Category Archives: Birding

Casts and Blasts from June 27 KDWPT Commission meeting

More details from Thursday’s Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission meeting in Garden City.

YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ THE ORIGINAL STORY IN SUNDAY’S EAGLE.

– Most commissioners really seemed to feel they were in a “no-win” situation when they voted on the game warden’s request to make it illegal to use vehicles and/or two-way communications for hunting coyotes during the firearms deer season.

The request was made because game wardens regularly come across people illegally hunting deer with those two methods, and saying they’re hunting coyotes.

“The toughest thing for me is to not give our law enforcement guys the teeth they need,” said Commissioner Don Budd, of Kansas City.

“We need some baseline data….we’re not going to know if anything we do is really effective,” Commissioner Randy Doll, of Leon, said of wanting to now exactly how many complaints game wardens get annually about such illegal deer hunting.

B.J. Thurman, supervisor for about half of Kansas’ game wardens, estimated all of his officers get about two such complaints each firearms deer season, but indicated the problem could be more wide spread.

Every commissioner verbally expressed a fear that passing such a regulation would unfairly punish coyote hunters who are using vehicles and two-way communications legally.

Commissioners asked for more exact numbers of such complaints, and wish to discuss the issue further next year.

–Tom Bidrowski, Wildlife and Parks waterfowl biologist, said duck limits, and seasons and limits on geese, should closely resemble last year’s. Commissioners will vote on seasons at an Aug. 1 commission meeting in Yates Center. See the above link for possible conflict between staff and commissioner recommendations.

– Debate for setting the season for Kansas’ southeast duck zone was less “spirited” than last year. Budd said he didn’t want things to be as heated, and said his recommendation gives Kansas hunters three opening weekends.

– Keith Sexson, Wildlife and Parks assistant secretary, told commissioners the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced they’ll delay deciding if lesser prairie chickens should be placed on the threatened or endangered species list until around March 31. That means Kansas can have a season for the birds this fall and winter.

– Linda Craghead, tourism and state parks director, said the state’s new Park Passport program, which allows people to purchase annual state park passes at reduced rates when they register their vehicles, is doing fairly well.

She said the department’s goal is to get at least 5 percent of all vehicles to carry such tags. Currently, the rate is about 3.5 percent. About a dozen counties currently are getting more than 10 percent of their vehicles in the program. Butler County is one  of those counties.

Craghead said they need at least 4.5 percent to off-set losses in funding from the Kansas a legislature.

– Jim Pitman, Wildlife and Parks upland bird biologist, said about 73,500 turkey permits or tags were sold for the 2013 spring season. That’s an increase of about 10,000 from 2012. He said increased turkey numbers across eastern Kansas were probably responsible for the increase. Pitman predicted the 2013 spring harvest was probably also better than 2012.

– Mike Miller, information chief and Pass It On coordinator, said the department would like to decrease the costs youths pay for hunting permits in Kansas. Miller quoted figures from Missouri and Nebraska that showed youth participation can grow quickly when prices are lowered.

For instance, when Nebraska dropped non-resident youth deer hunting permits from $177 to $5  sales eventually went from 128 to 921 permits sold. Early discussion is that no youth permits would be cut by more than half in Kansas, like non-resident deer permits going from $300 to $150.

Miller hopes the decrease in Kansas prices will be made up for with the sale of more youth deer permits.

– All seven commissioners were in attendance. It was the last meeting for Commissioner Debra Bolton, of Garden City, who had served two terms.   Gov. Sam Brownback has yet to appoint her replacement

 

News from lesser prairie chicken country

A day-old lesser prairie chicken fitted with a tracking device for research in Gove County Monday morning. MICHAEL PEARCE/THE WICHITA EAGLE

As the federal government moves closer to putting lesser prairie chickens on their threatened or endangered species lists, state agencies, colleges, wildlife and agriculture groups are working together to learn more about the grouse of the short grass and sand/sage prairie.

Here are a few bits of information. Sunday’s outdoors page in The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com/outdoors will have more complete details. A photo gallery about 50 photos will also be posted online.

– Biologists are currently studying the birds in all five states with lesser prairie chicken populations, – Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

– Three teams of biologists have been studying Kansas lessers in extreme southwest Kansas,  the Red Hills region northwest of Medicine Lodge and the Gove/Logan County Smoky Hill country south of Oakley.

