomach back into their own body.
There are approximately 1600 different species of Sea Stars world wide.  Once called "starfish", scientists have changed the name to Sea Star because they obviously are not fish!  They are actually echinoderms and are cousins to the sand dollars and and sea urchins!  Their spiny outer layer protects them from prey, and they are famous for being able to regenerate a missing limb.  Not all Sea Stars have 5 limbs.  Some have up to 20, even 40!
These marine animals use sea water instead of blood to pump nutrients throughout their bodies. And, they don't have a brain!   Amazing that they can do all the things they do without a brain.
Those of us with brains should take a lesson!!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mute Swans

On a little patch of open water in a frozen lake, I came acorss this
pair of  Mute Swans, (Cygnus olor).
I watched them for a long time as they took turns feeding.  First one, then the other.

A native of northern and central Eurasia, the Mute Swan was introduced into North America to grace the ponds of parks and estates. Escaped individuals have established breeding populations in several areas, where their aggressive behavior threatens native waterfowl.

The Mute Swan is one of the heaviest flying birds, with males (known as cobs) averaging about 12 kilograms (26 lb) and females (known as pens) more than 15 kilograms (33 lb).


For more Camera Critters from around the world, click HERE!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Not Just For the Birds

While you are sitting in the mornings with that steaming cup of coffee grasped in your warming hands, watching the birds at their feeders, and feeling pleased that they are enjoying the bounty you have placed before them, you could be enjoying a special winter treat that's good for you, too!

Hearty Breakfast Muffins

2 C whole wheat flour                    1/3 C vegetable oil
1 C wheat germ                             1 C milk
2 tsp. baking powder                     1 egg
½ tsp. baking soda                        1/4 C molasses
2 tsp. cinnamon                             1/4 C honey
1 tsp. allspice                                ½ C raisins
1 C mashed banana                       1/2 C chopped nuts

In large bowl, combine dry ingredients except raisins and nuts. In small bowl, stir together wet ingredients, including egg. Add wet to dry and stir until just blended. Add raisins and nuts. Fill 12 greased muffin tins. Bake at 375 for about 15-20 minutes. Makes 12 large muffins.
Substitute pumpkin, grated apple, carrot, or zucchini for banana for a different treat.

This recipe freezes well!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Watery Wednesday

Waiting out winter on the San Antonio River.

Whistling Ducks, Cormorants, and turtles alike, enjoy a balmy South Texas afternoon.

For more Watery Wednesday photos from around the world, click HERE!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nature Fairy

"If I had the influence with the good fairy
who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world
be a sense of wonder so indestructible that
it would last throughout life,
as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments
of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are
artificial, the alienation from sources of our strength.
If a child is to keep alive an inborn sense of wonder
without any such gift from the fairies, he (or she) needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him or her the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in." 
                                   ~Rachel Carson

I am passionate about connecting children with nature and sharing nature with children.  If you have children in your home, or in your life, I urge you to check out the books I have showcased in my Amazon Widget in the right
sidebar of my blog.  I have added a new book, entitled: Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell.
(Just a note:  If you purchase the book through my widget either in the sidebar, or to your left, it will help to support this blogger!)

Now in it's 30th+ year, this book launched a worldwide awareness of nature education, and is still a leading guide to engage children in active participation with the natural world around them.
Through this book, and others I've introduced, you can foster an awareness not only of nature but of community and self.  In a recent interview, Joseph Cornell shared the importance of "feeling the joy resounding and experiencing the level of unity where you know that everything is a part of you."  He focuses on "opening up to a larger world" by offering an "intuitive way of working with the outdoors" and establishing an "everyday awareness".
You can visit his website to see for yourself the influence he has had throughout the world.

YOU can be that good fairy!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Macro Monday

 Driftwood Rim Lichen
(Lecanora xylophila)
Ried State Park

(click on picture to enlarge)

Driftwood Rim Lichen is an encrusting lichen with a light colored thallus and numerous brown or brick red fruiting bodies, encircled by a thallus-colored rim. Sometimes this lichen will cover large areas of driftwood
that has beached high in the intertidal.


