The mottled duck has always had a soft spot in my heart.
They are a native duck of the Gulf Coast and always symbolized the brackish-intermediate wetland I love so much.
Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Southeast Texas they were a common sight of my youth and then sometime in my twenties they started to dwindle.
Now there are restrictive bag limits for hunters and much study of this beautiful but under appreciated waterfowl. The waterfowl conservation community has spent much time studying these species in the last 10 years and while looking over various studies one particular tidbit caught my attention.
The Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge began outfitting mottled ducks with transmitters to track their movements in the mid 2000s. And according to refuge officials there have been some surprising results.
The results indicate that mottled ducks, which normally avoid open water, have begun spending extended time offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists suspect habitat loss and saltwater intrusion, both a result of coastal development, may be forcing the ducks out of their wetland habitats. Coastal research in other regions shows similar trends, indicating the problem may be more than just local.
The idea of a puddle duck like the mottled duck in the open waters of the Gulf seems strange indeed but the fact is there is still much to learn about this species but this study goes to show why it is important to learn about wildlife habitat and movements.
Without that knowledge managing species is impossible and with the continual growing pressure on our wildlife resources, good management is more important than ever.
Jaguars captured on game cameras in New Mexico and Arizona have captured a fair amount of media attention over the last decade.
A majestic species generally affiliated with the Amazon, jaguars are highly adaptable cats that fare just as well in desert mountain regions as they do as they do in dense rainforest.
The idea of jaguars crossing into the American Southwest seems odd for those with little understanding of the species which brings us to the first of five points never mentioned in media coverage.
Jaguar Range: The historical range of jaguars goes all the way into western Louisiana and bleeds over into California to the West. As you can see looking at this map by cat research specialists Panthera (not to be confused with defunct metal band Pantera), that range has decreased dramatically.
Rivers No Barrier: The jaguar is a water-loving cat and is arguably more comfortable in the water than even the tiger which has been portrayed as the world’s top water-loving large cat. Jaguars have been encountered swimming large stretches of the Amazon River and are regularly documented feeding on caimans (a type of crocodilian) in the water with a bite to skull nonetheless!Jaguars are “Black Panthers”: The term “black panther” is thrown around indiscriminately and in my 25 years as a wildlife journalist I have found most Americans relate it to black cougars. The problem is black cougars most likely do not exist or at least have not been proven to exist. There is however an American cat that produces black offspring and that is the jaguar. The condition is called “melanism” and it is not uncommon in jaguars. The large black cats seen in zoos, on television programs, etc. are other melanistic jaguars or leopards which can also have melanistic offspring.Size Matters: Jaguars are the world’s third largest cat behind the tiger and lion. Their size varies greatly throughout their range with the largest specimens living in parts of Brazil averaging 220 pounds. The largest on record was a male that weighed 326 pounds with an empty stomach. That is about the size of an average Bengal tiger.Texas Sightings: Over the last decade I have gathered several alleged jaguar sightings from Texas along the Rio Grande River region and into the Trans-Pecos. These sightings are under investigation but unlike New Mexico and Arizona there are no official trail camera programs attempting to study any possible movements into Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a huge area and is vastly uninhabited so it is possible there are jaguars touching Texas soil no one has seen.In terms of anecdotal evidence, I have two specific reports that after interviewing eyewitnesses lead me to believe they were most likely telling the truth.We will be doing numerous articles on jaguars this year and always appreciate reader feedback.For now check out this great clip from the World Wildlife Fund of a melanistic jaguar crossing the Amazon.
A 1972 Robalo sportfishing boat pulls up to an oil platform off the coast of Corpus Christi, TX.
As the waves rise and fall around this giant manmade structure, Capt. Bill Sheka lowers a big hunk of cut bait seeking out snapper, grouper and other sport fish common to the area.
Suddenly he feels tension on the line so he sets the hook.
There is something on the other end but it is not moving.
