Alligators have sensitive jaws

by Dave Hanks

It’s hard to imaging an animal that is so big and covered with armored skin to be sensitive to anything. Yet the skin around the top of the snout and along the jaws is more sensitive than our finger tips. They can detect touch that is too faint for our fingers to feel. Their most sensitive areas are in the gums along their teeth.

Cats of all kinds have sensitive whiskers and elephants very utilitarian trunks; traits that rival the gators sensors and help each species in their struggle for survival. These sensitive areas can allow animals to identify prey, or whatever they come in contact with.

Alligator jaws that can shut with a tremendously powerful force are, otherwise, weak enough that one could hold their mouth shut with one’s hands – a striking contrast between force and gentleness. The touch sensors allow a special gentleness when the female responds to peeping coming from her ripened eggs, which she carefully opens and then carries her new babies in her jaws to safety. Clumsiness would result in a lot of young ones getting accidently chewed up.

Alligators are more adaptable than their crocodile cousins. This has allowed them to spread farther north. They are top of the food chain predators that feed on a wide variety of animals: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even your dog. They shape habitats where they live by digging “gator holes” which can modify the wetness or dryness of an area. Other organisms benefit from these modifications.

 

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Resting and warming in the Texas sun

I Really Like to be in Southern Texas

by Dave Hanks

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

It’s pleasant in winter time, when temperatures are low.

This is the time of year when it’s best to go

To the Rio Grande Valley to enjoy the birdie show.

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

All sorts of perchers like these conditions too

Just put out some feed and they soon come into view.

They are there in abundance, and I will name a few:

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

To see Woodpeckers, Jays, Thrashers, and the Kiskadee;

Cardinals and Titmice, and an Oriole in a tree

And so many, many others, are there for you to see.

One gulf coast denizen is the Tri-Colored Heron. It is also known as the Louisiana Heron. They will be there stalking the shallows to catch and ingest almost anything that they can get down their gullet. This 26 inch tall bird inhabits the saline waters of the gulf’s marshes and mangrove swamps.

Audubon Oriole is another southern Texas joy to find, with its yellow body and black head and neck. Texas has more bird species than any other state in the union, and when we can take a trip there, it is always rewarding.

 

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Turkey Vultures prefer their road-kill to be fresh

by Dave Hanks

Scientists, as a result of poor concepts involved in conducting experiments, concluded that birds could not smell. However, better devised experiments of more recent times have shown that birds can indeed smell. Turkey Vultures, that at one time ignored rotten meat placed under a log, do have a very good sense of smell. It’s no surprise that they react very quickly to a recent kill.

Although they are meat eating birds, they do not kill, but survive on carrion. They soar very high, and with their excellent eye sight, can survey a large area in search of dead animals. While perched, you can see their red head and brownish/black body. But in flight, the silvery/white trailing edges of their wings are now visible.

There are 7 species of New World vultures, including the California and Andean Condors. They are two of the world’s largest flying birds with wingspans of over 9 feet. DNA evidence has shown that Old World vultures are unrelated. Their claws, beaks, and behavior patterns are different. American vultures have weak, chicken-like feet which are suitable for running but not for grasping. They must put a foot on the food source to hold it in place while eating. Their beaks are thinner and not as strong as the Old World birds.

Buzzard is not a very attractive term. It is incorrect to use it on American species. It is a term for several hawk species of the Eastern Hemisphere. It does not apply to vultures.

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Resting but alert

Deferred Maturity

by Dave Hanks

Young song birds hatch, fledge, and are ready for migration. The young birds usually resemble the female parent. However, by the following spring the males acquire their adult breeding plumage and assume parenthood. Their development is relative simple and quick. However, most raptors and gulls go through several stages before reaching sexual maturity. Large birds like eagles or buzzards have 4 to 5 stages of development. Hawks usually have two stages to go through over a two year period to reach maturity.

Buteos are large hawks with broad wings. The FERRUGINOUS HAWK (pictured) is the largest American Buteo. Only the Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, and female Snowy Owl weigh more than this hawk. Ferruginous Hawks go through three stages after the nestling stage: juvenile, sub-adult, and finally adult – three years from hatching to adulthood. This species has been known to live for 20 years (determined by re-catching banded birds), although the majority die within a 5 year period –which allows a five year old bird two opportunities to nest.

Ferruginous Hawk’s first year mortality is estimated at around 66% and adult mortality at about 25% per year thereafter. This ground nesting bird is preyed upon by Coyotes, Golden eagles, and Great horned Owls. Jackrabbits rank high on this species food list. When prey sources are at a low, many hatchlings will die of starvation. Illegal shooting of adult birds has also caused a problem to this not-so-common species.

This magnificent hawk has been used as a falconry bird in its native range.

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A young Ferruginous in the sub-adult phase

 

Arizona: A winter month bird bonanza!

