Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Report Hours?

I often hear “Oh, I need to get my hours in” or “I only get in a few hours a year, so it doesn’t really matter.”  Yes, you do, and yes, it does!!  Part of being a Master Naturalist is providing volunteer service to our community and to the environment.  Even if you can’t contribute the 40 hours a year to recertify, the time that you do put in counts, and it counts in a big way.

The State Program Office defines an Active Member as someone who has paid their dues and has submitted at least one volunteer hour for the year, so if you want to be an “active” part of our Chapter, you need to submit at least one hour.  Once you see how easy that is, you’ll probably want to start to submit even more.

Aside from that warm, fuzzy feeling you get from submitting hours, you can win nice bling!  Each year, the program provides a pin for those who achieve 40 hours of volunteer service and 8 hours of advanced training.  The pin is a charismatic Texas plant or animal chosen by the membership.  The 2015 pin is the Texas Bluebonnet, and 2016 will be the Guadalupe Bass.  Those who reach volunteer service milestones of 250, 500, 1000, 2500, 4000, 5000, and 10,000 hours receive additional pins of the program “mascot,” the Cyrano Darner dragonflies ranging from bronze to silver to gold to plutonium.  Three of our members, Jim Anding, Kitty Anding, and Betty Vermeire, have reached the 1000-hour level and received their gold dragonflies.   Congratulations, you three!  The Master Naturalist Program is a federally recognized volunteer service program, so at the 4000-hour level, you receive a personal signed letter from POTUS!  Fourteen Master Naturalists statewide have reached the 10,000-hour service level.  That’s the equivalent of five-years of full-time work! 

"Money" by Aaron Patterson, Flickr, cc-by.
The volunteer hours (but not advanced training hours) that we report to the State Program Office are matched by federal funds at a current rate of $23/hour, so your 40 hours to certify each year results in a contribution of $920 in REAL MONEY to Texas Parks & Wildlife!  And if you go over the 40 hours, those hours are matched, as well.  Even if you don’t make the 40 hours, every hour that you do report gets funded.  By the end of 2014, TMN volunteers across the state had accumulated over 2.8 million hours of volunteer service at a value of over $65 million dollars! 

Next year, we’ll be rolling out the online Volunteer Management System (VMS) for reporting hours.  The Board was just trained in the system, and we’ll be providing training to the membership shortly.  The system will make reporting hours much easier, but it will also require you to do so in a more timely manner, as you will have only 45 days after an “opportunity” to report. 

I know that many of you report your hours faithfully every month.  Betty and I thank you!  For those who don’t, I hope I’ve convinced you that reporting hours is an integral part of what it means to be a Master Naturalist.  All the good work that you do as part of the program is for naught if you don’t report it to us so we can’t report it to the State Program Office.  Now, go get those hours caught up!


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Keeping Our Local Parks Clean and Beautiful

In 2015, Texas Master Naturalist Brazos Valley Chapter decided to join the Adopt-A-Greenway Program and adopt two local city parks, Brison and Gabbard Parks, in College Station. Our promise/mission is to pick up trash in these two parks twice a year for two years. We did our first trash pick-up on May 02, 2015. Five of us managed to remove 10 bags worth of trash in two and half hours. Our group found lots of plastic bags, plastic bottles, glass bottles, and other garbage along Bee Creek and the wooded areas in the north east corner of Brison Park. 
We found a lot of plastic materials along Bee Creek in Brison Park.
Five of us managed to remove 10 bags worth of trash.
We did our second trash pick-up on November 21, 2015. Eighteen of us with grabbers and trash bags in our hands went to work. In two hours, we managed to remove nine 33-Gal bags worth of trash from the two parks. Again, we found a lot more trash in Brison Park than Gabbard Park. 
We fanned out to cover every inch of Gabbard Park.
The sky was overcast and the temperature was around 60 F,
perfect weather to work.
We split into two crews, started at both ends of Bee Creek, and
worked our way to the middle of Brison Park.
We managed to remove a total of nine 33-Gal bags of trash
from the two parks.
The yuckiest item we picked up on November 21 was a used diaper and the largest piece of plastic we found was a no-parking sign.
The largest piece of plastic trash we found in the wooded areas of Brison Park.
In addition to our commitment to Adopt-A-Greenway Program, we partnered with local geocachers to clean up local parks in Bryan. We had two CITO (Cache In Trash Out) events in 2015. We cleaned up Carter Creek Nature Trail on April 26 and Astin Recreational Area on August 22. (Check out Sarah's blog for details regarding our April 26 CITO event). 
Master Naturalists hard at work at Carter Creek Nature Trail.
Some of us are geocachers too.
We picked up a lot of trash mostly around the retention pond area
of Carter Creek Nature Trail.
Master Naturalists worked side-by-side with experienced and
newbie geocachers to keep Astin Recreation Area clean.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Four-letter Banding Codes

