Gene Walz

Misunderstood Moths


Friday, July 26th, 2013


Pictured Tiger Moth

Pictured Tiger Moth © Leroy Simon, Visuals Unlimited

In the lepidoptera family, butterflies are royalty. They’ve even got royal names like Monarch and Viceroy.

Butterfly gardens are popular attractions around the world. If you want, you can even order boxes of live butterflies, Monarchs and Painted Ladies, that can be released at your wedding or other festive occasion.

Can you imagine anyone releasing moths at a wedding? Guests would be horrified. They’d run screaming to the hills. You might just as well release bats. How about a commercial moth garden? Think it would attract many customers? Not on your life!

If butterflies are royalty, moths are the underclass…Lepidopteral Peons.

They’re night creatures. Most of us only see the “ugly” grey or dusky brown varieties. They flutter menacingly around your porch lights to no apparent purpose. And if you touch one, a creepy kind of dust comes off of it. And, of course, they hide in your closets and snack on your best shirts.

If Bart Simpson were to yell “Eat my shorts!” at a moth, some of them would reply “Gladly!”

But moths are victims of stereotyping. True, some of them are pests — not just to damaging clothing, but also wreaking havoc on forests and grain storage.

There are over 135,000 different varieties of moth in the world, and 13,000 in North America from over 70 families. Ten to fifteen times more moths than butterflies.

Some of them are dazzling, and people usually confuse them with butterflies. Many of them have wonderful names — like Blinded Sphinx or Confused Eusarca or Vagabond Crambus or Darling Underwing. How can you dislike creatures with names like that?! For beautiful moths, check out the Ornate Tiger Moth or the Spanish Moon Moth. Or the Zigzag White Banded Noctuid, combining impressive name and impressive color and patterns.

Io Moth

Io Moth showing eyespots © E. R. Degginger, Color-Pic, Inc.

Some butterflies look like moths (especially the skippers), and some moths look like butterflies. How do you tell the difference? It’s all in the antennae. Moths have feathery, thickened, comb-like or threadlike antennae, not hooked or knobbed like butterflies. And moths usually fold their wings in, like bees.

National Moth Week is not a joke. Check out these misunderstood fluttering wonders and share your sightings on NatureShare.

Discovering the Lek of the Prairie Chicken


Friday, June 28th, 2013


Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken, adult female © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

Birding is not just about finding birds and ticking them off your life lists. It’s about the replenishing experience of being outdoors, the other kinds of fauna and flora you see, and even the wacky and wonderful people you meet.

To get that full-value birding experience, you have to go to Colorado to see the Prairie Chickens. These birds are among the great, eccentric performers in the world; the scenery there is magnificent; the wild animals (pronghorns, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, etc.) are not terribly difficult to find; and you’ll meet some memorable folks while you’re at it.

Fred Dorenkamp is one of those memorable characters. He’s been monitoring Lesser Prairie Chickens in the vicinity of his Lamarr, Colorado ranch for many years. They’re endangered grassland birds, and if they survive, it’ll be because of Fred and people like him.

Lesser Prairie Chickens have been dancing on ancestral leks for eons.

These leks are the bird-equivalent of 70s singles bars. They’re places where horny, amped-up young males assemble to impress the few hot young females who show up. They usually outnumber the females about 5 or 6 to 1. Sometimes more.

To see these prairie chickens you have to arrive at their leks well before dawn in March and April. That means getting up at 4:00 am and meeting Fred for a ride through pitch darkness to a grassy field in the middle of nowhere. You ride in a bouncy school bus that’s only somewhat younger than Fred (he’s in his 80s). It’s uncomfortable and full of people, parkas, backpacks and spotting scopes.

In a growly, nasal voice worthy of a cartoon character Fred presents his rules: keep quiet and keep still. Any noise or movements will spook the birds.

After an hour of anxious waiting, the lek is bright enough that a few dark shadows appear. The performances are already underway.

The males strut around, they stomp, they scurry, they bow and shuffle, they jump up and down, and they fight. They puff out their gaudily-colored throat patches, they erect their head feathers so they look like horns, and they rattle their wings. If you can get close enough, you can hear them cackle and coo.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken adult male, displaying © Greg Lasley/VIREO

The females hardly seem impressed. But they eventually find suitable mates.

After an hour or so, the birds all fly off, and we head back to Fred’s ranch. His cattle dog Bella greets us, and we are ushered into a low shed where his wife Norma has prepared a full ranch breakfast.

