Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vampire Bats On Their Way To Texas

A new threat to Texas livestock may be on the way. This predator seeks out mammals in the dead of night as they sleep. This creature drains the blood of its victim and leaves only a small, fairly benign looking, wound behind as the only clue that it was ever there at all. This animal could be coming to Texas in large numbers in the not too distant future according to state biologists. What is this bloodthirsty predator? It isn’t the Chupacabras, if that is what you were thinking. No, the animal I’m talking about is the vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus).

This notorious bat is the only mammal that feeds solely on blood and is native to Mexico, Central and South America. Vampire bats sleep during the daytime hours in total darkness. They prefer to hang upside down from the ceilings of caves and often are found in colonies of about 100 though much larger colonies are not uncommon. They are prolific feeders. According to the National Geographic website, a colony of 100 vampire bats can drink an amount of blood equal to that found in 25 cows in one year. The typical vampire victims are horses and cows but they have been known to feed on humans as well. The bats land on the ground near their sleeping victim and creep up on it on all fours. The bats administer a bite with razor sharp teeth, which causes bleeding. The vampire then laps up the blood for up to 30 minutes (the vampire bat has specialized saliva which prevents the blood from clotting until feeding is complete). While it is true that individual bats do not remove enough blood to kill their victim, the cumulative effect of multiple vampires can be significant. In addition, the bites can lead to nasty infections and diseases such as rabies. Vampire bats are responsible for millions of dollars in losses for Mexican ranchers every year.

Now, it seems, these bloodthirsty mammals are on their way to Texas.

Texas State University biologist and wildlife disease expert Ivan Castro-Arellano spoke with the Austin American-Statesman and said that if the mild winters Texas has experienced the last few years continue to be the norm, it will be only a matter of time before the vampire bat arrives. While the vampire bat is a non-migratory species, warmer and more hospitable climates year round will allow colonies to expand north into the Lone Star State. Castro-Arellano said that these invasive bats could be here in significant numbers within 50 years if current weather patterns persist.

Castro-Arellano is one of more than 40 scientists working in conjunction with the Institute for the Study of Invasive Species in Huntsville trying to decide just what to do about the potential threat vampire bats pose to both the Texas ecosystem and commercial livestock. Texas is something of a bat haven with many species, some native and some invasive, inhabiting the state. Could bat species like the big brown bat, big free-tailed bat, Brazilian free-tailed Bat, California myotis, evening bat, fringed myotis, ghost-faced bat, long-legged myotis, Mexican long-nosed bat, Mexican long-tongued bat, northern myotis, northern yellow bat, pallid bat, among others be adversely affected? Nobody seems quite sure.

While the vampire bat has an undeserved bad reputation, due mostly to bad horror movies, there is little doubt that if they invade Texas in significant numbers they will make a significant environmental and financial impact.

We’d better get ready.

Sources: The Mammals of Texas-Online Edition
National Geographic
KWTX Online

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tropical Mockingbird Seen in Texas For First Time

A Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) has been spotted in Texas. To those of you who are not avid birders this may not sound like that big of a deal. Trust me, it is. This is not only the first time that this particular species has been seen in Texas but, to the best of my knowledge, the first time it has been seen anywhere in the United States.

Mockingbirds are very common in Texas; however, it is the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) with which we are all so familiar. The Tropical Mockingbird that has, seemingly, taken up residence in the Texas Ornithological Society’s Sabine Woods sanctuary just outside of Sabine Pass is native to southern Mexico, Central and South America, and some Caribbean Islands. As stated above, it has never been seen this far north.

As you might imagine, birders have flocked (no pun intended- well, maybe a little bit) to the Texas coast to see what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this bird here in the U.S. The bird is a female and seems to be nesting. Birders I’ve talked to say it is possible, some used the word ‘likely,’ that the Tropical Mockingbird and Northern Mockingbird would be able to mate though none could say whether such a union would produce viable offspring.

