Wildlife Rescue

Western Chicken Turtle

Raise your hand if you know what a Chicken Turtle is. Me either. The Western Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia miaria) is relatively rare compared to other aquatic turtles like painted turtles or red-eared sliders, but…there is a good chance you’ve seen one and not known what you were looking at. From a distance, the Chicken Turtle looks like a painted turtle or red-eared slider – a small to medium sized pond/basking turtle. It is very shy, but if you can catch one with its neck extended, you will see a huge difference. The neck is almost as long as the body! That’s quite a reach! The striped unusually long neck gives the Chicken Turtle an advantage in capturing its preferred diet of crayfish, fish, tadpoles and other small vertebrates and invertebrates. Another interesting hunting adaptation is a well developed hyoid apparatus which allows the turtle to literally suck prey into its mouth! The Chicken Turtle is omnivorous, but leans strongly to carnivorous when prey is available. Chicken Turtles are as comfortable on land as they are in the water. They will range widely between aquatic habitats, the males usually ranging much further than the females. They prefer quiet still waters such as shallow ponds, lakes, ditches and marshes. Like red eared sliders, the Chicken Turtle is social and enjoys basking on logs or rocks that are partially submerged in the water. In colder regions the Chicken Turtle will hibernate in the soft mud and will burrow deeply to avoid dry conditions. Courtship begins with the male vibrating his fore-claws against the female’s face. Chicken Turtles are unusual in that the reproduction season is either late fall into winter or winter into early spring. The embryos [...]

Majestic in White

Raptors top the list of the most self-possessed and regal birds, but egrets and herons are a close second. The new year was only a few days old when a Great Egret (Ardea alba) came to the Wildlife Center for care. Dozens of time a year the Wildlife Center receives water birds that are at best entangled in monofilament or at worst deeply hooked by large treble hooks AND entrapped in fishing line.  When humans fish, they use monofilament, hooks, lures and sinkers, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could design a system as simple yet sophisticated as used by birds. Fishermen leave miles of monofilament cut free from tangles and snags in the environment per year. This fishing line doesn’t pose much of a hazard to humans, but for the animals that live in the waters it can be a slow and brutal death sentence. Remind the fishermen in your life that they are trespassing into the home of animals that live in that habitat. The adage “Leave only footprints” reminds one to leave nothing man made behind when enjoying the natural beauty – this applies double or triple to monofilament and other fishing gear and trash. Volunteers and staff removed monofilament line and fishing hooks that ensnared the recently rescued Great Egret. The snarl prevented the bird from effectively fishing. Luckily it was still strong enough to feed without human intervention and quickly regained its strength. Once recovered, the Great Egret was placed in a large flight cage to strengthen flight muscles in preparation for release. Several birds look close enough to the Great Egret to confuse identification. The Great Egret is a large white egret that sports dark legs and a stout [...]

All The World is a Stage

by: Brian Mihura The Wildlife Center receives creatures of enormous talent.  Not only do world-class songsters pass through annually, but so do masters of disguise, phenomenal architects and all too often, expert escape artists.  Topping the bill for actors, however, is the Hognose Snake. The Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), is a snake common to the eastern half of North America.  It is considered non-venomous, but toads would probably argue that point. Venom has been found in the saliva, but it only seems to affect toads and small amphibians. It is easily identified by its turned up nose. Coloration can range from sandy to almost black, but they are usually spotted shades of tan, copper and brown. Our current patient leans more toward shades of dark green and brown. Not considered an aggressive creature, it will put its acting skills to use when confronted. Act 1 begins with the flattening of the body and the adoption of a fierce open-mouthed display.  This often includes surprising audible hissing.  Common names for the Hognose include the hissing adder or puff adder.  To the uninitiated, there is no doubt that this snake is venomous and mean as …well…a snake. More than one person has mistaken the act to be that of a cobra’s, a snake not found in the New World.  Strikes may also be attempted by the Hognose, but these invariably take place with the mouth closed.  If this aggressive bluff fails, the Hognose moves on to Act 2. Act 2 involves the release of a foul-smelling musk and fecal matter and begins to writhe in death throes.    All of this is meant to send the signal that it is patently unappetizing fare – not only does [...]

