Wildlife Conservation through Tourism…

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Texas Outdoors“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine

I recently came across an short article discussing the career of a very successful nature tour business owner and wildlife guide Mr. Geoffrey Kent of Abercrombie and Kent.  I want to share this article as a perspective on what is possible…. Consider what adventure you can partake or offer here in Texas!

The articles starts…..”The founder and chief executive of the luxury tour operation Abercrombie & Kent, Geoffrey Kent, has guided Richard Burton on safari, accompanied Prince Charles in Oman, designed a trip for Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in China, experimented with space travel and, at age 16, rode his motorcycle from Nairobi to Cape Town, a 3,000-mile journey.” to see the full article click on the following link. Geoffrey Kent – Abercrombie and Kent

Helicopter Hog Control – Enterprise Case Study

Helicopter Hog Removal – Enterprise Case Study

Urban, suburban or rural, feral hogs are causing problems. The rapid expansion of wild hog populations in Texas and the United States has resulted in significantly costly impacts on crops, wildlife, golf courses, yards and auto accidents due to collisions with hogs, primarily at night.

Damage to Yard

Damage to Yard

In an effort to solve the feral hog problem, government agencies have begun funding programs to help reduce hog populations. Landowners and private business people alike are investing their time and resources to reducing hog damage, some of whom have even started businesses to aid in reducing hog populations. Hog hunting operations are popular; however, due to the difficulty in successfully killing a large percentage of the hogs on a site and

the necessity or having hogs to hunt, some of these programs have not done much to help reduce populations and the problems they cause. Research shows that hogs reproduce so rapidly that to simply maintain a stable hog population, as many as 70% of the hogs on a site must be killed each year.

One of the newer innovations in hog population control companies is Vertex, a company based in Houston that offers landowners the service of reducing hog numbers at no cost! In order to achieve this, they use what I like to call the “Tom Sawyer” business model. They use a method of hog reduction that many people want to experience, and therefore they will “pay to work”.

In November of 2013 I met with Vertex President Mike Morgan and his team at Vertex to spend a day learning about what they do and to join a group of clients in a full day training program required by Vertex before participating in an aerial hog shooting effort.

Crop Damage

Crop Damage

I will explain the details of that experience below but first lets review some of the facts about feral hogs in order to better understand a bit about what has lead to this new type of business.

About feral hogs…

The scientific name for feral hogs is Sus scofa and it is important to know that they are not native wild animals in North America. Hogs are native to Asia and Europe and were imported to the United States for food with the earliest explorers. As such they are not a wildlife species like white-tailed deer. The word feral means “Having returned to an untamed state from domestication”. They may be considered an exotic and invasive species.


Hogs at Night

Hogs at Night

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife feral hogs are capable of breeding at six months of age with common breeding age being about 10 months of age. An average litter size may be about 6 piglets but under the right conditions may be 12. A sow will generally have 1 litter a year but may have 2 litters per year.

They give birth at all times of the year and generally are born at a 1:1 male to female ratio. They then generally travel as a group, called a “sounder” consisting of 2 sows and their young. Males, called boars, generally travel alone. They will generally live 4-8 years.

Pasture Damage

Pasture Damage

Hogs are omnivorous, meaning they eat plant and animal matter. Foods include grasses, forbs, roots, tubers, acorns, fruit etc. They also eat insects, worms, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, primarily carrion, i.e. already dead animals, but they occasionally do kill and eat live animals as well. They like eggs and have been known to prey on quail and turkey nests. They are especially attracted to agricultural food crops such as corn, milo, rice, wheat, soybeans, peanuts, potatoes, watermelons and cantaloupe. Hogs compete directly with livestock and wildlife and cause damage to habitat and earthen water structures. They can also carry some diseases such as pseudorabies, brucellosis and many others.

It should be noted that hogs and javelina are not the same, and are actually not even related. Javelina or Collared Peccary, with a scientific name of Pecari tajacu are smaller, have an almost unnoticeable tail, only one dew claw on the hind foot, a scent gland at the base of the tail, and are more sociable or herd like animals. Unlike feral hogs, Javelina are a native wildlife species in Texas

Methods of feral hog removal

Vertex Preperation

Vertex Preperation

Although some landowners have been dealing with hogs for a long time, the expansion of feral hog habitat has caused them to become a bigger problem for an increased number of people than in the past.

Shooting and trapping hogs are method that have been used extensively; however, hogs learn to avoid traps if they are not caught with others in their sounder and hunting does not generally reduce the numbers enough to stop their population growth, they just become more active at night.

A variety of trapping techniques have been tested and large traps that can catch an entire sounder at once are the most effective. Both shooting and trapping involve either significant work and expense by the landowner or having a trusted landowner agent to trap or manage hunters on site.

