Sunday, December 21, 2008

Afternoon Birds

I just stepped out to try the digiscope on whatever birds might be around, and found this Red-headed Woodpecker catching the last rays on the shortest day of the year.

Down by the pond were three Pied-billed Grebes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cougar Hoax

Yesterday I got an email from someone who was genuinely excited about a series of trail cam photos of cougars that were allegedly from Choctaw County, in southwest Alabama. He'd gotten them from his brother, who he thought had gotten them from the owner of the camera. A look at this map shows how significant that would be. I got a little excited about it myself, having long heard of unconfirmed sightings from this area. The region's low human population density, extensive timberlands, and high feral hog and white-tailed deer population would afford excellent cougar habitat, if they were there today. But I was not prepared to accept the photos as evidence until I could trace them with certaintly to the original source. There have been similar reports in the past that turned out to be hoaxes, like this one. Unfortunately, after doing some searching, I found this article that says the cats were photographed in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Further searching turned up the original series of photos from Outdoor Life magazine's website. Although I like to think there may be cougars in Alabama, I still have seen no evidence that will convince me. Bobcats are thriving here. Maybe someday their larger cousins will return, possibly from the west, now that the prey base is restored and they are no longer relentlessly persecuted.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Merry Christmas from the Family

The quintessential southern redneck Christmas song. One of my all-time favorites. Thank you Robert Earl Keen.

Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk at our Christmas party
We were drinking champagne punch and homemade egg nog
Little sister brought her new boyfriend
He was a Mexican
We didn't know what to think of him til he sang
Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad

Brother Ken brought his kids with him
The three from his first wife Lynn
And the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell
Of course he brought his new wife Kay
Who talks all about AA
Chain smoking while the stereo plays Noel, Noel
The First Noel

Carve the turkey
Turn the ball game on
Mix margaritas when the egg nog's gone
Send somebody to the Quickpak Store
We need some ice and an extension cord
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights
Hallelujah everybody say cheese
Merry Christmas from the family

Fran and Rita drove from Harlingen
I can't remember how I'm kin to them
But when they tried to plug their motor home in
They blew our Christmas lights
Cousin David knew just what went wrong
So we all waited out on our front lawn
He threw a breaker and the lights came on
And we sang Silent Night, Oh Silent Night, Oh Holy Night

Carve the turkey turn the ball game on
Make Bloody Marys
Cause We All Want One!
Send somebody to the Stop 'n Go
We need some celery and a can of fake snow
A bag of lemons and some Diet Sprites
A box of tampons, some Salem Lights
Hallelujah, everybody say cheese
Merry Christmas from the Family

Feliz Navidad

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rain on a Tin Roof

As I write, rain is making its music on the tin roof of this century-old hand-hewn pine log cabin in the heart of Conecuh National Forest. I just got back from riding roads in hopes of finding migrating ambystomatid salamanders, like tiger salamanders and (dare I hope) flatwoods salamanders. Not much is happening that I could see, other than a few southern toads and a spadefoot toad or two wandering about. But this is the first major warm rain of the late fall, and somewhere out there the winter-breeding amphibians are stirring near their formerly dry breeding sites. During the time I was out there, I saw no one, and it was as if the 80,000-plus acre forest was all mine. But now I see this disturbing news item about declining use of National Forests. I really wouldn't mind sharing with a few more people.

Monday, November 24, 2008


This makes no sense. A serious wildlife violator convicted of killing bald eagles with Carbofuran in Missouri was among 17 people pardoned by President Bush today. The back story is fuzzy, but I did glean the info below from a Google cache of the Summer 1996 newsletter, The Federal Wildlife Officer. I suspect more will come to light as this is looked into more closely. This was 12 years ago, and according to the article, the rather mild sentence consisted of a $10,000 fine and a 2-year probation that expired in the Clinton administration. So, does the guy get his ten grand back now?
On February 2nd, Leslie Owen Collier of Charlestown [sic], Missouri, pled guilty to two 16 USC counts of taking bald eagles and one Title 7 count of placing a restricted use pesticide contrary to its intended purpose. Collier was sentenced to two years' probation, barred from possessing a firearm during that period, and ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to FWS.

Collier had deliberately and improperly used Furedan [sic] to bait meat in order to kill animals on the property he was farming. The methods used by Collier were particularly dangerous because they presented a serious threat to many animals other than the intended targets, including humans and household pets. Among the animals killed by Collier's poisoned bait were three bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl, a opossum, a raccoon and seven coyotes.
Carbofuran is known to be lethal to raptors, and was probably being used by Collier to kill coyotes. A relevant paper from Journal of Wildlife Diseases is here (pdf).