Bruce Neville

The question of Four-letter Banding Codes (FLBCs) came up the other night in the Master Naturalist training class.  Yes, the FLBCs are official shorthand for bird names developed by the Bird Banding Lab for data entry, but they have become a handy device for note-taking in the field and even general conversation—who says “mourning dove” anymore?  For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick primer. 
Portrait (head shot) of Mourning Dove.
MODO, Mourning Dove, Eric Bégin, cc-by-nc-nd.

First, a few caveats: They’re easier to generate than they are to “decode” until you get used to them!  Unlike English words, there is no “data redundancy”; every letter has meaning, and one letter off can change a MODU (mottled duck) into a MODO (mourning dove)!  And finally, for the uninitiated, they can be a PITA (pain in the arse), so they are banned from such things as the TexBirds listserv.

So, how do you generate them?  Most objects around us have two-part names.  One part tells the general kind of thing, the genus, as it were:  warbler, sunfish, oak, Obama, Homo.  The other part tells the specific kind of thing, the species: pine warbler, green sunfish, post oak, Michelle Obama, Homo sapiens.  FLBCs officially apply only to birds, but you can adapt them to anything you’re working with, as long as you keep them separate. So, for birds, RULE ONE: Take two letters from the first (species) part of the name and two from the second (genus) part of the name:
  • PAlm WArbler = PAWA.
  • MOurning DOve = MODO.
  • GReen HEron = GRHE.
So far, so good.  Now, if either part of the name contains two parts, hyphenated or not, take one letter from each part:
Image of Myrtle Warbler in breeding plumage.
MYWA, Myrtle Warbler,
Paul VanDerWerf,, Flickr, cc-by
  • Yellow-Rumped WArbler = YRWA.
  • WEstern Scrub-Jay = WESJ.
  • Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron = YCNH.

You can also use this system for recognizable subspecies groups, such as: 
  • MYrtle (Yellow-rumped) WArbler = MYWA.
  • Yellow-Shafted (Northern) FLicker = YSFL.

·       This is generally extended (Rule 1A) to “if there are four words anywhere, take one from each,” so, even though “Great Black-Backed Gull” and “Northern Rough-winged Swallow” are really three-part species names and one-part genus names, their codes are GBBG and NRWS, respectively.

Occasionally, some things are so distinctive that they can get by with a single name:  killdeer, avocado, Madonna.  (This is forbidden in scientific names.  Even if there’s only one species in a genus, it must have both a genus and a species name.)   In that case, RULE TWO: If there is only part to the name, just take the first four letters:
  • KILLdeer = KILL.
  • SORA = SORA.

Not so hard, right?  Well, now the fun begins.  Nothing in life can be quite that simple.  Is “Chuck-will’s-widow” one word or three?  The judges flipped a coin and decided that the official code is CWWI.  Is “American White Pelican” AWPE or AMWP?  Well, it’s a pelican first, white second, and American third, so its code is AWPE.  But Eastern Wood-Pewee is a wood-pewee first and eastern second, so its code is EAWP. 