The model that Vertex has created may offer landowners a new option through their “Helicopter Hog Hunting” program for landowners.

Cornfield Damage

Cornfield Damage

Vertex web site states “Our mission at VERTEX Aviation Group is to serve the needs of the farmers, ranchers and landowners in our region and to serve our local communities with professionalism, excellence and trust. VERTEX Aviation Group is committed to the advancement of the helicopter industry and the needs of the people who depend on our product and services.

 Our pilots have thousands of hours of military and combat experience, combined with easily the most helicopter hog hunting experience in the State of Texas. All of our Hog Hunts Ground Crews are prior military with over 20 combined combat tours in over 10 countries, as well as years of on the ground Hog Hunting Experience.  Our clients deserve that level of experience.

The Texas Animal Damage Control is an agency responsible for assisting in the control of animals causing damage. The methods they use for control of feral hogs include lethal techniques such as neck snares, cage or pen traps, hunting with dogs, and aerial hunting with helicopters. Although they only have two helicopters for the State of Texas they state the method can be very effective as quickly reducing the hog numbers on a piece of property.

Texas law allows approved individuals or companies to form written agreements with landowners to act as a landowner agent and shoot feral hogs from a helicopter in order to reduce damage causing populations. Due to the large interest in hog hunting, Mr. Morgan found that the added allure of being able to shoot from a helicopter meant that he could offer landowners the service of removing hogs at no cost by charging interested people for the opportunity to act as the gunner.

Vertex Unloading

Vertex Unloading

In order to improve the experience for participants and ensure safety, Vertex created a full day training program. I participated in the program and can say it is worth it just for that experience alone. The training made me not only feel more comfortable with the equipment and procedure, but also provided confidence in the other participants and the level of professionalism in the company. The program starts early in the morning with friendly introductions and coffee and a program about the company. They then provide a background on feral hogs including hog biology, depredation problems and example images and experiences from landowners. This is followed by a variety of safety training including communications, behavior for entering and exiting the helicopter, the use of the AR15 rifle including some surprising tips on how shooting and aiming from a helicopter is very different from on the ground shooting. In the afternoon the real fun happens. Everyone drives to a rural location to participate in a live-fire training program while flying in the helicopter.

To conclude the day of training, a pilot takes two participants up at a time to fly over fields and then with step by step instructions practice shooting at a target that is on the ground in a field. I had never been in a helicopter or fired an AR15 and will say that it was very enjoyable. The following day some of the participants headed out to shoot hogs with success coming shortly after takeoff.

Although this may not be the right approach for some landowners it does seem to be a great, cost free option to consider. While I was with Vertex in the field, an interested landowner saw us and came by to ask questions. When he learned about the program he seemed very enthusiastic about having Vertex help remove hogs from the 10,000 acres they manage for wildlife!

What you didn’t know about Skunks

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Skunks are arguably the most feared small mammal in the world (mice are the skunk’s main rival). Its just a natural human reaction to be wary of a skunk when encountered in the wild. Several Indians myths talk about skunk spray being deadly at one time, but after the skunk was defeated in battle, became merely obnoxious. We get our modern-day word for skunk from an Algonquian word that loosely translates into “urinating fox”. Yes, people have always been fascinated with novelties, and few animals in the world are as novel as skunks are. However, as with anything novel in nature, this comes with myths and misunderstandings. My hope here is not only to dispel a few of those, but also to expose the skunk for what it truly is: a fascinating creature in its own right.

On the surface, the answer to why they smell so bad is pretty easy. They give off a horrible smell when alarmed as a self-defense mechanism (humans can detect this scent up to a mile away). However, that doesn’t answer the more deep-rooted, chemically-based question of “Why does it smell so bad?” The answer to this is that skunk spray consists mostly of thiols, also called mercaptans. Thiols, by definition, are organic compounds containing sulphur. Sulphur compounds are also what causes rotten eggs to stink. Skunk spray is comprised of three different thiol compounds. One would naturally assume that the reason for this is because while all thiols smell different, they also all stink. Therefore, a combination of three different thiols would produce a chemical smell three times more obnoxious than only one.

Great! Now we know exactly why skunk spray smells so bad! Who really cares, though? Will this knowledge be of any practical use if I get sprayed by one? Actually, yes, it will. You see, in order to instantly remove the stench, you have to instantly break down the chemicals that are causing the stench. How would chemists know how to break down the stench if they didn’t know what chemicals to break down? The old tomato juice tale is little more than that: an old housewives’ tale. This is the first myth about skunks that I would like to dispel. This myth is based on the fact that skunk spray is slightly alkaline, while tomato juice is slightly acidic. Therefore, tomato juice may help a little, but it doesn’t break down the thiols. That means the thiols are still there after the tomato juice bath. A really long hot shower will do the trick for a human that was sprayed, but isn’t quite as practical for a pet (or the human’s clothing, for that matter). For this, we need to chemically break down the thiols. The following recipe was developed by some chemists: mix 1 quart of hydrogen peroxide with ¼ a cup of baking soda and two teaspoons of dishwashing liquid (don’t use the powder). Bathe your pet in this for about five minutes, constantly rubbing it into your pet’s fur. You may have to use a sponge to get your pet’s chin, cheeks, etc. Just make sure you don’t get it in your pet’s eyes. The smell should start to dissipate. If it doesn’t go away completely, rinse off your pet, mix a new batch, and do it again.

