Category Archives: Ecology

Christmas Birding Trip

Since Hubby and I did most of our Christmas family gatherings on a day other than Christmas Day, we decided to go out and do some birding Christmas Day at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Our goals were to finally see the Whooping Cranes and create a bird list of all the species we saw.

For some reason, we woke up at 4:30 am on Christmas Day. I guess our child-like brains were thinking it was time to open Santa’s gifts, but since we are adults now we didn’t have anything to open. So instead, we got up, ate breakfast, and headed down to the wildlife refuge early. It’s a bit of a drive for us, so leaving early was already the plan, but we ended up getting there at 7am!

On our way down to the refuge, we saw some cool species – we didn’t keep an exact species list, but mainly because we weren’t going to write down everyday birds like Starlings, Pigeons, or Cattle Egrets; however we still had a list of 12 interesting species! The first species we wrote down was an awesome sighting – a huge flock of Glossy Ibis. They were feeding in a flooded field – either a cattle pasture or a rice field, I’m not sure which. When a Kestrel flew over them, the flock panicked and took to the sky, allowing me to get some awesome shots of them flying together. Then they realized it was a Kestrel, and they were about 3x as big as it was, so they settled back down to finish eating.

Our next sighting was a new species for us entirely! It was a male Rough legged Hawk. They are listed in the Sibley Field Guide as Rare in that area, so it was a special treat to see him!

When we finally got down to Anahuac, we saw the typical species that are common in wetlands – ducks, Coots, THOUSANDS of Snow Geese, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, etc.

The only duck we were able to get close enough to to identify was a Lesser Scaup, but we stopped at a huge wetland area and saw hundreds and hundreds of ducks! They were too far away to ID, but they had their adorable little duck butt sticking up out of the water while they fed, and it was so fun to watch them!

While we were driving around we also saw Northern Harriers, White tailed Kites, tons of Red tailed Hawks, and even a Bald Eagle! That guy was flying pretty far away from us so the only way to ID it was to take a blurry picture and zoom in on it. Needless to say, THAT photo isn’t exactly publish-worthy 😉

After we left Anahuac, we decided to go to McFadden Beach, which is another Wildlife “sanctuary”. It’s designated a wildlife sanctuary because the State of Texas couldn’t get anyone to buy the land, so they just turned it over to the wildlife. While we were there, we saw Brown Pelicans, Willets, and a Belted Kingfisher.

We took the Bolivar Ferry to Galveston and saw a Common Loon in the water along with the typical (and annoying) various gull species. Most of them are Laughing gulls, but I don’t try too hard to ID these guys. Mainly because they are several different color morphs, so I will be looking at 5 different birds and they are all of the same species, but I’m not quite sure because they look so similar to OTHER gull species, so it kinda makes me a little crazy…

Anyway, while we were on the ferry we also saw what I’m pretty sure what a shark feeding on something big. It was a large gray animal in the water (so either a shark or a dolphin) but it was thrashing around in the water, and I don’t think that’s a common way for dolphins to feed, so I’m like 90% sure it was a HUGE SHARK. Which is just too cool! Unfortunately, the salt spray from the front of the ferry was really bad, so I couldn’t have my camera out while we were on the ferry and I couldn’t get a picture of it.

We stopped in Galveston at the same place I always go to see pelicans close up. There is a shrimp boat marina behind Katie’s Seafood where there are always pelicans hanging out. In the winter we have White Pelicans, and all year round we have Brown Pelicans, so I was able to get some great shots of those guys too. Additionally, we were able to watch an adult dolphin with her calf while we stood on the pier at the marina too.

We never got to see any Whooping Cranes, but now it’s just going to be an annual pilgrimage for us to try next year!

Willet
Willet
White Pelicans Preening
White Pelicans Preening
Tagged White Pelican
Tagged White Pelican
Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret
Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk
Resting Pelican
Resting Pelican
Taking Off
Taking Off
Thousands of Snow Geese
Thousands of Snow Geese
Flying Pelicans
Flying Pelicans
Red tailed Hawk
Red tailed Hawk
Flock of Glossy Ibis
Flock of Glossy Ibis
Brown Pelican Preening
Brown Pelican Preening
Rocks on the Sand
Rocks on the Sand
Cross on the beach - I'm not sure, but I think this is related to Hurricane Ike from 2008.
Cross on the beach – I’m not sure, but I think this is related to Hurricane Ike from 2008.
Duck Butts
Duck Butts

This Year I’m Thankful For…

PERFECT WEATHER!