UPDATE: Let the Eagle Soar.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Translocation

This is my first YouTube upload, so it's far from slick. I also need a better camera (hint to Santa), but I'll try to do more of these. This was last week at Ft. Benning GA and Sehoy Plantation AL. Part of a USFWS Partners for Wildlife grant that is funding the translocation of red-cockaded woodpeckers from public lands (so far Fts. Benning and Stewart) to Sehoy and Enon plantations. This is the only privately owned land in Alabama to ever receive red-cockaded woodpeckers, and it is one of only two known populations on private lands in Alabama. We moved 8 birds last year (with much success) and 8 again this past week. Young birds, a male and a female, are captured from different places at the donor site (they are "strangers") when roosting at dusk, and miles away and well after dark, each is placed in an artificial cavity that was previously installed at a "recruitment cluster" consiting of four cavity trees near each other. A screen is tacked over the entrance to make sure they don't exit early and the birds are released the following morning by pulling a string. With luck, they stick together and form a breeding pair.

One name I failed to include in the end credits is Joe McGlincy, who drove 4 birds from Ft Stewart several hours to our rendezvous in Eufaula, AL. Sorry, Joe; I'll re-do it when I can! Also thanks to Geoff Hill and Eric Soehren for being string pullers. Many others assisted in installation of cavities in September: Eric Spadgenske, Randy Roach, Bob Hastings, Mark Sasser, Jim McHugh, Beau Dudley, Eric Soehren, and probably others I'm forgetting.

EDIT: Upon re-reading, not enough credit is given here to Eric Spadgenske of USFWS without whom none of this would happen. Eric is 90% of the brains and expertise of the Alabama portion of this translocation project; I'm just happy to be involved.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting in Wing

I just got back from my polling place (the volunteer fire department) in rural Wing, Alabama, where I voted fairly late in the day at 3:15 PM. I was in and out in under 5 minutes. I was the 164th person there all day, and they were telling me how busy they'd been. All things are relative, I guess.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pal Meadow and Spread Natters

A couple of rather unique southern malapropisms I've run across, in writing, no less. Used together in a sentence, I suppose you'd say, "That patch of Pal Meadow is might snaky-lookin'; I bet it's plumb full of Spread Natters."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another "giant" snake

This timber rattlesnake photo is making the rounds, with the following text:
Snake killed on Golf Course in Harlan , Ky.

This is a timber rattler killed last week-end. It is by far the biggest rattlesnake I have ever seen. Although diamond back rattlers get this big and maybe even bigger, I did not know timber rattlers reached that size. I have not talked to Ollie about how many rattles it had or it's actual size and length was, but since he is about 5'9' the snake appears to be at least 8 feet long if not longer, and is bigger around than his arms. He killed the snake with a 2 iron on number 8 at Oakview while looking for his golf ball. The man holding the snake is greens keeper.

Please. I've been over this before. Twice. The guy is holding the snake out several feet closer to the camera than he's standing. The snake is large, but not exceptional. It's at most 4.5 feet long, which is where mature timber rattlers typically top out.

Last week my friend John Jensen sent an excellent letter to the Monticello (Georgia) News, writing in response to an unfortunate and sensational "snake bites man" story first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (in which John is quoted). He tells me the AJC erred in calling the snake an eastern diamondback; it was in fact a timber rattler. John's letter was printed in its entirety:
Dear Monticello News:

In last week’s paper it was reported that upon seeing a rattlesnake simply crossing a road, a local gentleman ran over the snake several times, then stopped the tractor on top of it, and because the snake was still alive (although facing certain eventual death from being crushed) used deer antlers to further dispatch it. While stabbing at the snake with the antlers, the snake struck the man, who then had to be medevaced to Macon and treated with antivenin. Let me preface everything further by saying that I am sincerely pleased to learn that this gentleman is back home recuperating and should make a full recovery. The reality, though, is that he is extremely lucky to be alive.