– The further south and west you go, the worse the drought and, generally, the worse the conditions for good lesser habitat. The Colorado population, small for a long time, may have really taken some serious damage from five or so years of on-going drought.

– Researchers in the Smoky and Red Hills were impressed with the numbers of adult birds they found when they started studying the birds late last winter and early this spring. Drought the previous two years had impacted the populations some, but probably not as much as with the greater prairie chickens in the Smoky Hills.

– Probably the best lek in that Smoky Hill region consistently held about 21 displaying males. Researchers were downright shocked to find 17 hens on the lek one morning earlier this spring. Normally it’s a good morning if 10 to 20 percent of the birds on a lek are females, since most only come a time or two to get bred.

Male lesser prairie chickens are still attending leks in some places, as they’ve been doing for about the past four months. MICHAEL PEARCE/FILE PHOTO

– Overall grassland habitat is fair to poor across the Smoky Hills because of grazing and the drought. CRP fields, many of which have been hayed or grazed the past two summers, offer little habitat. Some biologists have claimed CRP is why the birds have done so well across western Kansas the past 20 or so years.

– Nest survival hasn’t been as good as hoped in some areas, probably because the lack of good habitat makes the nests and nesting hens more vulnerable to predation.

– Chicks began hatching in the Smoky Hills late last week. At least one brood of chicks has already perished to the 100-plus degree heat of the past few days.

Researchers are studying lesser prairie chickens in three locations in Kansas, like these biologists Monday morning in Gove County. MICHAEL PEARCE/THE WICHITA EAGLE

– Males are still attending leks in some fairly impressive numbers. Monday morning researchers in Gove County counted 14 males and 3 females on a lek on the Fleming Ranch. At least one of the females was known to be a bird that had lost her eggs earlier. She may try to renest if she’s been bred again.

Casts and Blasts about Marion’s Turkey Vultures.

A turkey vulture glides over downtown Marion, getting ready to spend the night on the town’s water tower or nearby trees.

A few items that didn’t make it into Saturday’s front page story about the up to 200 turkey vultures that often roost near downtown Marion. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ THE ORIGINAL STORY ON KANSAS .COM.

– They’re vultures, not buzzards, and there is a difference though both species of birds mostly eat carrion. Vultures are actually closely related to storks.

– Most of the birds seen around Marion’s water tower these days are probably year-old birds, not yet mature enough to nest. Most adults are probably scattered across the countryside raising vultlets, or whatever the young are called.

– Like all migratory birds, turkey vultures are protected by federal laws and can’t legally be shot or killed. There would also be that little problem with firing a firearm in the city limits of Marion.

– A flock of vultures is called a venue, and a group circling in the air are a kettle…not that I could ever imagine cooking a vulture in a kettle.

– Vultures have been on Earth for an estimated 40 million years, which is about how long grazing animals (a.k.a. vulture food) have also roamed the planet.

– Some Kansas birders jokingly refer to road kills as “TV dinners,” referencing that they’ll probably be eaten by Turkey Vultures.

Biologists think vultures are probably attracted to Marion’s water tower because its height makes it easier for the birds to soar away in the morning.

– Though their beaks are strong and very sharp, turkey vultures often use vomiting as a means of protection. (Had it happen to a relative one time…he assured me it was not pleasant.)

– Adult turkey vultures have few predators, though they are sometimes struck by vehicles when they flush beside roadways or the occasionally hit utility lines. Another problem is if they are eating the remains of an animal killed by a human hunter ,and ingest a lead bullet or shotgun pellet. Either can be fatal because of lead poisoning.

Casts and Blasts, Quivira’s management plans

YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ SUNDAY’S UPDATE ON PROPOSED MANAGEMENT PLANS FOR THE NEXT 15 YEARS AT THE QUIVIRA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE.

You read below for a few more details.

Mike Oldham, the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge manager.

- Mike Oldham, refuge manager, said a total of 45-50 people attended their three public meetings in Stafford, Wichita and Great Bend last week.

-Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director, commented in Wichita that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife  staff  promoting the meetings didn’t do an adequate job of notifying the public. I also expressed concern that The Wichita Eagle didn’t appear to have been notified. Fish and Wildlife personel at Wichita’s gathering said they followed normal procedures.