“There were some deck hands on the rail of the rig and they were watching me. When I got it up it turned out to be a gallon glass mayonnaise jar, obviously pitched overboard by the rig’s cook,” Sheka said.
The men on the rig laughed at the strange catch and fired off some snide remarks.
“Got some bred for that mayonnaise?”
“Nice catch bud!”
But the jar was not empty.
“Inside was an octopus that took my bait and scurried back to his ‘home”in the jar,” Sheka said.
“I took my small wooden billy club and hit the jar breaking it to reveal the wiggling, twisting octopus. Now the crew was silent and I then asked them if they knew any octopus recipes,” Sheka said.
He had a good laugh at his naysayers before releasing the creature alive and well.
Octopus in the Gulf?
The Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is the the most observed and studied habitat in the Gulf and according to FGBNMS research coordinator Emma Hickerson there are at least four octopus species there.
These include the Caribbean two-spotted octopus, common octopus, white-spotted octopus and mimic octopus.
“I filmed a Caribbean two-spotted octopus quite a few years ago out and about scooting around the reef during the day, but otherwise typically they are tucked away in the reef. You can sometimes find their “middens” which are piles of shells from their meals. One particular octopus I filmed was big enough to be feasting on large queen conch and slipper lobster at Stetson Bank,” she said.
Kristi Oden encountered caught one while diving off of an oil platform off the Gulf Coast.
“It was a feisty thing,” she said.
“It kept grabbing my dive knife and pulling on it. I got it into my dive bag and took it back up to the boat because I wanted to look at it. It was really neat. When I got it out of the bag and it changed colors to match the floor of the boat. I looked at it for a little while and then put him back in the water.”
Most encounters with octopus off the Texas coast are around oil rigs and at the FGBNMS but some divers reporting seeing them at the jetties in Port O’Connor, Aransas Pass and Port Mansfield.
Finding octopus along the beach jetties and even in the bays is a fairly common occurrence on the Gulf Coast of Florida but in the western Gulf they remain mysterious.
The common octopus can grow to impressive sizes with specimens as large as 4.3 feet and weighing upwards of 20 pounds. And although it is difficult to measure the “intelligence” of animals, octopus are without questions brainiacs of the marine world.
Octopus not only have the largest brains of any invertebrate but they also have an impressive number of neurons which are the measuring stick science uses for thinking potential.
The common octopus has around 130 million. A human has more than 100 billion but that numbers not bad for something that makes its living in the cracks and crevices of reefs, rigs, jetties and yes, even mayonnaise jars.
The more we understand about the Gulf of Mexico, the more we can appreciate it.
And I can’t imagine someone not being able to appreciate the uniqueness of the octopus and the fact Gulf coastal waters are home to these amazing creatures.
Information gained on the whitetip’s movements can help create better management strategies to save the species.
When Harvey called the species “remarkable” that is not a generalized statement. He has firsthand knowledge having spent time in the water with the species and producing a documentary about their plight.
“They are bold and have no problems approaching a diver which makes for great interaction and observation,” Harvey said.
Harvey’s works with whitetips has allowed him to create stunning works of art showing the declining species in all of its glory.
Art captures the mood and feel of a natural scene better that photography and Harvey’s instantly recognizable style has resonated with an ocean-loving public in a way that connects them to wildlife.
“Things happen so fast down there and you have limited time. Painting allows to create a way to raise awareness to species that otherwise might not get much attention,” Harvey said.
The oceanic whitetip is one such creature.
If they disappeared tomorrow few anglers would notice.
Beachcombers never see these open water dwellers anyway so that only leaves wildlife journalists like myself, researchers like Harvey and his crew and a handful of shark fanatics who would even notice their demise.
But to the ocean it does matter.
An intricately woven food chain has already been disrupted and if they were to vanish forever, the balance would be upset.
And the world would lose a beautiful, cunning predator.
We should do our best to support research like GHOF are doing and all efforts to ensure shark populations not only survive but perhaps one day thrive like they did so long ago in the Gulf and beyond.
