RGV Bucket List: Wildlife

I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas for 2 years now. D moved here a year before me to take a refuge management job, and I followed right before we got married in 2011. We planned to stay here for 2-3 years, both of us working full time and building our savings. Now that time is coming to a close, as D has accepted a position in northern Montana! Yes, we are moving from one border to the other!
Mexico to Canada
We have a little over a month left in Texas and I’m contemplating all the things I wanted to do while we were here. I call it my RGV Bucket List. We also did lots of things we never expected we would be doing 3 years ago! Here I outline the Wildlife and Animals part of my RGV Bucketlist.

Birds!

Chachalaca Crossing

Chachalaca Mom and Chicks right out of the nest!

The first time I visited Santa Ana with D I took my picture next to a sign that said “Chachalaca Crossing.” I’d heard about these loud pheasant-like birds and couldn’t wait to see one. I didn’t seeing on that day, but I did end up working at a nature center where Chachalacas are encountered daily! In my first week, I watched a momma coral her two chicks that had just left the nest in a palm tree! I love these hilarious birds and their big personalities. One of my favorite moments was filling the suet feeders on a cold winter morning and feeding them suet right out of my hand.

Banded Great Kiskadee at work

Before I began working, I remember seeing a big yellow bird in our backyard while D was at work one day. I was amazed and had never seen anything like the Great Kiskadee. I pulled out my bird field guide and learned about this large flycatcher. Now I listen to their calls every day from my office window.

Green Jays on the Picnic Table at Laguna Atascosa

The Green Jay is the City Bird of McAllen. Pictures show it to be a brightly colored big bird and I assumed I would see them all the time, like Blue Jays back in the Southeast. Turns out, they are VERY well camouflaged and quite secretive. I’m still thrilled when I see a pair at our sunflower seed feeders. One of my favorite Valley birds.

Common Pauraque and it’s incredible camo

I had seen pictures of Common Pauraques on Birdchick’s blog. Well, she said the bird was in the picture, but I couldn’t really tell! Incredible leaf-litter camoflauge paired with the un-moving nature of this night-jar, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see one. But our groundskeeper always knew how to point them out and I eventually became quiet adept at finding them! I always love showing visitor’s this forest-floor bird because once you see it, you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret!

Green Parakeets on the Powerlines in McAllen

I had no idea there was such a large population of wild parakeets and parrots. I now know how to tell if its a grackle or a parakeet on the powerlines at dusk. There will always be a few parakeets upside down, and grackles never do that! I also enjoyed the parrots coming to Quinta this spring to feed on the Coral Beans early in the mornings. Both Red-crowned and Lilac-crowned visited us.

Lilac-crowned Parrot in a Coral Bean tree

Other species I love to see: Crested Caracaras, White-tailed Hawk, Eastern Screech Owls, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and Groove-billed Ani’s!

Crested Caracara

Eastern Screech Owl at work

White-tailed Hawk stretching on a fence post

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on a flat roof in Mission, TX

Groove-billed Ani’s

Nilgai and Deer!

Nilgai on GLO land at the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado river

When D first told me about Nilgai I didn’t understand. So it’s an antelope, as big as a horse, from India and Pakistan, just roaming free in a wildlife refuge? Now they are a regular part of our visits to Laguna Atascosa, and a regular meat in our freezer. Because nilgai are exotic, there is no closed season for hunting them. As long as you are in the right place, you can shoot them. When we were duck hunting, we always passed public land where nilgai roamed and subsequently we always had a rifle with us, just in case. This planning paid off when a friend of ours shot 2 nilgai in the middle of a duck hunt and has been sharing that meat with us since! If you’ve never had nilgai steaks, I highly reccommend them!

Escaped Fallow Deer

White-tailed Deer buck at El Canelo Ranch

Herps!

Texas Tortoise at Laguna Atascosa

I love most of the herptefauna down here too. The Texas Tortoise, a species of concern, is spotted regularly in wild places, munching on Prickly Pear Cactus fruit.

Holding an Indigo Snake I found at the McAllen Nature Center (currently closed)

The beautiful blue-black Indigo Snake (another species of concern) is a big strong snake that eats rattlesnakes, but is very docile when handling. And of course there are more dangerous herps here as I learned when a Black-striped Snake bit me and sent me to the ER for pain and swelling for 16 hours. This happened at work too, so that was some fun paperwork (/sarcasm).