Visit more macro photography from all around the world by clicking HERE!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nature vs. Nurture, part 2

On January 20, I blogged about a site featuring a silent auction of handmade quilts to aid in the relief attempts for Haiti. For those of you who checked out the auction, I thought you might be interested in the results! 

An amazing total of $9320.00 was raised by this attempt! 

 I am in awe.

Quilting, by the way, is my sister passion to nature. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

Lovely Little Nuthatch

When your ears pick up that nasal note - that repeated, steady ---neh-neh-neh---it is your first clue that a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) must be close by.

Found creeping along the trunks and branches of trees in most woodland and forest habitats in the US, they frequently will accompany mixed-species flocks of chickadees and titmice to visit bird feeders druing the winter months.  Observing their behavior is most entertaining.  These small, stout birds (5 1/4" - 5 1/2") scurry heads-up or heads-down as they forage under loose bark and in tree crevices for insects.  They are, most certainly, busy little critters!

This fine feathered friend has just plucked a seed from the feeder.  He's flown down to the railing,

where he will place his seed into a crevice in the wood.

A quick look around to make sure all is safe,

and then he hammers on the seed with his sharp bill to break the shell.

In their forest habitat, the White-breasted Nuthatch will also store its seeds in crevices
to save for later.

Nuthatches also appreciate your offerings of suet.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a cavity nester at mid to upper levels in tress.  Their nests consist of  a bed of grass and bark, and here they may lay from 4 to 8 whitish eggs speckled with reddish browns.

To see more CameraCritters, click HERE!

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)

Last spring, after hiking daily through the snow to the vernal pool, my sister and I finally experienced the thrill of witnessing that single day in the early spring when the hundreds of wood frogs, hibernating in the forest floor, nestled below the leaf and snow, come out of their frozen state and hop across wet leaves and patches of snow, back to the vernal pool to mate. I carefully picked one up and inspected it closely. It’s skin was loose and pale, kind of translucent, and the frog itself was almost lethargic. All the while, we were listening to their mating calls, hundreds of male frogs, all at once, sounding like a bunch of old ladies in the audience of a comedy show, laughing and cackling uncontrollably.

Time stood still.

The Wood Frog, along with the Gray Tree Frog, the Spring Peeper, and the Chorus Frog, is one of the most common frogs in North America.

They actually survive the cold winter months by being frozen. They can sustain temperatures up to -8 degrees C before the cold becomes lethal.

Up to 65% of the total body water in wood frogs could actually be ice! The ice formation in the frog’s body cavity extends to the spaces between the cells, but not the cells themselves. Should their body temperatures extend below the lethal low limit, and ice forms in the cells themselves, the cells can then cut, like knives, and do multitudes of damage. They can slash membranes, puncture cell organelles, and break cells apart. Under most circumstances, the wood frog’s hibernacula under leaves and snow will protect him from the lower temperatures that can result in death.

This is an extremely interesting, very complicated process. In anticipation of winter, many insects will store alcohol glycerol and glucose (antifreeze) during the fall months, before going through the same freezing process as the frogs. Unlike the insects, however, the frogs wait until the ice first forms on their skin. This triggers the “fight or flight” response of their central nervous systems to release adrenaline into their bloodstream. Adrenaline has many effects on the body, but basically it prepares the body to meet whatever challenge is occurring. This effect is modified in wood frogs to activate the conversion of glycogen in the liver to glucose, which takes on the role of “antifreeze“. Nothing like waiting until the last minute!!

But it doesn’t stop there! Simultaneously, the opposite phenomenon is occurring between the cells. Special proteins promote ice crystal formations, which in turn create pockets of concentrated fluid that osmotically withdraw water from the cells to make them resistant to freezing.

Amazingly, this all happens very quickly! Within 15 hours, the frog, with exception of its actual cells, is frozen solid. There is no heart beat. The blood no longer flows through that little body. And breathing ceases. Sounds like being dead to me. My question here is, “Is this an example of true hibernation?”

For more detailed information on how this happens, go to Monarch's blog and watch this amazing video:

This whole process is barely conceivable to me.