wetlands

Otters?

Otters?  In Houston? Really? That is the universal reaction we get at the Wildlife Center when visitors to our facility or website discover that we are caring for three juvenile North American River Otters.  The next statement is invariably, “Why, I’ve never even seen an otter here!”  They are in good company.  Researchers specializing in otters can go years without seeing a wild otter in the flesh.  They have to conduct their research using scat, tracks and images caught on camera traps.  The rarity in sightings should not, however, be equated with a lack of individuals. There are a number of reasons why otters are not often seen.  Even in healthy river environments, the abundance of otters is never high.  The best estimates of researchers, and estimates they are, put a natural population density at one individual to every 2 to 10 miles of river.  By their very nature, river otters are shy and elusive.  Also as river creatures, not much of them can be seen when they are in their favored habitat.  While in the water, only a small portion of their heads can be seen.  Trying to differentiate them from a beaver or nutria is very difficult.  River otters, as a rule, are active on land only at night and remain in the water or in a den during the day. Otters belong to the weasel family, the Mustelidae.  Other members include ferrets, mink, badgers and wolverines.  These creatures are all noted for their boundless energy and voracious appetites.  Their body plans are equally similar:  long thin flexible bodies, a small head equipped with powerful jaws and short strong limbs.  Also in common to all of the species is a set of large [...]

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 [...]

If It Looks Like a Duck….

If it look like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a….flamingo? The wonderful thing about research is that I learn things I didn’t know before and thanks to the internet, I don’t even have to leave my couch. When the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) came into the Wildlife Center, I yawned…thinking it was just another water bird. The initial research didn’t change my opinion, but I wanted to know more about those bizarre feet.  That question set off a cascade that led from the bird to advanced genetic analysis and biochemistry. Instead of simplifying the classification of animals, genetics has blown the roof off. It doesn’t help that dozens of “official” definitions exist for the concept of species. Most lay people will recite the “can interbreed and produce fertile offspring” definition we learned in grammar school. Add to the mix animals that form a “ring species”, Each “species” can successfully produce fertile offspring with the “species” close to it on the ring but not with “species” across from it on the ring. It becomes even more confusing since the number of kingdoms varies from 6 to 8 depending on the convention, so phylum, class, order, family, genus and species all become a bit fuzzy. Early naturalists grouped animals based on phenotype, or what they looked like. These days the assignment of a particular “group” of animals to a species is considered a hypothesis. The wheels really come off when talking about amphibians and more simple organisms – we won’t go there. Most “evolutionary trees” imply that animals that look alike trace back to a common ancestor. The fossil record clearly shows the same trait /adaptation frequently pops up. For example, webbed feet [...]

Neotropic Cormorant

This Neotropic Cormorant was brought to the Wildlife Center by a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden.  The bird presented with a wing droop and was very lethargic.  Veterinarian exam and x-rays showed no breaks or swelling.  The cormorant was put on cage rest and was given fluids.  Several days later it was on its feet and eating great. The Neotropic Cormorant is very common on the Mexican border. The Galveston area also supports a large population.  This cormorant is the only one that ranges over the entire tropical American region of Western hemisphere thus having the name neotropic.  It was known as the olivaceous cormorant in earlier times. The neotropic is a blackish bird with a long tail that holds its neck in a S shape.  The pointed posterior edge of the gular skin is often pointed with whitish border.  Their bill is long with a hook on the end. Juvenile cormorant begin brown and slowly shift to black with their adult plumage. Cormorants swim well and dive for fish from the surface.   The staff and volunteers know the cormorant at the center is feeling better because it is doing a great deal of vocalizing.  This consists of a low gutteral pig-like grunt.  Every time they hear it everyone’s head snaps to attention thinking someone just brought in a pig.  Upon leaving the water the cormorants hold wings and tail open in a “spread eagle” fashion to dry them. And while holding the wings out to dry seems like a good idea, why do so few exhibit this trait, all sea birds and water birds get their feathers wet. Some researchs believe that the "spread eagle" pose is a method of themal regulation. Vultures often [...]