A reasonable person knows not to repair a firearm while it is loaded and the barrel pointing at him, or not to throw rocks at a hornet’s nest. But when it comes to venomous snakes, many otherwise reasonable persons often act in needless, careless, and hysterical ways. Statistics from the CDC indicate that over 80% of all snakebites are to the hands or arms – a clear indication that most of the victims were messing with or handling the snakes and the bites were not accidental. Truly accidental snakebites (snakes not seen prior to envenomation) would normally be to the feet and legs, and are relatively rare events. What is the best way to avoid being bitten (and possibly dying) by a clearly visible snake? Walk away from it! Sure, if a venomous snake takes up residence around a home, playground, or the like, it makes clear sense to safely remove or dispatch it. But when a snake is seen crossing a road or out in the woods well away from residences, there is no need to mess with it. Snakes just want to be left alone and definitely don’t want to waste the precious venom they need for subduing rodent prey.

Besides, why are so many folks so paranoid of venomous snakes that they would go out of their way to kill them? Relative to other dangers in this world that aren’t prevented by eliminating the producers of them, venomous snakes are not that significant of a threat to humans. Many more people die each year from dog attacks, trees falling on them, or even slipping in the shower, yet no reasonable person would promote culling out every dog they see or every tree in the forest “just in case.” Nor would any sane person avoid bathing for fear of busting their head open. In the entire United States, an average of six people annually die from snakebites, while an average of less than one person per year dies in Georgia, and these fatalities are primarily to those who do not seek medical treatment. As sad of a commentary as it is, far more people are killed by their fellow man than are by snakes. An average of 45 people each day are murdered in this country, almost two per day in Georgia alone. All things considered, venomous snakes are really not that much of a threat, and nonvenomous snakes, by the way, are no threat at all to humans.

One more comment to make. The caption in the newspaper was titled “Mean Rattlesnake.” What animal, human beings included, while harmlessly crossing a road, would not fight back after it has been run over by a tractor repeatedly, then parked upon, and then stabbed at with the tines of a deer antler? I hardly think that qualifies as being “mean.”

John Jensen

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Now a word from Dr. Ralph Stanley

Listening to 81-year-old Ralph Stanley talk is almost as good as hearing him sing. Ralph's the real deal. His southern Appalachian accent reminds me of my great-grandfather's (1897 -1993). That's Ralph and brother Carter on Rank Strangers behind his voice-over. (Younger folk will remember him as the voice of the hooded O Death singer in the Coen Bros. movie O Brother Where Art Thou, and they used Ralph and Carter's Angel Band over the closing credits.)

I admire Ralph Stanley for taking a public stance with his political views, when he knows it's just going to bring out the "shut up and sing" sentiment in a certain segment of his less enlightened fans.

Here's more vintage Ralph Stanley:

Friday, September 26, 2008

Watercress Darter Debacle

Etheostoma nuchale, Watercress darter. Photo by Patrick O'Neill

The entire global distribution of the watercress darter consists of five limestone springs in Jefferson County, Alabama, making it one of the most critically imperiled fishes in North America. The species was listed as endangered by the Department of the Interior in 1970 partly due to the vulnerability of these sensitive springs to habitat alteration.

As Glynn Wilson reveals, the largest population was severely damaged last week by stunning incompetence on the part of one or more of the city of Birmingham's resource managers. This is simply indefensible.
Regina Nummy, the director of Roebuck-Hawkins Park, apparently took it upon herself to authorize a crane operator (not a backhoe as previously reported) to dig its way into a protected pond on Village Creek last Friday and destroy a dam, without contacting federal or state officials for a permit or permission of any kind. The incident appears to be a clear violation of the federal Endangered Species Act, resulting in the death of at least 1,000 endangered watercress darters.
More here and here. Those responsible should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fear of Frogs Song

I'd never heard of these guys (Rhett&Link) until the BBQ song, but I kinda like 'em. This is not my favorite of theirs, but with a title like Fear of Frogs I had to share. The Economic Meltdown Song 08 is worth a listen, too.

Next post will be more biological, I promise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The BBQ Song

Hat tip to Cousin Kyle, card-carrying member of the NC BBQ Society.

Hot and sweet and red and greasy,

I could eat a gallon easy:
Barbecue sauce!
Lay it on, hoss.

Brush it on chicken, slosh it on pork,
Eat it with fingers, not with a fork.
I could eat barbecued turtle or squash --
I could eat tar paper cooked and awash
In barbecue sauce.

I’d eat Spanish moss
With barbecue sauce.