It is the most valuable wildlife commodity in the world.
Fetching up to $60,000 a pound on the black market, the rhinoceros horn is coveted greatly by millionaires in Asia who use it as a status symbol or grind into traditional elixirs as a aphrodisiac or folk cures for various ailments.
By comparison ivory from poached elephant tusks are going for about $1,500 a pound. That’s chump change compared to rhino horn.
Large-scale poaching of the now critically endangered black rhino resulted in a dramatic 96 decline from 70,000 individuals in 1970 to just 2,410 in 1995 according to Save the Rhino, a strictly rhinoceros-based conservation organization.
“Thanks to the persistent efforts of conservation programs across Africa, black rhino numbers have risen since then to a current population of between 5,042 and 5,458 individuals.”
“The overwhelming rhino conservation success story is that of the Southern white rhino. With numbers as low as 50-100 left in the wild in the early 1900s, this sub-species of rhino has now increased to between 19,666 and 21,085.”
But poaching has increased dramatically.
In 2007 there were 13 rhinos poached in South Africa. That number skyrocketed to 83 the next year and by 2015 there were 1,175 rhinos poached. That means one out of every five rhinos was killed drive by the aforementioned Asian market.
There is no end in site to the killing. Despite the use of surveillance drones, shoot to kill policies on poachers in some area and increase awareness, poachers are hitting rhinos and they are hitting them hard.
Some believe the solution to saving the species involves bringing them to Texas.
Hundreds of orphaned baby rhinos could be moved into Texas where they could be kept far away from poachers on highly managed private ranches. The thought process is the gene pool could be preserved while conservationists figure out what to do with the problems in Africa.
I will have a full feature article on this project in the May edition of Texas Fish & Game. I am very excited about the project and the article. In fact, I was so excited I had to tease it a little bit here.
This rhino project has many challenges and we will be covering it in-depth fashion not only in that article but also here.
Chances are you have not. Oh, wolf fans will be familiar with the Canis lupus part but “monstrabilis”?
It is the name of the now extinct “Texas Wolf” a species recognized in 1937 and considered extinct by 1942.
Very little is known about this animal other than it inhabited the Texas Hill Country into Oklahoma and was believed to have followed the historical bison herds. When they were wiped out cattle became chief prey.
That put a target on the species as big as the state itself.
Government trapping, poisoning and bounties put all varieties of gray wolf out of business for good in Texas.
Only the Mexican gray wolf still exists and it is relegated to the progeny of released specimens from a captive breeding program all residing outside of Texas borders.
Taxonomists have reshuffled virtually everything in recent decades and this species is now sometimes lumped in with the Mexican Gray Wolf but there is no way to go back and definitely argue the case.
For now I ponder what it would be like to step out on a limestone cliff and look below to see the Texas Wolf chasing a whitetail or perhaps helping thin out some of the Edwards Plateau’s increasing exotic axis deer herd.
Now only brief mentions in wildlife journals are left to remind us once the most scenic parts of Texas were a little wilder.
What it must have been like to sleep beneath the stars and amongst the chaotic frenzy of coyote calls hear the wolf’s deep, mournful song.
At some point the last howl of the last Texas wolf sounded off.
Did someone hear it?
Did that very call alert the wrong people of its presence and lead to its demise?
To think about that almost brings a tear to my eye.
I might have seen one in 1998 when crossing over Adams Bayou near my home in Orange County. It was at night and this little creature crossed the road. At first it looked like a mink but the color wasn’t quite right and it didn’t quite look as bulky as the mink I was used to seeing in the area.
Still, I can’t call that a sighting.
I want to see one and know that I saw it.
I have a spot where I see mink about every third trip. Some of them are quite large and aren’t very spooked by human presence.
But these weasels are another issue.
I am in the process of seeking out reports in the Orange, Newton and Jefferson County areas of Southeast Texas. If you have a sighting or game camera photo please emailed firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to stake out an an area and try to lure one out with a predator call for photos and also set up a game camera for photos. I have one potential spot mapped out near where I had my “possible” sighting nearly twenty years ago.