- After the three meetings, Oldham indicated he’d heard only from hunters more interested in keeping the North Lake region open to  public hunting, than keeping other portions of the refuge open for hunting when whooping cranes are present. Under a current proposal, the refuge could remove the North Lake area from places open to public hunting.

As a trade, some areas previously closed to public hunting could be opened, thus allowing hunting when whoopers are present because they’re seldom in the proposed new areas. Oldham said the wetlands habitat within those units has been improved recently.

Several years ago, sportsmen at early planning meetings expressed a desire to keep the refuge open to hunting when whooping cranes are present. Since, U.S. Fish and Wildlife planners have been working to  implement a plan for such desires.

- Oldham said federal regulations limit how much of Quivira can be opened to public hunting at about 40 percent.

My personal perspective -

- It appears that Oldham and other Fish and Wildlife staff members are indeed trying to include public desires into the 15 year management plan, though the good of the wildlife on the 22,000 acre refuge will come first…as it should be.

- Because of the small turnout at the meetings, it appears that a vocal minority may have the opportunity to help set the refuge’s future.

- It’s good to see consideration be given to the wildlife viewing quality at Quivira. In my opinion, it’s the top viewing/wildlife photography destination in Kansas, by far. On a good November afternoon I can shoot 300-700 frames of deer, wild turkeys, ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and, if I’m fortunate, whooping cranes.

Possible changes to Quivira’s management plans to be discussed

Discussion and public comments on long-term habitat and wildlife management plans at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge are planned for Tuesday evening at the Great Plains Nature Center.

Mike Oldham, refuge manager, said topics will include proposed tree control plans, changes in public use of wetlands when whooping cranes are present and allowing deer and turkey hunting for the first time at the refuge.

Oldham said the refuge is holding the 5 to 7 p.m. meeting as part of its 15-year conservation plan. The process began about four years ago and has resulted in a 300-plus-page plan for how the refuge should proceed in the future.

“Everything we could think about doing has been put in there,” Oldham said of the detailed plan. “We need to justify everything we do.”

Oldham stressed that even though the plan shows preferred options, plan details can still change.

He said he knows tree removal plans could draw a lot of public interest. For several years, refuge management has been working to restore the area to its native prairie state.

Many visitors have expressed frustration that thousands of trees and bushes have been removed from the area to make room for prairie grasses.

Oldham said the conservation plan will probably see continued tree control but maybe not at current levels.

A long history of closing the entire 20,000-plus-acre refuge to all hunting when endangered whooping cranes are present could end. A current proposal would close areas where the birds are present to all hunting, while leaving other areas open to hunting.

Another possible change could be the opening of areas previously closed to hunting, making up for wide areas closed when whooping cranes are present.

Oldham said any area known to hold a whooping crane would probably be shut down immediately, according to the preferred plan.

The plan is similar to one at the state-owned Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, where only units holding whooping cranes are closed to hunting.

Oldham said the refuge staff would also like the chance to hold limited hunts for deer and turkeys in the area. He said such hunts would probably take more planning and public comment before implementation.

“As for now, we just want to be on the table to allow deer hunting,” said Oldham, noting that population control could eventually help reduce the spread of disease. “Right now we don’t even have any details; those would have to be worked out down the road.”

Such considerations could include refuge deer and turkey population densities, public safety and having a minimal impact on wildlife watching within the refuge. He predicted any limited deer hunting could be several seasons away.

Oldham said other parts of the long-term plan could be implemented later this year, pending federal approval.

Other topics within the long-term plan, and possibly up for discussion on Tuesday, include water quality and quantity for the refuge’s wetlands, prohibiting the collection of shed deer antlers and ways to increase public use and wildlife compatibility.

A similar public meeting will be held Wednesday at the Front Door Community Center in Great Bend.

Comments can also be submitted at www.fws.gov/refuge/quivira.

 

A New Breed of Prairie Chicken…

GOVE COUNTY – Tuesday morning had all the makings of a complete disappointment.

Researcher Erica Skorlinski holds a probable hybrid lesser/greater prairie chicken, just fitted with identifying leg bands.

The temperature was 42 degrees when we left Scott City at 5:30 a.m. and dropping into the 20s, with wind gusts more than 40 m.p.h. by the time we met Reid Plumb and Erica Skorlinski along a desolate gravel road half-way between the Middle of Nowhere and We’d Better Pack a Lunch and Bring Another Spare.

