ECRTMN Class of 2023 Kicks Off

By Carolyn Henderson

The El Camino Real chapter of Texas Master Naturalist class of 2023 kicked off to a great start Thursday night. With the 13 new student trainees, trainers Kathy Lester and Alan Rudd, and plenty of “elder” members, it was a full house.

Mike Mitchell shares about the Texas Master Naturalist program.

Retired Game Warden Mike Mitchell presented the program giving students in-depth knowledge of how Texas Master Naturalist got its start and explained all the inner workings and why all the rules are there.  Mitchell was the first advisor of the chapter and instrumental, along with a few other members – some still active, in creating the chapter 15 years ago. Texas Master Naturalist is celebrating its 25th anniversary. 

Lester then touched on the schedule for the next few months. Rudd organized a break-out session putting three to four students and existing members together with a topic of discussion, so we can all get to know each other better. The break-out sessions are planned for each class session. 

Current members and non-class members tried to sit in the back.

And finally, the class members voted to have pot-luck meals each week, so they should fit right in to the chapter. When you have a Thursday free, come meet the new students. State Biologist Tim Siegmund is the presenter next week. 

Learning in progress.

Fish Ear Bones

by Sue Ann Kendall

Last night, our Chapter Meeting speaker was our own Alan Rudd. He happens to know a lot about fish, thanks to his training and profession of managing fisheries and lakes. He used his knowledge to show us all how little things we think don’t matter can have huge significance for those of us studying the natural world.

I have to say he had some excellent props for his talk. The first one he broke out was a dead fish. Yep. Alan proceeded to start the dissection process on a nice-sized crappie (a delicious member of the sunfish family). All he did was break its neck and extract something very small with his tweezers.

Ready to work on the fish. The tweezers are important!

What was it? It was a stone-like thing that grows in the ears of all fish, called an otolith or ear-stone. Every fish has them. It helps them hear. What use could that tiny thing be to research? Alan had wondered that himself, when he first studied fish anatomy.

Eric can’t bear to watch (not really)

It turns out that otoliths are pretty cool. They are not bones, but more like stones. You see, bones grow in a process of taking away parts and growing new ones, thanks to components of bone called osteoblasts and osteoclasts. That’s how we get the porosity of our bones.

The only way I could remember this was to take a picture.

The ear-stones in fish grow by depositing new layers, like an oyster grows. So, they end up being solid. The stones in different types of fish look different, too, so you can tell where one came from even if the fish isn’t there. It turns out you can learn a lot from them, after all.

Not shown: the people who were grossed out by this whole process.

Alan shared with us a collection of ear stones from fish he’d harvested lately. They were very light, but quite hard. Then he shared how he came to find out how they help research.

Alan is asking who gives a rat’s patoot about all those teeny tiny bones in baby fish?

He spent a summer doing research on salmon in the Pacific Ocean, abord a gigantic Japanese fishing boat, which had a whole fleet of other boats along with it. In addition to Alan, there was another American who was researching Dall’s dolphins, who sometimes got caught in the giant nets (over a thousand miles were put out every night–that adds up to a lot of salmon). Thanks to the other researcher freezing dolphins that had drowned and sending them off to research facilities, it was discovered exactly what the dolphins ate in the wild. How? By identifying ear-stones in their stomachs! Previously, it had been thought that the dolphins only ate squid, because all they found in formaldehyde-stored specimens were their beaks and that big bone they have. Freezing gave more info and saved the ear-stones. Progress. Yes.

Alan also shared how research had found that fish deposit a white layer every May (no one knows why) in their ear-stones. This lets you figure out many things about a particular fish. You can count the rings to see how old it was, but you can also inspect how closely together the rings are to determine how fast or slowly the fish grew. For commercial fisheries, you want fast-growing and healthy fish, and you can check on that by ear-stones. Who knew?

Bonus fact: Alan once found a 12-year-old fish in a very acidic lake. Its slow growth had let it live longer. Huh.

Bonus fact 2: Crappie breed every year at the full moon in March. They swim around looking at the moon until the right time (I made that part up).

I assure you this knowledge was much more fun to acquire via Alan’s talk. He is a good speaker, and his theme that knowledge builds slowly on the work of past researchers made a good point. Even the little things we discover doing citizen science can help someone make a big discovery someday.

Learning about Biodiversity

by Sue Ann Kendall

This is what I intended to post last month and forgot to. Seeing the spoonbills on my property yesterday made me realize I’d forgotten to share this with our Chapter and friends. I hope you enjoy these belated observations.


On August 18, I enjoyed a visit to the Texas A&M Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections. Pamela Neeley and I drove over and met up with Linda Jo Conn and her granddaughter, who’s high school age, and enjoyed it as much as we did, I think. We were sad that more of our group couldn’t join us.

Art is from 3D images of animals.

Our guides were curators Heather Prestridge, an ichthyologist, and Gary Voelker, an ornithologist. They were informal with our small group, informative, and entertaining as well. I had a blast learning about how many specimens they have, how long the collection has been growing (since the 1930s), and how they preserve the animals for research.

Specimen jars. Stop here if you don’t want to see preserved animals and such.

The collections of herps (snakes, lizards, frogs, etc.) are immense. It’s cool to see where they all come from. There is much from Texas but also around the world. They are preserved in formaldehyde.