The second myth that I would like to dispel is the one that skunks make excellent pets. Actually, I guess it depends on your definition of “excellent pet”. If an aggressive animal that will literally tear up your house(skunks are natural burrowers) is your definition of a good pet, then go for it (be aware, though, that this is illegal here in Texas). Most people that get pet skunks don’t make it six months before they are looking for a new home for it. The ironic thing here is that being displaced from its home severely stresses the skunk out. If placed outside in a cage, they will either hide indefinitely because they don’t know what to do, or they will yearn for freedom so badly that they will eventually find a way out, and they’ll never be seen again. The latter reaction to the cage is a tragedy for the ones that were descented (it leaves them defenseless). Lets face reality here: If you love wild animals enough that you want to keep them, let then remain free. This is a greater way to show your love.

OK, enough of the myth-busting stuff. What is there to know about skunks? Aside from their one offensive characteristic, skunks are animals, just like any other animal. The only animal that regularly puts the skunk on their menu is the Great Horned Owl (owls can’t smell). Skunks mate in the spring, just like most animals. Males are polygynous, meaning they mate with more than one female. One interesting note about the mating period is that this is the only time that skunks spray each other. The males will spray each other over disputes about mating rites. Sixty-six days after mating, between 4 and 7 kits are born. If you’ve never seen a baby skunk, you’re missing out. They’re about the cuddliest-looking things I’ve ever seen! Just don’t get too close, because Momma Skunk is very protective of her babies, and will spray anything that she perceives as a threat to them. Daddy Skunk offers no help in raising the babies. After mating, he goes back to his territory. During the winter, skunks sometimes go through a relatively dormant period, although they don’t hibernate. The females will, however, sometimes den up together for warmth. Males don’t really do this.

The most interesting thing about skunks,in my humble opinion, is their diet. Skunks are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat just about anything from snakes to berries. A little-known fact about them is that they are excellent mousers. The Indians knew this, and reportedly kept skunks as pets to protect their food stores from rodents (the Indians also reportedly were the first to perfect removing the scent glands). Another fascinating fact about their diets is that they are the primary predator of bees. They scratch at the opening of the hive, and eat the bees as they come out to investigate. The odd thing about this is that they get stung. Scientists have shown by dissecting skunks that they get stung on the inside of their mouths, and in their esophagus. Apparently, the skunks just don’t care. If you really want to know how MUCH they don’t care, look at blogsites of beekeepers. Skunks are apparently as problematic for beekeepers as grasshoppers are for farmers (skunks, by the way, eat grasshoppers). Because of their diet, skunks should be the farmer’s best friend (except for the fact that most farmers have dogs, and we all know how dog-skunk encounters invariably end).

Historically, skunk oil was used for medicinal purposes. Skunk oil is an oil that is removed from the fatty tissue along the skunk’s back. Native Americans used it, and introduced it to the European explorers. It has moisturizing properties. Some Indians used it to cure poison ivy. It’s most common medicinal use, though, was to treat coughs. Like any liniment, it has a mildly warming reaction, which supposedly opens the airways, curing the cough.

All in all, the skunk’s report card from Cool Class is an A. Skunks generally run around not paying attention to anybody else, just minding their own business (I know some people that could learn a lot from a skunk). They’re better at pest control than any of our domesticated pets (apparently Fido could learn a thing or two from skunks as well). They have the potential for tremendous chemical warfare which they only use as a last resort (that does it: Skunk for President!!). If skunks were to fall off the face of the Earth tomorrow, yes, the world would survive. It would just be a little less interesting.

By Ann and Dan

Hunting, Fishing and Watching Wildlife Up 3 Percent from 2006 to 2011

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Census Bureau Reports Hunting, Fishing and

Watching Wildlife Up 3 Percent from 2006 to 2011


More than 90 million U.S. residents age 16 and older participated in some form of wildlife-related recreation in 2011, up 3 percent from five years earlier, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. In total, wildlife recreationists spent $144.7 billion in 2011 on their activities — accounting for about 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.


These findings come from the final national report with results from the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation released today by the Census Bureau on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.


Conducted since 1955, the survey is one of the oldest continuing and most comprehensive recreation surveys in the U.S., collecting information on the number of anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers, as well as how often they participate in wildlife-related recreation and how much they spend on these activities.