Hubby and I usually use Thanksgiving as an “us” holiday. We either get together with friends or go out on our own. This year we decided to go camping in Big Bend National Park. This is where both of us did our thesis research, and basically where we lived for 6 years, so we miss it terribly. Last year around the same time, we went to Alpine, Texas for Art Walk and there was a terrible ice storm. There was a thick layer of ice on everything, and it was snowing.

Ice on the False Red Yucca and Lantana
Ice on the False Red Yucca and Purple Lantana
Snow and lights decorate the Yucca
Snow and lights (and duct tape) decorate the Yucca

Normally I like snow and don’t mind ice too much, but all of our friends who still live in the area stayed indoors where it was nice and toasty, so we didn’t get to see a lot of people. And we had planned on going to BBNP for a day, but the roads were closed because of the ice.

The Parade was cancelled because it was so bitter cold, but the floats were still cool to look at!
The Parade was cancelled because it was so bitter cold, but the floats were still cool to look at!
Vendors had bought ice to keep things cold. Obviously it wasn't needed, so when they left, they tossed it out. It only froze to a harder ball of ice in the middle of the night.
Vendors had bought ice to keep things cold. Obviously it wasn’t needed, so when they left, they tossed it out. It only froze to a harder ball of ice in the middle of the night.

So what was there to do? Go to the coffee shop to drink coffee, and go to the bar to drink beer.

Vanilla Latte from Plaine
Vanilla Latte from Plaine

It was a great weekend, but not at all what we had planned.

Fast forward about 6 months, and I was getting pretty bad “city claustrophobia”. Every time I see a new building go up it makes me want to go back out to Far West Texas and never leave. So Hubby and I planned a camping trip for Thanksgiving Weekend in BBNP, in order for me to keep my sanity a little longer. Thanksgiving is the busiest weekend that the park has because the weather is usually fantastic (cold at night but nice during the day) and it’s a 4-day weekend for must of America. Of course, weather can also be terrible, like the year before. We basically had a 50-50 shot, so it was worth taking. And we won the weather jackpot. 40 degrees at night and 70 degrees during the day, with crystal clear skies. It was perfect. We managed to get a back country camp site on Pine Canyon Road and no one else was around. It was perfect. There were a few other campers further down the road, but far enough away that we couldn’t see or hear them. Solitude. Ahhh….

Our view from Camp - Sierra del Carmen Mountain range
Our view from Camp – Sierra del Carmen mountain range

My main goal for the trip was to try out my astro-photography skills that I had acquired recently (with practice and YouTube) and I had a great time and some awesome success, if I do say so myself!

Stars through The Window
Stars through The Window
Stars over Casa Grande
Stars over Casa Grande
Moon and stars over the desert
Moon and stars over the desert
The desert floor was lit up by moonlight
The desert floor was lit up by moonlight
Stars over the Carmens
Star trails over the Carmens

We also made time to do a hike on the Pine Canyon Trail, and head into Terlingua for some culture…

Having fun with saturation and lighting, post-production
Having fun with saturation and lighting, post-production
Early morning sunrise over the Carmens
Early morning sunrise over the Carmens
Always look back when hiking on a trail. Sometimes the best views are behind you.
Always look back when hiking on a trail. Sometimes the best views are behind you.
Pine Canyon pour-off. The maples are golden against a blue sky.
Pine Canyon pour-off. The maples are golden against a blue sky.
Terlingua Cemetery
Terlingua Cemetery

For those of you who have never been to Terlingua, never heard of Terlingua, or couldn’t imagine how people could live in the desolate and harsh desert floor, you need to see it at least once. Terlingua was once a booming town, known for mining quicksilver, also known as Mercury. Unfortunately they no longer needed Mercury (and they discovered that it makes you go crazy) so the mines closed up and the town became a ghost town. Now the Terlingua Ghost Town is a tourist attraction, and people have begun moving back into the formerly vacant buildings. The cemetery is still in use today, but has graves from the 1800s as well.