Plumb and Skorlinski are part of several teams of researchers spread across three parts of Kansas, mainly studying about everything possible about lesser prairie chickens. The rolling Smoky Hills the K-State based researchers are monitoring are known to be THE best lesser prairie chicken range in the world. Plumb said birds in that region are either holding their own in numbers or still increasing.  Such generally isn’t the case for the species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is carefully considering for their endangered or threatened species list.

Plumb and others have had no difficulties finding healthy leks in the region. He said another biologist figures Gove County has more lessers than Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas combined. New Mexico is the only other state, besides Kansas, with the grassland grouse.

Still, my hosts weren’t optimistic when they set their wire cage traps in the dark long before daylight.

One reason Plumb had picked Tuesday’s two leks was because I’d expressed a curiosity about birds that are hybrid mixture of lesser and greater prairie chickens. With the wind and cold rain, Plumb thought it would be good to just see some birds. Having even one walk into a trap was almost an impossible desire amid the conditions.

But shortly after the dull grayness known as “daylight,” Plumb spotted a bird in a wire box on one lek. Plumb and Skorlinski ran into the brutal wind to get to the bird, wanting to get to it before it injured itself against the sides of the trap or caught hypothermia from the cold and wet.

Jogging up late behind them, I heard Plumb’s words of, “It’s a hybrid,” come through the wind. It was the only bird in a trap, and one of no more than two hybrid males he’d seen displaying amid a dozen or so lesser males at the lekthe past few days.

The air sack of a male hybrid prairie chicken carries the colors of both lesser and greater birds.

Back inside the truck, where the bird was weighed, measured in several places and had blood and feathers taken for testing, Plumb showed me what others had already said – hybrids carry characteristics of both lesser and greater birds. The male bird weighed about 1,000 grams, certainly between the averages of about 1,150 grams for greaters and about 920 grams for lessers. The coloring and the bird’s barring was a light brown, a shade between the two species.

The coolest part to me, was when Plumb lifted the long pinnae feathers and showed a deflated air sack that was mottled with yellow and reddish-orange, the colors of greaters and lessers, respectably. Plumb said inflated the color mixture is very obvious. The sound the birds make while displaying, which was inaudible over the gusty winds, is also said to be a neat mixture, too.

After the bird was fitted with some identifying leg bands, Skorlinski  released it and we watched it fly away. Interestingly at the other lesser prairie chicken lek, the researchers also found just one male in a trap. It appeared to be  pure greater prairie chicken.

Plumb said other researchers are trying to put tracking devices on some hybrid prairie chicken females, to learn more about their actions and see if they’re fertile and will raise young.

Chances are I’ll head to that remote part of Kansas again this summer. Seeing one of the few hybrids was a birding highlight. The chance, though slight, of seeing a hen with a brood of hybrid chicks would be even better…but I do hope it’s much warmer upon that return.

Researchers Erica Skorlinsk, left, and Reid Plumb run to remove a prairie chicken from a trap in Gove County Tuesday morning.

 

 

Turkey seasons begin Monday…check out these spurs

A lot of hunters judge a tom’s trophy quality by the length of its beard, but most longtime, well-travel sportsmen, know it’s a bird’s spurs that best bespeak its age and dominance.

Any turkey hunter worth his best box call has been counting the days until Monday for several months. April 1 is the traditional opener for youth, disabled and archery turkey hunters. Shotgun season begins April 10, always the second Wednesday of the month, and both seasons end May 31.

Most people think bird numbers are up over much of the state, though some regions are still rebuilding after several bad hatches beginning about six years ago. Around the Wichita area a lot of outdoors folks have reported seeing a lot of yearling jakes. Though many hunters prefer to reserve their tags for an older longbeard, the mobs of jakes this spring gives added promise for next season when the birds are hard-gobbling, call-charging two-year-olds.

There are certainly some trophy-class birds waiting to be called or decoyed. I photographed a great tom with spurs as long as golf tees but as wicked as shark’s teeth, Wednesday morning in Butler County. To the hardcore gobaholic such birds are called limbhangers, meaning the spurs are good enough to suspend the bird upside-down from a tree limb.

