Monday, February 25, 2008

Is Spring Here Already?

Signs of Spring

Yesterday, Sunday morning, I noticed a distinct buzzing sound. This happens every year, and it usually happens in Februrary before I expect it. The buzzing is thousands of bees collecting nectar and pollen from an Arizona Ash that is blooming in our yard just east of the patio. The bees are hungry and they flock to early blooming trees and plants. Colleen is our bee keeper and she is thrilled when nectar plants offer food to the honey bee colonies, which are a domesticated European bee. Some of the bees that gather around a blooming tree are native bees.

Bees are collecting nectar and pollen from the blooming ash tree.

I decided that if the bees are on the ash there must be other signs of spring, so I got my camera, and headed out to see what might be stirring about, or showing signs of bursting out. First I noticed some red flowers on our Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) vine. It is a native plant found in East Texas, but it is recognized as a very successful plant in gardens, and can be found in nurseries that carry native plants. Hummingbirds love the flowers. In the fall it has bright red berries that last well into the winter months.

Coral Honeysuckle is a wonderful garden plant and hummingbirds love it!

One of the very first spring wildflowers that show up in our yard is a Wind-Flower, (Anemone heterophylla). It can have white petal-like sepals, or they can be pink, lavender, light blue or deep blue.

Blue Wind-Flowers are less common than white one.

White Wind-Flowers are the most common variety, and are common in lawns in the spring.

White Honeysuckle, (Lonicera albiflora)is a native to Central Texas. It is mainly a shrub, but has stems that arch out and act like a vine, sometimes wraping around things.

Clusters of white flowers of the White Honeysuckle are sweet smelling.

Agarita bushes (Berberis trifoliolata) have stiff thick pointed evergreen leaves. The sweet smell of their small yellow flowers is one of the first heralds of spring.

Small yellow flowers of the Agarita bush smell wonderful.

American Golfinches are around here most of the winter. They love thistle seeds and black oil sunflower seeds that I put out in feeders. In the spring, Lesser Goldfinches arrive at the feeders too. The male American Goldfinch have bright yellow on their backs, and a black cap on the crown of their heads. American Goldfinches leave Texas in the spring to nest further north. Lesser Goldfinch males are black from their heads down their backs, with white markings in their wings, and they nest in this area. The females and immature birds of both species have greenish-grey or greenish tan on their backs and heads. All have black wings with a white pattern.

The bird on the right is a male Lesser Goldfinch. Their tummy is bright yellow, though it looks white in this photograph. The other 2 birds are female or immature finches.

Butterflies were abundant on my large Rosemary plants that are blooming. Two beautiful, large butterflies I saw were the Pipevine Swallowtail and Gulf Fritallary. There were others, some very small, but the two that are in pictures below were the stars of the day.

Pipevine Swallowtails are velvety black with a beautiful iridescent blue on the hind wings which I didn't catch in this picture. Their wings are from 2.75 to 4 inches across. Larvae live on pipe vines.

The Gulf Fritallary is a beautiful orange on the back side of its wings, with black dots and lines, and small white dots surrounded by black near the edge of its fore-wing. Underside of wings are beautiful silver spots on a brownish orange background. There wings are from 2.5 to 3 inches across. Larvae eat passion vines.

We are having warm days now, but I'm sure we'll have some more cold spells. Some of the early bloomers may be set back by cold, but most plants will still leaf out.

I guess the answer to "Is spring here already?" is yes (for now), but it may get pushed back by cold Arctic air. Last year we had an ice storm in March if I remember correctly.

Have a wonderful spring, and watch this blog for weekly updates on what's happening here at the Bamberger Ranch Preserve and around the Hill Country.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter Guests in the Chiroptorium

Which species of bats are still here in February?

It is generally assumed that most Mexican Free-tails (Tadarida braziliensis) head for Mexico and other countries south where the temperatures are warm and bugs are available during the cooler months between October and March. However, it is clear from the pictures I've taken of the bat boxes inside the Chiroptorium that many bats have stayed in the bat-boxes where the heat of their bodies accumulates and they stay warm. We think that in the warm spells they fly out in the evening and find some insects to eat.

In "Bats of Texas" by David J. Schmidly indicates that Cave Myotis (Myotis velifer) spend winters in caves, rock crevices, old buildings, culverts, and bat houses in central and north-central parts of Texas. The two inhabited bat boxes in the Chiroptorium have populations that consist of both species. In the photo below the 2 bats that are in sharp focus are Cave Myotis. Their fur is tan and their ears and fur around their nose and eyes is dark.

Most of the bats seen clearly are Cave Myotis. This box is in the small dome.

The photograph below was taken of the box in the large main dome on the 8th of Feburary. I sent it to several bat biologists, and the answers I got on which species can be identified in the photo is that both Mexican Free-tails and Cave Myotis are sharing this box. Another biologist thought that all of the bats looked like Free-tailed bats in this picture.

Most of the bats in this box in the main dome are Mexican Free-tailed bats.

What else do we find in the Chiroptorium?

On the cave floor there are many bat skeletons. Here we have 2 skulls, a spinal column with ribs, and a hand-wing.

Dermestid beetles live on the floor of caves with bat colonies. They are flesh eating and so are their larvae.

Dermestid beetle larvae exoskeletons are found on the floor around bones in winter. They possess projections which look "furry". They are meat-eaters, and keep the cave floor clean of the flesh of dead bats during warm months.