The Tropical Mockingbird does not at first glance appear strikingly different in appearance from our Northern Mockingbirds. A casual observer would likely be unaware he was seeing anything other than a species common to the state. The two species are similar in size with adults measuring up to about 25 cm in length and averaging 50-55g in weight. A closer look does reveal some clear differences between the two birds, however. The Tropical Mockingbird has a longer tail than its northern cousin and lacks white markings on its wings. When seen side-by-side it is pretty easy to see the difference between the two birds.

How this tropical bird found its way to the Texas coast is a mystery. This is important as it could make the difference between the bird being officially listed as a species in Texas or not. It seems the Tropical Mockingbird is kept as a pet in locales where it is common. Some officials have already put forth the theory that this bird may have been carried into Texas by an immigrant or a tourist returning from a vacation in Central or South America. The birding enthusiasts I’ve spoken to feel this is a highly unlikely scenario and feel strongly the bird made it to Texas on its own. They have expressed frustration that the bird might not be listed due to a theory in which they put little stock. I had to chuckle a bit as the protestations of these birders reminded me of those of people I’ve spoken to who have seen large black cats in Texas who were told that they must have seen an escaped pet.

So, assuming the immigrant/tourist theory is wrong, how did this Tropical Mockingbird get to Texas? Nobody can say for sure but I’ve been assured that things like this sometimes happen. From time to time, it seems, individual birds get their internal compass reversed and fly north instead of south. Another possible explanation is that the bird could have been caught up in a strong wind (jet stream, storm, etc.) that blew it much farther north than it ever intended to travel. Whatever the case, there is zero doubt that it is here. Being a mockingbird, it is not shy around people and has cooperated with those that have wished to photograph it (I have several photos of the actual bird from the Sabine Woods but have not yet received permission from the photographer to use them here).

The Tropical Mockingbird surely qualifies as an out of place animal per my criteria and I feel warrants a mention here on this site. It will be interesting to see if our tropical visitor’s stay is temporary or if it decides to take up permanent residence.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Killer Whales of the Gulf of Mexico

Eddie Hall couldn’t believe what he was seeing…

Hall is captain of the Shady Lady, a charter fishing vessel out of Alabama. While fishing waters about 90 miles south of the coast, Hall and his crew spotted four separate pods of killer whales (Orcinus orca) feeding on tuna.

“We couldn’t believe what we were looking at right away,” said Captain Hall. “One pod numbered around 75 whales. I think we counted about 200 killer whales that day and I guess it would be an understatement to say that we were surprised."

Hall and his crew knew that few would believe their story. Fortunately, a video camera was aboard and the sighting was documented with high quality footage. Without the footage, Hall’s killer whale sighting would have likely been dismissed as just another fish story (even though killer whales are mammals).

“I’m glad we got the video,” Hall said.

You can view part of the Shady Lady footage below.

Killer whales are actually members of the oceanic dolphin family. These distinctly marked and colored animals are among the most recognizable creatures on the planet. They are massive in size with males typically ranging from 20-26 feet in length while females usually measure between 16-23 feet. The orca is also among the fastest of all marine animals, sometimes reaching swimming speeds of 25-30 knots. They are considered apex predators who have no natural enemies once they reach adulthood.

The killer whale is most commonly associated with cold waters in extremely northern or southern regions. They are common in the northeast Atlantic (near the Norwegian coast), the northwest Pacific (Aleutian Islands), and the waters surrounding Antarctica. While, no doubt, colder climates hold greater numbers of these predators, sightings in more tropical locales are far from unheard of. Sightings in the Mediterranean, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and our own Gulf of Mexico seem to point to the fact that the killer whale can survive in most any oceanic environment. To further point out the adaptability of the species, killer whales have even been seen up to 100 miles inland in various freshwater rivers such as the Columbia in the U.S., Fraser in Canada, and Horikawa in Japan.

