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Monday, January 31, 2011

Falling not an option

I was determined to hang the new nest box, and I wanted it as high as I could get it. So I took a 8' step ladder, tied it to the cut off utility pole, climbed to the top of the ladder, and reached as high as I could. After drilling a hole through the pole way above my head, I inserted a long all-thread bolt through the hole. Next I carefully inched the 30 lb, more or less, nest box up the ladder. Standing atop the ladder I ever so carefully hoisted the box onto my shoulder. This operation took 2 hands so I had to balance, although I leaned against the cutoff pole for support. I kept lecturing myself, that falling was not an option. Just in case though, I had placed my satellite phone and a jug of water at the bottom of the ladder. My arms pained and ached and the box just pushed the bolt out the other side, so I climbed back down and went for vise-grips. That did the trick and I was able to mount the box onto the bolt. I was actually shaking when I was finished. After a short rest I climbed back up and wired a branch to the box. When birds nest in it, I'd like to photograph them perched on that branch. On this photo you can see my dike trail behind the pole and the electric line at its new location.

You'll be glad to know that the rest of the pole tops (with woodpecker cavities in them) I'm going to strap to the pole bottoms in their full length so this precarious situation won't arise again. I'd estimate this nest box is 13-14' above ground, which is an ideal height for Elf Owls.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Elf Owl nest cavities

Since the electric company changed out all the poles, I'm really worried about the cavity nesters, especially Elf Owls. I fear there won't be enough when the ELOWs arrive in a few short weeks. And I feel horrible that we installed an old cut-off pole in a retainer wall without taking the time and trouble to cut off the section containing a nest cavity. My husband didn't really grasp the importance and I let it go when I should have demanded we stop the project and salvage the nest. But it's done, so to make up for it we spent most of the morning building a replacement nest box. We took a section of new pole (discarded by the power co.), split it, hollowed a nest in it, then glued and bolted it back together. Ready to install on one of the old poles they obligingly cut off and left for me.

I'm sure this nest box will get used this year. I'm eager to see which species gets it. Years ago I mounted a salvaged nest hole on a pipe and it's been used every year since by Elf Owls. My prediction is that Ash-throated Flycatchers will be the first to claim this one. I'll let you know.

And lest you think I'm exaggerating about the habitat destruction, here's a photo I took yesterday of the power line right-of-way. So sad.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the electric poles

I'm in the process of relocating the top parts of the cut off poles. Here is one I planted at the corner of the parking lot, which we "resurfaced" with the sand and gravel we removed from the settling pond (see post of Jan 24). View looking NNE.

View looking west below.

New power lines heading toward Lajitas and other places. Previously bordering my oasis on the south side, they're now at least a block further to the south. 

I'm very concerned that Elf Owls and Ash-throated Flycatchers will arrive in a few weeks and won't have enough nesting places. Eventually Ladder-backed Woodpeckers will make holes in the new poles, but meanwhile.....  I guess I better prevail upon my husband to help me make a bunch of nestboxes to attach to the cut-off poles (bottom halves) so there'll be options for the above mentioned species. Right now the only holes are in the cut-off tops that I replant. And off my property there won't be any. Hopefully, the woodpeckers will get busy asap. Right now I haven't seen any of them excavating holes. I've only got the one pole planted, and a hole dug for another. I better get busy.

The new poles the power company is using throughout the Big Bend area are treated to be impervious to woodpeckers. That will help prevent power outages, but not good for Elf Owls in need of nests. The electric company claims that woodpecker holes weaken the poles, causing them to break during violent storms.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oasis maintenance

My husband decided to come down from Alpine and clean out the settling pond. The dam in the background diverts the water that floods down that arroyo into a huge concrete below-ground-level tank (pictured in Jan 21 post) . We keep this area above the dam cleaned of the sediment that settles into it to keep the sand and gravel that accumulates from going into the concrete tank during flash floods. The settling pond is easier to clean out than the concrete tank and keeps the tank's space reserved for precious water.

All cleaned out for another year or two, depending on how much rain we get.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Oasis without electric lines

Well, for the first time in the fifteen year history of my oasis it isn't bordered on its south side by electric lines. (Clicking on this image may make it easier to visualize.)

Basically the pole you see in the foreground (with the nest box attached) is where one of the old electric poles stood. It's still there, but they cut it off for me (and us squeaky-wheeled Texbirders) above the nest box and put the new wires on the line of poles you see in the background. I'm looking south here and the line is running east to west. So it's farther away from my oasis now, which is important in several ways. For one thing, they would have had to bulldoze a road down the old right-of-way to be able to install the heavier electric cables they're upgrading to. That would have destroyed my precious dike, not to mention the habitat created by the dike. Plus that road would be used whenever they needed it... a huge blow to the ambience of my oasis, as just the road's presence would have been. You may wonder why they agreed to do this. Mostly because when I built the dike years ago I visited their Alpine office and asked how wide their right-of-way was. It's fifteen feet on either side of the pole, ie. 30 feet. So I measured them off that distance. But it turns out that distance was determined 40 years ago. Today their big equipment can't maneuver in that amount of space, in other words, within their right-of-way. I was prepared to fight for every inch that they didn't have a right to, or give them the space they wanted in a more convenient place for both of us. It actually shortens the distance of their line quite a bit. Apparently (?), they need corners here and there for strength and when the line was originally installed they put in a huge "big bend"... way more than was necessary. That corner was down beside the arroyo, which is the only place I could build diversion dams, and they often got stuck there in summer storms, which is the very time lines are likely to go down. So this is good for both of us, but it seemed to take an act of congress to get it changed.

