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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rescue Season Resumes

Lots of news.

1. It is rescue season again. Since the mercury shot up, about 8 birds have needed rescuing every week. All but one have been great-egret nestlings. Incredibly, some of those rescued last week looked to be only one or two-weeks old. They are probably the chicks of the less experienced adults -- maybe first-time nesters. All this bobbing and twig-bearing is terribly complicated....

The other baby bird we rescued is the first Anhinga chick we have ever had the pleasure to see in the flesh. The Anhingas are relatively rare denizens of the rookery. There are fewer than 10 pairs of adults, but this season, they can be spotted flying over the rookery almost all the time. They are the dark birds with the extended necks and V-shaped tails in flight.

So far, the mortality has been low for the rescued birds, probably because they are being delivered to Rogers Wildlife as soon as they are found. Some lovely people, not in our Society (including a Jessica) have been contributing to the rescues. If anyone knows them, please pass on our thanks and invite them to join our group. We still need for more people to join in on the rescues. Please make an effort to survey the rookery perimeter at least once a week. We especially need coverage during weekend days.

It is time again to keep the troughs full of clean water. In past years, they became meeting areas for the juvenile birds and really helped them.

2. This year's official bird count is in. Overall, the numbers are not entirely outside of the normal range of the year-to-year fluctuations, although they have dropped. The interventions of last February, before things went too far, might well have prevented a more dramatic decline. Better not to know.

3. We have a web site! And Chalo to thank for constructing it. It is a work in progress. Suggestions are welcome. The address is:

There you will find instructions on bird rescuing, contact information for us, important links, and much more. The little bird in the hand is Norbert (Norder to some), a cattle egret rescued at 8 grams after a thunderstorm in June 2007. The hand is Chalo's.

4. The design for the interpretive rookery signs  is complete! The signs are gorgeous, and what's more, they can be downloaded from our web site. The graphics were contributed by Anna Palmer, the descriptions by Betsy Baker, and the photos by Anna Palmer, Kaustubh Deshpande, and Daniel Lim. They deserve our thanks for volunteering this impressive and polished work. Thanks are also due to Kirby Vahle, the Physical Plant VP, who graciously agreed to pay for production of the final prints and to construct the displays.

5. The rookery is gathering considerable appreciation from outside. Check out the articles about the rookery in web-magazine series HERE.