- Roy Blount, Jr.
“Song to Barbecue Sauce” from One Fell Soup, 1982

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Battening down for Gustav

Three years ago tomorrow Hurricane Katrina ravaged coastal Mississippi and Louisiana. I'm currently in Leakesville, a really nice small town of about 1,000 just 50 miles inland from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. All the local talk is about Tropical Storm Gustav, which is now forecast to be a Category 3 or so hurricane making landfall somewhere around Louisiana late Monday or early Tuesday morning. But that's four days away and it's still way too early to tell where it will actually go. Today Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency for this part of the state. My gopher tortoise trapping over here will end tomorrow, and I'll be headed back home to Andalusia, a south Alabama town almost nine times bigger than Leakesville but still a small town, which hopefully will be out of the path of the storm. I wish my friends in Mississippi safety, but I must say a good hurricane or two every few years is probably needed to give pause to those who see our coastlines as places to "develop" rather than protect. Hurricanes are scary, but thrilling at the same time. It should be interesting...

I suppose I should be...

...non-partisan on this blog, but this is too good not to use (as I sit here in a rented travel trailer in Leakesville Mississippi 3 hours from home awaiting B. Obama's historic speech from Denver at 8:40 PM CST on 08/28/08).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Are You From Dixie?

Well I am; born in Birmingham just like EmmyLou and E.O. Wilson. Here's some classic Grandpa Jones, at his peak.

Hello there stranger! How do you do?
There's something I'd like to say to you.
Now don't be surprised, you'll recognize
I'm no detective but I just surmise.

That you're from the place where I long to be,
Your smiling face seems to say to me,
You're from my homeland, sunny homeland,
Now tell me can it be?

That you're from Dixie, I said from Dixie!
Where the fields of cotton beckon to me.
I'm glad to see you, tell me how be you
And the friends I'm longing to see?
Are you from Alabama, Tennessee or Caroline,
Any place below the Mason-Dixon line;
Are you from Dixie, I said from Dixie?
'Cause I’m from Dixie too!

It was a way back in eighty nine,
I crossed that old Mason-Dixon line.
Gee but I've yearned, longed to return,
To that old place that I left behind.
Well my home is way down in Alabam'
On a plantation near Birmingham.
There's one thing's certain, I'm always flirtin'
With those south-bound trains.

That run to Dixie, I said to Dixie!
Where the fields of cotton beckon to me.
I'm glad to see you, tell me how be you
And the friends I'm longing to see?
Are you from Alabama, Tennessee or Caroline,
Any place below the Mason-Dixon line;
Are you from Dixie, I said from Dixie?
'Cause I’m from Dixie too!

And Scotty Anderson will make you want to throw your guitar away...

Last but not least, Ernest Thompson from 1924:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ophidiophobia, Part 3

Georgia youngsters posing with an eastern indigo snake they killed, mid-1990s

I'm so tired of the media running sensational photos of people proudly holding up snakes they killed. Huntsville Times outdoor writer Alan Clemons posted on his blog today a photo of a guy holding a dead timber rattlesnake. It's the typical dead snake picture: held out toward the camera so it looks much bigger than it really is. Clemons defends the killing of this animal that was posing no imminent danger, saying, "I don't blame [the killer]. I'd have put the sucker out of business, too." Ironically, Clemons wrote a mostly pro-snake column in yesterday's paper, saying, "I've never figured out why people kill snakes just to kill them," and "...if I'm in the woods and run across a rattler, copperhead or moccasin, I'll give it wide berth as often as possible because I'm on his turf." I applaud him for saying that, but today's blog entry seems inconsistent with that stance. Clemons says he will have another post on snakes Thursday, and hopefully that will clarify things a bit.

This seems as good a place as any to mention that several years ago I wrote this article, "Speaking Up for Snakes," for the magazine of the Alabama Wildlife Federation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gopher Trapping

I'm at this B&B in Leakesville, Mississippi while trapping gopher tortoises in Greene County to collect blood for testing for upper respiratory tract disease. In the past 5 days I've gotten 20 tortoises. Thanks to Emmett Blankenship for invaluable help in drawing blood. A few pictures below.

Me processing a gopher at the shade tent

Emmett drawing tortoise blood

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bigfoot Hoax

Right now a couple of guys in Georgia are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, claiming they have a genuine north Georgia bigfoot in a freezer. Fox News picked it up this morning (video here). There's supposed to be a Friday press conference in Palo Alto California (of all places) where they claim DNA and other proof will be revealed. As I said before, I'm not buying it. I predict the body will disappear, or they'll admit to a publicity stunt. Let's see what happens by Friday.