The people of Terlingua are interesting. The desert provides inspiration for artists and solitude for outlaws, and Terlingua is the crossroads for these people. Basically, if you want to be left to your own devises, this is where you move.

Terlingua Trading Company - The Front Porch of Terlingua
Terlingua Trading Company – The Front Porch of Terlingua. This is usually where you can sit and have a beer while listening to the locals play guitar and sing.
Starlight Theatre - A famous landmark
Starlight Theatre – A famous landmark

After hanging out and listening to the locals play guitar for a little while, we headed back into the park to drive some back roads to Santa Elena Canyon and then back up to the Chisos Basin to do some more star photos. On our drive, we spotted a rattlesnake in the road.

Poor injured rattlesnake
Poor injured rattlesnake

He had been hit by a car (you can see the blood on his head and on the road), but he was still alive. So Hubby got a long pole out of the truck bed, I directed traffic (ok, one car, but they still almost hit the snake!), and Hubby got the snake off the road.

Snake, safely in the grass.
Snake, safely in the grass.

Snakes don’t have to eat very often so hopefully he can heal up and get better before he starves. We tried our best at least! He was clearly not very happy with us, but it was for his own good.

It was a wonderfully successful camping trip and photography trip, and as badly as I wanted to stay and never come back to civilization, I just wasn’t ready to become a permanent desert rat. That just means that we will probably have to make the trek out to BBNP again very, very soon.

Wildlife Justice Has Been Served

I believe that everything happens for a reason. Ok, maybe not EVERYTHING. I don’t think that you’re entire life is already planned out or anything, but I believe that there is such thing as Karma and Fate. And I can prove it to you.

We had an interesting weekend. First of all, Hubby and I spent Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market in Sugar Land and it was a great day! The weather was perfect and people were there to spend money! I made some really good sales, and hopefully made some good contacts for future orders for photography. REMEMBER FOLKS, CHRISTMAS IS COMING, AND PHOTOS MAKE GREAT GIFTS! Ok, plug is over…

Anyway, Dad-In-Law came by the market and asked us to go see a movie with him. We had planned on going to the gym and then going to Brazos Bend State Park to do a little birding and photographing, but he REALLY wanted to go to the movie. So we figured we would just do the other things we had planned on Sunday. No big deal, right?

Then we spoke with some friends, Joey and Rachel, who said that they wanted to go with us to Brazos Bend. Rachel loves birds and wants to learn more about them, so we loaded up and headed to the park on Sunday afternoon. We went to the first lake in the park, closest to the park entrance. I don’t typically go to this lake for that exact reason. It seems that the people who care more about actually being in nature go deeper into the park, and the people who don’t really want to be there stop at the first lake, walk around real quick, and then leave. And are annoying the whole time they are there.

Rachel's first siting, a bullfrog!
Rachel’s first sighting, a bullfrog!

For example, as soon as we got to the lake we were trying to watch the birds and the bullfrogs when a family walked by. They had a Spanish radio station playing a soccer game. Loudly. If the game was so important to them that they had to listen to it, why on Earth were they walking in the park?? But I digress…

We continued to walk and saw a man attempting to fish in the pond.

While the man was fishing, the alligator ducked down and tried to grab his line.
While the man was fishing, the alligator ducked down and tried to grab his line.

It seemed like a terrible idea because there were three alligators nearby, and they were very interested in the movement of his bobber as he reeled it in and cast it out. (Not exactly sure what he was planning on doing if he actually caught a fish, because it was probably going to end up being an alligator’s meal instead of his). As we were taking photos of the alligators we saw 4 girls, young high schoolers probably, that had a bring green string with bacon tied to the end, and they were tossing it over and over into the water. At first we overheard them say that they were crab fishing. Our thoughts were, “good luck, girls. First, this is fresh water….Second, if there were any crabs they would probably be getting eaten by the alligators…” While we were taking pictures, one of the girls asked if we mind if they throw the string, since we were taking photos of the alligators. I said no. Then she said, “If it makes you feel any better, it’s biodegradable string.” All I said in response was, “as long as it doesn’t stay in the water, I don’t care.” It was a strange interaction, but I wrote it off as just that.