Image of male Cerulean Warbler, CERW
CERW, Cerulean Warbler, USFWS, Flickr, cc-by.
Inevitably, there will be some pairs (or even triplets) of names that yield the same code.  These are called “collisions.”  You’re out birding Lick Creek Park in migration, and you see a flock of CEdar WAxwings (=CEWA).  A little while later, you see a CErulean WArbler (=CEWA)!  Uh-oh.  What’s the first thing you do?  WRONG!  You call Betty and me!  We need Cerulean for Brazos County!  For some pairs (if you have to remember whether it was 3 Bar-tailed and 6 Black-tailed Godwits on the Texas coast you saw the other day, or the other way around, consider it a good day!) you should be so lucky as to see both on the same day (or ever).  For others, like CArolina, CAnyon, and CActus WRens (= CAWR), it’s quite possible to see two or even all three in one day.  Some other likely pairs are:
  • Cackling Goose = Canada Goose = CAGO.
  • NOrthern SHoveler = NOrthern SHrike = NOSH.
  • Herring Gull = Heermann’s Gull = HEGU (if you’re on the west coast, at least).
  • Barn Owl = Barred Owl = BAOW.
  • Broad-billed Hummingbird = Buff-bellied Hummingbird = BBHU.
  • Blue-throated Hummingbird = Broad-tailed Hummingbird = BTHU.
  • Green Kingfisher = Great Kiskadee = Gray Kingbird = GRKI.
  • Barn Swallow = Bank Swallow (= Bahama Swallow) = BASW.
  • Prairie Warbler = Prothonotary Warbler = PRWA.
  • Blackpoll Warbler = Blackburnian Warbler = BLWA.
  • Black-throated Green Warbler = Black-throated Gray Warbler = BTGW (warblers seem particularly prone to conflict).
  • Lark Bunting = Lazuli Bunting = LABU.
  • Savannah Sparrow = Sagebrush Sparrow = Saltmarsh Sparrow = SASP.

This list is far from complete.

So, now we need RULE THREE: Take THREE letters from the species name and one from the genus name.  Where the species are in separate “genera,” the species name is often the same, so taking one letter from the species name and three from the genus name (Rule 3A) works better.  So the groups above become:
  • CEDar Waxwing = CEDW; CERulean Warbler = CERW.
  • Northern SHOveler = NSHO; Northern SHRike = NSHR (Rule 3A).
  • HERring Gull = HERG; HEErmann’s Gull = HEEG.
  • BARn Swallow = BARS; BANk Swallow = BANS; BAHama Swallow = BAHS.
  • CARolina Wren = CARW; CACtus Wren = CACW; CANyon Wren = CANW.
  • PRAirie Warbler = PRAW; PROthonotary Warbler = PROW.
  • LARk Bunting = LARB; LAZuli Bunting = LAZB.

That doesn’t always work, however, so we have to resort to RULE FOUR: Make up the rules as you go along.  Thus the official codes for some of the other groups are:
  • CACkling Goose = CACG; CAnada GOose = CAGO (did not change).
    Image of a Great Kiskadee
    GKIS, Great Kiskadee,
    Mike's Birds, Flickr, cc-by-sa
  • Barn Owl = BNOW; Barred Owl = BDOW.
  • Broad-billed Hummingbird = BBLH; Buff-bellied Hummingbird = BUFH.
  • Blue-throated Hummingbird = BLUH; Broad-tailed Hummingbird = BTLH.
  • Green Kingfisher = GKIN; Great Kiskadee = GKIS; Gray Kingbird = GRAK.
  • Blackpoll Warbler = BLPW; Blackburnian Warbler = BLBW.
  • Black-throated Green Warbler = BTNW; Black-throated Gray Warbler = BTYW.
  • SAVannah Sparrow = SAVS; SageBrush Sparrow = SBSP; SALtmarsh Sparrow = SALS (Part Rule 3, part Rule 4).

Note that, if using FLBCs for subspecies, HAHA for Harlan’s (Red-tailed) Hawk creates a collision with Harris’s Hawk; official codes are HRLH for Harlan’s and HRSH for Harris’s (Rule 4).