Update: I just saw that none other than the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization has a thorough and convincing debunking of this hoax. When these typically credulous folks de-bunk, that's saying something. Looks like Fox didn't do their due diligence on reporting this one.

An interesting thread on this topic has developed on the JREF site.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

ADCNR Shoots a Bear

(I've made a couple of changes to the original text here after talking with people familiar with the case of an Alabama conservation officer shooting a bear over the weekend.)

A timeline of the roaming young male's captures, releases, and final shooting appeared in this morning’s Athens News Courier’s update to the story.

WAFF 48 has their news video posted under the headline, “Protected bear shot by authorities.” “Conservation Officer Travis Gray said, ‘We had no choice...with all the people and everything we had to put him down.’ They said they tried to get a big tranquilizer dose for the gun, but couldn't. That infuriates [Sue] Cooper. She says she talked with a vet who had the proper dose and was waiting on someone to pick it up, ‘I spoke with him this morning. He waited an hour for someone to come and get it.’"

The story has been picked up by the AP and is getting wider exposure. The Anniston Star, Macon Telegraph, Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald are all running the headline, “Officers shoot, kill protected black bear in Ala.” It quotes a very angry Sue Cooper, who first reported the bear: “I was so upset because the wildlife officer told me they were going to tranquilize it and relocate it, but they just shot it." Later the article says “Dr. Robert Pittman said animal control officials had called him, but no one ever came to pick the tranquilizer up.”

The News Courier article identifies shooter Travis Gray as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, but the ADCNR-DWFF 2007-08 hunting/fishing regulations book shows a Sergeant Travis Gray in Law Enforcement District One in Limestone County, and the video on WAFF shows him in ADCNR uniform.

I have no problem with humane euthanasia (or in emergency cases, shooting) of a genuine problem bear, and I wasn’t there, but this seems more like a public bear execution than a planned strategy. I doubt the conservation officer had gotten any Standard Operating Procedure training regarding such things, and I share Mrs. Cooper’s frustration over how it was handled. A state wildlife agency should be prepared for situations like this. They had 24 hours from the initial sighting Friday until killing the bear Saturday night. The “we didn’t have tranquilizer” claim only highlights a chronic incompetence in dealing with bears, and what message does it send when conservation officers gun down a bear in front of the public?

Permanent removal of this problem bear may well have been the best option, but I have been involved in the Alabama Black Bear Alliance since its inception in the late 1990s, and little I have seen to date indicates ADCNR is truly committed to managing for future bear populations. The critically small breeding bear population in the Creola area of Mobile County is being displaced by development and needs help. Translocation to other areas of suitable habitat to the north has been recommended by bear experts, but ADCNR has so far said no.

If nothing else, one suggestion I would make to ADCNR is to have tranquilizer and a culvert-type bear trap located in every district for quick deployment so a problem bear doesn't become a dead bear.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Still Hopeful

Breaking silence (I've been busy, okay?), all I've got here for now is a link to Bill Pulliam's thoughts on the significance of the recent phenomenal discovery of 125,000 lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo. I have long had a link to Pulliam's "Notes from Soggy Bottom" blog in the blogroll here (see right column), but I credit Cyberthrush for tipping me off to this. I first saw this gorilla news on CNN two nights ago at a Tallahassee motel following a red-cockaded woodpecker meeting. We saw the news on the motel lobby's big-screen TV, and although I didn't come out and say it to the other woodpecker folks present, I did ponder the potential parallels with the IBWO (Google it if you don't know the acronym).

I remain IBWO-hopeful (although "optimistic" might still be a stretch). It could happen.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm Speechless

So don't ask me to give any speeches.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Spotted Owls? Really?

Matt Chancey's Radio Ad

This guy wants to be on Alabama's Public Service Commission, and he thinks he can get there by running an anti-environmental campaign. I hope he's wrong. I heard this radio ad earlier in the week, in which Matt Chancey says Alabama's energy policy "is being driven by bureaucrats who care more about spotted owls and treefrogs than people." Is that a fact? I wonder how many of his constituents are aware that there are no spotted owls within a couple of thousand miles of Alabama, and I'd sure like to know which Alabama treefrog species has ever hindered any kind of development or industry. His website implies the Alabama sturgeon is not a distinct species and therefore unworthy of protection. He knows his base, and boy, is he playing to them, calling folks like me "radical environmentalists" (apparently you can't be a regular environmentalist anymore) and "elite liberal extremists." We are the ones to blame for high fuel costs, he says. At least he and his wife aren't going for the women's vote.