You can see the green line at the bottom of the picture, that the girls were throwing into the water, baiting the alligators in.
You can see the green line at the bottom of the picture that the girls were throwing into the water, baiting the alligators in.
One of the alligators that the girls were baiting.
One of the alligators that the girls were baiting.

We didn’t think much more of them and continued to take photos of the alligators, and moved further on down the trail around the lake.  Then Rachel saw him.  A small alligator, only about 2.5 feet long, sitting at the surface of the water. We would have walked right past him if Rachel hadn’t seen him, but then she saw something else. The alligator looked to be tangled in the same green string that the girls had been using.  At first I was angry and disappointed. But then we saw the truth. See, the green string was camouflaged with the green vegetation, which is why we didn’t see it at first. Once we had our search image set for the string, we could see that the little alligator had swallowed their bait and had the string in his mouth. When the girls realized that they had in fact CAUGHT A FREAKING ALLIGATOR they tied off the end of the string to some vegetation, preventing the alligator from getting away.

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Poor guy was doing all he could to get away, but he was stuck.
Poor guy was doing all he could to get away, but he was stuck.
ALI_1954
You can see the green string tangled in the vegetation.
The string was tied to some vegetation to prevent the alligator from getting away.
The string was tied to some vegetation to prevent the alligator from getting away.

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ALI_1931

ALI_1927

You can clearly see the string in the alligator's mouth
Even though it’s not the sharpest picture, you can clearly see the string in the alligator’s mouth. I was trying to get pictures of him while he was thrashing in the water, so my camera had trouble focusing on him.

By this point I was livid. Hubby was livid. Even little Rachel and Joey were livid. WHO DOES THAT?! Who just baits in an alligator and then ties it off so it can’t go anywhere? They poor guy was trying so hard to get away. He was pulling with all his strength but it just wasn’t enough. I called the BBSP phone number and reported it to the park police. As we waited for the police to show up the girls walked by, as if nothing happened.

So we had a little chat.

Hubby: “Did y’all catch an alligator?”

Girls: “No.”

Hubby: “Really? Because it looks like you did.”

Girls: “No, we didn’t catch him. We lured him in.”

Me: “So, you did catch him…”

Girls: “No, we lured him in. We didn’t bring him in.”

Me: “You still caught an alligator.”

At this point they continued to walk away, so I yelled, “You know it’s illegal to hunt alligators in the state park, right?!”

Girls: “We don’t kill things.”

Me: “You could have killed him! You don’t know!”

Wow….we don’t kill things. I was so angry I was literally shaking. As we waited for the park police to show up a volunteer came by on her bicycle. We told her what happened and pointed at the girls who were still in view further down the trail. She said she was going to have a “chat” with them. Then park police showed up a few minutes later. We told him the same story and he assured us that the Nature Center people would take care of the alligator and he was going to try to find the girls.

We felt a lot better then. It was in the hands of the police. We did our good deed. We continued to walk and take pictures of the beautiful swamp.

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Clouds and sunset reflection on the water.
Clouds and sunset reflection on the water.

Hubby though, was not yet satisfied. He went on ahead, concerned that the girls weren’t going to get caught by the officer. Hubby knew that if we didn’t know how it was going to end, we were going to be thinking about it for a long time. He got to the truck and didn’t see them in the parking lot. “Damn,” he thought. They had gotten away.

We were disappointed when we got to the truck, but the sun was going down so we headed out of the park to go home. And then we saw it. Glorious day! The officer had found the girls and was busy writing them tickets! We pulled over into the parking area and waited. I snuck a picture of “the leader” standing next to the officer’s truck. She was embarrassed and angry, and when she saw me she shot daggers at me. Man, if looks could kill…

The Leader of the Group.
The Leader of the Group.

We waited there until the car load of miscreants left, and then we go out of our truck and thanked the officer over and over again for his good work. He told us that they have a date with the judge, and Hubby gave him his business card in case they needed our account of what happened. I have never wanted to get subpoenaed more in my life. I would gladly tell a judge what these terrible people were doing. The officer then assured us that he was going to take care of the alligator now, but he wanted to make sure the catch them first.