American Alligator near a water trough at Laguna Atascosa

I ALWAYS love seeing American alligators!

Ranch Animals!
I’ve gotten to get up close and personal with lots of ranch animals. Ranching both cattle and white-tails is big down here. Here are some of my favorites…

Saying Hello to Longhorn cattle at Rancho Lomitas

Texas Longhorn at Rancho Lomitas in Rio Grande City

Feeding Bison at Rancho El Charco in La Joya

Wild-roaming Black Bucks at Rancho El Charco in La Joya

Gemsbok Oryx at Rancho El Charco in La Joya. She was not interested in my apple.

Bottle-feeding White-tailed Deer fawns at El Canelo Ranch

Surprises!

“Playing” with Dolphins in the Intercoastal Channel in the Lower Laguna Madre

Every time we go fishing or duck hunting from the Arroyo Colorado, we see dolphins using the deep channels! One of our first times out, they came right up to our boat!

Assisting with a White-tailed Deer artificial insemination program at El Canelo Ranc

We also got the opportunity to assist with a White-tailed Deer artificial insemination at El Canelo. Fascinating!

Holding a Cannonball Jelly in the Lower Laguna Madre

Another surprise was holding canonball jellyfish! They don’t sting the same way the beach jellies do, and they rarely harm humans. We were wade-fishing one day and they were swimming around us, so we took some pictures!

Red-tailed Hawk ,Raptor Banding in the RGV with Bill Clark

We got a special invitation to help out with Raptor Banding in the sugar cane fields on the border. This was such a thrill! We watched as the expert took measurements and attached bands to hawks he caught using a field trap. Then Mr. Clark let us hold the raptor and release it! This was a once-in-a-lifetiem experience for sure and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. (Mr. Clark is actually doing a Raptor Banding Field Trip as a part of the RGV Birding Festival this November if you are interested in being able to do this!)

I would still like to get a better look and even photograph Javelina. I saw one from the road one morning on our way to duck hunting, so I’m counting it, but I’d like to see them closer. Other than that, my RGV animal bucket list is pretty much complete!

Roadrunner at Laguna Atascosa

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Honeymoon Pt 2

Our other 2 ports we stopped at on our honeymoon cruise to Alaska were Skagway and Ketchikan.

In Skagway we went on a jet-boat tour of the Haynes River Bald Eagle Preserve. The jet-boat was really cool. It maneuvered like an airboat and could go in very shallow water, but felt (and sounded) like you were in a regular engine boat.

We saw a ton of bald eagles, mostly females. The females have hatched the eaglets and have returned to hunting for their meals.

The one male we did see had taken the female’s place on the nest to stay with the eaglets.

We spied this yearling moose munching on some green grass. She was quite interested in us but didn’t stay around long.

We also got to see the most wild trumpeter swans I’ve ever seen in one place. Their heads and necks were dyed a rust color from all the iron in the waters they feed in. Didn’t see any cygnets though.

One of the coolest parts of this trip was watching mountain goats through scopes! I didn’t think I’d get to see my first mountain goat in this trip so that was a great surprise!

Between Skagway and Ketchican, our ship visited Glacier Bay where we got to see some glacier calving action (where a big chunk of ice falls into the sea)!

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day.

We got to watch a couple of big brown bears sunning themselves on the rock face.

The Johns Hopkins Glacier was the biggest glacier I’ve ever seen!

That evening we watched more sea lions and SEA OTTERS(!) out and about in front of the ship!

The next day we arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska where we went through the museum at the visitor’s center and did some shopping.

I came home with a shearling aviator and D came home with a beaver fur Russian-style hat (he used to trap nuisance beavers back home in Arkansas (and looks darn good in a big Russian hat!)).

That afternoon we went salmon fishing. The method they used was called down-rigging and I’d never seen that before. All of our poles were set up together but the down-rigger kept the lines from getting tangled. Unfortunately we didn’t even get a bite but it was a nice day on the water, if a little chilly for me.