Matt's opponent in the PSC race is Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, former chair of the Alabama Republican Party. I first met Twinkle when I was her graduate teaching assistant in a Principles of Ecology course at Auburn in the late 1980s. You don't forget a name like that--she assured me it was on her birth certificate--and when I bumped into her at a Republican event in Birmingham a few years ago, I reintroduced myself (I was there helping my friend Pat Byington man a booth for Republicans for Environmental Protection). Twinkle has gone on record saying unkind things about environmentalists, too, of course, but if you are thinking of voting Republican, given your choice between Chancey and Cavanaugh, I hope you'll consider going with the one who's at least taken a course in ecology and hopefully can still appreciate a treefrog or two.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cornhole, America’s game.

Well, have you joined the American Cornhole Association yet? Thanks to Cousin Kyle for putting me onto this.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Chaffseed (Schwalbea americana) was formerly found in 15 states but is now known from only six (AL, FL, GA, NC, SC, NJ). It is federally listed as endangered, and only occurs in areas that burn frequently. In Alabama, it was seen in southern Baldwin County in the 1960s and rediscovered in the northern part of the county more than 30 years later, only to seemingly disappear. Late last month it was discovered on private property in Bullock County in east-central Alabama. I won't say more than that, but I'm just happy I got to see it last week even though it was well past flower. Thanks to Eric Soehren for providing this picture from the site.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Nature Quiz #001

This photo was taken in early June in the De Soto National Forest in southern Mississippi. Anyone care to guess what is depicted, and how this pattern came to be? Answer to be posted later...

Update: Kiirsten (see comments) from Ontario (wow!) is right that the little guys are "toadpoles"--probably Bufo terrestris. Click on the image for more detail. But it's a drying puddle in a clay-sand road, not more than 6 feet across. I don't think wave action is responsible for the honeycomb effect. Getting warmer...

UPDATE 07-07: And the answer is...
The little craters are made by tadpoles in the evaporating puddle. The substrate is silty sand. I have no idea why they do this, only to somehow escape into deeper water, but you can see a couple of dead ones that got trapped.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bird Banding at the Wehle Center

Eric Soehren logging data for a female Hooded Warbler

Me (sporting new goatee) preparing to release the Hooded Warbler

Back on June 13 I spent some time with my good friend Eric Soehren of ADCNR's State Lands Division Natural Heritage Section, who is running a Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) bird banding station at the Robert G. Wehle Land Conservation Center in Bullock County, Alabama. We opened the ten nets at 5:15 AM, and in the short hour I was there we got a female Hooded Warbler, a pair (male and female in the same net) of Indigo Buntings, a male Yellow-breasted Chat, and a male Common Yellowthroat. These birds all had been in the tropics of Central or South America only a few weeks before, but are now on their breeding grounds. It was quite a treat to see these gems of the forest at such close range. Thanks to Eric for that opportunity.

Male Yellow-breasted Chat

Male Indigo Bunting

Hillbilly Teeth

I'm dabbling in Facebook, and have only three "friends" so far. One, Naomi, saw my goofy avatar (above) on my page and made the following observation:

"Did you see there was a nationwide recall on those "hillbilly teeth" because they're lead-contaminated? And of course we know that ingesting too much lead will cause the exact kind of brain damage that turns normal kids into stereotypical dumb hillbillies.


I checked; she wasn't kidding. It might explain a lot. By the way, that photo above was from the late 90s, and these were genuine Billy Bob teeth. They were sure lots of fun back when nobody had ever heard of them. Yep, I was hillbilly teeth when hillbilly teeth weren't cool.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

RIP Tim Russert

One of the true good guys in Washington, Tim will be missed. Sundays won't be the same.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nine-foot Kingsnake?