The room features a stuffed prairie chicken and a large color photograph for those days when the real live birds don’t show up. You can’t add a taxidermist’s work to your life list. Nor is the experience quite the same.

Later that day Fred was to hitch his horses up to a buckboard and transport a coffin to the local cemetery. He’ll probably go out the same way. But I hope he has many good years before then — to help protect the prairie chickens and shepherd birders to their leks.



Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
Peregrine Falcon, adult © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Peregrine Falcon, adult © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Peregrinations by Gene Walz

We’ve had a drearily long winter in Manitoba. Six months of freezing temperatures. Even for wintry Winnipeg this is L-O-N-G. It’s May, and big piles of snow still lurk in some shady places. AAARRGH!

The cold and the long-lasting ice and snow (not just in our province but in the Dakotas south of us) have delayed bird migration here. Everything is at least two weeks behind schedule.

Disruptions from routines, even the tardy arrival of spring, can have some very beneficial effects.

Until this year we never suspected that more than a handful of Peregrine Falcons migrated through Manitoba. Then, on April 25, 22 peregrines passed the raptor migration watch at Windy Gates, Manitoba on the North Dakota border. The next day, an astonishing 46 peregrines were recorded. Wow!

Less than 50 years ago, there was only one peregrine sighted in all of Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Now we have scores zooming through Manitoba in a matter of weeks!

Because we so often hear of declining bird populations, these numbers are both amazing and heartening.

Peregrine Falcon, adult © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Peregrine Falcon, adult © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

A peregrine recovery program started here in the late 1980s. Since then up to four pairs of these gorgeous raptors have nested in two southern cities in Manitoba every year. With cliff sides and now tall buildings as their favorite nest-sites, few of us thought much about the possibility that other peregrines could be passing through.

Thanks to hawk-watches and the internet, we now realize that the Pembina Valley is a major flight path. Peregrines that breed in Nunavut and Nunavik in the territories north of Manitoba commonly fly through here on their way north to arctic-nesting sites at Rankin Inlet (on Hudson Bay), Igloolik (on the Melville Peninsular), Steensby Inlet (on Baffin Island) and elsewhere.

Peregrines are nesting north of the Arctic Circle in places with few cliffs and fewer skyscrapers. Who knew?!

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba


Monday, April 22nd, 2013
Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba by Gene Walz

Those birds brave or foolish enough to return to Manitoba this week shine in the sky as if they are lit from within. And lit with a 500 watt bulb.

The snow has not melted here yet. Still a 2-foot mattress of white in many places. The sun reflecting off the snow turns raptors and geese into shining bird-ghosts, their white undersides brighter than bright.

Even birds that don’t have white undersides look white. A Great Blue Heron flew over me, and it shone so brightly that for a second I thought it might be a white morph (Great White Heron) or an intermediate (Wurdeman’s). A closer look revealed its silvery blue feathers shining like a brand new quarter.

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron)

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron) © Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO

Great Blue Herons look so relaxed, so laid-back when they fly. The wings beat slowly and steadily. The long neck coils back on itself in a kind of lazy slouch. Not determinedly stretched out straight in front like cranes or geese.

I have no idea how this intrepid heron is going to find food. The rivers are still frozen two feet thick. (Ice-out usually occurs on April 1.) Marshes and streams  may not thaw for a month. It’ll be a while before the fish and frogs and slugs and bugs that suit a heron’s palate will make an appearance.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Once the ice melts and the heron’s food supply make an appearance, this bird stalks its prey with the proverbial patience of Job. It stiffens into a feathered statue, its bill and long neck poised like a javelin. Then it springs!

But that’s for later. If a heron were to try that now, it would shatter its bill into splinters and end up with a very sore neck. I hope it’s got a good reserve of fat from its warmer wintering ground. It’s still winter up here.

The Birds of Hawaii


Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Nene © Arthur Morris/VIREO

The Birds of Hawaii by Gene Walz

Hawaii is not the place to go if you’re intent on adding to your Life-Bird list. There just aren’t that many unique native birds left on the islands.

Since “civilization” reached Hawaii about 200 years ago, over 30 native bird species have gone extinct.  Recent evidence seems to suggest that more species were killed off by the original islanders; bird plumage played a huge role in their costumes and decoration.

When I was in Maui in January, I did see about three dozen species of birds. But most of them I could have or had seen elsewhere. Cardinals, skylarks, mannikins, white-eyes, the usual Euro-trash, some common shorebirds and waterbirds from the Americas, and others.