Houston, the Eagle has Landed

If there is a bird that can hold one in thrall, it is the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The raptor simply radiates an aura of power and control. The Bald Eagle is classified as a sea eagle because it prefers to snatch fish from the water as it swoops across the surface of the water. It loves fish so much that it has been known to wade into shallow streams in pursuit of salmon. In regions where fish isn’t as plentiful as Alaska and the coastal northwestern states, the eagle will supplement with waterfowl and small mammals. It is the only eagle unique to North America. The Bald Eagle that came to the Wildlife Center had lost little of its regal poise even though it was so weak that it could barely fly. Wildlife Center veterinarians arrived within minutes of the bird and began examination and rehydration immediately. The eagle was treated for a parasitic nematode and placed on cage rest. Radiographs revealed an old break of the scapula that had not healed well. Examination with an opthalmascope revealed damage to one eye. Sexing birds that are not dimorphic (male and female do not look alike) is always a tricky business, but veterinarians believe that based on the shape of the pelvic bones that this bird is a male. It is believed that the single largest cause of mortality for the Bald Eagle is man and man-made creations. The Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states began to decline as soon as humans moved in and began changing the habitat and competing for the same game birds and fish as the eagle. Unlike falcons that have adapted to and in some cases exploited human habitation, [...]

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This summer day began like any other until an unusual tortoise was brought to the Wildlife Center. At least it wasn’t as big as the African Spurred Thigh Tortoise . In quick order the tortoise was identified as a Texas Tortoise and its status as a threatened species was confirmed. The twist was that a captive Texas Tortoise, by law CAN NOT BE RELEASED back into the wild! The Wildlife Center is sometimes placed in an awkward position when people illegally possessing wildlife turn to us for help. Almost all native Texas wildlife is protected and its possession, transportation or removal from its native environment is illegal. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife take these protections very seriously. If the animal in question is threatened or endangered, there are additional hoops to jump through. When a threatened or endangered animal comes into our possession, it must be immediately reported to Texas Parks and Wildlife. Do you know the difference between a turtle, tortoise and terrapin? Don’t feel bad; biologists wrestle with this question too. All three are reptiles called chelonians. The placement of a specific species into a category is based more on where the animal spends its time instead of strict taxonomic differences. Aquatic turtles like sea turtles spend almost no time on land and have an adaptation that has turned their legs into flippers. Turtles spend some portion of their lifecycle in the water or spend significant time in or near water. Their feet are usually webbed for more efficient swimming. The Red-eared Slider is a good example. Tortoises are usually associated with deserts or at least dry environments and have rear legs that remind one of an elephant’s. [...]

You Can't See Me

The Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) is an extremely secretive ground dwelling bird that is difficult to observe in the wild. Its somber cryptic coloration is the rail’s primary protection against predation. Because the rail rarely leaves heavy cover, it is considered a rare and elusive “get” for birders. Serious birders can spend their whole lives trying to track down this sparrow-sized rail. One of the biggest advantages to volunteering at the Wildlife Center is that unusual animals can be closely observed. In addition to viewing the animal in question, the idiosyncratic behavior seen in the wild is often very evident during rehabilitation. It is amazing to watch a generic hatchling develop into a quirky nestling and juvenile or an injured bird begin to flip its fish into the air so that it can then be snatched from the air head first. Preferring to hide in dense inaccessible wetland brush and grass, the Yellow Rail is hard to flush. The rail can move soundlessly beneath the brush, thereby not revealing itself. Brief glimpses in flight usually aren’t enough for accurate identification before it quickly drops back to ground to hide. One exception is during rice harvesting when combines will flush rails into flight. The voice however is quite loud and distinctive; they are more often identified by the voice which sounds like two stones being tapped together which is repeated four to five times (tic-tic tic-tic). Despite the short rounded wings and tail, that make lifting into flight and short flights more difficult, the Yellow Rail is a strong and fast flyer that migrates from its breeding grounds in Canada to wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast, around Florida and up to North Carolina. The largest [...]

Littlest Least

The Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) is the smallest member of the grouping known as “Shorebirds”. When one thinks of a sandpiper (or peeps as they are known to birders) the image of a little bird with long legs running to and from the water as the waves lap the beach often comes to mind. But most peeps don’t live at the beach and only a very few nest there. Sandpipers are a highly diverse family which includes the snipe, curlew, stint, woodcock and the highly pelagic Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius. Encompassing over 200 species, identification of individual species can be very difficult. This is complicated further if you don’t know if the bird is a juvenile, sub-adult or adult. So the identification rests not only on what the bird looks like, but also on the knowledge of what age sandpipers are seen at that geographical location at each season and their behavior (how they feed, where they feed, is it in a flock).  For example, if you see a sandpiper foraging in the grass – it probably isn’t a peep, but a type of plover called Killdeer. Knowing the habits of peeps in the area can be crucial to identification. The population estimates of the Least Sandpiper are probably underreported since they tend to get lumped in with other small sandpipers. The data amassed to help scientists differentiate between the sandpiper species is astounding, yet a solitary bird will often be misidentified. Least Sandpiper 101…Look for a sandpiper that is about five inches tall (that’s really small!), has yellowish legs and is by itself or with a small group. Look near or just inside the vegetation line on mudflats as the Least Sandpiper doesn’t usually [...]

