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 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!

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!

Congratulations to the Graduates!

by Sue Ann Kendall, chapter secretary

May 28 was a fun day for the El Camino Real chapter! We welcomed the new graduates from our ten-week training class that went on all spring. There was a LOT of hard work involved by the organizers, the support team from our chapter, the presenters at the classes, and of course, the students. We had a wonderful evening at Julio’s Restaurant in Rockdale to celebrate and have some fun.

group photo
Our new members and the team who supported them on their journey.

First, I want to share the thanks that all us members extend to Kathy Lester, who organized the class, planned field trips, arranged for speakers, got shirts for the new members, and so much more. What would we do without her perseverance and hard work?

Kathy did such a great job! Here she’s getting ready to thank Don.

We also want to thank Don Travis, who came to all the meetings to provide media support. That is not an easy task, but he handled all the challenges with aplomb. He deserves so much credit for adding to the success of the class.

Well deserved, Don! Chapter President Carolyn Henderson agrees.

Another volunteer we want to thank is Lisa Milewski, who helped the students track their hours so they’d get credit where credit was due. What a happy accomplishment it is that all the students made it through the entire course!

So happy for Lisa’s help

The party part of the event was a welcome relief after so many years of not being able to just hang out with each other and become better acquainted. Many thanks to Liz Lewis, Pamela Neeley, and Catherine Johnson for their hard work planning it. Everyone at my table remarked about how nice it was to learn more about each other (when we weren’t laughing and laughing at the great stories some of the long-time residents told us newer folks.

But the best part was seeing the smiles on the faces of the new Master Naturalists as they got their certificates. Each of them made new friends and learned a lot, as Linda Burgess pointed out. I agree with her that it’s a great way to meet folks in the community, since it worked out that way for me, too!

I enjoyed meeting spouses and children of our members, as well. I’d heard so much about Michelle Lopez’s husband that I felt like he was already an old friend. And it’s so cool that one of our members, Victoria Everitt, is related to another member by marriage.

Two of the students also achieved their initial certification as well. Gene and Cindy Rek did so much work at the wildscape getting ready for that video filming that they got in all their volunteer hours!

One student was unable to make the party, but he’ll get his certificate soon. We are so proud of all our new members. I can’t wait to see their contributions and blog posts in the future!

A Long Overdue Chapter Event

by Sue Ann Kendall

Our Texas Master Naturalist chapter is finally getting back into the swing of things since the pandemic has given our county a bit of a break. We have held a class with in-person meetings and have enjoyed hybrid Chapter Meetings all this year as well.

One thing we’ve really missed for the past few years is celebrating our milestones. At our Chapter Meeting on April 14, however, we remedied that, and it sure felt good. Those of us who persevered for the past year got a second pin like we got last year for sticking with our volunteer duties and getting things done, in spite of COVID. Those in attendance all got to stand near each other and pose. It was good.

Chapter members grateful to be together and to have contributed our time and effort in service to the nature of Milam County.

We also celebrated milestones in our work. Eric Neubauer reached 500 volunteer hours (that’s a lot of spider observations!) and our current President, Carolyn Henderson, reached 250 hours. In addition, a number of us have re-certified as Texas Master Naturalists for the year 2022 by completing ten hours of advanced training and 40 hours of volunteer time. All we applauded and lauded, as well they should have been.

It’s been nice hearing speakers like Dr. Frank Summers speak to us in person, but it’s also great that those of us unable to attend for whatever reason can attend via Zoom as well. What great things technology has brought us!

We’ve also been able to have visitors again and getting to meet new people has been a highlight for this year, too. At our meeting we got to visit with Patricia Coombs, sister to one of our meeting hosts, Catherine Johnson. We also got to hang around with a fellow Master Naturalist, Mary Ann Melton, of the Goodwater Chapter in Williamson County. Many of us have seen or spoken with her before at conferences. Ah, conferences. Master Naturalists around the state and country are hoping to be able to attend our annual meetings this year.

Greetings to all of you out there enjoying your own volunteering, meeting, Zooming, and interacting with each other. It’s wonderful how nature and our love of learning brings us all together.