A giant weight was lifted off of our shoulders when we saw the officer’s flashing blue lights, with the girl standing next to his truck. Although we will never understand what could have possibly been going through their heads when they decided to do this, I can (almost) assure you that they will never do it again.

We were meant to go to the park on Sunday. And we were meant to go to that lake instead of one deeper into the park. We were meant to help that little alligator. Everything happens for a reason.

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Niagara Falls

As you probably already know, I have the opportunity every once in a while to travel to some pretty awesome places, thanks to my job in the Toxic Waste Division of Zombie and Poltergeist Prevention, Inc. A few weeks ago I was sent to Canada for the third time in a year.  This was by far the best trip of the three, but that probably wasn’t hard to do. Let me esplain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I went to Ontario in December. Yes. You read that correctly. Ontario. in DECEMBER. Typical flight delays occurred, in addition to my baggage getting left in Toronto (where I was NOT), my rental car was given away, the first taxi I called ended up upside down in a ditch, and the second taxi I called only took cash (which I only had American, but he was happy to have it). When I got to my hotel late that night, I ordered dinner at the hotel restaurant which was also cash only. I had used all of my cash on my taxi. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry by this point, but a Good Samaritan in the hotel restaurant bought my dinner for me, and turned the entire trip around. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

I went to Alberta in April. You have to remember something. There isn’t a Spring Season in Canada. There is Winter and there is Summer. April is still Winter. While I was trying to follow my site contact to the property, he was driving 100 kph (about 80 mph) THROUGH A SNOWSTORM.  Although I was able to take some beautiful photos and see some beautiful country, the entire province was covered in snow and ice.  Being from Texas, I could only stand that for so long.

But this time, I was in Ontario and Quebec in the last week of September and first week of October. It was gorgeous. The leaves were at their peek for fall colors, and I drove a lot of miles through beautiful country. A LOT OF MILES. 730 miles, actually. And that doesn’t even include the mileage to and from my hotels – that is simply from the airport, to my sites, and back to the airport. All in 5 days.

I did, however, find time for a little fun. See, when you are traveling to or from Canada, it takes ALL DAY. I couldn’t plan for my work day to be done and get to the airport by noon, and then try to fly home that same day. First of all, if I had planned that then something would have gone wrong and I would have missed my flight. There is just not enough wiggle room to do that, and when you aren’t flying Southwest, things need A LOT MORE WIGGLE ROOM. With Southwest you can just hop on an early flight home if you want. Not with other airlines. You have change fees, cancellation fees, PIA fees, and whatever other fees they feel like tacking on. So I gave myself ample time to travel home on Friday, and save the headache.  But because I had extra time on Thursday, I took advantage of my close proximity and was able to visit Niagara Falls.

It was A. MAZ. ING.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

I know what you are thinking. “I have seen pictures of this my whole life. It’s a big waterfall. Meh.”

Seriously, you are wrong. And I know just HOW WRONG you are, because I thought the same thing. I thought, “I have seen waterfalls, and I have seen pictures of Niagara. There is not a real reason to go up there.” Oh man, I was DEAD WRONG.

Niagara Falls, with Maid of the Mist for scale
Niagara Falls, with Maid of the Mist for scale

You don’t realize how MASSIVE the falls are until you see them. Until you hear them. There are people walking and talking behind you, and you can barely hear them over the raging water. Even the size of the river itself was amazing. If I had seen a river like that in Texas, I would assume there had just been a massive flooding even, and the river had breached its banks.

Shipwreck on the Niagara River
There is even a missive shipwreck on the Niagara River, known as the “Old Scow”

As I stood in awe of the river and the falls, I literally zoned out and heard nothing but the raging water. I was almost brought to tears by the beauty. Just across the street was a pub with outdoor seating, so I sat down and ordered a while and watched the falls. I also had a cell phone signal from the US, so I called Hubby without international charges (SCORE!) and played on facebook a while. Then my dear sis-in-law asked me a very interesting question: “Are you staying to watch them light up the falls?”

WHAT??? I don’t even know what that means, but YES I’m staying for that!