They cut off several more old poles, too. I'm going to replant the cut-off tops of them the first chance I get. That will give the Elf Owls, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers even more nesting options.

Meanwhile, I'm still cleaning out one of my two storage tanks. As you can see from the above photo that tank won't be ready to clean out for a while. At least I hope so, as that's my irrigation water until it rains again.  Currently there's about 7 feet of water in it. In good years it doesn't get cleaned out because it rains before it gets low enough. On years it gets really low before a rain, I pump what's left of it into the tank I'm now cleaning. And ration water to my oasis accordingly as I clean out the above tank. I have to transfer my gambusias (mosquito fish) too, which is a real chore. After about the first million I just leave the rest and hope birds will get them. Right now, in the tank I'm cleaning there's a puddle of murky green water in the bottom  with dying gambusias in it. I took out all I could catch with my net. They reproduce  really prolifically in the summer and since the water in the full tank will keep going down, it's got about all the gambusias it can support in it.

It's hard to tell what's what on the below photo. My shadow in early morning light stands out as I'm positioned on the south wall looking down into the tank. The top 3 feet of the wall are above the height of the spillway. It had to be that way due to the terrain. So, althought the tank on the south end is 15 foot deep, it only holds 12 feet of water.  In a huge flash flood like the one I had in 2000 it filled the whole 15 feet, but of course when the water level in the arroyo that was flooding went down it flowed from the tank until it was  contained at the level of the spillway. It's an engineering marvel to behold during a big flood. Those tanks can fill up in a matter of minutes.

At the spillway, far right, mostly off the frame, the tank level holds 8 foot of water. That's due to impenetrable bedrock that our equipment couldn't dig when we built the tank. I've patched the tank again this year, as I do every year, and I think it's sealed good. Around that puddle of water is mud. Since I carry all the silt up a 15 foot ramp in 5 gallon buckets, and since I'm 70 years old, I wait for the mud to dry before I remove it. It's much lighter that way. This year the silt is only an inch or two deep so I'm about two-thirds through the project. And there's no hurry. I prefer to do it before the weather gets too hot, like it can in March and April. In previous posts I've posted photos of this tank when it's full.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Progress and birds

I'm told the old electric line will come down from beside my oasis tomorrow. Yippee!

Saw a few good birds today. Mid-morning I saw a Black-chinned Sparrow and got a really bad documentary shot from a great distance in bad light.

And some visiting birders observed a Sage Thrasher, of which I was able to get some documentary shots. It would have been better if the branches weren't in the way and if it wasn't almost dark. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Define progress

For over 8 months now I've struggled with the power company over their plan to replace the poles last June during Elf Owl nesting season. I got Texbirders on board and we got their attention. As it turned out by the time they got ready to actually do the work to my section of the job, Elf Owl nesting season was long gone. (The first half of the project was done before I found out about it, but it was done before the owls arrived in 2010. Or at least I try to believe that. Some of the workers did tell me they encountered owls in the poles.)

Now they have a contractor and are gung ho to do the job. And now Elf Owls will be returning in 6 - 8 weeks! No way can they finish by then, so to placate me they're doing my property first. Today they started putting up new poles. Later they'll come back and attach the new heavier cable. Happily, they agreed to bypass my oasis with the new line. And if I live another 20 years I may see the freeway (not much exaggeration here) they're dozing under the line, all the way across my land, heal over. This line carries electricity to Lajitas and parts beyond.

I  won't be totally placated that easily, but it's a start. I emailed the contractor and told him if the pole part of the project wasn't done by Mar 15th, I would go public. I also pointed out that it was illegal to destroy their nests. I haven't heard back from him. According to some of the workers, I'm not the only one trying to protect the owls. A huge ranch adjacent to me has a caretaker (Gene Kearns) who is also very concerned about the owls, as are a few others. The old poles by my oasis they'll leave as are, or shorten. Those they have to remove I'll shorten and replant here and there. Trying to make lemonade out of lemons here.

In all fairness, I enjoy electricity and they are doing their best, within fulfilling their needs, to work with me. I try to not be too difficult. See my article on the owls in the Texas Ornithological Society's " 2010 Texas Birds Annual. To be continued...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cold weather brings new hummer

It was so cold this morning that I didn't even consider trying for photos of yesterday's hummer. I went to Alpine and was greeted with a new visitor at our home there, a young male Anna's. I hope he survives the arctic cold we're forecast for tonight.

Monday, January 10, 2011

CMO Allen's Hummingbird

I finally was able to take a few distant shots of the selasphorus that I've gotten occasional glimpses of this winter. It's definitely banded, which explains its elusiveness. I think it might be an Allen's based on how tiny the tail is. I'm going to try for spread tail shots tomorrow. Probably impossible with my lack of camera expertise, but if I could get a good one it could tell positively which selasphorus species it is.

Update: I sent Kelly Bryan photos of this hummer and he confirmed it is an Allen's. Now we need to see what the band number is.