By Dave Hanks

First, this southerly location receives visitors from Mexico – a country with birds not found in the more northern states of America. Also, its desert landscape causes many species to be in abundance in the less arid and lusher areas. Some special areas Carolyn and I would visit during winter months to do photography start at the top of the state and extend into its southeastern corner.

Just below Flagstaff at Cottonwood is Dead Horse Ranch. It has many water birds, many scrubland species, and River Otter. This spot has always been productive enough for a several day stay.

South of Phoenix is Picheco State Park with its desert adapted species. Further south at Tucson is a very rich area. The Sonora Desert parks, both west and east portions add more variety, and all three parks increase the winter picture bounty.

Perhaps, Catalina State Park, north of Tucson, has yielded the most variety: Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Cactus Wrens, Roadrunners, Goldfinch, Thrashers, and several Woodpeckers to name a few.

Further south, just north of Nogales, is Madera Canyon. This higher elevation provides a woodland habitat of Scrub Oak, Juniper, and Yucca. It sports four special species: Arizona Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and Scott’s Oriole.

From Patagonia Lake we travel to the Chirricahua Mountains and Portal in the southeastern corner. This is the real bird capital of Arizona. One can hardly get the feeders out before the birds that are waiting in the trees swoop down to feast. Peccary and Coati Mundi are two mammals that are there to experience also.

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session

Insatiable Spring

by Dave Hanks

Drip, drip, drip, the ice is slowly shrinking from around the dugout entrance. The ground is alternately bathed with warm sunshine followed by snow flurries, each competing with the other for dominance throughout the day. The air has lost its wintry chill for that irrepressible taste of spring. The mother is restless. Deep down she feels an insatiable desire to move. She is torn between the thrust to exit and savor this new time and the two balls of fur that are nestled helplessly upon the bed of pine/fir boughs. She hasn’t eaten for over four months nor eliminated either. Her body cries to rectify these two imbalances.

Laying back upon the vegetation heap, she softly nudges her precious bundles – licking them so very carefully and thoroughly all over their pudgy little bodies. They respond to seek that life giving gland, so abundant with rich, nourishing milk – second only to seal’s in butterfat content. A few days more she must follow this routine, repressing her own ever increasing needs until the cubs can safely greet the new world on the outside.

Finally the day arrives. The sun is most welcome today and it is suddenly warmer than those days that have preceded it. The twins feel it too. Frisking about the enclosure they become bolder. They poke their tiny noses through the entrance to sniff all the delightful aromas. The temptation is too great for all. Mother squeezes out of the opening and the babies follow joyfully behind. The haven that has been home for so long is soon to be abandoned.

Patches of gleaming white cover the mountainside and the bears gingerly step upon it to slide on all fours to the bottom – such fun! Then back on another patch of snow to repeat the process all over again. Green covers the ground between the white patches and mother stops to sample it, but not for long – it is still too dry. Later in the spring she will return when it has become more succulent, to follow the Elk migration back up the mountain. But now the urge is to move down toward the creek bottom. The cubs rough and tumble all the way – what exhilaration to be out and about in so vast a playground.

Toward the bottom, the cries of Ravens alert the sow to move toward where her nose has been directing. There on the bottomland meadow is a Bison. It is dead – succumbed to the relentless, unforgiving forces of winter. The bad luck of the Bison is good luck for the bears. Famished from so long a fast, it is a gift from the Gods of nature. A few swats with a gigantic paw disperses the birds and a low growl, coupled with a short charge, keeps an accompanying Coyote at a discrete distance. Gorging herself with tremendous quantities of the meat, her yearly cycle is started once again. Such a massive body has great protein requirements. This need, combined with feeding a pair of always hungry cubs, will occupy most of her thoughts for the next six months.

Finally satisfied, she scrapes a heap of leaves and twigs over the carcass in an attempt to hide it – then down to the water for a long needed drink and then back again to the meat. Once more she must dislodge the persistent Coyote. Jealous of the treasure, she will lay upon it and woe unto anyone who might stumble into its perimeter. Other bears must be taught to keep their distance. Old “Ursus” requires a lot of space and is not overjoyed by trespassers. Boars especially, must be met and dealt with immediately. A new, tender cub makes a delicious meal – little would he care whether it might be his own offspring.

A heretofore gentle mother surprises the wee ones with swats that at first cause bewilderment. It doesn’t take long for them to understand that she means business. If they are to survive, they must learn discipline. They stay within range of Mom and then dash behind her when danger appears or when hearing her low grunt. She periodically reassures them of her love when she lays upon her back in a half sitting position. They then greedily proceed to nurse and to nestle into Mom’s warm, soft body.