Crazy as a Coot

The American Coot  (Fulica Americana) is a medium sized water bird that resembles a duck in shape, but has a short whitish chicken like bill. The body is a lovely deeply dark bluish gray which blends to black on the head and lighter gray on the chest and belly. Primarily a diving bird, it sits lower in the water than a duck. The whitish frontal shield rises between eyes that are a startling red. The legs are a greenish yellow and the feet are lobed instead of webbed. If you don’t know what lobed feet are click here  to read about the Pied-billed Grebe’s feet and its relationship to flamingos in the blog “If It Looks Like a Duck”. A member of the usually shy Rail family, the coot is quite conspicuous in its preference for open water. Within the Rail family, the coot is sort of like the crazy old uncle that sits on the porch with his corncob pipe and shotgun, eccentric but loveable. While coots can exist in flocks peacefully, most are a bit more territorial than other water birds. Breeding season finds competitors bringing their A-game to the table. Territorial displays and vocalizations tell both competitors and threats to steer clear. Intimidation techniques include flapping the wings hard enough to rise out of the water and running towards the bad guy while screaming its head off.  Coots are often vocal during the night as well as during the day. The voice of the coot is quite distinctive and consists of an assortment of grunts and cackling. Coots are strong flyers once on the wing, but require a “running start” to rise from the water. This explains the Coot’s preference for open [...]

Timberdoodle

We all have favorite foods, but is there one food that you’d love to eat 80% to 90% of the time for the rest of your life? The American Woodcock (Philohela minor) does….earthworms! A specialized adaptation of the beak allows the Woodcock to be the consummate earthworm hunter. The tip of the beak looks like an average pointed shorebird, but it’s not. The tip is flexible and sensitive. The upper manidble is flexible enough to grasp an earthworm without opening the beak. The Woodcock probes damp leaf litter to find the coveted earthworms. Bird guides can’t seem to agree on the description of the Woodcock. Some consider it a shore bird, well, it looks like a shore bird – sort of. But it doesn’t live at the beach.  Others consider it an upland game bird - but it doesn't look like other gamebirds. The best compromise I found was “a shore bird that lives in the forest”.  One of the more colorful nicknames is “Timberdoodle”. The Wildlife Center receives several of these each fall as they migrate from most of the eastern United States to Gulf Coast states.  This bird is a voracious feeder with its favorite being, of course earthworms.  The upper Gulf coast is right on the edge of the Woodcock’s year round territory and its wintering grounds in southern Texas.  Unlike most birds, the Woodcock migrates in small groups at night! It is believed that they orient on the coastline or major rivers and then follow it to their preferred wintering ground. Most American birds form seasonal or lifelong monogamous pairs and the males either help with incubation or hunt for the female while she sits on the eggs. Not the Timberdoodle. Males [...]

Can You Hear Me Now?

The American Bittern (Botauru lentiginosus) is a one of the stockier and short legged members of the Ardeidae family which includes herons, egrets and bittern. This Nearctic species has a breeding range in Canada and northern United States to parts of central United States.  They are solitary and prefer to hide in heavy reeds, cat-tails and grass around isolated bogs, marshes and flooded meadows. Bitterns can be found in both saltwater and freshwater marshes. It sports brown streaking with an appearance similar to immature night herons. The coloration is such an effective camouflage the bird simply melts into the reeds.  Animals that use camouflage as their primary defense against danger freeze when spotted. The Bittern has an interesting adaptive behavior to hide; it stands motionless with its bill pointed upward and its body held in tightly while giving the appearance of a clump of reeds in the water.  Once the Bittern decides that hiding won’t work, it puffs itself up and sways ominously to show how dangerous it is. The bird blends in perfect with the brown vegetation as it moves slowly with its bill held horizontal while eyes are focused downward to spot prey such as frogs, small snakes, fish, rodents and eels.   They are generally crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and hunt along the margins of ponds in dense vegetation.   The American bittern does not perch in trees but spends most of its time on the ground.    Because the Bittern is shy and reclusive, it is more difficult to find in the wild than its family members the herons and egrets. You may not be able to see one, but their booming voice is quite loud and distinctive leaving no doubt [...]

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