Friday, June 11, 2010

A Magic Fleece and Some Clean, Fresh Water for the Birds

Bird rescue time is now.  Even with a spring as lovely as this year’s, the time for bird rescue is as inevitable as the above-90-degree days.  In fact, they began about three weeks ago.  We have collected about ten birds so far.  The majority have been great egrets.  There was also one snowy egret, and one night heron.  The night heron had some horribly infected wounds, and one adult great egret had a broken wing, but for the most part, the birds have had no injuries, or their injuries have not been life threatening.

The great egrets are getting pretty mature and will probably be out of the woods soon and able to feed themselves.  On the other hand, the snowy egrets have just hatched, as have some of the cattle egrets.  So most of our work is still ahead of us.  I thank those of you who have phoned me.  Please accept my apologies if I have not returned your calls.  I have been traveling quite a lot and enormously busy.

The magic fleece.  I urge each one of you to walk around the rookery as often as possible and be prepared to rescue any fledgings who need help.  I recommend that you keep a small cardboard box (about 18 inches x 18 inches) in your car and line it with a square of soft polyester fleece. These kinds of fleeces are inexpensive (About $8 to $20, depending on the size).  We bought ours (about 3 ft x 3 ft) from the cat section of PetsMart, but larger squares of the same material are available in the bedding/camping departments of Target and other stores.  This material works much better than a blanket.  The soft polyester seems absolutely magical for calming the animals and helping them to recover from shock.

Nowadays, when we find a bird in need of help, we pick him up with the fleece blanket, wrap him up right away, and then deposit him, all bundled up, into the box.  From experience, we know that this works with pigeons, grackles, great egrets, and snowy egrets.  For example, one grackle that we found last fall tossing around in shock near a highway access road, quickly went to sleep after being wrapped up in the stuff.  A few hours later, when we opened the box to check if he was still alive, he was standing perfectly on his feet and looking at us as if to ask what all the fuss was about.  By the next day, he was flying around, and soon after that he was released.  One great egret that we had found head down, shoulders slumped, and near collapse, also went to sleep.  He looked so far gone that we considered letting him be.  He made no sound at all in the car on the way to Rogers.  Imagine our surprise when he woke right up at Rogers and started to poke around the medicine cabinet.

A dust bowl for a pond?  Earlier this evening, we discovered that the small rookery stream and pond were drier than we had seen them even during years of severe drought.  In fact, there was not a drop of water in them.  The pond had essentially turned into a dust bowl, and there were quite a few dead egrets in it.

Some of you might have noticed that, about a month ago, the corner of West Campus Drive and Butler road was partially cordoned off and covered with large metal plates because of some underground work involving pipes.  We think the water from the rookery might have been detoured and drained away.  We hope we are wrong about this.

A polite inquiry to Kirby Vahle about the pond and a request that it be refilled might help to sort this out.  Hopefully, the pond simply needs to be refilled.  Last year, Vahle kindly had the pond refilled when it was low.

The Gulf disaster.  Many of the birds from the rookery will fly to the Gulf in the fall, hoping to spend their winter there, or to stop there on their migrations to winter homes in Central and South America.  I am terrified for them, as I am sure many of you are.  This is a good time to start thinking about how we might help them survive the trip.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Great-Egret Chicks Here and All Rookery Birds on Site!

For a while last month, the rookery looked sad and ragged.  In addition to the naturally disappeared periphery, several cedar elms had collapsed from the last snow storm, old age, or other causes, exposing much of the place.  It was as though the rooms of a large residence had lost many of their walls, allowing one to see through the ruins from one end to the other.  The lack of foliage should have made for easy photos, but the great egrets were exceptionally nervous.

It took surprisingly little time for new shrubbery to regrow along the periphery and privacy to be restored.  The great egrets settled into their nests almost immediately.  So rapidly in fact, that although they arrived in Dallas a week later than usual this year, their nests are right on schedule.  Last week we found several of them filled with bobbing, spiky-headed chicks.  They looked to be already about two weeks old.  At all hours of day and night, the place now resounds with Quak-quak! Quak-quak! Quak-quak! Quak-quak!