According to the survey, wildlife recreationists spent $70.4 billion on equipment, $49.5 billion on travel and $24.8 billion on other items, such as licenses and land leasing and ownership.


The number of people who hunted, fished or both rose from 33.9 million in 2006 to 37.4 million in 2011, with 33.1 million people fishing and 13.7 million hunting. The survey showed that 71.8 million people participated in at least one type of wildlife-watching activity, such as observing, feeding and photographing wildlife.


Fishing and Hunting Highlights

Of the 33.1 million people who fished, 27.5 million fished in freshwater and 8.9 million in saltwater.


The most popular fish sought by freshwater anglers, excluding Great Lakes fishing, were black bass (10.6 million anglers) and panfish (7.3 million anglers). The most popular fish sought by Great Lakes anglers were walleye and sauger (584,000 anglers) and black bass (559,000 anglers).


About 1.9 million people ice-fished and 4.3 million fly-fished.


Anglers spent $41.8 billion on fishing trips, equipment and other items in 2011 — an average of $1,262 per angler.


Of the 13.7 million hunters that took to the field in 2011, 11.6 million hunted big game, 4.5 million hunted small game, 2.6 million hunted migratory birds and 2.2 million hunted other animals.


Ninety-three percent of hunters used a shotgun, rifle or other similar firearm; 33 percent used a bow and arrow; and 22 percent used a muzzleloader.


Nearly all hunters (approximately 94 percent) hunted in the state where they lived, while

14 percent hunted in other states.


Hunters spent $33.7 billion on hunting trips, equipment and other items in 2011 — an average of $2,465 per hunter.


Wildlife Watching Highlights


About 71.8 million U.S. residents observed, fed and/or photographed birds and other wildlife in 2011. Almost 68.6 million people watched wildlife around their homes, and 22.5 million people took trips of at least one mile from home to primarily watch wildlife.


Of the 46.7 million people who observed wild birds, 88 percent did so around their homes and

38 percent on trips of a mile or more from home.


People spent $54.9 billion on their wildlife-watching trips, equipment and other items in 2011 — an average of $981 per spender.


State reports with detailed information on participation and expenditures will be released on a flow basis beginning in January 2013.



During the initial data collection phase, the Census Bureau interviewed approximately 50,000 households nationwide to determine who in the household had fished, hunted or watched wildlife in 2010 or 2011, and planned to do so again. In most cases, one adult household member provided information for all members.


In the second phase, a sample of individuals identified as likely anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers were interviewed; each individual had to be at least 16 years old and provided information pertaining only to his or her activities and expenditures.


All comparisons made in this news release are tested at the 0.10 significance level.


Robert Bernstein                                                                                                               CB12-238

Public Information Office


e-mail: <pio@census.gov>

2011 USFWS Report on Fishing, Hunting & Wildlife Recreation

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Providing assistance with market based conservation.

According to the 2011 National Survey’s first preliminary report,

In 2011 90.1 million Americans, 38% of the U.S. population 16 years old and older, enjoyed some form of
fishing, hunting or wildlife-associated recreation. Outdoor recreation is a huge contributor to our nation’s economy.
Expenditures by hunters, anglers and wildlife-recreationists were $145.0 billion.

This equates to 1% of gross domestic product; meaning one out of every one hundred dollars of all goods and services produced in the U.S. is due to wildlife related recreation. Almost 37.4 million Americans participated in fishing, hunting or both sports in 2011.

These sportsmen and women spent $43.2 billion on equipment, $32.2 billion on trips, and $14.6 billion on licenses and fees, membership dues and contributions, land leasing and ownership, and plantings for hunting. On average, each sportsperson spent $2,407 in 2011.

They spent over $145 billion pursuing their recreational activities, contributing to millions of jobs in industries and businesses that support wildlife-related recreation.

Funds generated by licenses and taxes on hunting and fishing equipment pay for many of the conservation efforts in this country and provide many hours of fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching.

2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation State Overview
Issued September 2012 http://library.fws.gov/Pubs/natsurvey2011-prelim-state.pdf

The reports/data are organized by survey year and are available for download, 2011 Reports, 2006 Reports, 2001 Reports, 1996 Reports, and 1991 Reports. The 2011 National Survey reports will be available only in a pdf format and not printed. They will be posted on our website as they become available.