Keith Mullin, a federal biologist who is studying the killer whale population of the Gulf of Mexico says that the idea that these animals do not live in our waters is clearly wrong. Mullin is hopeful his study will help scientists get a firmer grasp on just how many killer whales live in the Gulf. He points out that a 2007 study came to the conclusion that only about 49 killer whales lived permanently in the Gulf of Mexico. The recent footage shot from the deck of the Shady Lady seems to show that number is way off.

“We have no idea exactly how many or how widespread the orca population of the Gulf might be,” Mullin said. “But we’re certain they are out there.”

Some would argue that killer whales are seal eaters and, therefore, would not do well in the Gulf of Mexico. It is true that the Gulf of Mexico has no viable seal population since the demise of the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis); however, that is no reason to think killer whales could not still thrive there. Some orcas living year round in the colder regions mentioned above do feed almost exclusively on seals but others, referred to as transients, prefer to roam the open water of the world’s oceans. These whales have actually developed quite a diverse diet which includes sharks, rays, tuna, dolphins, turtles, porpoises, squid, and even other whales. That being the case, there is no reason to believe the rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico could not support a significant population of these animals.

Have killer whales actually been spotted in what would be considered Texas waters? The answer is yes. According to the Mammals of Texas –Online Edition, two separate sightings of orcas have occurred in Texas. No date is listed for either incident but a stranded orca on South Padre Island and a sighting in the waters off Port Aransas are noted. The former incident may have been part of the inspiration for the mural “Orcas off the Gulf of Mexico,” which spans three walls (153 feet in length and 23 feet in height) of the convention center on South Padre Island. In addition, video taken by Captain Scott McCune in February of 2008, shot 80 nautical miles east of Port Aransas, definitively shows a pod of killer whales (this may be the sighting referred to by the Mammals of Texas-Online Edition but I was unable to confirm this).

So, those of you who thought the only killer whales in Texas were those found at Sea World must now reconsider. As federal biologist Keith Mullin stated, “They are here.” We should not be surprised when periodic sightings are reported.

Orcas are big, fast, strong, and beautiful animals. As such, I think they make ideal Texans.

Sources: Mammals of Texas-Online Edition

Friday, May 4, 2012

Richland Hills, TX Residents on "Coyote Alert"

Richland Hills, Texas has been placed on “coyote alert” according to an article on the website of Waco television station KWTX. Police are warning residents to be vigilant and take extra precautions to safeguard their pets from marauding coyotes that have been attempting to grab easy meals.

According to Richland Hills police, a resident claims to have seen a coyote (Canis latrans) stalking a horse three days ago. The witness said he threw a ball at the coyote and scared it off. Later that day, another resident in the same vicinity reported that a coyote had come into her yard and grabbed her dog. The coyote started to run off with the terrified pet but dropped it when the resident screamed at it. The coyote then stared at the resident for a few seconds before trotting away. According to this same resident, a coyote also grabbed her neighbor’s dog, which , fortunately, also managed to escape. Richland Hills Animal Control has now gotten involved and placed a live trap out in an effort to capture the rogue coyote(s).

The story on the site is pretty short and does not say if these various incidents took place during the day or at night. The impression I get is that the incidents took place during daylight hours. If so, that would be atypical behavior for a coyote. It tends to make me think there is only one animal responsible. I would guess, since the behavior is so unusual, this coyote is sick, hurt, or very old. A coyote would have to be pretty desperate to attempt to take down a horse alone. Daylight attempts to take pets in populated areas is also very bold and hints at possible desperation.

The drought here in Texas has eased a bit so that is likely not a factor in these incidents. The hottest, driest months of the year are quickly approaching, however, making the potential for similar incidents occurring across the state greater. Coyotes are opportunistic and will take pets if given the chance. All pet owners need to be vigilant if they live in areas also inhabited by coyotes. I would add that parents of small children should take the same precautions.