Large parties of ibises circle over the rookery, particularly in the afternoons.  The anhingas are back too, gliding high overhead.  Their silhouetted triangular tails are unmistakable.

One of us has discovered that large parties of great egrets leave the rookery at dawn.    They number over five hundred -- far too many to issue from only this site.  So it appears that individuals from other places are gathering at the rookery before going out together  to feed at some body of water.  Presumably near to the rookery as the egret flies?  It would be interesting to discover where this is.

The cattle egrets, usually the last ones here, arrived this week.  They are in gorgeous form, all golden on the head and chest.  The little-blue herons are on site too.

The interpretive signs still look terrific.  The new "no tresspassing" signs, on the other hand, seem much more fragile than the old ones.  Several are already warped.  It is unclear what caused this.  Surely not the wind?  One near the memorial garden is lying in the grass after being knocked off its post by a fallen hackberry branch.

Whenever anybody complains to me about our overabundance of rain this year, I tell them I am hoping for more cool and wet weather for the birds' sake.  They deserve a break.  So far, so good.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Lonesome Fred and the Party 'Round the Block

If you visit the rookery around lunch time, as you come around the basketball court, you will probably see Lonesome Fred. Fred is the last great egret juvenile of the season to fly. He graduated from “wading” in the grass earlier last week, to gliding 3 feet above ground last Friday, and lifting himself 20 feet up a tree today. He is not yet ready for sustained flight. Despite regular offerings of fish in the troughs, he is thin and ever famished. We watched him gulp 24 fish in one sitting today, wag his tailfeathers pleasurably, and immediately look around for more. My word, egrets eat a lot! Let us keep an eye on Fred and continue the feedings.

To our amazement, Fred is not a bit lonesome at night! Around 8 p.m., small parties of birds began gliding into the rookery from the southwest. As this developed, we strolled around the rookery to get a better sense of things. Adult little-blue herons, ibises, great egrets, and snowy egrets, together with their young, flew overhead and everywhere. They kept coming in until they numbered about 200.

We found Lonesome Fred looking ready to turn in for the night. He even yawned once or twice. He stood on a big hackberry well away from the party.

The seriously “happening place” was the corner nearest to the staff parking lot and entry into the wooded path. The birds were perched, not in their former nests, but well "outside” the rookery, high atop the oaks and cedar elms, over the grassy areas. There was much talk and pleasantry, and lots of hopping beween branches to mix with other parties.

This resurgence of visits from large numbers of egrets began last Friday. This is unprecedented and certainly temporary.

I recommend a dusk promenade by the rookery this week. The festive atmosphere will cheer you. The marvelous sight of the white birds against the darkening orange-lavender sky is terrible for photos and perfect for reflection.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wandering Juveniles

As one disciplines oneself to observe the natural world, one learns that:
  • It is easy to see what comes and goes,
  • Difficult to see what is always around,
  • And harder still to see what is missing but should be there.
For example, since last year, the rookery’s nesting season became strangely abbreviated by nearly two months.  This year, the season is being cut short because of the disappearance of the cattle egrets early in the Summer.
Two years ago, on 28 September, I watched with pleasure as a little gang of juvenile cattle egrets and one of their juvenile white-ibis friends scoured the freshly-mowed grass for crickets and grasshoppers.  Had I not had the sense to snap a few photos, we might have had no record of this.  But here is one of the photos that was meant to be my own celebration of a successful finish to the 2007 season.  I miss those dear little friends very much.
Already this year, on 20 August, the heron-and-egret season is drawing to a close.  Fewer than 10% of the birds are still here.  The adult ones leave the site early every morning with the juveniles who are strong enough to travel to White Rock Lake and other places where they can feed themselves.  Contrary to all that I have read about herons and egrets abandoning their young, I see the consciencious parents return to the rookery at dusk.  Once there, they put their young through some rather exhaustive exercise drills, probably after administering a daily feeding.
During the day, however, those juveniles who are not yet strong fliers, shuffle about the rookery feeding themselves as best as they can. This population numbers about 50 and is made up almost entirely of great egrets (white as juveniles but smaller than their parents), black-crowned night herons (brown-and-beige striped as juveniles), and white ibises (grey-backed as juveniles). The ibises are shier than in previous years and limit most of their wanderings to the early hours of the morning.
The rookery has little to offer these baby birds in the way of food, apart from a handful of crickets and earthworms.  Our Society has greatly reduced the casualties among these young birds this year by providing them with regular feedings of minnows.  It should be possible in future to eliminate those casualties altogether.
What you can do right now:
We need continued help with the feedings and with keeping the water troughs full of clean water.
In addition, please watch the remaining birds.  When you see a bird, walk directly toward the bird and observe his response.  A well bird should fly to a higher spot, because all the juveniles are now able to fly.  Any bird who lets people get close is probably famished.  Even if the bird walks away slowly, this is probably signaling some listlessness and an inability to fly.  If the bird makes no effort at all to move away, the bird urgently needs help, no matter how beautiful he looks.
Other news:

Numerous “No Trespassing Signs” now surround the woods.  Two interpretive rookery signs were installed yesterday by Physical Plant, thanks to Kirby Vahle.  One is near the memorial garden, the other is across from the basketball court.  The photo at left shows a sign being inspected for errors.  The signs, apart from being beautiful, seem to have inspired a great deal of protectiveness.  I was rather pleased to be pulled aside twice yesterday, as I tried to peek into the pond, and required to explain what I was doing.
I will write again soon with political news and our extensive plans for the “off-season”.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Shooting in or Near Rookery

Today we rescued a great egret quite different from our previous rescues:
  1. He was not in the rookery but in the faculty parking garage around 11 a.m. (I had to stomp on brakes to dodge him.).
  2. He was not an innocent docile juvenile, but a full grown adult Great Egret, in excellent health apart from his wound, and he was not one to suffer fools gladly.
There was blood all over his right side and wing. My first thought, since I narrowly avoided hitting him, was that another car had hit him. But closer examination showed that all the blood was streaming from a small round hole through his upper wing. This Egret had recently been SHOT with a BB gun. The pellet hit a vein, which accounted for the blood, but luckily it missed the wing bones. If the shot had been larger, or struck less than an inch higher, the bird would have been crippled. The egret is being treated to prevent infection but should easily recover.

Who would do such an awful thing? The folks at the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center believe the bird could have flown, painfully, even in his bruised condition, from a nearby residential area.

It seems unlikely that anyone is shooting at birds in the rookery. Nevertheless, we should look out for a maniac with a BB gun, probably a kid.

In other news:

We were in Madison (Wisconsin) last week and made a side trip to visit the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
There we learned that some cranes cool off on very hot days by riding the thermals up into the cooler upper air and circling as long as they can. This might explain why the Anhingas were circling high in the sky two weeks ago and dropping into odd places.

The anhingas might be gone for the year. I saw none in the sky today.

The ibises are probably not too far behind. Today I saw a small family overhead that included the first flying ibis juveniles I've seen this year.

The rookery looks no worse for our absence. Thanks to everyone who pitched in, especially Anna, Peter, and Valerie.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Raining Anhingas and Other News

Things are looking a bit better this week. Much thanks to those of you who have volunteered to do more!

WFAA News segment. The recent news segment was excellent. It was aired on Saturday evening instead of Friday.

New volunteers. The Heron and Egret Society has several new volunteers. Welcome Anna, Julie, Kris, Alex, Lesley, Jane, and Jennifer!

Our logo. Diane has agreed to design the logo for the Heron and Egret Society. She thinks this should be a shared vision and wants your suggestions.