Source: http://wsfrprograms.fws.gov/subpages/nationalsurvey/National_Survey.htm

Additional Data on Texas Travel

  • Travel & Tourism Spending: ($63.2 billion in 2011), increased by 10% from 2010 to 2011.
  • Jobs: Travel-generated employment (545,300 jobs in 2011) increased 2.8% in Texas from 2010 to 2011.
  • Demand: According to Source Strategies Inc., room demand in Texas increased by 9.0 percent from 2010 to 2011. Visitor air arrivals on domestic flights increased by 2.7 percent. This follows increases of 6.3% and 3.8%, respectively, for the (2009-10) period. Source: http://www.deanrunyan.com/doc_library/TXImp.pdf

Sarah Gracia Internship

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AgriLife Extension Nature Tourism
Post by Intern Sarah Gracia- Summer 2012
Overview of Organization
The Nature Tourism Program of AgriLife Extension was first created in 2001, and it represents 254 counties in Texas.  AgriLife Extension Nature Tourism helps communities, landowners,  businesses, and travelers with nature-based recreation & tourism  skills, planning, development, management, and marketing.  The program provides educational programs for the public, private business-both for profit and non-profit, landowners, and community leaders.
Job Description
The internship’s duties are as follows, but are not limited to:
-Assisting with the development, delivery, and evaluation of the nature tourism educational program marketing, including use of online images, videos, audio, and webinars.
-Assisting with the development of educational materials for use by the nature tourism program’s clientele.
-Managing the nature tourism program website information and YouTube channel.
Benefits and Opportunities
This was an unpaid internship, but I was able to create my own schedule to meet the internship hours requirement.  I learned how to manage a website as well as edit videos and audio.  Also, it is a great way to gain networking opportunities and job references.
Some qualifications include:
-Enrollment as an undergraduate or graduate student at any major at an accredited college or university.
-Interest in wildlife and habitat management, tourism management, or business and marketing.
-Computer skills to work with website management, photo and video editing, and possibly GIS programs.
-Working independently with little supervision and completing tasks on time.
-Writing and editing skills.
During my internship, I was given the main tasks of editing videos and managing the nature tourism website.  Editing videos required me to become familiar with video editing programs such as iMovie and GarageBand.  The videos were taken during a Costa Rica field training program for tourism professionals, landowners, and other community representatives to learn more about successful ecotourism and agritourism.  I spent a lot of time with these videos to make sure they included the most useful and interesting information, so that anyone who viewed the videos could feel as if they were experiencing the Costa Rica trip.  These videos were published on the nature tourism website and YouTube channel.When I completed the videos, I started working on the nature tourism website.  This task included learning how to use WordPress, which is a program used to create blogs and websites.  I read the entire website and made notes concerning necessary changes, such as grammatical errors or links that did not work.  Eventually the decision was made to completely rearrange the website to become more user friendly.  I made flow charts to demonstrate how the site could be arranged and organized.

Overall, it is exciting to know that the projects I worked on during my internship can be seen by people who view the website or the YouTube channel.

May 5-13 is Texas Travel & Tourism Week

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Governor Rick Perry has proclaimed May 5-13 as Texas Travel & Tourism Week – a time to recognize the importance of the travel and tourism industry to our state’s workforce and economy.  As the Governor’s proclamation states, “The State of Texas is a premiere travel destination, and the travel and tourism industry is one of the state’s largest and most important.  Annually, the state celebrates Texas Travel and Tourism Week, not only to point out the significant economic impact of the travel industry, but …to acknowledge the more than half a million valued travel industry employees – including hotel staff, restaurant employees, attraction and museum personnel, state park guides, and visitor’s center staff – who contribute to the success of the industry.” Read the full Proclamation.

Agritourism Food Safety Webinar Dec 14

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Food Safety Education and Planning for Agritourism Providers

Wednesday, December 14, Noon to 1pm (Eastern Time) 12:00pm Central Time, please confirm time when you sign up.
Free — open to all interested

Hosted by: Lisa Chase, Londa Nwadike, and Ben Amsden
University of Vermont Extension and the Plymouth State University Center for Rural Partnerships

Understanding the latest in food safety is essential for farmers who sell products directly to consumers. This webinar will present the latest in food safety and food-based risk management issues specifically aimed at those involved in agritourism, including u-pick operations, farm stands, CSAs, prepared meals, and other activities where visitors and food come together on a farm. Whether you are a farmer or an Extension educator supporting farmers, the webinar will provide up-to-date information, best practices, and future directions in risk management and food safety in agritourism.

To access the webinar, please follow this link five minutes before the webinar begins:

For technical assistance during the webinar, contact Jessie Schmidt at (866) 860-1382, ext. 203 (Vermont calls only) or (802) 223-2389, ext. 203, E-mail: jessica.a.schmidt@uvm.edu

Contact lisa.chase@uvm.edu, londa.nwadike@uvm.edu or blamsden@plymouth.edu for more information about the webinar.

To request a disability-related accommodation to participate in this program, please let Rose Crossley in UVM Extension (802-223-2389) know by November 14, 2011 so we may assist you.