The official list from the Bird Banding Laboratory can be found at  The Crossley ID guide lists banding codes for all the species it covers.  There is an (apptly-named) app for the iPhone, Nemesis Code, that can look up FLBCs for species names and vice versa.

Now, try your hand.  What are the FLBCs for these species, all found around here? (No tricks, promise.  Answers to the “quiz” are here.)
  1. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  2. Anhinga
  3. American Golden-Plover
  4. Eastern Screech-Owl
  5. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  6. Great Crested Flycatcher
  7. Horned Lark
  8. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  9. Black-and-white Warbler
  10. Le Conte’s Sparrow

And, what do you think these FLBCs might represent (again, no tricks, all local, only Rules One and Two)?
  1. MIKI
  2. MERL
  3. SCJU
  4. COGD
  5. CITE
  6. LISP
  7. SACR
  8. SEOW
  9. AMWO
  10. NOPA

And finally, which of these Texas birds do you think has a FLBC that collides with another bird that occurs (even as a zebra) within North America?
  1. Roseate Spoonbill
  2. Royal Tern
  3. Tree Swallow
  4. Brown Thrasher
  5. Cassin’s Sparrow

Monday, November 2, 2015

TMN State Meeting

It takes more than a little rain to dampen the spirits of a bunch of Texas Master Naturalists!

Five members of the Brazos Valley Chapter attended the Sixteenth Annual State Meeting of the Texas Master Naturalists at Horseshoe Bay Resort near Marble Falls, Texas, 23-25 October 2015.  Between the registrants and the presenters, there were 470 people in attendance, the largest meeting to date.  Needless to say, a good time was had by all.  Despite torrential rains, the meeting was a rousing success, with way too many interesting advanced training sessions to choose from. A few of the field trips even managed to take place, though most ended up taking place in the ballroom of the resort.  

There were programs for every taste--botany, photography, beekeeping, bats, youth programming, climate, citizen science, even poison ivy!  This year, eight programs on monarchs and milkweeds made for a mini-symposium.  There was even a quiz bowl, and Brazos Valley brought home the prize!  I chose "Tackling those confusing composites," "An introduction to lichen-forming fungi," "Zebra mussels in Texas," and "Engaging new naturalists," when Presidential duties didn't distract.

The AgriLife Bookstore had lots of Master Naturalist branded clothing for sale.  Sales of fleece jackets were brisk, particularly as the temperature dropped.  Strangely, as the mercury lowered, so did the prices!  I would have thought it would be the other way around!  A few other vendors had nature-themed merchandise for sale.

As always, there were photography and art contests with prizes decided by popular vote, and this year was the second for the video contest.  There are competitions for chapter scrapbooks, newsletters, and brochures that we've never (so far as I know) entered.  The silent auction was also the largest ever.  A Jim Anding walking stick is always a coveted item, and Mary Dabney Wilson's hand-thrown pottery were big sellers.  A bag of sweet potatoes was going for $17, last I checked!  There's also a display of chapter projects, with significant dollar prizes for the winners.   

Dr. David Schmidly gave the Friday night banquet address, "Texas Natural History: A Century of Change."  During the Awards banquet on Saturday, those who received 250, 500, 1000, 2500, 4000, 5000, and 10000 hour milestones were honored, and the 2016 recertification pin was announced.  

If you haven't been to a state meeting before, you should definitely consider going.  The price (my single room was $425 for the whole weekend) may seem a little off-putting, but consider that it includes two nights in a $400-a-night room, all your food, and two days of incredible programs and field trips in a spectacular venue.  They haven't announced where next year's meeting will be, but please consider helping us make a strong showing from the Brazos Valley Chapter!

Next post will have pictures, I promise.  Bruce

Sunday, July 12, 2015

NABA Butterfly Count 2015!

As usual, the North American Butterfly Association’s Butterfly Count started at 9 am in Lick Creek Park. Our resident butterfly expert (Bruce, of course!) was out of town so the group was led by another local expert, Jim Snyder.  Volunteers consisted of Rio Brazos Audubon members, TMN members and people with no affilation who heard about the count and just showed up.  We were also joined by several members of the NABA Houston group and they were a big help to us beginners! 