There was even a colony of Peach-faced Lovebirds thriving in south Kihei – so new that they aren’t yet in the bird guides for the island.

I take delight in finding and identifying all kinds of birds. But it’s actually disheartening to see non-tropical birds on tropical islands. Especially if they are contributing to the demise of the native birds, the endemics.

One of the last places to see Maui endemics is in Hosmer’s Grove, a canyon near the top of the extinct volcano Haleakala on the east side of the island.

I went there twice and managed to get long, satisfying views of the Apapane, Amakihi, Alauahio, I’iwi — all bright, active, wonderful bird finds. But I missed the Maui Parrotbill and Crested Honeycreeper, two high-priority target-birds that are rapidly disappearing on the island. A huge disappointment.

Nearby I found several NeNe (Hawaiian Goose), and in the shallows at Kealia Ponds I easily spotted Hawaiian Coots, Hawaiian Ducks, and many Hawaiian Stilts.

I went to Maui for the whale-watching, the seafood and fresh fruit, the beaches, and the warmth. It would have been great had I been able to tick all the bird species I targeted. I guess I’ll have to go back. Damn!



Monday, March 25th, 2013
Collard Peccary

Collard Peccary © G. C. Kelley

Javelinas by Gene Walz

Big Bend National Park is a magnificent place – a desert full of mountains of every size, shape and color. If it were closer to civilization, it would be much more popular. But you have to drive through the rest of Texas to reach it. Not many people want to. So, it’s one of the least frequented of the national parks.

That’s great! The fewer the people, the more natural the experience.

I went camping there with my dog Buddy in February without knowing a single thing about the place. Buddy and I both wished we’d done some preliminary research.

For instance: it gets bloody cold in the west Texas desert! Usually around freezing or below at night (once it went down to 14 Fahrenheit), and “the wild Texas winds” that Marty Robbins sang about can make it feel colder.

For instance number two: the west Texas desert is full of too many spiky, thorny, prickly things that stick in a dog’s paws and fur. That makes it a bad place for dogs. I had to inspect and groom Buddy daily; invariably prickly things came off of him and stuck to me.

Also: several wild things that like to mess with dogs. We kept seeing notices about mountain lions, bears and javelinas. The signs warned that dogs must be kept on short leashes and never left alone because of them. That made it tough on both of us.

We never did see bears or mountain lions. (We heard wolves and coyotes.) But javelinas were our constant companions.

Javelinas (aka, Collared Peccary – Pecari tajacu) don’t look particularly dangerous.

They’re less than two feet tall and look like black, furry pigs with skinny legs and big heads. I heard a dunderhead call them “cute” and approach them for a photo. Bad idea! They have sharp tusks and bad tempers. They can gore and gut a dog in seconds. Probably a tourist too.

Collard Peccary hoof prints © NatureShare

Collard Peccary hoof prints © NatureShare

In Big Bend, Texas and nearby they are habituated to tourists. They hang around campsites and slake their thirsts in easily accessible areas of the Rio Grande (actually Rio Puny!).

Another example of wild things adapting. They hardly seem wild!

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks


Monday, March 18th, 2013

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks by Gene Walz

A winter tradition here in Manitoba that I missed this year usually involves jumping in the car on a clear, snow-free day in early February (on or near an accompanying friend’s birthday) and heading out to find Horned Larks. I spent this winter in a warmer, mostly snow-free zone. So the larks weren’t the first returning birds of the year for me. Bald Eagles beat them.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Northern © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

I’ve never considered Horned Larks the true harbingers of spring. They don’t qualify because every year I hear reports of Horned Larks that over-winter here. And the migrating larks usually come back to Manitoba far ahead of the official arrival of spring on March 21, and well before the snow melts (the actual arrival of spring sometime in April). But I like to celebrate their hardy appearance.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Any bird that sticks around from November to March or comes back here in the dead of winter has got to be special, deserves a salute, a toot of the horn, especially a bird so delicate.

Twenty-one subspecies of the Horned Lark can be found in North America (another 19 around the world). Subspecies associated with Manitoba, the Canadian Prairies, and the Great Plains include Eremophila.aalpestris enthymia, E.a. leucolaema, and E.a. praticola.