Hawk Watch Celebration of Flight: Raptors With Disabilities Keep People Entertained As They Wait for Kettles Of Hawks To Grace The Sky Over Hazel Bazemore Park

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September 25, 2011
By Anna Livia

Joel Simon speaks to crowd of birders at Hawk Watch in Hazel Bazemore Park, September 24, 2011. Energetic and enthusiastic in his presentation, he leaves the crowd with a sense of knowing how fortunate we are to be here and how special these migrations are.

Dan and I went to this year’s Hawk Watch yesterday. There were probably several hundred people there over the day. Sky Kings Falconry Service brought some of their raptors and conducted several flight demonstrations. Kevin Gaines, the President, and his assistant had several raptors perform for the audience including a Barn Owl, Black Vulture, Harris’s Hawk, and a Eurasian Eagle Owl, while Joel Simon with Hawk Watch International gave informative talks about the Hawks that migrate over south Texas.

Tango the Harris's Hawk, one of the Sky Kings collection captive breed raptors that are injured in one way or another and cannot survive in the wild.

The White-Tailed Kite, as Joel Simon explained, hadn’t been breeding here in Texas since the very early 1900’s but in the past 20 years or so they had begun breeding here in Texas again since habitat for them has been encouraged. Texas Parks and Wildlife offered a reward for anyone who found a breeding pair of White Tailed Kites and a couple of nests were located. It came to be known that these birds pick a tree which is distinctly taller than any of the surrounding trees (such as one tree above all the others in a wooded area.) This seems to ring true. When we were taking a van tour around Welder Wildlife Refuge this past Thursday, Dan spotted a White-Tailed Kite which had perched itself in a substantially taller Oak tree among surrounding Mesquite trees.


Igor, the Black Vulture humored the crowd with his gait which is typical of his kind. The crowd laughed with Kevin Gaines as he immitated Igor by limping and saying, "Yes, Master. Yes, Master."

Kevin Gaines with Sky Kings and his assistant gave a fun and informative demonstration of their live raptors. These birds are breed in captivity for the specific purpose of being used in falconry. Sky Kings provides falconry services, such as bringing in their birds to scare away nuisance birds such as pigeons, starlings, grackles and seagulls. They also lead guided hunts with their falcons. This particular group of birds he was using to demonstate at the celebration was a special group. These are his stage birds, not his hunting or abatement birds. This group of birds are injured birds that he can’t use in his other services and that couldn’t survive in the wild. By using them as performers a way has been found for them to earn their keep, I guess. Each bird performed one at a time with Kevin Gaines prompting them to take flight from the perch near him and fly to the perch near his assistant. Then his assistant would guide birds to return to their original  perch. The birds were enticed to action and rewarded with the lure of raw meat. It looked like chicken, yuck! Birds eating other birds, isn’t nature ironic sometimes?

Great Horned Owl, didn't get to be part of the demonstration we saw because the demonstration was drawn to an abrupt conclusion when a kettle of several hundred hawks took the sky over us.

The whole audience of about 70 people enjoyed watching these good-tempered and often times endearing little characters. There was Tango, the Harris’s Hawk. He was a handsome bird that demonstrated his skills with miltary style accuracy and precision. Harris’ Hawks are one of the few hawks who hunt cooperatively. Some of them will flush the prey in the direction of the other hawks who await the fleeing animals for an easy catch. I assume the birds evenly divide the proceeds or at least return the favor. Nevertheless it is a cooperative and organized hunt! 

 Black Vultures have a digestive system that is so strong that  they can eat carrion which is infected with E. Coli and Anthrax and not be affected.  Igor was the name of the Black Vulture Kevin Gaines showed the crowd. Why was he named Igor? Because of the characteristic walking style of the Black Vulture which seems to drag one foot in a limping fashion, much like the movie character Igor. “Yes, Master. Yes, Master,” Kevin mimicked the bird’s walk as the audience laughed.

Large crowd gathers for the Falconry Demonstration by Sky Kings, Kevin Gaines (not pictured) led.

“Widget” the barn owl, was a lovely bird who’s gentle, quiet personality made her easy for the audience to fall in love with. Despite her impression of being adorable and extremely pettable, it was explained that these kind of birds do not make good pets and are not easy to handle without specialized training. Oddly, this owl is more numerous around places inhabited by people, but generally goes without being noticed because it has silent flight and is more active at night. We witnessed how quiet their flight is by watching Bridget perform for her meat treats. When we say silent, that is literally, she made no noise when she flew. Barn owls are a very important predator in that they help control the rodent population which carries many diseases deadly to humans.


Widget the Barn Owl won the crowd over with her gentle, quiet demeanor.