Better safe than sorry.

Source: KWTX Online

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Strange Case of Theresa Ann Bier

Sasquatch lore is rife with tales of abductions. Native American tribes from one end of the North American continent to the other have told tales for centuries of how these hair-covered giants, if given the chance, would snatch up women and/or children. The tribes differed somewhat on what the suspected motivation of the sasquatches might have been. Some tribes felt sasquatches were cannibals that were taking people in order to feed on them. Other tribes felt that the motivation was of a more amorous nature. Regardless of the motivation behind the abductions, such things don’t happen in modern times, if they ever really happened at all, right? These stories are just that; stories, folk tales, and myths…aren’t they?

Maybe not.

Albert Ostman claims to have been snatched up while dozing in his sleeping bag in the wilds of British Columbia in 1924 by a male sasquatch and kept as a captive for six days by a family of these creatures before managing to escape. While not as well known as Ostman’s story, the tale of a Nootka Indian named Muchalat Harry is very similar. He, too, claimed to have been grabbed by a large male sasquatch and carried off to be presented to a large number of these animals in 1928. Harry claimed the sasquatches lost interest in him after a while which provided him an opportunity to escape. Ostman suspected he might have been taken as a possible suitor for a young female in the family unit. Muchalat Harry suspected he might have been taken as a potential meal. Was either of them correct? No one can say for sure. While more recent than the ancient Native American tales of abduction, these alleged incidents still took place a very long time ago. Nothing like that has happened since, right?

Again, maybe not.

On June 1, 1987, Fresno native Theresa Ann Bier, then 16 years old, traveled into the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains of California with then 43 year-old Russell Welch. Welch fancied himself a bigfoot expert and was taking the teen out on a hunt for the legendary beast in the vicinity of Shuteye Peak. Welch claimed to have had contact with sasquatches in the past and wanted to share his experiences with the teenaged Bier. What happened after the pair arrived is not known. All that is known is that Russell Welch returned to Fresno without Theresa Ann Bier.

Welch was interrogated by sheriff’s deputies once it became clear Bier was missing. He claimed that they had gone out on a hike in the hopes of making contact with a sasquatch. He went on to say that somehow he became separated from Bier and that during this time she was abducted by a one of the creatures. To say authorities doubted his story would be an understatement. A search of the area where the two had camped was immediately ordered but failed to turn up anything. Despite the continued efforts of dedicated searchers, no sign of Theresa Ann Bier was found.

Russell Welch was later charged with child stealing and was scheduled to stand trial; however, officials abruptly dropped the charges and freed him just three days before the court proceedings were to begin. Officials realized they had no physical evidence upon which to build a case and were afraid they were destined to lose a jury trial. If that were to happen, Russell Welch would go free and not be subject to future prosecution, even if Bier’s remains were later located, due to laws against double jeopardy. The District Attorney decided it would be best to let Welch walk at the time and hope physical evidence would be found sometime in the future with which a stronger case could be built. No such evidence would come, however. Absolutely no sign of Theresa Ann Bier has been found in the nearly 25 years that have passed since the incident. She has simply vanished.

There are many questions about this case for which I was unable to find answers. Why was a 16 year-old girl allowed to go on a camping trip with a 43 year-old man? I’ve found no statements indicating that Theresa Ann Bier was taken into the mountains against her will. How did Russell Welch know Bier? What was the nature of their relationship? Neither have I been able to find an answer to whether or not Welch said he heard any cries for help from Bier or exactly why he felt so strongly that a sasquatch had snatched her. Clearly, something terrible happened out in the Central Sierra back in 1987, but what? I suspect strongly, as I’m sure most of you do, that Theresa Ann Bier was the victim of foul play and was not actually carried away by a sasquatch.