I was going to have to wait until 7 pm, but I couldn’t leave when it was so close! So I waited at the restaurant for a while, then I decided to head back to my car to get my coat before it got too cold. By that time I was starting to have second thoughts. I still had a while before sundown, and as I did the math in my head, I realized that I was going to be paying at least $25 in parking. Dang. That’s not cheap. And I was mad at myself for not parking in the $18 lot originally, because I was pretty sure that was for all day. My lot was $5 per hour. I was going to do good on parking prices until I realized I was going to stay so much longer. And then my foot started to hurt. Bad. Hubby and I had run 4 miles a couple days before, and since I had hurt my back in the beginning of the Summer, I hadn’t been running. So that 4 mile run really did a number on my foot. I couldn’t imagine walking all the way to my car to get my jacket, all the way back to the falls, and then ALL THE WAY BACK TO MY CAR AGAIN after the light show! So regrettably, I limped back to my car, stopped in the botanical garden to take some pictures and rest my poor foot, and got ready to head to my hotel.

A greenhouse I was definitely jealous of!
A greenhouse I was definitely jealous of!
Adorable sculpture of a boy ride a snapping turtle
Adorable sculpture of a boy ride a snapping turtle
Beautiful Japanese Maple, starting to turn from green to red
Beautiful Japanese Maple, starting to turn from green to red
Roses of every color!
Roses of every color!
pink fuchsia flowers
pink fuchsia flowers

And then a miracle happened.

There wasn’t a guy in the pay booth. The gate was open. The tenant of the parking lot was gone! FREE PARKING!! I even waited for a couple minutes to make sure he wasn’t walking back up to the booth or something, but he was officially GONE. Now, I know you know that I love a good deal. A free, my friends, is the best deal you can get.

I headed back to the falls, planning on parking much closer. I was willing to pay $5/30 minutes to park super close to the falls, now that I wasn’t going to be there much longer. But then I saw something even better. MORE FREE PARKING. Holy crap on a cracker! At the pub where I had relaxed earlier, there was a free lot. This was Karma’s way of telling me that I needed to stay a little longer to appreciate the beauty of the world, and I obliged! And this is what I waited to see. Magic.

New York, USA, the American Falls
New York, USA, the American Falls
Horseshoe Falls, the falls that separate the US from Canada
Horseshoe Falls, the falls that separate the US from Canada
the lights changed color every few minutes
the lights changed color every few minutes

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I didn’t stay much later than sunset, because I still had to drive to my hotel, but this just makes me want to take Hubby to see this, so we can do the Maid of the Mist tour and stay much later so I can get better pictures! (Also I hadn’t brought my tripod because of packing restrictions, so I will have that too!)

By the time I got to my hotel I was exhausted, and I had to get up at 5 a.m. the next morning to make my flight, but it was so worth it.

For Sale! Part 2

I had a very successful first sale day at the Farmer’s Market!

Many people were interested in my photography, and I passed out a lot of “business cards.” I say this with quotation marks because I haven’t gotten my cards yet! Luckily though, I had the forethought to bring a small pad of paper and a pen, so I was able to spread the word about my online Photo Gallery, and generate some interest in placing orders.

Soon though, I will have my very beautiful business cards that I designed, so I can hand those out at the next Farmer’s Market!

For anyone that is interested in ordering online, I have created an order form to make this a quick process.  To give a little more detail on the ordering process, here goes:

You can order prints in 5×7, 8×10, 11×14, or 16×20. The panoramics are either 6×18 or 8×24.

I prefer to print on metallic paper, because it makes the photos look much more 3 dimensional; however, the Professional Print (on glossy paper) looks fantastic as well.

If you would like the photos to be matted, there is also an option for that on the order sheet.

If you are interested in ordering photos online, feel free to send me an email at mywildhoodphotography@gmail.com, and we can discuss it further!

And, so you don’t have to search for them again, here are the photos that I have for sale right now!

ALSO, I ALMOST FORGOT TO MENTION THAT I TAKE PAYPAL! Secure payments made online, so you don’t have to worry about sending cash or check!