If it's on the Internet, it must be true, right? That's me holding the snake. Click image for better resolution.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ophidiophobia, Part 2

This guy and I clearly live in different worlds. (I put out roofing tin on my land to attract snakes.) Click the image for a full-sized view.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Of Ivory-bills, Bigfoot, and Skepticism

Link to the past: my daughter Ava (then 4) with undisputed
ivory-bill eyewitness Nancy Tanner, Atlanta, March 2007

As a skeptic, I don't put much stock in extraordinary claims if the evidence is lacking, be it homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, telepathy, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, dowsing, "intelligent design" (don't even get me started on Ben Stein's movie), aroma therapy, feng shui, faked moon landings, alien autopsies, or whatever. There's a reason I have a link to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe in the short blogroll here; I never miss a podcast, and I highly recommend it for critical thinking. I don't know--maybe the ivory-billed woodpecker is my Achilles heel of skepticism, because I'm still holding out hope against what some call long odds. I acknowledge that no conclusive evidence exists to show with certainty that the species survived past the 1940s. And I know a skeptic has to be ever diligent about being seduced by something that he would really, really want to be true. For that matter, I think it would be wonderful if Bigfoot actually did exist, and I can understand (to a degree) why the people at BFRO are obsessed with proving it's "out there," but come on, guys, get real. There are no Bigfoot roadkills, bones, DNA, or uncontested photos or film/videos. There is also zero evidence that a large hominid (other than Homo sapiens) has ever existed in the Himalayas, Pacific Northwest, Florida, etc., and virtually every "Bigfoot" photo or video has been shown to be a hoax. So say what you will about David Luneau's controversial 2004 video of a putative ivory-bill, it is what it is, and it's no hoax. Unlike Bigfoot, we have plenty of specimens, and we know the ivory-bill existed within living memory. Just last year I met someone who saw five, and few will argue with her. It is far more conceivable that the ivory-bill is still hanging on in dense southern swamps than that there is a reproducing population of North American giant apes unknown to science.

Ivory-bills in Louisiana, 1935. Arthur A. Allen photo, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The answer to the question of when the last ivory-bill died is unknowable, and you can't prove a negative, so we really can't know the species is extinct, at least not at this point. Complicating it all is the presence of another large black and white woodpecker (the pileated) that could have absorbed any number of actual ivory-bill sightings by proficient observers who may have been operating for decades under a false "ivory-bill = extinct" paradigm. "For a second there I could have sworn--naah, it had to be a pileated." If there was no pileated woodpecker, we would by now pretty well know the ivory-bill's fate. I have been closely involved in the Florida search (I blogged from it here), and I know some of the main players quite well. I have also met Gene Sparling and Bobby Harrison (who along with Tim Gallagher reported the 2004 sighting in Arkansas). I have not seen the bird, nor have I personally heard anything that I could attribute to it. But when you talk to these people who claim sightings, you can tell they are convinced. And most of these people are birders with well-honed observational skills, for what it's worth. Geoff Hill's Auburn team has also amassed considerable acoustic evidence that is strongly suggestive that ivory-bills are or were in the Choctawhatchee River swamps of Florida. But until that million dollar photo (or better yet, video) surfaces that convinces everybody, or until I see one myself, I can't count myself among the True Believers.

In a recent interview, renowned ivory-bill expert Dr. Jerry Jackson is quoted as saying, "I think it would be something short of a miracle if it is there," and, "I think that any betting person would have to say it's probably extinct."

Campephilus principalis
might indeed be extinct. And it might not. Even a skeptic can be hopeful, and I hope the ivory-bill is still with us. I intend to keep looking. Time will tell.

Six years before Cornell's 2005 ivory-bill "rediscovery" announcement, Julie Zickefoose wrote a wonderful article on her imagined encounter with the ghost bird. Well worth a read.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Exploiting Ophidiophobia

I learned today that a professional exterminator in Birmingham, Alabama is marketing a snake trap. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; I used a very different sort of trap to catch and relocate several copperheads from my yard last summer (I have a five-year old daughter who likes to run barefoot). But it's both the way this trap works and the way it's marketed that raises my hackles. It's a glue trap, which is often used for mice and typically results in a miserable death by either dehydration or suffocation. Sure, you can release the animal by drenching the glue with vegetable oil, and on this they rest their claim of "humane," but how often does this actually happen? Several animal rights groups are opposed to glue traps, and although I disagree with many of their positions, cruelty is cruelty. The website says the trap "also helps control lizards," among other things. Now, why would anybody need or want to control lizards? And what about other non-target animals, like chipmunks, toads, baby 'possums, etc.? I cringe to think of a little green anole or tree frog hopelessly gummed up in that goo. But inventor Buddy Hawkins thinks God gave him the idea, so, well, there you go.

I'm a herpetologist, and I know better and more effective ways to catch (and humanely release) snakes, like those copperheads in my yard. Using funnel box traps made from plywood and hardware cloth, we caught over 400 snakes in a recent 2-year survey of the reptiles and amphibians of Conecuh National Forest (pdf here).