Artemis, the Eurasian Eagle Owl was a very big owl, but only 5 months old. His youthful mannerisms and being “new” to performing made him quite the attraction. He seemed to enjoy perching up on the post in front of the audience. His curiosity with watching passing golf carts go by and what the golfers were doing kept him preoccupied, as his trainer was left hanging, until Artemis was ready to move on. His trainer patiently repeated his requests, but the young owl was too busy scoping things out to pay much mind. With a little encouragement and direction from the assistant, Artemis finished his performance quite well and with a good-natured readiness. There was a man in the audience who seemed to love this bird and periodically made comments sympathizing with the owl in a tone which would imply great fondness of the bird, and skepticism for the trainer. I guess that for Mr. Gaines, it might not be uncommon to have a member of the audience who seems to take the bird’s “side,” and give an oral narration of how the bird is just misunderstood while the trainer is generally a boof.  The trainer would say something like, “Getting Artemis back into the cage is going to be the hard part.” Then of course, contradicting Mr. Gaines prediction, Artemis flew back into the cage cooperatively and with ease. The interpretive audience member said, “Not tooooooo hard.”

5 Month old Eurasian Eagle Owl named Artemis, takes the stage! This little actor seems to enjoy the spotlight, even though this is amongst his first performances.


The children in the audience were very interested and asked lots of questions about the birds. Suddenly the show came to a halt, though, when a kettle of hawks were spotted flying over the park. Whenever hawks came through in a kettle, someone would shout it out loud enough for the crowd to hear and whatever was going on at the time would give heed and defer to the hawks.

Some other groups that were present at the Hawk event were Audubon Outdoor Club of Corpus Christi which gives free birding field trips in the area. We spoke to the women “manning” the booth. They were very helpful, explaining that their group meets once a month on the second Tuesday of the month. They have speakers scheduled for their meetings. This coming month, they will have a speaker on the Purple Martin. Information can be found at www.ccbirding.com.

Donald Scibienski with South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center brought reptiles for showing at his booth. He gave Dan Beckendorf a snake and said, "Go ahead hang him over your neck!"

Donald Scibienski was there to represent the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. He brought with him about ten reptiles and amphibian species each in different little boxes and a Diamondback Rattlesnake in a small aquarium. The effort made to bring these animals to the event made their booth the most fun of all the booths present, especially when it came to kids. Donald explained that he is in charge of the Botanical Gardens Reptile and Amphibian exhibit at the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center in Corpus Christi. He gave Dan a snake to put around his neck. Dan did so, without hesitation, smiling from ear to ear, as I remained behind the camera gladly.

Dan's "Seasons Greetings" shirt was laughed about by several bird ladies at the booths. Though his shirt may have been out of season, he made up for it with this fashion statement!

American Alligator: BBQ at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

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Alligator by Anna Livia day of our visit to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer BBQ

September 17, 2011

By Anna Livia

 American Alligator  (Alligator mississippiensis)

American Alligator…

Umm.. Ummm… That was a good barbeque!


No, they didn’t serve us alligator at the barbeque. But that’s a thought… Aransas National Wildlife Refuge held a BBQ dinner in appreciation for the volunteers who helped put out Whooping Crane decoys this past week for the counting experiment (see previous post from early this week.)We had brats and burgers is more like it. But, Dan and I took a break to go to the Visitor Center and check out the little pond there, where the infamous “Alligators Are Dangerous: Please Stay Behind The Fence” sign is posted. This would lead one to believe alligators might be seen there. And, indeed they were. We even got some pictures.

Alligator at Visitor Center, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Alligators are opportunistic eaters. I would say, they are certainly not going to hunt down a human or be a menacing danger awaiting you to come stumbling out of your bayou bungalow so they can jump you in the middle of the night and make you their last meal before the go into hibernation. No, that is not likely. But, don’t get the idea that they are nice little “awwigators” and you can get next to them for a cozy “Smokey-the-Bear”picture, or feed them like you do sea gulls (even sea gulls will punish the overly eager generosity of the well meaning tourist.) No, alligators are out for a meal just like the next meat-eating animal and they will make toast of you if you molest or aggravate them. The saying, “Don’t feed the wildlife,” goes double for alligators.

As one writer puts it from the Florida Museum of Natural History, “Alligators are, like all crocodilians, opportunistic feeders and will take carrion if it becomes available and they are sufficiently hungry. They may also expand their choice of prey to include small dogs and other pets.”  I like that choice of words, “expand their choice.” Yea, that’s about what I figured. They don’t exactly sit around dreaming of making a meal of you or me, but give them an opportunity, taunt them with a temptation and jaws before paws, if you know what I mean. The writer continues, “Alligators have been known in rare instances to attack children and even occasionally adults, usually because they mistake the human for much smaller prey, or they are provoked.” Let me guess, it’s usually the second scenario being most likely, they were provoked. That’s reassuring.  They don’t expect me to believe alligators often mistake the size of their prey. “Oooops I ate a kid.” Is that kind of like the alligator apologizing, “Ooops I thought he was… like… a chicken, my bad.”