They will meet many new faces this first summer: Badger, Weasel, Skunk, Elk, Deer, Moose, Sheep, and many kinds of rodents – to name a few. Each must be learned. Can they be trusted? Are they good to eat? Ground squirrels abound and are so delectable – a gourmet delight is in store if they are lucky enough to catch one. They spend hours plowing up large tracts of earth to get at them as nothing is more preferred.

As the season progresses, the bottomland meat sources give out. Now it’s back to the higher country, slowly moving up as the grass becomes fresh at each level. They seek that flower with a fleshy bulb below and learn from mother how to dig and what to dig for. The young will become master diggers, as this is what the Grizzly inherently does best. The “lion’s share” of their diet will be roots, bulbs, and just plain grass. Their life is one of total freedom – wild and exhilarating. They fear nothing in their natural world. Let us hope that the human species will allow them room to retain this joyful existence. They are too precious of a commodity to lose forever!

Teaching the cub the many bear foods

An Experience with Snakes

by Dave Hanks

I sit mesmerized. Five feet in front of me sways an Indian Cobra. Back and forth it moves, hood extended, eyes fixed on a point somewhere on my body. The eye spectacle design on it’s hood is eerie. Six foot of venomous reptile has been grabbed and thrown upon the floor in front of me and isn’t too happy about it. I’m nervous but thankful that it can’t quite reach me if it were to strike.

A long term fascination with snakes has brought me to this seminar. In earlier times this fascination was coupled with fear. A vivid memory is one of a circus that I had begged to attend when just a small boy. It was Sunday and my parents, after much badgering, had consented to take me. No sooner had we entered the fairground’s gate than we came upon the first tent of the sideshow. A heavy woman was on the platform in front. A huge Python encircled her neck and shoulders. Sick feelings formed in my stomach and I pleaded to return home immediately – which we did, forgoing the circus that we had planned to see.

Garter Snakes were everywhere on our farm and I can still picture them slithering from under foot as I walked along the ditch banks. One morning an unearthly squeaking was taking place in a patch of weeds by a ditch. Rushing to the noise, I was to witness a mother Meadow Vole with her teeth embedded in a large Garter Snake’s head. The snake was trying to swallow her babies. The young ones were crying and she was making a terrible racket. The fascination of watching a snake eat has never ceased. When I feed the snakes in my Biology room, the students rush to the cages to watch.

My mind returns to the moment at hand. The Cobra is still there in front of me, concentrating on that indefinable point. Jim Glenn, a noted herpetologist, is talking. He is telling about Cobras and he teases the one in front of me as he lectures. The snake strikes at his toe but misses as it is one inch too far away. “These snakes have tremendous concentration ability”, he says, as he holds up an index finger. The eyes are held on the finger, which allows Jim to reach around with the other hand to scratch the back of the hood. “This Indian species is famous because of snake charming but Cobras come in several other varieties too. The 18-19 foot King Cobra of Southeast Asia is the deadliest snake in the world. It can kill an elephant but is usually quite secretive – Ophegus hannah is a snake-eating snake. Africa has a half dozen species which include the “Spitter” and the Egyptian Cobra which bit Cleopatra. It was also the snake of Moses times – becoming a reptile again after a pinch behind the head had rendered it “rod-like”. This most famous of snake families is the most intelligent but not the most dangerous. That distinction goes to the Black Mambas of Africa, the Kraits of Asia, and the Taipan of Australia.

The big constrictors are a most interesting group. Jim passes several species of Boas through the room. Each one immediately wraps around your arm when you receive it. It requires an expenditure of strength to pry it off in order to hand it to the next person. The patterns on the skins are most intricate and the colors shine with iridescence. There are three women in the class and they are different from any I have ever known. They “baby talk” each snake as they hold it and make kissing sounds with their lips. Two large Reticulated Pythons are placed on the floor. Both are over 20 feet long. Georgina is a pet and dry to the touch. She is very gentle and enjoys being stroked by everyone. Her body is a foot thick and it requires four of us to lift her. Ramrod is of a different temperament however. He’s so nervous that he urinates well over a half gallon on the floor. Jim returns him to the security of his box. It’s amazing, each snake has it’s own distinct personality.

The most unusual group are the Vipers. Very short and very thick – their bodies are the most colorful of all. Heads that are shaped like arrow points make them most distinctive. These are highly venomous and we don’t handle them. The Rhinoceros Viper is perhaps the most unusual with small skin protrusions that extend like Rhino horns.

Mr. Glenn is in a class by himself. He wears a white laboratory jacket. Every pocket of the coat sports a specimen – their heads extend and wreathe above each pouch as he writes on the chalkboard. He’s a man who truly loves his work.

I will never love snakes like the women in this class but my knowledge and tolerance of them has made a significant gain. Fascinating, yes, but not fearful. They are just another batch of creatures struggling to survive in an ever shrinking world.

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The familiar Cobra hood