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Living In the Big Bend Region

For many people, living in the Big Bend Region is a dream. They love the area, but the job market doesn’t allow them to live there full time. People take rides out to the desert on the motorcycles or take RVs to live in for a few days of isolation before heading back to the grind of the city. For others, they couldn’t imagine wanting to live in a desert, where so many things either stink, sting, or stick (e.g. skunks, rattlenakes/bees/wasps/other bitey things, and sticker burrs/goat heads/cactus, etc.)  Other people don’t even know that Texas has mountains, and have never even heard of The Big Bend. But, for 6 short years, Hubby and I were able to live in The Big Bend Region while going to college at Sul Ross State University. While we were there we experienced a lot of different things: small town life (i.e. gossip and knowing everyone in town), getting annoyed with tourists for not knowing how to drive their giant rented RVs through town, having javelinas (pronounced ha-va-lee-na) eat rotten bird seed off the ground in my front yard and having the dog go berserk at 3 am because of it, having an epic battle in the backyard with the dog and a skunk at 5 am, ending up with a very disgusting (but proud of himself) dog and a zombie skunk that wouldn’t die. It was a pretty eventful 6 years.

However, our best experiences were outdoors.

During my undergrad career, I had plans to go to vet school so I majored in Animal Science, but developed the realization that veterinary work was NOT what I wanted to do. I was still interested in it, but no longer felt that medicine was my calling. Hubby majored in Biology and through him I was able to meet the Biology Professors and students, and we both decided to get our Master’s Degrees in Biology.

During this time, Hubby worked on his thesis research and I later worked on mine. It was good timing because we could both help each other out while we weren’t working on our own projects. We both researched different aspects of Black bear in Big Bend National Park (yes, there are bears in Texas *eye roll*).  That means that we had a lot of amazing experiences with Black bear and other wildlife while we were looking for the bears. Here is a map of Big Bend that you can use as reference.

My gallery this week consists of photos taken while working on my research, Hubby’s research, and various other trips we took in the Big Bend Region. Each photo has a description of what we were doing at that time. Enjoy. I know I did.

Wolves in Yellowstone: An Ecology Lesson

I have always been a biologist at heart. When I was a little girl I would constantly be looking at bugs and plants, and learning as much as I could about the world around me. I understood at a very young age how the natural world works together – everything having a niche in which it belonged. You throw one thing out of whack, and the balance is thrown off around it. I’m not sure why other people don’t understand this, because it seems like perfect, common sense that even a child could figure out, so why do people continue to do things like hunt the whales to extinction or organize rattlesnake roundups?

One example is the wolves in the United States. Once upon a time, not very long ago, people began to populate the wild areas of the northwestern United States.  Ranching was the reason for the move – Wide Open Spaces and untouched grazing. It was a paradise for ranchers. Except for the wolves. Every once in a while a wolf would find a nice fat calf as an easy meal. Result? The ranchers started killing wolves to protect their livestock. Then the government got involved. The government hired trappers in an attempt to annihilate the wolves. Literally. That was their goal – kill off all the wolves. What good did wolves do, anyway? We didn’t NEED wolves here. All they did was kill innocent livestock and wildlife that WE wanted to kill and eat. So the government answer was to kill off the competition.  Bears were also deemed a nuisance as well, and were also on the trapper hit list, but mainly because they eat the fish and crops that people were eating too. Wolves were extirpated from most of the United States is a matter of a few decades.

The plan to eradicate the wolves backfired however, and the best place to see the results of that backfire was in Yellowstone National Park. The land is still (pretty much) untouched and natural, and is a great place for grad students to do research 🙂

See, over the years that there were no wolves in the park, a lot of things changed. The elk population skyrocketed. So much so that in the winter the elk were having to be fed hay by the park rangers so that there weren’t massive die-offs from starvation. The massive elk population was killing the aspen trees by grazing them down to nothing, preventing new forest from replacing the old trees and fire-killed trees. Elk were also killing other species of trees by rubbing their antlers on them so much that it was ripping the bark from the trees and allowing insects the chance to infest the trees. Elk were grazing everything down to nothing because of their massive numbers.

In 1995 when 14 wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada and brought to Yellowstone National Park, it was deemed an “experimental population” and they were radio-collared and watched closely to see what would happen.

Here is a quick video that can describe it much better than I can, and the sound of the wolves howling always gives me chills, so I love this video.

While Hubby and I were on vacation in Yellowstone, we saw, personally, the changes that the wolves had made.

Yellowstone May 2014 1246

These pines have clear damage by elk from scraping the velvet off of their antlers every spring. Notice the dead tree in the foreground which also has the same scars from the elk. This tree was likely killed by insects boring into the soft phloem underneath.