It is perfect habitat and there has been some possible depredation on poultry.
It easy to get caught up with the bigger and more widely known animals but I like the little shy guys too.
Makes sense for someone who operates “micro zoo”, doesn’t it?
Looking forward to seeking out some weasels. At the very least it should be challenging.
Other than a couple of barred owls trading barbs in the distance, I had literally heard nothing but the chirping of crickets in seven hours of sitting a climbing tree stand, 30 feet up a pine.
Just as I was fighting the urge to close my eyes, a guttural “woof” sounded in the thicket in front of my position.
Focusing the Generation 3 Night Vision Goggles, a large black form appeared out of the green filter of the device.
The beast sounded off again but this time much louder and now it was out of the brush and standing on the trail.
It was a monster hog.
The huge boar cautiously walked down the trail and gave me a good look at its form. It had the classic razorback ridge on its back, was as broad as a young steer and was in my estimation a legitimate 500 plus pounder.
The wind was light and swirling and as soon as I felt the breeze at my back, the hog stood at attention.
It cleared its nostrils to get a whiff and then bolted into the brush.
It did not get this big by being making many mistakes.
I had walked that same trail literally dozens of times and only saw faint tracks and a couple of large mud rubs on trees that indicated a large hog was in the area.
This natural game trail lead to a large grove of oak trees and was the only way in and out as both sides were 10-year-old clear cuts that had grown so thick a hog such as this one could stand a few feet inside and no one could see it.
But things happen after dark.
Creatures of the night come out to prowl.
I truly believe a wildlife lover cannot fully understand the woods unless they spend team there after dark. What may seem like an area devoid of animal life can turn into an energetic juncture of wild happenings as soon as the sun sets.
Or it can prove to be the lair of something large and dangerous.
There was little sign of deer and other hogs along this trail and it is likely due to this animal showing dominance. This was its domain. It claimed this territory and it took spending some very uncomfortable time up a tree to get a glimpse of it.
Throughout 2017 we will be venturing into the woods at night often to bring you a deeper understanding of the mysterious lives of nocturnal wildlife. The goal is to create a deep appreciation for animals and their habitat and the only way to accomplish that is go where they live and when they are on the prowl.
And we will bring back reports, video and photos.
This will be a year of discovery, inspiration and wild encounters.
I love cattle especially wild ones. There is something powerful and majestic about the bulls in particular.
Numerous species exist around the world but my favorite is the banteng of Southeast Asia.
I first learned of these while in college doing some studies on Australia’s wildlife. Banteng were introduced there in the 1830s and there are about 10,000 of them dwelling Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.
That is actually the largest population of wild banteng found anywhere. In their native Southeast Asia their numbers have dwindled.
There is a domesticated strain of banteng idenfited as “Bali cattle” and there has been some introducing them into the gene pool to help bring some diversity.
A study entitled Rapid development of cleaning behavior by Torresian crows on non-native banteng in Northern Australia (That’s a mouthful, huh?) shows some positives of their introduction
In this paper we report the observation of a rapidly developed vertebrate symbiosis involving ectoparasite cleaning by a native corvid of northern Australia, the Torresian crow, on a recently introduced bovid ungulate, the banteng. On three separate dates we observed a total of four crow individuals eliciting facilitation behaviours by a total of ten female banteng to assist in the removal of ectoparasites.
Most exotic introductions are considered a negative although in reality people would be shocked with which animals in their country are actually native. This one is at least proving interesting scientifically and benefiting a native species.
One of the animals we plan on acquiring for the next phase of the Kingdom Zoo: Wildlife Center is a banteng . If anyone has any contacts here in the states please contact us.
And don’t worry. As much as I like beef, banteng will not be what’s for dinner.
Chester Moore, Jr.
Cutting-edge wildlife writings and investigations.