Some scientists study guano (bat droppings). Justin is collecting guano to send to a professor who looks for insects, eggs, and tiny creatures.

What can we do to increase warm habitat for bats in winter?

When Dr. Thomas Kunz from Boston Univers
ity visited the Chiroptorium in early January he and the other bat biologists were amazed to see that there were lots of bats in the bat boxes. They suggested that if we have more bat boxes we could have more bats stay during the winter. So, Steven and Justin built 3 more bat boxes, to be hung on eye-hooks embedded in the gunite on the ceiling which were placed there in 1997 when the Chiroptorium was built. The builder and designer, Jim Smith, thought that we might want to add items in the future. We thank him for that, and for his thoughtful design, construction and additions.

To install them, Steven got the box up on the shorter ladder, Justin climbed up to the ceiling on one side and got it firmly hung, then moved the long ladder to the other side and hung that side to the hook.

First the box is raised.

Steven, 6'8" tall, holds it up for Justin to hang the right side.

Then Justin moves his ladder to the other side and hangs the left side.

The large dome of the Chiroptorium now has 4 boxes around the second curtain and a box in the center.

We hope and expect that our population of females (along with a few males) will return to the Chiroptorium in March. I will continue writing about them as spring arrives and bats return. Let me know if you like hearing about bats.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Scimitar-horned Oryx at Bamberger Ranch

History of the Species Survival Program for the Scimitar-horned Oryx at BRP.

If you haven't visited the Bamberger Ranch Preserve, you may not have seen our oryx herd. They are members of a Species Survival Program (SSP) which is part of a cooperative effort between the American Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Bamberger Ranch and zoos that are members of the AZA.

The Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) is a handsome animal the size of a pony, with long horns that sweep over it's back like a curved Scimitar sword.

Its coloration and physical adaptations allowed it to live in Africa below the Sahara Desert in areas where water is scarce and heat fierce in the summer months. Their kidneys work to hold moisture in their bodies so they don't need to drink water often. They are now considered "extinct in the wild" but many individuals live in zoos, animal parks, and private ranches around the world.

Oryx are gregarious animals and the females live in herds. If a truck drives into their pasture they all look up at the same time. Here a group of them are looking at us trying to decide whether to stay or run.

These young oryx have horns that are short and straight when compared to adults. There are a number of scratches and punctures scars on their bodies which they inflicted on each other while "playing".

The Scimitar Horned Oryx is no longer seen in the wild in Africa. Its historic range was among the grasslands on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, and were found primarily in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan.

There are reasons that Scimitar-horned oryx are "extinct in the wild". The Sahara desert is expanding and there is less grass and fewer water sources. A second reason is the huge increase in the number of people living there. Grasslands have been lost to crops, villages, and domestic animals. Hunting wild animals for meat was a way for hungry people to feed their families, and many oryx were killed for food. Finally people noticed that they were gone.

About 25 years ago, the AZA asked Mr. Bamberger to assist them with a Species Survival Program. Because the zoos have limited space, they asked Mr. Bamberger to donate acreage and become the first private landowner to cooperate with such a program.

Mr. Bamberger agreed to donate and prepare 640 acres (one square mile) to save a species from extinction. Scientists came to the ranch and did an extensive study of the land, our rainfall, and grass coverage. They decided that the Scimitar Horned Oryx was the animal best suited for our Texas Hill Country environment. The zoos found records of animals whose genetic history was known and could be traced back to Africa. In the early 80’s, 24 animals representing the bloodlines of 29 of them were brought here.

The AZA said that if the the ranch and other institutions involved would raise the SSP population of Oryx to several hundred, they would not be in danger of going extinct for about 150 years, which is the amount of time it will theoretically take for all the animals to be equally related. (BRP holds approximately 100 animals in the SSP program.) In 150 years if there are fatal flaws represented in their genetic makeup, all the animals will share them and the species will not be healthy. If in 150 years all the animals have no genetic problems and are healthy they should continue to thrive as a species.

If a cooperating zoo needs a breeding male or female, BRP will send an Oryx chosen by the AZA that is unrelated to the zoo's Oryx.

The ultimate goal of any Species Survival Program is to return a species to its native habitat. The wild grasslands they lived on are fragmented and heavily populated. The only hope for returning oryx to Africa would be to place them in a large fenced Preserve with a restored grassland habitat. Security guards would be needed to protect the herd from poaching.

There are now several oryx programs (in Israel and Tunisia) in which animals that were born here at the ranch are now living overseas.

Some interesting facts about Oryx:

All Oryx (6 different kinds) are known to kill lions.

They all have “true” horns, and if broken, they never grow back.

The males and females look almost identical, are the same size, have the same coloring, and possess horns.

Breeding plans are sent to us by AZA and are based on mating pairs being as unrelated as possible.

Adults weigh between 300 and 400 pounds.

The females have an 8 to 8.5 month gestation period.

The number assigned to a baby Oryx goes into the AZA’s breeding records. A tag is put on an ear for easy identification, and a permanent number tattooed in one of its ears.

Males and females are kept in separate pastures so that we can always control the breeding of these animals.

In the past I've taken pictures of baby oryx but can't find them today. I will either post some pictures soon, or take digital photos when the babies are born this spring, and post them on this blog.

If you "google" Scimitar-horned Oryx there are some excellent sites with good pictures and lots of information.

ARKive, has some wonderful pictures of adult oryx with youngsters.

Also check the website for the ranch, for a report on the oryx.