Volunteers at Lick Creek Park

It was a successful day overall!  Twenty (!!) volunteers started at Lick Creek Park in the morning.  It was a GREAT turnout!  After lunch with the heat of the day upon us, the numbers dropped to nine volunteers combing though Millican Reserve and Bee Creek Park.  At Lick Creek Park we didn’t see any Zebra Heliconian like we had last weekend on Bruce’s butterfly walk.  Maybe Rick photographed the demise of the last one mid-week!  Who knew that dragonflies eat butterflies?! 

Zebra Heliconian getting eaten by a Black-shouldered Spinyleg Dragonfly.  Rick took this picture a few days before the NABA count.  

At Millican Reserve there were so many dragonflies the butterfly numbers were pretty low.  We actually saw Common or White Checkerspot-skippers fleeing from dragonflies.

Bee Creek Park brought a renewed vigor to the search… maybe it was the just the heat getting to us!  But we did add several new species to the list. 

Left: Gulf Fritillary from Lick Creek Park    Right: Fiery Skipper from Lick Creek Park

Lady butterflies were out ovipositing!  Left: Female Common or White Checkerspot Skipper from Lick Creek Park   Right: Female Horace's Duskywing from Lick Creek Park

Comparing the emperors!  Left: Hackberry Emperor making friends with Mark in Bee Creek Park   Right: Tawny Emperor from Bee Creek Park

Comparing Hairstreaks!  Left: Gray Hairstreak from Lick Creek Park (seen on Bruce's butterfly walk on June 4)    Middle: Dusky-blue Groundstreak from Bee Creek Park    Right: Red-banded Hairstreak from Lick Creek Park (seen on Bruce's butterfly walk on June 4).

Two views of a Red-spotted Purple from Lick Creek Park

Of course, butterflies don’t pose on demand and it can be frustrating to try and identify them on the fly.  That’s ok, we had plenty of other critters to look at!

Left: Delta Flower Scarab on Rattlesnake Master from Lick Creek Park    Right: Southern Leopard Frog from Lick Creek Park

Left: Green Anole from Lick Creek Park    Right: Greater Roadrunner from Millican Reserve

Left: Great Blue Skimmer from Lick Creek Park    Right: Widow Skimmer from Lick Creek Park

It was a wonderful count day!  If you couldn’t attend and still want to see butterflies, they’re still around.  You don’t have to walk miles through Lick Creek Park to see them, either.  Gardens throughout town should have butterflies visiting nectar plants. 

Thanks to everyone who came out!  Have a wonderful timing watching butterflies during the summer months!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Up In The Air.....

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…. meteor?!?  I like to call meteors “Nature’s fireworks”.   With the Fourth of July this weekend, instead of writing about mini-rockets explode in the sky, I’d thought I’d write about…. well, rocks exploding in the sky!

There are a lot of phenomena that can be considered Nature’s fireworks… lightning, the aurora, volcanic eruptions… but none can really compare to a meteor shower. 

Four-hour time lapse image of the Leonid meteor shower in 1998.  Image credit: Juraj Tóth [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Meteor Showers
A meteor shower occurs when cosmic debris enters Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.  Most of the time the pieces are small, about the size of a sand grain, so they will completely burn up and never reach the Earth’s surface. 

Astronaut Ron Garan, Expedition 28 flight engineer, tweeted this image from the International Space Station in August, 2011 with the following caption: “What a `Shooting Star’ looks like from space, taken yesterday during Perseid Meteor Shower.”  Image credit NASA

Meteor showers have a periodicity and are predictable at certain times of the year.  These events are related to comets passing close to the Earth and shedding debris.  Think about Halley’s Comet coming around every 75 years.  It was last here in 1986 and will return again in 2061.  The comet has passed by Earth many times and left debris along some of its previous paths.  There are two meteor showers associated with the debris trails: the Eta Aquariids occurring in April and May, originating near the constellation Aquarius, and the Orionids, originating from the constellation Orion in October.  You can check out StarDate.Org for the 2015 schedule of meteor showers.   The next one is coming up in August!