Ongoing Research

For the last seven years, Wildlife Rehab and Education has been working with biologists Woody Woodrow with the U S Fish and Wildlife Service, Sharon Schmalz Director of the WR&E Wildlife Center and Dr. Ray Telfair a well known ornithologist and former Texas Parks and Wildlife colleague of Woody’s study the movement patterns in Yellow-crowned Night Herons.  While these herons are a common sight in our ditches and neighborhoods, biologists don’t know too much about their movement patterns.  They are high tree nesters and so banding them in the nest is extremely difficult.  Each year WRE typically releases a considerable number of these herons.  To Sharon and Woody, this seemed like an opportunity to band some birds and hopefully collect some information about the birds.  With the help of Dr. Ray Telfair banding and marking began in 2003.  Additional research is being conducted by Dr. Heatley from Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.  She is using small blood samples collected from healthy birds to determine normal electrolytes and other blood parameters in these herons.  Thus when ill or injured herons are, these values will help rehabilitators, veterinarians and biologists determine appropriate treatment and to diagnose diseases or toxicoses.    Before the banding began, Sharon had started to apply hacking techniques used with raptors with the herons.  This allowed the birds to transition from a captive state to living without her assistance.  When the birds are ready to go, the team bands them with a USFWS number specific aluminum band.  In order to track observations of the birds, a nylon flag is also placed with the band above the bird’s wrist (what we think of as their knees).  The bands are typically aluminum gray but the [...]

Brown Pelican Rescue

United States Fish & Wildlife brought a juvenile brown pelican to the Wildlife Rehab & Education Center Thursday November 5, 2009 for evaluation and treatment. The young pelican had been observed near a dock at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston and was apparently injured.  A thorough exam revealed many complications for the bird. It presented very emaciated and dehydrated. An examination revealed that it had a heavy mite infestation, a treble hook was embedded inside its mouth, and a single large hook was embedded in its neck. The initial exam also revealed an old wing fracture that had not healed properly. Pain medications, antibiotics and fluids were administered.  It was treated for the mites and the hooks were removed. Wounds were treated and he was crated to rest. The brown pelican will remain at the Wildlife Center until itis stabilized and healthy again. It was determined that the old wing break made it non-releasable. But the story won't end there. It is planned to transfer the pelican to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas to live out its natural life in comfort.  WR&E thanks all those who were involved in the rescuing of this magnificent bird.

Busy as a Beaver

Busy as a Beaver Cyndi Bohannon Beavers (Castor canadensis) alter their environment to fit their needs to a greater degree than any other animal besides man. Their conversion of densely wooded streambeds to wetlands and finally to nutrient  rich meadows is an ecologic miracle.  Whether you consider the beaver to be an engineering genius or a tenacious pest that is ruining a beautifully wooded stream depends on exactly where the beaver “is being busy”. Known to the American Indians as “sacred center”, beavers create rich habitat that act as a cradle for biodiversity. Wetlands provide habitat for almost half of all endangered species and their biodiversity is rivaled only by rainforests. Wetlands sponge up flood water, prevent erosion by slowing the progress of flowing water and raise the water table. Wetlands also act as earth’s kidneys to purify the water by providing natural “settling ponds” where bacteria can break down toxins and remove excess nitrogen from the system. Beaver vary in weight and size based on their habitat with the larger, heavier individuals living in colder climates. On average the beaver is 20 – 60 pounds and has a body length of 30 to 40 inches long and a tail length of 10 – 13 inches.  Pairs mate for life during their third year and can live twenty or more years. They have a single litter per year which consist of two to four kits (up to six have been documented) that weigh about a pound each after a gestation of 110 to 120 days. Kits are born with open eyes and begin swimming within weeks of birth. Beaver families consist of the mated pair, the yearling kits and the current litters. The yearlings babysit [...]

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