On our last day at sea on the cruise ship, D and I entered into the Newlywed/Marriage game and… WE WON! I couldn’t believe it! We’d been married for a week and were up against a couple married for 30 years and a couple married for 45 years! We won on the bonus question- what’s the craziest place you’ve ever ‘gotten romantic?’ The other couples had a lot more history and didn’t guess each other’s answer. Our answer was obvious- a cruise ship! We enjoyed our free bottle of champagne that night as we sailed back to Vancouver.

Honeymoon

On May 28, 2011, D and I got married!! Our ceremony and reception were in my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Then on May 30 we flew to Vancouver for a few days. On June 1 we got on a cruise ship and headed for Alaska!!

Vancouver was so fantastic. We spent the day on the trolley which went through just about every neighborhood and Stanley Park.


(Lord Stanley is a Canuk’s fan!)

The totem poles in Stanley Park were the highlight of our visit.

Vancouver is beautiful, I loved it. It was my first time in Canada.


(the Vancouver skyline as seen from Stanley Park)

We cruised on Holland America and our first port was Juneau!


(the Mendenhall Glacier)

In Juneau we got to go on a whale/wildlife watching cruise! It was my FAVORITE part of our entire honeymoon. We saw humpback whales, brown bears, harbor seals and bald eagles. The best part was seeing a Stellar sea lion haul-out (where they come out of the water to rest and warm up)!!


(humpback whale)


(momma brown bear on Admiralty Island, home of the highest concentration of brown bears in North America)


(Stellar Sea Lions)

We got to watch the harem bull sea lion break up a scuffle and oversea his harem.

And we ended the day by getting a special treat. A humpback whale came up right next to our boat and spent quite a long time slapping its pectoral fin on the surface! It was awesome!! The guides said they’ve only seen this behavior once before on their tours. I used my FlipCam from TakeMeFishing.org‘s National Boating and Fishing Day contest to get a couple of quick videos (the quality was lost when I put them up on youtube):

We also had a salmon fishing trip in Ketchikan but I don’t have any video from that trip cause we didn’t even get a bite 😦 But that’s why they call it fishing and not catching…

Pennsylvania Elk

Earlier this week I was in DuBois, Pennsylvania for the 2011 Eastern Elk Management Workshop. Every year elk scientists and managers of elk in eastern states meet to discuss current elk herd statuses and research. I attended last year when it was held in Knoxville, TN as a first-year grad student. This year I got to return and present my research project. It was such a fantastic trip and I feel so lucky to be in elk research. Talking to elk biologists from around the eastern US gave me an incredible opportunity to get a feeling for how my research fits into the big scheme of things. Along with technical presentations, socializing and discussing elk management, we also got the chance to see some Pennsylvania elk up close. Elk can be easily seen at dawn and dusk hours from the many observation outlooks on Winslow Hill in Benezette, PA.

Elk were completely extirpated from the Eastern US in the late 1800’s. Many states reintroduced elk herds including Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Today there are approximately 800 elk roaming Penn’s Woods. You can read more about the history of PA elk on the Game Commissionwebsite. Today’s reintroductions and management would not be possible without the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (so if you love to see elk in the wild, consider becoming a member!)

In Pennsylvania, reclaimed coal strip mines make up a lot of the state game land elk habitat. PA Game Commission along with other partners put a HUGE amount of work into transforming carved out mountaintops into habitat that is lush and alive.

It’s quite beautiful but they are still dealing with (and will be for decades) water seeping from the old mines. This water is very high in Iron and the pH is around 2-3 which is too acidic for for anything to live in the streams. Through lime enhancement and settling ponds, the Game Commission has brought life back to some streams and downstream there are successful bass and trout fisheries!

The Game Commission has also helped to create a wetland complex, which was currently being utilized by some mallards and Canada Geese.

Recently opened is the new Pennsylvania Elk Country Visitor’s Center.

It is absolutely the most beautiful elk center in the east. Looks like it belongs in Yellowstone!

With a trail system, panoramic views of elk country, a fireplace, “4D” theater, interactive displays, and a room full of antlers, hides, and other hands-on elk stuff this Visitor’s Center continually took my breath away!

Towards the end of the afternoon we started to see some elk through the haze.

Signs warn observers to keep their distance.

This cow was rather interested in our giant bus!

This tagged and collared beauty was standing just inside the tree line.

On our last stop of the day we got to see a big herd grazing. I had a great time in PA! Everyone was super nice and enthusiastic. And seeing elk is always a great pleasure!