Since the return of the wolf, the elk have started avoiding certain areas where they were easy prey, allowing the aspen trees a second chance to grow and repopulate. We actually saw some areas of aspen trees that were fenced off, and the area appeared to be a research site to study different dynamics of the aspens. (Unfortunately when we saw it, we were on our way to the doctor’s office because of my back, so we didn’t really stop to get a closer look.)

One of the areas that the elk seemed to avoid was Lamar Valley. We saw hundreds of bison, bears, and pronghorn, but no elk.

The most beautiful place in the park - Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.
The most beautiful place in the park – Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.

Other species have also benefited from the return of the wolf, like the grizzly and black bears.  For example, they feed on the left-overs of wolf kills (bears aren’t nearly as fast as wolves, so it is much harder for them to chase down prey), and this has led to an increase in the bear populations as well, after the government trappers attempted to wipe them out too.

"Scar Face" feeding on a wolf kill
“Scar Face” feeding on a wolf kill

Today, the wolf population is still studied by the park service; however due to budget cuts, most (if not all) research is conducted on a voluntary basis.  Because of this, things like helicopters are no longer used to dart the wolves because it’s not in the budget. Instead, the wolves are trapped or netted first. This is increasing the amount of human interaction the wolves have, and making them nervous around people where they once had little fear.  That means that often, when you see a wolf in the park, it will run away instead of letting you marvel in all their splendor.

Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.
Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.

Additionally, maintenance of the radio equipment has declined.

Clear view of his radio collar
Clear view of his radio collar

The silver male wolf that we watched on our last morning in the park had a radio collar, but the battery was dead and it was no longer emitting a signal. Because of this, he could not be identified or tracked, and all the potential data that he was producing were going unrecorded. This means that we don’t know if he is part of a pack or if he is a “lone wolf” (sorry, I had to). We don’t know if he has sired any pups, contributing to the growth of the population. We don’t know where his territory or range are, what his diet is, if he is healthy, or any other multitude of ecological questions, that at least for now, must go unanswered.

This is a wonderful story, but it has only been half written. As the wolf populations continue to rise in Yellowstone and other areas outside of the park, clashes with the human population is inevitable.  The state of Idaho was attempting to start legalizing wolf hunts again, right after they were brought back from the brink of extinction in the United States. Bowing to public pressure, they have decided that they won’t start wolf hunts this year. The wolves are safe. For now.

As a biologist, I believe that we need to learn as much as possible about the wolves in order to save them again. Learning their habits, territories, ranges, diets, and even personalities can teach us so much and help us understand how to prevent human or livestock interactions. Would something as simple as adding guard dogs or guard donkeys/mules (yes, that’s a thing) to the herds be enough to keep wolves away? How many TRUE wolf kills of livestock actually happen per year? What is the economic “loss” caused by wolves?

Personally, I don’t think that the ranchers have a reason to despise the wolves, because the ranchers, like any other business owner, should have insurance.  And insurance pays out for damages/losses, So they don’t have a REAL reason to want the wolves gone.

As Apex Predators, wolves affect everything around them. They are vital for the health of the ecosystems in which they evolved. This means that the other wildlife are healthier as a result. Bigger, stronger, and healthier elk, deer, bison, and antelope survive while the wolves cull the herds of the sick and weak individuals.  Humans need to stop trying to “manage” the wildlife and just leave it be. It will balance out on its own, and be healthier than if we decide which individuals are killed and which populations are “too high”.

If you want to see wildlife with extremely limited human interference, watch this video on the wolves of Chernobyl. I watched this and it made me want to live there. So there is radiation, big deal. I can wear a respirator for the rest of my life if that means I can live in a place that is a wildlife paradise and no humans will bother me.  In the video, they determined that the wolf population is healthy, and no higher or lower than in other wolf habitat areas, meaning they don’t need to be managed – their numbers didn’t “get out of control” without human intervention. They didn’t “eat all of the deer” in the area. The ecosystem is healthy without human interference. Just like it was before we evolved – the world doesn’t need humans to take care of it. The world just needs humans not to destroy it.

Sunset in Lamar Valley
Sunset in Lamar Valley