I do wonder why Russell Welch would concoct such an outlandish cover story. The mere fact that he was out camping with a 16 year-old girl was going to be enough to raise eyebrows. Surely he realized that authorities were not going to believe such a tale and that it would only cause more suspicion to come his way. Would it not have been more believable to say the he had become separated from Bier while hiking and been unable to locate her? Why not leave it at that? Why add that he believed a sasquatch was responsible? Maybe Welch was mentally unstable in some way or in shock from whatever traumatic event occurred? If so, he might not have been capable of understanding how bad he looked or how crazy he sounded. There is another possibility though…

He was telling the truth.

The truth as he recalled it anyway. What I’m suggesting is that this might have been a story created by an extremely sick mind. A mind so disturbed that it actually believed its own lie. I would really like to know if Russell Welch was ever given a polygraph test. If so, those results would be very interesting to review and would give an insight into what happened out there in the mountains back in 1987. While not admissible in court, a failed polygraph test would certainly firm up the theory that Russell Welch had something to do with the disappearance of Theresa Ann Bier. But what if the results showed Welch was telling the truth? It wouldn’t mean that Welch’s tale was true, of course. It would prove only that Welch believed it to be true. It would also have served to undermine any hopes the D.A. had of getting a conviction as the results would no doubt have been leaked to the public by Welch’s defense team in an attempt to influence prospective jurors had the case gone forward.

Should we completely discount Russell Welch’s story though? After all, we have those ancient Native American legends to ponder upon. I have always put a lot of stock in the knowledge of these tribes. Is it valid to choose to believe some tales of the First Nations Peoples and not others? What about Albert Ostman and Muchalat Harry? I have always found Ostman’s account to be too detailed in a pre-Patterson-Gimlin world to have simply been a complete fabrication. None other than a Catholic Priest named Father Anthony Terhaar vouched for Muchalat Harry. While the Father could not validate what had actually happened to Harry, he did testify about what he had been told, that he had nursed Harry for a full 3 weeks before the terrified Indian regained his strength and sanity, and that over the course of those weeks Harry’s hair turned snow white. Father Anthony also said that the once fearless trapper and outdoorsman never again dared venture out of the small village of Nootka. Father Anthony Terhaar believed Harry had suffered through a terrifying experience. If we entertain the possibility that there is something to all the old Native American tales and that Albert Ostman and Muchalat Harry may very well have been telling the truth, then don’t we at least have to consider the possibility that Russell Welch was telling the truth back in 1987?

I can tell you that the topic of sasquatch abductions is still discussed among those that keep up with such things, albeit in whispered tones. There have been cases, some very recent, in which people have vanished into the forest where suspected bigfoot sign was evident or where one of these creatures was reported seen a few days before or after the disappearance. If you believe it is possible these creatures exist and if you believe there is something to the old abduction stories then it would be illogical to think such a thing could not still happen. Noted outdoorsman Chester Moore wrote in his book Bigfoot Lives: Deal With It:

“Every year hundreds of people disappear in the forests and it is possible, although unlikely, that bigfoot creatures have something to do with some of these disappearances. Since they are a predatory animal, they are opportunists and it might be possible that they would and have attacked people.” 1

I tend to agree with Moore in that this is at the very least a possibility. As such, we should not simply dismiss abduction claims out of hand. Even if they come from a 43 year-old man who likely had no business being out in the woods with a female minor less than half his age.

The truth about what happened to Theresa Ann Bier is almost certainly more mundane, though no less tragic, than her having been the victim of a sasquatch abduction. The story of Russell Welch is hard to swallow and likely not true. No evidence was found to support his claims but, in fairness, it is important to remember that neither was any evidence found that contradicted his story. It seems there was precious little evidence of any kind at all.

What happened to Theresa Ann Bier in the Central Sierra back in 1987? With each year that passes, the truth recedes farther into the mists of time. Unfortunately, it is likely that is where it will remain.

1 Moore, Jr., Chester. Bigfoot Lives: Deal With It. Orange, TX: 13 Productions, 2004. 102. Print.