Tuesday, November 15, 2011

turtle boy and the green-tailed towhee

Turtle Boy...kickin' butt 'n takin' names...

It would be no great exaggeration to say that Matt Conn grew up at Lafayette's Acadiana Park Nature Station. Even before I got there in 1986, Matt had already gained infamy as the star of “Turtle Boy,” naturalist Steve Shively's short film featuring eight-year-old Matt and his backyard menagerie of turtles. Thanks to his mom, Kim, Matt and sister Emily visited the Nature Station seemingly just about every week for years; and like many kids, Matt fell hard for the Wild Things. As a college student he went on to work under me as a teaching naturalist at the Nature Station before graduating from ULL with a degree in Renewable/Sustainable Resources. Today, Matt serves as Senior Ecological Project Manager for the John Chance company, a survey/environmental/regulatory firm in Lafayette.

typical "scrub-shrub" habitat bordering a live oak forest

A few years ago, Matt jumped at the chance to acquire 67-acres of freshly-mutilated live oak forest, marsh, and cypress swamp down in Iberia parish, just above Weeks Island. Since then he's planted thousands of trees and is carefully managing the recovery of that diverse little chunk of land.

the elusive/reclusive Seaside Sparrow in a salt-marsh above Sabine Pass
(photo by Matt Conn)

Matt also got into nature photography, and went straight for the most difficult of natural subjects – birds. Unlike plants or turtles, birds move around a lot, and it's exceedingly difficult to capture decent images of them. Now, Matt's wanting to learn all he can about birds; but rather than carrying around a field guide and a pair of binoculars, he just totes his camera, shoots hundreds of frames, and then identifies them later at his leisure. Recently – and much to our mutual benefit – he's been taking shortcuts and simply sending me photos of the birds whose identities he can't figure out.

Green-tailed Towhee; note lovely citrine-yellow edges to folded wing feathers
(photo by Matt Conn)

Just after dawn on 29 October, he photographed a bird at the scrubby entrance to his land that he knew was very different from the regularly-occuring species that he'd been observing. Looking through his field guide, he identified it himself: a Green-tailed Towhee; a ground/brush-dwelling, stout-billed, long-tailed, sparrow-like bird of the mountain-region of the western U.S. During the winter months, Green-tailed Towhees migrate down into the far southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The easternmost edge of the Green-tailed Towhee's wintering grounds is west-central Texas. But as birds are wont to do, a few of them always end up well outside their wintering grounds; some species more than others.

That's the thing about birds. They have wings, and those wings often carry them to wacky places. Birds that are encountered out of place are called “vagrants.”

Like all states, Louisiana keeps close track of its birds – even its vagrant birds. In fact, vagrant bird sightings are the most eagerly-anticipated of all. They're just so . . . vagrant . . . y'know? Some arid-southwestern U.S. vagrant species such as Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher and Vermilion Flycatcher are actually regularly-occurring in Louisiana each winter, with a dozen or two (or more) annual records for each. Others like Scott's Oriole, Sage Thrasher, and the Green-tailed Towhee are recorded much more infrequently, certainly not every winter. In fact, according to Louisiana Bird Records Committee chairman Steve Cardiff, there were only 10 total records of Green-tailed Towhee on file for Louisiana prior to this winter.

Matt's Green-tailed Towhee (lodged here in a honey locust tree)
 is one of four recorded thus far in Louisiana this winter
(photo by Matt Conn)

This winter is shaping up to be an odd one, weather-wise and bird-wise. It's going to be a noticeably warmer one, for starters; and with the awful devastation of food, water, and habitat resources in drought-plagued Texas, Louisiana is already receiving a number of rarely-occurring vagrants, including four Green-tailed Towhee sightings thus far. This winter's Green-tailed Towhee sightings have emanated from just south of Shreveport, just south of Alexandria, the Thornwell area of southern Jeff Davis parish, and Matt's bird in Iberia parish. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

winter color on da gulf rim

Swamp Red Maple (Acer drummondii)

Yeah yeah, I know. Down here along the Gulf Rim there's not much fall foliage color to brag about. But what we do have is a winter foliage color show – not in vast expanses, mind you, but definitely in small clumps here and there. It's not exactly gonna rip the eyes right out of your head; rather, it's a matter of opening one's eyes and actually looking for it.

Baldcypress intermingling with a hybrid Holly
(Ilex opaca x cassine) in our backyard;
excellent contrast in both color and texture

Generally, our winter foliage color season begins in November, when baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) reveals the first hints of rust color in its needles. Other early colorizers include black cherry (Prunus serotina) and cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia). With each passing day, the cypress colors up a little more, until finally around Thanksgiving it drops everything, thickly covering the ground below with a rich, rusty-red carpet.

Cedar Elm (left) and American Hornbeam (right)
provide a nice combination behind our barn

Swamp Cyrilla (Cyrilla racemiflora) is a personal favorite, turning
red/orange/yellow gradually, and over a long period of time

Witch Hazel provides yellow fall color AND fragrant blooms;
all in November!

Black Cherry going orange-yellow
on the northern edge of our backyard

Meanwhile, additional pockets of color can be found in individual specimens of swamp red maple (Acer drummondii), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), sweetgum (Liquidambar styriciflua) and sassafras – and of course Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum), but decent folks don't like to talk about that one . . .

Wetland oaks including Nuttall (Quercus texana) and overcup (Q. lyrata) don't begin turning until December; but by Christmas they are both wonders to behold.

Let it be known as well that there are a few outstanding winter-foliage natural areas in northern Louisiana which are easily accessible. The best by far is Sicily Island Hills Wildlife Management Area (see http://sicilyislandhills.com/ and http://www.stateparks.com/sicily_island_hills.html ) in extreme northeastern Catahoula parish; and the best time for winter color is Thanksgiving week. Also visit-worthy are Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park and Eddie Jones Park (http://www.caddoparks.com/findpark.cfm ), both in Caddo parish around Shreveport. Both of those park feature, among numerous other color plants, stands of southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum), one of the most stunningly colorful of all our winter plants. The Macon Ridge, an ancient Mississippi River escarpment up in Morehouse parish above Monroe also holds nice stands of southern sugar maple. Kalorama Nature Preserve http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kalorama-Nature-Preserve/111378675635675 is a fine destination on Macon Ridge. Check it out. And check out Kalorama curator Beth Erwin's fine blog (http://arborlady.blogspot.com/) 'The View From the Hill' while you're at it.

Fall/winter foliage color arises from red, orange, and yellow-pigmented metabolic wastes (carotenoids, anthocyanins, etc.) which are actually contained in the leaves long before we see them. Toward the end of a leaf's life, chlorophyll production ceases; and once all the residual chlorophyll drains out, its metabolic wastes are finally unmasked.