Dusty brownish-grey above and white below, they are best distinguished by the black, yellow and white markings on their heads and necks (black “horns” aren’t often visible) and their white outer tail-feathers.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Greg Lasley/VIREO

They prefer open areas with short, sparse vegetation — croplands, fencerows, road rights-of-way, pastures, and recently cut hayfields. The gravel mile-roads in farm country southwest of Winnipeg are the best place to find them.  They flit along the road edges, folding their wings after each beat and never flying very high or far from the car.

Because they are grassland birds, their numbers are diminishing. I’d hate to see them disappear completely. They cheer me up considerably in February when I usually need it most.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult, Pacific © Alan David Walther/VIREO

Throwback Thursday: The Sounds of Snow


Wednesday, December 5th, 2012
Dog Tracks

Dog Tracks by David Tyler

We often associate snow with silence, except when there’s a fierce snowstorm or blizzard. Then the wind seems to fill our heads with noise, a ferocious kind of white noise.
Gently falling snow can dampen the soundscape. That’s because a fresh layer of snow can absorb sound. Air gets trapped between the grounded snowflakes and minimizes vibrations. It’s the same principal as holes in ceiling tiles. Tiny holes in the snow mean sound waves get impeded, and the world seems a softer, quieter place.

When snow settles or melts and refreezes, the world suddenly gets noisy again. The holes between flakes disappear, and sound waves accelerate. That’s why sound carries so well in winter. You can hear a wolf howl or a dog barking from what seems like miles away.

Walking through the snow in Winnipeg is much noisier than walking was in my hometown of Rochester, NY. It makes a creaking sound – like the rail of a rocking chair on a loose floorboard. Rrrrutch. Rrrrutch.

Rochester has very temperate winters. Snow quickly turns to slush. You get a squishy sound. Snow above the temperature of 15 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius) will not squeak. The pressure of your boots partially melts the snow underneath it; you’re essentially walking on a thin layer of water.

In Winnipeg where it’s usually colder than minus 10 Celsius for much of the winter (November 1st to April 1st), the pressure of your boots and body weight crushes the ice crystals and makes a distinctive, rrrutching sound.

When Foley artists add the sounds of footsteps in the snow during the editing of a Winnipeg movie, they usually bring along an unopened box of baking soda. Press your thumb hard into the side of the baking soda box, and you get the sound of a footstep through the snow in Winnipeg. Try it!

The Prehistoric Sturgeon


Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Lake Sturgeon

Lake Sturgeon © Dr. Charles Steinmetz, Jr.

The Prehistoric Sturgeon by Gene Walz

Several years ago an angler pulled a big, disturbingly ugly fish out the Red River in downtown Winnipeg as I walked by.

It looked like something that had been dredged up from the prehistoric past, not the muddy waters of the Red. It had facial feelers like a bottom-feeding catfish, but its head was smaller and flatter. Before he threw it back, the fisherman told me it was a sturgeon. To me it was a dinosaur fish. He said they weren’t good eatin’ – too oily. My opinion: too creepy to eat.

I’m a newborn babe when it comes to fish. My dad gave my brother and me fishing poles for Christmas one year when I was ten. I caught the same four-inch “sunfish” (I think) three times before I quickly lost interest in fishing and fish.

Even though there’s a Sturgeon Creek in Winnipeg, I was so naïve about fish that I had no idea sturgeon were from here. I thought they were ocean fish – like the sharks, rays, and skates I’ve since found out are their near relatives. Evidently they can even be found in the US south.

A threatened species, sturgeon (ours are Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens) are now being studied in the rivers of Manitoba. Not much is known, except that they prefer the very depths of rivers and lakes and are endangered by pollution and hydroelectric dams.

In northern Minnesota the Department of Natural Resources is restocking some rivers with thousands of sturgeon. A news item I saw on tv recently reminded me of my only sturgeon encounter. The sturgeon on the news were jumping out of the water like frolicking dolphins. Not as dangerous as the Asian carp in southern US rivers, but disconcerting.

Jumping dinosaur fish. They are truly odd.

Canada Geese, Departing


Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
Canada Geese

Canada Geese adults © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Canada Geese, Departing by Gene Walz

Buddy and I were out for our dog-walk this morning when I heard the faintest of sounds over the trees in the distance. I was going to write about the next sequence of events when I remembered that Aldo Leopold once described the very same phenomenon.

It took me a while to find the quote (in A Sand County Almanac), but here’s what happened to him and to me:

“Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a faraway dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ear to that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on.

The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.

It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I — if I were the wind.” (Leopold)

If I were the wind. What a fabulous wish! Thanks, Aldo Leopold.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese adults © Arthur Morris/VIREO