Halley’s Comet March 8, 1986. Image credit: NASA

Sometimes, cosmic debris is big enough to not burn up upon atmospheric entry and will hit the Earth’s surface.  Now we call them meteorites. 

Meteorites are pretty cool because they can tell you a lot about the origin of the larger extraterrestrial body they came from.  For example, a stony meteorite comes from the rocky crust of a small planet (planetoid) while an iron meteorite comes from the core of a planetoid. 

Now, Texas is a great place to see meteorites and their craters.  Most notable, is the Odessa Crater.  Odessa is interesting because it is young enough for the crater to still be seen (only 25,000 years old!) and has plenty of iron meteorite fragments.  It is also has a nice little museum/gift shop and is free and open to the public.  If you are ever out in west Texas along Highway 20, stop in and check it out!

Odessa meteorite fragments.  Left: A big one at 70 pounds from the museum gift shop at the crater.  Image credit: Kelly Teague [CC BY-SA 2.0]  Right: A much smaller fragment (quarter for scale) and recent gift from TMN... Thanks!  :)

Finally, cosmic debris can sometime enter Earth’s atmosphere but just skims the surface and returns to space.  These events are called fireballs.  As recently as last year, a large fireball was seen in central Texas.

Fireball streaking across the sky similar to one seen in Texas.  Image credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Since we probably don’t want to wait until August for a meteor shower or the random fireball that streaks across the sky to satisfy our love of nature’s fireworks, it’s probably easier to go out to the local firework display and enjoy the show!  

Independence Day Fireworks from San Diego.  Image credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain

This weekend, be safe and enjoy the (man-made) fireworks!


2015 Meteor Shower Schedule:

Great Non-Technical Book About Meteorites:  Rocks From Space by O. Richard Norton  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

April Showers Bring May.....

I bet you thought I was going to say “flowers”!  Well, spring rains bring flowers but they also bring trash to our greenways, streams, and parks.  Within the past week and a half TMN members have participated in two trash clean up events at local parks and trails.  The first was on April 26th and involved trash collection along the Carter Creek Trail and retention pond near the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History in Bryan.  This event included TMN members and several geocachers… people who “use GPS to find Tupperware hidden in the woods”.  The goal was the same for both groups though… clean up the trash! 

The TMNers who cleaned up Carter Creek Trail... minus Jackie who had already left.  Thanks for your help!

We did a great job removing 12+ bags of trash from the area… most of it being washed in along Carter Creek or from the nearby big box store parking lots.  We picked up trash and rocked to oldies music provided by the classic auto show going on in the parking area.

Trash removed along Carter Creek Trail and the retention pond behind the Brazos Museum of Natural History in Bryan.

The second clean up event occurred this past weekend on May 2nd at Gabbard and Brison Parks in College Station.  These parks were adopted by the Chapter through the City of College Station’s Adopt-a-Greenway program and we will be going out at least twice a year to pick up trash.  The City will put a sign up letting the public know the Chapter is involved with keeping the parks clean.  Not a bad deal!

Five TMNers participated and within about 2 hours we removed 10 bags worth of trash.  Again, most of the trash being plastic stuff along the waterway (Bee Creek).  This time the hazards included poison ivy which is all over Brison Park, thorns, mud, and mosquitos.

Donell cleaning up in Brison Park.

TMNers who cleaned up Gabbard and Brison Parks.

PLASTIC is the big problem!  Please urge neighbors, family members, and friends to use reusable bags when shopping!!  We weren’t able to clean up all the plastic trash along the stream at Brison Park… the thorns and underbrush (and poison ivy!) were just too thick in some places.  We hope to plan a more extensive clean-up along the waterway in the late fall or winter when the plants die back a bit. 

Plastic trash along Bee Creek in Brison Park.

Thanks to everyone who came out to clean-up!  If you weren’t able to make it this time around I hope you can come out next time!