On and off winter weather of the past few weeks seems to have confused the birds a bit but only a few days of warm weather will get toms and hens moving out and about. Kansas annually produces some of the best turkey hunting in the nation, and the annual success rate usually above 50 percent is almost always  near the top for all 49 states with spring seasons.

A flock of young jake turkeys strut in a snowy field in Chase County Wednesday morning. Biologists think recent cold and snow may have the birds still lingering in winter patterns.

Another whooping crane shot and killed in Texas

A pair of whooping cranes in the shallows at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas. No whooping cranes have been poached in Kansas since two died in 2004. At least 8 others have been shot in other states since, including one this winter in Texas. (Photo by Michael Pearce/The Wichita Eagle)

According to the Austin Statesman, another whooping crane has been shot and killed. The bird was shot earlier this winter, in the southern part of Texas.

You can read the original story here.

That the newspaper isn’t able to get many details about the shooting isn’t too surprising, since it’s a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation.

The agency that is funded by the American public, is really good at keeping details away from the American public until nearly all aspects of an investigation, and the following process of justice, are complete. Facts will come out, though, and they’ll probably be spot-on.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time in recent history that whooping cranes have been shot and killed. As the article states, one was shot in South Dakota about a year ago … and the guy was just fined more than $80,000 for the crime.

During a span of about 16 months, five or six were shot in eastern states in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Three of those birds were found dead at about the same time, in the same county in Georgia, in 2003. It’s interesting those shootings got very little national media attention.

A poacher who shot one in Indiana was fined $1 for the crime.

No doubt the most infamous whooping crane shootings occurred in Stafford County in 2004, when a party of goose and sandhill crane hunters turned into a party of poachers when they supposedly mistook three whoopers for sandhill cranes.

I’ll try to keep you informed as this most recent case in Texas develops.

Hard to top the northern cardinal

A male cardinal shows its brilliance in Tuesday’s snow. As well as stunning looks, the birds are eternal optimists and extremely faithful to their mates.

We could all learn a lot about living from northern cardinals. They’re one of nature’s premier optimists, and know a thing or two about how to treat their mates.

Well before daylight amid Monday’s blowing snow, a male cardinal was happily trilling away from deep inside a cedar tree near our backyard. Most spring mornings, from the Black Hills to the Everglades, they’ve been the first bird I’ve heard in the morning while on spring turkey hunts.

Mated males and females are so tight she may finish a song that he begins, and the male will bring the female food while she’s incubating their eggs. Even now, weeks before the first eggs of spring, often where you see one you’ll also see the other.

Cardinals are the favorite birds of many people I know, but a lot of that is probably because of the male’s brilliant red colors. That they also aren’t too shy probably adds to the appeal.

Scouting a place to photograph pheasants on the snow earlier this week I happened by a deer feeder with a half-dozen or so male cardinals sitting about a snowy cedar, shining in the early morning light. Sitting in the warmth of Ol’ Red, a window down just enough to rest  a 400mm lens, the birds seemed to pose for about 200 photo frames in less than an hour.

Happy, brilliantly colored and seemingly ready to pose for easy photography…what’s not to like?

Deep snow poorly timed for wildlife

Goldfinches and other birds have been busy getting sunflower seeds from area bird feeders. Many species of wildlife not near such food sources could be suffering from recent deep snows.

Deep snows are seldom good for Kansas wildlife, but the storm of last week and the one still spreading across the state come at particularly bad times.

During interviews today, four biologists said the lack of cover and food created from two years of drought could make things tough for many kinds of birds in Kansas through these deep snows.

Adding to the lack of cover from the weather and predators, and a shortage of food, is that thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program grasses were hayed or grazed last summer as emergency feed for Kansas cattle herds.

Jim Pitman, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism small game biologist, said cover was especially short and limited even before parts of the state got up to 18 inches of snow from the first storm. Now, he suspects many birds will fall to raptors that are in high numbers as they migrate through Kansas.

Robert Penner, of the Nature Conservancy of Kansas, said the lack of food has also forced many species of birds to feed where snow plows have scraped down to open soil along roadsides, leading to higher than normal roadkills.

Yet the current problem could eventually turn into a very much needed boost for wildlife populations this spring and summer in habitats starved for moisture.

More details are expected to follow in an upcoming article to be published in The Eagle later this week.