State of the rookery: Here is what is happening now at the rookery and what we can do. The end of nesting season is near. If you go to the rookery now, you will notice dozens of great egrets walking around and through the woods. Though these birds look large, they are juveniles who are left to survive by their wits throughout the day. This is a dangerous time for them. This week we rescued an average of about two a day, all of them emaciated, and half of them with injuries. We think this is because:
  • There is little for these birds to eat. Gone are the days when a fast brook full of small fish, etc., flowed through the woods. Juveniles typically get stabbed in the head if they beg for food from other juveniles or from adults who are not their parents.
  • There is little for the birds to drink during these impossibly hot days, and they can quickly become dehydrated.
  • Juveniles who are inexpert at flying often get caught in tree branches and break their limbs.
  • Predators (hawks, raccoons, cats, etc.) who seem to know exactly what season this is are skulking around the place for meals.

Quite a few adult great egrets return to the rookery at dusk, and the total number of birds of this species is rapidly dropping. We think the adults lead small parties of juveniles away every day. In addition to monitoring the great egrets, we are watching the nests of several white ibises, little blue herons, and tricolor herons. Their young are still scrambling around in the nests and cannot yet fly. This is the time of year when a supply of clean water and minnows can be a lifeline to the rookery’s denizens (juveniles who are struggling, and parents who cannot leave their nests).

You can assist our efforts by:
  1. Rescuing injured birds,
  2. Delivering birds to Rogers Wildlife,
  3. Helping to keep the water troughs full and clean,
  4. Moving bird carcasses away from living birds (This should be done with a “grabber”. Do not touch any dead bird.),
  5. Helping to deliver goldfish and minnows to Rogers Wildlife,
  6. Doing volunteer work at Rogers Wildlife.
Let me know what you are willing to do. Better yet, go ahead and do it. If you need instruction, do not make an appointment. I am finding that this does not work. Phone me or Chalo when you are free to go to the rookery, and we’ll see whether someone can join you.

Fish deliveries. An example of success: today’s fish deliveries. Things seldom work as ideally as today’s fish feeds! Peter went to a live-bait depot near where he lives and picked up the fish: 1 lb of minnows for us, 6 lb of goldfish and minnows for Rogers Wildlife. Chalo and I delivered the minnows to the rookery and temporarily stored the rest. Egrets were standing by as we poured in the minnows. Anna picked up the 6-lb load from us and delivered it to Rogers Wildlife. Though we operated like clockwork, only about half of this was planned. The rest was improvised. I envision a time when all our work will go as smoothly as this, and I welcome suggestions for new ways to work that will minimize formalities.

The “Birdintrouble” posse. Chalo is setting up a bird-rescue communications system to coordinate our rescue efforts. He is testing it now.

The way this will work is that anyone finding a distressed bird will e-mail to:

This e-mail will be automatically forwarded to everyone who volunteers for the rescue team.

The person who decides to take the call will send another message to:

saying that he/she is "on the case", to prevent multiple volunteers from answering one call.

Yes, you guessed it. I am calling for volunteers for the BIT posse. Anyone willing to pick up an injured bird should volunteer their email address for this to

The Anhinga situation. The situation with the Anhingas is probably signaling some quite worrying ecological collapse. This is worth monitoring. Last week, it was “raining Anhingas” over the campus. Thankfully, this has stopped. Over a period of about two weeks, we found:
  • 1 Anhinga in basketball court (Weezer); he unfortunately died at Rogers after about a week.
  • 1 across street from basketball court in parking lot. Died.
  • 1 in closed tennis court with 20-foot high fence. Had to have flown in, but seemed unable to fly away. Good condition.
  • 1 in closed courtyard near North Campus D building. Had to have flown in. Good condition.
  • 1 on rooftop parking lot at St. Paul’s. Had to have flown. Good condition.
  • 2 very young (less than two weeks old) Anhingas at one of the watering troughs (see picture above). Good condition, and very, very cute.
  • 1 in parking lot behind building Y. Probably flew there. Delivered to us but died before we got back from dinner.
  • 1 in faculty parking garage. Died before delivery to Rogers.

To our knowledge, there are fewer than 10 Anhingas nests in the rookery, so this is a significant fraction of the total number of birds of this species. In the past three years, we have never rescued an Anhinga and only seen one dead individual. Kathy Rogers tells us that in 20 years, her rehab center has seen only two!

