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.

Learning about Turkeys and Celebrating Our Members

by Sue Ann Kendall

For those of you who are not (yet) members of a Master Naturalist chapter, I just want to share how much you can learn and how amazing the people you meet can be. Last night was a great example. Our Chapter Meeting speaker was a young PhD candidate named Amanda Beckmann. She studies Rio Grande wild turkeys at Texas A&M. El Camino Real Chapter member and turkey enthusiast Cindy Rek introduced her and shared how she met Amanda thanks to her Master Naturalist connections. Here are my notes from the presentation.

Amanda shows us where her turkey feather samples came from.

Wild turkeys live here in the US and northern Mexico, while Ocellated turkeys live further south in Mexico and in Central America (they look like a mix between a turkey and a peacock). There are five subspecies of wild turkeys. Turkeys were domesticated in North America two separate times, and soon they were being moved outside their natural range.

In the 1920s turkeys were eliminated in most of their natural range and attempts to reintroduce them in the 1940s didn’t work. There was more success using translocation and introductions starting in the 1950s to today. Around 5 million in 2014.

There are now Rio Grande turkeys in the Western US and Hawaii. All kinds of turkeys are moving around, and hybrids are happening. Hunting all five subspecies of turkey is called a Grand Slam. Amanda’s research is to help map the subspecies using genetic data collected by hunters. She is interested in what we can learn about Rio Grande turkeys as opposed to the Eastern.

Notice that she has a cool turkey shirt on!

Baby turkeys are poults. They eat insects (older turkeys eat mostly vegetation). The breeding system of males involves gathering in large numbers called a lek. The Easterns don’t have as much of a lek, due to fewer open areas to group in.

Amanda’s research has looked into the effect of domestication and feral environments versus urban and wild turkeys, in different populations.

She also shared with us this resource for further reading: Illumination in the Flatwoods, which is a book and PBS documentary on poult behavior. The link is to Amazon.com.

After the speaker, we held our usual meeting. I was struck by how much work goes into each meeting (I’m glad I was there to help our substitute sound man and A/V guy in his first solo outing!). The decorations our hospitality team sets out are always so pretty (this week was a beach theme). And it always impresses me how much hard work our members do to get their annual recertification pins! Plus, our hard-working record-keeper, Lisa Milewski manages to keep track of our hours, order pins, and make sure we have a clue as to what we are doing with our volunteer time. She’s always so cheerful, as is our President, Carolyn Henderson, which you can see in the photo. She can herd cats with the best of them!

While I’m gushing, I want to say that there were many kind things said about Donna Lewis, whose blog posts you all enjoy right here. She made the 10,000 volunteer hour milestone recently. That’s an incredible amount of finding monthly speakers, taking care of birds, speaking at events, writing blog posts, and much, much more. It’s great to have her as a friend and mentor in our chapter. We will get a photo of her NEXT month, I hope!

Members and visitors enjoy our meeting. We are lucky to have them all.

We had visitors at our meeting, too. You are welcome to come any time you’re in Cameron on the second Thursday of the month. We’re at the Episcopal Church meeting room with potluck starting at 5:30 and the speaker at 6. Come join us!

Summer in the Wildscape

by Catherine Johnson

Now is a good time to visit the Wildscape garden at Bird and Bee Farm. Many native plants and grasses are in bloom. The mason bee houses are filled, and bobwhite quail were spotted on the grounds for the first time (see below). 

Events will be held later in the year, including Nature Days in October.  Saturday mornings
are a nice time to visit and share Master Naturalist info with others or do much needed watering.                                          

Butterflies enjoy the zinnias

Hours will be for Community Outreach- indirect, or  Nature Improvement in Public Areas.