Dangerous? You bet! Keep your distance, stay behind the fence! Aransas National Wildlife Refuge by Dan Beckendorf

There is actually lots of cool stuff about alligators. BIG surprise there, right? What do they do besides eat mammals, big birds, big fish, other reptiles and even other alligators? Stop, stop right there. Other alligators? Are these beastesses  cannibals too? Well… yes, they can be. Normally it’s large dominant males that will eat baby alligators. No one ever said they were gentlemen, folks. They are after all the largest reptile in Texas, or the United States for the matter, they don’t have to have manners.

Females on the other hand build awesome nests for their eggs, enclosures that are made up of vegetation and mud which are made to keep other things out. The female stays around these nests to protect the eggs from any threat and to break the nest open when she hears the young hatchlings breaking free from the eggs. When they hatch she carries about 8-10 babies in her mouth down to the water, pulling her tongue down to form a pouch in which they all sit. They are swished around in the water and encouraged to swim out of her mouth. I assume none of the babies resist the suggestion. It’s my guess they best get to swimming. After all who wants to linger around in an adult alligator’s jaw?

What of alligator romance? Can these carnivorous, cannibalistic, cold-blooded reptiles have a love life? You betcha! The low down on that is they use all kinds of senses, more senses than we can shake a stick at, to put the whoopin’ on the willin’! Their bellowing causes vibrations that get the message out there. They got the “head slappin’” (the motion of clapping their jaws down on the water to make a splash). If that doesn’t do the trick, what about the odours that they can emit from the musk glands under their chin? Some pretty sophisticated hormonal techno, don’t you say? We have to go to Walmart at least to buy some love spray. Not Mr. Alligator, he’s got it! Zeee fragrance is called “L’Eau Naturale.”  If that doesn’t just blow us outta the water, then don’t let me get started on the complex “body postures” or the snout and back rubbing. These are some romancin’, love-hungry beastesses, alright! Watch out, on ladies night down at the Bayou, buddy! (Actual courtship can take several hours.) Actually their mating season is pretty exact, mid April – May.

Two alligators just wading for you to see them! By Anna Livia

One other cool thing about the alligator. Alligators make dens. They make underground dens where they stay during the winter and during drought seasons. Imagine the size of that hole! I have no idea, but my guess, ever come across a big hole near a swamp, don’t get curious!

So what good are alligators to their neighbors, other wildlife and their ecosystem? Apparently they are useful to their ecosystem. They are a big part of the control (can was say regulation) of prey species. Nice, we wouldn’t want the prey animals to get out of control, right? Good to have some balance, there, huh? Also I read that their nests are used by other animals who apparently feel that the benefits (the ready-made nest of nests) out-weigh the risks (the obvious.) That would be kind of like, we live in the dinosaur age, building a nest of our own is kind of a hassle and usually gets tromped on by huge reptiles, so instead of hiding from T-rex, maybe if we just shack up with him, in his nest he won’t notice. Not my normal line of thinking, but hey that’s why they call it “wildlife.”

Last but not least : Are alligators dangerous?  More from the Florida Museum of Natural History, “ In some areas alligators are fed by humans, which is extremely dangerous and encourages alligators to approach humans aggressively expecting food. When left alone, alligators will stay away from humans and pose little threat.” Okay, how is that for brilliant? What do you expect from a huge, strong, hungry animal? Bottom line on the reptilian-human interaction: there need not be any. Have respect, stay where humans belong and you won’t have a problem. Otherwise, you basically get what you ask for. But who are we to complain? We like marinated and fried reptiles, no doubt. So there you have it: Alligator tastes good to us and we probably taste good to alligator.

Moral of the story? Alligators really can be dangerous and, of course, as is often the case, people are dumb. Have you ever noticed that despite the fact that alligators truly are dangerous, no one seems to be afraid of them? Alligators don’t have a “bad reputation” like some other animals (Javelinas for instance) for being “aggressive.” That’s because we know people are probably to blame, when it comes to alligators. We see them being taunted and teased all the time on T.V. Maniac biologists (as much as we love to see them do it) go trudging through swamps just to pull on alligator tails and escape, making it within inches of their lives! Then you have the alligator wrestlers. Then you have just everyday nut cases that just have to push the limits and see how close you can get to a reptile without ticking it off. Come on, we know we’re at fault. That’s why we don’t shrink in fear or become outraged when we hear about alligator attacks on dogs, people, etc. More than likely, someone was being stupid. It’s not hard, folks. Alligators are cool, but keep your cool. Keeping behind the fence at the Wildlife refuge is not such a big deal. Just remember, “Don’t be a heel, or you might be Mr. Alligator’s next meal.”