Our web site. Please check from time to time. There are new pages for art and literature featuring Herons and Egrets. Please send us your favorites. So far we have Diane Stewart’s lovely egret paintings and a link to the Flickr Heron, Egret, and Crane group. We are looking for poems and essays. We want the site to be absolutely first rate and would appreciate advice from the artists among us.

Campaign to make the rookery a protected sanctuary. We are getting a bit of a runaround from the politicians. This is expected. Keep right on writing. Point out that the rookery is a treasure that should be protected for the State of Texas.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Living in Place

A cliche of science-fiction stories ever since H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is the idea that hostile aliens would want to gorge themselves on humans.  Wells was a brilliant storyteller and prescient social critic who keenly followed the developments of his age and beautifully wove them into his novels.  Unfortunately he lived when biochemistry was in its infancy.
Modern writers of science fiction should know better.  Aliens from other worlds could never consume humans, nor for that matter, any other earthlings.  The scientific reason for this, of course, is that we can only consume what we can recycle:  amino acids that will be incorporated into our proteins, nucleic acids that will become part of our DNA, vitamins that will assist the biochemical reactions needed for our bodies' functions, etc.  Put more poetically, the act of eating is a communion with family.  This brings me to the main point that I wish to make here:  the notion that we exist independently of other living beings is an illusion.  All that we breathe, eat, drink, and excrete, passes along its way, connecting us to all that exists, as so much water flowing over the pebbles in a river.
I am sorry to report that things recently turned for the worse at the rookery, and the birds are suffering unimaginably of the severe drought.  About two thirds of the rookery’s denizens have already fled.
 This Summer, we are rescuing the juveniles of Anhingas and Black-Crowned Night Herons:  species who have rarely or never before needed our help.  For the rescued Great Egrets, this past week the mortality shot up to about one in four.  Initially, I was overjoyed to be able to see the rarer juveniles, but now I realize this to be very sad news. These are the early-arriving species who had the greatest chance of a successful season.
For the late-arriving species, such as the tricolor herons and little-blue herons, the majority of the nests have failed.  Bird lovers and photographers who monitor the rookery tell me that many of the eggs did not hatch for these species.  Some parents took the more pragmatic course:  they calculated that they could not reasonably maintain themselves and their young, and they abandoned their active nests.  Others stayed and died trying.
What is currently at stake is not the demise of the planet, as it has become so fashionable to say.  This is as arrogant as imagining that when we sleep the world disappears.  The planet will continue.  On the other hand, our species might well become one of many index fossils, i.e. a precise marker for a geological era because its population exploded and then disappeared.  What is under threat right now is the ecological ensemble to which we belong.  Our lives depend on the continued well-being of this ensemble as surely as it depends on the continued beating of our hearts.
 It is for our own sakes that we must learn to “live in place” and support those plants and animals that surround us.
 Right now, we can help the birds remaining in the rookery by:
 1.  Increasing the frequencing of our trips and rescues.   Based on past experience, in the next few weeks we will see the worst injuries of the year.  Collect any distressed birds and deliver them to Rogers Wildlife ASAP.  Contact "birdintrouble" if you need help with the rescue or delivery.
2.  Making our work better known to others on the campus.  As the juveniles begin to fly a little, they are wandering farther from home.  We are already finding them in the tennis courts, the parking lots in the North campus, and various odd places.  It is important that these wandering birds be discovered early.
 3.  Inspecting, cleaning, and refilling the water troughs.  The juvenile birds definitely drink from the water troughs that our Society has placed for them around the woods.  There is a white six-gallon container of water near the memorial garden that can be used to refill the nearby troughs.  Bring gloves for handling the container and troughs.  After emptying the container, refill it from the faucet by the faculty parking lot.  If you cannot manage the refill, let us know that you have emptied the container, and we'll organize a refill.
 In addition, for the long term, we can help the rookery by getting it officially recognized as a bird sanctuary.  Details about this are at:
Additional suggestions are welcome.
 Yes, our humble little Society is making a difference.  If you doubt this, drive to the Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and visit the birds we rescued this season.  Some of them already wading about and feeding themselves.