The fish were fascinating as well. My favorite was the box fish. There were just so many to categorize. Wow. There’s a lot of work for their grad students and volunteers! The other thing they do with the specimens is take tissue samples and freeze them (really cold) for future research on DNA and the like. What a resource this is!

Of course the birds fascinated me. I was probably really annoying with all my questions but wow, there were things here I’d never seen before, like the Hoatzin. What the heck. This bird’s young have claws on their wings!! It’s also called a stink bird, because it digests food in its crop, which is smelly. It’s a really different bird!

Pamela is amazed at the hoatzin bird

Dr. Voelker was great at sharing information about the birds. We saw the largest and smallest owls and an awesome variety of kingfishers, some that were an indescribable blue. Africa has some darn colorful birds.

Look at these roseate spoonbills. They are so many shades of pink. and I was fascinated to see the bill up close. Such specialization!

There was a lovely domed collection of hummingbirds that had been donated to Heather. Someone had it in their family for years!

That’s something else!

I’ll spare you the details but we learned about 3D imaging and printing of specimens. They find what’s in the animals’ stomachs and can ID them. Huh.

And look! A giraffe skull! Look at the horns!

They didn’t talk much about boring old mammals but I checked them out.

Learning about Vultures at the Chapter Meeting and Beyond

by Sue Ann Kendall

The September Chapter Meeting presentation for El Camino Real Master Naturalist was by Debbi Sorenson, who has been observing vultures on her property for years and decided to do some research on these fascinating scavengers.

Debbi listens to questions and comments during her presentation

We learned how to distinguish our two resident vultures, the turkey vulture and the black vulture from each other. The easiest way is to look at their heads. Turkey vultures have red heads and black vultures have black heads. In flight, turkey vultures have white on their lower wings, while black vultures just have white “fingers” or wing-tips. The turkey vultures are also a little larger.

There you go, heads

Other interesting tidbits I gleaned were that turkey vultures are almost exclusively carrion feeders an find their food through extra-sensitive senses of smell. Black vultures both hunt and eat carrion and use sight to locate their food. They often see the red vultures eating and take over from them. I’ve seen this at my house.

These black vultures at my ranch found a dead snapping turtle that turkey vultures were eating, and took over.

Debbie also shared the ranges of both birds and told us about their breeding behavior, which is to lay two eggs in abandoned buildings or dead trees and raise them there. George Bowman, a visitor to our meeting, shared how he had a baby vulture raised on his front porch this year (which many of us had enjoyed on Facebook). He ended up with a poopy porch, but a successful fledging of the baby.

Debbi shared that their barn is a vulture nesting headquarters for a pair, and that they enjoyed watching one with just stumps for feet (Old Peg) as it grew. Debbi shares her garbage with them and gets lots of observations in return. I also enjoy watching them. They are graceful in the air but are pretty fun on the ground. I love to watch them as they hop, hop, hop around my tank behind the house.

I guess Debbi isn’t alone in enjoying vultures and their behavior. She had lots of questions to answer, and she also explained that our other resident carrion eater, the crested caracara, is not a vulture at all, but is a falcon, also known as the Mexican eagle.

Here’s what you call a group of vultures, depending on what they are doing.

Our meeting concluded with the recognition of two of our members. Congratulations to Alan Rudd and Scott Berger for getting their annual recertification for forty volunteer hours and eight advanced training hours. And Scott received a milestone recognition for 250 hours contributing to the Master Naturalist organization. We appreciate our members!

Chapter Members Attend Water Summit

by Donna Lewis
photos by Joyce Conner

On August 18th, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in Caldwell, Texas, the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District (POSGCD) held an all-day event for those living in Milam and Burleson Counties.

Summit attendees

We were invited to have an informational booth at the Civic Center about the El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, and a booth for the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail.

Quite a crowd!

This event covered many topics including water rights, legislation updates, well monitoring, septic practices, and many other topics. 

Joyce Conner and I set up our booths the day before. Joyce also set up the Trail Association booth next to ours. Both tables looked very professional and had handouts about both organizations. Our tablecloth really looks nice.

Donna Lewis and Scott Berger at the El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist Chapter booth

Joyce, Scott Berger, and I arrived around 7:00 am. That was a good thing because people started to arrive then. Both our booths had many interested people asking questions and taking brochures with them.  Sandra Dworaczyk arrived soon after. We missed getting her picture with us. Several of our members, including Janice Johnson, attended the talk. Probably more came, but I was too busy to catch them.

Joyce Conner at the El Camino Real de los Tejas booth

Joyce had brochures that showed where the El Camino Real Trail was in our area, which was very interesting to many who lived in our county. No doubt some did not know much about the history of the trail.

The booth team

I think I talked to at least 50 people about our group.  Scott and Sandra were also talking to many people and Joyce jumped in when we needed her. It took the four of us to handle the crowd. Many wished they had a chapter in Burleson County. I informed them that they could attend our talks, but most did not want to come that far at night. Many were interested in daytime events.  I told them to check out our website for those events.  

Checking out our booth

The President of the Lost Pines Master Naturalist Chapter was attending the event and talked to me about our events also.

This was a very successful event for our chapter. I hope we will get some new members because of it.

A good day for Nature.