Several of the snake trap website's testimonials are disturbing. Here's one:
We left for vacation and when we returned five days later the snake was caught. I have attached pictures to see if you can identify what type of snake it was.
It was a gray rat snake. Harmless and quite beneficial. Five days.

On the following "news" clip (which doubles as a commercial for the trap) the owner demonstrates the depth of his understanding of the ecological value of snakes and their role in ecosystems:
"Snakes are not totally bad for the environment."
Here's Birmingham Fox 6 News reporter Chris Montana reporting from upscale Mountain Brook where people are not as accustomed to yard snakes as some of us are:

This was the line that almost made me scream:
“Not that you would want to, but with the proper supervision, you can actually humanely release a snake or whatever you catch...”
Not that I would want to? The underlying message is that it's OK to let the nasty thing suffer until good and dead. I'm also left wondering what sort of "supervision" Mr. Montana thinks a grown person would actually need to release a snake. Cool name, though, Chris Montana.

It would be nice if there had been some fair and balanced discussion of reptile conservation, but of course local TV stations know that's not what the public wants to hear.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Longleaf and Mountain Laurel

When you see longleaf pine and mountain laurel together like this, it's typically where fire suppression has allowed the mountain laurel to invade upslope out of the ravines where it normally would be confined by natural fires backing down off the ridges. This is in the Red Hills of northern Monroe County, Alabama, and near sites for the Red Hills azalea and Red Hills salamander.

Scarlet Tanager

This gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager had just flown across the Gulf of Mexico when I photographed it on 19 April at Shell Mound Park on Dauphin Island. It's unusual to get such a good view of this bird of the eastern interior forest, but the spring migration offers such opportunities along the coast.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover at nest, west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama, 19 April 2008. Very few nests are known from Alabama for this rare species that needs undisturbed beaches. The day before, someone had walked within inches of this nest, nearly stepping on the camouflaged eggs. Thanks to Dr. Bill Summerour for leading me and Eric Soehren to this spot.

Monday, May 5, 2008


This amazing video was made by a friend, Jeff Humphries, a great herpetologist and conservationist. I've never seen a hellbender in Alabama, where most of their free-flowing stream habitat has been impounded along the Tennessee Valley, but I have seen them in Tennessee and north Georgia. Check out Jeff's hellbender website.

Good Luck, Class of '08...

...looks like you'll need it.

And Montevallo is a college town.

Red Hills Azalea

Rhododendron colemanii
Conecuh County, Alabama.
Photo by Ron Miller.

Today Dr. Alvin Diamond at Troy University shared with me a reprint from the current issue of the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society with a paper by W. Zhou, T. Gibbons, L. Goetsch, B. Hall, T. Ranney, and R. Miller describing a new deciduous azalea, Rhododendron colemanii, from the Coastal Plain of Alabama and Georgia. As many years as I've been fooling with Red Hills salamanders (Phaeognathus hubrichti) in the steep ravines of Monroe and Conecuh counties in Alabama, I'm pretty sure I've seen this gorgeous May-flowering species, but like others I probably mistook it for the more widespread (but April-flowering) R. alabamense. Alvin recognized its uniqueness some time back, and was very instrumental in the authors' verifying this exciting find. The Red Hills region of Alabama is poorly known biologically, yet it is geologically unique and supports species found no place else. The Red Hills salamander was described in 1961 as the sole member of its genus, and now 37 years later this new rhododendron is documented from the exact same habitat. I'm told the disjunct Red Hills population of what we've been calling the seal salamander (Desmognathus monticola) is almost certainly distinct from D. monticola, and that's being investigated. Makes you wonder what else is out there under our noses.

Roads are Gettin' Slippy in Wiggins Mississippi

It rained in south Mississippi yesterday, and the dirt roads are still muddy. And Wiggins is where I am at this moment, 200 miles from home near Wing Alabama, and this is the first entry for a blog I envision as being about my various adventures and observations exploring the backwoods and traveling the back roads of Alabama, Mississippi, the Florida Panhandle, and such. This thing will evolve with time, assuming it gets traction. I don't expect to pick up many readers beyond immediate family and friends (if that), but we'll see where it goes.

I'm here at the De Soto National Forest most of the week to wrap up a survey begun last summer for the gopher tortoise, a federally protected species of some note. More on gophers later...